BRAD’S STATUS (2017)

September 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Mid-life crisis has long been a popular movie topic. A list of the best would include: Fellini’s 8 ½, Blake Edwards’ 10, AMERICAN BEAUTY, CRAZY STUPID LOVE, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, and THELMA & LOUISE. Some of these are outright comedies, while others are turbulent dramas. With the label ‘white male privilege’ being applied so broadly these days, it’s impressive how writer/director Mike White (THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK, creator of TV’s “Enlightened”) so expertly and gracefully takes on the familiar topic.

Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a married man raising a teenage son and running a Non-Profit Organization in middle-class Sacramento. As Brad and his son Troy (Austin Abrams, PAPER TOWNS) embark on an elite northeast college visitation trip, we get the sense that Brad is only now waking up to his son’s rapid approach to adulthood and remarkable talent as a student and musical prodigy. This happens congruently to Brad’s mid-life realization that his own college buddies are richer and more famous than he. Self-loathing, insecurities and concern over the jealousy he feels towards his own son are the focus of Brad’s inner thoughts, which we hear courtesy of his narration.

Brad’s college friends who are unknowingly driving his defeatist attitude include: Jemaine Clement as Billy Wearsiter who retired in Hawaii at age 40 after selling his tech company; Mike White (the film’s director) as successful movie director Nick Pascale whose house is featured in Architecture Digest; Luke Wilson as hedge fund manager Jason Hatfield who married into money; and Michael Sheen as Craig Fisher, a best -selling author and frequently seen on TV political commentator. In comparison, and by today’s societal levels of achievement, Brad views himself as a failure – a man whose early idealism didn’t change the world, and instead prevented him from reaching the capitalistic heights of his friends.

There are a couple of elements that allow the film to work. First, Ben Stiller softens his usual snark, making him more relatable than his usual woe-is-me character. Next, the film isn’t as harsh on the white man as we’ve come to expect. There is no feeling sorry for Brad, but there is at least compassion … space for him to explore what he’s feeling and take stock in his life. The difference maker is Mr. White’s script. The underside of human nature is explored with a deft comedic touch and incisive societal observations.

Stiller’s tightly wound Brad contrasts with Troy’s easy-confidence leading to some unusual father-son scenes. When Troy questions whether his dad is having a breakdown, we understand that the existential crisis is actually fairly common. We certainly enjoy watching as Troy’s Harvard friend, and fellow musician Ananya (Shazi Raja) listens patiently before slapping Brad with the dose of reality he so desperately needs. Ananya’s beyond-her-years wisdom leads Brad to a moment of self-awakening during her concert of Dvorak’s “Humoresque”. Ms. Raja’s role is given much more weight than that of Jenna Fischer as Brad’s wife/Troy’s mother, who inexplicably only appears about every 20 minutes as a check-in during the boys’ trip.

Keeping up with the Jones is a no-win approach to life, and if a Hollywood film can help a few more people understand this, then it’s a beneficial way to spend a couple of hours. The Mark Mothersbaugh score has a sharpness to it that mirrors Brad’s tarnished idealism and search for self. We are reminded that normal insecurities can blow up if we focus too much on what others have, and not enough on what we do.

watch the trailer:

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ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

February 12, 2016

zoolander2 Greetings again from the darkness. Here comes yet another write up where I am out of step with the majority of film critics. While most are heaping hatred on it for idiocy and self-obsession, my response is … isn’t that the point of a sequel to Zoolander, itself a tribute to idiocy and self-obsession? Maybe the difference stems from my not being a big fan of the 2001 original. Granted, the sub-plot of child labor from the original was (and remains) a real world issue, while this one is fuzzy-focused on a plot to kill the beautiful people in hopes of finding the fountain of youth … less real world tragedy and more like holding a mirror up to society’s insecurities.

The fashion industry was skewered in the original, but couldn’t wait to embrace this sequel. In the 15 years since that first Zoolander, a symbiotic relationship has formed between TV – Movies – Music – Fashion. The lines are blurred now that actors have become models and models are acting. TV shows are built around fashion and fashion shows boost music. And all of these elements are tied into the explosion of social media outlets. The greatest impact yet is probably the fact that most every person has a camera (phone) attached to them at all times and in every environment … we have a citizenry of selfie-taking models.

What can’t be denied is that the sequel is a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos (some might call it overkill). There are times the cameos pop up so fast that it’s challenging to keep up. Spotting the celebs, following the sight gags and catching the one-liners … that’s the tripod on which writer/director/star Ben Stiller has built his Zoolander second home. Though it’s not as quotable as the original, the production value is much improved. Never is this more evident than the slick looking opening chase scene that sets the stage for national narcissism being attacked for the next 90 minutes.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as male models Derek Zoolander and Hansel, though when we first see them, they have been in years-long hiding … Derek claiming to live as a “hermit crab”. The film begins by catching us up on why they are in hiding (it’s related to Derek’s Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good), and what’s up with others like Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), and Billy Zane (Billy Zane). The gag is that Derek and Hansel are now “old and lame” … literally out of fashion in fashion.

As with most comedies, it’s best to avoid the trailer and any details or punchlines before walking into the theatre. You need only know that the old favorite characters are still here and an army of new ones (including Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig) arrive – some for a few scenes, others for only a few seconds. Satire is still the name of the game and the biggest fashion icons are front and center: Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Anna Wintour and “both Wangs”. A big assist goes to Kiefer Sutherland who joins in the fun of poking fun at his own image. There’s even a jab at celebrity political endorsements with the line “She’s hot. I trust her.”

Justin Theroux is back as Stiller’s co-writer and also plays a role in the sub-plot involving Derek’s son, and the script proudly plays homage to the original (as it should) while still moving into contemporary themes (as it should). So “Relax” (nod to Frankie) and take in the fun. It’s the type of fun akin to riding a roller coaster … fun while it lasts, and over when it’s over. To paraphrase Derek, it’s a ‘really really ridiculously’ good time.

No trailer posted (it’s for your own good!)

 

 


THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

December 15, 2013

mitty1 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. In the moment, daydreams can feel like real life. Such is the existence of Walter Mitty, the milquetoast main character of James Thurber’s 1939 “New Yorker” short story. This is no remake of Danny Kaye’s 1947 movie, and thank goodness for that … no one wants to see Ben Stiller singing and dancing. Mr. Stiller not only takes on the role of the zoned out Mitty, but he also directs.

mitty4 Walter is a quiet, photo lab geek at Life Magazine, the long time publication that is closing its doors. Of course, in real life, those doors closed years ago, but the magazine name makes for the perfect contradiction to Mitty’s humdrum existence. The transition team is in place led by the snide, bearded corporate presence of Adam Scott. Photographer extraordinaire Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) has delivered the perfect shot for the final cover. Only one problem: Walter has misplaced the negative (yes, O’Connell still shoots on FILM).

This gaffe leads Walter to cross paths with a co-worker played by Kristen Wiig, whom he has secretly admired both across the office and by staring at her eHarmony profile online. Their investigative work leads Walter on the first real journey of his life. He even breaks free of the family stranglehold of his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) and gets a pep talk and well timed boost from Patton Oswalt.

mitty2 Walter’s expedition leads him to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas, and Afghanistan by way of Yemen. He also encounters a wild helicopter pilot and ride, sharks, an erupting volcano, drinking beer from giant glass boots, a sad and aggressive Karoke singer, and takes an accelerated ride via skateboard. Rather than changing Walter, these experiences just bring out a lust for life that was previously only flashed through his periods of fantasy zone outs.

The acting is very strong in this one, and that comes from a guy who is not much of a Stiller fan. His beaten down demeanor and stone-faced expressions are spot on for the Mitty role. Ms. MacLaine, Ms. Hahn, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Scott all add very nice comedic touches and Sean Penn captures the rugged fearlessness of a world weary photographer who recognizes the depth within Mitty.

If you are a fan of Thurber’s short story then you must know artistic license is taken to turn it in to full length feature. Screenwriter Steven Conrad provides Life magazine as a foundation, and sends Walter to some of the most beautiful places on earth during the journey. He even gives us a “poetry falcon” (my first) and a curious parody of “Benjamin Button” (a bit out of place). Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh delivers these locations to us in stunning fashion. The film is beautiful to look, and thanks to the score from Theodore Shapiro, it’s complimented by well fitting music.

This is one of those crowd-pleasing movies filled with sentimentality and charm. Critics will bash it, but most of us can relate to the underdog lead and his delusions of grandeur.

**NOTE: the opening and closing credits are works of art in their own right … so be seated early and hang around a few extra minutes.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a feel good, slightly quirky movie for the grown-ups over the holidays

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the next Citizen Kane (in other words, many critics are going to bash it despite it being a crowd pleaser).

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGWO2w0H2V8

 


LITTLE FOCKERS (2010)

December 27, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third installment of the series that began 10 years ago with Meet the Parents, a very fine, creative adult comedy with plenty of laughs. The second film introduced Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as parents of Ben Stiller‘s character. The comedy became much more risqué, yet less funny.

Now we have the third and hopefully final installment … although, the last scene certainly sets the stage for another. Whatever chuckles there might have been were ruined by the over-played trailer. This has become the norm for American comedies. For some reason, movie producers believe the trailers should include 2 full minutes of funny scenes. Unfortunately, that just about uses up all the laughs from most comedies. This little focker is no exception.

The star-studded cast is back – Robert DeNiro, Blythe Danner, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Teri Polo, Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman all reprise their roles. This time we are also treated to a spastic Jessica Alba, a quirky Harvey Keitel, a creepy Laura Dern … and even Deepak Chopra makes an appearance. Even this cast is not enough. Jay Roach directed the first two and turns the reins over to Paul Weitz (In Good Company, About a Boy). But even new directorial blood is not enough. Though comedy is truly an individual taste, it’s pretty clear that more effort on the script was needed. Let’s hope this is the end of the line for the Fockers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you haven’t seen the preview and you enjoyed the second one.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are hoping they have recaptured the magic of Meet the Parents

** NOTE: I am purposefully not including the trailer in case you haven’t seen it and you want to see the movie.  Trust me … it’s best this way.


GREENBERG (2010)

March 29, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Warning: this is one of the artsy-fartsy type movies that bore many, but energize me.  Noah Baumbach wrote and directed the excellent The Squid and the Whale, and it is with Greenberg that he really makes a statement as an independent filmmaker to anticipate. The second gem is always the most elusive. That said, I am not sure I can recommend this movie to very many people, despite all the good things I am about to write.

This is the first Ben Stiller role that actually seems to fit him. His typical role is as a punchline. Here, as Greenberg, he is not one bit likable.  He plays a guy who recently suffered a nervous breakdown and is now house-sitting for his rich brother, who is on a family vacation in Vietnam. Throughout the movie, Greenberg states he is concentrating on doing “nothing” right now. Of course, that is his defense mechanism for being unable to connect or communicate with any real person. Yes, that sounds bleak … and it is. Yet, it is also fascinating and thought-provoking.

Despite Stiller’s strong turn, Greta Gerwig (as Florence) proves to be the heart of the story. She is the family assistant to Greenberg’s brother and finds herself oddly attracted to Greenberg’s vulnerable state. This is my first exposure to Ms. Gerwig and I find her fascinating as an actress. She has a natural openness on-screen and is certainly no glamour-gal. Instead she comes across as a very real 25-year-old trying to make sense of life – especially her own.

In addition to Ms. Gerwig, Rhys Ifans provides outstanding support work as Greenberg’s long ago band mate. This is the polar opposite of Ifan’s character in The Boat that Rocked as here is just a guy putting together a grown up life for himself. He struggles with the adjustment, but accurately depicts how our daily choices can make or break us.

I am not sure whether to categorize this as a character study or just an exquisitely written series of scenes that hit the nail on the head. One of the best scenes of the film is when Stiller meets up with Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s real life wife) and she immediately rebuffs his reconciliation attempts. They had been a couple briefly 15 years ago and she has obviously moved on, while he has not. Excellent film-making.

The best way I can describe Greenberg the character is that he is a compilation of the dark thoughts that we all experience from time to time … a desire to do nothing, wanting to be blunt and direct, dreams of recapturing the magic of youth, and of course, writing complaint letters for everything wrong in the world. Obviously, most of us spend very little real time on these things, but that is the Greenberg character. Let’s keep an eye on Mr. Baumbach – he may just be the real deal.