REVIEW: Joshy

9 08 2016

JoshyAs predicted by myself and many people smarter than me, the so-called mumblecore movement shot to cultural prominence in the wake of 2013’s “Drinking Buddies.” These low-budget, short production films began attracting some bright talent from television and cinema. With their unscripted, improvisation style and lived-in qualities, it’s no wonder that comedians and dramatists alike rushed to appear in their own.

With a large cast featuring small screen scene stealers like Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, sketch performers like Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman, indie dream girls like Jenny Slate and Alison Brie, and even filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg themselves in front of the camera, Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” feels a bit like “Mumblecore: The Movie.” (Or at least what our culture has decided it will be today.) The simple pleasures of watching this group interact for an hour and a half cannot be understated.

Yet recent films of a similar ilk such as “Digging for Fire” felt like a hangout for hangout’s sake, with thematics tacked on and a narrative throughline threaded in as an afterthought. The conversations and group dynamics of “Joshy,” however, are baked into the films reason for existing itself. After the eponymous character suffers a tragedy that lays to waste his marital plans, his motley crew of buddies use the house reserved for his bachelor weekend as the venue and occasion for a cheer-up mission.

It quickly becomes obvious that while his trio of bros attempt to play the role of fun-loving therapists, they too are all undergoing hardcore emotional stressors of their own. Each attempts some level of macho posturing – whether in relation to booze, drugs or strippers – to mask the pain. Their buddy makes it all too easy to feel superior; the pet name Joshy suggests both femininity and childishness.

If the film feels at times meandering, it’s because Baena both admirably gives the main men space to work out their issues while also providing ample space to critique them. By being at the center of the film, Joshy and pals are inevitable magnets of symapthy and understanding. But Baena never lets the men of “Joshy” off the hook for what could come across as tunnel vision or indefensible behavior. A more “grown-up” family, played by Joe and Kris Swanberg, drops in on their retreat and delivers a pretty firm scolding. Similarly, a group of call girls makes reference to the gang as resembling creepy serial killer types. It’s a pretty satisfying way to balance the competing impulses of developing the characters and indulging the actors. B2halfstars

Advertisements




REVIEW: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

6 07 2016

Did we need a new “Wedding Crashers?” Serious question because I wouldn’t know if we do; my family stops it every time it plays on TBS and laughs all the way through to the finale. Over a decade later, it still has them cackling. (I have always been a little less sold, even from the beginning.)

Regardless of whether we need a new version of the film, we just got a Millennial-fied one in “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.” Jake Szymanski’s raucous nuptial comedy replaces the successful thirty-something professionals with fresher, younger comedic blood in Zac Efron and Adam DeVine’s lovable yopro slacker brothers. Tied together by biology but living together supposedly still by choice, these hapless fools get a wake-up call from their family when told to curb their antics for the upcoming wedding of their sister.

Mike and Dave were the party crashers of family gatherings past but now must clean up their act with a classy broad on their arm to keep them in check. Rather than just showing up magically in the right place like John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey, they seek their magical connection in the classiest of fashions – the Internet. Mike and Dave’s destination date plea ends up in the lap of Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza). Semi-talented actresses, they respectively pass themselves off as a hedge fund manager by talking about Fannie Mae and Bernie Mac as well as a teacher from what feels like a schoolboys’ fantasy.

The film then takes off to Hawaii, where a dual “Step Brothers”-style dynamic takes place between each gendered camp. They all have hilarious internal bickering before attempting to put on a game face for all the guests. Then a further division of tracks appears in Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s script, one that oddly mirrors “Wedding Crashers” once again. Dave and Alice play into a sincere, honest romantic plotline, while Mike and Tatiana end up playing ribald, raunchy broad comedy surrounding her decision to withhold sexual contact.

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” unfolds quite pleasantly and hilariously because it breaks off its four talented leads in such a way and allows each to play to their strengths. Efron and Kendrick are the actors of the bunch, just as Devine and Plaza are the comedians. But the film might have benefitted from just going for broke and keeping the all-out humor throughout. “Neighbors 2” demonstrated Efron has the comedic chops to rival a giant like Seth Rogen, and practically every Anna Kendrick film role or press interview shows off her immense wit and charm. Their balls to the wall material, assuming it exists, could easily have functioned in the finished film – not just as deleted scenes on a Blu-Ray extra. B / 2halfstars





REVIEW: Dirty Grandpa

2 02 2016

Dirty GrandpaDirty Grandpa” plays out like a loosely-strung series of sketches for two characters. Picture a “Best of” special for someone like The Culps on “Saturday Night Live,” just not really all that great and tied together by something that loosely resembles a plot.

The film follows the escapades of the titular ribald senior, Robert DeNiro’s newly widowed Dick Kelly, as he ventures down to his retirement home in Florida. To do this, he enlists a slightly estranged grandson, Zac Efron’s neatly coiffed corporate lawyer Jason. Their dynamic stays essentially the same throughout. Dick curses and offends; Jason reacts somewhere on a register of annoyance to shock.

Our preexisting notions of each actor are key to the response their characters generate, too. Efron, now well-minted as a Hollywood matinee idol, swaggers about as if he walked out of a Vineyard Vines catalogue. Many a joke is made at the expense of his rigid adherence to country club attire, often times calling his masculinity into question. But unlike “Neighbors,” which used Efron’s looks as a springboard into questions of male homoeroticism, “Dirty Grandpa” mostly just piles on the homophobia.

