Easy Does It


Captain America to the rescue!

(2019) Action Comedy (Gravitas) Linda Hamilton, Ben Matheny, Matthew Paul Martinez, Susan Gordon, Cory Dumesnil, John Goodman (voice), Harry Shearer (voice), Bryan Batt, Dwight Henry, Charlie Talbert, Isabel De La Cruz, Catherine Capiello, Turner Crumbley, Dennis Thomas IV, Sophie Howell, Summer Selby, Marnie Morgan, Jacob McManus, Julio Castillo, Carol Ann Scruggs. Directed by Will Addison

 

There is something special and wonderful about the grindhouse films of the 1970s. They were bigger than life, well past the edge of acceptability and full of attitude. Audiences love cheering on the anti-heroes and lovable screw-ups as they confounded society and The Man. We seem to be entering an era where those kinds of films are going to become necessary again.

Fast-talking Jack Buckner (Matheny) and his best friend, Scottie Aldo (Martinez) live in a flea-bitten town called Aberdeen. It’s the 1970s and Nixon is about to resign, Detroit steel rules the roads and mob bosses like “King George” (Hamilton) wear their hair any damn way they want to because they can – in King George’s case, it’s cornrows. Jack and Scottie owe King George money, as everyone in Aberdeen seems to. They work at a greasy spoon as dishwashers, and on the side try to drum up cash by staging inept cons which in general never work out.

Then Jack gets a postcard that hints that his mom has passed away and that she’d left him something valuable under the pier in San Clemente, California (where Nixon is about to flee to). Jack thinks it’s some kind of treasure; if he can just get there in his star-spangled Mustang, it could mean the end of their money troubles and a ticket out of Aberdeen.

But he’s flat broke and so is Scottie, and even Detroit muscle cars need to be filled with gas once in awhile on the way from Mississippi to California. And Aberdeen being a small town and Scottie and Jack being none to bright, word gets back to King George that the two are about to skee-daddle. She doesn’t like the idea, and brings her enforcer – her baseball bat-wielding daughter Blue Eyes (Gordon) for emphasis. The two manage to get away but they know they aren’t going to get very far without the kindness of strangers. They end up at a gas station wondering if the clerk could front them the price of gas which they’ll pay  back once they acquire the treasure only it goes horribly wrong, and they end up stealing cash and dragging around a nerdy hostage (Dumesnil) who clearly doesn’t want to be there and suddenly they’re a viral sensation before there were viral sensations, robbing gas stations along with their increasingly not-so-reluctant hostage all the while being chased by a very perturbed Blue Eyes and the Law.

If this sounds like a good premise for a fun hour and a half at the movies, I’d be right there with you on that. The execution, though, leaves something to be desired. Part of the big problem here is that the characters are too bland, even though co-writers Addison and Metheny do their best to make them quirky, there’s a huge difference between quirky and interesting.

Definitely their hearts are worn firmly planted on their sleeves; the grindhouse movies of the ‘70s which gave us such fare as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Bloody Mama and more recently the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre. This is a little bit more rooted in a particular subgenre of the period than Tarantino who often references a dozen genres from blaxploitation to chop sockey (terms that were very much of their time and are being officially retired on this site as of now) and all points in between. Here, we see a lot of the good ol’ boy crime spree films that rose out of things like Smokey and the Bandit and to a lesser extent, The Dukes of Hazard the latter of which is closer kin to Easy Does It.

Hamilton is the Big Star here and she really turns up mostly in the first 30 minutes of the movie and is not really that heavily involved afterwards. She is certainly visually striking with her cornrows and dead-eyed stare, and her husky voiced Eastwood impression, but she gives little more than name value to a largely unknown cast (Goodman and Shearer, the other two big names, do not appear onscreen as baseball game announcers we here on the soundtrack).

There is decent enough chemistry between Matheny and Martinez, although the movie would have benefitted from a little more of that between the two. Gordon actually drew most of my admiration for her baseball-loving enforcer who uses a baseball bat as her weapon of choice. The voice-over baseball play-by-play is gimmicky and overused unfortunately. Dumesnil overplays Collin and brings him well into the category of self-parody, never what you want to see in a movie like this.

