Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Movie Review - Horrible Bosses 2

The film has pretty much the same structure as the first, but so what? It's a sequel and it's still funny. As evidenced by the end credits, all the actors are having a blast, so it's easy to just enjoy the ride. It is a bit of a ride as director and co-writer Sean Anders keeps things moving at a fast clip, so sit down and let's go.

If you haven't seen the first, you might be a little thrown when at once you're thrown into the verbal Three Stooges that are Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day. Their characters aren't brothers, but at almost every moment they act like they are. They're constantly fighting, insulting and bickering with each other, but, instead of vaudeville and slapstick, Bateman, Sudeikis and Day are more verbal, vocally berating or annoying each other.

Jason Bateman stars as Nick, the calm, level-headed one and clearly the smartest who mainly rolls his eyes at the other two for their varying levels of stupidity. Yet, he does have his own dunces. Jason Sudeikis stars as Kurt, the horny one who even at his age only does what he does to have sex with hot girls. Charlie Day stars as Dale, the least bright of the three, loud and impulsive, no filters but a family man with a wife and triplets.

Explaining the plot would give away a lot of the gags, which are mainly developed out of it. Basically, Nick, Kurt and Dale go into business together and invent a device called the "Shower Buddy." They go up against a rival business called Boulder Stream, which is run by a wealthy man who seeks to destroy them and takeover the three's company. The wealthy man succeeds, and, like the first movie, the three come up with a plan of revenge that includes mapping out in detail a crime. From that, hilarity ensues.

Chris Pine (Star Trek and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) co-stars as Rex Hanson, the son of the wealthy man who becomes involved in the revenge scheme. Pine recently did a comedy where he played an over-the-top and ridiculous character. In Stretch, he was more weird but quieter. Here, he gets to exude a bit more energy and be an overgrown kid literally bouncing off walls.

Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained) co-stars as Bert Hanson, the wealthy man in question, ruthless and unempathetic. Waltz continues to play off the persona established in those Tarantino films. His comments on the American dream are well-suited though.

The returning actors like Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Jamie Foxx are all hilarious. The idea is floated that our three protagonists, instead of fighting against horrible bosses, the three were going to turn into horrible bosses. However, Anders and his other writers don't go anywhere with that.

They call out the obvious comparison to 9 to 5 (1980), but they seem intent on repeating what they did before without taking clear opportunities to attack the problems that new, small business owners face. The numerous sex jokes, particularly gay sex jokes, distract from the lack of substance in this second-outing.

The funniest joke was probably the guys arguing about who would do what in a group sex act. I also think Anders comes up with a unique take on the classic car chase scene. It ends in a car stunt that was also pretty funny.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong crude sexual content and language throughout.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movie Review - St. Vincent

There's something intrinsically funny about watching Bill Murray, grisled, disheveled and boozy, cynical and dismissive for the most part, yet taking time in a darkened corner of a bar next to a jukebox to dance joyously to "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane. There's also something intrinsically funny about watching Bill Murray lean in a lounge chair in a dirt backyard in Brooklyn and water that yard with a garden hose, while he listens to a cassette Walkman, singing "Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan.

The impulse to laugh at Melissa McCarthy can be overwhelming, but writer-director Theodore Melfi pushes her more toward a grounded and serious performance. Melfi doesn't always succeed. A scene that forces McCarthy to break down and cry can't help but have one toe in the comedy pond.

This is particularly so because it's a semi-Bridesmaids reunion. McCarthy received an Oscar nomination for her role in that all-female comedy that also featured Irish actor Chris O'Dowd as the police officer love interest to Kristen Wiig. Here, O'Dowd plays a priest and teacher at a Catholic elementary school.

While McCarthy can be more serious, O'Dowd cannot. Even harkening to his role earlier this year in Calvary, as he dons a priest's collar here, O'Dowd can't help but be a bit of a goof ball. It's a shame that he's not given a scene of dialogue opposite Murry in this movie. O'Dowd's goof ball, upbeat and jovial nature would have been a great counterpoint to Murray's rough and bitterness. Murray's course and biting, irreverent humor probably would have been better bouncing off a man in a priest's outfit.

Instead, Murray's screen partner for a good majority is a prepubescent boy named Oliver, played by Jaeden Lieberher. I suppose there could be comparisons to Rushmore, a vastly more engaging film because it gave Murray a screen partner who could match him. Lieberher as Oliver is fine, but it becomes how less there is to him once he's placed side-by-side another child actor here, and that's Dario Barosso who plays Oliver's bully-turned-best friend.

Naomi Watts is interesting as a pregnant prostitute. Terrence Howard reprises his role from Johns (1996), another vastly more engaging film. This is unfortunately not the first time Howard has reprised this role.

What redeems this movie is the great performance from Bill Murray. As much laughs as he gets, he also gets some tears. His accent and the use of his voice in the beginning and toward the end of the film are spot on. The look on his face when he believes his wife who is suffering from Alzheimer's recognizes him as well as the look on his face afterward are crushing. His scenes with his pet cat, an all white Persian, are sweet too.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.

Movie Review - Noah

Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly reunite after co-starring in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001). Here, they play Noah and his wife, the Biblical characters who preceded and followed the famous flood story, which re-started the human race on Earth. The brief Bible story tells of how Noah was instructed by God to build an Ark, or a huge boat to house all the animals, but no humans, except for Noah and his family, as God wipes out humanity in a massive and 40-day straight deluge.

Director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky justifies the big-budget with huge, rock monsters called Watchers that are pure, CGI, fallen angels. They exist mainly to craft the kind of wonder and action that would only be interesting to juvenile minds and help return the studio's investment. The Watchers also help to explain how Noah built this huge Ark, which is essentially a hibernation zoo. The dedication of one man who apparently lived for hundreds of years, which Aronofsky makes no verbal mention, wasn't enough.

Aronofsky does craft some compelling drama that turns this film from a faith-based, survival story into an out-and-out, slasher flick, terrorizing in a way that most Hollywood horror films aren't. Noah convinces or rather orders his family, his wife, three sons and eldest son's girlfriend onto the Ark with the intention that after the flood, they would re-populate the Earth, but Noah has a vision and changes his mind. Noah decides his family must die too.

When Noah's eldest son Shem learns his girlfriend is pregnant, Noah decides her baby must also die and in fact he's the one who is going to commit infanticide upon the baby's immediate birth. The second half is then all about this family being trapped in a confined space with a murderous mad man.

Aronofsky succeeds in turning this seemingly heroic Biblical character into a villain and having the audience and everyone on screen be very afraid of him. However, Aronofsky reverses this sentiment by film's end, and I'm not sure if the value of that makes everything that preceded it worth the bother. Aronofsky spends the majority of the movie, even up to the final minute, denouncing humanity and then in that final moment he wants us to love humanity. This is a rug pull that isn't slick or smooth but crashing.

This is perhaps Aronofsky's biggest film, one with global consequences not only within but without the movie itself. Sadly, there is little to no sense of the globe. We accept the initial bifurcation, the descendants of Cain take over the Earth, while the descendants of Seth are seemingly wiped out with the exception of Noah, which occurs when Noah is a teen.

Aronofsky jumps from teenage Noah to adult Noah, played by Crowe, and it is so abrupt and there is no indication of how he got there. How did he meet his wife? Where did she come from? Where did he get his clothes? The time period is unclear but in a story that Noah tells, the visuals suggest men and uniforms that are Anno Domini, or after Jesus Christ. Yet, Noah is before Christ. I don't get a proper sense of time or space.

This movie is also a reunion between Logan Lerman who plays Noah's second son, Ham, and Emma Watson who plays Shem's pregnant girlfriend Ila. Lerman and Watson co-starred in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). They played love interests then. Here, Lerman's Ham doesn't have a love interest. Ham tries to fall in love, but Noah in effect takes it away from him.

The struggle that Ham undergoes is probably the most interesting, but the infanticide story sucks up all the oxygen. Then, once it's over, everything is virtually dropped. What becomes of Ham is left for Biblical scholars because I'm not sure what Aronofsky thinks happened to him.

I'm also not sure what Aronofsky thinks of God. A sequence where Noah tells the story of Genesis is depicted with imagery that affirms the Big Bang Theory and subsequently the Theory of Evolution. Is Aronofsky trying to bridge the gap between atheists and those who subscribe to the Abrahamic religions? Or, is Aronofsky secretly trying to subvert believers or plant subliminal messages to the faith-based? Who knows?

The final scene between Noah and Ila would seem to suggest the latter. It's almost a call to religious zealots who would go to Noah's extreme of killing innocent people, even those of their own family, to choose love and mercy instead. It doesn't have to be the extreme of killing but doing anything against another person in the name of religion, such as homophobia. Aronofsky's film is subtly telling religious fundamentalists not to be so strict and severe and choose love.

I just wish Aronofsky would have done more world-building and dropped the rock monsters, as well as delved into the characters, particularly Noah's sons more.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Jody Wheeler: Notes From a Social Worker Turned Filmmaker

The Dark Place is a gay thriller. It was written and directed by Jody Wheeler, marking his feature length debut.

It was the first script Wheeler pitched to Hollywood twelve years ago.

It was shelved for a decade, but now the movie comes two years after the hit gay sci-fi film Judas Kiss, which Wheeler co-produced.

Wheeler loves mysteries and loves smart heroes, especially heroes who can out-think their opponents like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who. He loves a hero who relies on his brain and not his brawn. Thus, the creation of the protagonist in The Dark Place named Keegan Dark!

When Wheeler pitched this to Hollywood, he went to two companies. One of which was a mainstream studio and the other specialized in LGBT content, mostly on the home video market. Both companies said they hadn't seen anything like it. The only close comparison now is the Donald Strachey mysteries.

The Dark Place involves the intricacies of the wine-making business. Yet, Wheeler doesn't drink alcohol. Vineyards and breweries fascinate him, but rarely does he partake in their products. He grew up in suburban Virginia. His parents took him to rural areas of the state to visit wineries, which planted the seed for this story, but it was put on hold.

Blaise Embry in "The Dark Place"
In Virginia, his first degree came from George Mason University. That degree was in social work.

During the 90's, Wheeler was a social worker in the Washington, DC area. He was set up in places like Whitman-Walker Health and St. Luke's House.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1996 where he continued as a social worker. He got a job at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) where he investigated child abuse allegations and helped to reunite or find residences for youths.

Eventually, Wheeler changed directions and got his master's degree in writing in 2006 from UCLA. Wheeler says though, "I couldn't have been a director if I had not been a social worker."

He wrote The Dark Place, but he hadn't planned to direct it. He didn't think he was ready. He wanted to shadow someone else first. Yet, the planned director got sick and forced Wheeler into the lead chair.

He compares directing a film to building a house. Wheeler says filmmaking is collaborative. It involves shepherding people to the right place so that they can realize their full potential, which again is not unlike his social work at DCFS.

He began principal photography for The Dark Place in April 2013. It was a 25-day shoot.

Blaise Embry played Keegan Dark who Wheeler says nailed the audition. Wheeler said there was an edge and vulnerability to Embry in real life that matched his character's. Embry simply needed to amp up pieces of himself.

Allison Lane in "The Dark Place"
Allison Lane co-stars as Sheriff Timmer. Wheeler first met her on the film festival circuit when she was promoting her film Going Down in La-La Land. He found her to be a great comedic actress.

Wheeler's principal problem was lack of time. For certain scenes, he needed six hours but would only get four hours. Certain locations were believed to have been secured for four days, but then the rug would be pulled and he only got two.

Wheeler says his one bad day, the "day that drove me mad" was the day he had to shoot the final climactic scene. He didn't have as much time as he wanted and as such was in a rush. He said he had sharp words for people that day. Despite that, he says he was surprised how well most days went.

Jody Wheeler is 45. His favorite movie this year is Guardians of the Galaxy. He saw it twice on the big screen. Once was in 3D and once in 2D. It made him feel like he was 12 years-old.

Some of his favorite TV shows include Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones, Prime Suspect, The Returned on Netflix and The Originals, which is a vampire series. He also enjoys Dr. Who, as well as a show known as In the Flesh, a British take on the zombie genre with inclusive gay characters.

Wheeler's next project is tentatively a horror-comedy called Beverly Hills Lizard People, which he hopes to shoot next year.

The Dark Place is available on DVD and VOD on December 2nd. The DVD will exclusively feature a full-length commentary with director Jody Wheeler and co-star Allison Lane, as well as alternate and extended scenes.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Movie Review - Bird People

Roschdy Zem (left) and Josh Charles
in a scene from "Bird People"
Female director and co-writer Pascale Ferran has crafted a glorious little film about breaking free and flying alone.

It's ironic because Ferran begins her film in a crowded space, a ton of people on a train. What makes it even more crowded is that Ferran allows us to hear the thoughts and random conversations of these train people. It's a series of voice-overs and Ferran bombards us with them. It not only feels crowded. It feels almost suffocating.

Eventually, it gets to a point where Ferran focuses on one girl, a college student named Audrey, played by French actress Anaïs Demoustier, who no doubt feels this suffocation and crowding. She then looks out the window of the train and sees birds, particularly one sparrow, on the station platform. She looks at it with wonder or jealousy, and even though birds travel in flocks, the ability to singularly escape in air is envious.

Josh Charles (Sports Night and The Good Wife) stars as Gary, an executive at Island, Inc., a company, possibly a tech company based in California. Gary flies in from San Jose and lands in Paris, France. He's staying at the Hilton where Audrey works. Speaking of suffocation or crowded-feelings, Gary finds himself having to stick his head out the window or physically run out the hotel for air, acting as if he can't breathe. Gary says it's an anxiety attack, but it goes to the early feelings that Ferran conveys.

Radha Mitchell co-stars as Elisabeth, the wife of Gary and mother of his children. He delays talking to her, but eventually he sees and speaks to her on video via his computer laptop. Ferran then stops any forward momentum so that Gary and Elisabeth can have an extremely long conversation.

It may seem long, but it's actually an incredible pay-off to great, dramatic tension that seems to come out of nowhere but that Josh Charles plays so well. It's an incredible pay-off that walks a very tight rope, making you understand and possibly champion Gary's actions and at the same time or conversely despise Gary for what he does.

Demoustier plays Audrey, the hotel maid who cleans Gary's room. Ferran follows her as she does her equally suffocating and stifling job, picking up mess after mess. While she doesn't love it, there is a part of her that likes spying or eavesdropping on other people. She doesn't mind looking through Gary's trash, for example, to get to know him a little. Yet, she feels confined in many ways.

Ferran then pulls off the greatest hat trick I've seen performed in a movie in a long, long time. Yes, there is a left turn that is made that is so bizarre and so ridiculous and so incredulous and so magical that it could have sunk the whole film. Yet, it doesn't because it strangely fits with the themes so perfectly.

Ferran's hat trick opens the film so gloriously and gives it such a sense of excitement and danger. It invokes the super hero aesthetic better than Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. With the triumphant use of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," Ferran also invokes the fantasy and science-fiction curiosity in a simple visual way on a similar level as that song.

Ferran is then able to explore humanity, the literal highs and lows of it, the beauty and the ugly of it. Brief performances from actors like Roschdy Zem (Indigènes and Outside the Law) as Simon, a fellow hotel employee who is revealed to be in dire straits, and Taklyt Vongdara as Akira, a Japanese hotel guest who crafts some amazing drawings, lift this film to heights most films never dare.

Josh Charles' performance is the greatest of them all. He's mainly alone on screen and has to do all of his acting over the phone. It's as good if not better than Tom Hardy in Locke. Yet, Gary is a more interesting character than Ivan Locke.

Ferran also has a special effect that is well used. It's possibly CGI, but some of the most seamless CGI animation mixed in live-action that has been used in an independent or foreign film, even as noticeable as it is.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.

Movie Review - Last Passenger

Dougray Scott (left) and Kara Tointon
in "Last Passenger"
As I think about action films involving trains, I think about Under Siege 2, which was basically Die Hard on a train. I also think about Unstoppable, which was Ridley Scott's runaway train movie. This piece, directed and co-written by Omid Nooshin, feels somewhere in between those two. It's somewhere in between Under Siege 2 and Unstoppable.

On a commuter train from London during Christmas time, six people find themselves trapped as the train travels faster and faster without ever stopping. Eventually, the train will reach the end of its line where there is no more track or land, and if it doesn't slow or stop, the train will be destroyed along with everyone on it.

Dougray Scott plays Lewis Shaler, a 40-something doctor who is widowed and the single dad of a 7-year-old son named Max, played by Joshua Kaynama. Lewis is a surgeon who's also good at diagnostics. He flirts with Sarah Barwell, played by Kara Tointon, a beautiful blonde in the seat next to him. Sarah is on her way home from a girls night out in London.

The other three passengers include Jan Klimowski, played by Israeli actor Iddo Goldberg. Jan has an engineering degree who works for the subway system, but he's also an amateur magician who smokes too many cigarettes and has a bit of an attitude problem. Peter Carmichael is an elderly man, played by David Schofield. Peter is the biggest denier of something being wrong. Finally, there's Elaine, played by Lindsay Duncan, a grandmother hoping to see her family for the holidays.

The trip from London to the end of its line is about a hour or so. Therefore, the movie almost plays out in real-time. The train is hijacked. Yet, Nooshin never shows us the hijacker. Nooshin never even lets us know who the hijacker is, whether he's a young Muslim terrorist or a disgruntled and depressed, white guy.

In the recent Liam Neeson film Non-Stop, the filmmaker there provides us vision and voice to the hijacker, which contributed to that movie's detriment, but giving us something would have helped here. Nooshin presents thrilling moments of the passengers' attempts to stop or get off the train, but it's thrilling moments with no context or that add up to nothing.

Dougray Scott is a good actor, charming and handsome. He doesn't have quite the presence or gravitas of Liam Neeson, but he carries the film rather well.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

VOD Review - Black Briefs

A scene from "Spring" by Hong Khaou
Guest House Films collected a group of six, short films and released it as one bundle on DVD back in 2012. This October, it made that bundle available on VOD via Vimeo. Each of the short films is 20 minutes or less. Each has a dark edge to it. In fact, they're all practically horror films. It's just story after story of people doing bad or brutal things to others.

The first film is Spring by Hong Khaou. Khaou directed a feature this year called Lilting, which to me is one of the best of 2014. However, Khaou directed Spring three years prior. The 13-minute short plays on completely different and opposite instincts. It's a story of two British men, one younger and one older who engage in an act of S&M and bondage. It's disturbing but never is harsh as it could have been, and is less about the act than it is ultimately about trust.

The second film is Remission by Greg Ivan Smith. Smith directed some very notable films. The first of which was The Back Room, in which he also starred and he was fantastic. The movie itself was some kind of brilliant. Remission isn't quite that. It's essentially a 14-minute nightmare realizing a middle-age man's worse fears about a disease he has. Yet, Smith veers into slasher film territory, making the piece feel too hackneyed, but Smith as a filmmaker is still one to watch.

The third film is Winner Takes All by Camille Carida. Not too unlike Spring, it uses violence as an expression of desire or proof of desire. It perhaps has the least cynical ending of all the short films here. Despite the almost Broadway theatricality of it, it's gay men exhibiting all the masculinity of two heavyweights in a boxing ring. The 17-minute movie features the uber-masculine and uber-muscular Adrian Quinonez and Alec Mapa (Half & Half and Ugly Betty), the famous gay comedian in a very funny role.

The fourth film is Promise by Lalo Vasquez, and it is by far the best of the short films here. It stars Korken Alexander and Rick Cornette as Stu and Chris respectively, a gay couple about to get married. In fact, it's the eve of their wedding and Chris finds out that Stu has had an affair. The consequences of this revelation spirals their relationship, and push both to extremes. The performances from both by the end just become spectacular and edgy to watch.

The fifth film is Video Night by Jim Hansen and Jack Plotnick who both act in the film. It's a 6-minute, found-footage genre piece. Simply, it's murder and mayhem. It's not gory though. Plotnick went on to direct Space Station 76 this year, a kitschy, anachronistic, sci-fi spoof that is fantastic. This film is proof Plotnick has a knack with tackling genre pieces in a fresh or unique way.

The sixth film is Communication by Christopher Banks, a filmmaker from New Zealand. This one is a 20-minute film that's less dark as it's beautifully elegiac, as it focuses on the relationship between a young Jewish boy and his teacher in the wake of the teacher's death. It's the second-best of all the short films here.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains graphic sexuality, nudity, language and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.
Available on Vimeo.