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:

 

 


BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

watch the trailer:

 


THE CAMPAIGN (2012)

August 18, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jay Roach seems to be the perfect guy to direct a political campaign parody during a Presidential election year. He has had plenty of low-brow comedy success with Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers. He then gained credibility with his political sharpness in Recount and Game Change, and he is co-founder of “Funny or Die”. Instead, the movie has the feel of being thrown together during a long weekend with his drinking buddies. Luckily for him, his buddies include Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

Revolving around a North Carolina Republican Congressional primary, we are first introduced to a smug Cam Brady (Ferrell), the four term incumbent who expects to run unopposed. Not long after, we learn local twit Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is entering the race … even though he freezes in front of the camera and has no apparent platform or special issue to support. Of course, that is the one thing both candidates share – the issues aren’t the focus of the movie or their campaign. Rather, this is meant to poke fun at what political campaigning has devolved into, and how we as voters continue to fall for the dirty game of politics.

 We soon learn that the billionaire Motch brothers are financing Marty’s campaign. Their single interest is making more money and they need an indebted politician to help them buy up cheap district land and re-sell it to the Chinese so that cheap labor can be “insourced”. Clearly the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) are meant to spoof the real life political power brokers, the Koch Brothers.

Clueless Marty gets help from intense campaign manager guru Tim Whattley (Dylan McDermott) who is there to make him not suck so much. First thing is to re-do Marty’s image … they remodel his house, right down to replacing the family pugs with two more popular breeds. As Marty gets caught up in the campaign fervor, we get the expected results: he drifts from his family, the dirty stuff includes real life political sojourns like drunk driving, sexting, infidelity, false accusations, religious hypocrisy and public embarrassment of the opponents.

The real statement here, if there is one, seems to be that we the voters have allowed political campaigning to turn into a contest of who connects with us and who seems to be like us, rather than a focus on issues present and future. Kissing our baby or attending our county fair shows the candidate is one of us, while in fact, gives no indication of whether the candidate has any true beliefs or understands the issues. There are plenty of laughs in the movie, though it’s not my particular favorite type of comedy (think Talladega Nights). I will especially tip my cap to Zach G for his willingness to do whatever is necessary for a laugh. He is a fearless comedian.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: if a lightweight parody of political campaigning is just the kind of escapism you are looking for OR you never miss anything from Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis, two of the funnier people on the planet.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a biting expose’ of political campaigning.  It’s not even as deep as HBO’s “Veep”.

watch the trailer (all the funny parts):


THE HANGOVER PART II

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Two years ago, director Todd Phillips presented a highly creative, hilarious, raunchy, unique film comedy called The Hangover. And now, he does it again. No, not the creative part.  I mean he presents that SAME film again. I am unsure whether this is a sequel or remake. The only substantial change is the setting … Bangkok instead of Vegas.

Now I fully understand WHY most sequels follow the formula created by the successful original film. Filmmakers want to keep their built-in audience satisfied. The theory is: If it worked once, it will work again. Especially when the first film grosses a half-billion dollars! So the chances are very good that if you liked the first one, you will also enjoy this one. But for me, I get excited for creative filmmakers … not re-treads.

 The key characters are all back and played by the same guys: Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Justin Bartha (Doug), and Ken Jeong (Mr. Chow). All of these guys have worked constantly since the first film, but it makes perfect sense to return to the scene that put them on the Hollywood map.

This time around, Stu (Ed Helms) draws the long straw and has the storyline based on his pending marriage to Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch). Stu’s “wolfpack” buddies agree to a one-beer bonfire beach bachelor party, but of course, something goes very wrong. The next morning finds our boys staggering to regain consciousness in a sleazy Bangkok hotel with no recollection of the previous night’s events. The only clues are a monkey, a severed finger, a facial tat and international criminal Mr. Chow (Jeong).

 No need for me to go into any details or spoil any moments. You know the drill if you have seen the first. What follows is nearly two hours of debauchery and moments of varying levels of discomfort, gross-out and comedic skits.

Supporting work is provided by Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor, and Mason Lee (Ang Lee‘s son). There is also a cameo by Nick Cassavetes as a tattoo artist. This role was originally meant for Mel Gibson, and later Liam Neeson. Cast and crew protests kept Gibson out and Neeson’s scenes were cut when re-shoots were necessary.  And rest easy, Mike Tyson makes another hilarious appearance – it may be the most creative moment of this remake … err, sequel.

I feel tricked by Mr. Phillips. The first Hangover had me excited that a new comedic genius had entered Hollywood and would quickly blow away the Judd Apatow recycle jobs and copycats. Instead, we get Todd Phillips copying Todd Phillips.

This is certainly an above-average comedy and there are plenty of laughs from the characters we kind of feel like we know – though, wish we didn’t. Just know going in that you are witnessing a clear attempt at cashing in, not a desire to wow.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like many, you thought the first one was one of the best ever film comedies OR you just want to see how closely Ed Helms resembles Mike Tyson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you saw the first one and wish you hadn’t OR you never saw the first one and think maybe they have “cleaned” this one up (they haven’t)


DUE DATE (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Todd Phillips has become comedy director du jour thanks first to Old School and the more recent mega-blockbuster The Hangover. This film is not quite at the level of the two prior films, but it certainly holds it own in today’s multiplex. In other words, it has some laughs … even a few laugh outloud moments. Especially if you have somehow managed to avoid the trailers.

