TABLE 19 (2017)

March 3, 2017

table-19 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) takes the approach that many wedding guests would prefer – he skips the wedding and heads straight to the reception. Another wise move by the filmmaker is assembling a very talented ensemble of funny folks. This cast proves they can wring a laugh from dialogue and moments that would probably otherwise not elicit much of an audience reaction. Instead, the full house on this evening had quite boisterous responses on numerous occasions.

The initial set-up drags a bit as we are introduced to the characters that will soon enough populate Table 19 at the reception. Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel bellhop) is Renzo, the longing for love (or anything similar) high schooler who might be a bit too close to his mother (voiced by the great Margo Martindale). Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are the Kepp’s, a mostly unhappily married couple who own and run a diner together. June Squibb is Jo, the bride’s long-forgotten nanny who sees and knows more than most. Stephen Merchant plays the outcast nephew/cousin who has been recently released from his prison sentence for white collar crime. Lastly we have Anna Kendrick as Eloise, the fired maid of honor and former girlfriend of the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell), who also happens to be the best man and now dating the new maid of honor.

This is the island of misfit wedding guests known as Table 19, and purposefully placed in the back corner as far as possible from the family and favored guests. Of course we know immediately that this Team Reject will unite for some uplifting purpose at some point, and the movie improves immediately once that goal has been revealed. Comedic timing in a group setting can often come across on screen as forced, and it’s a tribute to the cast that these characters come across as human and real.

Make no mistake though, this is Anna Kendrick’s movie. She plays Eloise as we would imagine Anna Kendrick in this real life situation. Sure, a wedding reception is low-hanging fruit for comedy, but it’s the third act where Ms. Kendrick’s talent really shines. Comedy drawn from emotional pain is the most fulfilling because we’ve all been there. The melodrama that creeps in is pretty predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. The scenes with Ms. Kendrick and Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some!, and Kurt and Goldie’s son) are the best, and it leaves us wishing for more attention to both.

Don’t worry, the film features the required wedding cake mishap, a flirtatious wedding crasher (Thomas Cocquerel) and a drunken mother of the bride singing karaoke to Etta James’ “At Last”. It’s designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and mostly succeeds with a nice blend of silly, cute, and emotional tugs.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HOLLARS (2016)

September 8, 2016

the-hollars Greetings again from the darkness. John Krasinski’s second film as a director mines the all too familiar territory of dysfunctional family life … only the script from Jim Strouse takes it a step further by burdening each character with their own special form of advanced personal dysfunction. The saving grace here is the always dependable Margo Martindale who anchors the gaggle of struggling men in her life.

Richard Jenkins plays Margo’s husband – a husband quick to cry and slow to recognize most any situation. Sharlto Copley plays their oldest son who is living in their basement and going through life rudderless ever since his divorce. Lastly there is John Krasinski who relocated from their Midwest hometown to NYC pursuing his dream of making it as a graphic novelist.

One morning Margo collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. Krasinski rushes to her bedside to discover that Dad has recently fired the oldest son from the family business that is rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Additionally, big brother is super jealous of his ex-wife’s (Ashley Dyke) new relationship (Josh Groban) and takes to stalking and bad-mouthing. Of course, Krasinski is toting his own baggage. He is whiny and depressed about his job, and has cold feet towards marrying his 8 months pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The film is loaded with familiar faces and talented actors. Charlie Day shows up as Margo’s nurse and Krasinski’s insecure former high school nemesis who is now married to Mary Elizabeth Winstead … oh yes, she still has the hots for her high school sweetheart (Krasinski). Randall Park is Margot’s doctor, and Mary Kay Place has a (very) brief role as Jenkins’ sister and employee.

Unfortunately the familiarity extends beyond the faces and into the clichéd characters and story lines. Most of the conversations are predictable, though there are plenty of laughs throughout. It may be the only film to feature punchlines utilizing Jenny Craig, Rod Steiger and Indigo Girls. It’s also interesting to see how all three of the lead male characters are wandering aimlessly when the women aren’t guiding them. This is a theme that could have been better explored and helped set the film apart from so many similar type films.

Despite the negatives, any movie that offers up a few laughs to go along with Margo Martindale at its core, does have some value.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


THE LAST FIVE YEARS (2015)

February 12, 2015

last 5 years Greetings again from the darkness. Adapting a hit stage production to the big screen is always a bit challenging. When it’s a full blown musical, the challenge grows exponentially. Throw in a highly unusual story-telling structure and limit 99% of the screen time to two characters and, well, a filmmaker is either off-the-charts ambitious or one who truly enjoys suffering for art.

Director Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You) brings the hit off-Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown to the screen, and features Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as Cathy and Jamie, respectively. Ms. Kendrick has become the go-to actress for musicals with Into the Woods (as Cinderella) and the Pitch Perfect movies. She is a wonderful singer and a fine actress. Mr. Jordan is best known for TV’s “Smash” and for “Newsies” on Broadway.  He too is a talented singer.

Surprisingly, it’s not the talented leads that provide the most interest here … it’s the story structure. As per the title, the story follows the couple’s relationship over a five year period. The opening scene features Cathy reading and reacting to the break-up note left by Jamie. The second scene features Jamie describing his joy when he first falls for Cathy, as they romp in bed. See, Cathy’s story goes from the end to the beginning, while Jamie’s story goes from the beginning to the end … intersecting only at the marriage proposal in the park.  It’s a fascinating way to tell a story – not just two perspectives, but also in reverse order of each other!

The song lyrics act as the dialogue, and that’s where the transition from stage to screen falls a bit short. While the lyrics are clever and adequately describe each relationship change, those same lyrics and the non-stop singing, prevent the viewers from ever connecting to the characters … and more importantly, prevent us from understanding how these two characters ever connected to each other. Rather than a love story, it comes across as a moment of passion that turns into a relationship between two people who don’t have much in common and don’t particularly care for each other. And the real crux of the tension stems from Jamie’s skyrocketing novel writing career versus Cathy’s going-nowhere-but-Ohio acting career.

Cathy starts sad and ends happy, while Jamie starts happy (he found a Shiksa princess!) and finds a way to end his misery (writing a Dear Jane note). It’s Sunset to Sunrise, and Sunrise to Sunset. The “goodbye” finale is very creative and well done. This unusual story structure is quite interesting, and the lyrics are sharp … it’s the lack of spirit in the music, and the 90 minutes of the same two voices that prevent this from being something special.

watch the trailer:

 


CAKE (2014)

January 30, 2015

cake Greetings again from the darkness. This completes what I call the triumvirate of female film misery: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, and now Jennifer Aniston in Cake. Each film focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of a previously strong female character adjusting to life’s cruel obstacles.

Claire (Ms. Aniston) is a former attorney in constant chronic pain who appears to be on a mission to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The scars on her face make it obvious she has survived some trauma, and it’s also clear that there is an additional emotional loss that is contributing to her situation. However, director Daniel Baraz (Beastly) and writer Patrick Tobin tease us for awhile with exactly what tragedy Claire is working through. Further proof of her lack of charm comes when her support group (led by Felicity Huffman) boots her out after an especially uncaring rant.

Claire takes a bizarre interest in researching the suicide of one of the group’s members (Anna Kendrick). This leads to some uncomfortable interactions with the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and their young son, and even more bizarre interactions – through dreams and hallucinations – with the Kendrick character (yes, the dead one). Claire’s abusive persona comes through in these moments, just as it does with all other people who dare cross her path … especially that of her caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza, Babel).

