An L.A. Minute


Your life can change in an L.A. minute.

(2018) Comedy (Strand) Gabriel Byrne, Kiersey Clemons, Bob Balaban, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Renee, Ned Bellamy, Jane McNeill, Katherine Kendall, Craig Anton, Ash Adams, Kimberly Crandall, Brianna Baker, Brad Ashten, Patrick Donohue, J.R. Howell, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Jake Adams, Daniel Guttenberg, David Wood, Jasmine Flanders, Ashley Borders. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

Los Angeles is a dichotomy. Most people think about the glitz and the tinsel, the shining illusions of Hollywood that everyone in Los Angeles is either a gang-banger on the East side or a studio executive in Beverly Hills with a tendency more towards the latter than the former. What outsiders don’t realize is that Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis with as many faces as a city of tens of millions of people can muster. Los Angeles is in many ways inherently unknowable even by Angelenos. I grew up there and I can’t claim to know it; it changes aspects when you’re gone from town for a month let alone twenty years.

Ted Gold (Byrne) is a successful author which in L.A. terms means his books become movies. He lives in a Malibu mansion with his wife Susan (Renee) sleeping on the opposite side of a bed that could easily sleep ten and with a personal chef and maid who start off every morning by spitting in his breakfast. That gives you an idea of how highly Ted is regarded by those around him.

That would include his ditzy agent Shelly (Balaban), his beautiful publicist Tracy (Kendall) and his long-suffering wife Susan (Renee). Ted’s latest “masterpiece” is Kinky Cadavers which is about a homeless serial killer. He ventures out from his Malibu mansion to take meetings, do rounds of publicity on radio shows and talk shows, and have lunch with his agent.

When he accidentally loses a lucky medallion, he goes on a journey among the homeless of Los Angeles and discovers a young performance artist named Velocity (Clemons). He is entranced by her forthrightness, her intelligence and her passion. Under her tutelage he will undergo a journey that will transform his life – and hers.

According to the press notes, this script was written 20 years ago and it shows its age. The cliché of Los Angelinos being kale-chomping New Age douchenozzles is older than that still, and while there are a few who are like that it’s really not universally true. Most of the L.A. residents I know are actually pretty down-to-earth. These kinds of stereotypes and jokes aren’t going to resonate much with those who live in the City of Angels although they might give a few yucks to those who don’t.

Byrne is one of those actors who’s a consummate pro; he never turns in a subpar performance and while he’s appeared in a few clinkers in his time, he generally elevates any film he’s in but this is a rare exception and it’s mainly because it’s the way the character is written. There isn’t one sincere bone in Ted Gold’s body and even when he is confessing his urges to give up the crap he’s writing for something more meaningful, it feels fake and forced – some even see it as a ploy to get more books sold and I’d guess Ted is totally capable of it.

Clemons is actually the scene stealer here; as she was in such films as Hearts Beat Loud. What life there is in the movie mainly comes from Clemons character, who is a free spirit yes but who turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be. Even such cringe-inducing dialogue like “He lost his potency because he lost his purpose” is given a measure of respect in the way she says it which is no easy task, let me assure you.

There are some nice touches here, such as interludes between scenes set in the streets are young people dancing to rap songs, while those set in wealthy areas have sprightly pop music and scenes of SoCal splendor. They get points for filming in Skid Row with homeless extras, but they lose their points for doing that for essentially a woe-is-me rich person problems theme that deals with the problems of being famous. That’s pretty tone deaf if you ask me.

Essentially this movie is The Book of Job given a modern secular twist but as interesting an idea as that might be it relies too much on cliché humor, jokes that don’t hit the mark often and a kind of cynical view of “the industry” and those connected with it. There’s a lot of fertile material in taking on the star-making machine and our celebrity-obsessed society but the movie doesn’t reallyharvest any of it; instead the writers play it safe and that’s what we get here, a movie that feels like people (with the exception of Clemons and Byrne) are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck. This isn’t close to unwatchable but it is only barely recommendable

REASONS TO GO: Clemons is a breath of fresh air.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit (actually, a lot) on the pretentious side and full of L.A. clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mariel Hemingway was originally cast but dropped out just prior to filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 15/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Iron Brothers

Advertisements

Sleepwalk With Me


Sleepwalk With Me

Mike Birbiglia listens to Mitt Romney’s greatest speeches.

