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Matthew Weiner, Where Are You?

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Tonight, Matthew Weiner will be on top of the TV world at the Emmys, where his AMC drama Mad Men will be gunning for its fourth Best Drama award. Ok, so it probably won’t win, but still, he’ll get a much warmer welcome by the TV Academy than he did at the movies this weekend: Are You Here, the first film he wrote and directed, was quietly dumped into a handful of theaters and released simultaneously on VOD. Oh, and it earned a whopping 8 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

What went wrong? More like, what didn’t go wrong? Weiner seems to be continuing to follow in the footsteps—or in this case, missteps—of his mentor, The Sopranos‘ David Chase, who followed up his groundbreaking TV drama with an underwhelming movie debut, Not Fade Away (which did fade away, and quickly, at the box office). Are You Here isn’t just missing a question mark at the end of its title. It’s missing a plot, two-dimensional characters, a well-chosen cast, a consistent tone, and just about everything else.

Owen Wilson and Zach Gailfianakis star as Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis. No, they don’t play themselves, they just play the same characters they always play: Wilson’s a peevish narcissist and Galifianakis is a mentally unstable man-child. They take a road trip together—because we haven’t seen enough Galifianakis road-trip movies after three Hangovers and Due Date—when Zach’s dad dies and leaves him a large portion of his estate. That leads to a squabble with Zach’s snotty sister, played by Amy Poehler, who at least is doing something different than what we usually see out of her. Unfortunately, what she’s doing isn’t interesting, or funny, or anything.

Is this supposed to be a comedy? It’s not amusing. A drama? It’s impossible to take seriously. A rom-com? Maybe. Both Galifianakis and Wilson sleep with Zach’s young stepmom, played by the bland Laura Ramsey, aka Joy from Mad Men‘s “Jet Set” episode. She’s only one of several nubile actresses who appear nude, including Law & Order alum Alana de la Garza, who’s wasted as the anchorwoman at the Annapolis, Maryland, TV station where Wilson’s Steve Dallas is the weatherman. Unfortunately, Galifianakis also bares all, and I’m not just talking about shaving his trademark beard.

Weiner also recruits a few Sopranos alums, like Paul “Father Phil” Schulze as the TV station’s news director, and Peter “Dr. Melfi’s shrink” Bogdanovich as a judge who rules in the family’s inheritance case. But even a priest and a shrink couldn’t save this misguided script. The film’s tagline, allegedly about friendship, is “There’s nothing in it for anybody.” Which pretty much describes the movie as well. In other words: Matthew Weiner, don’t quit your day job… Oops, too late!

Whatever Happened to Bruce Willis?

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I don’t want to say I wished Bruce Willis ill after I had a contentious interview with him last year. After all, the guy did semi-apologize. But I do find it karmically apt that Willis had not one, but two movies, bomb at the box office this weekend: the sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For only earned roughly 10% of its $60-$70 million budget back, and the B-movie The Prince was released simultaneously in theaters (where it apparently made so little money it didn’t even report grosses) and on VOD.

To be fair, Willis isn’t the star of either movie. He has only a few scenes in the new Sin City, since his character, Detective John Hartigan, was killed off in the 2005 original. He returns to haunt Jessica Alba’s stripper, Nancy, and Powers Boothe’s big bad guy, Rourke (not to be confused with Mickey Rourke, who once again steals the movie as Marv, Nancy’s disfigured protector). It’s somehow fitting that Willis plays a ghost, because he seems like a shadow of his former self. But why did Willis’ Looper costar Joseph Gordon-Levitt sign on for a small, thankless role as Rourke’s (the character’s, not the actor’s) doomed gambler son?

Willis and JGL get upstaged by the more-often-naked-than-not Eva Green (as a femme fatale named Ava) but Ray Liotta (as a murderous adulterer), Christopher Lloyd (wittily cast as a doctor much madder than Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown) and SVU vet Chris Meloni (as a pervy cop). On the whole, A Dame to Kill For is much more enjoyable than its predecessor, as it doesn’t take itself so seriously and revels in its own trashiness. But its miserable box-office performance means it will probably just be another proverbial nail in the coffin of Willis’ career.

The Prince won’t do as much damage to Willis’ star status, because most people will never hear of it. It’s more of a vehicle for Jason “Why am I not a star yet?” Patric, cast as a former assassin who comes out of retirement to rescue his drug-addicted daughter. Willis enters more than half an hour into the 90-minute time-killer as a crime boss whose wife and daughter were accidentally blown to bits by Patric’s “Prince.” Even later in the movie, John Cusack (who’s long overdue for his own “Whatever Happened To…” column) appears as a former co-hort of Patric’s. Even later than that, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (who co-starred with Willis in another direct-to-VOD clinker, 2011’s The Setup) turns up as a drug lord named The Pharmacy. But Willis is the big villain, and he gets to chew the scenery by doing the talking-killer routine while holding Patric’s daughter at gunpoint before he eats hot lead.

Willis seemed like he was on the verge of a comeback a few years ago with the acclaimed sleepers Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, but a string of dud sequels (A Good Day to Die Hard, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, RED 2) and obscure potboilers (The Cold Light of Day, anyone?) have dragged him back into a morass of creative malaise. Somehow he avoided reprising his role in The Expendables 3, so at least he’s got that going for him. Or not against him.

And it doesn’t look like he’s going to pull out of his tailspin anytime soon: Rock the Casbah, which reunites him with Bandits‘ Barry Levinson (and we all know how that turned out) has been bumped until next year. The sci-fi drama Vice reunites him with The Prince director Brian A. Miller, who might be better suited to being a miller than a director. And Labor of Love reunites him with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable director M. Night Shyamalan, whose last six movies (Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and After Earth) have been much more laborious than lovable.

Oh well, at least Bruno’s got his music career to fall back on…

Robin Williams’ Haunting Swan Song

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The Angriest Man in Brooklyn isn’t a great film. It isn’t even a very good one. But it is the last one of Robin Williams’ to be released before his death, and it contains more than a few chilling moments, seen in tragic retrospect.

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams), the mercifully brief, 83-minute dark comedy opens with a flashback of Williams and Melissa Leo—who’d co-starred with him in a searing episode of Homicide: Life on the Street as well as playing First Lady Mamie Eisenhower opposite his Ike in Lee Daniels’ The Butler—from 1989. It’s an idyllic scene of a married couple with their kids in a park, and Williams’ first and only line is “I’m happy.”

Flash forward to 2014. Williams’ character, Henry Altmann, is stuck in traffic and listing in his head everything he hates. He gets into a fender bender with a cabbie, who tells him, “You’re dead!” Shaken, he goes to the E/R, where a depressed doctor (Mila Kunis, way over her head in this role, but since she was an exec producer of the film, who was going to stop her from casting herself?) discovers he has an aneurysm and angrily blurts out a premature diagnosis: He only has 90 minutes to live. Before bursting out of the hospital, Henry snarls, “Excuse me for dying!”

Henry decides he needs to go home and make love to his wife, from whom he’s been estranged ever since the death of one of their two sons. He discovers she’s been having an affair with an elderly neighbor (Bob Dishy), and after an argument, she screams, “I wish you would die!” His response: “Well, it’s your lucky f—ing day!”

After failing to reconcile with his surviving son (Hamish Linklater, who also co-starred with Williams in his ill-fated 2013-14 sitcom The Crazy Ones), who’d eschewed a law career to teach dance, Henry decides to throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge, pronouncing himself “irrevocably f—ed.” He jumps, but survives, and he explains in one of the film’s needlessly literary bits of narration, “When Henry Altmann fell from the bridge, time had slowed and it occurred to him that life didn’t have to be a burden, that life was short and fragile and unique and that each hour, each minute, each second could have something to offer, something beautiful and astounding.”

Kunis’ character rescues Williams and after he and his son share a sweet final dance, he checks into the hospital, where we’re told he lived for eight more days and mended fences with his family. Williams’ last, beyond-the-grave voiceover resonates eerily: “He was at peace, knowing he would live on in the hearts of those who loved him.”  One can only hope the same could be said of Robin Williams.

“Very Good Girls”: Very Bad Movie

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I’m not going to waste much time writing about Very Good Girls, since the chances aren’t very good that you’ll ever see it: It’s been available On Demand for weeks and received a cursory theatrical release over the weekend. The only reason you might be tempted to go see it, or more likely order it, is the cast: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen star as New York City high-school seniors who resolve to lose their virginity before they go off to college. While that may sound like a 21st century version of Little Darlings, the result is far less fun.

The belated directorial debut of screenwriter Naomi Foner (better known as Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal’s mom than for her scripts to Running on Empty, Bee Season, etc.), Very Good Girls wavers uneasily between romantic comedy, as both young women fall for the same pretentious creep (Boyd Holbrook, Olsen’s real-life fiance), and feminist melodrama, as both women fall for the same… you get the picture.

In Foner’s overly schematic screenplay, Fanning and Olsen come from polar-opposite families: Fanning’s uptight-shrink mother (Ellen Barkin) and father (Clark Gregg) don’t want to talk about anything, even after they separate due to his infidelity; Olsen’s hippie-dippie parents (Richard Drefyuss and Demi Moore, an odd couple if ever there were one) never shut up.  All the characters are paradoxically both overcooked and underdone, and you’re left feeling unsatisfied, like you didn’t have a full meal.

Or at least that’s how I felt. The woman I watched it with, herself a psychologist, enjoyed it more than I did and understood why these two attractive, intelligent young woman would jeopardize their friendship by pursuing the same very bad boy. So maybe I’m just not the target audience for this chick-shtick flick.

It would take a team of psychologists, however, to determine why Foner would cast her own son-in-law, Peter Sarsgaard, as a pervy tour-boat operator who hits on—and ultimately makes out with—Fanning’s teenager. Also, to determine why Sarsgaard’s character was by far my favorite one in the film. Maybe I just like Peter Sarsgaard? Sometimes a Sarsgaard is just a Sarsgaard.

Tales of Philip Seymour Hoffman

 

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When Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose in February, I was angry, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill what-a-waste rage about the years of great performances he was denying his fans by selfishly cutting his life short with a drug overdose. And I was a big fan, although not necessarily of the performance most people cite as his best, in Capote, which I considered atypically showy; I preferred his subtler but no less magnetic turns in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

I was mad at Hoffman for abandoning his three kids, having witnessed first-hand the damage heroin addiction can do to a family (not my own), but that still didn’t explain why I was having so much difficulty working up any sympathy, muchless empathy, for a man who was universally considered a tragic figure. And I needed to work up some sympathy, as I’d been assigned to write a tribute to Hoffman for TV Guide Magazine‘s Oscar issue.

Then I had a breakthrough: I was furious with Philip Seymour Hoffman because I identified with him so profoundly, and I didn’t want to admit it. We were nearly the same age (although he was a year younger), we were both single dads (although he had one more child than I do) and worked in creative professions, primarily in New York City. And I, too, at times in my life, have engaged in self-indulgent behavior (although I’ve never used heroin, or anything close to it) that could’ve threatened my ability to take care of my family. And only then was I able to come up with a line that summed up the tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman: He could conjure his demons on screen, but he couldn’t conquer them in real life.

That line echoed in my head as I watched two of Hoffman’s last performances, in wildly disparate roles: as a wily German intelligence agent in the John Le Carre thriller A Most Wanted Man and a hapless Philadelphia criminal in John Slattery’s big-screen directorial debut, God’s Pocket. Neither is a perfect film: A Most Wanted Man takes too long to move all of its chess pieces into place and God’s Pocket’s underwritten script (adapted from a Pete Dexter novel) isn’t nearly as good as its cast, which also includes Richard Jenkins (who brilliantly humanizes the cliched character of an alcoholic newspaper columnist), Slattery’s Mad Men costar Christina Hendricks, and a cadre of top-notch, gritty-inner-city-drama character actors (John Turturro, Eddie Marsan, Domenick Lombardozzi, Peter Gerety, et. al.).

But Hoffman’s performances are damn near flawless. Even with a wacky, not-quite-German accent, he’s beautifully modulated in Most Wanted, slow-burning to a final explosion. He was an actor who could do so much with so little, and if anyone knows how little action is often required in intelligence work, it’s Le Carre, who documents the intelligence gathering and analyzing without resorting to James Bond-style derring do. That plays right into Hoffman’s acting-is-reacting wheelhouse.

So, too, does his role in God’s Pocket as a two-bit low-life whose ill-fated quest to find out the truth behind the death of his wife’s son (Caleb Landry Jones) at a construction site mostly consists of asking friends for favors and making bad bets, both of which result in only creating more mayhem, none by his own hand. As he watches it all spin out of control, Hoffman’s absolutely riveting. And that’s one mark of a great actor: He doesn’t have to do anything to command your attention.

Compounding the tragedy of Hoffman’s loss, millions more moviegoers will witness his upcoming performances in the last two Hunger Games films, parts of which will be computer-generated due to his mid-production demise, than will ever see A Most Wanted Man (even though it performed strongly, finishing in the Top 10 in limited release this weekend) and God’s Pocket, which barely got a theatrical release and is already available On Demand. It’s sadly ironic, because there was nothing computer-generated about Philip Seymour Hoffman: He was flesh and blood, flaws and all.

Did I Love Scarlett Johansson’s “Lucy”?

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No. No, I did not. Why not?

Because you can’t spell “ludicrous” without L-U-C. As in Luc Besson, the Euro-trashmaster behind such overrated, over-le-top cult faves as The Professional and The Fifth Element. (And, yes, a good film or two, like the original La Femme Nikita.) Besson specializes in kick-ass female heroines and mind-numbingly stupid plots.

Lucy is the apotheosis of Luc-y-ness. Scarlett Johansson—she of the pillowy, pillowy, pillowy lips and the gravelly, Elizabeth Ashley-gargling-Drano voice—emptily ebodies an American expatriate in Paris who’s drafted by her inexplicably scuzzy boyfriend to deliver a briefcase to an Asian crime lord. Somehow this leads to her being turned into a mule for a synthetic drug that allows users to access more than the average 10 percent of their brains. The substance leaks, and she starts mutating into a superpowered avenger (not to be confused with the superpowered avenger, Black Widow, she plays in The Avengers and Iron Man and Captain America and… oh, never mind).

