THE KITCHEN (2019)

August 8, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a comedy. Ordinarily a movie review would not begin by telling you what the movie is not, but when the theatre marquee flashes “Starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish”, most anyone would assume they are in for a 2-hour laugh out loud romp with the promise of some outlandish one-liners to drop at the next party. Instead, the directorial debut from Andrea Berloff is a relatively violent mob movie. Ms. Berloff also adapted the screenplay from the Vertigo comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle.

Kathy (Ms. McCarthy), Ruby (Ms. Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are left isolated when their mob-connected husbands are busted by the FBI, and sent to prison. Survival instincts kick in for the previously uninvolved ladies, and they quickly realize that a bit of strategy would allow them to not only run the business their husbands left behind, but also build it into something better. Of course the mobsters left behind are none-too-pleased with the women outperforming them, and so we get a good old fashioned ‘brains vs. brawn’ battle.

The setting is the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. The year is 1978, so the Irish community still has a stronghold on the area. This is basically the same timeframe and the same streets that serve as the setting for the classic TAXI DRIVER (1976). We see what happens when a woman’s touch is applied to gangster activities: bonds are built, services are rendered, and payments are made. The illusion of power draws the three women in deeper, and the movie has us believe they are good at it. The issue is, as viewers, we never really buy into these three seizing this power. We are just supposed to sit back and accept that Kathy is an expert community organizer, Ruby gets things done behind the scenes, and timid Claire evolves. Actually, Claire’s (Ms. Moss) transformation is the best part of the film. Seeing her discover new talents and her true persona is as exciting for us as it is for her. However, in total, the 3 characters are little more than caricatures.

In addition to the three stars, the cast is deep. The three husbands are played by Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, and Jeremy Bobb, and all three are criminals and bad husbands. Domhnall Gleeson resumes his chameleon ways in what could have been a more interesting role, Common plays a federal agent, Annabella Sciorra has a nice turn as a mobster’s wife, and the great Margo Martindale (with prop cane) and Bill Camp are both standouts (as they usually are) in their respective gangster roles.

The film does a nice job tying in historical elements of the era, including the construction plans for the Javitz Center. There are more than a few moments of violence, but the shots aren’t nearly as dramatic as we’ve come to expect in mob movies. It’s simply not as gritty as it pretends to be. There are some similarities to last year’s WIDOWS (directed by Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis), but with this cast, Ms. Berloff might have considered approaching the tone of Jonathan Demme’s MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988). A raised eyebrow from the ultra-talented Ms. Haddish elicited laughter from the audience, rather than respect for her power. I expect it will be a crowd-pleaser for those along for the ride. Just remember – it’s not a comedy.

watch the trailer:


TABLE 19 (2017)

March 3, 2017

table-19 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) takes the approach that many wedding guests would prefer – he skips the wedding and heads straight to the reception. Another wise move by the filmmaker is assembling a very talented ensemble of funny folks. This cast proves they can wring a laugh from dialogue and moments that would probably otherwise not elicit much of an audience reaction. Instead, the full house on this evening had quite boisterous responses on numerous occasions.

The initial set-up drags a bit as we are introduced to the characters that will soon enough populate Table 19 at the reception. Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel bellhop) is Renzo, the longing for love (or anything similar) high schooler who might be a bit too close to his mother (voiced by the great Margo Martindale). Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are the Kepp’s, a mostly unhappily married couple who own and run a diner together. June Squibb is Jo, the bride’s long-forgotten nanny who sees and knows more than most. Stephen Merchant plays the outcast nephew/cousin who has been recently released from his prison sentence for white collar crime. Lastly we have Anna Kendrick as Eloise, the fired maid of honor and former girlfriend of the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell), who also happens to be the best man and now dating the new maid of honor.

This is the island of misfit wedding guests known as Table 19, and purposefully placed in the back corner as far as possible from the family and favored guests. Of course we know immediately that this Team Reject will unite for some uplifting purpose at some point, and the movie improves immediately once that goal has been revealed. Comedic timing in a group setting can often come across on screen as forced, and it’s a tribute to the cast that these characters come across as human and real.

Make no mistake though, this is Anna Kendrick’s movie. She plays Eloise as we would imagine Anna Kendrick in this real life situation. Sure, a wedding reception is low-hanging fruit for comedy, but it’s the third act where Ms. Kendrick’s talent really shines. Comedy drawn from emotional pain is the most fulfilling because we’ve all been there. The melodrama that creeps in is pretty predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. The scenes with Ms. Kendrick and Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some!, and Kurt and Goldie’s son) are the best, and it leaves us wishing for more attention to both.

Don’t worry, the film features the required wedding cake mishap, a flirtatious wedding crasher (Thomas Cocquerel) and a drunken mother of the bride singing karaoke to Etta James’ “At Last”. It’s designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and mostly succeeds with a nice blend of silly, cute, and emotional tugs.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HOLLARS (2016)

September 8, 2016

the-hollars Greetings again from the darkness. John Krasinski’s second film as a director mines the all too familiar territory of dysfunctional family life … only the script from Jim Strouse takes it a step further by burdening each character with their own special form of advanced personal dysfunction. The saving grace here is the always dependable Margo Martindale who anchors the gaggle of struggling men in her life.

Richard Jenkins plays Margo’s husband – a husband quick to cry and slow to recognize most any situation. Sharlto Copley plays their oldest son who is living in their basement and going through life rudderless ever since his divorce. Lastly there is John Krasinski who relocated from their Midwest hometown to NYC pursuing his dream of making it as a graphic novelist.

One morning Margo collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. Krasinski rushes to her bedside to discover that Dad has recently fired the oldest son from the family business that is rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Additionally, big brother is super jealous of his ex-wife’s (Ashley Dyke) new relationship (Josh Groban) and takes to stalking and bad-mouthing. Of course, Krasinski is toting his own baggage. He is whiny and depressed about his job, and has cold feet towards marrying his 8 months pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The film is loaded with familiar faces and talented actors. Charlie Day shows up as Margo’s nurse and Krasinski’s insecure former high school nemesis who is now married to Mary Elizabeth Winstead … oh yes, she still has the hots for her high school sweetheart (Krasinski). Randall Park is Margot’s doctor, and Mary Kay Place has a (very) brief role as Jenkins’ sister and employee.

Unfortunately the familiarity extends beyond the faces and into the clichéd characters and story lines. Most of the conversations are predictable, though there are plenty of laughs throughout. It may be the only film to feature punchlines utilizing Jenny Craig, Rod Steiger and Indigo Girls. It’s also interesting to see how all three of the lead male characters are wandering aimlessly when the women aren’t guiding them. This is a theme that could have been better explored and helped set the film apart from so many similar type films.

Despite the negatives, any movie that offers up a few laughs to go along with Margo Martindale at its core, does have some value.

watch the trailer:

 

 


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.

watch the trailer:

 

 


The sun sets on JUSTIFIED

April 21, 2015

 

justified2 Greetings again from the darkness. The reason I don’t typically write about television shows is that very few justify (sorry!) the effort .  However, the series finale of “Justified” aired last week, and it’s a series I will definitely miss.

Many people disregarded it immediately assuming it was just another western – you know, since the lead character wears a hat and holsters his gun. But at its core, it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys … only the good guy had some flaws and the bad guys were anything but the backwoods hillbillies they appeared to be. The three categories that elevated the show above typical TV fluff were: Writing, Characters, and Acting.

WRITING

Let’s start with Elmore Leonard. His novella “Fire in the Hole” is the source material for the show, and provided the emphasis on character and dialogue that was so crucial to its unique feel and style.

Ahh yes … those words. The majestic verbosity was spread across all characters – lawmen, judges, and the hardened criminals. Heck, even the teenage girl, bartender, BBQ pitmaster, and hired gunslinger were loquacious in their ability to turn a phrase.

For those of us who strain and sweat over the use of a particular word or the structure of a sentence, the show humbled us weekly through the apparent ease with which the English language was played like a finely tuned instrument.

As for the story, it was remarkable that the battle of guns and wits between Raylan and Boyd endured for the entire series run; and it was fascinating to see how each season brought a new criminal element and challenge … some tying into current characters, while others were more standalone.

CHARACTERS

justified A few of the characters managed to stick around for the series run … some more regular than others. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder will both go down as iconic TV characters, but it’s important to note the other regulars such as Raylan’s boss and father figure Art Mullens, the other two Deputy U.S. Marshals Tim and Rachel, and of course, Ava Crowder whose character arc was broader and more diverse than any other on the show.

There was also a group of recurring characters who felt like regulars, which speaks again to the sterling writing: Raylan’s on-again-off-again squeeze Winona, the smarmy Wynn Duffy, Boyd’s cousin Johnny, the comical Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett, and the memorable Arlo Givens (Raylan’s shifty father).

The third group of characters to mention includes those that had a dramatic impact on only one or two seasons: the isolated pitmaster Limehouse, Loretta the teenage survivor, the good-hearted hooker Ellen May, smooth talking Ty Walker, the lovable Constable Bob, the not so lovable Bo Crowder (Boyd’s dad) and criminal masterminds such as Robert Quarles from Detroit, Katherine Hale and Avery Markham who sometimes worked together and other times not, and most importantly Mags Bennett – the driving force behind the peak of season two.

Twenty two. That’s how many characters are named in the previous three paragraphs. And it’s pretty easy to name another 15 or more characters that played key roles. It’s not just the sheer quantity of characters, but rather the fact that they were so well written that we felt like we immediately knew them … plus they were fun to watch.

