AARDVARK (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut from writer/director Brian Shoaf benefits from the talented cast he has assembled. I do wonder about his initial “pitch”. The film opens with barely-there lighting as we watch a zoo-based aardvark borough through his tunnels. We can only assume prospective producers were not clued into such an oddball opening scene. Of course as the film progresses, the tie-in becomes obvious – maybe too much so.

Zachary Quinto stars as Josh, a young man who tries to take ownership of his issues by scheduling sessions with Emily, a therapist played by Jenny Slade. See, Josh has a bad haircut, some type of undiagnosed psychosis, and to top it off, his very successful older brother is back in town – an event causing much consternation for Josh (and soon for Emily as well).

We are never really sure of Josh’s mental illness or affliction, but we do know he has visions and hallucinations. The most serious of these are when he imagines his brother has morphed into other beings/characters just to mess with him. Much of our time is spent trying to discern who is real and who Josh is imagining. When Craig, his polar opposite brother, actually appears, it turns out to be Jon Hamm. Emily then proves herself to be the world’s worst therapist as she begins sleeping with her patient’s brother – the source of his anxiety.

Emily admits to a history of man trouble and poor judgment in this area. It turns out she and Josh are both lonely souls, and charming actor-brother Craig may be the key for both of them. Along the way, Josh befriends Hannah (Sheila Vand from the terrific A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) and they seem to bond (in spite of Josh being Josh). Of course, we are left to ponder if Hannah is real or not – at least until the film’s final scene.

There is a running gag here that Emily is not a doctor, but rather a licensed practitioner. It appears to be the only real attempt at humor outside of having one of the Sonic commercial guys bump into Emily on her morning jog. Mental illness and loneliness are subjects that require a deft touch, and though director Shoaf seems to be striving for quirky, his film desperately needed to push the envelope much further. This one comes off just a bit too simple and clean. The best line in the movie, “I miss the things that weren’t there”, also sums up the feeling most of us will have after watching this one.

watch the trailer:

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BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

watch the trailer:


THE CONGRESS (Le Congres, France, 2014)

April 13, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

congress Greetings again from the darkness. As a fan of director Ari Folman’s Oscar nominated Waiting for Bashir (2008), I was excited to see this one on the line-up at Dallas International Film Festival. While some will find The Congress a bit messy and difficult to follow, it certainly reinforces Folman’s innovative and creative approach to story telling and filmmaking.

The first half of the movie is live action and the second half is animated. The best description I can offer is as a social commentary, not just on Hollywood, but society as a whole. While Her makes the case for virtual relationships, this movie makes the case for virtual everything else! Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, an aging movie star who is offered a chance to stay young and be popular forever. Just sign this contract, and Miramount Studios owns your complete public image. No more acting, just kick back and enjoy your money … and watch what we do with your image and career.

The cast is very strong, but the movie has a feeling of having been rushed through production … at least from the live action side. In addition to Ms. Wright, Danny Huston chews some scenery as a cut throat studio head. His blunt description of Ms. Wright’s “bad choices” since The Princess Bride speak to not only many actors, but for many in the audience as well. Harvey Keitel plays the agent, Jon Hamm appears through voice only in the animated sequence, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) plays Wright’s son and central plot figure, and Sami Gayle plays his sister. Paul Giamatti appears in both live action and animated form as the family doctor.

Some will be reminded of A Scanner Darkly, and others of Cool World. The best this movie has to offer is not in its (creative) presentation, but rather in its ability to provoke thought about the look of future society and the impact of technology … as well as the whole issue of identity and what makes us who we are. It’s a brain-scrambler if you stick with it.

watch the trailer:

 

 


FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)

March 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Evidently this is a movie for thirty-somethings who need more ammunition to defend their decisions to avoid marriage and parenthood. At least that’s the best case I can come up with … otherwise it’s just a bitter, caustic view of those two topics. It’s pretty obvious from the opening scene where the relationship story is headed, but it’s not an easy road for us viewers.

This movie belongs to Jennifer Westfeldt. She wrote the script, directed the movie and stars as the woman who decides to have a baby with her platonic friend (Adam Scott). These two are part of a group of six close knit friends in Manhattan who start out doing everything together and telling each other everything. One of the couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) announce “We’re pregnant” and promptly move to Brooklyn. The other married couple (Jon Hamm, Krisen Wiig) start out by attempting to break all Guiness records for sex, and end up evolving into something a bit less exciting.

 The two platonic friends decide to “beat the system” by sharing parenting responsibilities while pursuing separate dating lives until they find “the right person”. Westfeldt has a Lisa Kudrow quality about her that doesn’t play well with me. She was the star and writer of Kissing Jessica Stein, and has been in a relationship with Jon Hamm since 1998.  Here she comes across as insecure and awkward, and not nearly as smart as she would like to believe. Adam Scott (brilliant on “Parks and Recreation“) is quite the ladies man and also views himself as smarter than the masses. Westfeldt finds a “perfect” guy in Edward Burns, and Scott finds happiness with Megan Fox. Of course, you still know where all of this is headed.

 What struck me throughout the film was how every scene and every character was just a bit off. Nothing really worked. Jon Hamm has one really nice scene where he is intoxicated and really stirs the pot at a group dinner. Kristen Wiig has very few lines and spends the movie sulking. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd have a couple of decent scenes, but mostly the film has little insight to offer and no characters with whom you would like to connect. 

*note: Some critics think more highly of this movie than I, and have even compared it to Woody Allen‘s best work.  As always, the opinions expressed above are my own, and your actual mileage may vary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to watch a group of friends who don’t get along so well OR you seek further justification for you decision to avoid marriage and/or parenthood

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already discovered that, contrary to the movie’s poster tag, that maturity dissolves the need to pick two from: Love, Happiness, Kids

Watch the trailer:


BRIDESMAIDS

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig is everywhere these days! If you don’t know the name, you certainly know her face. She is credited with 26 projects since 2009 – and that doesn’t even count her weekly work on Saturday Night Live. She is the new Tina Faye … even though the “old” Tina Faye is still going very strong.

While I have little doubt that the success of The Hangover was a driving force behind the green lighting of this film, Ms. Wiig’s writing and acting talent elevate this mixture of chick-flick and comedy into one of the finest female film comedies in quite awhile. That’s probably not strong enough praise since the category is a bit sparse, but as a guy who gets really tired of the formulaic chick-flick rom-coms and sappy dramas, I found the film to be quite refreshing and entertaining.

 Sure, there are many similarities between this and The Hangover, but the difference is that the key element of female friendship is never far away from the often raunchy comedy we are witnessing. Women so value their BFF’s and Ms. Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo (seen as a nervous plane passenger) never lose sight of this.

Also key to any group of female activity is the competitive nature and envious mutterings. They try so hard to appear happy for their friends, when often they are blinded by the current funk in which they find their own life. And look out when a beautiful, rich “new” friend enters the picture. The real fireworks begin … even in the battle for the last word on the mic at the engagement party! I am not going to give away any of the punchlines or set-ups, but I will highlight the cast. Maya Rudolph is Lillian, the bride to be and lifelong friend of Annie (Wiig); Ellie Kemper (The Office) is Becca, the goody-two shoes newlywed; Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) is Rita, the bitter, frustrated long-time mother and wife looking for inspiration; Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly, Gilmore Girls) is Megan, the slapstick, gross-out comedy relief; Rose Byrne is Helen, the aforementioned seemingly perfect “new” friend; Chris O’Dowd (Blind Swordsman in Dinner for Schmucks) is Officer Rhodes, the nice guy who has a crush on Annie; Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Annie’s Porsche driving bootie call; and Jill Clayburgh (her final film role) as Annie’s mom.

The film is produced by comedy expert Judd Apatow and directed by Paul Feig.  Mr. Feig was the creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and has been involved in most of the best TV comedies over the past 7 or 8 years.  Oddly enough, he also wrote and directed one of my favorite lost gems from 2003 called I Am David.  It’s a drama, not a comedy, but I recommend it.

Here is hoping Ms. Wiig continues to push the boundaries of creative comedy for women. I for one look forward to seeing women on screen as more than just love interests and femme fatales.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are starved for a real comedy with real women characters (written by women) OR you always wondered what a female Zach Galifianakis would look like

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hated The Hangover OR you prefer your chick flicks to be melodramatic and sappy, rather than raunchy and real

 


THE TOWN (2010)

September 20, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ben Affleck proved himself to be a talented director with Gone Baby Gone. Here, he once again shows he is best suited behind the camera. He has a real feel for setting, scenery, actors and camera angles. Unfortunately, this story based on the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves is just a bit too formulaic to stand out from the crowd.

We are told upfront that the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown has more bank robbers than any other … in fact, in some families it is a proud tradition, passed on to the next generation. Ben Affleck got the guide book from his dad – an incarcerated Chris Cooper who has only one scene, though it’s very dramatic. Affleck’s lifelong pal and crime partner is played by Jeremy Renner. Renner’s character, Jem, is downright psychotic next to the meticulous Affleck’s Mr. Sensitive. If after Hurt Locker you have a difficult time imagining Renner as a bad guy, you should check out North Country. That’s a very bad man.

As seen in the preview, Affleck’s merry band of bank robbers take a hostage played by Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Affleck, in the course of duty, falls for Hall. She is the light that shows him the way to a better life. The film’s best scene is at a sidewalk cafe where Renner suprises Affleck and Hall with a visit.  The scene dramatizes just how delicate the line is for Affleck between his old life and the new one he dreams of.  Unfortunately, that story line leads us right back to more crime … with FBI mad man Jon Hamm hot on the heals of the local bad boys.

The neighborhood crime lord, played superbly by Pete Postlethwaite, controls the every move of the gang and takes his “fair” share while leading through intimidation – all while trimming roses! Renner’s sister and Affleck’s previous squeeze is played alarmingly (and surprisingly) well by Blake Lively. She appears to have a nice little career ahead of her.

The frustrating thing with this film is that we have seen it all before, just without the heavy bean-town accents. Tons of automatic weaponry lead to very few actual injuries or deaths – always the sign of a cheesy shootout. The finale for Renner, Hall and Affleck are all advertised well in advance of the actual occurrence, which pretty much ends the suspense. On the bright side, the film is well made and entertaining enough. For a much better film on the culture of local/family crime check out this year’s Animal Kingdom.  Here is my review of that film: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/animal-kingdom/

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you grew up in a rough neighborhood within a large city OR you want a peek at the bowels of Fenway Park.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think everyone should speak with the flowery cadence of Cary Grant OR you believe automatic weaponry is actually dangerous