Comedy

Rock Jocks (2012, Paul V. Seetachitt)

Rock Jocks is full of “it’s not racist because” jokes. There’s even a moment early on when Felicia Day tries explaining to Gerry Bednob how he’s actually a racist even though he says he’s not. When he disagrees, Day gives up, which is a fairly good place to give up on Jocks. You’ve hit the peaks worth sitting around for, namely Bednob is funny as the crotchety old White bigot who just happens to be of East Indian descent. It’s real cheap, real easy jokes. All of Rock Jocks is real cheap, real easy, real problematic. Writer and director Paul V. Seetachitt likes teasing racism, sexism, homophobia, whatever, but he never commits to it.

Well, wait. The sexism. There’s some real committal to the sexism.

The movie’s about the night crew at the United States’s secret remote asteroid destroyer program. If you’re good at video games, you get recruited and then you save the world from big asteroids the rubes don’t know about night after night. The captain is burn-out waiting-to-happen divorced bad dad Andrew Bowen. Bowen’s never anywhere near as bad as some of the other actors in the movie, which is the closest his performance gets to deserving a compliment. Day’s his first officer. She’s overly ambitious because she’s a woman and so it’s funny. He’s going to mansplain to her fierce and her other major subplots involve asteroid shooter Kevin Wu trying to humiliate her—his commanding officer—while captain Bowen ignores it to mope.

Part of the joke is supposed to be how all the Jocks are actually just shallow, thinly written assholes, but Seetachitt makes Wu the biggest asshole of all. Wu’s the shooter with the big ego, but Justin Chon’s still got the higher scores. Chon… could be worse. Wu could not be worse, not without supernatural intervention or something. He’s real bad and not funny.

Jocks hits occasionally—almost always in some way thanks to Bednob—but it’s a very low success rate on the jokes working with the acting working with the directing. In some ways, Rock Jocks is impressive. It’s low budget, but Seetachitt knows how to shoot everything in the script, he just doesn’t have a great editor in Adam Varney and for some reason Seetachitt and photographer Polly Morgan really want to do shaky-cam and shaky-zooms. Just, you know, because.

It’s annoying.

And invites you to ignore the performances because the camera’s ignoring them.

Supporting cast. Mark Woolley’s bad as the bean counter who just happens to be there on the night of the biggest, most important asteroid strike on the planet Earth in… at least a couple days. Who knows.

Doug Jones is great as the space alien who just walks around the base. There’s a bunch of nonsense about Jones having a giant Rube Goldberg contraption in his quarters but it’s all time waster. Lots of time wasting in Jocks, which would be fine at twenty-two—as a TV pilot—or maybe seventy as a goofy low budget, independent pop culture reference comedy….

But it’s ninety minutes.

There are subplots.

There are Robert Picardo and Jason Mewes as the security guards who sit and bullshit all night. It is very awkward. Especially since Picardo and Mewes aren’t bad. They’re just not funny. Ptolemy Slocum is bad as Bowen’s ex-wife’s boyfriend, who shouldn’t be in the movie but again, Rock Jocks really wants to hit that ninety minute runtime so let’s do full subplots for these jerks.

Day and Wu both have moments good and bad. Middling would be an accurate descriptor.

Rock Jocks proves you can be not competent while also not being incompetent.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul V. Seetachitt; director of photography, Polly Morgan; edited by Adam Varney; music by S. Peace Nistades; production designer, Greg Aronowitz; costume designer, Jenny Green; produced by Sheri Bryant and Craig Lew.

Starring Andrew Bowen (John), Felicia Day (Alison), Justin Chon (Seth), Kevin Wu (Danny), Gerry Bednob (Tom), Mark Woolley (Austin), Zach Callison (Dylan), Ptolemy Slocum (Roger), Robert Picardo (Guard 1), Jason Mewes (Guard 2), and Doug Jones (Smoking Jesus).


Personal Foul (1987, Ted Lichtenfeld)

My initial impulse as I sat through the droning minutes of Personal Foul was to give the film a pass. Not give it any stars, but a pass. Also, when I say droning, I mean droning. The film’s music is a set of three or four songs by folk singer Greg Brown (and friends) on repeat. One of them even has a better title in the chorus than Personal Foul. I can’t remember; I was worried if I committed the songs to memory they might never leave.

