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

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March of the Living


The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

(2010) Documentary (Visit) Hayley Miller, Sigi Hart, Rafael Elkabets, Jake Goren, Débora Niesenbaum, Halina Wachtel, Rolf Joseph, Ariela Pier, Josie Quade, Emil Jacoby, Tess Neumann, Sidi Grűnstein Gluck, Max Zellerhot, Jean Greenstein, Erika Jacoby, Heinz Kallman, Dorothy Greenstein, Jamie Greenberg, Saul Hanari, Joelle Zingerman. Directed by Jessica Sanders

 

The Holocaust remains one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Not because of its brutality, or the horror of it, but because it reminds us that we can be led by the nose to ignore atrocities that are happening in our very midst. Certainly people in Poland had to be at least somewhat aware of the nightmare going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Birkenau and yet not a voice was raised in protest. Of course if any were, those voices were as likely to be stilled permanently.

Every year, concentration camp survivors and teenage Jews from all over the world march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the route of the infamous Death March – except this is a March of the Living, not just a middle finger to the Nazis and the Holocaust deniers but also an affirmation of life. This is a demonstration that the human spirit overcomes and survives. It is hope.

In 2008, the documentary filmmaker Jessica Sanders was recruited by a Brazilian production company to document this event, known as the March of the Living. She followed several teens and several survivors from Los Angeles, Sao Paolo and Berlin. Before the actual March, the participants were taken on a tour of the various Camps, some of which are still standing – and at least one simply a monument to the hundreds of thousands of voices stilled there forever.

We see the gruesome detritus that was left behind; thousands upon thousands of shoes, stacked neatly floor to ceiling; dolls and toys, never to be played with again and human hair, to be used by the Nazis as carpet fiber. The sight of the hair seemed to be particularly disturbing to the teens, many of whom broke down inconsolably. It’s an unforgettable moment.

The problem I have with this 75 minute film is that it’s too short; we don’t get a sense of the journey these teens take. The survivors, we hear some of their horror stories and we are made well enough aware of their justifiable fear that once they are gone (and they are in their 80s and 90s now) there will be nobody to tell their story, nobody to answer the questions of the young. This is the last generation that will have direct access to living Holocaust survivors and the thought is chilling.

But the kids, as is the nature of kids, don’t have the experience and perspective to see it as anything other than what it isn’t – about them. “This could have been me, sixty years ago” says one teen girl in way too much make-up. Some of the teens – to their credit – get it. One makes plans to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after she graduates from high school; she also arranges for the survivors to participate in their graduation ceremony because, as she points out, none of them got to graduate high school because they were in the camps. You can see the delight in the faces of the elderly grads.

But we get no sense of the personal growth these kids experience. One moment their just ordinary kids dealing with ordinary issues, the next they’re seeing the gas chamber at Birkenau. It just feels like we got to that point cheaply, without getting a sense of how this affected them. Some talk about their culture but few seemed to get much out of it more than a sense of accomplishment, that they went to the camps and are somehow better for it. That’s not how it works.

I recognize the difficulty in doing any sort of film about the Holocaust, be it a documentary or a narrative feature. After all, the subject has been tackled in many different ways by many different filmmakers. There really isn’t a lot of new material to add to the conversation. Yes, it is true that this generation and those following must take up the mantle of remembrance, to be the keepers of memory when those who originally lived those memories have moved on, and to pass those memories down to succeeding generations. It is, after all, important that we never forget.

But sadly, this movie has forgotten – that the Holocaust isn’t just something to be blared out at us in capital letters. It affects people differently, like the German girl who felt ashamed of her country because of the atrocities committed in the name of politics. And of course, we can see similar demagogues whipping up the masses against Muslims and Middle Eastern people in general. The sad fact is that we have learned nothing from the Holocaust and despite the best efforts of those who survived it to act as living reminders of the barbarity of our species and its ability to inflict mind-boggling suffering upon each other, the potential for another one is slowly looming it’s shaggy head even as we speak..

REASONS TO GO: Some unforgettable albeit unsettling images.
REASONS TO STAY: Don’t get a sense of the journey these people take.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images having to do with the concentration camps.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sanders was nominated for a documentary short Oscar for Sing in 2002.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: What’s In the Darkness?

Country Strong


Country Strong

This is...American Idol!

(2010) Musical Drama (Screen Gems) Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Gabe Sipos, Lisa Stewart Seals, Jackie Welch, Meagan Henderson, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

There is an itch in most of us to be famous, but in some it’s more like a rash. Those in that sad condition can’t ignore it, can’t cure it, can only go about pursuing their obsession in a single-minded manner. Fame, however, shines a spotlight on us that few can bear for very long and when we fall apart, the whole world watches.

That’s what happened to Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar whose bouts with the bottle led to a drunken incident during a Dallas concert which led to a miscarriage. Now in rehab, her husband and manager James (McGraw) is pulling her out a full month early in order for her to embark on a tour to rehab her image. Beau (Hedlund), who is an orderly at her treatment facility and an aspiring singer/songwriter himself (and a good one), is aghast but at Kelly’s insistence he accompanies her on the tour as an opening act and to a certain extent, as a watchdog to make sure she doesn’t drink. He’s more successful at the former than the latter.

Also on the tour is Chiles Stanton (Meester), a former Miss Dallas who has gone from beauty pageants to honky tonks in a single minded pursuit of Nashville glory. Kelly suspects that James is sleeping with Chiles, which is a little bit hypocritical since she has been sleeping with Beau since rehab. And Chiles is sweet on Beau, despite Beau’s disinterest. Yes, everyone sleeps with everyone else except I suspect Beau and James. They probably don’t sleep together. And Chiles and Kelly? In your dreams, pervert.

Kelly, with pressure mounting on her for a comeback, is patently unready for the Texas tour that is going to take her back to Dallas at its conclusion. She worries that she has become too old for her stardom and certainly for her husband who is no longer interested in her romantically but remains her manager nonetheless, shamelessly manipulating his wife. The miscarriage sits between them like the Great Wall of China. She begins to drink again, with devastating consequences.

All of this leads to some pretty public meltdowns that all the spin in the world is going to fail to erase. Can Kelly get her act together and show the world what country strong is all about? Will Chiles get the stardom she so desperately seeks? And will Beau, with his distaste for money, find an audience of his own? Tune in.

Roger Ebert likened this to movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s and I can agree with him there – the elements of A Star is Born are too many to count. Feste doesn’t appear to be out to give us an insider’s view of the country music world; instead, this is a look at the downside of fame, the dark side of ambition and the redemptive power of a really good song.

The three singers all contribute their own vocals, lending more authenticity to the proceedings. Paltrow again delivers, not only vocally but as the fragile singer. Kelly is a woman who was strong once upon a time, but the constant pressure and rootless lifestyle have taken their toll. Now she’s a woman trapped in a marriage that’s unfulfilling, lost in a sea of booze and bad breaks. She latches onto Beau as a life preserver and he’s only too happy to fill that bill.

Hedlund, recently seen in TRON: Legacy, plays the aw-shucks cowboy with a heart on his sleeve nicely. His vocals have a nice timbre, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix assaying Johnny Cash (as a matter of fact, Trace Adkins covers one of Beau’s songs on the end credits). His chemistry with Meester is undeniable (there were rumors that the two had an off-screen romance as a result of the movie that have been denied by both camps) and he makes a good foil for McGraw.

Tim McGraw made his bones as a country singer but he has acting chops as well. He tends to do well with roles that give him more of a strong center to work from, and James Canter has that. He is manipulative yes, but he’s also dedicated and honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing for his wife. There’s a scene late in the movie that has Kelly doing a Make-a-Wish visit to a child’s schoolroom where the two begin to dance together in the classroom, then abruptly James pulls away. It’s one of the best single scenes of his career and shows that if he wanted to carry a movie on his own (which he’s never done), he certainly has the charisma and chops to do it.

The movie stumbles in the very last scene which is a shame because the shameless Hollywood ending counteracts the effectiveness of the movie’s twists and turns in the last reel. Without that one scene, or rather, the appearance of one person at its conclusion, this would have gotten a higher rating from me than it did. That’s how critical a single scene can be to the perception of an entire movie, something aspiring filmmakers would do well to remember.

Country Strong is surprising in that it’s a much better movie than I anticipated it would be, expecting more of a generic country-infused music biz soap opera. While there is some of that in here (particularly in the complex romantic relationships), it is more of a look at the effects of fame on a treasured artist, and the human toll that fame takes. That wasn’t the movie I expected, but I for one am glad it’s the movie I got.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few unforeseen twists in the movie that make it worth viewing. McGraw and Paltrow give fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters of Beau and Chiles a bit cliche. Very last scene blows off goodwill from the movie’s final direction.

FAMILY VALUES: Much of the plot involves the results of alcohol and drug abuse; there is also some fairly sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim McGraw, a real-life country star, is the only one of the four leads who doesn’t sing onscreen (he does contribute a duet with Paltrow over the closing credits).  

HOME OR THEATER: The concert sequences work best in a big theater with a big sound system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Dilemma

My Life in Ruins


My Life in Ruins

Is it just me or is Nia Vardalos looking like a young Kirstie Alley?

(Fox Searchlight) Nia Vardalos, Richard Dreyfus, Harland Williams, Rachel Dratch, Maria Adanez, Maria Botto, Alexis Georgoulis, Sheila Bernette, Alistair MacGowan, Bernice Stegers. Directed by Donald Petrie

Life is meant to be lived to the fullest. Too many of us find ourselves spectators in our own story. Sometimes it takes a trip to where civilization began to find out what it means to be human.

Georgia (Vardalos) is an unemployed history professor who has been reduced to being a tour guide for the low-rent Pangloss Tours in Athens – the Greek one, for my readers in the Deep South. She has no life to speak of, her romantic life is a series of miscalculations and full-on bad ideas that have left her lonely and cynical.

Her passion is history and she yearns to pass on that passion for Greek culture, history and traditions to her tourists, but in all honesty she tends to be a bit of a priggish bore and her attempts at humor are right up there with the comic stylings of Al Gore. To make matters worse, she is almost always given the worst tour groups, while her rival Nico (MacGowan) always gets the energetic Canadian group that tips like they just won the lottery.

This trip she is saddled with a couple of beer-soaked Aussies, a kleptomaniac Brit (Bernette), a pair of man-hungry Spanish divorcees (Adanez and Botto), a boorish American couple (Williams, Dratch), a snooty English family, a boring American businessman and an earnest but geeky backpacker. Oh, and there’s also Irv (Dreyfus), an American retiree who punctuates everything with a joke like a Borscht Belt comic run amok. Their tour bus is driven by a shaggy, taciturn Greek named Poupi Kakas (Georgoulis). When his name is first introduced, I just knew I was in for a yuckfest.

Things go predictably badly. The group is not enamored of Georgia’s academic approach and is more interested in shopping for trinkets, frolicking on the beach and drinking in whatever taverna they can find on the road than in poking about yet another set of ancient ruins. Georgia is beside herself. It looks like yet another low rating for her and she is absolutely miserable. She decides this tour will be her last, but a funny thing happens on the way to the unemployment line; she discovers her inner Greek. She learns to take pleasure in life. She finds the soul within Irv who becomes something of a Delphic Oracle to the group (and no, that’s not a lesbian laptop…ba dum BUMP). She will also find the romance she’s been seeking in the form of Poupi, who after a shave and a haircut is transformed from the Unabomber to the cover of a Harlequin Romance paperback.

Nia Vardalos, who was so engaging, charming and funny in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is all that here, and 40 pounds slimmer too. She looks spectacular, but all the charm in the world can’t save this script. It’s full of ethnic stereotypes (shifty Greek merchants, boozy Australians, obnoxious Americans etc.) and rote romantic comedy plot points, making it too full for a whole lot of humor. Vardalos probably should have checked director Petrie’s resume – which includes Grumpy Old Men, My Favorite Martian and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – before signing up for this; Petrie seems to be a competent enough director, but his movies rarely rise far above mediocrity.

The scenery is gorgeous, although you will see much the same kind of thing in the average travel video. Greece has a particular charm that casts a spell on all who have ever been there; the movie at least captures the concept of it but not the charm itself. Dreyfus gamely gives Irv the best moments in the movie, and while he really doesn’t have a whole lot to work with (like the predictable Viagra jokes – hoo haw!) he at least is a seasoned pro, enough to make a nylon purse out of a sow’s ear.

I really do like Nia Vardalos as a performer, as does Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who bankrolled this (as they did My Big Fat Greek Wedding). She can make you fall right in love with her and her Hellenic tendencies when given the right material. Unfortunately, this ain’t it. I can truthfully say it’s far better than the truly awful I Hate Valentine’s Day which was so bad I chose not to review it, but that’s not saying much at all. I can give it a mild recommendation but that’s all; there are far better tours of Greece than the one Vardalos gives here, even after her character gets her mojo back.

WHY RENT THIS: Vardalos is charming and the Greek countryside does weave a certain magic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is very paint-by-numbers and the humor is hit or miss.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of sexuality and language but for the most part is okay for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian Gomez, who plays the creepy hotel clerk, is Nia Vardalos’ real-life husband.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The featurette “Everybody Loves Poupi” re-edits some of Georgoulis’ scenes to give him romantic interest in, well, everybody.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer