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: 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: In A World

23 08 2013

In a world where the movies began to buckle under the weight of copious cliches, one movie dared to be different.  It was not a romantic comedy yet still had romance.  It was not a drama but managed to tackle serious issues convincingly.

While I might have made Lake Bell’s “In a World” sound like some kind of panacea, it’s really just a nice, simple movie that does a lot of things very right.  As a feature debut for Bell (who I only knew from her supporting turns in “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached“), the film is certainly promising for many great things to come.  She makes no major missteps in her finely-tuned comedy, but it is rather safe and risk-free.

Bell also wrote the film’s script, which contains a smart and well-observed feminist critique.  In a summer where “The Heat” was the only major studio release with a female protagonist, “In a World” opens up a fascinating dialogue about sexism and male hegemony in the art of voice-overs.  While much of the film is industry-specific, Bell gives us plenty of food for thought about women in any workplace.  She even manages the current impasse for many women between symbolic affirmative action and equal judgment with finesse.

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REVIEW: The Way Way Back

4 08 2013

Two years ago, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash stood on stage at the Academy Awards behind Alexander Payne as he delivered the majority of their acceptance speech for writing “The Descendants.” While Payne waxed poetic to millions of people, Faxon and Rash drew the attention of the cameramen through a bizarre stunt – mocking Angelina Jolie’s flaunting of her flawless leg as it protruded out of her dress that very night.

As soon as I saw that, I thought to myself that they must have provided the humor in “The Descendants,” and the tragedy and drama came courtesy of Alexander Payne. But after seeing Faxon and Rash’s directorial debut “The Way Way Back,” which they also wrote together, I’m not so sure my assumption was correct. The dynamic duo crafted a truly heartfelt and genuine film that is equal parts uproarious comedy and poignant drama. Not a moment in the movie feels false as everything hits home just by being honest.

The film might not be the most original as it is a fairly typical entry into the coming-of-age sub genre. The protagonist, Duncan, is a shy turtle of a 14-year-old boy headed for a summer at the beach with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Both of them struggle to fit into Trent’s pre-existing world, although Pam has no escape. Duncan manages to find a surrogate family for the summer at the Water Wizz water park under the tutelage of the quick-witted Owen (Sam Rockwell).

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REVIEW: Hot Tub Time Machine

2 09 2010

Walkmans and legwarmers and tracksuits, oh my!

It’s a blast back to the ’80s in “Hot Tub Time Machine,” the raunchy romp that defies the laws of physics.  A sort of irreverent “Back to the Future,” the movie has no science to back up what is happening.  Then again, do you expect much to back up the premise that a hot tub could transport a group of four drunk guys 25 years into the past?

Thanks to the bubbling portal, the four losers in 2010 get a chance to be their younger, cooler selves in 1986 (with the exception of Clark Duke’s gaming Jacob, who has yet to be born).  In their hangover logic, they decided that they need to do exactly as they did when they lived the weekend the first time.  For some of them, it means promiscuous escapades; for others, it means taking punches.

For those of us who didn’t live through the decade, for better or for worse, the movie still manages to be funny.  It’s not some giant ’80s inside joke; there are some nods to “Back to the Future,” both through situations and the perfectly cast Crispin Glover as a creepy bellhop, but they don’t make the movie any less accessible for those who haven’t seen it.  There’s plenty of universal humor that anyone can laugh at – provided they check their maturity at the door.

The bulk of the comedy comes courtesy of Craig Robinson, who plays Nick, the guy whipped by his unfaithful wife to the point that he takes her last name.  Robinson has been gold on “The Office” for several years now and has done many memorable supporting roles, often times being a highlight of those movies.  If “Hot Tub Time Machine” isn’t enough of a testament to his comedic talent to give him a headlining role over Chris Rock (or any other tired comedian, for that matter), there is truly no justice in the world.

Everyone else is good too, just no one on the level of Robinson.  Most of the jokes centered around John Cusack come at the expense of his own fame in the ’80s.  The woebegone Lou, played by Rob Corddry, is the most crass of the bunch, which guarantees a few laughs.  Duke’s Jacob is great for those of who didn’t live in the decade as he gapes in amazement at the social climate.  And then there’s Chevy Chase as the hot tub repairman, who is just plain creepy.

But the movie’s best facet (and the one that will make it stand out among recent comedies) is its willingness to forget teaching a lesson and just have fun.  It doesn’t pretend to have scrupulous morals; really, it doesn’t pretend to have any morals at all.  “Hot Tub Time Machine” is four guys having fun, and for once, Hollywood’s rules don’t spoil it.  B+ /