Sunday, June 26, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2007


*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of "Jeremy The Critic," in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. 2006 can be viewed here. This installment will be focusing on 2007.  

                                                                            2007

How great a year was this? It was so great that, for change, I actually did compile a belated Top 10 List for it in 2008. But we'll just have to throw that out the window because a lot can change. The biggest leap of faith in tackling this project was trusting that enough time has passed that I'd "just know" what my top 10 films of each year are. That understanding is seriously tested with '07, the strongest movie year of the entire decade and the cinematic fuel that kept me going to the point we've arrived at now.

Surprisingly, when it came down to the much anticipated Zodiac vs. Southland Tales vs. Into The Wild vs. There Will Be Blood showdown, I knew. You try out a couple of films in that top spot and it just feels wrong. It's a testament to the staying power of David Fincher's Zodiac that this is the closest this obsessive procedural has come to getting that spot and when Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece, There Will Be Blood is coming in at number four, you know it's a formidable field like no other. He'll have another shot later, as will Fincher.

Given the current events, Southland Tales seems more prescient than ever, and remains one of my favorites regardless of contrary popular opinion, which seems to have shifted toward my side of late. It's so unusual that honoring it with a best of the year honor feels almost like an insult as it defies labels of any sort. It's simply something else entirely. After an initially lukewarm reaction, I've come around on No Country, which in hindsight stands as one of the strongest Best Picture winners of the modern era, despite its controversially wide open ending. Michael Clayton is such a well-oiled machine, the idea of seeing it in the number one spot is far from absurd, as it boasts what's easily the best performance of Clooney's career.

To the likely delight of anyone who's seen it, The King of Kong becomes not only the first documentary to place, but my first unreviewed pick, forcing me to come up with a quote that somehow, at least partially, does it justice. I'm Not There, The Assassination of Jesse James and Atonement all held strong, whereas inclusions from the last list like the poorly aging Juno, Ratatouille and Bridge to Terabithia got knocked off, with only Terabithia earning runner-up status alongside Superbad, The Lookout, Alpha Dog, Once, American Gangster, The Mist and Gone Baby Gone.

This leaves us with Sean Penn's Into The Wild, an experience that only seems to grow richer with each passing year and rewatch. Techically undervalued and emotionally transcendent (who can forget that scene on the street with William Hurt or any featuring Hal Holbrook?), it's still the film from that year I get the most out of and best connect with. But the real winners were moviegoers and critics spoiled by all these quality titles in a loaded 2007.  


10. Atonement


"I’d call it a 'twist ending' but that would be inaccurate since the beauty of it is in how it follows the narrative course set from the beginning. We just never bothered to notice. It causes you to go back to reevaluate every scene and word spoken in the film and view it in a completely different context. At the beginning I nearly giggled at how much the script expected me to care about these young lovers and the seemingly contrived situation they found themselves in. By the end, it's no laughing matter." - 3/30/08


9. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


"(Ford's) obsession with James also causes him great embarrassment and humiliation at the expense of his brother and his peers who view him as nothing more than a pathetic, whiny little boy who would do anything for his hero. They're right, and Ford's resentment over the situation builds slowly , leading him down a moral path he didn't think himself ever capable of traveling." - 2/14/08


8. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters


"When creepy, mullet-haired Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell appears to be physically stalking earnest challenger and potential successor to his throne, Steve Wiebe, at the arcade, we realize that within the framework of a non-fiction documentary, director Seth Gordon has managed to create a good vs. evil dynamic surpassing any superhero movie. And it all actually happened. The phrase, 'You can't make this stuff up' has never seemed more applicable."


7. I'm Not There


"...while most films have only one method of entry, this has seven, with a new way to get in each time. Any way you approach it, you end up knowing no more about Bob Dylan the person than you did before, and that’s okay. He remains exactly as he should be: An enigma. And in telling us nothing about him, Haynes somehow reveals so much more than we could have hoped." - 5/9/08


6. No Country For Old Men


"The film, set in 1980, finds a way to remain very much of that time period while still telling a story that’s just as relevant now. The Vietnam wounds are still fresh in these characters’ minds and there’s a new kind of evil emerging. It’s an evil Sheriff Bell and even his father’s generation before him couldn’t have possibly prepared for. It’s encapsulated in Anton Chigurh and Bell wants no part of it. With time passing him by and retirement on the horizon, he’s just going through the motions and would likely prefer not to come face-to-face with this monster. If he does, he’s through." - 5/13/08


5. Michael Clayton


"There isn't a single twist or turn in the film that's revelatory and the plot is one we've seen before. It moves methodically toward its predestined conclusion. And yet, it succeeds by executing its premise with laser-like precision and uncommon intelligence. Gilroy knows what he has to do and does it expertly, not getting bogged down in silly sub-plots or unrealistic situations. It also features the best performance of George Clooney's career, as well as two more supporting performances of nearly equal value." - 2/20/08


4. There Will Be Blood


"Some have criticized Day-Lewis' performance as being hammy and over-the-top and it sort of is, but what's so remarkable is how he turns those qualities into attributes that deepen the story's psychology. On a first viewing it may not be entirely noticeable, but on repeated ones it comes clearly into focus. And surprisingly, that only makes Plainview's downfall scarier and that much more desperate. Even while hating him with a passion, we still care deeply about his fate." - 4/11/08


3. Southland Tales


" It helps that Kelly is an equal opportunity offender, hilariously taking swipes at both sides. It works as a hysterical spoof of everything from YouTube to cable news channels to celebrity culture. Maybe it’s just my weird sense of humor, but I laughed harder during this than any mainstream comedy in years. Labeling this a masterpiece is false advertising if only because it’s just such a beautifully flawed mess. Perfect in its imperfection."- 3/24/08


2. Zodiac


"Of the many cryptic notes sent from the Zodiac, one left the most lasting impression. It reads: 'I am waiting for a good movie about me.' He gets a great one. But you can't fight the uneasy feeling that maybe he's still out there and knows it. If that's not enough to send chills down anyone's spine, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, by making such a brilliant film about one of our country's greatest unsolved cases, Fincher may have also given this deranged killer exactly what he wished for all along." - 7/30/07


1. Into The Wild


"You’re not sure whether to be angry at or feel sorry for this admittedly selfish protagonist and Penn wisely doesn’t force us to make such a determination. He’s not asking us to like McCandliss or condone his decision to abandon his life and family, but only to understand what he was doing made sense to him. Foolish as it may seem to us and those he encountered in his travels, he left this Earth on his terms. The degree of empathy you feel for him or his family may vary, but your heart will break for the people whose lives he touched along the way." - 3/7/08

Top 10 Films of 2007
1. Into The Wild (dir. Sean Penn)
2. Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
3. Southland Tales (dir. Richard Kelly)
4. There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
5. Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy) 
6. No Country For Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
7. I'm Not There (dir., Todd Haynes)
8.  The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (dir. Seth Gordon)
9.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir., Andrew Dominik)
10. Atonement (dir. Joe Wright)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Spectre



Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes
Running Time: 148 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

There's always this feeling of excitement accompanying the announcement of the new actor cast as James Bond. Then, after a few films starring this selection, familiarity starts to set in and the conversation inevitably shifts to when he'll be replaced, and who's next. It's little wonder so many actors are reluctant to accept the role, knowing they'll just serve as a placeholder for whomever succeeds them, regardless of the quality of their performance. Anyone taking the part has to know that going in and be comfortable with it, at least for the duration of their run.

It now appears we've reached that tipping point with Daniel Craig, once again tremendous in his fourth outing as 007 and the franchise's twenty-fourth film, Spectre. Faced with the unenviable task of not only following up one of the strongest entries in 2012's Skyfall, but remaining engaged and entertaining when (forgive the pun) the writing's on the wall regarding his future as Bond. This is likely it, and he exits having done things with the character few before him can claim, despite being hamstrung by decades-long formula that's loosened a bit thanks to his efforts.

It's true that the films take the shape of the actor playing Bond more than they do the selected director, who is clearly there to carry out a very specific task. Of course, their job is to anonymously serve as a carrier for the Broccoli family's creative vision of the character Ian Fleming created in 1952. It's not a job that goes to a boundary-breaking Quentin Tarantino, but someone who won't rock the boat and is capable of leaving an imprint on the franchise that isn't distinctively their own. It's at once the series' greatest strength and biggest liability. And never has that been more evident than in Spectre, which is quite a bit better than some have made it out to be.

While this is thankfully no Quantum of Solace, it's a considerable and expected step-down from Skyfall, even while sharing the same director in Sam Mendes. He definitely "gets it," but a weaker, more convoluted script results in bloated running time that makes you wish we could just do away with some of the traditional formalities germane to the 007 property. But it's worth mentioning that there's a section of the film (really most of the last hour) that's absolutely amazing, harkening back to the best installments of the 60's and 70's. What precedes that is less successful, but in heavily drawing from its own past for inspiration, at least some kind of an attempt is made to create continuity from one film to the next. Whether this approach is retained moving forward is a bit more doubtful.

After a spectacular opening chase sequence set during Mexico's Day of the Dead festival in which Bond (Craig) thwarts a terrorist bombing and kills their leader, an encounter with the man's mysterious widow (Monica Belucci) alerts him to the existence of a secret terrorist organization known as Spectre. Acting on her information and a posthumously videotaped message from M. (Judi Dench), 007 attempts to infiltrate the secret group, despite being indefinitely suspended by the current M. (Ralph Fiennes) for breaching protocol.

With the help of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q. (Ben Whishaw), Bond is able to get uncomfortably close enough to identify Spectre's leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), as well as his right-hand assassin, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Armed with this new information, his mission soon shifts toward protecting Dr. Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), the psychologist daughter of a former member marked for assassination. As Bond discovers that this sinister organization and the man behind it are more closely tied to his past than he could have imagined, he must fight this dangerous enemy while facing of the possibility that Britain's "00" program could be shut down for good.

As evidenced by that description, the plot is more overstuffed and complicated than necessary, as are a lot of the Bond films. At times it seems to jumps through hoops to relay what's actually a pretty simple story, frequently getting bogged down with exposition and backstory, at least in the opening hour (save for the thrilling opening sequence). With a screenplay outlining events as if we've never seen a previous Bond entry, it's a certainty James will go on an "unauthorized mission." That he'll be reprimanded for it and disobey direct orders anyway.  And we even get the rather predictable threat of shutting down of the "00" program, a sub-plot that exists primarily so Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris have something to do. It does boast a satisfying payoff that makes sense, but it's a bit of a trudge to get there as M. engages in burocratic boardroom battles with an intelligence agency executive (played by Andrew Scott).

Much of the first half consists of Bond following multiple clues that lead to the unveiling of Spectre and a lot goes right once that reveal is made. While I'm not sure if I'm even allowed to talk about the identity of Bond's nemesis, he is a huge, familiar name in the 007 canon and it's worth praising the screenwriters for their renewed focus on series continuity, picking up where Skyfall left off in that regard. If anything, the filmmakers are almost overly ambitious in this installment, determined to retcon nearly everything that occurred in the Craig films by tying it all together here. Even if they bite off more than they can possibly chew, I really appreciated the effort and dedication involved, especially since one of the major problems facing the franchise is that nothing seems to carry over from one film to the next.

There's this weird mishmash of backstory from previous Bond entries and Fleming's novels, but somehow it all works and once the action gets going, it's a real thrill ride, especially the chase and fight sequences involving 007 and Oberhauser's Oddjob-inspired henchman, Mr. Hinx, played by wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista. Beyond the sheer physicality of the part, it doesn't require much, but he plays it perfectly deadpan and it's been a while since we've had a fun, well-cast henchman in the series whose fate we're actually invested in.

What Léa Seydoux adds to the equation is completely subjective considering how many differing opinions they'll be regarding her standing among previous Bond Girls. Despite her late, somewhat overly drawn out introduction, she equates herself well with an impressive combo of tenaciousness and vulnerability. Dr. Madeline Swann is no Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale (as a one of the film's most memorable moments actively reminds us) or Teresa di Vicenzo from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but for this film's purposes she really doesn't need to be. And it's not like she'll be back, which can be a problem in and of itself.

This is supposedly one of the most expensive Bond films ever made and while the lack of Oscar-nominated Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins is evident, replacement Hoyte van Hoytema can't be criticized for failing to equal the movie that looked like no other in the series. There's no shortage of memorable images here either, but where it makes up the most ground is in its production design, especially during the encounter at Oberhauser's desert compound (shockingly, a real home that's for sale) in the last hour. This base might be the best Bond action toy set never sold in stores and everything in this entire section is just about perfect, recalling not only the golden age 007 installments but an undiscovered cult sci-fi classic from the 70's.

The suspenseful build-up, the setting and Waltz's calm but disarmingly creepy performance lift this eleventh hour showdown in the desert above much of what came before. Technical choices are spot-on and even some smaller character ones, like Oberhauser's attire, which seems more suited for brunch at the yacht club than torturing 007. Waltz sometimes catches flak for playing variations on the same charming sociopathic villain from film-to-film, but if ever a case can be made for it continuing indefinitely, it's here. His casting was a masterstroke, and if the rumors of him returning are contingent with Craig staying on, then it's a big loss. Both in terms of continuity and the fact he's playing a villain we thought we got enough of.

Something happens at this compound that's one of the the most unintentionally meta moments in recent Bond movies. As Oberhauser threatens to physically invade James' brain and erase his memory with this bizarre device, the easy joke is that it won't even matter since in the Bond universe all is usually forgotten by the next film anyway. The best thing about Skyfall, and what Spectre continues, is rewarding loyal viewers with attention to detail and a backstory that significantly improves the entire experience.

This era found its perfect Bond in Craig, who brought a darker, grittier, more realistic vibe that fit the current times. There's been a self-contained, Dark Knight-esque feeling to his movies and now with him bowing out, it's likely we'll not only have to start from scratch all over again with a new actor, but one or more new directors. And as frustrating as that thought is, it's still absolutely necessary for a franchise that's survived and thrived by continuing to rejuvenate itself. Whichever direction the series goes, we can only hope it finds a way to step even further out of its comfort zone.               
    

Sunday, June 5, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2006


Matt Damon once remarked in an interview that it would be a good idea if Oscars were given out a full decade after their release, as he felt that was the gap needed to make a determination on the best of that year. While this site clearly isn't the Oscars, it at least now has the benefit of something it didn't before: Hindsight.

So, now it's time to find out. In celebration of 10 Years of "Jeremy The Critic," my picks for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 will be gradually revealed. Unsuccessfully cramming to see all the year's films before it's end has prevented me from compiling these so now it's make-up time. With apologies to ESPN, it's a little project I'll be calling "10 FOR 10," as I unload 10 Top 10's.

We'll find out which films survived the long trek, maintaining or increasing their standing in my mind, and which slipped, as the bloom comes off the rose for titles I may have originally raved about. Now, they'll all face the ultimate equalizer: FATHER TIME. A review is so often an immediate reaction to what you've seen, while a star rating counts for far less. This will be something else entirely.

Other than in the case of rare, tie-breaking situations, I'm not planning to rewatch anything, instead going with my gut in these rankings and selections. Some years I know exactly what's going to happen while others are still very much up in the air, but you can definitely bet on some surprises. I'm avoiding long, laborious explanations of each in favor of a choice review quote I feel says it all, accompanied with brief write-up where I reflect on how that year's list turned out. Let's get it going with what's unfortunately the weakest movie year of them all: 2006

                                                 2006

It feels like I'm just filling slots here, which is never good. The silver lining is that this will be followed by the strongest film year of the decade in 2007. Let's get the big questions out of the way first: Where's Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, Borat or The Fountain? I initially gave the former four stars, but now I need to actually be reminded of its existence. The other two I waffled back and forth on because they just haven't stayed with me at all. Notes on a Scandal, Marie Antoinette, and to a lesser extent, Casino Royale, were weaker runners-up that just missed the cut. It's possible that with another viewing one or more of those could have snuck in. Or not.

I had two choices in approaching a year this weak: Stick with what I originally had (with some minor, necessary adjustments) since so few of them were rewatched, or just make a systematic countdown of the technically best, critically acclaimed films of the year. Hopefully you appreciate me going with the former since you could just look at a bunch of other lists for that.

The only surprise inclusion is The Night Listener, which I had rewatched shortly after Robin Williams' passing and discovered I underestimated it. Featuring one of the actor's quietest dramatic performances, the whole package (which features a thought-provoking, ahead of its time premise) proves more memorable than many of the aforementioned prestige dramas critics were drooling over. V For Vendetta, The Descent and Clerks II are all just fine but I'd be lying if I said any would make it in a stronger year (or in this case nine stronger upcoming ones). While its recent influence on Mr. Robot proves Vendetta's reach was perhaps greater than expected, the inclusion of Clerks II kind of bothers me since I have this strange feeling it (or any other Kevin Smith film) wouldn't hold up now. That it still got in should let you know how little I think of this year.

Stranger Than Fiction has aged really well, partly because Ferrell hasn't done anything like it since. Other than my top two, it might be the only film here I feel any kind of passion for. Time couldn't dilute United 93's immediacy and power, even if its a film to respect rather than admire. Best Picture winner The Departed is just kind of a given, with its inclusion feeling almost like a contractual obligation at this point. Iñárritu's constant presence and versatility throughout the decade only bolsters the already strong multi-character, cross-cultural Babel in hindsight.

The first true discovery of '06 was Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and helmed by future Breaking Bad and Star Wars director, Rian Johnson. If ever there was a time to say I told you so, it's now, with both continuing to creatively explode ten years on. But the top spot goes to Todd Field's Little Children, the most masterfully acted and directed film of the year in my favorite movie sub-genre: Nightmare in American Suburbia. It carries that torch proudly by being the most frighteningly realistic and disturbing drama that year. Over time, it's left the deepest cut.


10. The Night Listener


"The big draw of this film isn't the mystery, but the underlying idea behind its premise. How trusting should we be? Can we accept anything at face value anymore? Something to think about in this digital age where we communicate with people daily, yet can never know for sure who they really are." - 1/13/07


9. V For Vendetta


"The relationship that develops between her and the masked man, his history, and his motives for destroying the government build the framework for an emotionally complex tale that also happens to be pretty gory at times." - 8/2/06


8. The Descent


"In a way, the movie is almost a throw back to the horror films of the seventies, where the main objective was to torture you with suspense, then pick and choose your openings to deliver just the right amount of thrills and gore. It's not what you show, but what you don't, and how." - 1/10/07
 
 
 7. Clerks II


"The original Clerks was an excellent first feature by a film student that changed the course of independent cinema in the 90's. This is a more mature effort by an accomplished filmmaker at a different place in his life with more things to show and prove." -12/9/06


6. Stranger Than Fiction


"Harold Crick is an I.R.S. agent stuck in what could be called a routine. In actuality, he leads a painfully boring existence, but that doesn't really occur to him. It wouldn't since those immersed in their routine rarely stop to consider if they're bored or not, or more importantly if they're even remotely satisfied or happy."- 3/2/07


5. United 93


When we're finally in the air, there's more waiting. It becomes clear these terrorists really don't have much of a plan. They keep looking at each other, wondering when it's the right time. They can never agree. The sloppiness of the situation only makes it scarier. There were points when I felt like screaming at the screen for them just to do it so it's over with." - 9/11/06


4. The Departed


"The dangerous, heart-pounding game between the two main characters and the visceral energy DiCaprio and Damon infuse in them is where the meat of the film lies, making it one of Scorsese's most psychologically complex works. This is a movie about choices. Both good and bad." - 2/19/07


3. Babel


"A tiny event halfway across the world can carry ripple effects that impact others in ways that may seem impossible on paper. It has happened and continues to everyday. Misunderstandings and communication breakdowns can cause a bad situations to escalate into worse ones. No matter what your reaction to Babel is, you're at least forced to admit you had one." - 2/24/07


2. Brick


"Gordon-Levitt does things in this movie few actors his age could reasonably be expected to pull off at this point in his career. At first, it's off-putting seeing this scrawny kid with glasses walking around like a brooding mini-Brando, beating the hell out of everybody. Yet it's a testament to his abilities that after a while we don't question it at all. He pulls it off, building his reputation as one of the best rising young actors of his generation." - 9/9/06


1. Little Children


"From the opening scene, with figurines rattling on a shelf as the sound of an oncoming train approaches, we're prepared for tragedy as these characters' lives threaten to intersect in the worst possible way for over two tension-filled hours. Rarely does a film get so many little details right and hide such small treasures for the viewer to discover. - 5/13/07

Top Ten Films of 2006
1. Little Children (dir. Todd Field)
2. Brick (dir. Rian Johnson)
3. Babel (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
4. The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese)
5. United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass)
6. Stranger Than Fiction (dir. Zach Helm)
7. Clerk II (dir. Kevin Smith)
8. The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall)
9. V For Vendetta (dir. James McTeigue)
10. The Night Listener (dir. Patrick Stettner)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Celebrating 10 Years of Jeremy The Critic




Well, it's time. Ten years ago today, June 1st, 2006, I posted my first review(s) and it's kind of hard to believe this has been going on so long, especially considering when it began I hadn't written in a while and there were no ambitions beyond sharing some brief thoughts on a couple of movies I've seen. While it started in a far different place than it's ended up and some periods (like recently) have been leaner than others, I always tried to make it a point to never go a month without at least posting SOMETHING. With all the film and television in our culture, there's always something to say or comment on, even as outside commitments may have prevented more often than I've liked. Coming to terms with that and realizing it's sometimes okay to just only seek out what I'd likely enjoy watching and writing about has been a gradual process, but well worth it.

That dreaded word "critic" has long held a negative connotation, but it doesn't need to. It's possible to pick apart a piece of art, examining its strengths and weaknesses, while still opening the floor for intelligent debate and discussion. If even one of my reviews did that for a casual or frequent readers of this site (to both of whom I'm incredibly grateful), it was a success. It's always far harder to bash something, even with only partial knowledge of all the hard work put in by those in the film industry and the difficulty involved in just getting a film made. No one sets out to make a bad one. Unfortunately, "Jeremy The Analyst" just doesn't have the same ring to it.  But enough about me. Let's talk about why we're really here. To celebrate the movies.

A lot has changed over the past decade, to the point that movies aren't even really watched the same way anymore. Unprecedented access has in some way made them easier to review, but the endless outlets from which they're available has also made the process far more difficult. What hasn't changed is the fact that the passage of such time is necessary to truly judge a film's worth. Realizing I may have simply "outgrown" a movie (or sometimes even an entire genre) I loved years earlier must be one of the worst, weirdest feelings I've had doing this, but one that's just as quickly replaced by the unexpected staying power of another primed to take its spot.

It's with these thoughts in mind that I announce an upcoming SERIES OF SPECIAL TOP 10 LISTS posted throughout the remainder of the year celebrating this decade milestone. While the details will gradually be revealed, each one of them will very much incorporate the films I've reviewed throughout the past ten years, and maybe even some I haven't. Everyone seems to love Top 10's and my guilt over posting so few of them over the years has finally gotten the best of me. The regular reviews will continue, just with some surprises thrown in for good measure. I figured that's the best way to do this. So keep an eye out.  And, as always, thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Intern




Director: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Nat Wolff, Celia Weston, JoJo Kushner
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The Intern reminds us just how much we take some of our biggest movie stars for granted. They're so omnipresent and overexposed in our culture it's easy to forget why we even cared about them to begin with. Sometimes it just takes them simply playing normal, everyday people to remember that some of them also happen to be great actors. Two such stars headline Nancy Meyers' latest, which is advertised as a harmless, fluffy workplace rom-com that's a reasonable enough excuse to kill two hours, for both younger and older audiences. That description is at least partially true, as it often is for many of Meyers' films. But there's really something to be said for doing it well, and The Intern manages to get all the little things right.  It's entirely pleasurable experience from beginning to end with very few problems and a plot that isn't so much surprising as it is insightful and easygoing. And it isn't all that unrealistic in terms of the central topic it deftly handles with the help of its co-leads, who are generations apart, but entirely on the same page when it comes to making this material click.

The timely script not only avoids talking down to audiences about topics like workplace gender politics, social media, stay-at-home dads, and the generation gap, but actually goes a step further in making intelligent observations about them. Few mainstream American comedies would actively avoid depicting a CEO of a major company (much less a female one) as a tyrant or an elderly retiree as anything other than a senile loon. This one does, finding Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway as charming and likable as they've recently been, with the former doing his most subdued work in years. Its two hours go down easily, as this delivers on nearly all its comedic and dramatic potential. 

Looking to escape the malaise of his retirement as a phone book company executive, seventy-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (De Niro) applies to a senior citizen internship program, with the hopes of briefly rejoining the workforce to positively contribute to society. He says as much in his YouTube video, which lands him an interview and eventual job with About The Fit, a Brooklyn-based e-commerce fashion startup founded by current CEO Jules Ostin (Hathaway), whose overnight success, but relative inexperience, is overwhelming her. When Ben is assigned to the Type A Jules, she begrudgingly takes him in, as her initial skepticism of this internship program (and seniors in general), begins to wane after realizing he's more than fully capable of handling a wide variety of tasks.

Charming the entire office with his winning personality and knowledge, Ben soon has a positive influence on Jules, whose marriage has been suffering since her husband Matt (Anders Holm) gave up his career to become a stay-at-home dad to their young daughter, Paige (JoJo Kushner). Crumbling under the pressures of running her company, she finds an unlikely friend and father figure in Ben, who finds he might also have a lot to learn from the younger generation.

Given its story structure and thematic content, this could still be considered your typical rom-com, though there's hardly any romance to speak of and most entries in that genre aren't typically this restrained. That's evident from the very first scene, in which Ben records a video resume you actually believe would get this clearly articulate senior through the door for an interview and land him the position in a heartbeat. While much of that credit goes to De Niro's firm grip on the material, he stills needs dialogue of substance to deliver and Meyers' script continually comes through on that front. It was inevitable we'd get jokes about Ben's cluelessness about current technology as he steps into a progressive, contemporary office filled with Millennials, but the movie doesn't dwell on it or make Ben the butt of the joke. Even social media is incorporated fairly well into the plot without hammering us over the head with it.

While we're frequently laughing with Ben rather than at him, it's easy to imagine a lesser script doing the opposite, instead depicting him as an old blowhard set in his stubborn ways. If anything, he's as open to learning new things as his far younger co-workers are to learning from him. They don't go for easy Millennial jokes either, as all the employees at this company seem fairly competent rather than coming across as extras in an SNL skit skewering young people.

Whether it's Father of the Bride or It's Complicated, Meyers' films are frequently criticized for living in fantasy land, enveloping its audience in a saccharine Hollywood wish-fulfillment. To an extent that's true, but here's the rare case where her depiction is actually closer to reality than a snarkier, more negative portrayal would be. And it's also nice to see a comedy where characters aren't living in impossibly expensive New York City apartments because it looks nice on camera, but because their salaries and income levels dictate that they should.

If the portrayal of Ben is smart, the depiction of Jules may be even wiser. Removing the fact she's a female CEO and the whole stay-at-home-dad issue, imagine how tempting it must have been to write this character as a total bitch for comedy and conflict. And with Hathaway in the role the temptation was likely far greater to create a kind of reverse Devil Wears Prada, this time sending up media and public perception of the actress. But Meyers is too clever for that.

By making Jules an insecure CEO full of self-doubt that she can even handle this job, it makes her eventual bond with Ben mean more because his advice becomes invaluable. And just look at Jules' husband. They actually had the guts to cast some unknown, normal looking hipster guy in the role opposite Hathaway. The second we see them together something seems off. Why? Because it's realistic. And he seems like just the kind of person who would be thrown for a loop when Jules' career ascension completely alters their lives.

There's a romantic subplot involving Ben and the company masseuse (played by Rene Russo) that's kind of a throwaway until you start to realize that if the roles were reversed and Russo's character were a man, her behavior could result in termination or worse. Did the movie intentionally do this as a sly commentary on gender politics? Of course not. But it's there. And as far as third act complications go, the one involving Jules is actually pretty good, taking that gender reversal theme as far as it goes. The ending is a bit tidy, but it isn't often that a romantic comedy goes into the final stretch with a woman holding as many cards as Jules does here.

At this point, Hathaway could convincingly play any occupation and as this uncertain CEO, she walks a fine line between being a little bit prickly and demanding, while almost being entirely too good-hearted a person to succeed in the position she's been put in. Making matters more interesting is that the person who put her there was herself, sometimes much to her own disbelief. Hathaway effectively draws a contrast in how Jules behaves at work and at home, startling for both its similarities and differences. And it's safe to say if the character was written as one-dimensionally as the trailers implied, she would have found a way to make that work just as well.

De Niro is pretty much a revelation here. "Subtle" isn't exactly a word that jumps to mind when considering his comedic work and so much of what he does dramatically rests on kind of a tough guy persona. This is so different from anything he's done recently because he dials everything down so much and just conveys this quiet, confident intelligence that lets us know that Ben knows the deal. At one point Jules remarks just how observant Ben is and the same description can just as easily be applied to De Niro's performance, which was good enough for a nomination if more people bothered to take it seriously. They really should have.

If there's one thing missing, it's conflict or stakes of any kind,It's so efficiently written and the characters so smart and likable that you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. But let's be honest. You don't see a Nancy Meyers movie for conflict any more than you'd watch Garry Marshall's Mother's Day for explosions. It's supposed to be a palette cleanser, as you root for good people essentially being good to each other for two hours. As that, it's a phenomenal success.

There's a couple of scenes in the film where Ben and Jules are talking about their lives and it feels so organic. Two people of entirely different ages and generations finding a common ground. The line between employee and employer disappears as two friends bond over their disparate situations, that aren't quite as far apart as you'd think. And it doesn't feel corny or creepy in the slightest because of these two great actors and the fact that the right creative choices were made by Meyers to have them land naturally at this point. The Intern doesn't reinvent the wheel but is does occasionally surprise with just how much it accomplishes with a relatively simple but engaging premise.
  

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Pee-wee's Big Holiday



Director: John Lee
Starring: Paul Reubens, Joe Magnaniello, Jessica Pohly, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Brad William Henke, Hal Landon Jr., Diane Salinger, Patrick Egan, Tara Buck
Running Time: 89 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Any analysis or criticism of Pee-wee's Big Holiday should be prefaced with the acknowledgment that Paul Reubens is a comic genius and the stage character he created in the late 70's, but perfected in the mid 80's with his own Saturday morning children's program and two feature films, is a national treasure. Whatever went wrong with this effort can't fall on Reubens, regardless of the fact he happens to share a screenwriting credit on it. I'd like to believe his contributions were likely limited to whatever was needed to finally get this made. And after 25 years of waiting for this, can you really blame him? While we know he's been working Pee-wee comeback scripts for years, we also know their descriptions don't even slightly resemble what's seen here. And therein lies the problem. Despite the excruciating wait, this somehow still feels like a rush job unbefitting his unique talent.

Big Holiday isn't exactly a poor film, but it's just kind of there, containing occasional moments of inspired lunacy and inside jokes that capture prime Pee-wee and should moderately succeed at bringing grins to fans' faces. All things considered, it's actually pretty decent. It just doesn't feel important and there's this undercurrent of apathy that permeates through the low-budgeted picture, making it feel very "made-for-TV." Of course, it is, and this shouldn't be a bad thing considering the quality of most of what's on TV now far surpasses that of feature films. But with a larger than life character like Pee-wee, it's a problem. It's almost as if a committee got together and agreed to paint with only the broadest strokes possible in order to churn this out. "There. He's back. Happy now?"

Even if I can accept the excuse that we should all just be happy to see him again and don't deserve more, Reubens and the character sure do. Since the industry still seems to strangely insist he continue paying for a mistake he made decades ago, this project could almost be viewed as the latest punishment. Okay, maybe it's not that bad. But after a really promising premise, it starts to drag its feet in an effort to mimic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, making its trim 89 minutes start to feel far longer. Director John Lee does an adequate job with what he's given, but he's no Tim Burton, nor does anyone expect him to be. Tim Burton isn't even Tim Burton anymore. But there's nothing wrong with admitting we expected better, no matter how much it stings to say it.

Grey-suited, red-bow tied man-child Pee-wee Herman (Reubens) lives in the idyllic town of Fairville, rising each morning to repeat the same routine of hopping into his car, grabbing breakfast and greeting well-wishers on his way to his job as a short-order cook at Dan's Diner. It's there where he meets actor Joe Manganiello (actor Joe Manganiello), who Pee-wee only knows as a really cool guy on a motorcycle. After mixing Joe one of the "top 5" best chocolate shakes he's had in his life, the two discover they actually have a lot in common and become fast friends, leading to an invitation to Joe's upcoming birthday party in New York City. One problem: Pee-wee's never left his comfort zone of Fairville and has little desire to. But with Joe urging to take some risks and live a little, Pee-Wee embarks on his very first holiday, traveling cross-country and, of course, meeting some unusual characters along the way.

If there any jarring aspects to this journey, Pee-wee Herman isn't one of them, as he's preserved exactly as we remember him. In more ways than one. Thanks to even more make-up than usual and some invisibly impressive digital re-touching, the character hardly looks like he's aged a day. It was the right decision since we'd need to get around the reality that Reubens is in his early sixties now and the very nature of the Pee-wee character is rooted in his childlike demeanor and appearance. He remains frozen in a perpetual state of youthfulness, a concept that couldn't be more relevant to the film's narrative. For everything that does look cheap and low-budget here, it's a relief that those effects don't, further de-aging an actor who already looks younger than his age. Of course, an even easier solution would have been not waiting so damn long to make the movie.

As expected, Reubens slips back into the role like he never left and his performance is consistently likable and tonally on point, even when the material he's working with isn't. That should be a given, but after all this time there's no guarantees, so the film earns most of its big points there, and with the general thematic outline of the story. Then the praise starts dwindling and it's my sneaking suspicion that's where most of Reubens' creative input ended. It can't be proven, but I'll go out on a limb and hypothesize that producer Judd Apatow and Netflix executives "finessed" his ideas (which were likely edgier and more subversive), molding them into much of what the final product became. This theory could either be completely wrong, or perhaps scarier, that description may represent a tamer, more diplomatic version of what happened. Let's go with the former since the thought of Reubens having to severely compromise his creativity is too depressing to entertain.

Stuck in his daily routine, the change-resistant Pee-wee Herman's Pleasantville-esque hometown of Fairville is a great starting point that works to not only satisfy fans with a reintroduction, but gives newer viewers a glimpse into what he's all about. It only makes sense that this grown man who acts like a five-year old would be so set in his ways, opposing growth of any kind. Nearly everything that occurs in Fairville works, including Joe Manganiello's fun performance as "himself," proving wrong those who thought Pee-wee sharing the screen with a semi-famous co-star would be a distraction. If anything, there scenes together prove to be the film's highlight, as Pee-wee's obliviousness to the actor's identity and career turns into one of their best exchanges.

It's when we hit the road that things start to go downhill, or at least seem more hit-or-miss in terms of humor. While the clear inspiration for this journey is 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, this film hasn't nearly the same scope or novelty to get away with that so it feels less like a spiritual sequel than an inferior copy. But we're apparently forgetting that film existed since they claim the character has never left his homtown or been on a vacation of any kind. The comic pit-stops vary in quality, with the worst taking up the most amount of screen time, as a 50's inspired biker gang of women bank robbers (played by Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz and Alia Shawkat) ripped right out of a Russ Meyer film kidnap Pee-wee. Better is his encounter with a farmer (Hal Landon Jr.) whose nine daughters each want a piece of him, but even that joke eventually wears out its welcome before being beaten into the ground.

Intermittent moments of genuine warmth and comedy are occasionally overshadowed by this feeling that something's off with tone or gags just simply drag on endlessly without a satisfying payoff. The exceptions involve two wonderful turns from Patrick Egan as a traveling salesman and Big Adventure alum Diane Salinger as a Katharine Hepburn-inspired aviator with a flying car. Those segments really hit the mark, as do Pee-Wee's fantasy flashforward sequences at Joe's party. Unfortunately, by the third act, the action feels like such a slog I was looking at my watch wondering if he'd ever get there. And when he actually does, it's actually kind of a letdown. Luckily, Mark Mothersbaugh's score does an effective job capturing the magical whimsy of Pee-wee's universe better than perhaps the screenplay does.

It's doubtful anyone was under the illusion that Pee-wee Herman would return in exactly the same capacity he left us over 25 years ago, nor would we necessarily want him to. Time has passed and that would be impossible. But what went wrong with this project speaks to a larger problem evident in the shocking lack of promotion for what should have been a big deal. Studios want to reap the rewards of cashing in on nostalgia without the monetary risk that comes from going all in, so they only dip their feet in the water. Yes, it's great to see him again, and even with all its flaws, it's a testament to Reubens' talent that the originality of his creation still manages to still shine through. And for that, Pee-wee's Big Holiday couldn't possibly go down as a complete disappointment. Just a partial one. 
               

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Joy



Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Isabella Crovetti-Cramp 
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

In David O. Russell's Joy, Jennifer Lawrence proves she can even make a mop interesting. The opening title card informs us this "Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular." That one woman in particular is Joy Magnano, a divorced mother of three who went from near- poverty to selling her invention of the Miracle Mop and becoming the queen of home shopping television. Knowing of her products but very little about the person behind them, I accidentally stumbled upon one of her shows on the Home Shopping Network right before the release of the film, the timing of which couldn't have been coincidental. "Wait, she's playing HER?" No way could I picture it. Even if she'd be playing Joy at a much younger age, the nature of the role still suggested the casting of an older actress, a complaint Lawrence must be sick of hearing by now. Plus, there's that pesky problem of convincing audiences to show up to a movie about a woman selling mops.

Upon its release, Joy opened with a thud, equally alienating moviegoers and critics, with the latter giving Russell some of his worst reviews since his creative reemergence a few years back. But what's so funny about this is how no one really came out and said exactly what was wrong with it, throwing around generalizations like "crazy" and "unfocused" and even going so far as to express disappointment that film dared to be more than its trailers insinuated. What's actually most perplexing about Joy is that it couldn't be any more straightforward.

This isn't a mess. There isn't a problem with tone. And whatever fudging was done with the facts or pre-production hiccups that occurred, it's very clearly Joy Magnano's story, as listed in the credits. But more than that, it's told brilliantly, furthering cementing Russell's genius and bolstering his reputation as one of the most visually innovative directors working today. Combing elements of comedy, drama and thriller into the biopic that really isn't, its biggest attribute is how unflinching it is in showing the painful sacrifices and obstacles that accompany invention. Few films covering this topic have been stronger or more illuminating.

It's 1989 and Joy (Lawrence) is a single mother of two living on Long Island with her young kids, divorced parents Rudy (Robert DeNiro) and Terri (Virginia Madsen), grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramirez). Between working the desk at Eastern Airlines, breaking up her parents' fights and balancing her father's books at the auto shop, Joy's barely scraping by financially, putting her dreams on hold to take care of her dysfunctional family. Frequently flashing back to happier times, she recalls a childhood full of building and creating things, a hobby that fell to the wayside when her parents divorced 17 years ago. Now her dad's dating a wealthy Italian widow named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and her mom lies on the coach all day, obsessively watching soap operas. 

For Joy, inspiration comes in the form of a blueprint for a self-wringing mop she hopes to patent and sell. Supported by her lifelong best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) but discouraged by just about everyone else in her family, including her overachieving half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), she attempts to secure the financing necessary to manufacture and sell the product. And that's where the trouble starts, as a series of severe mistakes and complications lead her to literally risk everything for the pursuit of her dream.

Joy takes care of the household since all the other adults in her life behave like grown children, but the second she needs one favor, they seem to rub her nose in it, at times almost willing things to go wrong. And do they ever go wrong. What the film does really well is show how frustrating it is to be an intelligent person surrounded by irritating know-it-alls. And when those know-it-alls are your family, it gets even uglier. Coming up with the idea is the easy part compared to what follows, as her struggles demonstrate that you could have the most creative, original idea on the planet and it's likely no one can notice or care unless you're willing to fight for it.

A good eighty to ninety percent of the story is about financial disaster, which is kind of fascinating when you consider how many people are out there are pitching their ideas, but just don't have the resources at their disposal to make it happen. The script also harkens back to this interesting notion that sometimes the clearest, purest vision of what you want to do comes in childhood, and your adult life can be spent drifting away from it, hoping you'll return to shore. That's why the flashback scenes featuring a young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) are so essential.   

This is really one of the first films to get into the nuts and bolts of patenting an idea, and since Russell keeps things moving and visually engaging, it never seems like a business procedural or tutorial session. Whether it's the hiring of an incompetent lawyer, getting ripped off by the shady manufacturer, or having to take out a second mortgage on her house, she really could lose everything. And the involvement of her family in this enterprise only seems to increase those chances, as they're all more woefully ill-equipped at making these decisions than she is.

The worst of the bunch is Trudy, who Rossellini plays with this unlikable iciness, embodying a woman who feels her unearned wealth entitles her to an alarming degree of control. It is her money Joy's playing with, but all bets are off once she arrogantly holds it over her and pretends to be an expert in something she knows nothing about. DeNiro's Rudy seems to be almost a comic figure at first, before the actor peels back the layers to reveal that Joy shouldn't have stood a chance in life with him as a father. As much as Joy's ex-husband, the failed singer Tony, is presented as a loser with few prospects, he's ironically the only person that has her back and best interests in mind, often sensing disaster before anyone else who should know better.   

The high-water mark comes about midway through when Joy finds herself at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania headquarters of then-fledgling home shopping channel, QVC and Russell takes us into a universe we've never seen before. For her, it may as well be another universe entirely. Everything that transpires in this entire section is enthralling, from how Russell shoots it to some of the backstage details and characters we're exposed to (including an out-of-left-field cameo by Melissa Rivers playing her mom). But what's most memorable is Bradley Cooper's brief but pivotal appearance as network executive Neil Walker. Tasked with explaining the company's purpose and taking her on a tour of the facilities, Cooper rattles an almost endless amount of dialogue and expository information about the inner workings of QVC without ever failing to completely hold our interest.

It's almost scary how effective Cooper is here, finding just the right note for this guy, who's no-nonsense and bottom line oriented while still being relatively sympathetic to Joy's situation. He doesn't get a ton of screen time, but his scenes are some of the most crucial of the film, and he plays them just right,  with Cooper continuing to prove how interesting a performer he's become. Of course, this eventually culminates in Joy herself having to pitch her product on-air and under lights, with no TV experience under her belt. A first for the network that relies on experienced sellers and celebrities to handle the on-air pitching duties. 

The moments of uplift in Joy are few and far between. In fact, you could really only name two. A seemingly certain victory that ends up being short-lived and a final confrontation in a hotel room that's so tense and tightly written it could easily be found in a psychological thriller. This should be admired on a number of levels, not the least of which being Lawrence's Oscar- nominated performance, as she somehow pulls it off again, amazing us in a role she should be completely wrong for.

If it seems as if the Jennifer is playing older than she ever has, it could be attributed to the fact that this character had to take on a huge amount of responsibility at a young age. As it turns out, Joy Mangano was actually in her mid-thirties at the time so Lawrence really is playing ten years older than she is. And once again, when the cameras roll, a transformation takes place in her we'd never think to question. It's a gift she has for playing these strong, but ultimately damaged women and the performance shies away from the ugliness of some of the character's questionable choices. But when push comes to shove, like Joy, she's capable of bringing it when necessary. It also speaks volumes that there's no love interest, making it clear exactly where this story's focus lies.

Reuniting with Russell earned her Lawrence a third Oscar nomination (following her 2013 win for Silver Linings Playbook) so it's impossible to argue she even needs to take things in a different direction, regardless of this film's reception. And while it can be a questionable habit for directors to continuously work with the same cast for multiple projects, there's no need to fix what isn't broken since he's also gotten such wildly different work out of Cooper and DeNiro in each of them, with the former at the top of his game in this.

It's ironic that those calling for a return to the more risk-taking Russell of his earlier days are complaining the style he employs here is too far out there and crazy. Other than the aforementioned flashback scenes, a soap opera framing device and a voice-over narration from beyond the grave (all of which work), this could be considered a straightforward biopic. Or at least it would be in the hands of anyone else.

Russell knows how to infuse a simple story with this manic energy and turn it into so much more than what it appears to be at its surface, a quality never more apparent than in the final minutes, when he transitions from the most hurtful, devastating scene into a succeeding one of pure triumph. We should have known better. If someone can make a compelling movie about the founding of a web site, there was no reason to believe it couldn't also be done for the invention of a mop. Like any story, you just need the right director and cast to make it.