Do you want to know how it ends? A meteor. That’s how we go. For the people of Earth, that day is today. It’s the last day of Earth, and Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) has been invited to a party. The meteor is the least interesting thing about How It Ends, and its only certainty.
Liza’s initial inclination is to spend her last day alone, getting high and eating cookies. It’s a pretty solid plan, but unfortunately her Younger Self (also named Liza of course) (Cailee Spaeny) vetoes. Plan B involves checking off items on a list of regrets en route to the pre-apocalypse party. On Liza’s list of regrets: exes, former friends, estranged parents. Truth is the theme for the day, and if that doesn’t keep her honest, her Younger Self sure will. Liza and Young Liza hoof it across Los Angeles, encountering a pretty eclectic cast of characters, but most of all bonding with and taking care of each other.
How It Ends is oddly playful for the pre-apocalypse, but as both co-writer-director and its star, Zoe Lister-Jones certainly has the right sort of presence to pull it off. She’s got excellent chemistry with Spaeny, which you’d really sort of have to, or the whole thing would be an utter failure. It’s a fascinating philosophical experiment, to have two versions of the same person interacting with each other so naturally. I loved the relationship between the two, and felt a little jealous of it. I enjoyed laughing with them, eavesdropping on their most intimate conversations, and indulging in a double dose of Lister-Jones’ unique brand of charm.
Frequent collaborators Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein manage to take a quirky premise and ground it with self-aware performances. As the meteor draws ever nearer, we dread it not because of the impending doom of humanity, because it means the movie itself will end, and we’ve been having too much fun to want to say goodbye.
Amber (Auli’i Cravalho) and her mother Becky (Justina Machado) are down on their luck. Things spiraled after the death of her father; Becky’s job isn’t enough to support them and unless they live with one bad boyfriend or another, they’re homeless. Like many high schoolers would, Amber struggles to keep this secret from her friends while working a multitude of after-school jobs to put cash in the kitty toward renting an apartment. That’s the dream. But she’s a senior in high school, so her dreams also include pursuing her music, and possibly pursuing the guy with the melty brown eyes (Rhenzy Feliz).
Amber is obviously a remarkable young woman. Her time and heart are splintered between many obligations. She’s got great friends but keeping her secret is an obstacle that stops her from really leaning on them for support. Auli’i Cravalho (you may know her as the voice of Moana) is a great choice for the role because her beaming smile lights the way through her hardships and sacrifice, and when that smile slips even the tiniest bit, we feel it immediately. Amber is juggling school work and work work and if she’s lucky, she sleeps at night illegally in the back of a cold bus, eating whatever her mother could flirt her way into acquiring, and trying to support her mother’s tenuous sobriety. But the next day at school she looks like any of her peers. It’s an interesting reminder that the face of poverty is not always what we expect.
With Cravalho, Fred Armisen, and Carol Burnett in the cast, we hardly needed any further inducement to watch All Together Now on Netflix, but then we realized Brett Haley was directing, and he alone would have been all the reason we needed. He is such a talented writer and director and I’ve been a fan of his since he shone his light on Blythe Danner in 2015’s I’ll See You In My Dreams and then he blew me away completely with Hearts Beat Loud. He’s got a real talent for raising up the everyday and finding moments of raw glory in ordinary people. Haley and frequent collaborator Marc Basch help Matthew Quick adapt his own novel, Sorta Like A Rock Star, for the screen.
Together they’ve crafted something special. Haley’s movies are thoughtful, sensitive, and measure. They reflect feeling rather than sentimentality. Amber is proud but if she’s shielding anyone from shame, it’s her mother, not herself. But Haley et. al show us the dignity in accepting help, in allowing our friends and family to get close enough to see the need and the opportunity.
All Together Now is a spirited film with a strong cast and a sweet story. It was a real pleasure to watch, a rare treat from Netflix.
Once in a blue moon, Netflix offers up a rare gem. Band Aid is a Netflix diamond.
Written, directed, and starring Zoe Lister-Jones (who you may already love from Life In Pieces!), Band Aid is a little piece of indie cinema genius. It’s about a married couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (king of indies Adam Pally, who you may already love from The Mindy Project), who on their last legs, relationship-wise. Even their therapist claims she’s moved to Canada just to avoid them. The fights are vicious, and cyclical. But while high as a couple of kites at a child’s birthday party, they discover the one thing that can still bring them joy: music. And so they start a band where they sing their fights back and forth in front of their sex addict neighbour (Fred Armisen), who conveniently is a drummer.
In fact, music alone is not enough to save them. Turns out they’ve suffered a tragedy that neither has fully grieved, and singing about it is going to be very difficult since talking about it has been impossible for years. They’re still a broken couple, now they’re just putting all their dirty laundry on the stage for the consumption of others. A particularly ambitious dream of them getting a record deal never seems all that impossible because actually, their music is good, and fun (so long as you are currently in a good space with your loved one). Sean and I found ourselves communicating in that subtle hand squeezy way that some couples have when they are relating a little too well to the awkwardness on screen.
Now brace yourselves for a cool fact: for her first movie, Zoe Lister-Jones insisted on an all-female crew. Like, Adam Pally was the only man for miles and miles. Truly all female. And the thing is, the movie is so good that I buried the lead. It doesn’t need any gimmicks. Because when a normal film would just throw out the old male-female sick couple cliches, Lister-Jones keep asking why. Why do couples drive each other crazy over time? Band Aid might not have all the answers but it confronts the questions honestly, while still being an entirely entertaining movie.
Sean has a video game called LEGO Dimensions. You buy character packs, build them out of LEGO, and then you can play them in the game. The character packs come in all sorts of cool recognizable shapes and sizes: Sean has the Simpsons, and Back to the Future, and Ghostbusters, for example. He builds a Marty McFly, and a Delorean, and then he can go through the plot of the movie using those characters. It’s pretty cool. But as a completionist, he’s also bought character packs that we have no experience with at all, like Harry Potter, Adventure Time, Portal 2, and Ninjago. And while we knew that Harry Potter were popular books, and a franchise of films, we didn’t know Ninjago at all. In fact, we didn’t even know how to pronounce it correctly until Sean called it Ninja-go in front of his 4 year old nephew, who looked at him like he was a complete sack of shit. It’s pronounced Nin-jaw-go, for your information. And apparently it’s a TV show used to sell LEGO sets. But whereas Bill Murray was a real flesh and blood person rendered into a cartoon version of a LEGO mini figure, the Ninjagos were always LEGO. LEGO has sold over 100 different sets of LEGOs based on that show, so you can see how it’s a big money maker for them. The movie is a cog in their money making machine.
The gist of the movie: Garmadon (Justin Theroux) is the bad guy threatening the world of Ninjago. But every time he tries to invade it for good, he’s thwarted by a band of teenage ninjas trained by his brother, Master Wu (Jackie Chan) and led by the son he abandoned 16 years ago, Lloyd (Dave Franco) though none bear any familial resemblance. Being the son of a noted bad guy is hard, and so is being the vaguely named “green ninja” in a crew of ninjas otherwise named for the elements – Cole\Earth (Fred Armisen), Jay\Lightning (Kumail Nanjiani), Kai\Fire (Michael Pena), Zane\Ice (Zach Woods), and Nya\Water (Abbi Jacobson). They get to ride around in really cool LEGO robots that can shoot things and fly, and I can totally see the toy appeal. Lloyd’s robot vehicle is a dragon that shoots missiles from every body part imaginable – what kid could resist? But the genius is that that they all have something different, so the potential for you to spend money is almost limitless.
Anyway, when Garmadon makes his most successful bid to capture the city (and a monster threatens to destroy it), Lloyd will have to learn now to harness his vague ninja powers, pull his team together, and also bond a little with his bad guy dad.
Yes, it’s all a big ploy to get into your wallet. But like the other LEGO movies that came before it, it’s also shamelessly fun. But this one is the weakest of the three, in part because it only appeals to the kids who know and watch the show. The other two movies preyed on adult nostalgia and reminded them of the toys they played with as kids. The only thing this movie might remind you of is the sharp little buggers that get lost in your carpet and hurt like hell when you step on them at night on your way to the bathroom. LEGO knows what it’s doing: the butt joke ratio is extremely high, and the kids laugh every damn time. So go ahead and take them to it, as long as you understand that it’s likely to cost you more than just the movie tickets.
Note: when this film premiered at Tribeca, it was called Geezer.
Perry is the Geezer in question, a middle-aged suburban dad with edgy hair and a family he loves, but he’s just a little bit checked out of his ordinary life. As he turns 40 he’s stewing in what-ifs, foremost among them, what if I hadn’t left my punk rock band just as it was maybe about to take off?
He’s no semblance of a musician now. He works in a hardware store and only manages to sneak in a few chords around his kids’ morning routine. But on the occasion of this milestone birthday he decides to treat himself to the wildest party a has-been can muster before noon and he runs in to an old flame who reignites old dreams.
It’s not exactly ground-breaking material but here’s the gimmick that’ll put butts in theatres: it’s Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong playing Perry. And is it pretty effing cool to see him play the guy he might have been had his own post-punk outfit not taken off when it did? Yes, yes it is.
So then the question you’re next going to ask is: Holy shit, can Billie Joe act? And the answer is no, no he can’t. I mean, the director, Lee Kirk, told us he was a great actor, but the movie seemed to indicate that the Kirk’s pants were on fire. Sean thought he was okay – inoffensive, but he never forgot for a moment that he was watching Billie Joe Armstrong. I, on the other hand, thought it was a scootch worse than that. Unnatural. Self-conscious. Very “you can tell I’m acting because my hand is over here on my hip, which means I’m going through some internal conflict I’m not subtle enough to convey any other way.” And yet I’m not going to condemn him because the movie really is a vehicle for him. He’s what makes it cool and relevant, makes the movie rise above the other mid-life-crisis\path-not-taken meditations. Plus, Kirk pads the cast with some better talent: Judy Greer as the old flame, Selma Blair as the current wife, Chris Messina as the scowling brother, Fred Armisen as an ex-bandmate.
The theme may be familiar, but I still admired the writing. Kirk tries to take a fresh perspective, never blaming the wife and kids for Perry’s lack of success. The regret without resentment shows maturity I’m surprised to see in a character like Perry. Billie Joe never quite transcends the role, but there is an honest vulnerability there that’s a little charming. And Billie Joe is not just a casting liability, he’s an asset to the soundtrack because he’s written some original music for it, and the movie is never more confidant than when Armstrong is performing. In this he excels. The songs he wrote are great and I imagine they’ll be invading your radio waves sometime soon, lending the movie some major credibility.
I can be certain about the music because we were treated to a concert immediately following the screening. Billie Joe had Green Day drummer Tré Cool backing him up and Jesse Malin on rhythm guitar. They launched into the film’s first song, Devil’s Kind, with an energy that defies the fact that Armstrong is in fact a middle-aged father of two. They played a couple of Green Day tunes as well, Scattered and then American Idiot, which morphed into Bad Reputation. Oh, did I not mention that Joan Jett was in the house? Yeah, she has a small cameo in the film but she got up on stage and showed the boys what a scene-stealing badass she still is. Her voice hasn’t aged a single minute and the woman’s still sporting leather pants. Armstrong closed the night with Ordinary World, the film’s acoustic ballad, and I couldn’t help but wonder at the twinkly goodness of my life. In the movie of my life, there is no path not taken.
Note: Geezer has since undergone name change. Now known as Ordinary World, it will see a release October 14 2016 – on DVD\streaming and in select theatres.