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: Cake

21 01 2015

CakeJennifer Aniston stars in “Cake” as Claire Bennett, a woman struggling with chronic pain following a tragic automotive accident.  The poster and production stills almost completely hide it, but she sports a deep and instantly noticeable scar on her face stemming from the traumatic event.

And, per usual in an indie drama, the emotional scars run far deeper.  She attends group therapy as well as physical rehabilitation only to undo their progress in a toxic cocktail of booze and painkillers.  Claire further masks her agony through biting, sardonic wisecracks, deflecting anyone from exposing her pressing need for help.

It would be wrong to assign the character sole responsibility for her continuing struggles; the maelstrom of physical and emotional pain presents a tough obstacle for even the strongest individual to overcome.  Claire’s self-destructive tendencies do not disqualify her from receiving sympathy, either, yet the movie’s myopic focus on her pity party feels … well, pitiful.

Not to discredit or downplay her anguish, but Claire is a wealthy, white Angeleno living comfortably in unexplained luxury.  Her inability to function in society, shockingly, never seems to raise doubts about the continuance of her lifestyle.  She never seems to worry about having the funds to procure pain pills in Tijuana, and she never entertains the possibility of a world without the invaluable assistance of her inexplicably loyal Hispanic maid and driver Silvana (Oscar nominee Adrianna Barraza).

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Random Factoid #572

19 01 2015

Welp, the Oscar nominations have been announced, and it looks like Jennifer Aniston is going to have to try again if she wants people to start calling her “Academy Award nominee Jennifer Aniston.”  (For what it’s worth, I am seeing “Cake,” her failed awards vessel, tomorrow night.)

A lot of people have hurled ridicule at Aniston for her formulaic rom-coms or her tabloid personality.  Some of the vitriol resembles the phenomenon of “Hatha-hate,” the extreme and baseless revulsion towards Anne Hathaway. I have certainly been critical of some of her less than stellar roles like the ones in “Just Go With It” or “The Bounty Hunter.”  For the latter title, I began my review with this sentence: “Have you ever watched a movie and wondered what could make an actor’s standards drop so low?”

But I have also noted Aniston’s slow move towards quality, such as her roles in “Horrible Bosses” and “We’re The Millers,” which are at least attempting to do something out of the ordinary.  Moreover, I featured an Aniston title in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column that highlights lesser-known films: “Friends with Money,” a superb indie that should have provided her with more credibility as a respectable actress.  (I thought I had written about “The Good Girl,” but I guess I did not.)

If I am just being honest, though, Aniston’s lasting impact for me consists of two scenes in two mediocre films, “The Break-Up” and “He’s Just Not That Into You.”  For whatever reason, the illustrations her characters give of complex situations are infinitely reusable and applicable to daily life.  Just ask anyone who knows me well, I have probably quoted one of these two scenes to them.

“I want you to want to do the dishes” works great when trying to explain that you desire a genuine gesture, not an empty one.

And “I just need you to stop being nice to me unless you’re going to marry me” works well for flaky, noncommittal people outside the realm of marriage and courtship.

I also love the line from “He’s Just Not That Into You” where Aniston is told by a friend, in a supposed gesture of comfort, “There are many people who never get married – look at Al Pacino, never been married, happy as a clam!”  And Aniston, flabbergasted, responds, “Would I be Al Pacino in this scenario?”  I also tend to feel like the Al Pacino in plenty of supposedly helpful illustrations about my life, though maybe that will change one day.





REVIEW: We’re The Millers

13 08 2013

We're the MillersIn “We’re The Millers,” television’s “Breaking Bad” meets film’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” as mid-level drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) enlists a crazy cast to help him smuggle marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border.  (So in that way, perhaps it’s more like “Maria Full of Grace” meets 2013’s “Identity Thief.”)  This motley crew from near his building includes well-meaning exotic dancer Rose (Jennifer Aniston), tough teenage street rat (Emma Roberts), and an aloof adolescent boy Kenny (Will Poulter) with a passing resemblance to Tintin.

The movie manages to provide a few decent laughs along the journey, though they are largely front-loaded.  “We’re The Millers” starts off with some very clever and witty banter, largely uttered by Sudeikis, who is quickly proving himself to be quite the sultan of snark.  It’s certainly a much better role for him than his bland characters in “Horrible Bosses” and “Hall Pass,” and he could soon be rivaling Paul Rudd for roles.

But the film starts to veer off course in the second half, resorting to more and more ludicrous gags to provide humor.  These ridiculous scenarios often provide their fair share of cringe-worthy moments, enough to make the film feel like it has overstayed its welcome by a solid 30 minutes.  Though I don’t want to say too much, at least “We’re The Millers” doesn’t end by caving to all the road trip, family, or rom-com tropes.

By the time the gag reel rolls, the film essentially arrives at a comedic standstill.  It’s got enough sardonic and standoffish Aniston and sulky Roberts to make anyone roll their eyes.  But it’s also got some good Sudeikis everyman sarcasm and a pretty winning performance from Poulter, playing naive innocence with gusto.  So, in other words, “We’re the Millers” is decidedly average.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Wanderlust

29 02 2012

I think it’s crucial to apply a comparative approach to evaluating the merits of “Wanderlust.”  When you look at it in relation to “Role Models” and “Wet Hot American Summer,” director David Wain’s first two comedies, it’s a disappointment that settles for cliches and stereotypes rather than the unique brand of humor on display in his prior work.  But of course, compared to other mainstream comedies of the moment, its mild satisfactions are amplified probably more than they should.

Marveling at cult-like communes is nothing new, and the colorful cast of nudists, stoners, and washed-up hippies certainly play into just about every single one of our preconceived notions.  It’s amusing enough to watch their antics play out in front of two newly unemployed Manhattan refugees played by the ever hilarious Paul Rudd and the ever gorgeous Jennifer Aniston.  Both are a little creeped out at first, but she eventually warms up to the idea of living in a subculture of open doors and open marriages.

There are a few good laughs here and there, but the majority of the time, I just sat there wondering when it would reach “Role Models” heights.  Thankfully it does at one point due to Paul Rudd, who honestly might get my vote for the funniest person working in comedy at the moment.  His dry, caustic, and biting sarcasm hits home every time even when he’s not trying to be funny (and if someone made a movie of my life, I would want him to play me).  Rudd gets one scene, improvised I assume, where he gets to totally let loose with wild accents and wordplay trying to pump himself up for a sexual encounter that absolutely brings down the house.  I was easily laughing for a solid two minutes afterwards, totally missing the next scene.  And really, as long as I get one of those for my money, I go home happy no matter how derivative or childish the rest of the movie might have been.  B-





REVIEW: Horrible Bosses

6 07 2011

We are now inhabiting the post-“Hangover” world, and in case you needed any proof that studios are looking to locate the success gene in the hit comedy’s DNA, I submit “Horrible Bosses” as evidence.  It really shouldn’t surprise you; it’s a page straight from the television networks’ playbook.  As soon as Fox premiered “American Idol,” every network wanted a singing competition.  After ABC had a big hit with “Dancing with the Stars,” every network suddenly had a dancing show.  We live in a culture of thinly veiled rip-offs that barely bother to disguise their ever-so-slight variations from the original success story.

The good news for Seth Gordon and the “Horrible Bosses” team is that, at least at this moment, I still find the formula amusing and funny.  The next movie shamelessly pressed from the “Hangover” mold, however, will probably not be in my good graces, so at least they got the timing right on this one.  But the fact that some movie other than the sequel has tried using a similar blueprint for high cash and laugh returns signals a foreboding era in comedy.  (Then again, I said the same thing last summer about “Iron Man 2” being the first of many “The Dark Knight” rip-offs, and nothing seems to have materialized there.)

The film invites these comparisons by using what may be the most recognizable aspect of “The Hangover” for laughs – the Wolfpack.  From now on, any comedy that has a ragtag alliance of three thirtysomething guys will inevitably have to be measured against the ridiculously high standard set by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis.  Unfair?  Probably.  Justified?  Definitely.

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REVIEW: Just Go With It

12 02 2011

Adam Sandler sure has fallen a long way since the glory days of “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore” – and those days weren’t even that good.  Fifteen years later, we are invited to just go wherever with the comic who has long since worn out the welcome mat with “Just Go With It,” a typical Sandler comedy that might have been fairly amusing if it had been made a decade ago.  It’s a step above last summer’s “Grown Ups” but probably only because there is a strong female presence to whip him in line.

Taking a fairly unique premise, the movie follows Sandler’s Los Angeles plastic surgeon (cue some scary and derivative jokes involving lots of Joan Rivers-esque figures) Danny and his morally suspect way of picking up women without a hitch – pretending to be married.  It works out great for him until he meets the incredibly well-endowed, good-natured, and much younger Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), and he has to start an elaborate lie to keep her.  The ruse, which eventually requires index cards, grows to include his divorced assistant Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) and her two annoyingly precocious children as well as his horndog brother (Nick Swardson).

All things considered, this could have been more than just mildly entertaining, which is what the end product settles for.  There are a few chuckles, usually accompanied by a groan but thankfully not with eye-rolling.  So by all means, if you want to see Adam Sandler re-enact the movies from his prime, “Just Go With It” should provide you with what you’re looking for.  But you’re probably better off dusting off one of his older flicks so you can have the faintest hint of nostalgia of a time when these jokes and formulas weren’t stale.  C