I think that the filmmakers were gong for something of a Logan Lucky vibe but they just needed a little more edginess to pull it off. Scottie and Jack are a little too dumb and a little too sweet to make a movie like this one work. That’s too bad because I think with a few tweaks here and there this could have been an extremely fun movie and fun is something in terribly short supply these days, kinda like toilet paper.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to be clever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Addison’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vanishing Point
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Painted Bird

The Last Laugh (2019)


As you get older, life can be a gas.

(2019) Comedy (NetflixChevy Chase, Richard Dreyfus, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Kit Willesee, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Jason Batchko, Alan Demovsky, James Galea, Rafael Villegas Jr., Carol Sutton, Belinda D’Pree, Sharon Martin, Jessie Payo, Robin Wesley, Khiry Armstead, Giovannie Cruz. Directed by Greg Pritikin

 

As someone who is going to hit the big six-oh this year, films about being old have more of a resonance with me lately than usual. At the same time, as I am writing this, I’m listening to the latest album by Hamerkop.  Age is, truly, just a number.

Don’t tell Hollywood that, though. Most comedies about elderly sorts have a pretty condescending attitude towards the AARP generation. We’ll get more into that in a minute, though; let me tell you a little bit about the plot of this one though. Al Hart (Chase) was once upon a time a talent manager for some of the most talented stand-up comics in the business, but now he’s retired and mourning his wife. His granddaughter Jeannie (Micucci) is concerned that Al has been doing a lot of falling down lately. She is anxious for him to move into a facility where he can be seen to; Al is against the idea but after a particularly nasty spill agrees reluctantly.

At the retirement village, Al discovers Buddy Green (Dreyfus) is a resident. Buddy was Al’s first client and had the makings of being a major star; Al had him booked on the Ed Sullivan show which would have established Buddy as a major star. Inexplicably, he never showed up and turned his back on comedy, instead choosing to raise a family and become a podiatrist. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.

But the what-ifs have never really left Buddy and Al, seeing the parade of residents to the morgue figures that Buddy deserves a last shot to see if he had the stuff; he books Buddy on a cross-country tour, starting off in cruddy venues in Podunk towns gradually working up to bigger shows until the big one – the Stephen Colbert Late Show in the Ed Sullivan theater in New York. Along the way, the two bicker like an old couple, pick up a free-spirited artist in Kansas City (MacDowell) that Al becomes sweet on, and discover that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.

If that last sentence sounds a bit maudlin, it’s meant to. The movie plays it about as safe as a movie can be played, with the exception of a magic mushroom sequence in which Al trips, imagining a musical number and a carriage ride with Abe Lincoln at the reins. No, I don’t know why.

Remember I talked about Hollywood’s condescending attitude towards the aging? This is the kind of movie that portrays old folks doing shrooms and having sex as kind of “isn’t that cute.” Let’s do the math; people turning 70 this year were born in 1950; they were in their teens and 20s in the 60s and 70s when just about everyone was doing drugs and having sex. I think Hollywood sees the elderly still as the Leave it to Beaver generation, except that they were doing drugs and having sex back then too. Guess what, America? Your grandparents used to get high and fool around. Get over it.

Worse still, the humor is of the safe, don’t-offend-anyone variety, which makes me want to scream. I’m not the biggest Chevy Chase fan ever, but dammit, the man was an integral part of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and played a major role in one of the most subversive comedies ever made – Caddyshack. Can we not accept that there are some great comedic minds hitting their 70s now and capable of making comedies that can be bigger game changers than some of the modern crop of comics are currently capable of making? Dreyfus – who is as good as he ever was in this movie – as well as Chase and MacDowell all deserve better than this mildly entertaining, eminently forgettable project.

REASONS TO SEE: Dreyfus is a gift.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unnecessarily maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity including plenty of sexual references, as well as some drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first leading role for Chase in a mainstream film since Snow Day in 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 31/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sunshine Boys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Glass

The Trip to Greece


A couple of badass comedians walking the mean streets of Greece.

(2020) Comedy (IFC)  Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Timothy Leach, Claire Keenan, Rebecca Johnson, Tessa Walker, Michael Towns, Kareen Alkabbani, Marta Barrio, Richard Clews, Cordelia Budeja, Harry Tayler, Justin Edwards, Soraya Mahalia Hatner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

While they’re no Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Trip pictures have always been welcome additions to the schedule at our beloved Enzian Theater; in fact, the film was scheduled to play the now-postponed Florida Film Festival this past April.

Like the previous trips to the North of England, Italy and Spain, Coogan and Brydon are traveling through some beautiful countryside, eating amazing meals with incredible vistas. As always, Coogan and Brydon are playing “exaggerated” versions of themselves, and the conceit here is that Coogan is writing a restaurant review piece for a newspaper loosely following the route that Odysseus took from Troy to Ithaca in The Odyssey. Along the way, they trade barbs, try to one-up each other with celebrity impressions and deal with situations going on back home; in Coogan’s case, an ill father and in Brydon’s, a suspicion that his extended absences might be getting to his wife (Johnson).

This version is a little bit darker than the first three; some of the banter between the two men reveal some frustrations between them and the situation with Coogan’s dad – which he keeps from Brydon – clearly wears on him as we see nightmares that clearly have to do with him being away from his father at a critical juncture.

Both men are well into their 50s now (as am I) and mortality is beginning to creep into their consciousness. For the first time, Brydon brings his wife along for a portion of the tour, and Coogan’s feelings about his father’s mortality are clearly not something he wants to face. In the meantime, he boasts whenever he has the opportunity about his awards that he’s won. “What are you most proudest of?” queries Rob. Steve responds, not-so-modestly, “My seven BAFTAs” (a combination of Oscars and Emmys in the UK). Rob says that he’s proudest of his children, to which Steve says “That’s because you don’t have any BAFTAs” to which Rob replies “No, but you have children, eh? Interesting…”

And, yes, there are some great comedy bits with references to Coogan’s BAFTA-nominated role as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie, to which the two do a bit as Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy, which isn’t quite as funny as it sounds on paper. However, better is the bit with Mich Jagger and Keith Richards which ends with Coogan (who was Jagger) opining that “When Keith Richards laughs, it’s like the last death throes of Muttley” referencing the children’s cartoon.

Basically, this is fairly formulaic but it’s a good formula, although it’s wearing thin. I suspect that if they do stick to their guns and make this the last Trip movie, it would be a good thing as I can see little reason to keep flogging a dead gourmet. However, a part of me can’t help wishing that they find reasons to do more.

REASONS TO SEE: As always, the movie is at its best when Coogan and Brydon are riffing and doing dueling impressions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really too different from the other Trip films.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth and apparently final entry in the Trip series, which are all distillations of longer TV shows.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Green Book

Underneath the Same Moon


A bridge too far.

 

(2019) Romance (Indie Rights) Sara Ball, Meg Cashel, Anderson Davis, Jose Garza, Justin Guyot, Todd Herrera, Phil Holmer, Lucas Kerr, Ebony Lanet, Hap Lawrence, Douglas William Smith, Mike Wayne, Luciana Vara. Directed by Bob Wasson

 

The nature of love is largely unknown. Is it a chemical reaction stimulated by sexual attraction? Is it a series of right place-right time coincidences? Or is it some sort of mystical bond that guides us to find The One?

Thomas Miller (Davis) is a good man who likes to surf and is getting ready to propose to his best girl Jessica (Vara). As he approaches the bar he’s to meet her in with ring in hand, he sees her embracing another man, whisper “I love you” into his ear and obviously very much in love with him. Disconsolate, Thomas shuffles off.

Flash forward five years. Thomas is now happily married to a beautiful girl named Kelly (Ball) who his quirky sister Holly (Cashel) adores. However, things go terribly wrong when Thomas is involved in a terrible accident and lapses into a coma which lasts 11 months. When he wakes up, all memory of the past five years has disappeared. He o longer recognizes Kelly, remembers that he’s married to her and in fact, thinks he’s still dating Jessica.

On the (incredibly bad) advice of psychiatrist Dr. Butler (Smith) who looks more like a lumberjack than a doctor, the two ladies decide not to tell Thomas about the last five years and let him go on thinking he’s still with Jessica. Kelly painstakingly erases any trace of herself from Thomas’ life, including cutting out her picture from wedding photos.

But the opportunity presents itself for Thomas to venture up to San Francisco and Kelly finds an excuse to tag along, figuring that the long drive from San Diego to San Francisco might jog her husband’s memory back. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan but can the heart remember what the mind has forgotten?

