HOME AGAIN (2017)

September 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s just get this out of the way upfront. There is a proven and established market for mindless fluff designed to allow women to laugh at the messes created by “real life” relationships, careers, and parenting. In fact, first time writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is merely continuing the traditions set by her bloodline. She is the daughter of filmmakers Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer who shared an Oscar screenwriting nomination for PRIVATE BENJAMIN (1980), and collaborated on other Romantic-Comedies such as FATHER OF THE BRIDE (I and II), and BABY BOOM (1987). Rom-Coms exist to bring some balance to the universe of Comic Book film adaptations for fan boys. It is possible to have quality filmmaking on both sides … no matter how rare it seems.

Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon stars as Alice Kinney. It’s her 40th birthday, and she’s a chipper lady recently separated from her music industry husband (Michael Sheen) and moved with their two daughters (Lola Flanery, Eden Grace Redfield) from New York to Los Angeles. Alice is in full “starting over” mode, including kicking off a new home decorating business. During a drunken birthday celebration with her friends, Alice hooks up with a younger man. The next morning, Alice’s mom (Candice Bergen) invites Harry (the young man played by Pico Anderson) and his two buddies (Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky – all 3 are budding filmmakers) to move into Alice’s house. What follows is a maybe/maybe not romance between Harry and Alice, a bonding between the fellows and Alice’s daughters, new business struggles for Alice, the sudden return to the scene of Alice’s husband, and an endless stream of movie-making meetings for the 3 guys.

That’s a recap of the story, but it doesn’t address the real issue. For years, we have been hearing that the good-old-boy Hollywood network needed to back more female-centric projects: movies about women, movies directed by women, movies written by women, movies produced by women. Well this one has ALL of that, and yet I can only imagine the outrage if a man had written/directed/produced this exact film. Let’s discuss.

Alice is positioned as a “brave” and “strong” woman for moving her kids across the country and starting over. What allows this woman to be so courageous? Well see, she is the daughter of a deceased filmmaker who had a successful career and left her a multi-million dollar California estate … conveniently, one with a guest house for the three young men to live in. And who in their right mind, and with two young daughters, would invite three total strangers to move in – especially the night after – even if one of them looks to be yanked right out of an Abercrombie ad? There is also Alice’s interaction with her first client (played by Lake Bell). Despite despicable treatment from the rich lady, Alice doesn’t stand her ground until yet another drunken bout of liquid courage occurs. The two daughters are smart and cute, but there is an obvious shortage of daily parenting happening here – the daughters seem to show up only when a dose of precociousness is required. The scenes with Alice and her estranged husband are appropriately awkward, but the communication seems hokey … at least until we witness true hokeyness in the cartoonish exchanges between the (now) four gentlemen. In fact, all male characters are written as cartoons, which we might view as “getting even” with the many times female characters were poorly written; however, since the female lead here is just as unreal, that theory doesn’t hold.

The paint-by-numbers approach carries through as we check all the boxes: cute kids, a pet dog, apologetic ex, hunky new suitor, no financial hardships, loads of delightful dialogue, Ms. Witherspoon flashing more facial contortions than Jim Carrey at his peak, at least two cheesy musical montages, a mad dash to the kid’s play/recital/game, and even the cherry on top … a Carole King song at the end. In a year with so many wonderful female-centric films, this one is difficult to comprehend – except that maybe, given who her parents are, perhaps Ms. Meyers-Shyer is actually the beneficiary of that good old boy network of which we’ve heard tell.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE INTERN (2015)

September 24, 2015

intern Greetings again from the darkness. A feel-good mainstream movie featuring two big time movie stars will likely have box office success and cause a lot of people to laugh out loud. In other words, the latest from writer/director Nancy Meyers should be celebrated for its entertainment value, rather than picked apart by film critics. Ok, I’ll give it a try.

