Stella’s Last Weekend


Ollie is certainly no angel.

(2018) Dramedy (Paladin/The Orchard) Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff, Polly Draper, Paulina Singer, Nick Sandow, Julia Macchio, Julia Abueva, Leo Heller, Lisa Darden, Patricia Squire, Will Cooper, Norm Golden, Simon Maxwell, Joseph Satine, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Kelly Swint, Adam Enright, Christopher Halliday, Alex DiMattia, Kareem Williams, Courtney Leigh Goodwin, Harriet Weaver. Directed by Polly Draper

 

Personally, I’ve never had a brother. I grew up with a sister who was less than a year younger than I (my parents believed in getting the childbearing phase out of the way quickly). I know from experience with my sibling though that we talk in our own peculiar shorthand. In-jokes that mean nothing to the world at large never fail to elicit smiles from one or both of us. There are still jokes that I can reduce my sister to helpless tears of laughter with while outsiders look on in puzzlement. It’s that way between siblings.

Ollie (A. Wolff) and Jack (N. Wolff) are that way as well. Jack is returning home from college where he is studying Marine Biology to witness the last days of the beloved family dog, Stella. Their mother Sally (Draper) has decided to throw a farewell party for the dog, much to the bemusement of her sons and the confusion of her boyfriend Ron (Sandow) whom the boys mercilessly rib and whom they appear to despise. He seems like a high-strung traditionalist who can’t understand why kids of today don’t respect their elders the way his generation used to. Believe me, Ron, I hear you.

Ollie is also picking this weekend to introduce his family to his new girlfriend Violet (Singer), an aspiring ballerina: “Violet, this is everyone I love. And Ron.” Ollie is head over heels in love with Violet and confesses to his brother that she sent him some racy pictures on Snapchat of her underboob. Jack realizes that he’s met Violet before and that the two of them had a mini-fling which ended with her not returning his calls. He’s been obsessing with her ever since and now she’s apparently in love with his brother. He’s trying to step aside in favor of his brother but his feelings for her are too strong and as it turns out, she still has feelings for him.

Ollie is blissfully unaware of the drama going on alongside him. He’s too busy needling the mean girls in her ballet class, skewering poor Ron and doting on Stella who is gamely trying to live out her last days with as much dignity as she can muster, but the pain is beginning to get to be too much, which Sally acknowledges in a truly poignant moment. However, when the secrets the boys have been hiding from their mom and each other comes out, it tears a big hole in what was a close-knit family. Can they recover?

Ollie is an expert in put-downs and his potty mouth sometimes drives Ron to pulling out what little hair he has left; Ollie has no compunction at nailing Ron to the wall over his comb-over. Alex plays Ollie as a high-strung, energetic kid with a terrific brain – he’s already outdoing Jack in the courses that are leading Jack into a career in Marine Biology. Ollie is witty and quick-witted; the punch lines come rapid fire between the two boys. He is also capable of being a first-class asshole. Jack, on the other hand, is quieter, less acerbic and no less quick witted; he can hold his own with his brother but is generally less talkative with others. I can’t vouch for how the two interact off-camera but their banter sometimes sounds overly scripted; it’s hard to come up with the perfect comeback at every opportunity and Ollie seems to do so effortlessly. It’s possible he’s that quick but not likely and so the heart of the film, the byplay between the brothers starts to sound forced and unnatural.

Despite the clever dialogue, the chemistry between Nat and Alex is genuine as you would expect between siblings. The affection between the two is genuine and even when things break down between the two, everything that happens in their relationship feels authentic; at times though the audience clearly feels like outsiders witnessing a conversation they weren’t meant to hear.

There are some genuinely poignant moments as I alluded to above; there are also some really funny one-liners, mostly courtesy of Ollie. There is definitely chemistry between the brothers; after all, this isn’t the first time they’ve acted together before (some might remember them from the Naked Brothers Band show they did about a decade ago) and the affection is obvious. Still, at times the dialogue seems to be a bit forced and the events a little too contrived.

Stella’s Last Weekend turns out to be a bittersweet relationship movie that to its credit doesn’t coast too often. The film earns most of its emotional responses which is to be envied in a day and age when most movies are lazy about their emotional manipulation. The movie isn’t always successful but when it is, it is. Unfortunately, when it’s not it’s not.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, crude gestures, some sexual content and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wolff brothers are Draper’s sons in real life; the dog that played Stella is also the family dog (who is alive and well as of this writing).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Only Living Boy in New York
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
London Fields

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People Places Things


A meaningful look shared.

A meaningful look shared.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (The Film Arcade) Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Derrick Arthur, Celia Au, Paul Castro Jr., Jason DarkChocolate Dyer, Catherine Cain, Charles Cain, Brandon O’Neill, Alexa Magioncalda, Gavin Haag, Jordan Edmondson, Kiowa Smothergill. Directed by Jim Strouse

Sometimes life deals us a bum hand out of left field. We’re just thinking we’ve got things figured out and Blammo!, we discover we haven’t had a clue all along.

Will Henry (Clement) is a successful graphic artist who is deliriously in love with his twin daughters (played by the real life twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) who are throwing a party in honor of their fifth birthday. He goes off into the house looking for his wife Charlie (Allynne) for some party business or another. He finds her all right; in their bedroom having sex with sad sack Gary (Chernus). Will is of course upset, but Charlie turns things around and makes herself out to be the aggrieved party. She wants a divorce and custody of the kids.

A year later Will is still suffering from depression over the whole sordid affair. He has begun teaching graphic arts at a New York-area college, having moved to Astoria in Queens which is a long train ride into the City. He sees his girls on weekends and leads a fairly lonely existence. At this point, Charlie announces she is marrying Gary – because she is pregnant with his kid. She also wants to take an improv class, so she needs someone to watch the kids and as Gary is too busy doing his monologues off-off-off-Broadway, Will is the next best choice. Will likes this idea very much; he needs to be around his kids more often than just the occasional weekend.

In the meantime, Kat (Williams), one of the students in his class, takes a romantic interest in him – not for herself but for her 45-year-old mom Diane (Hall), a lit professor at Columbia. Against all odds, they hit it off, despite Diane’s disdain for the graphic novel format in general. The two begin dating.

Then things start to go sideways for Charlie. She’s getting cold feet, and she explains to Will that she doesn’t want to make the same mistake as she did the first time – which leads Will to believe that she regards their marriage as a mistake. But she still has strong feelings for Will and he for her – so where does that leave Diane? Or Will, for that matter?

Strouse has a bit of a checkered resume, with movies that are close but no cigar on it (like Grace is Gone) but here he finally makes the checkered flag. While the story does not exactly break new ground in the busted relationships genre, it is told well and given much life thanks to some strongly written character and some fine performances.

Chief among them is Clement, who is quickly developing into one of the strongest comic actors in the world. His dry, deadpan delivery is hysterical all by itself but where Clement excels as he did in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. One of his strongest traits is that he can take an everyday guy, put him in an everyday situation and find something funny to mine out of it. He’s not the guy who makes us laugh hysterically; he’s the guy that makes us quietly chuckle to ourselves because we can find so much common ground.

Williams is a comedy star on the rise, and although her role here is fairly brief, she makes it entirely memorable. Williams is as hip a performer as there is and she looks as good on the big screen as she does on the small; only bigger, if you catch my drift. It wouldn’t surprise me if she becomes as big a star as I believe Clement is going to be, which is one of considerable size if you ask me.

]There is kind of a mopey hipster vibe here that I found myself not liking so much at first. It took me awhile to decide that I like the movie, but it is worth the effort to stay with it. Yeah, it’s got that New York indie ‘tude that I sometimes find stupefying but there is heart at the center of the movie and most of it belongs to Clement who continues to impress after the earlier this year What We Do in the Shadows.

Again, not entertainment that is going to rock your world or change your views on life. Quietly though, it gets under your skin and stays there, maybe the perfect indie romantic comedy in that regard. And we all know how vapid indie romantic comedies can be. This one is anything but that; it is surely smart, quietly funny and undeniably well-written. Those sorts of films tend to be few and far between while the mercury is still hitting the high notes during the last dregs of summer.

REASONS TO GO: Clement’s dry delivery is intoxicating. Some nice New York images.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too indie hipster douche in places, particularly early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, some sexual references and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Williams is a regular correspondent on The Daily Show during the Jon Stewart era and continuing into the Trevor Noah era.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mateo

Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

Chop Shop


Chop Shop

Isamar Gonzales doesn’t care if Alejandro Polaco knows she ate all the Rice Krispies.

(2007) Drama (Koch Lorber) Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Carlos Zapata, Ahmad Razvi, Rob Sowulski, Anthony Felton, Evelisse “Lilah” Ortiz, Michael “Gringo” Nieto, Carlos Ayala, Laura Patalano, Nick Jasprizza, Nick Bentley. Directed by Ramin Bahrani

 

 It’s a street like so many others around the world. Auto repair places cheek by jowl with illegal chop shops; pushcarts selling deep-fried goodies from native countries. Garbage lines the streets. There are no sidewalks and children play in the junk yards as if they were playgrounds. This could be a backwater third world country, but it’s not; it’s Willets Point in Queens.

Ale (Polanco), age 12, and Isa (Gonzales), age 16, live on their own on this very street. The owner of an auto body shop (Sowulski) has rented a room in the back to them with a couple of cots to sleep on. They are on their own and have nothing. She works in a food truck by day and sells her body to truckers by night.

He is a budding entrepreneur, selling stolen hubcaps to shop owners and M&Ms on the subway platform. He dreams of buying a lunch truck and fixing it up, selling hot meals to the many workers in the local shops. He is very much the man of the house; Isa is pragmatic but frail.

And that’s the plot. All of it. Oh, there are some further details but while none of them shake the room with thunder, they are best experienced just like life – as they come. Bahrani, whose debut Man Push Cart was a critical darling, excels at taking slices of life from places we generally don’t get to see and almost compels us to watch.

He is a worthy heir to Vittorio De Sica, the Italian auteur of The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. I can’t really say for certain how realistic his portrayal of Willets Point is, but it feels that way. He used a lot of people in the neighborhood, disguising his production as a documentary so that the performances were more naturalistic although of course these hidden performances vary.

Both of the juvenile leads, however, acquit themselves magnificently, particularly Polanco. He plays a savvy little street hustler and apparently that’s a role very different than his own personality. There’s a toughness to him that sometimes breaks, revealing the very vulnerable boy beneath the veneer. The chemistry between him and Gonzales seems genuine (they attend the same school and Gonzales is close friends with Polanco’s sister). Gonzales has some tough scenes – there are no overt sex scenes but she has to play a young girl playing at being a woman; some of the scenes with Gonzales are very moving and she leaves an indelible impression.

Some of the other performances are less successful but it’s hard to tell who is acting and who’s being themselves. Ultimately it’s difficult to assess a lot of the roles because of that factor; let’s just say that I found some people convincing and some not so much. That’s only how they affected me however. Other opinions may vary – and have a bit more insight than mine.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. There are no happy endings (although the ending does have a grace not that leads to a feeling of hope overall) and no dramatic epiphanies. It ‘s just like life; things happens and life goes on. It’s not always pretty but it’s real and sometimes, that helps us navigate our way through our own Willets Points.

WHY RENT THIS: Devastating performances by Polanco and Gonzales. Has an air of realism that can’t be matched. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the amateur actors come through. May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, adult themes, a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The auto shop that Isa and Ale bunk in is actually owned by actor Rob Sowulski who plays the owner and the work that Ale does in it is real (he got paid by Sowulski for the work and by the producers for his acting). To prepare for the role, Polanco worked for Sowulski in the shop for six months before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Rehearsals for eight of the scenes in the film are shown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,227 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the film broke even although not likely.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Life

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Hobo With a Shotgun