SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers know that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. And now we know that the first rule of Telemarketing is STTS: Stick to the script. The similarities between the two movies may be few, but hip-hop artist (The Coup) turned first time filmmaker Boots Riley comes out swinging in this offbeat, quite clever satire on race, corporate culture, economic factions, social division, and politics. It makes for a nice companion piece to last year’s critical darling, GET OUT.

LaKeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SHORT TERM 12) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a low key good dude living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Four months behind on rent, Cash wants to do something important with his life, he just doesn’t know how … and his current financial circumstances aren’t helping. You may call him a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (a Lennon reference seems fitting for this film).

Cash’s best buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) gets him an interview at a dingy basement telemarketing firm – an interview that clues us in on the type of humor we are in for. Thanks to advice from one of the veteran telemarketers (Danny Glover), Cash utilizes his “white voice” and immediately has remarkable success … and we get some pretty funny sales call visuals to correspond to the obvious capitalism statement.

Ultimately his sales success gets him promoted to the “power caller” level and his own mentor, accessible only through the gold elevator. This leads to conflict with his friends, his girlfriend and his own moral standards. See, the basement dwellers are being led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an effort to unionize for a living wage and tolerable work environment. As Cash continues to pursue … well, uh … cash … his friends carry out their form of civil disobedience. This leads to police brutality, examples of corporate greed, and the downside to individual ambition.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, the egomaniacal corporate d-bag who takes Cash under his wing – for the purpose of making more money. The sales pitch turns to “Worry Free”, a lifestyle being marketed through brain-washing advertisements for guaranteed food and shelter. One need only commit to a lifetime of corporate servitude. If that sounds like slavery, well, that’s the point Riley is making. It’s not so far off from the life many of us lead today, but of course this is presented in satirical fashion, so we are manipulated into laughing at ourselves and our society. There is even a popular reality TV show titled “I Got the S**T Kicked Out of Me”, and folks can’t get enough!

The story kind of flies off the rails in the second half with some wacko-science fiction genetic engineering. The equisapiens have to be seen, as no written description will do. Even this segment has purpose. It speaks to how individuals and corporations can seize power and head in a questionable direction – all in the name of progress, efficiency and stock price.

Stanfield excels in one of his first lead roles, and Ms. Thompson is her usual shining star. Kate Berlant (as the humorously named Diana DeBauchery) has a couple of excellent scenes, and David Cross and Patton Oswalt are terrific as the (extremely) white voices of Cash and Mr. _________ (played by Omari Hardwick).

Filmmaker Riley offers up not a call to arms, but rather a call to wake up! Many of the decisions here mirror real life. Personal success can cost us friends, and political and professional choices may challenge our inherent morals (here, bordering on Faustian). The film is both provocative and funny, though a bit messy at times. You’ll laugh while you think, or laugh after you think, or think after you laugh … somehow you’ll do both. OFFICE SPACE and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL may be the closest comparisons; just be cautious if Boots Riley ever invites you to join in some horse play.

watch the trailer:


KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (2016)

October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

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

 


SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (2012)

July 2, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. First time director Lorene Scafaria is best known for her wonderful script for Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Directing her own script here, we are left wondering if the gaps are in the writing or directing, but it’s clear Ms. Scafaria loves long titles. Matilda, a giant asteroid, is headed towards Earth and life will cease to exist in 3 weeks. Upon hearing this news, Dodge’s wife Linda (played by Steve Carell‘s real-life wife) takes off running away from him and supposedly into the arms of her secret love affair partner.

Dodge (Carell) has little reaction to the bailing of his wife or even to the impending Armageddon. In fact, he strikes us as the guy who has had little reaction to much in life and has no idea who he really is. While he does have some acquaintances and a predictably boring job at an insurance company, Dodge shows no inclination to join in the festivities of excess (drugs, sex, religion, riots) enjoyed by others, and instead offers up a lame, sure-to-fail suicide attempt to go with his droopy demeanor and overall lethargy.

It takes little time for Dodge to be saddled with an abandoned dog named Sorry and a crying neighbor named Penny (Keira Knightley). This part of the film is actually its best feature. We get the forced partnership of this odd couple and a road trip that allows for some interaction with others. The others include standout scenes with William Peterson, Bob Stephenson and TJ Miller (below, left, the host at Friendsy’s, a TGIF themed diner that devolves into a lovefest that neither Dodge nor Penny care to partake.

