Friday, December 09, 2016

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY: A Wasted Opportunity To Have Fun With Wasted People

Now playing at a multiplex near us all:

(Dirs. Josh Gordon & Will Speck, 2016)

s a kid, I believe that I learned from Mad Magazine, and various other satirical sources, the clichés associated with office Christmas parties – i.e. employees getting blind drunk, shedding their work attire, Xeroxing their asses, throwing office equipment out the window, and having sex with people they normally wouldn’t. 

They’re all here in this new raunchy comedy from Josh Gordon and Will Speck, the filmmakers behind BLADES OF GLORY, THE SWITCH, and that failed Cavemen sitcom that was spun off from a series of GEICO ads (not exactly a shining pedigree, huh?).

So if anybody can take those familiar tropes and make them funny all over again, the over qualified comic cast assembled here surely can. You’d think, right?

But despite the best efforts of Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, Rob Corddry, and a couple of SNL ladies, Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer, this is a forgettable romp with as many uninspired gags as there are predictable plot mechanics.

Bateman, who’s fifth film this is with Aniston, plays the newly divorced Josh Parker, a Data Storage Solutions CTO at Zenotek, a Chicago based tech company run by Miller as branch president Clay Vanstone. Clay’s sister, Carol (Aniston), is the corporation’s CEO, and she’s threatening to close her brother’s branch down or firing 40% of the staff unless they can land a major client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), and score a $14 million contract.

Carol also forbids Clay and his staff from having a Christmas party this year. Of course, they ignore her and plan on throwing the biggest bash ever complete with a live nativity scene with actors, a DJ (Veep’s Sam Richardson), and water coolers filled with liquor, in hopes of impressing their potential client.

If only hilarity ensued instead of a bunch of predictable, unfunny story strands like the one about the IT head (Karan Soni) who hires a hooker (Abby Lee Kershaw) because he lied to his co-workers about having a girlfriend, or the one about Bayer looking for love with office mate Randall Park only to find he has a weird fetish, or the one about McKinnon’s HR manager Mary shedding her PC-obsessed, by-the-book nature and getting her party on.

There’s even the old standby of having two characters, Bateman’s and Munn’s, getting locked out together on the roof so that realize they’re supposed to be together.

Although there’s lots of shots of nudity and abundant profanity, the movie really isn’t that raunch-minded. It’s oddly more concerned with the stakes of trying to save the company via some internet server deal that Munn’s Tracey has been developing while the over-the-top destruction of their office space goes on in the background (in another worn out convention, everyone in Chicago has been invited to the party thanks to social media).

There are intermittent laughs with random one-liners landing and some successful sight gags, but overall this is a wasted opportunity to really have fun with wasted people.

This year seems to have seen every kind of bad comedy there is, so the naughty, R-rated Christmas comedy genre is represented here. I bet the after effect for the cast, who will all undoubtedly go on to better things, will be much the same as for a real office Christmas party, let’s all forget that any of that embarrassing stuff ever happened and get back to work.

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Casey Affleck Carefully Carries The Moving MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Now playing at an art house or multiplex that's probably in your vicinity: 


(Dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Honestly, Casey Affleck never really made much of an impression on me before. He’s done some solid work in a bunch of films, especially as the lead in his brother Ben’s GONE BABY GONE, but I never really thought of him as one of the better actors of his generation or anything.

His impressive performance in writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, definitely changes that, and helps me to understand fully why there’s major Oscar buzz brewing.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a sullen janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts, who we meet as he does his rounds. We get his daily routine – he takes shit from tenants, he gets shit about his attitude from his boss, and he ends the day getting shit-faced and starting fights at his neighborhood dive bar.

Then one day, Lee gets a call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, playing a guy with his same last name - deal with it) had a heart attack and is in the hospital, and he immediately jumps in his truck and travels to Manchester by the Sea, the small seaside town where Lee previously lived we learn from flashbacks.

Lee gets to the hospital to find that his brother has died, and that he needs to see about taking care of arrangements which includes looking after his 16-year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

At a meeting with his brother’s lawyer (Josh Hamilton) about the will, Lee is stunned to find out that he’s been made Patrick’s legal guardian, and we are even more stunned to see Lee’s flashbacks to the tragic incident that killed his two daughters, and destroyed his marriage to his devastated wife, Randi (Michelle Williams).

This, the film’s central sequence, is heart wrenching to endure, but extremely necessary as afterwards the strong sense of what tortures Lee can be felt in every Affleck affectation. Lee’s reluctance, or fear, to be a father figure to Patrick makes for some awkward moments between them, but they are real feeling portrayals of tension between family members dealing with a difficult transition.

As Affleck’s Lee is the dominating protagonist, Williams’ Randi gets a lot less screen-time, but the actress does a lot with it. Randi, now remarried and pregnant, calls Lee to ask if it’s okay if she goes to Joe’s funeral. Lee says it’s fine, and they hug when they encounter each other at the ceremony. They also run into each other later, but it would be a Spoiler to touch on that any further.

Anyway, Lee and Patrick argue over where they’re going to live as Lee doesn’t like the idea of relocating from Quincy so the film last act deals with how these people come up with a plan to go forward.

At one point, Patrick wants to go live with his mother (Gretchen Mol), a recovering alcoholic gone devout Christian who’s now living in the suburbs with new hubby Rodney (Matthew Broderick), but after an uncomfortable dinner scene, that doesn’t seem to be an option.

The unpretentious, and moving MANCHESTER BY THE SEA takes its time getting to its moments of insight, but it’s never boring along the way. It’s a well paced, lovingly detailed portrait of people trying to move forward even when they have no clue as to how.

carefully measured performance is indeed Oscar worthy. I may be realizing now that what he does may be so subtle that I’ve just never seen it before.

Williams also inhabits her part with conviction and the appropriate pathos. It may be a glorified sideline role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she scored a Supporting Actress nomination as other brief but potent performances have garnered the same (see Beatrice Straight in NETWORK, and Viola Davis in DOUBT).

In addition, Hedges succeeds in being a not too self conscious representation of a modern teenager - which is no mean feat. 

In general, the excellent work that Lonergan, the cast, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, and composer Lesley Barber have all done here deserves all the accolades and Academy Awards it will likely get.

Now, I must note that there’s controversy surrounding a sexual harassment case against Affleck over alleged behavior on the set of I’M NOT HERE, his odd 2010 mockumentary with Joaquin Phoenix, that threatens to derail his Oscar chances.

Since it’s been settled, I doubt this film will have the same sad fate as BIRTH OF A NATION, because Affleck’s offences are less extreme than Nate Parker’s, and because the idea that Affleck’s character here is a damaged soul plodding forward after a horrible mistake is what makes this the intensely relatable, realistic experience that it is.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016


Now available on Blu ray and DVD:

(Dir. David Mackenzie, 2016)

I saw this movie during its theatrical run earlier this year, but never got around to blogging about it. I figured that it’s is a good time to catch up with it now because (1) it was recently released on Blu ray and DVD (2) it’s the #1 top grossing independent film of 2016 (3) it’s an excellent film that’s one of the year’s best.

With the theme of robbing-the-banks-because-they’re-robbing-us, Director David Mackenzie’s film posits Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Texas brothers who carry off a crime spree that involves them hitting a bunch of branches of the fictitious Texas Midlands Bank that’s set to foreclose on their recently deceased mother’s property by the end of the week.

The plan is the brainchild of Pine’s Toby Howard, a divorced father who can’t stand the idea that will soon own his family’s long-held land due to a reverse mortgage. Toby’s brother Tanner (Foster) was just released from prison, and is more than happy to go along with Toby’ Robin Hood-esque scheme simply because he’s a born outlaw.

On the boys’ trail is a Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who is, of course, on the verge of retirement with this being most likely his last case. Bridges’ gruff yet extremely laid back Hamilton is what you may call jokingly racist, as he constantly makes cracks about his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), being of Mexican Indian descent, but you can tell he’s just playfully riffing on stereotypes when he says “I’m lucky, I got a half-breed by my side to avenge me – if you can stay sober long enough, know how you injuns like the bottle.”

Hamilton deduces that the armed, masked men who are robbing Texas Midlands are trying to raise money for something, and he and his partner stake out a branch in a small town that seems likely to be hit next.

Except for a sequence involving Tanner and Toby taking their stolen loot to be laundered at an Indian casino in Oklahoma, we spend nearly equal time with the cops and the robbers.

We learn that Tanner had gone to jail for killing their abusive father, and that Toby has an angry ex-wife (Marin Ireland) and two sons that he’s determine to provide for. On the law enforcement side, Hamilton is a widower who’s not looking forward to his retirement, while Parker is a family man who dreams about moving to Galveston for a life spent fishing.

There are traces of the Coen brothers’ seminal modern western masterpiece NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in this movie’s blood, but it’s a quieter, more restrained narrative without the Coens’ trademark dark humor edge.

Although there is a element of the Coens’ cynicism in such scenes as when the brothers’ helpful lawyer (Kevin Rankin) says “To see you boys pay those bastards back with their own money? If that’s not Texan I don’t know what is.”

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who’s collaborated with Mackenzie on several projects, paints a wide West Texas landscape sparsely decorated with billboards advertising debt relief, diners populated with complaining patrons, and sassy waitresses; and yellow fields stretching to the horizon.

As clichéd as these characters and their environs might sound, SICARIO screenwriter Taylor Sheridan unpretentiously fleshes out these people’s scenerios, giving every speaking part believability. Despite the tension in the robbery scenes, and the shoot-out in the hills climax, there’s a low-key tone that’s reflected in the convincingly lived-in performances.

The effectively eerie piano and violin score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, along with a well chosen collection of country songs by such artists as Townes van Zandt, Gillian Welch, Waylon Jennings, and Billy Joe Shaver scattered throughout the soundtrack, fit the film perfectly. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s over 20-year old dirge “Dust of the Chase” in particular sounds like it was written for the film with its line: “lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

All of these delightful details come together to make a truly poetic film about poetic justice.

The on-point, socially conscious piece of modern western work that is HELL OR HIGH WATER definitely deserves some award season action – I’d love to see Bridges score another Oscar or at least a nomination – and its place on many critics’ year end “best of” lists (it’ll be on mine).

In a fairly lackluster year for film, Mackenzie’s exceptionally well made movie really stands out. Here’s hoping it gains traction as more folks see it and find it as satisfying as I did.

Special Features: The featurettes “Enemies Forever: The Characters of HELL OR HIGH WATER,” “Visualizing the Heart of America,” and “Damaged Heroes: The Performance of HELL OR HIGH WATER,”; a brief segment of the Red Carpet Premiere in Austin, Texas, and a 30-minute Filmmaker Q & A filmed at a Los Angeles screening hosted by Time Magazine’s Sam Lansky featuring Mackenzie, Bridges, Pine and Birmingham.

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