F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2015)

20 08 2015

Lily Tomlin won the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, yet she somehow still feels underappreciated. Or maybe that’s just because she kept a low profile after the peak of her stardom in the 1970s and was known mostly to members of my generation as the voice of Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus.” But thanks to perfectly tailored roles in Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and the new film “Grandma,” Tomlin definitely seems poised for a major moment once again.

But Tomlin’s career is not necessarily being “rescued.”  In fact, some of her best work has come from the slow and steady decades between her peaks of public interest.  Case in point: “I Heart Huckabees,” the film that landed David O. Russell in director jail after he went for Tomlin’s jugular on set.  In spite of that tension, the movie still turned out alright – even if I did not immediately recognize it on first viewing five years ago.

Russell has gained a reputation for stylish, quirky films with his so-called “reinvention” trilogy that began with 2010’s “The Fighter.”  But that idiosyncratic spirit certainly existed before then, and “I Heart Huckabees” might mark its most vibrant display.  Working with co-writer Jeff Baena, Russell crafts a so-called “existential comedy” that mines philosophy and ontology for laughs that might make Woody Allen green with envy.  As such, it merits my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Beneath all the hilarious intellectual banter lies a very simple story about a man, Jason Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an environmental activist who just wants to know what it’s all about.  “It,” of course, is the very meaning of life itself.  After a series of odd coincidences, he turns to a pair of existential detectives, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s husband and wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe.  This duo claims that they can – with enough field research – determine how everything in Albert’s life connects.  They set out to find his place in the grand plan of the universe, optimistically sure that such a thing exists.

But after a while, Albert falls prey to the Jaffe’s nemesis and ideological counterpart, Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban. She offers similar services but with the nihilistic assertion that nothing relates to anything.  The longer Bernard and Vivian take to complete their assessment of Albert’s life, the more appealing Caterine’s services look.

Albert’s quest for self-knowledge gets complicated by others who seek out the detectives’ services, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn, a firefighter who can chew anyone’s ear off with his views on the harmfulness of petroleum.  Russell has utilized Wahlberg in three films now, and this is certainly his most ingenious performance among the trio.  While the actor is notorious for his authentic off-screen anger and street cred, Russell funnels those traits into a hilariously exaggerated character professing a hyper-verbal righteous indignation.  For Wahlberg, often more likely to rely on the swagger of his body than the power of his words, the performance feels revelatory (and perhaps indicative of even more untapped potential).

The quirky crew does not end there, with Jude Law also in the mix as Brad Stand, a corporate executive at the company Huckabees determined to take Albert down by figuring out the meaning of his own life.  Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, Brad’s girlfriend and the star of Huckabees’ ad campaign, gets thrown in for good measure too.  Both are slightly minor players but still players nonetheless.

Russell throws some really dense, cerebral concepts out there in “I Heart Huckabees” – and at the lightning-fast speed of his dialogue, no less.  But so long as you can keep up, the film proves a rewarding, stimulating experience with something to say about the equilibrium between pragmatism and pessimism that we need to get through the day.

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REVIEW: The Cobbler

20 07 2015

The CobblerTom McCarthy may soon bear an ignominious distinction in the history of my sight, going from making my #1 film in 2011, “Win Win,” to likely one of the worst in 2015 with “The Cobbler.”  This adult fairytale, co-written with Paul Sado, makes “Click” feel like it possesses the profundity of an Aesop’s Fable.  It’s all of the magic with none of the heart.

Adam Sandler stars as Max Simkin, a pickle-munching mensch on the Lower East Side, who reluctantly becomes the “guardian of souls.”  It’s a title not only better deployed within the context of a Marvel movie but also a pretty terrible pun since Max is a cobbler who works with soles.  In a strange turn of events, Max discovers that he can literally walk around as his clients if he walks arounds in their shoes … because magic.

Shockingly, Sandler’s character takes a whopping half-hour to discover the potential of the shoes for sex.  “The Cobbler” bops around from episode to episode, most stupid but a few touching, all the while squandering a great opportunity for an obvious message. The premise of the story effortlessly lends itself to discussing cultural differences and the understanding we can gain by learning through experience.

But sadly, this isn’t a Tom McCarthy movie, not really.  It’s an Adam Sandler movie.  In his movies, social commentary would never get in the way of entertaining genre fare.  Shame on us for assuming anything might be different here.  C2stars





REVIEW: Chef

13 07 2014

Summer 2014 might host the documentary “Life Itself” that exalts critics, yet it also boasts Jon Favreau’s “Chef” that tears them down.  In the film, director Jon Favreau steps in front of the camera as Carl Casper, a chef whose meteoric rise in the culinary world has coasted to a plateau preparing dishes for the elite by the time we meet up with him.  Critics help build his reputation, but they are also apparently responsible for tearing it down.

Forced by his boss to prepare a rather formulaic meal when an influential foodie blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) stops by and subsequently receives a write-up indicating disappointment.  In his eyes, however, Casper might as well have received a review similar to that one of Guy Fieri’s restaurant penned by Pete Wells of The New York Times.  The now-notorious lambasting featured the critic mercilessly hurling rhetorical questions at the chef to the point where it seems like a personal vendetta.

Favreau bakes his opinions on the critical establishment following the roasting of his 2011 film “Cowboys & Aliens” into “Chef,” indicating an almost personal affront to the negative notices.  His attitude towards reviewers resembles that of a petulant child refusing to believe he can do anything wrong.  And despite a slapped-on ending to redeem the critics, Favreau never seems to acknowledge that he might just share a common goal with them – that of promoting and advancing a craft.

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REVIEW: Little Fockers

14 08 2011

I don’t have much to say in regards to “Little Fockers.”  It’s a tacked-on sequel that has all the same characters as its two predecessors but little of its humor.  The movie will inevitably be dwarfed in comparison to the two titans of the series, but you get a few more laughs out of the Byrne-Focker “circle of trust” and some people at Universal made a lot of money.  It’s a bittersweet win-win, right?

In case you hadn’t noticed that Robert DeNiro has fallen far and sold out since his legendary pairing with director Martin Scorsese, “Little Fockers” gives the two-time Oscar winner the chance do a tongue in cheek mockery of himself.  35 years ago, he was the younger version of the Godfather.  Now, he’s searching for – the worst pun of the series – the Godfocker!  At least DeNiro can let it roll off his back and joke about it as the series that once could have anyone rollicking in laughter – even on TBS reruns – resorts to straight-to-DVD territory.

Unlike “Meet the Parents” (and “Meet the Fockers” to a lesser extent), which tackled relevant and relatable social topics in a funny but truthful way, “Little Fockers” goes for potty humor and adolescent immaturity to hide the changing landscape of the series.  With a new director, a new writer, and a total lack of effort, these aren’t the same Fockers.  But as Hollywood has yet to learn, you can’t hide a lack of enthusiasm from all corners on a movie set.  Even when you throw in a beauty like Jessica Alba or enhance the role of funnyman Owen Wilson, people notice when they aren’t laughing in a comedy movie.

So if you’re willing to dumb yourself down a little or happen to be in the mood for guilty, stupid laughs, “Little Fockers” may lightly graze your funnybone.  But the heyday of this series is long in the past, as are the glory days of Robert DeNiro.  Wait, I think I see his self-respect in the rearview mirror as well!  C+ / 





REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda 2

5 06 2011

Is it so wrong that I love “Kung Fu Panda 2” in spite of all of its unoriginality and lack of creativity?  Is it so terrible that I’m totally won over by an overweight panda who can do kung fu as well as he can eat?  Is it so strange that a village of adorable pigs and bunnies makes me feel like I’m five years old again?

While the sequel is hardly as entertaining and funny as the original “Kung Fu Panda,” Po and the rest of the Furious Five are still a joy to watch.  The movie still possesses that charm that made me watch the first installment countless times on HBO while eating dinner, and it proves once again to be infectious as it melts down whatever barriers are hardening your heart.  It’s also a movie that’s easy on the eyes with appealing action and fun graphics, evincing the slow closing of the gap between Pixar and everyone else with a computer.

This “Kung Fu Panda” is all about daddy issues as the movie’s two storylines both deal with characters coming to grips with decisions made by their parents.  The evil peacock Shen (voiced by the always creepy Gary Oldman) orders a genocide of pandas to prevent the fulfilling of a prophecy that one would defeat him, thus leaving his parents with no choice but to exile him.  When Shen returns to power, the Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) starts to question where he really came from.  His goose father, Mr. Ping, has few answers, so Po is largely on his own.  However, his kung fu companions, known as the Furious Five (and featuring the voices of Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and David Cross) have big issues that they have to deal with, namely Shen’s reappearance which threatens to dismantle the art of kung fu.  But as their journey progresses, Po finds that the questions about his parents may relate to Shen’s avarice and malice in shocking ways.

That summary probably makes the plot sound more glorious and intricate than it actually unfolds in the movie.  On the other hand, sometimes glory isn’t found in the story (despite the majority of my reviews saying just the opposite).  Sometimes it’s just the rush of joy that can be found in juvenility that makes something fun.  Sometimes we can have a perfectly gratifying experience just looking at a cute and cuddly panda cub playing in a bucket of radishes.  Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of what it’s like to be a kid watching a movie again.  B+ /