ACTING

Every actor dreams of being cast in a well written show. Take those extraordinary lines of dialogue and really good actors never have to over-do it … in fact, they can let the scenes breathe. As filled with tension as any show you’ve seen, it still managed to have a slow pace that matched what we expected from Harlan County Kentucky.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the roles of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Chief Deputy US Marshal Art Mullins (Nick Searcy), or smarmy Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). All four of these actors embodied their particular characters so completely that we viewers fully accepted them. A similar comparison would be James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. It’s rare for TV shows, but “Justified” had four!

The supporting roles never disappointed, though the survival rate varied immensely. Joelle Carter as Ava saw her screen time grow as the show progressed, though Erica Tazel (Rachel) and Jacob Pitts (Tim) are probably the only two who could offer up any kind of argument that they had to work to get noticed. Natalie Zea as Winona bounced in and out from season to season, and her presence never failed to bring about a change in Raylan just when he most needed one. Raymond J Barry as Arlo Givens was one of the show’s most colorful figures, though Damon Herriman and Jeremy Davies, as Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett respectively, gave him a run for the title.

As each season brought focus to a new criminal lead, the acting was varied and spectacular at times thanks to Neal McDonough, Michael Rappaport, Mykelti Williamson, M.C. Gainey, and of course, the final season with Garrett Dillahunt, Mary Steenburgen and Sam Elliott. Special mention goes to Margo Martindale for her Emmy Award winning performance as Mags Bennett in Season Two.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Hand-in-hand with the importance of Leonard’s writing is the work of show creator, producer and director, Graham Yost. Wisely working with Leonard those first few seasons (Mr. Leonard passed away in 2013), Yost ensured the weekly scripts were packed with the expected lines of dialogue, and his feel for the material allowed him to never miss with his casting.

The brilliant first scene of the first season introduces us to Raylan as he squares off against a bad guy while poolside in Miami. It’s this quick wit, quick draw and quick trigger that gets Raylan shipped back to the area of his youth, Harlan County Kentucky. The rest of the show taught us never to get comfortable around a hillbilly drawl, bring your own glass if someone offers you their “apple pie”, and the toughest bond to break is when you “dig coal together” with a buddy.

WWED


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


WIN WIN

March 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Thomas McCarthy‘s first two directorial outings were excellent: The Station Agent, The Visitor. This is his third and it seems clear the first two were not flukes. He is a filmmaker who knows what he is doing and is attracted to real people in real life situations. All three films feature the reactions and adaptations when strangers collide and a family-like atmosphere is created.

In this film, Paul Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer who also coaches the local high school wrestling team. Times are tough for Giamatti’s practice and when he stumbles on a chance for some “easy” money, his wrestling match with his conscience doesn’t last too long … even though it is not in the best interest of his client. By taking the easy way out, his elderly client is moved out of his home and into a long-term care facility. Giamatti knows his decision isn’t right, so he hides it from his wife, the talented Amy Ryan. Their home life seems very typical until the Giamatti decision leads to further complications … the client’s long-lost grandson shows up.

 The kid turns out to be quite perceptive and fits right into the Giamatti/Ryan family … especially when it is discovered that he is a top notch high school wrestler. Newcomer Alex Shaffer was cast because of his wrestling skills, but shines in the film due to his ability to come across as a real kid in real world conflicts. There are times his actions and decisions are more adult than the adults.  An interesting running theme throughout the film is “whatever it takes” … sometimes this is used for good, sometimes things are a bit gray.

The grandfather client is played by Burt Young, who was Paulie in the Rocky movies. Giamatti’s best friend is played by Bobby Cannavale, whose character is going through marital hell, and whose lively spirit and outspoken tendencies provide many of the laughs in the film. Cannavale shines in this film, much as he did as the slightly desperate vendor in The Station Agent.

 Things are going along pretty well for the new “family” until Shaffer’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) is released from the drug clinic and she shows up to re-claim her son and her share of grandpa’s wealth. She and her attorney (another nice role for Margo Martindale) expose Giamatti’s earlier unethical decision and force his hand. The strength of the family is severely tested.

What I really like about this and the two previous McCarthy films are that no  Hollywood tricks are used. He hits situations head-on with realistic levels of comedy and uncomfortable people who are just trying to get along in life. In Win Win, the stellar cast brings life to these characters and draw us right in to their attempts at conflict resolution. Even though the theme is not too far removed from that of The Blind Side, Mr. McCarthy provides us with characters who could be from our own lives or even our own families. That makes all the difference.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  real characters dealing with real life situations create the type of com-dram you enjoy OR you just want to see a movie with high school students who actually look like high school students (not 28 yr old actors) OR you want to see the power of a strong ensemble cast

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: The Blind Side was as realistic as you prefer movies to get OR you want to avoid the sight of Paul Giamatti jogging or unclogging a toilet