Friday, September 22, 2017

Ben Stiller’s Squirm-Inducing Midlife Crisis Continues

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

BRAD’S STATUS (Dir. Mike White, 2017)



“Dad, are you having some kind of nervous breakdown or something?” asks Austin Abrams as Troy, the son of the neurotic worrywart Brad, played by Ben Stiller.

Brad denies it, but looking over the recent filmography of the 51-year old comic actor/writer/director who portrays him, it sure does seem like Stiller is found of having his midlife crisis play out over and over again on the big screen.

It can be traced back to Stiller’s 2008 satire TROPIC THUNDER, in which he starred as airheaded action star Tugg Speedman. In a clip of an interview with Access Hollywood, Tyra Banks puts it to Tuggman: “You’re on the wrong side of 40. You’re childless and alone. Somebody close to you said, ‘One more flop and it’s over.’” Stiller’s Speedman responds, “Somebody said they were close to me?”

But the crisis really began in earnest with Noah Baumbach’s GREENBERG (2010). Stiller played the title role, a miserable misanthrope who sabotages every potential relationship with his miserable misanthropy after suffering, yep, a nervous breakdown.

After some forgettable commercial comedies - THE WATCH, TOWER HEIST, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY - Stiller teamed up with Baumbach again for much more successful look at the neuroses around aging: 2015’s WHILE WE’RE YOUNG. In it Stiller plays yet another New Yorker, a documentary filmmaker who, with his wife played by Naomi Watts, befriends a young hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) because he longs to be young and hip again.

Even Stiller’s ZOOLANDER 2 from earlier this year touched on this theme with Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and Owen Wilson’s Hansel being tricked into wearing garish red jumpsuits that say “Old” and “Lame.”

So that brings us to Mike White’s BRAD’S STATUS, which features Stiller as a guy who is tormented by thoughts of being a failure while on a trip to visit prospective colleges in the Boston area with his son, the aforementioned Abrams. Brad runs a non-profit in Sacramento, has a lovely wife played by Jenna Fischer, and a 19-year old son who could possibly get into Harvard, but he can’t help thinking about his college buddies who are all much bigger successes than him.

Brad feels not just “fleeting jealousy, but real pain” when he sees his old pal Craig Fisher, played with supreme smarm by Michael Sheen, on TV as a political pundit/ bestselling author. He feels the same about seeing that his former friend, a bigtime movie director played by the film’s writer/director White, has his house in Architectual Digest, and hearing that another buddy portrayed by Owen Wilson, is a extremely wealthy business man with his own jet. Oh, yeah, there’s also Jermaine Clement as a retired internet mogul who lives in Hawaii with two young girlfriends.

So comparatively, Brad feels he’s got nothing to show for his life of hard work, and that there’s no potential there for anything better, but learning that his son has a shot at Harvard may yet be the light at the end of the tunnel.

Abrams’ Troy is weirded out by his Dad’s behavior, but deals with it admirably. They go out to dinner with musician friends of Troy’s played by Shazi Raja and Luisa Lee, and Brad is smitten with these young ladies while cynical about their idealism, which he believes will fade like his has.

While Brad only speaks on the phone with his friends played by Clement, and Wilson, he meets Sheen’s Craig Fisher for a meal, but it doesn’t go well. In fact, after the Roger Moore-athon impression dueling in THE TRIP TO SPAIN, it’s the most cringe-worthy scene in an independent film this year.

BRAD’S STATUS is funny, but not laugh out loud funny, it’s more inner squirm funny. Stiller’s Brad has fantasies throughout the film about his friend’s charmed lives, and they are among the film’s most amusing moments, but the movie is best when it makes us nod and relate with Brad’s reckoning with his relevance. This comes in the form of Stiller’s voice-over narration, a device that is often overused, but White’s writing which within them takes on various relatable rationales and dark avenues of thinking, is pleasurably on point.

A thoughtful and witty indie that while it dances on the edge of being a downer, BRAD’S STATUS has as much of a hopeful gleam in its eye as its protagonist does when he cries at a climatic classical concert involving Raja playing flute to the accompaniment of Lee on violin. It’s a scene that’s as squirm-inducing as it is moving, but by that point in the film, you’ll be used to that.

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Friday, September 01, 2017

THE TRIP TO SPAIN: Third Time Is Not The Charm

Opening today at an indie art house near me:

THE TRIP TO SPAIN (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2017)



So, just like in the first two TRIP films (THE TRIP and THE TRIP TO ITALY), it begins with a phone call between Welsh comedian/T.V. personality Rob Brydon and the much better known British actor/writer/producer Steve Coogan.

“Let’s do a series of restaurant reviews - this time, a trip to Spain for the New York Times,” Coogan suggests to Brydon and off we go for another round of immaculate meals at posh restaurants, where the dinner conversation consists of dueling celebrity impressions.

The traveling fine dining duo trot out their comical takes on the voices of Michael Caine (one of their specialties), Mick Jagger, John Hurt, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, and Roger Moore, among others (this film is heavy on the Moore mimicry, which is interesting because it was shot in 2016, way ahead of the James Bond actor’s death in May of this year).

They take a road trip along the coast of Spain, stopping in villages and towns such as Getaria, Hondarribia, Santiago de Compostela, Sos del Rey Católico, Prejano, and Cuenca, Almagro, and Granada.

Now I had to look those places up (thanks to The Telegraph’s The stunning filming locations from the Trip to Spain), because they aren’t identified in the movie. Neither are the names of the restaurants they visit, which is odd because they are supposedly reviewing them, and they frequently cut to shots of the chefs preparing their food in the kitchen. Apart from that, there’s not many shots of the food either.

No, the scenery and foodie theme is just a backdrop to the impressions with each droll broke improving bits and skits with their exaggerated characterizations.

This can get pretty annoying especially when the impressions falter. We learn that Coogan does a better Jagger than Brydon (Brydon even does Jagger doing Michael Caine at one point), Brydon does a better Sean Connery than Coogan, but neither of their Roger Moore voices is spot on, though Brydon’s comes the closest.

This makes for most cringeworthy scene in the movie, where Brydon rambles on and on as Moore while Coogan, and their lovely lady guests (Claire Keelen, Marta Barrio) sit by awkwardly trying to converse.

They have these meals, then retire to their hotel rooms and have phone conversations – Coogan with his agency, son, and girlfriend; Brydon with his wife and an agent claiming he can make him a big star. These suggest conflicts and some sort of plot development but not much comes from them, it’s always back to the impressions.

This is frustrating because Coogan has a possibly juicy storyline about a project he’s working on – a follow-up to PHILOMENA, which he starred, co-wrote, and produced – getting green lit, but they want to bring in another writer. Coogan starts off the film on a high from his success with PHILOMENA (something that he brings up often), but there are hints that his star isn’t on the rise anymore, while Brydon, happily married with kids, may be on the verge of a breakthrough but these ideas never go anywhere.

Instead we get scenes of these guys dressing up like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot, and making a stop at the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña in Jaca, Spain, which is fabled to be the resting place of the Holy Grail - something they, of course, riff on.

As with the previous films, THE TRIP TO SPAIN is the result of six episodes of the BBC TV series of the same name being edited together into a feature film. This makes me wonder if this material might be less tedious in its original format.

What we have here is a aimlessly talky travelogue, with these sad blokes doing endless impressions for an overlong running time (the film is one hour, 47 min). Despite some funny moments, such as Brydon’s Brando reciting Monty Python’s “The Spanish Inquisition” sketch, and incredible looking locations, this third time is not the charm.


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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Summing Up The Cinematic Summer Of 2017


Reportedly this summer was the lowest grossing at the box office in many years. The low turnout can be blamed on franchise fatigue (more ALIENS, APES, CARS, TRANSFORMERS, and PIRATES, anybody?), the abundance of big budget bombs (THE MUMMY, KING ARTHUR: THE LEGEND OF THE SWORD, DARK TOWER, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS), and all the good TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Twin Peaks: The Return, Game of Thrones, and Glow competing for people’s attention. But whatever the case, despite several gems, it’s been an abysmal season crowded with bland blockbuster wannabes.

It started off promising last May with James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, a solid sequel to the big Marvel hit from three summers ago. GOTGV2 had a juicy role for Kurt Russell as the father of Chris Pratt’s character, Peter Quill (or Star Lord, if you prefer), a bunch of amusing action sequences and gags, and a stellar soundtrack going for it, and audiences responded by making it the third top grossing movie of the year. Read my review.


The next few sequels that followed - Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT, David Bower’s DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: THE LONG HAUL, and Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES came and went quickly, with only PIRATES turning a profit despite bad reviews (it’s at 30% on the Rottentomatometer). I only saw PIRATES of these three, and I'm pretty tired of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack schtick so I didn’t care for it (read my review: PIRATES 5: DEAD MEN TELL NO NEW TALES), but at least I enjoyed the Paul McCartney cameo.

I wanted to see the latest ALIEN sequel on the big screen, but didn’t get around to it. I’ll probably catch it someday on Blu ray or streaming, but I’m not really dying to.

Early June, the summer was shaken up by the major success of Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN, the first actually good movie of the new DC Extended Universe. 

The gorgeous Gal Gadot portrays the iconic superheroine in the WWI era adventure, and with the help of Chris Pine, and a supporting cast including Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis, she lassoed up a satisfying piece of entertainment (read my review). Now, I’m just waiting for Zack Snyder to get the franchise back off track with JUSTICE LEAGUE (also featuring Gadot) this November. 

Another superhero favorite, Spider-Man, returned the next month, and restored the character to his former glory after Marc Webb’s forgettable THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies with Andrew Garfield. Featuring a likable kid in the form of Tom Holland, who was introduced in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, the extremely fun (and funny) experience of John Watts
 SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was embraced by moviegoers to the tune of over $300 million, and critics to the tune of a 92 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. Read my review.

Another sequel that did well at the box office was Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin, and Eric Guillon
’s DESPICABLE ME 3 (though not great critically – 61% on Rotten Tomatoes), but not being a fan of the series or the whole Minions thing for that matter, I opted out.

Of the other summer sequels, I took a hard pass on CARS 3 as the CARS series is my least favorite Pixar franchise, but I took in Matt Reeves THE WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, and found it to be a good not great entry in the rebooted series. It contains some powerful visuals, the enjoyable comic relief of Steve Zahn voicing one of the few talking apes who calls himself “Bad Ape,” and Woody Harrelson as the villain, a sinister Colonel who wants to kill off Andy Serkis’ ape leader Caesar and his army, but it’s never been one of my favorite franchises, and I’m not really itching to see more APES movies after it. 

As for the fifth TRANSFORMERS movie, which made over $600 million yet is still considered to be an underperformer - I have never seen one of the TRANSFORMERS movies all the way through, and Im not considering changing that.

One of the worst, if not the worst, movies of the summer was Alex Kurtzman’s THE MUMMY, which was primed to kick off Universal’s Dark Universe series, but its commercial and critical failure (here
s my pan) may cause the powers that be to reconsider things. Tom Cruise is bound to do much better in the Doug Liman
’s upcoming AMERICAN MADE, which is getting some early buzz, so don’t worry about him - he’ll be just fine.

The comedy genre fared horribly during the summer months with flops such as Lucia Aniellos ROUGH NIGHT (saw it - lame waste of a talented cast headed by Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon), Jonathan Levines SNATCHED (didn’t see it, but it looked lame - sorry, Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn), Seth Gordons BAYWATCH (another I skipped for what should be an obvious reason), and Andrew Jay Cohens THE HOUSE (also didn’t see despite being a fan of both Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) which was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences.

However, in the world of independent film, there was a comedy this summer, a rom com no less, that did great business, and got critical acclaim to boot: Michael Showalters THE BIG SICK. The film, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan is the story of how Nanjiani met his later wife, and stuck with her while she was in a coma, while dealing with her worried parents played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. It’s a real witty charmer that has now played for over eight weeks at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh where I work part time. I haven’t seen a movie connect with audiences at our local indie arthouse like it has in a long time. My review.

A few other indies that didn’t connect as well: Trey Edward Shults’ IT CAME AT NIGHT and David Lowery’s A GHOST STORY. Of these, the former, starring Joel Edgerton as a man whose family is holed up in a house in the country while a plague ravages the land, had its edgy moments but was far from fully fleshed out, while the later, featuring Casey Affleck as a ghost - in a white sheet with eye holes, mind you – was just plain weird as I wrote in my review.

In the non franchise department, there’s Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER, a crackling crime thriller, with a great cast including Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx, and an even better soundtrack. It wowed crowds and critics, including me as I declared in my review that it was the best film of the summer.

Another non sequel that I enjoyed was David Leitch’s ATOMIC BLONDE, starring Charlize Theron as a kick ass MI6 field agent on a mission in West Berlin during the waning days of the cold war. It’s a bit uneven and wonky at times, but has some excellent set pieces including a stunning fight in a stairwell, a sharp lead performance by Theron, and a well chosen ‘80s soundtrack. Hmm, that’s three films this summer with great soundtracks – not bad.

Up there with BABY DRIVER in quality is Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, an immersive war epic that I’m glad I saw in 70 mm. I had a few issues with its structure, which I discussed in my post, Notes on DUNKIRK, but was overall impressed by Nolan’s work, his best since INCEPTION. I bet we’re going to hear a lot more about it come Oscar season.

Lastly, I hate to say I was disappointed in Steven Soderbergh’s late summer entry, LOGAN LUCKY, which many critics have praised.

I loved its premise – a hillbilly heist centered around robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway in my homestate of N.C. – and its cast including Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and especially a bleach blond Daniel Craig – but the job is pulled off with very little conflict, the stakes don’t feel very high as folks can be broken out of and back into jail for the caper with ease, and none of these people are believably related to each other – Driver and Tatum sure don’t look or act like brothers, nor do Craig and the two hayseeds (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) who are supposed to be his kin. Still, there were some amusing moments, and I appreciate the effort by Soderbergh to do a variation on his OCEAN’S ELEVEN movies, even if I’m not a fan of those either.

So that’s the summer of 2017 at the movies. One could argue that a season that boasts the likes of BABY DRIVER, DUNKIRK, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, WONDER WOMAN, and THE BIG SICK can’t be completely written off, but that’s only six films out of over 40, so sadly they weren’t enough to save the summer from sucking. The fall, where historically the films get better, can’t come soon enough.


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