Love & Saucers


David Huggins does his best Nosferatu impression.

(2017) Documentary (Curator/The Orchard) David Huggins, Michael Huggins, Harold Egeln, Anthony Lisa, Nitten Patel, Doug Auld, Jeffrey Kripel, Andrzej Nowicki.  Directed by Brad Abrahams

 

There are those who insist that we are not alone in the universe. Certainly the law of averages agrees with them; there are so many habitable planets in this galaxy alone that the odds are that life has evolved on at least some of them and of those that life evolved on, the odds are that intelligent life has evolved on at least some of those. Some perhaps even intelligent enough to invent faster-than-light space travel; some perhaps curious enough to explore this big blue marble.

David Huggins at first glance seems like an ordinary 72-year-old man in Hoboken, New Jersey. He works part time at a deli; he’s quiet but personable and radiates a grandfatherly kindness. He spends most of his time painting, a passion of his that at one time he wanted to turn into a career but that never materialized, alas.

David has a strange story to tell; as an 8-year-old living in rural Georgia he began to receive visits from creatures not of this world. As a 17-year-old, he lost his virginity to an alien woman he called Crescent; for six years she would be what he termed his “girlfriend” and they had regular…er, conjugal visits.

He largely forgot about his bizarre past until the episodes began showing up as paintings that he felt compelled to create. He had gone on to marry a fellow artist and had a son (Michael) by her but Michael was apparently not his only child. David recalls a hybrid alien child who Crescent informed him was his child and it was dying. Clearly he was distraught about the situation but it eventually ends with the child surviving; and as it turns out, the hybrid had many brothers and sisters.

Skeptics are going to have a field day with this; Abraham doesn’t do much to argue with any of David’s claims. I can understand why; David certainly seems pretty sincere in his beliefs and while there may be alternate explanations for what David has experienced, they aren’t explored and one gets the sense that Abrahams is giving David the benefit of the doubt and accepting his story at face value. Not every filmmaker would have the objectivity to do that.

One of the things that annoyed me about the documentary was the music. Derk Reneman alternates between Korla Pandit-like organ noodling to electronic burbling. It’s very repetitive and very noticeable which is not what you want out of your soundtrack. However, it’s offset by the visuals of the paintings themselves which Huggins himself admits are heavily influenced by impressionism but aren’t quite in that genre. They are quite interesting albeit a little on the fantastic side. Some won’t connect to them much but art is always – always – in the eye of the beholder.

There aren’t a lot of talking heads in this (other than David himself) until the end of the barely an hour long film and for the most part they all agree that David is a very nice guy and sincere in his beliefs. His son Michael appears and is very diplomatic; one suspects that while he loves his dad he finds his beliefs somewhat eccentric. In any case, Michael has moved to Thailand with his family and seems well-adjusted enough. Conspicuous by her absence is David’s wife Janice who declined to be interviewed for the film. One wonders if the marriage itself is on stable ground or if Janice just finds her husband’s stories annoying. I can imagine it’s a very different experience living with someone who has these tales to tell.

This isn’t an essential movie by any means but it is entertaining and while it is unlikely to change your mind about the existence of extra-terrestrials, it will at least fill up your hour with an unusual take on them. The movie is widely available on VOD (see below) and if you enjoy biographical documentaries about unusual people or if you’re just reasonably interested in alien abductions, this might be something new for you to consider.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer gets the sense that Huggins is absolutely truthful or at least believes himself to be. The paintings have their own strange beauty.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is often annoying and cheesy. The narrative bounces all over the place without a lot of flow to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much sexuality and some nudity in paintings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Abrahams’ first feature-length documentary as a solo director (he also co-directed last year’s On the Back of a Tiger.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Communion
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Boss Baby

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The Purge: Election Year


Ol' Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

Ol’ Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

(2016) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Terry Serpico, Edwin Hodge, Kyle Secor, Barry Nolan, Liza Colon-Zayas, Ethan Phillips, Adam Cantor, Christopher James Baker, Jared Kemp, Brittany Mirabile, Raymond J. Barry, Naeem Duren, Naheem Garcia, Steven Barkhimer, Tom Kemp, Portland Helmich. Directed by James DeMonaco

 

We are a violent nation. There’s no disputing it. It runs in our veins, out the pores in our skin, and in every crack and crevice of our souls. We never left the gunfight at the OK Corral; we’re still out in the middle of the noonday sun, blazing away with our Colts – or just sitting on the side of the street, watching the carnage from a safe distance.

