On the Rocks Movie Review

In Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, Laura (Rashida Jones) spends a lot of unanticipated time with her wealthy and impulsive playboy dad Felix (Bill Murray). They share a mission to find out whether her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating and that’s a subject Felix considers himself an expert in. As they push forward in screwball comic fashion to get answers, Laura has some fun while recognizing the flaws of her paternal copilot. And that kind of describes the picture itself. It’s often fun because Bill Murray is by her side. The flaws are also on display. This is often a meandering and predictable journey with only occasionally insightful dialogue about marriage and father/daughter relationships.

Laura is a writer in New York City and Dean is constantly traveling as his business is beginning to flourish. We get a quick glimpse of their romantic wedding night before flashing forward to their domesticated existence with two young girls. She may be suffering writer’s block, but her imagination takes hold with possible hints of her partner’s infidelity. Felix is more than ready to help her get to the bottom of it all and is in fact the driving force to do so.

Those who follow Murray (and why wouldn’t you) should know the folklore of Bill Murray Stories. The legendary actor is known to be unpredictable by showing up unannounced at random parties and having odd and sometimes hilarious interactions with fans. Coppola, who directed him in the far superior Lost in Translation, cheekily plays with that persona here. When he’s speeding through NYC with daughter in tow in a red convertible and devouring caviar, I couldn’t help but think that might be something the actor might do. When they’re pulled over and he charms his way out of a ticket, the same rule applies.

In that sequence, watching Bill Murray in said convertible with said caviar and using his iconic charms to keep on speeding is pleasing enough. The same could be said for a scene where he regales a group of strangers who are now his friends with his energetic singing. It feels as if an outtake might have been committed to film. His chemistry with Jones is just fine, though I wouldn’t think too much about how fantastic his interactions with Scarlett Johansson were in Translation. Maybe that’s not fair as Rocks doesn’t aim near as high as that previous collaboration.

Towards the conclusion, Coppola squeezes in some decent material about how Felix has shaped Laura’s views on men. It helps explain the increasingly ridiculous amateur detective shenanigans they find themselves in. On the Rocks is certainly watchable and entertaining enough and it’s primarily due to the guy in the convertible. I just wish a better story drove the action.

*** (out of four)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Movie Review

A common (and sometimes warranted) complaint about Aaron Sorkin is that he needs a good editor for his dialogue. He absolutely has one in the presence of Alan Baumgarten in The Trial of the Chicago 7, his true life based drama that recounts a riveting and devastatingly unfair courtroom proceeding. With its sprawling ensemble cast, we see sequences from scene one where the principals are finishing each other’s sentences. Most of the players are on the same page in theory as they seek to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention while the Vietnam War roils on. How they achieve their point is where they diverge and Sorkin’s screenplay expertly shows that not all forms of protest seek to follow the same playbook. They may be using similar words, but their calls to action are often with different actions in mind.

Months after the convention, the newly sworn in Nixon administration wants to establish a law and order attitude that its leader was elected on in those turbulent times. The new Attorney General charges his prosecutors (led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz) to try a group of defendants who led unconnected factions in the summer of ’68. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the Yippies with their colorful outfits and outright disregard for authority. Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden heads up a more organized antiwar effort that looks to change politics via the ballot box. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a pacifist whose non-aggression stances included even World War II. And somehow Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is among the arrested group even though he was in Chicago briefly and has never met the other men.

The trial is presided by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose scorn for the accused is laid bare in his comments and rulings. There is a sequence, taken from history, where Seale is literally bound and gagged before the jurors and the American public. That was a shock to the collective system a half century ago and it plays that way today onscreen. His silencing is due to his lawyer not being present as he tries to represent himself. The rest of the group is defended by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a true believer in the cause who must navigate his way through his clients personalities and the judge who truly believes the opposite of his views.

For a director and writer who pens long passages of dialogue, Sorkin’s Trial is engrossing as we realize what’s not allowed to be said during it. Langella sinks his teeth into the part and you may find yourself verbally objecting to him. The cast’s standouts are the beleaguered Rylance and Baron Cohen. The latter is an inspired choice as he’s the most edgy actor of the bunch portraying the edgiest defendant in the mix (and perhaps the wisest overall). An interplay between his Hoffman and Hayden about the future of liberalism and how to make significant change could be an argument had in 2020. The real star of this movie might be the aforementioned Baumgarten, who cuts the flashbacks to what’s being talked about in court with engrossing efficiency.

There’s a lot of history (some of it altered for dramatic effect) to be unpacked in the 130 minute runtime. This is weighty enough subject matter that Sorkin’s patented righteous indignation doesn’t feel forced. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is right in his wheelhouse and my verdict is that it’s well worth experiencing this fascinating chapter.

***1/2 (out of four)

Hubie Halloween Movie Review

Adam Sandler doesn’t have many new tricks up his sleeve with his latest Netflix “treat” in Hubie Halloween. Here he employs his Waterboy voice as a self professed holiday monitor in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Hubie is a constantly bullied and goodhearted mama’s boy (also Waterboy shades) who is easily scared and easily grates on one’s nerves within moments. This is the typical streaming mediocrity we have come to expect from its star, but it’s slightly more of a letdown after the career best work we just saw from him in Uncut Gems. 

Collaborating with his frequent director Steven Brill, Hubie is squarely aimed at teens and Sandler diehards. There’s familiar faces galore and many of their characters are marked not by funny dialogue, but “funny” appearances. Kevin James (the town law enforcement) has funny facial hair! Tim Meadows has funny hair! Steve Buscemi has funny arm hair because he might be a werewolf! June Squibb (as his dear mama) wears funny t-shirts! Shaquille O’Neal has a funny voice in a bit that pays homage to John Carpenter’s The Fog (one of the few that I actually chuckled at).

As for plot, Sandler’s latest weird title character has to deal with an overstuffed amount of it. There’s his romantic subplot with his Happy Gilmore love interest Julie Bowen. We have a recently escaped patient from a mental institution. There are multiple tormentors of Hubie who get plenty of screen time, including Ray Liotta and Michael Chiklis. And it all happens on one long (and 102 minutes is too long here) Halloween day and night where Hubie’s constant sidekick is an all purpose thermos which serves soup, is a megaphone, and serves every other function imaginable.

Hubie Halloween isn’t awful (some other Sandler Netflix experiences are) as much as totally disposable. It’s as childish as the central character. Sometimes that works for this comedic performer with the right screenplay. This one, with a smattering of decent jokes, is mostly stuck in its own unfocused fog.

The main issue here is a familiar one. Sandler is either playing someone obnoxious or a buffoon. It’s the latter in this case and too often this latest buffoon just isn’t that funny. Even with all that supposedly hilarious hair everywhere.

** (out of four)

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The Assistant Movie Review

On Netflix’s popular series Ozark, the words of Julia Garner’s Ruth often speak louder than her actions. Her boisterous character serves as a de facto assistant to Jason Bateman’s beleaguered money launderer and the performance has earned her Emmys. The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green, finds Garner in a much different occupation in terms of duties and with her overall demeanor.

Jane works as a film production assistant to a mostly unseen and unheard big shot. She works long hours steeped in tedium as she cleans up the literal and figurative messes of her boss and his minions. From travel arrangements from their New York office to L.A. to making excuses to the whereabouts of her superior to his wife, this is not the dream job that Jane envisioned. Even her hopes that this is leading to something bigger and better seem to be diminishing.

The camera rarely leaves Jane on the Monday that the proceedings occur. Aspiring actresses flow in and a mysterious and very young new assistant is flown in from Idaho and put up in a fancy hotel. Sitting with her fellow junior staffers (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins), they develop a strained if well-meaning support system.

Yet our title character knows she’s in a hostile work environment. When Jane approaches the company’s HR head (Matthew MacFayden), it’s made chillingly clear that her complaints are falling on deaf ears. We get the idea that if she just keeps quiet, her mundane existence in this drab office will improve. At what cost? Her words and actions don’t matter.

Like that office, The Assistant is not flashy. The Weinstein type figure feet away from Jane’s desk is left to our imagination. All we have to see is her weary but expressive face to know that he’s dangerous. It is Garner’s performance, wildly different from her Ozark persona, that kept my attention. This is essentially a horror film where the scary incidents are usually hinted at or, more sadly, joked about. They develop over Jane’s long day where it seems the next day will be just as long and with no resolution in sight. That’s pretty frightening.

*** (out of four)

The Rental Movie Review

Well-known actors crafting nifty little suspense thrillers tinged with horror has become a thing lately (think John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place and Joel Edgerton’s The Gift). Dave Franco gets in on it with The Rental, which is swift in its running time and plentiful with twists that you see coming and some that are nicely rewarding. It also features a quartet of solid performers whose weekend getaway gives them far more than they bargained for.

Charlie (Dan Stevens) finds a swanky vacation house to nab for the weekend with help from his trusted assistant Mina (Sheila Vand). They’re celebrating something going right with their business and it’s good reason to let their hair down with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie, the director’s real life spouse). Mina happens to be dating Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) so he tags along with his puppy. Pets aren’t allowed at the establishment, but that turns out to be the least of their issues. For instance, there might be a psycho around and it’s not safe to be in the shower.

Upon arrival, the foursome confront the property’s caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss). The first problem is a racially tinged one. Mina, who’s of Middle Eastern descent, tried to rent the place and was promptly denied. Charlie had no such trouble. They decide to overlook that and the first night becomes an alcohol and designer drug filled party. This is where the aforementioned “twists” that follow are somewhat predictable in nature. However, the actors have a real chemistry with one another and you’ll want to see where it all leads.

Without venturing into spoiler territory, The Rental isn’t its eventual genre for about two thirds of its brisk 88 minutes. Credit is due to Franco and Joe Swanberg’s script for keeping the audience engaged in the dynamics of the four principals. Of them, it’s Vand who has the best role and she’s quite impressive.

When we arrive at the final third, the build up has been sturdy enough that we care about the fates of the characters as they navigate their way through dense fog and deeply personal conflicts. Franco has crafted a lean and effective directorial debut and its title is worth the price of one.

*** (out of four)

Last Christmas Movie Review

Last Christmas is an example of immense talent behind the scenes and blaring over the soundtrack resulting in a holiday concoction that just does not come together. It tries hard and it has attractive leads. Director Paul Feig has made rom coms successfully with Bridesmaids and shown range with 2018’s twisty humorous thriller A Simple Favor. Emma Thompson lends her writing skills and plays the over top mother to the lead character. And the film’s title is the eponymous 80s Wham! classic which plays frequently, in addition to numerous other tracks from the band and George Michael’s solo career.

This picture should work. My faith that it would did not last long. Emilia Clarke sheds her Game of Thrones image as Kate, an aimless Londoner who immigrated from Yugoslavia with her parents and sister. She spends her days working at a year round Christmas shop run by a quirky store owner who goes by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). In fact, nearly everyone is quirky in this screenplay. Even the homeless people at the shelter where Kate volunteers when she finally starts to have a heart. They’re homeless, but ya know… they’re fun homeless.

Speaking of having a heart, that’s a big plot point and I guess that’s all I can say without going into spoiler territory. Kate’s outlook on life begins to change when she meets the elusive Tom (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians and the aforementioned A Simple Favor). Their potential courtship is interrupted by occasional forays into commentary on immigration, mental health, a bizarre romance between Santa and a customer, and whatever George Michael ballad or uptempo tune fits the moment.

The result is a tonal mess even with the singer’s beautifully toned voice playing. I’m not a Scrooge. Thompson appeared in Love Actually and I ate that extravagant Yuletide offering right up. Despite the heart being in the right place of the filmmakers, Last Christmas mostly left me praying for my time back.

*1/2 (out of four)

Palm Springs Movie Review

Maybe it’s possible that the idea of living the same day over and over again is just something that resonates during these strange COVID-19 times. Or maybe Palm Springs really is a fresh and highly satisfying take on the Groundhog Day concept. I think it’s the latter and what a pleasant surprise.

You cannot have this plot without thinking of the incomparable Bill Murray comedy. The concept has repeated itself in the action and horror genres with Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day. Springs plays with the formula in unexpected ways. Another SNL alum headlines with Andy Samberg as Nyles. He’s the aimless boyfriend to younger Misty (Meredith Hagner) and he’s tagging along to her friend’s wedding in the title town. We realize quickly that something is really off with his behavior. It turns out that he’s already well along the way into his time loop and has been living this day repeatedly. This is the first realization that the screenplay from Andy Siara is playing by a different set of rules by dispensing with the origin story of Nyles’s Groundhog Day. This is a welcome change.

Sarah (Cristin Milioti, tough and sometimes vulnerable and terrific in this role) is the sister of the bride. She’s got character flaws equal to Nyles that aren’t because of the time loop. Yet that quickly changes when she joins him on the endless day. What follows is the duo attempting to figure out just what the heck is happening (the science fiction elements involve a mysterious cave and a goat).

They are occasionally joined in their adventure by another wedding guest Roy (J.K. Simmons, engaging as always) who got sucked into the vortex. It’s also possible that Nyles and Sarah are slowly – very slowly – falling in love. Or is it just that they only have each other in this untenable scenario?

The less said about how the plot rolls along the better. There are genuine revelations that I didn’t see coming, but it all fits into this clever version of a well-worn tale. This is the best Samberg has been on film and Milioti easily equals his work. We see this budding romance develop over many days, albeit the same one. As a credit to the whole team involved, it’s a lot of time well spent.

***1/2 (out of four)

Da 5 Bloods Movie Review

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods shows the filmmaker in peak form with a sprawling and powerful story of war and the residual results on its soldiers. The title characters are a quartet of African-American Vietnam vets and one who didn’t make it out of the jungle. This is a mix of numerous genres – traditional war movie, treasure hunt, and exploration of racial themes to name three. Throughout his career spanning five decades, Lee has never lacked in grand ambition. When he’s in his element, the end product is something to behold. For the majority of the running time here, that holds true.

Following a prologue showing significant moments in the civil rights Vietnam eras, we meet the four soldiers reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City half a century later. They are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis). The reasoning for the reunion is two-fold. Norman (played in flashback by Chadwick Boseman) was their squad leader who perished in battle. He was not just their leader in rank, but a mentor who tremendously shaped their overseas experience and beyond. The four remaining Bloods are there to retrieve his remains, but they are also looking to gather a large quantity of gold buried with him.

Da 5 Bloods is in many ways a concentration about what the group left behind. For Otis, this includes a girlfriend and child. For Paul, it’s no less than his sanity. His PTSD is severe and his character is quite a creation. Sporting a MAGA hat and a host of unresolved issues, his son David (Jonathan Majors) unexpectedly makes the trek to the former Saigon to join his unpredictable dad. The part of Paul is a well-constructed character. Yet much credit is due to Lindo, a veteran actor in the role of his career. Lindo delivers a couple of direct to camera monologues as the gold hunt takes unanticipated turns that are potent and riveting. Those moments will likely garner awards buzz for the performer and it’s deserved.

The supporting cast is impressive with Peters and Majors getting the most fleshed out characters behind Lindo’s. Jean Reno turns up as a Frenchman getting his cut of the gold and Melanie Thierry plays an activist dedicated to ridding the Vietnamese landscape of decades old landmines.

As mentioned, the use of flashback is employed and Lee makes a fascinating narrative decision here. While Norm is shown as his younger self, the four other actors are shown as is in the callbacks to wartime. This is a bit jarring at first, but it turns out to be a wise choice. As the story unfolds, we realize that it’s through the lens of their recollections of their hero Norm. The utilization of Irishman style de-aging or younger actors isn’t necessary.

Lee’s previous pic BlacKkKlansman told a tale from decades ago that resonates in 2020 (perhaps slightly more effectively). Same goes for Da 5 Bloods. Lee is an urgent director and we feel it throughout. With a commanding lead performance from Lindo, a fine score from Terence Blanchard, and a fresh take on the genre (s), Bloods is a vital watch.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Invisible Man Movie Review

Finding its source material from the H.G. Wells novel that spawned a classic from the heyday of the Universal Monsters movies, Leigh Whannell’s take on the subject matter spins a 21st century play to the mix. While the title character wreaks his havoc, it’s the central woman in the story who is truly invisible. This is a horror tale in the #MeToo era and an often potent one at that.

We open with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) trying to escape her abusive marriage in the middle of the night without being seen. Her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), we discover later, is a controlling and dangerous figure. He’s also a mega rich tech genius (think Tony Stark with far more personal demons). Cecilia manages to flee and stay with an old friend who’s also a detective (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter (Storm Reid). Afraid to even walk outside, her fears subside when Adrian is found dead of apparent suicide. The relief is short-lived when an unseen force starts stalking Cecilia yet again and all signs point to the apparently departed husband.

Whannell has been an integral player in the scares genre with his involvement in the Saw and Insidious franchises. He is a stylish filmmaker who knows how to construct a suspenseful setup. We have grown rather wearily accustomed to the jump scares that permeate these genre exercises. They are here, but I will say a couple of them really land the jab. There’s a scene in an upscale restaurant where still or sparkling water becomes an afterthought due to a genuinely surprising moment.

That scene and many others are tremendously assisted by the convincing and freaked out to the max performance of Moss. She conveys her fear of Adrian with wide eyed terror and, eventually, a resolve to change the power dynamic. The screenplay (from the director) smartly doesn’t employ flashback sequences to show her cycle of abuse. Her fear says enough. The two-hour running time is a bit out of the ordinary for this type of material and the final third is somewhat of a letdown when the plot becomes more literal with its explanations. However, with Moss’s work fully in control of her out of control situation, The Invisible Man is a creative modern rendering of a familiar monster.

*** (out of four)

The King of Staten Island Movie Review

Pete Davidson is not your average Saturday Night Live cast member. He is less known for characters he plays and is more known for essentially portraying himself on Weekend Update sketches. That includes warts and all with his much publicized romantic life, struggles with mental health and drug issues, and tragic family history. It is no surprise that Judd Apatow is the director to bring his semi autobiographical story to the big screen in The King of State Island. And the Apatow treatment comes with the high points of his previous efforts. It also comes with the warts and all of his pics that includes an unnecessarily lengthy running time and subplots that don’t really pan out.

The big screen treatment ended up being a misnomer since Island went the Video on Demand route due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Davidson is Scott Carlin, an aimless 24 year old living with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) in the borough where it is joked that New Jersey looks down upon. His little sister (Maude Apatow) is an achiever who is moving along to college. Scott’s longtime friend and sort of girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) is a glass half full type in contrast with his constantly half empty outlook. The similarities between Davidson and his character are hard to miss. Scott’s father was a firefighter who died in the line of duty and so did Davidson’s on 9/11. Substance abuse and effects of ADD are prevalent with Scott and, as mentioned, the actor hasn’t been shy about addressing those matters.

One key difference: Davidson has been a pop culture fixture on the famous sketch comedy show for a few years. The man he is playing isn’t accomplishing much of anything. His idea to open a tattoo parlor/restaurant is met with understandable skepticism. Scott’s arrested development is dealt a setback when Margie finds romance after 17 years of being a widow with fireman Ray (Bill Burr). Their courtship elevates his anxieties to a new level.

Apatow, over the past decade and half, has elevated numerous comedic performers to new heights. These include Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. The similarities here are most in line with the latter as Davidson’s known persona is put through the cinematic lens. As an avid SNL watcher, I have found his bits occasionally inspired and frequently a little grating. It is a credit to Apatow and Davidson that Island finds a balance that is primarily satisfying. However, that’s not to say there aren’t issues. Island is too long. A subplot regarding Scott and his buddies and a pharmaceutical heist could have easily been left on the cutting room floor. While it often deftly switches between humorous and serious segments, the tone shifts are not always consistent.

On the bright side, some scenes are quite well done. This includes a night out with Scott, Ray, and some fellow firefighters where his late dad’s angelic legacy is tarnished to his son’s delight. Every time romantic interest Kelsey (with a terrific performance by Powley) is around, it works. I actually found myself wishing Scott had more interest in her because she deserves more screen time.

Ultimately The King of Staten Island is vintage Apatow and that includes the glass being measured in both ways. Thankfully it is full for the most part.

*** (out of four)