VENGEANCE (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Cultural differences between various states are a big part of what gives the United States its flavor of diversity. The west coast is much different from the east coast, and both coasts contrast with the Midwest. Even within states, the differences can be fascinating. Think of upstate New York versus Manhattan, or the forests of Redding versus the glitz of Los Angeles. Perhaps no cultural comparison of states is more stark than that of the home pride of Texas versus the elitism of New York City. Writer-director-producer-lead actor BJ Novak seizes the opportunity to serve up these differences on a platter, while exposing a touch of reality and hope from both geographic areas.

You likely recall Mr. Novak as Ryan, the young staffer on the TV series “The Office” (in which he also had a hand in writing and directing some episodes). He quickly establishes that stereotypes will be hit head-on, and his self-awareness is at play in an opening sequence featuring Novak’s Ben Manalowitz and his bro-buddy John (a cameo by John Mayer). They improvise the douchey attitude of city-dwelling types whose interest in one-night gratifications overrides any deeply buried thoughts of a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex. Their constant use of “hundred percent” to express agreement in the latest lame point made by the other won’t be the last humorous sequence that also conveys a bit of disappointment in society.

One night, Ben receives a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) informing him that Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died unexpectedly. Ty believes Ben was Abilene’s serious boyfriend, while Ben has to search his phone to discover that she was but one of many casual hook-ups. Roped into flying to Texas for the funeral, Ben stumbles through the eulogy by saying “she loved music”, a sentiment that endears him to her family. Despite having a coveted job as a writer for ‘The New Yorker’, Ben has his sights set on becoming a popular podcaster, and things fall into place when Ty discloses his conspiracy theory that, rather than die of an afterparty overdose in an oil field, his sister Abilene was murdered – perhaps by a Mexican cartel. Ben quickly pitches the idea to renowned podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), who green lights “Dead White Girl.” OK, so most of the humor here is a bit dark.

This much information is included in order to give a taste of the twists and turns that Novak has in store. Abilene’s family embraces him for staying to investigate, not understanding that his goal here is professional advancement rather than solving a case … a case that was closed by the local law enforcement – an incompetent and apathetic Mike and Dan. It’s Ben’s interaction with the family that are key to many of Novak’s points. Mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron, “Succession”) is quietly wise. Granny (Louanne Stephens, “Longmire”) is excessively direct. Abilene’s two sisters, Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron), are respectively, a goth wanna-be filmmaker and a rudderless dreamer of becoming famous. The little brother, nicknamed “El Stupido” by the family, is played by newcomer Eli Bickel and he has a particular phobia that adds yet another touch.

Ben’s investigation finds him crossing paths with a local drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), who displays polar opposite personalities in front of his crew and then behind closed doors with Ben. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is local record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Quentin is a smooth talker who impresses Ben with his philosophical meanderings, while donning attire that pops with flair. It’s also during the investigative stage that Ben learns all there is to learn about the sanctity of Whataburger for Texans, and how those in West Texas view the big cities of Dallas and Houston … again, more humor and truth.

My description of Novak’s film is ‘observational dramedy’. He utilizes the current political divisions in the country and blends it with the dominance and corruption of social media. By embracing stereotypes, he manages to pull back the curtain and expose the humanity that exists, as well as the darkness in some. The abrupt finale is startling as it seems to go against many of the points Novak makes throughout, but it’s clear he has a bright future as a filmmaker with something to say.

Opens in theaters July 29, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


JOBS (2013)

August 21, 2013

jobs1 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the key characteristics of Steve Jobs was that he was constantly striving for perfection. Not just good. Not just acceptable. He wanted the perfect product in the perfect package sold in the perfect store. Whether or not you are a fan of Jobs and Apple, it’s painful to watch a middling movie about the man and the company … a movie that seems to strive for very little, and certainly not perfection.

Ashton Kutcher delivers an impersonation of Jobs complete with beady eyes, slumped shoulders and awkward gait. This is not one of those biopics where the performer disappears into the famous character. We never forget that we are watching Kutcher’s attempt to act and sound like Jobs. But Kutcher is far from the worst part of the movie … in fact, he is fine, given what he has to work with.

jobs2 The real issue with the movie is that it just offers no real insight into the man or the company. Instead we see only the headlines: Jobs drops out, Jobs goes barefooted, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs takes advantage of Woz, Jobs does drugs, Jobs eats fruit, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs is booted out, Jobs comes back, Jobs is a jerk.  The challenge to telling the story of Steve Jobs and Apple stems from finding the genius within the jerk.  Walter Isaacson’s book “Steve Jobs” does exceptional work on that front, and I believe there is a movie project in the works based on his source material.

The supporting cast is impressive: Dermot Mulroney (Mike Makkula), Lukas Haas (Daniel Kottke, Matthew Modine ( John Sculley), JK Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, John Getz, Ron Eldard (Rod Holt), Kevin Dunn and James Woods. Especially effective, and maybe the only reason to see the movie, is Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak.  Woz is known to be the technical jobs3genius behind the founding of Apple and Gad perfectly captures the spirit of Wozniak as we in the public have come to know him over the years.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote), the film is written by first time screenwriter Matt Whiteley. This seems inexplicable to me. A writer with no credits is charged with coming up with a script on one of the most enigmatic and complex and successful people of our times. In fact, the result is what one would expect … a made-for-TV type glossy presentation that doesn’t dig too deep or offer any insight. In short, the kind of movie that Steve Jobs would have despised.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want the “Cliff’s Notes” version of Steve Jobs and Apple OR you want to see Josh Gad’s best performance to date

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you want insight and substance behind the story of Jobs and Apple … instead, read Walter Isaacson’s book

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR6yMl2FZSQ

 


NO STRINGS ATTACHED

January 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have read even a few of my reviews, you know I am not typically a fan of the Hollywood Rom-Com. I find most of them lazy, lame, predictable and irritating. But when legendary comedy director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Dave, Stripes) gets involved, I will at least pay attention. Here Mr. Reitman directs a script that on the surface will examine the “friends with benefits” phenomenon.

The leads are played by Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, and the twist here is that Portman’s Emma is the driving force behind the agreement with Kutcher’s Adam to not have a relationship … only relations. Even Adam’s friends point out to him that he is living every man’s fantasy. So does anyone think this will really work? Of course not.

 First, they are both just so darn cute! And Adam is oh-so-adorable as the sly one hoping to break through and convince Emma that he is worthy of her love. All the physical stuff continues as Adam works his job on the set of a “Glee” knock-off, battles with his dad (Kevin Kline) who is sleeping with Adam’s ex-girlfriend (a wonderful Opehlia Lovibond), and Emma slaves away saving lives in her job as a brilliant doctor. Oh, and one of Adam’s co-workers (a hilariously manic Lake Bell) has a mega crush on him, and Emma’s little sister (Olivia Thirlby) finds true love as does Emma’s friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig from Greenberg), who falls for Adam’s best friend. Wow. All that love and our two heroes just have to keep things between the sheets.

On the plus side, the side stories are enough fun that the film is easily watchable despite the predictable nature of the premise. Even the Portman/Kutcher story is tolerable thanks to the gender-switching nature of their personalities. I would have preferred to see the Friends with Benefits pact extended and examined (it worked in the Stieg Larsson books!). This is easily Mr. Reitman’s best comedy since 1993’s Dave, which also featured Kevin Kline. It’s nice to see Ms. Portman do something lightweight after her fabulous Black Swan performance, but I am really hoping Mr. Kutcher understands that someday he may really have to act and not just smile on cue.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you just absolutely must see a Rom-Com this week OR you want to see two very funny actresses going all out (Lake Bell and Ophelia Lovibond)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: even a slightly subdued Ashton Kutcher is more than you can take OR you are looking for a hugely surprising plot twist


VALENTINE’S DAY (2010)

February 13, 2010

 (2-12-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Really no need to offer commentary on the story. If you have seen the preview (how could you have missed it?), you know it’s a major chick flick with a long list of Hollywood celebrities who come together and display the trials and tribulations that we have come to celebrate as Valentine’s Day – surely a concoction born of greeting card companies, florists and confectioneries.

For most of the movie, one song kept popping in my head – Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”. I have never seen so many beautiful people in one film. As you have noticed, the word “actor” has purposefully been avoided – celebrities and beautiful people are a more accurate description of what director Garry Marshall has delivered.

Thankfully, he tossed in Hector Elizonda, Shirley Maclaine and George Lopez or the movie might have done for plastic surgery what Urban Cowboy did for C&W dancing. On top of the beauty, we are subjected to an endless stream of downright SKINNY people! Everyone has noticed Taylor Swift is rail thin, but she doesn’t even stand out here. Jessica Biel, who once had a real-life body, looks cadaverous. Even her character exists on candy and treadmills. Throw in Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Alba, and one can make the argument that the cost for this cast was offset by the lack of necessity for an on-set lunch buffet.

Look, I realize this is just a chick flick comedy that is designed to poke a bit of fun at our need to love and be loved … or rather just not be alone. But a touch of reality could have helped. Raise your hand if you believe Julia Roberts might be miscast as the soldier returning home on leave from the front lines of war. Or that a brilliant doctor (Patrick Dempsey) might be a little more careful in covering his tracks of indiscretion? Or that Anne Hathaway couldn’t find a slightly more rewarding way to earn a living than her “phone entertainer” job?

Couldn’t help but notice the Pretty Woman connections with Garry Marshall, Julia Roberts, Hector Elizando and Larry Miller. Ms. Roberts even gets in a funny little jab over the closing credits. Some attempt was made to interconnect the multiple story lines and I do appreciate the struggle to show intimacy in the mess of Los Angeles … just too many obvious skits and stereotypes to make this anything more than a half-hearted effort by all involved.  And by “all”, I am including the 10-12 other “stars” that I have not named here.