Thursday, December 08, 2016

Movie Review: "Office Christmas Party"

The more I watch Kate McKinnon on television and in movies, the more convinced I am that she is going to be here making people laugh for years to come (and the happier I am about that fact, too). She seems to throw herself into her roles with a singular devotion, committing to every part no matter how ridiculous it might seem. This is certainly the case with the otherwise completely forgettable "Office Christmas Party."

Directed by Will Speck & Josh Gordon, "Office Christmas Party" is the tale of the members of the Chicago branch of Zenotek, a company that sells servers to other businesses. Run by Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), the Chicago branch is visited just before Christmas by interim CEO and Clay's sister, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston). A holiday movie, Carol is the Scrooge of this affair (she's the Christmas Carol, get it!). The branch is successful, but not as successful as she wants it to be and so she's going to lay off tons of staff and/or close the place entirely.

It makes little sense, but not necessarily less sense than the plan of the Chicago team, which is less led by Clay than Clay's right-hand man, Josh Parker (Jason Bateman), to sign one big client. Said client's representative, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), is about to leave town but Zenotek is determined to get him onboard. And how will they sign Davis? By having the Christmas Party to end all Christmas parties. Naturally.

Okay, it's a ridiculous premise, but the whole thing is really just an excuse to showcase the amusing-because-it-isn't-you behavior that could happen at a drinking and drug fueled Christmas party. There are office hook-ups; lies about model girlfriends; cocaine; prostitutes; trips to the hospital; potential love for Josh in the form of tech guru Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn); McKinnon's HR manager, Mary Winetoss finally loosening up; and more.

The jokes that land tend to be of two sorts. First, there's the "they didn't really say that" variety, and then there is McKinnon. Whether it's dancing, becoming vexed about people not reading memos on appropriate workplace attire, reminding people that they are at an office even though there's a party, dancing, or offering thoughts on her car, Mary is the unquestionable highlight of the film. McKinnon's cleverness lies not just with her ability to offer a great line reading, but also the facial expressions and body language that go with such a reading. Whether it's a wink or a nod or a wide-eyed stare or something else entirely, even when she's in the background, McKinnon is able to get a reaction from the audience.

As for the "they didn't really say that" humor, some of it lands, particularly bits from Miller and Aniston, but some of it is just uncomfortable to watch. This last is exemplified in an almost hook-up between Vanessa Bayer's secretary and Randall Park's new guy, where his sexual fantasies are vocalized. Bayer and Park are funny people and they almost make it work, but not quite.

In fact, that seems to be the theme of the movie – almost, but not quite. It is a great cast of very funny people and there are some laughs, but it just is never enough. The jokes are almost there, the situation is almost dumb enough to be believable, the inevitable character arcs are nearly compelling enough to keep the audience from fidgeting. Just not quite.

You could do worse than "Office Christmas Party" if you're looking for an R-rated holiday romp, but you could do better. I would say it's inoffensive except that it's pretty offensive which is the point of it.

 But, yes, it's just not offensive enough.  On the other hand, Kate McKinnon shines.

photo credit: Paramount

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Movie Review: "La La Land"

There are fewer musicals produced by Hollywood than there used to be. Well, I say that there are but I haven't run the numbers, I assume that there are… it certainly feels like there are. When they come along though, they feel special. They feel different, and it makes one wonder exactly why Hollywood doesn't do them more often.

On the other hand, if Hollywood produced more musicals, perhaps they wouldn't feel as special, and the Damien Chazelle written and produced "La La Land" should feel special. It is special. It is wonderful.

And now I feel like gotten diverted, sidetracked, sent down a little cul de sac of my own mind. I have, fleetingly, wondered about something tangential (the power and regularity of the Hollywood musical). Important, but perhaps not entirely germane to the topic at hand.

Except that, maybe it is. "La La Land" is about dreams and interludes and wonder. It is about making those fanciful diversions into something real. It is about happiness and love and sadness and romance and movies and jazz.

Cards on the table, the movie feels like it's meant specifically for me. It isn't just that I enjoy musicals, I also love movies about Hollywood and enjoy watching Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling. Check, check, and double-check.

So, what exactly is "La La Land." If I stop beating around the bush and stop using too many words to talk around the movie, what exactly is it?

Well, there are these two people who fall in love over the period of several months and we watch it unfold. First, there's Emma Stone's Mia – a barista who wants to be a famous actress. Then there's Gosling's Sebastian, a jazz pianist who wants to own his own place but is instead forced to play an approved list of holiday songs at a restaurant.

The brilliance of the movie doesn't lie within the story's structure. "La La Land" is about the problems of two people and a legendary Hollywood movie once explained that the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans.

Still, this is a great hill of beans love story, a hill of beans love story delivered with the incredible music, beautiful dances, and the utter devotion of the two stars at the film's center. Ah, and then there's the fact that so much of the key to the movie exists in the few moments when it does deviate from the traditional love story and, just when the audience needs it most, the story does indeed make a left turn.

But, that's just story and the story isn't the reason to go so "La La Land" (in case I've been remotely unclear, you should go see "La La Land"). Truly, it's the music and performances that make it work.

Stone and Gosling are showing themselves to be two of the finest, most interesting, actors of their age group (groups? If IMDb is to be believed, there is an eight year age difference between the two and I don't know how we divide these things into groups). I don't like every movie that each actor does, but there's always something there to think about, to examine, to sink one's teeth into. It certainly helps that they are amazingly charismatic as well.

And so, in "La La Land" it's their singing that is front and center, it is entirely their charisma on display. In that regard it is a throwback to a different era of star power, particularly as it's a singing-and-dancing affair. I am sure that there are reviews out there that compare Stone and Gosling to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and the reasons for that are obvious and I would love to see them reteamed for another singing-and-dancing love story. Who wouldn't?

In an era when so many movies feel overly weighty and too dramatic, "La La Land" is something lighter, more airy. If you want to see a fantastic movie that doesn't demand tissues (not that there is no sadness) or an extended examination of where our world stands and how we destroy all that we touch, go see "La La Land."

Honestly, even if that isn't what you're looking for, go see it anyway. Gosling and Stone are great. The music is great. It's just great.

photo credit: Summit

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

"Lass is More" Goes Political with "Florence Foster Jenkins"

The description for "Lass is More" states that the movies and television shows which we watch are not created in a vacuum.  No, these things exist in a dialogue with the real world.  So, today, even if I would rather avoid it, I enter into a discussion about politics and the power--and evils--of delusion.

So, sit back, relax, and listen as I discuss two upcoming Blu-ray/DVD releases: "Southside with You" and "Florence Foster Jenkins."  Pay attention because you may be able to hear the exact moment when the blood vessel in my forehead starts throbbing at a relentless pace.

photo credit: Paramount/Miramax and Roadside Attractions

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"Lass is More" Looks at Escaping with "The Secret Life of Pets"

It is like that theme song from the show about the bar where everybody knows your name -- that is, sometimes you wanna get away. Sometimes you are too stressed out, too tired, too sick, too sad, too... whatever and taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

But, maybe drinking is the way to do it. Maybe movies can do that for you as well.

Today's podcast thinks that "The Secret Life of Pets" is just the sort of film that can suck you out of a vortex of sadness and plop you squarely back in happy town... provided you don't spend too much time thinking about the story.

photo credit: Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Movie Review: "Bad Santa 2"

Is the first "Bad Santa" film an intelligent, wry, commentary on the commercialization of the holiday season? Is it an insightful look at knowing the difference between the things we want and the things we need? Is it a reminder that the most important family is not the one we are given but the one we make for ourselves?

If you believe that the answers to the above questions are "yes," than probably "Bad Santa 2" isn't the movie you should be going to this holiday weekend. If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the theory that the original film is just a bunch of truly off-color jokes and a whole lot of four letter words crammed into 90+ minutes, then you really might enjoy the return of Tony Cox and Billy Bob Thornton in this sequel directed by Mark Waters.

Lauren Graham is out as the love interest, replaced by Christina Hendricks; Thurman's Grandma is out, replaced by Willie's mom (Kathy Bates); Bernie Mac's security guard is now Jeff Skowron's; Lois is gone, but Marcus has his eyes set on someone new, Gina (Jenny Zigrino); John Ritter isn't here, but Ryan Hansen is; and yes, Brett Kelly is back as Thurman Merman (aka The Kid). It isn't that the new characters are duplicates for those who haven't returned, but they tend to fill the same sort of roles with the notable exception that Willie's mom, Sunny, is in on the crime more Lois-style than sitting around make sandwiches like Grandma.

There is a tendency with such a sequel for folks to remember how funny the original is, and instantly compare the sequel to it. Or, more accurately—and this is vastly more important—for people to compare the sequel to what they remember from the original; the rose-colored glasses version of the original. Having rewatched the original in preparation for the sequel, I can honestly say that I laughed just as much with "Bad Santa 2" as I did with the first film.

The plot is pretty simple – Willie's life still stinks, and when Marcus gets out of jail (early release), he contacts Willie about a job robbing a charity (which in turn is robbing from others) in Chicago. Willie signs on without any of the specifics, just dollar signs in his eyes, and soon learns that his mom is the one organizing the heist. Hilarity ensues.

The original "Bad Santa" was really about these guys robbing from people/companies who didn't deserve it (if anyone can be said to deserve such a fate). As funny as them robbing a charity this time may be, it really does feel as though "Bad Santa 2" is pulling its punches by having the head of the charity, Regent Hastings (Hansen) lining his own pockets. As Willie is interested in Regent's wife, Diane (Hendricks) and pursues her, this punch-pulling has a second effect as well – we can root for Willie to end up with Diane because we know she's married to a bad person.

If there is a difference between "Bad Santa 2" and "Bad Santa" it is that we no longer have to wonder whether Willie is really a good guy deep down inside and whether we're supposed to root for him. He is a good guy deep down and we are supposed to root for him. Is that a purposeful change on the part of the filmmakers to turn him into something more accessible or is it a subtle shift in his persona over the more than 10 years since we last saw him?

I am not sure that's a question which can be answered definitively, but without a doubt the viewer's reception of the movie hinges upon it. "Bad Santa" revels in its level of bile and vileness. The horrible things Willie says to Thurman are that much worse because he's talking to a kid. Willie yelling at Thurman here in the sequel still packs a punch, but a slightly different sort of one as, no matter how naïve Kelly may play him, Thurman is now an adult.

Not having kept a running tally of the f-bombs in either movie, I am not sure which one contains more, but "Bad Santa 2" certainly isn't shy to have Willie, Marcus, Sunny, Diane, and anyone else (save Thurman) use four letter words on a very regular basis. There is no softening of any stance there.

I choose to see any change in Willie as his having grown older, and consequently (with the exception of the charity being run by a thief) am not troubled by any softening of his character. Plus, he still does awful things without a care on a fairly regular basis.

In the end, I suspect that "Bad Santa 2" is fighting an uphill battle. If one can go into it with an open mind and receptive to the foul humor, it's fun. If the first film is so monolithic in one's world that nothing can touch it, "Bad Santa 2" may not be able to match it.

Me? I laughed regularly, and that's what I wanted.

photo credit: Broad Green Pictures / Miramax

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"Lass is More" Talks to Alan Eustace About Being "14 Minutes from Earth"

Meet Alan Eustace, the main subject of the Tribeca Film Festival selection, "14 Minutes to Earth."  Eustace was a Google executive who decided that he was going to ride a balloon into the stratosphere, detach himself from it, and fall to Earth.  We know, it sounds vaguely crazy, but being a Google executive, and by all accounts an intelligent person, Eustace put together a team and they worked out how to do it and have Eustace live to tell the tale.

On today's podcast, Eustace takes us through how the entire project came about and, perhaps more interestingly on a filmic level, how he perceived things differently than the film crew/those on the ground during a test jump.  During that test jump, the documentary makes things out to be quite dire and, as you'll hear, Eustace didn't feel that way--there were backup systems in place--but the documentary operates based on the perceptions of those looking for Eustace after he has landed, not Eustace himself.

Take a listen...

photo credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Monday, November 21, 2016

Movie Review: "Allied" (2016)

Robert Zemeckis' new live action film, "Allied," opens with Brad Pitt's character, Max Vatan, parachuting into French Morocco in 1942. He lands in the desert and is quickly picked up and brought to Casablanca. A spy, once in the city he meets his "wife" for the mission, Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), and they proceed in an attempt to achieve their goal.

The landing doesn't look entirely real, but it still all makes for an engaging way to open the movie. It is exciting and enjoyable. The two leads make for a great pair as spies on an equal footing. Max has the ability to stage someone else's death and Marianne offers an intricate knowledge of plans and procedures in the city as well as a sense of fearlessness. There is a give and take between the characters and that, combined with the action and excitement, makes the movie soar.

All too soon though, it's over. The mission ends and the two move to London, predictably, and desperately, in love. A daughter soon arrives and it is at this moment that things start going less well. Rather than taking part in any more missions, Marianne becomes a housewife, rather than Cotillard remaining on equal footing with Pitt, she is relegated to second fiddle.

"Allied" doesn't just become rather less engaging when this happens. It becomes more disappointing in how it strives for engagement. Rather than being a tale of two people fighting the Nazis, it becomes a tale of one (Max) suspecting the other (Marianne) of being a Nazi. Max is told as much by his superiors and is to take part in a test of her loyalty. He is also told to not dig into her past on his own. You can guess what happens with this last order.

Pitt remains excellent here as a man desperately in love with the woman he thought he knew and determined to find out the truth as quickly as possible, even if it means disobeying direct orders to get an answer 12 hours earlier. The issue is not with him or his character, it is rather on the amount of time devoted to his side of the story.

To be fair, even the Casablanca elements aren't perfect. Inexplicably Max's cover demands that he not speak English, but he does so with windows open in their apartment and on the roof when they know people are watching (and presumably doing their best to listen in). One Nazi commander, to be sure that Max really works in phosphate mining, asks Max to write the chemical formula for phosphate. Was the Nazi's thought really that a spy might be so obtuse as to not have done basic research into his cover story? "Allied" offers head fakes towards cleverness, but never truly strives to head in that direction.

The Casablanca moments in the film overcome this and still work because the two characters make for a great pair. They function well together, they can take on any odds, are (relatively) smart about the world, and are quite the dynamic duo. Excising Marianne's agency after the move to London—which must account for two-thirds or more of the film—causes the whole thing to stumble.

The biggest mystery to be uncovered, and one which "Allied" doesn't address, isn't the truth about Marianne's loyalties, but rather why she has completely and totally gone from working, from fighting the good fight against the Nazis to being a housewife (no knee jerk "well that's what women do" is even offered, perhaps because that answer would get the film laughed out of existence). It is 1944 at this moment in the film and there is a lot of work to be done in the lead up to the D-Day invasion. There are even rumors of the allies needing someone to lead resistance in France during the invasion. Why would a former French rebel resistance leader in London not have been a part of these discussions? We know that Marianne has whatever clearance is necessary to run spy ops because we watched her in Casablanca.

These issues take "Allied" from an excellent film down to something far closer to passable. There is still some great cinematography throughout, and even relegated to a supporting role, Cotillard is brilliant. So too is Jared Harris as Max's boss, and Lizzy Caplan appears all-too-irregularly as Max's sister, but is great every time she is present.

"Allied" feels very much like a bait-and-switch of a movie, initially offering up the tale of a pair of great spies working together only to turn into something much more mundane and much less well-considered.

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Movie Review: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

Quick, how much of the Harry Potter books/movies do you remember? How well steeped are you in the Deathly Hallows? Does the name Gellert Grindelwald mean anything to you?

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," the return of the Harry Potter universe to the big screen, assumes that the viewer has instant recall of these various elements. Grindelwald's name flashes across newspaper headlines at the start of the movie along with a myriad of headlines indicating that bad things are afoot. Director David Yates (who directed four of the main Harry Potter movies) has the newspapers with their headlines and constantly-moving ads/photos whip by at speeds that prevent anything but the largest of them being read.

They are there to set the mood. They are also there so that, after the end credits roll, audience members for whom they meant nothing can look back at those headlines and know that was the moment the movie announced it wasn't for them.

This isn't to say that after all five of the planned movies are finished, a viewer won't be able to go back and suss it all out for themselves, that "Fantastic Beasts" won't, in retrospect, work for them. As a standalone, however, it will not and that, at the root, is the core of the issue with it.

The plot, essentially, boils down to this – Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), for reasons known only to him (and even after the movie I couldn't really tell you why he was there, although I know it comes up) comes to New York with a suitcase stuffed full of fantastic beasts. What that suitcase doesn't have is a good way of staying closed. This is ludicrous as Scamander has magic and could just magic it closed, especially as he knows that the beasts want out, but if he did the logical, obvious, thing there wouldn't be a movie (and there is). Beasts escape the poorly closed suitcase and Scamander runs into trouble with the locals, both magical, in the form of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and not magical, in the form of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), as Newt tries to get the beasts back.

Tina used to be an Auror (a term not defined in the movie because, again, if you don't know your Harry Potter, this isn't for you) but lost her job for overzealous pursuit of anti-witchcraft folks running around New York. Still, she thinks she can get back in with the Aurors by bringing in Newt for using magic in front of non-magic types. The Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), and President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, Seraphina Piquery (Carmen Ejogo) disagree though and Tina winds up working with Scamander to recover beasts, hoping it will help her standing.

That is all well and good. Things only get worse though with the character of Graves who has little character of which to speak and that isn't good as he's one of the main bad guys. Until the very end of the movie one can't even fathom why Graves is doing what he's doing; what his goal might be with his shenanigans. Then, when it does become clear it only does so if (say it all with me now) you are steeped in the world of Harry Potter. Without that knowledge, understanding why Graves does what he does is indecipherable and that is a major flaw in the film.

Some of the issue is unquestionably weak writing (the script is from J.K. Rowling herself). It isn't just that it trades heavily on Harry Potter knowledge either, it goes beyond that. In order to teach the audience what a "No-Maj" (American for "Muggle") is, Newt professes to not having heard the word before. Later in the movie, at what appears to be a worldwide conference of magicians, "No-Maj" is bandied about without issue. The incredibly intelligent Newt has, seemingly, just been living under a rock.

Jon Voight appears in the movie as a wealthy newspaper man, but in a story that goes utterly nowhere. Zoë Kravitz appears in a picture frame and nowhere else. With four sequels already announced, it instantly makes one wonder if they'll play a larger role in a movie down the line (Kravitz's character's last name is Lestrange, which makes it sound more likely that she'll be back… something you can guess if you know Harry Potter).

Ezra Miller takes on the role of Credence, a ward of the anti-witch leader. Miller sinks entirely into this role, offering a quite shy portrayal. The problem here is that Yates never seems to capture any more than his slinking away from the camera and those around him. Miller is always only mostly there; he is never quite fully present. Credence, like Graves, is barely a character (he may be best described as a prop).

That all being said, there are elements of the movie that are enjoyable. Returning to the world of magic is worthwhile and there are definitely fun moments – and some of these definitely do include Harry Potter references… just references that aren't entirely essential to the plot. There is a twinkle in Redmayne's eyes as well, and that is indeed fantastic. He makes for a solid off-kilter wizard. Less good is that he has a tendency to swallow his words, making some of what he says indecipherable (this is especially problematic if he's offering the name of some sort of fantastic beast, a name which doesn't exist in our world).

The most engaging performance is offered by Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein, a mind reader and the sister of Tina. She falls for Jacob and imbues the movie with a sense of heart and happiness that is, well, magical. And, truly, much of "Fantastic Beasts" is magical. There are wondrous moments and some true happiness to be gleaned from the whole affair. But, there are plots that go nowhere or make no sense or are impossible to understand if you're not already a sizable fan. The uninitiated will get some of the fun, but leave vaguely bewildered and the start of a franchise ought to be better than that.

photo credit: Warner Bros.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Movie Review: "Life on the Line" (2016)

People have dangerous jobs and telling the story of someone with a dangerous job can make for an exciting, enlightening, dramatic film-going experience. Or, it can feel a little like pandering to that group. "Life on the Line" feels more like pandering than anything else.

Throughout the film, which is directed by David Hackl, the audience is told just how dangerous it is to be a lineman (one of the people who climbs poles during storms in order to restore power). It is drilled into the audience's brain. A postscript gives the number of deaths linemen have experienced since the film began production (or perhaps pre-production), while during the movie itself John Travolta's character, Beau, offers up horror stories to trainees about deaths on the job.

"Life on the Line" though fails to go past that. It is 98 minutes mainly focused on telling the audience how dangerous the job is and watching those dangers come to life.

Thing start out with one character, Duncan (Devon Sawa), being interviewed for a documentary about what happened at substation 12. This, naturally, means nothing to the audience, because we don't know what "substation 12" is, but it will clearly be a location that comes into play before the end of the film. "Life on the Line" then jumps back to 1999 before movie to the "present day," which it simultaneously labels as being 10 days before the storm (What storm? Well, obviously the storm that deals with substation 12). Then, there are flashbacks featuring at least two different combinations of characters. In the middle of the movie, we jump back to the documentary before returning to the present (a present ever closer to the storm, so perhaps "near future" is more apt a description). The denouement moves two years into the future and back to the unspecified future point of the documentary.

There is no reason for the jumping around in general and there is, quite specifically, no reason for the documentary featuring Duncan. Any potential excuse for the film within the film disappears after the off-camera person asking Duncan questions about substation 12 offers a weak response along the lines of "my goodness, I had no idea" when he finishes his story about what took place there. If she truly had no idea what had happened at the substation, why did she specifically ask about it at the start of the movie? Why is there a documentary being made focused on the incident?

Actually, the movie offers absolutely no reason for the documentary in the first place. Nothing, narratively speaking, is gained from it and, in fact, things are lost.

If the documentary is the frame for the film, everything that happens within the movie is being offered by Duncan… including the moments for which he wasn't present. Yes, perhaps someone else told him about what occurred, but that makes for awkward storytelling by itself. It also might call into question every scene which doesn't feature Duncan as it's all hearsay, especially if Duncan is discussing someone (when he wasn't present) experiencing a flashback to another moment when Duncan wasn't present.

Okay, so that's all rather involved and circuitous. As for the story in the "present" it is a broad, basic, paint-by-numbers sort of affair. Not only are there troubles on the line doing an upgrade for a corporation that just doesn't understand what it means to be a lineman, but there are a couple of love (and hate) stories tossed in for good measure. A decent portion of the film focuses on one couple falling apart which only matters as it drags their neighbors, Beau and his niece, Bailey (Kate Bosworth), down. Then there is the story of young love between Bailey and Duncan, Duncan's drunken mother (played by Sharon Stone), and a good-for-nothing 20-something making Bailey's life difficult. Where it all ends up is clear very early on and the journey fails to add anything exciting to the trip.

An early scene that ought to be exciting is filmed and edited in a way so as to complete obscure the work of the linemen, making the job—this thing we're supposed to admire—impossible to understand. When tragedies do occur in the film they are completely telegraphed, and there are more than a few moments during the climax that make no logical sense at all.

Again, I have no doubt that linemen experience incredible hardships and sacrifices in order to keep our power turned on. It is because of this that I am sure that linemen deserve a better film about their struggles.

photo credit: Lionsgate Premiere

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Lass is More" Finds Happiness with "Finding Dory"

This is, if we're looking to label it, the year of the belated sequel. Some of these have been good, some have been bad, and many feel like they simply exist in order to prey on our nostalgia and drain our wallets.

Nostalgia though, as we have talked about before, is a popular tool and one that can be used for good or evil. Just because you remember something fondly doesn't mean it wasn't actually truly swell. Or something like that.

Today's podcast takes a gander at a good, belated, sequel to a great original film. Is the sequel as great? Maybe not, but "Finding Dory" is definitely worth searching out.

photo credit: Disney*Pixar