Tag Archives: Steve Carell

Strange Bedfellows

Irresistible

by George Wolf

Some of the best moments during Jon Stewart’s years on The Daily Show happened when his guest was some smug politician who had not done their homework.

Because Jon always did his, and the squirming politico would realize pretty quickly that Jon could throw some heaters. This funnyman was whip smart, too, and pretty handy with the b.s. detector.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Irresistible, Stewart’s second feature as writer/director, employs some purposeful, intelligent comedy as it sets about skewering today’s ridiculous political climate.

Daily Show vet Steve Carell is Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer. Stinging badly from the 2016 election, he’s inspired by a YouTube video of a former Marine hero dressing down the city council in tiny Deerlacken, WI.

Zimmer decides right then that Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) and his “redder kind of blue” appeal could be the centerpiece of a new nationwide project to expand the Democratic base. And it all begins with getting Hastings elected Mayor of Deerlacken.

This does not go unnoticed on the other side. Once GOP strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) and her crew come to town, the Mayor’s race in Deerlacken starts carrying some pretty high stakes – including one hilarious sexual side bet between the two opposing operatives.

After an impressively dramatic filmmaking debut with 2014’s Rosewater, Stewart returns to the satirical stomping grounds where he became a respected (and, to some, reviled ) voice that drove many worthwhile conversations.

Though the bite of this screenplay may be a bit softer, his narrative approach betrays a long game that trades the sharper knives for the chance at a wider reach. Because the cure for what’s infecting American politics is not going to spread through niche marketing.

Sure, you could call that a sellout, and for the first two acts of this movie you might be right. The “all politics is local” premise is certainly not new, nor are many of the talking points. But thanks to the two veteran leads, those points are just funnier.

Carell’s default manner is perfect for the quietly condescending Zimmer, an elitist who confuses nobility with blind ambition, and somehow thinks he has a shot with the Col’s much younger daughter (Mackenzie Davis).

The real treat, though, is seeing Byrne finally dig into another role worthy of her comedy pedigree. With the right material, Byrne is a comedic MVP, as she reminds anyone who’s forgotten that fact by making Brewster one hilarious, shameless, priceless piece of work.

Stewart may be known for his progressive leanings, but both the left and the right are in his sights here, along with unchecked political cash and obsessive pundits complicit in fostering the fear and shame game.

Easy targets? Sure. But if you don’t think Stewart’s smart enough to know that, than you never saw him blindside a back-slapping incumbent on late night TV.

Irresistible caters to your expectations just long enough to make you think you knew where it was going all along. The unassuming way the film upends those expectations might seem overly convenient, but it feels right, as if Stewart is practicing what he is taking care not to preach. And that’s just what might make it hard for mainstream America to resist.

Trickier Dick

Vice

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Remember when the Vice President of the United States shot some guy in the face, and then the guy with the snoot full of buckshot apologized to the V.P. for all the trouble? That really happened!

When did the upper reaches of the Executive Branch go so brazenly corrupt, so treasonously, moronically, dumpster-fire-with-a-spray-tan wrong?

It’s not as recent as you think.

With Vice, writer/director Adam McKay remembers a time long before moronic presidential tweet storms, when the quiet, steady rise of a ruthless power broker rewrote American politics and changed the course of history.

V.P. Dick Cheney was often thought of as the de facto decision-maker in George W. Bush’s presidency, and McKay uses absurdist humor and a spellbinding cast to give that line of thinking a more weighty focus.

Christian Bale is characteristically flawless as Cheney. With added girth from (according to Bale) “eating pies” and the trademark Burgess-Meredith -as-the-Penguin speech pattern, the physical transformation alone is astounding. But it is the way Cheney’s cut throat ambition, scorched-earth power grabs and soulless devotion to ideology contrasted with his familial tenderness that Bale articulates so astutely.

Because of, or perhaps in spite of, his legacy, Cheney is a fascinating figure, and Bale makes that fact endlessly resonate.

But fittingly, Vice‘s secret weapon is Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne who commands the screen as equally as Bale. In a performance full of subtle power of ferocity, Adams casts Mrs. Cheney as a pivotal and equally ambitious partner in Cheney’s climb, publicly lessening his weakness as a politician and privately demanding his allegiance to their plan.

