BAND AID (2017)

June 1, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Where words fail, music speaks.” Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote those words more than 150 years ago, and he surely never imagined a 21st century California couple would prove true the adage. Zoe Lister-Jones (a regular on TV’s “Whitney”) has been acting regularly since 2004, and this is her first “all in” film project where she is writer/director/producer/lead actress. Her talent as a writer is evident in a topic assumed close to her heart: thirty-something angst.

Ms. Lister-Jones stars as Anna, a disenchanted Uber driver who is married to super slobby slacker Ben played by Adam Pally (Slow Learners, 2015). These two seem perfectly matched – or would be, if not for the constant bickering over anything and everything. Before you assume this is a remake of the ultra-depressing Revolutionary Road (2008), please note that the two leads are incredibly funny people and masters of witty one-liners. They make marital squabbles quite entertaining, once they decide to form a band with the sole purpose of singing their arguments.

Admittedly, it’s a shaky premise, but these two manage to pull it off with help from neighbor/drummer/sex addict “Weird Dave” (Fred Armisen). Along the way, they take shots at their friends’ exuberance over babies, the Holocaust, a kid named ISIS, pizza, dirty dishes, a mousetrap, sex, drugs, and art. They even bring levity to a marriage counseling scene featuring Retta (“Parks and Recreation”).

Just as impressive as the humor is how the film balances the drama associated with lingering depression tied to the trauma of a miscarriage. This and the couple’s inability to communicate their emotions are what drive their marital challenges. For a short time, the ‘argument music’ seems to improve their relationship, but it’s obvious that the real issue must be dealt with. Enter Ben’s mom (Susie Essman), whose only scene serves the purpose of explaining women to Ben and all the dumb guys in the audience.

There are actually quite a few familiar faces (many with ties to “Life in Pieces”) that appear in only one or two scenes: Chris D’Elia, Ravi Patel, the aforementioned Retta, Majandra Delfino, Jesse Williams, Colin Hanks, Brooklyn Decker, Erinn Hayes, Jamie Chung, Hannah Simone, and Angelique Cabral. These quick hit scenes serve as a dose of reality, as “moments” are what make up life … even if many interactions are “crazy” (D’Elia) or creepy (Williams).

The film was well received at Sundance, and it immediately marks Zoe Lister-Jones as a filmmaker to watch. Her comedic presence is a rarity, and is complimented nicely by her musical talent, and her willingness to hit serious topics head-on. Here, she offers a woman’s perspective on having kids, being questioned about having kids, and traditional women’s roles within society and marriage. Her inspired observations (a spontaneous jam session at the kid’s birthday party) are a welcome addition to today’s cinema, while also offering a west coast contrast to east coast indie film.

watch the trailer:

 


PREMIUM RUSH (2012)

August 28, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one gets bonus points because it is simply fun to watch. Though it fades from memory rather quickly, the film actually has surprisingly strong bones. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon … two very well respected and high profile actors for a movie that has such basic and cartoonish elements. David Koepp directed and co-wrote the script, and he too has an impressive status in Hollywood. Mr. Koepp directed the underrated Ghost Town, and his writing impact can be seen in movies such as Panic Room, War of the Worlds, and the following franchises: Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Indiana Jones.

JGL plays Wilee, the “best” of the Manhattan bicycle messengers. If you have ever visited NYC, you surely have seen these seemingly fearless riders as they zip between taxis and people and delivery trucks. Wilee works out of an office run by Raj (Aasif Mandvi), and has a on/off relationship with fellow rider Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and a slightly friendly rivalry with Manny (Wole Parks). Seriously, none of that really matters and the script could have been a group project in a community college film class.

What does lend the film it’s point of difference are the action-filled chase scenes through the busy streets of Manhattan. Since a movie needs some kind of plot, there is a purposefully absurd ticket with a hand-drawn smiley face that absolutely, positively has to be delivered by 7:00 pm. Otherwise, the child of Nima (Jamie Chung) doesn’t get to join its mother in the United States. See, Nima has been working 3 jobs to raise the fee the Chinese mafia demands for shipping people.

The chase scenes have a nice twist with CGI effects that demonstrate how the cyclists “see” the best route to take. We even get the dramatic and sometimes humorous results of a wrong decision. The chase that lasts pretty much the entire length of the movie is that of dirty cop and horrible gambler Bobby Monday (played by Michael Shannon). He is a desperate man and not even remotely clear thinking most of the time. It’s quite a different Shannon than we are used to … the silent simmering of his usual roles makes no appearance. Instead, we get full-throttle Michael Shannon – screaming, cussing, and over the top. Very odd to watch.

It seems as though every stunt person in New York was employed for the film, but the stand-ins are not easy to spot. The chase scenes are well filmed and quite entertaining. It’s an adrenaline rush that begins and ends with The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”. Just don’t expect the rush to last … they never do.

** NOTE: If you ever make a movie, keep in mind that if the story takes place within a 2 hour window, much money can be saved in the wardrobe budget.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are just looking for a fun, high speed ride through the traffic of Manhattan

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: simple stories annoy you even if they are a mechanism for frenetic action

watch the trailer:

 


THE HANGOVER PART II

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Two years ago, director Todd Phillips presented a highly creative, hilarious, raunchy, unique film comedy called The Hangover. And now, he does it again. No, not the creative part.  I mean he presents that SAME film again. I am unsure whether this is a sequel or remake. The only substantial change is the setting … Bangkok instead of Vegas.

