Talking Movies

November 7, 2019

From the Archives: The Brothers Solomon

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

When their beloved father goes into a coma socially inept brothers John (Will Arnett) and Dean Solomon (Will Forte) try to give him something to live for by providing a grandchild. However when their dating skills prove non-existent they turn to a surrogate mother Janine (Kristen Wiig) with a jealous ex (Chi McBride)

Will Forte is not Will Ferrell, but he probably thinks he is, they both worked on Saturday Night Live after all. Like the painfully unfunny film appearances of SNL star Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog anyone?) Will Forte proves that not everyone on SNL should be encouraged to traipse over to Hollywood. He wrote this film as well as co-starring in it so the blame for the deplorable lack of comedy can be placed firmly on his shoulders. The idea that being able to make sketch comedy, which relies on beating a joke around for 3 minutes till you’ve exhausted it, qualifies you to make films where you have to construct a 90 minute story with organically occurring jokes is a puzzling one. If you can hop up the stairs a couple of steps at a time it doesn’t mean you should suddenly run out and take up pole-vaulting.

The idea of making fun of two social misfits instantly recalls Dumb and Dumber but this is even more suspect and mean-spirited and at least that had some hilarious gags, before the Farrelly Brothers lost their funny bones. There are some funny moments. Chi McBride’s first appearance is comic and menacing at the same time as he takes umbrage wherever he can find it, accusing the whole world of being racist when it’s not. Could this have gone somewhere? Yeah, but a sketch show writer…oh forget it. There’s an incredibly uncomfortable sequence which features the brothers trying to prepare for parenthood by observing children at the playground and offering them ice-cream. Hmmm. There’s also an outrageous gag at an adoption agency involving a misunderstanding about a photo which provides Will Arnett with the best line of the whole movie.

Will Arnett (beloved as Gob on Arrested Development) can work wonders with weak material, as Blades of Glory showed, but this script defeats even him. Things get so tedious after a while that you start playing spot the TV actor. Oh look, there’s Jenna Fischer from the American Office in a cameo, hey, that’s depressed old Ted from Scrubs, and who’s the surrogate mother, why it’s a look-alike of Sarah Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The face that should occasion panic is Heartbreak Kid and The Invasion star Malin Akerman, a cinematic hoodoo this year. The sky banner that goes on forever and has the entire cast of supporting characters reading it is the highlight of the whole film. It is actually hilarious and worth seeing but as Dr Johnson once said: worth seeing, yes, but it’s not worth going to see.

1/5

September 8, 2019

From the Archives: Year of the Dog

Digging in the pre-Talking Movies archives throws up this forgotten tale of lonely office worker Peggy (Shannon); devastated when her dog dies, but her life changes when a vet (Sarsgaard) offers her a dog to adopt.

Mike White is a gifted comedy writer. He has penned School of Rock, Orange County and Nacho Libre as well as the more serious dramedies The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck. So when you hear that he’s assembled an interesting cast for his directorial debut your expectations get raised ever so slightly. Which is what makes Year of the Dog such a terrible let down. Things start off promisingly enough as we’re shown the empty life of office worker Peggy (Molly Shannon) whose best friend is really her dog Pencil, who promptly dies of toxic poisoning leaving Peggy distraught. But that unexpected emotional punch makes it obvious that we have been sold a pup by the misleading trailer. Peter Sarsgaard arrives as the big romantic lead…and announces he’s celibate owing to the trauma of childhood abuse. That’s a good summary for how far this film is from the advertised sweet romantic triangle between Peggy (Shannon), Al (John C Reilly) and Newt (Sarsgaard); dog lovers all.

White’s script infuriatingly introduces a host of horrible people who could be the stuff of comedy and then refuses to do anything funny with any of them. John C Reilly dunders around as the loutish next door neighbour but then disappears. Laura Dern makes your skin crawl as Peggy’s sister-in-law who treats her children as if she’d read Howard Hughes’ guide to parenting but is given little screen-time. Regina King (Layla) is given the joyfully offensive line; “I believe there is someone in this world for everyone, even retarded cripple people get married”; but precious little else to flesh out Peggy’s best friend. All of these characters are thrown away in favour of focusing on Peggy’s journey towards becoming a vegan, or a nutjob which is how she turns out, which is ironic given that writer/director White is a vegan.

It’s hard to watch someone betray their family and friends, commit cheque fraud, lose their job as a result and adopt 15 dogs from the city pound and accept it as a spiritual epiphany. White lamentably falls into the Hollywood cliché where the mechanics of what happens next is conveniently never explained. If she’s unemployed, and for a reason that makes her unemployable, where does Peggy get the money to pay her rent let alone her dog food bills? It’s hard not to think these are really the first steps to homelessness, which is a disquieting thought when you’re meant to be cheering along Peggy the newly minted animal rights activist. Year of the Dog ends up in the nightmare pitfall of dramedy where there’s enough sweetness to keep you watching in the hope of a joke popping up again fairly soon (which it probably won’t) but not enough dramatic meat to make you believe in these characters as real people. A dog of a debut…

1/5

September 4, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl plays as a tragically awful The Fault in Our Stars and Be Kind Rewind mash-up by Wes Anderson.

