REVIEW: The D Train

18 08 2015

The D Train posterThe D Train,” while technically and functionally a comedy, might be one of the more depressing movies ever made about high school.  Like Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s seething 2011 film “Young Adult,” the film takes place several decades after the diplomas get handed out.  Yet, all things considered, time stays relatively frozen.

For this rather cynical writer/director duo, Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, high school locks people into the parts they must play for the rest of their lives.  At 38, Jack Black’s Dan Landsman has not amassed any more esteem from his peers, who routinely ostracize him from their plans … after an alumni telethon of all things!

Determined to rewrite the script of his life, Dan hatches a half-brained plan to bring back a mildly famous alumni for his class’ twentieth reunion.  Yes, for them, the appearance of James Marsden’s Oliver Lawless (apparently not a stage name) in a Banana Boat commercial constitutes fame.  Dan even goes out to visit him in Los Angeles to formally recruit his appearance…

…and then a funny thing happened on the way to the reunion: the coarsely cool Oliver entices the happily wedded Dan into an evening of sexual intercourse. Everything up to this point felt like a compact cinematic narrative in its own right, fully satisfying and surprising.  Afterwards, though, “The D Train” really falls off the rails.

Jack Black layered queer undertones into his performance in “Bernie,” but he flops when playing it overtly. After his night with Oliver, he becomes single-sighted and uncomfortably unhinged. It becomes actually painful to watch how far his idiocy will extend to gain the favor of his new crush. Some of this awkwardness stems from the script, which treats homosexuality like some kind of pathology that takes over one’s system through exchanging fluids.

Marsden, on the other hand, delights in a role that does not exploit his dashing looks to turn him into a dreamboat. Oliver’s attractiveness, if anything, made him complacent to treat others like dirt.  Such a disposition does not fly in a place like Hollywood, although it still passes amongst high schoolers past and present.  B- / 2stars

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REVIEW: Welcome to Me

8 05 2015

Welcome to MeSeeing as how she got her start on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig is certainly no stranger to satire.  While her work on that topical comedy show often brilliantly pointed out human error and ridicule, most of it pales in comparison to her scathingly incisive new film, “Welcome to Me.”  Eliot Laurence’s script cuts deep to probe some of our society’s deepest insecurities and fears.

He pinpoints that these collective anxieties find assuaging in the self-help gospel preached by daytime talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey.  Take away the free car giveaways, though, and the program really just sold herself as a product.  (Who other than Oprah has ever graced the cover of O Magazine?)  “Welcome to Me” takes this narcissism to its logical extreme, following Wiig’s Alice Klieg as she uses her millions in lottery earnings to mount a show about her, for her.

Her talk show/broadcasted therapy session is not made by her, however.  To get on the air and look impressive, Alice requires the talents of producers at a local television studio.  At Live Alchemy, she finds the perfect blend of dead airspace, crushing company debt, and morally bankrupt executives willing to indulge her every desire.

Led by the slimily obsequious Rich (James Marsden), the station caters to each of Alice’s increasingly bizarre whims, even when they cross the line into literal slander and figurative self-flagellation.  It’s not hard to imagine similar board room meetings taking place at E! debating the Kardashian family.  Alice suffers from a clinically diagnosed personality disorder and manifest her symptoms rather clearly, yet no employee seems willing to protect her from herself so long as the checks keep cashing.  Consider it a less violent first cousin to “Nightcrawler” (or dare I even say, the golden goose that is “Network”).

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REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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REVIEW: Bachelorette

8 09 2012

When “Bachelorette” begins, it’s easy to see the structural similarities to “Bridesmaids” … and then just totally laugh them off due to the two films’ vast tonal differences.  Kristen Wiig’s comedy is like being tipsy on wine: wild, but also controlled and somewhat classy.  Leslye Hedland’s movie, on the other hand, is like what I imagine being high on cocaine would be like: messy, strung out, and utterly chaotic.

The three bridesmaids here have little in common with the Wolfpack of “The Hangover,”  rather, they all bear more than a passing resemblance to Mavis Gary, Charlize Theron’s protagonist of “Young Adult” whose mentality is stalled in high school.  The mean girls of the ’90s are back to wreak havoc on the wedding of poor Becky (Rebel Wilson), a girl that they didn’t really seem to run with then and don’t seem to care any more for her in the present.  I wouldn’t want anyone who called me “Pigface” at my wedding at all, much less as a bridesmaid!

