To Dust


“It could be worse. It could be raining!”

(2018) Dramedy (Good Deed) Gėza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Bern Cohen, Ben Hammer, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno, Ziv Zaifman, Leanne Michelle Watson, Jill Marie Lawrence, Larry Owens, Isabelle Phillips, Marceline Hugot, Natalie Carter, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Joseph Siprut, Linda Frieser, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jaclyn S. Powell, Sarah Jes Austell. Directed by Shawn Snyder

 

In life, death is certain but growth is optional. The wisdom of a Star Trek movie “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life” is lost on most of us. We deal with death by ignoring it.

Shmuel (Röhrig) can’t ignore it. His beloved wife has just passed from cancer and it has thrown him for a loop. A cantor in the Hassidic Jewish faith, he is having a hard time dealing with it – he can’t even tear his coat properly until his mother supplies him with a tiny pair of scissors. Shmuel is nothing if not tied to his faith but he begins to have nightmares of his wife’s body decomposing. Troubled, he seeks the advice of his rabbi (Hammer) but is left unsatisfied. He needs to know precisely what is happening to his wife’s body. He has questions: is her soul suffering as her body decays? He needs to know.

His quest takes him beyond the parameters of his faith and to a scientist. Well, to a guy who teaches science at the local community college: Albert (Broderick). Albert is going through a rough emotional time of his own, having just been divorced. At first, he finds Shmuel’s persistence annoying – anybody would. Shmuel has the dogged determination of a mule trying to get that carrot. Eventually though Albert warms to the scientific aspect of the question and the two begin to delve into “experiments” that are started by an innocent remark on Albert’s part that Shmuel takes literally and eventually involves dead pigs, kidnapped pigs named Harold, road trips and body farms.

This movie is plenty quirky and mostly in an endearing way. Death and the mechanics of bodily corruption are not things we are geared to talk about much as a society. Nobody wants to know about the bacterial breakdown of our mortal remains; nobody wants to hear about maggot infestations and what happens to our skin, our eyes and our brains. It’s a vaguely disturbing subject but it is tackled with surprising compassion here.

It helps having a pair of charismatic leads. Broderick is perfectly cast here to the point where I can’t imagine any other actor playing this role. Albert is a bit of a kvetch in many regards and Broderick excels at those kinds of roles. Albert copes with his grief by smoking a lot of dope and listening to Jethro Tull – in other words, reverting back to his high school years in which he likely smoked a lot of dope and listened to a lot of Tull. I give the movie a lot of cultural points, by the way, for including Tull on the soundtrack. Rock on!

Röhrig, who some might remember from a much different movie called Son of Saul, plays a man who is consumed by his obsession to the point that he can’t see that his sons are also grieving and need him more than ever. His behavior is so odd that the two believe he has been possessed by a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish demon, and are researching the prospect on their own. The problem here is that often we don’t get a sense of Shmuel’s actual grief, the pain of losing someone so beloved although I will give you that maybe his obsessions with the body’s breakdown is his way of dealing with it. We all grieve in our own ways.

I don’t know enough about the Hassidic culture to determine whether or not the production was accurate on their rituals or lifestyle. Shmuel lives in an upstate New York townhouse, drives a station wagon and occasionally curses like a sailor. His sons are conversant with the Internet and computers. This is a different portrayal of their culture than I think most of us are used to.

Death isn’t an easy subject to tackle and our own mortality and the end disposition of our remains may be a little bit too uncomfortable a subject for some. The filmmakers are to be commended for taking it on and handling it in a mostly sensitive way – there is a lot of humor involved here but also a lot of respect for the subject. I’m not saying that this should be considered a primer in grief in any way, shape or form but any movie that allows us to discuss something so basic but so disconcerting deserves praise in any case.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is quirky in an endearing way. Broderick is solid as usual
REASONS TO AVOID: Röhrig is a bit too laconic at times. The subject matter may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images of corpses, some brief nudity, drug use and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set at the community college were filmed at the City University of New York’s Staten Island campus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Everybody Knows

