Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Generation Slacker: "Get a Job" veers from sincere and likable to dumb and disposable

Get a Job (2016)
83 min., rated R.

Miles Teller and Anna Kendrick look four years younger in “Get a Job,” a millennials-join-the-workforce comedy that was shot back in 2012, delayed and only now receiving a simultaneous limited theatrical and VOD release. Usually it spells disaster when a film takes a long, winding road before being unleashed to audiences, but this particular one is more of a slight, mildly amusing piffle. Even if it might not be worth the effort to go out and see, “Get a Job” is so middling that it just leaves one indifferent rather than angry.

Fresh out of college, 22-year-old Will Davis (Miles Teller) comes to think that his internship at L.A. Weekly as a video content producer promises him work, until that position is downsized. His girlfriend, Jillian (Anna Kendrick), has landed a job as a junior sales analyst at Johnson & Johnson and supports him through his trial of finding a back-up plan, while Will’s videogame-playing slacker roommates Ethan (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charlie (Nicholas Braun) and Luke (Brandon T. Jackson), respectively, get by as an app creator, a middle school science teacher and a Wall Streeter. After a short stint of working the desk of a motel where he was blinded by a prostitution ring, Will tries borrowing money from his father, Roger (Bryan Cranston), who’s then laid off from his management job after 30 years. Then they all have to—let’s say it together, class—get a job.

Directed by Dylan Kidd (2002’s “Rodger Dodger”) and written by Kyle Pennekamp and Scott Turpel, “Get a Job” wants to have it both ways—a reality-based dramedy sprinkled with bong hit and bodily fluid gags—but it was on more of a roll before thinking it's giving the masses what they want. For the first half, the film is episodic and more about observing than being in pursuit of a focused plot. And then a urine-specimen mishap regrettably comes into play and suddenly there’s a shift into corporate office hazing involving the downing of deer semen. How did we get here?

The talented actors are solid with what they've been given but aren't miracle workers, either. Before “The Spectacular Now” and “Whiplash,” Miles Teller showcases his then-blossoming mix of low-key charm and bravado that never fails to appeal. Anna Kendrick is always a bright presence just by showing up, but her character’s conflict is barely even explored. That’s better than the rest of the women in the cast, all of them game, but Alison Brie’s Tanya is a weirdly open nymphomaniac who upon hiring Will nearly goes into the bathroom with him while he urinates for a drug test, and Marcia Gay Harden is the ball-busting communications corporation employer who literally tells Will, “I own you.” Of Will’s perpetually stoned, videogame-playing roommates, Nicholas Braun, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Brandon T. Jackson are occasionally funny and somehow don’t grate on one’s nerves. As Roger, who somehow keeps the loss of his job from his wife while he sits in a coffee shop with his barista muse and keeps being rejected due to his age, Bryan Cranston is the one adult performer who comes the closest to acting like an adult. 

Likable in spurts but too uneven in what it actually accomplishes, “Get a Job” does ultimately have its heart in the right place, aiming to zero in on the current generation’s post-college unemployment dilemma many graduates experience. It could have remained smart and relatable, too, had the filmmakers not dumbed down their story with easy, pandering National Lampoon-esque jokes. The cast goes a long way in easing the pain, but the end result also isn't worthy of the talent it has drawn. If it's been collecting dust this long, perhaps a little more time on the shelf wouldn't have made much of a difference.


Monday, March 28, 2016

Bigger, Fatter and Greeker: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" a trifling sequel that's still amusing and sweet

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016) 
94 min., rated PG-13.

It was easy to fall for the unassuming charms of 2002’s affectionate, massively likable sleeper comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”—a box-office smash that grossed more than $300 million—but if the appeal of the independent original was Greek to you, then it’s probably best to sit out the belatedly conceived “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.” There really wasn’t a demand for a sequel 14 years later, even after 2003 spin-off TV series “My Big Fat Greek Life” was canceled after only 7 episodes, and yet, it leaves you grinning anyway. Contrived and more pleasant than surprising, the film is decidedly not deprived of its predecessor’s amiable, eager-to-please spirit, offering just enough amusement and sweetness to sneak past a cynic’s defenses. 

Time-traveling must exist in this world because 17 years have actually passed on account of Toula (Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) having a 17-year-old daughter named Paris (Elena Kampouris), who’s constantly blushing as long as her wacky, meddlesome Greek family is around. Toula used to feel the same way, as her stubborn, old-fashioned parents, Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan), kept drilling into her head the supposed importance of finding a Greek man to marry until meeting the WASPish Ian. No longer a travel agent due to the state of the economy, she still helps out her dad with the family business at restaurant Zorba’s and volunteers where she can but doesn’t make time for romance with her husband. With Paris in the midst of applying to colleges, Toula and Ian (and their big Greek family) also wouldn’t mind if their baby stayed in Chicago and went to Northwestern University. Meanwhile, as Gus attempts to use the computer to prove to everyone that Alexander the Great is part of their Greek ancestry, he learns that he and Maria are not legally married without their priest’s signature on their marriage certificate. That can only mean one thing: it’s time for another big, fat Greek wedding! 

As Kirk Jones (2012’s “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”) directs Nia Vardalos’ script this time, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” still feels like a sitcom too broad and boisterous even for the big screen, but like its predecessor, it finds some actual honesty in the stereotypical ethnic humor next to the crowd-pleasing wackiness. In lieu of another archaic ugly-duckling arc for a fairy tale-ish happy ending, the writing here is sometimes wiser and refreshingly feminist. When Gus wants to officially marry Maria, she actually likes the independence and goes on a strike as a wife before her grouchy husband proposes to her in romantic fashion. At the same time, Paris wants to go to school out of state so she can experience life without being suffocated by her family, and she works up the guts to ask out a boy (Alex Wolff) to prom. A lot is packed into a breezily paced 94 minutes (including Joey Fatone’s cousin Angelo coming out to his family), but somehow, the film feels more like a slice-of-Greek-life than a pile of trifling plot threads vying for attention. 

Having starred in two other movies that she wrote (2004’s “Connie and Carla” and 2009’s “I Hate Valentine’s Day”), Nia Vardalos has never really been able to find another vehicle that matched the delightful spark of her first script. As the once-frumpy Toula, the warm and daffy Vardalos lights up the screen; yes, it’s a hacky cliché but the truth. Without being more overbearing than they are supposed to be, the ensemble seem to fully exist as real family members as the Portokalos clan. Michael Constantine is amusing and touching as the patriarch, and the brilliantly funny Andrea Martin grabs laughs every chance she gets, still a hoot mugging as the brassy Aunt Voula who makes everything her business. A new addition, Elena Kampouris does nice work as Paris. John Stamos and Rita Wilson (who co-produced both films with husband Tom Hanks) also join the cast, oddly showing up as a Greek doctor and his wife for no real reason. 

One “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” might have been enough, but a mildly enthusiastic response for this sequel is due to the likability of the cast. Script-wise, Nia Vardalos doesn’t rehash the same jokes too much (Gus only uses his fixes-everything Windex twice and grandmother Mana-Yiayia gets her goofy reaction shots) or repeat one too many times (Maria and Voula pull each other’s loose neck skin back for photos twice), while most of the humor is of the smile-and-nod variety. A handful of the jokes would seem to have worked better with the canned laugh track of a live audience, too, including a lame gag involving Gus needing help out of the bathtub after his hip gives out. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” may be a stale excuse to get everyone back together, but for an enjoyable family reunion, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Grade: C +

Friday, March 25, 2016

Serious vs. Serious: “Batman v Superman” ponderous, disjointed and hardly any fun

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
151 min., rated PG-13.

Together at last, two iconic superhero heavyweights share the same cinematic universe and the same space on screen. If only that proposition was captured in a better film that didn’t feel burdened by disjointed storytelling, studio meddling and misguided, even bad ideas. Feverishly anticipated as the second entry in the DC Extended Universe and a cross-over sequel to 2013’s “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is, rather shockingly, a crashing drag that tries but fails to tell a story leading up to a knock-down, drag-out fight in a bloated two and a half hours. At the mercy of Warner Bros., director Zack Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer have a heavy workload on their hands, trying to dovetail more plot than they know what to do with, but so much of it is free of the nuance that the script searches for and then compounds everything with a ceaselessly glum tone. Forget gritty and realistic; “ponderous” and “joyless” are the operative words here.

The story proper of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” begins with the destruction created by Superman and General Zod’s battle in Metropolis, albeit on the ground in the eyes of an angry Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) who can’t rescue a friend in time before the Wayne Industries building burns to the ground. Eighteen months later, Superman (Henry Cavill)—add glasses and he's nebbish reporter Clark Kent—while Bruce is still really pissed and jaded. Over in Gotham City, Bruce’s alter ego Batman is a vigilante criminal, literally branding bad guys with his symbol. To Bruce, Superman is a threat to everyone and he must be brought to justice. U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) and the public begin to question their city hero's actions when Superman is accused of killing African villagers after rescuing reporter girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from terrorists. Meanwhile, megalomaniac LexCorp CEO Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is busy playing the puppet master, getting his hands on Kryptonite found at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and pitting both heroes against each other. Oh, and the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) slinks around until the big boys need Wonder Woman’s help.

Despite attempts at levity—the only ones that actually work are supplied by Laurence Fishburne’s Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White—“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is so deathly serious that it risks putting audiences into a depression. Where is the fun? Where is the variance in tone? Do we really want our superhero movies to invoke 9/11? Why can’t this be a stand-alone film rather than a setup for the next payoff in the big universe? Perhaps director Zack Snyder was out of his depth. What he has done here serves to put into perspective the masterpiece that Christopher Nolan executed with 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Nolan managed to spin several plates with a complex, substantive script about the same behemoth length but with propulsive pacing and taut editing. That film was also dark, dark, dark but never smothered in oppressive gloominess as it is here. Lurching from thread to thread at a leaden pace with hacksaw editing, the storytelling is just messy. The film at least gets Batman’s already-known origins—young Bruce witnesses his parents murdered right in front of him and later falls into a batcave in the woods—over with rather efficiently. Then, in spite of making it a motif that has damaged Bruce Wayne, the character’s new lack of moral code never feels justified. Not only that, but director Snyder and the screenwriters employ too many dream sequences and visions, the laziest of storytelling crutches, that befuddle rather than inform or advance the plot in any way. Instead of just going about its own business, the overstuffed script digresses, repeatedly stopping the film dead in its tracks, and then awkwardly crams in flashes of characters (The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg) that we won’t officially meet until 2017’s “Justice League.” 

Given the fanboy outcry that erupted from the studio’s announcement that Ben Affleck would replace Christian Bale for this sequel, Affleck is actually one of the brighter spots. Heir to taking over an even darker, angrier incarnation of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Affleck looks internally conflicted and brings a world-weariness to the iconic character. Clunky modifications have been made to the bulked-up bat suit, making the chiseled actor look silly, but it's not Affleck's fault. Noble and stoic as Clark Kent/Superman, Henry Cavill once again looks the part, being sewn into that suit. He still hasn’t quite come into his own or warmed up to the viewer the way Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh have. It’s a lot of responsibility for one man insomuch that there’s little time to be charismatic, but had “Man of Steel” not introduced him, Cavill would be even more of a cipher. Amy Adams seems more comfortable here as Lois Lane, but aside from a nice, intimate moment with Clark in the bathtub, most of her screen time is spent being a hostage and a damsel-in-distress in need of saving. Following Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey’s versions of Lex Luthor, the miscast Jesse Eisenberg at least puts his own stamp on the role as a twitchy, unhinged genius and enlivens the doom and gloom with his hammy scenery-chewing. More than a threat, though, Luthor comes across as an entitled brat who could talk his enemies to death.

The rest of the cast is more than able: Holly Hunter has a few great moments opposite Eisenberg’s Luthor as Senator Finch; Jeremy Irons is proper re-casting but pretty much wasted as Bruce’s loyal butler and security chief Alfred; Diane Lane pops up late in the proceedings as Martha Kent and reliably conveys maternal warmth and concern before becoming a tortured pawn in Luthor’s grand plan; and reliable character actor Scoot McNairy does what he can as an embittered Wayne Enterprises employee injured from the Metropolis destruction. And, if you think this cinematic cupcake needs even more extra toppings, the introduction of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is a tacked-on tease. Gal Gadot does make an impression, but it only makes one wish they were watching her solo movie instead.

Like Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” the latter half of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is devoted purely to wanton destruction that becomes numbing, rhythmless sound and fury. Reducing buildings to piles of rubble is apparently all that matters, not perspective or sense. When the Son of Krypton and the Bat of Gotham are finally ready to duke it out, the film has already exhausted itself and the titular bout isn’t much more than underwhelming. What's left is a ridiculous, unearned pivotal moment that’s supposed to make the viewer believe these foes need to work together for another slugfest with a cheap-looking monster that ends up being a soulless mess of CGI. Also, it’s splitting hairs by now, but the film does a poor job of establishing the geography between Gotham City and Metropolis. Aren’t they just both New York but the different superheroes’ homes at night and in the daytime? And, this time with Anderson Cooper reassuring us that buildings are unoccupied, Snyder does right the wrong of his “Man of Steel” when Superman made a mess of his new home in Metropolis, allowing civilians to die, and then killed General Zod. There are minuscule grace notes—Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s moody, portentous music score unsettles and the electric-guitar cue for Wonder Woman’s entrance almost gets one amped up—but by the time the multiple false endings start stacking up, it's the final insult. Hardly any fun at all, this feels like studio-mandated filmmaking that has nothing on “Freddy vs. Jason.”

Grade: C - 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

We Like Her, We Really Like Her: Sally Field wonderful in sweet, painfully human “Doris”

Hello, My Name is Doris (2016)
95 min., rated R.

An eccentric woman of a certain age lusting after a younger man would seem like the condescending punchline in a sitcom, the cruel point of ridicule in a black comedy, or someone who needs to be issued a restraining order in a creepy horror thriller. In lieu of taking any of those wrong turns, “Hello, My Name is Doris” is a lovely, offbeat delight that adores its character but never lets her off easy, either. Everyone has a bit of "good weird" protagonist Doris Miller in them, and you should neither be fully proud nor fully ashamed of that. As character-driven and compassionately co-written by director Michael Showalter (who wrote 2001’s summer-camp satire “Wet Hot American Summer”) and screenwriter Laura Terruso (who adapted her short film “Doris & the Intern”), the film is also blessed to have Doris being played by the lovable, emotionally true (and lately overlooked) Sally Field.

National treasure Sally Field absolutely shines in her first lead role in more than two decades as Doris Miller, a quirky Staten Island spinster who marches to the beat of her own drum in the way she dresses—cat eye glasses, poodle skirts, big bows in her hair—and enjoys reading romance novels. She’s also technically a hoarder, placing sentimental value on everything she owns. When her mother passes away, Doris must go through all of her and her mother’s possessions that are seen as junk by her brother (Stephen Root) and sister-in-law (Wendi McLendon-Covey). On her way into Manhattan for work where her job is doing data entry in a cubicle, Doris gets pressed up against in the elevator and noticed by handsome thirtysomething John Fremont (Max Greenfield), the fashion firm’s new art director. Immediately, the senior has daydreams of John, and when she tells her same-aged friends, Roz (Tyne Daly) and Val (Caroline Aaron), it’s Roz’s 13-year-old daughter Vivian (Isabella Acres) who supports Doris and helps her create a fake Facebook account to connect with her crush and find common interests. When Doris realizes John is actually in a relationship, she’s lost on what to do.

To her younger co-workers (Natasha Lyonne and Kumail Nanjiani), Doris is just a cute, dotty old lady in her sixties. What’s most refreshing about the smart, fully realized writing and perfectly endearing performance of Doris is how she is able to embrace her eccentricities but not be treated as a joke or caricature. Grounded and nuanced by Sally Field, she feels like a real person, making mistakes and never above being a little selfish and dishonest. Given that most of the situations Doris finds herself in have to do with getting closer to John, the viewer will feel awkward for her and watch between his or her fingers but never dislikes Doris. She wants to make up for her lost years, having lost a chance to get married and do something with her life, and we want Doris to come out on top. As this character transforms, Field manages to be heartbreaking, hilarious and poignant.

While Field is the main ticket, the supporting cast is strong across the board. Smiling without coming off arrogant, Max Greenfield is warm and appealing as John, proper casting that ensures the viewer would develop a crush on him, too. He’s not a mere object of Doris’ desire, either, as he does lead the woman on a bit, even when it’s not a fantasy daydream of hers. Tyne Daly is also comedically spiky and heartfelt as Doris’ closest friend Roz, who speaks her mind. Stephen Root and a generally misused Wendi McLendon-Covey, as Doris’ brother Todd and his shrewish wife Cynthia; Elizabeth Reaser, as Doris’ therapist; and Beth Behrs (TV’s “2 Broke Girls”), as John’s likable aspiring-singer girlfriend Brooklyn, round out the cast.

It has been a while since Sally Field had a movie she could call her own, but she has found it in “Hello, My Name is Doris.” While Doris may want a May-December romance that has a bigger chance of happening in her dreams, her friendship with John never rings a false note. A sight gag early on involving John pumping more air into Doris’ self-deflated desk exercise ball while she’s still on it is a little forced but still absurdly amusing. There are a few times where it’s unclear if writer-director Michael Showalter and co-writer Laura Terruso want us to pity Doris, particularly when sabotage enters the story, but nine times out of ten, the film's tone and attitude are delicately handled. It’s sweet, funny, forlorn and painfully human, and anyone would have to be having a bad day if they didn’t come away charmed. We like Doris. We really like her.


Monday, March 21, 2016

More Like 'Indifferent': "Allegiant" only worthwhile for the devoted

Allegiant (2016)
121 min., rated PG-13.

By the third saga of a planned four-part film franchise, the “Divergent” series based on Veronica Roth’s YA trilogy is really hitting a wall — and not just the giant wall that keeps Chicago enclosed. If  “Insurgent” felt mostly like filler with a few standout set-pieces and welcomed experienced performers worthy of bringing even more substance (i.e. Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer), then “Allegiant” almost feels like a remake, just on the other side of that wall. It may be watchable for the extremely devoted, no matter the dip in quality or the sameness in the storytelling, but it’s more of a mind-wandering slog that limps along to a nowhere-special conclusion rather than somewhere worthwhile. 

If you don’t know Abnegation from Amity or Candor from Erudite, then “Allegiant” isn’t going to help any. After shooting Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) dead in the cliffhanging last shot of “Insurgent,” Factionless leader and Four’s mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts) keeps the gate closed and orders former leaders, who are alleged “traitors,” to be executed. On the run from Evelyn’s goons, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James), along with Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz), Peter (Miles Teller) and Tori (Maggie Q), escape Chicago by scaling the fence to The Fringe, which is like a desolate alien planet that rains blood-red. The survivors are then rescued by The Bureau of Genetic Welfare and introduced to a new society run by the director named David (Jeff Daniels). He has been waiting to meet Tris, whom he deems as the only genetically pure one to save the city and the world, while everyone else is apparently “damaged.” Meanwhile, a war is looming between Evelyn and former Amity speaker Johanna (Octavia Spencer).

Director Robert Schwentke and a new round of screenwriters—Noah Oppenheim (2014’s “The Maze Runner”) and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage (2015’s “The Transporter Refueled”)—are treading water at this point. The sense of mystery and discovery is thinning out: What’s out there beyond fenced-in Chicago? With Jeanine gone and her faction system disassembled, is there any real danger left for Tris and her posse? These questions are answered, but the answers aren't very interesting when there’s more exposition to be learned. In terms of look and style, “Allegiant” is slightly more imaginative, if not always more convincing, than the previous installments. In the film’s one thrilling action sequence, Tris and her crew climb up the wall, escape to the other side and roam the red planet that might as well be Mars. There’s also a visually strange “decontamination” gel that Tris is showered with, while the visual effects of the bubbles that transport our heroes to The Bureau look sillier than they should.

Shailene Woodley continues to carry the series with gravitas and depth, and her heart still seems to be in the role of Tris, but this story only has her going through the motions and acting beneath her intelligence. While Tris initially trusts David and is separated from her comrades to work with the director, it’s really Four who has to do most of the work up until he, himself, has to be rescued. Theo James hasn’t yet lost his powers to be easy on the eyes and has a bit more to do this go-round. Miles Teller is still up to his sarcastic relief as Peter, who’s back to being a snake in a grass when it comes to his shifting allegiances, while Ansel Elgort and Zoë Kravitz are reliable but underserved as Tris’ brother Caleb and her badass friend Christina. As opposing leaders Evelyn and Johanna, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer still look engaged and bring as much credibility as their limited material allows. For all intents and purposes, Jeff Daniels is appointed Kate Winslet’s Jeanine role as David. It’s pretty obvious David won’t be able to be trusted, but he does what he can with a standard villain.

Where “Allegiant” leads is not completely foreseeable; it’s just discouragingly dull and anticlimactic. The climax, which involves heading back to Chicago, the help of multiple drones, and a mind-wiping red gas that keeps on coming, has spurts of excitement, but it’s overlong. There isn’t enough suspense and too much time for the wheels to spin rather than push the proceedings forward. If this is the penultimate installment, there’s little to no anticipation for the fourth and final one. When the entire film is just an allegory about equality, what is really left to sustain more story? By the time the summer of 2017 rolls around for “Ascendant,” who’s to say that these dystopian YA novel adaptations won’t already have gone the way of the dodo?


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Guessing Games: "Road Games" offers an off-kilter mystique before pulling out the rug

Road Games (2016)
95 min., not rated (but equivalent of an R).

A twisty tease of a thriller can work effectively if it plays fair with the audience. “Road Games” does just that, playing right into expectations and then defying them. The familiar and unexpected are conjoined in British writer-director Abner Pastoll’s thriller that playfully keeps you guessing who has been holding the knife. The film has tricks up its sleeve not seen coming a mile away, even if they might not all stand up to close scrutiny in retrospect, but “Road Games” is as deceptively constructed as it is compelling.

Down south and now walking through the French countryside, British bloke Jack (Andrew Simpson) is just trying to get home to England. He tries hitchhiking, but no one will give him a ride since there’s a serial killer out there who finds his or her victims on the road. On his trek, he runs into a carefree French woman, Véronique (Joséphine de La Baume), who gets thrown out of a car after an argument with a boyfriend. After skinny-dipping and getting a little closer as traveling companions, Jack and Véronique finally get a ride from a man named Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot), who insists they come for dinner and stay the night in his rural home. Véronique is a little cautious about taking this stranger up on his offer, but once they arrive, Grizard’s artist American wife Mary (Barbara Crampton) immediately takes a liking to Jack since he speaks English. Of the four suspects, who will reveal him/herself/themselves as a killer or killers?

As soon as “Road Games” begins, the viewer is a witness to the alluded dismemberment and burial of a body. Beyond there being a killer out there, nothing is what it seems; that much is clear. Writer-director Abner Pastoll pulls just enough out of his characters to build subjective assumptions that will eventually change. Luckily, the story trajectory is not telegraphed too early nor is it too easy to predict when the red herrings are so savvily planted. Before the final reveals, the success of the film is owed deeply to the performances. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sour Grapes: Melissa Rauch makes mean and shrill look funny in "The Bronze"

The Bronze (2016)
108 min., rated R.

Like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa,” Cameron Diaz’s “Bad Teacher,” and Jason Bateman as a children’s spelling bee saboteur in “Bad Words,” Melissa Rauch plays a foul-mouthed, washed-up Olympic gymnast in “The Bronze,” an acrid and admittedly funny but simultaneously uneven black comedy for which mainstream audiences may not be prepared. Best known for her perky work on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” Rauch pulls no punches in the script she co-wrote with husband Winston Rauch, even as the piece-of-work creation she plays verges on one-note and just plain horrible. It comes as a shock to see the actress this prickly edged and uncompromised in her first lead role, but if "The Bronze" works at all and there's a reason worth feeling bad for laughing, it's because of Rauch’s daring, go-for-broke comic performance.

Ever since she tore her Achilles tendon and then won the Olympic bronze medal against the Russians in 2004, Hope Ann Gregory (Melissa Rauch) has seen herself as a star in her hometown of Amherst, Ohio. Never taking off her U.S.A. warm-up suit, she lives as if no time has passed, living at home with mailman father Stan (Gary Cole) and still receiving an allowance. Instead of looking for a job, Hope wastes money at the mall, or milks her third-place stardom for a free lunch at Sbarro, and steals money from letters on her father’s mail route. When Hope's estranged mentor Coach P. (Christine Abrahamsen) dies, she receives a letter that offers her $500,000 under one condition: coach 16-year-old gymnastics prodigy Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), a virginal, good-natured ball of enthusiasm, and take her to the Toronto Games. At first, Hope stops at nothing to sabotage Maggie, whether that means fattening her up with burgers and shakes or lacing her protein shake with marijuana, but might have a change of heart when it means getting that money and competing against cocky gold-and-silver winner Lance Tucker (Sebastian Stan). Hope will always think highly of herself as a “poster child for miracles,” but maybe the awkward gym manager Ben “Twitchy” (Thomas Middleditch), an old acquaintance with a facial tic, will thaw out her heart.

This being director Bryan Buckley’s feature debut, “The Bronze” is technically standard-issue, as far as his direction goes with getting all the small-town details right, but it really announces Melissa Rauch as a performer to watch. Make no mistake, her Hope Gregory is an insufferable pain in the ass. Very far away from her Bernadette Rostenkowski on the small screen, Rauch really goes for it as this nasally, entitled, delusional, unpleasant (and even a little dim) woman-child who deserves a slap in the face. When we first meet the petulant brat, she is in bed, masturbating to her televised triumph on VHS. Upon finishing, Hope snorts a line of Claritin. She tells her dad to stop treating her like she’s five years old, even though she acts like an unexorcised Regan MacNeil. For a large chunk of the film, the viewer laughs at how awful she is and cannot believe most of the vulgar monstrosities that come out of her mouth (“Absence makes the dick grow harder,” she tells Maggie and her new boyfriend). There comes a point, though, where Hope must get her comeuppance, and it sort of comes.

For the first half-hour or so, “The Bronze” is set in one shrill, mean-spirited key, but it’d be a lie if one said it wasn’t funny. Fortunately, the supporting cast is given enough to do in leavening Hope’s venom. Gary Cole is quite good as Hope’s widower dad, particularly in one scene where he finally gives it to his daughter in a Toronto hotel room. Thomas Middleditch’s “Twitchy” will obviously fall for Hope by the last frame, even if it only cursorily convinces, but he’s a charming guy in his own right with enough of a backbone, and their date in the mall after-hours is the film’s sweetest moment. Haley Lu Richardson, whom the film is a little cruel to as the talented Maggie, is a cheery standout, and a well-cast, slick-looking Sebastian Stan is a co-participant in cinema’s most uproarious, intricately choreographed sex scene between gymnasts. Brazenly appalling and independently flavored, “The Bronze” doesn’t adeptly intermingle pathos with its nasty humor to compete with the best dark comedies out there that also have unlikable protagonists. As burnt-black as a comedy can get and still be as palatable without selling out, this is a sour and mean little movie with teeth and a sliver of sweetness. Hope isn’t going to grow up or become a nicer person overnight, but her sharp tongue is hard to resist anyway.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

West to Midwest: “Take Me to the River” could be more fully formed but holds a quiet power

Take Me to the River (2016)
84 min., not rated (but equivalent of a PG-13). 

“Take Me to the River” is one of the strangest coming-of-age indies in quite a while, and that’s hardly a criticism. A strong feature debut from writer-director Matt Sobel, the film plays out with a quiet simplicity from a storytelling perspective but provides much to ponder about youthful curiosity and family secrets. Everything about the coming-of-age subgenre would seem to have been done already, but instead of feeling like Cliché City, it is honest and meditative, more like a “Mean Creek” than “The Way Way Back.” Sobel develops queasy tension within an estranged family dynamic through a naturalistic, understated visual style without actually building to anything. Even with a lot being left unsaid, it’s still powerful.

Openly gay California 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) is about to arrive in Nebraska for a family reunion on his grandmother’s farm with parents Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff). Cindy is something of a liberal black sheep in her family, having left the midwest for the west coast, so she tells her son not to make his sexuality a big deal. At the picnic, Ryder is comfortable enough in his own skin that he opts to wear his short red shorts and ‘80s-style sunglasses, despite being made the object of ridicule by his male cousins. Something much worse happens when Ryder goes off with precocious 9-year-old cousin Molly (Ursula Parker) and she comes out screaming with a spot of blood on her dress. Keith (Josh Hamilton), Molly’s father and Ryder’s uncle, is quick to react, instantly accusing his nephew of abusing his daughter and reopening a schism between Cindy’s immediate family and everyone else.

Where “Take Me to the River” goes from there is not obvious, only suggested, but it takes the viewer through an uncomfortable slice-of-Midwestern-life that aligns us with Ryder and the infuriating position in which he is placed. The performances are uniformly excellent, a restrained and relatable Logan Miller (2015’s “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) leading the way as Ryder, whose confusion arises from the extended family around him and not his sexual identity. As Molly, Ursula Parker (TV’s “Louie”) could be shaping up to be one of the better child performers out there, as she seems to know exactly how to play a scene that’s intended to rely on ambiguity and discomfort. Robin Weigert finds nuances in her portrayal of Cindy, a mother who’s concerned but doesn’t want to make waves with her family. Josh Hamilton comes close to overplaying Keith as a redneck caricature, being a gun-happy conservative with a pick-up truck, but he’s even more intensely menacing when his character invites Ryder over for dinner.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton, “Take Me to the River” captures the sweltering heat and pastoral tranquility in the country with cornfields and a nearby river. On a deeper level beyond the technical, the film is more ambiguous, feeling unfinished without as much payoff as there should be but thankfully resisting big reveals of the melodramatic persuasion. At once thoughtful and frustratingly vague, things are then left on a perfectly hopeful note with Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” Having all the answers isn’t a must, especially when some relationships can never be healed.

Grade: B - 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Three's Company: "10 Cloverfield Lane" a tautly wound, showstopping master of suspense

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
105 min., rated PG-13.

J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production company certainly have a way with top-secret marketing strategies, even in our spoiler culture when it comes to film and TV. As it went with 2008’s panicky, cleverly mounted found-footage monster movie “Cloverfield,” the existence of “10 Cloverfield Lane” came as an out-of-nowhere surprise with maximum intrigue. Even being billed eight years later as a “spiritual successor,” it still manages to surprise over and over as a sneakily crackerjack suspense thriller. It is cause for celebration when not just any film but a spectacularly assured feature debut such as this one from director Dan Trachtenberg works like gangbusters on nearly every cinematic level. How and whether or not “10 Cloverfield Lane” actually co-exists within the same universe as “Cloverfield” matters very little. This proudly stands apart as its own entity and it’s a riveting showstopper.

Fleeing a relationship gone south, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) drives off into the night in Louisiana, only to be violenty knocked off the road by a passing truck. Coming to, she finds herself in a cement-walled room, her leg in a brace and chained to a wall. Michelle discovers she was pulled from the accident and into the doomsday bunker of a burly, intimidating man named Howard (John Goodman), who happens to be armed and very prepared. She isn’t so sure, thinking she has been kidnapped, but he assures her that everyone above ground is dead due to some sort of attack and a contamination of the air. Along with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a scruffy, seemingly harmless young guy who actually helped Howard build the bunker, Michelle doesn’t know who to trust and what to believe. Even if the world is ending, is it safer outside than inside the bunker with the unpredictable Howard? Will she ever find out? Will Michelle just take the proverbial jump out of the frying pan into the fire?

A tautly wound exercise in crafting unbearable suspense and deploying white-knuckle thrills, “10 Cloverfield Lane” grips, stresses and shakes. Before that, director Dan Trachtenberg shrewdly constructs a masterclass in economic visual storytelling, allowing one to already get a sense of who Michelle is without the easy crutch of spelling it out in words. Her sudden car accident then becomes the narrative impetus, made all the more intensely impactful as it’s jarringly cut between the silent title cards of the opening credits. Originating as an “ultra low-budget” spec script, the film is lean and highly concentrated as a three-hander chamber piece, and the beauty of the script by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (2014’s “Whiplash”) is its consistent sense of mystery and ability to tease without cheating. With a single location and a small cast of three, there isn’t an ounce of fat nor a wasted frame to be had, only intimate, revealing character moments and nervous, almost tension-relieving humor to offset the viewer’s anxiety.

The focal point of the piece, Michelle is readily a protagonist worth following and rooting for from the start. Excellent in the role, Mary Elizabeth Winstead carries herself with resourcefulness, guts, smarts and raw, honest emotion. Her actions in such a disconcerting predicament are wholly believable and judicious; if someone told you they had your best interest, would you take that person’s word for it or try every chance you had to escape and see for yourself? The viewer is in Michelle's corner every step of the way, making her face-off with Howard that much more exhilarating. Those who watch a lot of movies will know of Winstead, but aside from already putting in standout work and being the lead in at least five movies, this is a star-making performance. Using his weight to imposing effect, John Goodman is superbly unsettling as Howard. He keeps us and the characters off-balance, alternating between father-like sincerity and volatility. Instead of being so obviously bad from the start, Goodman plays things close to the vest, while finding subtle nuances and even humor in Howard that makes him an unforgettable survivalist who may or may not be insane. Thirdly, John Gallagher Jr. (2013's "Short Term 12") is no third wheel. As Emmett, he fleshes him out as a likable, multidimensional guy with a sweetness and a sense of humor.

Sharply made and as airtight as that bunker, “10 Cloverfield Lane” plays out like a stage play, albeit one whose set-pieces involving Michelle’s attempted escapes are expertly staged, breathlessly thrilling and gasp-inducing. There is palpable claustrophobia in the cramped bunker (even as it’s been made into a first-floor home with a common room and kitchen), not to mention a sequence or two in an air vent. There’s also the inspired use of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” playing on Howard’s jukebox during a montage of the three spending their time playing board games like a family, as well as the blackly funny timing of The Exciters’ “Tell Him.” In concert, the film’s elements are all top-notch, from the sound design and composer Bear McCreary’s relentlessly tense music score, to Jeff Cutter’s cinematography that relies more on time-tested fluidity and not the first-person shaky-cam of its “blood relative.” As it goes with many mystery boxes, the sense of not knowing is sometimes more satisfying than the time when we finally find out what’s in the box—and that’s the one minor misgiving in an otherwise masterful thriller. Neither made nor broken by its conclusion, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is executed with such unquestionable know-how in working its audience to a fever pitch that the end game still doesn't spoil a thing. The less you know going in, the better, but once you come out, don't spill the beans.

Grade: A -