For the Love of George


Nothing says Valentine’s Day like cuddling with your honey and a movie.

(2017) Romantic Comedy (Vision) Nadia Jordan, Rex Lee, Rosanna Arquette, Tate Donovan, Kristen Johnston, Shaun Sipos, Petra Bryant, Henry Hereford, Ruth Connell, Adrienne Whitney, Marina Sirtis, Paul Provenza, Ben Gleib, Tracy Ransome, Sandro Monetti, Jo Price, Ron S. Geffner, Danny Araujo, Valley Hintzen, Andrea Batista, Ian Mill, Laura Waddell. Directed by Maria Burton

 

One of the problems with romantic comedies is that although they are theoretically aimed at couples (and let’s face it, women in particular) they very rarely are the products of predominantly female creative sorts. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a rom-com coming from a female writer-director who went out of her way to make sure that as many roles in the film’s behind the camera crew were filled by women. That gives this movie a much more authentic point of view of a female character than we normally get to experience.

Poppy (Jordan) has been going all out to prepare for her husband Stephen’s (Hereford) birthday, making a fantastic meal, baking a lovely cake and preparing for a romantic evening with rose petals on the bed, candles and sexy lingerie. When he calls saying that a rare bird had been spotted in the area (he’s an avid birdwatcher) she’s very much disappointed that he’s chosen to go out and find the bird but it is his birthday after all and he should spend it doing what he likes. After she hangs up, he calls her back and she realizes he’s butt-dialed her. And what she hears turns her world inside out and upside down.

Fed up with being the perfect wife to a man who is cheating on her, she decides to visit her former wedding planner Justin (Lee) in Los Angeles so she heads off to Heathrow and makes the long journey to Southern California to lick her wounds and figure out what happens next. While she’s there she sees a news story on George Clooney, the world’s most eligible bachelor (this is set some years ago) and the charity work he’s doing. The more she hears, the more she realizes that George is THE perfect man and sets out to go get him for herself.

Undaunted by reality, she goes to a bar that Clooney frequents but he’s not there that day. She also tries to attend a party that he’s invited to thrown by her new friend Marcy (Whitney) from Texas but the world’s worst Uber driver torpedoes her plans to meet him. After that disappointment, she goes to a bar to drown her sorrows and runs into a handsy Hollywood producer who tries to take things way too far – a scene that I’m sure resonates with a lot of women both in Hollywood and, well, everywhere else I imagine. Concerned that she has become obsessive about George, Justin refers her to a therapist (Arquette) who listens to her tales of woe with a somewhat skeptical ear.

She starts going out with Luke (Sipos), a vendor of vitamin juices who seems too good to be true – and is. However, she’s bonded with not only Justin but Marcy and Irina (Bryant), Justin’s Russian housekeeper who while at first rubbing Poppy the wrong way eventually finds common ground with her. The strong bonds of sisterhood are very much a theme here. However all is once again thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Steven, looking to win his wife back. On top of that, news of George Clooney’s engagement has put her into a tailspin. Will she give him a second chance or will she embrace the happiness she has found in Los Angeles and continue to live the life she has chosen for herself?

This is very much a woman’s movie in that one of the central themes is empowerment; that women shouldn’t necessarily live for their husband and/or children but also live for themselves. Poppy as a character starts off very nurturing and giving but ends up standing up for herself in ways she probably didn’t know she could. I wouldn’t say that most of the straight male characters in the movie are jerks but most of the important ones are which might ruin the romantic mood for the straight guy in your life.

Then again, most of the characters here aren’t particularly well drawn out with the exception of Poppy. Justin is the gay Asian male who is sexually aggressive and a little bit catty but a loyal gay friend; Irina is the Russian immigrant with vague ties to the mob and an affinity for vodka. Luke is a dumb as a rock hunk who in typical male fashion gives little thought to Poppy’s needs except to use them as a means to get what he wants. Marcy is a Texas hottie with a thick drawl and a big personality, while Sharon (Sirtis) who is Poppy’s boss at the online publication she writes for (yes, Poppy is a writer – isn’t everyone in indie films?) is a high-strung English version of a New York Jewish lady who kvetches with an English accent.

I would have liked to have seen fewer clichés and characters – and plot points – that were a bit more realistic. Considering what Burton was trying to do here, I think it would have benefited her to rather than go for the laughs at the expense of the story to have emphasized the romance and the characters. The empowerment message would have gone a lot farther I think had she done that.

I’m not so sure this is an ideal Valentine’s Day movie – Poppy is a little too hung up on Clooney and the flaws a bit too glaring for an unqualified recommendation, but certainly there are some aspects here worth cheering for and hopefully Burton will learn from this film and go on to make some movies that really do send positive messages that young women in particular need to hear at this point in time.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much of a feminine perspective with a side of empowerment.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few too many stereotypical characters and plot devices.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burton was inspired to write the movie after reading Don Cheadle’s book Not on Our Watch which details Clooney’s involvement with raising awareness of the genocide in Darfur and she realized that the world’s most eligible bachelor (at the time) was also an unusually sensitive and compassionate man. Two weeks later his engagement was announced and she had her idea for her film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Field
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Millionaires’ Unit

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The Truth About Romance


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A beautiful girl on the bank of a canal - ah, English Spring!

A beautiful girl on the bank of a canal – ah, English Spring!

2013) Romantic Dramedy (A Tiny Adventure/Vimeo) Jordan Greenhough, Danielle Jackson, Craig Asquith, Donna Parry, Leonora Moore, Margaret Cowan. Directed by James G. Wall

There is something about twenty-somethings. At that age, emotion is felt most keenly and love is a life or death struggle. When you make it to my age, you look back on that time of your life with a mixture of nostalgia – I do miss the intensity of feeling and that bloom of love that makes life so much more colorful – and relief. Relief in that I no longer have to put up with that crap.

Josh (Greenhough) is unfortunately smack dab in the middle of that age and like many men that age is caught in the undertow and treacherous currents that are smashing him about the rocks of life. He has been in love with Jessie (Moore) – a co-worker of his – for years. They’ve been sharing a lift to work each morning and Josh has finally decided to confess his feelings to her.

She has news of her own however: she has a new job, one that will take her to Paris. Josh is devastated. His shrill harpy of a mother (Cowan) warned him that this was going to happen and now it has. He texts his pal Chris (Asquith), meaning to get together with him to drown his sorrows in lager. Chris receives his texts at the breakfast table, oblivious to the sad looks that his girlfriend Zoe (Parry) is shooting him. She is thinking they could go out together tonight but Chris has already said yes to a boy’s night out. Resigned, she watches him leave for work.

Josh is eating his lunch on a park bench disconsolately when a beautiful young woman sits down next to him. Perky and pixiesque, she draws him out of his funk somewhat and before he knows what is happening he has given her his name, accepted an invitation to a party that evening and taken a note with her address and mobile number on it. She introduces herself as Emily (Jackson).

At first Josh is reluctant to go to the party but Chris insists once he finds out about it. He knows full well that the best thing for Josh is some meaningless sex, preferably with someone who has absolutely no ambitions. Josh winds up misinterpreting Emily’s signals but the two wind up in her bedroom, getting to know each other in a non-Biblical sense and for his part, Josh is completely enchanted by her.

Chris on the other hand gets rip-roaring, out-of-his-mind, stupid drunk. He meets a pair of young women at the party and sleeps with both of them…at once. When he gets home, Zoe can smell their perfume on him and demands to know what happened. Chris confesses his sins and Zoe tells him to get his bottom right out the door. He ends up staying with Josh.

Josh is rightfully concerned for his best mate but he is completely head-over-heels in love with Emily and in all honesty, it’s hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t be. She’s bright, sexy, funny and flirtatious. She draws Josh out of the shell he’s in and slowly he lets her in.

As the weekend progresses, Josh’s relationship with Emily seems to be going better and better whereas Chris and Zoe are disintegrating before their eyes. Chris realizes that he loves Zoe and doesn’t want to be without her but that ship may well have sailed. As for Josh and Emily, he can’t bear to be apart from her…but does she feel the same way about him?

Wall has previously made a handful of short films; this is his feature debut. Like an increasing number of young filmmakers, he is eschewing the system of shopping his film to distributors and instead is putting it right on YouTube and Vimeo for anyone to stream or download at their leisure – those interested in seeing it can click here if they wish. With a production budget of under £200 (about $325 U.S. at current exchange rates) this is the kind of movie even I can afford to make – but to Wall’s credit, it doesn’t look at all like a movie that costs less than an annual Disney pass.

It is also a lot better written than most first-time features. There’s an authenticity here that you generally don’t find in a big-budget Hollywood production. These are people who are awkward and unsure of the rules of the game – like playing chess with checker pieces on a Monopoly board. They are terrified of rejection, longing for acceptance and lonely in the soul-crushing way that can only be experienced by someone in their 20s. Constantly glued to their iPhones texting one another, playing videogames and waiting for that phone call, this is as realistic a portrayal of people in their 20s in the second decade of the 21st century as you’re likely to find. If these aspects place the film firmly in this era, I still think that there is a timeless element to the goings-on as well.

The cast is surprisingly able. Josh listens to music constantly on a pair of ear buds and occasionally warbles a tune or two of his own. Greenhough instills Josh with a goofy kind of charm, a big kid with shoes on the wrong feet. Somehow you end up rooting for him even though he can be a frustrating handful – at one point he waits for Emily to call him but clearly is desperate to talk to her. You want to shake him by the scruff of his neck and scream “CALL HER YOU IDIOT!!!!” I can completely relate to the character, having been a shy and graceless twenty-something myself once. Fortunately, I survived and so will Josh.

Jackson is crazy beautiful, the kind of gorgeous that makes you look twice to make sure you saw her right the first time. In a lot of indie films, this kind of character is full of quirks and neuroses that if you met that sort in real life you wouldn’t want to spend five seconds with them let alone 90 minutes. Jackson gives her a vulnerability that is curiously moving as well as an intelligence that makes you hang on her every word. With Zooey Deschanel getting fame and fortune on television, there is a void in the indie film world that I think Jackson could potentially fill; indie filmmakers should have her number on speed dial.

I also liked Asquith as the lovable schlub Chris who gets drunk and makes a startlingly bad decision. I know from experience that cheating is a deal-breaker for a lot of women and frankly, I felt a certain amount of sympathy for him but also for Zoe as well. Their relationship was clearly on the ropes already with both of them being desperately unhappy but they were too frightened to let go. One might argue that his indiscretion might have been the best thing for the both of them as it allows them both to move on. I’m sure a lot of women might disagree with me there. In any case, Chris as played by Asquith isn’t a particularly mean or rotten guy; he’s just not very sensitive or wise about women. Women generally characterize guys like him as jerks but that might be a bit harsh – Chris really doesn’t intend to hurt anybody. Of course, intentions are immaterial; he in fact does wound Zoe deeply and there are consequences to that which Chris eventually accepts.

I remember the great American film critic Gene Siskel used to love movies like this, films that give you a peek into ordinary lives and through that glimpse allow you to draw insights into your own life. I think he might well have given this film a solid thumbs up although there are a few things that he would have called it to task for – one of the most glaring is that the music is mainly composed of Jacko Hooper’s indie pop songs with vocals which sometimes make it difficult for you to hear the actual dialogue of the film. While I understand this is meant to give you an idea of what Josh is listening to on his headphones or on the radio or at the party, it is distracting when you are trying to make out what the characters are trying to say. I wound up having to rewind a couple of times until I understood the dialogue. Perhaps Mr. Wall would have been better served to get instrumental tunes on the soundtrack.

Be that as it may, this is impressive not just for a first time film, not just for a film with a three figure budget but for any film. Love and relationships is a tricky subject for any filmmaker; while we all have been through the romance wars, few of us truly understand what love is and entails. Even at my advanced age I can’t say as I’m an expert; not everything that works for me will work for others and vice versa. All I know is that it is wonderful and terrible to be in love. It is far worse not to be.

REASONS TO GO: Looks like it had a far bigger budget than it had. A realistic slice of life.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes hard to hear the dialogue over the pop music playing constantly in the background.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and drinking, along with some mildly bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily, when asked to name her favorite book and band, names Blankets, the award-winning autobiographical graphic novel by Craig Thompson, and Jacko Hooper who wrote and performed the music and songs for the film.

CRITICAL MASS: Because this film has been release via YouTube and Vimeo there is no page for it on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Girl Waltz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 Begins!

On the Road


Bella Swan, you're all grown up!

Bella Swan, you’re all grown up!

(2012) Drama (Sundance Selects) Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Danny Morgan, Marie-Ginette Guay, Steve Buscemi, Joe Chrest, Terrence Howard, Coati Mundi, Michael Sarrazin, Ximena Adriana, Tetchena Bellange, Kim Bubbs, Tiio Horn, Giselle Itie, Giovanna Zacarias. Directed by Walter Salles  

The classic Jack Kerouac Beat Generation novel On the Road has literally been in development for decades. Nobody really knew quite what to do with the book. It finally got made and was released in late 2012; was it worth the wait?

Young Sal Paradiso (Riley), a stand-in for the author, meets Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) – who stands in for Neal Cassady – through mutual friends. Sal, grieving for his father and a writer stuck in a horrible case of writer’s block, is instantly taken by this young man who is full of life and not especially concerned with convention, rules or…well, anything that gets in the way of him having a good time. Charming and literate, Dean and his 16-year-old wife Marylou (Stewart) serve up alcohol, sex and marijuana with equal enthusiasms. When it’s time for Dean and Marylou to head back to Denver, Sal is invited to come visit.

It takes some time for Sal to get together the gumption and funds to go – even in postwar New York there aren’t a ton of jobs – but he finally does. He rides busses and hitchhikes across the pre-Interstate America and eventually gets there, only to find that Dean is cheating on Marylou with Camille (Dunst). Sal heads back, stopping briefly to pick cotton and have an affair with Terri (Braga).

Later, after Sal has returned to New York, Sal and his mother (Guay) are visiting Sal’s sister and her husband for the holidays in North Carolina when Dean turns up with Marylou and friend Ed Dunkle (Morgan) and offer to drive Sal and his mom back up to New York in exchange for a place to stay for the night and a meal. Sal’s staid sister and family aren’t quite sure what to make of the intruders.

After getting back to New York and spending some time partying, Sal decides to accompany the three back to Denver. On the way they stop in New Orleans to pick up Ed’s wife Galatea (Moss) and to visit Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) and his wife Jane (Adams). They continue crisscrossing the country and as they do Sal noticed that women are getting left behind quite regularly both figuratively and literally not only by Dean but by all of them (the lone exception is Carlo (Sturridge) who is gay and is one of those left behind by the bisexual Dean). After a disastrous trip to Mexico in which Sal contracts dysentery, at last he will see Dean for who he truly is – and find inspiration in the process.

In all honesty I’ve been less a fan of the writing of the Beat Generation and more of…well, admirer isn’t quite the right term. The Beat writers were full of bullshit, but it’s an honest bullshit, a young man’s bullshit. This is a movie about self-fulfillment in all its forms. I have to admit I haven’t read the book; okay, I might have but it was so long ago that I don’t remember it and so it adds up to the same thing.  Therefore, I’m not really the one to evaluate whether the spirit of the book was captured so we’ll leave that as a N/A for now.

Salles, who is no stranger to road movies having directed the Che Guevara quasi-biopic The Motorcycle Diaries has a firm hand here and allows the allure of the road to shine through; the endless stripes passing by through landscapes mostly desolate but wonderful in their emptiness. However, keeping in mind that the movie runs about two hours give or take, that can only sustain a film so much.

The characters here are so incredibly self-involved that it’s difficult to find a lot of sympathy for the lot of them. Mostly they’re about indulging whatever hedonistic pleasure grabs them at the moment, and Dean is the mainstay in that regard. For Dean, friends and lovers are to be exploited, discarded when the need for them diminishes or when boredom sets in. He wants to meet people who have something to say that isn’t the usual postwar pabulum of pandering prattling polemic, empty of soul and emptier of head. That’s all well and good but what does interesting companions really do for you if you make no connection to them?

Admittedly the relationship between Dean and Sal is the centerpiece here in that there is more or less a relationship of mutual respect and debauchery but in the end Dean uses Sal just as thoroughly and just as despicably, maybe even more so than the others. Hedlund gives the performance of his career thus far in capturing Dean’s natural charisma and sensual charm that attracted both women and men to him like moths to a flame. Riley, a British actor who’s turned in some really incredible performances in his young career, is solid here as the yin to Hedlund’s yang, and to my mind it’s a generous move because by not shining quite so bright he allows Hedlund’s glow to be more noticeable and the movie benefits from it.

You can only take so much self-indulgent behavior and there’s really a whole lot of it here. There’s an amazing amount of smoking and drinking, not to mention a ton of sex and drug use. I don’t begrudge anyone who partakes in any of those things but it’s a bit more boring to watch than you’d expect.

This is a generation that is not unlike the 20-somethings that are out there right now; people trying to find their own way in a world that doesn’t really get them much, so they are forced to reinvent the world to fit their view. I can commend the ballsyness of the strategy but it doesn’t always make for good cinema unless of course these are your people too.

They aren’t really mine. There just isn’t any appeal in watching people indulge their most hedonistic and basic whims while forgetting to make any connection to other people. It’s an ultimately empty and meaningless pursuit. Life is about connections, not so much about carnality. It’s a lesson that the young learn as they get older, although some never learn it at all.

Some will look at these characters and see heroes bucking the system and living life on their own terms. I see people who screw their friends over and whose only concern is having a good time. One must grow up sooner or later (you would hope) and to be honest, watching this is like watching children acting out. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt – sorry if that means I fail the coolness test.

REASONS TO GO: Some good performances, particularly from Hedlund. Captures the allure of the road and the essence of the era.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters far too self-indulgent to connect to.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sex, swearin’ and smokin’ of weed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Francis Ford Coppola originally bought the rights to the novel in 1979 and has been attempting to get the film made since then.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100; the reviews are lukewarm at best.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Neal Cassady

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Admission

Shame


Shame

Michael Fassbender reacts when he discovers his mother is attending the premiere for the film.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen

 

Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.

Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.

But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.

His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.

Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.

Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.

There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?

This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.

Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.

FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Duchess

Take Me Home Tonight


Take Me Home Tonight

Topher Grace is disconcerted that Teresa Palmer has never heard of "That 70s Show."

(2011) Comedy (Rogue) Topher Grace, Teresa Palmer, Dan Fogler, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Lucy Punch, Michael Ian Black, Demitri Martin, Michael Biehn, Bob Odenkirk, Angie Everhart, Jay Jablonski, Edwin Hodge. Directed by Michael Dowse 

Honesty is the best policy; it has been said time and time again but few of us really regard it as true. Most of us will lie about how successful we are, how old we are, what we did during the day – even who we are – to impress someone else. In an age where lies are commonplace and Internet identities are meaningless, we sometimes forget we used to have to tell our lies face-to-face.

In a sense, Matt Franklin has been lying to himself. He is an MIT grad who doesn’t really want to be an engineer, but kinda does. He’s not sure. He’s really not sure about anything. So he lives at home with his policeman dad (Biehn) and housewife mom and twin sister Wendy (Faris) and works at Suncoast Video (are there any of those left?) in the local Mall. Oh, did I mention its 1988?

Into his mall walks Tori Frederking (Palmer), the high school crush he never had the guts to ask out because he never had an “in” and about whom he was just coincidentally talking about with his best friend Barry Nathan (Fogler), a Mercedes salesman who’s about to get fired, although he doesn’t really know it (but he kinda does). Matt nervously strikes up a conversation with his unrequited love, trying to act nonchalant but getting flustered when she mentions her successes – graduation (with honors) from Duke, a job at a high-end investment banking firm.

That’s why Matt blurts out that he’s working at Goldman Sachs, which is a bit weird because apparently they don’t have an L.A. office (which is really weird because of course they do – even in the 80s, all of the big financial firms had L.A. offices). She asks if he’s going to a party that evening, and even though he wasn’t planning to; it’s at the home of Kyle Masterson (Pratt), the smarmy preppy boyfriend of Wendy who doesn’t even know that she applied to Cambridge (which I suppose is supposed to be Oxford but who am I kidding?) or that she would move to England if she was accepted.  The letter detailing whether she got in or not sits unopened in her purse.

So yes, this is one of those “life changing party” movies that had their genesis in the ‘80s and there are plenty of nods here to the era from a decidedly John Hughes-like tone to the big hair to the cocaine use. As someone who lived in Los Angeles in the 80s, I can tell you that they did get the mall culture right, and if the movie is a bit smug in its nod to the wealthy – both of the parties depicted here are in the homes of rich people, even if Matt and Wendy live in the burbs as the children of a cop who put most of his retirement money into Matt’s education, only to see him take a job at the mall. Money well spent, eh dad?

There are a few laughs here although not nearly as many as in the similarly-themed Hot Tub Time Machine which was a much better movie than this one. Then again it’s something of a miracle we’re seeing this movie at all; it was actually filmed four years ago, but Universal, which then owned the distribution rights through their Rogue imprint didn’t feel confident about releasing it and it sat on the shelf until the Starz-owned Overture distributors bought Rogue. Overture was in turn purchased by new distributors Relativity who then added it to the release schedule.

Grace can be truly charming (as he showed in “That 70s Show”) but he looks a bit lost here. His character is so wishy-washy that it’s difficult to get behind him fully and it gets frustrating to watch him flounder, which he does for much of the movie. Fogler, who hasn’t always been impressive in his film roles, does actually manage some of his best work here – a scene where he is lured into a threesome (of sorts) in a Beverly Hills bathroom with a Cougar who turns out to be “Law & Order” hottie Angie Everhart (shockingly unrecognizable here) is one of the movie’s highlights.

Unfortunately much of the movie relies on unfunny gags and uninspired bits. The movie relies far too much on the ‘80s gimmick and poking fun at a decade which is too much like shooting fish in a barrel. I liked the Goldman Sachs reference until I realized that it was inserted in well before the financial meltdown that Goldman Sachs had such a hand in so the reference was kind of accidental.

This is one of those movies that has enough good moments so that it’s not an utter waste of time, but is frustrating because it does waste its potential. I liked the tone of the movie; it just could have used a few more laughs to keep the pace moving along.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, particularly between Grace and Fogler. Palmer is awfully pretty and Faris has a role that is completely out of her comfort zone but she still nails it anyway.

REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laughs to sustain the movie. There is a little bit of heart and warmth and while the film nails the “look” of the era, doesn’t really capture its essence, preferring to focus on the excesses of the time.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of bad words, lots of drug use, plenty of sex and nudity but hey, it’s the 80s!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took four years for the movie to see the light of day, mainly over studio reluctance to show all the drug use; during the down time the title changed from “Young Americans” to “Kids in America” to the present one, taken from an Eddie Money song that while played in the trailer never appears in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will be gone from theaters before you can get out to see it anyway, so I’d make this a rental.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Looking for Eric

Machete


Machete

Is this the face only a mother could love?

(20th Century Fox) Danny Trejo, Jessica Biel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Robert de Niro, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Tom Savini, Daryl Sabara, Alicia Marek, Gilbert Trejo, Cheryl Chin, Shea Whigham.  Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis

Injustice requires a hero, someone to stand up and defy those who perpetrate it. However, some injustice is so grave, so reprehensible it requires more than a hero: it requires a legend.

Machete (Trejo) is a Mexican federale who is a bit of a maverick and a lone wolf. While his partner pleads with him to back off of a kidnapping case, Machete refuses. He only knows one direction – forward – and one way – the hard one. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a trap set by a drug lord named Torrez (Seagal) who butchers Machete’s family. Since Machete’s boss is in Torrez’ pocket, his career as a federale is over.

Flash forward three years. Machete is working as a day laborer in Texas, where corrupt State Senator McLaughlin (De Niro) holds sway on a fire-eating anti-immigration platform. However, the good Senator’s re-election campaign isn’t going particularly well. It seems that he’s made some powerful enemies, including a snake oil businessman named Booth (Fahey) who hires Machete to execute the Senator with a high-powered rifle from the state capitol in Austin. However, the whole thing turns out to be yet another set-up.

It seems that Booth is actually McLaughlin’s aide. It turns out both of ‘em are also in Torrez’ pocket. It also turns out that a paramilitary vigilante border patrol, led by Lt. Von Stillman (Johnson) are in McLaughlin’s pocket; as a matter of fact, McLaughlin went on a little ride-along with the boys and shot him some Mescans, including a pregnant woman right in the belly.

However, they’ve messed with the wrong Mescan, as Machete slices and dices his way through every slick-haired, black-suited henchman this quartet of baddies can throw at him. He has allies of his own, however, to aid him in the slicing and dicing; Luz (Rodriguez), a revolutionary whose Underground Railroad-like organization for illegals operates out of her taco truck; Sartana (Alba), an ambitious immigration officer who falls for Machete; Padre (Marin), a priest who packs a little bit of lead along with his crucifix and Julio (Sabara), a vato with a heart bigger than all of Mexico.  

Along the way they’ll run into April (Lohan), a drugged-out wannabe-model whose father wants to make her daddy’s girl, Osiris Ampanpour (Savini), an Assyrian assassin with a sadistic streak and Sniper (Whigham), Booth’s right hand man. The odds are stacked against Machete, but Machete doesn’t care about odds, not as long as he has a razor sharp blade at his disposal.

This has all the elements of 70s blacksploitation (i.e. movies like Superfly and Shaft), Asian chop sockey (the films of the Shaw brothers and some of Bruce Lee’s early stuff), spaghetti westerns and even the slasher flicks of the 80s. All of this has been filtered through Robert Rodriguez’ Cuisinart of influences to create something unique and refreshing, even as it is also at once familiar.

It’s no secret that this was born from a faux trailer that appeared as part of the 2007 B-movie homage Grindhouse that Rodriguez did with fellow trash movie aficionado Quentin Tarantino (it is said that another fake trailer from that movie, Thanksgiving is on the fast track for development as well). However, the real genesis for this character and this project took place back in 1994 when Rodriguez was finishing El Mariachi when Rodriguez began writing a script about a disgraced ex-federale with a penchant for blades.

This is so over-the-top that NASA has it studying planets. Every swing of Machete’s weapon generates a fountain of blood and a limb, head or other body part parting rather gruesomely from the original owners. Machete also gets to use his other weapon plenty of times as nearly every woman in the movie gets a sex scene with him, all to the beat of ‘70s porn movie. Wackada wacka wacka boom chicka boom, baby! Of course, it’s a little difficult to picture Danny Trejo, who’s pushing 70 but still in awesome shape, as anything of a sex symbol. To each their own.

Still, this is the role Trejo was born to play. With his hard scowl, stringy hair, Fu Manchu moustache, angry demeanor and a slathering of tattoos, he has played murderers, rapists and thieves in countless movies over the years. Here, he is the kind of anti-hero that the audiences of the ‘70s embraced. There’s something vicariously thrilling about sticking it to the man, y’know.

De Niro is clearly having a great time here. His character is a combination of Byron de la Beckwith, Arizona state senator Russell Pearce and Foghorn Leghorn and De Niro hams it up like he’s working a middle school talent show. In fact, one gets the impression that Rodriguez told all his actors to “let her rip!” and the only instructions they received from him thereafter were “More!”

Certainly modern audiences aren’t used to this much gratuitous sex and overt, bloody violence but that’s okay; those of us who remember Times Square before the chain restaurants, Starbucks and tourist-friendly shopping when just walking into the area made you want to shower and then dry off with sandpaper will embrace Machete with both arms. Okay, not literally; giving Machete a hug will probably lose you the use of both your arms unless you’re a naked chick with big bazoombas. And that’s the way it should be.

REASONS TO GO: It’s social commentary disguised as a cheesy 70s action flick wrapped in satire. The movie is so preposterous you have to love it.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are faint of heart when it comes to sex and violence should steer clear.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of gratuitous sex and lots of gratuitous violence to go with lots of gratuitous language. Who says they don’t make ‘em like this anymore?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After Rodriguez told Trejo about the role of Machete and the film he intended to make, Trejo called Rodriguez regularly at varying times of the day to pitch himself for the role. Finally, when an exasperated Rodriguez asked Trejo why he didn’t just text him, Trejo replied “Machete don’t text” and Rodriguez liked the line so much he used it in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, home viewing for this one, definitely. Preferably with a six pack of cheap beer, a bagful of pork rinds and a taco or two.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Fifty Dead Men Walking