There’s a lot of use of the songs. Lots of montages. Sometimes the songs are just over leads Adam Arkin and David Morse living their lives, Arkin a dissatisfied school teacher, Morse a very unromantic drifter (he lives out of his truck), and sometimes it’s over the drama as a woman (Susan Wheeler Duff) comes between Arkin and Morse’s burgeoning friendship. And sometimes it’s just over them playing basketball. Because Personal Foul, for the first half anyway, is all about how a bond basketball makes no man can tear asunder.

Duff is one of Arkin’s coworkers; a lot of the film takes place in the school, just because it gives the film something to do. Director Lichtenheld loves the basketball and the montages, but does seem to know he occasionally needs to have scenes. They don’t really have any momentum—the biggest plot thread in the first half no lives school administrator F. William Parker, who Arkin bullies and encourages others to bully, but it’s actually got zilch to do with the eventual story.

Lichtenheld shows a lot about Morse’s current life, making paper flowers to sell on the street, which leads to Arkin bringing him into school to teach an art class and Morse realizing he’s got the potential for real human connection and whatnot (while also introducing Duff to Morse). But we never even know if Arkin realizes Morse is living in a truck in front of his house. Men, even men who play basketball together, do not speak of such things. Though Personal Foul could be a lot more insensitive… well, then it gets more insensitive and it turns out it will be more insensitive. Just maybe not in exactly the ways Lichtenheld forecast he was going to do it.

The third act involves Duff revealing she has some machinations going on as far as the love triangle, which is barely implied in the story—director Lichtenheld doesn’t seem to have an understanding of actor chemistry, especially not since Duff and Morse were (and still are as of this writing) married and have oodles of it while Arkin and Duff have an inverse chemistry thing going.

The machinations are extremely cringe and Lichtenheld doesn’t seem to understand them. He’s taking a story with a terrible female characterization if it were summer vacation crushes and thoughtlessly scaling it up to thirty-somethings. Some of Personal Foul can get a pass. The third act with Duff cannot.

Arkin ransoming information about “friend” Morse cannot.

There’s also some weird thing going on with Duff being from Texas. It makes very little sense, other than to imply she’s just a good country woman looking for a husband or something.

At its “best,” Foul provides some interesting acting opportunities for Morse and Arkin. Not interesting roles or overall performances, but the occasional moment in a scene, you can see the actors working.

Is it enough of a reason to watch Personal Foul? Heavens no.

Though if you’re directing a movie with any basketball in it whatsoever, Personal Foul might be a must watch for things to never ever do when shooting a basketball game.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Ted Lichtenfeld; director of photography, John LeBlanc; edited by Steve Mullenix; music by Greg Brown; costume designer, Elizabeth Palmer.

Starring David Morse (Ben), Adam Arkin (Jeremy), Susan Wheeler Duff (Lisa), and F. William Parker (Lester).


The Man with Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

The Man with Two Brains does not age well. It’s a case study in not aging well, even more so because when the three writers—director Reiner, star Steve Martin, and George Gipe—can’t figure out how to do an ending so they just do an extended fat joke… well, it’s hard to continuing giving the film a pass. Not after a racial epithets joke, which the film doesn’t even realize is lazy.

Because it does recognize its easy jokes. There are a lot of easy, easy, easy jokes Brains wants to get away with and it usually is able to do it thanks to Martin or co-star Kathleen Turner, but the finale doesn’t use anyone well. In fact, it’s a call back to a completely different section of the film they probably don’t want to be recalling.

The movie’s got a really peculiar structure. The first act is about Martin falling for evil gold digger Turner (not knowing she’s an evil gold digger) and her refusing to consummate the relationship. So boss Peter Hobbs (who’s pleasantly sturdy and game for even the fail jokes) sends Martin off to Europe for a conference; a little continental seduction and so on.

In Europe, Martin meets mad scientist David Warner, who’s—oh, right. Martin’s the world’s premier brain surgeon. Anyway. He meets Warner, who’s a mad scientist who wants to transplant brains he’s been keeping alive thanks to hydroxychloroquine or something. Warner’s oddly disappointing in the film. I was expecting something from him and he never does anything. The film’s got problems with the supporting characters though; Warner’s butler, Paul Benedict, gets more personality than Warner in fewer scenes with less exposition. Reiner’s direction is… not great. He and Martin (and Gipe) are trying a lot of different things, some things are a lot less successful than others.

And even the big successes are often qualified. Like when Martin is prowling the streets to find a woman to murder so his soul mate—a disembodied brain voiced by Sissy Spacek—can find a new home. It’s all very complicated, with the brain stuff being Martin finally getting free of animate costars and getting to do his wild and crazy guy thing in the spotlight. It’s better when he does it opposite other cast, specifically Turner, who frequently can’t hold her femme fatale. Martin so funny she’s laughing. It’s brings Turner almost too much personality.

Back to that successful sequence—Martin lurking the streets of Vienna, looking for a woman to murder. All of a sudden the backlot shooting starts to work—Reiner and cinematographer Michael Chapman(!) shoot Two Brains like they’re trying to figure out how to not make it look like a sitcom but end up making it look more like one because of how they compensate. Like Joel Goldsmith’s ludicrously inappropriate synth score; it ups the zany so you don’t think too much about Martin’s premeditated murder scene and so on, but it’s also terrible. And doesn’t help the scene. Ever. In fact, it’s always actively hurting it.

Overall, Two Brains doesn’t have the pieces to succeed. The story’s not there. The plotting isn’t there. The pacing’s there. The direction’s not there. Martin and Turner do an excellent job doing absurd caricatures (at best, Martin does just mug occasionally), but it’s like no one’s curating the gags or even taking note of their successes. It’s got its ambitions just no idea when they realize.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; written by Reiner, Steve Martin, and George Gipe; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Bud Molin; music by Joel Goldsmith; production designer, Mark W. Mansbridge and Polly Platt; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steve Martin (Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr), Kathleen Turner (Dolores Benedict), Sissy Spacek (Anne Uumellmahaye), David Warner (Dr. Alfred Necessiter), Peter Hobbs (Dr. Brandon), Randi Brooks (Fran), and Paul Benedict (Butler).


Clueless (1995, Amy Heckerling)

I really didn’t want to bag on Clueless when I watched it this time, the first time since the theater, almost twenty-four years ago. It got good reviews on release, which I fully disagreed with—I’d forgotten how much audiences in the eighties and nineties liked farcical sitcom-level characterizations. Particularly in the nineties with the lusterless, generically appealing male leads–Clueless has no standout male performances, not even Dan Hedaya playing Dan Hedaya playing a movie dad. Paul Rudd is a twenty-one year-old who ogles his fifteen year-old ex-step-sister, Alicia Silverstone, and presumably is her first lover, waiting until she’s sixteen. Rudd’s not playing it self aware.

Yes, Clueless would be a very different film if he were, but it might be at least somewhat honest. Jeremy Sisto is the creep who tries to force himself on Silverstone, then leaves her in a bad neighborhood to be mugged at gunpoint after she rebuffs him.

Breckin Meyer’s the stoner who Silverstone’s friend, Brittany Murphy, secretly likes but can’t tell Silverstone because Silverstone doesn’t approve of stoners. Meyer’s charmless but somehow too mediocre to be bad. Ditto Donald Faison as Silverstone’s best friend Stacey Dash’s boyfriend. There’s a lot to unpack with Dash and Faison as the only two Black people in the movie. I guess Sean Holland, as Faison’s friend, but… Holland’s not in it much.

Oh, and then there’s Justin Walker as Silverstone’s crush. There’s a lot to unpack with Walker too.

But I don’t have the vocabulary or experience to unpack Clueless. There’s even something about the phrase Clueless and who taught Silverstone—who frequently calls people clueless in her narration, which isn’t good either—to call people clueless and who to call clueless. Give me a Roman Polanski movie about demonizing a woman’s sexuality to talk about; I don’t feel comfortable talking about what writer and director Heckerling is doing with this one. Other the writing and directing an immediately dated, desperate for MTV credit (it is Paramount), dumbing down of Jane Austen’s Emma for audiences who would be embracing the original setting just a few years later.

