STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN (2020)

February 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Billy Crystal hasn’t starred in a film since 2012’s PARENTAL GUIDANCE. Sure, he’s had some appearances in movies and TV shows, and done some voice acting, but that’s a lot of years between top-lining gigs. It seems writer Peter Hoare (KILLING HASSELHOFF, 2017) and director Matt Ratner (his first feature film) know exactly what to do with the now 71 year old legendary comedian, and it makes perfect sense that Mr. Crystal chose this role to end his drought.

Scott Rollins (Ben Schwartz, “Parks and Recreation”) is a 34 year old struggling/failed stand-up comic who moves back home after a four year stint trying to make it in the Los Angeles comedy scene. His eternally-chirpy mother (Debra Monk) is thrilled to have him back in his room, but his business owner dad (Kevin Dunn) stays put in his recliner, his 30 year old sister (Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep) immediately starts jabbing him for failing (after all, she manages a pretzel stand at the mall), his friends have moved on with their own wives and kids, and Becky (Eloise Mumford), the dream girl ex that he deserted to pursue his dreams, has married another guy. Welcome to adulting Scott.

One of the most awkward ‘meet-cutes’ occurs when an inebriated Marty bumps into Scott on his way to urinate in the local pub’s restroom sink. Soon Marty, who doubles as town-drunk and a dermatologist, is treating Scott’s stress rash. The two strike up an odd friendship and the elder Marty is heard doling out life philosophy like, “Regret is the only thing that’s real”, and “Nobody has their life figured out.” Weed is also involved as the two similarly lost souls, separated by generations, find common ground in coming to grips with their individual missteps.

We glimpse more similarities as the backstories are unfolded for Marty and Scott. The elder man’s two wives and two kids have resulted in loneliness and pain for the once successful (we can tell by his house) medical professional. His son Adam (Nate Corddry) angrily blames Marty for his mother’s death, and daughter Taylor (Caitlin McGee), is mostly too busy for her old man. The younger Scott, previously broke off a solid relationship with Becky to pursue his dream. There was no conversation, just the actions of a younger man’s whims. It’s only now that he’s questioning what matters in life.

Many clichés are leaned on and some quite familiar ground (do new friends really take the podium at funerals?) is covered, but it’s enjoyable to watch an old pro like Mr. Crystal do what he does best. And the life lessons may be simple and obvious, but they are also ones that so many fail to learn until late in life. Some of the humor is offered with a twist. For instance 1986 is featured via HOWARD THE DUCK and Clemens versus Strawberry. Mostly the comedy plays the role of masking loneliness, and it seems when combined with friendship, that’s a more effective salve than alcohol. Writer Hoare (whose face is on the giant photo at the wake), leaves us with: “Lightning never strikes twice, but it can strike again.” Just like Billy Crystal.

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AN ACTOR PREPARES (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does a kid ever lose hope that what was once a horrible/absentee parent might magically evolve into a dependable, caring parent – even as an adult? Is it ever too late for that parent to make amends? Director Steve Clark co-wrote this story with Thomas Moffett about a narcissistic actor (is there any other type?) and his feeling-slighted grown son being forced to take a road trip that likely won’t lead to bonding, but could result in their better understanding each other.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the Hollywood sign and the glittering lights below. It’s fitting since a big part of the story is the level of entitlement and garish ego proliferating the industry that put the town on the map. Legendary actor Atticus Smith is being presented a lifetime achievement award. We see that his career has been widely diverse with project titles ranging from the legitimate sounding “The Language of Men” to those with significantly more shock value like “Throwdown at Bitch River”. His speech is quite awkward, but it serves well as our introduction to the character which Jeremy Irons makes his own.

Mr. Irons goes over-the-top to play Atticus. His blustery mannerisms, ever-present scarf, and center-of-attention-seeking personality dominate much of the film and allow us to understand why his grown son Adam (Jack Huston) carries such a grudge for the man who never really tried to be his father, and who readily admits that the younger daughter (Mamie Gummer) is his favorite. It’s really the only empathy we can muster for Adam, since he early on establishes himself as a pretty unlikeable and quite annoying professor of film. In his first scene, he actually tries to lecture a class of female students on the real meaning of feminism (the class is “Cinema through a Feminist Lens”). The next time we see him, he’s being rude to his father Atticus, who has just suffered a heart attack. You know the type.

It’s that heart attack that puts these men together on the road – initially in a luxury tour bus, and later in a classic Plymouth Barracuda. Their destination is the daughter’s wedding, and the trip includes stops at the Chateau Marmont and The Drake Hotel in Chicago. Along the way, we see a bit more of a post-shower Atticus than we would prefer, watch one of the worst baseball scenes in movie history, and witness Atticus sneaking booze and porn on the bus, and then finally drugging his son.

The title of the film comes from a book by acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, which makes total sense once we realize these two men have been acting their way through life. Adam is terrified of becoming a parent like his father, keeps his own health issues a secret, and is apparently inept at documentary filmmaking, which he claims as his profession. On the trip, Atticus is prepping for his next role – he is to play God, which he seems to think is perfect casting … although the studio and his manager (Ben Schwartz) are quite concerned about his health.

Mr. Huston does finally bring his character along to the point where he seems more tolerable, and the film might surprise you on where it ends. There is some decent comedy and a yin and yang with father and son that adds enough entertainment value, as long as you can enjoy the flamboyant approach taken by the venerable Mr. Irons.