Robert DeNiro stars as Ben Whittaker, a retired 70 year old widower, who just can’t seem to find meaning in hobbies and the leisure life. He applies and is selected for the “Senior Intern” program at About the Fit, a fast-growing online clothing company run by its founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). In addition to being a Type A driven and obsessed-with-details company leader (the type that rides her bike through the office to save time), Jules also has a husband, a young daughter and a fabulous brownstone. What she doesn’t have is enough sleep, any friends, or enough time to enjoy any of the good stuff.  You aren’t alone if a buddy flick with DeNiro and Hathaway seems unusual to you.

At the same time Ben arrives on the scene, Jules is struggling with her investors’ decision to hire a more experienced CEO so that the company can maintain its phenomenal growth. That’s about as deep as the business talk ever gets (but just try to keep track of all the Apple product placements). Jules initially spurns Ben, but of course, he soon becomes invaluable around the office, and while blinking his eyes, becomes her most valued confidant and adviser.

Much of the comedy is derived from Ben’s interactions with the young employees. It’s quite simply a ‘generation gap comedy’ that makes all the points it needs to make without really breaking a sweat: senior citizens are a wealth of knowledge and can bring value to an organization or relationship, young people can learn from elders (it’s OK to shave everyday and dress for success) … and vice versa (computers are our friend), there still exists some animosity between stay at home moms and working moms, stay at home dads face challenges of their own, running a company is hard work both physically and mentally, communication often requires more than a text or email, and staying true to one’s self is not always easy.

Ms. Meyers has brought us other mainstream films such as It’s Complicated (2009) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003), and she has a feel for presenting the upper-middle class as a punchline for the masses. She likes showing successful people in uncomfortable situations … leaning heavy on awkward, while avoiding dangerous altogether. Her latest is a feel good movie that makes you laugh, without causing you to think about anything in your life that might bring you down. And there is real value in that.

Ok, I tried, but there are some things that must be pointed out. There was so much of Ms. Meyers’ script that was begging to be pushed to the edge and analyzed from a societal aspect. Her specialty is rounding off the corners so that no one gets hurt, and because of that the film is bereft of conflict … the single most important element for a meaningful scene. For example, the conflict between Jules and her husband occurs in a hotel room, which would be fine except … only one of them is there!  Also, we never really get any of the story from Ben’s perspective. Instead, we are just to believe that his Gandhi-like influence on co-workers is the only reward he seeks. I also found myself bothered a bit in the quick glimpse we get into Ben’s personal life. He blows off the advances of Linda Lavin and pursues Rene Russo … understandable, but a bit off-putting given that this female writer chose to have him hook up with the 11 years younger character, rather than the one closer to his own age.  There are many other similar type issues that warrant discussion, but that’s why it’s best to just sit back and enjoy this one, rather than asking “what if?”

watch the trailer:

 

 


PAPER TOWNS (2015)

July 23, 2015

paper towns Greetings again from the darkness. If you have ever watched Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, imagine what the characters of Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels would have been like in high school. That gives you some idea of Margo and Quentin in this latest screen adaptation of a John Green novel (he also wrote “The Fault in Our Stars”).

Margo (Cara Delevingne) is the “live life to the fullest” youngster, while Quentin (Nat Wolff) is the “college-career-family” type who has his life timeline fully planned. As kids in the same neighborhood, they hang out together, but the inherent personality differences lead to polar opposite paths in high school. Margo is the exciting girl that everyone aspires to, while Quentin and his band of geeky friends never skip class, turn in all assignments and are elite college bound. Everything changes one night when Margo climbs through Quentin’s window and enlists his help in an evening of revenge shenanigans. He falls hard for her, and then … POOF … she’s gone.

It’s at this point that the film bogs down a bit. See, Margo loves a mystery and Quentin must decipher her many clues, as he is convinced she wants him to find her so they can be soul mates forever. Fortunately, the inevitable road trip provides some fun banter for Quentin and his brood, and it’s here where the true life lessons occur … friendship and finding happiness with one’s self.

