Snatched (2017)


Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn get a look at the reviews.

(2017) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Randall Park, Oscar Jaenada, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Al Madrigal, Bashir Salahuddin, Arturo Castro, Raven Goodwin, Ike Barinholtz, Kate Dippold, Moani Hara, Nicholas J. Lockwood, Pedro Haro, Tom Choi, Modesto Cordero, Linda Molina, Kim Caramele. Directed by Jonathan Levine

 

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating; comedy is a highly personal thing. Everyone’s taste is different. One person’s belly laugh is another person’s meh and vice versa. We all react differently to different stimuli and what tickles our funny bones can’t necessarily be predicted. I know there are things I find funny one day that I wonder what on earth I was thinking the next. Still, there are things that we can universally agree on are not as funny as others.

Take this Mothers Day comedy. Emily Middleton (Schumer) is failing at life. Fired from her retail job, dumped by her musician boyfriend and left holding the bag on a non-refundable vacation to Ecuador – Ecuador? – she searches desperately for someone to go with on the “trip of a lifetime” (Ecuador?) but none of her friends are particularly interested in going or more to the point, interested in going with her. Judging on the behavior we observe in the first ten minutes of the film, one can scarcely blame them.

With almost no options available, she turns to her mother Linda (Hawn), an adventure-challenged cat lady of a mom who is happiest staying at home with a glass of wine and a book. One has to wonder why, particularly since Emily’s agoraphobic and passive-aggressively spoiled younger brother Jeffrey (Barinholtz) lives with mom, whom he addresses as “Ma-mah” and complains loudly if his bread isn’t warm enough. Millennials *eyeroll*!

Emily manages to convince Linda to go but it promises to be as awkward as you can imagine. Linda bundles up like a mummy by the pool and slathers Emily with enough SPF-1000 to deflect a flamethrower. Linda also shows no interest in going out partying so Emily goes by herself and is picked up by the handsome and charming James (Bateman). One simply can’t fathom what he could possibly see in her until of course it turns out his interest is strictly financial.

He arranges for Linda and Emily to be kidnapped by a ponytailed drug lord named Morgado (Jaenada) for white slavery purposes. However, the two intrepid women escape from Morgado’s essentially brain-dead  thugs and hook up with an Indiana Jones wannabe named Roger Simmons (Meloni) whose wilderness experience is limited to being the former manager at a Best Buy. With Jeffrey trying to get the U.S. Embassy to mount a rescue and the women trying to make their way back to civilization with an enraged Morgado in hot pursuit with a personal vendetta, the jungle might not be the safest place to be.

On paper, this should have worked. A strong cast led by the redoubtable Hawn who reminds us here why she was one of the greatest comediennes of her generation and a director who has some pretty quality films on his resume with a writer who co-wrote some of Melissa McCarthy’s best movies all lead to the assumption that this should have been a high quality film. Sadly, it Is not.

Hawn is one of the bright spots here although Schumer acquits herself reasonably well in a thankless role that mainly consists of the actress going from one onscreen embarrassment to the next. Schumer is one of the most talented comedic actresses working today but this feels like the character was cobbled together from dozens of other characters Schumer has played over the years. There’s nothing really original for her to sink her teeth into.

Poor Barinholtz, generally a pretty reliable character actor, gives his all to a character who you just want to punch in the throat at nearly every opportunity but the character is so inherently unlikable that you don’t care if he improves himself or not. Likewise the Emily character starts off basically as a self-involved bitch but as she spends more time with her mom becomes softer and more humble. Schumer is likable enough that even in an unlikable role we end up rooting for her but the transformation is fairly cliché.

The major sin here is that the comic set pieces – and the movie literally one set piece after another after another – are mostly unfunny. You don’t expect everything to work but you would hope at least 50% worked. That’s not the case here. Most of the gags here left me completely flat. There are some that work – and a lot of them are in the trailer – but there are fewer that work than don’t.

Hawn is really the reason to see this movie, particularly if you’re of a certain age. She’s not the Cactus Flower at this stage of her career but she still has deft comic timing and a screen persona that is both ditzy and charming. Schumer and her have a pretty comfortable chemistry that makes one wonder/hope that there might be further collaborations for the two in the future. If there is, one hopes they get better material to work with than this.

REASONS TO GO: It is wonderful to see Hawn onscreen again who remains an engaging screen personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is dreadfully unfunny in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity, plenty of profanity and some sexual content of the crude variety.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hawn’s first movie since 2002 when she made The Banger Sisters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grandma
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (about 4 of which is Hawn)
NEXT: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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The Salesman (Forushande)


Taraneh Alidoosti peers into a room that no longer feels safe to her.

(2016) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Prizadeh, Sam Valipour, Emad Emami, Mehdi Koushki, Maral Bani Adam, Shirin Aghakashi, Ehteram Boroumand, Sahra Asadollahe. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

They say life imitates art, although it is more accurate to say that art imitates life far more often. On the rare occasion when the reverse is true it can be much more devastating than you might think.

Emad Etesami (S. Hosseini) is a teacher of Western literature in an Iranian high school (or its equivalent). Most of his students are practical jokers and a bit on the unruly side. His job is just that – a job. His passion is the stage and his drama club is producing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Emad in the lead role of Willie Loman and Emad’s wife Rana (Alidoosti) as Linda Loman, Willie’s wife.

When their apartment complex becomes uninhabitable due to structure damage, Babak (Karimi), one of their cast members, offers an apartment in a complex that he owns. He’s a bit reticent to talk about the previous tenant, who left suddenly, other than to say “she had too many visitors.” What that cryptic remark meant soon became apparent when they discover that the woman in question had left some possessions she refused to pick up…and that she might have been entertaining men in the oldest profession sense of the word.

But that thought takes a bad turn when one night while Rana is alone and in the shower she buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Instead, it is someone who leaves her with a concussion and several bruises. Rana denies she was sexually assaulted but she is definitely reacting as if she was. She becomes paranoid, frightened. She becomes less able to leave the apartment even after she is cleared medically to do so. The relationship between Rana and Emad becomes strained. He becomes obsessed with finding out who committed the assault on his wife. He feels guilty for not having protected her. That obsession will lead to a confrontation that will test his basic decency and moral center. In other words, the Tennessee Miller play is being enacted in his life.

This is the most recent (as of this writing) winner for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and the second such award that Farhadi has won (the first was for A Separation). It’s fair to say that he is one of the best film directors in the world at the moment. Like some of his previous films, he takes an ordinary couple and throws something extraordinary into their lives.

It is never fully disclosed whether or not Rana suffered a sexual assault; whatever happened takes place off-screen and we’re left to wonder, as Emad does, whether or not she was raped. Certainly we are led in that direction through most of the film. Emad changes; he becomes obsessed, enraged and occasionally lashes out at Rana. Rana, for her part, becomes paranoid and withdrawn. While our sympathies lie with Emad about midway through the movie (Rana takes out a lot of her anger on him) we watch as our sympathies slowly change sides until Rana becomes the more rational of the two.

We see how bureaucrats in Iran regulate the arts, calling for slight changes in the Miller script that portray the West as decadent and corrupt. We also see how people are careful about expressing what they want to as there are always secret police around. It is the casual fear and paranoia that are part of the daily lives of Iranians that was the most poignant takeaway for me from this film.

Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are big stars in Iran. They are unlikely to ever cross over to American stardom; the current political climate forbids that. They give performances that while not necessarily Oscar-worthy are certainly worth including in that conversation. Alidoosti strikes me as the kind of actress who could easily be headlining major franchise films in a perfect world. This world is not perfect; it was never perfect and Arthur Miller knew that. The imperfect world is what crushed Willie Loman in the first place. Both Rana and Emad are setting themselves up to be crushed by that same world; whether they survive or not is immaterial. What does succeed is that not only do we see the cultural similarities between Iran and the West but we inadvertently become closer to the Iranian people by doing so.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Alidoosti and Hosseini are strong. There’s some insight here into the repressive regime in Iran. The effect of the assault on all involved is realistically depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at something of a slow pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief bloody image and adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi chose not to travel to Hollywood to participate in the 2017 Academy Awards due to the travel ban that was enacted by the United States against seven Muslim nations including Iran. When the film won, Anousheh Ansari read a statement by the director explaining his absence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Irreversible
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Wilson

The Zero Theorem


Qohen Leth parties like it's 2099.

Qohen Leth parties like it’s 2099.

