Olympic Dreams


Olympic gold.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Nick Kroll, Alexi Pappas, Gus Kenworthy, Morgan Schild. Directed by Jeremy Teicher

 

Sometimes, less is more.

Armed with a minimal crew and a largely improvised script (that never feels it), Teicher, co-writer Pappas and a small cast were granted extraordinary access to the Olympic village at the 2018 PyeongChang winter games. While the backstage pass is half the fun here, it is not all of it.

Penelope (Pappas, who was an Olympic runner at the 2016 Rio games in real life) is a cross-country skier on the American team who approaches the opening ceremony of the Games with a mixture of childlike wonder and deer-in-the-headlights fear. Her event will be one of the very first of the games so she doesn’t have a whole lot of time to take it all in. She does her best – gets a personal best time, as a matter of fact, but as is sometimes the case, her best isn’t good enough. She finishes out of the medal competition.

She’s left with a whole lot of time and not much to do. On the other hand, Ezra (Kroll) is a volunteer dentist, an Olympic junkie who has waited for this moment for his entire life. He loves chatting with the athletes and sees that Penelope is a bit down in the dumps, so he approaches her. Eventually the two form a friendship and while both are a bit awkward – Penelope’s training precluded any sort of social life, while Ezra is hampered by a fiancée back at home that he is taking an unwilling break from – they circle each other, unsure of what move to make next.

All this takes place amid the pomp and pageantry of the Games and on “dates” in PyeongChang itself. Teicher, who did most of the filming and sound recording himself, manages to capture a kind of rom-com sweetness that transcends the location which is quite a feat. Kroll and Pappas have real chemistry together and we get a real sense of what Penelope is going through, a kind of “What now?” moment that she doesn’t have an easy answer for. She is alone in a crowded room, not possessed of the self-confidence some of the other athletes have, and her isolation is often palpable. She has no friends and makes tearful calls to her coach at home, exclaiming on what a great time she’s having while it’s clear she is hurting.

Ezra, likewise, is finding it harder than he thought. He is not happy with his life and suspects that his fiancée might not be the right woman for him – he loves to travel and she hates leaving the States. Still, he is not a man who likes to take chances – he’s a dentist fer chrissakes – who yearns to step out of the rut he’s in but is unsure if he has it in him to do so.

In a very real sense they are good for each other, but like most real people they are also bad for each other. The two fight – over his inability to take a chance, over her self-centered devotion to her sport – and one wonders what kind of future the two could possibly have. In addition, there’s an age factor – he’s 37, she’s 22 – which isn’t belabored in the film but is clearly on Ezra’s mind.

The ending kind of gets to a point that you think it’s going to go but it doesn’t get there the way you thought it might. You at times want to shake Ezra and tell him “WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU? KISS THE GIRL, DAMMIT!” and at the same time you want to shake Penelope and tell him “WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU? YOU’RE COMING ON TOO STRONG!!” The script does follow kind of a standard rom-com formula and like I said it doesn’t always go about it in the way you’d expect, but those who love this much-abused genre are going to enjoy this. It’s even appropriate that it came out on Valentine’s Day. Not a bad way to spend a cold night with your honey, in front of a TV set with a warm blanket, hot cocoa and this film. There is nothing wrong with having the cockles of your heart warmed, after all.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a lot of charm here.
REASONS TO AVOID: There is also a few rom-com tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film that was allowed to shoot in the Olympic village during an Olympic games.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes:63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cutting Edge
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beautiful Boy

Bennett’s Song


In a family with fourteen kids, every night is a girl’s night out!

(2018) Family Comedy (Vision) Tara Reid, Dennis Haskins, Aphrodite Nikolovsky, Calhoun Koenig, Harley Wallen, Victoria Mullen, Morgan Nimmo, Arielle Olkhovsky, Joseph Ouelette, Dennis Marin, Aleksandra Luca, Evan Keoshian, La’Kenya Howard-Luster, Da’Mya Gogoua, Rees Curran, Cayleigh Brown, Maya Patel, Janellyn Woo, Lucas Yassayan, Chevonne Wilson. Directed by Harley Wallen

 

Family is family; they come in all shapes and sizes. One person’s idea of what a family is may be completely different than what another person might think they are. No two families are ever alike; they all have their own dynamics, their own issues.

\Susan Song (Nikolovsky) is a cheerful 40-something dentist who is a divorcee left with seven adopted kids of various ethnicities. She meets ex-MMA fighter and current gym owner Cole Bennett (Wallen), the son of a Saturday morning TV show host (Haskins) who something of a touchy-feely version of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He’s a widower who, like Susan, has been left raising seven adopted kids of various ethnicities on his own.

The two hit it off and begin dating – awkwardly. It becomes clear soon enough that the two belong together but a family of fourteen kids of varying ages and ethnicities is going to be no easy task to raise. With Pearl Song (Koenig) having dreams of pop stardom, the family soon realizes they are going to have to work together to make things work for everyone. With a neighbor (Reid) who seems hell-bent on making the new blended family miserable and incidents of racism causing anguish for some of the younger kids, that’s going to be easier said than done.

This is very much a family film in the vein of Cheaper By the Dozen and The Brady Bunch. There is definitely a warmth and charm generated by the film but unfortunately it isn’t enough to overcome glaring problems. Perhaps most glaring of all is the acting; it is wooden, stiff and unnatural. The line delivery sounds more like a script reading than a finished product. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is clunky, with the jokes sitcom-stale and hoary (“Sure she’s smart and pretty and she’s standing right behind me isn’t she”) in an inoffensive way. You don’t need to be vulgar to be funny but you don’t need to be inoffensive to be family-friendly either.

When your two biggest names come from Sharknado and Saved by the Bell you have problems. There’s just nothing here that approaches even the lowest standard of acceptable filmmaking. To be fair the writers do attempt to address 21st century family issues like racism, blended families, financial issues and bullying but the problem here is that it doesn’t address them believably.

I get that indie filmmaking sometimes requires a little bit of a lower bar when considering the inexperience of a newer cast and crew but this is more like a filmed version of a community theater play and a bad one at that. In fact, saying that is an insult to community theater and I don’t mean it to be. There’s nothing about this movie that I can recommend unless you’re itching to see Tara Reid in a villainous role.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is wooden and lifeless. The dialogue is cliché. The comedy is all recycled from sitcoms.
REASONS TO STAY: Their heart is in the right place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yours, Mine and Ours
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Juliet, Naked

All We Had


Have a Coke and a smile.

Have a Coke and a smile.

(2016) Drama (Gravitas) Katie Holmes, Stefania Owen, Richard Kind, Luke Wilson, Mark Consuelos, Eve Lindley, Siobhan Fallon, Katherine Reis, Judy Greer, Richard Petrocelli, Odiseas Georgiadis, Michael Cavadias, Lolita Foster, Tim Markham, Osh Ghanimah, Randy Gonzalez, Milly Guzman, Rahmel Long, John McLaughlin, Amelie McKendry, Aly Brier. Directed by Katie Holmes

 

Statistically speaking, women make up the majority of the poverty class. Statistics however do not tell us the entire story. Each number on that sheet is a person, a person with a story and a person who has been under unimaginable stress. Unimaginable…unless you’ve lived it.

Rita (Holmes) hasn’t exactly had a sterling track record when it comes to men. She’s made a lot of bad choices and now, in 2008, she is fleeing her latest boyfriend disaster along with her 15-year-old daughter Ruthie (Owen). She sells her TV set and hits the road, hoping to make it to Boston where she and her daughter dream of having a two-story house with a pool. Given that the economy is about to crash and burn, it isn’t a very realistic dream but it is a dream nonetheless.

The two shoplift when they need to until the car finally gives out in a small town. A kind-hearted diner owner named Marty (Kind) goes the compassionate route when Rita and Ruthie fail at the dine and dash scam and gives Rita a job waitressing along with his transgender niece Peter Pam (Lindley).

Ruthie turns out to be quite the smart cookie and shows signs of doing really well in school, but tries to fit in with the wrong crowd. Rita hooks up with an unscrupulous realtor (Consuelos) who puts her in a foreclosure house; Rita doesn’t realize the terms of her mortgage are predatory and as business begins to dry up at the diner as the town is hit by unemployment and foreclosures, Rita and Ruthie realize they are about to lose their home.

Still, there is Lee (Wilson), an alcoholic widower who is also the town dentist who has taken a shine to Rita, whose former beau has since hit the road. Rita, who has a history of running away at the first sign of trouble, wants to stay in town. Ironically it is Ruthie, who has been the more mature one in the relationship, who wants to leave. Rita is finally getting her act together and recognizing her own issues, but is it enough and in time to salvage her relationship with Ruthie?

This is Katie Holmes directing debut and while it isn’t particularly an auspicious one she doesn’t disgrace herself either. The movie is pretty much shot by the numbers which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The mistake a lot of first-time directors make is trying too hard to make a mark by using unusual shot setups or narratives. While the narration by Owen is occasionally off-putting, the story is told in a straightforward manner which is at least from this quarter well-received.

There is more than a passing physical resemblance between Holmes and Owen; they look very much like mother and daughter (although the running joke in the movie is that they are mistaken for sisters) which does a lot to add to the realism. One of the things I like about the script is that Ruthie isn’t as worldly as she thinks she is, which again is somewhat realistic when looking at teens, particularly teen girls. The roles of the two women move towards each other; as the movie begins, Ruthie is the mature one. As the movie ends, it is Rita who has that mark.

You’re not used to seeing Holmes in this kind of role; it is gritty and often unpleasant. She wears too-short skirts on dates and blue eyeliner without a whole lot of other make-up; it’s kind of a white trash look. It isn’t the most attractive you’ll see Ms. Holmes, but it is a challenging role for her and I for one am glad to see her stretching a bit, even if she had to direct herself in order to do it.

Kind is one of those actors we tend to take for granted; he always seems to reflect a real honest humanity that genuinely makes me like him. It’s nice to see him have a meatier role than he usually gets. Wilson also is one of those genuinely nice-guy actors who when he gets a chance to play one seems to hit it out of the ballpark and he does so here. In a movie in which Rita starts off a cynic “trust nobody” sort, it’s a smart move for Holmes to pepper her cast with actors who reflect genuine warmth and goodness.

It should also be noticed that the film deals with the transgender issue pretty honestly if a bit over-the-top. There’s a fairly shocking scene in which some of Peter Pam’s tormentors go to the next level. It is a situation all too many transgenders have to face in reality, a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon particularly now.

One of the big problems with the movie is that the pacing is uneven. Some scenes feel rushed and seem to fly by; others seem to stretch out for uncomfortably long periods. A surer hand in the editing bay might have helped here. Also, the script doesn’t benefit by seeing all the major issues that Rita and Ruthie face getting neatly solved one after the other. Anyone who has lived hand to mouth as these ladies do will tell you that it really doesn’t work that way in real life. Some problems don’t have neat solutions.

I don’t know that Holmes has a bright future as a director, but I think she might. Certainly she made a movie that is entirely watchable and while it isn’t perfect, she acquits herself pretty well as a first-timer. I do like the point of view that she takes as a filmmaker and I like that she’s willing to take risks as an actress. I hope that she plays it a little less safe next time as a director.

REASONS TO GO: An unflinching look at women in poverty. This is a very different role for Holmes.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is somewhat erratic. Problems are too easily solved here which isn’t very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Anne Weatherwax novel this is based on was endorsed by no less than Oprah Winfrey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mermaids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Stevie D

Kill Me Three Times


Nothing like a man who enjoys his work.

Nothing like a man who enjoys his work.

(2014) Action Comedy (Magnet) Simon Pegg, Alice Braga, Sullivan Stapleton, Teresa Palmer, Luke Hemsworth, Bryan Brown, Steve Le Marquand, Callan Mulvey, Greg Miles, Brodie Masini, Tony Spencer, Arthur Vaka, Roland van Zwol, Isaac Griffiths, Daniel Berenger, Andrew Bongiovanni, Antonio Barimen, Anna Philip, Rebecca Caldwell, Veronica Wayle. Directed by Kriv Stenders

This whole mess we call life comes with unpleasant situations and even less pleasant people. All of us without exception have to put up with both at some point in our lives. However, there can come a time when you just can’t put up with even one more minute of one or the other.

Told from three different points of view and going back and revisiting events that have already transpired so that the audience supposedly gets a different perspective as to why people are behaving the way they do, the movie is set in a Western Australian resort town. There, Jack (Mulvey) owns a kind of generic hotel and bar on the ocean along with his wife Alice (Braga). He’s an abusive rotter and she has taken refuge in an affair with hunky Dylan (Hemsworth).

Jack gets wind of the affair and hires Charlie Wolfe (Pegg), a private detective and occasional assassin, to take out his wife. When Charlie scopes out the situation, he realizes that he isn’t the only one whose services have been retained. Jack’s sister Lucy (Palmer) has goaded her feckless husband Nathan (Stapleton), the local dentist, to take the job on and, in a complicated plot point, use Alice’s body to fake Lucy’s death so that they can collect on an insurance settlement that will allow Nathan to pay off his substantial gambling debts which a corrupt cop (Brown) has been hired to collect.

Naturally things go off the rails and bullets fly, not always hitting the target they’re intended to. Charlie watches all of this transpire with a bemused grin until we realize that he is far more involved in this than we were originally led to believe.

The comedy here is very broad and exceedingly dark, with people getting killed left and right and not always in nice ways – not that there is a nice way to get killed. There is a good deal of violence involved, some of it fairly brutal so those who tend towards squeamishness should be well-warned.

Pegg is one of those comic actors who is incredibly likable, even when he’s playing an absolute soulless SOB. Even though Charlie is a nasty piece of work, you can’t help but enjoy Pegg’s performance. Definitely this is his movie and like Shaun of the Dead he carries it flawlessly. Unfortunately for Pegg, it’s a pretty light load.

That’s because the movie, despite all its twists and turns and double crosses (and triple crosses) doesn’t really do anything new or different. Most of the turns aren’t terribly clever and the characters are all so irredeemably rotten that you don’t really care what happens to most of them. Palmer is gorgeous as the shrewish wife and Stapleton, who played a very different character in 300: Rise of an Empire, is actually reasonably gifted as a comic actor.

For most the only way to check this out will be on VOD which is how I saw it and for most, that will be just fine. I can’t imagine the big screen will add all that much to the film, although I will say that the cinematography is bright and beautiful, although not breathtaking. The way I essentially view the movie overall can be summed up by a scene in which Pegg’s Charlie Wolfe watches from a distance a car tumble over the side of a cliff, then chuckles smugly to himself. No words I can write will adequately describe the movie as well as that image. If you are planning on a VOD evening, there are many, many choice that are far better uses of your time and fees. This is essentially only for Simon Pegg’s fan club.

REASONS TO GO: Pegg is always worth the effort.
REASONS TO STAY: Derivative and not very funny. A lot like a TV movie, only less clever. May be too violent for some..
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a fair share of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stapleton and Mulvey both appeared in the Swords and Sandals epic 300: Rise of an Empire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Fuzz
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Inherent Vice


Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

(2014) Mystery (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Michelle Sinclair, Elaine Tan, Martin Donovan, Erica Sullivan, Sasha Pieterse. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Those of a certain age will remember the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The flower children whose innocence combined with rampant drug use and sexual experimentation and some new age noodling ended up making them targets for ridicule in the 80s and beyond. Long haired sorts blissed out on whatever drug of choice was handy, smiling beatifically and mouthing pseudo-philosophical aphorisms of pseudo-depth that were in the end senseless became something of a cultural stereotype, but in truth they did believe in love and peace, which has to be better than believing in money and war.

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) is a private eye living in Manhattan Beach – called Gordita Beach here – in 1970. Sporting mutton chops that both Wolverine and a British sailor from the 1820s would envy, he is mainly content to work on such cases that came in to his office that he shares with dentists and the rest of the time, smoke pot and hang out with his latest lady friends who at the moment happens to be Assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Witherspoon).  Life is pretty sweet.

Into his life comes an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston). She happens to be having an affair with big-time L.A. developer Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts) and who has been undergoing some sort of guilt trip, possibly brought on by heroin addiction. He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazi bikers which is interesting since he himself is Jewish. His wife and her boyfriend want to put Mickey away in a sanitarium and throw away the key by which means they’ll gain control over his fortune. Shasta Fay begs Doc to look into it and Doc, being the last of the knights errant, agrees to. Shasta Fay promptly disappears.

I could tell you how the rest of the story goes but it won’t make sense. It is, after all, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel. However, I will say that there is an ambitious cop named Bigfoot (Brolin) who may be a staunch ally of Doc or setting him up for a murder charge – or maybe both, an Indonesian heroin cartel laundering their money through a consortium of dentists called The Golden Fang, a saxophone player (Wilson) and heroin addict who has disappeared, leaving his wife (Malone) frantic, a shady Hispanic lawyer (del Toro) and a sweet but scatter-brained assistant who narrates the movie (Newsom).

In the interests of fairness, there are a lot of people whom I respect that really liked this movie a lot but for me, this is more like The Master than There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s worst and best films to date (although I must admit Boogie Nights comes close to the latter). I can understand why they liked the movie – the visual style, the well-written dialogue (with Pynchon you can’t go wrong in that regard) and the performances but this is one of those movies that depends on excess but sometimes, more is way too much.

Like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies, this meanders all over hell and gone, following one thread until it gets played out or Anderson gets bored with it and then suddenly switching to another. Keeping track of who is allied with who is apt to cause your brain to spontaneously ignite into flames. Don’t bother because it doesn’t really matter much in the end anyway.

The thing is that Anderson (like Pynchon before him) is doing a kind of stoner noir here, a hard-bitten detective story with a soft-chewing hippie detective. You’ll smell the intoxicating mix of patchouli, marijuana smoke and incense blending together at the same time as you feel like you’re in a stoners apartment in which a fine layer of ash coats everything and every container possible has stubbed out cigarette butts and the counter tops faint signs of cocaine lines left behind. Both Da Queen and I felt the squalor permeating our skin and exited the theater into the cool night air, relieved to be breathing in something fresh and unadulterated by intoxicants.

Phoenix and Brolin are fine actors, Oscar nominees both. Phoenix does befuddled about as well as anybody and he plays stoned perhaps better than anybody save Seth Rogen. He captures the part of Doc about as well as anybody’s going to without doing the copious amounts of weed that Doc does during the film – and who knows, maybe he did. Brolin on the other hand plays the flat topped brush cut cop who wants to be the next Jack Webb but is more likely to be the most recent Martin Milner. He’s the best part of the movie, partially comic relief but not always.

We get that people did a lot of drugs in the 70s. We don’t have to see them light up in every fucking scene, take a long drag, and then proceed with the scene. I would estimate that about 20 minutes of the two and a half hour run time is devoted to watching people go through the mechanics of smoking dope and cigarettes and it gets monotonous. So too does the story, which meanders from place to place, becoming maddeningly interesting but just when it’s about to, takes off on another tangent with the previous story elements never to reappear again. Eventually the last 30 minutes the film picks up steam and for that reason the movie isn’t getting the first Zero rating this site has ever given out but it came damn close.

I get the sense that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ego wrote checks that this movie didn’t have the funds to cash and I’m not talking budget here. Pynchon as a writer has a delightful command of language and to Anderson’s credit as the screenwriter adapting his work, he does try to utilize that in the script where he can. Sadly, both Pynchon and Anderson are guilty of the same kinds of excesses – one in literature, the other in cinema – and the two don’t make a good match.

I’ve always admired Anderson for his creativity and for making movies that don’t conform to any standards, but that is a double edged sword and the blade is cutting deep here. Whereas There Will Be Blood is damn near a masterpiece, this is kind of a sordid mess that never really manages to get going and throws so many characters at you that pretty soon you begin confusing one longhair for another. That’s never a good sign. I had hopes that the combination of Pynchon and Anderson might yield up a great movie. Some folks may argue that it did. I would contend that it did not.

REASONS TO GO: You can always walk out.
REASONS TO STAY: Way long. Dwells on minutiae too much. Watching stoners being stoned is about as entertaining as watching mimes at work.
FAMILY VALUES: Near-constant drug use and profanity. Some violence. There’s also a good deal of sexual content and occasional graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that Rudolph has appeared in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The two have been a couple for more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 1/10
NEXT: Listen Up, Philip

Horrible Bosses 2


The cast of Horrible Bosses 2, sneakin' around,

The cast of Horrible Bosses 2, sneakin’ around,

(2014) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Chris Pine, Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Christoph Waltz, Jonathan Banks, Lindsay Sloane, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Stables, Jerry Lambert, Sam Richardson, Brianne Howey, Lidia Porto, Jaye Razor, Lennon Parham, Alyssa Preston, Suzy Nakamura, Keeley Hazell. Directed by Sean Anders

I have to admit that I have a fondness for movies set in the workplace. We can all relate to those – the tedious drudgery, the office politics and of course the horrible bosses.

The makers of this film brought that to sharp focus with Horrible Bosses, a 2011 movie that I found seriously funny as three Joe Schmoes with psychotic employers plot to get out of the situation the only way they know how – by killing their bosses. Of course, they know nothing about how to do this so they ask an expert.

Two years later they are going into business for themselves. Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Day) have come up with a new product that is sure to be a big hit – the Shower Buddy, a kind of car wash for people that automatically sprays shampoo and conditioner into your hair and then rinses. I know there are people out there thinking right now “Say, that’s a good idea…” It plays to the laziness of the American consumer which is never a bad idea.

They bring it to Rex Hanson (Pine), the son of billionaire marketer Bert Hanson (Waltz). What they don’t realize that they are a trio of guppies swimming among sharks. It doesn’t take them long to take their best-laid plans and see them ground into the dust. With bankruptcy and scandal looming, they come up with another loony tunes idea – to kidnap Rex and use the ransom to save their company. Their old buddy Mofo Jones (Foxx) thinks it’s a sweet deal.

That’s all well and good but they haven’t taken a few things into account; one, Rex is basically psychotic. Second, they’re still swimming around in a pool full of sharks. Lastly, they’re essentially morons. Predictably they end up going from the frying pan into the proverbial fire.

And predictable is the word of the moment here. Many of the jokes are rehashes of things that went on in the first movie. That’s never a good sign, especially when the first movie was more successful when it was edgy while this one seems more geared to play it safe. I’ve read elsewhere that the original intent for the sequel was to have Nick, Kurt and Dale finally move into managerial positions and all three of them have employees who get fed up with their antics and plot to off them. The studio chickened out on that concept but I think it would have made for a much better movie.

The chemistry between Sudeikis, Bateman and Day isn’t marvelous but it’s workable. While a lot of critics are enamored of Day and his style, I find his voice to be whiny and irritating. Sometimes people just get on your nerves for no particular reason. Looking as objectively as I can, I can’t fault his performance and I wouldn’t be surprised if he pushed through to bigger and better things. Bateman, the master of comic exasperation, plays to his strengths and Sudeikis, who co-starred with Aniston last year in We’re the Millers, continues to build up to being one of the leading comic actors in Hollywood.

The support crew is pretty good, and Pine comes in like a bull in a china shop which in this case is a good thing. Pine, who has primarily done more action-oriented roles, has decent comic timing and I think that roles like this will mark him as a more versatile actor, opening up more doors for him than were previously available. Sadly, Waltz – one of my favorite actors over the past five years or so – is completely wasted in a part that he really looks uncomfortable in. Pity, that.

The movie isn’t nearly as manic or as well-paced as its predecessor. It just feels more leaden, less like the actors are having a good time and more that they’re punching a clock. It’s not that Horrible Bosses 2 is that bad – it really isn’t – it’s just that it’s not that good either. I don’t really advise you to go see it. If you do, chances are it will be forgotten ten minutes after you leave the theater and if that’s what you’re going for, then get yourself a ticket. If you want something a little more memorable, move along.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent individual performances. A few really funny bits.
REASONS TO STAY:
Lacks the energy of the first film. Recycles too many jokes from Horrible Bosses.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of overt and suggestive sexual material, a whole lot of profanity and a couple of scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In a scene in the Nick & Kurt & Dale office, one can see a schematic of the Shower Buddy which is shaped like the U.S.S. Enterprise; that was done to honor Chris Pine who plays Captain Kirk in the reboot of Star Trek.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Teacher
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Babadook

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles)


Wild Grass

Sabine Azema realizes that she’s lost the winning lotto ticket.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Sabine Azema, Andre Dussollier, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Vuillermoz, Edouard Baer (voice), Annie Cordy, Sara Forestier, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Vladimir Consigny, Dominique Rozan, Candice Charles. Directed by Alain Resnais

 

There are those that say things happen for a reason. Others say that life is a series of happy (or unhappy accidents), that everything is random chance. For them, life is a series of small miracles of cause and reaction.

Marguerite Muir is a dentist who has unusually sized feet. Finding shoes in her size is for her a bit tricky and often painful. She stops in a shoe store while on a lunch break and discovers, wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, a pair that fits. She is so giddy when she leaves the shop that she fails to notice what’s happening around her and her purse is snatched.

Georges Palet is closer to sixty than to fifty and is unemployed. His life has been colored by a dark secret in his past, one that haunts him in everything he does. While he is married to Suzanne (A. Consigny), there is something missing. He finds Marguerite’s wallet with her ID. He wants to return it to her personally, but that proves to be too much of a logistical difficulty. He winds up turning it into the police from whom she picks it up.

Feeling a bit guilty at her ingratitude, she calls up Georges to make amends. A series of awkward conversations follow and soon the two begin to feel more comfortable around each other. Georges has a thing about aviation. She’s an amateur pilot. Soon, a kind of friendship ensues. Suzanne is pulled into the maelstrom, as is Marguerite’s closest friend and business partner Josepha (Devos).

Director Alain Resnais, one of the greatest of all French directors and auteur of such classics as Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima mon amour  and Mon oncle d’Amerique, was 87 when this was filmed and hasn’t lost a beat. There’s nothing stodgy here, although one figures that in another epoch Resnais might have used younger actors. Both Georges and Marguerite are in their 50s here and the viewpoint is different than might be if the characters were in their 20s or 30s.

This is in some ways a maddening film. There is much left unspoken – what event in Georges past haunts him so much in the present day, for example and yet there is an intrusive voiceover by Baer that sometimes goes in a whimsical direction, changing mood and one suspects, the storyline itself. In fact, there is a sense that the narrator is making things up and not necessarily telling us what really “happened.” That gives the film the sense of a story someone is telling you, brought to life. That’s an interesting sensation, but ultimately unsatisfying from a cinematic viewpoint.

On the plus side, this is one of the more beautifully filmed movies that I’ve seen recently. Ranging from pleasant home gardens, slick neon-lit cityscapes and barren landscapes, every image seems to reinforce the mood of the film. Mark Isham’s jazzy score also nicely reinforces the mood.

Azema and Dussollier are both veterans of Resnais’ films, and both seem to know instinctively what their director wants of them. The two have a comfortable chemistry, no doubt fostered by the director who lets the two actors inhabit their roles nicely.

Unfortunately, the movie also illustrates one of my pet peeves about auteur cinema – the tendency to sacrifice story for form. The movie then becomes about the packaging and not what’s inside it; when art becomes Art, it usually means that there is some self-indulgence going on.

This isn’t the easiest movie to sit through. It tends to give you too much detail about things you don’t care about and not enough about things you do care about. That can be frustrating for the viewer. Are the rewards worth the frustrations in the end? That really kind of depends on how much of an investment of time and thought you want to put into the movie, and that kind of depends on how inspired you are by the characters and the story. In my case, not really as much as I wanted to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully filmed and well-acted. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overbearing narration. Sometimes too artsy-fartsy for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the mature side. There are also a few bad words scattered throughout as well as some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Roger Pierre appeared in a cameo role as an elderly dental patient, espousing that this would be his last visit to the dentist that he’d ever need. The actor passed away shortly after filming was completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette about production designer Jacques Saulnier.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.6M on a $14M production budget; unfortunately, the movie didn’t make back its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Valet

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Mother and Child

The Dukes


The Dukes

The Dukes engage in a competition to see which one can hold his arms at his sides the longest.

(2007) Dramedy (CAVU) Robert Davi, Chazz Palminteri, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank D’Amico, Elya Baskin, Miriam Margolyes, Eloise DeJoria, Melora Hardin, Bruce Weitz, Joseph Campanella, Dominic Scott Kay, Elaine Hendrix, Alphonse Mouzon. Directed by Robert Davi

There are those in this life who seem forever doomed to be runners-up, also-rans and second-raters. It just seems as if no matter how hard they try, they never win the blue ribbon. They’re the sorts who get attendance awards in school, who are snubbed by all the girls except for the ones who can’t get dates, and who seem to have the knack for parlaying what talents they do have into mediocrity and obscurity.

The Dukes define this trait. A doo-wop band from the 60s, they got big just as the trend was on its way out and managed one minor hit to call their own before music passed them by. Still, they labor gamely on, led by their cockroach of a manger Lou (Bogdanovich), playing seedy dives and getting work in awful commercials in which they must dress as fruits and vegetables.

Still, Danny (Davi) is reasonably optimistic, despite a lifetime of letdowns. Then, when his ex-wife Diane (Hardin) gets his son’s teeth fixed by the orthodontist she’s dating, it seems like the last straw. He can’t even provide for his family like a man and little wonder since he and brother George (Palminteri) have resorted to working in their Aunt Vee’s (Margolyes) kitchen, slinging plates of pasta while dreaming of opening their own place.

When they get wind of a fortune in gold being kept in a dentist’s vault, they and fellow Dukes Murph (Baskin) and Armond (D’Amico) decide to pull off a heist, something that will solve all of their money problems. They enlist the aid of a professional (Weitz) to teach them what they need to know to pull off the job. Of course, given the track record of the Dukes they’re going to need a lot more than that.

Davi has made a living playing the heavy in films like Licence to Kill and The Goonies; this might come as a bit of a surprise for those who know him through those roles. Here he plays a somewhat lovable kind-hearted schlub who dreams of better days, but never quite gets there. As a director he doesn’t do anything that gets too far out of his comfort zone. He doesn’t take a lot of chances, but he does his job competently and to be honest that’s all you can ask for out of a first time director.

The always-reliable Palminteri excels as the chubby-chasing George. This isn’t anything too far out of Palminteri’s wheelhouse – he has always done well with quirky – and he reacts with a solid performance. He and Davi have some chemistry together too with that love-hate relationship that characterizes most brothers well-defined.

This isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to get you any particular insight nor is it going to stick around your memory far beyond the closing credits. Nonetheless, its nifty entertainment that won’t leave you terribly disappointed either. Sometimes that’s all you really need.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a sweet nature at its center.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While sweet, the calories are ultimately empty ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and a couple of drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davi starred in, directed and wrote the script, which was inspired by a stint working in a 1977 TV movie Contract on Cherry Street with real-life 60s rock star Jay Black of Jay and the Americans.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,875 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop in its theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Fast Five

Amreeka


Amreeka

Nisreen Faour finds out about another American institution; the dinnertime sales solicitation call.

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Andrew Sannie. Directed by Cherien Dabis

While our economy has taken a nosedive and Americans are suffering through one of the worst recessions in history, we can at least take comfort that at least we are not an occupied nation. Palestinians don’t even have that.

Muna Farah (Faour) lives on the West Bank and, ironically enough, works in a bank. A bank on the West Bank…okay, I had to point it out. Anyway, she has to endure two military checkpoints in each direction going from her home to work and back. It is often humiliating, especially when her son Fadi (Muallem) loses patience and makes a smart remark to one of the soldiers, nearly getting detained in the process if nor for the begging and pleading of his mother.

Muna dreams of a better life in America (or Amreeka as it is pronounced in Arabic) where her sister Raghda (Abbass) escaped 15 years before. Although ostensibly Muslim, she isn’t particularly devout which makes her a bit of a pariah in her own land. However, she hits the jackpot when she gets a green card in the annual lottery for one of the coveted documents. Although she knows she will miss her family in Palestine, she looks forward to better things for her and her son in a new land, and quite frankly, Fadi is gung ho to get out of Dodge. Before they leave, Muna’s mom gives her some cookies and other food to bring to Raghda.

At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Muna and her son are detained for three hours. It is 2002, not long after 9/11 and tensions are running high, particularly with any Arabic sorts coming into the country. While Muna is arguing with one of the immigration officials, the cookies and other foods are confiscated by the customs agents.

Unfortunately, Muna foolishly put all her life savings into the cookie tin. Broke and too proud to accept help from her sister other than the lodging in their suburban home. Raghda’s husband Nabeel (Abu-Warda) is a prosperous dentist, but he is watching his practice disintegrate before his eyes as long-time patients, distrusting any Arab, are leaving for non-Arabic doctors.

Muna is unable to find work suitable for her banking experience and takes the only job she can find – working the counter at a White Castle. Once again her pride prevents her from informing her family that she has such a menial job, so she leads them to believe she is working in a neighboring bank, scurrying over to her real workplace after Raghda drops her off at the bank.

Fadi on the other hand is having enormous difficulty fitting in at the local high school, which is truly a staggering task even under the best of circumstances, but throwing in his ethnicity and his unfamiliarity with American high school culture and he is having a rough time. His cousin Salma (Shawkat) helps guide him through the minefields that are American high schools, but even so he manages to step on a few nonetheless.

There are a few other plot elements (such as a romance for Muna with the Jewish principal of Fadi’s school, played with gentle humor by Ziegler) but that’s essentially it. This is writer/director Dabis’ first feature and is heavily based on her own experiences growing up as an immigrant from Jordan in Ohio. There are some moments that are genuinely heartwarming as well as others that are wrenching.

Part of what makes this movie so watchable is a very likable cast, starting with Faour. She is not the lithe and lean starlet that most lead actresses are, but down-to-earth, charming and possessed of a smile that lights up entire cities. In that sense, she reminds me of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-era Nia Vardalos, albeit with less brass.

Abbass is one of my favorite actresses you’ve never heard of. She is best known for a small but pivotal role in The Visitor but was completely overshadowed by Richard Jenkins there; she has also appeared in such gems as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride and was superb in each. She has more of a supporting role, but lends dignity and world-weariness to the part of a woman desperately homesick, and watching her situation fall apart before her very eyes, with everything she values in jeopardy including her marriage. Abbass could have easily stolen the movie but wisely – and generously – toned things down, allowing Faour to take center stage. In the end, I think that was a better move for the film overall.

Most of the other roles aren’t as richly written as the two sisters, although Shawkat is compelling as the Americanized Salma and her conflict with her mother should resonate with anyone who has been privy to mother/daughter conflict. I would have liked to see Fadi, Nabeel and the principal get a bit more to work with, but this still remains a good first effort and serves notice that Dabis could be a director to keep an eye out for.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Faour and Abbass illustrate the difficulties Palestinian Muslims face in post-911 America as well as in their occupied homeland. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting characters seem to be very artificially drawn and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some teen drug use, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate to let mature teens check this out.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Winnipeg where there are no White Castle restaurants; the White Castle corporate offices shipped out the supplies for one there, creating a set so realistic that locals kept trying to order from it, even though no food was ever sold there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A short film by director Cherien Dabis, “Make a Wish” is present.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.2M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Smash His Camera

Ghost Town


Ghost Town

If you can't see them, they can't hurt you.

(DreamWorks) Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Kristen Wiig, Billy Campbell, .Aasif Mandvi, Alan Ruck, Dana Ivey, Aaron Tveit. Directed by David Koepp

People can be a damned nuisance. It’s difficult enough dealing with the living; how much more irritating would it be to have to deal with the dead as well.

Dr. Bertram Pincus (Gervais) has two things working against him; he’s a dentist and he’s a snooty New Yorker. Normally, that’s enough to make anyone want to punch him. However, he happens to be an insufferable bastard as well, the combination with the other two factors enough to make anyone wish him to die. Which is, somewhat ironically, precisely what he does.

Fortunately for the good doc, it’s only for seven minutes while on the operating table to have some gastro-intestinal work done by a doctor (Wiig) more interested in getting a really nice tan. When Pincus wakes up, he can see dead people. He can also communicate with them.

As fast as you can say “M. Night Shyamalan” Pincus is surrounded by the dearly departed, all demanding some sort of favor from him so they can reach closure on their lives. Their ex-lives, anyway. Pincus doesn’t even like the living – he surely can’t stand the dead. They’re so demanding. However, he does want his life of solitude and peace back. A fast-talking businessman/con artist named Frank (Kinnear) guesses this and makes a deal with Pincus; if he will do a small favor for Frank, Frank will in return keep the other ghosts off his back.

Sounds like a deal, no? Not when the little favor is to keep Frank’s widow Gwen (Leoni) from marrying Richard (Campbell) who Frank thinks is absolutely bad news for Gwen. The problem is that Gwen and Pincus have had run-ins before, none of them pleasant. I’m sure she would rather take relationship advice from Jack the Ripper but Pincus perseveres with a kind of offbeat charm. Now, he has a shot at maybe finding something he has always lacked among the living.

Director Koepp is better-known as a writer of big budget genre films like Spider-Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls and Jurassic Park so it was a little bit of a surprise that his first directorial effort would be a romantic comedy, but here you are. The smartest decision he makes is casting Gervais. This is the kind of role that’s right in his wheelhouse, and he hits it out of the park. Nobody can do unpleasant like Gervais, and he’s in prime form here.

He has some nice support as well. Kinnear does a great job as the wheeler dealer and his interaction with Gervais works nicely. Leoni can be bland in some of her lead roles, but she gives this part a nice bit of spunk. Mandvi as Gervais’ partner in the dental practice and Wiig have some scene-stealing time, and Dana Ivey and Ruck as desperate ghosts add some poignancy.

This is clearly inspired by movies like Topper and the supernatural screwball comedies of the ‘30s, and the low-tech special effects actually make this a refreshing change from more recent movies that are CGI-heavy. This leaves Koepp free to concentrate on the performances, which he does nicely. It also allows the audience to do the same, which serves the film nicely; we’re not so distracted by high-tech trickery.

This isn’t going to redefine the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a pleasant surprise. Truly, this is the kind of movie to put in the DVD player on a dark night when you just want to feel good. What better eulogy can you have than that?

WHY RENT THIS: Ricky Gervais and Kristen Wiig – say no more. Naw, I’ll say more – a fun premise and some nice interactions between the living, the dead and Gervais.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly routine romantic comedy with a supernatural edge may or may not appeal to your sensibilities.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references here and there as well as a few bad words and drug references but this is pretty harmless for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The good doctor is named after Dr. Charles Pincus, inventor of the dental veneer. You’re welcome.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cyrus