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The Grinch (2018)

The second go at a twenty-first century feature-length Grinch movie is a thoroughly, spectacularly bland movie. This mediocre enterprise barely stretches to feature length at 86 minutes and it lacks the charm of the original Dr. Seuss cartoon. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green recluse with his three-sizes-too-small heart set on stealing the Christmas celebration of others. That’s great casting, but why is he settling for his Doctor Strange-style American voice? The man has such a natural, rich, velvety voice. Another miscue is the fact that this Grinch isn’t really feared by the people of Whoville. He lives just outside of ton and isn’t really that mean. He’s less a villain and more just a grumpy sad guy who has to over explain everything for the audience to understand (“I thought stealing Christmas would make me feel better, but really I was running from myself…”). This movie is brightly colored and nicely animated but it’s strictly just for little kids. The lessons are pretty simplistic. The characters are mostly annoying, precocious, or mute. The humor is mostly slapstick. There is nothing to engage bigger thinkers. This Grinch movie actually made me start re-evaluating the 2000 Ron Howard version, which at least tried something and had an enjoyably hammy Jim Carrey performance with some creepy good makeup prosthetics, and I didn’t even like that movie. The new animated Grinch film is inoffensively lackluster. At best it’s a disposable 90 minutes to distract easily distractible children and give mom and dad time for a nap.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Tag (2018)

Tag is based on the true story of a group of grown men who continue to play a highly competitive game of tag for 30 years. There are even real clips of the real men before the end credits, raising the hope for a potential documentary on the subject. The Hollywood version is a sprightly ensemble comedy that’s not afraid to go silly or dark in its pursuit of laughs. Given the nature of its premise, there is a lot of slapstick to behold, but it was cleverly staged, routinely netting some big laughs from me. This is a definitely adults-only R-rated venture and the movie proudly wears this identity on its sleeve, finding strange and exciting comic detours that can walk a fine tonal line, like an ongoing bit about miscarriages that had me wincing as much as I was laughing. The main characters are all relatively familiar types; Ed Helms is the high-strung dweeb, Jake Johnson is a sarcastic stoner, Jon Hamm is a smarmy exec, Hannibal Buress is as laconic as his standup persona. There are a string of supporting characters (often female) that add very little, including a rekindled love triangle with Rashida Jones, a journalist who tags along on the game and adds nothing, and Isla Fisher as the grating, always-yelling, intense wife to Helms. Surprisingly, the funniest member of the movie is Jeremy Renner, an actor who heretofore had never shown much comic ability in movies. He’s a formidable opponent, and every time he went into his Sherlock Holmes-styled voice over detailing the steps and mistakes of his friends, I loved it. Also, strangely, Renner’s arms are actually CGI arms since he broke them days into filming. You would never be able to tell. I appreciated that Tag is directed as a comedy even during its action set pieces. It looks at action through the lens of comedy and taps into the absurdity. Overall, Tag is a fun, rambunctious comedy with some dark impulses yet it still finds room for sentiment that doesn’t feel entirely out of place. 2018 is shaping up to be the year of the hearty, enjoyable R-rated comedy with Tag joining the ranks of Blockers and Game Night. Catch it while you can if the prospect of men behaving like overgrown children appeals.

Nate’s Grade: B

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Sandberg) have been best friends ever since high school, the couple everyone admired. They’ve been married for six years but now they are in the middle of divorce proceedings. Why? Celeste loves her longtime best friend but worries he’s not maturing or stable to be her marriage partner. During their separation, Jesse admits he’s found another woman whom he cares about. Celeste professes to be happy but deep down is troubled, second-guessing her decision now that there’s a real threat she might lose Jesse. The two buds act like nothing has changed, goofing around and paling it up, but how long can they keep up this façade? Eventually, someone is going to get hurt because divorce cannot be shrugged off. Reality has a way of outliving ironic detachment.

Can you remain best friends with someone you once loved? How about someone you once knew as your spouse? Celeste and Jesse are certainly trying but their idealistic “BFF” status seems destined to meet a harsh reality. Celeste and Jesse Forever is labeled as a “loved story” and I think that’s a pretty apt description. These two characters clearly have a deep affection for one another, but after six years the feelings just aren’t enough. What happens when you marry your best friend but that just isn’t enough?  I was hoping for some greater answers from the movie, or at least a harder examination on why some relationships fall apart when things look like they should work. That’s not exactly what the movie offers. For a film with an aim to be more realistic about the fallings out of love, the movie follows a familiar formula. There’s the cute guy at yoga (Chris Messina) into Celeste, but first she has to get settled. I think I wouldn’t have minded this character if he didn’t feel so much like a plot device, a hasty happy ending meant to be put in a holding pattern until called upon. The “Jesse” half of the title will be gone for lengthy chunks of the movie. His portrayal also borders on simplistic. I wish we got more of his side of the relationship, especially since he’s going through sudden change himself. After seeing the trailer, I thought I was going to find the movie immensely relatable. Maybe I just got all the recognizable personal drama out of my system with The Five-Year Engagement (double feature for bitter lovers?).

Fortunately, the movie is also fairly funny. The comedy can feel a tad sitcomish at times with misunderstandings and catching people in embarrassing situations. The screenplay by Jones and co-star Will McCormack (TV’s In Plain Sight) is routinely amusing, settling with soft chuckles rather than anything histrionic. It fits the subdued tone of the movie, since it’s about people coming to terms with messy emotions and not whacky mishaps. Then there’s a whole subplot involving a teen pop star (Emma Roberts) that feels recycled from a whole other movie. This storyline leads to a few good jokes but it doesn’t seem to add anything of value to the plot. The comedy doesn’t overpower the dramatics, and Celeste and Jesse Forever finds a nice tonal balance between the heartache and humor. I wouldn’t say the film is necessarily quirky but it certainly operates to an offbeat comedic rhythm. There are a few cringe-worthy editions but the characters and the actors make it worth any personal discomfort.

If Jones (TV’s Parks and Recreation) needs a good boyfriend I will gladly volunteer my services. My God this woman is beautiful. I don’t want to set off any alarm bells, but this woman is a goddess. She’s also extremely talented and a naturally charming presence. Her chemistry with Sandberg (That’s My Boy) is out of this world. They are so relaxed together, so amiable, so enjoyable, that it really does come as a shock when their unamused friends have to sternly remind them they are getting a divorce. They have a wealth of in-jokes and secret couple codes, and they’re so cute together that you wonder if maybe, just maybe, they’ll reconcile by the end. Sanberg is better than I’ve ever seen him, giving a strong, heartfelt performance as a nice guy trying to make sense of his eroding situation. But this movie is Jones’ movie, and she shines. While her facial expressions can get a little overly animated at times (TV-ish mannerisms?), this movie is a terrific showcase for her dramatic and comedic talents. This woman will excite you, frustrate you, break your heart, make you laugh, but you’ll be glued to the screen.

The tricky part is that Celeste is both our protagonist and antagonist. She is the root of her own unhappiness, and coming to terms with the fact that she was wrong is a big moment of personal growth, however, it’s not exactly the direction audiences may be happy with. It’s harder to root for a character that is sabotaging her own progress. Jessie, especially as played by Sandberg, is pretty much an adorable puppy dog throughout the whole movie; it’s hard to stay upset with him, and occasionally Celeste will lead him on and then punish him for following. She tells him to move on but then pulls him back to her when he threatens to do just that. She chastises him for not being serious enough, for not having direction, yet you get the impression throughout the movie that Celeste bares some responsibility in this situation as well. Jesse is laid back, though hardly the arrested development slackers dotting most of modern comedy these days. As one character notes, perhaps Celeste enjoyed keeping her husband grounded, limited, stuck. I don’t chalk it up as malice, more a comfortable situation that Celeste is afraid to disrupt. She’s the overachiever, he’s the underachiever, they compliment one another, that is, until Celeste decides they don’t. Then when it looks like Jesse’s growing up, she wants him back, or thinks she does, at least this newer version of Jesse. As you can see, it’s complicated. At no point would I dismiss Celeste as a callous person, but the movie is tethered to her personal growth of being able to admit fault. Her window with Jesse has passed. The movie is about her journey to realizing that.

Celeste and Jesse Forever feels like a movie of small waves. It doesn’t have the Big Declarative Moments of most rom-coms or indie romances, and that’s because it’s not a romance as much as an autopsy on why a romance went down for the count. It’s melancholy without getting mopey. It has certain hipster tendencies but nothing that rises to an insufferable level of twee; it’s routinely adorable and rather heartfelt in places, though I wish it had offered more potent insight into its characters. This isn’t going to be a movie that people build up great emotion for. By nature it’s pretty low-key, choosing to handle its emotional pyrotechnics with delicacy and the occasional comedic set piece. For a comedy about divorc,e this si surprisingly sensitive. These are nice people, good humored, and you sort of wish the movie would just scrap any indie ambitions and substitute a happy ending. You want to shout at the screen, “Just reconcile already!”  Maybe that was me just using the movies as good old therapy again (see: The Five-Year Engagement review, or don’t). Celeste and Jesse Forever is an agreeable, affable, bemusing movie, with enough laughs and emotion to justify giving it a chance.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Social Network (2010)

Dismissively branded as “the Facebook movie,” the whip smart and hypnotic, yet poorly titled, The Social Network is much more than a rote TV-movie on the start of a popular website (coming out next year: Twitter: The Musical in 144 Characters). Yes, the film chronicles the people responsible for the Internet’s most ubiquitous time waster and their very varying accounts of who was responsible and who was unscrupulous. But the backdrop could be just as much any start-up business. Truth be told, the “Facebook movie” bares a striking resemblance to Citizen Kane. It is the story of one man who may be a genius in some regards but can?t help but push everybody he cares about away. It’s about powerful men who don’t know what to do with power. It’s about ambitious men who dedicate their lives to that ambition. It’s not about terabytes and html coding, this is a movie about people, betrayal, ego, greed, jealousy, and the great irony that Mark Zuckerberg created the world’s most dominant social network and yet he himself cannot hold onto a single legitimate friend.

In 2003, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Harvard student obsessed with getting into the prestigious clubs and fraternities on campus. But he’s not well connected or athletic or close to being rich. So after being dumped on night, he goes home and hacks into various Harvard sorority websites and steals pictures of coeds. He then creates the crude website Facemash (while also drunk, mind you) where Harvard undergrads rank their fellow classmates side-by-side two at a time. It’s an immediate hit and crashes the Harvard server. Zuckerberg is then approached by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), handsome blue-blooded WASP twins who have an idea. They want to create their own social website just for Harvard students to communicate with each other. They are impressed with Zuckerberg’s tech skills and want to hire him to build the site. Zuckerberg takes the idea to his roommate and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), proposing to make their own site with Saverin’s limited means.

From there is where the different parties diverge on their versions of truth. Zuckerberg secretly works on his own side project while stalling and dodging the Winklevoss twins. He offers to have Saverin be CFO of the company and split the stakes. Then as success mounts, the Facebook website gets the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), notorious for co-founding Napster at age 19. Parker immediately has the ear of Zuckerberg, and it isn’t long before Saverin starts feeling on the outskirts of his own company, and then eventually shut out completely. The Winklevoss twins and Saverin each file multi-million dollar lawsuits accusing Zuckerberg of intellectual theft and underhanded business tactics.

Watching The Social Network feels like you?re downloading an entire semester?s worth of information directly to your brain. Adapted by uber wordsmith Aaron Sorkin (TV’s West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War), this is a story that gallops at full speed and leaves you spinning. The dialogue flies by so blazingly quick that it?s easy to get left behind. I would not advise eating any concession snack with this movie or else you might miss reams of dialogue. Sorkin smartly weaves together a murky and litigious tale of alternate truths, showing different sides when it comes to the creation of Facebook. Was it really stealing or did the Winklevoss twins merely inspire Zuckerberg? Is he truly indebted to them? “Does a guy who makes a chair have to pay a fee to every person who ever made a chair before in history,” Zuckerberg snaps. How deep did Saverin?s involvement go, and was he naïve or just thinking too small in scope? How much is a friendship worth in dollars and cents? Sorkin gives a definite impression to these answers, and it should surprise nobody that Saverin comes across as angelic and the obviously wronged party here. But the script as a whole is meticulous with detail, characters, and dates. It almost feels like the content of a miniseries has been squeezed into a brisk two-hour time frame. The characters are just as layered as the plot. The opening scene where Mark is dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, soon to be Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) sets the tone of the movie. The dialogue feels like an assault and it is unrelenting. You openly wonder how Eisenberg can breathe reciting his verbose lines with such lightning speed. Mara is aghast at her hyper-literate yet bitter boyfriend spewing bile at the elite and yet unashamedly pining for that life. He’s brilliant and cutting but socially awkward and unable to understand the feelings he’s hurting. Mara has had enough and dumps him right there, spurring Zuckerberg into a drunken night of revenge that will set the stage for Facebook. Sorkin can pretty much start clearing shelf space for his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar right now.

Many will find Zuckerberg to be unlikable from the get-go, but I never could bring myself to actively dislike or loathe the man. He’s really more of a figure of Greek tragedy. Zuckerberg is a blissful conundrum of a character, a walking contradiction. He can be sullen and wounded one minute and the next casually cruel. He seethes at deposition hearings; unable to control the contempt he has for others. Zuckerberg’s anger boils over, and his beady-eyed glares communicate an incredulous, “You are worlds below me.” He can?t stand people who have easy breaks, the select and privileged, and yet he nakedly longs to be apart of that group and meet their approval. He can be childish and narcissistic, insular and insecure, and then he can be charitable. Zuckerberg created a music application that Microsoft was willing to purchase. “Why didn’t you sell?” asks one of the Winklevoss twins. Zuckerberg just shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t want to sell ad space on Facebook and get rich quick because it would ruin the site experience. He is a champion of the democracy of the World Wide Web; a modern-day Thomas Paine? Probably not, but Zuckerberg’s hard-driven ambition and crooked tactics make him a modern-day robber baron, a titan of industry. Rockefeller and Carnegie and J.P. Morgan are all men that don’t seem any different in practice than Zuckerberg, though they probably had more family money as a starting point. That’s not an excuse for Zuckerberg’s behavior, but I want to add some perspective before the world tars and feathers the guy. Zuckerberg is the Internet’s first self-made billionaire, but what are the costs? By sacrificing all, and burning personal relationships, Zuckerberg may have advanced Facebook to unparalleled heights. But whom does he get to share his success with? It’s a little simplistic to boil such a complex film to the greeting card-esque moral “It’s people that matter most?” but the film always circles back to the question of cost. It’s also rather simplistic to chalk up the creation of Facebook as a means of impressing a girl, but then operas have been written, art has been sculpted, and wars have been fought over the need to impress a woman. Zuckerberg is a fascinating creature and brilliantly played by Eisenberg. This is a character Ayn Rand would love.

It seems that Zuckerberg’s instincts about human obsession with being apart of something exclusive were right on the mark. What separated Zuckerberg’s site from the likes of MySpace and Friendster is that you needed a college-based web address to get inside. It was a closed community, which made it cool and desirable. It started as a restricted club that all the cool kids wanted to belong to, then everyone joined, and now it’s damn near impossible to resist. First it was college kids, then college kids from other countries, then high school kids, then adults, now everybody on the planet has a Facebook page making sure the world doesn’t miss a single detail about their personal lives. I resisted as long as I could but broke down and got a Facebook account earlier this year. The Social Network is not concerned with the business angle of success unless it related directly to how it impacts the characters. You’re not going to find many insights into why Facebook took off or became entrenched in our navel-gazing society, which is a pity. The film also doesn’t concern itself with outright social commentary. Sure by exploring the micro personal struggles and betrayals of Mark and Eduardo the film marginally comments on the macro idea of generational self-absorption and ego, but so much more could be said about society as a whole. The film’s one clear moment of social satire is when Eduardo’s girlfriend berates him about his Facebook relationship status remaining single. She’s incensed and wants to know what he truly means by this outrageous declaration. He says he’s embarrassed but he doesn’t know how to change it, plus he’s hardly ever on the site. She responds to this by setting his gift on fire. Ah, petulant and jealous and self-absorbed concerning what a few scraps of digital bits say rather than direct, personal, face-to-face communication. It’s a brief, albeit nice slam on the myopic self-absorption of millennials, who came out of the womb with something electronic attached to their fingertips. The film doesn’t even touch the idea of millennials’ free sense of privacy and over sharing. This is not a generation -defining movie, folks.

This is all strange ground for director David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac), a visual stylist with few peers. Nerds creating a website doesn’t exactly strike anybody as fertile ground for a visually exciting drama, and yet Fincher proves once again that he is a masterful artist. The film looks beautifully sleek from beginning to end with Fincher’s typical green tinted, deep focus cinematography. Fincher also makes the best use of special effects I’ve seen this year. The Winklevoss twins were not played by actual twins. Hammer had his face digitally placed onto a stand-in’s (Pence) body. The digital cut-and-paste was remarkable in Fincher’s Benjamin Button but it also called attention to itself. Nobody would walk in believing Brad Pitt’s face somehow was on the body of a three-foot tall old man. However, in The Social Network, you would never once doubt that there are two twin actors on screen the whole time. Hammer manages to make each twin distinct and frustrated without coming across as jerky or entitled. The rest of the actors do fantastic work as well, and special notice to Timberlake who plays his mercurial role with glee.

So what does the real Mark Zuckerberg think about all this attention? Well, in a surprise to people who do not have a firm understanding of the word, Facebook has declined all advertising for The Social Network and is staying mum on the film, hoping to ride out the critical storm. I don’t think anyone is going to be using Facebook less now that they have learned the ethically murky beginnings of the website. But Zuckerberg and his Facebook crew might want to think of formulating some response strategy because this movie, and talk of this movie, isn’t going away any time soon (Zuckerberg recently donated $100 million to Newark city schools on Oprah coincidentally the same week Social Network was opening). It’s rare to find a studio film that is as polished across the bard as this film. The writing is sharp, the direction is sleek, the acting is top-notch, the film rollicks with intrigue and suspense and juicy drama, and the film can’t help but be relevant in our modern society. You do not have to know a lick about coding and websites and whatever to get absorbed in this high-stakes drama. It may not be the generation defining experience some critics are wetting themselves over in hype, but The Social Network is easily one of the best films of 2010. Perhaps the Academy will give it the ultimate “friend request” come this winter. In the meantime, log off and get yourself into a theater to see this great American movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

I Love You, Man (2009)

A thoroughly genial comedy, I Love You, Man is an easily enjoyable flick that has fun upending romantic comedy tropes. The movie follows Peter (Paul Rudd) and his search for a “bromance,” a heterosexual male friendship that follows similar dating patterns seen in typical romantic comedies. Peter finds his match with Sydney (Jason Segel), a semi-sophisticated slob. Rudd has been a superb smartass in so many movies, which makes it all the more surprising at how incredible awkward he plays Peter. This man seems embarrassed with every breath he takes. It becomes moderately endearing to see him break out due to his male bonding with Sydney; the nice guy comes of age by becoming impolite and vulgar. The plot takes some predictable turns, like when Peter’s fiancé (Rashida Jones) is upset that her man wants to spend more time with his new pal than with her. Rudd is the most charming actor on the planet, which makes it somewhat wasteful to stick him as a straight man in a comedy. Segel takes great advantage of his character’s boorish behavior and is consistently funny. The supporting actors lift their underwritten roles, especially Jon Favreau as an altogether asshole. I Love You, Man banks on plenty of pleasant vibes and amusing performances. It may never be a gut-buster when it comes to laughs and it may not be fully lovable but it’s certainly easy to like.

Nate’s Grade: B

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