Screening Room: ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses’

Wonder Woman and Don Draper aren't sure why they're here, either.
Wonder Woman and Don Draper aren’t sure why they’re here, either.

Don’t you hate it when your humdrum suburban life is upended when a couple fabulously exotic super-spies move in next door? That’s the problem faced by Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher when confronted by their new neighbors Gal Gadot and Jon Hamm.

Keeping Up With the Joneses opens this week, for better or (much, much) worse. My review is at Film Journal International:

A subpar knockoff of the kind of tired action-comedy hybrid that Paul Feig’s suddenly made a career out of, Keeping Up with the Joneses is no Spy. It’s not even Spies Like Us. Like just about every other comedic spy film out there, its plot is just another one of those getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone devices. You know the drill, familiar in everything from True Lies to Date Night: ordinary person or couple gets accidentally mixed up in espionage shenanigans and along the way discovers reservoirs of strength, ingenuity and courage they didn’t realize were there…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Get Started

dontthinktwiceWhile touring the country promoting his film Don’t Think Twice, comic Mike Birbiglia was asked variations on the same question at pretty much every stop:  “If I want to be a comedian [or actor or writer or improviser or film director], how do I get started?”

Birbiglia boiled his advice down to “6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood. Or Anywhere.” The first tip, though, is the most helpful for people who ask that question:

1. Don’t Wait — Write. Make a short film. Go to an open mike. Take an improv class. There’s no substitute for actually doing something. Don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe don’t even finish reading this essay.

The sooner you get started, the sooner you can start failing all the dozens or thousands of times you will need to fail in order to get somewhere, creatively.

Screening Room: ‘Bad Moms’

The summer’s latest rowdy-femme comedy hits screens tonight, so get ready.

My review of Bad Moms is at Film Journal International:

Five years after Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher found easy jokes in the then-taboo sight of middle-school teacher Cameron Diaz showing up to work hung over and mocking her students, the pocket genre of films and TV shows about women in positions of authority shirking their responsibilities (“Bad Judge,” anyone?) seems to have hit a peak. In Bad Moms, writing and directing team Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover, Four Christmases) spin the recent trend of just-relax books and blogs extolling “moms who drink” and the backlash against overscheduled childhoods into a rebellious party epic. It’s not exactly for the ages, but it’s not exactly The Hangover Part II, either…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Cafe Society’

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Jesse Eisenberg goes to 1930s Hollywood in Woody Allen’s latest time machine romantic comedy. All the outfits are fantastic and the jazz (of course) is hot.

cafe-society-Theatrical Poster_rgbCafe Society is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Café Society is nearly done before it gets off a halfway decent joke. Not that it’s been trying too hard before then to be funny, or anything much in particular besides reheat some old Allen material and stir it around before calling it a day. You get the sense that he was already plotting out his next film while still dashing off dialogue for this one…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’

holygrail1Back in 1975, Monty Python was just starting to get a name for themselves outside of the UK. That was the year their first proper film landed in theaters, and comedy just wasn’t the same after that. Killer rabbits and all.

My review of the 40th anniversary DVD / Blu-ray release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is at PopMatters:

Shot by a ramshackle Dadaist comedy troupe over a chaotic and fairly drunken month in Scotland in 1974, right around the time that their Flying Circus TV show was coming to an end, and funded primarily by having some rock star friends of the troupe (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) throw in a few thousand pounds each, the film should have been one of those debacles where everybody wishes they had just packed it up and retired instead. Among the extras on the anniversary edition—including outtakes and some newly unearthed animations by Terry Gilliam—is an on-the-set BBC piece where Gilliam seems more chuckle-headed college joker than co-director, John Cleese barely able to contain his irritation with being directed and all the last-minute rewrites, and set mechanics so primitive they could be out-done by an early Doctor Who episode…

Here’s the original trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’

'National Lampoon': Funny people (Magnolia)
‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon’: Funny people (Magnolia)

Natlamp73Remember magazines? National Lampoon was one of the best. Beyond serving as something of a thinking man’s Mad, it also fostered that upswell of talent coming out of the Chicago comedy improv scene in the 1970s and midwifed them to stardom at Saturday Night Live. Sure, that ultimately led to Coneheads the movie, but we can probably lay that more at Lorne Michaels’ feet.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is playing now in limited release; my review is at PopMatters:

People who only know National Lampoon as that odd possessive sitting atop posters for Animal House andVacation might be surprised by some details provided by Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. They might not have realized the depth of talent the comedy magazine cultivated. Or they might be surprised learn this monthly publication had a circulation of one million. Or that Chevy Chase was once considered a comedy genius…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Sleeping with Other People’

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis try to resist each other's charms in 'Sleeping with Other People' (IFC Films)
Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis try to resist each other’s charms in ‘Sleeping with Other People’ (IFC Films)

Although Trainwreck garnered all the headlines for this year’s explicit woman-oriented edgy romantic comedy, Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People fulfills a lot of the promise that that Amy Schumer/Judd Apatow collaboration couldn’t quite deliver on.

Sleeping with Other People is playing now. My review is at PopMatters:

A deconstructive sweet-and-sourball of a romantic comedy, Sleeping With Other People seems made for the therapeutically inclined. To that end, it doesn’t quite deliver the story we might expect from its initial meet-cute. Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) do make their way to a big dance number and some climactic soul-baring, but Leslye Headland’s movie doesn’t balance out emotional payoffs for everybody. Both partners learn lessons, but neither quite gets what they want…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Trainwreck’

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in 'Trainwreck' (Universal).
Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in ‘Trainwreck’ (Universal).

After midwifing Lena Dunham’s Girls onto HBO, Judd Apatow is directing the off-key work of another comic of the moment. In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer plays basically the girl of her standup: a self-obsessed disaster. But will she find true love?

Trainwreck opens wide tomorrow. My review is at PopMatters:

… the film focuses on Amy (played by Schumer), another variation on the stock character from her TV show. Narcissistic and cutting, she’s racked up several lifetimes’ worth of one-night stands, terrified of commitment, and inclined to over-share. While the character tends toward dirty humor, she’s not so much intentionally shocking, a la Sarah Silverman, but rather, so self-involved that she’s unconcerned with how anyone else might take her revelations, as when she compares sleeping with her pseudo-boyfriend Steven (John Cena) to “having sex with an ice sculpture”…

Now Playing: ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’

Rinko Kikuchi goes to the Great White North in 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' (Amplify)
Rinko Kikuchi goes to the Great White North in ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ (Amplify)

Do you like Fargo? Chances are, even if so, you don’t know it as well as the titular anti-heroine of the Zellner brothers’ chilly odyssey of quirk, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. It might be one of the first great films of 2015.

kumiko-posterKumiko, the Treasure Hunter is playing now here and there. My review is at PopMatters:

She’s alone and obsessive, and her particular object of obsession is the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. Sitting night after night in her dingy apartment with only her adorable rabbit Bunzo for company, she pores over a worn-out VHS tape with Talmudic fervency, keeping a notebook full of scribbled clues that only make sense to her. Because of Fargo‘s famous opening epigraph—“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987”—she takes it as a faithful transcribing of reality. That’s why she keeps re-watching the scene where Carl (Steve Buscemi) buries the suitcase of cash by a fence in a snowy field. In Kumiko’s mind, she just needs to get to Minnesota…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Zero Motivation’

Nelly Tagar tries to be all she can be in 'Zero Motivation' (Zeitgeist Films)
Nelly Tagar tries to be all she can be in ‘Zero Motivation’ (Zeitgeist Films)

The new Israeli film Zero Motivation—which played the film festival circuit earlier in the year—is a smart, dour comedy set in a military office where little gets done. The military satire is punched up with the occasional flash of surrealism; it’s a fantastic mix.

Zero Motivation is opening this week in limited release. I reviewed it at the Tribeca Film Festival for PopMatters:

On a base that feels as removed from any actual war as Sgt. Bilko, the human resources office is a den of sloth and ineptitude. Commanding officer Rama (Shani Klein) is frazzled trying to get any of the women in her command to care even remotely about their assignments. Her best friends Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy) can’t be bothered to do much besides complain and play Minesweeper, as they all survive in a casually sexist division, where the men are assigned all the combat roles and so ascend to higher ranks, and female soldiers fetch coffee and bicker…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Horrible Bosses 2’

'Horrible Bosses 2' (New Line Cinema)
‘Horrible Bosses 2’ (Warner Bros.)

There wasn’t much to know about the comedy Horrible Bosses beyond that it featured three guys (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day) who hated their bosses and wanted revenge. There isn’t much else to know about the sequel, except that it’s not about plot so much as watching three great comic actors bicker and squall.

Horrible Bosses 2 opened this week and will be playing pretty much everywhere for at least a couple weeks for anybody already sick of Oscar contender films. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘The Trip to Italy’ is Highly Unnecessary Comedy, But Not in a Bad Way

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in 'The Trip to Italy' (IFC Films)
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in ‘The Trip to Italy’ (IFC Films)

Two comics playing slightly tweaked versions of themselves, ravishing Italian scenery, phenomenal food, recitations of Shelley’s poetry, Tom Hardy impressions. That’s about all one needs to know about Michael Winterbottom’s nervy, gadabout sequel to the 2010 road comedy The Trip.

The Trip to Italy is playing now in highly limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

The Trip to Italy’s total lack of necessity has little bearing on its enjoyability. There’s nothing wrong with watching a pair of lyrical, spry, and acid-tongued comics lashing each other with barbed commentary while enjoying the operatic grandeur of a foodie junket through Italy’s more salubrious and sun-splashed districts. Does it matter that they’re not bringing much new to the party?…

You can see the trailer here:

Also, here you can check out one of the better clips: Coogan and Brydon on The Dark Knight Rises:

New in Theaters: ‘Obvious Child’

Jake Lacy, Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman in 'Obvious Child' (A24)
Jake Lacy, Jenny Slate, and Gaby Hoffman in ‘Obvious Child’ (A24)

obviouschild-posterIn yet another attempt to subvert the romantic comedy—a genre that remains essentially dead despite all Cameron Diaz’s efforts—Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child throws a lot into the mix: pregnancy, awkward relationships, and millennial insecurity.

Obvious Child opens in limited release tomorrow. My review is at Film Racket:

A fresh-faced, faux-messy romantic comedy with a refreshingly economic take on the usual meet-cute / separation crisis / resolution arc, Obvious Child is like many tales birthed in purportedly edgy Brooklyn. Yes, it spends its time mostly in Williamsburg’s creative demimonde and the operative comedic style is layered in irony like so many smothering quilts. But the story itself, once you get past the frank talk about abortion and bodily functions, is just as much love at first sight as a pastel-colored confection starring Katherine Heigl and set across the river in a midtown fashion magazine. Only the soundtrack is better, there’s three times as many solid laughs, and it’s about 20 blessed minutes shorter….

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘Bad Words’

Jason Bateman has been crafting comedy genius for so long in front of the camera that it’s perhaps inevitable he would eventually move behind it as well. Bad Words is his directorial debut, a promising and blessedly short if wildly uneven hour-and-a-half of rude comedy about a misanthropic adult who crashes a kids’ spelling bee.

Bad Words is still playing just about everywhere. My review is at PopMatters:

Guy Trilby is custom-made for Bateman’s perfected admixture of laconic sharpness. Instead of the more explosive brand of destabilizers favored by US comedy, your John Belushis and Will Ferrells, Bateman upends the norms of this closed micro-society of over-schooled spelling quants by having Trilby simply plant himself there and refusing to move or explain his motivations. Occasionally he’ll try to get a leg up in competition by upsetting his preteen opponents with some verbal guerrilla warfare. But in the main, Trilby is a stoic pillar of nasty. (Having played the put-upon and exasperated nice guy in everything from Arrested Development to Identity Thief, Bateman gets some mileage here out of going so far to the dark side.) He’s Bartleby, and will not be moved…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Prince Avalanche’

Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd get on each other's nerves in 'Prince Avalanche'.
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd get on each other’s nerves in ‘Prince Avalanche’.

prince-avalanche-posterDavid Gordon Green has carved out an odd career for himself in Hollywood, switching back and forth between artful mood pieces (George Washington) and stoner f/x comedies (Your Highness). His newest comedy, Prince Avalanche, tries to thread the needle between those two opposites and comes up a winner.

Prince Avalanche is playing now. My review is at Film Journal International:

In David Gordon Green’s new comedy Prince Avalanche, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch star as Alvin and Lance, both slackers in highly different ways. It’s 1987 in the great state of Texas and the two guys are spending the summer working in a park that was recently burned out by a massive fire. Their assignment is the prosaic stuff of road crews: repainting yellow stripes and putting in reflectors. Alvin, who fancies himself a thinker a, sees it as a time for self-sufficiency and self-reflection. However, Lance, who would be defined as your garden-variety “doofus,” is quietly losing his mind due to the lack of, well, women. Something’s got to give…

Here’s the trailer: