Tag Archives: Jake Johnson

Sex, Truth and Videotape

Ride the Eagle

by George Wolf

Small casts working on limited sets with wide open spaces. We’ve seen plenty of these films lately, and we’ll see plenty more. Because even under pandemic rules, creators adjust and create.

Director/co-writer Trent O’Donnell and star/co-writer Jake Johnson adjusted to the tune of Ride the Eagle, a lightly sweet lesson in living your best life while you still can.

Johnson is Leif, a harmless California stoner who plays bongos (oh, sorry, “percussion”) in a band called Restaurant. Leif’s been estranged from his mom Honey (Susan Sarandon, in a role that seems tailored to her) since she left to join a cult when he was 12.

But now, Honey’s dead, and she’s left behind a couple things especially for Leif. The first is her sweet mountain cabin up near Yosemite, which he can take possession of only if he pays close attention to the other thing Mom left.

It’s a VHS tape, filled with a to-do list that comprises Leif’s “conditional inheritance.”

“Is this legal?” Apparently, it is.

And luckily, Mom’s VHS player isn’t dead. So Leif dutifully goes about the tasks that Honey hopes will teach him things she regretfully did not: express yourself, eat what you kill, call the one that got away.

Sarandon’s on tape, and ex Audrey (a charmingly flirty D’Arcy Carden) is on phone and text, so this is nearly a Johnson one man show. Good thing he’s in his likable comfort zone, using his talks with dog Nora as an endearingly organic way to both inform and crack wise.

It’s all perfectly warm and amusing, but in need of precisely the jolt delivered by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons as Carl, Honey’s ex-lover who’s not shy about detailing their love life.

“That’s probably not what her son wants to hear, I guess.”

No probably not, but we do. Simmons’s cameo punctures the bubble by putting two humans in the same room to reflect on the passing of another human. It’s funny and it’s fuzzy and it goes a long way toward making sure these ruminations on forgiveness and regret actually resonate.

The Honey do list isn’t preaching anything new, but Johnson and O’Donnell never pretend that it is. Ride the Eagle is a casual, come as you are and wherever you are affair, like some comfort food two guys thought was worth another serving during a worldwide crisis.

And they’re not wrong. Some golden rules are always worth a rewind, even on VHS.

Ride the Eagle comes to theaters, VOD and digital July 30th

Across the Universe

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

by George Wolf

Should we really be surprised a spider-based franchise has so many legs?

It wasn’t that many years ago when Spider-Man 2 was the conventional wisdom pick for all time best superhero flick. Then last year, Homecoming erased the memories of some disappointing installments with a tonally perfect reboot.

And now, Spidey gets back to his animation roots with Into the Spider-Verse, a holiday feast of thrills, heart, humor and style that immediately swings to the very top of the year’s animated heap.

Teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore from Dope and The Get Down) is juggling a lot of teen drama. He’s trying to make friends at a new school, make nice with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and practice graffiti art with his cool Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), so he really doesn’t need to be dragged into an alternate universe with Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) right now, okay?

But, thanks to an evil plan from Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) and Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn), that’s just what happens. And before you can say quantum theory, Miles is meeting kindred heroes from all over the Spider-Verse, including another Spider-Man (Chris Pine), Spider-Man Noir (classic Nicolas Cage), anime version Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham, a hilarious Looney Tunes-style crime fighting pig (John Mulaney).

Writer Phil Lord follows his winning scripts for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie with an even bigger bulls-eye, one that manages to honor franchise traditions as it’s letting in some fresh, hip, and often very funny air.

In the hands of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, the story bursts to vibrant life. The dazzling animation gives a big soul kiss to comic books and pushes nearly every frame to its action-following limit.

This Spider-Man is filled with everything you want in a superhero flick today. There are compelling characters and engaging conflicts within a diverse climate, and a vital, clearly defined message of empowerment that stays above the type of pandering sure to bring eye-rolls from a kid’s b.s.detector.

And man, is it fun. That still works, too.





Don’t Touch Me

Tag

by George Wolf

The premise is ridiculous. It’s also attention-grabbing, and mostly true.

A film could have worse starting blocks, and Tag makes sure they’re put to good use. TV vet Jeff Tomsic flashes sharp directing instincts in his feature film debut, blending a snappy pace with sharp characterizations, some effective physical comedy and just enough heart for a solidly funny good time.

Five years ago, a front page Wall Street Journal article hipped the world to a group of 10 friends who’d been playing the same game of tag for over twenty years. Adhering to their original rules, and then amendments to those rules, they’d stalk each other every February.

For the film version, the month has changed to May and the group scaled down to the four (Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, Hannibal Burris and Jake Johnston) that think they finally have a plan to tag the fifth (Jeremy Renner), who has never, ever been “it.”

The WSJ reporter who tags along (Annabelle Wallis) becomes an effective device to organically handle the questions we’re wondering about, and the entire ensemble quickly establishes a chemistry that feels true.

Hamm, Johnston and Renner carve out layered characters with ease, while Helms and Burris are basically leaning on their usual, but reliably funny, personas. Nice assists come from Isla Fisher as Helms’s highly competitive wife, and some assorted memorable weirdos (Steve Berg, Nora Dunn, Thomas MIddleditch).

The script, from Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilin, stays funny and hip throughout, pausing just long enough to reflect on friendship and adulthood without getting sappy. It’s more than enough fuel for this likable ensemble to play with and come out a winner.

 

 





Digging Your Scene

Digging for Fire

by George Wolf

A strong ensemble cast and a crafty, improvisational script make Digging for Fire a new high water mark for a filmmaker inching cautiously closer to the mainstream.

For over a decade, Joe Swanberg has been a busy boy, serving as writer, director, actor, editor, cinematographer and more on various obscure shorts, mumblecore staples, and indie favorites. He’s probably best known for his role in the slasher flick You’re Next, but Swanberg’s 2013 effort Drinking Buddies earned him plenty of notice as writer/director with a refreshing voice.

Digging for Fire‘s cast is full of Swanberg favorites, led by Jake Johnson, who also helped write the script. Johnson plays Tim, who is staying with his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their young son Jude (Jude Swanberg, Joe incredibly cute son) In a swanky house they don’t own.

Lee teaches yoga in LA, and while some of her clients are away shooting a movie, Lee and her happy young family agree to house sit, where Tim promptly finds an old bone and a rusty gun while checking out the grounds.

As the weekend approaches, Lee leaves the boys at home to visit her parents, and then have a girls’ nite with an old friend. Tim promises to do the taxes while she’s gone, but he can’t get his mind off of his strange discovery. Once some friends come over and beer starts flowing, seeing what other secrets might be buried in the yard starts sounding like a great idea.

Both Lee and Tim find plenty of temptation in their respective adventures, and Digging for Fire becomes a quietly insightful take on managing priorities throughout the changing phases of life.

Swanberg’s camera often drifts without anchor, perfect for the bevy of recognizable faces that come and go (Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Sam Elliott, Orlando Bloom and more), some for only one scene. You can see why these talents are drawn to such a free-form filmmaking structure, and all are able to carve out memorable characters that influence the choices Lee and Tim are pondering.

Though obvious, Swanberg’s extended metaphor is effective, as responsibilities of marriage and family clash with the yearning for lost freedom. If you keep digging for something, you just might find it, and that can be playing with fire.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 





I’ll Have What She’s Having

 

by George Wolf

 

Hey look! It’s that hottie and that cutie, and the guy from Office Space and that other guy from TV in a romantic comedy about drinking beer. Nice!

Well, as it turns out, Drinking Buddies may not be quite what you’re expecting, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than a by the numbers rom-com with a comfortable ending designed to send the folks home happy, writer/director Joe Swanberg delivers a loose, observational drama that focuses on small moments in unfulfilled lives.

Olivia Wilde takes the lead as Kate, who works at a Chicago brewery with her best buddy Luke (Jake Johnson from TV’s New Girl). Though Luke is talking marriage with his longtime girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Kate has just started seeing Chris (Ron Livingston), the co workers continue to nurture their “why don’t they just do it already” friendship.

Though not quite a full on mumblecore project, Drinking Buddies certainly passes through the neighborhood. Many scenes meander with a highly improvised, aimless approach, while Swanberg keeps the film bathed in the gritty look of persistent realism.

The action rarely gets beyond hanging out, drinking, and talking about relationships, but you slowly come to appreciate how little the characters do what you think they will. After the two couples spend a weekend at Chris’s lakeside cabin, certain priorities are re-evaluated, and the film’s soft focus on the quest for knowing what you want becomes increasingly clear.

The actors all mesh well, with Wilde giving her most assured performance yet. Kate is a damaged soul, and Wilde is able to get beneath the “one of the guys” party girl persona to reveal  layers of vulnerability, hurt and anger.

Though it’s far from the When Harry Met Sally treatment of platonic friendships,  Drinking Buddies has a charm, wit and wisdom that may make it the perfect reboot for today.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars