The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

Buddymoon (Honey Buddies)


David Giuntoli and Flula Borg strike a pose.

David Giuntoli and Flula Borg strike a pose.

(2016) Comedy (Orion/Gravitas) David Giuntoli, Flula Borg, Claire Coffee, Brian T. Finney, Jeanne Syquia, Hutch Harris. Directed by Alex Simmons

Florida Film Festival 2016

Sometimes you just have to make the best of a bad situation. When bad things happen, our first instinct is generally to go into defensive mode; shut the world out and try to deal with it on our own. That isn’t always the best solution.

Former child actor David (Giuntoli) has had a bad week and it should have been his best week ever. Frankie (Syquia), the girl of his dreams, was supposed to marry him. She and he were then going to go hiking in the Oregon woods and end up in this fantastic lodge. It was going to be a week he’d remember for the rest of his life.

Instead, she’d dumped him a couple of days before the ceremony without any explanation. Now he’s wallowing, drinking up the wine they’d bought for the reception, stuffing his face with junk food and generally feeling sorry for himself – although if there is a situation better suited to feeling sorry for oneself, I can’t think of one.

His erstwhile best man Flula (Borg), a DJ from Germany, is determined not to let David wallow. He gives David the idea of taking the hiking vacation anyway only with Flula instead of Frankie. Even though Frankie had been more of the outdoorsy type which the two men are not, David decides to give Flula’s idea a whirl.

Flula’s endless optimism begins to erode David’s foul mood, and the beautiful scenery is inspiring. David, who is up for a major comeback role as William Clark in a motion picture about the explorers Lewis and Clark, reads from Clark’s journal and finds some parallels to his own journey. They meet up with a group of hikers that do the campfire song thing, and whose comely female hiker Polly (Coffee) takes a shine to David, although he is a bit embarrassed about his history as Robot Boy.

Even with all the positives, it is a grueling hike and soon Flula and David begin to get on each other’s nerves. Eventually the two separate to complete the hike alone. Only one thing could reunite them – the unexpected appearance of Frankie.

Giuntoli, who co-wrote the film along with Borg and Simmons (the three of them have been friends for years), is best known as the grim slayer of fantastical creatures in TV’s Grimm. This is a much different role for him. He definitely has big-screen potential, and he handles the comic actor role like a boss. This is an actor who has some pretty solid range, which bodes well for a future in movies if TV doesn’t keep him occupied until then.

Borg has good chemistry with Giuntoli and has excellent comic timing, something you just can’t teach. His fractured English syntax and malapropisms are occasionally a little uncomfortable, but generally the humor seems pretty light-hearted, poking fun at European stereotypes.

In fact, the movie isn’t above poking fun at itself. Both David and Flula are far from what you’d call intrepid outdoorsmen and in a lot of ways these aren’t the he-men hunks you usually find on movies about hiking in the woods (although I’m sure the ladies find Giuntoli plenty hunky). The two of them are at least early on pretty inept at trail life. That they get decent at it is a bit Hollywood-ish but at least they never get good at it. They’re able to hold their own.

The cinematography is spectacular at times; the Pacific Northwest offers some pretty amazing vistas for the cameraman to devour. It’s beautiful enough to encourage people on the fence about visiting the area to take the plunge. Occasionally the scenery does overwhelm the comedy, but wisely Simmons makes sure that the two generally work in harmony.

This is essentially a road movie on foot, and Borg and Giuntoli in many ways are Hope and Crosby. While the movie is short, it feels by trail’s end to be running a bit out of steam. Nonetheless, this is a very entertaining film that hopefully will move up the careers of all involved a notch. Definitely one of the better things I saw at this year’s Florida Film Festival.

REASONS TO GO: Giuntoli has big screen potential. Borg is a funny guy. Beautiful scenery is photographed lushly.
REASONS TO STAY: Runs out of steam near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of adult language, some sexual situations and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Claire Coffee has also appeared on Giuntoli’s hit TV show Grimm.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Walk in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Sympathy for Delicious


 

Sympathy for Delicious

Prince is looking a little worse for wear these days.

(2010) Drama (Maya International) Christopher Thornton, Mark Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, Noah Emmerich, James Karen, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Wisdom, Dov Tiefenbach, Niko Nicotera, Deantoni Parks, Stephen Mendillo, Sandra Seacat. Directed by Mark Ruffalo

Miracles can be tricky things. There’s no guidebook in how to deal with them. If you got the power to heal people with the touch of your hand, what would you do with it?

“Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer (Thornton) was once one of the hotter scratchers – although some would prefer the term DJ – on the underground music scene until a car accident left him confined to a wheelchair. It’s also left him broke and bitter, living in his car on Skid Row. He has a grudging relationship with Father Joe (Ruffalo), a do-gooding Catholic priest who thinks Delicious has it better than most (i.e. his car) which he should be willing to share with others.

Delicious basically just wants to be left alone and says so. But that’s not going to happen when he discovers that he has the miraculous power to heal with his touch – but sadly, not himself. If anything, this leaves Delicious more bitter and angry than before. He takes up with Ariel (Lewis), bassist for an unremarkable metal band whose singer who calls himself The Stain (Bloom) – quite aptly, I believe – sneers at everything and everybody who isn’t The Stain, while their harried manager (Linney) tries to get a record deal that simply isn’t forthcoming.

Father Joe sets Delicious in a hotel and pays him a meager amount – all he can afford – to heal and as word spreads the notoriety of Joe’s mission grows. Delicious though sees all the benefit going elsewhere and none to him, so he sets himself up with the band so that his healing can be part of the show. However, things don’t go quite as planned and Delicious learns that there are down sides to miracles.

This is Ruffalo’s first directing effort and all in all it isn’t bad, but it isn’t distinguished either. He and Thornton, a close personal friend of his, have been trying to get this made for more than a decade. I don’t know that it was worth the wait, but it does have its moments.

Thornton, best known for playing Cliff Cobb on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” does a pretty good job as the bitter and churlish title character. He also wrote the script, so there’s perhaps some familiarity with the emotional landscape he must traverse. There are times he’s completely unlikable but there’s never a moment when the character seems false.

Ruffalo got a fairly fine cast for a micro-budgeted indie, including his own participation. I’ve always liked Ruffalo as an actor and his laid-back likability has carried him through a number of films. Here his character is still likable, but there is definitely a hidden agenda behind the facade. It’s a bit of a change for him.

Linney is as dependable as ever as the sultry manager, not above using a little sex appeal to sell her band. The cast is in fact pretty solid top to bottom. The story is pretty authentic in how people would react to a genuine miracle, particularly in that specific place and time. Organized religion gets a pretty harsh grade (which I would tend to agree with) in terms of how the miraculous would be used to their advantage. However, the secular world doesn’t escape unscathed either as spectacle and rock and roll get skewered as well.

The problem lies in that the movie is a bit overwritten. The focus between the secular side (symbolized by the band) and the religious side (Father Joe) should have been tighter.  The battle for Delicious’ soul is really the central core of the story and at times it feels like an afterthought. It could have used someone to stop and say “What are you trying to do with all this other stuff?” I would have liked to have found out more about Delicious and where he’s coming from, more about Joe and what he’s about. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t given much depth. They’re given a part to play and there’s nothing really behind them. They have no past and no future, only the present.

I like Mark Ruffalo and I like what Thornton did with his role, but at the end of the day this is merely adequate; it’s not something I can give a ringing endorsement to but neither is it without merit. For those who are picky about what they watch, there are many more worthy ways to spend their time. For those who are movie gourmands who watch a lot of movies, there are worse ways to spend their time. What you get out of this movie depends on which camp you fall in.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting digs at the nature of miracles and religion as well as the failings of men. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwritten. Could have used more focus on the central characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is bad language throughout, some depictions of drug use and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thornton is actually paralyzed; he was injured in a climbing accident when he was 25.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,826 on an unreported production budget; sorry folks but this one lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resurrection

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Magic Mike


Magic Mike

Matthew McConaughey practices pointing to the exits on the plane.

(2012) Drama (Warner Brothers) Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Riley Keough, Joe Mangianello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Camryn Grimes, Kate Easton. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

The world of the stripper is one that most of us have little understanding of. What would cause a person to want to take their clothes off publically, letting complete strangers stuff dollar bills in their g-strings? What does it take to maintain that kind of exhibitionism?

Mike (Tatum) is a busy guy. He owns a mobile detailing service and during the day installs roofs. Three nights a week, he is Magic Mike, a male exotic dancer – a stripper, if you will – for Xquisite, a male revue run by Dallas (McConaughey) who is fully aware that Mike is his star attraction. Dallas wants his show, which has to rent space in a Tampa nightclub, to have a permanent home in Miami, a much more lucrative market. He’s working on that very thing and will give Mike a percentage of ownership when it happens.

While working on a roofing job one day, Mike meets Adam (Pettyfer), a somewhat lackluster roofer and a bit of a screw-up who is accused of stealing a can of Pepsi and quits. Adam, who once had a football scholarship to a major Division I school, had gotten in a fight with his coach on the first day of practice and lost his scholarship; now he sleeps on the couch of Brooke (Horn), his sister.

Mike takes a liking to him against all odds and brings him around Xquisite to do some menial work. When Tarzan (Nash), one of the strippers, is unable to perform, Mike herds Adam – whom he bestows the stage name of The Kid on – onstage and while Adam shows a distinct lack of technique, he has a certain raw sexuality and great instincts, enough so that Dallas is impressed enough to take him on as a dancer.

Mike and Adam become close friends. As Adam becomes more proficient a dancer, his popularity grows. Mike is okay with this because he has a plan – he wants to own his own custom furniture business, and just needs a bank loan to do it in but sadly, his credit is undesirable to banks. His frustration begins to grow in that his life isn’t turning out the way he wants but he develops a kind of love-hate relationship with Brooke who recognizes that he is a decent sort but is concerned about the lifestyle of non-stop sex, partying and drugs which are beginning to take over Adam’s life. As Adam becomes more popular, he begins to change and Mike realizes that he can’t be Magic Mike forever.

I admit to being a little bit surprised by this one. A movie about male strippers starring Channing Tatum? I don’t think so. But a funny thing happened on the way back home from the theater; I found myself actually liking the movie. How unlikely was that? As unlikely as a performance of emotional depth from Channing Tatum. Wait a minute, we got that too.

Tatum has been an actor that I’ve never particularly cared for. He always seemed to be kind of flat, emotionally; he’s certainly got the good looks but he never connected with me – until now. For the first time ever, I saw something that indicated to me that he has the ability to be a big star instead of just a matinee idol for action films and romantic comedies, which is what he’s been to my mind up to now. The audience gets a sense that there is much more depth to him, as well as to Magic Mike. You see the regrets and frustrations that are boiling over in him. As the movie opens he’s easy-going, sexy and really not too deep but as it progresses we see the layers. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance by any means – but it could very well be the kind of work that lands him some more challenging roles that might get him there someday.

McConaughey who is well known for being shirtless anyway shows a lot more off than his chest (in fact most of the actors who play strippers do, as well as a number of the women that play their girlfriends/partners for the evening). Dallas is a manipulative, conniving bastard and McConaughey, an easy-going East Texan by nature, has done those types of roles and done them well throughout his career. This is some of his best work yet.

In earlier films like I Am Number Four Pettyfer showed some promise but has since stumbled. Once again, he shows a great deal of presence and raw talent; it’s not enough to catapult him into the next level quite yet but certainly shows that he could go a long way if he gets the right roles. This is the kind of thing that really stretched him from the previous work I’d seen him in and he does credibly well. Like Tatum, we might well be seeing him top-billed for years to come.

This is much more than just guys strutting themselves onstage. There is a surprising look at the cost of stripping when it comes to the lives of those who are engaged in it. It’s a great big party, yes, but in many ways ultimately an empty escapade. My understanding is that many actual strippers are gay, but we don’t see any of that in the film, possibly to keep the fantasy of the potential straight female audience intact. Still, it might have been nice if the filmmakers had given the potential gay male audience a bit more than they did as well.

I have to admit that I am not too familiar with live male exotic dancing shows or of the behavior of women who attend them but I got a glimpse at the theater I saw this in. The women in the audience (who were quite frankly the vast majority of the audience, arriving in groups of three and four, generally without boyfriends or husbands) were cheering and screaming and at times watching with rapt attention, sighing audibly when someone’s naked butt came into view. Gentlemen, if you want to rev your ladies up for a night of romance…no, might as well say it – for hardcore sex, this movie makes some pretty prime foreplay.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of bare skin and abs for the ladies. Tatum shows surprising depth.

REASONS TO STAY: Definitely geared more towards the ladies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of sexuality and plenty of nudity, both male and female. There’s all sorts of foul language and some drug use here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The current Warner Brothers opening sequence is not used here; they use instead the Saul Bass-designed sequence from the 1970s, somewhat modified.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are surprisingly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Showgirls

MALE EXOTIC DANCE LOVERS: While most of the actors have no game whatsoever, Tatum – who has a background in it – actually performs in a fairly spectacular manner.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Pirate Radio


Pirate Radio

The one drawback to living aboad ship is all the cockroaches.

(2009) Rock ‘n’ Roll Comedy (Focus) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, January Jones, Gemma Arterton, Tom Brooke. Directed by Richard Curtis

As a former rock critic, I find myself somewhat amused, puzzled and alarmed all at once when I regard the state of rock and roll. Originally, the music was supposed to be rebellious; it was a symbol of rising up against the system and crafting something new, different and exciting. Now, it is the system. I guess that’s true of most things that start off that way.

To many, the apex of rock and roll occurred in the 60s, and the epicenter of that apex was in England. Some of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time were all practicing their art with relish and relevance – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and so on and so forth. Yet if you wanted to hear those great British bands in Great Britain, you couldn’t. The BBC, the government-controlled broadcasting company, refused to play it on moral grounds, allowing rock and roll a begrudged hour or two per week and even then the songs that were played were far more middle of the road pop than rock.

When a need arises, trust some enterprising soul to figure out a way to fill that need and so pirate radio was born. A bunch of DJs and mariners rented a merchant vessel, outfitted it with a huge bloody antenna, and anchored in international waters, beaming the sounds of the Troggs, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix to a grateful nation. The most famous pirate station was Radio Caroline (which still broadcasts on the internet to this day, by the way).

While this crew isn’t Radio Caroline (the people and events that inspired the movie were scattered on the many dozens of pirate radio ships that encircled the British Isles), they are zany in their own right. Aboard Radio Rock is the debonair and irreverent Captain Quentin (Nighy), The Count (Hoffman), an American DJ who’s enormously popular and is the heart and soul of Radio Rock; Thick Kevin (Brooke), not the brightest bulb in the chandelier; Dr. Dave (Frost), a somewhat blindly trusting DJ who ought to know better; Gavin Cavanagh (Ifans), who is the most popular DJ in pirate radio and begins a fierce rivalry with the Count when he’s brought aboard Radio Rock, and young Carl (Sturridge) who is actually the protagonist, a virgin whose free-spirited mum (Thompson) sent him aboard the pirate radio vessel to sort himself out with his godfather, Captain Quentin. Bad idea, mum.

Curtis, who also directed Love Actually which is possibly the best romantic comedy of the past decade, knows how to work with an ensemble (Thompson and Nighy also worked for Curtis in that cast) and you never feel that any character is given short shrift; well, not really anyway. Carl is a bit too bland a character whose only trait seems to be his virginity, which is more a lack of opportunity than a characteristic. He is the audience surrogate to somewhat of a degree whose only function is to sit back and shake his head at the antics of the DJs. Those guys!

And the antics are highly entertaining, particularly as they import groupies to sail out aboard the ship to relieve these intrepid men of their sexual frustrations (hey, they’re both sailors and disc jockeys – can any human being get more inherently horny?) and not coincidently, bare their breasts on-camera. Hey, sex sells damn it.

Hoffman, Nighy, Ifans and Frost are always entertaining, and seeing them work together is a nice treat. Branagh plays Dormandy, ostensibly the villain of the piece, the tight-arsed minister in charge of ridding Britain of pirate radio forever. He is aided by the appropriately named Twatt (Davenport), the assistant in charge of finding dirty tricks and loopholes. He would later cross the Atlantic and become a personal advisor to President Nixon (just kidding). Both Branagh and Davenport are solid.

What will stay with you from this movie is the absolutely astonishing soundtrack which contains some of the best music from the late ‘60s. Some critics have moaned and groaned about some of the songs being from after 1966, the year this is supposed to take place. As Jay Leno might say, SHUT UP! Nobody cares about your knowledge of music history. The music fits the story and the songs are awesome. Just sit back and listen and let the grown-ups talk.

This isn’t as good a film as Love Actually but it’s pretty dang good all the same. For those of my generation, the music is a trip straight down Memory Lane (with a brief stop at Penny Lane, although the Beatles didn’t grant the rights and releases to their music so they don’t appear on the soundtrack). Curtis does a good job of evoking the era and keeps things light and a bit manic, all leaving a good taste in the mouth. It may only be rock and roll but I like it – and so did millions of others, including you I’d bet. While this movie didn’t fare very well box office-wise, it deserves a better fate, if just for Curtis’ taste in music alone.

WHY RENT THIS: A phenomenal soundtrack and a general sense of fun and bonhomie pervade the film. The actors look like they’re having the time of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders down into Unnecessaryland and the whole virginity subplot seemed less enticing than the goings on with the DJs.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is blue, but not as blue as the bare behinds which were hanging out in the cold North Sea air.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted happened on a variety of pirate radio ships, particularly the most infamous Radio Caroline, whose red and white color scheme was borrowed by the Radio Rock vessel. A DJ did get married on board a pirate radio ship, and Radio Caroline’s first ship did sink (although the station eventually got a second ship which remained in use until 1991; it sits as something of a museum and many of the artifacts from the vessel were used in this film).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a short but informative featurette on the history of pirate radio in the UK. Unfortunately, the DVD consumer gets shafted again.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.4M on a $50M production budget; any way you slice it, the movie flopped at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Brothers Bloom