Bale and Adams anchor an utterly glorious ensemble (including Sam Rockwell as “W” and Steve Carrell as a dead ringer for Donald Rumsfeld) that—with the help of McKay’s blistering script and wise direction—utilizes comedy to inform, illustrate, and act as an outlet for the otherwise soul-blackening disgust one might carry around with them concerning the American political system.

In 2015, after a slew of directorial successes including Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, McKay redefined the term “filmmaker Adam McKay” with the blistering, cynical, hilarious, informative and angry The Big Short.

In an act of all out heroism or masochism, McKay did all he could to help us understand the housing collapse with that film. He so understood his material (dry) and his audience (confused/disinterested) that he would cut away periodically to let a bubble-bath-soaking Margot Robbie explain a bit of vocabulary.

It was perhaps his way of saying: This is really important, guys. Pay attention!

Turns out, McKay is just as pissed off about the polluting of American politics, with his conspicuous outrage and biting comic sensibilities again proving to be powerful fuel.

From the film’s false ending and sudden Shakespearean detour to the unapologetic face-shooting, Vice has a definite “can you believe this shit?” air about it, a nod to the need to laugh so you won’t start crying.

Thanks to McKay and his tremendous cast, you might just do both.





Little Women

Welcome to Marwen

by Cat McAlpine

Mark Hogancamp awoke from a vicious attack with no memory of his former life. He remembers, vaguely, that five men beat him to the brink of death, that they beat him because he drunkenly mentioned he liked to wear women’s shoes, and that one of his assailants had a swastika tattoo. The rest of his life has been left for Mark to piece together.

No longer able to draw as he once did (or even write his name), Mark finds a new art to work through his trauma. He models dolls after himself and women he knows. The dolls awaken in the town of Marwen every morning to fight five Nazis, again and again.

The real life story was the basis for the wonderful documentary Marwecol in 2010, inspiring director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis to craft his own narrative version,

Steve Carell does his level best as Mark, and connects with an impressive range. But he’s better than this film, and he’s better than this script.

Also occupying the town of Marwen is a mysterious Belgian witch whose obsessive grasp on Captain Hogie (Mark) is so obviously a metaphor for his addiction that she literally disappears from scenes by morphing into the pills Mark takes each morning. And yet, half way through the film, when he’s asked what real life woman the witch is based on, Mark says in wonderment “I don’t know. I don’t know where she came from.” Someone in my theatre laughed.

Welcome to Marwen’s greatest struggle is that it cannot commit to what it wants to be. Half of the film takes place with Mark’s dolls in Marwen, fully animated and pursuing comical fits of violence. The other half of the film follows Mark in real life as a lovable weirdo whose addiction to his medication and rampant PTSD don’t allow him to live far beyond the model village built in his yard.

The dissonance in the film comes from a holding back of sorts. It never gets quite as weird or fantastical as it could. The real world plot of Mark’s life is boring and predictable. The whole film feels like a concession between Zemeckis’s vision, and what he thought the audience might want to see. Instead, he ends up with something from an alternate universe Hallmark channel.

Worst of all, is the film’s bizarre commoditization of women. Mark fashions dolls from the hobby shop into sexier, more violent versions of women he knows in real life. None of these women seem upset or worried about their doll counterparts, disturbing though they are. Especially when one of the dolls is molded after his favorite porn star.

The film leads by making a joke of calling the women “dolls”, and then uses this joke to consistently refer to them as such moving forward. Twice Welcome to Marwen milks a joke out of a doll’s shirt being ripped open to expose her chest. Mark says he wears women’s shoes because he loves women so much, it helps him connect with their essence. His G. I. Alter Ego, Captain Hogie, screams in a triumphant moment, “Women are the saviors of the world!”

So. Mark can be celebrated for being brave enough to wear women’s shoes, but women’s clothing reduces them to sexualized objects.
Mark’s life seems to be defined by his failure to find a woman to love. His entire fantasy world is based on the idea that women can and will save him. The idea of women is celebrated, but women themselves are only treated as vehicles for romance or items waiting to be idealized. And there’s more. But a review should only be so long and disappointed.

Women aren’t here to fix you, or to save you. And they certainly couldn’t save Welcome to Marwen.





