The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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That Awkward Moment


Zac Efron is confident he's the prettiest one of the trio.

Zac Efron is confident he’s the prettiest one of the trio.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin, Josh Pais, Evelina Turen, Karen Ludwig, Tina Benko, Joseph Adams, Lola Glaudini, John Rothman, Barbara Garrick, Reif Larsen, Kate Simses, Emily Meade, Alysia Reiner, Julia Morrison. Directed by Tom Gormican

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-3

According to Jason (Efron), a book cover designer and long time player, any sentence uttered by a woman that you are seeing that begins with the word “So…” is an intimation of impending catastrophe. It is the linchpin of any relationship; the moment that a relationship moves from “dating” to “boyfriend/girlfriend.” It is the type of commitment that guys like Jason find to be about as repellent as walking barefoot over a floor covered in broken glass and scorpions.

He works with his buddy Daniel (Teller) who is basically a 16-year-old in a twenty-something’s body. Daniel uses Jason’s friend Chelsea (Davis) as a means of meeting women for one-night stands (Jason needs no help for that). The two have a third musketeer, Mikey (Jordan), a married doctor but Mikey’s just been hit by a bombshell; his wife Vera (Lucas) has been cheating on him with Harold, a lawyer who looks suspiciously like Morris Chestnut.

Mikey is depressed as all get-out and Daniel knows exactly what he needs – a night in a bar drinking and picking up some chick for a night’s entertainment. Mikey makes a connection with a young lady in glasses (Simses) who gives him her number to use “when (you’re) ready” while Jason ends up with a cute blonde named Ellie (Poots) who has an unusually high number of condoms in her apartment and wears hooker boots. Seeing as the New Yorker just printed an article on hookers in the East End dressing like hipsters, the perpetually broke Jason makes a pre-dawn run for it, fearing Ellie will be asking him for payment in the morning.

The three friends decide to make a pact, all of them having had a wonderful time the evening before – all three will remain single for as long as possible to keep the party going. Mikey is still a little hung up on his ex but agrees that he hadn’t had that much fun in quite some time.

It turns out Ellie isn’t a prostitute – she works for a publishing company that Jason’s socially awkward boss Fred (Pais) is courting. D’oh!  As it turns out, Ellie and Jason end up falling hard for each other. Daniel winds up falling hard for Chelsea – and she for him, hard as it is to believe. And as for Mikey, his attempts to reconcile with Vera turn out far better than he expected. Of course, all three of them, not wishing to look bad in the eyes of their friends, hide their relationships from each other. And of course all three of these geniuses end up imperiling their relationships because of their lack of communication. When will they ever learn?

I understand that this was on the Hollywood Black List of best unproduced scripts of 2012 and I have to wonder how on earth it got there, unless substantial revisions were made during filming. The movie is chock full of the same old tired rom-com clichés that have made nearly all of the romantic comedies produced by Hollywood over the past decade nearly identical in nature. It’s a form of chauvinism, thinking women will settle for the same old thing year after year…although considering some of the relationship choices I’ve seen some of my women friend make during that time, perhaps the studio bigwigs are on to something.

I haven’t been a great Zac Efron fan I have to admit but he does make a pretty decent romantic lead. He’s certainly got the looks and the abs for it and while his acting chops are pretty weak, the same thing could be said for both Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum at the same point in their careers and in both of the above I’ve seen a ton of improvement in that department. I could see Efron becoming a really good actor down the line.

Jordan is an amazing actor but he is hardly utilized here, essentially playing the role of the African-American friend. He has a few decent moments in the film and his banter with Teller and Efron is natural and unforced, something you can’t always say for the other two.

It is the women who fare best here. Poots has done some sterling work in films like A Late Quartet gets the meatiest role and makes the most of it; her expression as she stares at Efron as he goes through his antics is definitely worth a thousand words at least. This British actress has the kind of ability that is possessed by Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams; hopefully she’ll start to get some A-list roles sent her way soon.

While there are some new romantic movies opening up just in time for Valentine’s Day (especially the anticipated Winter’s Tale) as I have not seen them yet I can’t really recommend them much and for my money this is the best romantic movie in theaters at the moment; ladies will swoon over the handsome Efron and guys will appreciate the banter and relationship between the men which is pretty genuine. So fellas, this is a rom-com that you can actually enjoy without feeling you are enduring it for the sake of your woman’s tender attentions after the credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Efron becoming a solid romantic lead. Occasionally very funny. Authentic relationship between the guys.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many rom-com clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of foul language, even more sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally to be released by FilmDistrict but after Focus absorbed that distribution company (their production side remains independent) this became the first FilmDistrict property to be distributed by Focus.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: About Last Night

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Russell Crowe wonders where the grog has gone off to.

(2003) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Billy Boyd, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby, Richard Pates, Robert Pugh, Richard McCabe, Ian Mercer, David Threlfall . Directed by Peter Weir

 

After years of fan clamoring, Patrick O’Brian’s revered Master and Commander saga finally made it to the big screen, and was given the royal treatment in Hollywood as befitted the beginning of a potential major franchise. It didn’t quite make it there but was that because the movie wasn’t up to snuff?

Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe), master of the HMS Surprize, is given orders by the admiralty to track down the French warship Acheron in the waters off of the Americas and track it as far as Brazil, with the orders to take her if possible, and sink her if not. He commands a crew including the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Bettany), who is an amateur naturalist as well as Aubrey’s best friend. The two often end their evenings by playing duets on violin and cello.

The Acheron proves to be a superior ship in size, firepower and speed, and creates havoc for the Surprize, which barely escapes sinking in battle. Aubrey must use all his wits to outwit his clever adversary, but also wrestles with his own motivations; does he chase the Acheron out of loyalty, duty or pride? And what price will he pay to find the answer to that question?

The Master and Commander books are very well researched. The 20-novel series features detailed accounts of life in the British Navy in the Napoleonic era, as well as battle tactics, the political climate of the times and life in general at the dawn of the 19th century.

That a movie was to be made of it was met not only by the anticipation I mentioned but also a healthy amount of skepticism as well. Fans of the series (and they are a rabid lot) were concerned that the careful, meticulous research O’Brian put into the novels might be washed away in a storm of Hollywood clichés and shortcuts.

Well, there was reason to celebrate (and reason for dirges — more in a moment). Although Russell Crowe is perhaps too Hollywood-handsome for the role of Aubrey (he is described in the books as being a bit on the pudgy side and Crowe’s casting in the role made purists howl), he carries the charisma of a leader of men. His performance is such that you believe he is the kind of man you yourself would follow without hesitation to the gates of Hell and back. In that sense, he caught the essence of the character if not the physical embodiment.

The movie also captures the brutal and cramped conditions in which swabbies of the British Navy lived and worked. Better still, the raw courage it took to fight a naval battle is noted, as cannon fire obliterates hulls and decks, causing wood to splinter in a thousand directions, acting as lethal darts. Rarely are the cannonballs themselves seen by the naked eye, but the damage they inflict to vessel and flesh is well in evidence. The battle scenes are absolutely terrifying to behold.

The movie is well-cast even down to the extras who possess faces that have the look of the 19th century; most bear scars of battle, or the more insidious scars of years of toil on a tiny vessel in the midst of the unforgiving ocean, imperiled by both the elements and merciless foes. Whether those scars were put there by make-up or were there to begin with, they go a long way in establishing the film’s authenticity, which I have to say overall seemed pretty believable to my admittedly inexpert eye.

Aubrey is a decent sort but a stern taskmaster as captain; he knows the crew’s ability to perform amid hellish cannon fire and terrible storms will mean the difference between returning home or taking a long nap in Davey Jones’ locker. The discipline was by necessity brutal and if anything is understated here.

Weir filmed on the Galapagos Islands, one of the most remote and fascinating places on earth. It is where Charles Darwin was motivated to formulate his Theory of Evolution, and remains today, due to preservationist efforts, nearly pristine. The scenes with Maturin on the island are priceless and are among the movie’s highlights.

But there are a few marks against the film. In the novels, the American Navy was Aubrey’s adversary. Here, perhaps so that the American audience isn’t offended, Aubrey fights the French. Also, some of the expository scenes drag, leading to the audience shifting in its seats uncomfortably during the two and a half hour movie. Audiences are more ADHD than ever these days; I can’t imagine one sitting through this without whipping out cell phones to check for messages and texts at least once.

Crowe is in my opinion one of the most compelling stars in Hollywood; at this point in his career he’d hit his stride not only as an actor but as a screen presence, the very definition of stardom. The movie is much better when he’s onscreen than when he’s offscreen. Also, his chemistry with Paul Bettany as Maturin is undeniable; they bicker, but they are still the closest of friends, and the two play well off each other.

Weir walks a tightrope over a pool of hungry sharks just in making this movie and I think he does as good a job as it’s possible to do under the circumstances. The ship’s interior is made to feel cramped without making the audience too claustrophobic. The emptiness of the ocean and the isolation of the English vessel on it is noted but not overdone. And while he did compress some of the action, eliminate scenes and beloved novel characters, he makes the movie lively for most of the running time.

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is an epic piece of filmmaking in every sense of the word. While the storyline may not be new, it is well-told. It is a combination action movie, adventure flick and history lesson all rolled into one neat package. Students of history will love this one, as much if not more so than lovers of action. It’s a shame that this franchise never made it past the first movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Epic battle sequences. Crowe at the top of his game. Combination action movie/adventure/history lesson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About half an hour too long. Drags in places. Differs in critical places from the book.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the battle sequences are intense and gruesome. There are a few bad words now and then.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first movie ever to film in the Galapagos Islands.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The two-disc DVD Collector’s Edition has a wealth of features including a look at the historical accuracy of the books and the film’s endeavors to follow as closely as possible in accuracy, including getting authentic period props. This is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray edition, which does have a trivia track and a map overlay which shows you the positions of the Suprize and the Archeron at various points in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie wasn’t financially successful.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Horatio Hornblower, RN

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Expendables 2

Role Models


Role Models

Ken Jeong points out that it's good to be the king; Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Paul Rudd are chagrinned to find it's not good to be serfs.

(Universal) Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jane Lynch, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Jeong. Directed by David Wain

With the popularity of comedies produced/directed/written/overseen/obliquely referred to by Judd Apatow, it is inevitable that there will be copycat comedies trying to milk the same cow. However, as any good comedy writer will tell you, a good comedy isn’t just stringing a whole bunch of jokes together, unless you’re writing Airplane.

Danny Donahue (Rudd) has been in a foul mood for about eight years now. He is stuck in a dead-end job pimping energy drinks to bored high school kids under the guise of an anti-drug crusade; he has drunk enough of these drinks to make his urine change color permanently. His sales partner Wheeler (Scott) dresses like a Minotaur (the mascot of the drink), talks incessantly in motivational poster sound bites, and has a libido the size of Texas and Alaska, combined.

His temperament hasn’t gone unnoticed by Beth (Banks), his girlfriend who he just proposed to. She can’t imagine staying with a downer like Danny for another minute, much less the rest of her life. She dumps him, which does nothing to soften Danny’s mood.

After wrecking the company vehicle (a kind of monster truck with a bull on it) and getting involved with a fracas with the security officers at the school they’re appearing with, the two are arrested and sentenced to 150 hours of community service at a Big Brother-style charity called Sturdy Wings, run in no-nonsense style by ex-coke whore Gayle Sweeny (Lynch) who makes the average drill sergeant look like Stuart Smalley.

The two are given a couple of difficult cases. Danny gets Augie (Mintz-Plasse), a nerdy sort who plays a LARP-style game called LAIRE (LARP, for those not in the know, stands for Live Action Role Playing and consists of people in medieval garb bashing each other with foam swords, maces, hammers and shields in mock battles, which is a very simplified explanation of the game). I suppose to say he plays the game is a lot like saying an alcoholic has a drink now and then; the game is Augie’s life.

For his part, Wheeler gets Ronnie (Thompson), a foul-mouthed anti-social kid whose single mom isn’t sure how to handle her attitude-drenched son. Still, Wheeler and Ronnie find some common ground in their fascination for the female breast. Yeah, I know – ain’t bonding grand?

As the two men learn something from the two boys, their inherent disposition towards messing up catches up with them and they basically have their two charges taken away from them, which will mean jail time for the both of them unless they can think of a way to get back in the good graces of the boys, their parents and Gayle. Who knows, if they can do all that, maybe Danny can win back Beth while he’s at it.

This is one of those scattershot comedies where the filmmakers basically throw everything they can get their hands on at the walls and hope something sticks. Rudd and Scott actually have a pretty decent comic chemistry together and their characters are nicely fleshed out. Rudd gets a great riff in about the difference between large and venti which serves to piss Beth off but the rest of us (those that don’t live and die by Starbucks) will find it dead on while Scott continues the shtick that worked so well for him in Evolution.

Lynch, who since this was made has migrated over to “Glee” where she’s become one of the hottest comic actresses in the business, shows some of that ability, basically owning the screen whenever she’s on. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her headlining a big screen comedy venture in the very near future. Likewise, Jeong who hadn’t hit cult status with The Hangover when he made this, treads very familiar territory very well in his role here as the King.

In fact, that’s one of the things about the movie that holds it back – it really doesn’t do anything new or push the envelope at all. One of the things that made Apatow comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up so good is that they consistently took the comic genre they were working in and turned them on their heads. Role Models essentially takes basic comedy formula and follows it to the letter. That’s not a bad thing if you do it really well – and by that I mean reeeeeeeeeeeally well – but Role Models merely does it adequately. That’s not enough to put my butt in a bandwagon seat, so all I can really say for it is that while it has heart enough to make it worth seeing, it doesn’t have enough soul to make it a priority.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott and Rudd have good comic chemistry and Jane Lynch is a hoot in just about everything she does.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pretty much a standard Hollywood comedy with no real surprises.

FAMILY VALUES: This is crude enough and sexual enough that I’d probably think twice before letting pre-teens see this; it’s more along the lines of mature teens in my opinion.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Paul McCartney” song played over the closing credits is actually McCartney impersonator Joey Curatolo.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there are plenty of standard features on the DVD edition (including a blooper reel), the Blu-Ray is packed with interesting features, including a design your own LARP logo feature called “Ye Olde Crest Maker,” some in-character interviews, some Sturdy Wings videos (available through the BD Live feature) and Universal’s always-fun U-Control feature.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: World’s Greatest Dad