The Films of 2020: Standing Up, Falling Down (dir by Matt Ratner)

Having failed to achieve his dream of becoming a comedy superstar in Los Angeles, 34 year-old Scott (Ben Schwartz) returns home to Long Island.  How bad are things for Scott?  Consider this:

When he left for Los Angeles, he left behind Becky (Eloise Mumford), despite thinking that he was in love with her and despite her asking him to stay.  While he was in L.A., he purposefully chose to not respond to her attempts to get in contact with him because he was determined to move on with his life.  Now, he’s back and he’s wondering what could have been.  As for Becky, she’s now an acclaimed photographer and she’s married to a surfer named Owen (John Behlman).

All of his old friends are now married and have families and don’t really have time to hang out with a 34 year-old who is still struggling with adulthood.

When Scott returns home, he moves back in with his parents.  His mother (Debra Monk) spoils him while his father (Kevin Dunn) barely says a word to him.  Scott announces that, even though he knows he needs a job, there’s no way that he’s going to go to work at his father’s lumberyard.  His father says that’s not a problem because he wasn’t planning on offering Scott a job in the first place.

Scott’s sister (Grace Gummer) is also living at home and is stuck in a less than glamorous job but she’s dating Ruis (David Castaneda), an extremely charming security guard who is loved by everyone who meets him.

And, to top it all off, Scott has developed a rash of some sort in his arm!

In fact, the only positive development in Scott’s life is that he’s made a new friend.  Marty (Billy Cyrstal) is a bit older and he’s an alcoholic but he also has the best weed and he’s full of good advice.  On top of that, Marty’s also a dermatologist and is willing to just give Scott the medicine for his arm free of charge.  Marty becomes a bit of a mentor to Scott.  Of course, Marty has demons of his own.  His first wife committed suicide and his second wife died of stomach cancer.  His own son refuses to speak to him and won’t allow him to see his grandson.  Marty’s drinking isn’t the quirky character trait that it first appears to be.  Instead, it’s what he does to deal with the pain and the guilt that he carries around with him every day.

Standing Up, Falling Down is an occasionally effective and occasionally awkward mix of comedy and drama.  As a character, Scott can occasionally be a bit hard too take.  It’s one thing to have trouble accepting the fact that you’re getting older while it’s another thing to be in your mid-thirties with the maturity level of a 13 year-old.  At times, Scott seems to be so helpless that you find yourself wondering how he survived in Los Angeles for as long as he did.  Fortunately, Ben Schwartz is an appealing actor and the film doesn’t make the mistake of trying to idealize Scott’s lack of direction.  You find yourself sincerely hoping that Scott will finally manage to get his life together, even though you know he probably won’t.

The big surprise of the film is Billy Crystal, who gives a genuinely good and complex performance as Marty.  Like Crystal, Marty is a bit of an attention hog and occasionally seems a bit too satisfied with his jokes.  However, the film also explores why someone like Marty always feels the need to be “on.”  The best moments in the film are the ones where Marty quietly considers why his life has reached the point that it has.  In the film’s quieter moments, there’s a lot of sadness in Crystal’s performance.  The scene where he unsuccessfully tries to get his son to talk to him is absolutely heart-breaking, all the more so because Cyrstal downplays the scene’s potential for sentimentality.  Right when you’re expecting schmaltz, Crystal instead holds back.  With just the slightest change in his facial expression, Crystal immediately tells us everything that’s going on inside of Marty’s head.  It’s a truly good performance.

Standing Up, Falling Down is a low-key, occasionally effective dramedy.  Not all of it works (I could have done without Scott harassing his sister’s co-worker at the pretzel place) but it has a good heart and an unexpectedly great performance from Billy Crystal.

Icarus File No. 4: Captive State (dir by Rupert Wyatt)

Does anyone remember Captive State?

Captive State came out in March and, before it was released, it seemed like it had the potential to be something special.  The trailer looked good.  The cast was impressive.  Perhaps even more importantly, the film was directed by Rupert Wyatt, who did such a good job with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.  Surely, if anyone had the talent to create a convincing film about life under an alien dictatorship, it would be Rupert Wyatt!

In fact, my only reason for concern had to do with when the film was being released.  March seemed like a very strange time to be releasing a big “event” film.  Don’t get me wrong.  A March release isn’t as bad as a January or even a February release.  I mean, unless your film is a romantic comedy, you definitely do not want it to be released in either one of those two months.  Those months are where studios dump their worst films so that they can die a quiet death.  March, on the other hand, is when the studio releases films that have the potential to be a success but which they’re still not expecting to set the world on fire.

Of course, there have been exceptions to that rule, as both Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel) and Jordan Peele (Get Out) can tell you.  So, as Captive State’s release date approached, we were left to wonder.  Would this be another case of a film being better than it’s release date or would this be just another forgettable but not terrible movie that the studio probably spent a bit too much money on?

Captive State, sadly, turned out to be more of a case of the latter than the former.

The film opens with Chicago being invaded in 2019.  Significantly, unlike other recent invasion films, this one doesn’t spend too much time on the invasion itself or Earth’s initial attempts to fight back.  Instead, it jumps forward eight years, to 2027.  The aliens are in control of Earth, though the aliens themselves claim to only be “legislators” who are governing the planet for our own good.  While the majority of Earthlings just seem to be resigned to accepting being conquered as their new normal, there are a few resistors.  There’s also quite a few collaborators.  The tricky part of life in 2027 is figuring out who you can and can not trust.

There’s a lot of characters in Captive State and, at times, it can be difficult to keep track of how everyone’s related and who is working for who.  However, that seems to be intentional on the film’s part.  Rather than telling a conventional tale of alien conquest, Captive State sets out to be a serious exploration of what life would be like for the people living under the thumb of not just an intergalactic dictatorship but actually any dictatorship.  The Legislators rule by fear.  The collaborators have their own individual reasons for collaborating but, now that they’ve declared which side they’re on, there’s no going back for them.  One way or another, they’ve sealed their fate.  The same can be said for those in the rebellion.  Meanwhile, most people are just trying to not get caught in the crossfire.

And the thing is …. you want the film to work.  It’s an intriguing idea and how can you not respect that fact that Wyatt wanted to try to do something a little bit different with his story of alien invasion?  But sadly, the film never works the way that you’re hoping it will.  The film tries to do a lot in just 109 minutes.  In fact, it probably tries to do too much and, as a result, there’s little time to get to know the characters, the majority of whom come across as being underwritten and with murky motivations.  Captive State hinges on the actions of a detective played by John Goodman but the film itself doesn’t seem to be sure of who Goodman’s supposed to be.  Hence, the film’s final twist seems to come out of nowhere.  It’s hard not to feel that the ideal way for Captive State to have told its story would have been as a 10-episode miniseries on HBO.  Trying to stuff all of this into under two hours of running time just doesn’t work.

And it’s a shame, that it doesn’t.  Ambition should never be faulted.  If only the results, in this case, lived up to the ambition.

Previous Icarus Files:

  1. Cloud Atlas
  2. Maximum Overdrive
  3. Glass

Horror Film Review: Stir of Echoes (dir by David Koepp)

It’s blue collar horror!

As the 1999 film Stir of Echoes shows, ghost don’t only haunt the rich and famous.  Sometimes, they haunt ordinary guys who live paycheck to paycheck and just want to be able to take some pride in having a home that’s free of secrets and evil spirits.  “Ghosts, they’re a real pain the ass sometimes, y’know what I’m saying?”

For instance, in Stir of Echoes, Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky.  Tom is a phone lineman who lives in Chicago.  Tom wishes that he could have been something more than a phone lineman.  He wishes that his band could have taken off and he could have been a rock star.  But, now Tom’s reached his 40s, he’s got a wife named Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), a son named Jake (Zachary David Kope), and another child on the way.  So, he works hard and then he comes home and he has a beer and sometimes, he might go to a high school football game.  It’s not a glamorous life but at least it’s something with which Tom can be happy.

Of course, then Tom makes the mistake of going to a party that’s being given by his friend, Frank (Kevin Dunn).  When Maggie’s sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), says that she knows how to hypnotize people, Tom scoffs and challenges her to hypnotize him.  Lisa does so and, the next thing that Tom knows, he’s sitting there with tears in his eyes and everyone laughing at him.  Even though it was only a few seconds to Tom, he was apparently under hypnosis for quite a while.  He talked about being bullied as a child.  He stuck a safety pin through his hand.  He even accepted Lisa’s suggestion that he “try to be more open-minded.”  Upset over being revealed to be vulnerable, Tom leaves the party.

Tom soon learns what it means, in his case, to be more open-minded.  Soon, Tom is hearing voices and seeing what appears to be the ghost of a teenage girl in his house.  He starts to have disturbing and violent visions.  When Tom tries to pretend that nothing’s wrong, Jake tells him that it’s okay because he can see the ghost as well.

Growing obsessed with his visions, Tom is soon tearing his own house apart in an attempt to discover what the spirits are trying to tell him.  Is Tom truly seeing ghosts or, as so many in the neighborhood suspect, is he losing his mind?

When I first started rewatching Stir of Echoes for this review, I have to admit that I was a little bit concerned.  Kevin Bacon is one of the most likable actors on the planet and this film is usually cited as featuring one of his best performances but, in the first few scenes, he seemed to be almost going a little overboard with the whole “I’m just a working class guy” routine.  But, as the film progressed, I actually came to realize that Kevin Bacon was giving a brilliant performance.  The fact that he played Tom as being so rational and almost boring during the first half of the movie made it all the more effective when he started tearing his house apart during the second.  During those scenes, Bacon plays Tom as not only someone obsessed with discovering the truth but also as someone who just wants his life to be normal again.  If he has to destroy his life to get it back, that’s what he’s going to do.

(That said, my favorite character in the film was Lisa, mostly because we share the same name and she was played by the brilliant Illeana Douglas.  The thing I loved about Lisa is that, when she was informed that she had messed up Tom’s mind, she was both sorry and proud of herself at the same time.)

Stir of Echoes is still a frightening film, one with plenty of jump scares and a subtext of paranoia as it’s revealed that both the neighborhood and Tom’s friends are full of secrets.  Because they both came out in 1999, it often gets compared to The Sixth Sense.  I like The Sixth Sense but I actually prefer Stir of Echoes, just because it’s not quite as self-important as M. Night Shyamalan’s film.  The makers of Stir of Echoes didn’t set out to change the world.  They just wanted to make a scary ghost story and they succeeded.


Film Review: Ashby (dir by Tony McNamara)


At first glance, Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff) seems like your typical nerdy high school student.  An introvert who has a hard time making friends, Ed is a talented writer but what he really wants to do is play for his school’s legendary football team.  One thing that sets Ed apart from cinematic nerds of the past is that he is not lacking in confidence.  He’s shy but he understands what he’s capable of accomplishing.  He knows he’s a good writer.  He also know that he has the potential to be a good football player.  When he crashes the team’s practice and manages to talk Coach Burton (Kevin Dunn) into giving him a shot, Ed proves that he’s the faster than anyone else on the team.  And when one of the other players starts to bully him, Ed has no trouble convincing the quarterback to stand up for him.  After all, as Ed explains it, if Ed’s not in a good mood than he’s not going to catch anything that the quarterback throws.  And if Ed doesn’t make those catches, the quarterback won’t have a good game and, if he doesn’t have a good game, he won’t get any scholarship offers.

At first, Ed’s determination to play football horrifies both his mother, June (Sarah Silverman), and his best (and only) friend, Eloise (Emma Roberts).  June is a single mother who terrifies Ed by openly discussing her sex life with him.  Eloise, meanwhile, is a self-styled misfit who is nicknamed “weird girl” by Ed’s fellow jocks.  It’s only after they see Ed playing on the field (and, not coincidentally, making the winning catch), that June and Eloise start to support Ed’s athletic dreams…

Meanwhile, Ed is getting to know his neighbor, Ashby (Mickey Rourke).  Ashby is a former CIA agent who has just been informed that he has only a few months to live.  Ed needs to talk to an old person for a class assignment.  Ashby needs someone to drive him around town.  At first, Ashby refuses to open up to Ed but slowly, Ashby starts to lower his defenses.  Ashby is soon coming to Ed’s football games, flirting with June, and serving as a substitute father figure.

Of course, Asby is also murdering people.  Though Ed doesn’t know it, the reason that Ashby keeps asking him for a ride is because Ashby is determined to track down and kill three men who he feels betrayed him.  Ashby does this with the full knowledge that eventually, the CIA is going to send somebody to take him out…

Ashby is a mix of genres that don’t really go together.  It’s a gentle coming-of-age comedy that’s also a violent revenge thriller.  The end result is an extremely messy film that never finds a consistent tone.  And yet, at the same time, that inconsistency is a part of the film’s strange charm.  The film is so determined to make its oddball mix of genres work that you actually do find yourself rooting for it, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.  Ashby is one of those films that shouldn’t work and yet, somehow, it does.

Some credit for that has to go to director Tony McNamara.  He directs with a good eyes for detail (the satiric portrayal of both high school and suburbia feels totally authentic) and he keeps the action moving at such a quick pace that you really don’t have time to obsess over the film’s mishmash of themes and tones.

Even more credit, however, I think has to be given to the cast, all of whom show an admirable commitment to bringing their eccentric characters to life.  Mickey Rourke’s plays Ashby as if he might be a distant relation to his character from The Wrestler while Sarah Silverman is so perfectly cast as June that you occasionally find yourself wishing that the entire film could be just about her.  I’ve lost track of how many times Emma Roberts has been cast as a quirky high school girlfriend but she still brings as much depth as she can to her underwritten character.

Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Nat Wolff, who was so good (as was Emma Roberts) in last year’s Palo Alto.  Wolff’s character in Ashby may not have much in common with the sociopath that he played in Palo Alto or the blind friend he played in The Fault In Our Stars, but Wolff brings a sly charm to all three roles and that charm convince the audience to not only accept but even embrace some of the film’s inconsistencies.  Nat Wolff truly holds Asbhy together, helping the film to survive some of its more uneven moments.

Ashby has been given a limited theatrical release and is available through VOD.  It’s definitely an uneven film but it’s worth seeing.

Shattered Politics #54: Dave (dir by Ivan Reitman)

Dave Poster

Way back in 1919, the terrible U.S. President and tyrannical dictator Woodrow Wilson* suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed and unable to perform his duties.  By all standards, Wilson should have been removed from office, if just temporarily.  However, in those pre-Internet days, it was a lot easier to hide the truth about Wilson’s physical and mental condition.  While Wilson spent his days locked away in his bedroom, his wife Edith would forge his signature on bills.  Whenever anyone asked for the President’s opinion, Edith would give her opinion and then assure everyone that it was actually the President’s.

(And really, as long as you were promoting eugenics and white supremacy, it probably was not difficult to imitate Wilson’s opinions.)

Of course, back then, people were used to the idea of never seeing their President in public.  Hence, it was very easy for Wilson to remain sequestered in the White House.  If a similar situation happened today, it’s doubtful that anyone could successfully keep the public from finding out.  When we don’t see the President every day, we wonder why.  How, in this day and age, could a Presidential incapacitation be covered up?

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

Dave is the story of two men who happen to look exactly like Kevin Kline.  One of them is named Bill Mitchell and he’s the arrogant and corrupt President of the United States.  The other is named Dave Kovic.  He’s a nice guy who runs a temp agency and who has a nice side job going as a professional Bill Mitchell imitator.

So, when Bill has a stroke while having sex with a white house staffer (Laura Linney), it only makes sense to recruit Dave Kovic to pretend to the President.  White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella, so you know he’s evil) tells Dave that Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) is insane and corrupt.  Dave agrees to imitate the President.  Of course, Alexander’s main plan is to convince Nance to resign and then get Dave to appoint him as Vice President.  Once Alexander is Vice President, it will be announced that Mitchell has had another stroke and then Alexander will move into the Oval Office.

However, what Alexander did not take into account was just how much Dave would enjoy being President.  From the moment that he joyfully shouts, “God Bless, America!,” Dave’s enthusiasm starts to win the public over.  Suddenly, people are realizing that President Mitchell isn’t such a bad President after all.  Even more importantly, Dave wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver) who, previously, had little use for her philandering husband.  When Alexander claims that there’s no money in the budget to continue funding a program for the homeless, Dave calls in his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), and has him rewrite the budget…

And you know what?

Dave is one of those films that tempts me to be all cynical and snarky but, ultimately, the film itself is so likable and earnest that I can even accept the idea that one accountant could balance the budget through common sense alone.  I’ll even accept the idea that Dave could come up with a program that would guarantee everyone employment without, at the same time, bankrupting the country.  Kevin Kline is so enthusiastic in the lead role and the film itself is so good-natured that it almost feels wrong to criticize it for being totally implausible.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a film for being likable.


* For those of you keeping count, that’s the third time in two weeks that I’ve referred to Woodrow Wilson as being  a dictator.  Before anyone points out that some historians rank Wilson as being in the top ten of President, allow me to say that I don’t care.  I DO WHAT I WANT!

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)

For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd

Trailer: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Official Theatrical)

OK, this latest trailer for Michael Bay’s third entry in the Transformers film franchise looks to try and ask forgiveness from it’s fans about what had transpired with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (cough, cough…Twins). This latest trailer looks to mine the current alien invasion trend happening in Hollywood for the last year or two.

I’m not going to say that Transformers: Dark of the Moon will be in the running for Best Picture, Best Screenplay or even Best Acting awards come awards season, but I do get a feeling from this trailer that this third entry will be darker and infinitely more fun and watchable than the second film. I actually think that Dark of the Moon is the true first sequel to the first film and that Revenge of the Fallen never occurred.

The look of Shockwave (one red-eye) is pretty awesome as are the look of the invading Decepticons (or are they another faction). I remember talk of Unicron (the giant planet transformer) was to appear in this film but I’m not sure if Unicron will appear as a planet or that giant snake-like transformer that was giving that Chicago high-rise a major case of the hugs.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is set for a July 1, 2011 release date.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Super Bowl TV Spot)

I think most everyone will admit that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t very good and to some people it was just one piece of turd. Even Michael Bay himself has admitted that the first sequel just tried to do too much without any sort of plan on how to pull it off.

Now, we have the third film and what looks like, at least from the trailer, may be a tad better. There seems to be more focus on the transformers themselves and the two sides fighting it out with lots of human collateral damage.

I sure hope this third film is not going to be like the second and more like the first but this time with invasion to make it more epic. The film comes out on July 1, 2011.