The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

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Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

Chef


Just don't call it a roach coach.

Just don’t call it a roach coach.

(2013) Dramedy (Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr., Russell Peters, Gloria Sandoval, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’, Nili Fuller, Aaron Franklin, Roy Choi, Gary Clark Jr., Benjamin Jacob, Rachel Acuna. Directed by Jon Favreau

This might well be called the age of the Chef. We are more aware of those who cook are food than ever; some develop into a kind of rock star status with television shows, restaurant chains, food products and frequent appearances on talk shows. Getting to that point though takes a lot of hard work.

Carl Casper (Favreau) had reason to believe he was on that fast track to the big time. He came out of Miami as one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming chefs in the business, but it is certainly a business of “what have you cooked for me lately?” as that was a decade or more ago. Now, he toils as the head chef in a popular Beverly Hills eatery run by the control freak Riva (Hoffman). He’s lost his edge and his passion, cooking Riva’s menu even when one of the more influential bloggers and food critics Ramsey Michel (Platt) comes to review the restaurant.

That review goes very badly for Carl as Michel trashes the food but also Carl himself, blasting him for complacency and assuming the reason he’s put on so much weight is that “he’s eating all the food returned to the kitchen.” Carl takes it very personally, leading to a heated exchange with the critic which is caught on enough cell phones to go viral. Carl finds himself without a job and too much of an Internet punch line to get a new one.

On the personal front, Carl has an amiable relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) but his 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony) wants more of a relationship than his dad is able to supply right now. Percy lives in a perpetual state of disappointment when it comes to his father. Inez thinks that Carl needs to go back to his roots in Miami and get himself a food truck. Her other ex-husband Melvin (Downey) has one that’s pretty dilapidated but has some potential.

Right at his side is his former line cook Martin (Leguizamo) who is far more loyal than Carl maybe deserves, but between the two of them they come up with the best Cuban sandwich you may ever eat. They are going to drive the truck to L.A. from Miami with stops in New Orleans and Austin; of course, Percy will come along for the ride. This is a road trip that Carl needs to discover his passion not just for food but for life.

Favreau started out as a director doing Swingers which 20 years ago redefined the whole indie film genre and while Favreau has gone on to big franchise films for the most part, his heart has always been with these sorts of movies. The trouble with being an in-demand franchise film director is that there isn’t time for him to do small movies like this one. However, after excusing himself from the Iron Man franchise he went in this direction first and to his credit it’s a wise move.

Not that the Iron Man films are without heart but they are so much less intimate than a movie like this. Chef is often described as a foodie film (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) but it really isn’t about food so much as it is about being an artist; Carl’s medium happens to be food. Inspiration is important to any artist; ask any artist who is working for somebody else how easy it is to have their own inspiration and style curtailed by someone who doesn’t understand art, doesn’t understand the artist.

One of the problems with art is that from time to time an artist will take themselves too seriously but this isn’t about the arrogance of the artist (although Carl certainly has some of that – art requires an absolute belief in your own talent) but about the artist who has lost their way and must find it again. First though he must find his own heart.

Kids can often be cloying in roles like this one but Anthony manages to avoid that. Sometimes he comes on a bit strong with the disappointed face, but other than that he has a very natural relationship with Favreau. The two seem genuinely fond of one another and that translates well to the screen.

Favreau, who often plays smartass sorts (maybe hanging around so much with Vince Vaughn early on in his career contributed to that) but while his character can be a bit of a dick sometimes, this is a much more mature character than we’re used to seeing from him although on paper, he is pretty childish in places. By mature, I mean a character that has a lot more depth to them than just one-line zingers. This is one of Favreau’s strongest performances to date both in front of and behind the camera.

And yes, you will leave the theater hungry, longing for a good Cuban sandwich or some fine beef brisket (Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin is considered to be the best in the country by many experts, makes a cameo appearance showing off his brisket). That’s all right. For my own purpose I left the theater not just hungry for good food but for more films like this from Favreau.

REASONS TO GO: Warm without being overly sentimental. Will make you hungry. Realistic relationships.

REASONS TO STAY: Will likely end up somewhat dated.

FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Favreau was trained in knife-work and cooking techniques by Roy Choi, a well known fusion chef and food truck owner in the LA area who was also credited as a producer on the film (and makes a cameo appearance as himself).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations 

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Immigrant

Hulk


Hulk

./ I left...my Hulllllllllllk....in San Franciscooooooooo...! ./

(2003) Superhero (Universal) Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Celia Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Kevin Rankin, Todd Tesen, Mike Erwin, Lou Ferrigno, Stan Lee, Regi Davis. Directed by Ang Lee

 

As the great existentialist philosopher Kermit the Frog (think about it) once said, “It’s not easy being green” and Hulk is a movie which brings that concept to life.

Based on the Marvel comic book much more than the television series that it spawned (more on that in a minute), Eric Bana. in his first international role outside his native Australia, is Bruce Banner, a geneticist working with gamma radiation in order to improve the human condition. His girlfriend, Betty Ross (Connelly) works alongside him in a Bay Area-based lab.

Things go awry when in a lab accident, Bruce is exposed to a lethal dose of gamma radiation. To everyone’s surprise, he doesn’t die. In fact, he seems to be healthier than ever. This, of course, catches the notice of the U.S. Military, in the form of General Thunderbolt Ross (Elliott), who is, in fact, Betty’s estranged father.

Bruce has an estranged father, too…emphasis on the “strange.” Nick Nolte, who apparently thinks the hairstyle in his notorious mugshot photo is the height of modern follicle fancy, plays David Banner (in a nod to the TV show, which changed the name of the Hulk’s alter ego to David) whom Bruce had thought dead. David was not dead, but just a little — How do we say it? — whacko.

Turns out David was a scientist in his own right, and in the tradition of over-the-top scientists, performed an experiment on himself, which was genetically passed on to his son. Later, as David gets more and more eccentric, the military (which employs him) becomes more and more concerned and eventually shuts down his microbiological research.

David loses it, and this leads to a traumatic incident which causes David to leave, and for Bruce to be scarred for life, although the exact nature of what happens isn’t revealed until late in the movie.

Bruce returns home, thinking everything is fine, but after being put under emotional stress, changes into a green-skinned behemoth, fiendishly strong and nearly invulnerable, able to leap enormous distances in single bounds. This, of course, really catches the military’s interest, and soon Bruce is under wraps in a secret desert facility. Ironically the same one at which his father worked, 20 years earlier.

The old man surfaces as well, with an agenda of his own. To further complicate things, an old flame of Betty’s, Talbot (Lucas) steps back into the picture to not only try to win Betty back, but as the head of a biotech research company, to exploit Banner and his alter ego. Of course, this leads to a great deal of “Hulk smash.”

Many theatergoers who wanted to love this movie found that they couldn’t, partly because director Ang Lee has made what is in effect two movies. The first, a psychological drama that mainly takes up the first half of the movie, one true to Lee’s art-house roots. The second is an over-the-top, computer-generated-effects-laden action thriller.

The two, for much of the movie-going public, were irreconcilable. I, on the other hand, found the two movies working well together, bringing not only a sense of angst, but an emotional level that makes the Hulk and Bruce Banner figures of tragedy, rather than powerful demigods, as many superheroes become.

Part of the movie’s theatrical problems lay in its marketing; the computer-generated Hulk scenes that made the trailer look cheesier on the small screen than on the big one. As the opening of the movie approached back in the day I remember remarking to Da Queen how a movie which I had anticipated would be one of that summer’s biggest was becoming less and less of a must-see for me, although I wound up seeing it anyway — and I’m glad I did.

The reason is two-fold, which fits in with the movie’s themes nicely. First, the human side – the acting. Bana, who has to play a cold, emotionally distant man early in the movie, is forced to deal with his feelings as the movie progresses. It’s a powerful performance in more ways than one, and set up Bana to pursue the path to stardom taken by countrymen Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and  the late Heath Ledger. What is it with Australia producing such great leading men lately, anyway? There must be something in the water.)

Jennifer Connelly, who debuted as a lustrous ingénue in another comic book adaptation The Rocketeer showed that her Academy Award-winning turn with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind was no fluke. She played Ross not as a simpering victim as she eventually became in the comic book, but as a capable, independent-minded woman with a great deal of depth and a lot of emotional baggage, which is how the character began in the comic book. Connelly nails that side of her here.

The other reason Hulk is a winner is the title character himself – the technical side. Bana morphs into a fully CG creature, but like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hulk is a tragic sorrowful creature, one who displays a wide emotional range of expressions. You see pathos and fury at various times on the face of the creature which makes him more than a monster. Like the best movie monsters, you feel sympathy for his plight.

And that brings me to what I really loved about this movie; the fact that it is a tragedy, and the characters in it inspire sympathy. Even the nutty David Banner, whom Nolte plays with a certain scene-chewing zest – is not really fully a monster, although by the time the movie ends he has become one. When the Hulk causes Betty fear, he displays a brooding sorrow that really sent chills up my spine. Even today when I watch the movie again, it still does.

Unfortunately, Hulk received a chilly critical reception, as well as less-than-scintillating word-of-mouth on the Internet. I can understand some finding the dual-movies approach a bit off-putting. Quite frankly, people with a limited range of cinematic appreciation are going to have problems with Hulk.

However, I think that a much larger percentage of the movie-going population will find this a worthwhile investment of time. If you skipped this movie during its theatrical release because of the unfavorable notices, do yourself a favor and give it a chance on home video; see it on as big a TV screen as you can find. Make up your own mind on this one; you may be pleasantly surprised to find a movie that didn’t deserve the critical and fanboy whipping it took.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bana and Connelly. Hulk creature sympathetic and well-articulated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some over-the-top scene chewing. Dichotomy between superhero action and psychological drama too much for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence in a superhero/science fiction vein, a little bit of bad language, a few disturbing images and some partial nudity, albeit a brief view of nothing offensive.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The motion capture for the Hulk creature was performed by Ang Lee himself.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the evolution of the character from the comic books to the TV series to the first film (of course, the more recent Edward Norton version isn’t mentioned in the feature, having been made five years after this version. There is also a series of Sunny Delight ads (!) that tied in to the film on the Special Edition DVD (although thankfully missing from the Blu-Ray). There is also a close-up look at the dog fight scene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.4M on a $137M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Hunger Games