Talking Movies

April 20, 2018

From the Archives: Juno

In the first in a series delving into the days before Talking Movies proper, here’s the first review I sent to Dublinks.com 10 years ago.

Juno, despite the plethora of Oscar nominations, is a good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film. First-timer writer Diablo Cody’s script is full of sharp one-liners, most of which are delivered by Ellen Page, the eponymous heroine who becomes “a cautionary whale” at her high school after accidentally getting pregnant. Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. The unlikely father is Superbad’s Michael Cera, a diffident member of the school athletics team. (As Juno’s father quips “I didn’t think he had it in him!”) The problem with Juno is that much like director Jason Reitman’s previous film Thank You for Smoking it’s highly enjoyable but quickly fades in the memory as you forget all the barbed lines of dialogue.

20 year old Ellen Page deserves the enormous praise she’s receiving as she mordantly carries the entire film as the prematurely jaded, wisecracking Juno McGuff. This role is a worthy follow up to her incendiary turn in 2006’s Hard Candy. Someone really should remake The Big Sleep with Page as Phillipa Marlowe because on the evidence of this she could Bogart her way through anything… Reitman assembles a great cast around Page but Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner stand out as the highly strung yuppie couple that Juno picks to be the adoptive parents of her child. They might be a bit too desperate for children to actually be good parents while Bateman’s Mark might get on just a bit too well with Juno. ‘Might’ is the operative word though, because it’s refreshingly impossible to tell where everything is going.

The script constantly subverts expectations. Even Spider-Man star JK Simmons is required to actually act for the first time in ages rather than bark insults and chew scenery, his Mr McGuff is quietly depressed by his daughter’s predicament. Juno is not as funny as Superbad but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for in charm, from the indie soundtrack to the quirky animations that indicate the progression of the pregnancy and Reitman’s audacious decision to end the movie with a DIY musical number. This is an indie delight.

4/5

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October 21, 2016

Keeping up with the Joneses

Director Greg Mottola returns to cinemas for the first time since Paul, but working with inferior material to his recent Rogen, Pegg, and Sorkin scripts.

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Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) is an ineffectual HR drone who is genially disregarded by all the people with security clearance at major weapons manufacturer McDowell-Burton International. His wife Karen (Isla Fisher) is dissatisfied designing an absurd bathroom for obnoxious neighbours the Craverstons (being a largely wasted VEEP star Matt Walsh as Dan and Maribeth Monroe as Meg). As the Gaffneys agonise over how to utilise their sons’ time at summer camp to revitalise their marriage new neighbours arrive; the uber-stylish uber-sophisticated Joneses, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot). Jeff is surprised at Tim, the travel writer who blows glass sculptures as a hobby, befriending him. But Karen grows suspicious that Tim and Natalie are actually spies, and when Jeff takes his concerns to MBI security officer Carl Pronger (Kevin Dunn), the Gaffneys enter the sinister world of ‘The Scorpion’.

What exactly is Greg Mottola, director of Arrested Development, The Newsroom, Superbad, Paul and Adventureland, doing helming this action-comedy? This is the comediocre terrain of hack auteurs like Shawn Levy or (shudder) Paul Feig. Mottola has some fun playing on the remarkable coincidence that Gadot & Hamm are both 7 inches taller than their counterparts Fisher & Galifianakis. There’s a lot of looming… It’s a treat to hear Gadot berating Hamm in rapid-fire Hebrew insults, but there’s not a whole lot else going on. Mottola shoots action with pleasing commitment to practical stunt-work, and throws in gleefully parodic action-hero slo-mo and hero shots of Gadot and Hamm, but the lack of any real driving comedic intent is almost metatextually reflected in Andrew Dunn’s cinematography being remarkably soft-focus; as if he was massaging out the cast’s wrinkles in Murder, She Wrote.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is a strange beast, and it’s hard to see what in it attracted Mottola. This film is obviously in debt to Mr & Mrs Smith, and even that had longueurs, but Keeping up with the Joneses lacks that movie’s over-arching sense of fun; which kept the wheels spinning when there were no actual jokes. Here LeSieur has very few actual jokes at all, and, in sending Jeff on trips to exotic snake restaurants with Tim, slips into what feels like a tip of the hat to David Duchovny’s intermittently interesting satire The Joneses; where perfect new neighbours are actually a guerrilla sales team. Depressingly early on you realise this is another major studio comedy that has tidy plotting and neat character arcs, and basically no jokes. When exactly did that approach to writing ‘comedy’ become conventional wisdom?

Keeping up with the Joneses just about holds the attention, but given the calibre of talent involved you just wonder how nobody noticed that it wasn’t actually … funny.

1.5/5

July 14, 2015

Trainwreck to hit Dublin

 

Universal Pictures Ireland and Dublin International Film Festival are presenting new comedy Trainwreck in a special screening with red carpet appearances by director Judd Apatow and stars Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Tickets are €11 and available to purchase on www.diff.ie

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Trainwreck, Judd Apatow’s fifth feature film as director, is a portrait of an unforgettable character written by, and starring, Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) as a woman who lives her life without apologies, even when maybe apologies are what are needed… Since she was a little girl, it’s been drilled into Amy’s head by her roguish dad (Colin Quinn) that monogamy isn’t realistic. Now a magazine writer, she lives by that credo—enjoying what she feels is an uninhibited life free from stifling, boring romantic commitment—but in actuality, she’s kind of in a rut.  When she finds herself starting to fall for the subject of her new article; charming and successful sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader); Amy starts to wonder if other grown-ups, including this guy who really seems to like her, might be on to something. The comedy, from Schumer’s own script, co-stars Brie Larson, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, and LeBron James.

Emmy-nominated Bill Hader, a favourite on Saturday Night Live for 8 years, has a number of memorable screen appearances under his belt from the maniac cop in Superbad, to the whimsical boss in Adventureland, and Kristen Wiig’s depressed sibling in blackly comic drama The Skeleton Twins, but this looks like his break as a mainstream film star. As a producer Apatow has introduced a number of new comedy voices into the mainstream – including Seth Rogen, Lena Dunham, and Chris O’Dowd. As the director of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, he’s almost single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the R-rated comedy, but after Funny People and This is 40 he’s in need of a hit… Perhaps why he’s hitched his directorial wagon to Schumer’s rising star. Schumer, creator, star, and writer of Emmy-nominated Inside Amy Schumer, the Comedy Central show which premiered in April 2013, placed in the top five on the Billboard charts in 2012 with her comedy album Cutting,  and has recently gone super-viral with her response to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s casting-call woes.

“2015 is proving to be the year of Amy Schumer, a pistol-smart satirist, a Facebook feminist, a sassy screenwriter who has film friends in all the right places. She has clambered over her fellow comedic peers to ascend to the throne of this year’s Comic Most Wanted and the Dublin International Film Festival is delighted to welcome her and I can’t wait to meet her!” says Grainne Humphreys, DIFF Director, In other Festival news we are all eagerly looking forward to DIFF 2016 and we are excited to announce we will be returning to a February Festival in 2016, on new dates of February 18th – 28th.”

Tickets for Trainwreck are €11 and will be available now to purchase on: https://diff.ticketsolve.com/shows/873537433/events

August 26, 2014

Let’s Be Cops

Two struggling friends from Ohio pretend to be LAPD cops, and are played by two TV actors pretending to be film stars. Is that meta?

lets2Justin Miller (Damon Wayans Jr) is a struggling video-game designer. He has a pitch for a tense realistic video game called Patrolman, but his boss Todd (Jonathan Lajoie) would rather check his phone than listen to it. Justin’s roommate Ryan O’Malley (Jake Johnson) lives off the proceeds of an unfortunate advertisement and ‘coaches’ local youngsters, including Little Joey (Joshua Ormond), as a way to relive his glory days as a college football quarterback. After being humiliated by Russian mobster Mossi Kevic (James D’Arcy), and being shunned by their old college buddies when they misinterpret masquerade ball for costume party, they discover their costumes hold the secret to self-esteem and pretend to be cops. Soon Justin is wooing waitress/make-up designer Josie (Nina Dobrev), and Ryan is helping Officer Segars (Rob Riggle) take down Mossi; which turns fun make-believe into dangerous reality.

Let’s Be Cops isn’t very funny. Some sequences (especially Justin’s second presentation) telegraph their punchlines, while others; the unfortunate name-tag of Chang on Justin’s uniform, invading the flat of nymphomaniac Annie (Natasha Leggero) to do a stakeout, impersonating a Dominican gangster Pupa (Keegan-Michael Key); just lead to quite uncomfortable routines. Perhaps it’s asking too much from director Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door, Role Models) and his co-screenwriter Nicholas Thomas (a former Playboy Entertainment executive), but haven’t we already seen a movie featuring the demented antics of cops trying to be cool? Wasn’t it called Superbad? And wasn’t everything that Seth Rogen and Bill Hader did in it far funnier than anything Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr do in this movie? The most interesting performance here is Riggle’s swivel on a nickel between boisterous bonhomie and wounded professional outrage.

Vampire Diaries star Dobrev is wasted as the token love interest, even though this will probably do more for her post-TV career than her far more interesting but smaller part in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. D’Arcy and Andy Garcia are victims of this movie’s thriller structure sucking out what little comedy oxygen there was.  I don’t watch Johnson’s shtick for free on New Girl so I can’t recommend paying to see it in a cinema. Wayans Jr’s shtick is far more interesting because it’s so puzzling. He prances around, flaps his hands, whinnies, and screams – what precisely am I supposed to be laughing at?  That, as Josie states, he’s a straight man who employs gay mannerisms? Is that funny? Am I misinterpreting in seeing here a coy way to laugh at gay people without laughing directly at them?

Let’s Be Cops isn’t a very memorable comedy, but neither is it truly obnoxious. It’s just well-staged mediocrity whose American success confirms a growing transatlantic chasm of comedic tastes.

2/5

August 24, 2012

The Watch

Screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg rescue a Ben Stiller sci-fi comedy from the intended clutches of lamestream auteur Shawn Levy and the results are a hoot and a holler.

Ben Stiller is slightly boring Costco manager Evan, who sets up various clubs to build community spirit in Ohio, and is horrified to find his store’s night-watchman murdered and skinned. He promptly sets up a neighbourhood watch to track down the killer. Much to his displeasure, the only people who show up are loudmouth dad Bob (Vince Vaughn), wannabe vigilante Franklin (Jonah Hill) and British divorcee Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). (Well, he’s actually pretty pleased with Jamarcus, as Evan’s been looking for a black friend in the name of diversity.) The watch get no respect from slightly crazed police officer (Will Forte), or their neighbours, but when they find destructive alien technology, and then aliens infiltrating the community, there’s only one thing to do. Save the world… And misbehave royally, of course. Who wouldn’t take pictures with a Hawaiian-shirted dead alien?

This movie is Rogen & Goldberg par excellence, so if you don’t like their shtick you’re better off skipping it. I’m one of the very few who appreciated what they were trying to do with The Green Hornet, and this movie confirms the suspicion I first voiced when reviewing Superbad; that hiding behind their scatology is sweetness. I thought then that the scatology might be there purely to get financing but I now realise that it’s an integral if occasionally uncomfortable part of the package, as if Seth Rogen was a big friendly slob of a dog that you just can’t housetrain but you still love him to bits anyway. “She married you, not your dead ****” is the key line of hidden heart as a ruminant Vaughn tries to comfort a depressed Stiller on whether marriage can survive infertility.

The Watch feels exactly like what it is, a structurally sound script rewritten to insert rambling absurdity and profane hilarity. Some elements are familiar: Will Forte’s cop is a close cousin of SNL co-star Bill Hader’s Superbad maniac, while Hill’s lunatic is a riff on Rogen’s character in Observe and Report, and a key final act detail is pure Superbad. Some elements are totally fresh: Richard Ayoade’s equally deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic, Billy Crudup’s glorious cameo as Stiller’s creepily tactile new neighbour, and some serious ballistic overkill with a hard-to-kill alien. The comic invention on display flags in the middle as screenplay structural conventions take over but roars back for a very funny finale; not least because just when you’ve been lamenting Rosemarie DeWitt being underused as Stiller’s wife she gets her own hilarious motif.

The Watch isn’t quite as hilarious as Superbad but it is far better than any proposed PG-13 version could have been and better than any actual Hangover instalment is.

4/5

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

Lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. Easter 1998, lying in the grass on a sunny Kingston Hill, I and my friend John Fahey paused from football and in about 5 minutes picked out the one film that defined its decade, right back to the 1930s.

1990s – Pulp Fiction
1980s –Wall Street
1970s – All the President’s Men
1960s – Goldfinger
1950s – Ben-Hur
1940s – Casablanca
1930s – Gone with the Wind

Looking back at that list over 11 years later it holds up pretty well for what was a pretty facile exercise in that each film can arguably be held to represent a particular cultural zeitgeist in each decade (even if one has to reach to shoe-horn in Ben-Hur) with the arrival of Gone with the Wind just before the world plunges into World War II seeming particularly apt, indeed its still unbeatable box-office success may be because people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling thru it all. Now trying to do an equivalent list of the top 10 films of just this decade seems well nigh impossible… How do you make a list of the best films of the 2000s hereinafter known as the Zeros? I have no idea, well, that’s not true, I have too many ideas, hence the utter agony of trying to construct the list…

Should you simply pick the 10 films that you liked best? (The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings) Or should it be 10 films that in some (in)tangible way seemed to sum up the decade? (Fahrenheit 9/11) If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over films that came later that were better but needed the initial film’s breakthrough? (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) Even more importantly do you pick films that you didn’t like or didn’t see just because you know they’re ‘important’? (Crash, Babel) Do you act like a pretentious film critic and load the list with foreign films that only 45 people in the country ever saw because they were at the press screenings too? (Waltz with Bashir) Or is allocating a set number of places for foreign films an unforgivably tokenistic way to get round the problem of popular imagination being largely defined by American releases? (Mesrine: 1& 2)

Does a film need to be set in its own decade to actually define that decade or can it do so by allegory? (Good Night and Good Luck) Do films reflecting the awesome impact of 9/11 and Iraq inherently capture the decade in a way films that blithely ignore those events simply cannot? (War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead) Does torture porn reflect/critique the Abu Ghraib mindset and therefore demand a place on any serious list even if you despised it? (Hostel) Do you just try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible into your top 10? (Superbad, The Fog of War) If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting, like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight both getting into the Top 10 as opposite ends of the comic-book spectrum?

At the moment I’m thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserve places most. So, here’s the top 20 films of the decade:

2000-2002

Memento    Almost Famous    Moulin Rouge!    Donnie Darko    The Lord of the Rings    Ocean’s Eleven                                                          

2003-2006

The Rules of Attraction    Master & Commander    Mean Girls    Good Night and Good Luck    Brick    Casino Royale    Stranger than Fiction

2007-2009

Zodiac    Atonement    I’m Not There    Wanted    Caramel    The Dark Knight    Milk                           

 

As of right now…

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