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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INHERENT VICE (2014)

January 12, 2015

inherent vice Greetings again from the darkness. What is an absolutely critical element to a good whodunit? The answer is “it”. By definition there must be an “it” that someone has performed or carried out.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel kicks off with a terrific scene that appears to set the stage for a big mystery that must be solved. But don’t fall for it … it’s really a parody of film noir that depicts the end of the care-free hippie era in southern California. Or maybe it’s the beginning of the paranoid era in southern California. Or maybe it’s something else all together. Whatever it’s meant to be, it is certainly a wild ride with a never-ending stream of colorful characters in strange situations.

Many of us consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the true creative geniuses of the film world. His 2007 There Will Be Blood was a towering achievement and complements his other films such as The Master, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and the underrated Hard Eight. His latest veers into new territory and features one of his more outlandish characters in “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), a mutton-chopped hippie Private Investigator who never misses a chance to indulge in his marijuana habit. Welcome to 1970 SoCal.

It seems new characters and scenarios are being thrown at us in every scene, as Doc readily accepts new cases and new leads … only there really is no case, even though he spends most of the movie looking into things. His efforts find him crossing paths with his ex-girlfriend, the wife of a missing real estate tycoon, the Aryian brotherhood, a sax player who is either a Federal informant or a student dissident, a coke-fueled dentist, an Asian massage parlor, the FBI, a maritime lawyer, his pizza-delivering sometimes girlfriend who is also a District Attorney, a mysteriously named entity Golden Fang, and the tightest-wound/probably corrupt/ TV-acting police detective named Bigfoot.

Should you require additional weirdness, check out how many character names come right out of cartoons (Doc, Mickey, Bambi to name a few). Need more?  How about a soundtrack that features Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Can’s “Vitamin C”, and a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood? Or film stock that has the look of 70’s vintage … shot beautifully by Oscar winning DP Robert Elswit. There is just no describing the shenanigan’s other than to say the characters, situations and dialogue are alternatingly confounding and humorous. Our movie-watching brains are trained to follow a plot, but Anderson and Pynchon seem to be laughing in the face of this tradition as we try to assemble the nominally related puzzle pieces.

The cast is varied and fun. Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter) plays Doc’s ex who kicks off that first scene, Eric Roberts is the kinda missing rich guy, Michael Kenneth Williams delivers a clue, Benecio Del Toro is the maritime lawyer, Owen Wilson is the sax player, Jena Malone is his clean and sober wife, Reese Witherspoon plays the DA, Martin Short is the horny dentist, Martin Donovan is another creepy rich guy, Joanna Newsome is the narrator and periodic assistant to Doc, Serena Scott Thomas (sister of Kristin Scott Thomas) plays the wife of the missing rich guy, and Maya Rudolph (the director’s real life partner) is Doc’s receptionist … and Maya’s late mother Minnie Ripperton sings “Les Fleurs” on the soundtrack. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin who really take this thing to the edge. It’s clear both are having fun, which is the best you can hope for while watching this one.

watch the trailer:

 

 


WILD (2014)

December 14, 2014

 

Wild Greetings again from the darkness. The best movies expertly provide a visual representation of quality writing. However, the film medium is somewhat limited, and especially struggles, in displaying the complexities of human introspection … something the best writers are able to capture with words on a page. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (An Education, High Fidelity) are simply unable to capture the guts of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” – despite the likely Oscar nominated performance of Reese Witherspoon.

It’s quite likely, given the steady stream of rave reviews, that my lack of connection with the film is firmly planted in a small minority of movie goers and film critics. On the bright side, it’s a real pleasure to see Reese Witherspoon follow-up her no frills supporting role in Mud with a strong portrayal of uber-flawed Cheryl.

The story picks up with Cheryl getting ready for her 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995. Her lack of trail experience is obvious from the unwrapped, shiny new contents of her “monster” backpack. While walking alone with her thoughts, memories are triggered by such things as a song, a horse, and even a phrase. It’s through these flashbacks that we learn the reasons for Cheryl’s trek towards self-discovery. The illness and death of her beloved mother, a childhood marred by an abusive father, her own crumbled marriage brought on by her promiscuity (“I cheated on him a lot”), and her attempts to dull the pain through heroin abuse, have led Cheryl to the trail head of re-discovering her true self.