Generally, I try to give movies the benefit of the doubt but I had some real problems with this one. For one thing, the plot is generally preposterous throughout; it’s like the writer just decided to create a situation in which Thomas lost five years of memories in order to set up the romantic situation of his beloved trying to win him back all over again. I’m not saying this kind of situation never happens in real life – it has – but I sincerely doubt that any competent psychiatrist would urge family members to lie to a patient about his past. That’s just plain lazy writing.

The leads are very attractive. Ex-model Davis is a rugged, handsome guy who oozes appeal, while Ball seems to have been born to play romantic roles. Cashel is one of those actresses who is able to get audiences to like her even as she’s doing the most outlandish things; Holly is somewhat puckish and while for whatever unholy reason the writers decided to make her fart in a key moment early on, she seems to have been a good sport about it.

The moment I knew I was going to give up on this movie was during the obligatory melancholy pop song montage when Kelly is painstakingly moving Thomas’ things out of her home. It is sung badly off-key. Considering the company that produced it has done music videos for some fairly big naes, you’d think they’d have had access to better material.

This is kind of a mess although I must admit that if you can endure the first half hour, things do improve over the remainder of the film but at nearly two hours long, the movie badly overstays its welcome. I really can’t recommend the movie but I think that Ball, Cashel and Davis could have solid careers ahead of them so there is that.

REASONS TO SEE: Ball gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fart jokes…ugh! Lacks logic throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was produced by VFXLABS, which has provided special effects for motion pictures, music videos and the aerospace industry for over 35 years and which Wasson owns.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50 First Dates
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Monsters and Men

The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

(2018) Dramedy (Sony ClassicsHelen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriela Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Helen Abell, Joshua Mikel, Robert Walker Branchaud, Denita Isler, Chelle Ramos, Danielle Deadwyler. Directed by Paolo Virzi

 

Growing old is hell. I’m finding that out first hand, and I’m not even 60 yet. The older we get, the more we have to lose, including our independence. There’s something about that which is almost unthinkable, but it often happens to our parents long before it happens to us.

John (Sutherland) and Ella Spencer (Mirren) are an aged couple in the twilight of their years. John is a retired literature professor; Ella is a wife and mother but also a very smart and tough cookie. One day, she and John set out in their old Winnebago for one last adventure.

The trouble is though that John is suffering from dementia and his lucid moments are getting further and farther between. Ella is also having some serious health problems and the strain of being John’s caregiver is wearing on her to the point where she isn’t sure she can continue. Their children Will (McKay) and Jane (Moloney) are frantic with worry – their parents left without telling them their plans, which are to drive down from New England to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house – Hemingway is a hero to John, and one of the things he can remember more clearly more often – one last time.

There is definitely an elegiac feel to the movie, even though there is a sense of humor to it. John’s antics aren’t necessarily played for laughs; he soils himself and some of his memory lapses are downright dangerous. Still, Ella faces a good deal of her husband’s illness with a cheerful sense of humor, even if she is at the end of her rope. The love between the two of them is heartwarming.

Part of the reason it is so is because Sutherland and Mirren are both excellent actors and the chemistry between them is genuine. Virzi gives them a real sense of being on a road trip, which helps the actors express being comfortable together. The Winnebago isn’t in the best of shape but with a bit of tender loving care, it will get them where they’re going, which is pretty much true for life.

The problem here is mainly that the plot is pretty predictable and there aren’t a lot of surprises, although feisty Ella faces down a pair of would-be robbers with a shotgun but that is one of the few moments where I thought that the movie was playing down to the elderly – oh, look, isn’t she cute, she’s got a gun. For the most part, these are real people with real issues that face millions of our elderly day in and day out. That’s one of the main takeaways I had from the movie and I thought both Sutherland and Mirren gave their characters dignity, from the first frame to the last.

Although there are some fairly funny moments and some fairly sweet ones, this isn’t something you should look to for some light entertainment. The issues being portrayed here are very real and they may remind you of someone in your own life going through similar challenges – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers. It may hit a little too close to home. I’m very fortunate that my mom (my father passed away more than thirty years ago) still has full possession of her faculties, even though her memory isn’t what it once was and she walks a lot slower than she used to, but she is the first to squawk when she feels pandered to. I don’t think this movie would give her reason to squawk.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Mirren and Sutherland. Kind of a nice travelogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English language movie for Virzi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
First Man

Kin


Some ordinary boys hide extraordinary secrets.

(2018) Science Fiction (SummitMyles Truitt, Jack Reynor, Dennis Quaid, Zoë Kravitz, James Franco, Carrie Coon, Ian Matthew, Gavin Fox, Stephane Garneau-Morten, Michael B. Jordan, Lily Gao, Lukas Penar, Carleigh Beverly, Milton Barnes, Michael Grisley, Khalid Klein, Sean Fowler, Carson Manning, Dave Lewis, Bree Wasylenko. Directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker

Some movies create their own genres by being something original. Others try to create their own genres by taking aspects of others and forcing it into a mold. This film is one of the latter.

Eli (Truitt) is the adopted son of construction boss Hal Solinski (Quaid) whose biological son Jimmy (Reynor) has just gotten out of jail. Hal is full of hope for the 14-year-old Eli (who is smart but introverted) but disappointed on the older Jimmy. However, it is Eli who discovers an alien weapon when scrounging around for scrap metal in an abandoned factory near his Detroit home.

Jimmy owes crime boss Taylor (Franco) a whole lot of money and in order to protect his dad and kid brother (whom he genuinely cares for) decides to steal the cash to pay Taylor. Things don’t go according to plan and soon Jimmy and Eli end up on the road (with Eli blissfully ignorant of the real reason why) being chased not only by vengeful gangsters but also by mysterious aliens who want their gun back.

This late summer sci-fi action crime road coming of age film actually has some things going for it. For one, the special effects – a combination of the digital and the practical – aren’t half-bad. For another, Franco makes for a truly hissable villain. A late-film cameo by A-list habitue Jordan is also a welcome sight.

But the movie is, oh, so predictable. The plot feels unnecessarily manufactured and none of the characters seem particularly personable. They’re all pretty one dimensional without much depth to them at all. The story feels like something you’ve already seen – and yeah, there haven’[t been a lot of alien weapon movies in the archives, but there have been a few.

There isn’t a lot here to recommend it but then again, there isn’t a lot here either to discourage you from seeing it. This is the kind of movie you watch and forget about ten minutes later. If that sounds like something you need, have at it. Otherwise, there are plenty of much better sci-fi action films out there to occupy your time.

REASONS TO SEE: Decent special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot and generic characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of both the gangster and sci-fi variety, some sexually suggestive material, profanity and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Solinski home in the film was the same one used for the 2005 John Singleton film Four Brothers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.X.L.
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Crazy Rich Asians

Between Two Ferns: The Movie


Given a choice between watching Between Two Ferns and two actual ferns…

(2019) Mockumentary (Netflix) Zach Galifianakis, Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gaul, Jiavani Linayao, Will Ferrell, Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, David Letterman, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Rashida Jones, John Cho, Brie Larson, Paul Rudd, Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tiffany Haddish, Peter Dinklage, Tessa Thompson, Awkwafina. Directed by Scott Aukerman

 

I will admit that the kind of humor found on podcasts, YouTube videos and generally anything on the Internet leaves me pretty cool. I suppose I’m too old, not hip enough or just plain too curmudgeonly for the kind of wry humor that seems to dominate those forms these days, with the almost obsessive pop culture references. In any case, while I generally like Galifianakis and his short interview sequences on the Funny or Die website, I was hesitant about watching a full-length feature film about it.

Anyone who has seen the interview segments that Galifianakis conducts in the web series knows that they are deadpan and viciously funny, and that continues here. Asking McConaughey “Of all the things you could win an Oscar for, how surprised are you that you won one for acting?” or Keanu Reeves following up on his assertion that he researches for his film roles, “Have you ever thought of researching a character who has taken acting lessons.”

The thing is, these zingers are better on paper than they are live where they just come off as kind of dickish. Also, the surrounding storyline – Zach has to film ten Between Two Ferns episodes in two weeks if he is going to get the late-night talk show host position he so dearly covets. The road trip aspect of the movie is decidedly unfunny. Lapkus does commendable work as Zach’s long-suffering assistant while Gaul and Linayao are solid as his sound and camera operators. The parade of A-list celebrities turn out to be good sports about the often really nasty questions Galifianakis asks them. A closing credits blooper reel shows, however, that they are definitely in on the joke – most of the time.