(2014) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend, Peter Stormare, Dana Rogoz, Madison Lygo, Ingrid Bisu, Naomi Everson, Radu Andrei Micu, Tudor Istodor, Olivia Nita, George Remes, Iulia Verdes, Alin Olteanu, Margarita Doyle. Directed by Terry Gilliam

The more complicated life gets – and make no mistake, it grows more complex with each passing day – the more we struggle to make sense of it. If you think it’s bad now, just imagine with those living in the future are going to have to contend with.

Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an office drone who has all sorts of issues. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac, sure that he is dying. He refers to himself in the second person – we instead of I, us instead of me. He works for Mancom, a company that makes some kind of software that brings convenience – or nothing at all. He is a data cruncher which in the future involves a Tetris-like placing of data squares into geometric city-like constructions, while furiously pedaling a flywheel. Data is transferred in vials of liquid. Being an office worker in the future sucks.

Qohen lives in an abandoned church infested with rats and pigeons, leaking from the roof and looking inside like a bomb hit it. He sleeps in the pipe organ and really would prefer to work at home, having no love for his fellow man. He’s also obsessed with a phone call he is sure is coming – one which will explain to him What It All Means and what his place in the grand scheme of things is. He’s twitchy, neurotic and in short, the very model of a modern Major General.

He asks his boss Joby (Thewlis) to get him permission to telecommute which doesn’t seem likely; the company likes keeping track of its workers. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Thierry) at a party thrown by Joby that Qohen goes to reluctantly, mainly to try and get a one-on-one audience with Management (Damon), the reclusive CEO of Mancom. He doesn’t know how to handle the forward Bainsley and although she gives him her card, there doesn’t seem to be any future for a relationship there. However, he is successful in getting time with Management (who wears clothing to blend into the decor) and at last is given a project he can work on at home.

New equipment is installed in his cluttered cathedral, mainly by the genius level Bob (Hedges) who turns out to be the son of Management (now doesn’t that sound like an office-based horror flick?) who addresses everyone as Bob because he doesn’t have time to learn their names. But he really isn’t a bad sort.

In the meantime Qohen is doing strikingly well with the project and getting close to making it work and things with Bainsley are turning out superbly, particularly when they meet on a digital beach where the sun is eternally setting. Life is good online at least.

But the closer Qohen gets to completing his project, the more frustrated he gets and the more he begins to retreat back into his shell. As it turns out, the project is about mathematically proving that everything equals nothing, which proves that there’s no point to life. The chaos this will create Mancom will profit from. And so it goes.

This has director Terry Gilliam’s thumbprint all over it, from the details, the somewhat wacky atmosphere that has marked all his work from his time as the only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus through his visionary career. Gilliam is certainly an acquired taste; not everyone gets his sense of humor and clearly his films don’t make a lot of money with few exceptions (Time Bandits being one). However, his work can be startlingly good and when it works he is one of the best directors living today. Even throwaway lines – an advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer – can bust me up laughing.

Waltz, head shaved and twitchy, is terrific here. You get the sense that this is an individual who is in deep pain and takes great pains to make sure he remains so. There are some hints that give background into his psyche  but clearly this is a man who in our society would be undergoing all sorts of therapy and might well be committed. He seems to fit in real well in the future.

He gets some fine support, particularly from Hedges whose Bob becomes good friends with Qohen in an oddball way, and Thierry who is beautiful and charismatic as the love interest. All of the characters show some sort of vulnerability at some point, wearing masks to hide their pain. Qohen is a little more up-front about it. Management, being management, shows no weakness.

Visually this is an amazing movie, from majestic scenes of a black hole to the rotting interior of Leth’s home and the clever scenes of what is supposed to be London (maybe) in the near future but is more than likely Bucharest. There is a definite steampunk look to the film which is kind of a thing this year in indie films.

This hasn’t received any sort of release yet, although the movie’s website is promising a summer release. I hope that the distributors deliver on this; this is a movie that should be seen, by Gilliam’s fanbase if by nobody else. This is among his very best films which makes it a classic in the making, so serious film buffs should check this out even if they aren’t especially fond of Gilliam’s work.

REASONS TO GO: When it hits the mark, it’s mind-blowing. Terrific set design and Waltz is terrific in a very different role than you’re used to seeing for him.

REASONS TO STAY: As Gilliam films are prone to do, they can meander sometimes. If you don’t like Gilliam’s films, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some expletives here and there as well as some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the park scene, screenwriter Pat Rushin (who also teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida) can be seen on a bench writing on his briefcase; he’s actually writing motivational lines that scroll across the computer screen in the cubicles during a different part of the film. His wife can also be glimpsed reading a newspaper.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Railway Man

Labor Day


Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

(2014) Romance (Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Matthew Rauch, Doug Trapp, Dylan Minnette, Ed Moran, Dakota Shepard, Elena Kampouris, Kate Geller. Directed by Jason Reitman

Loneliness does things to the human soul. It saps our self-confidence, flogs our self-worth and turns us into desperate, quivering hopeless creatures who might well reach out for any life preserver available – even if it comes in the form of a convicted murderer.

The sleepy town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire is in those last days of the summer of 1987. the kind where the air hangs heavy and hot over town and school beckons just past the holiday weekend. Henry (Griffith) needs school supplies and his mom takes him shopping as the weekend commences. This is no easy feat for her; she is recently divorced and is suffering from a bout of pronounced depression that is manifesting as acute agoraphobia. Her hands tremble uncontrollably, especially when she is beyond the safety of the four walls of her slowly decaying home which, lacking a man to take care of such things, is slowly falling into ruin.

Henry is accosted by a stranger named Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding and limping after a fall from a second story window. He asks for a ride which Henry’s mom Adele (Winslet) is loathe to give him but subtle threats lead her to comply. She soon discovers that Frank has escaped from prison where he is serving after being convicted of the murder of his wife nearly 20 years earlier.

Frank looks threatening and hard enough but it isn’t long before he reveals a gentle side. He is almost apologetic as he ties up Adele, essentially so that if the police ask she can claim truthfully that she was bound. He does some repair projects around the home, cooks and cleans and teaches them how to bake a proper peach pie after a neighbor (Simmons) brings by some nearly overripe peaches.

Adele quickly falls for this handsome man and quite frankly who wouldn’t? Soon she and Frank are hatching a plan to make a run for the Canadian border, while Henry’s misgivings are fueled by the manipulative Chicago transplant Eleanor (Fleming) and by his dad (Gregg) who has remarried and has a new family that seems to give him what he craves. However with the law searching high and low for Frank and Adele’s issues with leaving the house, is this plan doomed before it starts?

This is based on a Joyce Maynard novel and seems to be geared at a certain audience of women who might well be classified as those who have flocked to the bookshelves to read 50 Shades of Grey. It very much plays into the female fantasy of the bad boy with a heart of gold, a man who has a dangerous element to him but is deep down utterly devoted, handy around the house and in the kitchen and in the bedroom is loving and gentle and amazingly attentive.

Adele is right in Winslet’s wheelhouse; few actresses can portray the kind of trembling arousal that she can. There is a deer in the headlights element to Adele that is attractive but there are times when she looks to be breathing so heavily you have a real concern that she’s going to pop a button on her blouse. Still, she captures Adele’s completely broken down personality and her dependence on her 13 year old son. It isn’t hard to believe that a woman like her would fall so quickly and completely for a stranger with a prison record.

Brolin is looking more and more like his father which isn’t a bad thing if you like handsome men. However as good an actor as his dad was, his son looks to exceed his talents with each passing film. While the character of Frank is really too good to be true, Brolin at least makes him memorable and you do end up rooting for Frank and Adele to make it.

Reitman is an impressive director who often adds a dose of humor to his films which has earned him a lot of critical accolades. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s up and coming prodigies in the director’s chair; films like Juno and Thank You for Smoking underscore that. This is much less cutting edge than his previous films and correspondingly comes off a bit bland. I’m not saying that Reitman is incapable of doing a romantic film – he plainly can and has – but when you set the bar on your career to a certain level, you can end up creating disappointment in your core fan base, sort of like when M. Night Shyamalan stopped doing twist endings (or more accurately, when he stopped doing good movies). It is fair to say that some critics may be coming down on him harder because he set the bar so high with his previous movies.

And therein lies the rub. This is actually a pretty solid and sweet film that accomplishes exactly what i is supposed to. It is a change of pace for Reitman and takes him straight out of the ghetto of black comedies which he has been essentially stuck in. While one can debate the subtext of a strong, magnetic man tying up the object of his desires to tame her before winning her with the aspects that appeal to essentially any woman, I think that this is a movie geared towards women who have more to them than just hitting the clubs and gossiping with their friends. This is a movie for single moms, working moms, divorced women and single women who have had their hearts broken one too many times. These ladies deserve their fantasies too.