The best way I can describe this one is as an updated Planes, Trains and Automobiles, only with Todd Phillips humor, rather than John Hughes humanity. That being said, Mr. Phillips does work hard at minimizing the gross-out factor and does try to instill some true character development with Robert Downey, Jr and Zach Galifianakis. The element of fatherhood, both loss of and becoming one, plays a role as these two polar opposites bang heads for 3 days.

Ethan (Zach G) is an actor-wannabe, motivated by the sitcom “Two and a Half Men”. He is an excessively annoying individual who displays only the rarest moments of rationale behavior. Downey, Jr is reunited with his Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (a former DF Best of the Year) co-star Michelle Monaghan as an uptight architect (Peter) and his soon to deliver first child wife (Sarah). They get little screen time together, but the relationship plays a role. Circumstances cause Ethan and Peter into a rental car and cross country race to get Peter home before Sarah delivers.

The road trip includes a Western Union run-in with Danny McBride, a pit stop for glaucoma “meds” with Juliette Lewis and a quick ride from Jamie Foxx, after Ethan falls asleep at the wheel and they fly off a highway ramp. Just when things seem better, Ethan partakes in some of the medication, takes a wrong turn and the two find themselves at the Mexico border, glassy eyes and all. This all occurs while Ethan and his dog work to befriend Peter, while transporting not only the “meds”, but also Ethan’s deceased father’s ashes … in a coffee can.

Many of the gags are predictable, but some are quite funny. It doesn’t have near the gross-out element of The Hangover, except for Ethan’s pre-bedtime ritual and his matching dog. Would have liked a few more segments with cameos – maybe the other guys from The Hangover, because the attempt at making these guys appreciate each other falls a bit short. The soundtrack includes Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies, Cream and Pink Floyd, so there is usually a nice background tune playing. Additionally, RDJ and Zach G prove once again that they are forces of physical comedy when provided decent material.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you recognize the shooting star known as Zach Galifianakis OR road trip humor is your cup of coffee

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a masturbating dog is an automatic scene-killer for you OR you believe no one can match Steve Martin and John Candy


IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY (2010)

September 30, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Attended a screening last evening and came away a bit surprised. The preview, thanks in part to Ida Maria’s blaring song “Oh My God”, had me convinced this was going to be a typical slapstick teen comedy. Instead, co-writers and co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck deliver a black comedy-drama that has appeal to both teens and grown-ups. (based on the Ned Vizzini novel)

The story revolves around Craig, a 16 year old who is feeling depressed and suicidal given the pressures of a relentless father, looming college entrance exams and a screwed up social life. You are right if you are thinking this sounds like just about every 16 year old on the planet. The difference here is that Craig checks himself into a psych ward … he ends up in the adult wing, since the teen wing is undergoing renovations. Craig is played by Keir Gilchrist (The United States of Tara), who I can best describe as a young Keanu Reeves clone, only too smart rather than too clueless.

Since this is part comedy, you can imagine the characters who fill the ward. Craig bonds with Bobby, played by Zach Galifianakis, who seems happy to play the mentor role (quoting Dylan) for Cool Craig, but just can’t seem to find the strength to live his own life. Of course, we also get the emotionally damaged hot girl played exceptionally well by Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia; Nancy Drew). The film accepts its own stereotypes for the other characters with labels such as “the schizophrenic”.

The message of the film seems to be that we all go through stages of doubt and uncertainty, and the best “cure” is to somehow remove the stress and discover our real talents and personality. You may end up creating art in the form of a brain map, or even a music video of Bowie/Queen’s “Under Pressure” (an elaborate inset to the film).  Just live.

The filmmakers evidently struggled with where their line was for the direction of the story. With previous serious films Half-Nelson and Sugar, my guess is their vision was a much more complex and darker script rather than the final version which has more mass appeal. The Zach Galifianiakis character specifically, seemed poised to make a real statement. Instead we are left with his reserved, knowing smile as Craig presents him a gift and the hope of getting together for ping pong. Also, not much story is given to Emma Roberts and her penchant for cutting herself. She seems magically cured after a roof top encounter with Craig. Anyway, the comedy sections are more successful than the drama sections, provided you are able to find humor in the illness and weakness of others.

This is certainly not at the level of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it is an entertaining film from a comedic perspective. It will probably be remembered as Zach Galifianiakis fist role where he flashed some real acting chops, and hopefully as Emma Roberts breakout role.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy humor derived from the darker elements of life OR you want to say “I was there” when Zach Galifianakis proved he could do more than smirk.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think a movie should be either a comedy or drama, not both OR hearing the opening riff to “Under Pressure” causes flashbacks to Vanilla Ice explaining how he didn’t sample the song.