THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK (2017)

August 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a movie borrows its title from a great Simon and Garfunkel song, and then utilizes the song to emphasize a point during the story, we can’t help but have high expectations. This is often true even if it appears we are likely to be subjected to yet another movie featuring the all too familiar ground of New York intellectuals brewing and stewing their own problems. Director Marc Webb (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, GIFTED) delivers the type of film that critics tend to rip, and audiences like to watch.

Much of the story seems familiar, but the excellent cast prevents the clichés from being overly distracting. Callum Turner stars as Thomas, an aimless writer-wannabe and recent college graduate with daddy issues. Thomas spends his time dreaming about what he might be and pining for the beautiful, intelligent girl with whom he hangs out. It’s understandable why Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) has friend-zoned him, since she has ambitions and goals, while he mostly just talks and drifts through each day. One evening while enjoying their conversation over drinks, Thomas spots his dad getting beyond “friendly” with a beautiful young woman in a corner booth. This is upsetting because Thomas’ parents are still married, and his mother is at home working through clinical depression.

Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) is a well-known publisher and Judith (Cynthia Nixon) is an artist in a fragile state. As with most self-centered twenty-somethings, Thomas has just assumed the marriage was fine and their family fell into the “normal” range of dysfunction. It’s about this time when the movie assumes the tone of a Woody Allen movie. Thomas turns detective and begins following the mysterious beauty from the booth, and their first encounter is a bit awkward. He finds himself mesmerized by Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). She’s the stuff that dreams (and fantasies) are made of … for both fathers and sons.

Johanna is really the second spell that Thomas has fallen under. His neighbor W.F. has been providing sage advice on love and writing. It’s yet another terrific performance from Jeff Bridges, who plays the alcoholic mentor with secrets of his own. See, every character here carries the weight and burden of their own secrets and plays games in every relationship. In fact, much of the movie plays like group therapy – two characters at a time.

No superheroes exist in this world. There are no car chases or guns, and the only knife is used to slice strawberries in the kitchen. The movie could be described as a coming-of-age story; however, it’s not just Thomas that has growing up to do. A deeper message is on display for those who take notice. Every person and every family has secrets, and many people find an inability to be honest and open to be a much simpler way to go through life. We know that people aren’t always good – even when we really want them to be.

Of course, we do get the obligatory dinner party with a table full of New York intellectuals (including Wallace Shawn) reminiscing about what a great city it used to be. Actually, nostalgia is an underlying theme throughout. The dinner party does provide Thomas the opportunity to drop the best ‘Philadelphia’ line since W.C. Fields. The script provides some other quality lines, and though it’s certainly not at the level of Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach, it marks a step up for writer Allan Loeb, who is renowned for such lackluster efforts as COLLATERAL BEAUTY, THE SPACE BETWEEN US and JUST GO WITH IT. He likely owes director Webb and cast a debt of gratitude.

watch the trailer:

 

Advertisements

MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016)

June 2, 2016

maggies plan Greetings again from the darkness. A significant portion of Woody Allen’s film career has been projects that seem designed to appeal to (sometimes only) the New York intellectual sub-culture. You know the type … those who thrive on talking (incessantly) about all the things they know, often without really accomplishing anything themselves. They are the kind of people we usually laugh at, rather than with. Filmmaker Rebecca Miller appears ready to accept the passing of the Woody Allen baton, and at a minimum, her latest is heavily influenced by his comedic-brain food.

Ms. Miller casts perfectly for her first film in six plus years (The Secret Life of Pippa Lee, 2009). Greta Gerwig plays Maggie, whose ever-evolving “plan” is both the title and focus of the film. Ethan Hawke plays John, the middle-aged crisis guy who wants desperately to be showered with attention. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, John’s slightly odd and brilliant wife, and mother to their two kids. Other key players include Travis Fimmel as Guy, a pickle entrepreneur and the center piece to Maggie’s master plan; Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends and confidants of Maggie; and Wallace Shawn, always a treat on screen.

The story starts out pretty simple, and then gets complicated, and then kind of loses focus before ending just right. Perpetually whining Maggie has admittedly given up on ever finding the kind of true love that results in a happy family. Because of this, she has recruited former schoolmate and math whiz and pickle dude Guy to supply the missing link for her artificial insemination. This leads to one of film’s rare cheap laughs and one that not even the quirky Gerwig can pull off. A payroll mishap brings Maggie and aspiring novelist John (a ‘ficto-critical anthropologist’ by trade) together, and her willingness to read his writing and offer some support, is all it takes to finish off John’s slowly disintegrating marriage to Georgette (Ms. Moore dusting off the Euro accent she used in The Big Lebowski).

