REVIEW: The Dinner

3 05 2017

I’ve racked my brain for days. Still, I cannot find a scenario in which the same person who masterfully threaded the seven-character Bob Dylan opus “I’m Not There” could also write something as clunky as “The Dinner.” Pardon this casual dismissal, but just … woooof.

Oren Moverman’s film is a cheap knockoff of “Carnage” – both Yasmina Reza’s play and Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation – as it gathers wealthy individuals to gnaw at each other over the sins of their children. That film wasn’t even anything to write home about, but it at least found a claustrophobic consistency and stuck to it. Moverman hacks away at any building tension between the two couples by frequently cutting away with flashbacks and expository scenes.

Even when Moverman does center the action on the open loathing between a successful politician (Richard Gere) and his cynical brother (Steve Coogan), “The Dinner” falls flat. They don’t sound like people. They talk like characters. Every bloviating pontification reeks of unrealistic grandiloquence. I don’t buy that this manner of speaking is some kind of class marker, either. Moverman just cannot find the humanity in the people he puts on screen.

When evaluating films, director David Fincher says he operates on the following logic: “First I’m looking for the technical. Then the believable. Then the connection.” Moverman’s film never makes it past the first criterion. C-

REVIEW: Rules Don’t Apply

15 11 2016

rules-dont-applyPoor Warren Beatty. The man has been trying to make a passion project about Howard Hughes for the better part of four decades. The film faced significant challenges, including 2004’s biopic collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio that nabbed double-digit Oscar nominations.

12 years later, Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” finally makes it to the big screen only to have the misfortune of opening in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The timing doesn’t exactly feel right for a mostly breezy, old-fashioned tale about an eccentric and potentially deranged billionaire who wants to control women’s bodies and limit their personal freedoms. (A remark where a young actress declares, “I think Howard Hughes should be president, there’s no one else like him” is sure to inspire some nervous laughter.) To be clear, none of this is Beatty’s fault. He has no control over the circumstances under which his movie gets released.

But he did have control over what kind of movie he made. Beyond the unfortunate parallels to the man dominating global news headlines, “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a film built for the long haul – it is certainly not the kind of project that clearly evinces forty years of thought and development. After all that time, it feels like Beatty should have figured out the story’s protagonist – Hughes, his latest starlet prospect Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), or the married company driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) who falls for her against his better judgement. The film plays out as a series of loosely connected, scarcely progressing scenes involving these characters – nothing more.

Of the key trio, only Ehrenreich’s Forbes is a character deserving of his own film. Beatty plays Hughes as a slave to his obsessive-compulsive disorder, turning his neuroses into a joking psychosis. Collins, meanwhile, dashes through her lines with such speed that she delivers them without seeming to understand what any of them mean. Or, at the very least, she doesn’t feel them with any strong sense of purpose.

Ehrenreich, meanwhile, recalls the unflappability and easygoing cool of a ’90s Leonardo DiCaprio. As a corporate pawn torn between his show business attraction and his familial commitments, Forbes is the only person in “Rules Don’t Apply” whose path does not seem predestined. Too bad that Beatty did not line up the heft of the movie fully behind him. C-1halfstars

REVIEW: The Trip

16 08 2014

The TripThis summer, Adam Sandler made a few headlines for admitting a fact that shocked many but surprised few: his movies are essentially paid vacations.  Be it the countryside in “Grown Ups,” Hawaii in “Just Go with It,” or Africa in his latest disappointing film “Blended,” Sandler certainly knows how to milk the studio teat.

Across the pond, it would appear that Steve Coogan has figured out how to pull a similar magic trick.  He stars as himself in “The Trip,” a film where he gets to go around with his pal Rob Brydon (also playing himself) on a restaurant bender around England.  Surely at some point along the way, Coogan thought to himself, “My, this a great way to eat well and expense the meals to the BBC!”

The film is not without its entertaining moments – a spirited discussion of how to properly impersonate Michael Caine’s voice springs to mind – but this hour and a 45 minute trip feels like an exercise in self-indulgence above all else.  “The Trip” is a chance to spend time with Coogan and Brydon just … because.

To be fair, Coogan is a much bigger star in his native England.  In the United States, we know him mostly as a character actor from films such as “Tropic Thunder” and “The Other Guys;” he has only really begun to enter our consciousness as a public figure with the arrival of 2013’s “Philomena.”  As for Rob Brydon, I hadn’t heard of him before “The Trip” and haven’t heard from him since.

So maybe the concept would work better for me if it was done by two actors with whom I was more familiar.  If a sequel to “22 Jump Street” doesn’t happen, “The Trip” with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum would probably be just fine.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Philomena

13 01 2014

PhilomenaLondon Film Festival

At first glance, the real-life story of Philomena Lee would seem like the stuff of depressing drama. After being impregnated as a teenager, she is thrown into a convent and forced to sign away her son. 50 years later, Philomena (Judi Dench) is still haunted by his loss and embarks on a journey to find him – only to uncover some unsettling truths.

In the hands of the average screenwriter, “Philomena” would have emphasized the tragedy and milked the story for every tear possible. Yet Philomena’s quest is filtered through the lens of Steve Coogan (yes, Damien Cockburn from “Tropic Thunder,” among many other roles) and Jeff Pope’s unique worldview, making it a rather different movie. It definitely has its heart in the very heartbreaking dramatic truth of her life; however, it’s a surprisingly and heartwarmingly hilarious.

Much of the humor comes from Coogan’s own presence as an actor in the film, portraying Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who takes an interest in investigating Philomena’s past. He’s quite the counterpoint to her seemingly incurable optimism: having just been fired from his government job, he’s rather merciless and defeatist. Coogan and Dench don’t just have a standard comic man-straight man routine going, though. They each express their worldviews wittily and distinctly, with both having moments of vindication and defeat.

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REVIEW: What Maisie Knew

22 06 2013

Dramatizations of divorce from “Kramer vs. Kramer” to “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “A Separation” have been echoing the same message for years: though the process may be messy and sticky for the parents, the ultimate losers are the children.  “What Maisie Knew,” the latest entry into this canon, tries to offer something similar.  Largely shot from the eye level of its titular tyke, the film conveys successfully just how ugly and catty dissolving a marriage really gets.

Yet at the heart of “What Maisie Knew,” there’s a cruel irony that kept nagging at me as the film dragged on.  The movie scolds parents who forget about the children in the process of sorting out their issues, but “What Maisie Knew” does not practice what it preaches.  Like Julianne Moore’s hopelessly selfish mother Susanna and Steve Coogan’s ill-equipped workaholic father Beale, the filmmakers ultimately lose Maisie’s story and centrality.

By the second half of the film, Maisie is no longer the protagonist; she’s merely a means to an end.  Taking center stage is Alexander Skarsgard’s Lincoln, Susanna’s boyfriend who quickly gets thrust into the role of husband and stepfather, and Joanna Vanderham’s Margo, a former babysitter at the root of the divorce itself.  These two adults are interesting enough, to be sure, but I didn’t want to watch their story.

I came to watch Maisie and see how divorce affects poor, innocent children.  Newcomer Onata Aprile does a wonderful job eliciting sympathy and bringing emotion to her role.  It’s no Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but it’s still impressive.  Wallis was given the ability to carry her film, though, and the risk paid off in spades.  “What Maisie Knew” doubts its lead, and it’s a mediocre film at best because of its shaky confidence and erratic focus.  C+ / 2stars

REVIEW: Ruby Sparks

3 08 2012

My second review on this site was for a movie I was quite high on three years ago, “(500) Days of Summer,” and remain a big fan of to this day.  Back then, it was the little indie that could, a summer sleeper that provided a smile and welcome relief to canned romantic comedies like “The Ugly Truth,” and a nice reminder of the acting prowess of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  Then, it went mainstream, said the slightly bitter pseudo-hipster with a sigh.

Never could I have imagined that Marc Webb’s film could have been so influential.  Beyond just elevating Joseph Gordon-Levitt into major leading man status and turning Zooey Deschanel into the modern ideal of the “manic pixie dream girl,” the film made quirky a cool and acceptable facet for the genre.  “Ruby Sparks,” the sophomore film from the people that gave us the middling “Little Miss Sunshine,” attempts to dovetail the success of “(500) Days of Summer” by virtually replicating its emotional ride.

To be fair, “Ruby Sparks,” written by its star Zoe Kazan, is probably quite a bit smarter than its rom-com relative.  However, the film’s charms are far too easy to resist, namely because Kazan is a poor man’s Zooey Deschanel and Paul Dano is just a poor excuse for an actor in general.  They can sell the film on an intellectual level, but neither is particularly good at making us care.  Had it been Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in the highly-strung emotional climax, I’m convinced I would have been riveted and moved.  Instead, I just sat there pursing my lips like Miranda Priestly.

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REVIEW: The Other Guys

6 08 2010

Will Ferrell made a name for himself playing in the movie industry by playing some crazy larger-than-life characters, such as Buddy the Elf and Ron Burgundy. Recently, he has been tarnishing that name by playing Will Ferrell, or at least how we have come to perceive Will Ferrell: a lazy, pathetic, and fairly eccentric bum. After a series of unintentionally humorless flops, it’s hard to have confidence that “The Other Guys” could end the slump.

The movie isn’t great, certainly nowhere near the likes of “Elf” or “Anchorman,” but it’s a definite improvement from “Step Brothers” and “Land of the Lost.” The story and the characters still aren’t quite back in full force, yet there’s some comfort in seeing the return of a crucial ingredient – laughter.  Fairly often, a joke will fall flat or just not work quite right. But more often than not, they manage to work, and we laugh more than we wince.

This isn’t the movie to break Will Ferrell’s slump; however, it’s definitely a step in the right direction and hopefully the beginning of an upward trend. It definitely helps that he’s not playing some ridiculous moron but rather a regular Joe Schmoe moron, someone who might actually exist out there. While we’ve been there done that with Ferrell’s one-note comedy of bizarre characters, there’s something refreshing and, dare I say, exciting about watching him go off the beaten path for a while.

But there’s more to this movie than just reporting that Will Ferrell can be decent again. We can’t forget Mark Wahlberg, who plays a cop that is a complete polar opposite of his Staff Sgt. Dignam from “The Departed.”  While he got to play the ultimate hard Boston police officer in the 2006 Best Picture winner, he’s tackling a decidedly different role as Holtz, the paper-pushing officer stuck working with Ferrell’s pitiful Gamble.  Wahlberg has never been in a comedic movie before, yet it’s amazing how he blends right in as if we’ve been seeing him do these types of movies for years.  I won’t go as far as to call he and Farrell a new “odd couple” (a new favorite critical comparison), but they certainly do play off each other well throughout the movie.

It’s the two marquee names that carry the movie.  They don’t get any help from Eva Mendes, who plays Gamble’s smoking hot wife, or Steve Coogan, the Brit who plays the Wall Street scumbag who is meant to remind us of Bernie Madoff.  Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, the Dignams so to speak of the movie, aren’t in the movie long enough to produce many laughs, and the ones that they do were ruined in the trailer.  There are some nice running jokes with Michael Keaton, the police chief who moonlights at Bed Bath and Beyond, that wind up being funny after a few tries.  But have no doubt about it – this is Mark Wahlberg’s movie and it is Will Ferrell’s movie, for better or for worse.  B- /

REVIEW: Marmaduke

13 06 2010

You don’t have to read my whole review as long as you take this away from it: “Marmaduke” is one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and you are truly stupid if you choose to waste a perfectly good 90 minutes of your life watching it.

Now that I have that very strong statement out of the way, you can either spend your time listening to me malign every big name involved in this movie or simply take my word for it.  I will be brutal and unsparing; this is the movie that will really bring out the critic in me.  I’ve been waiting to unleash my wrath on something terrible enough to deserve it.  So here it goes.

I have to admire the boldness of Lee Pace, Judy Greer, and William H. Macy who had the guts to show their faces in this movie.  They didn’t hide in the recording studio or inside the potentially lovable body of an animal.  They actually dared to be the human face of the movie, risking association with the movie for the rest of their careers.  These three ought to be sending the marketing people at Fox some very large gift baskets for not advertising “Marmaduke” very much, because the fact that it was such a low-key campaign may save their reputations from being forever tarnished.

You would think that Owen Wilson has enough sense to choose a movie that has some kind of substance.  But even if you don’t have much respect for Owen Wilson, you might think Keifer Sutherland does.  Or Emma Stone (Jules from “Superbad”).  Or George Lopez.  Or Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin).  Or Steve Coogan.  Or Fergie.  Or Marlon Wayans.  Or Sam Elliott.

Like this cavalcade of stars?  Guess what, each and every one of them chose a movie that doesn’t deserve to take a poop in their yards.  Honestly, if any of these big names had shown their faces in “Marmaduke,” they would be firing their agents and calling their real estate agent to find the coziest cave in Beverly Hills.  It’s always a shame to see actors take on material that doesn’t deserve them, and “Marmaduke” is like a tragedy for each of these stars.  None of them put any effort into making this giant heap of poop any better, as if the subtext of every line is, “We feel you; we know this movie sucks.”

And don’t even get me started on the non-existent plot.  My theory is that the director scrounged a bargain bin of kids movies and came to shooting with the idea to rip off any one of them that might have worked.  So for every groan and eye roll you get in “Marmaduke,” you get to say to yourself, “Oh, I liked that better when I saw it in (INSERT ANY KIDS MOVIE TITLE HERE).”  So, by all means, if you want to feel immeasurable frustration with the endless banality Hollywood feeds to children, go right ahead and waste your life watching “Marmaduke.”  As the late Gene Siskel used to say, “It’s your life, and you can’t get that time back.”  D- /