The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

Are We Not Cats


Someone needs a little hair tonic.

(2016) Romance (Tri-Coast Worldwide) Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere, Dean Holtermann, Charles Gould, Adeline Thery, Alice Frank, Tuffy Questell, Theodore Bouloukos, Joe Buldo, Ernst Zorin, Marika Dacluk, Bill Weeden, Alex Goldberg, Willy Muse, Carson Grant, Kelsea Dakota. Directed by Xander Robin

Some movies are easily described while others beggar description. This is one of the latter even though I’m about to give it a try.

Eli (Nicholson) seems to have a stable if unsatisfying life; he has a girlfriend, a steady job and an apartment in New York City – it’s a decent enough life. In a matter of hours though he loses all three and on top of that his parents decide to vacate New York for the heat of Arizona. “Visit us!” his mom exclaims once Eli has loaded all their furniture in the moving truck. That doesn’t seem likely given his situation – he’s essentially homeless and is sleeping in the delivery van that is his only source of income.

He gets a job delivering an engine to a small upstate town that will at least keep him afloat for a few months where he meets Kyle (Godere) who is having the engine put in his car but unfortunately Eli arrives with it too late for Kyle to drive out of the repair shop that day so Eli gives Kyle a ride home. In turn, Kyle takes Eli to an underground party in an abandoned warehouse space where he meets Kyle’s girlfriend Anya (Lopez) who seems to be the hippest person in all of New York State and that includes the five boroughs. Eli is quite smitten with her but Kyle gets mad at the attention Eli is giving Anya and he hits her. Anya seems to find that amusing but I guarantee most audience members won’t.

In order to stay nearby, Eli takes a job where Kyle works much to the dismay of both Kyle and Anya. When Kyle has to leave on some sort of trip, Eli keeps Anya company while he’s away. At first she is firm about keeping things on a friendship level; the two have a lot in common and seem comfortable with each other but both of them are hiding something; Eli is suffering from trichotillomania (a compulsion for pulling out one’s own hair) while Anya has trichophagia (a compulsion to eat human hair). We discover that Anya has been wearing a wig the whole time and is nearly bald from the yanking out of her own hair and consuming it. The two eventually have sex and while Eli sleeps Anya consumes his luxuriant head of hair, leaving him looking like a radiation victim as she does.

One of the consequences of trichophagia is that it can create massive hair balls in the intestines, effectively blocking the normal digestive process and this is what happens to Anya. Being that she lives in the middle of nowhere in a loft in which she has created a machine that creates light shows and kinetic movement by the sounds of a record played on an old-fashioned turntable, no help can arrive for hours so a distraught Eli realizes he has but one option – to perform surgery on her himself.

Yes, that’s essentially the plot and yes, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. I will give Robin props for at least coming up with an original concept here even if the execution isn’t always what I might like it to be. There is a little bit too much shaky handheld camera shots for my taste, but others may be okay with that. This is definitely going to appeal to Millennials as Eli and particularly Anya pretty much are almost stereotypical characters from that generation. In some ways, the whole film is an allegory for what it is to be from that generation; the characters have nowhere to go, nothing to do and are bored out of their minds. At least, to a mind of the generation that essentially fucked things up for Millennials.

Nicholson and Lopez are appealing actors who don’t appear to mind taking chances. Certainly it couldn’t be easy either having their hair shaved to look like victims of an atomic bomb or more likely to wear wigs that make them appear that way. During scenes in the middle of the movie, Lopez wears blue lipstick that gives her a corpse-like appearance and presages the scenes in the latter stages of the movie where she is getting her home surgery done.

That scene is fairly bloody and visceral and it may upset those who are affected by such things. There is a kind of absurdist humor that’s going on during it though that does lighten the mood considerably and in fact the whole situation is kind of abstract in a way – I don’t think you run into people who would willingly perform surgery (particularly on someone they are fond of) without any training whatsoever. Either Eli is an idiot, in a panic or self-confident beyond rationality. I’d probably choose the second explanation if given a choice.

The landscapes are pretty bleak here and most of the movie feels grimy and post-apocalyptic even though it’s clear that society continues to function in the movie (if you consider what society is doing right now “functioning”). Unfortunately the story feels disjointed and confusing and I had trouble at times figuring out why people were acting the way they did in the movie. There is a certain amount of nihilism present in modern society but if it really is as much as portrayed here, then we are truly screwed.

