REVIEW: The Discovery

3 04 2017

Sundance Film Festival

I was a bit peeved to learn that Netflix owned the rights to Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery after I had blown a portion of my precious ticket allotment to see the film at the festival. Most people will experience this film from the comforts of their own living room. That’s their loss.

McDowell’s follow-up to his audacious debut, 2014’s “The One I Love,” works from a similarly complex setup. Robert Redford’s Thomas Harber discovers proof of an afterlife, leading masses of people worldwide to commit suicide to get there. A few years later, his son Will (Jason Segel) navigates a “Children of Men“­­-like world so substantially depleted of human energy that a hashtag campaign using #nomoresuicides and #discoverlife exists. Against his better judgment, he ends up in a position to probe the boundaries of his father’s finding and expose some potentially unsavory truths about what really lies there.

Will also encounters the suicidal Isla, played by Rooney Mara in what might be the closest thing she ever plays to Clementine Kruczynski, which substantially deepens his knowledge of rapidly changing attitudes. We get out of this world what we put into it, and neglecting our imperfect existence in favor of some distant fantasy can only lead to ruin. Locating meaning in death rather than in life leads people in strange directions, such as the cult-like estate that the elder Harber establishes.

It was nice to know, too, that audiences still respond to the shock of suicide. Too bad that Netflix can’t include the audible gasps of a stunned Sundance crowd at many moments in “The Discovery” as some kind of supplemental audio track. McDowell makes perfectly clear that human life matters in the film. Sharing and reaffirming that feeling with others just serves to emphasize it all the more. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.

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REVIEW: The End of the Tour

16 08 2015

The End of the TourThe celebrity interview in fiction is something that often gets fetishized, probably because it is so frequently fantasized.  I have done a few myself, and it can be tough not to get carried away just by breathing the rarefied air of a talented artist.  Rationalize the experience away as journalism, but that does not do justice to the nature of the interview.

It’s a transaction.  An exchange of goods disguised as an exchange of words.  A delicate dance. Chuck Klosterman, in his excellent book “Eating the Dinosaur,” offered a deft explanation of just how these performances work.  “The result (when things go well),” he wrote, “is a dynamic, adversarial, semi-real conversation.”

The End of the Tour” makes a movie out of a journalistic conversation for the ages, a battle of wits on a more even playing field than usual.  Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, a minimally successful novelist who pays the bills for his aspirations of fiction writing by penning non-fictional articles for Rolling Stone. Somehow, he convinces his boss to let him go on assignment to profile another writer, the first time the magazine dares to feature a wordsmith in over a decade.

Lipsky’s subject is no average writer, though. He tags along with David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, at the last stop of his 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a thousand-page tome that reaps hyperbolic praise and adulation. After publishing such a novel, a kind of literary legend status extended to very few authors looms on the horizon.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 8, 2015)

8 01 2015

Now that Paul Rudd has officially debuted as Ant-Man, I expect that we’ll soon have to start referring to him as “Marvel’s Paul Rudd.”  Plenty of clueless fanboys will totally think of Rudd as the next Chris Pratt, a comedian that the comic-book magnate picks up from relative obscurity and turns into a bonafide action star.  And I will be sad.

But then, I will wipe away my tears and watch another one of Rudd’s hilarious comedies.  I will think of the time he and I shared a brief word in London, and I will remind myself of how his affable characters appear to accurately reflect his genial real-life personality.  I will remind myself that he is the perfect choice to play me in the movie of my life no matter what career move he makes next (although BuzzFeed recently told me that Benedict Cumberbatch would play me, another choice that suits me fine).

And finally, I will watch one of his comedies that stand head and shoulders above nearly all the other mainstream output.  For the most part, Rudd chooses projects with smarter wit and keener insight than the usual macho lineup of flatulence, misogyny, and homophobia.  Perhaps chief among these is 2009’s “I Love You, Man,” the bromantic comedy that serves as my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (Yes, I am fully aware this is hardly independent or little-known, although it certainly deserves to be more widely known.)

Rudd, rather than erecting a cool facade, plays his character Peter Klaven as unashamedly dorky and unabashedly earnest.  Though he means well, Peter often stumbles over his own nicety into the verbal equivalent of a pratfall.  The film begins with the happiest moment in his life: proposing to his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones).  After the initial bliss dissipates, however, things get awkward as Peter seems unable to provide enough groomsmen to match Zooey’s seven bridesmaids.  In fact, he does not even really have a potential best man.

Rather than disappoint his beautiful bride-to-be, and apparently unwilling to suck it up and ask either his father (J.K. Simmons) or brother (Andy Samberg), Peter goes on the hunt for a male best friend.  After a series of hilarious misunderstandings, he comes across Jason Segel’s palatably absurd Sidney Fife, a friendly bachelor that stumbles into one of Peter’s open houses while scouting prospects for a wealthy divorcée.  They hit it off immediately, easily finding conversation topics and mutual interests.

Sidney and Peter’s friendship is purely platonic, yet writer/director John Hamburg replicates the experience of watching a romantic comedy.  We get the beginning stage of figuring out tastes as well as boundaries; we see the way that they bring fulfillment to each other’s lives; we have the classic blow-up fight that turns into a dissolution of an amicable partnership.  As “I Love You, Man” progresses, it exposes the parallels between forging friendships and romantic relationships as well as the absurdities inherent in both.

Peter and Sidney are not just the average dudebro BFFs – they are types to explore and investigate the very nature of human connection.  Although, in the hands of talented actors like Rudd and Segel, they are also fully fledged people that I’d love to slap the bass with any day.





REVIEW: Sex Tape

15 07 2014

Sex Tape” plays (pun fully intended) like a filmed first table read of the script in many ways.

All the plot holes, inconsistencies, and just plain implausibilities have yet to be ironed out of the story.  You can see the promise of the premise, but it just hasn’t been realized yet.  Not to mention, someone needs to sit down and bang out another draft or three of the screenplay.

Some of the good jokes are there, too.  “Sex Tape” features a quite entertaining supporting cast, topped by Rob Lowe as a ridiculously eccentric and bizarre corporate exec, that carries the film.  It lifts gags liberally from other films (stealing rather egregiously from “Father of the Bride”), some of which work when grafted into the storyline.  Others feel rather tired and could have been replaced with fresher, more memorable laughs.

Perhaps the biggest indicator, though, that the film is stuck at table read status is the energy level.  “Sex Tape” is an hour and a half of unbridled energy, particularly from leads Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel.  Normally, that would be a compliment, but it’s a critique here as director Jake Kasdan mistakes yelling and exaggeration as a substitute for humor and humanity.

Hypothetically, if I had a sex tape of myself in the hands of friends’ iPads, I’d probably be ending all my sentences with five exclamation points like Segel and Diaz’s characters Jay and Annie.  But they are so over-the-top that it’s hard to connect to them in any way.  They don’t feel like real people, so it limits how much we actually care about whether or not they can keep friends and family from seeing their three-hour sexual odyssey.

In fact, if I had to guess, Segel and Diaz spoke all their lines in excitement after seeing the bonus check they were getting from Apple for all the blatant product promotion.  It would certainly explain why “iPad” is every other word in the movie; even reality TV writers can hide their corporate sponsors more subtly.  C2stars





REVIEW: This Is 40

31 12 2012

Judd Apatow is quite a curious entertainer, and I’m fascinated by the trajectory he’s taken to put his stamp on comedy.  Lately, he’s been using his tremendous power to advance women’s voices in comedy through Lena Dunham‘s HBO series “Girls” and Kristen Wiig’s “Bridesmaids,” quite a noble thing to do.

Yet otherwise as a producer, he makes comedies largely by the status quo, albeit with a slightly Apatowian (is that the proper term?) spin of vulgarity opening up on a big heart.  Some are hits, and others are flops.  Some work; others, absolute disasters.

However, as a director, he’s on the cutting edge.  2009’s “Funny People” and his fourth feature film, “This is 40,” are bold experiments in genre.  In these two movies, Apatow is probing the boundaries of comedy and attempting to make sense of the murky gray area that is dramedy.

These two movies are flawed but noble ventures into the great unknown.  Both films attempt to find the kind of tender human drama that defines the works of Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman, two directors who make serious works with touches of levity.  Apatow strives to find that same pathos without losing his films’ firm rooting in comedy, and though he doesn’t find it in “This is 40,” I’m willing to sit and watch him decipher it out.  Because once he finds that balance, a true masterpiece will be the inevitable result.

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REVIEW: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

19 12 2012

The mumblecore movement is slowly gaining more notoriety as some of its key figures such as Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers (specifically Mark) are getting some traction as mainstream personalities.  They don’t seem to be bringing the genre that made them along for the ride, though.  Movies like “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” are a reminder that even with popular actors like Jason Segel and Ed Helms, this style of comedy is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before it hits its stride.

But if anyone is going to make that happen, it’s still going to be the Duplass brothers.  Though their latest film is a definite step down from the slyly clever “Cyrus,” it still brings quite a bit of good humor and heart to the table.  Some of the peculiar directions that “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” takes feel rather forced, particularly the storyline of Susan Sarandon’s matriarch Sharon and her secret admirer.

The Duplass brothers might be taking a few too many hints from films like “Napoleon Dynamite” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” movies so quirky that they feel set in a different universe despite having their feet firmly planted in reality.  Indeed, the protagonist Jeff, Jason Segel’s great stoner-philosopher (that plays like a mellowed-out version of his Sidney Fife from “I Love You Man”) feels like a little bit too much of a constructed character and not authentic in the slightest.  Ed Helms’ ultra-nebbish Pat is slightly better, but he’s so high-strung that it negates most of his ties to a grounded reality.

These outlandish characters make “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” funnier than “Cyrus” – there’s one scene in particular that had me in stitches – but at the cost of what makes mumblecore … well, mumblecore.  It’s disassociated from the humdrum reality that creates the humor (or lack of it) to create an artificial universe for its characters where the absurd is far more plausible.

As a result, it feels like a disingenuous entry into the subgenre.  That is, if you would even call it a subgenre flick since it straddles the line between mainstream and mumblecore comedy, never fully committing to either one.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Five-Year Engagement

3 12 2012

Almost every comedy features a supporting cast of hilarious actors who can always be wheeled in front a camera to produce laughs.  Unlike the romantic leads, who have to undergo a journey and serve plot functions, these characters can literally be poorly developed and have little motivations of their own – and no one minds as long as they make us chortle in delight.

The Five-Year Engagement” does a very peculiar thing with its characters.  Tom and Violet, the betrothed played by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt doomed to suffer the titular delay, are the ones who suffer from the pratfalls of the supporting characters.  Sure, the two have chemistry and are fun to watch.  But it’s Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, both of whom could charm a dishwasher into marrying them!

I definitely enjoyed the two of them in their playful engagement bliss and when they got into tough arguments; however, they got upstaged, outdrawn, and outshown in a major way by the couple that was supposed to be a comic relief and foil.  Guess that means directors need to think twice before they cast the uproarious Chris Pratt (who steals every “Parks and Recreation” episode these days) and dynamic Alison Brie (who I’ve heard is just as good on “Community”).

Pratt plays Tom’s best friend Alex, who is of course the usual Pratt goofball (unless we are talking “Moneyball“).  At the engagement party, he meets Brie’s sharp-tongued Suzie … who also happens to be Violet’s sister.  The two have quite a night, and very quickly, a very different kind of wedding is on the horizon.  A shotgun wedding.

Alex and Suzie provide most of the humor for Nicholas Stoller’s “The Five-Year Engagement” because of Pratt and Brie’s immense comedic capabilities.  Yet they also carry most of the heart of the film, too.  As Stoller’s running commentary on how hard marriage really is no matter how long and hard you’ve worked on it, I started rooting for them and becoming more emotionally invested in the two of them.  Perhaps it’s because the marathon length of the film left me craving Alex or Suzie to get back on screen, but I think it was really just me wishing someone would make one of these movies with Chris Pratt as the leading man.  B