New Releases for the Week of March 15, 2019


WONDER PARK

(Paramount) Starring the voices of Jennifer Garner, Matthew Broderick, John Oliver, Mila Kunis, Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong, Brianna Denski. Directed by Josh Applebaum, Andrė Nemec and Robert Gordon

An imaginative young girl creates an entire theme park in her imagination. As she grows older, she puts her fantasy aside and moves on. Then one day while walking through the woods, she finds a theme park overgrown and falling apart – it’s the same one she imagined those years ago, complete with the characters she invented. Now in order to save it she’ll have to put her imagination into overdrive!

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some mild thematic elements and action)

Birds of Passage

(The Orchard) Josė Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Carmiña Martinez, Jhon Naráez. During the rise of the Colombian cocaine cartels of the 1970s, an indigenous man gets caught up in drug trafficking despite the disapproval of the tribe matriarch. His pride and greed will plunge the tribe into a bloody war where the innocent will suffer along with the guilty.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Captive State

(Focus) John Goodman, Vera Farmiga, D.B. Sweeney, Ashton Sanders. Following the occupation of the Earth by an alien invasion, the lives of those on both sides of the conflict – collaborators and rebels – are examined.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for Sci-Fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief language and drug material)

Climax

(A24) Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile. On a wintry night a troupe of dancers rehearses in an abandoned school building. Following rehearsal, they decide to party through the night only to discover to their horror that the sangria they’ve been pounding down is laced with a potent psychotropic drug. Chaos descends into madness as the troupe is overtaken by lust and violence.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, and for language and some graphic nudity)

Five Feet Apart

(CBS) Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Parminder Nagra. A teenage girl with cystic fibrosis falls in love with a fellow sufferer of the disease. However, the nature of their disease is that the two can’t even touch for fear of setting off potentially fatal complications. Yet another dying teen romance movie for the angst-driven.

See the trailer, clips, a promo and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Young Adult Romance
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and suggestive material)

Let’s Live (Chaal Jeevi Laiye)

(Rising Star) Siddharth Randeria, Yash Soni, Aarohi Patel, Aruna Irani. A young man puts his life on the back burner while trying to build a business until his father is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. Wanting to fulfill one of his most precious wishes, he and his father go on a road trip where they meet a free-spirited backpacker who will ultimately bring the two men closer together.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some suggestive comments, and brief language)

No Manches Frida 2

(Pantelion) Omar Chaparro, Martha Higareda, Aarón Diaz, Itati Cantoral. The sequel to the hit comedy starts with a wedding…almost. Chaos at the beach wedding forces Lucy to call of the nuptials to Zequi. To make matters worse the school where they both work is about to close its doors and needs the winnings from a beach tournament in order to continue to exist. To make matters worse the coach of the rival team is a former grade school crush of Lucy…who has turned into a hot hunk. Zequi will need to pull out all his ingenuity to beat his rivals, keep the school from shutting down and to win Lucy back.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Epic Theaters at Lee Vista, Regal The Loop

Rating: R (for sexual content and teen drinking)

Ruben Brandt, Collector

(Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Iván Kamarás, Matt Devere, Henry Grant, Peter Linka. A famous psychotherapist is forced to steal great paintings in order to quell the nightmares in his head due to subliminal messaging he received as a child.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for nude images and some violence)

To Dust

(Good Deed) Matthew Broderick, Geza Röhrig, Sammy Voit, Sarah Jes Austell. A cantor for an upstate New York Hassidic Jewish community is grieving over the untimely death of his wife from cancer. Tormented by nightmares of his wife’s decomposing body and looking for answers as to what happens to the body after death, he seeks out a biology professor to explain the process when his religion can’t.

See the trailer and video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Faith, Hope & Love
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy
Slipaway

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Bruce!!!!
Combat Obscura
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy
Yardie

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Chimera Strain
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy
Pranam Kharledu
The Wedding Guest
Woman at War

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Birds of Passage
Captive State
To Dust
Wonder Park

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy

Rules Don’t Apply


Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

(2016) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Hart Bochner, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Chace Crawford, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Marshall Bell, Ron Perkins, Alec Baldwin, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Joshua Malina, Louise Linton. Directed by Warren Beatty

 

Most of us have to live within the rules. The rules after all are there for a reason. There are a fortunate few – or perhaps an unfortunate few – who for one reason or another are exceptions. The rules don’t really apply to them. It can be very liberating – and very lonely.

Marla Mabry (Collins) has come to Hollywood in sunny 1958 to make her fame and fortune as an actress. No less than Howard Hughes (Beatty) has put her under contract. She and her devout Baptist mother (Bening) are met at the airport by Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), a driver with ambitions of his own.

She discovers that she is one of 26 girls under contract to Hughes, all of whom he is insanely jealous towards. In fact, “insane” is a word that fits his behavior which has grown increasingly erratic as paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder have begun to take hold of his life like a dog with a bone. Forbes’ boss Levar (Broderick) shows Frank the ropes, but even though it’s forbidden he begins to have romantic feelings for Marla, feelings which are returned. In the meantime, Hughes begins to fall for the pretty, talented singer-songwriter-actress, but he is under siege as there are those who wish to declare him incompetent and take his company away from him. Those closest to him – including Frank – are determined not to let that happen.

First, this isn’t really a biography of the billionaire. Certainly some of the events depicted here actually happened, but Marla Mabry and Frank Forbes are entirely fictional; so is most of the rest of the cast in fact, although a few historical figures make appearances now and again. This is more of a fable of the Howard Hughes myth than anything else.

Beatty, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in 15 years or directed a film in 18, does a terrific job with Hughes keeping him from becoming a caricature of mental illness. Hughes feels like a living, breathing person here rather than an interpretation of an encyclopedia entry. Often when Hollywood brings real people to the screen, they feel more mythic than actual. I always appreciate films that utilize historical figures that feel like human beings rather than animatronic renditions of legends.

The cast is made up in equal parts of veteran actors, some of whom rarely appear onscreen these days (like Bergen and Coleman) and up-and-comers with huge potential (like Ehrenreich and Collins), with Beatty leaning towards the former in his casting decisions. It is certainly welcome watching some of these pros who are either semi-retired or fully retired plying their craft once more. Of particular note is Bergen as the matronly (and occasionally curmudgeonly) but ultimately kindly secretary/personal assistant to Hughes.

The issue here is that the movie is long and the plot bounces around from scene to scene with an almost manic quality, sometimes giving short shrift to subtlety and other times leading up blind alleys and locked doors. I get the sense that Beatty is trying to craft a parable about the nature of wealth and power and its corrupting influence. Hughes seems like a nice enough guy but his money and influence tends to corrupt everyone around him, including those who didn’t start off cynical. One of the characters gets out before any real harm is done to them; another gets sucked into the vortex.

While this is something of a passion project for Beatty (he’s been trying to get a film made about Hughes since the early 70s) it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a bit bloated and self-defeating, but there’s enough that is interesting going on to make it worth a look. It’s mostly out of the theaters by now – critical indifference and an audience that is attracted to movies about superheroes and aliens more than about those who shaped the world we live in (as Hughes surely did) have hurt the film’s box office receipts. What the movie lacks in spectacle though it makes up for in genuine affection for its subject and that’s something you can’t get with all the CGI in the world.

REASONS TO GO: It’s lovely to see some of these veteran actors in action here..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bo Goldman, who gets story credit on the film, also wrote Melvin and Howard about Hughes’ supposed encounter with Melvin Dummar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Café Society
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Monster

Trainwreck


Tea for two.

Tea for two.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Brie Larson, Dave Attell, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Jon Glaser, Ezra Miller, Evan Brinkman, Mike Birbiglia, Norman Lloyd, LeBron James, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Method Man, Tim Meadows, Nikki Glaser, Matthew Broderick, Marv Albert, Chris Evert, Rachel Feinstein. Directed by Judd Apatow

Romantic comedies are beginning to get a terrible reputation among both critics and filmgoers alike. For the past decade or so, Hollywood has churned out mass-produced paint-by-numbers rom-coms that are as predictable as Republicans opposing whatever the President proposes. After a while, people get tired of the same, stale old thing.

Apatow has been one of the most successful directors, writers and producers of comedies in roughly the same period. He has done coming-of-age comedies as well as yes, romantic comedies and has become a money-making machine for the studios to a certain extent. He has specialized in outrageous humor with a somewhat over-the-top attitude towards comedy, with a regular stable of actors including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, his wife Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

&None of them appear in his latest, which in an unusual move for Apatow is not written by him but by star Amy Schumer. Schumer is a somewhat controversial comic who went from Last Comic Standing to the hit Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer. Her humor is somewhat raunchy and is unashamed of the comic’s own sexuality, which is in-your-face. If a guy comic did that, it would be taken in stride but when a woman does that people just lose their minds but Schumer has become something of a poster child for being her own woman and not really giving a rat’s fig about what other people think.

Here, she plays Amy, a writer for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff which specializes in stories like “Are you gay or is she just bored?” and take a fairly cynical look at modern man-dom. When her dad (Quinn), a serial philanderer, divorced her mom, he drove home the point that monogamy is unrealistic. Young Amy took that to heart and has kept relationships to a minimum. She’s kinda seeing Steven (Cena), a cross-fit guy but when she’s not going to the movies with him she’s getting drunk and having sex with a parade of guys whom she wants nothing else from and there certainly are plenty of those sorts of guys in Manhattan for her to choose from.

She banters with her sister Kim (Larson) who is married to a sweet but somewhat vanilla guy (Birbiglia) who has a demonically polite son (Brinkman) from a previous relationship. She also has a homeless friend (Attell) who hangs out near her apartment. Her boss (Swinton) is a Brit with an attitude who is sort of a low-rent Ricky Gervais; she assigns Amy to do a piece on Dr. Aaron Conners (Hader), a sports medicine specialist who is getting ready to try a radical new surgery for knee injuries that cuts the recovery time in half.

Amy isn’t really the right person for this particular job; she doesn’t know anything about sports and doesn’t really want to, but she and the Doc hit it off and before too long his best buddy LeBron James (himself) is urging Dr. Conners to call her back. They couldn’t be more of an odd couple; she’s an uptight party girl, he’s a laidback stay-at-home guy; she is cynical and occasionally cruel; he’s optimistic and wants to help people; she’s a loose cannon, he’s a little too tightly wound. Of course they’re going to fall in love.

To the movie’s detriment, it follows the typical rom-com formula pretty much from there; one of them has to overcome a personal tragedy. The two eventually split up because they can’t communicate. They both mope around, missing each other horribly (one of the best scenes in the movie is LeBron James organizing an intervention for Dr. Conners with Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert providing the play-by-play) and eventually, one of them making a grand gesture to bring them back together again.

The difference here is that the gender roles are switched; Amy is the one who needs to grow up and it will take the love of a great sensitive guy to help her do it, rather than the guy being the one who is tamed by a beautiful, patient girl. I suppose that’s considered thinking outside the box in some circles, but for me, this is merely the same running back in a different jersey.

Fortunately there are some fine performances around her, particularly Colin Quinn as her douchebag of a dad, Cena as her musclebound but sensitive boyfriend, and James who shows impressive comic timing in his first feature film. And quite frankly, there are some really good laughs here, and Schumer is often at the center of them.

