REVIEW: Bad Moms

5 09 2016

We’re at a cultural moment where parents are more stressed and confused than ever as they try to prepare children for a newly competitive world while also imparting the requisite cultural norms necessary for survival. (Never mind having any time for their own personal happiness and satisfaction.) It’s the perfect time for a movie like Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s “Bad Moms” to come along and assure audiences that there is still value in just being a good, decent person. If only it were a little bit funnier, the film would be a cultural touchstone for generations to come.

Lucas and Moore’s background writing “The Hangover” shows as the film’s key trio bears a striking resemblance to the Wolfpack. Mila Kunis’ Amy has her act most together but struggles to find satisfaction amidst the demands placed on her by a louse of a husband (think Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck). Kristen Bell’s Kiki is a meek, sexually naive mother of four who mistakes her ignorance for happiness (see Ed Helms’ Stu Price). Kathryn Hahn’s single swinger Carla proves a wild card in any scenario (sounds like Zach Galifianakis’ Alan Garner).

As they fight back against societal pressures to maintain the image of perfection, enthusiasm and optimism, these moms’ antics are more likely to spark discussion groups in sociology seminars than set social media ablaze with a killer line. Their candid conversations, easily more memorable than their Top 40-scored romps of bad behavior, are notable for the way the women speak to each other. They speak less as characters or friends and more as field workers looking for answers to research questions about modern motherhood.

Never fear, humor-seekers: Lucas and Moore always provide a joke line as a response. But “Bad Moms” doesn’t need a sequel so much as it needs a sitcom. In that format, the creators might really be able to delve into the issues that so clearly concern them without succumbing to the pressure for a giant comedic set piece on such a consistent basis. B-2stars





REVIEW: Captain Fantastic

3 08 2016

Most movies about adventures into the wilderness center around the themes of getting in touch with one’s primal instincts or returning to some sense of balance with nature. Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” is not most movies, though.

Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash raises his family of six children to live in harmony with the environment to an extent, but this is far from the traditional feral child model. They live in somewhat of a liberal arts experiment taken to a logical extreme where, removed from the supposed silliness of socially constructed rules and traditions, Ben can provide the kids with an environment of pure rationality and intelligence in which to develop. We’re talking people who celebrate Noam Chomsky Day over Christmas, people.

Ben’s ascetic cult of authenticity, cast as a utopia, may well be a vision of the world in a not-too-distant future should the slow march of progress continue in its current direction. While “Captain Fantastic” does often assume the posture of defending the inherent virtues of the idea, Ross hardly lets Ben off easy. What Ben might envision as a microcosm of a perfectible society also looks a lot like a more rustic version of the ivory tower mentality. A portion of America has let their rationality drive them into enclaves of self-selected intellectual peers, where cognitive gifts fan the flames of their own egos rather than stoking necessary social change.

Mortensen’s performance comes to embody the tough realization of the film. As he confronts the passing of his wife and the grief of his family, Ben’s plain-spoken literalism creates more problems than it solves. Years in the wilderness indoctrinating his children with the intelligence of textbooks has left him blinded to the need for emotional intelligence and empathy in the wake of tragedy. Despite some real quirks in his character, Mortensen keeps an impressively even keel as he slowly comes to realize the impracticality of many principles to which he has dedicated his life.

“Captain Fantastic” does not implode Ben’s self-confidence all at once. The film erodes it gradually to devastating effect. Ross favors slowly peeling off the band-aid that covers decades of resentment, equivocation and hurt. The process stings for everyone involved, characters and audience. But expression is ultimately more valuable than repression, and something tells me that Ben could find a philosopher to cite in regards to why that is so. B+3stars





REVIEW: Tomorrowland

11 11 2015

TomorrowlandDisney’s expensive attempt at an experiment, “Tomorrowland,” begins with a rather preposterous proposition: the company has some kind of monopoly on optimism and innovation. The takeaway is, essentially, you’re an earth-hating pessimist unless you chant “It’s a Small World After All” in your sleep. (I’ll only make a parenthetical note here that the Futurist art movement inspired Benito Mussolini and the Fascists in Italy.)

The relentless attempts of co-writer/director Brad Bird, as well as his fellow scribes Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, to associate hope and positivity with the Disney brand makes the experience feel like enduring a two hour infomercial. Or like a feature-length entrance video at a Disney theme park. Fashionable thought it may be to bash the gloominess of the present day, such a simple-minded response to the challenges we face only makes those hurdles appear more imposing.

Even when putting this distressing ideology at bay, “Tomorrowland” still proves a dull, uninspiring experience. The two plus hours revolve around the teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) as a pin leads her on an adventure that takes her to a different dimension with George Clooney’s curmudgeonly inventor Frank Walker. This separate space, known as Tomorrowland, exists as a haven for intellectuals to escape the growing chaos of the world.

Naturally, a discussion of the merits and downfalls of Golden Age Thinking ensues, but it feels entirely unconvincing and disingenuous. This propaganda piece of shameless branding offers a Disney answer, not a real one. C2stars





REVIEW: The Visit

9 09 2015

The VisitM. Night Shyamalan might be moviegoers’ favorite punching bag, but for his latest outing as writer/director, he brought something to deflect the blow.

In “The Visit,” a found footage horror film, all action comes from the camera of teenaged Rebecca Jameson (Olivia DeJonge).  She’s an aspiring Albert Maysles who thinks she and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) upcoming trip to their grandparents’ rural Pennsylvania home might make a good subject.  Since their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from them for years, this visit will mark the first time they meet.

Don’t like a turn the movie takes?  Blame it on Rebecca, then.  It’s a pretty smart way for Shyamalan to avoid criticism.  And if moviegoers land one more punch on the battered director, it might be enough to push him into oblivion for good.

But “The Visit” looks like the first step toward the rehabilitation of his reputation.  The film demonstrates a rigor of style and storytelling not seen from Shyamalan since at least 2002’s “Signs.”  The limitations of his chosen narrative technique force him to exhibit more creativity and less bombast, both of which he does decently well here.

At times, the script feels a bit retrofitted for the found footage format; various scenes feel unnatural to film but unfortunately necessary to move the plot forward.  The scares are a bit on the conventional side, too.  Overall, though, “The Visit” proves a satisfying move in the right direction for a director once hailed as the heir to Spielberg.  He taps into anxieties about America’s growing gray population while also capturing something true about the current generation of teenagers and how the omnipresence of video guides their every action.  B / 2halfstars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 3, 2015)

3 09 2015

Afternoon DelightJill Soloway appears in just about any feature being published these days about the changing face of television for women behind the camera and trans representation in front of it.  Even before “Transparent” landed at Amazon, she was making waves as a writer and producer on shows like “Six Feet Under,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “United States of Tara.”  And somewhere in her schedule, she found time to make a narrative film.

Had I been paying attention to her feature debut, “Afternoon Delight,” I would surely have run instead of walked to “Transparent.”  This character-driven dramedy lives up to the latter word in its title … and would suffice at any time of day, for that matter.  Soloway serves as writer as well as director, and her voice shines through in the movie, my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

“Afternoon Delight” might mark the first film to fully realize the wealth of talent possessed by Kathryn Hahn, an actress dangerously close to becoming the next Judy Greer.  She’s almost too good at making her presence felt without overpowering the lead, be it dramatically in “Revolutionary Road” or comedically in a movie like “We’re the Millers” or television’s “Parks and Recreation.”  But Soloway grants her lead status here, and she runs away with the film.

Hahn’s character Rachel, a stereotypical L.A. Jewish carpool mom, needs something to get her out of a rut.  A lethal cocktail of sexual frustration and the white female savior complex leads her to “rescue” a stripper, Juno Temple’s McKenna.  If Rachel wanted something to shake up her relationships with her husband and friends, she certainly gets that and more with her new “nanny.”  McKenna becomes an object of pity for Rachel, yet her presence also draws out the green monster of jealousy.

The cumulative effect manages to spark some major changes, not all of which are good.  But if you need any indication of just how gifted a storyteller Soloway is, watch how much more you feel for Rachel as her behavior goes from erratic to desperate to practically indefensible.  Her characters, be they small or silver screen, never lose their solid steeping in humanity.  I can only hope “Afternoon Delight” is not the full extent of Soloway’s venture into feature filmmaking.  The world of indie cinema needs her gifts too much.





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





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: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

4 01 2014

24 hours before I saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” I was sitting in a press screening of “The Wolf of Wall Street” for three straight hours of sex, drugs, profanity, and despicable behavior.  Roughly an hour before I saw it, though, I was watching TCM’s broadcast of “White Christmas” with my family and listening to my parents ask once again where the nice movies are in theaters today.

It should be fairly obvious that “Walter Mitty” falls in line with the latter of the two aforementioned films; after all, it is based on a film from the 1940s.  And following an evening of watching a candle stuck wedged between Leonardo DiCaprio’s butt cheeks (one of the few shenanigans I dare to write about), it was just nice to watch a good, clean family feature.  Even though Ben Stiller’s film is nothing spectacular, its intermittently successful embrace from a bygone era is a nice change of pace.

Stiller, who also stars as the film’s titular character, does not drown the film in excessive sentimentality, often a hallmark of Hollywood’s golden age cinema.  But perhaps it would have been welcome had it brought any charm, which is largely absent from this languidly paced film.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 30, 2011)

30 09 2011

Some movies have such a powerful, heartbreaking intensity that you only need to see them once.  They don’t grab you by the shirt; they grip you body and soul.  “Revolutionary Road,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” is one of these movies if you haven’t already figured that out.  In 2008, it was plagued with what I like to call the curse of the Oscar frontrunner – predestination for incredible levels of greatness that it couldn’t possibly live up to its hype.  But now with that season firmly behind us, we can now see it for its incredible capacity to captivate and move us.

Sam Mendes has a particular knack at peeling back societal façades of contentment and revealing the dark underbelly of suburban society, first with “American Beauty” and then with this adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about the 1950s.  Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are a typical couple – meeting after the war, they have big dreams and aspirations.  Yet Frank winds up taking a miserable desk job at his father’s company and moves them out to Connecticut when April gets pregnant.  A few years later, he has almost disappeared into a grey flannel suit and she into an apron.

However, neither can shake the idea that they have bought into an empty illusion, that there has to be more to life than to be just like everyone else.  Roger Deakins’ haunting cinematography emphasizes their Stepfordian conformity and echoes the story’s implication that they are trapped not only in this house but in this life.  However, April refuses to dismiss what Betty Freidan called “the problem with no name” in her manifesto “The Feminine Mystique,” proposing that the family move to Paris to reclaim their livelihoods.  While she brings in the money in a secretarial position, Frank would be able to relax and discover what truly makes him happy.

They start to go through with the plan, and for a moment, this ideal setup revives a failing marriage.  Even in spite of protests by friends and neighbors left aghast, particularly realtor Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) and their best friends the Campbells (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour), they keep their heads held high.  In fact, the only person who seems to see their logic and rationale is John Givings (Michael Shannon), Mrs. Givings’ brilliant but possibly mentally ill son who has the best perspective on the times of anyone.

Nevertheless, the idea becomes just an idea, no longer a plan of action, leaving an embittered Frank and April to confront their problems with a pugnacious brutality.  In their arguments, Mendes and scribe Justin Haythe fully accomplish Yates’ goal of indicting the glorified hollowness of the 1950s.  While “Revolutionary Road” is beautifully written and directed, the film’s aims are best achieved through the tour de force performances by DiCaprio, Winslet, and Shannon.  As first the paradigm of suburban contentment and then its victims, the Wheelers truly needed to be personified by two actors who can fully realize the tragedy.  It just so happened to play out that these two people are world-famous star-crossed lovers thanks to James Cameron’s “Titanic.”

This may very well be the best work in the diamond-crusted careers of both DiCaprio and Winslet, which is saying a lot.  The fact that neither of them received Oscar nominations for the movie is absolutely criminal, although lack of awards recognition should hardly be the ultimate judge of their performances.  They both perfectly calibrate every scene, every emotion, every last movement so that it resonates with a scarily beautiful ring.  Kate Winslet is particularly striking as the active wife defying stereotype and lashing out against the image of the perfect housewife, making her final act devastatingly crushing.  And with powerhouse Michael Shannon as the mouthpiece for Yates and the Wheeler’s foil, the acting of “Revolutionary Road” is what drives that fist of furious emotion right into the gut.

For that very reason, I must warn you that this movie is not for the faint of heart.  Its mind-boggling emotional power doesn’t end when the credits roll; it may linger in the form of a depressing mood or a bleak outlook on life for anywhere from 1-3 days.  But don’t let that keep you from missing one of the best movies of 2008, and for my money, one of the most formidable films on society in recent memory.  You need only see it once to achieve the full effect – although if you want to see it twice like me, it’s still phenomenal.





REVIEW: How Do You Know

23 12 2010

I sure wish “How Do You Know” knew what it wanted from the beginning.  James L. Brooks’ latest comedy is a study of three people uncertain of what they want for their futures.  Nervous, frantic, and anxious, they each search for the answer to the questions they pose about their lives.  But no one ever seems to find an answer, just a new question to occupy their thoughts.  This makes for dynamic and neurotic characters, all portrayed with gusto by the sensational cast, but the movie feels like it’s running  in circles around the same issues.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is looking for a new life direction after her softball career is abruptly ended.  George (Paul Rudd) is unsure of the next step in his life after being served an unexpected indictment.  Serving more as comic relief, Matty (Owen Wilson) is an organized womanizer trying to figure out whether he loves Lisa enough to change his ways.  “How Do You Know” is really the story of Lisa and George, though, as they actively seek conviction in their life choices and wind up finding each other.

The two are incredibly vulnerable and emotional train-wrecks, never certain of where they are headed even when they begin a sentence.  It starts out with George, caught between a rock and a hard place with pressure from his dad (Jack Nicholson) mounting as his head is about to be served on a platter to the prosecutors.  But when the two meet on a blind date, all the neuroses transfer over to Lisa, who becomes increasingly unsure of her decision to move in with Matty and unable to remain committed to anything.  While George’s options become more black and white, he is still just as lost as Lisa, and the two manage to find comfort in their mutual wandering.

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