REVIEW: Office Christmas Party

6 12 2016

As sad as it may be, if one movie from 2016 could serve as a (non-polemical) time capsule for what it was like to live in this year, that movie might be “Office Christmas Party.” From top to bottom, the film is chock full of time-specific references to technology: iCal, Uber, 3D printing, frustrating Wi-Fi. Imagine watching this in 30 years with your kids. They are likely going to ask a lot of questions about what certain terms mean.

But beyond the minutiae, very little about “Office Christmas Party” feels specifically tied to the year. Unlike television’s “The Office,” whose episodic structure dictated it ignore the ravages of time, cinema’s unique capability to provide a snapshot of a particular cultural moment has led to some invaluable representations of corporate America. Particularly in the wake of the 2008 recession, movies from “Up in the Air” to “The Company Men” to “The Internship” serve as documentation to the hopes and anxieties of the average blue-collar worker in their time.

The premise of the film seems to provide a great launchpad into some topical territory. Jennifer Aniston’s Carol Vanstone, a Miranda Priestly impersonation spiked with a Grinch attitude, rolls into the Chicago branch of her family business to announce a 40% reduction in employees and total cancellation of Christmas bonuses. There’s an initial wave of panic, anger and frustration from the managers in the office, especially from Carol’s entitled brother, branch manager Clay (T.J. Miller). But once that subsides, there’s no 2016-specific fuel to their actions, no sense of worry that the climate is unforgiving. “Office Christmas Party” could have been written at just about any time in the last 40 years and simply spruced up with current cultural products.

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REVIEW: Zootopia

29 02 2016

ZootopiaTalking animals, a town whose title mashes up “zoo” and “utopia,” the Disney brand – all good signs for an evening of escape away from the madness of the world around us that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, right? Actually, wrong. “Zootopia,” the latest in-house effort from the Mouse House, actually feels more plugged into contemporary problems than many “issues” movies manufactured during prestige season.

Given the escalation of the American presidential election even in the past month, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston could not have imagined how relevant the message of their script would become when they started writing back in 2013. The titular city of “Zootopia” is a metropolis of the animal kingdom and a hotbed of diversity, like New York City or Houston. Predatory animals like tigers and foxes have learned to live in harmony with their former prey like rabbits and sheep due to the evolution and adaptation of their culture.

The promise of this pluralism attracts optimistic young bunny Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Never one to let her size or species discourage her unbridled enthusiasm for justice, she defies the odds to become the first rabbit cop in Zootopia. The average family film would simply let Hopps flounder for a bit and eventually find her footing by tapping into some inner strength. With all due respect to the charms of “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Frozen,” the lessons of “Zootopia” go much deeper. They examine the very tenets that form the (now seemingly shaky) foundations of our society.

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REVIEW: The Gift

23 11 2015

The GiftThere is nothing explicitly wrong, so to speak, with being a throwback to a type of movie that does not get made much anymore. Such is the case with “The Gift,” written and directed by Joel Edgerton, a film that harkens back to Adrian Lyne-style thrillers like “Fatal Attraction.” The setup is practically identical, even, with an outsider posing a threat to a young professional couple.

In “The Gift,” however, the menace is not the temptation of sexual gratification in the future but the looming specter of the past. Jason Bateman’s Simon finds himself and his wife, Rebecca Hall’s Robyn, pestered by his old high school classmate Gordo (Edgerton – in front of the camera as well). The annoyance goes far beyond the social awkwardness Gordo tends to exhibit, and it draws Robyn’s curiosity to answer the question why exactly her husband just wants this guy to go away.

Her quest for clarity provides some decent thrills as it also invites an escalation of creepy defensiveness from both men. Yet, in equal measure, “The Gift” also manages to feel so … expected. Why Edgerton brings out these somewhat dusty genre tropes remains a bit perplexing. This style of thriller is not yet so outmoded that other filmmakers should be paying loving homage, so that motive does not feel right. He’s neither in conversation with the conventions nor revising them.

Perhaps, for his feature debut, Edgerton just wanted to go with something that generally tends to work. Hard to blame him for choosing safety, though it’s a somewhat disappointing start as a director for a man who makes such riveting choices as an actor. B-2stars





REVIEW: A Lego Brickumentary

31 07 2015

A Lego BrickumentaryA Lego Brickumentary” gets part of its title by clever wordplay on the word “documentary,” appropriating about half of the letters it contains.  Fittingly, that roughly approximates the amount of content in the film that resembles non-fiction cinema.

As fun and engaging as the film might be to watch, directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge essentially do the bidding of the Lego brand.  This amounts to a shinily mounted piece of corporate propaganda, the kind of CNBC special that highlights the global reach and outreach of the company.  Lego comes across as a product deeply responsive to the needs and desires of its fans across all age groups – and, of course, the corporate social responsibility aspect gets trumpeted big time.

The film, with its friendly and funny narration provided by Jason Bateman in CGI Lego form, feels like it is not meant for consumption in the fashion of a normal documentary like “Citizenfour.” Discretely contained portions could play across multiple rooms at a Legoland exhibition, which may very well be its ultimate destination. (In which case, the feature format makes for a particularly egregious cash grab.)

But the puff piece elements notwithstanding, “A Lego Brickumentary” actually makes for pleasantly informative viewing. How people use the bricks for art, physics, and social connection proves very unexpected and fairly intriguing. Disentangling the reality from the corporate PR spin makes for a small concern, sure, yet getting to see how the Legos make such universal creative building blocks from geeks to math professors actually makes for quite an eye-opening watch.  B / 2halfstars





REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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REVIEW: Bad Words

7 07 2014

Bad WordsJason Bateman has long been saddled with the reputation as a go-to guy for playing the uptight, no-nonsense straight man in comedy.  After having finally watched “Arrested Development,” I can see why he got typecast – he’s quite skilled at it.  But too much of a good thing can get quite boring, and he’s rarely given a great supporting cast to whom he can react.

It appears that in order to get a different kind of role, Bateman had to step behind the camera himself for “Bad Words.”  His performance recalls two others in films that also began with the same word: Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa” and Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher.”  Bateman tackles a character, Guy Trilby, who is more or less irredeemably rotten to the core, save the one classic written-in soft spot that gets exposed over the course of the film.

Guy exploits a loophole in a national spelling bee – he never graduated from middle school – and enters himself into competition at the ripe old age of 40.  His presence alone angers parents, but they’d probably put a bullet through his head if they knew the shenanigans he pulled to fluster their kids.  Stuck in arrested development as an 11-year-old bully, Guy ruthlessly humiliates vulnerable and insecure teenagers into making mistakes at the microphone.

Bateman and writer Andrew Dodge clearly intend these moments to be funny, but all too often, “Bad Words” seems too far away from any sort of moral compass.  Rather than eliciting laughs, they activate our sympathy and pity for the kids Guy is picking on.  It’s not unlike the feeling I had watching “The Wolf of Wall Street,” wondering how I could possibly find humor and levity at the expense of someone else’s livelihood.

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REVIEW: Paul

10 08 2013

2011 saw one movie, J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” corner public interest on the influence of Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking on modern moviegoing.  I’m a little upset that “Paul” couldn’t bask in a little of that light.  It’s a fun, spirited send-up of science-fiction tropes featuring a hilarious self-aware alien, Paul (the voice of Seth Rogen).

“Paul” also puts science-fiction, comic-book culture under the microscope to be sent up.  And for that task, there’s probably no one better than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, two men whose humor seems to play particularly well to that crowd.  Pegg and Frost both wrote the film, and they also star in it as Graeme and Clive, two Brits who come across the pond for comic-book Mecca … Comic-Con.

Traveling the United States in an RV, they encounter crude, crass extraterrestrial Paul.  He’s the masterstroke of the movie, perhaps the best manifestation of Pegg and Frost’s comedic brilliance to date.  He’s got ties to all sorts of conspiracy theories and is incredibly connected to the entertainment industry.  The problem is, the rest of the movie just falls short of the character’s shrewd construction.  Though it is a satire of the human-meets-alien movies of the past two decades, “Paul” often allows itself to lazily slip into the trappings of the subgenre.

And, lest I forget to mention it, “Paul” has Kristen Wiig as one-eyed fundamentalist trailer trash taught to sin by Paul.  Sure, her character’s a little juvenile, just like the rest of the movie when it isn’t cleverly harkening back to ’80s sci-fi classics.  But Wiig, and “Paul” as a whole, somehow make the stupidity seem more fun than they probably are.  B-2stars