Why Him?


Talk about a generation gap...

Talk about a generation gap…

(2016) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Cedric the Entertainer, Keegan-Michael Key, Griffin Gluck, Zack Pearlman, Jee Young Han, Tangie Ambrose, Mary Pat Gleason, Kaley Cuoco (voice), Steve Aoki, Richard Blais, Elon Musk, Adam Devine, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Andrew Rannells, Casey Wilson. Directed by John Hamburg

 

The father-daughter relationship is a very special one. A man’s daughter is always his princess; the light of his heart, the twinkle in his eye, she inevitably has him twisted around her little finger. It goes without saying that no man will ever be good enough for Daddy’s Little Princess.

Ned Fleming (Cranston) is by all appearances a successful guy. He’s a pillar of his Michigan community and runs a paper company that has been one of the most successful in the Midwest for years; he has put his daughter Stephanie (Deutch) through college at Stanford where she is nearing graduation and his life is generally going just swell.

His bubble is on the verge of bursting though; his company is in serious financial trouble and there isn’t much of a future for it anyway – paper is going the way of horse and buggy given that most communication is electronic these days. His wife Barb (Mullally) and son Scottie (Gluck) are mainly unaware of this. However, the biggest blow is that Stephanie has a boyfriend that they don’t know about and what’s worse they’ve been together for more than a year. This disturbs Ned who had always assumed that his daughter told him everything. It seems she has a whole lot of secrets that he isn’t aware of. With the holidays coming, Stephanie invites her family to spend them in Northern California.

Said boyfriend is Laird Mayhew (Franco) and rather than being a doe-eyed college boy he turns out to be a 30-something tech magnate who earned his billions developing videogames. With a chest full of tattoos and absolutely no filter, he is a bit of a handful and a lot for the conservative Fleming family to take in. Most parents would be overjoyed that their daughter had caught the eye of a billionaire and seemed to be very much in love with him besides but not Ned. He’s suspicious of Laird and is positive that he’s up to something and Laird, to be honest, is a fairly manipulative guy. His high-tech Palo Alto mansion is full to the brim with all sorts of gadgets and toys, including a Japanese toilet/bidet combination that doesn’t quite work right (and hilarity ensues), a Siri-like house computer whose voice is that of Kaley Cuoco from Big Bang Theory and who tends to get cranky from time to time (more hilarity ensues) and a brand new bowling alley that Laird installed because he heard that Ned loves to bowl. Midwestern, right?

There is also a stuffed moose preserved in an aquarium full of it’s own urine which you just know is going to get all over someone sooner or later (not a spoiler: it does) and a valet named Gustav (Key) who is about every Eastern European goofball that populated sitcoms and movie comedies in the 80s and 90s and who, like Kato in the Pink Panther movies, attacks Laird with martial arts without warning (although to be fair the movie does name drop the series for additional laughs).

Laird means to marry Stephanie and wants Ned’s blessing, a blessing that isn’t forthcoming. It’s Christmas though and miracles can happen – although it might take several miracles to make this happy ending come true. Stephanie tries to make her father see that beneath the cursing (Laird drops F bombs constantly, a product of having no filter) and the sometimes bizarre behavior Laird is really a very nice guy, but that will be a tough sell to a father who already thinks that no guy is good enough for his princess.

In many ways this movie perfectly illustrates the disconnect between Hollywood and Mid-America which in turn spotlights why Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election. Ned and Barb as well as son Scotty are portrayed as extremely naive particularly about pop culture sexuality, not knowing what either motorboating or bukake mean – not that those are common terms but certainly the way that it is portrayed here is that they’re the only ones not in on the joke and quite frankly it’s a bit cruel. The West Coast hip tech types, standing in for the elite liberal crowd, are condescending and a little put off by the squares. It may interest the left to know that there is Internet in the Midwest and most of the people living there are a lot savvier than given credit for.

Cranston and Franco are no strangers to each other and it shows here. The chemistry between them is letter perfect and both exhibit a lot of give and take in terms of who gets the laughs and who is the straight man. Both perform beyond what you’d expect for what is essentially a holiday comedy which often tend to be just paychecks for big name actors. Cranston and Franco earn both of theirs.

But all the good intentions and strong performances can’t save a script that has little bite and feels more like a sitcom than a big screen comedy. There are some really funny moments (like when Laird brings in Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from KISS for Ned and Barb who are avowed members of the KISS Army) and a few cringe-worthy moments (the aforementioned moose piss gag) but by and large there’s nothing truly offensive here. Neither is there anything truly noteworthy either.

REASONS TO GO: Cranston is on point as always and he has some terrific chemistry with Franco.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little heavy-handed and riddled with clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language and some sexual innuendo throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ape Assassins game that made Laird Mayhew famous is available for download on the iTunes App Store.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 13th

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The Informant!


The Informant!

All superspy Matt Damon needs is a shoe phone and the cone of silence.

 

 

(Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Eddie Jemison, Rusty Schwimmer, Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, Clancy Brown. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. However, capturing truth can be a lot like trying to grab a minnow with your bare hands; it has a tendency to slip through your fingers.

 

Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a young, rising executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company based in Decatur, Illinois who simply put, handle food and food additives. Chances are, something you ate today came from them. Whitacre is a trained biochemist who suspects that a new additive his team is working on that they haven’t gotten to work quite right is being sabotaged by Japanese corporate interests, who are working on a competing substance. The FBI is called in to investigate and although they find no evidence of espionage, Whitacre calls Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) aside.

 

It seems Whitacre has evidence that ADM has been engaged in price-fixing on a corn derivative called Lysine that is used in just about everything, from breakfast cereals to sodas. In doing this, ADM has defrauded consumers out of literally billions of dollars, and done it invisibly. Shepard and his partner, the stern and suspicious Bob Herndon (McHale) are incredulous but intrigued; if Whitacre is telling the truth, this could turn out to be one of the most important corporate crimes in history.

 

Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and get evidence of ADM executives agreeing to price-fixing with their competitors. In the meantime, Shepard begins to get uneasy as Whitacre begins to act erratically. That gets overshadowed as Whitacre gets the evidence they need, but more comes out than Whitacre bargained for.

 

This is a true story although it has been embellished for dramatic purposes. The essential facts, however, are the same. Soderbergh is at his best here, utilizing Damon’s voice-over narration as a mood-setter rather than a story-advancer. Marvin Hamlisch’s lounge lizard score sounds like it came straight out of a 60s spy movie, which is exactly the right metaphor for the movie. Whitacre fancies himself as James Bond, only twice as smart. He’s not quite as urbane or witty, unfortunately.

 

Damon was an inspired casting choice and he delivers a performance that will surely go down as one of the best of his career. He gained 30 pounds for the role, wears a toupee that is frankly embarrassing and a moustache that is pure 70s porn star, all the while fidgeting and lumbering about, perhaps the most feckless hero to come onscreen in decades.

 

He is supported by Lynskey as his long-suffering wife Ginger, who is mousy yet manipulative, but in her own curious way very supportive and loving. The two have lovely chemistry that makes the relationship realistic. Bakula, whose career has flourished in television sci-fi fare such as “Quantum Leap” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” plays his supporting role note perfectly. His performance is often overlooked because Damon’s is so good, but Bakula creates a character who is often confused by the behavior of his informant, but not only learns to appreciate his courage but becomes his biggest defender when things go south.

 

Mark Whitacre is definitely a product of the Midwest. He’s straight-forward, a little bit quirky and ultimately somewhat enigmatic. There’s no doubt he is an American hero, the highest-ranking executive to ever blow the whistle on an American company, but he is also an American tragedy. The twist in the movie’s final reel is heartbreaking but inevitable. No good deed goes unpunished, after all.

 

This is ostensibly a comedy but it’s certainly as dry as a cornfield in October. Not everyone will appreciate the dry wit that Soderbergh evinces here. Yes, this is a very cleverly written and insightful script, but I’ve noticed that some folks just don’t get humor that isn’t in their face and over-the-top. Still, I laughed as hard at this as I had any one of Judd Apatow’s comedies, which is saying something.

 

WHY RENT THIS: An intelligent, well-written script bolsters a career highlight performance by Damon.  

 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The comedy is so dry that some may wind up scratching their heads with the definite feeling that they are somehow the butt of an even bigger joke.

 

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of foul language which may give some parents pause; frankly it’s probably no worse than most teens hear every day at school, so I wouldn’t have a problem letting older teens see this.

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Smothers Brothers appear in separate but equally memorable cameos.  

 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.7M on a $22M production budget; the movie broke even.

 

FINAL RATING: 7/10

 

TOMORROW: The Rocker

Inception


Inception

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's world is all askew.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Lukas Haas, Tai-Li Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In perhaps the most famous soliloquy of all time, Hamlet muses “To sleep, perchance to dream.” In this speech, he’s referring to death, wondering what the dead dream of. Perhaps death is a dreaming in a way, the ultimate dream. Maybe life itself is the dream – who’s to know?

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is a corporate thief with an unusual technique; he enters the dreams of CEOs and billionaires to extract the secrets that their mind has locked in those dreams. It’s an apparently lucrative profession; he seems to have a fairly extensive bankroll. However, Cobb isn’t a happy man. His wife Mal (Cotillard) died recently, and he was implicated in her death. Their children are being cared for by Mal’s mother, and Cobb hasn’t seen them in awhile, although he longs to.

Getting back to them is problematic, until Japanese billionaire Saito (Watanabe) comes up with an offer. He can take away Dom’s fugitive status if Dom will do one job for him, but instead of stealing an idea, he wants one implanted. This process, called inception, is deemed impossible…by everybody except Dom, who claims to have done it on one occasion.

Dom puts together a team of experts, including his right hand man and researcher Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), con man, impersonator and demolitions expert Eames (Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Rao). The last they need to put the subject into a deep sleep, deep enough so that the dream architecture doesn’t collapse, because in order to make the idea work without his mind removing a foreign idea from itself (similarly in the way antibodies tackle viruses), the idea must be implanted so deeply that the subject thinks that the idea is his own.

The subject is Robert Fischer (Murphy), the son of a billionaire energy mogul whose father (Postlethwaite) is dying and stands to inherit his company. That company, which supplies nearly 80% of all the earth’s energy needs, has become too big to stand against and is in danger of becoming a power rivaling that of nations.

Dom also needs a dream architect and for that, he visits his father-in-law (Caine), who teaches the architecture of dreams and who helped Dom become what he is (although dear old dad-in-law disapproves of how Dom utilizes his gifts). Dom needs one of his students, a particularly gifted one, to create a realistic enough world that will fool Fischer into believing he is awake. That student is Ariadne (Page), who in Greek mythology led Theseus safely through the labyrinth on Crete where he slew the Minotaur.

This Ariadne is required to construct a labyrinth, because once the mind realizes that there are intruders in it, it sends what are called constructs to remove the intruders. The maze serves to keep the constructs off your back, at least for a little while. Not forever, however, and once the constructs arrive they are well armed and willing to shoot first and ask questions not at all. Once you are killed in the dream, you wake up – quite a different take on the usual Hollywood mythology which has dreamers dying in real life when they die in dreams. However, because they are going so deep into the dream, those who die in this dream will be sent to a limbo of the subconscious where they will slowly go mad until they awaken.

There is a time dilation too – while in a normal dream, five minutes of real time equates to an hour of dreamtime, the deeper level you go to, the more pronounced the dreamtime – to the point where five minutes can equal ten years.

There is also another wrinkle. Dom has never really been able to get over the death of his wife, and she is a powerful figure in his subconscious, so powerful that she has been able to manifest in the dreams of others and wreak havoc. This is why Dom needs another architect instead of doing it himself. Her presence in his subconscious is becoming more and more pronounced and only Ariadne, who went into one of Dom’s own dreams to figure out what was going on, knows the truth. Will Dom be able to overcome his own subconscious in order to win him the freedom he so desperately desires?

Nolan began writing this when he was filming Memento (2000), and it took him eight years to complete it. That’s largely because of how densely layered a tale this is; this is one of the most complexly plotted movies you’ll ever see. Pull one thread out and everything collapses.

Fortunately, Nolan is a good enough writer that he can pull it off. First, he has to create a believable dream mythology. Secondly, he has to create characters that the audience can relate to and care about. Thirdly, he has to inject a real sense of jeopardy. Finally, he has to make the plot simple enough for a general audience to keep up with, yet complex enough to make all the elements work.

He succeeds in all these points. The mythology is believable; the science may suffer from a little bit of what I call “mumbo jumbo science” – an overuse of technobabble – but it isn’t so much that you shake your head and feel stupid. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; they live and breathe and seem real.

The jeopardy part is accomplished by a series of car chases and shootouts which rankles some critics; “My dreams aren’t about car chases,” grouses A.O. Scott of the New York Times, which apparently means nobody else’s are either; of course, nobody has ever accused Scott of a lack of hubris.

All right, that was a bit of a below-the-belt shot at a fellow critic. Still, when one is discussing dreams, it’s a given there are no rules. Perhaps the dreamscapes that Nolan invents for Inception aren’t as outside the box in some ways as What Dreams May Come, that doesn’t mean there isn’t invention here. The sequences wherein Ariadne folds Paris onto itself (having cars driving Escher-like down vertical streets), or when Arthur fights a construct in a corridor that is revolving (the reason for which is explained nicely in the movie) are as breathtaking as anything you’ll see this summer.

I have a soft spot for movies that make you consider the nature of reality and leave you to form your own conclusions about what just happened. Roger Ebert says correctly that this is a movie about the process more than the plot; I can give you spoilers about plot points but the full effect isn’t as bad because those spoilers lose their effect because it’s more about how we reached that point, not about the point itself. Is this a dream? Is it a memory? Is it reality? Is there a reality? There are no easy answers to that, and Nolan wisely allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. If he has his own ideas, he keeps them to himself.

Di Caprio has never been my favorite actor – he’s a bit too angst-suffused for my taste – but this is surely one of his best performances ever. He plays Dom as a man who appears to be emotional on the surface, but the deeper we delve into the character the more we realize he represses his emotions to the extent that most psychiatrists would probably see him as borderline disturbed.

This is the kind of movie you can spend hours in discussion about. Is it a masterpiece or a conversation piece? The answer is it’s a little bit of both. Certainly people will be talking about the ending and its meaning for quite awhile. Movies that can satisfy the need for visceral action sequences and stimulate the mind simultaneously are rare indeed, and Inception does both. In a summer plagued by weak box office and mediocre movies, Inception easily shines as the best movie of the summer season.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking science fiction with some amazing visuals. Di Caprio gives one of the better performances of his career and his terrific supporting cast doesn’t disappoint.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is hard to follow along with in places, and there is a high degree of mumbo jumbo science going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of action and some violence (a lot of shooting). The themes are sufficiently adult enough that I might think twice before bringing very young children who might have trouble following the plot; otherwise, this is suitable for mature pre-teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Dom Cobb, was also the name of a main character in Nolan’s first movie, Following (1998) – furthermore, both characters are thieves.

HOME OR THEATER: The amazing visuals in the movie are best experienced in a movie theater and are even better in the IMAX format if you have an IMAX screen nearby.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Five Minutes of Heaven

Duplicity


A rare occasion when the leads see eye-to-eye.

A rare occasion when the leads see eye-to-eye.

(Universal) Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Rick Worthy, Denis O’Hare, Oleg Shtefanko, Kathleen Chalfant, Khan Baykal, Carrie Preston, Christopher Denham, Thomas McCarthy, Wayne Duvall. Directed by Tony Gilroy.

Events of recent years have convinced most of us of one thing – most corporate entities have zero sense of morality and even fewer ethics. While granola-eating sorts have been suspicious of corporate America for decades, many of their worst fears have proven to be true. I wonder what these people who we once called paranoid will think when they get a gander at Duplicity.

Ray Koval (Owen) is an MI-6 agent working in Dubai when he meets Claire Stenwick (Roberts), a gorgeous woman working at the American consulate. Being a kind of ladies man, he takes the girl to his hotel room where she drugs him and takes from him some Egyptian missile codes. Turns out she works for the CIA. Koval’s career takes a header because of the incident. This would have never happened to James Bond.

A few years later we meet Howard Tully (Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Giamatti), CEOs of rival shampoo companies Burkett-Randall and Equikrom, respectively. They have a mutual loathing that goes beyond business rivalry and has moved into the realm of personal vendetta. Both are paranoid about industrial espionage and have hired former government agents to commit counter-intelligence against the other. When Tully announces a revolutionary new product that will change the game forever, Garsik knows that it is a matter of corporate survival for him to retrieve the formula of the unknown product and market it before his hated rival can destroy him.

We discover that both Stenwick and Koval are working as corporate intelligence experts; one for Burkett-Randall, the other for Equikrom. They are in the perfect position – and have all the right skills – to make a play of their own for the big prize. Because, as we are told through a series of flashbacks, the two have found a serious mutual attraction for each other. However, the game is afoot and there are plenty of twists and turns the two must navigate if they are to make the big score, the most treacherous being that they must first learn to trust one another.

Tony Gilroy previously directed Michael Clayton so he’s capable of directing a good movie. While his previous effort had many twists and turns, this one puts it to shame in that department. Often you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, and nothing is ever what it seems. The unconventional storytelling method (we’re basically shown two parallel stories, one the current corporate espionage tale, the other the evolution of Ray and Claire’s relationship and how they got from bitter rivals to romantic partners.

Owen and Roberts are attractive leads. They’ve worked together once before (in Mike Nichols’ 2004 drama Closer) and the chemistry between them is reasonably good. Owen, in particular, comes off not unlike a modern Cary Grant. However, they are truly outshined by their supporting cast. Giamatti and Wilkinson are two of the better actors working today and they are at the top of their games here, Wilkinson as a driven industrial titan, Giamatti as a corporate pirate with a cult of personality not unlike Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Preston also has a nice couple of scenes as a corporate travel agent seduced by Ray and then interrogated by Claire. That interrogation scene is one of the most memorable in the movie.

While Gilroy occasionally captures the American corporate culture dead on, in a way it’s more of a parody of a typical American corporation. Considering what actual corporate pirates are getting away with these days, these guys seem like buffoons by comparison. And I have to admit that the ending, while unexpected (which I generally appreciate), came off like one twist too many for me. Still, this is a reasonably intelligent caper movie, well-written for the most part and with plenty going for it. I can recommend it on that basis, but it clearly isn’t one of the high-water marks for the genre. Then again, it doesn’t really have to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written, intelligent caper movies are hard to come by these days. The leads are attractive and have decent chemistry. Glittering performances by the supporting cast, particularly Giamatti and Wilkinson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Storytelling method can be a mite confusing at times. Plot twists and turns get to be the movies raison d’etre rather than an element of the plot. Ending was one plot twist too many.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and mild language, but otherwise nothing you’d be embarrassed to bring the kids to.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Julia Roberts’ character Stenwick was named in honor of the late actress Barbara Stanwyck, who made the iconic Double Indemnity.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Control