Now I fully understand WHY most sequels follow the formula created by the successful original film. Filmmakers want to keep their built-in audience satisfied. The theory is: If it worked once, it will work again. Especially when the first film grosses a half-billion dollars! So the chances are very good that if you liked the first one, you will also enjoy this one. But for me, I get excited for creative filmmakers … not re-treads.

 The key characters are all back and played by the same guys: Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Justin Bartha (Doug), and Ken Jeong (Mr. Chow). All of these guys have worked constantly since the first film, but it makes perfect sense to return to the scene that put them on the Hollywood map.

This time around, Stu (Ed Helms) draws the long straw and has the storyline based on his pending marriage to Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch). Stu’s “wolfpack” buddies agree to a one-beer bonfire beach bachelor party, but of course, something goes very wrong. The next morning finds our boys staggering to regain consciousness in a sleazy Bangkok hotel with no recollection of the previous night’s events. The only clues are a monkey, a severed finger, a facial tat and international criminal Mr. Chow (Jeong).

 No need for me to go into any details or spoil any moments. You know the drill if you have seen the first. What follows is nearly two hours of debauchery and moments of varying levels of discomfort, gross-out and comedic skits.

Supporting work is provided by Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor, and Mason Lee (Ang Lee‘s son). There is also a cameo by Nick Cassavetes as a tattoo artist. This role was originally meant for Mel Gibson, and later Liam Neeson. Cast and crew protests kept Gibson out and Neeson’s scenes were cut when re-shoots were necessary.  And rest easy, Mike Tyson makes another hilarious appearance – it may be the most creative moment of this remake … err, sequel.

I feel tricked by Mr. Phillips. The first Hangover had me excited that a new comedic genius had entered Hollywood and would quickly blow away the Judd Apatow recycle jobs and copycats. Instead, we get Todd Phillips copying Todd Phillips.

This is certainly an above-average comedy and there are plenty of laughs from the characters we kind of feel like we know – though, wish we didn’t. Just know going in that you are witnessing a clear attempt at cashing in, not a desire to wow.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like many, you thought the first one was one of the best ever film comedies OR you just want to see how closely Ed Helms resembles Mike Tyson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you saw the first one and wish you hadn’t OR you never saw the first one and think maybe they have “cleaned” this one up (they haven’t)


SUCKER PUNCH

March 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am actually a fan of director Zack Snyder‘s two most recent films: 300 and Watchmen. Because of those films, I was really looking forward to what he would do with his first original piece. Two things are now very clear. First, Mr. Snyder is a visual virtuoso with film. Secondly, he is not much of a writer.

I’ll start with the bad news. I was stunned at how lousy the story and script were. Some of the dialogue is so bad it comes across as purposefully dumbed down. If that is the intention, then I must ask WHY? It’s clearly not a movie for little kids, so most over aged 13 are quite capable of following a story. Therein lies the biggest problem. There isn’t even a story! The ending makes absolutely no sense and the road to that ending just makes you happy it’s over … no matter the dumb ending.

 The good news is that Mr. Snyder’s visual effects do not disappoint. There are some terrific battle scenes and one of the coolest on screen dragons you’ll ever see. The film is very dark and muted in colors (think Sin City) but that works for the dream sequences and the asylum interiors. Very little color is present other than just before the dance sequences. Speaking of, what’s with the dance sequences? If Baby Doll’s dancing is the key to the film, shouldn’t we get more than just a head-bob?

 The premise is that Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is cast away to an asylum by her step-father. She has five days to escape or she faces a lobotomy. Yes, really. She quickly discovers that her dancing has a mesmerizing effect on all those watching and she can escape into her fantasy world. While there, she meets a Wise Man played by Scott Glenn in a role that would have been perfect for the late David Carradine. The Wise Man tells her what to do to gain her freedom and she quickly enlists the help of some other inmates: Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens)and Amber (Jamie Chung).

The asylum has an even darker side as run by Blue (Oscar Isaac). He forces Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) to teach the girls to dance so as to entertain “high rollers” who pay big bucks to Blue to spend time with the girls. Gugino plays her character like a rip-off of Natasha Fatale from the old Bullwinkle cartoons. Blue is just a weaselly bad guy who brings nothing to the film … and this film needed a top notch bad guy.

The actresses all seem like they really are into their roles and enjoy the physicality required for the fighting and action scenes. Cornish especially comes off well. Browning in the lead as Baby Doll brings no real baggage to the role as most won’t recognize her. Jena Malone has been an indie film favorite for years and Ms. Hudgens is trying to find a new audience after the High School Musical films.

 This movie was pitched as “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns”. I believe that is a slap to the face of Lewis Carroll. Watching this movie is like watching someone else play a video game … or a two hour music video of a terrible song. So if you must see it, enjoy the visual effects and don’t think too much about what the characters say or why they do what they do. And let’s all hope that Mr. Snyder’s visuals payoff for next year’s Superman movie … and be glad that Christopher Nolan is working on that script!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you live for special effects and video games on the big screen OR you want to see a really cool dragon fly around for about 3 minutes.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: non-sensical dialogue and a junior high script cause you to scream obsenities (it’s not worth getting arrested)