But there are those who are tired of it, who think that the Purge is being used to cleanse the poorer neighborhoods so that the government doesn’t have to spend as much on social programs. Senator Charlie Roan (Mitchell) is running for President on a platform of bringing the Purge to an end. She has seen how the New Founding Fathers, in the person of candidate Minister Edwidge Owens (Secor) who is running against her, have been lining their own pockets.

Of course the powers that be can’t have their cash cow being threatened, so they conspire to bring the crusading Senator to a sticky end. They enact a law which exempts nobody from the Purge – which the Senator would be because of her office – and look to place some moles in her team. The only one she can really trust is her security chief, Leo Barnes (Grillo) who was the subject of the previous Purge is now in the Secret Service and he is constantly exasperated by the Senator’s willingness to go walking into a crowd of supporters to press the flesh. Of course, it’s a nightmare for those trying to protect her from nutjobs and assassins.

With the new law in place and little time to shore up the security at the Senator’s home in suburban DC, Leo sets up what is essentially a fortress and leaves the Senator with the only person he can trust – himself, and maybe her campaign manager (Phillips). Unfortunately, his security team has been compromised and when the Purge starts in earnest, her home is attacked. Leo barely gets her out alive. They are rescued by Joe (Williamson) who owns a deli he’s desperately trying to protect, and his employee Marcos (Soria) who has a vested interest in keeping the deli safe. After an attack by a couple of spoiled bitches who were caught shoplifting by Laney Rucker (Gabriel), a sort of local hero from the Purge a couple years previous (essentially taking over from Carmen Ejogo in a role rewritten for Gabriel when Ejogo turned down a repeat performance), the Senator and Leo make their way to a safe zone operated by the legendary anti-Purge activist Dante Bishop (Hodge), who has plans of his own. Can the Senator survive the night and end the Purge once and for all?

I have long since held that the Purge series is a metaphor for modern politics. The New Founding Fathers are essentially Donald Trump in John McCain’s body. This being lefty Hollywood, you can kind of guess the dim view of the NFFs that the filmmakers take. I am not so naive to think that the right are all monsters and the left are all heroically fighting for the rights of the little guy. As the recent WikiLeaks release has shown us, there is plenty of corruption in the DNC to go around as well.

Grillo, who is mostly known for being  a Hydra agent (Crossbones) in the Captain America movies, takes the unfamiliar heroic role and runs with it pretty well. He is not the matinee idol kind of guy; more of a rugged manly sort. Still, he has a future as an action hero if he chooses to go that route. Mitchell, best known for the TV show Lost, is luminous as Charlie Roan. Even the butt-ugly glasses she is forced to wear don’t take away from her natural glamour. Although some are comparing the character to Hillary Clinton, I think she is meant to be more of an Elizabeth Warren sort, although some may disagree. Secor is not really a Trump sort per se, but some will see certain figures of the Conservative Christian group in the good Minister (who is far from good). Mike Pence, anybody?

DeMonaco has helmed all three of the Purge movies and went from a home invasion story to a kind of overview tale to now one that attacks the mythology behind the story, which is a natural progression in my book and lets us see more into the circumstances in which the Purge would be allowed to continue for so long. In doing so, DeMonaco has helped create a cogent cinematic universe which is all the rage these days. Don’t be surprised if this does well that you don’t see a couple of spin-offs headed our way.

Politics aside, there is kind of a neo-Clockwork Orange vibe going on that is fascinating. It is also interesting that a film that is purportedly against the expression of violence is itself so violent. Some might find that a little hypocritical but I think that the irony is intentional; I’m big on giving Lefties the benefit of the doubt. What is less encouraging is that the movie seems a little more self-repetitive; I suspect the franchise could use a different perspective the next time around, assuming there is one. If there is, I wouldn’t mind but frankly, this was the most meh of the franchise so far.

REASONS TO GO: The movie really drills down into the Purge mythology more than any other film in the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to be running a little bit out of steam.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, some of it graphic and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Edwin Hodge is the only actor to appear in all three Purge movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warriors
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Perfect Husband

The Five-Year Engagement


The Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt thinks Jason Segel’s pointy head is cute.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Rhys Ifans, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Mimi Kennedy, David Paymer, Lauren Weedman, Jacki Weaver, Jim Piddock, Dakota Johnson, Brian Posehn, Mindi Kaling, Randall Park, Kevin Hart, Molly Shannon, Tracee Chimo. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

 

Planning a wedding is a tricky thing. Making it work requires organization, patience and sometimes, a lot of time. Even small weddings can require some juggling skills, particularly when you have to find the right venue, a date that’s  available and make sure it works within everybody’s schedule, at least the main participants. A good sense of humor is a must.

Tom Solomon (Segel) is a sous chef at a fine San Francisco restaurant working for a frenetic and uptight chef Sally (Weedman).  His closest friend is Alex (Pratt), a fellow sous chef who is a cheerfully gross womanizer.

He is dating Violet Barnes (Blunt), a doctoral student in behavioral psychology. Since the moment he laid eyes on her at a New Year’s Eve costume party he knew she was The One, and she knew likewise. He also knows it’s time to propose and although the proposal doesn’t go exactly as planned (why is it that marriage proposals have had to become such production numbers, both in real life and in the movies – are men so insecure that they think that a woman who wants to marry them will change their minds if the proposal isn’t staged elaborately enough?) she still says yes.

They get to planning but Violet is awfully distracted; she’s applied for a position at UC Berkeley that would advance her career greatly but it’s fallen through. When she gets accepted at the University of Michigan for a similar position, the two arrive at a crossroads. Tom decides to give up his position in the prestigious kitchen to follow his fiancée to Ann Arbor and become a chef there. Of course, he finds out only after giving his notice that Sally was planning on making him head chef at her new restaurant. Instead, that job goes to Alex. Things are looking pretty rosy for Alex, who had sex with Violet’s sister Sue (Brie) at the engagement party, knocked her up and is now married to her.

When Tom moves up to Michigan he’s in for quite a culture shock. There’s snow everywhere; on the cars, on the streets, and hiding fire hydrants when he wants to jump into an inviting drift. There’s also no work; some restaurant chefs just laugh at him for giving up a job in San Francisco and he’s forced to get a job at a sandwich shop run by the blunt and profane Tarquin (Posehn).

In the meantime, Violet is taking to her new position like a duck to water. Her charismatic boss Dr. Winton Childs (Ifans) and his lunatic crew of the masturbation-obsessed Doug (Hart), the bitchy Vaneetha (Kaling) and the whack job Ming (Park) have become close friends and a support group. Her career is taking off and her two year contract has become five. The wedding plans are on hold because the pressure is getting to Tom, who has grown Chester Arthur mutton chops and has taken to hunting with a sweater-wearing househusband, while Alex has grown to be a great success in his new restaurant.

What I really like about this movie is that the couple in question don’t face contrived situations based entirely on mis-communication like most of Hollywood’s recent rom-coms. Things happen but because things happen in real life; frustrations that take effect because of situations that could and do happen to anyone.

The chemistry between Blunt and Segel is crucial to making this film work. Their relationship, their love is central to the movie; if you don’t believe in the relationship that is at the crux of the film, you are not going to be sucked in by the story at all. Fortunately, that’s not a problem here.

Segel is one of the most naturally likable guys in Hollywood. He’s easygoing, sweet-natured and perfect for this role. He’s not as over-the-top as say Seth Rogen but he’s still plenty funny. Here he runs the gamut of emotions; he can be giddy, sexy and frustrated. At times his character loses his temper but never in a threatening or obnoxious way. Segel makes Tom a likable guy – and frankly I’d love to have some of his tacos.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses. She’s done yeoman work on a number of pictures in the last couple of years, most recently Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. She’s sexy as well as funny but projects a sense of decency. Violet takes some missteps which people make; she’s not perfect but there’s no doubt that Violet loves Tom very much and Blunt makes that very apparent. It’s hard to realistically portray a deep, lasting relationship onscreen but Segel and Blunt do just that. The chemistry between them is undeniable.

They aren’t the only impressive actors here. Pratt, last seen as a relief pitcher in Moneyball, tears it up here. He steals nearly every scene that he’s in. and he has a terrific chemistry with Brie. The two of them prove themselves able in this film and I foresee big things ahead for both of them, particularly Pratt.

Yeah, there are a few moments that made me wince; unfortunately, that seems to be part and parcel with Hollywood romantic comedies. Still, while this is a Judd Apatow-produced  film and thus has its share of raunchiness it is as sweet-natured as any rom-com you’re gonna see from America. I was pleasantly surprised by it in that sense; I was expecting something rather formulaic and instead got something that felt like we were watching a real relationship. And that, my friends, is priceless.

