David Brent: Life on the Road


David Brent is his own biggest fan.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey “Doc Brown” Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Abbie Murphy, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Rebecca Gethings, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Nina Sosanya, Stacha Hicks, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Arnold, Dermot Keaney, Diane Morgan. Directed by Ricky Gervais

 

Most Americans are aware of the version of the sitcom The Office that starred Steve Carell and a fair amount of them are probably aware that it was based on a British version starring Ricky Gervais. Much fewer of the American audience have probably ever seen any of the British episodes and fewer still will likely have enjoyed it; certainly it is an acquired taste and although it shares many attributes with the American version, the two are quite different.

David Brent (Gervais) was the boss in The Office but he’s fallen on hard times. He works as a salesman of toilet cleaning products for a company called Lavichem and although he turns a somewhat upbeat face to it, one can tell that he is not satisfied at all with the way things have turned out. He’s bullied mercilessly by fellow salesman Jezza (Brooke) and is often the subject of serious conversations with HR manager Miriam Clark (Gethings).

He isn’t without admirers though, like Nigel (Bennett) who looks up to him as a comic mentor, or hopelessly besotted Pauline (Hartley) and the sweet receptionist Karen (Dhillon).  Still, Brent can’t help but feel as if his destiny is passing him by and that destiny is to be – a rock star. So, he assembles a second version of his original band Foregone Conclusion (which includes We are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows) and taking unpaid leave from Lavichem hits the road to do ten dates in the Midlands….all within a few hours’ drive of his flat in London. Along for the unwilling ride is Dom Johnson (Brown), a fairly talented rapper whom David brings along for the street cred he miserably lacks and whom David generally refuses to allow to perform except to use David’s abhorrent lyrics. Cashing out his pension, David undergoes financing the entire tour himself, much to the concern of sound engineer/road manager Andy Chapman (Chapman).

David’s tendency is to blurt out whatever comes to mind without first passing it through a filter, following it with a sort of strangled giggle as if to say “Oh dear, what have I gone and said now?” as a kind of embarrassed signature. He stops conversations dead with his pronouncements and off-the-wall observations that betray sexism and bigotry that most people have the good sense to keep to themselves if they possess those tendencies at all.

True to form, he alienates everyone in his band to the point where they force him not to join them on the tour bus he rented but to follow in his own car behind it. They refuse to dress with him, forcing him to have his own dressing room. The songs that he writes for them to play are pretty awful and the band is humiliated at gig after gig; the only saving grace is that nobody is showing up at them and those that do are drawn out of curiosity to Brent’s quasi-fame (the film treats The Office as a documentary which of course it was made to resemble) and most leave well before the gig is over.

Against all odds, one ends up feeling a kind of sympathy for Brent. He’s the guy who doesn’t realize that he is the joke and nobody is laughing. Still, he soldiers on either because he’s oblivious or refuses to let it get him down. There is a kind of nobility in that which is fascinating, because believe me Brent says some of the vilest things. There is a whole sequence around the “N” word that takes uncomfortable to new levels.

This is a comedy of awkward silences. There is no laugh track and no incidental music, just like the sitcom. The silence serves to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable which I suppose is a form of humor. In its time it was innovative although it seems a bit dated now. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really add anything to what’s already out there; although Gervais has gone to great pains to distance this project from The Office, his presence essentially makes the sitcom the elephant in the room by default. That begs the question; why did this film need to get made? Some fans will just be happy to see Brent back in the saddle but others will need more than that.

In general, those who adored the British version of The Office will likely enjoy this or at least be interested in checking it out. Those who found the show puzzling will likely not find any insights here that will change their minds. It’s definitely an acquired taste and those who have not yet acquired it should probably give this a miss. Otherwise, those who have might find something here worth ingesting although they likely won’t find it as good as the original.

REASONS TO GO: Gervais actually manages to make Brent somewhat sympathetic. Fans of the British Office will find this right up their alley.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a very acquired taste, just like the original The Office. It’s an hour and 36 minutes of awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although David Brent is depicted driving a car on numerous occasions in the film, Ricky Gervais actually doesn’t know how to drive.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Office (BBC Version)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Burning Sands

The Gift (2015)


Rebecca Hall investigates.

Rebecca Hall investigates.

(2015) Thriller (STX) Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Kate Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne, Felicity Price, Melinda Allen, Jyothsna Venkatesh, Laura Drake Mancini, DaNae West, Stacey Bender, Beth Crudele. Directed by Joel Edgerton

The past has a way of rearing its head, ugly or not, when we least expect it. Sometimes it can be a song or a scent that brings it flooding back, or a chance meeting in a retail store. We are tied to our past as surely as we are tired to our choices.

Things are looking good for Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall). They are happily married, Simon recently got a major promotion (and is closing in on another) and they’ve just purchased a beautiful home with amazing views from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. What those in thrillers fail to appreciate is that glass is two-way – you can look out of it sure, but so can others look in.

While shopping for furnishings the couple run into Gordo (Edgerton), a sad-sack sort that was a classmate of Simon’s in high school. Simon can barely remember him, and Robyn takes pity on him; he seems a nice enough guy if a bit socially awkward. She invites him to dinner.

When Gordo starts leaving little gifts; a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, Koi carp for their pond, at first it seems like a nice gesture but it begins to get a little creepy. Then there are intimations of some sort of incident in the past between Gordo and Simon that was less than savory. Robyn also has her own skeletons; a miscarriage sent her spiraling into depression and drug abuse. She has gotten better lately but Simon still worries about it.

Then again, Simon seems to have issues of his own. The more we get to know these people, the less we actually do, all of which descends to an inevitable confrontation which leads to a shocking revelation.

This is Edgerton’s first feature as a director and if this is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him in that regard. The pacing here is damn near perfect, neither too hurried but definitely moves along at a good clip. The result is we’re constantly on the edge of our seats without feeling like we’re missing anything.

Edgerton as a writer is also amazing; all of the main characters are nicely developed and are allowed to be imperfect. The twist at the end is brilliant and shocking, a rare thing these days when we think we just can’t be shocked. This is proof that not only can we be, but we can be surprised as well. A good movie buff appreciates that more than you can imagine.

Bateman gets a rare serious role and plays it very nicely, never overplaying the dramatic aspects (which some comic actors tend to do) but not underplaying it either. He uses his nice guy persona as a bit of a tool, allowing us to settle in to a particular viewpoint of who the character is, then slowly tears down that viewpoint as the character turns out to be something different. It shows Bateman to be an actor of enormous range; I wouldn’t be surprised to see higher-profile dramatic roles coming his way because of his performance here.

Edgerton has long been someone that “everyone” knows can act, but hasn’t really ascended into the Hollywood elite yet. There’s a good chance he will now, showing himself to be a massive talent behind the camera, but a great one in front of the camera as well. Like Bateman, he uses his edgy persona to his advantage to create certain expectations for the audience and then slowly strips them away. I’ve always liked Edgerton as an actor; now I like him even more.

Hall’s character is more brittle and fragile, and in some ways more colorless. She is just beginning to get it together after essentially a breakdown but the goings on here put her back teetering on the edge. Hall doesn’t really hit it out of the park like her colleagues do, but she turns in a solid performance that is bound to get her some notice from casting agents.

The creepy factor is extra high here as we watch the events unfold. Certainly the tension through the last third of the movie is high, but this isn’t a roller coaster ride so much as a dark ride in a boat through some really terrible scenes. This movie has been pretty much universally praised and for good reason; don’t read that as being excessive however – this isn’t an essential movie, just a really well-crafted thriller that is well worth your while. And that is essential enough.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively creepy. Nice twist. Good casting.
REASONS TO STAY: The camera is a bit static. Hall’s character is a bit bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because he wanted to focus on directing, Edgerton filmed all of his own scenes two weeks into shooting and had them completed in seven days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ricki and the Flash

Carnage (2011)


The definition of awkward civility.

The definition of awkward civility.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Elvis Polanski, Eliot Berger, Joe Rezwin (voice), Nathan Rippy (voice), Tanya Lopert (voice), Julie Adams (voice), Lexie Kendrick (voice). Directed by Roman Polanski

For a very long time, philosophers and psychologists have examined the thin veneer of civilization that masks humankind; the term used for it is “the ape in the velvet cloak.” It is uncomfortably easy to strip that cloak off to reveal the gorilla within it, and it happens all too often.

Two children have had a violent encounter in the park. Little Zachary Cowan (E. Polanski) has smacked little Ethan Longstreet (Berger) in the face with a stick, knocking out some teeth in the process. Now their parents are getting together to resolve the matter.

In the Brooklyn apartment of Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster) Longstreet are Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet) Cowan. These are all four successful people, who are confident that they can resolve this incident in a civilized manner. They are constantly being interrupted however by business calls to Alan, who is a lawyer for a less-than-above-board pharmaceutical firm. Michael’s ill mother (Lopert) is also calling him, and as it turns out she’s using the prescription drug that is at the center of controversy for Alan’s client.

As the afternoon wears on and a convivial drink turns to several, the conversation becomes less civil and long-submerged grievances come to the surface. When they do, the behavior turns childish and petty, the marriages turn out to be less stable than they first appeared to be. Alliances between couples, between social classes dissolve and reform only to dissolve again. A conversation that appeared to have been resolved in the first 20 minutes has continued for an hour and a half and threatens to change the dynamic in the relationships and self-worth of all four “adults” involved.

To preface the rest of the review, I am fully aware of the name on the director’s chair and of the crime that he committed that forced him to flee this country and never return. There are those who will see that name and choose not to see this movie or even read further this review. Fair enough. I understand the sentiment and only wish you to know that by publishing this review I am neither condoning his actions of thirty years ago nor supporting him as a person. I am merely reviewing this movie and you can make of that what you will.

Polanski is incomparable at setting a mood and he manages to ratchet up the tension here to nearly unbearable levels. The anger is palpable, almost a fifth presence in the cramped apartment and the four walls that make up the setting of the movie (except for a brief prologue and epilogue) close in not only on the participants but on the audience as well.

The movie starts with pleasantness between the two couples, morphing into awkward civility before blowing up into downright hostility and the descent is a quick but logical one. It helps that you have four Oscar caliber actors – three winners and the fourth a nominee – who by themselves can carry a movie. Having four of them together makes this an experience no fan of great acting performances will want to miss.

Where the movie falls short actually is a fault of the original play that this is based on. The business at hand is actually concluded early on; there is no logical reason for the Nancy and Michael to remain in the Longstreets apartment and yet they do and it is quite frankly a bit of a contrivance. There’s also a subplot involving a hamster that in all honesty seems to be there to pad the film’s running time. The ending lacks punch and gives the effect of a movie that just fizzles out like a dud firecracker, not the way you want your audience to leave the auditorium.

There is definitely a stage-y quality to the movie that I believe that Polanski meant to do on purpose, to give the film audience the effect of being in a small locked room with the characters which further heightens the discomfort and awkwardness. I don’t think anyone wants to be in a room with a bunch of people acting childishly and maliciously, doing venal things to score psychological points and you may not choose to want to spend the full hour and a half with these people either, although quite frankly with a better ending it might have been worth the wait. Despite the great performances which I do recommend, there isn’t much of a reason to subject yourself to this at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific actors giving strong performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Claustrophobic. Pointless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to warrant an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in real time without breaks and, with the exception of the scenes in the park, in a single location.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with Waltz and Reilly, as well as footage from the film’s gala premiere.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.6M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Entourage

The Pursuit of Happyness


The ties that bind.

The ties that bind.

(2006) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Kevin West, George Cheung, Domenic Bove, Joyful Raven, Scott Klace, Maurice Sherbanee, Victor Raider-Wexler, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Erin Cahill, Stu Klitsner, Ming Lo, David Fine, Karen Kahn. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

It’s a tough old world out there. It takes perseverance and ability to make it and even if you have then if you don’t catch a few breaks – or worse, catch a few bad ones – you still might not make it anyway. Most of us are just one or two bad decisions away from the streets.

Chris Gardner (W. Smith) is one of those guys with the ability and work ethic to go far. He even has an excess of charm. What he also has is a cloud of bad luck following him around. His wife Linda (Newton) is burned out, working too hard and getting too little in return. Their son Christopher (J. Smith) is what keeps Chris going.

Chris is having a real hard time selling bone density scanners to the medical professionals of San Francisco, who are able to get more recent and less expensive models from reputable medical supply dealers. Dejected, Chris struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When Linda leaves, it’s a catastrophe. Suddenly he can’t afford the rent and he and his son are thrown into the street. Eating at soup kitchens and lining up for beds in one of the city’s shelters, he looks for some way of getting out of his situation which isn’t helped when he’s hit by a car and his scanner is stolen.

However, Chris spies some brokers for Dean Witter coming out of work and they appear to be happy. He chats with one of them and discovers that they have an internship program for people trying to start in the industry from the ground floor. The trouble is – it’s unpaid and most of the people in the program will not be retained with paid jobs. However, Chris knows he can do this. It’s just a matter of surviving until the paychecks start coming.

While Will Smith had already had an Oscar nomination by the time he made this (for which he would receive his second nomination), in many ways this is the movie that convinced many that Smith wasn’t just a charismatic personality but a serious actor who could, with the right material, give a compelling unforgettable performance. This was certainly the right material.

Based on a true story, the movie brings out elements that are right in his wheelhouse; a kind of street smarts, unflagging charm and the ability to express frustration and anger in a way that doesn’t make him seem unlikable or make audiences uncomfortable. Chris Gardner was a man trapped in a situation that was nearly impossible; he had few prospects and nothing but his own drive, determination and chutzpah to carry him through. And if any star in Hollywood carries those qualities, it’s Will Smith.

Casting his own son in the role of Gardner’s son made a lot of sense and Jaden’s performance here is unforced and doesn’t make you want to grind your teeth. He justifiably received acclaim for following in his daddy’s footsteps and some thought he might even end up being a better actor someday than his dad. That hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will, but here he shows more maturity than a lot of actors his age don’t possess. Perhaps that comes with growing up with a dad as famous as the Fresh Prince.

Now, there are moments where the sentimentality threatens to take over and to Muccino’s credit he doesn’t let it trample all over the film but occasionally you can feel those instincts to manipulate the audience nagging at him. The center section of the movie also drags in a few places, although not enough to really disrupt the flow of the film overly much.

The movie is a compelling portrait of the working poor; people who have jobs but don’t make enough to make ends meet. There are people who work two and three jobs who can’t afford a place to live and go home to shelters or onto the streets. This problem has only gotten worse since this movie was made, given the economic crisis that followed a year after its release. One watches Chris Gardner’s struggles and can’t help but feel “There but for the grace of Whatever Deity (if any) I worship goes I.”

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best performances of Will Smith’s career to date. Good chemistry between him and his son. Unsentimental look at modern poverty.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally maudlin. Slow in the middle sections.
FAMILY VALUES:  The language is rough in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film employed actual homeless people from around the Bay Area and paid them a full day’s wages for often just a few hours of work, generally including a catered meal. For some, it was the first income  that they’d made in years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the father-son acting team and why they were cast as well as one on the humble Rubik’s Cube and also an interview with the real Chris Gardner. The Blu-Ray also includes a music video of the Dave Koz/Bebe Winans song “I Can.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $307.1M on a $55M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Kill the Messenger

Everything Must Go


Everything Must Go

Will Ferrell takes a break from big budget comedies.

(2010) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Michael Pena, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Stephen Root, Glenn Howerton, Rosalie Michaels, Todd Bryant, Dave LaBrucherie, Daniel D. Halleck. Directed by Dan Rush

There are times in our lives when we are hit by a storm of crises. Major life-changing events – almost always negative – seem to batter us one after the other. Sometimes, the storms are of our own making but how we react to them, whatever the cause, is often a major component of what defines us for the rest of our lives.

Nick Halsey (Ferrell) is having a really bad day. He is fired from his job after an incident on a business trip revealed him to have fallen off the wagon yet again. The company has been patient with his alcoholism recovery, his boss (Howerton) tells him as he informs him of his impending unemployed state, but this last straw was too much. Because Nick is a regional vice president and had been with the company for sixteen years, he’s given a pocketknife with his name engraved on it as a parting gift. Rule number one for employers giving gifts to employees who are being let go – never give them weapons. Nick thoughtfully slashes his boss’ tire with the pocketknife before being forced to flee, leaving the pocket knife in the tire.

He drops by a local convenience store to get a 12-pack of beer and a Slurpee. A couple of teens ask him if they can buy the beer off of him. When Nick refuses, one of them knocks his Slurpee over in a fit of pique. No frozen treat for Nick. When he gets home, he arrives to find all of his stuff on the front lawn, all the locks changed and a note from his wife telling him that she’s left him, advising him not to call. Thoughtfully, she freezes their joint account ensuring that Nick has no place to go and no way of having his stuff put in storage. His company car gets repossessed. Nick is reduced to sleeping in a recliner on his front lawn, only to be awakened by the automatic sprinkler the next morning.

Nick takes refuge in a constant stream of beer drinking. However, there are those in his neighborhood who are a bit uneasy with his living situation and the cops are called. However, Nick has a friend on the force – his AA sponsor Det. Frank Garcia (Pena). Frank keeps him out of jail, but informs him that he can keep his stuff out there if he has a yard sale. This buys him three additional days out on the lawn.

Nick meets young Kenny Loftus (Wallace), a lonely young boy whose obesity has made him an object of ridicule. Nick hires Kenny to watch his stuff and help him prepare for the sale, teaching him how to play baseball in exchange (along with hourly wages and a cut from the proceeds of the sale). Nick also meets his comely new neighbor Samantha (Hall) who has just moved out from New York in advance of her husband whose arrival in Arizona is repeatedly delayed.

Nick also seeks out Delilah (Dern), who once wrote a very sweet Yearbook entry for him in High School, although they never formally went out. She’s a single mom now whose dream of being an actress never materialized. She recounts an incident from high school that Nick doesn’t even remember but made an indelible impression on her.

Still, Nick can’t help but be his own worst enemy despite his good heart. He is frustrated, and the alcohol has taken a renewed hold on him. Has Nick hit bottom yet or will he sabotage what momentum upward he might have established?

This is based on a short story by Raymond Carver and to be honest, I’m not all that familiar with Carver’s work firsthand so I can’t really say how accurately this reflects the spirit of the original. I’m advised however that the movie indeed captures Carver nicely, so I’ll go with that – I’ll leave fans of the author to judge for themselves.

This is a role that in many ways is very well suited for Ferrell – but in many ways not. Ferrell doesn’t do many dramatic roles and while Nick has a few comedic moments (most of which are captured in the trailer), they’re rarely over-the-top and are for the most part, overshadowed by Ferrell’s depiction of his addiction. To Ferrell’s credit, he doesn’t play Nick as an out-of-control boozer, but a quiet drunk, chain-guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbons (probably the best beer he could afford on what limited cash he had) and at times letting his inner demons get control.

The scene with Dern is one of the best in the movie. Most reviews I’ve read of the film have said something along the lines of “Dern makes a rare but welcome appearance” which I whole-heartedly agree with. Dern, whose sunny persona illuminated such films as Jurassic Park and October Skies, is one of the most underused actresses in Hollywood whether by design or not. She does so well as Delilah that you almost want to follow her story after she leaves the screen after a brief 10 minute appearance. She’s likable and meshes well with Ferrell.

Rebecca Hall also does a nice job as the sweet but sad Samantha. Hall is beginning to build a reputation, getting cast in a number of projects both high profile and indie; like Dern, she’s very likable and capable as an actress. She holds her own in her scenes with Ferrell which is saying something – Ferrell has a surfeit of personality that can overwhelm a partner from time to time. However, Hall does just enough to be memorable.

In fact, the whole movie can be characterized that way. It’s very likable throughout, but exceedingly low-key. The performances are good but not great. I know that’s damning with faint praise, but it really is a movie that I can recommend – it’s just not going to blow your socks off. However, I can commend it on its realism; there are no pat answers here and the ending lets you know that Nick is far from out of the woods, but there is a sense of a chapter coming to an end. I can honestly say I like the tone here, but I would have liked a little more passion.

REASONS TO GO: A good change of pace for Ferrell. Quirky but never intrusively so.

REASONS TO STAY: A pleasant film that never really rises above that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of bad language and some sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Christopher Jordan Wallace is the son of the late rapper Notorious BIG.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that is going to be difficult to find in theaters; you’re all right if you check it out on home video though.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: 300