Not So Secret Santa

Office Christmas Party

by George Wolf

They say bad things happen when the copier goes down.

When it’s fully operational at the Office Christmas Party …well, those aren’t TPS reports.

Clay (T.J. Miller) is the Chicago branch manager at a big tech company who wants to throw a Christmas party like his Dad did back in the days when employees “got drunk before noon.” Trouble is, since Dad died Clay’s sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is CEO and she wants to fill Clay’s stocking with budget cuts.

In fact, Carol might close the entire Chicago operation down unless Clay, Chief Tech Officer Josh (Jason Bateman) and IT wiz Tracey (Olivia Munn) can find a way to land the multi-million dollar account of Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance). Their standard pitch to Davis is less than persuasive, so what’s left to do but impress him with office camaraderie at an epic holiday bash?

Despite warnings from an HR head (Kate McKinnon) who wants a non-denominational mixer and hangs up “think of your family” signs, the staff naughty list starts getting crowded.

The premise (from the guys behind The Hangover) seems a perfect fit for this talent-laden ensemble. It might fit too well, as even the steady amount of laughs the film lands feels a tad disappointing.

I mean, if you need a wisecracking nice guy, a mean-spirited boss with sarcastic bite, and a Tommy Boy for today, Bateman, Aniston and Miller should be on speed dial.

Plus there’s a break room full of winning side characters. From Karan Soni’s guy-with-an-imaginary-girlfriend to Rob Corddry’s embittered lifer to Jillian Bell’s curiously polite pimp and beyond, entertaining impressions are mined from limited screen time by people clearly trained to do just that. And McKinnon? There may not be a better scene-stealer around, and you’re afraid to look away for fear of missing even the subtlest of gags.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) and their team of writers manage some passing nods to cutthroat corporate culture and political correctness, but thankfully don’t try to overthink things. Just let these ponies run. And though I’m guessing there was plenty of inspired improvisation (stay for the in-credits gag reel), even their best peaks can’t hide some valleys in the script.

But hey, it’s the holidays, be of good cheer and ride out them out for the payoffs. Office Christmas Party supplies them, even if, like that end of the year bonus, you were hoping for a little more.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

Oh Baby

Storks

by Cat McAlpine

“Where do babies come from?” Multiple sources, apparently.

Storks have been out of the baby business for a few decades, and Junior is up for a big promotion at CornerStore.com. To prove he’s ready to be the head honcho, he simply has to fire Tulip the Orphan (and human). When Tulip accidentally makes a baby (at the baby factory, of course!) Junior suddenly finds a few more obstacles between himself and his promotion.

The plot becomes increasingly convoluted. The baby is destined for the Gardener family, comprised of two busy parents and one lonely child. There’s a bizarre pigeon character. The talents of Keegan-Michael Key (Alpha Wolf) and Jordan Peele (Beta Wolf) are utterly wasted in a wolf pack that has one joke and runs with it. And runs with it.

To be fair, this is a children’s movie. The children in the audience thought the wolves were hilarious.

Written by Nicholas Stoller and co-Directed with Doug Sweetland, Storks’ greatest strength is its self-referential humor. When Sarah Gardner (Jennifer Aniston) takes out a chimney with one swing of a hammer, she comments to the effect of “Wow. That is… that is not a well-made chimney. I mean, I’m a pretty small woman and that just came right down.”

It’s the talent of Andy Samberg (Junior) that elevates Storks from a middling animated film to something enjoyable. His impeccable comedic timing and improv skills shine through, making Junior complex and a little dark.

It’s hard to tell, with an animated feature, how much comedic timing is in the hands of the voice actors, and how much can be attributed to the animators and sound mixers. But, the general speed of dialogue overall is another defining quirk of Storks. Much of the repartee happens at breakneck speed, which gives the effect of wit, even if wit isn’t present.

Stoller and Sweetland take a stab at diversity that earns a light golf clap at best. In montage scenes babies appear in all colors, but also with an array of unrealistic hair colors (pink, blue, green). All the speaking characters (human), minor or major, are white.

If I had screened this film at home, I probably wouldn’t even raise the issue. Instead I sat in a theatre filled with families and their children infinitely more diverse than those on screen. A little black girl, no more than four, shuffled past me with her father to go to the bathroom, and I wondered “Does she see herself as a background character?”

You can point to Disney’s Home (2015) or The Princess and the Frog (2009) for black lead characters, but two versus a genre isn’t much. You can point to even less for Asian Americans, Indian, Native American etc. The white kids own the industry.

It’s not that an all-white cast is necessarily unrealistic; it’s unnecessary. Only a quarter of the children in the theater were truly represented on screen. In 2016, this makes me very tired.

Parents won’t find Storks hard to watch alongside their children. But, Storks lacks the mastery to rocket into the all-star league with contemporaries like Finding Nemo (2003), Zootopia (2016), or even the same studio’s Lego Movie (2014).

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Not Too Sweet

Cake

by Hope Madden

Jennifer Aniston has spent the last couple years shedding her golden-girl-next-door image with bawdy comedy roles in the Horrible Bosses franchise and We Are the Millers, as well as a handful of indie flicks. Through the journey she’s successfully mined new area in comedy, but her latest, Cake, shows she has unplumbed depths of talent in drama as well.

Aniston plays Claire. Suffering with chronic pain as well as deep emotional scars, Claire is a self-described raging bitch. Acid tongued and brutally frank, she’s not a favorite with her support group. Or with her physical therapist. Or with much of anybody, really, until she develops an unlikely (and highly contrived) relationship with the widower of another support group member (Sam Worthington).

The film, directed by Daniel Barnz (Beastly), wants to meander through Claire’s unconventional journey, allowing events and details to evolve sloppily, as they do in life. But it doesn’t succeed. Instead, it creates a highly unlikely series of coincidences and relies on Aniston’s formidable performance to make the linkages feel both natural and surprising.

He’s treading similar ground as John Cameron Mitchell’s poignant 2010 effort Rabbit Hole, but Cake suffers a great deal by comparison. Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin are trying too hard. Their scenes feel forced, the relationships inauthentic.

Aniston, on the other hand, is as real as she can be. Her performance is unapologetic, as it should be. Grief isn’t flexible. It doesn’t change shape or appearance just to make the people around it more comfortable. Aniston understands this character, what she’s going through and why she’s behaving as she is, and she doesn’t judge her. More importantly, she doesn’t give a shit if you do.

Her supporting cast is stocked with talent, but only the great Adriana Barraza gets the opportunity to build a real character with a real relationship to Claire. And while even Aniston relies heavily on the words on the page, Barraza can convey everything she needs with a wearied look or a reluctant gesture.

We know Aniston’s cute, but the truth is, she has been proving herself a genuine talent for years. Unfortunately, she made far too many far too safe choices as the adorable romantic lead, and they did not pay off.

Now she’s taking real chances, and though Cake is not an exceptional film, Aniston’s performance is a revelation.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

2015 Oscar Nominations and Snubs

The Academy takes some punches every January as the rest of us scratch our heads over the films and performances they deem most deserving of recognition, and even more questionable, those they believe are not. 2015 is no different. The Oscar nominations reveal much deserved love for Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but where is Selma?

Yes, Ava DuVernay’s visceral and all too relevant film on Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery earned – and we mean earned – a best picture nomination, but where was its original screenplay? It should be sitting where Foxcatcher sits.

Equally wrong-headed is the exclusion of the faultless DuVernay among the ranks of directors. Though The Imitation Game was a wonderful film and Morten Tyldum offered superb helmsmanship, that should have been DuVernay’s slot.

Best Actor is usually a loaded category, and 2015 is certainly no exception. Still, Selma’s David Oyelowo and Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal deserved spots instead of Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell and perhaps even Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game.

Again, both performances were great and both films were great, but Oyelowo and Gyllenhaal really needed to be noticed, and quite honestly, Oyelowo may have deserved the win.

Perhaps the most baffling exclusion is The LEGO Movie from the best animated film category. How is this even possible? It’s a better animated film than absolutely anything else on the list. We’re thrilled at the inclusion of both The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea and wouldn’t remove those, but Big Hero 6 was one of the blandest and most derivative animated efforts in years and has no business in the same area code as an Oscar nomination.

Amy Adams and Jennifer Aniston could be miffed at being left off the best actress list, but to be honest, it wasn’t an especially strong year for that category. Either could be swapped in or out for almost anyone else on the list, with the exception of Julianne Moore. While Still Alice is not the strongest performance of her career, and it not actually an exceptional film outside of her work, she’ll finally win an Oscar this year, so thank God for that. Quite honestly, We’d have given one of the nominations to Essie Davis for her superior work in The Babadook, but that’s just dreaming on our part.

And while we’re in fantasyland, We’d have given Tilda Swinton a nom in the best supporting actress category for her turn in Snowpiercer. It may be simply tradition to offer Meryl Streep a seat at the table every year, and she certainly was fun to watch as the witch in Into the Woods, but Swinton was more fun and more deserving.

The major nominations are below.

BEST PICTURE
American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

BEST ACTOR
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
JK Simmons, Whiplash

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Emma Stone, Birdman
Keira Knightly, The Imitation Game
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

DIRECTOR
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Like Your Crazy Uncle Frank

Horrible Bosses 2

by George Wolf

After trying to kill your boss and getting away with it, the sensible career choice is clearly self employment. That’s the plan for the three bumbling schemers in Horrible Bosses 2, a film with scattershot hilarity that can’t quite match the success of the original.

Nick, Kurt and Dale (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, respectively) have a great new plan for business success and surprise, it’s legal! Their new “shower buddy” invention looks promising, so all the guys need now is a big investor, and their days of working for someone else will be history.

Things look good when business tycoon Bert Hansen (Christoph Waltz) puts in a big order, but when he pulls out and leaves the boys high and dry, their criminal minds take over. After an inspired brainstorming session, they decide to kidnap Hansen’s obnoxious son Rex (Chris Pine) and hold him ransom for a payback payday.

Hard to believe, but the plan goes quickly sideways, and to stay ahead of the law and out of the morgue, the boys turn to some old friends: Nick’s former boss (Kevin Spacey), Dale’s sexual harasser (Jennifer Aniston) and the trusted criminal adviser “MF” Jones (Jamie Foxx).

Most of the original writing team is back for the sequel, but their script is lighter on laughs and heavier on convention, relying on the cast to just squeeze out laughs whenever they can. With this cast, that’s a safer bet than most. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day are flat out funny, and their wonderful chemistry is anchored by flawless timing that is just a kick to watch.

The supporting trio of Foxx, Aniston and Spacey is nearly as good, and Pine blends in nicely with the stable of returning castmates. Only Waltz seems out of place, his usual greatness wasted in a very limited role.

You know that crazy uncle you still invite over for Thanksgiving because, even though he can be offensive and tedious, he’s still funny and likeable?

That’s Horrible Bosses 2.

Pass the peas (and stay for the credits).

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Skip the Guitar Parts

 

by George Wolf

 

Maybe the thing I appreciate most about We’re the Millers is the acoustic guitar.

The music provides an unmistakeable cue that it’s time to quit joking about family ties and get real about real feelings that are real. Just know these moments won’t last too long, and then it’s back to some pretty damn funny business.

Jason Sudeikis (SNL/Horrible Bosses/engaged to Olvia Wilde/life is good) plays David, a small time pot dealer in debt to a big time pot dealer (Ed Helms, possibly confusing those who still think he and Sudeikis are the same person). To stay alive, David just has to cross the border and bring back ” a smidge, maybe smidge and a half” of weed from Mexico.

He figures a vacationing family would attract less attention down Mexico way, so he recruits a local stripper (Jennifer Aniston) to pose as his wife. After rounding out the faux family with a nerdy neighbor (Will Poulter) as their son, and a young runaway (Emma Roberts) as their daughter, its time to pack up the RV and hit the road!

The four-man writing team at work here sports a decent résumé, featuring screenplays for Hot Tub Time Machine, She’s Outta My League and Wedding Crashers. If those don’t exactly go straight to your funny bone, or more pointedly, if you frown upon the raunchy, stay far away from We’re the Millers.

Otherwise, the film gets better as it moves along. The contrivance needed for some of the gags is usually wiggled out of pretty deftly, as director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) shows a nice feel for the pacing needed to sell this premise.

Aniston, as she did in Horrible Bosses, proves extremely likable digging into a character’s dark comedic edges. True, playing a stripper offers yet another chance to serve up the cheesecake, but as well as she’s aging, it’s hard to blame her.

She and Sudeikis display a nice chemistry, especially when they’re bein’ bad, and they get solid support from Kathyrn Hahn (“AN-y-th-in” from Anchorman) and Nick Offerman (TVs Parks and Recreation) as fellow RV travelers with surprises for everyone.

There are also a couple “breaking the fourth wall” moments, and some great outtakes as the credits roll. Pandering? Sure, but funny.

The main problem is simple inconsistency. The successful skewering of family cliches is interrupted by awkward reminders that families really are good! Nice is nice and all, but when you hang with We’re the Millers, naughty is where the fun is.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars