Love & Taxes


Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

(2015) Comedy (Abramorama) Josh Kornbluth, Sarah Overman, Helen Shumaker, David Keith, Robert Sicular, Nicholas Pelczar, Harry Shearer, Robert Reich, Nile Acero, Misha Brooks, Menachem Creditor, Carrie Paff, Anthony Nemirovsky, Jeff Raz, Kay Kostopoulos, Jenna Davi, Katherine Celio, Lorri Holt, Amy Resnick, Patricia Scanlon, Cindy Goldfield. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth

 

The art of the monologue is somewhat different than the art of stand-up comedy. The latter is joke after joke after joke; the former is a story, generally a humorous one. Louis C.K. is a stand-up comedian; Spalding Gray is a monologist. You’re far more likely to get rich and famous doing stand-up than you are reciting monologues, but that doesn’t stop plenty of people from going the latter route.

Based on a semi-autobiographical monologue by Josh Kornbluth who is shown performing it onstage enhanced by re-enacted portions of it, the cleverly titled film (Death and Taxes mixed with Love and Death, a Woody Allen – clearly a major influence on Kornbluth – film) shows Kornbluth who admits to his tax lawyer boss that he hadn’t paid his taxes in seven years.

To make this further ironic, Kornbluth works for a corporate tax lawyer (Keith) to pay the bills while he struggles to get his career as a monologist going. When Keith finds out that his employee hasn’t filed, he immediately sends him to a personal tax lawyer named Mo (Shumaker). Holistic and a bit New Age, Mo sees his failure to file not so much a tax problem as a tax symptom. Josh has memories of his father (Sicular), a testy communist, refusing to pay his taxes. A revelation, perhaps?

And filing his taxes seems to have helped Josh in many ways. He starts getting bigger crowds at his gigs. He gets the attention of a cheesy Hollywood producer (Shearer) who has Josh living in L.A. five days a week to write a screenplay in hopes that a studio will pick it up. He also gets the attention of a groupie named Sara (Overman) who is nearly as neurotic as himself, but in a complimentary way. Soon they are living together and talking marriage – particularly when Sara gets pregnant.

But Josh’s tax struggles are far from over and soon he finds himself in a bigger hole than he could imagine. Sure enough, things go from blessed to cursed in a big hurry. It’s a condition known to most of us as life.

Josh is a charismatic and engaging personality. He’s a cross between a Berkeley liberal and a Brooklyn Jew which makes for an interesting personality. He’s no matinee idol but he nonetheless keeps your attention whenever he’s onscreen, something that some matinee idols have trouble with. His stage sequences make you want to run right out and catch his act, which I suppose is what he was after all along.

While the movie could have used a little more editing (it drags a bit at the end of the second and beginning of the third act) it still doesn’t ever really wear out its welcome. It’s not the kind of film that is going to have you screaming with laughter but instead elicits a quiet chuckle – a whole lot of them, in fact. The interweaving of stage monologue and ensemble film sequences works well together, keeping the movie humming along for the most part. Sometimes there is a little too much shtick but by and large this is an entertaining and funny movie that is an improvement on Haiku Tunnels, the first film collaboration between the Brothers Kornbluth. I hope the two of them continue to make movies if they’re going to come up with stuff this good.

REASONS TO GO: The weaving of the stage monologue and the acted re-creations is nicely done. Josh is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie runs a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity as well as some mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is adapted from a monologue that Kornbluth first staged in 2003 in San Francisco; he later refined it in the Sundance Theater Lab, San Francisco’s Z Space Studios and Washington DC’s Arena Stage.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Producers (1967)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Last Laugh

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Dinner for Schmucks


Dinner for Schmucks

Rolling on the floor laughing is just an Internet phrase, dammit!

(2010) Comedy (Paramount) Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis, Stephanie Szostak, Jemaine Clement, Jeff Dunham, Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston, Lucy Punch, David Walliams, Ron Livingston, Larry Wilmore, Kristen Schaal, P.J. Byrne, Andrea Savage . Directed by Jay Roach

There are two kinds of people in business, it is said; those with ambition and those who succeed. Those who are successful, the inference is, act on that ambition. Sometimes, the price for acting on that ambition is high indeed.

Tim Conrad (Rudd) is that kind of ambitious guy, an executive at a financial firm who wants to move up the ladder. The key to his success is landing Muller (Walliams), a Swiss multi-millionaire. His boss, Lance Fender (Greenwood), is impressed enough to invite Tim to an annual event he hosts, a dinner for winners. Tim is psyched about this until he finds out that the event is not about highlighting legitimate talents, but to find the biggest loser for which the executive who brings him gets everlasting glory.

Tim’s girlfriend Julie (Szostak), who is a curator for the eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Clement) doesn’t like the idea much. Tim has proposed several times to Julie but she’s turned him down each time. Tim agrees not to go to the dinner, hoping this will put him over the top with Julie.

The next day Tim is driving his Porsche when he accidentally hits a man picking up a dead mouse in the street. That man is Barry Speck (Carell), and it turns out his hobby is recreating works of art as dioramas with dead mice in the place of humans in the tableaux. Tim realizes that he has found the winning loser.

When Julie finds out that Tim is going to the dinner after all she storms out of his apartment, leaving her cell phone behind. Shortly afterwards, Barry shows up having confused the dates of the dinner. He gets on Tim’s computer while Tim is occupied and gives Tim’s address to Darla (Punch), a one-night stand that Tim had before he met Julie who is now psychotically stalking Tim. To make amends for inviting her, Barry decides to guard Tim’s apartment and intercept Darla before she gets there but mistakes Julie for Darla and implies to Julie that Tim is cheating on her.

Barry acts like a cyclone in Tim’s life, innocently doing the wrong thing and making things worse when he tries to atone. Discovering that Julie is on her way to Kieran’s ranch, Barry enlists the help of his supervisor at the IRS (yes, a guy like Barry could only work at the IRS), one Therman Murch (Galifianakis) who believes he is able to control Barry with the power of his mind. Uh huh, as if. Even this turns out to be disastrous.

Tim, who was on the verge of having it all, now finds himself on the verge of losing it all. However, he will attend the dinner in a last-ditch attempt at redemption. Maybe he might even deserve it.

This is the remake of a French film by Francis Veber entitled Le Diner de Cons (translated as Dinner With Cretins). I haven’t seen it myself but I understand it is less over-the-top and a little more cerebral than this one. Roach, who has the Austin Powers franchise to his credit, takes a little more in-your-face attitude, making it more like a Farrelly Brothers effort to my mind.

One of the things the movie has going for it is Rudd and Carell. Although they’ve worked together before (notably on The Forty Year Old Virgin) they never have quite as extensively as this. They do make a good comic team, with Rudd being one of the best straight men in the business and Carell rarely getting to let loose quite as much as he does here.

There are moments that are heart-warming but there is an underlying cruelty to the concept that gives one pause. On the surface, the heart seems to be firmly on the side of the Schmucks, but there is that nagging feeling that they’re really the butt of the joke once again. From my perspective, this is decidedly uneven and will have you flushing with embarrassment as you laugh at some of the antics of the schmucks but at the end of the day, it’s still funny enough to recommend. Just.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Carell and Rudd is spot on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never really decides whether it’s going to be heart-warming or cruel.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of partial nudity and some crude content (sexual and otherwise) and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Early on in the film’s development, Sacha Baron Cohen was set to be the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the building of the mouse dioramas by the Chiodo Brothers (directors of the cult hit Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and a skit used during the 2010 ESPY awards lampooning the LeBron James press conference with Rudd and Carell in character.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $86.4M on a $69M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Seven Pounds


Seven Pounds

An idyllic picnic with Rosario Dawson, Will Smith and behemoth.

(Columbia) Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy, Barry Pepper, Elpidia Carillo, Robinne Lee, Joe Nunez, Bill Smitrovich. Directed by Gabrielle Muccino

We all must shoulder the burden of the responsibility for our own actions. When those actions lead to terrible consequences, we might come to the conclusion that those consequences deserve terrible responsibilities.

Ben Thomas (Smith) is an IRS agent who, on first glance, isn’t a terribly nice guy. He badgers a blind customer service operator named Ezra (Harrelson) on the phone to the point of cruelty. He is curt, grumpy and often condescending to people. His relationship with his brother (Ealy) has gone into the dumpster, which mystifies the brother; why does Ben want to keep his family at arm’s length that way?

Ben does a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense. He is investigating the finances of a nursing home operator, and then punches him in order to get an elderly woman her bath. He follows Ezra into a bar, striking up a civil conversation with him. He inserts himself into the lives of people with health and relationship problems, and seems to be falling for one of them, a beautiful woman with a heart that is slowly ticking down to its last beat named Emily Posa (Dawson). His best friend Dan (Pepper) owes him a favor, one that Dan is reluctant to repay but that Ben insists that he does. He apparently owns a beautiful multi-million dollar beach house but has checked into a seedy motel. You find yourself wondering why Ben does the things he does.

To tell you too much about the plot would be to ruin the movie for you. Suffice to say that Ben has plenty of reasons for doing the things he does and that his master plan, hinted at throughout the movie, resolves itself in the final minutes of the film.

For Will Smith, this is one of the finest performances of his career. Reunited with director Muccino, who got another great performance out of Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith plays a character that is deeply wounded, highly intelligent, highly driven and very compassionate, sometimes all at once. He can snap and snarl in one moment and be pulling weeds and fixing an antique printing press in the next. He has an engineering degree from MIT, but has the charisma to be a motivational speaker. There are a lot of layers to this character and Smith brings them all together in one believable package. Of course, Smith is so likable an actor that he can make his audience relate to him and root for him even when he is being unlikable. Not many can pull that off.

Dawson, his love interest in Men in Black II, returns to fill the same role here and she also does some of her finest work. She plays a woman living with a death sentence, knowing that the odds are long that she’ll be able to survive long enough to get a heart transplant from a donor with the same rare blood type as she has. She manages to remain upbeat most of the time, although she has her moments of despair. She is articulate, creative and beautiful, in nearly every way the perfect woman which makes Ben’s reluctance to let her in all the more puzzling until the final reel.

This is not always an easy movie to watch – there are some scenes in which raw emotions are laid bare, and others in which there are some very disturbing images. Much of this movie is about redemption although not in the way we usually think about it. Again, I’m being deliberately vague not to ruin the power that the movie has.

There are a few plot points that require us to be a little more trusting of the writers than perhaps we should be – some of the plot points wrap up certain elements neatly but defy logic when examined closely. We have to assume that Ben did the research to justify his actions before carrying them out, otherwise some of his attempts to help people may have turned bad in the long run.

Be that as it may, this is a movie that makes you think about how far you would go to make amends for your actions. I have an inkling of the burden Ben Thomas lives with because I was involved with a similar incident to the one that sends Ben on his journey, and in all honesty I had many of the same impulses he did, although not the resources to carry them out. I do, however, understand what guilt can do to a person – and perhaps that’s why I loved this movie as much as I did. It’s outstanding, with a performance by Will Smith that by itself is worth checking the movie out for, but it’s the themes of the movie that kept it in my memory long after the film was over.

WHY RENT THIS: A serious and sober look at how men deal with trauma, responsibility and loss. Smith is fabulous in the role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The last scene is a little treacly, and some of the plot points require a whole lot of suspension of disbelief.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is definitely on the adult side so you may want to watch this with your smaller kids. There are a couple of disturbing scenes and a little bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Travel Inn that Ben Thomas stays in during the movie is the same one used in the movie Memento.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on box jellyfish and on antique printing presses like the one Ben refurbishes for Emily.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Hotel for Dogs

Stranger Than Fiction


Stranger Than Fiction

Will Farrell falls prey to one of the oldest gags in the book - the fake falling snowflake.

(Columbia) Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Larry Newmann Jr., Andrew Rothenberg, Christian Stolte, Tony Hale, Denise Hughes.  Directed by Marc Forster

The implication of the title of this movie is Truth because, after all, that is what is proverbially stranger than fiction. Truth is a very subjective thing, even to filmmakers and perhaps especially so. Indeed, truth is what we make it.

Harold Crick (Ferrell) has no trouble separating truth from fiction. He is an IRS agent, a man used to dealing in facts and figures; everything else comes a distant second. Harold likes his life well-ordered, like the numbers he worships. He has created a world for himself that is quiet, calm and serene. He can walk to the bus stop confident in the knowledge that it will take 53 steps – no more, no less – every time. His life is predictable, and there is comfort in that.

You get the feeling that he is the kind of man that abhors chaos, and when something unusual comes into his life, he is not prepared for it. He begins to hear a voice, a pleasant, educated, well-mannered female voice with a proper British accent. Just the sort of voice most people enjoy listening to. The problem is, Harold is the only one who hears it. Even worse, the voice is narrating what is happening in his life, from counting brush strokes to analyzing how he’s feeling about things. While Harold doesn’t necessarily feel as if he’s being watched, the whole thing is rather creepy.

He goes to psychiatrists, hoping to find an answer but they don’t have one. He talks to government H.R. specialists, but they can’t help him either. He is in the middle of an audit with a spunky baker named Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal) whom he finds fascinating, but the narration distracts him. At last, when the narrator informs him that his death is imminent, Harold decides to visit a literary professor at the university, Dr. Jules Hibbert (Hoffman). At first skeptical, Hibbert at least has the courtesy to play along. He tells Harold that first, he needs to determine what kind of story he is in; a comedy or a tragedy. The impending death would indicate a tragic fate. Finally, as they are trying to narrow down who the author might be, Harold hears her voice coming from the television. To the professor’s chagrin, it’s Kay Eiffel (Thompson), one of Hibbert’s favorite authors.

For her part, Eiffel has been trying to write her latest book for a number of years without success. She is caught in the middle of a massive writer’s block, and her publishers, trying to help her get her creativity back in gear, send an assistant named Penny Escher (Latifah). At first, Eiffel isn’t very receptive; she’s the kind of woman who likes doing things in her own way. The problem, she tells Penny, is that she doesn’t know how to kill Harold Crick. She’s racking her brain trying to think of the perfect way to do Harold in.

Harold is becoming desperate. He doesn’t want to die, and now he has fallen in love with Ana and she has fallen in love with him. At long last, he finally has a life, but it’s about to be cut short. He has a confrontation with Eiffel, who is completely freaked out at the thought that her character is real. By this time, she has determined how to kill Harold, but now that she knows he’s real, she’s reluctant to do it. She gives Harold the manuscript to read, but he can’t bring himself to; he gives it to Hibbert, who proclaims it her greatest work and his death necessary to making it so. It’s the kind of work that could give people great insight into life and living, but is it worth killing Harold?

I was reminded very much of the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who is known for writing screenplays that are inventive and challenging with just a hint of the fantastic, and this one also delivers in all those departments. I don’t know if writer Zach Helm was consciously trying to emulate Kaufmann, or was using him more of a role model, but I found this to be a very tight, well-written comedy that challenges the viewer to take a different view of life.

It doesn’t hurt that Will Ferrell gives his best performance to date here. Harold Crick is much more well-rounded and emotionally complex than most of the other characters he’s played, from Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy to Buddy the Elf. Like comedians Robin Williams and Jim Carrey before him, Ferrell is stretching himself as an actor and making the next logical step from being a great comedian to being a multitalented star.

He gets plenty of support. Thompson turns a character who could be a cliché neurotic writer into a living, breathing author who has a certain amount of eccentricity, much of which has been brought out by the stress of trying to write a new bestseller. She is ably supported by Queen Latifah, who is very subdued and content to take a more supporting role here. She’s done well carrying movies of late (see Last Holiday) and you get a sense that she is happy to remain in the background and just contribute.

For my money, Dustin Hoffman has the most fun of anyone here. He clearly is enjoying himself throughout, and you can’t help but enjoy yourself with him. He adds lots of nice little touches – being barefoot in his office, taking a Sue Grafton novel to read at the pool, all of which help define his character a little more. Still, I might have enjoyed Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance the most. She is blossoming into a true lead actress, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see her in much more important roles soon.

Kudos must go to Britt Daniels for a terrific soundtrack. Daniels, the main man for Spoon, also collects several Spoon songs as well as some terrific alternative songs for the soundtrack. Rather than trying to find a group of well-known hits to pad soundtrack sales, Daniels instead gathers songs that fit the mood of the scene nicely, and while some of the bands are well-known in Indie Rock circles, most have little bang past that. No matter; it works real well.

The movie explores mortality and our relationship with it. Harold must cope with his own impending death, and he chooses to live rather than curl up and die. It’s a metaphor, I suppose, for how we all live our own lives, oblivious to the fact that it could be cut short at any moment. Reminders such as this to stop and smell the roses are always welcome, particularly when they are presented as imaginatively and with such great humor as this.

WHY RENT THIS: Farrell and Gyllenhaal make for appealing leads, and they are ably supported. The script is very Charlie Kaufmann-esque in a good way. Terrific soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gets a little way out there in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language, some sexuality and implied nudity, but nothing that older teens would consider unusual.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the film revolves around mathematics; street names refer to Euclidian geometry, while all of the characters’ last names are of mathematicians, engineers and artists known for art that is a reflection of mathematics. Even the bus line is named after a mathematician.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting feature on the making of the graphics that enhance the film so nicely.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Babylon A.D.