Forgetting Sarah Marshall


Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow would take umbrage at being labeled shallow if only they knew what "umbrage" meant.

Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow would take umbrage at being labeled shallow if only they knew what “umbrage” meant.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Bill Hader, Russell Brand, Liz Cackowski, Maria Thayer, Jack McBrayer, Taylor Wily, Steve Landesberg, Da’Vone McDonald, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, William Baldwin, Jason Bateman, Kala Alexander, Kalani Robb, Francesca DelBanco, Branscombe Richmond, Billy Bush, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Nick Stoller

Neil Sedaka once opined in song that “breaking up is hard to do” and truer words were never spoken. It’s never easy to accept the end of a romantic relationship. It is a rejection of everything you are by the person you cared about the most. Some have said that the end of a relationship is kind of a death and should be mourned as such. Some relationships require more mourning than others of course, but there are those who are hit harder by rejection than others. Life has been good to those who can handle it with more grace.

If life has been good to anyone, it has been good to Peter Bretter (Segel). He’s a songwriter and film composer who has steady work on a hit television show. Not only that, he’s dating the totally hot lead; Sarah Marshall (Bell). That all ends one day when she ambushes him as he leaves the shower to announce that she wants to break up with him. At first, he’s devastated, but on the advice of his step-brother Brian (Hader), he has sex with a lot of women. After awhile, he realizes he’s really messed up and again, acting on the advice of others, decides to take a nice vacation to Hawaii.

He goes to check into the Turtle Bay resort, assisted by a beautiful, helpful check-in clerk named Rachel (Kunis) when who should walk by but his ex! To make matters worse, she’s there with her new boyfriend, only a few weeks after the breakup – well-known womanizing rock star Aldous Snow (Brand). Determined not to appear weak, he checks into a tremendous suite he can’t afford, whose nearby neighbors are bothered by the sound of a woman weeping. In fact, it sounds a lot like Peter.

Peter is beset by the images of people in love – couples on their honeymoon, men proposing to their girlfriends, even a Hawaiian wedding or two, all of which serve to remind him how lonely he is. Gradually, his lost teddy bear demeanor strikes a chord in Rachel and she takes him out. Before long, the two of them are beginning to feel a bond, but at the same time, Sarah is beginning to realize that she may have made the wrong move. Is there any moving on after forgetting Sarah Marshall?

Segel is a huge find. He absolutely rips it up here, although in many ways he’s almost a straight man to his own joke. His delivery is spot-on and his puppy-dog looks are not too good-looking, making him more of an everyman for all of us to relate to. He could have quite a future in romantic comedy as well as straight-up comedy if he chooses. Hill, so good in Superbad, nearly steals every scene he’s in here as an obsessive waiter, while Hader and Rudd continue to cement their reputations as among the best comic actors in the business. Kunis, formerly of That ‘70’s Show, hadn’t had the feature success as her former cohorts Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher to this point, but this put her over the top and has led to a career that has been the most successful of the graduates of that show.

Gorgeous Hawaiian locations are shown off to their best effect. The pacing is not so fast that you feel like you’re out-of-breath after watching the movie, but is fast enough that you’re not given a whole lot of time to think about things.

Nearly everything works here. Segel and Kunis have excellent chemistry and the story, while far-fetched in some of its coincidences, achieves what The Heartbreak Kid was trying to do in 2007. The jokes are laugh-out-loud funny and the characters are all people you want to get to know, even the self-centered Snow – who would get a movie of his own in Get Him to the Greek in 2010.

There are a few too many similarities to Knocked Up and other Judd Apatow comedies, but not enough to make this too crass a rip-off. This may be the first movie I’ve ever seen in which there is more male frontal nudity than female – in fact, the only female nudity can be found in a scene where Polaroid pictures of flashing women are pinned to a bathroom wall. However, you do wind up seeing plenty of Segel’s penis.

While some of this might seem at least thematically similar to recent blockbuster comedies, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is at least funny enough to hold its own. Actually, in many ways, this is perhaps the best of the Apatow comedies that dominated the comedy landscape in the first decade f this century. This is a case where execution trumps innovation.

WHY RENT THIS: Absolutely hysterical; one of if not the best Apatow comedy ever. Star-making performances by Kunis, Segel and Brand. Gorgeous Hawaiian scenery.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a whole lot of original stuff going on here. Feels at times like you’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of nudity, particularly of the male persuasion. Also a fair amount of foul language and some sexual situations and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The naked breakup and the Dracula puppet show are both taken from Segel’s real-life experiences.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Both the 2 disc DVD Collector’s Edition and the Blu-Ray edition include the traditional Apatow extra “Line-o-Rama” as well as a few additional “Sex-o-Rama” and “Drunk-o-Rama” and there is an Aldous Snow music video as well as footage from Sarah Marshall’s TV show. There is line read footage, the video chat between Hader and Segel in its entirety as well as video diaries and a gag reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105.2M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is 40
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Hitchcock

Get On Up


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

(2014) Musical Biography (Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Keith Robinson, Atkins Eastmond, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Stacey Scowley, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Tate Taylor

James Brown has never really gotten his due other than by his peers and true music buffs. He never achieved the sales that one would assume that someone who revolutionized pop music should have gotten, and yet when you look at the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential figures to come out of it are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and James Brown. He is the most-sampled artist in history, and virtually every song on your digital music storage device owes something to James Brown.

Before he was the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Boseman) was a young boy in rural Georgia. Abandoned by his mother Susie (Davis) at a young age and raised primarily by his alcoholic father Joe (James), he was dropped off with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who ran a brothel. There he grew up huckstering the house of ill repute for African-American soldiers coming into town on weekend passes, and going to the local church to listen to gospel music and watch the ecstasy of dance.

While in jail for stealing a suit, he met Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who led a group called the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd would end up bringing James home and bringing the talented young singer into their group which he would eventually rename the Famous Flames. A demo of the song “Please, Please, Please” ended up in the hands of promoter Ben Bart (Aykroyd) and label owner Syd Nathan (Melamed). Whereas Nathan never really got Brown’s music, Ben recognized that the sounds coming from the single were unique; it’s not about the song, he tries to explain to Nathan who never really gets it.

Brown was something of a control freak and he rebelled at playing along with the status quo. He dealt with venues directly rather than going through a promoter, bringing Bart aboard as an advisor and business manager, allowing him to retain a larger share of the gate at his shows. He is Mr. Entertainment, priding himself on putting on the best shows for his audience and giving everything he had night after night. People began to listen.

Success breeds excess however. Brown would become a drug addict although the movie glosses over this somewhat which would lead to legal troubles that plagued the latter half of his life. He could be mean and abusive which wreaked havoc not only in his personal life but also alienated many of those musicians whose talents helped elevate him to where he was. He demanded absolute control but as Byrd pointed out, he was a genius and it was on his coattails that his band would achieve legendary status but his demeaning treatment of them alienated them.

Taylor opts for an achronological telling of Brown’s story, starting out in 1988, jumping back to 1968 (good God!) and back again to 1939 and up forward 1955. Flashbacks within flashbacks, you might say. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth group events in his life thematically rather than chronologically, headlining them with nicknames he would acquire during his career – The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite. and so on. For the most part this works although some of the transitions between time periods are less smooth than others and the linking devices occasionally take us out of the story and make us realize we’re watching someone directing a movie. That’s a big no-no.

Boseman is absolutely incredible here. Richard Corliss of Time magazine has all but handed the Oscar to Boseman and while that may be premature, I do hope that his performance still remains in the memory of Academy members come nomination time. He certainly deserves consideration. While the vocals here are Brown, Boseman not only gets his mannerisms correctly he also manages to recreate Brown’s unique stage movement and presence. It’s a performance that really carries the movie and necessarily so.

Ellis also does a fine job as Byrd, the closest thing to a friend Brown has. Although their relationship was rocky, there was also genuine affection between the two. Ellis and Boseman have a strong chemistry which doesn’t really get enough credit. While this is definitely Boseman’s film, it wouldn’t be as strong without Ellis.

While the movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Brown as a difficult man to get along with, there’s a sense that they’re trying too hard to make a mythology about the man and that sometimes comes off like a child whining too much for recognition. Rather than have him appear to be thinking back on his life before – and sometimes during – his performances, those flashbacks could have been framed differently and more organically rather than framing Brown in heroic poses. We get that he was a genius and don’t need to have his mythic qualities shoved down our throats.

A great biography of James Brown is long overdue and while this isn’t the great film I would have hoped it would be, it is nonetheless a strong movie made stronger by the performances of Boseman and Byrd, along with Aykroyd as a kind of Jewish father figure/rabbi to Brown. Brown was in the eyes of many the personification of Black Power during one of the most turbulent times in our history and while he himself was more concerned with making money entertaining his audiences, he did embrace the importance of black culture and black empowerment in his art and in his life. For most, this will be the closest thing to witnessing a performance by James Brown as they will ever come (although there are many clips of his performances available online and of course some of his concert films available for purchase or streaming) but even Boseman’s performance doesn’t duplicate the raw, sweaty power of a live James Brown performance. His legacy is not just in the records he made but in the millions who fell under his spell at his concerts. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that he was the greatest live performer in the history of pop music.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome music. Boseman makes a formidable James Brown.

REASONS TO STAY: Era jumping smacks of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Over-mythologizes.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content, drug use and foul language as well as a couple of instances of violence in the form of child and spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers while Ellis appeared with Brown in Undercover Brother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ray

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy

jOBS


Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O’Reilly, Victor Rasuk, John Getz, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Masi Oka, Robert Pine, Nelson Franklin, William Mapother, Eddie Hassell, Elden Henson, Abby Brammell. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern

Some people are really hard to figure out. They may have greatness in them – a vision so profound it changes the world and everything in it. They may also have demons in them, demons that sometimes reduce them to assholes and tempers their greatness.

Steve Jobs was a lot like that. The co-founder of Apple revolutionized technology and its place in our lives, but he was famously difficult to deal with. He set standards that were ridiculously high and didn’t react well to those who questioned his vision. He was volatile and not above screwing his friends over. It’s hard to reconcile his greatness with his pettiness.

The film opens with Jobs (Kutcher) addressing the troops at Apple, announcing the iPod in 2001, then immediately heads back to his undergraduate days at Reed College where he is a hippie-esque dropout auditing courses, taking drugs and making love with the woman he says he loves, artist Chris-Ann Brennan (O’Reilly) – but whom he’s not above cheating on.

After a trip to India, he returns home to the San Francisco Bay Area and gets a job at Atari but his prickly personality causes friction. He is given a project to work on  his own on – which would turn out to be the game Breakout – and eventually turns to his old friend Steve Wozniak (Gad) to help him. He misrepresents the payment to his genial friend, keeping the lion’s share of the payment for himself. However, a project Woz is working on as kind of a sidelight grabs Jobs’ attention and imagination. It’s a graphical interface that allows display on an ordinary TV screen. This would become the Apple computer. After limited success selling to local hobbyists, former Intel executive Mike Markkula (Mulroney) is drawn to Jobs and the product of the nascent company. He agrees to invest and Apple computers is born.

From there, Jobs, Wozniak, Markkula and the design team including Rod Holt (Eldard), Bill Fernandez (Rasuk), Daniel Kottke (Haas) and Chris Espinosa (Hassell) design the Apple IIe, one of the most crucial devices in the history of home computing. Apple takes off, becoming an economic engine. Jobs becomes obsessed with developing new products, starting with the Lisa – named after the illegitimate daughter whose paternity he vehemently denied even after tests showed him to be the father.

But Apple has grown into a corporation with money men and shareholders. One of the board members, Arthur Rock (Simmons), is deeply concerned with Jobs’ perfectionism and obsession with design at the expense of profitability. Something has to give and when Jobs brings on former Pepsi executive John Sculley (Modine) as the marketing genius to help take Apple to the next level, it does.

The mark of a good biopic is that we leave with at least some sense of who the man was. I think the success here in that regard is mixed; we certainly are treated to some of Jobs’ infamous tirades but we also don’t get a real sense of what causes that rage; we’re told early on that he was adopted but we never get a sense of whether or not that is a motivating factor.

That’s not Ashton Kutcher’s fault. He nails some of Jobs’ mannerisms (capturing his distinctive walk somewhat eerily) and certainly captures his passion. It’s the underlying stuff that we never get to see and that’s the script talking in that regard. I get the sense that the writers didn’t really bother to do a ton of research on Jobs – in many ways what we get is a very surface portrayal of event and milestone, but never what Jobs is thinking or where his ideas are coming from. They’re just…there.

Otherwise, Kutcher is much better than the critics have given him credit for. He gets some pretty solid support from Mulroney whose Markkula’s shifting loyalties and self-preservation tendencies are a model of the modern businessman but not necessarily admirable (and karma is a bitch, isn’t it) as well as Gad as Wozniak who is much more than the computer geek he appears to be.

This isn’t really a complete biopic. It takes on only a section of Jobs’ life, ending just prior to the release of the iPod (which is depicted at the beginning of the movie but the development of which really isn’t gone into). It doesn’t  show the iPhone which in many ways revolutionized society just as much as the Mac did, nor does it spend any time on his time at Pixar which is somewhat understandable.

Still, it’s fairly serviceable. The real Steve Wozniak takes the film to task for not being entertaining and he hits it on the head. The last third of the movie is mostly centered around boardroom drama and business politics and there’s nothing exciting about it. The best parts of the movie are in the center when Jobs and Wozniak are trying to change the world, one circuit board at a time. That they succeeded has helped create the world we live in now, for better or for worse. Which one it is will be judged by those who come after – as for us, I suppose it depends on your point of view.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Briefly, there’s some intense language and there are also a couple of drug-related sequences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Jobs’ family home and garage were almost all filmed in the Los Altos home where the real Steve Jobs grew up. The Apple scenes, however, were all sets and recreations as Apple declined to be involved with the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pirates of Silicon Valley

FINAL RATING; 6/10

NEXT: Breaking News

Fruitvale Station


A precursor to tragedy.

A precursor to tragedy.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Shears, Destiny Ekwueme, Bianca Rodriguez III, Julian Keyes, Kenny Grimm, Thomas Wright, Alejandra Nolasco. Directed by Ryan Coogler

On December 31, 2008 a young man and his girlfriend left their daughter at a relative’s house and took a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to San Francisco to celebrate the new year. After a few hours of revelry, they returned home on the same train. A fight was said to have broken out, so the train was stopped at the Fruitvale Station so that the transit police could investigate. Four young African-American men were pulled off the train and detained, including the young father. When he rose up to protest, he was forced to the ground with an officer’s knee in his face. While he was down, another officer shot him in the back. He would die the next morning from his wounds.

The young man’s name was Oscar Grant III and his death provoked massive protests and outcry particularly on the West Coast. In the wake of the recent Trayvon Martin decision, his story is more relevant than ever.

The movie opens with actual footage of the incident (many passengers on the train captured it on their cell phones, as did surveillance cameras on the station platform) and then flashes back 24 hours as we see Oscar (Jordan) in the last 24 hours of his life. This young man was no saint – he had a temper and had been incarcerated for selling drugs. He’d recently lost his job in a grocery store for being late to work too often and had recently cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz).

Still, he clearly loved his daughter Tatiana (Neal) and was trying his best to be a good father to her. Despite his indiscretion, he wanted nothing more than a more permanent relationship with Sophina. And he adored his mother Wanda (Spencer) and looked up to her as a role model. He, Sophina and Tatiana spent the evening having dinner with Wanda and celebrating her birthday. Worried that traffic in and out of the city would be bad and that with all the drunk people on the road it might be dangerous, Wanda urges Oscar to take the train which he and his buddies (along with Sophina and another girl) elect to do, a train that will take Oscar to his final moments.

This will undoubtedly go down as one of the best films of 2013 and will certainly merit some awards consideration (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Weinstein do a brief theatrical re-release right around Christmas to remind Academy voters how good this movie is). I won’t lie and say this is a completely objective movie, but neither is it unrealistic – Oscar Grant had some issues in his short life and his family would undoubtedly be the first to say so. He’s not portrayed as some kind of saint here, but as a real guy struggling to better his life and the lives of his family. Most of us are no different in that regard.

Jordan delivers a real star turn here. He has the best onscreen smile since Tom Cruise and shows amazing screen presence and charisma here. He transforms Oscar Grant from a name on newscasts into flesh and blood. I don’t know how close he was to capturing the personality of the real Oscar Grant (although friend of the family Jack Bryson indicated that it was) but Jordan makes the impending tragedy hanging over the bulk of this movie like a Sword of Damocles all the more poignant because while he was far from perfect, Oscar Grant was a good man.

Octavia Spencer has already won an Oscar and she might just get another one as Oscar’s tough loving mom. She demands – and receives – respect from her son, and is the kind of mom that everyone loves and whose respect and approval everyone craves. Spencer gives Wanda inner strength (which the real Wanda possesses in abundance) and her grief for her son in the movie’s closing scenes is hard to watch.

The movie is highly fictionalized, portraying an incident in which Oscar watches a dog get hit by a car after which it dies in his arm (portending his own fate) and a shopper at the grocery store (O’Reilly) trying to get a recipe for a fish fry whom he connects with his grandma (Shears). In fact, Oscar is constantly on his phone, a conceit that is used throughout the movie by projecting the phone screen onscreen to show us the texts he’s receiving. It’s very effective.

There are those who will grouse that the movie is manipulative, but that’s bull. It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by the events that transpire onscreen. It’s hard not to like Oscar Grant and wish he was still around to take care of his family. But it’s harder still to avoid the conversation that should and does ensue – that even now, 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, we as a nation still treat our African-American citizens with suspicion and prejudice. While I can’t say it’s entirely unjustified to be wary of young African-American, they still deserve better than to be profiled and shot like animals. That we’re still having this conversation in 2013 is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and moving. Career-defining work by Jordan. Possible Oscar consideration for Spencer and Diaz.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of foul language, a bit of drug use and some violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Film Audience Award at Sundance, and Best First Film at Cannes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100; the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boyz ‘N the Hood

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Red 2