Many have used the dreaded “snub” term to describe Aniston not receiving an Oscar nomination. My perspective is that she does a fine job in a role that is stunning in its variance from her typical fluffy rom-com roles. However, it is not a performance that I would favorable compare to Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard or Felicity Jones. To see America’s sweetheart go 90 minutes sans make-up and with unkempt hair is a welcome change, but the script contrivances and the choppiness of the presentation – a stream of big name actors make single scene appearances – do nothing to help the case for Aniston. In fact, I would still rate her work in The Good Girl as her best.

The trend of glam-downed actresses is welcome, though it’s important to remember that a full-bodied script is still necessary for a quality movie. Other than the language, this one felt like it was more in line with a Lifetime movie. However, it does provide hope that Ms. Aniston will devote more time to dramatic roles and indie films.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INTO THE WOODS (2014)

December 23, 2014

 

into the woods Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a musical, but not a typical musical. It’s a fairy tale, but not a typical fairy tale. It’s funny, but not a typical comedy. It’s a bit frightening, but not a typical monster film. It’s filled with lessons of morality and responsibility, but certainly not a typical parable. In fact, there is nothing typical about director Rob Marshall’s (Oscar winner for Chicago) screen adaptation of the smash Broadway hit from Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine.

The story revolves around 4 classic Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, in a style much more similar in tone to the edgy Brothers Grimm, than the cuddly Walt Disney traditionals. These four are intertwined with the saga of a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who discover they have been unable to have children due to a long ago spell cast by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep). With a secret agenda, the witch offers the couple a way to break the spell, and that’s what ties-in the four tales and provides a reason for adventure and song.

Filmed seamlessly between an elaborate sound stage and a couple of park locations, the film has a dark and eerie feel to it that’s probably too intense for younger children. And much of the dialogue and lyrics is aimed directly at adults and will be a blur to kids. Additionally, in typical Sondheim fashion, the songs aren’t catchy and melodic in the manner of most movie musicals … instead the lyrics propel the story and help shape the characters. Oh, and by the way, don’t expect any fancy dance sequences – this is pretty serious stuff with plenty of angst amongst the characters.

Ms. Streep is extraordinary as the witch (both nasty and beautiful) and does a terrific job with her three main songs. She is especially fun in her entrances and exits, and while wearing the most impactful of all the costumes. Emily Blunt also handles her vocals very well and offers up some of the film’s most witty dialogue. Chris Pine (as the Prince) is flat out hilarious, and with a twinkle in his eye, spouts lines such as “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”. He also shares the screen with Billy Magnussen (playing the younger brother) in the most audacious of the musical numbers, “Agony”. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick once again proves she is an exceptionally talented singer, and James Cordon anchors the production as the nice guy village baker we are rooting for.

In supporting roles, we have a devilish Johnny Depp whose screen time as the Big Bad Wolf is quite limited, and a perfectly cast Christine Baranski as the evil step-mother in cahoots with her non-Cinderella daughters played by Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard. Lilla Crawford is Little Red Riding Hood, and her young age snuffs out much of the innuendo that the Wolf scenes should have provided, and takes the edge off the song “I Know Things Now”. Daniel Huddlestone is an energetic Jack, and dependable Tracey Ullman plays his frustrated mom. MacKenzie Mauzy captures the awakening of Rapunzel, while Frances de la Tour frightens everyone involved as the agitated (for good reason) Lady Giant.

Unconventional is the best description of this production, and there is a group of viewers who will be totally captivated by it, while a much larger group will probably find it too dark and bleak, and lacking the easy charm we have come to expect from movie musicals. However, for those of us in the first group, we will be totally enchanted by the characters, story lines, wry humor, costumes, sets, and songs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your fairy tales a bit on the dark side OR you want to see yet another incredible performance from Meryl.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a light-hearted holiday matinee for the little kiddies

watch the trailer:

 


END OF WATCH (2012)

September 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hands down, this is the best cop movie in quite awhile. Not only that, it’s about street cops, not flashy detectives wearing $600 suits. This is no good cop/bad cop dance. These aren’t rebellious, power hungry cops run amok flashing their badges. Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Pena) are simply dedicated cops who are committed to serving the mission and surviving another day.