REASONS TO GO: It’s kind of a nifty allegory for how millennials are viewed. It’s edgy and at least tries to take a few chances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s way too much shaky cam. The film is fairly disjointed and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, sexuality, some disturbing images as well as a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally started life as a 2013 short with the same title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fly (1986)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: A United Kingdom

Wolves (2016)


Game on!

(2016) Sports Drama (IFC) Michael Shannon, Taylor John Smith, Carla Gugino, Chris Bauer, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Jake Choi, John Douglas Thompson, Danny Hoch, Christopher Meyer, John Michael Bolger, Matt Gorsky, Cindy Cheung, Noah Le Gros, Matthew Porretta, Seth Barrish, Ron Simons, Gibson Frazier, Jessica Rothe, Lynn Marocola. Directed by Bart Freundlich

 

We look at young people much the same as we look at the game of basketball. Mostly, we see the grace, the athleticism and the beauty but what we don’t see are the pounding, the punching and the ugliness that go along with the game – or in being young. Those of us who were once young may remember how rough a go we had it but we have trouble tolerating that same roughness in the young.

“Saint” Anthony Keller (Smith) is a star high school basketball player who has a good shot at getting a scholarship to Cornell. He’s a sharp shooter in the New York City high school athletic scene who is lights out from three point land. He is attending one of the toniest private academies in the City, has loving, supportive mother (Gugino) and a father who also once had high school athletic glory advising him. But Lee Keller (Shannon), while outwardly supportive, has a dark side. Most obvious is a gambling problem which has put him deeply in debt with the kind of people you don’t want to owe a nickel to, let alone fifty thousand dollars.

Anthony also has a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Beetz) but there is definitely trouble in paradise between the two of them. She wants to go to college in California while his institute of higher learning of choice is Cornell in New York. The pressures begin to mount on Anthony, particularly since his father is getting more and more abusive and more and more out of control. During a street basketball game, he meets ex-New York Net Socrates (Thompson) who urges him to believe in himself. He needs to do that more than ever, particularly since the Cornell coach (Porretta) is questioning Anthony’s will to win, particularly because Anthony has a habit of passing to friends rather than taking the critical shot himself.

It all comes to a head as the basketball playoffs progress and the pressure mounts for Anthony to prove himself. With everything that Lee has built crumbling around him and Anthony feeling the pressure for the first time in his life can Lee shrug off his own demons and his own intense jealousy of Anthony’s success? More importantly, can Anthony take the next step from being a great scoring threat to being a potential college basketball star?

The word you’ll see used most commonly to describe this basketball film is ”cliché.” The story is extremely predictable, taking tropes from sports dramas both based on reality and fiction. What Anthony goes through here is nothing we haven’t seen celluloid athletes have to overcome before. I will say that the basketball sequences are actually believable and seem to have actors who can actually play ball and look comfortable doing it. That’s not always the case with sports dramas.

The cast is pretty good though. Shannon is an Oscar-nominated actor who always seems to turn in a performance that just can’t be ignored. He is as intense an onscreen presence as there is in Hollywood and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off him whenever he is onscreen. Shannon gives Lee an undercurrent of passive-aggressive rage that combined with his obvious character deficiencies makes him a compelling – not quite a villain but a flawed antagonist. While there is obviously plenty of father-son love here, there’s also an alpha male contest that flares up, sometimes with catastrophic results. One of the things that really caught my attention was that there is a point late in the film where Lee does something unconscionable – one wonders if it is an accident, male posturing gone out of control or worse still – a deliberate attempt for Lee to change the fortunes of Anthony’s team so that he could win by betting on his son’s team to lose. It is not clear which is the case, but it does make for fascinating consideration.

Most of the other roles are underdeveloped or underwritten. Smith is a fresh-faced talent who hints at having it in him to become a big star, but Anthony as written is either too good to be true or too polite to let his feelings out. He is generally polite and respectful of his elders but he isn’t above taking out an opposing player when his temper flares up. Gugino is a very talented actress who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, at least to my way of thinking. She rarely gets roles that really let her shine and basically she’s the cliché Long-Suffering Mom here. Chris Bauer as a family friend is a little too nice considering that Lee is such a jerk, but then that’s what the script calls for.

I would have liked to have seen this go a little bit more out of the box, but the writer chose to play it safe. Since Freundlich was the writer, he can’t blame the writing for the troubles with his film – well, I suppose he could. I would have liked to see more depth of character and less stereotypes and less of white people rapping (which just looks silly) and less dumb humor (such as an Asian player being chastised for using the “N” word the way the African-American players do). There are some wins in the movie, just enough to make it worth a view but not enough to make it worth spending a lot of time, effort or money in seeking it out.

REASONS TO GO: The brotherhood of athletes on the same team is nicely captured..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pretty rote and contains many ludicrous notes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wolves debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dark Wind

Take My Nose…Please


Lisa Lampinelli reacts to finding Christmas displays up in March at Wal-Mart.

Lisa Lampinelli reacts to finding Christmas displays up in March at Wal-Mart.

(2016) Documentary (Parvenu Ventures) Emily Askin, Jackie Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Star Jones, Cher, Wanda Sykes, Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampinelli, Judy Gold, Stacey Eisner, Dr. Mark Constantion, Phyllis Diller, Dr. Vail C. Reese, Linda Wells, Rob Fuchs, Steve Smyth, Dr. Sherrell J. Aston, Dr. Paula J. Martin, Julie Halston, Virginia Postrel, Adrianne Tolsch. Directed by Joan Kron

miami-film-festival-2017

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning that the definition of beauty is subjective. That’s not quite true however. Women, particularly those in the entertainment industry, are held up to almost impossible standards of attractiveness – a svelte figure, soft skin, shiny hair, perfectly applied make-up – women spend a ridiculous amount of time “getting ready” and not because they all want to but because it is expected.

In general, women have been made to feel unattractive if they don’t look like a supermodel. They starve themselves to get into a size 2 dress and get surgery to augment their breasts because men like ‘em big. And as far as cosmetic surgery goes, women make up more than 90% of the patients. Some of it is vanity but how much is it really?

Take My Nose…Please follows two comediennes who are considering getting nose jobs. Emily Askin is fairly new to the business but she has been told point blank that in order to find success in the industry a smaller nose is a must. Jackie Hoffman is a veteran comic who believes herself to be ugly but has nonetheless had a pretty decent career. She regrets not getting a nose job when she was offered one early on in her career and has decided that now approaching middle age she wants to get one done now. We do follow them from the initial consultation to the final unveiling. It’s somewhat fascinating just from a “how does the process work” standpoint but it isn’t as interesting at least to me as the other part of the movie.

Kron also spends a lot of time looking at how cosmetic surgery is often not spoken about publicly although comediennes have been unusually open about it; Phyllis Diller was one of the first celebrities to discuss her own cosmetic surgery in interviews and in her own act. These days those women who get work done are not shy about admitting it as far as female stand-ups go but when it comes to mainstream actresses and non-entertainment industry celebrities, cosmetic surgery is often a dirty little secret. In fact, non-celebrity women who have “work done” often don’t tell anyone but close friends and family.

In fact, as much time as is spent with Askin, Hoffman and their surgeons, the real center of the movie is how women self-perceive and how society affects that. One of the things I found refreshing is that Kron doesn’t appear to have a problem with women who have cosmetic surgery; women who think their noses are too big, hook too much or have an unsightly bump just want to improve themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that. A person ought to look the way they want to and if they can afford to have the surgery, good for them. I think that’s a far better attitude than stigmatizing women who have a nip and/or tuck done, or a boob job or a nose job as vain peacocks who are all about surface things. I didn’t get that impression from either Hoffman or Askin. Their goal was to make their lives better but there is the cautionary tale of Totie Fields which the movie does explore.

Fields was one of the funniest women of her time (the 60s into the mid-70s). She went into have some work done and complications from that surgery led to blood clots which led to the amputation of one of her legs. Her career was never the same and two years later she died from more blood clots causing a pulmonary embolism. She discusses her health problems candidly on a talk show, footage of which is shown in the film. Her story is perhaps the most heartbreaking in the movie.

Considering this is a first film, the work here is impressive. There are plenty of interviews which can be fatal to a documentary but Kron makes sure that the interviewees are funny and have something important to add, so the reliance on them isn’t a problem. There are plenty of very funny segments and even a little bit of insight as to what women think of themselves. If there’s any issue I have with the movie it’s just that Kron might be attempting to do a little too much – there are segments that don’t really add much to the movie and detract from the focus. Otherwise this is quite an excellent documentary that takes a subject some might find innocuous and turns it into something marvelous. That’s no easy feat, let me tell you.

REASONS TO GO: The film makes some valid and insightful points about how women are viewed by our society. The comediennes keep things light-hearted and interesting. Although there are a lot of talking heads at least they’re not boring.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some occasional tangents that didn’t need to be there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kron, who has spent most of her career as a journalist (the last 25 years at Allure) is making her film directing debut at age 89.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Truth About Beauty
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lipstick Under My Burkha

Chapter & Verse


Just chillin' in Harlem.

Just chillin’ in Harlem.

(2016) Drama (Paladin) Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, Khadim Diop, Justin Martin, Muhammed Cunningham, Gabrielle Rembert, Gary Perez, Bryonn Bain, Steve Cannon, David D. Wright, Kapil Bawa, Joshua Alscher, Joyce Walker, Michael A. Walrond, Jindal Joseph, Kenny Chin, Robert Galinsky, Alex Tavis, Elise Link. Directed by Jamal Joseph

 

It’s a particularly mean world out there, especially if you’re a young African-American male. Opportunities are few and far between and if you are just paroled from prison, they are damn near non-existent.

Lance Ingram (Beaty) – the “S” stands for Sir as his daddy had wanted his son called Sir Lancelot before the cooler head of the mom prevailed – is finding that out the hard way. Incarcerated for the crime of “being stupid” as he puts it, Ingram is determined to tread the straight and narrow. With computer repair skills learned in prison, he hits the pavement trying to find meaningful work – and finding nothing. His tough parole officer (Perez) hooks him up with a food pantry delivering meals to residents of Harlem who are unable to feed themselves. When his boss (Leyva) discovers that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Ingram is forced to hoof it and take the subway to get his meals delivered.

One of his clients is Miss Maddy (Devine) who in frustration throws food at Ingram when the ex-con gets the order wrong and gives her cabbage (which she’s allergic to) and salt (which is bad for her). However, he does manage to redeem himself and becomes close with the family, including Maddy’s 15-year-old grandson Ty (Diop) who seems to be headed down the same rotten path that Ingram took, hanging out with gang bangers and developing a healthy disrespect for the values that his grandmother has lived by.

One of Ingram’s best friends is Jomo (Hardwick) who has a successful hair styling/barbershop business in Harlem and who helps set up Ingram with a computer repair business. Things are starting to get complicated though – Ingram’s boss has developed an unhealthy not to mention inappropriate sexual attraction towards him, Ty is getting deeper and deeper into gang culture and the icing on the cake is that Maddy is facing a terrible issue of her own and when she turns to Ingram for help, he can’t bring himself to do what she asks.

I would like to say that this is a movie that captures the essence of Harlem but I don’t live in Harlem and never have so I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it certainly feels authentic and if this isn’t how Harlem really is, it is in many ways the way I would imagine it to be. Yeah, the streets are mean and often violent but there’s also a sense of connection that is largely absent from white neighborhoods these days.

Beaty is a find. He conveys the power and strength of a young De Niro only in a less explosive form. His strength is quiet; it is obvious he’s not a man to be messed with, even though he says or does nothing overt. Ingram you see was once upon a time known as Crazy L from 118th Street, a gang general known for his violence and temper. He’s not that guy anymore, but Beaty makes sure the audience knows that he could give that guy a call and bring him right back to do some major ass whooping if needed. And, as the film amply explains, it is very much needed.

Devine and Hardwick are both fine actors and acquit themselves well here, although Devine’s character in many ways feels like a prototypical African-American stereotype of the take-no-guff grandma who will whip the ass of a young gang banger who dares to wear his pants down below his waist. Maddy, you speak for all of us on that one.

Some of the other performances aren’t up to that level. Joseph utilized a lot of neighborhood talent but some of them try a little bit too hard and the end result are some stilted, stiff performances in the supporting department. For the most part they can be overlooked though because the main characters seem to be in good hands.

Joseph clearly has a cinematic voice but needs to refine it. This is a promising effort that has a lot of good things going for it; I could have done without some of the clichés that show up in the third act, but generally speaking this is a work to be proud of. I think that Joseph has it in him to be a talent along the lines of Spike Lee or John Singleton or for that matter a Martin Scorsese if he wants to go that route. Me I think that he can take the poetry of the streets of Harlem and translate it into something visual, a noble endeavor indeed. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with the scent of authenticity. It feels like you’re getting a little slice of Harlem.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little bit stiff. It’s a bit heavy on the alpha male posturing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of profanity, a little bit of sensuality, some violence and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Writer-director Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, is now a community activist in Harlem. Beaty who co-wrote the script, actually did a stretch in Leavenworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Deadly Virtues: Love Honour Obey

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

(2016) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Jon Voight, Gemma Chan, Ron Perlman, Zoë Kravitz, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Peter Bretmeier, Kevin Guthrie, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ellie Haddington, Johnny Depp, Anne Wittman. Directed by David Yates

 

J.K. Rowling is a household name and for all the right reasons. A single mum living on the dole at one time, she wrote a fabulous book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter that while ostensibly for children was also well-written enough that adults got into it too. Seven books later, she was a billionaire and the wealthiest woman in Britain save for the Queen herself. Admirably, she gave much of her wealth away, returning it to the government whose assistance allowed her to survive while she wrote her books. Their investment in her paid off.

One of the textbooks that Harry Potter studied at Hogwart’s was Newt Scamander’s bestselling textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He even had his own Chocolate Frog wizard card. So how did he get to be so famous?

Rowling – who wrote the script as the first of five movies – set this some seventy years before the Potter films and across an ocean. Scamander (Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island in New York City in 1926 en route to Arizona. Newt is a magizoologist – an expert in magical creatures. He is carrying a ratty old suitcase with him, one with a latch that just won’t stay closed. Inside his TARDIS-like case is a whole ecology where specimens of the various creatures he has collected are residing. Some are being relocated to places where they have a better chance of surviving. None of them are allowed in the United States.

Rather than having a Ministry of Magic, the wizards in the New World are governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America – MACUSA for short. They have recently emerged from a battle with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and they are a bit by-the-book these days. When Newt’s case is accidentally switched with the case of Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), an aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle, or person without magical skills), chaos ensues as several creatures escape.

Demoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard but when the case he is carrying is revealed to have baked goods in it, he is released. Tina and Newt end up joining forces to re-capture the beasts with the assistance of Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) who has precognitive powers, and Jacob. However, with Chief Auror (magical investigator) Percival Graves (Farrell) hot on their trail, they need to find the creatures quickly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. A malevolent magical force has been wreaking havoc on the city and there is a society of No-Maj activists led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her abused son Credence (Miller) and daughters Chastity (Murray) and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) are helping to create an atmosphere in which the magical community is feeling threatened. Keeping the existence of wizards and witches may no longer be possible when Newt’s beasts begin to make their presence felt.

This has been justifiably one of the most hyped movies of the year and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Does it measure up with the Potter franchise? Well, yes and no. From a sheer spectacle standpoint, the beasts themselves are entirely magnificent. Yates has also created a very living and breathing jazz age New York City and in many ways that’s being overlooked by those praising (and a few damning) the film. The environments both magical and real are visually compelling and inviting.

Part of the issue is that while millions are familiar with Hogwart’s and the world of Harry Potter, in essence Rowling is starting from scratch. The Wizarding World is distinct and different from the world being built in the Fantastic Beasts series. Sure, they name-check Albus Dumbledore (and he is due to appear in the second film of the series) and of course Scamander himself is name-checked in the very first Potter film but there is little overlap. Therefore there is a ton of exposition so the movie feels turgid at times.

Fogler as Jacob felt far more sympathetic and heroic to me than Redmayne did. Of course, Scamander is somewhat socially awkward and tends to isolate himself from people and wizards, being more comfortable around animals. Still, Redmayne is rather bland in his portrayal of the wizard and my attention is less on him than on Jacob who has no magical skills but has a ton of heart. His romance with Queenie is sweet and touching and the most emotional moment in the film belongs to Fogler and for my money, that is the moment that will stay with me from this particular movie.

While I’ve been perhaps a little overly critical of the movie, don’t think for a moment that this isn’t sheer entertainment. Yates is a veteran at creating magical spectacles and the movie retains the feel of the later-stage Potter films that Yates directed. Hopefully the succeeding movies won’t need to set up as much backstory and be able to just tell the story at hand.

REASONS TO GO: The fantastic beasts are enchanting as are the special effects. Fogler steals the show. The place and period is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Redmayne is actually rather vanilla here and doesn’t seem capable of bearing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders as Radcliffe did. There is a ton of exposition here which slows down the pacing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of a fantasy nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The grey and yellow scarf that Newt wears is a nod to his origins as a member of Hufflepuff house at Hogwart’s.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spiderwick Chronicles
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Loving