Amiable is the best word to describe most of the characters in this film from director Jake Schreir (Robot & Frank). These are good kids and each very likeable … not the rebellious teens that usually get movies made about them. But they are so amiable, that there is a glaring lack of conflict in the vast majority of scenes. It’s as if the darkness and hard edge were purposefully sucked out of the Green novel. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, the formulaic approach is quite surprising. These are the writers behind (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars … three scripts that pulled few punches. On the bright side, the film is brave enough to include a Confederate flag joke, and what may be the best ever on screen tuba joke, and the all-too-rare multiple Black Santa Claus gags.

Newcomer Cara Delevingne looks like Mariel Hemingway but has the attitude of a young Linda Fiorentino. It will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. Nat Wolff was a secondary character in The Fault in Our Stars, but his natural ease on screen allows for a quick transition to leading actor. Support work comes from Justice Smith as Radar, Jaz Sinclair as his girlfriend, Halston Sage as pretty girl Lacey, and Austin Abrams as the comedy-relief buddy. Since it’s 2015, you know there must be a Duplass Brothers connection, and this time it’s Jay appearing as an English teacher. For those fans of The Fault in Our Stars, yes, Ansel Elgort has a cameo.

The film version is definitely for romantics, and not for those looking for hard-edged life journey. It’s actually a welcome change to have nice kids share the screen and have conversations without gratuitous violence, profanity or nudity. Because of this, it’s pleasant enough to watch, but probably won’t stick with you like the others mentioned here.

watch the trailer:

 


ADMISSION (2013)

March 24, 2013

admission1 Greetings again from the darkness. Though it’s billed as a comedy, you would be best prepared walking into expect a dramatic rom-com. The mere presence of Tina Fey and Paul Rudd (their first collaboration) could lead you to assume that it’s a slapstick comedy.  Even though it isn’t, these two would elevate most any script and movie. They are inherently likable and talented, and that’s a lucky thing for director Paul Weitz (About a Boy).

The movie plays like a coming-of-age flick … not for the gaggle of high school students … but rather for Tina Fey’s character. She portrays a Princeton admissions officer named Portia Nathan, and it’s her job to weed through the files of thousands of over-achieving 18 year olds who are dreaming of attending the prestigious Ivy League school. Her serious approach to her work is complicated by a competition with her inner-office rival (Gloria Reuben) and by a going-nowhere relationship with boyfriend Michael Sheen (unrelated to their “30 Rock” relationship).

admission2 All of that sounds pretty straight-forward, so the story takes a left turn when Portia makes a campus visit to the Quest School, an experimental campus run by ultimate good guy John Pressman (Paul Rudd). Pressman is the guy who rebels against his privileged childhood and bounces from world-changing missions to life-altering experiences. His current stop as an administrator for a school filled with off-beat genius kids is focused on Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). Jeremiah is an autodidact (reads everything, self-taught) who was never understood by mainstream schools, but has his particular intelligence recognized at Quest.

So Paul Rudd approaches Tina Fey in hopes that she will take an interest in Jeremiah’s passion for learning and overlook his lack of satisfactory resume. There are also side-plots featuring a possible genetic link and a couple of strained maternal relationships admission3from both Rudd and Fey, the latter’s mom played with zeal by Lily Tomlin.

There are no real surprises here, but the movie benefits from Fey, Rudd, Tomlin and the always fun Wallace Shawn. The whole elitist college admissions process is fascinating, but really impacts only a very small segment of society. The over-bearing parent aspect could be further analyzed from either a comedic or dramatic approach.  Because of that, and the limited laughs offered by the script, it’s difficult to imagine the film gathering any real following … though here’s hoping Tina Fey and Paul Rudd work together again very soon.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been through the college admissions process OR you want to see Tina Fey and Paul Rudd wise-cracking as they share a shower

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood for a slapstick comedy in the vein of Anchorman

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6fp8KswbCE