One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.
James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.
I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.
It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.
As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.
The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.
With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.
The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.
Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.
Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.
Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.
Brigsby Bear: A-
Dave Made a Maze: C+
Some of the greatest stories are so bizarre and unpredictable that they could only come from real life, and documentaries are a terrific showcase for the strange-but-true realities of our world that have escaped notice. Two of the more fascinating documentaries of 2016 are also two of its most strange films that have to be seen to be believed. Tickled begins as an innocuous look into amateur competitive tickle videos online, an obvious minor fetish industry that swears by its integrity as legitimate sport. A curious New Zealand journalist is then beset by homophobic harassment, personal attacks, and legal threats, which only makes him more determined to unravel the source of these tickle videos. It reminds me of 2010’s Catfish except this story actually has the stakes that film ultimately lacked. It’s an investigative piece of journalism that involves working through false identities, spooked video participants that have had their lives ruined from persecution, interviewing lackeys on hidden video, and ultimately discovering the true source behind the web of lies, a man that uses his privileged class position and wealth to intimidate and exploit others. It’s a movie that starts off goofy and just becomes darker, more serious, and downright sad by the end, leaving you with the sinister impression of the danger of a powerful bully using Internet anonymity to satisfy his repressed kinks including emotional sadism. Tickled could be better as it feels disorganized and padded out, including an extended trip to another tickle fetish vendor. The ending leaves something to be desired as well and will send you online to scour for more information. Still, the story is naturally intriguing and the filmmakers don’t mess up a good thing by allowing the curiosity to grab an audience.
The same can be said for The Lovers and the Despot, a film that leaves you wanting more just because its own true-life tale is so engrossing and deserving of further examination. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was so frustrated with his country’s film industry that he kidnapped his favorite South Korean filmmaking husband and wife team, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. The couple made over 17 films for the dictator and had to earn his trust before they could plot an escape. This is a fascinating story about the power and entitlement others feel of art, with Kim Jong-il desperate for world recognition through the cinematic arts. He gave the couple a blank check and unrivaled artistic freedom, enough that some in South Korea suspect that Shin defected to the North rather than having been kidnapped. There are astonishing gets for this doc, namely Kim Jong-il’s actual audio conversations secretly recorded by Choi Eun-hee. When the couple defected to an American embassy, the U.S. government had never heard the dictator’s voice before, and here it was thanks to an actress. It feels like there’s so much more to this story that’s missing, either from the interview subjects’ reticence to share too much or the filmmakers reluctance to embrace more of the Cold War paranoia thriller trappings the story can veer into. There are some insights into the despot but they mostly fall into daddy issues. The omnipresent threat of the dictator is best visually showcased during the funeral marches for his father and then eventually Kim Jong-il himself. The masses are in a state of hysterical grief that crosses into parody, until you realize that these people are adopting a false front to protect themselves and their families just like Choi. Those not “properly grieving” could be punished, and so the miles of people wailing and hyperventilating becomes a chilling symbol of the hold one man has on the country even after death. The Lovers and the Despot is a fascinating story of artists held hostage by their biggest fan, who happened to be a ruthless dictator. It’s naturally compelling but you wish that someone else might better realize its potential on a second crack.
Both films follow the powerful exploiting others for their whims and both movies leave a little something to be desired for, but both are prime examples on how documentaries can shine a light on the wealth of human experiences we wouldn’t believe in other movies.
The Lovers and the Despot: B
I understand that the year 2016 has been, charitably put, unkind to many people and why we all could use a little escapism around this time of year. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made a big Oscar splash with 2014’s Whiplash to make his passion project, a sincere musical that recreates the style of classic Hollywood. La La Land is a stylistic throwback that has enchanted critics and seems destined to compete for some of the biggest awards this season. Just imagine how much better it would be if it was great.
