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Another from the factory of producer Judd Apatow, director Nicholas Stoller co-wrote the script with star Jason Segal, which tells the story of Segal and Emily Blunt, he a San Francisco chef and she a would-be psychology professor at the University of Michigan.  They fall in love but then endure the long stretch of pre-marriage, with its attendant insecurity, doldrums and misgiving.  While the stretch can be a little rough on the viewer, Blunt is charming and as he did in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, Stoller wisely populates the story with supporting characters who offer varied, funny bits.  In particular, David Paymer and Mimi Kennedy shine as Segal’s blunt, atypically private parents.  Alison Brie (Trudy from Mad Men) is also strong as Blunt’s happily married sister and she and Blunt pull off a hilarious conversation/confrontation in front of her young children in the guises of Elmo and The Cookie Monster, thus masking the seriousness of their subject matter.

Still, there are glaring problems.  Stoller and Segal over-rely on the easy laughs of adults using dirty words (though nothing quite so bad as Apatow’s embarrassing This is 40); the image of Segal’s bare ass or failing and/or harried while humping really isn’t all that funny; the replacement mates when Segal and Blunt break up (Rhys Ifans and Dakota Johnson) are gruesome, easy marks; and there’s nothing really new here.

There is also the problem of Segal, who is perhaps the only actor who makes Paul Rudd seem manly.  From his awful sitcom How I Met Your Mother to just about every film in which he’s carried the load, Segal is a tiny variation on the same persona – aw shucks, hapless, sweet and prone to self-pitying outburst.  Summed up, a huge pussy.  I’m happy to defer, but in a romantic comedy, he’s a natural best friend, not the lead.

Who would have expected this creepy gem to have come from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, writers and producers of Glee?   Available on Netflix streaming, this 12 episode ghost story is frightening, well-paced, extremely well-acted and on occasion, darkly funny.

The set-up is familiar. Husband and psychiatrist Dylan McDermott and wife Connie Britton flee Boston for LA with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) after McDermott’s long-term affair with a younger woman (Kate Mara) is revealed. They, of course, find the perfect home at the perfect price, save for an overbearing neighbor (Jessica Lange) who is more than a little tied to the house. It is soon revealed the home is the resting place of numerous decidedly restless ghosts.  It’s even a stop on an L.A. “Murder House” tour.

The writers overcome the central problem of any haunted house yarn by first emphasizing the financial duress of the inhabitants (they don’t have the resources to live elsewhere) and then, when anyone in their right mind would live in a cardboard box rather than stay, credibly demonstrating that each family member is possessed in different ways by the ghosts who haunt the place.  It sometimes feels like too much of a stretch, and all the balls in the air can be an obvious distraction, but these are nits.  

The series is also graced with a plethora of strong character actors, too many to name, but a few notables include Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Dennis O’Hare (Michael Clayton, True Blood), Morris Chestnut (Boyz n the Hood) and Mara (House of Cards). These characters – tied to the house but with differing agendas – provide the backbone of the series. 

It’s also clever. For example, Frances Conroy plays the housekeeper, and to Britton, she appears as a stern but reliable partner in the bitter war she is having with her husband.

But to McDermott, the housekeeper presents as a much younger Alexandra Breckenridge, posing a larger problem for the straying husband

 

An example of the perverse humor – when Farmiga catches her father in a compromising position with the cleaning lady, she sees Conroy, not Breckenridge.

Image result for The Bay

The Bay had a few things in its favor going in.  Director Barry Levinson is no slouch.  The “found media” approach is appealing to me, as is evidenced by my affection for the Paranormal Activity movies. And the premise – a small Maryland town is plagued by a bacteria that cuts through it on a July 4th celebration – had promise.  Two factors, one personal to me and the other a colossally stupid decision on Levinson’s part, resulted in my turning the flick off about a third in.

I’ll take my lumps first.  I can handle slashers (if not gore porn), serial killers, unsettled ghosts, zombies . . . you name it.  But a plague of pustules and vomiting blood and boils? A very, very hard ask.  And then, there were afflicted children.  Damn, this better be good.

It wasn’t. Levinson was more interested in making an eco-horror tract than an actual scary movie.  As such, once his narrator (a witness to the July 4th disaster who is video-blogging) introduces us to the source of the plague (apparently, chicken shit being run off into the Chesapeake Bay), we learn that near everybody but our narrator dies.  At the outset!  She even points out people in the collated footage and says, “he dies” and “he doesn’t survive the day.” So, within 15 minutes, the audience knows the source of the killings and pretty much who dies.

Hell if I’m going to sit through pustules and boils on children under such circumstances.

This Is 40 - Wikipedia

A Bataan death march of a rom-com. Let me count the ways.

1) As secondary characters in Knocked Up, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann were welcome respites from the manic upheaval of the leads.  As primary characters, they outstay their welcome very quickly.  Mann is a limited, mannered actress without a shred of heart. ready-made for a brief comic turn.  She is also director Judd Apatow’s wife.  He lightens her wispy load by primarily having her repeat the lines of other characters quizzically or allowing her to deliver others with a lilting, sing songy chirp. He also uses his daughters, the younger of whom is charming and genuine and the older of whom is as grating and one-note as her mother.  Nepotism . . .bad!  Rudd’s goofy, sweet smarm is tiresome.  If there was ever an actor who needed to play a villain quick, it’s Rudd.

2) The film is annoyingly haphazard.  Hey, we just ate a marijuana cookie.  Hey, we’re going to the doctors and we have witty things to say as they explore the orifices of our just-turned-40 bodies.  Hey, look at my asshole, honey.  Hey, we have fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks) who do their schtick and both have young children.  Hilarious!

3) It feels as if Apatow let Mann and Rudd riff and most of it lays as flat and listless as a Navy base whore. Apatow definitely let Melissa McCarthy improv in one of the laziest, saddest scenes ever.  How the hell do you make Melissa McCarthy unfunny?

4) Apart from a few laughs provided by secondary characters, this movie is drudgery, and the leads do and say things so odious or stupid that not enough bad things can happen to them to satisfy the viewer.

5) If this couple has been married for 14 years, one of them would have to have been in a coma for 13 of them to avoid a murder-suicide.

6) The movie is over 2 hours long. Brutal.

7) The film confuses sexual frankness and obscenity with the funny, as if saying cock and fuck a lot does the trick.

8) A primary source of marital discord is money, but these people live in a mansion and want for nothing, so they are particularly punch-able.

9) As Dana Stevens of Slate so nicely put it, the flick is as funny as a hemorrhoid.

On the plus side, it features a nice Ryan Adams song. but alas, he has aged as well as the flick.

David Chase’s The Sopranos was a titanic television achievement, a violent, rich soap opera centered on a New Jersey crime family, adroitly crossing into the areas of everyday life of “civilians” and finding common cause in the political, familial, and cultural. But Chase was more an organizer of talent than a creator – he wrote very few of the episodes and only directed two. This is not a knock, but it may be relevant in evaluating Chase’s first underwhelming feature length film, Not Fade Away.

The picture opens with the chance first meeting of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger but quickly swings back to 1960s New Jersey, where another band is forming. Chase captures the awkwardness of the early house show; the various personalities (the guitarist who always needs more time for the band to be “ready” and the jealous former frontman, sidelined to back-up because of a weaker voice); and the juice of a well-played song.

But just when you think the story might go somewhere, Chase reverts back to the lead singer’s (James Magaro) depressing home life, where his dying father (James Gandolfini) harangues him for his long hair and his mother kvetches in full Livia Soprano mode. When we get back to the incremental steps of the band, we are again diverted to the domestic woes of Magaro’s girlfriend (Bella Heathcoate) and her own miserable homelife (her Dad is a scotch-swilling GOP square and her sister is a free spirit soon to be forcibly institutionalized).

The leads are weak. As the band’s budding lead singer, Magaro provides no more than smarm and edge, though he performs a convincing transformation from dork to Dylanesque cool. His mercurial girlfriend Heathcoate is leaden and charmless.

Worse, very little happens in this dark (and by dark, I mean inexplicably dimly lit, as if the 60s is best evoked by dingy exposition), moody, mostly joyless picture. We get some affecting vignettes and then what feels like filler after there is no follow up. The end is a preposterous paen to the power of rock n’ roll that is more peculiar than poignant.*

That said, had this been the first two episodes of a miniseries, who knows? I certainly would have continued to watch.

*. Having just read this sentence, I am forced to add “so put that in your pipe and puff on it, Pancho.”

Detropia on iTunes
This documentary doesn’t chronicle the decline of Detroit so much as provide a pastiche of the city’s current plight through the eyes of union workers, street folks, a bar owner, a video blogger, and various other denizens. While there is a faint whiff of class warfare, mainly dramatized by juxtaposing the opulent Detroit opera house (subsidized by the auto companies) with the rundown bleakness of the surrounding area, the thrust of the documentary is visual rather than thematic or political. The regular haunts and isolated neighborhoods are shot in extended, mournful stretches, the people are captured reminiscing in their natural element, and the depiction of the old abandoned structural dinosaurs of the city evokes dystopian films and the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

At its best, ParaNorman is a funny, clever and visually appealing stop-motion animated feature about a boy who must save his town from the emergence of zombies.  Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stock and thin (the zombies, who are cursed for having wrongly hung a witch back in the day, are the most realized of all the characters).  Worse, it bangs away “lessons” about bullying.  It also continues the recent trend of making almost all adults stupid, cruel and retrograde (Frankenweenie) and likening the world they have created to a gross, materialistic craphole (The Lorax, WALL-E, Happy Feet).

Mostly enjoyable, but the unsubtle p.c. preaching should stay in public schools where it belongs.

Image result for Sinister movie

Ethan Hawke is a true crime writer on the down slope who moves his wife and kids into the house where the grisly murder of another family occurred. His m.o. is to solve the case or to at least highlight the screw-ups of the authorities.

The funny thing is, he doesn’t tell his wife or two children he’s moved them into a house where grisly murders occurred, he finds Super 8 film of the grisly murders and the grisly murders of numerous other families from other areas throughout the country in the attic, his teen son is flipping out from night terrors, his lights don’t work, there are horrible thumps in the attic (and a snake and a scorpion), he sees a creepy dude in the yard who he has also seen in the Super 8 films, and his kids start drawing gruesome images of dead children. And his wife sleeps the sleep of a thousand nights, even though, during the day, she’s understandably nervous about this whole situation.

And he stays because “This could be my In Cold Blood.”

So his wife stays.

Implausible, predictable and stupid.

Frank Langella lives alone in the country a few hours from New York City.  He is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, functional but slipping, and at first, appears to be little more than a forgetful, petty thief of decorative soaps sold in the town’s gift shop.  When his son (James Marsden) brings him a robot for company and guidance, we learn that Langella was once a second story burglar who did two stints in prison.  He loathes the robot until he learns it has no conscience.  A friendship develops, and soon, the robot is acting as his accomplice in a jewel heist.

The movie is clever, often touching, and a bit subversive.  There is a hilarious section where Langella’s anti-robot daughter (Liv Tyler) visits.  Horrified at her father’s reliance on the robot, she turns it off, only to surreptitiously turn it on when she wants the house cleaned.

Though the film is set in the not too distant future, the credits are accompanied by clips of the work robots are currently doing (or being designed to do) for humans, and the future is now.