REASONS TO GO: Really good chemistry between Segel and Blunt. Sweet to the core.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit contrived in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual content as well as plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Segel and Blunt have appeared together in two other movies; Gulliver’s Travels and The Muppets. This is the first time they’ve appeared as romantic partners however.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The film has gotten some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up

WOLVERINE LOVERS: Much of the film is set at the University of Michigan and there are plenty of U of M accoutrements and a couple of jokes at Ohio State’s expense. Michigan fans will be in heaven.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blue Valentine

Solitary Man


Solitary Man

Michael Douglas - alone again, naturally.

(2009) Drama (Anchor Bay) Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Ben Shenkman, Richard Schiff, Olivia Thirlby, Jake Richard Siciliano, David Costabile. Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien

As men get older, they see their vitality slipping away from them, their attractiveness. It is the nature of men to seek out sexual validation, particularly from younger, more attractive women. We need it to remind us that the lion still has teeth and can still roar when need be.

Ben Kalmen (Douglas) was once the toast of Manhattan. As Honest Ben Kalmen, he was one of the top car dealers in the Big Apple. He had a great wife in Nancy (Sarandon), a beautiful daughter in Susan (Fischer). However, he lost all of it – his wife because of his numerous and public infidelities, and his business because of his shady bookkeeping practices.

Now, he’s trying to get it back. He has a new girlfriend, Jordan (Parker), who used to be married to a mobster and now is trying to get with someone nice. She sends Ben up to a school near Boston with her daughter Allyson (Poots) to help check out the place, which also happens to be Ben’s alma mater – and he is able to pull a few strings to get her in. He takes a tour of the joint with Daniel (Eisenberg), a kind of socially awkward kid that Ben takes under his wing a little bit and tries to educate in the ways of men, at least the way manhood as Ben sees it. And then, Ben does something incredibly stupid and in the space of a few moments wipes out everything he’s trying to do.

Now Ben is struggling openly, now with serious heart trouble he finds a job at a deli with an old friend (De Vito) and learning humility in ways that he never thought he could – but are those lessons really taking? Or is Ben still the same man he always was, doomed to make the same mistakes?

This is one of those roles Douglas has excelled at. Not a very nice guy, is this Ben Kalmen. Like Gordon Gekko and the heroes of most of Douglas’ movies, there is a real son of a bitch at the core of his character. He isn’t particularly likable but in every instance he’s compelling. You hate what he’s doing but you can’t look away. Here, Douglas is at his best – this is one of his best performances in the past ten years hands down. When his doctor tells him that his heartbeat is irregular, Douglas’ face freezes and you can see his world coming to a stop. It’s a terrific moment, one that can only be accomplished by a great actor and Douglas is most certainly that.

His scenes with De Vito, who worked with him so regularly in the 80s, are masterful, two old pros comfortable together with one another and knowing each other like an old married couple. It doesn’t hurt to have people like Susan Sarandon supporting you either, and in all honesty, all of the actors here do a terrific job, with Eisenberg, on the cusp of stardom as he filmed this, particularly good in a role that on the surface seems a lot like the other roles he does but the more you watch him you realize that Eisenberg has some pretty good range that you never thought about.

It’s too bad the story here didn’t measure up to the acting. Unfortunately, there are a few cliches that get in the way of truly enjoying this. In addition, the movie loses steam near the end and the ending is a bit predictable leading up to the final scene.

In that final scene, Ben is given a shot at redemption but a pretty girl walks in front of him. He stands up, with the option of walking after the girl and into his old self-destructive ways, or towards forgiveness and maybe, a life. The credits roll before he makes his choice, but you honestly don’t know which way he is going to choose. Even though the events leading up to this moment are somewhat cliché, you are still left wondering which way events are going to transpire and for my money, that’s a great ending.

This is a seriously flawed work that is redeemed by the strength of the performances, which are almost to a person worth seeing. Ben Kalmen is not someone you’d probably want to have in your life, but he is incredibly charming and I sure didn’t mind spending a couple of hours with him. You’ll no doubt find yourself feeling the same way.

WHY RENT THIS: Douglas is spectacular and gets some fine support from DeVito, Parker, Eisenberg, Poots and Sarandon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story was a bit cliché and lost steam in the final 20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The college scenes were filmed at Fordham; Douglas’ next movie (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) also was filmed at Fordham and also had Sarandon in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.2M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Funny People


Funny People

Jason Schwartzmann, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are all funny people.

(Universal) Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Eric Bana, Leslie Mann, Jason Schwartzmann, RZA, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari. Directed by Judd Apatow

We love to laugh. Those who can make us laugh with amazing regularity own a special place in our hearts. However, the cost of that laughter can often be unbearable.

George Simmons (Sandler) is one of the planet’s top comedians. His movies have grossed hundreds of millions, and his stand-up act is legendary. He is also undeniably alone; his ex-girlfriend Laura (Mann) left him because George cheated on her. Now, George has just received some devastating news – he has a rare and fatal blood disease. His doctors want to try an experimental treatment, but the prognosis is grim.

Ira Wright (Rogen) is an aspiring stand-up who, as his co-worker Chuck (RZA) at the deli he works at opines, isn’t very funny. Ira sleeps on the couch in an apartment shared by Ira’s friend Leo (Hill) who is also a stand-up comedian (only much better and more successful) and Mark (Schwartzmann) who has hit the jackpot – he’s the lead on an NBC sitcom that, while not very good, at least pays Mark exceedingly well.

George decides to excise his demons through standup and goes to an open-mike competition at his old stomping grounds where Ira and Leo are also performing, along with Randy (Ansari), a rival comic with a biting sense of humor. George is somewhat impressed with Ira and Leo and offers them jobs as writers but Ira, in an uncharacteristic move, cuts Leo out of the equation.

The two form an odd relationship as George hires Ira to be his assistant but there’s definitely a bond between them. Ira is one of the few people…okay the only person…that George can confide in. Otherwise, George is somewhat insufferable, often treating Ira like dirt, so isolated by his own celebrity that he can’t reach out in his hour of need.

Despite the title, this isn’t a movie about comedy or even really about comedians, and despite the plot it’s not a movie about dealing with mortality either. That’s more or less a side issue. What the movie is about is isolation and what it does to us. This is a movie about human beings who happen to work as comedians, but it isn’t about being a comedian.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t be. It works as a matter of fact, particularly the first two-thirds of the movie. Where it falls flat is in the last third wherein George tries to win Laura back from her obnoxiously macho Aussie husband (Bana). Even though Mann gives a thoroughly satisfying performance in her role as George’s muse, the sad fact of the matter is that the situation here is painful in many ways and when Ira pleads “Can’t we just go now” I can empathize.

On the plus side, Sandler and Rogen both give their best performances ever. Sandler shows the kind of depth he displayed in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me and takes it to new levels. This is far from the lovable kinds of characters he’s played in movies like Happy Gilmore or Bedtime Stories; in fact, George Simmons is a bit of a prick. It takes some courage to go as far out of his comfort zone as Sandler appears to here.

Rogen has mostly played lovable stoners throughout his career. Here, he is a bit more driven, a bit more ambitious and a little less lovable. He’s basically a decent guy and yet he screws over a friend. He is kind of sweet on fellow comedian Daisy (Plaza) but can’t bring himself to ask her out on a date and gets furious with her when she sleeps with Mark. Yes, he’s a bit of a loser but one senses he isn’t going to remain that way for long.

I liked the movie enough to overlook that final reel which doesn’t work as well. The crux of the movie seems to belong more in the relationship between George and Ira than it does to George and Laura; certainly that whole sequence could and should have been cut down significantly.

What works here works really well. The standup sequences are incredible in places, and I did laugh a lot throughout. While there is a good deal of emphasis on penis humor, it isn’t enough to be off-putting. Sadly, the movie was mis-marketed by Universal who portrayed the movie as a straight comedy and it really isn’t that, so the film didn’t do the box office it probably deserved. However, it is worth taking a peek, particularly if you like your movies to run the gamut of emotions.

WHY RENT THIS: Some genuinely funny moments as well as some genuine pathos. Sandler and Rogen are at the top of their games.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole winning back of his wife thing is often awkward and uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a tremendous amount of blue language and some crude sexual references; it’s R-rated stand-up comedy for sure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George and Ira are named after the brothers George and Ira Gershwin, the famous composer and lyricist who among other things, composed Rhapsody in Blue.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a lot going on, both on the 2-disc Collectors DVD edition and the Blu-Ray.  There is a video diary from Apatow that gives extensive insight into the making of the movie. Archival footage shows Sandler and Apatow appearances on Letterman, Dennis Miller’s talk show and “The Midnight Hour with Bill Maher.” There’s also a faux documentary on Randy, the Ansari character who will be getting a feature film of his own shortly and a “highlight reel” of George’s film career. There are also the full versions of the songs James Taylor performs at the MySpace Party, as well as full jams between Sandler and Jon Brion, and some rapping by RZA. The Blu-Ray version also contains an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show by Sandler and Apatow promoting the film. All in all one of the more impressive packages for any recent release.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Eat, Pray, Love