Chazelle and company certainly knows how to make an impression. The opening number transforms an L.A. traffic jam into a full-blown song-and-dance explosion, with commuters exiting their cars and coalescing into a teaming mass of jubilation on the freeway. It’s a moment that is sincere and full of energy and promise. The brightly colored commuters come together in long unbroken shots with a widescreen camera that dives and dips and leaves plenty of space for the audience to appreciate the dancing. This is a movie that wants you to see all of the rainbow-colored performers while they strut their stuff. It’s here that we’re introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), a part-time barista and struggling wannabe actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club at a historic site. These two dreamers resist each other but of course destiny has another plan. A highlight is a flirty sequence set atop a Hollywood Hillside overlooking the purplish dawn. Mia and Sebastian sing how beautiful this scenic view would be if only they were with someone they loved, playfully antagonizing the other into a dancer’s rivalry. The dancing is mischievous and fun and performed in wide angles to soak in the movements. It’s easy to get caught up in Chazelle’s early swell, a transporting experience that extols the virtues of classical musicals by the likes of Vincent Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and especially Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle fills out his frame like a painter. There’s an infectious love for Old Hollywood that tries to alchemize its influences into something new and old, and for a good while Chazelle is able to maintain this fizzy, effervescent experience and remind you of the soothing joys of a good movie musical told with finesse and brio.
Then after about forty-five minutes the fizz gets a little staler and that’s when I felt the gnawing emptiness underneath all the Old Hollywood homage. It reminded me of 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, as a movie that is more affectionate imitation than genuine substance. As I wrote in my review for The Artist: “The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here.” It’s all mimicry of the highest order but Chazelle hasn’t put enough authentic feeling into his imitation. There’s a fealty to the sources of his inspiration that Chazelle is replicating, and his screen pops with coded visual reminders (look, it’s Gosling leaning off a street lamp), but it fetishizes the inspirations rather than building from them. Quentin Tarantino is transparent about his outré influences but he doesn’t forget to tell an engaging story too. It’s in the movie’s dispiriting second half that it becomes all too clear just how little substance there is to our lovers as well as the industry satire. This is miles away from Singin’ in the Rain, folks (my favorite film musical, for the record) and more the same old broadsides about the industry: they’re shallow, they’re inconsiderate, they swallow up the dreamers, they “worship everything and value nothing,” as Sebastian put it. It’s not like the movie is telling you anything you haven’t heard before, and that’s fine but it limits any impact. It also seems to exist in a universe where minorities are mere background players to prop up the dazzling lives of the beautiful white leads. Imagine the enjoyment if some of that snappy industry satire was reserved for its less progressive casting practices. Can you imagine this kind of movie starring Tessa Thompson (Creed)?
Affection can only go so far because eventually the gravity of your characters, their relationship, their goals and dreams and relatability will need to kick in, and it doesn’t. I think this is because the first forty-five minutes are the typical rom-com story of the boy getting the girl. It’s the portion where the movie weaves its old Hollywood spell and courts us too, and it’s fun. And like bad relationships, once it has you La La Land feels like it has to do less work. Chazelle has to manufacture a series of pity problems (more below) to push his lovers apart and question whether these two star-crossed kids might make it after all. If the beginning half is the swirling romance that reverently celebrates old Hollywood, the second half is the attempt to “ground” the film in a sense of realism. It feels too late tonally to switch gears and it undercuts the first half. It might sound contradictory but if La La Land was just going to be a trifle then I wish it went all-in rather than half-heartedly trying an “edge” of harsh reality to mix the sour with the sweet. Just because the movie sets up the dreams of its characters, puts them together, and says not so fast doesn’t mean that Chazelle has properly set up this nascent melancholy.
Mia and Sebastian are not particularly strong characters. The unified star power of the lead actors is enough to disguise this fact for a majority of the movie and maybe for some the entirety. They don’t have anything of import to say beyond their dreams and their jobs that are presently in the way of achieving said dreams. I couldn’t tell you anything else about these characters. For Mia and Sebastian, the world is divided into those who are pure and those who are impure, the real artists and the phonies, and the dichotomy will rankle anyone who has interacted with more than their share of hipster. Sebastian is a music snob who wants to impress upon the world the importance of jazz even as it shrugs indifferently. Nobody gets it, man. He’ll fight the good fight no matter what because Sebastian’s fight is Chazelle’s: taking outdated material and exporting value to a new generation. The characters serve the plot and exist to entwine and then be dutifully pulled apart. It’s hard to invest in the characters when they won’t show who they are and why they should be together. Maybe that’s the point ultimately, a rich meta commentary on how attenuated the central courtships in movies themselves are, or the fleeting relationship between film and audience, or maybe I’m just hoofing as hard as the leads to insert more meaning here.
The second half paddles into what my friend Ben Bailey affectionately termed White People Problems: The Musical. I won’t fully concur but the conflicts are too forced and the characters become whiney. Sebastian rejoins a pop band where he doesn’t feel 100 percent creatively fulfilled because he isn’t performing “true jazz.” The band is also popular and this causes friction because he has “sold out” on his dream, as if toiling during for any period of time is giving up. I guess you must be single-minded or it doesn’t count. Their combined egos won’t allow for different variations of success. La La Land pretends to endorse the dreamers but does it really? The only dreamers who seem to count are Mia and Sebastian. What happened to Mia’s lively group of roommates and friends from the beginning party? What about the nebbish screenwriter the movie mocks for an easy laugh? There are no significant supporting characters in this movie; the universe belongs to Mia and Sebastian. They’re not as insufferable as the characters from Rent but it’s definitely a detriment. Look at the characters in Fame, a group of hungry teenagers who came from all walks of life and circumstances to try and achieve their titular dream of stardom.
The limitations of its doe-eyed leads present some issues. Stone (Birdman) is smashing in the movie but part of that is because, aside from some song-and-dance choreography, the movie asks very little of her other than to be cute, a trait Stone has in natural abundance. There are two standout scenes for the actress. The first is an audition where she pretends to be a mistress getting the “sorry, I can’t do this” phone call from the man she thought had loved her. The sheer variety of emotions that Stone is so able to quickly convey on her face, in her tremulous eyes, and posture are remarkable. Of course the problem is that she’s too objectively good to keep getting blithely rejected by cold-hearted casting agents. The second is a musical showcase where Stone belts out a story about how her aunt inspired her to be a thespian. Stone is effortlessly captivating but she deserves better than to be foil to a grumbly Gosling. I feel that Gosling is one of those actors who can be amazingly talented when plugged into the right role and with the right director (see: Half Nelson, The Believer, The Big Short). He has an easygoing charm that all-too easily morphs into smarm without the right guidance or motivation on his part. Sebastian feels like a scowling grump who wants to bludgeon the world with his point of view. It feels more like he’s in it for submission. Gosling’s performance left me wanting someone else to play his part. They were so strong on screen in Crazy, Stupid, Love but that sizzling chemistry of old is gone here. They feel inert together, amplified by Gosling’s antiseptic performance. They’re both rather limited singers, very thin of voice, and that does hurt a musical. The songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exceptionally milquetoast. They’re all slight renditions on the same blandly pleasant tune. They evaporated from my memory by the time the end credits started rolling. Moana has nothing to fear come Oscar time from these at-best competent compositions.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Chazelle’s anodyne musical is brimming with appreciation and adoration for the world of classic Hollywood, and that alone will be effectively transporting for many film critics and select audiences bred on a diet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. La La Land is an airy confection but one that dissipates all too easily after viewing thanks to the limited characters, the limited singing, the limited dancing, the limited songs, and the lack of overall substance independent from imitation. It has its lovely moments and Stone is an ingénue worth loving, though not as much her slim character, a dreamer who dreams the dreams of a dreamer. The breezy and bubbly first half doesn’t really mesh with the second half. I think it’s telling that Mia and Sebastian’s “love theme” is a sad plaintive piano trinkle. As the characters get more sullen and sour, the fizzy fun fades away and it starts to feel like a New Year’s Eve hangover that left you addled and warm but only in a vaguely ephemeral sense. If it leaves you toe tapping and giddy, I’m glad. I’m already mentally prepared for it to practically sweep the Oscars, as they do love celebrating their own importance. La La Land is a movie musical that is stuck looking backward that it loses its own footing.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The biggest enemy of the celebrated Coen brothers always seems to be expectations. I count only two misfires during their storied filmmaking careers, but sometimes their larks are pilloried for not quite measuring up to their masterpieces. Hail, Caesar! is on par with Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s still a fun, fizzy, and entertaining film and a celebration of Old Hollywood and its movie magic. Loosely centered on an embittered studio head (Josh Brolin), the film is a series of vignettes highlighting different 1940/50s pastiches, including the realms of Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. If you’re a fan of the old Hollywood pictures and their stars, the indulgences will play better; you can certainly feel the warmth the Coens have for the films of yesteryear. The plot kicks off with a major star (George Clooney) kidnapped, but it’s really the small side stories and moments that are most memorable, and the Coens are still unbeatable when it comes to being silly and clever. I loved a scene where Brolin asks religious advisors for approval over the script of his biblical epic and they offer legitimate notes over flawed story logic. There’s also a delightful song and dance numbers with a group of sailors lamenting the lack of ladies (“But mermaids ain’t got no gams”). The real star of the movie is Alden Ehrenreich (soon to be young Han Solo) as singing cowboy-turned-actor-turned-studio-sleuth. The sequence where his character tries to rapidly adapt into a “serious actor” on the set of some British melodrama makes for great fish-out-of-water comedy, gamely matched by an increasingly exasperated Ralph Fiennes as the director. The ending doesn’t exactly tie everything together but Hail, Caesar! is more a movie of distractions, of spinning plates, or bumbling bosses trying to hide bad behavior from the press and keep hold of their sanity. If you’re a fan of old Hollywood, there should be just enough to make you smile. If you’re not a fan, then you’ll shrug off the Coens and their latest film lark.
Nate’s Grade: B
Ever since I heard about its production, and especially after watching the first trailer, I have been intensely anticipating The Nice Guys, mostly because of my fervent and undying love for 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That gem was writer/director Shane Black’s manic and deliriously entertaining comedy noir that reinvigorated star Robert Downey Jr.’s career. The Nice Guys looked very much like a spiritual successor or predecessor given its swanky 1970s setting. While an enjoyable and funny caper, there is a significant gap between KKBB’s genius and the altogether amusing though lesser escapades of The Nice Guys. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to have had my expectations too high, to be hoping for another magical onscreen alchemy like KKBB. Whatever the case, I was slightly let down by The Nice Guys around the time I realized that the best jokes were in the trailer. They are admittedly great jokes but what was left too often hit lower registers of funny. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe have great chemistry together and Gosling especially showcases a talent for physical comedy that has been underutilized. When the movie finds ways to undercut detective movie tropes, like Gosling cutting his hand badly after a failed attempt to break into a locked window, that is when it feels most alive and fun. The action elements don’t feel as significantly connected, like a bunch of washout villains like a hitman named John Boy who has no memorable personality. The shaggy dog mystery has some entertaining detours but once again the real draw is the comic interplay of the two male leads and Black’s razor-sharp dialogue. The man perfected the buddy cop interplay at some point, and often the casual conversations and one-liners are more highlights than the set pieces. The Nice Guys is a funny, smart, and diverting detective action-comedy that is a solid effort from everyone involved. It’s just that I was hoping for a touch of the divine again and had to come back to Earth.
Nate’s Grade: B
When Entourage first aired on HBO in 2004, it felt like a fun peak behind the glamorous world of Hollywood. A group of four friends were doing their best to navigate the land of dreams while staying true to themselves. For the first four seasons, Entourage felt fresh, fun, and engaging. And then it kept going for another four seasons, overstaying its welcome and proving to have worn out all credible story material several seasons before it went off the air in 2011. Creator Doug Ellin just didn’t want to leave the party, enough so that four years after finally leaving he’s back with his boys, co-writing and directing an Entourage feature film, answering all of the burning questions left unanswered. Does Ellin justify the move to the big screen, especially when you realize that the TV show already had gratuitous nudity and celebrity cameos?
Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) is nine days removed from his honeymoon where he and his wife decided they really weren’t meant to be, so they amicably split but not before having awesome sex one last time (oh yeah!). Back on the scene, Vinnie is hungry to direct and his debut is a $100 million adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde starring Vinnie and his older brother/desperate actor, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon). The problem is that Vinnie feels he needs more money to finish his masterpiece before he can show it to the studio. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), formerly Vinnie’s agent and now the head of the studio, has a lot on the line if this movie is a hit or a flop. He checks in with a financier for more money but the Texan moneyman insists his son Travis (Haley Joel Osment) go along to Hollywood and act as go-between. It’s not long before Travis is demanding drastic changes to Vince’s movie (oh no!). Here to help is Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), who works a business and a romantic angle with MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, and Eric (Kevin Connolly, who is weeks away from becoming a father with longtime girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chirqui). Can Vinni save his movie? Can Ari save his job? Can Turtle seal the deal with Ms. Rousey? Can these bros get any bro-ier (oh yeah)?
The plot of the movie is almost insulting with how little conflict there is and when there is any how easily it all wraps up into lazy wish fulfillment. The main conflict of the film is that Vinnie wants more money for his directorial debut, even after blowing through $100 million. He needs just a pinch more for his movie to be able to be complete. Rather than having a disaster on their hands, which would be far more interesting and provide a wealth of conflicts with how to salvage what is there, the biggest perceived problem with Vinnie’s debut is whether it will be a box-office blockbuster and earn awards. Everyone sings the movie’s praises, though the concept sounds ridiculous and the little footage we see looks ridiculous as well. A Jekyll/Hyde DJ who fights “the system” and spreads his magic elixir at his club concerts… does that sound like the formula for Oscars? If Entourage were still functioning as an industry satire, there might be added commentary on how something so flatly terrible would be hailed as an awards darling, but entourage stopped being a satire midway through its television run. It’s just a consistent reward system for characters that stumble from one good thing to another. Even though Vinnie has never directed before everyone can’t help themselves but talk about what a superstar he is and how great the movie will be. Will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have sex with an attractive woman, or will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have to wait to have sex with another attractive woman? What a pressing conflict for a feature film. With that established, it’s no wonder then that Travis makes such an ineffectual antagonist. I was actually enjoying his hostility toward Vince and his dumb movie. Eric might have wanted to punch him in the face but I wanted to pat him on the back.
Another significant problem is that these guys are just too old to be going through these same tired arrested development routines. I think it says everything about Entourage the TV show that after eight seasons the characters were basically the same people except each had become more successful. Their shtick was already getting tiresome on TV. Flash forward four years, though the movie takes place months after the end of the TV show, so that means we’re in 2012 I think. Anyway, these guys should have accumulated some sort of personal growth as characters and they just haven’t. Except for Turtle’s weight loss, which becomes a running joke, it feels like they’re all the same. This is also featured in the Eric/Sloan relationship, which was an exhaustive subject on the TV show. As the series ended, they were together and having a baby, and as we pick up with the movie they’re, shocker, apart again just so they can get back together. The inevitability of this storyline offers a glimpse at what Ellin felt he had to squeeze in for Eric, which amounts to sleeping with two hot women and having a crazy mix-up. When it appears like there will be actual conflict here and Eric will be held accountable for his behavior, the movie instantly shrinks away and lets him off the hook. Every character’s interaction with women is regrettable, as women are served up as easy comforts. Ronda Rousey at least takes a stand but then retreats yet again under the supposed charm of these dolts.
The humor is low-grade and often missing, substituting references and celebrity cameos for well-developed comedic scenarios. There’s some humor in how self-deluded these guys are, especially the increasingly unhinged antics of Johnny, but they’re far too bland to generate consistent laughs. Except for Johnny, the other guys aren’t even given opportunities for comedy, which makes their storylines all the more painful. Do we really need to see Turtle’s courtship of Rousey, and what does she see in this guy? None of the cameo appearances are even used beyond just a ten-second-reference point with no greater impact than on the ten seconds of that very scene. Take for instance the cameo of Mark Wahlberg and his hometown buddies. He’s an executive producer on Entourage the TV show, based upon his own experiences coming to Hollywood. He’s shilling his own reality TV show he produces in the move based upon his old HBO show. That’s like product placement/plug inception. The problem is that Ellin has confused cameos as punch lines, which was also an issue with the original show. Just because I see someone famous doesn’t mean there’s a joke attached. Oh look, it’s Pharell and he’s wearing that big hat. Thanks for showing up, Pharell. Now go cash that check, you won’t be required for any other work on this set. Scene to scene, it feels like some sort of party that the filmmakers expect you to be grateful for attending. It’s not even a fun party.
The most entertaining person is the movie is still Ari Gold and Jeremy Piven has always played him to the hilt, winning multiple Emmys in the process. I desperately wish this was more Ari’s movie, or told more from his studio perspective, because he’s the infinitely more interesting and entertaining character than the super relaxed and super boring Vince. Even though Ari’s vulgar outbursts have grown tiresome, he’s still the most exciting character because he’s transparent about his passion but also, more than any other character in this expanded TV universe, he works for his goals. Ari doesn’t just sit by and let good stuff fall into his lap, he’s working all angles to get the desired outcome, and that’s always more interesting than watching the life of a vacant actor go from great to even better. The subplot with Ari’s former assistant Lloyd getting married feels like setup for a comic set-piece that never materializes. It does, however, provide a cameo for George Takei to officiate the wedding. Hooray, more cameos.
If you were a fan through all eight bro-tastic seasons of the TV show, chances are you’ll probably find the movie easy-going and enjoyable. If you’re like me and grew tired of their boorish antics, the repetitive humor and plotting, and the casual misogyny, then a big-screen version where the boys get to continue their ways and get more rewards, where everything works out for everyone, will be highly fatiguing. Entourage the movie doesn’t aspire for much but its stunted ambitions and minor conflicts never allow the movie to be anything other than a particularly meandering and dull extended episode. Much like the main characters, it has confused mediocrity with success and being amiable with being interesting. Ellin said in interviews that he hoped this would be the start of an Entourage trilogy of movies. Thanks to the low box-office returns, at least I can credit America with stopping that plan. If this is indeed the last ride for Vince and the boys from Queens, well they went out pretty much like they did four years ago, and isn’t it great to still be a rich white guy in Hollywood? Oh yeeeeeah. Oh yeeeeeeah.
Nate’s Grade: C
In many ways Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels like the perfect specimen that was programmed and brought to life in some mad scientist Sundance film lab. It’s got a hip point of view, a meta commentary on its plot and the directions it doesn’t take, style to spare with lots of self-aware camera movements, and even Wes Anderson-styled intertitles and colorful visual inserts, including stop-motion animation. It’s about two amateur filmmaking teenagers, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (R.J. Cyler), who befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to have terminal leukemia. The movie has a good heart and it deviates from convention with its storyline, though it has to stop and add narration to point out how it does this, like it demands a pat on the back for not being a “typical cancer weepie.” The big problem is that we’re stuck with the perspective of Greg, who is the least interesting character and just trying to stay invisible. He has a low opinion of himself and his friendship with Rachel will somehow make him a better person. Earl and Rachel are both tragically underwritten but valiantly played by their actors. The annoying aspect is that Greg makes everything about him and so does the movie. The supporting parts are broadly portrayed and fit awkwardly with the larger setting, like Greg’s overenthusiastic teacher, Rachel’s lush of a mother who seems one drink away from committing statutory rape, and Greg’s mom, who forces Greg to hang out with Rachel, even though they were acquaintances at best, because the plot demands it. The script by Jesse Andrews, based upon his YA book, sets up the completed tribute film as an emotional climax that cannot be met, and the abstract movie results prove it. This is a likeable, funny, and entertaining indie with a sense of style and wit. It’s good, but it could have been better. I wish the “Me” had been removed from its title.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I would not be a film critic or even as ardent a lover of movies if it weren’t for Roger Ebert and his towering influence on generations of curious cinephiles. Every film review is likely going to touch upon their own personal relationship with Siskel and Ebert and this one will be no different (full disclosure: I contributed online to make sure this documentary would reach completion. You can find my name last in the end credits “thanks” section. The perks of being a Z-kid). When I was young, I would sneak into my parents’ room and wake them up, eager to watch not cartoons but the latest episode of Siskel and Ebert’s take on new releases. For me, Roger and Gene opened an entire new world for me, and hearing their spirited discussions over the latest Hollywood blockbuster or indie experiment would stimulate my imagination. Therefore, Life Itself, a documentary chronicling the life and death of Roger, including those difficult final months of his fight against cancer, is a tremendously emotional and personal experience for me. Even now it’s hard for me to write this review as I have a wealth of feelings churning. It’s like watching one of your heroes ride off into the sunset; eternally grateful for those years they had on Earth to inspire. It’s fitting that Roger become a part of the movies himself with a documentary that’s one of the year’s best and most poignant films.
This was never meant to be a film about Roger’s death. It was intended to be an adaptation of his 2011 memoir, the titular Life Itself. Filmmaker Steve James, best known as the director of Hoop Dreams (Roger’s #1 film for 1994), tackles the essential biography bits we’d expect tracing the cradle-to-grave approach. What makes this film more interesting is that it too follows Ebert’s own perspective he utilized in his memoir. Rather than writing from the point of view of being in the moment, Ebert acknowledges his age and looks back on the past not as it’s happening but as an older man reflecting upon his life. The thoughts are not so linear, the consideration more meditative, thoughtful, and overall thankful. This is a man looking back and taking stock of his life, grateful for the people that have elevated his experiences. The framing device of the movie happens to be Roger’s last five months of life, going in and out of the hospital and adjusting to the ever-mounting hurdles of his deteriorating health. It can be downright shocking and horrifying to watch this Ebert, his jaw hanging loose like an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Never has the man looked more vulnerable and so mortal. It’s not how you wish to remember him, and Roger is without vanity as he wants the cameras to have access to his day-to-day reality no matter the hardships. As the months pass and Roger’s communication starts fading, everyone has to come to terms with the inevitable, and the viewer is right there too, bidding goodbye with Roger’s grieving family.
While tears will be shed, do not think of the movie as an elegiac tribute meant to fill your heart with dread for the demise of a great writer and a great man. As the title indicates, it’s a celebration of the man’s life, illuminating a figure that was much larger than his prolific publications (note: not a fat joke). Can you picture Ebert as a skirt-chasing Chicago Sun-Times reporter? How about as a guy who would get drunk and hang from the rafters, causing scenes? Many likely don’t know that Ebert has one screenwriting credit for Russ Meyer’s 1970 camp-tastic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a job Ebert likely took on so he could, in his words, “get laid.” There’s even a lengthy bit over their populist film critiques and whether the famous “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” model was helpful or harmful to film criticism. Life Itself does a fitting job tracing the roots of the man, with each chapter of his life given due development and consideration. I could have watched a four-hour documentary on the man’s life, but I’m not the general public.
The film is defined by two central relationships: Roger and Gene and Roger and his wife, Chaz. The first is the most famous. We track their initial growing pains taking the leap adapting their styles to the realm of TV. Gene was a natural, Roger less so, which only made Ebert more furious (photos of Gene “ladies man” Siskel gallivanting with Hugh Hefner are a hoot). The impact of their advocacy cannot be overstated. There are plenty of filmmakers that got their big break thanks to special consideration and publicity from these two. No matter the medium, these were the most famous critics of the twentieth century, opening up the world of movies to a new and hungry and appreciative audience. As enjoyable as it is to watch Siskel and Ebert in agreement, there was a special pleasure in watching them disagree because of the unleashed intensity. They really felt like they could convert the other person through sheer force of will. Their egos were both massive and Siskel knew exactly which buttons to push to set his cohort into aggravation. We see TV clips and unused rehearsal video and you feel like they might start a fistfight at any moment. And then that ire and ego forged into a deep admiration and love for one another, a love that Ebert reflects more tenderly of in the years since Siskel’s death in 1999. Gene didn’t want his loved ones to watch the clock, waiting for him to expire, and so he told nobody of his terminal brain tumor until the end. Roger was always wounded by this and vowed to be as open as possible if he suffered severe health setbacks.