But for a while, I was willing to overlook the plot holes and strap myself along for the drug-fueled shenanigans of harlot Katie (Isla Fisher), sassy Rashida Jones placeholder Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and their seemingly sober-ish ringleader Regan (Kirsten Dunst).  The humor is at first stingingly acidic and bitingly true in a way that recalls Lena Dunham at her most sour.  Caplan is the scene-stealer of the bunch, lighting up every scene even as she drains it of a significant portion of happiness.

Once again for the record, I’ve never been on cocaine, but I’ve been led to believe the high is followed by a big crash.  And like I said, “Bachelorette” is like a few lines of cocaine, so for all the fun it brings, it comes down with a large thud.  All the energy gets sapped out of the film’s second half as it veers away from a significant look at relationships and takes a turn down Formula Lane.  By the end, I had all but tuned out of the three bachelorettes’ stories, which is disappointing.  The characters were relatively interesting, but Hedland fails them with a predictable script that tantalizes with promise at the beginning.  C





REVIEW: Death at a Funeral

3 09 2010

It’s a funny thing, the remake of “Death at a Funeral.” The British original in 2007 turned the title, which implied the melancholy proceedings of a sacred ritual, into something totally unforeseen – a laugh riot.

There are those of us who think two decades is too soon for a remake, but Neil LaBute turns around the hilarious original for a Hollywood treatment in under three years. Essentially, there’s no reason for this remake to exist other than to make the script more digestible to a mainstream audience. Nothing new is brought to the table, no retooling or adding is done. It’s practically a shot-by-shot remake, claiming that swapping accents is enough to warrant the millions of dollars to produce the movie.

It’s a strange experience to watch these often funny stars, including Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan, running around doing a half-hearted version of the original movie.  In fact, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience as we watch them utter virtually the same lines and run through the same motions as the British actors did – but never come close to matching their comedic brilliance.  Surprisingly, the funniest member of the ensemble is James Marsden, who truly embraces the farcical nature of his character and plays it up to hilarity.  However, we only get to see glances of the zonked Marsden, never prolonged scenes.

I find there no reason to watch this movie when a clearly superior alternative exists.  Sure, this version has a few laughs and is hardly unfunny, but why choose chuckles over the howls that you can have watching the original?  If you had the choice between a rotting apple that looked nice and a fresh apple with a little bit of dust on top, which would you eat?  This “Death at a Funeral” looks nice on a poster, but at its core, the movie is pretty rotten.  There’s no reason NOT to go off the beaten path to watch the British version.  C /





REVIEW: The Box

8 04 2010

There was one thing that struck me immediately when I started watching “The Box“: it’s one of the most over-directed movies I have ever seen.  It’s like the little kid who puts shaving cream on his face and thinks he is just like his dad.  With all the ominous music and long, drawn-out shots, Richard Kelly has convinced himself that he has made “The Shining.”  But he is no Stanley Kubrick, and “The Box” is no “The Shining.”  In fact, the movie dabbles its toes in so many different genres that we can never be quite sure exactly what it wants to be.

Is it a mystery?  Well, the insane predictability of the script prevents us from ever really wondering what’s going to happen.  But even if you put that aside, “The Box” is about as subtle as a shotgun in a schoolyard.  All of the symbolism (NASA?  Sartre and “No Exit?”) is so obvious that it sucks any suspense out of the movie.

Is it science-fiction?  Well, the movie works in some sci-fi elements, but they are incorporated as oddly and awkwardly as the aliens in the fourth “Indiana Jones” movie.  I would have been so happy had “The Box” just stuck to analyzing the morality and ethics of pressing a button that gives you a million dollars at the cost of a random person’s life.

Is it horror?  It so desperately wants to be, but the only thing that scared me was the scorched side of Frank Langella’s face, which looks like a half-assed Two-Face.  And even that didn’t really scare me, per se, so much as it gave me a few chills.

Is it a thriller?  Any chance I had at being “thrilled” went out the window after about 10 minutes when I realized that the sluggish pace wasn’t going to let up.  And at all the potential moments of exhilaration, I was too busy ridiculing what I had just seen.

