Mini Reviews (August 2015)
I Am Chris Farley, Dead Heat, Best of Enemies, No Escape, The DUFF, Grand Piano
I Am Chris Farley (August 6/15)
An entertaining yet pervasively superficial documentary, I Am Chris Farley charts the eponymous comedian's early years through to his work on Saturday Night Live and in movies like Tommy Boy and Black Sheep - with the film's myriad of clips augmented by a series of interviews with Farley's peers and family members. It's clear immediately that directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray aren't looking to offer up a revealing expose or dredge up any long buried secrets, as I Am Chris Farley, for the most part, boasts the feel of a slick promotional video that one might expect to see aired on television. (It comes as no surprise to learn that the movie was commissioned by SpikeTV.) And yet the movie remains somewhat palatable for the duration of its brief running time, with the less-than-engrossing opening stretch, which predictably revolves around Farley's childhood and adolescence, giving way to a series of anecdotes concerning the comedian's stint on SNL - with the highlight undoubtedly a prolonged look at the creation of Farley's now-legendary motivational speaker character. It's behind-the-scenes tales like that that ultimately elevate I Am Chris Farley above its shallow execution, as the movie is otherwise a generic doc that seems to have emerged directly for a template for rise-and-fall success stories.
Dead Heat (August 13/15)
Dead Heat follows wisecracking partners Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) as they're drawn into a scheme involving the resurrection of the dead, with the pair's efforts escalating after Roger himself is murdered and subsequently brought back to life. There's certainly no shortage of appealing elements housed within Dead Heat, as the movie boasts a selection of impressively inventive special effects and a typically charismatic performance by Williams. (Piscopo, on the other hand, delivers a grating turn as Roger's perpetually off-the-wall partner.) The affable vibe is heightened by the inclusion of a few standout sequences, with the protagonists' efforts to fight a butcher shop full of reanimated animal carcasses standing as a clear highlight. (It's worth noting, too, that Lindsay Frost's final scene is nothing short of a stunner.) The film's downfall, then, is its heavy emphasis on Roger and Doug's increasingly tedious investigation, with this aspect of the proceedings suffering from a routine, by-the-numbers feel that slowly-but-surely drains the viewer's interest and ensures that the climactic stretch isn't nearly as entertaining as one might've hoped. (This is despite an amusing moment in which Roger and an undead assailant blast each other with machine guns to no discernable effect.) Dead Heat's potential is, as a result, completely squandered by the time the end credits begin to roll, and it's clear that the film succeeds solely as a showcase for some admittedly jaw-dropping special effects.
Best of Enemies (August 22/15)
Best of Enemies explores the antagonistic relationship between political pundits William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, with the movie primarily detailing the increasingly contentious debates that transpired during the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions. It's not exactly the sort of premise that lends itself naturally to a full-length feature, and there's little doubt that the movie's first half does, as a result, possess a decidedly padded-out feel - as filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville place a rather tedious emphasis on the politics of the time. The for-political-junkies-only atmosphere prevents one from wholeheartedly working up any real interest in any of this, with the movie, in its early stages, coming off as a prolonged segment on a garden-variety news program. It's equally clear, however, that Best of Enemies does improve substantially as it progresses, as Gordon and Neville slowly-but-surely stress the personal lives of their subjects and, of course, the development of their seething disdain for one another. The centerpiece is undoubtedly the now-infamous debate in which Buckley, having been called a "crypto-Nazi" by Vidal, threatens to "sock" his opponent in the face, with the movie becoming a far more engrossing and involving piece of work past that point (ie the mutual contempt between the men is nothing short of fascinating). Best of Enemies, like most documentaries, generally feels as though it'd be more at home within a much shorter running time, and yet there's no denying that the movie provides an eye-opening look at two intensely compelling (and competitive) figures.
No Escape (August 25/15)
A surprisingly entertaining and gritty little thriller, No Escape follows Owen Wilson's Jack Dwyer as he and his family arrive in an unnamed Asian country to start their lives anew - with problems ensuing as rebels begin executing Americans after staging a violent coup. It's an inherently compelling premise that is, for the most part, executed quite well by filmmaker John Erick Dowdle, as the director, working from a script cowritten with Drew Dowdle, kicks off the proceedings with a tense, electrifying opening that paves the way for a first half that's rife with similarly captivating moments. (There is, for example, a ludicrous yet thoroughly engrossing sequence in which Jack must throw his two small children from one building to the next.) Wilson's typically charismatic turn as the central character ensures that one can't help but sympathize with Jack's increasingly perilous plight, while Dowdle's effective handling of the movie's more overtly action-packed set-pieces perpetuates the suspenseful atmosphere. (This is despite a serious overuse of slow-motion cinematography, which, after a while, becomes somewhat distracting with each subsequent appearance.) It's unfortunate to note, then, that No Escape does begin to palpably drag as it passes the one-hour mark, as the focus shifts to a series of sequences in which Jack and his family must run and hide from their various pursuers - with the decidedly repetitive nature of such scenes ensuring that the movie ultimately peters out long before it reaches its climactic stretch. This is a relatively minor complaint for an otherwise effective and impressively balls-to-the-wall thriller, and it's finally clear that No Escape marks a considerable improvement over Dowdle's previous effort (2014's tedious found-footage creeper As Above So Below).
The DUFF (August 26/15)
Based on Kody Keplinger's far superior novel, The DUFF follows affable teen Bianca (Mae Whitman) as she comes to the realization that she's the title figure ("designated ugly fat friend") within her small social circle. The movie's eventual failure is made all-the-more disappointing by an opening half hour that's surprisingly engrossing, as director Ari Sandel does an effective job of establishing The DUFF's central locale and its various characters - with, of course, Whitman's typically engaging turn as the protagonist ranking high on the film's list of agreeable attributes. The watchable vibe is perpetuated by the palpable chemistry between Whitman and, cast as her hunky love interest, Robbie Amell, and it's certainly not difficult to wish that Sandel had placed more of an emphasis on the characters' low-key shenanigans. Even during its comparatively strong first half, however, The DUFF finds itself saddled with a whole host of distressingly misbegotten elements - with the most cogent example of this anything and everything involving Bella Thorne's impossibly bitchy character, Madison. It's similarly scripter Josh A. Cagan's less-than-subtle handling of the material that slowly-but-surely cements the film's failure, as the movie, to an increasingly aggressive extent, adopts an afterschool-special vibe as Cagan hammers home his "it's okay to be a DUFF" message over and over (and with as little grace as one could possibly envision). The homecoming-dance finale lands with a complete thud, obviously, and it is, in the end, impossible to view The DUFF with anything less than almost total disdain (especially given the above-average nature of its source material).
Grand Piano (August 28/15)
An unapologetically absurd thriller, Grand Piano follows Elijah Wood's Tom Selznick, a musician returning to the stage after a lengthy absence, as he's forced to play a difficult concerto by a madman with a sniper rifle. Filmmaker Eugenio Mira's flamboyant treatment of the larger-then-life material is, for the most part, impossible to resist, as the director, clearly drawing inspiration from Hitchcock and De Palma, elevates the proceedings by infusing even the most minor of sequences with an almost spectacularly lush feel - which, when combined with an appropriately brisk running time, ensures that there's rarely a dull moment here. It's an especially impressive feat given that Damien Chazelle's screenplay occasionally veers towards one-note territory, as the thin premise lends itself naturally towards a fair degree of repetition - with the movie's midsection especially suffering from this vibe. And yet Grand Piano benefits substantially from the ongoing inclusion of punchy, broad-minded set pieces, as such moments, when coupled with a series of better-than-average performances, prove effective at buoying one's interest on an impressively consistent basis. It's ultimately a little difficult to swallow the villain's motivation for pointing that rifle that Wood's character (ie why not just steal the piano?), but this is a minor complain for a film that's otherwise quite engaging for the duration of its 90 minutes.