Love Is the Drug

Beautiful Boy

by George Wolf

Those of a certain age hear the title Beautiful Boy and most likely think of the John Lennon song, a sweetly poignant ode from father to son. It’s used to touching effect in the film that shares that title, an utterly heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful adaption of separate memoirs by David and Nicolas Sheff.

David was the proud father, a successful writer who dreamed of great things for his bright, ambitious son. Instead, Nic became an alcoholic and drug addict who offered his family countless  promises of recovery that always fell empty.

Two masterful performances drive this film to its emotional heights, keeping it steady the few times it teeters on slopes of undue manipulation.

Steve Carell makes David an instantly relatable mix of unconditional love and crestfallen confusion. As Nic’s addiction batters David’s homelife with his wife (Maura Tierney) and two young children, flashbacks to sweet memories with a younger Nic outline the bond between father and son that only grew after David’s split with Nic’s mother (Amy Ryan – also stellar). Carell makes it feel real with a thoughtful, often understated turn full of quiet detail.

And people, if last year didn’t hip you to the immense talent of Timothee Chalamet, he’s back to seal the deal with a performance certain to be hailed come Oscar time.

Just when you’re comfortable with the authenticity of Nic’s slide into addiction, Chalamet digs deeper to find the shattering center of a soul at war with dependence and desperation. Though his baby-faced smile stays miles away from meth addict ugliness, Chalamet finds a raw humanity that makes Nic a walking wound, and makes us feel part of the frayed parental bonds. His scenes with Carrell – where Nic tries taking advantage of his father’s love only to turn on him moments later – find two actors in complete sync, revealing a crushing humanity that hits you hard. Bring tissues.

There are two important stories here, and they only falter when it feels some intimacy from each has been shortchanged to make room for the other. Director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown), collaborating on the screenplay with Luke Davies (Lion), merges the dual memoirs for a series of episodes that resonate best when given room to breath, free of any heavy-handed reminders about how quickly children grow up.

Beautiful Boy illustrates a vital, shattering cycle of addiction, rehab and relapse, often beautifully. Through first-hand insight and two towering performances, it finds a thread of hope in the ashes of a family’s nightmare.

 





Bond of Brothers

Last Flag Flying

by George Wolf

“Men make the wars, and wars make the men.”

Last Flag Flying is a loving salute to the enduring nature of honor. Thoughtful and sometimes genuinely moving, it’s also not above getting laughs from three aging veterans trying to buy their very first mobile phones or arguing about the ethnicity of Eminem.

It is 2003, and Larry, aka “Doc,” (Steve Carell) is looking up two old Marine buddies for a very specific purpose. Doc, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) all served in Vietnam together, and now Doc needs his friends to help bury his son, who has just been killed in the Iraq War.

Once the men learn that the official story of the boy’s death isn’t exactly the real story, Doc declines a burial at Arlington, deciding to transport the body for a hometown funeral in New Hampshire.

Older gentlemen out for a wacky road trip? Is that what’s going on here?

Those fears are understandable but unwarranted, as director Richard Linklater confidently guides the film with gentle restraint and his usual solid instincts for organic storytelling. Some good-natured humor is framed from the three outstanding main performances, but it never derails the resonance of these characters grappling with the cyclical nature of sacrifice.

Linklater adapts the script with source novelist Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the 1970s servicemen-centered flicks Cinderella Liberty and The Last Detail. Last Flag Flying draws many parallels with the latter film, as it is not a stretch to see these characters as the Detail men taking stock of what the years have changed – and what they haven’t.

Though the perfectly-drawn contrasts of the three personalities seem manufactured at times, it matters less thanks to Carell, Cranston and Fishburne, who are never less than a joy to watch. You’ll need tissues handy for the touching final moments, but Last Flag Flying makes the tears, and the trip, worthwhile.





Anyone For Tennis?

Battle of the Sexes

by George Wolf

A fight for equality playing out inside sports arenas. Sound familiar? Battle of the Sexes isn’t just an effortlessly engaging piece of entertainment, it’s a compelling reminder that the sporting world has long been intertwined with the social and political movements of the day.

In 1973, Billie Jean King was 29 years old and the leading name in women’s tennis. Bobby Riggs was a 55 year-old former champion who missed the spotlight. As the “women’s lib” movement grew, they met for three sets of tennis that was watched by ninety million people.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) choose wisely in running the soul of the film through King. Bolstered by Emma Stone’s gracefully layered performance, the film’s emotional connection comes from King’s dueling inner conflicts: the responsibility of carrying the women’s game forward and her growing attraction to the tour hairdresser (an excellent Andrea Riseborough).

A taut script from the Oscar-winning Simon Beaufoy finds marks that often speak directly to today’s “stick to sports” crowd. In one particularly biting scene, a defiant King argues for equal prize money on the women’s circuit, telling the condescending director of the tour (Bill Pullman) that he’s a constant gentleman “until we want a bit of what you’ve got.”

As he was in the actual ’73 event, Riggs is the film’s camera-loving ringmaster, a born huckster who tells a recovery group they don’t need to stop gambling – they just need to get better at it. Steve Carell nails the role, and not just because he has the look and the attitude. In the quieter moments away from the cheering crowds, Carell gives us a faded star in search of purpose, finding the authenticity that Riggs leaned on to remain endearing.

The period details are just right and, thanks to some nifty work by two athletic body doubles, so is the tennis. Faulting only with some fleeting moments of flippancy, Battle of the Sexes wins by serving up both a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the human drama than ultimately made it so much more.

 

 





Evil Twin Powers…Activate

Despicable Me 3

by George Wolf

I’ll be honest, it took a little research before I remembered anything at all about Despicable Me 2 that wasn’t a minion.

And even when those little yellow scene-stealers got their own movie, the result was surprisingly mediocre.

The entire franchise has been memorable only for being so easily forgettable. So how’s part 3?

It’s fine.

Steve Carell returns as the voice of Gru, the super villain-turned good guy who’s now teamed up with wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) for double the secret agent heroics. And, their three adopted daughters are back to say “fluffyyyyyyyyy!’ and other adorable things.

The family ties get more tangled when Gru meets his long lost twin brother Dru (also Carell), who convinces him to return to the dark side and steal a massive diamond from an 80s-obsessed baddie named Balthazar Bratt (South Park‘s Trey Parker).

The writing and directing teams are full of animation vets who have been at least some part of every film in this franchise, so it’s little wonder DM3 can’t find ways to revitalize the brand. It doesn’t really want to.

While all the films have been pleasantly amusing, part 3 may actually land the greatest number of solidly funny gags. The “minions in prison” sequence is an inspired hoot, and an 80s dance-off between Gru and Bratt keeps silly going long enough for a decent payoff.

But again, while the latest Despicable Me will satisfy the kids with its frenetic zaniness and give the parents some escapist smiles, it might raise a question once part 4 comes calling.

“Which one had the twin brother again?”

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Housing Collapse Hilarity

The Big Short

by Hope Madden

Earlier this year, Adam McKay won the Hollywood Film Awards Breakthrough Directing trophy. Adam McKay – director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys – broke through just this year? How can that be?

If you think you know Adam McKay, you haven’t seen The Big Short.

With the help of just about every A-lister in Hollywood – including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale – he tackles the oft addressed yet rarely entertaining topic of America’s housing collapse. What he seeks to do, in as enjoyable a way as possible, is illuminate the truth of the whole sordid mess. And as his film points out in one of its appropriate screen titles: Truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry.

McKay cross cuts the stories of four different groups of outsiders who foresaw the housing collapse, learned of the unimaginable corruption that weakened the housing market in the first place, and took advantage.

Obviously McKay is known for comedy, and though this is at its heart a drama, the director’s conspicuous outrage as well as his biting comic sensibilities fuel the film, propelling it in a way that has been lacking in any other movie on the topic.

McKay knows this is dry stuff. He addresses that fact head on, stopping periodically to help you understand key terms and ideas with cut-aways. Margot Robbie sits in a bubble bath to define a term, or Selena Gomez uses black jack as a metaphor to explain another. It’s a cheeky, clever approach, but one that rings with a healthy sense of cynicism. He’s begging: Please, you guys, this is very important stuff! Pay attention! Get pissed!

Christian Bale excels as the socially awkward Dr. Michael Burry, the hedge fund investor who first notices the weakness in the US housing market. It’s not a showy performance, but one whisper-close to comedy. Pitt’s is an understated but needed presence – the film’s conscience, more or less. Meanwhile Steve Carell and Gosling again team up nicely as a couple of driven misfits reluctantly fond of one another.