Some will find this deliciously funny; others will find it needlessly cruel. Like I said, maybe I’m not exactly the target audience but I would trend more towards the latter group although there are some really hilarious moments. Just not enough of them to make me recommend this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Lapkus does a solid job.
REASONS TO AVOID: The droll humor is really hit or miss – mostly miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the second time Hamm has been an interview subject on Between Two Ferns.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borat
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Kin

The Irishman


I heard he paints houses.

(2019) Gangster (NetflixRobert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Katherine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Jim Norton, Aleksa Paladino. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Much of the American fascination with the mob can be traced to Coppola’s The Godfather saga and the films of Martin Scorsese. If you take Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino and The Departed as part of the same franchise, The Irishman may well be the concluding episode in the saga.

This film, which has been winning the kind of effusive praise from critics normally reserved for pictures of their grandkids, follows the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who went from being a war hero during the Second World War to a refrigerated truck driver, to a thug in the Philadelphia mob run by Russell Buffalino (Pesci)  to the bodyguard and right hand man of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). We see Sheeran transverse the glory days of the mob, covering the late 40s all the way up until the mid-70s. While there are references to watershed moments in the history of American organized crime, this isn’t really a primer on the subject; rather, it is the point of view of an insider, one whose claims as to the disappearance of Hoffa – still considered unsolved to this day – are perhaps self-aggrandizing but there is at least some evidence that says it might have happened the way it’s depicted here.

I am being purposely vague as to the plot points because this is an intensely long movie – right around three and a half hours. While as of this writing it is still in certain select theaters around the country, and in all honesty, it should be seen on a big ass screen with a big ass booming sound system, the length makes this kind of prohibitive. Those who have short attention spans won’t be able to tolerate this and those of us who have mobility issues might find it preferable to watch this at home on Netflix, where it just debuted Thanksgiving eve.

Scorsese doesn’t skimp on the cast, with De Niro and Pacino as powerful as they have ever been in the film. Pacino, in fact, may count this alongside Michael Corleone and Tony Montana as the roles that will mark the absolute apex of his distinguished and memorable career. His fans will be delighted to watch this; those who can take or leave him can watch this and understand why others consider him one of the most gifted actors of his generation.

Not that Pesci and De Niro are slouches by any means. Pesci was lured out of retirement (he hadn’t made an onscreen appearance since 2010) which is a godsend; I truly missed the man as an actor, with his charming sense of humor and occasional fits of rage. Here he is much more subdued and plays Buffalino as a more reserved and restrained Don who is smart enough to keep a low profile but ruthless enough to do whatever is necessary to keep his empire humming along. De Niro, for his part, is De Niro here – explosive and vulnerable in equal parts.

There is a fourth Oscar winner in the cast – Anna Paquin, who plays the adult version of Sheeran’s daughter who adores her Uncle Jimmy Hoffa and takes a wary dislike to Russell, whom her father feels closer to. When Hoffa disappears, she understands that her father was involved in some way and refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life, which apparently mirrored real life. Paquin only gets a couple of lines but her venomous looks, delighted smiles and eventually sad eyes remind me why she is an Oscar winner and makes me wonder why we don’t see more of her in the movies.

Scorsese utilizes technology in a very un-Scorsese-like manner, using computers to de-age the actors for flashback scenes (all three of the leads are well into their 70s). The technology has advanced to the point where it is actually effective here; the men look truly younger, even more so than Will Smith in Gemini Man. With technology like this, it is bound to alter how movies are made. If you have a role for a 20-something that calls for the kind of emotional depth and acting experience a 20-something actor won’t have, why not cast a veteran actor and de-age them for the role? I can see a lot of drawbacks to this, not the least of which that it will be tougher for young actors to get the kind of experience that propels younger actors into becoming great ones. Still, with the dizzying amount of product out there to fill all of the streaming services and their needs, that point may end up being moot.

Some critics are waxing rhapsodic about The Irishman and proclaim it the best film of the year (it isn’t) and among the best that Scorsese has ever done (it isn’t). There is a bittersweet feel to the movie, particularly in the last 20 minutes as if this is the end of an era, which it likely is. At 77, Scorsese doesn’t show any signs of slowing down; he has already directed one other movie released on Netflix earlier this year, a Bob Dylan documentary with at least another documentary on the music of the 70s in the pipeline. Still, getting the universe to align to get this kind of cast together and to get this kind of film made for the kind of budget it took to get it made isn’t likely to happen again, plus after this I really don’t know if there is much more Scorsese can say about the mob, although I will be the first to temper that with a never say never warning; if there is a story out there to be told, Scorsese can find a way to tell it.

The big problem I have with the film is its aforementioned length. I can understand why Scorsese let it run so long – he may never have the chance to direct something like this with this cast again – but as much as I respect him as perhaps the greatest American director ever, the movie is repetitive in places and quite frankly we could have done without about an hour of it. Watching this is no spring; it’s an endurance contest and you’d best enter into watching it prepared for that. Hydrate regularly, watch from a comfortable seated position and take a few breaks to walk around and get your blood flowing. The magic of Netflix is that you are allowed to do that whenever you like.

In the end, I think this is one of Scorsese’s best movies, but not with the triumvirate that make up his absolute best films – Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and Casino. This is more along the level of Raging Bull, The Departed. Mean Streets and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think most cinephiles are going to see this anyway but if you’re on the fence, I think you should pull the trigger and see what all the fuss is about. After all, if you don’t like it, you can always turn it off and start binging The Rick and Morty Show.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the greatest casts this decade. Scorsese is still Scorsese. A plausible explanation of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity as well as its fair share of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest feature film Scorsese has ever directed and the longest overall to be commercially released in more than 20 years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 94//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: GoodFellas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose

Ode to Joy (2019)


Love means never having to stand in the rain.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Mosaic) Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Jake Lacy, Melissa Rauch, Jane Curtin, Shannon Woodward, Ellis Rubin, Jackie Selden, Adam Shapiro, Jason Altman, Alex Perez, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Tyler Bourke, dL Sams. Directed by Jason Winer

Love is a difficult enough proposition without throwing in an exotic illness. The highs, the lows…it’s a real test of our emotional capabilities. It can affect even the best of us in unexpected ways. Those who are especially sensitive…it can be a real war.

Charlie (Freeman) is such a case. He has a rare condition called Cataplexy which affects those who suffer it whenever they are struck by strong emotions. Although portrayed here as a separate disease, it is actually a side effect of narcolepsy. For Charlie, whenever he feels joy, he loses consciousness. That can be a real mood-killer, romantically speaking.

He lives a carefully ordered life, one in which he tries to avoid any situations that might affect him emotionally and the sight of newborn babies will have him reciting lists of the most depressing thigs imaginable. He tries to keep as even a keel as possible, aided by his generally irresponsible younger brother Cooper (Lacy). That all takes a sharp left turn when he meets Francesca (Baccarin). Charlie and Francesca hit it off immediately and soon Charlie takes a chance and asks her out. It seems to go really well until she asks him up to her apartment – and Charlie’s condition makes a very nasty appearance.

Charlie, fearing what might happen, calls things off with Francesca and ends up seeing Bethany (Rauch), a friend of Francesca’s. Cooper, noticing that Francesca is available, starts dating his brother’s ex – except Charlie and Francesca aren’t at all sure that they are with the right partners.

Freeman is a charming lead with oodles of likability. While the chemistry with Baccarin isn’t 100% convincing, it’s a good 95% at least; maybe it’s the imperfections that make the romance at the center of the movie more powerful. While the medical basis for the film is a little bit shaky, it should be remembered that this isn’t meant to be a medical textbook and thus the disease is meant to fit the story rather than the other way around.

At times the dialogue gets a little florid, not unusual in a rom-com although the film valiantly tries and mostly succeeds at avoiding the clichés of the genre. Still, there is plenty of heart here and while I could do without the quirky indie New Yorker tropes, this is actually a heart-warming and charming little film that hopefully will get at least a limited release (it has a distribution deal with a boutique Sony label so there’s that) because this is the kind of movie the world needs more of.

REASONS TO SEE: Not your typical rom-com. Really strong performances all around. Bizarre in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the dialogue is overwrought.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references and mild profanity as well as a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Freeman and Baccarin have both appeared in Marvel movies; Freeman as Agent Everett Ross, Baccarin as Vanessa Carlyle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: As Good As It Gets
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Carmine Street Guitars