The other relationship we get to witness come to a close right before our tear-stricken eyes. Roger met Chaz in AA, a fact she says she’s never publicly admitted before. He was over 50 when he married. He accepted her children as his own, whisking the family on faraway vacations and sharing his love of cinema with his stepchildren and grandchildren. Ebert credits Chaz with nothing less than saving his life, asserting he’d have drank himself to death without her. It’s a love story that forces us to watch the heartbreaking finale, namely Chaz coming to grips with the reality of losing her husband, of letting the love of her life go, something so profound. We’re right with her, wanting to fight on, try the next surgery, always hopeful, though in our circumstances we have the dread of foreknowledge. Then again perhaps Chaz and those close to the Eberts suspected as much as well, especially as his health faded so quickly in the spring of 2013. Just watching her talk about Roger in the past tense, you watch the ripples of pain reverberate through this woman. She’s the unexpected heart of the movie and one of many torchbearers when it comes to the legacy of Roger.
Ultimately, Life Itself is a love story. It’s a love story about two men who go from rivals to close friends. It’s a love story between a man and a woman. It’s also the love story of a man with the movies, a love that he felt eager to share with millions of his readers and television viewers, because in the end (danger: sentimentality approaching) it’s our love and passion that will ultimately outlast us all, and the people we touch are the living embodiment of our legacies. And Roger’s passing has touched many. As fans, those who grew up with him, I think we all felt like he was partly ours. Life Itself is a touching, engrossing, invigorating, and fitting tribute to a man larger than the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A
Seemingly sure-fire Oscar bait, Saving Mr. Banks left enough Academy voters cold and it’s easy to see why. First off, the behind-the-scenes sparring to adapt Mary Poppins is the movie we want to see, watching crotchety author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) butt heads with head honcho Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The movie is at its best when these two share the screen, with Walt’s genial strong-arming finding little traction with Travers stern refusals (no Dick van Dyke, no animation, no mustaches). What I wasn’t expecting was a parallel storyline detailing Travers childhood in Australia dealing with an unstable home life thanks to a drunken father (Colin Farrell). It literally takes up half the movie, and while there are a few interesting juxtapositions, the screenplay just trades off scenes; one in 1961, then one in 1906, then back again, etc. The issue is that the flashbacks are never very revelatory and have no business dominating the running time. All of the information gleaned from these flashbacks could have been corralled into one late flashback, or even mentioned in a speech. Saving Mr. Banks gives you two movies running parallel, but most people will only be interested in the one. It’s a pleasant film, benefiting from strong performances by Thompson and Hanks (perfectly cast), but one can’t shake the feeling of Disney P.R. pervading the film’s retelling. It comes from the perspective that Disney is always right and that Travers was always wrong, having to work through her personal issues before relenting, even tearing up at the final product. In real life, Travers never forgave Disney and never allowed another of her Poppins books to be adapted into a film, though not for want of trying by the studios. It feels unfair to portray an author’s artistic integrity as an obstacle that needs to be defeated, but there it is, and Disney’s Mary Poppins, while beloved, resembles much of what Travers feared. Who defends the cranky authors of the world when they have a point? Saving Mr. Banks is an entertaining film, charming and likeable, until you begin to look beyond the fairy dust and realize the revisionism before your eyes.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Actress Lake Bell’s writing/directing debut, In a World, is a comical look inside the world of voice acting, particular in the field of movie trailers. It’s an interesting world and told with enough comic acumen by Bell (TV’s Children’s Hospital), a serious student of vocal artists. She plays Carol, a woman who breaks into the trailer voice over biz, causing ripples in a field dominated by baritone-voiced men, like her legendary father (a perfectly unctuous Fred Melamed) who holds to sexist dictum. There’s a cute romance involved with Demetri Martin, an effective subplot about Carol’s sister having an affair, and an ongoing commentary about the uncomfortable infantilized voice many young women utilize. The story is threatened by a percolating mistaken identity rom-com convention, but thankfully regroups for a third act pitting father against daughter in vocal performance, as it should be. As a director, Bell has a steady feel for her scenes, following a subdued comic rhythm that also feels eccentric without going overboard. As a writer, she gives her characters space to grow, to make mistakes, and to triumph but not without complications. As an actress, Bell is charming and a terrific lead anchor for a film filled with likeable, quirky characters. In a World is a little movie but it’s effortlessly cute, winning and pleasant in the right places, and filled with a great cast of comic actors. Beware: upon exiting the film, it is unavoidable that you will do your own fake trailer “In a world…” impressions.
Nate’s Grade: B