REVIEW: The Book of Henry

19 06 2017

Let’s be clear: Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry” is a strange, overstuffed movie. Its roughly 100 minute runtime manages to pack in as many traumatizing dramatic plot points as a season of network TV. I can imagine the pitch for Gregg Hurwitz’s script going something like a Stefon sketch. “This movie has everything: quirky families, a precocious prodigy, child abuse, brain tumors, premature death, a love story and a murder plot!”

Just one of its outlandish plot points would be enough to sustain a film of its length. Instead, we get one about every 15 minutes, leaving us no time to recover before the next one happens. “The Book of Henry” thus becomes unnecessarily strung out, which is a real shame as Hurwitz and Trevorrow do manage to capture some candor and earnestness with the story. Their good intentions get clouded out by how busy the film is, however.

In particular, a good portion of the film resonates when Jaden Lieberher’s titular character struggles with being helpless to enable action against injustice. “The Book of Henry” grasps the frustrating limitations of being a child, no matter how smart and well-adjusted you are. (Henry, by the way, is what I imagine the E-Trade baby would look like once he graduated from the crib.) Yet even this gets undermined when the term “child” gets trotted out as a form of dismissal in the climax. This is the film’s confusion in microcosm: a concerted effort to understand a complex problem sabotaged by the need for sensationalism. B-

Advertisements




REVIEW: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

7 06 2016

Comedy teams rarely come in trios. We have the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges … and maybe the Wolfpack from “The Hangover” trilogy, if one is feeling generous and contemporary. Otherwise, the duo, the pairs, the buddies or whatever you call them rule the day. It makes sense given how hard developing and maintaining comedic synergy between two people can be. Adding a third person turns a game of catch into a bout of juggling.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” shows more than ever that The Lonely Island can juggle, albeit maybe more with clubs and scarves than swords or fire. The comedy group burst onto the cultural scene over a decade and essentially dragged sketch comedy into the Internet viral video era. After producing countless short musical sensations with their SNL Digital Shorts, they finally put their energies towards a more conventional vehicle – a feature film of their very own. (Not counting 2007’s “Hot Rod,” which they reworked from a script originally intended for Will Ferrell.)

The Lonely Island might be at their peak form when producing episodic, concentrated shorts, though becoming aware of this fact does not lessen the pleasures of “Popstar” in the slightest. The film holds together quite nicely as a piece with a forward-moving narrative engine all of its own, not merely a collection of sketch-like bits and musical numbers. The wacky invented boy band frontman-turned-rapper Conner4Real (played by Andy Samberg) shows they know quite a bit about the contours of modern pop stardom, although they poke fun at it far more in this mockumentary than they point out its hollowness.

But the real marvel of “Popstar” is not their understanding of pop culture. It’s their understanding of themselves.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: I Smile Back

31 01 2016

I Smile BackMental illness on screen, particularly as it pertains to women, always makes for an interesting subject to study. For men, from “A Beautiful Mind” to “Silver Linings Playbook,” the affliction often becomes like a hurdle on their road to victory. For women, it’s the problematized slippery slope that opens the floodgates to a wide variety of social ills.

This is especially true of Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back,” an illness-of-the-week style story saved from TV movie status only by virtue of picking up a theatrical distributor. Though star Sarah Silverman brings heart and passion to her role as depressed suburban housewife Laney Brooks, she can not overcome the shortcomings of the script by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman. Salky obsesses over her self-destructive tendencies and the behaviors that infantilize her to the same level as her children. He also adds plenty of ham-fisted thriller music behind her day-to-day activities, meant to emphasize just how much of a ticking time bomb she is.

Sure, it helps to feel and experience what people suffering from depression and anxiety go through. But do not reduce them to a set of clichés. Their lives are hard and complicated, not easily reduced to a set of storytelling devices. All something like “I Smile Back” does is turn Laney into a trainwreck barreling into a fragile society, which provides little help or hope for those silently struggling with their own demons. It practically gives everyone else an excuse to continue turning a blind eye to their pain. C+2stars





REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West

2 06 2014

According to Seth MacFarlane, there are a million ways to die in the west.  Too bad not a one of them could have come to put me out of my misery while watching his dreadful new film.  It doesn’t just miss the mark of Western comedic great “Blazing Saddles;” MacFarlane pretty much misfires on laughs altogether.

A Million Ways to Die in the West” amounts to little more a bloated reel of MacFarlane kvetching about everything in his life.  At first, it just seems like a long-winded way of setting up the perilousness of the primitive civilization he intends to mock.  Yet after about 10 minutes, it becomes clear that MacFarlane is never going to shut up.  The experience becomes akin to being locked in a room with your annoying friend that can only speak in the form of complaints – for nearly two hours.

MacFarlane’s relentless pessimism is so pervasive that it overpowers the rest of the cast.  Only Neil Patrick Harris, cleverly employed here as a cocky cuckold with a finely-kept mustache, manages to entertain in the slightest with any wit.  Charlize Theron, as MacFarlane’s pseudo-love interest, coasts through the film on autopilot and never really sparks.  Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson are mentally checked out as well, but they’re playing such familiar roles that it really doesn’t seem quite as egregious.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph

15 12 2012

Wreck It RalphI think Disney got their brands switched up this year.  “Wreck-It Ralph” felt like the real Pixar movie, and “Brave” felt like the kind of fun but unmemorable Disney animated movie from the people who brought you “Tangled.”

Much to my surprise, “Wreck-It Ralph” left me walking away with a wide grin and a full heart, something that the Pixar movies of my youth like “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” did so well.  It’s a movie with undeniable charm and a winning spirit, one that envelops you in a giant bear hug.  Not to mention, it also boasts a brilliant script with pop culture references and cleverly constructed worlds and humor not unlike what DreamWorks Animation did particularly well in the “Shrek” films.

It also rolls deep with an impressive voice cast, adding another dimension of enjoyment to the proceedings.  They could not have picked a better person than John C. Reilly to play Wreck-It Ralph.  As a video-game villain who just wants people to recognize him, Reilly is able to bring all the same sympathetic sad-sack pity that he used as Amos Hart (Mr. Cellophane) in “Chicago.”  The innocence in his voice and the yearning to be accepted come across in Ralph’s first monologue, and we are on his side from the get-go as he tries to find someone to appreciate him.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Take This Waltz

6 08 2012

Michelle Williams, fresh off a Best Actress nomination for “My Week With Marilyn,” disappointingly dials down the charm back down to “Blue Valentine” levels for her latest film, “Take This Waltz.”  It’s a return, though not necessarily a regression, to the familiarly frumpy, downtrodden women who prefer to express their thoughts by gazing at the ground rather than through words.  Williams is a fantastic actress, and she pulls it off so well time after time – but I think it’s time to start expecting more from her.

Her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe was far more than a caricature or an impersonation; it was spirited, sexy, and oh so soulful.  It was definitely outside Williams’ comfort zone, yet she totally nailed it!  I think “My Week With Marilyn” is hardly her limit, and the longer she dwells in her pre-Marilyn state of mind, the more disappoint her post-Marilyn films are going to feel.   (Yes, “Take This Waltz” was filmed first, but virtually no one saw it first.)

Perhaps it’s less the archetype I’m frustrated with and more her character in Sarah Polley’s sauntering drama.  As a sullen Toronto-dweller bored in her marriage, she begins to ponder an affair with the literal boy next door … well, down the street.  Daniel, a shyly passionate artist as well as rickshaw for money, is the man who will indulge her deepest sensual passions and go through the Kama Sutra with her.

But she’s married to the sweet, good-hearted poultry chef Lou, played with good-natured charm by Seth Rogen.  He has moments where perhaps he seems content to let the spark go out of their marriage, although it’s always clear that he’s the man we should be rooting for because he does care for her and will always love her deeply.

The decision is overwrought and strung out over nearly two hours when it could have easily been compressed to 90 minutes.  Sarah Polley’s camera does dazzle more than the usual quiet indie drama.  However, the story those images serves to complement is little more than a segment from “He’s Just Not That Into You” that fashions itself to be a drama.  C+