I didn’t fall in love with this movie like a lot of my friends and colleagues have. That’s not to say I didn’t like it – I did – but only up to a point. It’s more a matter of personal taste for me and your opinion is likely to differ. Schumer is not really my cup of tea as a standup comic so that’s something that you’ll need to take into account. There are plenty of people who find her funny as all get out and that’s cool by me; I’m more of a Ron Funches kind of guy these days. If you like her humor, you’re going to love this. If you don’t, you’re less likely to. If you’re not sure, Google her and find a video of her stand-up performances or an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. If you find either of these funny, then head out and buy your ticket at the multiplex. I’ll go on record as saying it’s funny enough to see, but not the funniest summer comedy of the past few years by any stretch.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny in some places. Supporting cast superb.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally uncomfortable. If Schumer is not your cup of tea, you may find this unpalatable.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality galore, some nudity, crude language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lloyd, who plays a friend of Amy’s dad at the assisted living facility, is 100 years old – he was once a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What’s Your Number?
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wolfpack

Deck the Halls


A Christmas guilty pleasure.

A Christmas guilty pleasure.

(2006) Holiday Comedy (20th Century Fox) Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Jorge Garcia, Fred Armisen, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin, Sean O’Bryan, SuChin Pak, Jackie Burroughs, Garry Chalk, Nicola Peltz, Zak Santiago, Jill Morrison, Brenda M. Crichlow, Eliza Norbury. Directed by John Whitesell

The Holly and the Quill

There comes a time in all our lives when we laugh at something we know we shouldn’t laugh at. We know it’s wrong, we know we shouldn’t do it but we still do it anyway. When it happens in a movie, we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Dr. Steve Finch (Broderick) is a mild-mannered optometrist in one of those picture postcard perfect Massachusetts towns that looks like it sprung fully formed from a Currier and Ives print. He’s also the Christmas guy around town, the one who decorates his home tastefully but noticeably, the guy who’s in charge of the Christmas pageant, the one who buys his family matching ugly Christmas sweaters. His children Madison (Shawkat) and Carter (Blue) are somewhat disinterested in their father’s regimented, traditional Christmas that allows no deviation from the norm. Although his wife Kelly (Davis) wishes that her husband was less rigid, she tolerates the situation because being obsessed with Christmas is way better than being obsessed with Internet porn, right?

Then across the street moves in used car salesman Buddy Hall (DeVito) with his…ummmm, statuesque wife Tia (Chenoweth)  and his buxom blonde twin daughters Ashley (K. Aldridge) and Emily (S. Aldridge). Buddy is going through an epic midlife crisis. He has never really attained any sort of real success and is living in a house he really can’t afford. The neighborly Finches invite his family over for dinner and Buddy’s inferiority complex is deepened when he discovers that the satellite locating website MyEarth (which is Google Earth without paying Google the big bucks for using their name) shows his neighbor’s house just fine but his is too small to be seen from space. Then it hits him – what if he put up a Christmas display so bright that it can be seen from space?

This puts Buddy in a frenzy of light buying and Christmas pageantry which doesn’t sit well with Dr. Steve who is threatened by a usurper for his title of the Christmas guy around town. He sets off to sabotage Buddy’s efforts which he sees as garish and lurid. The two begin a series of escalating pranks on one another, culminating in both their wives taking their children out of the house and staying elsewhere, leaving the two obsessed Christmas porn lovers to duke it out between themselves. Will Buddy win and get his wish to be noticed, to accomplish something monumental? Or will Steve win and get his wish for a traditional Christmas?

Critics savaged the movie when it came out and in a lot of ways I can’t really blame them. The humor often falls flat and is generally crude, the script preposterous, the plot outlandish and the acting mainly phoned in. Broderick, whose character is covered at one point with camel spit and sheep doo-doo from a living nativity that Buddy throws up, was heard to mutter on the set “I’ve hit rock bottom” on a regular basis and DeVito literally flew in on the days he was scheduled to shoot, acted his scenes and left without interacting with any of the cast. Supposedly everyone on set was fully aware they were cooking up a turkey.

And yet…and yet…I still find myself strangely drawn to the movie. In some demented way, it appeals to me. I think deep down it is supposed to be a commentary on how we’ve warped Christmas in this country with rampant consumerism and a terminally competitive attitude towards showing how much Christmas spirit we have (We’ve got spirit – yes we do! We’ve got spirit – how ’bout YOU?!?) particularly in decorating our homes. Not that saying we’ve lost our way in terms of the season is anything new or earth-shattering – Miracle on 34th Street was making the same point 59 years earlier – but it’s a point that bears repeating.

Chenoweth, one of Broadway’s brightest stars and who always impresses when she gets a movie to work on, is one of the highlights. She’s the blonde bimbo who turns out to be a bit smarter than anyone gives her credit for, seeing her husband for what he is and loving him anyway although when his excesses threaten the family stability, she exhibits a lot more strength than you’d imagine she has. Maybe I have a critic-crush on the woman, but she’d make reading the phone book an interesting movie.

I mentioned the humor earlier but I neglected to mention how mean-spirited it is. For example, Buddy and Steve are watching the Christmas pageant and a trio of scantily dressed young women come out and do a provocative dance. Both men cheer and call out “Who’s your daddy?!” repeatedly until the girls turn around – and it’s their daughters. They run to the nearest Catholic church and wash out their eyes with Holy Water. That doesn’t sound like it should be appealing but remember how I mentioned laughing at things you shouldn’t? There ya go.

Sure, the ending is a bit treacly and has that timeless Christmas movie trope of healing all wounds with the singing of carols but somehow those things still work even though you know they’re coming. I guess I’m just a sucker for Christmas spirit, neighbors looking out for each other and Currier and Ives New England villages. Here in Florida, Christmas is a whole different thing where we get milder weather (although we can get heatwaves from time to time) and almost never see any snowfall. My wife longs for a White Christmas which is something I haven’t experienced since I was a little boy in Connecticut which was so long ago that dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then. Okay, not really but you get the (snow) drift.

This might not be your cup of cocoa and I respect that but if you’re looking for guilty pleasure Christmas entertainment, you can do much worse (Santa Claus vs. the Martians anyone?) and you might, like I did, get suckered in by the sticky sweet ending. Christmas can do funny things to a person.

WHY RENT THIS: A primer in tacky Christmas displays. Chenoweth is always a pleasure.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Disagreeable leads. Mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor and brief bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production used LED lights on the house that allowed programmable effects and was installed by Color Kinetics of Boston. The nodes used just 7,150 watts of energy or the equivalent of four hair-dryers, and 126 amps which is the average for 1 1/3 homes.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel as well as interviews with young actor Dylan Blue. Featurettes on filming a Christmas movie in July, the design of Buddy’s Christmas light display and the building of the house sets are also included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.2M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (streaming only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jingle All the Way
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (Talk about a Christmas gift…)
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill concludes

New Year’s Eve


New Year's Eve

Josh Duhamel prepares to raise a toast to handsome men

(2011) Romantic Comedy (New Line) Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Sarah Paulson, Lea Michelle, Common, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Larry Miller, Penny Marshall, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, Hector Elizondo, Jack McGee, Yeardley Smith, James Belushi, Ryan Seacrest, John Lithgow. Directed by Garry Marshall

 

Garry Marshall is perhaps the pre-eminent director of romantic comedies working today with such classics as Pretty Woman to his credit. Recently he directed the holiday-themed ensemble piece Valentine’s Day which had considerable box office success. Could he match that with a second holiday?

Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is an assistant working for a completely oblivious executive (Lithgow) at a major record label in New York. She is sad, depressed and lonely and tired of being taken for granted, quits her job, taking with her four tickets to the company’s coveted New Year’s Eve bash at a local art gallery. She has a whole list of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions from the previous year. She enlists Paul (Efron), a courier, to help her fulfill them before midnight. If he does, the tickets to the party are his.

