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:


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:


DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS (2010)

July 31, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I fully expected this to be an all-out raunch-com in the vein of The Hangover, and I was absolutely mistaken. The film only slips into slapstick and physical punchyness at the lowest part of the actual dinner. The rest of the movie is pretty basic and set somewhere near real life.

Often, real life situations bring the most humor. Sadly, that’s not the case here. Most of this one is just plain boring. There are some very talented people associated and they all do a fine job. It’s just that the pieces don’t make up an enticing whole. The film basically rides on the shoulders of the talented Steve Carell as Barry. Barry is a genuinely nice guy whose wife left him for his boss (Zach Galfianakis), and his hobby is making intricate displays of dressed up dead mice … his “mouseterpieces”, he calls them.

Paul Rudd plays Tim, another genuinely nice guy trying very hard to make it in the business world. He has the right car and a great apartment and a beautiful girlfriend (Stephanie Szostack) who doesn’t think it’s time for them to be married. Tim seizes an opportunity at work to go for a promotion. This gets him invited to his boss’s monthly dinner party where all the managers bring a guest with extraordinary skills … the titular schmucks. The point is to have a good laugh at the expense of the idiots. Obviously Tim runs into Barry and the guest list is complete.

Tim explains to his girlfriend that there is a “me you don’t know” who has to do things in order to get ahead at work. I really wanted to see more of THAT guy! Instead, we are subjected to another film that just doesn’t know how to take advantage of Paul Rudd’s talent. He is a funny guy and you would never know it here.

If not for Steve Carell and an outlandish performance by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as an “artist”, this film would be totally flat. Instead, there are a few laughs and an underlying theme about the sweetness of some people. It tries to ask the question, who are the real schmucks? Director Jay Roach is responsible for the Austin Powers and the Meet the Parents franchises. He obviously knows humor. He takes this one from a French film directed by Francis Veber called The Dinner Game. In that film, we never actually get to the dinner. In this one, the film sinks to its lowest point during the dinner. Lesson learned. Best part? Hearing the Beatles during the opening and closing credits.