BOUNDARIES (2018)

July 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the more recent cinematic trends has been stories involving an adult child facing the plight of caring for an elderly parent. Some have chosen the comedic route, while others lean towards the all-too-real burden carried by care-givers. Writer-director Shana Feste (COUNTRY STRONG, 2010) continues her streak of tolerable fluff in this tale of a stressed single mother raising a challenging teenager while also dealing with daddy issues, and the octogenarian daddy at the source.

The film opens with said stressed mother Laura Jaconi (played by Vera Farmiga) in the midst of a therapy session as she talks through those long-simmering daddy issues … and we get the feeling these same discussions have occurred numerous times over the years. As an actress, Ms. Farmiga is at her best in frazzled mode, and here she’s a perfect fit. Her son Hoyt/Henry (Lewis McDougall, who was so good in A MONSTER CALLS) is a social misfit at his school, thanks in part to his mostly unwelcome and quite vivid artwork depicting faculty (and others) in various unclothed states. When he is expelled, private school becomes the best alternative, and Laura’s need for cash coincides with her estranged father’s (Christopher Plummer) simultaneous expulsion from his retirement center … for morality reasons.

Daughter Laura has her dad listed as “Don’t Pick Up” on her cell phone, and we understand before her that he is a rascal with a criminal streak. He even serves up an extremely rare pedophile joke – at the expense of his grandson. Laura’s ongoing challenges are intensified when circumstances require her to drive her and her son cross country in a classic Rolls Royce that never comes close to blending in with the surroundings. The purpose of the road trip is so the father/grandfather can make secretive pot-selling trips along the way. This allows for cameos from such recognizable folks as Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Bobby Cannavale, the latter of which is Laura’s ex-husband and biological father of her son.

Adding to the frenzy is Laura’s commitment to her real lot in life – that of serial animal rescuer. Dogs are EVERYWHERE throughout the film – to the point that her father labels her the Pied Piper of mange. These type of interactions, along with the ruse of adult diapers and a bow and arrow sequence keep the film on the verge of slapstick; however, we can never accept that we are supposed to get a comedic kick out of Laura’s too-much-to-handle lot, since it’s mostly depressing.

Kristen Schaal as Laura’s sister and insecure California goofball is always a welcome addition to any film, and Yahva Abdul-Mateen II brings a nice touch to one of the few characters we’d like to get to know better. Lousy childhood memories connected to present-day adult troubles just don’t combine for effective humor in the light that the filmmaker seems to be aiming for. Though well-acted, a grown woman still in need of daddy’s approval is just a bit too predictable and too much of a downer to work.

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THE BOSS (2016)

April 7, 2016

the boss Greetings again from the darkness. Movie profanity and crude humor are best used selectively, and certainly not as a comedy crutch. Melissa McCarthy has not built her career on subtlety, but even for her standards, this latest comes across as a lazy effort with missed opportunities for both laughs and a message.

Ms. McCarthy re-teams with those responsible for Tammy (2014), including her husband writer/director Ben Falcone and co-writer Steve Mallory. Here she plays Michelle Darnell, an egotistical hyped-up business tycoon with no sense of integrity or humanity … constantly wearing an odd turtleneck. Somehow the filmmakers thought it a good idea to explain this lack of soul showing a young Michelle being continually “returned” to her orphanage (run by a nun played by Margo Martindale).

When Michelle’s business rival (and former business associate and former lover) Renault/Ron (Peter Dinklage) turns her into the SEC for insider trading, the correlations with Martha Stewart become impossible to ignore. There is even an acknowledgment of this by McCarthy’s character. Once released from white collar prison, Michelle hits rock bottom and ends up sleeping on her former assistant’s sofa. Kristen Bell is Claire, the assistant that Michelle once dumped on and now crashes with. Ms. Bell is mostly relegated to “straight man” to McCarthy’s string of lame punchlines.

In the spirit of exaggeration in lieu of creativity, three scenes in particular stand out: the street fight between rival scout troops, a ridiculous breast grope-off with McCarthy and Bell, and a clumsily staged sword fight between McCarthy and Dinklage. The missed opportunity to have a point about girls in business, and stooping to schmaltz with the Michelle family story are every bit as disappointing as the mostly unfunny and constant use of profanity-laced insults. Saying “suck his d***”over and over in one scene does not make it funny … in fact, it’s a bit sad.

Exacerbating the frustration is the misuse and underuse of such talents as Cecily Strong, Kristen Schaal, Tyler Labine, and Kathy Bates. Ella Anderson as Claire’s daughter does come across as a real kid, and she’s part of the best scenes in the movie. Somehow a movie that (finally) calls out the Girl Scouts on their unfair-to-girls business model, manages to disappoint on every other front.

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A WALK IN THE WOODS (2015)

September 2, 2015

a walk in the woods Greetings again from the darkness. Bill Bryson is a terrific and prolific writer known over the last thirty years for his books on travel, science and language. His comedic and witty approach makes his work accessible to even casual readers, yet somehow this is the first of his books to receive the Hollywood movie treatment. Envisioned in 1998 as the third collaboration between Robert Redford and Paul Newman (who died in 2008), there is even a scene reminiscent of Butch and Sundance pondering a cliff side jump/fall. This final version instead teams Mr. Redford with a grizzled Nick Nolte.

Redford stars as Bryson (aged about 30 years over the novel) who has had a successful writing career and has a quite comfortable life with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and their family. His problem is that he hasn’t written anything new in years, save the Forewords for the books of other writers. He is feeling unsettled and almost spontaneously decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (more than 2000 miles). His wife is as supportive as you might guess … she laughs at him, begs him not to go, provides documentation of the dangers (bears, bacteria, bludgeoning), and finally agrees only if he can persuade someone to go with him.

Enter Mr. Nolte as Katz, an estranged friend from years ago, who may or may not be on the run from law enforcement. We do know he is overweight, a recovering alcoholic, quite horny (for a man in his 70’s), and in a point that matters little … was not actually invited by Bryson to go on the trip.

What follows is senior citizen slapstick (a new sub-genre for my gray cinema category). The tone is extremely light-hearted … in the mode of The Bucket List, Grumpy Old Men, and “The Odd Couple”. Some of the scenery is breathtaking, but mostly we get face-offs between the intellectual and thoughtful Bryson, and the slovenly horndog Katz. Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his TV comedy work on “The Office”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “The Larry Sanders Show”. Redford and Nolte are (very) old pros who handle the material and surface humor with ease. Nolte brings such a physicality to his performance that it left this viewer wondering if he was really that talented or (hopefully not) that frighteningly out of shape. Either way, it works.

Additional support work comes in quick spurts in the form of Nick Offerman as an REI salesman, Mary Steenburgen as a motel owner, Susan McPhail as a memorable Beulah, and motor-mouthed (and funny) fellow hiker Kristen Schaal whose character would have most hikers hoping for a bear attack.

The film is clearly aimed at a very narrow group of movie goers, and it’s likely that group will be pleased with what they see on screen. The philosophical aspects of the book are mostly glossed over here, and for hiking in the mountains, there is an obvious lack of edginess. The objective is laughs, not deep thought. Objective achieved.

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SLEEPWALK WITH ME (2012)

September 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Today, Mike Birbiglia is a very funny and talented stand-up comedian (check youtube). The movie is based on his real life struggles as a boyfriend/won’t-be-husband and young bartender/comedian. The efforts of the comedian honing his craft are much more interesting than watching just another guy who can’t commit, but the film does a nice job of blending the two story lines so that it’s a bit more relatable.

Mike Birbiglia portrays Matt Pandamiglio. Say that ten times every morning and your verbal dexterity will skyrocket. Matt is in a relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose) and he admittedly is not ready to commit to this wonderful woman whom he clearly doesn’t deserve. We learn this as he speaks directly to the audience while driving. While Abby drops hints, she remains true and loyal and patient.

Some of the funniest scenes involve Matt’s parents, played by Carol Kane and James Rebhorn. Kane just wants her son to be happy (and married to Abby), while grumpy Rebhorn just wants his son to grow up. As Matt and Abby live together and the stress of pending marriage, failing career and adulthood bear down on him, Matt begins to suffer from sleepwalking. It’s kind of funny at first, but quickly turns dangerous. A small time gig becomes Matt’s break and he ends up hitting the road for an endless stream of minor gigs at clubs and colleges. It’s here that he stumbles on comedy gold … his relationship.

 The stand-up style is awkward and clumsy, yet funny … unless you are Abby. I got a bit frustrated at how little Lauren Ambrose was given to do as the lead actress (and a very talented one), but this is mostly an autobiographical presentation of Birbiglia’s real life path. It was interesting to see the group of real comedians give us a peek into the close-knit community of touring comedians. Even Kristen Schaal (Fllight of the Conchords) makes a brief appearance, as does Loudon Wainwright III.

This is an unorthodox movie that still works thanks mostly to the talents of Mike Birbiglia. He was also assisted by co-director Seth Barrish and co-writers Joe Birbiglia (his brother) and Ira Glass from “The American Life”. If you enjoy stand up comedy, you will probably find this Sundance award winner entertaining and interesting.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a glimpse into the struggles of an up-and-coming stand-up comedian strikes your fancy OR you are familiar with Mike Birbiglia’s fine work

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have had your fill of fear of commitment stories

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