REASONS TO GO: Laid-back pacing and strong performances from Winslet and Brolin.

REASONS TO STAY: A few lapses in logic and character.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are fairly mature. There’s also some brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially Reitman wanted this to be his follow-up to Up in the Air but due to Winslet’s unavailability he decided to film Young Adult first.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That’s What I Am

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pulp Fiction

Matchstick Men


Matchstick Men

Allison Lohman has always been a swinger.

(2003) Crime (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, Jenny O’Hara, Steve Eastin, Bruce Altman, Beth Grant, Sheila Kelley, Fran Kranz, Tim Kelleher, Nigel Gibbs, Bill Salto, Tim Maculan, Kim Cassidy. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

A good con movie is one of the finest cinematic experiences a filmgoer can have. Trying to keep up with the twists and turns, the backstabbing and the betrayals can leave one wondering from what direction the next twist is coming. Sometimes they’re easy to spot; it’s when you get blindsided that you leave the theater feeling invigorated. But does Matchstick Men bring The Sting to mind?

Roy Waller (Cage) is a veteran con artist (emphasis on the artist) who has a number of neuroses, chief among them agoraphobia. He has difficulty leaving the safe environs of his comfortable home, but rarely needs to – he has pulled off enough cons to be able to live comfortably the rest of his life. However, he has a partner (Rockwell) with whom he conspires to take a lowlife criminal named Frechette (McGill) for a big score that will allow Roy to retire and partner Frank to establish himself.

Into this mix comes the daughter Roy never knew he had; Angela (Lohman), who lives with Roy’s estranged wife, is a troubled teen who needs direction. She latches onto Roy, who can barely function. She finds out what his profession is and talks him into teaching her how to con. She turns out to be quite good at it. However, as Roy and Frank’s con begins to go south, the issue becomes not only protecting himself, but perhaps protecting the family he now can’t do without.

Director Ridley Scott went for a change of pace after his previous two movies (Gladiator and Hannibal) to make a quirky comedy. I’m not sure that was a great move; his comedies haven’t been his strongest films throughout his career although he has shown a few moments. Frankly, this one is a bit uneven as well, although after re-watching it recently I found it better than I remembered it to be.

Cage can be one of my favorite actors when he’s not overacting; this isn’t one of those occasions so he doesn’t disappoint here. Nobody does quirky quite like Nicolas Cage and Scott is a strong enough director to reign in Cage’s more over-the-top tendencies. Of late Cage has been something of a joke because of his really out-of-control scene chewing, but this is one of the movies that reminds you that he’s a very talented actor as well.

Rockwell has put his name on my list of actors whom I will go and see no matter what kind of turkey they are starring in – although to be honest he hasn’t done many of those. He’s evolved into an “A” list guy, although he hasn’t gotten that career-defining role yet that I think is in him. It’s only a matter of time though.

Lohman is absolutely sensational as Angela. She nearly takes this movie away from Cage, which can be a difficult task in and of itself. She hasn’t had the career I thought she would, although she was outstanding in Drag Me to Hell and unforgettable in Big Fish. Still, in all her films she’s always solid at the very least. This is one of her brighter moments.

The problem with con-game films is that they often have to take the same road; good-hearted con artist cons bad villain. The reality of the business is that these people prey on the vulnerable and generally have enough sense to stay away from guys who might go after them. Real con artists are generally despicable individuals.

Still, it is part of human nature to want to pull one over on someone who deserves it, and that’s what makes The Sting so dang satisfying and why it’s the gold standard when it comes to con movies. The twist here is not too obvious, but it’s not terribly original either and to be honest, that’s what most caper films are judged by at the end of the day. Still, it is sufficient to make the movie a winner in my book and hopefully one that will keep you entertained should you choose to seek this movie out.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Lohman, Cage and Rockwell. Fun caper flick throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Twist is merely adequate. Film is fairly uneven. Comedy not Ridley Scott’s forte.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the subject matter is on the adult side. There are some bad words, a bit of violence and a bit less sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Lohman played a 14-year-old girl (and went to the audition dressed to look as one), she was 22 at the time she made this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $65.6M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking the movie broke even or was marginally profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: ParaNorman