That party is being catered by Laura (Heigl), who until a year ago was the girlfriend of rock superstar Jensen (Bon Jovi, cast against type). It was on New Year’s Eve last year that Jensen bolted on Laura after proposing to her. He’s regretting his decision and wants to get back with her but she’s having none of it. Waiting in the wings is Ava (Vergara), Laura’s hot-blooded sexy Latin sous chef.

Sam (Duhamel) is attending a wedding in Connecticut but on the way back to New York to give a speech at a New Year’s party his car skids into a tree. He hitches a ride back to town with the parson who officiated the wedding, his wife (Smith) and grandfather (McGee). As they crawl through traffic back to the city, he recounts how he met a fascinating woman at the same party last year and is hoping he’ll run into her again.

Randy (Kutcher) is a bit of a cynic who hates New Year’s eve. He gets stuck in an elevator with his comely neighbor Elise (Michelle) who hopes her gig as a back-up singer for Jensen at his Times Square appearance might lead to a big break for her. The two are however stuck and it appears that it is going to be a pretty sad last day of 2011 for the both of them.

Kim (Parker) is a single mom who wants nothing more than to spend New Year’s eve with her daughter Hailey (Breslin). Hailey however wants to head to Times Square where a boy is waiting to bestow her first kiss on her. Kim doesn’t want her to go so in time-honored tradition Hailey runs off anyway and Kim frantically looks for her.

Expectant couples the Schwabs (Schweiger, Paulson) and the Byrnes (Biel, Meyers) bid to be the couple with the first baby of the New Year, which carries with it a $25,000 prize. It’s on as the highly competitive fathers look to figure out ways to hurry along their wives’ delivery, much to the disgust of the Byrnes’ New Age doctor (Gugino).

In the same hospital, Stan (De Niro) waits quietly to die, having refused treatment. The end is near and while the doctor (Elwes) can only make him comfortable, Stan is hoping to see the ball drop in Times Square from the rooftop, which the doctor says is against hospital policy. Nurse Aimee (Berry) stays by his side, not wanting the old man to die alone as he fights to make it to midnight.

However, the ball is in danger of not dropping. Claire (Swank) is in charge and feels the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. An electronic snafu has the ball stuck halfway up the pole. With her police officer friend Brendan (Ludacris) calming her down, she sends for super electrician Kominsky (Elizondo) to save the day and indeed, New Year’s Eve. Can there be a new year if the ball doesn’t drop?

As you can tell, there are a whole lot of plot threads to keep track of here. Marshall however keeps them all relatively easy to follow. This is very much an “old fashioned’ kind of romantic comedy and that’s meant in a good way; it doesn’t necessarily follow the same tired formula nearly every romantic comedy employs these days. There are big points for this.

Those who like star watching will be in hog heaven here. There are tons of cameos (as you can tell from the impressive list above), several of whom have no more than one or two lines of dialogue. Some of it is stunt casting but for the most part, all of the performers are pros and go about their business competently. There are even some Oscar winners who get a chance to slum a little bit.

As in any ensemble piece, there are some bits that work and others not so much. De Niro does some good work (as you knew he would) and paired up with Berry the two make a winning combination. Pfeiffer and Efron are surprisingly pleasant together, and Duhamel is as appealing a romantic lead as there is in Hollywood at the moment. There are plenty of moments that stretch disbelief to its limits (as when Breslin bares her bra in a crowded subway station, exclaiming “This isn’t a training bra” at which Parker rushes to cover her daughter up, squealing “This isn’t Girls Gone Wild” in a smarmy sit com-y voice. Does anybody do that?), in fact too many.

However, that’s really moot, honestly. This is meant to be fluff entertainment, cotton candy for the soul. It has no aspirations other than to entertain and even that it does gently. Not every movie, as I’ve often said, has to be a transformative experience. Sometimes it’s enough merely to sit back and forget your troubles for an hour and a half or two. That’s ambition enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Star watching always fun. Some of the stories are heart-warming and tender.

REASONS TO STAY: Vignettes vary in originality and quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hector Elizondo has appeared in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: This many stars should be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Young Goethe in Love