Oh, wow. You know who gave it ★★★½. Oh, of course he did. Immediately disqualified. Holy cow, he doesn’t even talk about Rudd perving on a sixteen year-old. Hello, 1995.

I feel like I’m back in high school again describing how narrative arcs work. What’s really funny is… they work the same way I said they worked back then as they do now; now, after I’ve read a couple hundred actually great novels, done a bunch of undergrad (shudder) workshopping, and gotten an MFA in writing.

Anyway.

What’s so funny about Clueless is how much I wanted it to succeed. I mean… I knew it wasn’t going to happen from the opening credits, but I really did want it to be a win. I really wanted to be remembering it wrong. I really wanted Heckerling to have some good reason for the Paul Rudd thing—which, given the movie avoids ever letting Hedaya know about the “like, it’s not actually incest, Flowers in the Attic much” romance after building up his legendary anger the whole movie—but she doesn’t. It’s a combination of “well, see, it’s like Emma, see” and so Heckerling doesn’t actually have to write anything like actual character development. Why bother when you have a montage sequence.

Clueless is… oh, crap, I can’t say it’s clueless, can I? I can’t go so cheap. Clueless is tedious, best pinned to the wall of historical item to be examined. Though, sadly, not for anything Heckerling intentionally does in the film. She can’t even direct the actually funny parts well, which makes everything even more distressing.

Clueless is badly done.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Amy Heckerling; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Debra Chiate; music by David Kitay; production designer, Steven J. Jordan; costume designer, Mona May; produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Lawrence; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alicia Silverstone (Cher), Paul Rudd (Josh), Dan Hedaya (Mel Horowitz), Stacey Dash (Dionne), Donald Faison (Murray), Brittany Murphy (Tai), Breckin Meyer (Travis), Justin Walker (Christian), Jeremy Sisto (Elton), Elisa Donovan (Amber), Aida Linares (Lucy), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Wendell Hall), Twink Caplan (Miss Toby Geist), and Julie Brown (Ms. Stoeger).


Emma (2020, Autumn de Wilde)

If IMDb is correct, there have been only ten other adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, and I’m including the modernizations. So it’s not so much Emma is oft-adapted, maybe just it’s got a very memorable story. Memorable enough even I was anticipating how—oh, wow, it’s director de Wilde’s first feature. Like, remember when music video directors were a punchline when they went to features?

Anyway, even with my limited Emma knowledge, I was able to anticipate—gleefully—how de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton were going to adapt the twists and turns. Because once Emma arrives, so to speak, which probably happens with the appearance of Tanya Reynolds as odious vicar Josh O'Connor’s new good lady wife, there’s no longer a question of whether or not the film will be a success. Instead, it’s a question of how successful it will be. And de Wilde, leads Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, Catton, they seem to peak Emma. Like, it’s hard to imagine how you could do the film better given Taylor-Joy is basically a villain for much of the film’s run time. Not exactly and it’s all very complicated, but watching Taylor-Joy manipulate the worlds around her for her own amusement and questionable pursuit of perfection… she’s not a hero.

It’s what makes her eventual friendship of social cruelty with Callum Turner so effective. He’s encouraging her worst compulsions and doing so for his own benefit. The film sets Taylor-Joy and Turner up as alter egos of sorts, with him using his powers of handsomeness, cleverness, and wealth for selfish purposes, Taylor-Joy uses hers for altruistic ones. But she gets to determine the altruism. The film doesn’t emphasize these parallels and inversions, it just presents them plainly, unspoken. The young, rich, and unmarried in nineteenth century England are have their lane and they aren’t going to deviate. I suppose there’s also a parallel with Flynn, older than Taylor-Joy and Turner, who was once young, is still rich and still unmarried.

Did I just describe the obvious themes of the novel, because when I was watching the film, I finally “got it.” Taylor-Joy’s arc is fantastic in this film. De Wilde and Catton have this very rich backdrop for her to act in. It’s not just getting to see her in the gorgeous production—production designer Kave Quinn, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, and set decorator Stella Fox do exquisite work. There’s a scene where notoriously private Flynn gives a tour of his house to his friends, showing off his various art treasures and the camera can never be slow enough on the pieces, with de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt so gorgeously showcasing. As the characters are all reacting to this art around them, being able to see the art so beautifully rendered makes for an entirely different scene than if it were just the drama of the characters.

But the film is a comedy of manners. The narrative twists and turns are only consequential because of the strict cultural norms the cast finds themselves in. It’s very layered, with the characters being very constrained in what they can do and stay. Again, de Wilde and Catton do an excellent job of establishing the rules without any big exposition dumps. Instead, we pick it up from Taylor-Joy’s friendship with latest matching making victim but also apparently first real friend, Mia Goth, or from Taylor-Joy’s dad (a truly wonderful Bill Nighy) in his whining about their social obligations, or from the supporting cast as they fret to one another; Flynn has, of course, the most to say about the cultural norms but also the most restraint. If Flynn’s going to say something about how people are behaving, it’s going to have to be egregious. He’s got all the wisdom and knows it, whereas Taylor-Joy thinks she can bend wisdom to fit her knowledge.

Taylor-Joy and Flynn are the most important performances. They make the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job with this material than Taylor-Joy and Flynn. Taylor-Joy becomes sympathetic through Flynn’s approving eye, but her character development is all her own. Outside that approval, in fact. The ending does something really lovely—and lightning fast—reorienting how to read that character development throughout too. de Wilde and Catton always keep some distance from Taylor-Joy, even when we’re seeing her in distress, and are then able to move in for the ending and really leverage the work Taylor-Joy’s done along with some narrative echoing to earlier in the film.

Who’s better, Taylor-Joy or Flynn? It’s a toss-up. Taylor-Joy’s always excellent but she gets more material. Until all of a sudden Flynn gets more material and it seems like he’s even better. But with the third act, the scenes functionally depend on Taylor-Joy and her performance so… Taylor-Joy. Flynn’s still great (and contributes the end credits song, which is adorable).

The supporting cast is all outstanding. Turner’s an excellent rich heel, Goth’s great as the friend; Goth gets a great third act showcase. Nighy’s great as the dad, who’s a hypochondriac. Lots of laughs for Nighy with that detail. Including Chloe Pirrie as Taylor-Joy’s married with children older sister, who’s caught the “bug.” Suffering husband, Oliver Chris (also Flynn’s brother), is hilarious with all his reactions. Then there’s Gemma Whelan as Taylor-Joy’s former governess, first matchmaking victim, and only friend. She’s good. Not in it a lot, but when she’s in it, she’s really good. The baked-in character relationships, the established ones, they’re all really well-done. Rupert Graves is good as her new husband. Miranda Hart’s great in a really important and complicated part. Amber Anderson, as the analogue Taylor-Joy rejects, is good. O’Connor and Reynolds are wonderful.

De Wilde’s direction—composition, performances—is superior. All the technicals are great—wonderful music from David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge—Blauvelt’s aforementioned photography and Nick Emerson’s editing are superlative.

Emma is an absolute delight.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Autumn de Wilde; screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Christopher Blauvelt; edited by Nick Emerson; music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge; production designer, Kave Quinn; costume designer, Alexandra Byrne; produced by Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma Woodhouse), Johnny Flynn (Mr. Knightley), Mia Goth (Harriet Smith), Callum Turner (Frank Churchhill), Gemma Whelan (Mrs. Weston), Rupert Graves (Mr. Weston), Miranda Hart (Miss Bates), Amber Anderson (Jane Fairfax), Myra McFadyen (Mrs. Bates), Josh O’Connor (Mr. Elton), Tanya Reynolds (Mrs. Elton), Connor Swindells (Robert Martin), Chloe Pirrie (Isabella Knightley), Oliver Chris (John Knightley), and Bill Nighy (Mr. Woodhouse).


The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)

There are two profoundly well-directed scenes in the third act of The Daytrippers, including the last one, so you really want to give what you can of it a pass. Daytrippers is very straightforward, even through the various complexities of the third act, but just because Mottola (who wrote as well as directed) knows what he needs to do with the characters at a given point in the story doesn’t mean he knows how to do it with them. The film spends most of its runtime promising to give Anne Meara and Pat McNamara these great roles but instead reduces them both to caricature. Sure, not the initially implied caricatures—she’s an overbearing Long Island housewife and he’s the hen-pecked husband—but changing from one caricature to another isn’t character development. Because Mottola asks for a lot of leeway on Meara, who’s shown as terrible person throughout and one not even deserving of empathy, implying along the way any woman over a certain age are raving harpies, only to make her even worse than predicted.

It’s a lot.

And then Mottola’s done with her because she’s just a distraction. She’s been distracting the film from Hope Davis, the ostensible lead, for the previous seventy minutes or so and then all of a sudden it’s like… oh, yeah, she’s just MacGuffin. Because we couldn’t get Stanley Tucci for anything but a supporting role. Tucci is Davis’s husband. The film opens with them coming home from Thanksgiving and having an intimate moment. The next day, Tucci goes off to work in the city and Davis discovers what appears to be a love letter on the floor. Presumably fell out of his briefcase. So she heads over to mom Meara’s, where we’ve already met the rest of the cast. We get introduced to Meara and McNamara as they make as much noise as possible to wake other daughter Parker Posey, who’s home from college for the holiday with boyfriend Liev Schreiber. Posey and Schreiber are going into the city and waiting for McNamara to give them a ride to the train.

But then Davis arrives with her problems and, counseling against her calling Tucci, Meara decides McNamara is going to drive everyone into the city. Hence The Daytrippers.

The family has various misadventures getting into the city, their journey set to Schreiber summarizing his novel to the mostly disinterested audience. Watching Posey and Schreiber’s relationship slowly implode over the film as the pressure in the car keeps on ratcheting up is one of Daytrippers’s most deliberate and least successful subplots. Eventually Posey meets author Campbell Scott—Tucci’s a literary agent or something—and he’s everything Schreiber wishes he could be—published, self-confident, smarter. The scene where Scott takes Schreiber’s insipid political philosophy out back and beats it with a stick until it crumbles is something else. The Daytrippers always feels very indie, with John Inwood’s realistic (and gorgeous) photography, Richard Martinez’s score, Mottola’s long takes… but the story’s basically a sitcom episode and a lot of the characterizations are similarly shallow. Even Meara’s performance works more appropriately in that context.

Only Mottola is very clearly not directing a sitcom. He directs against the script, which somehow works, but the script’s still got its problems. And then there’s Schreiber, who’s too tall to be puppy dog and a little bit too absurd. Six foot three, Cambridge-educated, mama’s boy fops who work construction in Michigan require a lot of… something. And neither Mottola or Schreiber know how to do that something.

Davis gets very little to do in the first half of the film—see, they can’t find Tucci so they have to traverse the city through the runtime with the aforementioned adventures, which are have limited budgets and often involve parties or at least social gatherings with food and alcohol present—but then she gets a bunch in the third act. Only not a lot of dialogue, just a lot of long takes of Davis thinking. She’s awesome at them and you wish Mottola had been doing them the whole time because they add up while the stuff he had been focusing on did not.

McNamara’s okay. I was expecting more from him, but he’s solid. Posey’s good. Not a great part overall (which is a big problem), but she’s good. Tucci’s great. Great cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

The Daytrippers is a well-made picture, with a few moments of inspired brilliance. In the end those moments just make you wish Mottola had figured out how to do them sooner. And more frequently.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, John Inwood; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Richard Martinez; production designer, Bonnie J. Brinkley; costume designer, Barbara Presar; produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh; released by Cinépix Film Properties.

Starring Hope Davis (Eliza Malone D’Amico), Parker Posey (Jo Malone), Liev Schreiber (Carl Petrovic), Anne Meara (Rita Malone), Pat McNamara (Jim Malone), Campbell Scott (Eddie Masler), Andy Brown (Ronnie), Paul Herman (Leon), Marcia Gay Harden (Libby), Marc Grapey (Aaron), Douglas McGrath (Chap), and Stanley Tucci (Louis D’Amico).


Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018, Susanna Fogel)

The Spy Who Dumped Me has, rather unfortunately, a punny title. It’s an accurate title—the film’s about spy Justin Theroux dumping his civilian and not aware he’s a spy girlfriend Mila Kunis—but it doesn’t capture the mood of the film. No doubt, it’s a hard one to title—because even though it starts with Kunis going to Europe to help Theroux on a mission (after a very well-executed gun fight), it becomes more about Kunis and best friend Kate McKinnon as they find their respective knacks in life as spies. Or at least, movie spies, who have to worry about gun fights in public places, evil trapeze artists, and “Edward Snowden” cameos. Spy purposefully goes all over the place (and all over Europe), with the core mystery being engaging enough but never the point. Spy’s all about its performances, not the MacGuffins.

Which makes Sam Heughan’s smooth British spy guy stand out as a fail. He’s fine. He’s even charming at times, but he’s… nothing special. When Kunis has her pick of spies, Theroux or Heughan, she goes Theroux—who’s got his issues too—but at last he’s got some character. Heughan looks like a British spy caricature, acts like a British spy caricature. He’s no fun. Theroux’s not really fun either, but he doesn’t have to be fun. But Heughan? He’s the straight man to partner Hasan Minhaj, whose thing is just being a boring straightedge and he’s so fun at it. Or their boss, Gillian Anderson, who plays a British spy supervisor caricature and makes it seem like a real character. Heughan’s fine, but he’s a bummer. Theroux’s… a bummer. At least one of them needs to be better.

Nicely, everything else is great so the two supporting dudes being a little lackluster doesn’t matter. And Heughan’s good with the fight stuff; he gets sympathy for being such a surprisingly solid action star. Spy gives Kunis and McKinnon a lot, keeping an undercurrent of humor. Heughan doesn’t really have the humor. Sometimes he’s got Kunis and McKinnon giving audio commentary, which brings some humor, but director Fogel handles it differently. Probably contributes to keeping Kunis and McKinnon in danger. They’re not because it’s still a fish out of water buddy comedy and it can’t kill either buddy but the film’s got to put them in danger for about an hour straight before a resolution. Spy isn’t short—it’s real close to two hours—and it’s really well-paced and keeping tension in an action comedy isn’t easy. Luckily there’s a lot of violence. Spy goes all in on the action violence; lots of great action set pieces; they’re what make the movie work in the first act. It demands attention.

Kunis is a good lead, but McKinnon walks away with it. She’s really funny. Even when the scene isn’t really funny, McKinnon’s really funny. And her third act stuff is impossible and she makes it happen. Fogel’s careful not to showcase McKinnon too much—without not showcasing her either—and giving Kunis her time but… it’s McKinnon’s show. She’s part of all the best material. Kunis gets most of it, but third act is all McKinnon’s. Also Kunis and McKinnon are great together, which makes everything feel a lot more even throughout. It’s just… Kunis gets a romance subplot and McKinnon gets to be hilarious. Shame Kunis doesn’t have better dudes in the triangle. But Heughan’s fine.

He’s fine.

Great cameos from Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, and Fred Melamed. Ivanna Sakhno’s awesome as the Bond villain assassin out to get Kunis and, especially, McKinnon.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is really good at being really funny and good enough when it’s not being really funny.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susanna Fogel; written by Fogel and David Iserson; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Jonathan Schwartz; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Marc Homes; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Mila Kunis (Audrey), Kate McKinnon (Morgan), Sam Heughan (Sebastian), Hasan Minhaj (Duffer), Justin Theroux (Drew), Ivanna Sakhno (Nadedja), Jane Curtin (Carol), Paul Reiser (Arnie), Lolly Adefope (Tess), and Gillian Anderson (Wendy).


Grumpier Old Men (1995, Howard Deutch)

The first half of Grumpier Old Men is such an improvement over the original, it could be a paragon of sequels. Director Deutch knows how to showcase the actors amid all the physical comedy. There’s a lot of physical comedy and sight gags in Grumpier. There’s Walter Matthau doing the Saturday Night Fever strut while in his mid-seventies and in a bathrobe in rural but probably not that rural, they just never talk about it, Minnesota. Grumpier has a lot of laughs. It’s learned from the experience of the previous one; screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson has, as far as setting up scenes for this particular cast, learned.

And Deutch has just the right take on the material, just the right balance between laughing at the characters and with them. And it’s sometimes hard to laugh with Matthau and fellow septuagenarian rascal, Jack Lemmon. They’re dicks to new girl in town Sophia Loren, who’s just an Italian bombshell with a heart of gold trying to find the right man even though her mama (Ann Morgan Guilbert) thinks she’s cursed in love. Grumpier definitely never feels like an homage to an Italian melodrama from the late seventies, but you can at least imagine Loren and Guilbert having these arguments for the last forty years. You can’t really imagine Lemmon and Matthau when they’re not in the middle of a movie adventure; this time they’re planning their kids’ wedding—Lemmon’s daughter, Daryl Hannah, is marrying Matthau’s son, Kevin Pollak—then Loren comes to town and there’s the whole run the new girl out of town because she isn’t going to sell live bait in the boys’ old bait shop. Frankly, it’s a disappointment Ossie Davis doesn’t show up as a ghost. It’d be a bad move, but a likable one.

Because halfway through Grumpier Old Men, the film runs out of energy and then realizes it hasn’t been doing much with the story. The first half is Matthau mugging for the camera and fight-flirting with Loren. Lemmon’s the sidekick; outside a couple solid laughs, Lemmon and Ann-Margret are entirely support in the first act. They come back at the end of the second, when we get a preview of the spin-off melodrama where Capulet Hannah and Montague Pollak discover they can’t make the marriage work because their bloodlines hate each other. Actually, a divorce melodrama with this cast would be amazing. And might be a more appropriate use the Alan Silvestri score.

Because the third act solution to the kids’ relationship problems, manipulate Daryl Hannah. For her own good. With the help of her child. Because Grumpier Old Men isn’t older adult empowerment as much as it is the Little Rascals with Lemmon and Matthau. There’s the preview of that eventuality when they pull pranks on Loren before she opens her restaurant because they want to run her out of business. Loren’s solution? Cleavage, a red dress, a Monroe wiggle, and trying to seduce Matthau in the depressing town bar. Some of its optics distract from other of its optics and Loren and Matthau are really funny so… it gets a pass but it was probably foreshadowing for the second and third act problems.

Especially since they also get themselves out of every subplot’s narrative pickle in the laziest, most manipulative way possible—particularly taking into account the target audience, White grandparents and their grandchildren, stuck together on a holiday afternoon. Deus Deus Ex: Grumpier Old Men and BLANK: For now they kill me with a living death. But no spoilers. You can guess, though, if you’re familiar with the actor. Nudge nudge.

All those complaints made… it’s kind of a lot of fun for a while. Matthau’s schtick is great. Loren’s great. Burgess Meredith—as Lemmon’s foul-mouth-and-minded ninety-five year-old dad—is hilarious. Lemmon’s fine. Turns out he’s funnier in the outtakes, which is a weird way to end the movie, showing how much funnier it could have been if you weren’t going for so bland. Ann-Margret gets the worst part, outside Hannah. And Pollak, because Pollak’s unlikable. Especially when he gets stale, scene-ending one-liner observations about the human condition in middle class nineties America, especially with aging parents; part of Deutch’s lack of personality is his obvious inability to say no to bad ideas; it makes him a tragic figure in the Grumpier mess.

It’s kind of worth it for the cast.

It’s also definitely more successful than the first, even if it ends up disappointing. Matthau gets a solid part. Loren’s got a much better part than anyone else in the movie besides him… which is a qualified compliment but… it’s cute. In an absurd way. Especially given it’s appropriate for all ages but wants to keep everyone in the audience awake.

So maybe the droning, simplistic, brain-addling Silvestri score sends subliminal messages to knock out anyone who’d be offended by all the dick jokes. They were going to have fart jokes too—because it’s a theme in the outtakes—but apparently someone decided fart jokes would be too far.

Grumpier Old Men could be a whole lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Deutch; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Maryann Brandon, Seth Flaum, and Billy Weber; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Sophia Loren (Maria Sophia Coletta Ragetti), Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Ann Morgan Guilbert (Mama Ragetti), Ann-Margret (Ariel Gustafson), Daryl Hannah (Melanie Gustafson), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Katie Sagona (Allie), Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).


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