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Running on empty.

Running on empty.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Brooklyn Decker, Anthony Michael Hall, Constance Zimmer, Tishuan Scott, Zoe Graham, David Benton, Greg Dorchak, Donn Adelman, Graham Carter, Laura Frances, Lindsay Anne Kent, Stephen Latham, Katie Folger, Elizabeth Berridge. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

Florida Film Festival 2015

When it comes to fitness, only results matter. Either you go from overweight and flabby to fit and muscled or you don’t. Either you start a wellness regimen that works for you or you don’t. If the latter, than no matter what your diet is, no matter how much effort you put in, you are still out-of-shape.

Trevor (Pearce) owns a gym, or as gym owners tend to characterize them these days, a fitness center. He has high hopes to expand his Austin-based property into a franchise, and is on the verge of doing just that. His Power 4 Life fitness center has incorporated a goals-based training philosophy into its way of doing business and employs some fairly expert personal fitness trainers. Chief among them is Kat (Smulders), a high-strung trainer with anger issues. She’s an effective motivator and a patient teacher for the most part but get her outside the training regimen and she’s a mess.

Into the mix comes Danny (Corrigan), a lonely divorcee who is new to Austin. Just days after his divorce became final, he inherited millions and now has nobody to share his new-found wealth with. He vaguely wants to become more fit, fit enough as he tells Trevor, to take a punch. Trevor is a little bit nonplussed but everyone has their reasons for getting fit. As long as the check clears, it’s all good. After some soul searching, he assigns Kat (with whom he’s had a previous relationship that didn’t work out) to be Danny’s personal trainer and sends her to Danny’s palatial but empty mansion.

Danny has enough money to buy him everything but happiness and while he has made the acquaintance of a kind of semi-shady lawyer sort (Ribisi), he really has no friends. So of course he becomes a bit besotted by Kat who reacts – or some would say overreacts – accordingly. This leads to an adjustment in the relationship between Trevor and Kat, a new friendship between Danny and Trevor which eventually dissolves – because of Kat. Relationships are a hell of a lot more complicated than getting in shape.

Bujalski has plenty of indie street cred for his quirky black and white comedy Computer Chess. This is his second feature and has a much bigger budget and recognizable stars, not the least of which is the always reliable Pearce who as usual has the kind of screen presence that plenty of bigger stars don’t come close to possessing. Utilizing his native Aussie accent here, Pearce gives Trevor a kind of Zen-like external calm but inside he’s the proverbial chicken with his head cut off as he tries to cut a deal with the Russian fitness master Grigoriy (Hall) to invest in his gyms.

Smulders, who’s stint on How I Met Your Mother made her a TV star and her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Agent Maria Hill has given her a steady paycheck after that series ended gets to exercise her indie legs, albeit in quite the challenging role. She doesn’t quite pull it off though, being written to be so thoroughly unlikable that even Leona Helmsley seems like Mother Teresa in comparison. Even though she mellows a little by the end of the movie, she has just been so damn annoying all the way through that you don’t much care.

Corrigan, a long time indie stalwart, shines here. He is kind of an Oliver Platt for this generation and that’s a pretty high compliment. Even though Danny is quite the schlub and turns out to be rather petulant and a bit of an asshole at the end of the day, you still end up liking him a little bit.

In fact none of the characters are truly likable, although you end up rooting for Trevor kind of by default. Also, don’t be fooled by the “comedy” portion of the romantic comedy; the wit here is dry as the Mojave in August and those into a broader kind of humor and a more formula kind of romantic comedy may take issue with what they find here. Still, those who appreciate that kind of humor are going to really dig this movie which has a lot going for it, although at the end of the day ends up being a fairly entertaining film but ultimately one that you aren’t going to remember much about once the end credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Has a bit of fun with gym culture. Pearce always does yeoman work.
REASONS TO STAY: Mostly disposable. Cat is so unlikable that she becomes annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of harsh language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Smulders was five months pregnant during filming and great pains were taken to disguise her pregnancy. Director Bujalski’s wife also gave birth with two days left remaining in the shooting schedule, forcing a brief delay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breaking Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: San Andreas

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Don Jon


Can't take my eyes off of you.

Can’t take my eyes off of you.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Paul Ben-Victor, Italia Ricci, Lindsey Broad, Amanda Perez, Sarah Dumont, Sloane Avery, Loanne Bishop, Arin Babaian, Antoinette Kalaj, Arayna Eison, Becky O’Donohue. Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The nature of romance and sexuality largely remains a mystery for most of us. Men don’t understand the draw of the romantic fantasy to women and women have trouble understanding why men are so obsessed with pornography. Now, while it is true that there are some women who have a porn addiction and some men who are romantics at heart, largely the stereotypes hold.

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty good life. He’s a Jersey boy who knows what he likes and pretty much has things lined up; his apartment, his boys Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke), his family – Mom (Headly), Dad (Danza) and his sister Monica (Larson) who is too busy texting and rolling her eyes to get a word in – and his church, his car (a sweet Chevy from the golden age of metal) and girls. His buddies call him “The Don” because he scores a hot looking chick every time he goes out clubbing. Every time, an 8 or above.

But that isn’t enough for Jon. You see, sex is all well and good but what really satisfies him is masturbating to porn. He even has his own method – starting off slow, with still pictures and working his way up to video clips until he finds the right one he can lose himself in. When he gets off to porn, everything else goes away, not to mention that the actresses in the clips will do things for their partners that no real woman will do for Jon.

Then one night in the clubs he meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a blonde Jersey queen who takes most of her cues from Snooki (except for the horrid orange spray tan look). She’s so hot that Jon’s got to have her except she doesn’t put out so easily. So, as Bobby tells him, he needs to get out his long game. Wine and dine her, romance her. Do the kind of things that boyfriends do for their girlfriends.

The problem is that Jon doesn’t just want to get into her pants; he thinks she might just be The One. To show her his commitment, he agrees to take night classes so that he can move up the service industry ladder. Unfortunately, Barbara catches Jon at his obsession one night and makes him agree to not watch porn which she finds disgusting.

At first Jon does his best but he needs the release so he starts doing his porn on the side, even on his smart phone during lectures in class which attracts the notice of Esther (Moore), an older lady that Jon sees crying in the parking lot one night. Soon she seems to be making a move on him which Jon isn’t really interested in – he’s got Barbara after all and she’s at last giving it up for him – but there are cracks in the foundation of paradise and soon Jon will either have to give up his porn or Barbara.

The crux of the movie has to do with expectations and need. Sure there’s a lot of nudity, brief glimpses of porn stars humping and a whole lot of sexuality but that’s not really the point of the film, although quite frankly there are those who won’t be able to get past all that, either in a positive or negative way. All some will see is the sex and they will react to it according to their own morality either as a prurient interest or with prudish disgust. It’s simply an occupational hazard for a film like this.

That said if you look beyond the boobs and the moans you’ll actually find a thoughtful movie that looks at the nature of men and women and the differences between them, as typified by Jon. I think there are a lot of women out there who genuinely cannot understand the fascination that porn has for men and this movie might go a long way towards explaining it. Porn is a fantasy the same way a romantic movie is a fantasy for Barbara. The happy ending for her is a prince of a man who will sacrifice everything for her, be completely devoted to her and adore her 24/7. Jon’s happy ending is, well, a happy ending.

Actually that’s not quite fair. As Jon explains it, he fantasizes about the sexual acts that most women won’t even consider granting him (i.e. oral sex, doggie style) because for the most part they want the missionary position. To him, a woman who is willing to do those things for him is the equivalent of Barbara’s prince. In both cases, the egos of each of them are being catered to by their partner. In some ways both of them are children of our time – completely self-absorbed without a thought of what they are giving to their partner, only receiving from them.

Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed this, looks like he watched a lot of Jersey Shore to get his character down – The Situation, anyone? – and shows as much promise behind the camera as he does confidence in front of it. He wrote the part of Barbara with Johansson specifically in mind and she loses herself into it, becoming a Jersey Shore princess in all her gum-snapping bleached blonde glory. Barbara and Jon are both full to overflowing with that Jersey attitude – Jon screaming in road rage while he drives to church, Barbara telling Jon that he won’t do housework when they’re living together because that kind of thing is beneath her and thus, as an extension of her, beneath him as well.

In many ways Moore steals the picture. She is the conscience of the film and her character Esther is the one that introduces the sense of giving into the film. Certainly she’s one messed-up broad and we only get a glimmer into her personal tragedy. She’s not glammed up for this role; there’s wear and tear on her face but more importantly in her eyes. She ends up teaching Jon – and by extension the audience – the difference between having sex and making love.

It’s nice to see Danza and Headly, both industry veterans, on the big screen again and personally I wouldn’t mind seeing the two of them more often. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty solid with Larson making the most of her single scene of dialogue.

I wouldn’t have minded about ten more minutes of exposition fleshing out some of the main characters a bit and when you leave a film wishing it had been longer you know the filmmakers are doing something right. While those who are offended by depictions and discussion of sex are urged to give this one a wide berth, the rest of you get an enthusiastic recommendation. This is a movie that honestly and with some humor examines sex and love and how easy it is to forget that the sum of those two things is far greater than the total of their parts.

REASONS TO GO: Funny, charming and thought-provoking. Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Moore, Danza and Headly all have strong performances.

REASONS TO STAY: The porn and sexuality might be off-putting to those sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of sexual content including graphic nudity and simulated sex (as well as simulated porn), plenty of foul language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt and Danza previously worked together in Angels in the Outfield when Gordon-Levitt was just 12 years old.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Enough Said

Pain and Gain


Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

(2013) Action Comedy (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli, Keili Lefkovitz, Emily Rutherfurd, Larry Hankin, Tony Plana, Peter Stormare, Vivi Pineda, Ken Clement, Yolanthe Cabau, Persi Caputo. Directed by Michael Bay.

We all have some sort of version of the American dream – success, and the rewards that come with it. Not all of us have the tools to achieve it on our own, however – particular in these rough times when achievement is seemingly less attainable than it’s ever been.

Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a body builder in Miami, is a big believer in physical fitness. In fact, the only thing he believes in more than keeping in shape is the aforementioned American dream. He believes that he deserves it. But working at it isn’t always easy. He’s charming and is able to draw lots of new customers – younger customers – to Sun Gym, which pleases owner John Mese (Corddry).

But Lugo isn’t pleased. He’s frankly tired of building up the bodies of wealthy douchebags like Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), one of the most unlikable people…well, ever (see below). His protégé Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) concurs. Adrian has to work at a taco joint in addition to his full-time job at the gym in order to make ends meet. Adrian also has erectile dysfunction, which requires some expensive treatments. A sympathetic nurse (Wilson) at the clinic hits it off with Adrian.

Lugo wants his share and he thinks Kershaw has too much as it is. In fact, he despises Kershaw. He decides that he is going to take everything Kershaw has. His plan? Kidnap him, torture him and get him to sign his assets over to Lugo and his crew. But they’re going to need a third partner and they find it in Paul Doyle (Johnson), an ex-con who found Jesus and is trying to stay on the straight and narrow but soon finds that he can’t afford the straight and narrow.

So these three knuckleheads, roughly on the same intellectual level as the Three Stooges, go about pulling off their crime of the century. They kidnap Kershaw who’s so unlikable and such a horrible human being that nobody reports him missing even though he’s gone for weeks.

They finally get him to sign but typically they mess things up. Adrian blows all of his share on a house which he pays for in cash (the realtor, when asked about the unusualness of this snaps “He’s black. I figured he was a rapper, an athlete”), leaving him with an operation to get his erectile issues resolved to pay for. Paul falls off the wagon like it was the Brooklyn Bridge and puts almost all of his share up his nose. They decide to go for one more score.

Meanwhile, Kershaw has seen the police who react with absolute disbelief. Nobody believes him – except retired cop and private eye Ed DuBois (Harris). DuBois knows what he’s doing and it won’t be long before these ee-dyots will mess up but he is concerned that others will get hurt before then. He doesn’t realize just how right he is.

This is one of those stories that is so bizarre that it has to be true, and it is – and apparently pretty dang close to the truth. There is one scene so outrageous, so unbelievably dumb near the end of the movie that Bay feels compelled to remind you that this is a true story, even though it is announced early on and often.

Bay is often criticized for his big overblown productions, and with a $20M budget (actually it’s a bit less than that) that won’t be the case here. In fact, I think this might be his best movie to date. It’s snappy, has a real terrific sense of humor. I laughed out loud as much here as I have at some of the better-known and better-received comedies in recent months.

Wahlberg and Johnson are two of the most engaging stars in Hollywood and both are quite willing to poke fun at themselves. They can utilize their huge likable personalities to offset the fact that they’re playing some truly despicable people who do way despicable things.

It doesn’t hurt that they have a particularly engaging cast. Shalhoub, best known for his portrayal of the neurotic Monk gets to play a real jerk and he does so with great relish. Harris, one of the steadiest and strongest actors in the business, plays it pretty straight but every so often you catch an expression that lets you know that DuBois is ready to bang his head against whatever wall might be available that these clowns might actually get away with it (although they didn’t in the end).

The crimes that are depicted here are horrible. I understand that some of the family members of those involved are somewhat upset that the story was essentially a comedy. In all fairness however I think that the tale is well-served by humor and it should be remembered that while the movie is funny, the suffering depicted is not and that the victims aren’t being made fun of. At least, I never got the sense they were – mostly the ineptness of the criminals is what is being held to scrutiny.

And that’s kind of the point here. Criminals by and large aren’t a bright lot – all Hollywood romanticizing to the contrary. For the most part, they’re effin’ dumb. Criminal jobs rarely are pulled off smoothly and more often than not, they wind up imprisoned. Pain & Gain isn’t really a cautionary tale so much as it is a reminder that while any idiot can get lucky, generally speaking their luck runs out pretty darn quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly funny. Terrific performances from all the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too gruesome in spots. As things spiral out of control for the main characters towards the end of the movie, the sense of the surreal becomes a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some of it quite brutal and graphic. There’s also some nudity and sexual content, a fair amount of drug use and pretty much non-stop foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg bulked up to 213 lbs. for the film, essentially using his own body building supplements to do it. While his sons loved their new muscular dad, his daughters reportedly hated his over-the-top physique.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100; fairly mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Informant