Writer/director Miller is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Death of a Salesman and was once married to Marilyn Monroe (after Joe DiMaggio). She also directed The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which starred her husband, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Much of her latest film feels contrived and over-written … as if every scene carries the burden of generating a laugh out loud moment. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the ultra talented Julianne Moore creates the most interesting character, though unfortunately, she has the least amount of screen time among the three leads. It’s good for a few laughs, as well as some cringing … and an ending that actually works.

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


A LATE QUARTET (2012)

November 13, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those little indie flicks that will probably get lost in the shuffle. Director and co-writer Yaron Zilberman delivers a twist to the familiar life lessons and substitute family story lines, and is wise enough to let his outstanding cast do what they do best.

It is by no means a great movie, but there are some terrific and wonderful moments thanks mostly to some top notch acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanik and Christopher Walken make up a famed string quartet who are approaching their 25th year together. All heck breaks loose within this group that thrives on precision when the patriarch (Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This announcement is followed immediately by a battle of egos between the two violinists (Hoffman and Ivanek), a falling out between the married couple (Keener and Hoffman) when he has an affair, and a break in trust when Ivanek starts a relationship with the much younger daughter (Imogen Poots) of Keener and Hoffman.  It’s kinda like Peyton Place with classical music.

If this sounds like a dysfunctional family, that’s a very accurate description. These four people are outstanding musicians who made the decision to forgo solo careers and build something even better with the quartet. It’s a life lesson that four people working in harmony are both much stronger and more fragile than any one person going it alone. The music is what drives these four despite their other issues. Watching them battle through the challenges is quite similar to any film based on familial shenanigans, but the actors are so good that a few moments really resonate.

The chamber music is a joy to listen to, though the plot devices are often quite familiar and predictable. Christopher Walken has a couple of scenes that are alone worth the price of admission. Ivanek expertly captures the ego-maniacal first violinist, and Keener is perfectly cast as the one who can’t help but wonder how her life turned out so. Mr. Hoffman may be up for an Oscar thanks to his performance in The Master, but it’s these “small” roles which I find so complimentary of his talent.

Kind of off topic, there is a scene featuring Wallace Shawn drinking wine as he converses with Walken. Wallace Shawn drinking wine will forever remind me of The Princess Bride and the lesson of going up against a Sicilian when death is involved! To summarize, the individual pieces here are much stronger than the overall film … just the opposite of a world class quartet.

**Note: that’s the real Nina Lee (world class cellist) who steals the scene near the end

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy “little” films with great acting

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a soap opera disguised as top notch chamber music has you longing for the next Bond film

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX66lRnNmqs

 


TOY STORY 3 (2010)

June 21, 2010

  Greetings again from the darkness. Has there ever been a bad Pixar movie? Nope. And as many really good movies they have created, there are now two truly great ones: Toy Story and Toy Story 3. The first one (released 15 years ago) transformed the way animation is made and set the standard for kids’ movies that parents can also enjoy. This third installment takes animated story telling to the next level.

Of course all the great voices are back: Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Sarge (R Lee Ermey). Imagine assembling that cast and then adding two fabulous new characters: Lotsa Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), Ken (Michael Keaton); expanding Jodi Benson’s Barbi to a key role, and re-vamping Slinky-dog with Blake Clark taking over for his deceased friend, the fabulous Jim Varney. This is major star power and an over-abundance of talent!

Then again, we have all seen stellar casts fall flat without a worthy script. Fear not as Pixar legend John Lasseter (Exec Producer here) has passed the reins again to director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc.). This story is brilliant and engaging. I challenge anyone from age 5 to 95 to avoid being drawn in to the themes of separation, friendship, loyalty, and power.

There are some laugh outloud moments along with the usual wise cracks from Buzz and Potato head. This time we are also treated to some darker moments with Lotsa, a power-hungry stuffed bear, and his band of misfits that include a giant baby doll and Chuckles, the creepiest clown this side of Poltergeist, and especially the frightening/funny monkey working security.

Some Pixar touches include the voice of Andy is provided by the grown up voice actor who did Andy in the first, a couple of glimpses of the evil kid Sid (first Toy Story) who has grown up to be a garbage man (same shirt) and the re-use of Randy Newman’s classic song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. Too many other “little” moments to mention, but this is pure film genius and should not be missed.