She hooks up with Morgan Freeman as a pioneering brain scientist (didn’t he just go down this road to nowhere with Johnny Depp in Transcendence?), and her exploits are intercut with nature footage of leopards preying on antelopes, rhinos screwing, dinos devouring each other and the first female, an ape-like creature named, you guessed it, Lucy. Besson’s airy-fairy montages play like bad outtakes from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (and that movie’s in-takes weren’t great either). Call it The Shrub of Life. Oh, and when Freeman starts talking about how dophins use 20 percent of their brains, you may think—nay, wish—that you stumbled into a sneak preview of his upcoming Dolphin Tale 2.

As Lucy’s use of her brain capacity increases, the not-so-special effects look like something an 8th-grader could do on their laptop, and the screen periodically flashes percentages—20, 30, 40%, and so on. That only makes you realize how much of this brain-dead movie is left to endure. After a while, you start to feel a sensation similar to watching a photograph upload from your phone to Facebook. You watch the completion bar slowly, slowly, slowly move near completion, but it never seems to happen fast enough.

When Lucy nears maximum capacity, she foolishly starts to wear an unflattering Bettie Page-like black wig and attains the ability to transport herself to anywhere at any time. She chooses to go all the way back to the past to meet, you guessed it, Lucy. But just as she’s about to be devoured by a dinosaur, she quickly swipes her hand to the left and returns to the present, eliminating the prehistoric era like an eon-spanning iteration of Tinder.

After threatening us with the specter of a sequel, Lucy (the pillowy-pillowy-pillowy-lipped one, not the ape woman) tells us that we were given our brains millions of years ago, and now we finally know what to do with them. Job 1: Don’t waste two hours of your life watching Lucy.

Why James Garner Was a “Game” Changer

Skin GameAs I mourn the passing of my favorite actor, James Garner, I watched one of his films I’d never seen before: the 1971 Western comedy Skin Game. What a revelation! It’s a bold, ballsy farce about race, class and gender in the Civil War era. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was made by Garner’s Cherokee Productions (the actor’s maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Native American). Off-camera, Garner bravely blazed trails in the arenas of civil rights (he helped organize Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington) as well as actors’ advocacy (he sued Warner Bros. and Universal for unpaid profits on Maverick and The Rockford Files, bettering the lives of many of his colleagues). And though it’s little remembered today, Garner’s Skin Game prefigured at least five major pop-cultural landmarks.

1. Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged that his slavery-themed dark comedy was inspired by the tale of a con man (Garner, flashing his Maverick charm) and a free black man (Lou Gossett) who ride from town to town swindling would-be slave buyers. While not nearly as blood-soaked as Django, Skin Game does feature a daring scene in which Gossett guns down a brutal slave trader (Ed Asner) and keeps on shooting, even after his target is dead.

2. 12 Years a Slave. Many moviegoers were shocked to learn the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man from New York who was captured by slavers in Confederate territory and forced into bondage. But they might not have been if they’d seen Skin Game‘s story of Jason (Gossett), a highly educated African-American from New Jersey who’s befallen by the same fate. While in captivity, Jason falls for a beautiful young black servant (Brenda Sykes) who bears more than a passing resemblance to Oscar winner Lupita N’yongo’s Patsey.

3. All in the Family. Okay, this one’s a bit of a stretch, but Paul Bogart—who had previously directed Garner in the supercool 1969 private-eye drama Marlowe—made Skin Game before going on to direct 97 episodes of the classic sitcom, which broke ground with its frank depiction of racism. (Go ahead, call me a Meathead!)

4. Blazing Saddles. While its comic tone isn’t nearly as wild as in Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western spoof, Skin Game laid the foundation for the story of an African-American sheriff (Cleavon Little) with its blackfish-out-of-water premise. Working under the pseudonym Pierre Martone, screenwriter Peter Stone—the scribe behind 1776—wasn’t afraid to use the n-word, just as Brooks did. Not to mention Tarantino again…

5. Roots. It’s not just that Gossett plays a slave, like he did as Fiddler in the milestone miniseries, or that Asner (who won an Emmy as slave-ship Capt. Thomas Davies) plays a sadistic trader. The scenes in which Garner is stripped and whipped, and Gossett is threatened with death if he ever dares to speak proper English to his “owner,” are every bit as potent as the indelible image of Levar Burton’s Kunta Kinte being tortured into accepting his slave name of “Toby.” That was no game, but there’s no question Skin changed the racial rules.

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