 The road trip does have the outline of a purpose. Dodge wants to re-connect with his high school sweetheart and Penny wants to get home to England in time to say goodbye to her parents. However, it’s pretty clear that the main reason for the road trip is to allow Dodge and Penny to fall in love. Just another apocalyptic rom-com.

I totally get the “opposites attract” approach, but I found Knightley to be far beyond quirky (John Cale and Leonard Cohen vinyl) and closer to her mentally unstable character in the first hour of A Dangerous Method. As for Dodge, he may be the nice guy that Penny sees, but mostly his life force hovers just above zero, while wearing sweaters that would fit right into Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It’s not until he visits his estranged dad (Martin Sheen) that he shows signs of a pulse.  It’s kind of interesting to pay attention to the names in the film.  Dodge is ironic given what’s headed toward Earth.  Penny may or may not be lucky depending on your interpretation.  A survivalist named Speck, who doesn’t get that his preparations make no difference.  And, of course, a dog named Sorry.

2011 brought us two fascinating end-of-the world films in Melancholia and Another Earth.  This one avoids the manic depression of one or the science fiction of the other. While I never really bought into the heightened attraction of these two who miraculously become kindred spirits thanks to the time constraints, their relationship does provide fodder for thought. What would you do if you knew things were ending in 3 weeks? Would your true self finally make an appearance? If so, what are you waiting for? The message really is … our time is limited so don’t waste it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wouldn’t mind a little Herb Alpert with your apocalypse OR you need a primer in the greatness of vinyl records, even if the knowledge won’t help once the asteroid hits

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a hyper, twisted-faced Keira Knightley is not your ideal partner at the end regardless of the pristine condition of her John Cale and Leonard Cohen albums

watch the trailer:


YOUNG ADULT

December 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer Diablo Cody and Director Jason Reitman reunite for the first time since breakout hit Juno. In that fine film, we were treated to many optimistic and sarcastic life lessons from a very likable, and easy to cheer for, pregnant teenage girl. This time around we get the caustic, childlike self-centeredness of a mid-30’s alcoholic sadly trying to recapture the magic of her high school years as the prom queen dating the coolest guy.

Ms. Cody and Mr. Reitman deserve much credit for steering clear of the Hollywood traditions of redemption, remorse, and turning over a new leaf. In fact, we probably dislike Mavis (Charlize Theron) even more as the movie ends than we did in the film’s first 5 minutes, if that’s even possible. It takes courage as a filmmaker to have a lead character who is disliked through the entire movie, not just by the people in her life, but also by the audience. It also takes a special actress to pull this off. If you saw Theron in her Oscar winning role in Monster, believe me when I say that she is equally unsympathetic here … though she does commit fewer actual crimes.

 This film is erroneously marketed as a smart comedy. While there are some funny elements, it’s difficult to find much humor in someone who is so unstable and narcissistic. Wisely, the script provides us with Matt (Patton Oswalt) as the voice of reason. He sees through the Mavis mask and speaks directly in his attempts to divert her from her plan. That plan is to break up the marriage of her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). Oh yeah, he just happens to be happily married (Elizabeth Reaser) with a newborn baby.

 The best scenes of the film are between Mavis and Matt. She is oblivious to her negative effect on others, while he shoots her straight while avoiding his own harsh reality. See, Matt was the victim of a vicious hate crime, which left his leg (and other things) mangled. His own view of life is why he can see right through Mavis and her issues. While I so admire the basis of the script, I just believe there is a missing element. The element of hope and optimism. Heck, even when Mavis admits she “might be an alcoholic”, her parents shrug it off and change topics. Sometimes crying out for help just isn’t enough.

The film is worth seeing for the performances of Theron and Oswalt, as well as for the unique script. Just don’t get tricked into believing it’s some laugh-riot with a fairy tale ending. Mavis is a ghost writer for teen novels, and she writes the latest as she lives this nightmare of a trip back home. My only real question … is she mature enough to write for teens?

note: Director Jason Reitman has had a very impressive start to his career.  I highly recommend his first three movies: Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two Oscar caliber performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt OR you want to see a Hollywood rarity – a leading lady with no redemptive qualities

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a little “sunshine” in the story rather than constant clouds with an occasional lightning bolt

watch the trailer: