Zach Galifianakis is our tour guide as we enjoy a behind the scenes look at the set of his wildly successful talk show, Between Two Ferns. It’s completely fake of course. And wonderful.
Zach’s “show” is a series of web videos you can find literally anywhere on the internet but most of all on Funny or Die. It looks like a bit of amateur public access television that somehow manages to book very high profile celebrities and seat them betwixt the eponymous two potted ferns. He has interviewed the biggest names: Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber, even Obama, but the thing that makes people seek out his videos is that he uses it as an excuse to insult celebrities to their face. He uses his own name but the interviewer character is extremely antagonistic and recklessly inappropriate. As Will Ferrell states, we’re laughing at him, not with him.
The movie’s premise, which is as thin as they come, is just Zach hitting the road in order to film 10 rapid-succession shows in order to achieve his ultimate goal of a network late night show. The plot, if you want to call it that, is flimsy because it’s just a vehicle for random acts of bizarre humour. You either like it or you don’t. It’s on Netflix so it’s low risk, but this is not going to win over any new fans and isn’t trying to. It’s just a 10 course dinner rather than its usual light snack. Can you take that much fern? Can anyone?
“People find you unpleasant,” this according to David Letterman, and he’s putting it lightly. This version of Zach Galifianakis is an asshole, but that’s the fun of his little show: it subverts the usual softball style of celebrity interviews. It looks Jon Hamm straight in the eye and asks whether Bradley Cooper’s success “will open doors for other hot idiots?” If you think it must be hard to get those insults out while remaining deadpan, stay tuned through the credits for proof.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is just 14 years old when her father is murdered by the coward Tom Chaney. It should not fall to her to avenge his murder, but it does, and Mattie proves more than up to the challenge. Though not particularly skilled with guns or wilderness, she and her quick wit are nonetheless game when both are required as the search for Chaney takes her into Indian land. She hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), supposedly a man of true grit, to get the job done; Rooster is none too pleased to find a little girl as his sidekick, but the money’s too good to turn down. Mattie, however, is the one who ends up disappointed when she quickly learns that Rooster is a slothful drunk. Neither is she pleased when Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) joins the fray – he’s after Chaney (Josh Brolin) for his own ends, but Mattie insists that he will hang for no other crime but her own father’s murder. It’s a fine point, perhaps a moot one, but to Mattie, it’s the whole point.
1825 was not a great time to be female. LaBoeuf feels entitled to both kiss and spank Mattie, a 14 year old girl mind you, at his will and against hers. Most other men just discount her completely. But this is a story of true grit, and so it must involve a woman. Joel and Ethan Cohen edge the spotlight over to Mattie, where it belongs, which is what makes this film even stronger than the original. Which is not to say that Rooster and LaBoeuf are lost. Indeed they are not. The Cohens can write like the dickens (or, perhaps, like Dickens), and they’ve found a way to sharpen up a very interesting little triangle. Hailee Steinfeld was 13 when she was cast, but she acts alongside of Damon and Bridges like a gun toting, horse riding champ, and it earned her an Oscar nomination (which she lost, of course – True Grit got 10 nominations and 0 wins, which is what the french call “not right.)
True Grit is gritty, but it’s beautifully made. I love the snappy, tongue-twisting, quotable script, I love Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, I love the actual wild of the wild west, I love the slapdash feel of the gun fights, I love the sound of beans cooking in their can, I love the gleaming buckles on Matt Damon’s hat and the way he talks after losing his tongue. It feels improbable, and maybe even impossible, that you could take a beloved American classic and actually improve upon it, but credit the Cohens – they have, and they’ve made it look effortless.
What’s better than Spider-Man? TWO Spider-Mans (or is it Spider-Men?)! Either way, take that thinking to its conclusion, like Lego Movie co-writer Phil Lord did, and you end up with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a cinematic universe to end all cinematic universes.
Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) has hit a bit of a rough patch in middle age, as has teenager Miles Morales, who just got bitten by a radioactive spider and is going through some changes as a result on top of struggling with fitting in a his new school. Right after being bitten by that pesky spider, Miles stumbles into a science lab where another Spider-Man (Chris Pine) is trying to stop the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from opening a dimensional portal. During the battle, Kingpin kills that Spidey but not before the first Spider-Man, the middle-aged one, is sucked through the portal that the Kingpin’s machine created.
Confused? You should be, but the most amazing thing about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that this jumble of Spider-Mans (Men?) makes perfect sense on-screen. And that’s a compliment in two ways. First, because there is so much happening in this movie that it has no right to make sense, and second, because there are a whole lot of other amazing things about this movie.
Spider-Verse’s animation, particularly the art style, is stunning. A number of other superhero films have taken inspiration from the comics, whether in using captions, multiple panels, or bright colours. Spider-Verse takes that to a whole other glorious level, owning its comic book roots and jumping off the screen even in classic 2D.
Spider-Verse is also remarkably accessible. This is not a solo superhero film with only two or three familiar characters to track. Spider-Verse is chock full of obscure one-offs, alternate takes that faded away, including an entire “Ultimate” comic book line that was canned by Marvel in 2015 due to lack of interest. All of that can sit comfortably in the background but no prior knowledge of anything is necessary, even of Spider-Man, to understand and enjoy this film.
The Barden Bellas from the first 2 movies are back, but they’ve been replaced. Having finally graduated from college, a new crop of girls is singing acapella at their alma matter and the old Bellas are feeling obsolete. Shitty jobs aren’t panning out and dreams are already broken, and the old Bellas are feeling obsolete (I know! Who would have guessed that majoring in mouth music wasn’t really the best life choice?!). A last ditch effort to reunite comes in an invitation to perform for the troops in a USO show and since the Bellas have literally nothing else going on (except for one unwanted pregnancy), off they go to a warn-torn Spanish resort hotel to do their part.
Now you might think that being in a war zone is the toughest part of this new chapter, but in fact, to the Bellas, because they’re not crazy AT ALL, the worst part is competing against bands that play instruments. How dare they! I thought college was supposed to prepare you for the real world but these ladies are literally not even prepared for guitars. Yeesh. (Not to give too much credit to the new “bands”, including Evermoist, led by Ruby Rose, because after seriously mocking the Bellas for being a “cover band”, it turns out they all do covers too! A Cranberries tribute is particularly poignant with the recent death of Dolores O’Riordan.)
Anyway. There was absolutely no call to make a third movie here, and the script strains so hard to justify itself you’ll want to buy it a squatty potty. If you absolutely must watch it, you’ll want to wait until it’s available at home, where you can fast-forward to all the Sia bits and avoid the inane “plot” (though you’ll want to hear John Lithgow sing with an Australian accent at least once, just to say you did). It’s pretty clear that this franchise needs to learn the same lesson the Bellas do: moving on is good.
I had heard she had some sort of music career fallback, but I didn’t really understand that I’d been hearing her on the radio consistently for quite some time. Hailee Steinfeld: you may know her as the little girl from True Grit, or else the young woman in The Edge of Seventeen, but a whole lot of young folk know her as a top 40 pop artist. She “broke out” after appearing in Pitch Perfect 2 and just like that she had a record deal and a music video.
Of course you may know that Pitch Perfect alum Anna Kendrick also landed on the Billboards with her annoying song, Cups. The music video, which I’ve neglected to see before today, is a bit aggravating since she’s play some working class baker in a horrid little diner that apparently refuses to sell drinks. Anyone else start bleeding from the eyeballs when this comes on? Anna Kendrick’s gotten singy in a whole bunch of her movies, including Trolls and Into the Woods, so it seems unlikely that her vocal stylings are going anywhere soon (god help us all).
Kendrick’s not the only co-star of Hailee Steinfeld’s to have music on the radio. Her True Grit co-star Jeff Bridges is super musical too. Of course you were likely blown away by his performance in Crazy Heart, but that’s not a one-off. He studied piano as a kid but now he’s usually seen with one of several guitars in hand, on set and everywhere else. In 1980, while filming Heaven’s Gate, he’d often jam with his co-star, singer\songwriter Kris Kristofferson, between takes. Kristofferson helped inspire Bridges’ Crazy Heart character, Bad Blake, who is described as being the fictional 5th Highwayman, alongside Willie Nelson, Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.
A bunch of actors tour with bands in their down time. Steve Martin’s bluegrass sound isn’t surprising to anyone who’ll recognize his banjo from his stand-up comic days. He’s put some real time and effort into his second career as a musician, and he’s picked up some Grammy awards to show for it. Billy Bob Thornton has released music with The Boxmasters and Tres Hombres. Michael Cera plays bass in Mister Heavenly. Kevin Costner’s band, Kevin Costner and Modern West, tours the NASCAR circuit. Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar reportedly gave Weezer their first touring gig opening for them in the early 90s. Kevin Bacon makes music with his brother in (you guessed it) The Bacon Brothers. Russell Crowe started out with 30 Odd Foot of Grunts before he was super successful over here, and then graduated to Russell Crowe & the Ordinary Fear of God once he did. And perhaps most famously (or at least most successfully), Jared Leto formed alt-rock band 30 Seconds to Mars the minute he was done with My So-Called Life and has always gone back to it between film projects, ensuring the stability of the black eyeliner industry.
Jamie Foxx revealed his musical talent in the movie Ray, and then followed it up with a convincing Ray Charles impression in Kanye West’s song, Gold Digger. Foxx has also been feature on a Drake track (another actor turned musician; Canadians will never let him forget that he got his start on the Degrassi reboot). Solo, he’s released 4 R&B albums since Ray. His most commercially successful single, the heavily auto-tuned Blame It, has a music video that weirdly “stars” Jake Gyllenhaal, Ron Howard, Forest Whitaker, and Samuel L. Jackson. Never mind the Grey Goose sponsorship deal. Feel free to check it out and let me know what gives.
One of my favourie actor crossovers is Zooey Deschanel, who has a good thing going with M. Ward called She & Him. She’s pretty legit – she plays keyboards, percussion, banjo, and ukulele – and M. Ward lends a lot of blues\folk credibility. We know she can sing from her duet with Will Ferrell in the movie Elf, but she’s also appeared on a Coconut Records album, a band by fellow indie actor Jason Schwartzman. In this She & Him video, she’s helped out by her 500 Days of Summer co-star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
In case you doubted that Ryan Gosling was singing (he was a Mousketeer alongside Justin Timberlake you know!) and playing the piano long before La La Land ever existed, here’s a pretty raw video of him and his band Dead Man’s Bones. The sound’s not great because it was recorded live, but you’ll get the gist.
There are many more besides who tried to sing and probably shouldn’t have, and I’m not even sure if William Shatner belongs on that list. He’s released so many albums at this point that I have to take him at least semi-seriously, or as seriously as the Shatner spoken-word singing can be taken. Which is still better than Cory Feldman sing-ranting about the pitfalls of being a former child actor. And I can only begin to imagine the highs and lows contained on an album by Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis, or David Hasselhoff, and apparently there are 18 of those in existence! Can you even believe it? Well believe it:
Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, an awkward teenager. Scratch that. Make it a super awkward teenager. So awkward that I kept ducking behind my coat (the only thing available to be in the theatre), blushing, needing a buffer between myself and all the squirm-inducing goodness on screen.
Was I ever 17? I doubt it. I bet Nadine feels like she’ll be 17 forever though. The awkwardness just goes on and on. To make matters worse, her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) has it easy: perfect skin, perfect grades, the perfect apple of his mother’s eye, and a perfectly terrible person to be compared to for the rest of your life. To make matters EVEN worse, Darian starts dating Nadine’s best friend (read: only friend), which means he’s getting all the comfort that used to be hers, and she’s forced to be at war with them both while still, you know, blundering her way through life and high school, with only an irascible teacher (Woody Harrelson) in her corner – and believe me, that’s a bit iffy.
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig seems awfully comfortable behind the camera for a first-timer, but it’s the writing you’ll admire most. Nadine is largely unsentimental, and unsentimentally portrayed. You love her despite the fact that she’s a dumpster fire. She makes all the wrong decisions, usually in the most flamboyant way possible, and yet it’s impossible not to care. Maybe it’s that we can all find some small part of ourselves and our experience in Nadine, in her struggle just to survive a pretty delicate (read: embarrassing) time in one’s life.
All of the performances are exemplary – even the adults have secrets and dimension. The ensemble works together in a very dynamic, authentic way that would be depressing if it wasn’t so funny. Craig’s writing is snappy and smart, and she manages to keep her protagonist’s unlikeability an asset to the film. It’s an observant film, and universal enough to exceed the confines of a teen movie and appeal to the awkward teenager in all of us.
I like Vince Vaughn. There, I said it. He hasn’t been in a good movie since 2005’s Wedding Crashers but in the early noughties he and the rest of the “Frat Pack” (Owen Wilson, Will Farrell and the like) could do no wrong. Vaughn was almost always the fast-talking, bipedal id, just pure charm, sarcasm, swagger, and impulsivity. He had a twinkle in his eye and just enough pudge to be approachable. Attainable. He was everybody’s fake boyfriend around the time he pretended to be Jennifer Aniston’s. But he never translated that shtick into anything else, and repeating it in movies like that Google commercial The Intern, and the even more unwatchable Unfinished Business, it just gets sad. Nobody wants to see him do it anymore.
In Term Life, Vince Vaughn is a bit of a dirt bag, so it’s “better” for “everyone” if he stays out of his 16 year old daughter’s life. He plans thefts. He’s a criminal; not a particularly good one, he’s just trying to stay one step ahead of his gambling problem. But then some dirty cops frame him for a bust gone wrong, and it’s not just his neck on the chopping block, but his daughter’s (played by Hailee Steinfeld) as well.
Vince Vaughn needs a hit. This wasn’t it. I’m not super confident that the Mel Gibson-directed Hacksaw Ridge will be either. At least he’ll be embracing his dramatic roots, but Hacksaw Ridge is an Andrew Garfield vehicle about a conscientious objector during WW2. Vaughn’s a second banana at best, billed below Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, and Teresa Palmer.
Vaughn’s in need of a career intervention (a McVaughnaissance?) even though I’m not sure he really deserves one anymore. He’s a gun nut – and I mean that in every sense: that he likes guns, and that he has insane beliefs about them. Like putting guns in schools makes kids safer. But he lives in a free country, and he’s entitled to his wrong opinion. He’s also entitled to keep making insipid assembly-line comedies that go straight to video. So there’s that.
It’s quiet and unassuming, much like the drab and dull caretaker character played by Kristen Wiig (who’s so retiring the costume designer actually wraps her up in beige). Sent to help an elderly man (Nick Nolte) care for his granddaughter who lives with him (mother dead, father recently released from prison), the mousey Johanna becomes privy to family secrets and hungers for some kind of belonging. The granddaughter (Hailee Steinfeld) pulls a mean prank on Johanna and starts up a fake correspondence, ostensibly from her father (played by Guy Pearce). Naively, Johanna quickly falls in love and goes to him.
It’s at this point that I started to feel like I knew this story, that I had read it in some very similar, too similar to be coincidence, but not quite the same, form. And it’s true. It’s based on an Alice Munro story called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, although you have to smudge the details a bit, such as replacing “rural Canada” with “Chicago.”
So Johanna treks out to remote, inaccessible Chicago to be with the man she loves, but who has no idea they’ve been involved in an online relationship. There she finds a coke addict and a thief, but she decides to stay and soon plain Johanna has a green emerald dress and (hello, metaphor!) you know what that means – she is transformed.
The film has a pretty strong cast of supporting characters but I’m not sure I bought Wiig as Johanna. Her dowdiness is expressed in mannerisms familiar to her fans – she started many a character is much the same way, eyes fluttering downward, pursed lips, negative space. So her performance felt a little like an SNL skit without the punchline. Serviceable, but ultimately unsatisfying.
So I guess my feelings toward this movie are as tepid as the movie itself. It veers away from the source material in interesting but fundamentally disappointing ways. Whoever thought they could improve on Munro’s ending should be shot. Munro is much more comfortable with things left unsaid; she trusts her readers to draw their own conclusions. Liza Johnson, the not-so-fearless director, does not. She leaves us with a generic, happy ending instead.