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THE INTERVENTION (2016)

August 25, 2016

intervention Greetings again from the darkness. Clea DuVall: Actress/Writer/Director/Producer. No one who has followed her outstanding career (especially as a standout in many independent films) can be surprised that she is spreading her creative wings into all aspects of filmmaking. Her directorial debut can best be described as a contemporary version of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) for today’s thirty-somethings.

Casting is key for an ensemble project, and it’s especially difficult for a serio-comedy exploring the insecurities and inherent unhappiness that corresponds to the closest relationships. The premise here is that four couples meet at a beautiful and isolated lake house just outside of Savannah. The motivation for this meet up of old friends is a “marriage intervention” for one of the couples … something that must have seemed better in theory than it plays out in reality.

The couple whose marriage is in the target zone is played by Cobie Smulders (The Avengers, “How I Met Your Mother”) as exhausted mother of three Ruby, and Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the long-ago-gave-up-trying Peter. The others are played by Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) as Annie, who has continually postponed her wedding to super nice guy fiancé Matt played by Jason Ritter; Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) as Sarah, long-time partner to Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall); and Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”) as Jack, who brings his free-spirited, much younger girlfriend Lola (Alia Shawkat, State of Grace).

We quickly witness the bitterness and lack of caring that has poisoned the marriage of Ruby and Peter, and of course, it doesn’t take long to spot all the cracks in the relationships and personalities of the others. Annie is a control-freak who appears to be a full blown alcoholic, while Matt is such a nice guy, that he refuses to stand up for himself and have some pride. Sarah and Jessie avoid any serious discussion regarding why they aren’t living together yet, while Jessie’s weakness for younger girls plays a role – as does Sarah’s secret. Jack is obviously avoiding dealing with some personal issue (which we later learn) as he plays kissie-face with the no-strings-attached Lola (not Lolita).

The script tries to tackle an enormous number of issues, sub-plots and characters, and while we pretty easily get a feel for each, we never understand how these people ever agreed that a group attack was the best strategy. No amount of charades, barbeque or kickball can hide the messes that define each of these folks … whether married or not.

The actors have tremendous comedy timing and handle these moments much better than the ultra-dramatic moments. Cobie Smulders and Ben Schwartz are real standouts here, which is quite a compliment given the tremendous on screen talents on display. It’s a group that can gracefully pull off a Subaru joke while also playing cut-throat charades and dodging thrown peaches.

Ms. DuVall will undoubtedly go on to make better films than this one, but as a first project it offers some terrific moments. Sara Quinn (of Tegan and Sara) scores the film, and though some excellent tunes are included, the music was at times disruptive to the flow of the story. The film will probably hit home with a great many who fall into the thirty-something age group, though older viewers will likely prefer to re-visit The Big Chill from more than 30 years ago.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

September 21, 2014

this is where Greetings again from the darkness. After watching this movie, I thought about researching whether the boobs of a 76 year old actress had ever been as front and center as they are in this dramedy from director Shawn Levy – not counting Calendar Girls which was for a worthy cause. Luckily I came to my senses, and realized that’s not a topic anyone should google … except maybe a 76 year old man.

Jane Fonda is the actress whose enhanced assets are so prominently featured, and she plays the mother of four adult children brought together to mourn the death of the family patriarch. This is based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and though it’s watchable enough, it could have benefited from a better script adaptation and a less mainstream comedy director. Mr. Levy provided the popular and entertaining A Night at the Museum, as well as a long list of simple minded movies that didn’t prepare him for the depth of Tropper’s story.

The four “kids” are played by Corey Stoll, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver. Also joining them under a single roof are Stoll’s desperate-for-a-baby wife Kathryn Hahn, Fey’s two kids and self-professed a-hole husband (Aaron Lazar), and Driver’s engaged-to-be-engaged much older woman played by Connie Britton. If you think that’s an outstanding cast, note that also appearing are Timothy Olyphant (Fey’s brain-damaged former lover), Rose Byrne (she always lusted after Bateman), Dax Shepard (sleeps with Bateman’s wife played by Abigail Spencer), Ben Schwartz as an oddball Jewish rabbi, and Debra Monk (the helpful neighbor and more).

Obviously the issue with so many characters and talented actors is that screen time is limited. Somehow each of these have one key moment in the film, and that may be the biggest issue. Some of these we want to know more about (Olyphant, Byrne, Brittain), while others could have been written out of the script altogether (Lazar, Schwartz, Shepard) and the movie wouldn’t have suffered, and might have improved.

Most of the story revolves around Bateman and his situation – crumbled marriage, lost job, dead father, plus even more. Going through that and facing his sit-com worthy dysfunctional family provides an unending stream of none-too-subtle moments: a basement sleeper/sofa that won’t fold out, roof top talks with his bossypants sister, and even fisticuffs inside the family and out.

This is another in the Suburban-angst sub-genre, and the numerous contrived scenes and formulaic sequences are salvaged only by the talented casts ability to squeeze the moment from the next one-liner. There is so much rage and resentment in this family that we viewers are willing to find humor in the toddler toting his portable potty with him everywhere, or even Bateman taking the expected prat fall in an ice rink. There is little edge to this material, but it’s not difficult to glimpse how the right director could have approached the genius of The Royal Tenenbaums or the original Death at a Funeral, rather than a generic blend of Garden State and August:Osage County.

Britton, Byrne and Batemen all have their moments, and the movie is certainly watchable … though it could have been exceptional as either a straight out comedy or an indie-type drama. No need to email me if you come up with additional films featuring 76 year old boobs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for the challenge of keeping track of the seemingly endless number of characters who have “a moment” during this one

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you share the sentiment with me and Jason Bateman’s character that there is no need to focus on Jane Fonda’s “bionic breasts”

watch the trailer: