I Do…Until I Don’t

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:27 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright 2017 Ways & Means
Hopes are high for Lake Bell after the delightful “In a World….,” which she wrote, directed, and starred in.  A terrific cast, a peek at the unfamiliar world of voice actors, and an endearing heroine made it an exceptionally promising debut.  Unfortunately, her sophomore effort retains only the superb casting and the affection for title ellipsis. “I Do…Until I Don’t” is more like an r-rated episode of the cheesy anthology series “Love American Style” than it is like “In a World.”

Bell clearly wants to explore the challenges of monogamy and marriage, a topic well worth exploring because most movies about romance end with the wedding, the “happily ever after” to be imagined.  Where “In a World…” benefitted from the sharp, vivid observations of a person who thoroughly understood a world that the audience had never seen before, in “I Do…Until I Don’t,” the barely-out-of-the-newlywed-stage Bell (she and her husband were married in 2013) is trying to explain marriage to an audience who have all literally lived in or with the experience of marriage as husbands, wives, children, and family members.  Her portrayal of three different couples is immediately apparent as superficial and unrealistic.

The entire premise is artificial.  Bell imagines a cynical documentarian named Vivian (Dolly Wells) who is determined to expose the essential impossibility of the idea of marriage.  Her theory is based on the tired theory that the idea of lifelong monogamy was developed in an era when the average lifespan was less than four decades and is therefore unrealistic when we are living twice as long.  Of course when the lifespan was three decades marriages were more likely to be based on alliances of property and money than romantic love, which might have played into the expectations of the participants, but that has nothing to do with Vivian’s premise.  And of course she has a villainous British accent just to remind us that she’s the bad guy.

Three couples become the focus of her film.  Two of them are so unpleasant it is impossible for us to care very much whether they prove Vivian wrong, except to keep them off the market so they can’t marry someone nicer.  All three of them are so thinly conceived that even the very able work of an outstanding cast cannot give them any depth or reality, even in a heightened comic setting.

Bell plays Alice, married to Noah (Ed Helms).  Their business is failing. So are their efforts to become parents.  Alice tells Noah Vivian will pay them a lot of money to be in her film. It is a lie. She has to find the money somewhere, so she agrees to provide “happy endings” at a massage parlor run by Bonnie (the terrific Chauntae Pink).

Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybill (Mary Steenburgen) are middle-aged and constantly snipe at each other, especially Cybill, who puts real effort into it while Harvey is mostly playing defense.

The third couple is not married and has an open relationship because why not.  They are Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), free-wheeling hippie stereotypes.  Alice thinks Noah is into Fanny for no particular reason other than her own insecurity over not being honest with him about pretty much anything.

These people are not interesting and their realizations are completely unfounded.  My advice: don’t.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and explicit language, explicit sexual references and situations, prostitution, drinking, and marital problems.

Family discussion: Why is it so important to Vivian to be right about marriage? Which couple changes the most?

If you like this, try: “In a World…” from the same writer/director/star

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The Trip to Spain

Posted on August 24, 2017 at 5:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

In the third “Trip” movie, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon again traveling through gorgeous countryside, eating exquisitely prepared meals, and trying to top each other’s impressions, Coogan does something we have not seen before.  He laughs.  The series plays deftly with what is real (the actors’ names, the general outline of their careers, their improvised banter) and what is fiction (their heightened characteristics and tension between them, their family members, romantic interests, and professional colleagues played by actors and the created relationships and developments, the fact that they do not acknowledge they are being filmed).  Coogan’s character, that is, the version of himself he plays in the films, is at the same time insecure and superior, and therefore he usually responds to Brydon’s comments and performances by either insulting them or topping them.  But in one scene here, he can’t help himself; he just laughs, more than once, and we see a very different, more relaxed, genuine, and appreciative, perhaps more “real” Coogan.

In this third “trip,” the pair goes to Spain, where the literary overlay is Don Quixote (they even dress up as Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot), the impressions are as funny as ever (Mick Jagger, John Hurt, Roger Moore talking about the Moors), and the subject of aging comes up now and then. They assure each other that in their 50’s they are in the “sweet spot,” still attractive to women and if, too old to play Hamlet, still too young for Lear. Coogan, always wanting to appear erudite and successful, finds a way to mention the Oscar nominations for “Philomena” (he co-wrote and starred in it), and his new script, called “Missing.” And Brydon points out that “Philomena” was the story of a mother looking for her son and “Missing” is the story of a father looking for his daughter, so perhaps it might be time to go in another direction.  The two men go back and forth, jockeying with each other in a dozen different ways, as they obliquely and sometimes directly engage with the passage of time, between glimpses of flaming pans and delectable sauces being spread just so.

Coogan and Brydon are more comfortable and compatible in this version, and, as always, very, very funny.   If they get on each other’s nerves, for us in the audience they are excellent traveling companions.  The poignancy of their choices and disappointments adds some welcome depth and complexity.  There have been some complaints and controversy about the end of the film, which is jarring and out of place with the mood of the series.  I am not sure what it is intended to do, but I hope that there will be another trip to find out.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, alcohol, teen pregnancy, sexual references, and some implied peril.

Family discussion: Why do Rob and Steve enjoy impersonations so much?  Do you agree with Rob’s decision?  What should Steve have said to his son?

If you like this, try: the other “Trip” movies with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and of course “Philomina”

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Dave Made a Maze

Posted on August 18, 2017 at 3:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, monster
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017

Copyright 2017 Gravitas Ventures
For generations, there have been children who have had more fun playing with the box than with the toy that came inside. The reason is easy to understand: a blank box puts no limits on imagination. It can be a clubhouse, a rocket ship, or a submarine, or all at once. It needs no batteries and there is no technology to break down. There’s no disappointing discovery that what looks cool on the commercial does not actually work. Cardboard can be anything and imagination can take you everywhere.

That is the theme of “Dave Made a Maze,” both the story on the screen and the story of the movie itself. Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home from a short trip out of town to find her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has taken over their living room with a cardboard maze, or, rather, a labyrinth so intricate that he is literally lost inside it. Like the TARDIS, Dave’s construction is bigger on the inside. Annie grabs some friends and a box cutter and goes inside. A film crew led by their friend Harry (James Urbaniak) comes along to document (and sometimes shape) the adventure.

Co-writer/director Bill Watterson (not the Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist) has created a slacker/artisanal “Cat and the Canary” or “Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” a comedy/horror film with real stakes and deadpan delivery, all the funnier for being so understated.

The star of the film is unquestionably the maze/labyrinth itself. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner, clearly having the time of their lives, worked with the genius artists of the Cardboard Institute of Technology to create an endlessly inventive world, enchanting, spooky, hilarious, and, when you don’t expect it, pretty scary. Just because the blood is made of yarn and paper, we learn, does not mean it is not real. On the other hand, one labyrinthian portal somehow turns the characters into paper bag puppets, a transformation which thankfully turns out to be temporary. Dave’s maze, a manifestation of his frustration at not having a job that fulfills him, turns out to have a malevolent sentience he and his friends have to battle. Having different artists work on different rooms and corridors adds to the continuous surprise and disconnect, with one section looking like a mock-up from “2001,” another sporting origami birds, and others playing with perspective and space. I was especially taken by the intricate cardboard mechanics underneath one space, with several others hinting at an even more expansive and complex cardboard world.

Part of the film’s charm is the way Annie and Dave’s friends immediately accept the premise and just go for it. But what makes this one of the most imaginative films of the year is the way it makes a virtue of its micro budget. Like Dave himself, the filmmakers have found what the cheapest materials can do better than the most sophisticated animation equipment. They’ve created a tactile environment that puts no limits on their imagination or ours.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, fantasy peril and violence, a monster, and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite room in the maze? Why did the maze get out of control?

If you like this, try: “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Coherence”

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Logan Lucky

Posted on August 17, 2017 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and some crude comments
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, prison riot, illness, explosions
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright Bleeker Street 2017

Steven Soderbergh, gifted us with the delectable champagne cocktail “Oceans 11,” a sophisticated improvement over the Rat Pack heist film set in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. His new film, “Logan Lucky” is “Oceans 7-11,” a hillbilly heist, a redneck robbery.

The setting is Appalachia.  Instead of a Las Vegas casino, the target is a NASCAR race track in Charlotte, North Carolina.  But once again there is an all-star cast, a wickedly clever plot, wonderfully engaging characters, and delicious humor, with one “Game of Thrones” joke that is by itself worth the price of admission.  The credits cheekily inform us that “Nobody was robbed during the making of this movie. Except you.”  Even more cheekily, the credited screenwriter does not seem to exist.  But that is all part of the fun.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a good-hearted man from West Virginia who is down on his luck. His ex-wife (Katie Holmes) has remarried a wealthy car dealer and they are planning to move to Virginia, taking his daughter with them.  He has just lost his construction job, not because of his performance, but because his old leg injury is considered a liability risk.  His bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a veteran who lost his hand to an IED, insists that the Logans are all just cursed with bad luck. Their sister Melly (Riley Keough), a hairdresser, is more optimistic — also very smart about cars and a few other things, too.

Jimmy needs to make some changes in his life.  So he makes a list of everything he needs to do to rob the racetrack.  It begins: “1. Decide to rob a bank. 2. Have a plan. 3. Have a backup plan. 4. Establish clear communications. 5. Choose your partners carefully.”

As in any great heist film, Jimmy then assembles his team, though perhaps “carefully” is not the way to describe what happens.  Foremost is explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, with a bleached blonde crewcut, an impeccable Southern accent, and a ton of attitude).   Unfortunately, as he informs them, he is “IN. CAR. CER. ATED.”  But Jimmy has a plan.  Joe agrees but insists that they include his two dimwit brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid).

Also as in all great heist films, even the best-laid plans have to go wrong, so there are many unexpected developments along the way.  The fun of these films is the problem-solving before the big day, with careful planning, and then the problem solving on the big day as, well, take a look at Logan’s item #3, and another reminder later on that things will go wrong. The movie has fun with the characters, but not at their expense, at least not at the expense of the heroes/anti-heroes. It doesn’t treat them like hicks or rubes.

Keough is a standout and Craig is a complete hoot. There are small gems of performances along the way, including Dwight Yoakam as a prison warden and Katherine Waterston as a health care provider. We’re as much in the dark as the FBI investigators (led by Hillary Swank), and right up until the last minute we are not sure of exactly what happened.  But the answer is a total delight, as is the cast, all having way too much fun.

Parents should know that the film includes strong and crude language for a PG-13, tense family confrontations, some disturbing images, an amputated limb, references to war casualties, fights, and peril (mostly comic).

Family discussion: What was the most important item on Jimmy’s list?  What did he forget?

If you like this, try: “Welcome to Collinwood,” “Out of Sight,” and “Oceans 11″

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California Typewriter

Posted on August 14, 2017 at 6:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated, no adult content
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 American Buffalo Pictures

A couple of years ago, I stayed at a hotel that had a vintage manual typewriter in the lobby, with a pristine stack of paper placed neatly beside it.  I could not resist.  I rolled in a piece of paper and began to hit the keys, enjoying what pianists call the action of the machine and the memories it brought back.

Then I got to the end of the line and waited.  Although I learned to type the summer before my freshman year in high school and typed my school papers through high school, college, and law school and then used increasingly sophisticated typewriters in offices for the next five years, I had completely forgotten that it was up to me to hit the carriage return.  I reached up and swung the lever, and very much enjoyed reviving the memory of that feeling of satisfaction, accompanied by the little bell.  A computer will wait, sometimes impatiently, for you to continue.  A typewriter will congratulate you for what you have accomplished.

This captivating documentary pays tributes to typewriters and the small but passionate group who still love and repair them.  It is filled with delightful characters, and if they sometimes edge into Christopher Guest territory with their rhapsodies about the percussion and the ink flying onto the paper (the late Sam Shepard, adding an extra sense of loss to the film), or how typewritten words are “almost what thoughts look like” (John Mayer), they are still endearing and insightful.  And, as ever the voice of decency and civilization, Tom Hanks shows up because he is a serious collector of vintage typewriters and he likes to give them to friends and urge them to use them.

Indeed, I am now guessing that the Greg Kinnear character in “You’ve Got Mail” who loves his analog typewriters so much may in fact be based on the real-life passions of the man who gets the girl in the film, played by Tom Hanks.

California Typewriter is the name of the Berkeley, California typewriter repair shop that may have to close as its owner is turning 70 and business is pretty much eclipsed by computers, except for the collectors and John Henry-types.  The film alternates between the people at the store and typewriter aficionados, from a collector who literally dreams of owning one of the very first typewriters made by the man credited with inventing them to a sculptor whose medium is typewriter parts.  Ever wondered about the odd QWERTY arrangement of letters on your computer keyboard?  Did you know that typewriters created a whole new category of jobs for women, bringing them for the first time into workplaces other than schoolrooms and hospitals?  The women themselves were called “typewriters.”  There’s a music group that uses typewriters as their instruments.  And historian David McCullough, who writes his book on his old Royal typewriter, mourns the loss of typed letters, speeches, and diaries, with cross-outs and inserts. “There is value in mistakes…You see the process.”

There is a bittersweet quality to the film, which has brief glimpses of people standing in long lines in the rain to get the new iPad, and tech conference presenters chirping about algorithms.  We see the last typewriter manufacturer in the world close down, and its final 100 machines turned into a sculpture.  But the very scarcity creates bonds. “I collect typewriters,” a man with a veritable museum in his home says. “But better than that, I collect typewriter friends.”  And it is not a spoiler to note that the failing store of the title gets new access to customers from the very technology that disrupted its industry: a website.

Parents should know that this movie has some brief art images of bodies.

Family discussion: Have you ever typed on a typewriter?

If you like this, try: “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim,” with Betty Grable as a “typewriter” (secretary), and the delightful French film “Populaire,” a romantic comedy about a champion typist and her boss/coach

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