REVIEW: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

22 08 2016

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenSay what you want about John Krasinski’s directorial debut, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” but you cannot say the film does not fulfill its title. At just 80 minutes, it is brief. The film consists primarily of interviews of males conducted by conducted by graduate student Sarah Quinn (Julianne Nicholson). And for the most part, they are, in fact, rather hideous.

These men are not murderers and rapists; they are mostly just average schmoes with the potential for violence and misconduct lurking underneath their civilized veneers. All Sarah has to do is poke a tiny hole with her questioning, and it opens up their insides to reveal startlingly primal forces at the wheel of the decision-making process. While Nicholson does a fine job with her probing, it’s hard to shake the sense that most of the heavy-hitting investigation comes from Wallace as a writer – not from her as a character.

Krasinski’s first outing as a director seems primarily focused with letting the words shine and the performances breathe. (Two very important tasks, mind you!) He treats Wallace’s prose with the sanctity of a theatrical director regarding the words of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, which might explain why so much of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” feels like filmed theater. It’s a show I’d want to see, though – particularly one centered around Krasinski’s own character in the film, Ryan. He delivers a powerful nine-minute monologue that deserves to serve as the climax of an entire film about his character, not just a mere episode in a collection of vignettes.

But “Brief Interviews from Hideous Men” comes from a collection of Wallace’s short stories, and the film retains that sense of brevity. Like many an episodic narrative, it practically invites being judged and weighed as a collection of parts rather than their sum. Some portions work; others drag. Some interviews enlighten; others preach to the choir. All of brief, for better or for worse. B-2stars

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REVIEW: Keanu

26 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

The hype surrounding the film festival environment leads even seasoned veterans like myself into making questionable life decisions. On my second day at SXSW, I hustled to the Austin Convention Center at 8:30 A.M. to get a prime seat for a talk with comedy qweens Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. That very same evening, after a full day of interviews and screenings, I decided it would be a great idea to go see the work-in-progress screening of “Keanu,” starring the comedy team Key & Peele. Who cares that the show was at 12:30 A.M. and, because of the daylight savings time change, would not let out until 3:30 A.M.? Minor details.

Was I in the best state to watch a film? Gosh no. But if “Keanu” could keep me (mostly) awake and (mostly) entertained, then it ought to pack a real wallop for anyone viewing under normal conditions.

The film seems reverse engineered from all the things people love to share on my Facebook news feed: cat memes, irreverent ’90s action film-style violence and the sketch comedy of Key & Peele. “Keanu” could not tee up its stars for more success, plunging their thinking man’s wit into the absurd world of the Los Angeles criminal underground once their pet cat gets kidnapped. Yep, you read that correctly. (To be fair, the cat did escape from a drug lord.)

After pushing buttons and boundaries with their provocative Comedy Central show, Key & Peele’s first foray onto the silver screen resembles 2010’s “Date Night” more than anything else. Remember that movie? With Steve Carell and Tina Fey, who were still involved in their hit NBC sitcoms? You might not because it was sub-par material, but you might have some faint recollection because those two stars brought their A-game and elevated the script to decent effect.

“Keanu” does the same for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The script (co-written by Peele with Alex Rubens) has its fair share of great comedic set pieces and hilarious one-liners. It stops short, however, of the depth of satire Key & Peele normally utilize to probe questions of race, gender and class. That slight disappointment mostly comes afterward, though. In the moment, it is mostly just amusing and ridiculous to watch a cat meme come to life as a full-length feature. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Nebraska

25 01 2014

Cannes Film Festival – Official Competition

It’s tempting to analyze frequent writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, and Noah Baumbach as if both their contributions to a film are co-dependent upon each other. Especially for someone like me, who values the power of the written word, it’s easy to think that a good script might just direct itself.

Nebraska,” a film directed but not written by Alexander Payne, offered a unique chance to observe his helming prowess independent of his writing. As it turns out, maybe I’m a bigger fan of Payne’s writing than I am of his directing. Payne’s critical stance towards his native Midwest almost seems to be working against the gentle tenderness of Bob Nelson’s script.

Payne’s previous scripts have all had a certain kind of bite to them. Perhaps that comes with the territory, though, as they mostly explore people going through crises – midlife, old age, the death of a spouse. “Nebraska” is remarkably simple, a tale of a grown son indulging his demented father in a road trip to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearinghouse prize.

For such a quaint tale, it’s refreshing to see a cast so free of pre-existing iconography assembled for “Nebraska.”  Perennial character actor Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a patriarch of no particular distinction other than his unrecognized charity.  He’s calculatedly remote, both out of learned habit and elderly retreat.  Woody is often absent, but Dern is always present, making his character most alive in those dead moments.  It’s fascinating to watch the way he slowly reveals what Woody has mostly kept silent for years to a son with whom he’s not particularly close.

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REVIEW: MacGruber

2 12 2010

There’s a great scene in “MacGruber” where Kristen Wiig really finds her comedic element.  Forced to masquerade as the titular tacky, mulleted ’80s mock-action hero, she futzes around awkwardly in a coffee shop and tries to explain to the cashier what’s going on.  It’s reminiscent of some of her golden work on “Saturday Night Live,” where she can turn just about any character into a hilarious one.

But alas, that is one scene, and this one moment of laughter is nowhere near enough to redeem the other 90 minutes of “MacGruber” that are void of it.  Honestly, whoever let this movie pass needs to be locked in a room with a bomb and left to defuse it with nothing.  These sketches have been trite filler for “SNL” for three years, and the only laughs they garner are uneasy ones.  Not to mention it’s a movie centered around Will Forte, who is often so pathetic that it becomes painful to watch.

Throwing Ryan Phillipe into the mix to give the movie’s acting corps some legitimacy outside of 30 Rock just makes things worse.  Trying to take the movie seriously, Reese Witherspoon’s frosty-curled ex-husband just looks like a buffoon.  It’s not difficult to understand that there’s nothing serious about this movie; “MacGruber” is a ridiculous, farcical send-up of the ridiculous 1980s action movies.  There’s no shame in presenting a movie in this style – provided that the satire is done well.  In this case, it feels like the movie was written on the back of cue cards for yet another uninspired “What’s Up With That?” sketch.

There are movies that beg you not to be taken seriously, and then there are those that beg you not to take the craft of cinema seriously.  “MacGruber” is the latter of the two, trying to fly on the flimsy premise that a sketch that can barely sustain two minutes on TV could make an entertaining movie that’s 45 times bigger.  Perhaps Lorne Michaels will come up with a more clever way to make money off this movie in the future: take “MacGruber” off the case and slap on the title “The Worst of Will Forte.”  D