Mini Reviews (August 2016)
Bad Moms, Can We Take a Joke?, Equity, Gleason, How He Fell In Love, The Taking, Miner's Massacre, Nerve, Just Cause, Weiner, A Tale of Love and Darkness
Bad Moms (August 1/16)
An almost shockingly bottom-of-the-barrel comedy, Bad Moms follows Mila Kunis' Amy as she snaps one day and essentially begins shirking all of her responsibilities - with the movie detailing the fallout of that decision as well as Amy's newfound friendship with Kristen Bell's uptight Kiki and Kathryn Hahn's rebellious Carla. It's clear immediately that filmmakers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore aren't looking to attempt anything resembling subtlety here, as Bad Moms is overflowing with laughable attempts at sentimentality and eye-rollingly broad instances of comedy - with, in terms of the latter, Lucas and Moore's screenplay placing a consistent emphasis on elements that couldn't possibly be less misguided. (The most egregious example of this is surely Christina Applegate's grating, aggressively over-the-top turn as a smug rival to the movie's heroes.) The paint-by-numbers narrative is compounded by a tendency to stress caricatures over characters, and it is, perhaps not surprisingly, impossible to muster up even an ounce of interest in the one-dimensional protagonists' endeavors. It doesn't help, either, that Lucas and Scott spend much of Bad Moms' interminable running time pandering to the lowest common denominator, as the movie has been suffused with misguided moments designed to "empower" viewers but that are instead pathetic and sanctimonious. By the time the absurdly schmaltzy final stretch rolls around, in which the viewer is actually asked to sympathize for a larger-than-life villainous figure, Bad Moms has confirmed its place as an oppressive and pervasively unfunny trainwreck that squanders the talents of an agreeable, talented cast.
Can We Take a Joke? (August 1/16)
A sporadically interesting yet terminally unfocused documentary, Can We Take a Joke? explores the rise of political correctness and, specifically, the impact it's had on contemporary comedians (both professional and amateur). Filmmaker Ted Balaker devotes the lion's share of Can We Take a Joke?'s first half to establishing historical context, which he accomplishes by focusing on the trials and tribulations of Lenny Bruce in the '50s and '60s. (The comedian was famously arrested for obscenity and essentially devoted the rest of his career to fighting the charges.) And although some of this stuff is admittedly quite interesting, Balaker dwells on the Bruce material in a manner that's indicative of the entire production (ie the filmmaker spends too much time on certain elements and not enough time on others). The repetitive vibe persists up until around the halfway mark, after which point Can We Take a Joke? admittedly does begin to improve - with the newfound emphasis on intriguing anecdotes and stories helping alleviate the otherwise static atmosphere. (There is, for example, a whole section devoted to Justine Sacco's notorious tweet about AIDS in Africa.) It's ultimately clear, though, that there's just not enough content here to warrant a full-length running time, as Can We Take a Joke? is, in the end, a persistently erratic documentary that's compelling only in fits and starts.
Equity (August 2/16)
Equity casts Anna Gunn as Naomi Bishop, an investment banker who is attempting to negotiate and follow through on a deal involving an up-and-coming online security company - with Naomi's continuing efforts hindered by a wife variety of periphery characters (including Sarah Megan Thomas' ambitious underling and Alysia Reiner's dogged investigator). It's semi-interesting (yet all-too-complex) material that's utilized to terminally underwhelming effect by director Meera Menon, as the filmmaker, working from Amy Fox's screenplay, has infused the proceedings with less-than-cinematic visuals and an excessively, disastrously deliberate pace. The hands-off atmosphere is compounded by an ongoing emphasis on elements that couldn't possibly be less interesting, with the movie's narrative, particularly in its early stages, focused on things that one assumes will pay off in the third act but are, up until that point, hopelessly uninvolving (eg Naomi's relationship with a fellow banker, anything and everything concerning Reiner's aforementioned investigator, etc). There's little doubt, at least, that the movie fares relatively well in its smaller, character-based moments - eg Thomas' storyline holds a lot of promise, to be sure - and yet it's worth noting that the relentless machinations of the terminally tedious plot eventually (and ultimately) render such positive elements moot. Menon's efforts at building a sense of momentum fall flat, naturally, and it's distressing to note that Equity's third act, which should be dripping with tension, is almost astonishingly interminable - thus confirming the movie's place as a total misfire that squanders its handful of strong performances.
Gleason (August 3/16)
One of the most moving and flat-out heartbreaking documentaries ever made, Gleason follows former footballer Steve Gleason as he and his wife, Michel, are forced to radically adjust their lives after he's diagnosed with ALS - with the movie, which spans several years, detailing the neurological disease's progression and its increasingly immobilizing impact on Steve. It's inherently compelling material that is, for the most part, employed to exceedingly engrossing effect by filmmaker Clay Tweel, and it's rather impressive to note that Gleason manages to tug at the viewer's heartstrings right from the word go. (Tweel opens the proceedings with an excerpt from the video diary Gleason begins keeping for his unborn child.) Tweel immediately segues into a primer on Gleason's accomplishments as a professional athlete, with the emphasis, even during this stretch, generally kept on Gleason's relationship with (and eventual marriage to) Michel - which ultimately does ensure that the viewer has a great deal invested in the pair's bond. The poignant subject matter paves the way for a midsection that's dripping with palpably stirring images and interludes, and it's certainly not surprising to discover that Tweel has jam-packed the picture with segments designed to elicit sobs from even the hardiest of viewers. (It's difficult, for example, not to feel a lump in one's throat as Michel tearfully reacts to her husband's frailty at an athletic event.) Gleason is likewise packed with absolutely captivating sequences that illustrate the rigors and obstacles involved in battling such an illness, although it's ultimately difficult not to wish that Tweel had devoted some screentime to the intimacy issues undoubtedly faced by Steve and Michel. Minor deficiencies like that, as well as an ongoing audio problem (ie poor sound quality makes it often difficult to discern just what's being said, especially by Steve as his condition worsens), are easy to overlook in the face of a movie that's predominantly riveting and absorbing, and it is, in the end, impossible to label Gleason as anything other than an admittedly grim yet completely mesmerizing look at ALS and its nightmarish effects.
How He Fell In Love (August 5/16)
A well-intentioned yet thoroughly tedious misfire, How He Fell In Love details the unlikely romance that ensues between a hotshot musician (Matt McGorry's Travis) and a older, married woman named Ellen (Amy Hargreaves). It's a slim premise that's employed to increasingly dull effect by director Marc Meyers, as How He Fell In Love contains few elements designed to capture (and sustain) the viewer's interest - with Meyers' aggressively subdued approach to the material growing more and more tedious as time slowly progresses. Meyers' low-key sensibilities ensure that, admittedly, the movie boasts a vibe of palpable authenticity, and there's little doubt that the documentary-like feel is heightened by naturalistic performances from stars McGorry and Hargreaves. (The latter is especially good here, to be sure.) There's little doubt, however, that Meyers' excessively meandering modus operandi slowly but surely tests one's patience, as the movie, which runs a relatively punishing 107 minutes, suffers from a midsection overflowing with sequences that are either terminally padded-out or downright needless (eg a trip to a burlesque show stands as an especially apt example of the latter). It's perhaps not surprising to note that the lackadaisical, improv-heavy vibe paves the way for a fairly interminable (and exhausting) second half, and it's consequently clear that the dramatic revelations of the third act are simply unable to pack the punch that Meyers has intended - thus confirming How He Fell In Love's place as an endeavor that's never quite able to to justify its full-length running time.
The Taking (August 7/16)
The latest in a long-line of underwhelming found-footage horror flicks, The Taking follows a documentary crew (Michelle Ang's Mia, Brett Gentile's Gavin, and Jeremy DeCarlos's Luis) as they arrive at a remote country home to document the mental decline of Jill Larson's Deborah Logan - with problems ensuing as Deborah's health concerns are, perhaps inevitably, revealed to be less than human. It's a fine setup that's employed to continuously lackluster effect by director Adam Robitel, which is a shame, certainly, given that The Taking boasts an opening half hour that holds some promise - as Robitel does a good job of establishing the central characters and, especially, the plight of Larson's likeable figure. It's only as the narrative's horror elements begin creeping in that The Taking loses its way, as scripters Robitel and Gavin Heffernan rely primarily on the hoariest found-footage cliches that one could possibly imagine - which does, as a result, pave the way for a second half that's both interminable and devoid of scares. (This is despite the inclusion of a few admittedly striking images toward the end.) The jittery, nigh incoherent all-hell-breaks-loose third act ensures that the film finishes on a seriously anticlimactic note, and it's ultimately apparent that The Taking is hardly the shot in the arm that this increasingly irrelevant genre needs.
Miner's Massacre (August 13/16)
As disposable and cheesy as its title might've indicated, Miner's Massacre follows six friends (Carrie Bradac's Claire, Sean Hines' Nick, Stephen Wastell's Axl, Sangie's Tori, Elina Madison's Rox Ann, and Rick Majeske's Hayden) as they arrive at a remote locale to uncover what they hope will be piles of gold - with bloody mayhem ensuing after a demonic miner begins knocking the hapless treasure hunters off one by one. It's an appreciatively over-the-top setup that's employed to less-than-engrossing effect by filmmaker John Carl Buechler, with the relative promise of the movie's opening stretch - the killer is referred to as "so mean hell didn't even want him" - giving way to a midsection in which almost nothing of interest occurs. The tedious atmosphere is compounded by Buechler's inexplicable and thoroughly wrong-headed decision to eschew instances of blood and gore, as the movie, instead, spends most of its padded-out running time fleshing out the killer's backstory and attempting to develop the one-dimensional protagonists. There is, in terms of the former, a long flashback sequence that's fairly worthless, although Vernon Wells' scenery-chewing turn as future murderous miner Jeremiah Stone is pretty fun.) It's perhaps not surprising to note that the picture culminates with a decidedly anticlimactic final stretch, which certainly confirms Miner's Massacre's place as a strong title and premise in search of a better, more entertaining movie.
Nerve (August 13/16)
A progressively annoying thriller, Nerve follows straightlaced student Venus Delmonico (Emma Roberts) as she and a fellow player (Dave Franco's Ian) are drawn into an online game involving a series of escalating dares. There's never really a point at which Nerve manages to wholeheartedly capture the viewer's interest, with the tedious, high-school-focused bent of the movie's opening half hour giving way to a sporadically intriguing yet thoroughly repetitive midsection. And while some of the dares are admittedly kind of compelling - Venus and Ian are, for example, challenged to escape from a fancy department store wearing just their underwear - Nerve doesn't seem to have anything of substance to say or do once its initial point has been made. This is especially obvious once the almost astonishingly interminable third act rolls around, with the misguided nature of this stretch certainly emblematic of the screenplay's half-baked approach (ie there just doesn't seem to be any real point to any of this). Roberts and Franco, at least, deliver strong work here and it's worth noting that there's a palpable sense of chemistry between the two, and it's clear that Nerve is at its rare best when focused on the characters' low-key, comparatively charming interplay together. Such positives are rendered moot in the face of a picture that is, for the most part, an utter slog to sit through, and it's ultimately difficult to envision this thin story working as a short let alone a 96 minute feature.
Just Cause (August 14/16)
Based on a book by John Katzenbach, Just Cause follows crusading law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) as he agrees to look into the case of a black man (Blair Underwood's Bobby Earl) accused of murdering a young white girl. Just Cause is ultimately a slick and mostly entertaining thriller that benefits substantially from atmospheric visuals and strong performances, with, in terms of the latter, Connery's typically engaging work matched by an eclectic supporting cast that includes Laurence Fishburne, Ned Beatty, and Ed Harris. (The latter, playing a notorious and very insane serial killer, delivers an appealingly, unapologetically broad turn that remains a sporadic highlight.) The movie's fairly run-of-the-mill first half doesn't inspire much confidence, however, with the passable yet far-from-spectacular vibe compounded by a repetitive structure and often excessively deliberate pace (ie scripters Jeb Stuart and Peter Stone place a continued emphasis on Paul's less-than-engrossing investigation into the murder). It's just as apparent, though, that Just Cause improves significantly as it charges into its almost ludicrously over-the-top third act, as the movie abandons any pretense of plausibility in favor of a twists-and-turns heavy final stretch that culminates in a swampy battle to the death (complete with alligators!) The end result is, to say the least, an erratic piece of work that nevertheless holds one's interest throughout, and it's certainly impossible not to get a kick out of any film in which Sean Connery delivers the following line: "If that's a confession then my ass is a banjo!"
Weiner (August 18/16)
A relatively compelling documentary, Weiner follows disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner as he launches a campaign to become Mayor of New York City - with the politician's continuing efforts hindered by a series of old and new sexting scandals. Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have infused Weiner with a slick and fast-paced feel that immediately captures the viewer's interest, with the brief overview of Weiner's life and career ensuring that one can walk into the picture knowing nothing about its subject (even if Kriegman and Steinberg do gloss over the initial sexting scandal). There's little doubt that Weiner himself plays a substantial role in cementing the movie's success, as he primarily comes off as a charismatic and extremely passionate figure that one can't help but root for and sympathize with. It's a vibe that's perpetuated by the extreme overreaction of Weiner's illicit texting exploits, with the media's laser-like focus on that one aspect of Weiner's life certainly fascinating as a portrait of what contemporary news is all about (ie who cares?) Despite a surfeit of engrossing sequences - eg Weiner admonishes the filmmakers for not adhering to a "fly on the wall" perspective - Weiner suffers from the sort of padding that generally plagues documentaries and it's clear that the movie, though entertaining from start to finish, feels longer than necessary (especially in the comparatively uneventful midsection). It's a fairly minor complaint for a documentary that's otherwise quite engaging and entertaining, with the unjustified downfall of the movie's subject ultimately elevating Weiner above the level of a run-of-the-mill political portrait.
A Tale of Love and Darkness (August 24/16)
Natalie Portman's directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness unfolds against the backdrop of Israel's creation and follows a young boy (Amir Tessler's Amos) as he endures adolescence under decidedly harsh circumstances. The seemingly straight-forward premise has been augmented with a host of digressions and diversions, however, and the picture consequently grows less and less involving as it unfolds - with Portman's palpably ambitious sensibilities paving the way for a narrative that is, for the most part, momentum free. It becomes apparent fairly early on that Portman, who also penned the screenplay, has little interest in transforming the various protagonists into plausible, three-dimensional figures, as moments of character development are often (and primarily) overshadowed by oddball subplots and terminally underwhelming flights of fancy - including a series of dream sequences that contribute nothing to the movie's central storyline. The arms-length vibe is perpetuated by a continuing emphasis on laughably pompous instances of dialogue (eg "my mother grew up in an ethereal culture of misted beauty, whose wings were finally dashed on the harsh Jerusalem stone, hot and dusty"), with Portman's trying-too-hard efforts at cultivating a profound and poetic vibe undoubtedly playing a significant role in cementing the movie's downfall. It is, in the end, fairly apparent that A Tale of Love and Darkness stands as an abject failure that just doesn't work on any level, with the film's total lack of emotional resonance especially disappointing given its searing true-life subject matter.