As for how Robert DeNiro’s past iconography factors into the film … well, every ridiculous laugh he gets comes with a simultaneous pang of sadness knowing that this is the man who gave us generation-defining performances in films like “Raging Bull.” At least he commits to the role in all its ridiculousness, never phoning it in or hinting that he is somehow above the material. (Even though he is.) “Dirty Grandpa” would make for truly miserable viewing if DeNiro did not seem to enjoy it on some strange level.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Life After Beth

13 12 2014

Life After BethAs the executives at Lifetime have now discovered with their ingenious “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” Aubrey Plaza is today’s most lovable curmudgeon.  Her dourly misanthropic attitude paradoxically lights up any scene in which she appears.  “Life After Beth” is to Plaza what “Maleficent” was to Angelina Jolie – an ode to a certain defining essence.

Plaza’s Beth starts off the film dead, then all of a sudden is inexplicably walking around among the living.  This comes much to the confused delight of her devastated former boyfriend Zach, played by Dane DeHaan.  Tasked with playing the straight man in a “Ruby Sparks” style romance, where the girl is undead instead of imaginary, DeHaan opts for strung-out angst to contrast Plaza’s snarky charm.

Their strange reunion starts off under the guise of a comedy, which makes a great deal of sense given that Plaza’s pop cultural presence has been mostly relegated to “Parks and Recreation.” (That’s mainly because no one saw the undeservedly underseen “Safety Not Guaranteed” and no one knew who she was when she appeared in 2009’s “Funny People.”)  But all of a sudden, and without any real reason, “Life After Beth” shifts gears to become an action film.  Nothing ever hints at the fact that it will eventually morph into “World War Z.”

DeHaan, in an interview with Seth Meyers, referred to the film as a “zom-com-rom-dram.”  Kudos to writer/director Jeff Baena for attempting so much, but this novel mixture proves far too many genres than “Life After Beth” can handle in its slim 90-minute runtime.  Plaza definitely does a better impersonation of the possessed demon child from “The Exorcist” than Jonah Hill in “This is The End,” which is about the extent of the compliments that can be paid to the film’s bizarre back half.

Perhaps its action-packed conclusion would feel more earned if Beth had more time to develop as a character.  But it looks like “Life After Beth” is really just going to be good for a few entertaining GIFs on a BuzzFeed list about grouchy people.  C2stars





REVIEW: Damsels in Distress

26 12 2012

I think my quibble with “Damsels in Distress” is with the very style of film it tries to be.  For all I know, it may be a good comedy of manners.  But I never read any Oscar Wilde or Moliere in school, so I have no context in which to place this film.  Sorry, folks.

What I can tell you is that I found myself irked quite often by Whit Stillman’s film, which seemed to be a meandering mess made bearable only by the occasionally witty and insightful quip.  The words have a pop that I feel like would be better appreciated on a page.  On screen, they just don’t have much impact.

I also think that has something to do with the fact that the energy of the actresses in the film feels like that which you’d find at a first table read.  It never felt like anybody was saying, emoting, or feeling their lines.  They were merely reciting them.  Although in the case of Greta Gerwig, it sort of worked since she has that sort of non-emotive, frumpy hipster aura about her.  But for everyone else – no.

Honestly, I think my favorite part of this movie might have been the brief Aubrey Plaza cameo.  As one of the patients at the “suicide prevention” clinic run by the four main girls of the film, she got more laughs out of me than the rest of the film did combined.  If “Damsels in Distress” tried to say anything else or get me to care about any of the other characters, it didn’t work.  C2stars





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- 





REVIEW: Safety Not Guaranteed

19 06 2012

Maybe my response is partly Pavlovian due to four seasons of conditioning from “Parks and Recreation,” but I thought just about everything Aubrey Plaza said or did was hilarious in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a quirky indie comedy featuring the comedic dynamo.  At best, her muted enthusiasm elicits gut-wrenching laughs; at worst, a good and wholehearted chuckle that leaves no after-taste of guilt.  So forget Tom Cruise’s half-baked rocker impersonation and Adam Sandler’s self-parodic baby voice; this is the summer comedy you deserve to see.  And then maybe see twice.

Plaza plays Darius, a magazine intern in Seattle working for an aspiring Miranda Priestly (a lovely cameo by Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe from “24”).  Suffering from a bad case of cubicle tedium, she escapes by going out on assignment with Jeff, a lazy Lothario played with appropriately little decency or discretion by Jake Johnson, and a fellow intern Arnau, an Indian intern whose life motto must be “work hard, computer game harder.”  Together, the three investigate a very odd classified ad seeking a time traveling companion.

Don’t expect “Back to the Future” from “Safety Not Guaranteed,” though; this comedy follows all the antics leading up to a trip to the future with Mark Duplass’ Kenneth, the enigmatic man who placed the ad.  Darius must track him down, entice him, and then woo him into allowing her to see the details that would make an interesting piece.  The lines between the story and real feelings quickly blur, but the film has plenty of tricks up its sleeves along with an abundance of fantastic lines and nuanced comedic performances to guarantee satisfaction.  B+