While being none of these things, “The Box” actually manages to be quite a good comedy.  It’s pretty hard not to get a good chuckle out of Cameron Diaz’s horrendous Southern accent, which manages to make Sandra Bullock’s “The Blind Side” dialect seem completely natural.  The movie takes itself way too seriously, and that often leads to some good comedy.  The dialogue is so ridiculous that it becomes quite hilarious, particularly when Diaz delivers it.  But even as a comedy, “The Box” is still a pratfall, just like it is as any other genre.  C- /





What To Look Forward To In … November 2009

7 10 2009

The holiday movie season begins to kick into high gear in the month of November, as does exciting Oscar season.  Accordingly, this post is longer than the previous monthly preview posts.  Brace yourself for movie mania coming your way in a few weeks.  Sit back, relax, and let Marshall guide you through the coming attractions.

November 6

From the mainstream movie perspective, the hot movie of this weekend will be Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”  Shot with the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used to make “The Polar Express,” the movie will cash in on premium ticket prices from 3D and IMAX 3D screenings.  My main concern about the quality of the movie itself lies with its principal actor, Jim Carrey, who will act as Scrooge and all three ghosts.  I doubt Zemeckis will permit it, but I fear that Carrey will make a mockery of Dickens’ classic novel much in the fashion of Mike Meyers with “The Cat in the Hat.”  Regardless of what critics say, I will probably end up seeing this with the family for some good old-fashioned family fun at the movies.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the first movie of the holiday season to which George Clooney lends his talents.  Here, he plays a a military man in charge of a secret unit that attempts to use psychic powers for military purpose.  One such activity is to attempt to kill goats just by staring at them.  The movie also stars Ewan MacGregor as the reporter who discovers it all; the cast also includes Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  The movie is directed and adapted by Grant Heslov, previously nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The trailer seems to show Heslov’s approach as similar to the Coen Brothers who usually provide a fun-filled romp.  Maybe the film will be a bona-fide indie hit, and Overture Films will be able to claim their first movie to gross over $50 million.  But we’ll have to see.

I’ve already written about the Oscar favorite, “Precious,” in a previous Oscar Moment.  I’ll post the trailer here just for the sake of promoting it, but if you want to hear my thoughts, read the post.

Two thrilling movies also open this week.  First, “The Box” with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, seems to have an intriguing premise: if you push the button on the box, you will get a million dollars, but someone you don’t know will die.  However, it looks to be more interested in cheap thrills than exploring moral issues.  The other, “The Fourth Kind,” looks downright scary.  If horror is your thing, this looks like the movie for you.  I saw the trailer at “District 9,” and even if you don’t want to see it, you have to ponder the validity of the “true story” behind the movie.

November 13

Disaster porn reaches its pinnacle this weekend.  “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic film, will have some of the biggest destruction and explosions the world has ever seen.  The trailer was so mind-blowing that I am willing to overlook all vices in the plot to see the world’s greatest landmarks get wiped off the earth.  My only comment is that if John Cusack somehow finds a way to stop the end of the world, I will be enraged.

The other major wide release of the week is “Pirate Radio,” a movie that Focus Features so desperately wants you to see that they changed the title from “The Boat that Rocked” just a few weeks ago to appeal to you. Are you flattered? You shouldn’t be. The movie seems like comedic Oscar Bait, but it didn’t do well Britain, the country of production. Focus scrambled to change their focus from awards movie to popular movie. So whenever this pops into a theater near you, be armed with the knowledge that “Pirate Radio” is merely a washed-up Oscars wannabe. But make the decision to see it for yourself.

New York and Los Angeles get the treat of watching Wes Anderson’s adaptation Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”  I have the utmost respect for Anderson for not conforming to the growing trend to do all animation through computers.  Anderson’s film uses the stop motion technique, moving an object gradually to give the illusion that it is moving.  Even more exciting that Anderson’s eccentric style in an eccentric medium is the voice cast.  Clooney voices the titular character, the cunning Mr. Fox.  The cast also features Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray.  What’s not to like?  (NOTE: The movie expands on November 20 and enters wide release on November 25.)

For those who like very obscure indies, “That Evening Sun” with 87-year-old Oscar bridesmaid Hal Halbrook has his latest shot at the gold.

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