Category Archives: Half-assed

Jay says: you could do worse.

Fun Mom Dinner

Usually the mere fact of a “mom movie” makes me cringe. Bad Moms make Bad Movies. I’m not a mother and I think more highly of the ones I know than to buy this whole “constant need to complain about the hardships of motherhood” bullshit. Which is not to say I think it’s easy. I just think it’s a choice. And that most of the mothers I know do a little bit of complaining and a little bit of boasting and a whole lot of being a regular person. If you hate your life so much, the LAST thing you should do is make a whiny movie about it so the rest of us are subjected to it too.

MV5BMTYwNzk5MzQ5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDQ1ODE5MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1347,1000_AL_When Sean reluctantly fingered this title on Netflix, we did the math: I love Toni Colette + I like Katie Aselton + I hate Bridget Everett + I really hate Molly Shannon = an uncomfortable tipping toward the negative side. Not a great start. But the movie’s not a total write-off.

The Fun Moms go out for Fun Mom Dinners not to complain about being mothers but to complain about being wives, which is a fun twist. And it turns out that I don’t hate Bridget Everett in movies, I just hate her stand-up persona (she was in Patti Cakes too). Anyway, the fun  part is a in kind of short supply, and inconsistent. The movie kind of wavers between a bit of a good laugh and utter predictability. If I never see another girls-night karaoke montage, I’ll have lived a good life.

Bottom line: mothers deserve better from us, better than this “behaving badly” reputation we’ve lately given them in the movies. They’re women, and I guarantee you they have more going on than shitty diapers and dirty dishes. This movie, under the direction of Alethea Jones and the pen of Julie Rudd, actualy gets closer to normalcy, and to comedy, than most in its crummy little genre. This is one of the best Moms movies I’ve seen in a while, but that’s an unforgivably low bar.

 

Advertisements

Stronger

Stronger could easily have leaned on its ultra handsome movie star to sound off a few patriotic one-liners while heroic cliches were ticked off one at a time, and that movie would have made money – possibly more money than the actual Stronger did. Instead, the real Stronger takes a much more interesting approach: it admits that its central character, real-life survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing Jeff Bauman, is not a hero. He’s just a guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but a picture of him captured at that wrong time made him an icon and helped unite his country in a time of grief and confusion.

Jeff Bauman was just an ordinary guy. He worked at Costco, he lived and was bullied by his Mom, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend. Erin broke up with him repeatedly because he was just never really there for her, and so of course the one time that he does show up, he gets blown up to bits.

1-4Stronger doesn’t care much about the crime or about the terrorism; it follows a lone survivor who struggles to put his life back together afterward. Had Jeff Bauman lost his legs in a car crash, no one would call him brave, or a hero, because no one would be watching. But as the face of Strength and Hope in the war against terror, Bauman has to handle public scrutiny even on his darkest days.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the most versatile actors of his age working today, and this is another unglamourous, conflicted character that he pulls of winningly. The anguish and painful contradictions he manages to convey make the movie sometimes hard to watch. But Gyllenhaal isn’t alone. Tatiana Maslany plays Jeff’s on again, off again love interest, Erin, and Stronger is as much her story as it is his. Unlike Patriots Day, Stronger isn’t about an act of terrorism, it’s about two people scraping their lives back together after a major, seismic event, and about how that catastrophe doesn’t really erase the problems that existed before it, even though it kind of feels like should. Most movies wouldn’t bother to make Maslany’s character so important, so human, but Stronger doesn’t take the safe route or the obvious one. Jeff Bauman became a symbol when he appeared in a photograph that day, but in every moment before the camera’s click, and every moment after it, he is just a man, and Erin is the woman too conscientious to abandon him in his time of need, but too smart to buy into the hero nonsense. When everyone else sees him as an emblem of Boston Strong, she sees him as the same old flawed guy he’s always been.

A brilliant ensemble cast fleshes out Stronger in surprising ways. This isn’t about flag waving or triumphing over terrorism, it’s a relationship drama that dares to peer down dark corners unflinchingly.

 

Four Christmases

Being a child of divorce, I can relate to this notion of multiple Christmases, and most people seem to be stressed enough by just the one. Of course, the truth is, if you have divorce in your life or not, you probably already have multiple holiday celebrations: office, friends, in-laws. The holidays are never simple.

So who can blame Brad and Kate for opting out? They’re a fun loving couple in a committed but unmarried relationship who have kept family out of the equation. Instead of choosing between celebrations, they fly south for the holidays, and this year they’ve got their sights set on Fiji. EXCEPT the stupid San Francisco fog has other ideas and their flight is cancelled AND they get caught on live television so the secret’s out and the families start knocking on the door immediately.

Not only are Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) on the hook for 4 Christmases, they’re also meeting each other’s parents for the very first time. And what a MV5BMTg4Nzg1MzE1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTI1NzMyNw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1492,1000_AL_motley crew that turns out to be! Kate has a cougarrific Mom (Mary Steenburgen) who’s currently dating a rockstar pastor (Dwight Yoakam) and a sister (Kristin Chenoweth) who is dead set on dredging up her entire embarrassing past and a father (Jon Voight) who’s trying to turn over a new leaf. Meanwhile, Brad hippie Mom (Sissy Spacek) is dating his childhood friend who’s aggressively trying to stepfather him despite the non-existent age difference, and his Dad (Robert Duvall) is rough around the edges, to put it nicely, while his brothers (Tim McGraw, Jon Favreau), UFC wannabes, take rough-housing to an uncomfortable level. So I guess the question is for Brad and Kate: do they know each other well enough to survive this family tornado? Or does their relationship depend on constant fun and no entanglements?

The truth is, every family is a juggling act. I remember the first time I brought Sean home to meet my crazy family. I had prepared him as well as I could: someone will cry, someone will lock themselves in the bathroom in a fit of drama, someone will overshare, someone else will shock him with a highly inappropriate question or six. And you know what? ALL of those things happened that first Thanksgiving, as I knew they would, because they always do. But we had a grand time because they’re a fun if dramatic bunch and the problem with families is not really what they reveal of themselves but what they reveal of YOU – as in that hidden part that you shield from new dating partners. But your Mom will inevitably drag out an old photo album that she refuses to cull of your bad haircut phase, and your sister will you call you by your highly unflattering childhood nickname, and your carefully curated cool girl persona will crumble faster than Mom can say “Who wants seconds?”

Anyway, that’s the holidays. They don’t always bring out the best in us, but maybe they bring out our true selves, for better or worse. And if you can’t let that guard drop in front of your partner, then maybe you aren’t really as close as you think. Four Christmases isn’t a great movie, not destined to be a holiday classic, but you can do worse, I suppose, and around the holidays, any excuse to cuddle up on the couch is a good one.

Wakefield

Howard Wakefield is a cruel man possibly in the throes of a nervous breakdown – but let’s not let that excuse him. In a fit of selfish pique, he one day decides to leave his wife and kids – only not leave them in the traditional sense, but rather he decides to disappear without telling a soul. Which leaves his wife and daughters devastated, but not devastated enough, according to Howard, who in fact has not actually left but is hiding out in the garage so he can more effectively spy on his grieving family.

It’s not as creepy as it sounds – it’s way, way creepier. Wakefield is a difficult movie to watch because Harold is a nasty soul impossible to forgive. He talks to us, the audience, as if we can relate, but no Harold, we can’t. He has everything he ever wanted – ever Wakefield_Mingasson_2060.CR2cheated in order to get, but when he finds that it’s not enough, he doesn’t just abandon it, he makes it into a game, one that his family can never win because they don’t even know they’re playing, but even if they did, the deck isn’t just stacked against them, the rules are impossible. It’s not really his family that’s the problem – it’s Harold’s own dark, empty soul. And it’s terrifying to get glimpses of it as he spends months becoming a feral creature up in the attic of his detached garage. He risks starvation and exposure just to carry out this cruel little experiment. Is he missed enough? Grieved enough? His absence respected enough? No one can ever measure up – but Harold himself conveniently escapes his judgement.

Harold is brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston, which makes him riveting, but all the more loathsome to watch. But really it’s his wife who’s the most compelling – we see and experience her only through Harold’s narrow focus. Jennifer Garner has the difficult task of animating her, a woman who can never truly be real to us, even if we do project our own anguish and frustration on to her. I can’t say I enjoyed this film; it’s a bit dull and uneventful, but more than that, it’s just detestable. Harold is an anti-hero incapable of redemption. But there are two fine performances and ideas about marriage and identity that will challenge the least of us. Who are we really – are we fully knowable to our partners? And do we all have secret garage moments?

 

Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot is a world-renowned detective, known almost as much for his venerable mustaches as for his excellent deductive skills. On the way home from solving yet another case successfully, his train gets stuck in the middle of nowhere thanks to an avalanche, and that’s not the worst thing that’s happened aboard the Orient Express. Overnight, there has been a murder most foul. One of the dozen or so passengers is dead, and another must be his murderer. With Hercule Poirot unluckily aboard, can his or her identity remain secret? It seems unlikely.

MV5BMTU4NjU5NDYxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzgyODg0MjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_Kenneth Branagh directs himself as Agatha Christie’s famed Poirot, and he’s equally right in both roles. He leads an all-star cast including Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and more. The only thing you can complain about with such an ensemble is that we spend precious little time with any one of them – Dench is particularly underused.

Branagh shoots on 65mm film and the result is luxurious and beautiful; I could barely take my eyes off the scenery, and indeed, the script gave me little reason to. I’m still not sure what genre of movie Murder on the Orient Express was trying to be. There might be a mystery at its core, but the audience feels no particular sense of urgency in solving it. There’s almost zero tension, which seems like a failure when a murderer is trapped among a gaggle of vulnerable potential victims, each with a neck ripe for slicing. And though I commend Branagh’s attempt at making Poirot sag a little under the pressure of his special skill set, the character seems largely untouched by the story unraveling before him. Leached of the emotional heft probably its due, the story never delivers any punch. There’s no real suspense. So while every shot is perfectly composed and the film is a stylistic triumph, it just doesn’t do justice to Christie’s plot.

Breathe

Breathe is the directorial debut of motion-capture artist Andy Serkis, and if there was any justice in this world, it would be his last. [there isn’t: he’s already got a live-action Jungle Book slated next – but at least he seems uniquely qualified for that]

It’s the based-on-a-true-story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous, fun-loving couple who are brought low when Robin (Andrew Garfield) is suddenly and irrevocably paralyzed by polio. He wants to die, but she wants their unborn son to know him, so they compromise: she springs him from the hospital, and he does his best to stop being so gosh darn glum. He’s the first of his kind to live away from a hospital setting, and it’s thanks to the devotion of his wife (Claire Foy) and the ingenuity of a friend (Hugh Bonneville) that he’s able to do more than just survive.

So yes, there’s an inspiring story in there somewhere. This is Andrew Garfield’s most hero_Breathe-TIFF-2017Eddie Redmayne role yet, but he can’t quite live up to those man-in-chair heights. As his character is paralyzed from the neck down, all he has to use is his face, and of course he overuses it. I liked Foy’s performance a lot better than Garfield’s. He came off as grating; Sean called it nearly unbearable. But he’s far from the only problem with the movie. First, the script is cloying, predictable, and overly sentimental. It’s an emotional predator, designed to wring tears from your face. I refused to comply. It hits the all-too familiar beats of a biopic and doesn’t stray once from conventional story-telling. But Andy Serkis’s direction does stray from the norm, and from the tolerable. It’s shot in an ultrawide aspect ratio that I hated. I felt like I was watching a skinny rectangle at best, but often felt as though I was viewing the movie through a fishbowl. Serkis’ angles are often weird, and not quirky weird, but uncomfortable and off-putting. But I suppose the worst crimes against this little against-all-odds love story is that Serkis rushes through the prologue, the courtship, the thing that should make us understand why this guy deserves so much devotion, why their love is so strong that she’s willing to wipe his shitty bum and go without sex for the rest of her life in order to keep a suicidal man alive. It’s a crap life for her. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, just that it’s always going to be difficult. And I realized that though there are seemingly lots of movies about men being tended by loyal wives, the same is not true in reverse. Husbands cut and run. So really the movie’s most interesting character is Diana, and we know little about her. We don’t see any of her struggles or her inner life. In fact, for Breathe’s 117 minute runtime, I’m not sure we got to know anyone particularly well in this movie. And that’s really too bad.

My Cousin Rachel

Philip (Sam Claflin), receives distressing news from his cousin and guardian, who adopted him as an orphaned baby. While recovering from an illness in Italy, he met and married a woman and now has regrets. If his strange and hasty missives are to believed, this woman, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), is trying to kill him. Philip rushes off to intervene but his guardian is dead before he arrives. He swears vengeance on the widow but she has conveniently disappeared.

Philip returns home, to the estate he will now inherit once he comes of age – and luckily, MV5BMDYxOTU1ZDItYjJkMC00ZTVmLWFhZDktNDFiODRlODI1MzQ4L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDcxNzU3MTE@._V1_his required 25th birthday is right around the corner. But before it can be celebrated, the ballsy widow shows up for a social call. Draped in black, she looks like a grieving widow, but passionate kiss shared between the two perhaps belie other motives. Of course, this particular widow does not look like the wicked witch of Philip’s dreams, but seeing how she’s played by the enchanting Rachel Weisz, probably looks more like the woman in a different kind of dream altogether.

So the film’s central mystery unfolds: is Rachel trying to seduce young Philip into sharing his inheritance (the will was never changed to reflect her at all), or are there genuine feelings here? Whichever way you lean, this is a dark romance at best. A bad romance (roma, ro-a-a?). Which of course is intoxicating to stupid virginal Philip who will follow his cock just about anywhere it seems.

Gothic and moody, Rachel Weisz is a commanding and alluring black widow. Unfortunately, director Roger Michell has less of a firm grip on this Du Maurier mystery. Did she or didn’t she?  Either he doesn’t know, or doesn’t care. So it’s less satisfying than it should be. But ambiguity would have been just fine by me; it’s what allows us to contemplate Rachel’s precarious position and explore the feminist slant – is a woman left penniless and powerless acting in her own self-interest really all that shocking or evil? In any case, Weisz is the reason to watch. Her every moment on screen is magnetic.

TIFF: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Whether or not you love her music, you know Lady Gaga. You know the stunts, the hair, the makeup, the crazy costumes, the meat dress, the Madonna feud, the constant nudity. But when Lady Gaga wanted to rebrand herself with a new album,  Joanne, in which both she and her music would be stripped-down and very different from their former selves, she decided this documentary would be just the thing to introduce Lady Gaga-lite to her fans.

Like way too many documentaries of this sort, Lady Gaga only offers up what she wants us to see, nothing more, and definitely nothing very personal. It’s all about the music, so your enjoyment of this film will depend a lot on your appreciation of her music. Director Chris Moukarbel grants us backstage access to her shows, her recording studio, her music video shoots, and the preparations for her Superbowl halftime show.

I’m not a huge fan of hers, but I can appreciate her voice and her musicianship. I am a little less forgiving of the rich and famous who star in documentaries whose sole purpose is to tell you how hard their cushy lives are. As a fellow sufferer of chronic pain, I want to have sympathy for her plight, but watching doctors who treat the rest of us as drug seekers literally throw them at her is a little disheartening. And that’s not mentioning the personal masseuse and physio therapist she staffs round the clock, or the makeup artist who accompanies her to doctor’s appointments to make sure she never looks less than her best.

Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet for her film "Gaga: Five Foot Two" during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto

I suppose if you’re a big enough fan you can likely look beyond the privileged whining and appreciate the work she pours into her music, and the family story behind the album in question, which is actually quite interesting.

 

I did, at times, feel a little sad for her. In the documentary she seems ready to shed the more outrageous parts of her “performance”, wants to be taken seriously out of the crazy high fashion and in just a pair of jean shorts. Will her fans accept this transition? If you saw her at the TIFF premiere of the film, you’d be inclined to assume the answer is no. She seems to have already reverted to her old ways before the movie even hit Netflix. I guess my biggest takeaway is that yes, compromises have been made. Money and success don’t insulate from that.

TIFF: Brad’s Status

Save yourself $12 and some heart burn. Brad’s Status is midlife crisis. Anyone who calls a Millennial whiny, entitled, or self-indulgent has cleary never met Brad (Ben Stiller) or his ilk. He seemingly has everything a Millennial may never get: a great house, a job he’s passionate about, a family who adores him. And yet.

And yet his son’s success has led him to do some deep introspection. His son Troy  (Austin Abrams) is applying to college and his good grades and musicianship mean he’s a shoo-in wherever he might apply – including Harvard, which is the school they’re going to check maxresdefaultout over the weekend. Brad is surprised his son is so high-achieving, proud of course – but maybe also a little jealous. And he’s reminded of his own youth, when life was still before him and anything was possible. His best mates in college have all gone on to stunning success – Craig (Michael Sheen) is a best-selling politico, Billy (Jemaine Clement) is enjoying early retirement in paradise after selling his company, Jason (Luke Wilson) is a hedge fund guy with his own private jet, and Nick (Mike White) is a Hollywood director with a palatial home. Brad gets unforgivably mopey about the fact that his sweet wife (Jenna Fisher) didn’t encourage him to sell out, and his job helping people connect with charitable giving is peanuts compared to just being a rich guy with money to give.

We get treated to so much of Brad’s whiny inner monologue that you’ll want to punch him, repeatedly. Various Millennials have to literally hold his hand and explain to him that he’s being gross: that everything he’s complaining about is white privilege, male privilege garbage. And he still doesn’t get it.

Brad’s life only seems pale when he compares it to the 1%. He burns with first world problems. He seems like a not fantastic guy who doesn’t get an ounce of my sympathy. Of course, Ben Stiller is well-suited to this kind of neurotic self-pity. With anxiety written all over his face, we know 5 minutes into this movie that we hate him and regret having to spend the next 100 minutes listening to him be ungrateful for his charmed life. Thank goodness for his son who sees things a little more clearly. Mike White may have some interesting things to say on the subject, and I pray that he’s just as contemptuous of Brad as we are, but for me, he was just too unlikeable a character to really inspire much empathy from me, and I mostly just wanted to turn him off.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I read this book not long ago and was really taken by it, inspired by it, moved by it. It’s non-fiction by Rebecca Skloot about a woman named Henrietta Lacks who had cells taken from her without consent while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. She died shortly after but her cells lived on and live on still. They’re known as HeLa cells and they’ve been sold to labs the world over because hers were durable and prolific. Nearly every medical breakthrough since 1951 has used her cells in research and trials. Hela cells are the oldest immortal cell line in medical history. But Henrietta never knew, MV5BZjkxMTVmMDQtYTE3OS00NjBhLWJlNjQtYjI1M2VkNzE3ODA2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAyNzI2OTY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1444,1000_AL_was never asked. Her family didn’t know either. And when they found out, decades later, they were mortified. Without the education to understand what those cells really meant, they wondered if part of their mother was indeed still alive, being kept alive cruelly in labs, being shot into space, or injected with disease. And why had so many profited from the sale of HeLa cells while Henrietta’s family languished in poverty?

The book tackled issues of informed consent, and ethics of race and class in medical research. The film, starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s haunted daughter, Deborah, and Rose Byrne as writer Skloot, loses some of what makes the book such a great read. But it’s still a great if upsetting introduction to Henrietta and the family that still grieves her. Deborah grew up without a mother, while thousands of scientists handled her cells on a daily basis. She knew almost nothing about her mother but now learns that her legacy includes the vaccine for polio, gene mapping, and cloning. Scientists have grown some 20 tonnes of HeLa cells, which have featured in over 60 000 research papers and 11 000 patents. Not a dime ever went to the Lacks family.

Winfrey gives a stirring performance as a heartbroken woman. Byrne is commanding as well. But for my money, the book is where it’s at – pick it up.