FLOWER (2018)

March 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite being early in her career, actress Zoey Deutch has often been the highlight of her film projects. Although that sounds like a good thing, in her case it speaks not just to her talent, but also the quality of those choices. Her father is director Howard Deutch and her mother is Lea Thompson, so her industry bloodlines run deep. Her eyes and smile are truly luminescent on the big screen, where she comes across as a natural. It’s now time for her take control of her career. Muck like this latest make us question whether she is a next level talent.

Director Max Winkler (son of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler) co-wrote the script with Matt Spicer (a terrific INGRID GOES WEST) and Alex McAuley, and they are fortunate to have such talent as Ms. Deutch, Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott. A profane, voyeuristic exercise in disturbed behavior becomes something nearly watchable when these three and newcomer Joey Morgan are on screen.

Ms. Deutch plays Erica, a motor-mouthed (in more ways than one) force of nature teenager whose ‘BJ’s for Dad’s bail’ involves seducing older men and then extorting money from them after Erica’s posse catches them on camera. Oh, and she keeps a sketch book of her victims … no, not their faces. The fundraising approach to springing her dad from jail is difficult to accept, but Deutch sells it as best she can. Her mother (Kathryn Hahn) is desperately trying to build a relationship with Bob (Tim Heidecker), whose son Luke (Joey Morgan) is being released after a lengthy rehab stint for pills.

Luke is a hefty young man who finds solace in food and little else. He and Erica could keep multiple therapists busy for years. His problems are exacerbated by an improper school incident involving Will Gordon, a teacher played by Adam Scott. Coincidentally, this same teacher has been labeled “Old Hot Guy” by Erica and her friends at the bowling alley. Once she learns about Luke’s history with the pedophile, Erica plots an evil revenge. You can probably imagine where it goes from there.

Those same eyes and smile mentioned in my first paragraph even light up when Erica describes herself as “the d*** whisperer”. It’s this kind of moment that finds us hoping Ms. Deutch and her agent quickly learn to distinguish between edgy indie project and trashy script not likely to lead to more work. This is an uncomfortable movie to watch, but not in the way where we walk out feeling enlightened. The title does deserve applause because even the scratchiest and toughest flower has a delicate side.

watch the trailer:


CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

watch the trailer:

 

 


LEN AND COMPANY (2016)

June 10, 2016

Len Greetings again from the darkness. Mining a mid-life crisis for new film material often results in something we have seen on screen too many times in the past. However the first feature film for writer/director Tim Godsall and co-writer Katharine Knight draws inspiration from the 2008 Carly Mensch one-act play “Len, Asleep in Vinyl”, and what we get is a terrific little indie gem with multiple interesting characters.

Highly successful music producer Len Black has pretty much “dropped out” of society as evidenced by his quitting in the midst of an awards ceremony, and by his new hobby of floating in the algae-laden swimming pool at his country estate. His self-imposed exile seems designed to magically reveal the meaning of life and lead to a form of self-discovery. Soon his peaceful deep-in-thought zen is disrupted – first by the arrival of his estranged son Max, and then by the presence of his pop star protégé Zoe. Len is perturbed by the uninvited guests, and shows nothing approaching warmth or caring towards either.

What we really have is a 3 person collision of psychological crisis. Len is attempting to come of age (a bit late, given he’s in his mid-40’s); OCD Max has dropped out of school in hopes of making it with his band; and Zoe is on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Three messes all intertwined with each other, as Max just wants Len to be a dad this one time, and Zoe wants him to show a little compassion and not treat her like the pop music ATM she has become. Despite the relentless attention she has from her public and fans, what she needs is a bit of attention from the guy that got her into this.

Rhys Ifans plays Len, and his outstanding performance makes the film work. He realizes he’s a jerk, but has no clue how to atone for the past. Jack Kilmer (Val’s son who is also the “projectionalist” in The Nice Guys) plays Max as a carefully considered young man who is never without his “to do” list. Juno Temple plays Zoe, and perfectly captures the two sides and delicacy of young fame. As an added bonus, the fourth wheel is local kid William (Keir Gilchrist, It’s Kind of a Funny Story), who ironically is a surrogate-son type to Len, and helps out with chores around the house. There is also a brief sequence featuring the always great Kathryn Hahn as Len’s ex and Max’s mom.

The heaviness of the emotional stuff is offset brilliantly by comedic moments … some small, others not so small. The scene with Len addressing William’s classroom (in a quasi-take-a-parent-to-school day) is both hilarious and insightful. Minus any decorum or good judgment, Len spills to the students what his life has been. It’s a turning point in the film as we finally see him as more than the dirtbag we originally thought. It also leads to Len’s rant – right in Max’s face – about the roots of rock and roll, and how a privileged, uptight young man couldn’t possibly have the soul and spirit required to make a go of it.

Lessons are learned by all, and much enlightenment has occurred by film’s end. Of course, those doing the teaching and those doing the learning are a bit unconventional, as it’s Len who finally figures out solitude and loneliness may not be a worthy goal. It’s a wonderful first feature from the filmmakers and a top notch performance from Mr. Ifans.

watch the trailer:

 


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

September 21, 2014

this is where Greetings again from the darkness. After watching this movie, I thought about researching whether the boobs of a 76 year old actress had ever been as front and center as they are in this dramedy from director Shawn Levy – not counting Calendar Girls which was for a worthy cause. Luckily I came to my senses, and realized that’s not a topic anyone should google … except maybe a 76 year old man.

Jane Fonda is the actress whose enhanced assets are so prominently featured, and she plays the mother of four adult children brought together to mourn the death of the family patriarch. This is based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and though it’s watchable enough, it could have benefited from a better script adaptation and a less mainstream comedy director. Mr. Levy provided the popular and entertaining A Night at the Museum, as well as a long list of simple minded movies that didn’t prepare him for the depth of Tropper’s story.

The four “kids” are played by Corey Stoll, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver. Also joining them under a single roof are Stoll’s desperate-for-a-baby wife Kathryn Hahn, Fey’s two kids and self-professed a-hole husband (Aaron Lazar), and Driver’s engaged-to-be-engaged much older woman played by Connie Britton. If you think that’s an outstanding cast, note that also appearing are Timothy Olyphant (Fey’s brain-damaged former lover), Rose Byrne (she always lusted after Bateman), Dax Shepard (sleeps with Bateman’s wife played by Abigail Spencer), Ben Schwartz as an oddball Jewish rabbi, and Debra Monk (the helpful neighbor and more).

Obviously the issue with so many characters and talented actors is that screen time is limited. Somehow each of these have one key moment in the film, and that may be the biggest issue. Some of these we want to know more about (Olyphant, Byrne, Brittain), while others could have been written out of the script altogether (Lazar, Schwartz, Shepard) and the movie wouldn’t have suffered, and might have improved.

Most of the story revolves around Bateman and his situation – crumbled marriage, lost job, dead father, plus even more. Going through that and facing his sit-com worthy dysfunctional family provides an unending stream of none-too-subtle moments: a basement sleeper/sofa that won’t fold out, roof top talks with his bossypants sister, and even fisticuffs inside the family and out.

This is another in the Suburban-angst sub-genre, and the numerous contrived scenes and formulaic sequences are salvaged only by the talented casts ability to squeeze the moment from the next one-liner. There is so much rage and resentment in this family that we viewers are willing to find humor in the toddler toting his portable potty with him everywhere, or even Bateman taking the expected prat fall in an ice rink. There is little edge to this material, but it’s not difficult to glimpse how the right director could have approached the genius of The Royal Tenenbaums or the original Death at a Funeral, rather than a generic blend of Garden State and August:Osage County.

Britton, Byrne and Batemen all have their moments, and the movie is certainly watchable … though it could have been exceptional as either a straight out comedy or an indie-type drama. No need to email me if you come up with additional films featuring 76 year old boobs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for the challenge of keeping track of the seemingly endless number of characters who have “a moment” during this one

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you share the sentiment with me and Jason Bateman’s character that there is no need to focus on Jane Fonda’s “bionic breasts”

watch the trailer:

 


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

 


OUR IDIOT BROTHER

August 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen the trailer, you might have the wrong impression. This is no laugh riot. Sure there is plenty of humor and you will laugh, but it’s not the slapstick goofy movie the trailer leads us to believe. Oddly enough, one could make the case that it’s actually a “message” movie.

Director Jesse Peretz has teamed with his writer sister Evgenia Peretz to dive into the often strained relationships between siblings – especially brother and sister, or in this case, brother and 3 sisters. There are numerous examples of how we often cheat or lie our way through life, or at a minimum, trick ourselves into believing (or not) certain things about ourselves and our loved ones.

 The movie begins just like the trailer. Ned (Paul Rudd) is working an organic vegetable booth and is approached by a UNIFORMED police officer to buy some pot. Ned laughs it off until the officer says “It’s been a really rough week“. See, Ned is an incredibly nice and trusting guy. He always wants to help people and treat them kindly. This scene sets the stage … is Ned really an idiot or are we the idiots for not being as open and trusting as he? Once Ned is released early from jail (good behavior, of course), he naturally returns to the organic farm and his girlfriend of 3 years (Kathryn Hahn). To his surprise, he finds she has moved on to Ned’s apparent replicant Billy (TJ Miller). Even worse, she has no plans to let Ned take his beloved dog, Willie Nelson.

 So Ned heads off to re-connect with his mom (Shirley Knight) and 3 sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a hard-driving career woman trying to break into the magazine writing world. She believes in stopping at nothing to nab a story, or even take advantage of her neighbor (Adam Scott). Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a dedicated Mom and frustrated wife married to Dylan (Steve Coogan), a documentary filmmaker and scoundrel. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is the world’s worst stand-up comedian as well as a quasi-lesbian in love with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones in ridiculous wardrobe and glasses).

 Not going to ruin the individual story lines, but obviously Ned spends time with each of his sisters and manages to wreak havoc for each, and anyone else within ear shot. At least that’s how they see it. All he really does is act nice, be open and tell the truth. The chips then fall where they may. Each of the sisters learn a bit about Ned, but even more about themselves.

 As previously stated, there are plenty of laughs in this one, but also moments of drama and reality that work like a bucket of ice dumped on your head. The above cast is excellent and also includes Hugh Dancy and Bob Stephenson as the police officer from the opening. Mr. Stephenson is underrated and very talented. He can do much with little. For proof stay for the outtakes over the closing credits. His is a gem.

While the sisters are all quite annoying in their own special ways, it is Paul Rudd who makes the film work. He has the eyes, nature and smile to pull off this character as someone who could actually exist. Someone we all wish we could be a little more like.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you see the genius of Paul Rudd OR you are intrigued with the idea of living your life with complete honesty

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a raunchy slapstick Apatow-type OR you prefer to miss the worst ever lesbian wardrobe captured on film

watch the trailer:


HOW DO YOU KNOW (2010)

December 19, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. How about a little effort from the Hollywood folks? Writer/Director James L Brooks and Jack Nicholson have teamed up for three far superior films prior to this. Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As it Gets are all insightful dramadies that bring real life into relationships. This one is billed as a Rom-Com, but the romance is distant and lame, and the comedy is all but non-existent.

The very talented Paul Rudd plays George, son of Charles (Nicholson) who is the target of a federal investigation after his father sets him up by falsifying corporate financial documents. The problem is George is a really nice, honest guy and Charles is a lying scumbag who would throw his son to the federal wolves.

In a seemingly unrelated story, Reece Witherspoon plays Lisa, a very talented softball player with an incredible track record and evidently serious skills. She gets cut from the Olympic team because of her advancing age (she will be 31 at the next Olympics). Lisa is dating Matty, played by Owen Wilson. Matty is a $14 million per year major league baseball player, who is also a player off the field.

Everyone in this story is so very nice, but screwed up in their own way. That’s actually a hopeful start. So one thing leads to another and George falls for Lisa. Lisa moves in with Matty, who lives in the Charles’ building. Lisa then moves out. George is always there for Lisa while her life is in shambles. George’s life is in shambles too, but all he cares about is Lisa. Matty cares a lot about Matty. Any guess how this ends up? Of course you know. This script is not built for surprises. Or romance. Or comedy.

The bulk of what comedy there is comes from a very pregnant Kathryn Hahn as Anne, whose life is also a bit of a mess. She is an unmarried, pregnant assistant to George, who worries about him, her and everything … but she has such a big heart that she bakes and labels multiple dinners for George.

Anyway … the best part of the film is that we never get subjected to watching Owen Wilson throwing a pitch or Reese Witherspoon actually playing softball. There is so much talent associated with this film, but it definitely proves the point that the heart of a film is not in the direction or the acting, but in the script. For a similar story line, but far superior film, go re-watch When Harry Met Sally for the eighteenth time. It has comedy and romance and a very worthy script.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are related to one of the stars and they are paying for your ticket OR you just want to see Owen Wilson’s very cool bachelor pad.

SKIP THIS MOVIE: for any reason not listed in the above “See this movie”