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, Lucy DeVito, Philip Ettinger, Marc Maron, Emily Meade, Sondra James, Cristin Milioti, Amanda Perez, Amy Schumer, Ben Levin, Kristen Schaal, Loudon Wainwright III. Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish

 

Stand-up comedy is not a career for the faint of heart. It is also mighty rough on relationships. Aspiring comics spend long, lonely nights on the road and often utilize intimate details of their relationships as fodder for their acts.

Mike Birbiglia knows that better than most. His experiences as a struggling stand-up comic led him to write an Off-Broadway one man show, a regular gig on the NPR hit This American Life, a best-selling book and a comedy album, all of which this film is based on. In other words, on his own life.

Here he plays Matt Pandamiglia, the son of a driven, somewhat judgmental physician (Rebhorn) who praises his gay physician son (Levin) while constantly criticizing the son he views as a failure – unmarried, working in a bar, his career non-existent. He has a point.

But Matt isn’t entirely unsuccessful. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Abby (Ambrose) who puts up with his idiosyncrasies with the patience of a saint. They’ve been together eight years, pointed out in a somewhat snarky manner by Dear Old Dad when the comparison to Matt’s sister Janet (Milioti), who is wedding her beau after two years, is made.

Matt’s career as a stand-up comic is in neutral and quite frankly, with only eleven minutes of material – none of it any good – and the kind of delivery that would put a meth addict high as a kite instantly to sleep. Matt is also showing signs of sleepwalking, which concerns his father but also Abby as well, both of whom urge Matt to seek help.

Matt is a master avoider however, and pretends not to hear when un-pleasantries are brought up, or simply changes the subject. He is the very definition of passive-aggressive and isn’t always the sweet cuddly guy he seems to be.

However, when it comes to stand-up comedy, it’s often more who you know than how talented you are. He finds himself an agent (James) who gets him crap gigs in crap venues for crap wages. It keeps him on the road, which is just as well since it’s just as easy to bomb at home as it is to bomb somewhere else. However, as he starts working his frustrations with Abby, who wants to get married – and who in a moment of panic not wanting to lose her he has proposed to – into the act, his act begins to improve. The gigs begin to get better. The road trips begin to get longer. The relationship begins to crumble. And the sleepwalking gets worse.

Birbiglia asserts that all of this is true on several occasions and it has that ring of truth to it that comes from an autobiographical work. Birbiglia for the most part comes off as likable and charismatic, which bodes well for his future; however, he sometimes comes off as a real bastard which shows more bravery than his character Matt shows at any time here.

One of the nifty things about the film is that often it is difficult to tell if you are observing Matt’s life or one of his dreams until things start to get weird. It keeps the audience just off-balance enough to keep us honest. The stand-up comedy, particularly in the later sequences when Matt gets good at it, are pretty damn funny.

This is really all about Birbiglia. The other characters in the movie, even Abby who shares the most screen time with him, really don’t get a ton of development. Even the delightful Carol Kane, as Matt’s mom, is given little to do than to act batty and protective. Matt’s passiveness is often frustrating but this is definitely worth hanging in there with. When Birbiglia focuses on his relationships, the movie seems more energized. When focusing on Birbiglia alone, it loses focus a little bit. It’s not a perfect movie (few movies are) but it is certainly worthwhile enough to make an effort to seek out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: Birbiglia is engaging most of the time. Weaves dream sequences in skillfully.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used more character development of the characters not named Matt.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of sexuality and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to play himself, Birbiglia lost more than 20 pounds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100. The reviews are definitely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

STAND-UP COMEDY LOVERS: There are several sequences of stand-up comics, particularly Birbiglia, practicing their craft.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waltz With Bashir

The Matrix


The Matrix

Keanu Reeves demontrates proper Bullet Time technique.

(1999) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, Denni Gordon. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

Reality can often be a four letter word; dull, vicious, cruel, lonely…reality sucks for most of us. However reality is a matter of perception and perception can be messed with. What we see, feel, experience is always – always – a product of our senses. What if those senses were wrong?

Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a cubicle code writer by day and a hacker who goes by the handle Neo by night. His dual existence is dull and boring, but he is eager to discover the nature of something called the Matrix, cryptic references to which he’s found on his computer. A fellow hacker named Trinity (Moss) confirms that there are answers out there and guides him in the direction of a legendary hacker named Morpheus (Fishburne).

However, not everybody wants Neo and Morpheus to meet. Government agents, led by a man named Smith (Weaving) arrest Mr. Anderson and grill him on Morpheus and the Matrix, but Neo knows nothing. Undeterred, Neo meets with Morpheus who gives him the choice of a red pill and a white pill to take. The white pill will merely give him a good night’s rest; the red pill will show him the truth about the Matrix. Neo takes the red pill.

He wakes up in a nightmarish world, in a small pod filled with liquid. Morpheus rescues him and takes him aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, a high-tech airship. Morpheus explains that the year isn’t 1999 but closer to 2199 and that mankind lost a war to sentient machines of their own making, who have made the surface nearly uninhabitable. Humans are used for their bioelectric energy which is harvested; the humans are kept docile by having their minds plugged into the Matrix, a computer-simulated world of 1999 that fools the human race into thinking that everything is okay. Morpheus and his group which includes Trinity, Cypher (Pantoliano), Tank (Chang), Mouse (Doran), Dozer (Parker), Switch (McClory) and Apoc (Arahanga) are part of a resistance movement fighting the machines. They are headquartered in Zion, a hidden underground city that the machines have as yet been unable to locate.

Within the Matrix, the resistance is able to act with superhuman abilities because of their knowledge of what the Matrix is. Neo is trained to do this as well. Morpheus believes Neo to be “The One,” a messianic person who has been prophesized to end the war and put the humans back in control. Neo isn’t so sure but is willing to be examined by The Oracle (Foster) who is the one who made the prophecy to begin with.

They take Neo back into the Matrix to meet the Oracle who implies that Neo isn’t the one, but he will have to make a crucial decision that may result in the death of Morpheus. Shortly thereafter they are ambushed by Agents and Morpheus allows himself to be captured so that the others may get away. However, there is a traitor in their midst and not all of them will make it back. The future looks even more bleak for the humans now – unless Neo can realize his undiscovered potential.

This is one of those movies that is a game-changer. The Wachowskis, who had previously directed the critically-lauded Bound proved that they had an amazing cinematic vision. The look of movies, particularly action films, has been heavily influenced by this movie from their super slo-mo “bullet time” effects shots to the shades-and-dusters costuming. Turn of the millennium hip was largely defined by The Matrix.

Reeves will most likely be most identified with this role. Having achieved stardom with the Bill and Ted movies he became in every sense an A-list actor with this. His Neo was cool and hip, but also had doubts and fears. He’s heroic but someone people could relate to. I think most adolescent boys in 1999 wanted very much to be Neo.

But the acting is not what drew people to this movie. It’s the incredible visuals. How many computers in 1999 had screen savers with the “raining” numbers graphics that made up the Matrix? How many movies had the “bullet time” slow motion bullets with liquid contrails? Sure, there were plenty of antecedents for this movie – no movie exists in a vacuum – and the Wachowskis were almost certainly influenced by the films of Sam Peckinpah, the art of H.R. Giger, anime, Hong Kong martial arts movies and the fiction of William Gibson, but they drew all those elements into a nice package that resonated with people all over the planet. The Matrix isn’t a perfect movie – the second half isn’t quite as good as the first – but it is a movie that almost 15 years later continues to influence the way movies are made and is just as entertaining now as it was the first time we all saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: Visuals that are just as dazzling now as they were back then. The ultimate cyberpunk movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sort of loses its way near the end.

FAMILY MATTERS: A whole lot of violence and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Neo is an anagram of One.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included a White Rabbit feature in which when activated a white rabbit would flash in the bottom right of the screen; if the enter button was pressed on the remote, a featurette would run explaining how that sequcnce was made. The Blu-Ray edition expands on this.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.5M on a $63M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Johnny Mnemonic

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Rubber

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go