This film works for two reasons: the performances of Gyllenhaal and Pena, and the amazing writing and directing from David Ayer. Mr. Ayer is best known as the writer of Training Day, but also wrote Dark Blue and S.W.A.T, and directed Street Kings. He grew up in south central Los Angeles, and clearly has a talent for bringing real lifecop action to the big screen.

 Taylor and Pena are long time partners who have familiarity and banter down to a science. These are guys who become brothers based on spending every day together and trusting the other with their lives. These two scoff at the department mandate to write more traffic tickets, and instead find themselves smack dab in the middle of a Mexican drug cartel. That’s not a good place for two street cops and they soon wind up on the wrong list of some really bad people.

We see shootouts, car chases, chases on foot, rescues, traffic stops, house searches and just about anything else that these heroes are subjected to on a daily basis … just trying to maintain some sense of civility on their beat. No matter how frustrated you get with your job, put yourself in their “comfortable footwear” and imagine rolling up on “Big Evil”, who wants nothing more than to make you suffer.

 There is a really interesting thing going on with video cameras. Taylor is filming his daily activities for a class he is taking, while this group of bad guys is also seen filming their nightly crimes against humanity. Also, the supporting cast doesn’t play a huge role, but David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are all solid. The exception is Cody Horn who is way out of her element, and quite a distraction.

Pena and Gyllenhaal are a joy to watch and strike the necessary bond required for this movie to work. We never once doubt that these guys are brothers and fully trust worthy. Good guys doing a tough job in a bad part of the world. This is a gritty, realistic film that, at times, has a documentary look and feel to it. More of this, please.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t want to miss the best cop movie in years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of a Buddy Flick is The Other Guys

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf2K9GzgiF0

 


50/50

August 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The great Richard Pryor had a portion of his act dedicated to having a heart attack, based on his real life experience. I guess if he can generate laughter from a coronary, there is no reason writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) can’t treat Cancer as Comedy. There is little doubt that the subject matter of this film will limit its audience, but for those brave souls who give it a shot, I believe you will find it funny, touching and insightful.

The film introduces us to Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is a very nice, very normal, very low-key guy who works at a radio station as a writer … a very conscientious radio writer. Adam experiences a nagging pain in his back, which is unusual for a healthy 27-year-old. After a few tests, the emotionless doctor informs him that he has a rare spinal cancer … also very unusual for a healthy 27-year-old. From this point forward, the film borders on brilliance at times.

 Adam’s girlfriend is played by Bryce Dallas Howard; his mother by Angelica Huston; and his best friend by Seth Rogen. Each reacts in different ways to Adam’s diagnosis, but what’s really interesting is not just how these people react, but also how Adam reacts. He moves forward in his meticulous manner, but all the while we know the emotions are brewing. We see this in his sessions with his therapist-in-training played by Anna Kendrick.

Seth Rogen’s character is basically a carbon copy of his act in 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. He spews profane one-liners faster than our ears can process. Usually I find myself quite put off by anything Rogen is involved with, but his character here provides the far-fetched balance that this story requires.  Despite the aggressive front, Rogen’s character is a true friend with a heart … and one who doesn’t hesitate to share his medicinal marijuana.

 So while Rogen’s character generates much of the laughter, the real treasure of this film is in the subtleties of each character in certain moments … and each character has their moment. Many will compare this to Adam Sandler‘s film Funny People, which also starred Seth Rogen. But this movie has infinitely more depth and substance than that one offered, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a significantly better actor than Sandler.

My warning: brace yourself. The theatre was filled with tears and sniffles, with significant laugh out loud moments mixed in. This is an emotional, self-reflective film that will confound you as you inexplicably laugh while listening to cancer talk.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to see a totally different take the devastating effects of cancer … on health, emotions, relationships, etc – all done in a very personal, believable style.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t get your head around the idea of Cancer as Comedy

watch the trailer: