Thursday, December 14, 2017

THE LAST JEDI Continues STAR WARS’s Winning Streak

Opening in your star system tonight:

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
(Dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)


Warning: There may be Spoilers!

At the end of the previous Episode of STAR WARS, Stormtrooper turned Resistance (the new version of the Rebel Alliance) fighter Finn (John Boyega) was left injured and unconscious after helping to destroy the First Order’s (the new Empire) Starkiller Base (another Death Star), General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the rest of the good guys were mourning the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford); while newly recruited Resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) had traveled to the planet Ahch-To to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) so that he can help bring down the bad guys.

The last shot of FORCE AWAKENS has an emotional Rey handing an old grizzled Luke his lightsaber,

So now, after two years we get Luke’s reaction to Rey’s gesture, and it doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the rest of THE LAST JEDI, the solid seventh entry in the series that satisfyingly follows through with the threads of the former film, while providing a steady stream of call backs to the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) that should please both the casual and hardcore fans.

The most obvious prediction about the content of THE LAST JEDI is that it’ll mirror Episode V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as much as THE FORCE AWAKENS mirrored the first STAR WARS movie (still not calling it A NEW HOPE, dammit!).

Well, yeah, there are definite parallels - Luke channeling Yoda in training Rey to the ways of the force, Yoda himself appearing (welcome back, Frank Oz!), the reveal of a character’s lineage, and those much loved AT-AT walkers – but it has enough clever story beats and tongue-in-cheek humor needed to make those elements feel fresh.

The plot deals with the First Order achieving more power in their fight against the Resistance via being able to track their movement through hyperspace. General Leia gets harmed in an attack, and while she’s incapacitated, Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo takes control to the chagrin of Poe Dameron (a cocky, returning Oscar Isaac) who’s called a “flyboy” twice by Amilyn.

Finn finds a friend in fellow Resistance member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who catches him trying to run away like he was planning to in Episode VII. Together they travel to a planet that has a Monte Carlo-style gambling resort to find a code breaker, but end up with the somewhat shady Benicio del Toro as an unnamed character with an odd speech impediment.

As for the rest - you know the drill: space battles, lightsaber duels, and the powerful pull of the dark side of the force fill the screen as John Williams' triumphant score bursts out of the sound system.

THE LAST JEDI has more depth, darkness, and drama than THE FORCE AWAKENS. It's a blast, even in its talky downtime, and it makes great use of its game cast.

Hamill gets his beefiest role since RETURN OF THE JEDI, and it's his best performance (yes, I've seen CORVETTE SUMMER). Ridley and Boyega make more of an impression that their first efforts, while Driver steals the show every time he appears.

However, there are a few issues. There is no backstory to the Emperor figure that is Snoke, and the reveal of who Reys parents are feels like an afterthought. Also, C3PO's red arm in the previous movie is never explained (I hear there's a comic that tells what happened there but I doubt Ill ever read that).

Director and writer Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, LOOPER) molds his style successfully into the series, and doesn't need as many wipe transitions to move the pace along, something that J.J. Abrams overdid.

As for it being Fishers swan song (I think, but maybe theyve got some footage of her that will be used in the next one), it's touching to see her Leia in a more substantial role than in Episode VII. They take a big chance with her image in a surreal scene that I won't spoil - Ill just say that it works.

Glad to see that STAR WARS continues to be back on track again as the stench of George Lucass awful prequels has long since faded, and the good will of the galaxy far, far away has been regained.

Ive seen that many critics are calling it the best since EMPIRE, and I dont disagree. Maybe the nostalgia that the member berries have triggered has blinded my judgement, but Im happy that the franchise that dominated my childhood is yet again going good guns (or blasters).

More later...

Friday, December 08, 2017

LADY BIRD: Greta Gerwig’s Directorial Debut With A Difference

Now playing:

LADY BIRD (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)



Not so long ago, Greta Gerwig was the indie film “it” girl. She acted in films made by the Duplass brothers (BAGHEAD), Woody Allen (TO ROME WITH LOVE), and her long-time boyfriend Noah Baumbach (GREENBERG, FRANCES HA, MISTRESS AMERICA). She even brushed up against the mainstream with her appearance in the awful ARTHUR remake with Russell Brand.

But now Gerwig tries her luck behind the camera for her directorial debut, LADY BIRD, which she also scripted.

No, it’s not about the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson who had that nickname, it’s about a 17-year old Sacramento high school senior with dyed red hair played by Saoirse Ronan (ATONEMENT, HANNA, BROOKLYN), whose parents gave her the name Christine, but she goes by “Lady Bird” and insists that everyone calls her that.

Lady Bird’s tense relationship with her mother, superbly played by Laurie Metcalf ( I don’t need to list her credits, do I?) is the crux of this movie which is set in 2002, when Gerwig was around the same age as its protagonist. That makes one assume that it’s autobiographical, but Gerwig claims that while she was born and raised in Sacramento, and went to an all-girls Catholic school there, the film is only loosely based on her life as many of the situations depicted didn’t happen to her.

We are introduced to Lady Bird and her mom, Marion, as they are returning home from touring a prospective in-state college, and we get a taste of what their emotionally strained life together is like.

While driving home, Marion lectures about where she and her husband Larry (a laid-back Tracy Letts) can afford to send Lady Bird, while our titular character says she wants to go where culture is like New York which makes Marion label her a snob. When her mother goes on a tirade about how her daughter “should just go to city college, then to jail, and then back to city college,” Lady Bird reacts by opening the door of the car and jumping out.

With a cast on her right arm on which she wrote “F*** You Mom,” Lady Bird signs up for drama club auditions at her High School, Immaculate Heart, with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and gets cast in a musical production. During rehearsals, Lady Birdstarts crushing on one of her fellow cast members, Danny played by Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and the currently playing THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI).

The couple date, but the courtship is cut short when Lady Bird catches Danny kissing another guy in a restroom stall. So then our heroine has eyes for Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a snooty, oh-so-deep musician who likes to say “that’s hella tight.”

Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle, but is saddened to find out that it wasn’t his first time. Moving on, after getting some rejections to schools she’s applied to, Lady Bird gets on a wait list for a university in New York, but keeps it secret from her mother.

On the sidelines of Lady Bird’s love life, is Jordan Rodrigues as her adopted brother, Miguel; Marielle Scott as his live-in girlfriend, Shelly Yuhan; Odeya Rush as the popular, pretty Jenna, who Lady Bird befriends to her BFF Julie’s chagrin; and Lois Smith, who has a few nice, warm moments as Sister Sarah Joan, the principal of our leading lady’s high school.

Because of its down to earth depiction of a hip artistically inclined young woman, who describes herself as being from the “wrong side of the tracks” going through the motions like going to a drunken party at someone’s rich parents’ house, and the politics of who goes with who to the prom, the film recalls the 1986 John Hughes teen classic PRETTY IN PINK and from what I’ve heard that’s on purpose (According to a Vanity Fair interview with Ronan, Gerwig pointed her towards that film, and Hughes’ SIXTEEN CANDLES before shooting).

LADY BIRD is a coming of age drama that doesn’t break any new ground but its low key tale of a young woman entering a new phase in her life is unpretentiously told by Gerwig, who appealingly doesn’t have her characters making snarky one-liners - consider her the anti-Diablo Cody, and this the antithesis of JUNO. Our  writer/director also brings out great naturalistic performances by Ronan and Metcalf that are both deserving of Oscar nominations.


Its a directorial debut with a difference, the difference being that it has a lot more artistic depth that I expected from Gerwig, whose onscreen presence as an actress can be a bit goofy, quirky, and often way flakey. 

Gerwig makes good choices when it comes to the film’s soundtrack as well, from Jon Brion’s subtle score to the Sondheim show-tunes that Ronan and Ledges sing, to the perfect-for-period snippets of Alanis Morrisette and Justin Timberlake. She even somehow makes the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me” actually resonate and effectively evoke heartbreak in two different scenes. No small feat that.


More later...

Thursday, December 07, 2017

THE DISASTER ARTIST: A Good Movie About The Making Of A Bad One

Now playing:

THE DISASTER ARTIST (Dir. James Franco, 2017)



A few weeks ago I attended a screening of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 opus THE ROOM. I’d seen it before on DVD, but felt like I should get the big screen with an audience experience I’d heard about and it disappoint. If you’re unfamiliar, THE ROOM is infamous for being a really bad movie. It’s a San Francisco-set romantic drama that is horribly acted (mostly by Wiseau as the tortured lead), atrociously written (again, by Wiseau), and awfully directed (yep, by Wiseau).

But it has built up a cult following - largely egged on by Wiseau who claims that he meant it to be a so-bad-that’s-it’s-good movie all along - with film-goers interacting with the film ROCKY HORROR-style. Folks attending are encouraged to do things like yell “focus!” when the film gets blurry, toss footballs around during the many scenes where the characters do the same, and throw plastic spoons at the screen whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears (which is often).

The screening was one of many across the country to get people primed for James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book “The Disaster Artist” which tells the story of how THE ROOM was made. Franco plays Wiseau, his brother, Dave, portrays Sestero, and Franco’s long time collaborator Seth Rogen takes on the role of the exasperated script supervisor Sandy Schklair.

Franco’s Wiseau, who has a hard to pin down European accent but claims he’s from New Orleans, dreams of being an actor, but can’t land a part so he bangs out a screenplay and finances his own project, drawing upon millions of dollars that nobody knows how he got – Rogen is surprised when his check clears and is told that it’s a bottomless account.

Franco and his crew dutifully recreate the sets of THE ROOM, and we get an ED WOOD-ish look at Wiseau’s acting and directing style – or lack of – and it’s a hilarious series of haphazard scenes though maybe not as hilarious as its incompetently shot subject.

Johnny Depp was originally slated to star, but I’m glad Franco got the role as he seems to have been born to capture the ridiculous passion of Wiseau. It’s possibly Franco
s greatest role, and maybe best work as a director though I haven’t seen many of the over a dozen films he’s made.

THE DISASTER ARTIST is among the funniest films this year, but it’s not been a great year for comedies or much else I hate to say. I’m not sure if folks who haven’t see THE ROOM will totally get it, but they might as it accurately depicts what went down – Wiseau himself says that it gets 99.9% of it right of the and features a bunch of dead on recreated scenes at the end (plus stick around for an after credits stinger). It is oddly amusing, and kind of crazy, that Franco made a good movie about
 a bad one, but he really pulled it off.

More later...

Friday, December 01, 2017

LAST FLAG FLYING Gets Just About Every Last Detail Right.

Now playing:

LAST FLAG FLYING (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2017)


Richard Linklater’s latest is and isn’t a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 classic THE LAST DETAIL. The three lead characters names have changed but they’re basically the same archetypes as the three military cohorts in the original, with Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon mirroring Jack Nicholson’s Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky, Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepherd stepping in for Randy Quaid’s Laurence M. “Larry” Meadows, and Laurence Fishburne’s Richard Mueller taking on Otis Young’s Richard “Mule” Mulhall.

In THE LAST DETAIL, Navy lifers Buddusky and Mulhall escort court-marshaled Meadows to prison in Maine for petty theft, and take drunken detours along the way. In LAST FLAG FLYING, our trio are vets who re-unite to accompany Carrell’s Doc to the funeral of his son who was killed in Vietnam.

The film begins with Doc showing up at Sal’s dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia, after decades of non-communication, and after a night of drinking, Doc takes Sal to see their old pal, Richard, who became a Christian priest.

The film takes place in 2003, so there are running gags involving the internet and cellphones being new things, and news footage of Saddam Hussein’s capture on a hotel TV.

Like its predecessor, it’s largely a road trip movie with a lot of buddy comradery, but in this story that happens after they reach their first destination - Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where they learn that Doc’s son didn’t die the heroic death that the army’s official statement reported. They then take his son’s body to bury in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, first by rented truck, then by train after a brush with homeland security with a lot of lively conversation fueling every scene.

THE LAST DETAIL was famous for having large amounts of profanity – it contained more uses of the f-bomb than any previous film - but it’s no big thing these days for a film to be filled with such dirty dialogue so it’s barely noticeable when it’s used here. Maybe that’s from my being desensitized by many viewings of Scorsese movies or frequent listens of Richard Pryor albums, I dunno.

Alongside the strong performances of the main protagonists, is an excellent supporting cast made up of Yul Vazquez as Lt Col. Willits, who tries to stop Doc, Sal, and Mueller from transporting the body themselves; J. Quinton Johnson stars as Marine Charlie Washington who breaks the news to the guys about how Doc’s son died, and especially Cicely Tyson as the grieving mother of one of their fellow Marines, who died in Vietnam.

Despite its sometimes weary depiction of distrust of the Government during the George W. Bush era, there’s a lot of warmth in LAST FLAG FLYING. Linklater handles the pathos superbly, and gets us to care about these very verbal vets. Its dialogue, co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (who wrote the 1970 book, “The Last Detail and its 2005 sequel that’s the basis for this film) is rich and real feeling.

Cranston stands out as the grizzled, cynical Sal – it’s one of his most fleshed out character since Breaking Bad – Carrell’s sad sack succeeds in getting our sympathy, and Fishburne conveys dignified grace, that is except for the funny bits where his Reverend Mueller loses patience with Sal and regresses into his old profane self.

Linklater’s loving update deserves Oscar action, but more so it deserves big audiences who no doubt will appreciate its affable yet profound sensibility. LAST FLAG FLYING gets just about every last detail right.

More later...

One Of Woody’s Worst Films May Be His Best Looking

Now playing:


WONDER WHEEL (Dir. Woody Allen, 2017)


The most striking thing about Woody Allen’s latest film, his third project for Amazon, is how lushly lit it is. Leading actresses Kate Winslet and Juno Temple’s red and blonde hair appears to always be glowing in golden light, whether in day or night scenes; and the gorgeousness of the color schemes employed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is palpable in every scene.

It’s too bad that it’s all in the service of the tired themes and clichéd characters that make up WONDER WHEEL, yet another nostalgic period piece from the Woodman - one that recalls the aura of his previous works CAFÉ SOCIETY (which Storaro also shot) PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, RADIO DAYS, and that fantasy flashback in ANNIE HALL where Allen’s Alvy Singer reminiscences about being brought up underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.

In very Allen-esque opening narration, Justin Timberlake sets the scene: “Coney Island, 1950s. The boardwalk.” The camera pans over a crowded beach until it hits Timberlake, as Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard who identifies himself as an aspiring playwright, breaking the fourth wall to tell us he’s got a story to tell, “in which I am a character so be warned as a poet I use symbols and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger than life characters.”

Mickey introduces Carolina (Juno Temple), who has unexpectedly come back into the lives of her carousel operator father Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her stepmother Ginny (Winslet), because she is seeking refuge from the mob due to being marked by her never seen gangster husband.

Humpty and Ginny live in a shabby apartment, which used to house a freak show, with big open windows that has a great wide ranging view of the park including of the towering ferris wheel of the title. This is all back-drop to a well worn narrative involving a love triangle between Mickey, Ginny and Carolina.

Ginny dreams of running off with Mickey, but then Mickey falls for Carolina, despite the threat of a mafia hit job, which made clear in a bit that has Sopranos regulars Tony Sirico (in his sixth film for Allen) and Steve Schirripa come to question Humpty about his daughter’s whereabouts.

There’s also a subplot about Ginny’s pyromaniac son that doesn’t really go anyhere, but it does provide shots of fire that go along with the rest of the movie’s orange bathed in blue glow.

Perhaps in the same vein that Andrew Dice Clay gained cred for his role in Allen’s BLUE JASMINE, Belushi puts in a great supporting performance as an angry, broken down working class slob who trying to stay on the wagon. I wouldn’t say it’s quite worth a Oscar nomination but it nicely continues the ‘hey, Jim Belushi isn’t bad!’ vibe from his appearance on the Twin Peaks revival early this year.

Winslet’s acerbic Ginny is the dominant character here as the film seems to focus on her neurosis over her stepdaughter’s impending involvement with Mickey, and her frazzled attempts to thwart their romance. Winslet puts her all into her acting and anchors the film until it and she goes off the rails.

Timberlake’s Mickey wasn’t lying when he said he uses symbols as he even says “The heart has its own hieroglyphics” when trying to chose between Ginny and Carolina. He also speaks of “the tragic human condition” while giving Ginny a book of Eugene O’Neil’s plays for her birthday - an example of Allen’s screenplay laying it on a bit thick.

All this is transparent decoration around another one of his ‘women be crazy’ plotlines. The repetitive and overly drawn out dialogue doesn’t help either.

WONDER WHEEL’s melodramatic (Mickey wasn’t fooling there either) mix of hefty philosophizing with an all too typical tale of ill-fated infatuation makes for one of Allen’s least satisfying films of his later career.



But while it’s far from his best work, it may be his best looking movie. With hope, the Woodman, in his next film, A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK in which he’s again working with cinematographer Storaro, will come up with a story that’s as good as the visuals.

More later...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS Starts Strong But Loses Its Way

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)


Such a juicy premise: a hard as nails Missouri woman rents three billboards alongside a country road to shame her town’s sheriff who has made no arrests in the wake of her daughter’s rape and murder.

And such a great cast: Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother whose grief has solidified into anger over this injustice, Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, who doesn’t take kindly to billboards that read “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?,” Samuel Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon, who has a reputation of torturing black suspects; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage as a local car salesman who has a crush on Mildred.

Add to that the lush mountain scenery surrounding these characters which has locations shot in my home state of North Carolina standing in for the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, and you’ve got the elements to make up a tensely funny thriller, but roughly half way through its nearly two hour running time, the movie runs out of steam and doesn’t know where to go.

This happens right after the exit of one major player and the entrance of a suspect that initially appears to serve as misdirection, but ends up being the direction the film mistakenly decides to go with.

McDormand’s dour divorcée Mildred owns the movie’s best moments, but, like with everyone she interacts with, she never lets us get close to what she’s dealing with enough to really be on her side. Harrelson’s Willoughby draws more empathy as he’s dying of cancer and seems to have a good sincere head on his shoulders, but his character’s fate does the film no favors.

When the film shifts to the underwritten perspective of Rockwell's Officer Dixon, who we never learn whether he is guilty of racist activity or not, the narrative gets muddled, and a restlessness sets in.

Also, the presence of McDormand and composer Carter Burwell (who provides a solid yet instinctive score here) made me wish for the more purposeful (and wittier) approach of the actress and musical directors long-time collaborators, the Coen brothers.

Writer/Director McDonagh has had better luck with this sort of black comedy in his previous films, IN BRUGE and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, which also features Rockwell and Abbie Cornish who appears here as Harrelson’s wife. Here his screenplay strands its protagonists and possible antagonists in a pointless parable.

It’s not that every movie has to have a pat pay-off – many great films end ambiguously – but this particular story of these broken people who fight for justice that they likely will never get deserves a better thematic resolution than we get here.

More later...

Friday, November 17, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE Continues DC’s Struggle To Catch Up With Marvel

Now bombing at a multiplex near everyone:

JUSTICE LEAGUE (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2017)


The good news is that DC’s latest entry in their ongoing attempt to catch up with Marvel is a lot better than the fiasco that was BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (it has a snappier title too), but the bad news is that it’s still far from a great, or even good movie.

Zach Snyder, with help from Joss Whedon, who handled lengthy re-shoots, teams up Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Henry Cavill’s Superman (it can’t be a spoiler since everyone knew that the character was going to resurrected after his death in BVS, right?) to save the world from the clutches of the supervillain Steppenwolf (an all CGI-ed up Ciarán Hinds, but the result is a colossally anti-climatic mess.

However, perhaps due to Whedon’s involvement, there are flashes of wit – largely from The Flash, who comes off as the Spider-Man of this gang as he’s a wise-cracking kid who has the film’s best lines (I loved his quip, “Pet Semetary!” when Superman returns from the dead and is initially evil).

JUSTICE LEAGUE falls short in many departments, but one that stood out was that it has no third act. The first act is all set-up as it follows Affleck’s Bruce Wayne as he assembles the group, having walk and talks with Gadot’s Diana Prince and Momoa’s Arthur Curry (Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s alter egos), and roping in Miller’s Barry Allen, and Fisher’s Victor Stone (The Flash and Cyborg’s alter egos) into the fold.

The second act is the big battle between the Superfriends and Steppenwolf and his army of flying creatures called Parademons. This bloated sequence goes on and on with precious little excitement before it concludes with a wrap-up that reaks of lazy afterthought.

Trailers and TV spots were smart to play up the Wonder Woman angle as that’s the only character these DC movies has had any critical success with, and Gadot does have her moments here, but she’s overshadowed by Affleck and Cavill’s charmless and unconvincing takes on their iconic roles. Affleck gets a lot of flack for his acting, but I maintain that he’s not really a horrible actor; just an uninteresting one.

And after the lame likes of MAN OF STEEL, BVS, and now this, I’m still not buying Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. The British actor still feels miscast to me as the most famous superhero, as he never comes close to matching the power of Christopher Reeve, or even George Reeves’ corny version of the caped crusader from the old ‘50s Superman TV series (incidentally Affleck played Reeves in Allen Coulter’s 2006 drama HOLLYWOODLAND).

Of the other League members, Momoa and Fisher, as Aquaman and Cyborg (the character I know the least) didnt make much of an impression on me, but, as I mentioned before, Miller’s Flash steals the show. Then there are the supporting turns by Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Irons as Batman's tech saavy butler Alfred, which are serviceable but don't really add anything to the whole shebang.

With its 300 million dollar budget, one would expect better special effects, but the movie is marred by a lot of crummy CGI, which really dims the impact of much of the action. There have reports that the movie is underperforming, and may not recoup its production costs, which I hope will make DC reconsider letting Snyder direct its follow-up (or any other project for the brand for that matter).

Despite some signs of improvement, Snyder appears to be unable to make a decent superhero movie (or any other movie for that matter), even with the copious assistance from Whedon here. Marvel’s business model of inter-connecting story-lines, Easter eggs, and strategically placed cameos is obviously a lot harder to copy than they thought.

WONDER WOMAN showed that it is possible to make an effective stand-alone movie, so there may be salvation for the franchise yet, but it’s a safe bet that Marvel will have racked up a bunch more crowd-pleasers by the time DC really gets their shit together, that is, if they ever do.

More later...

Monday, November 13, 2017

Branagh's Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names - spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) - the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel - Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)


We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

Friday, October 20, 2017

Deep Throat Is Back! (No, Not The Porno)

Now playing in the Triangle area:

MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE (Dir. Peter Landesman, 2017)



For over thirty years, the identity of Deep Throat - the nickname (yes, inspired by the porno) of the informant that gave vital information about the Watergate burglary to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972 - was one of the biggest political mysteries in history.

In 2005, former FBI agent Mark Felt revealed that he was the confidential source, Woodward confirmed it, and decades of speculation in which folks suspected White House counsel John Dean, chief of staff Alexander Haig, speechwriter Pat Buchanan, and even White House press aide/later broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer to be possible candidates were over.

Now Felt’s story is told in this film based on the books, 
A G-Man's Life: The FBI, Being Deep Throat, and the Struggle for Honor in Washington by Felt and John OConnor, that’s can be seen as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN told from the point of view of, well, one of the President’s men although one that doesnt work for the President directly. A grim, stoic Liam Neeson plays Felt, who more than once is referred to as a G-Man’s G-Man.

The film opens on April 11, 1972, 203 days before the election for Richard M. Nixon’s second term, with Felt meeting with Dean (Michael C. Hall) and letting him know that his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, has files full of damaging secrets on everyone in power. “We’re the FBI,
 Felt says chillingly. “All your secrets are safe with us.”

However, after Hoover dies, Felt is passed over by Nixon for the job of FBI director, with one of the President’s shady yes-men, L. Patrick Gray portrayed by Martin Csokas, getting the prime position.

Gray attempts to squash Felt’s investigation of the Watergate break-in in June of ‘72, which if you don’t know your history, involved five men getting arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office/apartment/hotel complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were found to have ties to the CIA and later the White House, which led to the toppling of Nixon’s Presidency.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s hard not to do as MARK FELT takes its time getting to the juicy stuff such as the famous parking garage meetings with Woodward (Julian Morris), because Landesman’s screenplay wants us to see what a solid, uncompromised government official Felt is. We learn that he and his wife, Audrey (an underused Diane Lane), are worried sick about their missing daughter who’s run off to join the counterculture or something (it was the ‘70s), but Felt is so by the book that he won’t use the power of the FBI to find her.

Neeson’s nuanced, grim performance as Felt is among his finest work, but the movie keeps trying to build up dramatic heft but never quite gets there. Daniel Pemberton’s overly pulsating score doesn’t help as it dominates too many scenes, and tries too hard to make everything more ominous. They should’ve learned from the minimalist soundtrack for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to use those edgy strains sparingly.

There’s also too many House of Cards-ish aerial shots of D.C. framed to make the town look evil, and the whole interior look of the film is dark blues and greys with Oliver Stone-style mood lighting. We get it – the Nixon era was dark and gloomy. Much like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (sorry, I can’t help bringing that movie up over and over), Nixon is only seen in archival footage on background TVs, but dammit if his sinister presence isn’t all over this tense, but sadly not too thrilling thriller.


As there are striking similarities with the situations surrounding our current President whose name I hate typing with the leaks, the cover-ups, the dishonesty etc. this tale couldn’t be more relevant, but this dry run through the facts doesn’t have enough narrative drive to make it essential viewing.

Felt is described in the film’s postscript as “one of the most impactful whistleblowers in American History,” but his portrait here lacks impact. The story of the Watergate scandal was, of course, so much better told in that 1976 movie I keep referring to because this film could never shake it out of my mind.

In other words, Neeson is fine as Felt, and, sure I'd rather see him in something like this instead of another TAKEN movie, but Deep Throat will always be Hal Holbrook to me.


More later...

Friday, October 06, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049: Even More Of A Slow Burner Than The First One

Now playing at multiplexes from here to the off-world colonies:

BLADE RUNNER 2049

(Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017)


Now, for a long time I didn’t think that there would actually be a sequel to BLADE RUNNER. But then, I didn’t think there’d be more episodes of Twin Peaks, more PLANET OF THE APES movies, or another GHOSTBUSTERS, or…well, you get the idea.

So, yeah, I should know better than to discount what the studios might still consider viable commercial properties. So here’s the long-awaited BLADE RUNNER 2049, coming 35 years after Ridley Scott’s original, but, wait, it’s actually more the follow-up to the DIRECTOR’s CUT that was released in 1992, or maybe it’s the sequel to the 2008 FINAL CUT.

There has been much debate as to which version of the first BLADE RUNNER is the definitive one (we can disregard the International Theatrical release, the US Broadcast version, and the Workprint), mainly because there’s an argument as to whether or not the protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison ford), is a replicant (a human-like robot, for those not in the know), and which version confirms this (or not).

Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, SICARIO, ARRIVAL), working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancer, who co-wrote the original with David Peoples, and co-wrote this one with Michael Green; posits a new LAPD Blade Runner named K played by Ryan Gosling, who’s trying to solve a mystery involving a box he found on a mission full of the bones of a replicate.

The film tells us right off that Gosling’s K is a replicant, who may be a little conflicted about having to retire his own people as we learn in an opening fight scene with Dave Bautista (Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies) as a runaway replicant.

Through some detective work, with his boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) breathing down his neck, K discovers that the remains belong to a replicant named Rachel, who died in childbirth. That’s the same Rachel – the replicant played by Sean Young that Deckard fell for and left Los Angeles with for greener pastures at the end of the first one.

Meanwhile, we see K’s homelife where he interacts with his love interest, an electronically produced hologram named Joi played by the fetching Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who really breathes a lot of life into this project. At one point, Armas secures a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) for K so that she can engage with a surreal threesome with him.

By this point, one is probably wondering ‘what about Deckard? Where’s he?’ Well, get comfy as BR 2049 is two hours and 43 minutes and it’s well over half the movie before it gets to Ford.

In the meantime, we meet Jared Leto as the sinister yet zen-like Niander Wallace, who’s the films equivalent to the original’s Dr. Tyrell as he took over the corporation from him; Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace’s killer servant Luv, Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, a designer of the implanted dreams in replicants’ minds, and Lennie Jame as Mister Cotton, who runs a child labor camp, and helps K find Deckard.

K is led to believe that he may be the son of Rachel and Deckard, as there’s a memory of a wooden horse that he previously thought was implanted, but the date carved in it is his birth-date which is the same date carved in the tree where Rachel was buried.

Ford’s Deckard finally gets his screen-time in the last third, and it’s the lovably gruff, grumbling, rough and tumble performance we’ve come to expect from the 75-year old icon. It’s a shame he couldn’t have entered the movie sooner.

When I was 12 and saw the original BLADE RUNNER – the 1982 theatrical release – I wasn’t a fan at first. I found it to be very slow, dreary, and I disliked Deckard’s drab demeanor (I was expecting something more along the lines of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, I guess), but with repeat viewings it really grew on me. The 1992 DIRECTOR’S CUT really won me over, and I also loved THE FINAL CUT, though I’d be hard pressed to list what were really the crucial differences.

Upon seeing the trailers for this sequel, I knew one thing - even if the film is a disappointment story-wise, it’s was going to look amazing. And, sure enough, it looks fantastic. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ Oscar worthy visuals beautifully capture Dennis Gassner’s production design which expands on the definitively dystopian world of the original, adding the vast orange vistas of the deserts outside of LA, and the gorgeously lit lairs of Wallace’s opulent palace.

You’ll have plenty of time to luxuriate in those sets, as the film stretches out for long sequences, between what few action scenes there are, where K is flying or walking through them to get to his various destinations.

While the visuals expand on the look of Deckard and company’s world, the narrative doesn’t expand much on the idealogy of the world Phillip K. Dick created in his 1967 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” because Fancer and Green’s screenplay predominantly focuses on circling back on the events of the previous installment.

Also circling back is the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch that jars throughout with otherworldly pulsing electronica that re-purposes the main themes of Vangelis’ soundtrack for the first one.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 has moments that are eye-poppingly immersive yet it also has moments that are dull as hell. 


To fully embrace the experience, it will definitely help to be a fan, or have at least seen the original. But it’s even more of a slow burner than the first one was. If you saw the original (or any version) and thought it was boring, then this one will bore you even more.

But Overall, Villeneuve’s take on the BLADE RUNNER is a fascinatingly flawed anti-epic that should delight the casual and the hardcore largely because it’ll give them something new to talk about.

However it
s received, I bet that decades from now, there’ll be a different version (BLADE RUNNER 2049: THE FINAL CUT perhaps?) that we’ll all probably prefer.

More later...

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The Derivative AMERICAN MADE Gets By On Tom Cruise’s Confused Charm

Now playing at a multiplex near everyone:

AMERICAN MADE (Dir. Doug Liman, 2017)



Let’s be honest - this movie has been made many times before. It’s the GOODFELLAS model of a cocky guy who does corrupt things to get the good life, while his wife on the side initially disapproves, but then is wooed by all the money coming in. This all, of course, ends badly, but not before some flashy montages stuffed with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and some comical scrapes with the law.

AMERICAN MADE’s subject Barry Seal, buoyantly played by Tom Cruise, has even been portrayed five times before - mostly on the small screen by Dennis Hopper in the TV movie DOUBLECROSSED, by Theddeas Phillips in an episode of the Spanish language series Alias el Mexicano, by Dylan Bruno in an episode of Narcos, and by David Semark in the mini-series America’s War on Drugs.


Just last year, Michael Paré had a supporting part as Seal in the true crime thriller THE INFILTRATOR starring Bryan Cranston.

So yeah, Seal’s story has been touched on just a little bit.

We meet Seal here as a bored TWA pilot in the late ‘70s who is recruited by a smooth, scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson (EX MACHINA, THE REVENANT, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), as CIA operative Monty Schafer, to fly reconnaissance missions in Central America to collect counter-intelligence. Since when he tells his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) the name of the company he’s been offered to work for is called IAC, which stands for “Independent Aviation Consultants,” she says “that sounds fuckin’ made up,” he keeps his new job secret from her.

On one of his missions he is approached in Panama by the Medellín Cartel, made up of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Carlos Lehder (Fredy Yate Escobar) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), to smuggle cocaine for them from Columbia to Louisiana. This results in one of the film’s most thrilling sequences in which Cruise, who did much of his own flying stuntwork (of course he did), has trouble clearing a short jungle runway and almost crashes into the trees.

Seal gets into running guns for the Contras and is given his own remote airport in Mena Arkansas, where he hires several pilots to help him on his many missions. There’s always got to be a slimy character that may screw up things for the wheeling and dealing lead and it comes in the form of Lucy’s brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones).

SP Seal has to contend with that along with the DEA, CIA, the Contras, the Sandinistas, and the Reagan White House, where we get cameos by Oliver North (Robert Farrior), and George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer).

While AMERICAN MADE, written by second-time screenwriter Gary Spinelli (the little-seen STASH HOUSE was his first), recalls the formula of the aforementioned GOODFELLAS, and covers the same ground that the also aforementioned THE INFILTRATOR, SICARIO, WAR DOGS, SAVAGES, and especially BLOW did, it’s an enjoyable romp that features Cruise’s most invested acting in ages (take that, THE MUMMY!).

Cruise delightfully puts a cynical spin on his TOP GUN persona of old, and carries the movie with his charm even when he’s mostly confused about how in over his head he is.

It may be an overly familiar ride that plays fast and loose with the facts, but it entertains for most of its running time, and it’s commendable that it doesn’t ape the Scorsesean style as extreme as AMERICAN HUSTLE did.

Though not as good as their previous film, EDGE OF TOMORROW, this film has director Liman and Cruise appearing to work well together, which bodes well for their proposed sequel to EDGE. Maybe that one will have a better, less generic title than their first two efforts.

More later...

Thursday, September 28, 2017

BATTLE OF THE SEXES Should’ve Been A Drunk History Sketch With The Same Cast

Now playing at theaters, surprisingly mostly multiplexes, near me:

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

(Dirs. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)


This is the time of year that we get movies like this. Star-studded dramatic re-tellings of historical or quasi historical events packaged as prestige pictures or, to use a more accurate term, Oscar-bait.

In this overly earnest one, Husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) put Emma Stone and Steve Carrell through the true story motions of portraying reigning women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and former champ Bobby Riggs, who faced off in a famous match in the early ‘70s.

King, who was 29 at the time, was challenged by the 55-year old Riggs, shortly after striking out on her own tennis tournament and union just for women after disagreements with the US Lawn Tennis Association about equal pay. Timely, huh?


The film juggles three strands - it’s the story of Carrell as the washed-up, compulsive gambler Riggs trying to get back on top, it’s the story of Stone’s King having an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) to the chagrin of her husband (Austin Stowell), and it’s the story of sexism in the burgeoning era of feminism.

But as promisingly rich as those elements initially appear, they only brush up against each other and fail to help form a compelling narrative. King is depicted as a driven, focused player; Riggs a goofy self-promoter, but they never clash in any impactful manner. There’s a lot of lip service given to the theme of women overcoming the idea that they’re the weaker sex, but the film lacks the passion to fully engage with its premise.

That’s perhaps, as with other recent true story prestige pictures such as SULLY, and LION there’s only really 20-30 minutes of story here. This results in long draggy stretches with little juice. Stone’s former Broadway co-star Alan Cummings comes in to add some sass to the project, but as much as I liked the mini-“Caberet” re-union, his role as a smirking fashion designer feels contrived (especially in his final lines) even though it’s based on a real person.

But I’m hesitant to blame writer Simon Beaufoy because he has had better experience with adapting true stories (127 HOURS, EVEREST, his Oscar-winning screenplay for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) before. The responsibility falls on Dayton and Faris for their lightweight and overly conventional approach to this material.

I think this movie would be an excellent segment of the Comedy Central show, Drunk History, with the same cast. If you haven’t seen the show, it involves celebrities (usually comedians) being filming while getting intoxicated and recounting historical events. For example, one episode features sloshed comic actor Steve Berg explaining the behind-the-scenes making of CITIZEN KANE, while in black and white recreations, Jack Black plays Orson Welles, and John Lithgow as William Randolph Hearst, act the scenes out, even lip-synching Berg’s quotes.

The fact that several comic actors – Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen, and Chris Parnell (all SNL alumni) – appear in supporting parts, and the film is most lively when it goes for a laugh, makes me wish for a Drunk History version even more.

As it is, despite some invested acting by Carrell and Stone, BATTLE OF THE SEXES is a bland, formulaic trip through dated clichés and the expected tropes of a period piece soundtrack (bad timing including Elton John’s “Rocket Man” for obvious reasons), and the obligatory photos of the real people at the end. It’s a well-intentioned, and relatively well-made drama, but it’ll most likely be forgotten by the time the awards season comes around.

Also, while the concept of a hyped-up tennis exhibition helping to change things is an intriguing premise, when it comes to the climax of the match itself, the realization that tennis is among the least cinematic of sports is hard to escape.

And that’s even when the stakes were as high as they supposedly were in September of 1973 at the Houston Astrodome in an event that was watched on T.V. by millions of people.

More later...

Monday, September 25, 2017

Things I’m Glad Didn’t Catch On: Sequels With “Another” In Their Titles


N
ow, I acknowledge that this is a silly thing to harp on, but I’m happy that the idea of putting the word “another” in the title of sequels didn’t catch on.

This thought only came about because I stumbled onto the long forgotten follow-up to the 1982 Eddie Murphy hit, 48 HRS, on TV last night, which was lamely titled, ANOTHER 48 HRS.

This kind of titling is lazy as hell, but it’s actually truth-in-advertising because the film was a lame rehash that deserved such unimaginative labeling. The 1990 action comedy was a modest hit, but lambasted by critics (it stands at 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). There was actually talk of a third film for the franchise entitled YET ANOTHER 48 HRS, but thankfully that never materialized.

Three years later, Touchstone Pictures hedged their bets on a sequel to their 1987 hit STAKEOUT, and brought back stars Richard Dreyfuss, and Emilio Estevez, and added Rosie O’Donnell for some reason in what was dubbed ANOTHER STAKEOUT. Notice how similar to ANOTHER 48 HRS the type style for “Another” is:



This definitively inessential sequel flopped big-time and was largely panned (it’s at 14% on Rotten Tomatoes) during the summer of 1993, and it’s probably a movie you’ve never heard of. Hell, few folks today even remember the original STAKEOUT as I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a reference to it.

Anyway, the use of ANOTHER in a title died with ANOTHER STAKEOUT and that’s a good thing. Just saying the title out loud shows how awful an idea it is – you can’t help saying it after a sigh in a tired voice in italics: “Here’s ANOTHER…”

So they tried to make that happen twice, but there’s a device that’s even lamer that was only used once: putting MORE in front of the recycled titles, as in MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI.


So glad that didn’t catch on either. I mean, can you imagine how unbearable it’d be to see ads for movies like MORE HORRIBLE BOSSES or MORE ZOOLANDER?

It’s great that so many sequel titles these days don’t just slap a Roman numeral on the end, they have ampersands and subtitles ‘n all, because they really should at least try to disguise that it’s the same ole thing again, right?

The use of “another” appeared to imply that the studios were being cynically upfront about the shoddy quality of their recycled products. Here’s another one, kids! Collect ‘em all.

So this has been my look back at the brief era in which a badly chosen yet accurate word graced a couple of lame sequel titles.

R.I.P. ANOTHER 1990-1993

More later…

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 fond 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 Speedman: “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 a 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.

More later...