Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Zookeeper’s Wife

On Saturday we brought our sweet little nephews to the Capital Fair, where we watched a stunt dog show, rode rides, played games on the Midway, and visited a petting zoo where the kids and I hand-fed llamas. On Monday I watched a llama get shot, point blank.

Do not confuse The Zookeeper’s Wife with We Bought A Zoo. This is no light-hearted tale. It’s about real-life couple Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who used their posts at the Warsaw Zoo to save hundreds of Jews during the German invasion. Of course I’ve read both The a6oYy417yHHP01DGIDZUeEzH7JFZookeeper’s Wife, and We Bought A Zoo, and more recently I was reading another book about a woman who led an underground railroad of sorts to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto, wherein the zookeeper’s wife was specifically mentioned. It was an especially brutal place to be during the war. Terrible, unspeakable things happened every day, and it’s kind of a miracle to see\hear these stories about ordinary people who couldn’t live with what was happening, so they didn’t [it’s sort of awful that these words sound very applicable even today].

Glimmers of light do not eliminate all the darkness. The Zookeeper’s Wife is not an easy watch. The film makes the stakes clear, yes for the zookeepers taking enormous risks themselves (they would surely die if discovered), but especially for the people they are helping, who would otherwise be dead – or worse.

Jessica Chastain as the zookeeper’s wife is of course fantastic. There’s no CGI used int he film; those are real lion cubs she’s cuddling, with not a shred of hesitancy. Fitting, I suppose, when she’s sitting in the middle of a war where much scarier things are happening on the streets. WW2-era films always inspire a bout of siderodromophobia in me (the fear of trains).

This movie gets some things right, and some things wrong. In the end, I think it’s just not terrible enough, which I realize is a weird thing to say. What I mean is: it doesn’t have the power to haunt you the way Schindler’s List did (does). It feels a little cold, without the emotional gravitas you’d expect. I expected to cry. What does it mean that I didn’t? Perhaps what this movie needed was a meaningful connection to just one victim. Heroics are all well and good, but they’re only important because they’re necessary. Heroes are only half the equation: both must be compelling.

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Once Upon A Time In Venice

You may have noticed by now that before I travel, I like to watch movies set in the city I’m about to visit. It gets me going. I’ve written about Paris, Hawaii, and California, to name just a few, but since Sean and I are in Venice, you can be sure I’m in heaven soaking up Italy on film before I see it in person.

Of course, and let me say this up front: Once Upon A Time In Venice is the wrong Venice. This is Venice beach, California, whereas where in the cool one with the gondolas and the gelato. Nevertheless, and in the name of all that is good and Bruce Willis, I persisted.

Willis plays Steve Ford, a licensed private detective who can’t be all that good at his job hero_Once-Upon-Venice-2017or he’d have more than $84 in his bank account. He has a young protege  responsible for some very cheesy narration but mostly it’s just about him, getting into deeper and deeper trouble, then trying to dig his way out. His First and Biggest Problem are the gangsters who stole his beloved dog Buddy. Sure it’s a retaliatory act, but Buddy is Steve’s best friend (excepting John Goodman, who plays his human best friend), so apparently there’s no end to demeaning situations that Steve is willing to get into in order to recover his furry pal. There’s no excusing the most egregious stuff (ie, naked skateboarding, and using his asscheeks as a gun holster) which is not necessity but rather just establishes the kind of guy Steve is (ie, exceedingly immature).  Anyway, things only get more madcap from there.

We’ve seen Bruce Willis play this character before. Not literally, but almost. He’s smirky and sarcastic as ever, but the script in no way lives up to even the most minimal requirements for this kind of action-comedy (ie, little action, and no comedy).

In conclusion: only a woman vibrating with anticipation for her next trip could sit through this movie, and I only did it with the help of Diet Pepsi before noon, and sudoku. The good news is, I’m presently in the real Venice, and my twitter (@assholemovies) is bound to be full of Venicey good things. Ciao!

 

Venice Film Festival

Sean and I are on our way to the Venice Film Festival (by way of Philadelphia, oddly enough). Founded in 1932, the Venice Film Festival is the world’s oldest. It has the distinction of being one of the “Big 3” alongside Cannes and Berlin, and also one of the three festivals that kick off Oscar season, alongside Telluride and of course TIFF (these three festivals occur nearly simultaneously, but Venice ekes them out by a hair).

venice-film-festivalThe very first film to be shown at the festival in 1932 was Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A couple of years later they made it competitive, offering up the “Mussolini Cup” for best foreign film and best Italian film. [As you can guess, the festival underwent some bumpy times. Prior to 1938, political pressures distorted the festival. In the 1940s, there was pretty much a monopoly by movies and directors from the Rome-Berline Axis. But by 1946, things were back on track, the Mussolini Cup renamed once the dictator was ousted.] More recently, the prize takeaway is a Golden Lion (Leone d’Oro) for the best film screened in competition; the Silver Lion (Leone d’Argento) awarded to the best director; and Volpi Cups (Coppa Volpi) for best actor and actress. These are awarded via jury, this year presided by Annette Bening. Bening will be supported by Baby Driver director Edgar Wright; British actress Rebecca Hall; Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi; Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco; French actress Anna Mouglalis; film critic David Stratton; Italian actress Jasmine Trinca; and michael-jackson-thriller-3d-billboard-EMBEDTaiwan-born filmmaker Yonfan. John Landis will preside a jury judging the virtual reality competition. He’s also debuting something of his own – a 3D version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (also screening at TIFF).

The Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award is dedicated to personalities who have made a significant contribution to contemporary cinema. This year’s recipient is to be Stephen Frears, who is screening Victoria and Abul at the festival. Past honorees have included James Franco, Brian De Palma, Kitano Takeshi, and Spike Lee.

Venice holds a lot of prestige because it screens a lot of movies that make a big splash come awards season. Last year it hosted the world premieres for La La Land, Arrival, Jackie, and Nocturnal Animals — all of which would go on to either win or be nominated for Oscars (and all of which we saw a week later, at TIFF). What will this year’s Big Movie be? Hard to say, but Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is the festival’s opening film, and not to be missed.

osan_unit_02098_r_crop-embedActually, the programming is such that there are tonnes of not-to-be-missed films, including Netflix’s Our Souls At Night. Its stars, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, will be receiving Lifetime Achievement Golden Lions at the September 1st screening.

As long as Sean and I can tear ourselves away from this beautiful Italian island, we’ll be watching several exciting titles and reviews will be plentiful. Matt will be heading off to TIFF almost as soon as we return from Venice, which means Assholes Watching Movies will runneth over with exciting new stuff. As always, please tune into our Twitter @assholemovies for live updates. Plan on seeing lots of gelato there.

Contract Negotiations

The rich and famous are rich and famous for a reason – their unreasonable demands. Turns out actors are not immune. The following are actual clauses found in movie contracts.

Samuel L. Jackson has it in his contract that he gets a break during filming to play golf twice a week. Priorities!

The late Garry Marshall was so close to Hector Elizondo that he put a clause in his contracts stipulating that the actor was guaranteed a role in all Marshall films. Elizondo never knew about the clause but obviously benefitted, appearing in all of Marshall’s films, up until the director’s death last year.

Steve McQueen had a crazy grudge against Paul Newman. When the two starred in The poster_0Towering Inferno in 1974, McQueen demanded that he not only have top billing, but also the exact same pay as Newman—and the EXACT SAME number of lines, which seems like a pretty shitty way to write a script. The two fought it out about the top billing and eventually producers settled on a compromise for the poster: McQueen’s name is first, but Newman’s name, while second, is slightly higher up. Also the picture of McQueen is on the left, but Newman’s picture is again slightly higher up. This coined the term ‘diagonal billing’ because you know movie stars have egos and this shit definitely has come up again.

While working on (the now defunct) Eloise in Paris in 2010, Uma Thurman insisted on receiving heavy discounts if she decided to buy any clothes and\or wigs used during the shoot. Also, “no other cast member [may] receive more favorable dressing rooms.”

Roger Moore asked for and received “unlimited” Montecristo cigars on his James Bond films – I mean, what better way to get into character?

Will Ferrell, who takes pride in being an ass, demanded the following:

1 Electric three-wheel mobility scooter
1 headset microphone (Janet Jackson style)
1 flight of stairs on wheels
1 fake tree on wheels
1 rainbow (can be painted on canvas) on wheels
Guinness beer
Smart Water or Fiji Water
Coke, Diet Coke, 7Up
Raw roasted almonds
Protein bars: Peanut butter chocolate Zone Bars, Peanut Butter Power Bars

Just the necessities, obviously!

Will Smith had a two-and-a-half million dollar trailer built for himself. His contract makes sure the trailer has a spot on every movie set. It sits on 22 wheels, has 14 televisions, and $30,000 worth of leather upholstery. It has a full kitchen with over $$100,000 worth of granite countertops. It has sliding doors like the Star Trek Enterprise, which lead to a wardrobe room. It has pistons that allow it to transform to have a second story, which houses a screening room for watching dailies. There’s a shower in a $25,000 bathroom that has a magic glass door, which can go between opaque and transparent with the push of a button. Sean and I saw this monstrosity on the streets of Manhattan while he was filming MIB3, and you bet the locals were complaining about its size and its generally fucking up traffic, and blocking out sunlight in the surrounding apartments.  Charming?

Lindsey Lohan, known for being oh-so modest, demanded a private jet with a hairstylist, a makeup artist, and a manicurist onboard. She also insisted on a 1-year Russian visa, a Ritz-Carlton penthouse suite, and a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, and that was just to appear on a talk show. I think she may be overestimated her cachet.

While filming Gravity in Surrey, George Clooney insisted on a custom-made beach hut complete with hot tub, private landscaped garden, and basketball court built next to his trailer. He let production pick up the £100,000 tab while making $20M for the movie. Life is fair!

Tom Cruise’s “thing” is as weird as he is: thongs. He’s got thongs written into every contract – up to 50 of them per movie since he only wears them once. He feels they’re imperative for shooting action scenes, keeping him loose and unrestricted. I have a feeling that my underwear is not what’s holding me back. I also doubt the thongs are helping him out all that much, but it’s a nice justification for your fetish, isn’t it?

But just to leave you with something positive, not all contract riders are inspired by selfish greed. Robin Williams always wrote in his contract that on every film he made, production had to hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work. Remember that next time you watch one of his old gems.

Kidnap

If you’ve ever seen the film Taken and thought: this is cool and all, but I wish Liam Neeson was a soccer mom. Or, if you’ve ever seen Tom Hardy in Locke and thought: I like movies about people driving, but couldn’t there also be a child’s life at stake? Well, stop yer yammering, I’ve got something really exciting for you. Mind you, Kidnap is only exciting for those very specific individuals who put their hands up earlier. For everyone else, this is a generic movie at best.

Halle Berry plays the soccer mom who takes her eyes off her son for just one itty bitty minute and POOF! – he disappears. Only his kidnappers are just barely proficient so Halle Berry actually sees her son being stuffed into the back of a stranger’s car, and like Kidnap-movie-Halle-Berryany angry mama bear she takes off on a parking lot tear, totally prepared to outrun the car if only she can, but of course she can’t. So she hops behind the wheel of her trusty mini van and the world’s slowest, most meandering, and good lord most repetitive chase begins.

Halle Berry doesn’t have her cell phone so her only means of contacting the outside world for help is to drive erratically and hope that a cop will notice that something’s amiss. She’s pretty sure that every other missing child just wasn’t loved enough by his or her parents so she’s going to break the mold by putting the law into her own hands, which are white-knuckled on the steering wheel for a good 80% of the movie.

Halle Berry is good, even when she’s spouting cringe-worthy lines from a tired, uninterested script, she’s nothing short of panicky, breathless, desperate.  Her character goes through quite an ordeal as you can imagine, but the film’s 84 minutes feel like an ordeal for the audience as well. We must endure hardships together. But since you have a choice, let me help you make the informed decision: Kidnap is derivative, predictable, and horribly cliched. The only positive thing I have to say is I was grateful not to find the story encumbered by secondary roles, subplots, or a character development. The movie stays true to its one-word title. And then they beat you over the head with it.

The Sweet Life

Chris Messina plays Kenny, the world’s saddest ice cream peddler. He mopes around Chicago in his stupid black bowtie, eventually ending up on a bridge that’s perfect for throwing oneself off of. EXCEPT the bridge is a little crowded: Lolita (Abigail Spencer) is also there, and she’s feeling kind of territorial about her favourite suicide spot. But before you know it, they’re bonding over their mutual depression and the crappy therapist they have in common. They don’t call their respective suicides off, but they do decide that no death is complete without one last road trip – and aren’t the bridges in San Francisco that much nicer for hosting one’s imminent death?

The-Sweet-Life-trailer-700x300.pngSo off they drive in a stolen Mercedes. They have a cross-country adventure that only two people determined to die could possibly have: madcap, in a non-urgent way.  The script doesn’t feel compelled to follow the usual formula for a road trip movie, so it’s sprinkled with surprising pit stops and hijinks. Kenny and Lolita have nothing to lose, so anything is possible.

I usually find Chris Messina quite charming, but he’s dialed way down in The Sweet Life, playing a man longing to die. It sounds quite grim but actually Messina and Spencer manage to keep things fairly light most of the time, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment. The actors are talented enough to try to convey more than the script itself allows, but the truth is, the movie treats mental illness pretty flippantly, as if suicidal ideation is just a means to a meet-cute. It also sort of implies that their mental health problems are directly attributable to one specific person, and confronting that one person should cure them for good — right?

If you aren’t too concerned about the movie’s messaging about mental health, it’s a quirky little indie dramedy that’s a great character exercise for two fearless actors. Their struggle to connect feels real, the emotional dissonance sometimes a challenge, but The Sweet Life is not as hopeless as it sounds.

 

 

CHIPS

CHIPS is an exercise in tempered expectations. One title card should be all the tempering you need: ‘written and directed by Dax Shepard.’ Dax Shepard isn’t exactly a visionary film maker. At best, he’s taking home a Participation ribbon from the He’s Trying His Best Awards. But why would you expect more from a guy who got his start on the prank show Punk’d? His whole career has been one big blinking caution sign: Hey guys, PLEASE don’t take me seriously, because I sure as hell don’t.

That said, CHIPS wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting – but then again, maybe that’s because I was expecting hot, runny garbage and what I got was a neat and tidy compost bin. You may hope for “HAHAHAHAHA!”, but count yourself lucky to get a few “hehs”.

Chips-The-Movie-15I am much, MUCH too young (and beautiful, but that’s besides the point) to have grown up watching CHIPS so the movie didn’t do a damn thing to disillusion my childhood or anything near as serious. It’s a dumb movie written by a guy with a pretty juvenile sense of humour. What you see is what you get.

Shepard plays Jon Baker, a slob, a deadbeat, and a broken shell of an ex-motor cross rider, and he’s also the lowest-scoring guy to ever be pity-hired by California Highway Patrol. Baker’s about to be partnered with his polar opposite, the suave, well-groomed, cocky undercover agent Ponch (Michael Pena) who’s investigating the CHP for crooked cops. Somehow they have to overcome the deficiencies of their partnership (and the script) to take down some very bad dudes.

The movie has its moments: good moments, and hella-bad moments. I did enjoy seeing paparazzi get plowed, Adam Brody get shot multiple times, and Vincent D’Onofrio be described as a man who “never sent a mother’s day card” and maybe also “eats koala bears.”

There’s no mistaking this for a good movie but if you’re in the right kind of mood (read: loosey-goosey), it just might do. And the fact that the cast is rounded out by tonnes of people who have either worked with Shepard or his lovely wife Kristen Bell before to me speaks volumes: he must be a good dude with the comedy stylings of a brazen 12 year old at his first sleepover. Friends in the cast include Ryan Hansen (from Veronica Mars), Josh Duhamel (When In Rome), Maya Rudolph (Idiocracy), Jessica McNamee (Sirens), and Mae Whitman and Rosa Salazar, both from Parenthood. I’m not saying it makes for a good movie, because it doesn’t. But it must mean something, right? In this case, it means a 100-minute celebration of the brainless low-brow.

Blind

Alec Baldwin plays Bill, a writer and English professor who lost his sight and his wife in a terrible accident. Demi Moore plays Suzanne, the woman sentenced to read aloud to him. Sentenced in a court of law, by the way, by a judge who finds her guilty by association of the insider trading perpetrated by her husband (Dylan McDermott). Although Bill is cantankerous and spends his first encounter with Suzanne boldly insulting her, the two form a predictable romantic relationship.

But then BAZINGA! – the felonious Dylan McDermott is released from prison on a nasty technicality and Suzanne is faced with the age-old question that beleaguers only the women of a certain set: stay with the man who funds her lifestyle, or leave with the man hero_Blind-2017she actually loves. Oh to be rich and luxuriously useless!

If Blind was a martini, I’d send it back. The verdict: too weak. The writing ranges from bland to cheesy to downright embarrassing. It’s also not strong enough to write a character that we can distinguish from the real-life Alec Baldwin. Neither is Baldwin up to losing himself in a character. Bill’s epic rants are a little too familiar to anyone who has access to the internet, or late night television. But those are the only facets of the character that ring true; Bill’s conflicted, tragic side is limp, unfulfilled. Not to worry, though: in choosing Demi Moore to play opposite, the film has at least assured that no one will show Baldwin up. I’m not sure if Moore was ever capable of any great heights as an actress, but these days playing a wealthy socialite seems beyond her reach, even though I think that’s pretty much who she plays outside of work, all the time. Perhaps her ability to act began to dissipate around the time she lost the ability to move her face. Too many injections later, she can’t communicate anything beyond complete and utter passivity, which is inadequate for a woman wrongly accused, full of contempt, about to embark on a passionate affair after finding out her marriage is built upon lies and infidelity. Demi Moore: blank stare.

When you pair a man who is constantly dialed up to 10 with a woman who can barely achieve a 1.8, it makes for a strange combination. It’s hard to know whether to believe the love story being told in lifeless, monotone words, or the pained expressions on their faces that say otherwise. This melodrama is better suited to the Hallmark channel.

 

 

 

Logan Lucky

Jay-Z announced his retirement from the rap game in 2003 with his Black Album. He was back three years later. Barbara Streisand retired from public performance in 2000 but has since toured the world not once but twice. Clint Eastwood declared his intention to retire from acting after 2008’s Gran Torino “You always want to quit while you are ahead” — then appeared in the forgettable 2012 movie Trouble With the Curve. Alec Baldwin wrote “Goodbye, public life” in New York Magazine but made three movies the following year. Shia LaBeouf infamous marked his 2014 retirement with his “I’m not famous anymore” campaign, then signed up for a movie role 3 weeks later. Cher embarked on a 3-year farewell tour, then signed up for Las Vegas residency as soon as it ended. Michael Jordan retired from basketball, played a little baseball, then went back to basketball. Point being: fools keep retiring, then unretiring. Director Steven Soderbergh belongs on the list, after telling everyone in 2013 that he’d lost his passion for film making, and that was it for him. Logan Lucky is the movie that brought him out of “retirement” – was it worth it?

loganluckybros.0Having directed Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve AND Thirteen (and producing the upcoming Eight), Soderbergh is no stranger to heist movies, but considers this one to be their “anti-glam” cousin. Logan Lucky’s characters are gritty, the setting low-rent, the heist a lot less slick – but not uninteresting.

The Logan family consists of brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), and little sister Mellie (Riley Keough). They’re known locally for the Logan family curse; Clyde believes the bad luck sets in just as things start to pick up for them. He recently lost an arm just as his deployment was ending in Iraq. Jimmy, meanwhile, has just lost his job at the mines where he uncovered a bunch of tubes that blast cash money from a NASCAR speedway to an underground bank vault. You can practically see the light bulb go BING! above his head. Soon he’s plotting an elaborate sting that will reverse the family’s fortunes. The one little hitch in is plan is that the heist requires the expertise of Joe Bang, bomb maker (Daniel Craig). And it just so happens that Joe Bang’s in prison. Which means to pull of the heist, they first have to break Joe out of (and then back into) prison.

The caper’s afoot! Logan Lucky has a fun ensemble cast that keep things spicy. The film works because Soderbergh reaches for his familiar bag of tricks: a zippy pace, an almost zany plot. These characters are perhaps not the cleverest, they’re reaching above their pay grade. Half the fun is watching things go wonky. Instead of plot twists, Logan Lucky is peppered with…shall we call them mishaps? Small calamities that keep you groaning, and guessing. It’s almost farcical, and to that end, it’s well-cast. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Daniel Craig is its shining, absurd beacon, stealing all the scenes he’s in and making you anticipate his next one when we’re following someone else.

Unfortunately, the movie really loses steam during its last act. Introducing Hilary Swank as the detective pursuing the case feels both rushed and drawn-out at the same time, somehow. Plus she’s kind of awful. But you know what? The film’s final 10 seconds save the whole damn thing, the cinematic equivalent of a smirk and a wink, and I fell for it.

Welcome back, Mr. Soderbergh.

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Long before I saw this movie, I was annoyed with its title. The trailer gave the impression of a crime-fighting intergalactic duo, and yet for some reason only the boy seemed to get credit. It’s based on the graphic novel Valerian and Laureline, which means the author himself thought of them as equal partners, it’s only Hollywood that’s decided to downgrade the woman’s presence while also prancing her about in a bikini at every opportunity.

Having seen it, I see there are way bigger problems. The casting, for instance, made no thumbnail_25961sense at all. Supposedly, Valerian and Laureline are capable, dependable galaxy-savers, but nothing about either of these two gives the impression of a even the remotest shred of competency. I wouldn’t trust them to house sit for me; if they were in charge of saving my world, I’d be biting down on my cyanide tooth. But this movie wants me to believe that not only are they upstanding employees, but ready for marriage, even though they look like perhaps they’re only just now discovering the growth of hair over various private body parts.

Cara Delevingne has only ever managed to be convincing as an underwear model, which is what she was before stumbling into “acting.” When a director casts her in a movie, it’s like they are putting a disclaimer on their movie “Yeah that’s right, this is going to suck. Style over substance!” Her acting technique consists of walking into a room eyebrows-first and saying the line, usually in the direction of the camera. She has the emotional range of a robot but none of a robot’s grace or fluidity. Dane DeHaan, on the other hand, looks like he should be bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. Put these two chuckleheads together and what do you get? Just two dumb rocks in a potato sack. Or, in the case of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, two dumb rocks in a tin can (aka, space ship). If that wasn’t enough to convince me of its utter superficiality, I guess the sight of Rihanna pole dancing would have pushed me over the edge. Though to be fair, I would have gladly watched her dance for a thousand days rather than see Ethan Hawke play a pimp with a nose ring.

The whole thing was so uncharismatic, the movie almost killed me of boredom. I was so numb I could barely follow the “plot” which, like too much sci-fi fare, consisted of: something’s in danger, someone has to save it, fight, fight, fight, special effects, special effects, the end.