McKay makes no one a hero – including the film’s heroes – and underscores the entire effort with sympathy for the abused working class victim of the eventual, global financial collapse.

Yes, it’s tough material, and even with McKay’s bag of tricks, he can’t always keep the content both clear and lively. But he makes a valiant attempt, one that proves he is more than just a funny guy. He’s a breakthrough.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Trading Olympic for Oscar Gold

Foxcatcher

by Hope Madden

Sibling rivalry, loneliness, competition and madness fuel director Bennett Miller’s award-worthy true crime tale Foxcatcher.

The film follows the events that unfolded as Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz, and later his older brother, gold medal winner Dave (Mark Ruffalo), get involved with sinister millionaire John du Pont, who’s looking to bankroll 1988 US Olympic competitors.

Tatum performs as we have simply never seen him before, a fact that may be outshone by the other two quite amazing performances. Tatum has proven himself a facile comic talent, but his dramatic skills to this point have been lackluster at best.Yet here he brings a brooding, insecure competitor to life in every facet of his performance.

The always excellent Ruffalo is likewise stellar as the more congenial, more talented of the brothers, and the two together create a realistic sibling bond, one as desperate for the other’s approval and help as he is to finally best him; the other a tender, protective mentor.

Joining them, Steve Carell is revelatory as John du Pont. Never transparent, offering no easy answers, equal parts monstrous and pathetic, Carell creates an enigmatic and unseemly presence that haunts the screen. His graceless chemistry with all cast mates creates an uneasy tension in every frame, though his scene with a marvelous Vanessa Redgrave is particularly intriguing.

One thing you can expect from a Bennett Miller film is his meticulous attention to the setting. Miller creates such rich yet understated contexts that the drama unfolding within that environment cannot help but feel authentic. Whether it’s small town 1959 Kansas rocked by murders in Capote or Billy Bean’s world of low rent MLB wheeling and dealing in Moneyball, Bennett shows such respect for the settings of these true tales that the stories immediately take root.

Foxcatcher benefits from his measured touch – from the spare score and the film’s unusual pacing to the embedded, inescapable symbolism he mines of the relationships and the sport of wrestling. It all contributes to a building sense of unease that befits the tale.

Miller may go unnoticed as the maestro behind the weird onscreen magic, but his faith in unproven talent alone is reason to hail him one remarkable director.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





It Could Be Worse

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

by Hope Madden

I recently attended the advance screening of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and I have to admit, my own day had been pretty craptastic. What I really wanted to do was drink to excess. But instead, I sat in the dark and watched as Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner parented four children through a crisis-riddled day.

Taken from Judith Viorst’s much beloved children’s book of the same name, the film follows Alexander on the day before and the day of his 12th birthday. At birthday-eve dinner, as Alexander recounts the woes of his miserable life – including accidentally setting his science class on fire while horrifying the girl of his dreams – each of his siblings and parents announces a wonderful life event that happened to coincide with Alexander’s misery.

So, at midnight, he makes himself a birthday Sunday and wishes his too-perfect family would have a bad day.

Well, he realizes the next day that he’s cursed each and every one of them.

And as obvious as the story is, it’s handled here with restraint and dignity.

Director Miguel Arteta – who directed one of my favorite little indies, Chuck and Buck – never panders or condescends. He has respect for his characters, his story, and his audience. It is amazing what a difference that makes in a family film.

Each character is drawn with some depth. Few actors are asked to mug for the camera. Each crisis is, of course, wildly implausible, but somehow this film and this cast pulls it off.

The cast itself helps. Carell and Garner never stoop. They are invested in these characters, and though both parents are too good to be true, they also both have dimension and faults.

As the titular Alexander, young, lisping Ed Oxenbould (Wow! That’s quite a moniker!) turns in an enjoyable performance as layered as the film could allow. He easily anchors the movie.

Plus, one outstanding cameo from the always brilliant Jennifer Coolidge.

Yes, things turn out OK. Great, in fact, and if you have a family that loves you, everything will be all right for you, too.

Beer is great, too, though. I’m not going to lie to you.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars