MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016)

June 2, 2016

maggies plan Greetings again from the darkness. A significant portion of Woody Allen’s film career has been projects that seem designed to appeal to (sometimes only) the New York intellectual sub-culture. You know the type … those who thrive on talking (incessantly) about all the things they know, often without really accomplishing anything themselves. They are the kind of people we usually laugh at, rather than with. Filmmaker Rebecca Miller appears ready to accept the passing of the Woody Allen baton, and at a minimum, her latest is heavily influenced by his comedic-brain food.

Ms. Miller casts perfectly for her first film in six plus years (The Secret Life of Pippa Lee, 2009). Greta Gerwig plays Maggie, whose ever-evolving “plan” is both the title and focus of the film. Ethan Hawke plays John, the middle-aged crisis guy who wants desperately to be showered with attention. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, John’s slightly odd and brilliant wife, and mother to their two kids. Other key players include Travis Fimmel as Guy, a pickle entrepreneur and the center piece to Maggie’s master plan; Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends and confidants of Maggie; and Wallace Shawn, always a treat on screen.

The story starts out pretty simple, and then gets complicated, and then kind of loses focus before ending just right. Perpetually whining Maggie has admittedly given up on ever finding the kind of true love that results in a happy family. Because of this, she has recruited former schoolmate and math whiz and pickle dude Guy to supply the missing link for her artificial insemination. This leads to one of film’s rare cheap laughs and one that not even the quirky Gerwig can pull off. A payroll mishap brings Maggie and aspiring novelist John (a ‘ficto-critical anthropologist’ by trade) together, and her willingness to read his writing and offer some support, is all it takes to finish off John’s slowly disintegrating marriage to Georgette (Ms. Moore dusting off the Euro accent she used in The Big Lebowski).

Writer/director Miller is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Death of a Salesman and was once married to Marilyn Monroe (after Joe DiMaggio). She also directed The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which starred her husband, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Much of her latest film feels contrived and over-written … as if every scene carries the burden of generating a laugh out loud moment. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the ultra talented Julianne Moore creates the most interesting character, though unfortunately, she has the least amount of screen time among the three leads. It’s good for a few laughs, as well as some cringing … and an ending that actually works.

watch the trailer:

 

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INSIDE OUT (2015)

June 18, 2015

inside out Greetings again from the darkness. Once upon a time … in 1995 to be exact … Pixar revitalized and revolutionized the world of animated movies with the release of the first Toy Story. In the process, they sent our expectations soaring for each of their subsequent movies. Despite the pressure of such high standards, the creative geniuses at the studio have regularly thrilled and delighted us over the years with classics such as Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), and Brave (2012). And beyond these, there have been a few true cinematic masterpieces – transcendent  films: Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010).  This most recent release unquestionably belongs in the latter group … it’s one for the ages (and all ages).

Genius and brilliance could be used to describe all aspects of this movie. It’s a technical marvel, a visual kaleidoscope of bright colors across the full screen, and most amazingly, it packs an emotional wallop with real life moments for adolescents and parents alike.

My comments will be brief because this is one you should experience for yourself – and probably more than once. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is an 11 year old girl who lives in Minnesota and loves her parents, her friends, and hockey. She is happy and well-adjusted. When the family relocates to San Francisco, broccoli on the pizza is only one of the challenges Riley must face. This change affects everything for her – no more friends, no more hockey, and a strained relationship with her parents.  At this point, you are probably saying “So what?  That’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”  And you are correct, except we have never seen it explained the way Pixar does.

We literally go behind-the-scenes of Riley’s brain and see the control panel of her emotions. There is a constant battle between Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and the ring-leader Joy (Amy Poehler). This is an exploration of emotions and memories, and the explanation has some scientific merit. Memories are depicted as marbles, and Riley’s favorite things are shown as islands (Sports Island, Friendship Island, etc). How emotions affect memories is the key point here, and especially how sadness is necessary and vital to our joy. Have you wondered why we forget our imaginary childhood friends (Riley’s is Bing Bong, voiced by Richard Kind)? Have you wondered why our memories change over time, and are impacted by our emotional state in any given moment? This animated gem will help you understand.

Director Pete Docter (the genius behind Up) has a daughter of his own, and he clearly “gets” the emotional changes brought on during the pre-teen years. His research, and that of co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen, takes us on an adventure that should inspire much conversation between parents and kids. And even if it somehow doesn’t break the ice in every family, it will at a minimum help youngsters and parents better understand the link between emotions and memories … plus, they will probably share a good cry and a bunch of laughs along the way. Hats off (again) to the Pixar geniuses. I dare you to top this one!

***NOTE: you should also look forward to another Pixar tradition – the pre-movie short film. This one is a very unique short entitled Lava.

watch the trailer:

 


THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

September 23, 2014

skeleton twins Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson … prepare yourself for 90 minutes of side-splitting laughter! OK, well you can prepare all you want, but you should know that while there are some funny moments, this is one of the bleakest films of the year. Bleak as in achingly painful to watch at times due to the emotional misery most every character experiences.

Hopefully no one stopped reading after “side-splitting laughter” because here is a sampling of thematic elements covered in the film: attempted suicide, suicide of a parent, adultery, sexual abuse of a minor, rampant lying, depression, horrific parenting, drug use, animal cruelty (goldfish).

If Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig of SNL fame don’t spring to mind when considering those elements, please keep an open mind. Both are extremely good (and believable) in their roles as twins estranged for a decade, forced back together after a near tragedy. See, after a miserable childhood, their time apart has prevented both from establishing a strong personal relationship with anyone else. Hader plays a self-professed “gay cliché”, while Wiig is pretending to have the perfect suburban life with her gung-ho, always “up”, good guy husband (Luke Wilson).

The film’s best humor is produced in small moments thanks to the connection between Wiig and Hader. It’s definitely not in the almost shameful attempts at crowd-pleasing offered in the SNL-ish scenes of lip-synching to Starship, and over-indulging on Nitrous Oxide at the dental office.

Real emotional turmoil exists in the scenes between Hader and Ty Burrell, and the unnecessary and inexplicable reunion between Hader, Wiig and their mother (Joanna Gleason). Burrell, known for his outstanding “Modern Family” role, is intriguing as a dramatic actor. Looking forward to more of this from him.

The script, co-written by director Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman, really does capture some poignant and dramatic moments, and certainly benefits from the extremely talented cast. Just don’t expect that side-splitting laughter … unless you are susceptible to lip-synching and/or nitrous oxide farting humor.

watch the trailer (but don’t believe the 50% comedy ratio):

 


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (2014)

September 21, 2014

eleanor rigby Greetings again from the darkness. It’s tough and probably unfair to write about a film project when key pieces remain unseen. Writer/Director Ned Benson‘s brilliant first take on the story was released at Toronto Film Festival in two perspectives: “Him” and “Her“. A massive re-edit produced “Them“, this version for theatrical release. As you might expect, knowledge that more exists … and in probably a more effective story telling format … renders us a bit frustrated with the blended version. Still, there is plenty here to warrant a look.

This viewer’s frustration stems mostly from the long and winding road we travel understanding something tragic has caused the split between El (the titular Eleanor Rigby) and Conor, but only being teased with details. We are offered a brief glimpse of their happy times, but never get to know them as a happy couple. Instead, Conor is shown trying to re-assemble the pieces, while El tries to move on to a different puzzle altogether.

While the story unfolds in teeth-grinding fashion, it doesn’t offset the powerful emotion and personal intensity brought to the screen by both James McAvoy (Conor) and Jessica Chastain (El). Mr. McAvoy has quietly evolved into one of the more interesting actors working, while Ms. Chastain proves herself to be among the best each time she crawls inside a role and makes it her own. We feel for each of them, before we even really know them at all.

Other superb work comes from a sterling supporting cast that includes screen vets William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Viola Davis and Ciaran Hinds; as well as Bill Hader, Jess Weixler and Nina Arianda. That’s seven characters (plus the two leads) of which we yearn to learn more. Ms. Davis is especially effective in her all too brief appearance as a professor cutting El very little slack. And Mr. Hurt delivers a terrific monologue that strikes a chord.

So all of these wonderful pieces make for an spell-binding what-if that possibly gets answered in the dual-perspective version. The coldness and lack of understanding in the first 45 minutes can’t offset the emotion and sadness that each character feels. Rumor has it that “Him” and “Her” will get their release this year, and if so, I’ll be there in an attempt to complete both puzzles.

watch the trailer:

 


MEN IN BLACK III (2012)

June 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Uninspired sequels often prove quite annoying for a true movie fan. However, dedicated followers of a franchise often overlook the flaws and are just happy to see their familiar heroes back on screen. Back for a third time in 15 years, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) show they can do this in their sleep … actually I think Mr. Jones really did doze off a couple of times.

Fortunately there are a couple of things that make this one entertaining enough. Josh Brolin‘s spot on imitation of Tommy Lee Jones may be better than the real thing. Brolin seems to be enjoying himself and realizes he is the featured attraction here. There is also a very creative segment that takes place at Andy Warhol’s Factory … with Bill Hader pulling off the Warhol look and voice quite well.

 Obviously with the Warhol segment, time travel is involved. That’s the real disappointment here. Outside of the Apollo 11 segment and listening to Status Quo play “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, the trip to 1969 is really a wasted opportunity for plot and humor. Also scarce is the use of aliens that were so prevalent in the first two. This time around, we get an overdose of Boris the Animal played by the always interesting Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”).

Also back is Emma Thompson in a couple of brief scenes as Agent O. In addition to Brolin, we get new life from Alice Eve (a young Agent O) and Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin … a less annoying version of Joe Pesci from the Lethal Weapon series. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has stuck with this franchise for all three entries. Let’s hope it’s now allowed to rest in peace.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a huge fan of the MIB franchise OR you want to see Josh Brolin’s impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you were hoping after 15 years, there might be something new … heck, even Will Smith looks exactly the same!

watch the trailer: