Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

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Ted 2


Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, John Carroll Lynch, Sam J. Jones, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn, Bill Smitrovich, John Slattery, Cocoa Brown, Ron Canada, Liam Neeson, Dennis Haysbert, Patrick Stewart (voice), Tom Brady, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Kate MacKinnon. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

When you get a movie that’s as popular as Ted was, a sequel is inevitable. Just because a movie was popular though, doesn’t necessarily mean a sequel is advisable.

Ted (MacFarlane) is marrying his sweetheart Tammi-Lynn (Barth), the two having met at the grocery store where they’re both employed. Performing the ceremony is their hero Sam J. Jones – Flash Gordon himself. Things are looking up for Ted. Celebrating, albeit with more restraint is his best friend and thunder buddy John Bennett (Wahlberg) who is still stinging from a divorce from long-time girl Lori.

Still, John has always been there for Ted and vice versa so he supports his friend all the way and Ted settles into married life. Nobody ever explained to the magically animated teddy bear however that marriage isn’t easy. Ted and Tammi-Lynn begin to fight and it looks like the two might be headed for Divorceville. However, Ted gets the idea from a co-worker that the best way to fix up a broken marriage is to have a baby and at first, it seems that it’s just what the doctor ordered; Tammi-Lynn is ecstatic at the thought of being a mommy.

However, there are some hurdles to overcome. Ted isn’t, how can we put this, anatomically correct so they’ll have to go the artificial insemination route. Of course, Ted wants only the best and after trying to get a few well-known sperm donors (including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady) and failing, Ted “settles” for his buddy John’s…umm, seed.

When it turns out that Tammi-Lynn can’t carry a baby to term, adoption seems the only way left. However, Ted’s attempts to adopt a baby turn back on him unexpectedly when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who have never weighed in on Ted’s legal status in the 30 years or so he’s been around, suddenly now declare that an animated teddy bear does not have the rights that a regular human being has. At least, a straight one (until recently).

Stung that he is now considered property, Ted fights back in the courts, utilizing pretty but inexperienced lawyer Samantha L. Jackson (Seyfried). Unbeknownst to them however, Ted’s nemesis Donny (Ribisi) is plotting with Hasbro’s amoral CEO (Lynch) to get Ted back, dissect him, find out what makes him tick and manufacture millions of animated teddy bears just like him. Can Ted win his freedom and have the life he truly wants?

MacFarlane is something of a renaissance man, being a crooner, an actor, a writer and director, sometimes all at once. He’s really the Quentin Tarantino of comedy, very aware of pop culture and excessively cool about it. While his first movie, Ted, was a huge hit, the follow-up, last year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West was a bomb and surprisingly not very funny. MacFarlane is the kind of comic writer who tends to throw a ton of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes you can come up with comedy gems that way but you also leave a lot of foul-smelling garbage that didn’t stick at the base of the wall.

Wahlberg is getting a touch long in the tooth to play the immature drunk/stoner in many ways although I suspect that’s part of the joke. He still has the ability to be boyishly charming and pulls it off, although not as well as he did in the first film. In fact, the bond between Ted and John is at the center of what works about the movie.

Most of the rest of the cast is essentially window dressing for the two leads, although Seyfried is game enough to be a lawyer with a taste for good weed as well as the love interest for Wahlberg. Freeman has a brief cameo as a civil rights lawyer and Neeson a briefer one as a suspicious shopper who worries that as an adult eating Trix – which are clearly for kids – he might end up being prosecuted.

While the heart is here, the comedy isn’t. Too much of the comedy doesn’t work and one gets a feel that MacFarlane is more or less going through the motions here. Not being a brilliant writer and pop culture commentator as MacFarlane is (his Family Guy continues to offer fresh commentary on 21st century America), I might be way off here but I don’t get the sense that there really was anywhere for MacFarlane to go with the characters other than to make them more foul-mouthed, more disgusting and more stoned. There’s nothing fun – or funny – about seeing other people get high. This is better seen while seriously baked in the privacy of your own home I’m thinking. I suspect a lot of people who have seen the movie straight will agree with me.

REASONS TO GO: The movie still retains the sweetness of the first.
REASONS TO STAY: Not nearly as funny as the first movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Much of the humor is crude and of a sexual nature. There’s also a whole lot of nasty language and some drug use. Okay, much drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mila Kunis was approached to reprise her role as Lori, John’s girlfriend, but was unable to due to her pregnancy. Her part was written out of the movie and a new love interest was found for John.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Million Ways to Die in the West
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Slow West

A Most Violent Year


Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

(2014) Drama (A24) Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, John Procaccino, Glenn Fleshler, Jerry Adler, Annie Funke, Matthew Maher, David Margulies, Pico Alexander, Susan Blackwell, Myrna Cabello, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Doing the right thing is often an act of will. In places and times where all those around you are taking the easy path – which is generally not the right thing – it becomes difficult to tread the straight and narrow. Despite your very best intentions, often the tendency is to lose your way.

Abel Morales (Isaac) is a man who keeps tight rein on his emotions. He has just signed a deal with a bearded Orthodox patriarch (Adler) for a parcel of land that will make give his heating oil business a river port that will enable him to receive and store an enormous amount of oil, giving him a huge leg up on the competition. He just has 30 days after having made the down payment to provide the remainder of the payment, roughly around $1.5 million. He figures he has got no worries. His lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Brooks), a canny lawyer used to working with the mob, seems to agree.

His wife Anna (Chastain) is not so sure. For weeks now their trucks have been getting hijacked, the contents stolen. While each truck carries only about $6,000 in oil, it has the union boss (Gerety) worried enough that he wants to arm the drivers and give them forged permits to carry. Abel finds this disturbing but the union can tell his drivers to walk away, and that would absolutely be a catastrophe.

To make matters worse, his business – his entire industry in fact – is being investigated by FBI Agent Lawrence (Oyelowo) and they’re handing down an indictment which suddenly makes the bank that Abel has been doing business with all his life turn tail and pull out of the loan they were about to give him for the remainder of the payment for the land. Now Abel is scrambling with days left in the deadline and the violence escalating when one of his drivers (Gabel), having been hospitalized in a hijacking, now carrying a gun against his boss’s wishes and without his knowledge, as he drives.

Watching this carried sharp reminders of 70s cinematic gems like Serpico, The Godfather, The French Connection and their ilk. The palate of the cinematic colors are definitely autumn and winter in tone, with a lot of rich dark browns, olive, ochre and mustard among the colors that are displayed. The movie is lit as if all the action takes place in the late afternoon, with the sun straining to reach inside through Venetian blinds.

The tone of the action is dark as well. Abel, the film’s moral center, is beset on all sides by people urging him to take short cuts, essentially because everyone else is doing it and the only way to get ahead in this place and this time (1981 New York City, a year that to that point had been the most violent on record in terms of the number of violent crimes) is to do the same. Isaac imbues Abel with a certain amount of gravitas, his leonine looks reminding me of Al Pacino in a lot of ways. But whereas Pacino’s character was eventually corrupted in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, here Isaac’s Morales more or less remains on point.

Chastain’s Anna is less sanguine. The daughter of a mobster, she is all Brooklyn sass and pepper, nagging her husband to be stronger; in many ways, she has much more steel in her backbone than he does. However like most of those around Abel, her moral compass is compromised, pointing at self-interest much more directly than the right thing to do.

Brooks, who impressed as a villain in Drive last year, continues to take on fascinating characters as he reinvents himself from a sad-sack romantic comedy lead. He imbues the lawyer with a subtle menace even while he shows loyalty to Abel throughout. He doesn’t always agree with Abel but he supports him mainly because he’s paid to; one wonders if he will turn on him throughout and that’s the genius of Brooks’ portrayal. Oyelowo, so brilliant in Selma isn’t quite as scintillating here but gives the conflicted Agent Lawrence that sense of being politically motivated but quite sure the guy he’s investigating is likely innocent.

Chandor, who has the powerful All is Lost from last year as well as the Wall Street thriller Margin Call to his credit, excels at creating tension in ordinary situations. I was reminded somewhat of The Sopranos in a sense but the mob in this case is outside of the frame, not really involved at all – although Agent Lawrence thinks they are. Abel is a man trying to keep his integrity as best he can in a time and environment when it isn’t prudent to do so. Nonetheless he has visions of success in his industry without compromising his morals, something which is difficult to do in any business. Something tells me that successful, capable men who refuse to give in to the temptation of the short cut are more prevalent in the real world than it would seem, but it’s the ones who give in who tend to be the ones who call the tune the rest of Wall Street and capitalism in general dance to.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful performances throughout the cast. Nice homage to cinema of the period.
REASONS TO STAY: Dimly lit and darkly hued.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of strong language and some occasional violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isaac and Chastain were classmates at Julliard School of the Dramatic Arts. When Javier Bardem dropped out of the project, Chastain wrote Chandor a 3-page letter recommending her former classmate for the role. Chandor was already considering him for the part when he received the letter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of War
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: blackhat