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Greg (Thomas Mann) navigates high school by being super-nice to all cliques, and a member of none. He avoids the cafeteria turf wars, eating with his sole friend Earl (RJ Cyler) in the office of cool history teacher Mr McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). (You know he’s cool because he has tats and a shouted slogan ‘Respect the Research!’) But then Greg’s odd, odd mother (Connie Britton) forces him to befriend classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) when Rachel is diagnosed with leukaemia. Rachel’s weird mother Denise (Molly Shannon) is delighted at this development, and soon Greg’s eccentric dad (Nick Offerman) is hosting marathons for Rachel of the dreadful movies Greg and Earl have made. Greg is losing his treasured detachment, and, despite repeated protestations in his narration, Rachel is going to die; what will the emotional impact be on such a self-loathing figure?

You won’t care, because this film quickly becomes extremely grating. Set in Pittsburgh with an emotionally deadened hero who opens up under female tutelage this invites invidious comparisons with The Perks of Being a Wallflower; but Project X star Thomas Mann is no Logan Lerman, and novelist/screenwriter Jesse Andrews is no Stephen Chbosky. As for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon who has worked on American Horror Story and Glee… This is his second feature after The Town That Dreaded Sundown. He’s not straying far from familiar settings. His whip-pans, arty tracking shots, hand-crafted animations, long-takes, narration, chapter titles, straight to camera monologues, odd perspectives, and painfully self-conscious quirkiness all play like ersatz Wes Anderson and become increasingly maddening. Having a character die of cancer doesn’t gift your movie instant profundity. Telling us twice that she’s not going to die is just annoying.

Bernthal is the only actor who escapes this farrago with dignity intact, as he has some interesting material on the nature of memory and biography to work with. Offerman is reduced to non-sequitirs and monologues akin to his workshop appearances on Conan. Shannon is creepy and disturbing as Rachel’s overly-sexualised mother, while Britton is unbelievable and bizarre as Greg’s mother pushing him into a weird gesture. Greg and Earl are ‘characterised’ by their love of Herzog, Kurosawa, and the Nouvelle Vague, which they pastiche in home-movies. The result is as infuriatingly pretentious, derivative, and mannered as the central trio in The Dreamers. So of course Greg’s former crush Madison (Katherine C Hughes) suggests making a new movie especially for Rachel. Dying is almost worthwhile if it inspires self-referential self-congratulatory cinema! This truly is Bret Easton Ellis’ nightmare conception of film-school student making films based on films, not on life; a cinematic parallel of Mannerist artists proudly painting based on Old Masters not on observed reality.

Having experienced Nico Muhly’s soundscape for the Wilton Diptych in the British National Gallery, I weep at his music being wasted trying to give Greg’s contemptible film some depth.

1/5

October 1, 2014

Life After Beth

Dane DeHaan had never made a comedy before this film. I’m not sure he still hasn’t made a comedy after starring in Life After Beth.

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Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is inconsolable with grief after his girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while on a solo hike in the hills. Despite the best efforts of his abrasive security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), and his helicopter parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser), nothing can shake him out of his gloom. Instead he spends his time with Beth’s parents, playing chess and smoking weed with Maury (John C Reilly), and going thru Beth’s clothes with Geenie (Molly Shannon). So far so Moonlight Mile. But when the Slocums’ Haitian maid Pearline (Eva La Dare) flees town, it’s not long before a horde of zombies appears, heralded by a returned Beth – who has no memory of dying, and is now super-strong, insanely jealous of Zach’s reappeared childhood friend Erica (Anna Kendrick), and increasingly hungry…

Warm Bodies approached the conundrum of how you make a romantic comedy with zombies by making the zombies not zombies. Life After Beth keeps the zombies as zombies and instead ditches the romantic comedy aspect. Which can’t be intentional, can it? There are so many good actors onboard that you feel something has gone disastrously wrong. Reiser is more likeable than I’ve ever seen him, and Gubler is fantastically obnoxious. But the lead performances don’t match them. Plaza presumably signed on for eating people and blowing up a lifeguard post, but, while she has fun with the physical shtick, the role mutes her comedic grouchiness. DeHaan’s everyman is ill-served by the puzzling script. What should be deadpan just turns out blank. Reacting blankly to absurd situations does not by itself provide comedy, there does need to be jokes in addition.

Writer/director Jeff Baena co-wrote I Heart Huckabees which makes it all the more baffling what the hell went wrong because he’s not a man short of comedic invention. Technically everyone is at the top of their game. Jay Hunter, who was the DP for Joss Whedon’s crisply monochrome Much Ado About Nothing, bathes this gated community in a sunlight wonderfully inapt for a zombie horror; again displaying flair on a shoestring. Kudos must also go to the casting directors (Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin) who realised that with the right haircut DeHaan and Gubler are perfect as brothers. But technical competence and solid acting can only get you so far. By the end when a gratuitously naked female zombie appears you’re not sure if it’s a ham-fisted nod to Re-Animator, or a stunt to arouse the audience from its slumber.

Life After Beth is a zom-rom-com that’s played so straight that it ends up a romantic drama about a bad break-up and an unstable ex-girlfriend; now with added zombies.

1/5

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