REVIEW: The House

3 07 2017

A government official yanks away a college scholarship promised to a local girl, deeming it “an indulgence we can no longer afford,” in the same breath as he rewards wealthy townspeople with luxurious new facilities. Is this a scene in Andrew J. Cohen’s comedy “The House,” or just another day on Capitol Hill? Show audiences in 50 years, and they will likely be unable to discern any difference.

As a series of gags loosely tied together by a hair-brained concept – Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s would-be empty nesters opening an underground casino to pay their daughter’s college tuition, the film leaves a lot to be desired. Like most studio comedies, “The House” throws together big comedic stars, a winning logline and a few stabs at thematically and socially relevant humor. The latter works when satirizing police surveillance in the smartphone era and stumbles when attempting a few jokes about date rape.

Ferrell and Poehler tend to take movie roles written for them, or at least well-tailored to their strengths. Nothing about “The House” indicates the screenwriters penned the film with them in mind. Ferrell’s outsized physicality and Poehler’s acerbic verbal wit go sorely underutilized.

Yet, on the other hand, they’re great avatars for the kind of well-off urban angst “The House” so deftly sends up. These are people who, for the most part, have achieved prosperity but still feel let down. “We tried to play by the rules,” laments Poehler’s Kate Johansen, “and it got us nowhere.” This disappointment and dissatisfaction leads them towards criminal enterprise, fight clubs for soccer moms and insurance fraud. It’s worth considering why this premise does not collapse immediately.

Oh, and “The House” takes place in this imaginary, fairy tale world where public officials face consequences for stealing money from the public! Must be nice. B-





REVIEW: Sisters

16 12 2015

The pure bliss of simply seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler reunited on screen for something other than an awards ceremony makes “Sisters” worth the price of admission. These two comediennes feed off each other in a way that no other pair can match, and there is never a dull moment since their live wire energy can always produce sparks.

Whether the material they work with is as good as they are, however, is another matter. “Sisters” piles on the raunch and the craziness, which is slightly out of their usual wheelhouse of safe for network TV antics. Paula Pell’s script is a hard R, and those laughs come somewhat at the expense of genuine characters.

The duo’s last big screen outing, 2008’s “Baby Mama,” found that sweet spot of believable exaggeration for both women, stretching responsibility and irresponsibility to rational extremes. “Sisters” casts Poehler as the good egg of the siblings, the youngest child who strove to overachieve out of genuine compassion for others, and it’s almost like getting to watch her play Leslie Knope again.

Fey, on the other hand, throws everyone for a loop by playing the callous, selfish older sister. It proves surprising, even jarring, to watch scenes where she is not the smartest person in the room. Heck, sometimes it even seems like it throws her for a loop. Tossing out insults and profanities – rather than receiving such barbs from the “30 Rock” cast – is something she gradually grows into over the course of “Sisters.”

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REVIEW: Inside Out

20 06 2015

Pixar has long reigned as the champion of both intelligent, creative storytelling and emotionally potent filmmaking.  Something about their computer-rendered world always seems to strike a chord with the one we have experienced, mostly because the purest of hearts beat within the lines of their ingeniously designed characters.

Inside Out” may well be the most vivid realization of the animation powerhouse’s strengths.  Writer/director Pete Docter’s film marks their most innovative vision since 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” and their most heartstring tugging piece since 2009’s “Up.”  Every second of the film captures the complexity of the human experience, inspiring laughter, smiles, and tears.  Often times, I responded with all three reactions simultaneously.

In what may inspire the next generation of psychologists, Docter (along with fellow Pixar brain trust members Ronaldo Del Carmen and Josh Cooley – as well as Meg LaFauve) takes on the ambitious task of visualizing the mind.  And not like the opening credit sequence to “Fight Club” or anything, either.  They map out the logic, rationale, and functionality of just about every cognitive process in the brain, both conscious and subconscious.

Remarkably, the thought of “Inside Out” as some kind of cinematic adaptation of a neuroscience textbook never occurs for a second.  As it enlightens us, the film also entertains.  The premise starts off extremely straightforward: five personified emotions vie for control in the mind of a young girl, 11-year-old Riley.  These distinct characters take on additional vitality and vibrance through expert voice casting that draws on the established strengths of the performers.

Amy Poehler channels Leslie Knope into Joy.  Lewis Black brings his trademark tirades (minus the profanity) to Anger.  Bill Hader lends his motormouth to the ever-adapting whims of Fear.  Mindy Kaling adapts her defensive, often put out television alter ego into Disgust.  And Phyllis Smith selects the sad sack elements from her good-natured but sometimes mopey Phyllis from “The Office” and transfers them into Sadness.

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REVIEW: Are You Here

21 08 2014

Are You HereBack in February, I got to see Matthew Weiner’s directorial debut at a special screening in Winston-Salem, NC, where the film was shot.  This event came about halfway between when the film known as “You Are Here” premiered to unanimous pans at TIFF and its eventual quiet theatrical/VOD rollout as “Are You Here.”

The film might have been recut some since that screening.  The level of retooling needed to save what I saw, however, requires change on a far greater scale than inverting the first two words of its title.  The film was a sloppy combination of slacker comedy, family melodrama, and improbable romance, a problem that is likely rooted in Weiner’s script.

It’s fruitless to size “Are You Here” up against an episode of”Mad Men” (the series Weiner created to the tune of all the Emmys) since the two aren’t even in the same league.  It might even be generous to say that the film is comprised of discarded ideas he had in the “Mad Men” writers’ room.  Better for his show’s legacy that he managed to put all the clichés on the silver screen instead of the small screen, I suppose.

Amy Poehler does redeem the film from being a complete trainwreck with a layered performance that gives her more dramatic depth than ever.  Her character, Terri, has lived by the rules and expects to reap the lion’s share of her father’s inheritance over her aimless brother Ben (Zach Galifianakis).  And whenever she gets screwed over by the will, it forces her to reexamine her values and priorities.

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REVIEW: They Came Together

5 07 2014

They Came TogetherGenres naturally go through cycles, and right now, the romantic comedy is in a bit of a slump.  When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, it was riding high with smash hits like “The Proposal” and “The Ugly Truth.”  If you look at the market now, there hasn’t really been a rom-com hit since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” largely because those kinds of movies just aren’t being made.

Why exactly they have gone out of fashion so dramatically is anyone’s guess.  It’s likely a combination of many factors, but two films point out some of the reasons why no one is rushing to finance “28 Dresses.”  Back in 2009, “(500) Days of Summer” took a revisionist angle on the genre, pointing out many romantic comedy conventions that needed to be reworked in order to be more in touch with the audience.

And now, in 2014, “They Came Together” marks the point where the genre’s hallmarks are so recognizable that they can be mercilessly sent up in an unrelenting satire.  David Wain, the great mind behind “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models,” dismantles the romantic comedy with confidence and pinpoint accuracy.

His script lays bare all the subtext that most of us blindly accept when we encounter a standard genre pic, pointing out everything from the stereotypes of the characters (clumsy girl, non-threateningly masculine guy) to the role of New York City (like another character).  “They Came Together” is at its best when Wain performs his point-by-point deconstruction of all the clichés that normally trap the genre, due largely in part to how wonderfully Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler can cut up while sending up the trademarks.

“They Came Together” winds up coming slightly undone, however, by the sophomoric silliness that fills the moments that aren’t so brutally self-aware.  Wain is usually quite clever with his comedy (the notable exception being “Wanderlust“), and here, he drops to the level of Seth MacFarlane in “Family Guy” or “Ted.”  It’s funny on occasion but wildly inconsistent overall with one joke bombing and the next hitting the sweet spot.  Thankfully, it never quite stoops to the level of the movies it lambasts, but Wain might have had one of the most spectacular spoofs of all time on his hands had he just stuck to the more high-minded humor.  B-2stars





Live Blogging the 2012 Golden Globes!

13 01 2013

10:00 P.M.  For those of you keeping track at home, “Les Misérables” ruled the Golden Globes tonight with 3 wins!  “Django Unchained” and “Argo” also won two trophies.  “Amour,” “Brave,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Skyfall,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” each won a single award.

10:00 P.M.  HFPA awkwardly and unintentionally flips the bird to AMPAS tonight…

9:58 P.M.  BEST PICTURE – DRAMA: “ARGO

ARGO

9:52 P.M.  Unexpectedly humorous speech from Day-Lewis.  Although I laughed much harder at how most of the back of the room gave him a standing ovation … and NO ONE up front did.  Awkward…

9:50 P.M. BEST ACTOR – DRAMA: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, “LINCOLN

Lincoln

9:50 P.M.  What a beautiful speech, Chastain looked truly humbled and honored.  To the Oscars we go, hopefully!  (Hey HFPA, didn’t appreciate your shot of the audience where we could see you all flashing “WRAP UP.”)

9:48 P.M. BEST ACTRESS – DRAMA: JESSICA CHASTAIN, “ZERO DARK THIRTY

Zero Dark Thirty

9:41 P.M.  Adorable Anne Hathaway stealing the microphone quickly to do a few more thanks and then tightly hugging Amanda Seyfried.

9:40 P.M. BEST PICTURE – MUSICAL/COMEDY: LES MISERABLES

Les Miserables (2)

9:39 P.M.  Jeremy Renner bleeped…

9:34 P.M.  What a charming acceptance speech, and so much love for his wife!  Maybe he can beat Daniel Day-Lewis?!

9:32 P.M.  BEST ACTOR – MUSICAL/COMEDY: HUGH JACKMAN, “LES MISERABLES

Les Miserables

9:22 P.M.  They talked about actors, and then the category was Best TV Series – Musical/Comedy?  At least it was “Girls!”

9:18 P.M.  Take that, Academy!  Standing ovation for snubbed Ben Affleck!

9:18 P.M. BEST DIRECTOR: BEN AFFLECK, “ARGO

Argo

9:11 P.M.  What on earth did Jodie Foster just say?  Seriously, my TV audio went out in what I assume was a bleep.

9:04 P.M.  OK, people, time for you to go watch “The Beaver.”  It has Mel Gibson, sure, but it also has Jennifer Lawrence!

The Beaver

8:59 P.M.  “Taylor Swift, stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son!” – Tina Fey, who needs to be on this telecast far more

8:53 P.M.  Lena Dunham may have won the Golden Globe, but Tina Fey got to wait with J.Lo and Amy Poehler got awfully close to George Clooney.  It’s debatable who the overall winner really was tonight.

8:51 P.M.  Hooray for Lena – NOT Lisa, Aziz – Dunham!  Go watch “Tiny Furniture!”

8:50 P.M.  Aziz Ansari being carried by Jason Bateman … fantastic.

8:47 P.M.  BEST ANIMATED FILM: “BRAVE

Brave

8:46 P.M.  What on earth did that introduction have to do with Best Animated Film?

8:45 P.M.  Goodness gracious, Sacha Baron Cohen is drunk…

8:39 P.M.  4 Golden Globes for Claire Danes in her career.  She’s halfway to Meryl Streep!

8:35 P.M.  BEST FOREIGN FILM: “AMOUR

Amour

8:27 P.M.  “Best Picture nominee ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘” just sounds so wrong.

8:25 P.M.  Really, Golden Globes?  Tarantino for screenplay?  Not OK with that. “Inglourious Basterds” blows “Django Unchained” out of the water.  And the speech was a total MESS.  Someone was overserved…

8:23 P.M. BEST SCREENPLAY: QUENTIN TARANTINO, “DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django

8:18 P.M.  Give us more time with Anne Hathaway’s acceptance speech – we love her!

8:15 P.M. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: ANNE HATHAWAY, “LES MISERABLES

Anne Hathaway

8:07 P.M.  Yes, JLaw, to answer the question you were so desperately trying to ask during that speech, OF COURSE we can be best friends!

8:07 P.M.  “Does this say ‘I beat Meryl?'” – Jennifer Lawrence

8:06 P.M.  BEST ACTRESS – MUSICAL/COMEDY: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Jennifer Lawrence

8:04 P.M.  The sad thing is, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are saying what a lot of Americans are to their television sets right now.  Wondering what this “Silver Linings Playbook” thing is and cursing them for not nominating “The Avengers.”

8:02 P.M.  Nice abs, Kristen Wiig.

7:59 P.M.  Clinton introducing “Lincoln.”  Oscar for Best Picture is now in the bag, in case it wasn’t already.

7:58 P.M.  Really, Bill Clinton?!  What?!

7:55 P.M.  Tina Fey and Amy Poehler going and impersonating the absent celebrities is PRICELESS.

7:49 P.M.  Looks like we need more Grammy-winners to come freshen up film awards.

7:48 P.M. BEST ORIGINAL SONG: SKYFALL, “SKYFALL

Skyfall

7:45 P.M. BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: MYCHAEL DANNA, “LIFE OF PI

Life of Pi

7:42 P.M.  Woah, real Tony Mendez!

Argo

7:36 P.M.  Awkward teleprompter flub with Salma Hayek and Paul Rudd … hooray for “Homeland!”  Don’t understand why they present Best TV Series – Drama before Best Actress in a TV Drama?!

7:33 P.M.  Wow, now “Homeland” is set to dominate the Golden Globes too after Emmys domination.  Weird not to hear Damian Lewis speak in his gruff American accent!

7:32 P.M.  Didn’t get to see much from the red carpet, but from what I can tell … Jessica Chastain wins.  Just as she did at the Oscars last year.  Ehh, didn’t really get to look closely enough.  She’s gorgeous, sure, but the dress wasn’t that great.

Jessica Chastain

7:30 P.M.  “Call Me Maybe” needs to be left in 2012, HFPA lady.

7:23 P.M.  Don’t sing again, Catherine Zeta-Jones, unless it’s “Chicago.”  Thanks.  That line of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” was awful.

7:21 P.M.  If “Game Change” had been released in theaters, Julianne Moore would be in contention for Best Actress.  Think about it…

7:18 P.M. Hooray for “Game Change!”   One of the better movies I saw this year in any format!

7:12 P.M.  C’mon, Professor McGonagall.  It’s one thing not to do press for yourself – but not showing up to receive the inevitable award?!

7:10 P.M.  Please, Academy, you’ve already awarded Christoph Waltz for literally the same performance.  And oh, here goes Waltz again with the poetic metaphors in his speeches.

7:10 P.M. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: CHRISTOPH WALTZ, “DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django

7:08 P.M.  “This 70th anniversary celebration.”  OK.  Glad Tina and Amy mentioned that!

7:03 P.M.  “When it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent 3 years married to James Cameron.” – Amy Poehler, much to the amusement of Jessica Chastain (who was DYING laughing)

7:02 P.M.  Already loving the Tina and amy combo.  Same humor, just with less bite!

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REVIEW: Sound of My Voice

3 10 2012

It’s curious that of the three films Fox Searchlight acquired at 2011’s Sundance Film Festival, two happened to star Brit Marling and two happened to be about the religious occult … and of those three, “Sound of My Voice” saw domestic release last.  It feels like a rather unfortunate afterthought after “Martha Marcy May Marlene” tantalized with its brilliant ambiguity and “Another Earth” provided a much more showy showcase for Marling.

“It’s a lonely road if a momma don’t think their child is pretty,” remarked Abileen in “The Help,” and “Sound of My Voice” sure feels like a forgotten stepchild for Fox Searchlight.  It’s evident right away from what’s on the screen.  As the leader of a strange religious movement, Brit Marling seems to be walking eggshells as she treads familiar ground as Maggie, the bizarre and disturbed leader of the cult.  She claims to be from the future – 2054, to be exact – and is allergic to everything in the current time.

Opportunistic documentary filmmakers Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) get word of Maggie’s magnetism and plan an infiltration … and a subsequent movie.  But – SHOCKER – they start to lose track of their objectivity as they grow closer to Maggie and get deeper inside the world of the cult, leading to a rift between the filmmaking (and romantic) couple.

Debut director Zal Batmanglij, who also co-wrote the film with star Brit Marling, does a half-decent job of keeping taut suspense throughout the film.  That’s largely due to the structure of their script; the content, however, is what makes the film second fiddle to “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”  The peculiarities of Maggie and the basement cult, ranging from a bizarre handshake to growing her own fruit, add nothing to the story.  Rather than drawing you in, they pull you out of the film, forcing you to wonder who the heck even thought of that.  The film leaves us to solve a puzzle without all the pieces, but it also leaves you so apathetic that it’s a puzzle you are all too happy not to extend the mental effort to solve.

That essentially concludes my “review” of the film, but before I end, I do have one more thing to say.  While I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but giggle at the uninentional comedy of the film.  That’s nothing new for me as I often use humor as a tool to break a monotonous viewing experience, yet this was different.  The more I giggled, the more I realized that “Sound of My Voice” has some serious potential as the first major comedy to explore occult religion.

Thus, I propose a remake of “Sound of My Voice,” only this time as a comedy.  It’s the kind of movie we SHOULD be remaking: one that is perfectible, not already perfect.  So to Fox Searchlight (or whoever is looking at providing finance for the film), I will even do you the favor of casting the remake.  You’re welcome.

Amy Poehler as Maggie:

Charlie Day as Peter:

Aubrey Plaza as Lorna:

Christopher Walken as Klaus, Maggie’s old and creepy keeper:

Thank me later.  B-