SPY (2015)

June 24, 2015

spy Greetings again from the darkness. Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig are back together in hopes of recapturing their Bridesmaids comedy and box office magic. They are also re-teaming for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This time it’s a parody of James Bond films … right down to the elaborate and creative opening credit sequence. Recognizing that combining action and comedy can be a bit challenging, Feig enlists the help of Jason Statham and Jude Law. Statham parodies his well known uber-intense characters with a running dialogue of his bravery and heroism, while Law is clearly having a blast as the ultra-smooth agent Bradley Fine (think Pierce Brosnan’s Bond).

In spite of the gentlemen, this is Ms. McCarthy’s film and she is believable as the frumpy CIA analyst who is the “voice in the ear” of super agent Fine (Law). He maneuvers the front line of dangerous assignments as she provides life-saving high-tech guidance from the relative safety of the vermin-infested basement CIA lab. Of course, we know McCarthy’s agent will end up in the field in her attempts to avenge a mission gone wrong.

It’s McCarthy in the field that will either make or break the film for you. Her scenes with Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz worked best for me, while her Jackie Chan-style kitchen fight scene and her chase scenes were a bit more difficult to buy off on. It can be confusing as a viewer when we are constantly bombarded with PC rules, and then Feig and McCarthy don’t hesitate to use her heft for laughs.

Other supporting work is provided by British comedienne Miranda Hunt, another fish out of water agent; Morena Baccarin as a strutting super agent at the level of Statham; Bobby Cannavale as a would-be terrorist; and Allison Janney as the CIA Supervisor. While each have their moments, it’s McCarthy’s visit to the spy gadget department that provides the best laughs.

The Action-Comedy-Spy Thriller genre is pretty sparse, and as you may expect, comedy is the priority for most scenes. McCarthy does well in her first true film lead, though my prediction is that her value as an actress will ultimately come from playing characters who are more “real” – like her role in last year’s St. Vincent.

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ADULT BEGINNERS (2015)

May 21, 2015

adult beginners Greetings again from the darkness. It’s certainly understandable that the Duplass Brothers (“The League”) are working relentlessly to take advantage of their window of creative opportunity. In the vein of their HBO show “Togetherness”, this is another com-dram with the theme of thirty-somethings coming to terms with adulthood and responsibility.

In their role as Producers for this latest project, Team Duplass has assembled a strong group: director Ross Katz (himself best known as a Producer of In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation), and funny folks Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Garces, and Celia Weston. Unfortunately, the script does not rise to the level of the on screen talent, leaving us with a mostly benign story with few laughs and little message.

Things kick off with Kroll’s character in full crash-and-burn mode when his entrepreneurial offering “Mind’s I” implodes just before it is scheduled for rollout. He loses his money, his investors’ money, and most any semblance of the fair weather friends one accumulates while living the high life in NYC. Packing up what little dignity he retains, Kroll heads to the suburbs to live with his pregnant sister (Rose Byrne), her husband (Bobby Cannavale) and their 3 year old son Teddy.

It’s not that the path is obvious, but rather than it’s executed so blandly. The zingers and physical humor are mostly lacking, and the film can’t seem to decide if it wants us to laugh, or if it would rather prove how tough parenthood and adulthood and responsibility can be. Bobby Moynihan spikes the comedy in a short scene, and Paula Garces may be the most interesting character despite only appearing in a few scenes. The swimming lessons sequences led by Jane Krakowski are mostly vacuous, and are used instead to focus on the insecurities of Kroll and Byrne. As in “Togetherness”, the kids seem to be an afterthought … like a lamp … but less than a sconce.

The scenes are well paced and the story clicks right along, but overall it plays more like a TV show … albeit one with an abundance of cursing, too few laughs, and no new insight into the tough world that awaits as we step out of childhood (evidently in our mid-30’s).

watch the trailer:

 


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

September 21, 2014

this is where Greetings again from the darkness. After watching this movie, I thought about researching whether the boobs of a 76 year old actress had ever been as front and center as they are in this dramedy from director Shawn Levy – not counting Calendar Girls which was for a worthy cause. Luckily I came to my senses, and realized that’s not a topic anyone should google … except maybe a 76 year old man.

Jane Fonda is the actress whose enhanced assets are so prominently featured, and she plays the mother of four adult children brought together to mourn the death of the family patriarch. This is based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and though it’s watchable enough, it could have benefited from a better script adaptation and a less mainstream comedy director. Mr. Levy provided the popular and entertaining A Night at the Museum, as well as a long list of simple minded movies that didn’t prepare him for the depth of Tropper’s story.

The four “kids” are played by Corey Stoll, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver. Also joining them under a single roof are Stoll’s desperate-for-a-baby wife Kathryn Hahn, Fey’s two kids and self-professed a-hole husband (Aaron Lazar), and Driver’s engaged-to-be-engaged much older woman played by Connie Britton. If you think that’s an outstanding cast, note that also appearing are Timothy Olyphant (Fey’s brain-damaged former lover), Rose Byrne (she always lusted after Bateman), Dax Shepard (sleeps with Bateman’s wife played by Abigail Spencer), Ben Schwartz as an oddball Jewish rabbi, and Debra Monk (the helpful neighbor and more).

Obviously the issue with so many characters and talented actors is that screen time is limited. Somehow each of these have one key moment in the film, and that may be the biggest issue. Some of these we want to know more about (Olyphant, Byrne, Brittain), while others could have been written out of the script altogether (Lazar, Schwartz, Shepard) and the movie wouldn’t have suffered, and might have improved.

Most of the story revolves around Bateman and his situation – crumbled marriage, lost job, dead father, plus even more. Going through that and facing his sit-com worthy dysfunctional family provides an unending stream of none-too-subtle moments: a basement sleeper/sofa that won’t fold out, roof top talks with his bossypants sister, and even fisticuffs inside the family and out.

This is another in the Suburban-angst sub-genre, and the numerous contrived scenes and formulaic sequences are salvaged only by the talented casts ability to squeeze the moment from the next one-liner. There is so much rage and resentment in this family that we viewers are willing to find humor in the toddler toting his portable potty with him everywhere, or even Bateman taking the expected prat fall in an ice rink. There is little edge to this material, but it’s not difficult to glimpse how the right director could have approached the genius of The Royal Tenenbaums or the original Death at a Funeral, rather than a generic blend of Garden State and August:Osage County.

Britton, Byrne and Batemen all have their moments, and the movie is certainly watchable … though it could have been exceptional as either a straight out comedy or an indie-type drama. No need to email me if you come up with additional films featuring 76 year old boobs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for the challenge of keeping track of the seemingly endless number of characters who have “a moment” during this one

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you share the sentiment with me and Jason Bateman’s character that there is no need to focus on Jane Fonda’s “bionic breasts”

watch the trailer:

 


INSIDIOUS: Chapter 2 (2013)

September 22, 2013

insidious2 1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a perfect example of why it’s acceptable for writing standards to be lowered (somewhat) for horror films. This isn’t science fiction or history. We are in the theatre for one simple reason … we want to be frightened (to jump in our seats). Two years after the first Insidious, director and co-writer James Wan, screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also appears as Specs) and producer Oren Peli, re-team for this sequel. It’s also just a few months after Mr. Wan’s very successful and well-made The Conjuring.

I enjoyed the first one.  There was a nice story that borrowed a bit from Poltergeist and some other horror classics. In a rare treat, Wan and Whannel actually tie in the sequel to the story from the first. Sure, some of it is a stretch with all of the parallel dimensions and multiple entities, but for the most part, it works and provides some nice thrills and chills.

insidious2 3 An especially nice surprise is the creative return of Lin Shaye as Elise, who stole all her scenes in the first entry. While the voice-over of her “younger” scenes was distracting, her screen presence helps hold the final act together. Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins and Barbara Hershey are back as the family Lambert … and this time we get more backstory on why the family seems unable to escape the demons.

Wan, Whannell and Peli have done a very nice job of rejuvenating the horror genre, while still including the traditional fun of active closets, abandoned hospitals, creaky doors and musty basements. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, but if you are looking for some scary fun, you could do much worse than the two “Insidious” films.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the horror genre (especially haunted houses and possession) OR you enjoyed Insidious from a couple years ago.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting Oscar-caliber performances or an airtight script

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBbi4NeebAk


THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)

April 4, 2013

place Greetings again from the darkness. With an extended tracking shot to open the film, we follow Ryan Gosling, a motorcycle stunt rider, from his trailer through the carnival grounds and right into the metal sphere with his co-riders. It’s an exhilarating start to the film and introduces Luke (Gosling) as a heavily-tatted star attraction on the carnival circuit.

This is director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his 2010 critically acclaimed Blue Valentine (which also featured Gosling). While that film painfully presented the gut-wrenching misery of a crumbling marriage, this latest shows multi-generational fallout from poor decisions and faulty father-son relationships. Cianfrance has quite an eye for well-intentioned, but inadequate personality types. This latest is presented in triptych format … three distinct story divisions. The first segment is mesmerizing and top notch filmmaking.  It follows Luke’s attempt to “do right” by his newly place3discovered infant son – the result of last year’s carnival trip to this same town and a tryst with Romina, a local gal played by Eva Mendes.

Gosling is especially effective (yet again) as he falls in with a local mechanic played by a terrific Ben Mendelsohn (frightening in Animal Kingdom). The two hatch a scheme to capitalize on Luke’s bike riding skills by robbing banks. These “jobs” allow us to see the other side of Luke, who seems sincere in his desire to provide for the child and win back Romina. Things go badly when Luke crosses paths with rookie street cop Avery Cross (played by Bradley Cooper). Watching Gosling’s contradictory personalities is quite amazing … he flips from quietly charming to cold-blooded brutal bank robber in the blink of an eye.

place4 The story then shifts to follow Avery and his strained relations with his wife (Rose Byrne), their infant son, and Avery’s former state Supreme Court judge father (Harris Yulin). A sub-plot brings in police department corruption led by … who else? … Ray Liotta. Mr. Liotta still possesses the beady-eyed stare that can scare the crap out of his fellow actors and anyone watching the movie. This corruption and the idealistic and ambitious nature of Avery aren’t a very pleasant mixture, but it sets the stage for the final act.

Flashing forward 15 years, brings us to a fairly predictable situation that still proves interesting. The previous stories focused on the failed relationships of Luke and his father, Luke and his mis-fired attempt at being a dad, and the awkwardness of Avery and place2his father. Now we see the resulting mess that are the two now teenage boys. The sons are played by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan (memorable as Cricket in Lawless). DeHaan especially shines as the Gosling/Mendes prodigy.

Sean Bobbitt is the film’s Director of Photography and he deserves special mention for his work with Cianfrance in bringing a different and intimate look to the characters, setting and story. Also, Mike Patton’s unusual score fits perfectly and keeps the viewer on track. This is a very uncomfortable movie to watch, but those who enjoy tough, artsy films will be rewarded.

*NOTE: During the Q&A after the screening, director Cianfrance mentioned that Ryan Gosling is not “typical” actor, but that he has quite a feel for characters and visual story telling. Unfortunately, a couple of days later Mr. Gosling announced he was taking a sabbatical from acting.  Luckily for us, he has built a pipeline of movies that should keep us satisfied for the next couple of years.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of gritty independent films OR you enjoy triptych story structure OR you just want to see Ryan Gosling at his coolest riding motorcyles

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an uplifting, inspirational story … no superheroes saving the world in this one.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G07pSbHLXgg


BRIDESMAIDS

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig is everywhere these days! If you don’t know the name, you certainly know her face. She is credited with 26 projects since 2009 – and that doesn’t even count her weekly work on Saturday Night Live. She is the new Tina Faye … even though the “old” Tina Faye is still going very strong.

While I have little doubt that the success of The Hangover was a driving force behind the green lighting of this film, Ms. Wiig’s writing and acting talent elevate this mixture of chick-flick and comedy into one of the finest female film comedies in quite awhile. That’s probably not strong enough praise since the category is a bit sparse, but as a guy who gets really tired of the formulaic chick-flick rom-coms and sappy dramas, I found the film to be quite refreshing and entertaining.

 Sure, there are many similarities between this and The Hangover, but the difference is that the key element of female friendship is never far away from the often raunchy comedy we are witnessing. Women so value their BFF’s and Ms. Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo (seen as a nervous plane passenger) never lose sight of this.

Also key to any group of female activity is the competitive nature and envious mutterings. They try so hard to appear happy for their friends, when often they are blinded by the current funk in which they find their own life. And look out when a beautiful, rich “new” friend enters the picture. The real fireworks begin … even in the battle for the last word on the mic at the engagement party! I am not going to give away any of the punchlines or set-ups, but I will highlight the cast. Maya Rudolph is Lillian, the bride to be and lifelong friend of Annie (Wiig); Ellie Kemper (The Office) is Becca, the goody-two shoes newlywed; Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) is Rita, the bitter, frustrated long-time mother and wife looking for inspiration; Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly, Gilmore Girls) is Megan, the slapstick, gross-out comedy relief; Rose Byrne is Helen, the aforementioned seemingly perfect “new” friend; Chris O’Dowd (Blind Swordsman in Dinner for Schmucks) is Officer Rhodes, the nice guy who has a crush on Annie; Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Annie’s Porsche driving bootie call; and Jill Clayburgh (her final film role) as Annie’s mom.

The film is produced by comedy expert Judd Apatow and directed by Paul Feig.  Mr. Feig was the creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and has been involved in most of the best TV comedies over the past 7 or 8 years.  Oddly enough, he also wrote and directed one of my favorite lost gems from 2003 called I Am David.  It’s a drama, not a comedy, but I recommend it.

Here is hoping Ms. Wiig continues to push the boundaries of creative comedy for women. I for one look forward to seeing women on screen as more than just love interests and femme fatales.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are starved for a real comedy with real women characters (written by women) OR you always wondered what a female Zach Galifianakis would look like

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hated The Hangover OR you prefer your chick flicks to be melodramatic and sappy, rather than raunchy and real

 


INSIDIOUS

April 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh, the lost art of horror films. I don’t mean slasher films or gore-fests. I mean real horror films. The Saw series falls into gore-fest and its collaborators, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannel, team up again for a more traditional horror film … one designed to scare the viewer, rather than just gross out society.  Of course, recommending a horror film is as risky as recommending a comedy.

The film opens as Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne move into a beautiful old house with their two young sons and infant daughter. By beautiful house, of course I mean terribly creepy with nooks and crannies, creaking floorboards, squeaky doors and an  attic designed by Satan. The mom (Byrne) quickly realizes things aren’t just right with this house, and as is customary in horror films, the dad finds some lame excuse (grading test papers??) to work late so the mom and kids can be haunted without him.

There are some bits and pieces from classic horror films like The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Amityville Horror and, yes, Saw (but not the gory stuff). Remarkably, this film is rated PG-13, which means the filmmakers really have to tell a story … and they do … well as much as can be hoped for in a fright film.  There are even touches of humor throughout.

The mom gets so desperate, she begs to move. They do. Guess what? Things aren’t better. So mother-in-law Barbara Hershey (from creepy Black Swan) says she knows someone. Next thing you know, two goof-balls (one is the film’s writer Whannel) who look like they should have their own cable show are in the house confirming something is definitely amiss. So they call in their boss. Unfortunately, the great Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) passed away, so our expert is played by Lin Shayle. She does an effective job explaining astral projections and the next thing you know all hell has broken loose. Nice work lady.  Surely she requires payment upfront.

What makes the film work are the characters, the setting, the atmosphere and the really nice build-up of suspense and drama. Sure I think there were some details that could have been handled much better. For instance, the “other” brother looks like he is going to be a factor, but instead all of the attention goes to Ty Simpkins as Dalton. Simpkins was seen recently with Russell Crowe in The Next 3 Days. Also, more of the backstory with Hershey and Wilson’s childhood could have provided some twists.

Still, I will say if you are a fan of horror films, this one is worth seeing. If nothing else, you will absolutely love the opening credits with their haunted images and smoky font. It’s a bit of a fun challenge to find the “image” in each of the opening sequences. Just make sure to finish your popcorn before the movie starts. That stuff is too expensive to be tossing across the aisle when you JUMP!!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are always game for a real horror film … one that scares you with characters and atmosphere, rather than splatter.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the next generation of Saw OR you can’t imagine an effective PG-13 horror film (in other words … you need gore).