Cheryl’s mother is played by Laura Dern (a terrific performance) and while her inspiration is obvious, there is one especially poignant scene that takes place in the kitchen … Bobbi tells Cheryl that she fully understands their plight, and refuses to let that define her life. That powerful scene is negated by the awkward and unexplained relationship Cheryl has with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), the underdeveloped best friend support shown from an intriguing Gaby Hoffmann, and the voice mail connection with her brother (Keene McRae). More of these key people and fewer flashbacks might have allowed us to better relate to Cheryl as a person, rather than someone who hasn’t dealt well with a few life obstacles.

The familiar guitar strumming of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” is heard throughout, as are numerous literary quotes that Cheryl used to leave her mark in the trail journals. There are, of course, similarities here to other films such as Into The Wild, 127 Hours, and Eat Pray Love. Also present is the element of a solitary woman in the wilderness … every male presence is greeted with anxiety from Cheryl, especially in contrast to the warm greeting she offers another female hiker.

The biggest missing link for me was Cheryl’s apparent epiphany. We witness a couple of emotional breakdowns along the trail, plus big time blisters, damaged toenails, rain and snow, and nature’s beauty. What’s not explained is her personal growth and self-discovery – the moment when Cheryl put the past behind and went “above her nerve”.  While her desire and efforts are commendable, the real story would be her inner thoughts … those conversations going on inside her brain (and in the book) that led to a conclusion of which we aren’t privy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a likely Oscar performance from Reese Witherspoon (including frequent use of the F word)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a damaged toenail makes you nauseous

watch the trailer:

 


MUD (2013)

April 28, 2013

mud1 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to his very strong Take Shelter is a grounded, rustic look at what it means to become a man. While that may be enough, it also works as a chase movie, a buddy movie, a family drama, and a look at small town dynamics … all seen through the eyes of 14 year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life).

Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud, a drifter who quickly captures the fascination of Ellis and his earnest buddy Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) as their worlds collide under a boat in a tree just off the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas. Turns out Mud is a bit of a smooth-talking philosopher who wins Ellis over spinning life yarns that come just as Ellis’ parents (Ray McKinnon from O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Sarah Paulson from Martha Marcy May Marlene) are hitting a rough patch and he is trying to figure out just how the female species fits into the whole big picture. Mud lays out a beautiful story mud2of how he killed a man protecting his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Now Mud is being chased by the man’s family (brother Carver played by Paul Sparks, and father King played by the too-rarely seen Joe Don Baker – looking great at age 77).

Michael Shannon has a few scenes as Neckbone’s Uncle who makes a living by diving for mussels in the river. You might remember how terrific Shannon was in Nichols’ Take Shelter, and he has become quite an interesting and dependable character actor in various projects. Even more impressive is Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship … the father figure for Mud, and a quiet mud3river guy with quite a colorful past. Shepherd’s first scene with Ellis is brilliant and could generate a campaign for Best Supporting Actor if this film can reach a wide enough audience.

The story is filled with numerous little realistic touches and it’s so original that there is no perfect comparison … though it does have some of the feel of Stand By Me, which is quite a compliment. It is difficult to remember another film where Beanie Weenies were such a valued prop, or where a boat in a tree became a negotiating point, or where the unhurried pace led to such tension. Tye Sheridan delivers a strong and rare performance for such a youngster, and McConaughey deserves special mention because he has clearly broken free of his early career Him-Bo roles, and can now be considered a legitimate actor. He is simply outstanding in the role of Mud. We sense the danger that follows him, but are enchanted with his connection to the boys. David Wingo’s score is the perfect cap for this little gem.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy quiet little indies that pack a whallop OR you want to see excellent work from a great cast

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: deliberate pacing and sparse dialogue taking place in a quiet rural community equates to nap time for you

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m9IFlz2iYo


THIS MEANS WAR

February 20, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well it’s mid-February and the hope is that this is the worst movie I will sit through all year. It’s a waste of talent and utterly senseless … which would be fine if it happened to be funny. Somehow the writers and director manage to mash-up a spy thriller, action film, buddy film, and romantic comedy into something that is none of those and a slap in the face of the viewers.

This one is directed by McG, whose first two theatrical films were Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, both of which had more and better action sequences than this (that says plenty). It stars three very attractive people in Chris Pine, Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon. Their job is to continue to look attractive, sparkly eyes and all, in each progressively more absurd scene. Chelsea Handler is tossed in as Witherspoon’s married friend, who doles out horrible and trashy dating advice in what sounds like a lousy stand-up comedy routine. Angela Bassett, a normally fine actress, is totally out of place in her couple of scenes as the always-angry boss. Til Schweiger (Inglourious Basterds) is totally wasted as the generic bad guy.

 The movie bookends two lackluster action sequences that make little sense and are not much to look at. In between, we have two best buddy co-worker spies competing for the affections of the same girl, who is taking advice from her nasty, jealous friend. All of that is done with little action, no suspense, minimal comedy and absolutely no logical sense. Did I mention that the three leads are all very attractive? One of the minor details that really irritated me was a scene in a giant video store where Pine and Witherspoon are debating the hierarchy of Hitchcock films. In and of itself, that would be fine. But this conversation takes place in front of a display of multiple copies of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Multiple copies. In a video store. Probably more copies than Amazon has in stock. Throw in an escalating series of outlandish dates, a multi-million dollar bachelor pad for Pine (what is the salary for a 30 yr old spy?), buddy dialogue that makes Riggs & Murtaugh or Tango & Cash sound like Lincoln and Douglas.

This is evidently supposed to be an action flick for chicks. There is gunfire, muscles and childlike banter coming from two attractive spies who both love the attractive woman who is desperate to be loved. This means flop.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t believe it could be this bad

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to pay $9 for a nap

watch the trailer (knowing that these are the “good” parts):


WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

April 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Everyone loves the circus (except those who are scared of clowns). Everyone loves trains (except those who are scared of wrecks). Everyone loves performing animals (as long as they are a safe distance). Combine those elements with a best-selling novel, three popular actors and a twist on Titanic and you end up with a very watchable, though slightly mundane dramatic love story.

You are probably wondering where I came up with the Titanic reference. Allow me to explain. The story begins with an old man caught in a rain storm. We quickly find out Hal Holbrook is playing the Robert Pattinson character as an old man. Mr. Holbrook’s character corresponds to Gloria Stuart‘s character in Titanic. Both provide flashback detail to a love story engulfed in tragedy. On top of that, both have twinkly blue eyes! Paul Schneider is in the Bill Paxton role … trying his best to get the secrets of what really happened so many years ago.

 The story is based on Sara Gruen‘s best selling novel and is set in depression-soaked 1931. Jacob (Pattinson) is sitting for his Cornell veterinarian finals when he is notified of a family tragedy. He promptly sets out on the road and jumps a train. Not just any train … the Benzini Brothers Circus train! He is taken under the wing of Camel, the old timer played well by silky-voiced Jim Norton. Soon enough he is summoned to meet the circus owner. A brief meeting leads first to the order to toss Jacob off the train, but he is saved by his knowledge of animal medicine – a valuable commodity in the circus world.

Now is as good of time as any to let you know that the great Christoph Waltz plays August, the circus owner. As in his Oscar winning role for Inglourious Basterds, Waltz’ August is alternatingly charming and chilling. He is a ruthless circus owner who values no man or animal. He values only making money and his star attraction and wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Oh, and just because he values her, doesn’t mean he treats her well. He is near-psychotic when he goes off on her or anyone or anything else. Pause … then a few minutes later, he is back to his charming self. Very frightening stuff.

Of course, it’s not surprising that Jacob is enchanted with Marlena (a bareback rider) or that she returns the affection. What is surprising is that they continue to push the boundaries of good sense while within the confines of the circus group – and August. You can imagine the confrontations and situations that arise, but Marlena’s insistence that no life exists for her outside the circus is a head-scratcher.

 The story really picks up when the struggling circus purchases a performing elephant named Rosie. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Rosie may be the smartest character in the film. She is certainly the most crucial for Marlena and Jacob.

The screenplay is from Richard Gravenese who has a track record with this type of story. He was also responsible for The Horse Whisperer and Bridges of Madison County. What’s surprising is the director is Francis Lawrence, previously known for I Am Legend and Constantine. This movie has (thankfully)no resemblance to those films and his cast and crew obviously help him adjust to a more melodramatic storyline.

What I like about the film are the realistic characters and the setting. The trains, big top, circus performers and workers all seem real, as do the few circus scenes presented. Without the Christoph Waltz character and performance, this film would be truly just a run-of-the-mill dramatic love story. His element and the realistic circus life make this one worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are fan of the circus or the book or the three lead actors OR you thought Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes was the creepiest Ringleader ever

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you can’t handle a bit of melodrama with your trip to the circus OR a performing elephant who understands Polish is just a bit too far outside the comfort zone


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”