Steve Coogan is a comedy genius. Ok, that is out of the way. He is the star of HAPPYish, Showtime’s musing on our internet culture and how middle aged people try to deal with it. Man this resonated with me big time on several levels. One brilliant scene has Coogan in a meeting with his ad agency’s newly interested owers, two 20-something Swedes who seem to want to brand everything with a hashtag. They talk in SEO (search engine optimaztion) speak. Basically, they are saying nothing. Coogan speaks up in the company meeting, asking why every product needs a hastag or a twitter account. He uses Pepto Bismal as an example and it’s brilliantly funny and on point. That leads to a hysterical dream sequence where one of the Keebler elves has gone on a shotgun-toting rampage. It sound bizarre, and it is. But it’s also laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it comes off as just a bunch of old folks grumbling about the new world. “Hey you kids, get off my internet,” one might say. But that doesn’t make it any less true. No company seems to really know what to do with sociial media. They know it is out there. They know it is important. But they don’t know how to use it or to reshape their business model around it. That leads to a bunch of tech speak that sounds like so much baloney. HAPPYish is the stuff of brilliant social commentary and satire. It doesn’t hurt to have Coogan, Kathryn Hahn and Bradley Whitford along for the ride. I cannot wait to watch this show further find its legs and grow. The first episode is great, but it can be greater. I have confidence that is exactly what will happen! — Alan Yudman
Certain movies tell the same ole story in a completely different way and the results are unforgettable. Blair Witch and Cloverfield come to mind. Now you can add Unfriended to that list. This movie milks suspense out of a computer screen…skype, Facebook, Google, youtube, everyday things that fuel the reality of what we are watching and add to the slow build tension. A mouse click here…a text there…a video file download. Intense. The payoff is not as great as the setup but the movie sticks with you long after you leave the theater. Very original and very scary.
Boos drowned out the applause when Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut screened at Cannes. That’s unfair; it’s actually pretty entertaining, even as it cheeses out toward the end. Gosling’s strength in this first effort is getting solid performances out of his actors, especially Ben Mendelsohn as a most twisted bank manager. But Gosling seems to have watched BLUE VELVET one too many times, and his tale of Recession poverty and a single mother compelled to take a nightmare job involving violent misogyny comes off as Lynch Lite. Gosling sets his story in the economic realities of a blasted Detroit. And maybe if he had styled it down and not gone for hallucinatory effect it would have played better as a social drama. (He certainly had the actors to do it. Besides Mendelsohn, Christina Hendricks is so effortlessly not Joan Harris we see a long happy career ahead for her post-“Mad Men”.) That said, the camerawork is gorgeous, with lots of spectral, spangly effects. And it’s not so arty that you get lost. So Ryan, you get right back on that horse. — Jeff Schultz
A stunning new way to do a horror movie, utterly simple in concept, but like nothing you’ve seen before. The filmmakers are able to sustain an entire feature, without flagging, using in essence only one Skype screen, containing the “live” boxes of the doomed teens on a group call that cannot be hung up on without a death. The horror begins within minutes of the opening (even as the Universal logo runs at the very beginning) which sets up the story, literally, in just a few keystrokes. (In fact, the movie “gets” the way we use computers so well, we feel almost as though we’re typing as well.) And it just builds and builds, with the kind of grip on the audience I can’t remember since back when “found footage” movies were still fresh. The actors, whose faces are basically all we see, do a good job of projecting distinctive personalities and a very good job of showing us their growing fear, then outright terror. This is the writer’s first feature and the director’s second. We should be hearing from both of them again. — Jeff Schultz
Not many supernatural thrillers deserve to be called profound. A movie like, say, INCEPTION, gets so tangled up in its ideas, it becomes opaque. But EX MACHINA spells out its ethical concerns as clearly as its story, and both combine to make one of the most satisfying films of the year, difficult to shake off after seeing. It’s a mad scientist flick, a revenge movie, a love story, a twist-y slap in the face, behind which there may be blood and sinew — or just circuit boards and wiring. It satirizes Google and Silicon Valley-style geniuses to chilling effect, at the same time offering a plausible theory for conspiracy theorists worried that we (that is, everyone in the world) have sacrificed our privacy to a grand scheme of ultimate control. But the Big Themes never overwhelm what, in a way, is a traditional triangle drama between two men and a pretty girl. Who’s zoomin’ who? That’s the question posed almost from the beginning all the way through to the exquisite ending (which reminded me — possible spoiler alert — of Kiefer Sutherland’s MIRRORS). The casting is flawless. Oscar Isaac owns his role from the get-go as the brilliantly obnoxious and tetchy inventor, who, as I watched him, hilariously reminded me of producer Scott Rudin: I swear it wasn’t until I read the credits at the end that I found out Rudin (you know what’s coming) is one of the Executive Producers! Domhnall Gleason, likely set to explode in the next STAR WARS saga, holds back in the face of Isaac’s overbearingness — until he doesn’t, in a wonderful reversal, which has a reversal of its own. And Alicia Vikander is a self-contained Beauty and Beast who looks great whether in clothes or half-metal framework. This one is a winner ! — Jeff Schultz
Becoming an adult is kind of a daunting proposition. Especially for those who never seem to want to grow up. But sometimes we are thrown into adulthood despite our best intentions and that forces us to finally grow up. That’s kind of the point of Noah Baumbach’s brilliant comedy WHILE WE’RE YOUNG. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are a 40-something married couple. He’s a documentary filmmaker, she produces her legendary father’s documentaries. They have no kids (not for lack of trying, but sometimes biology won’t let it happen). They seem happy, but their friends are all having kids and they appear to be left behind. Then Stiller meets 20-something couple Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried who are auditing his documentary film class. Driver is a big fan of Stiller’s one documentary and they strike up a friendship. The two couples do everything together. Stiller, in an effort to fit in buys a hipster hat and a bicycle. Meantime, Watts and Stiller are drifting farther away from their older friends. Almost immediately the audience sees what Stiller cannot– that Driver is using him to further his own documentary filmmaking career. The clues to Diver’s true motives unravel over the course of the film like a good mystery. Baumbach’s message is clear. Don’t fritter away your youth. But being young isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. In other words, own your age and don’t be something your not. Stiller and Watts slowly realize this as the story unfolds. Baumbach (GREENBERG, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, FRANCES HA) is expert at telling these stories where his main characters are socially awkward but well intentioned. He never forgets the funny. But the comedy comes with a message that weaves its way into your consciousness until you realize, “wow, he’s right”. He also gets the best out of his actors. Stiller is wonderful and Adam Driver is amazing as the devious young filmmaker. It was also great to see Charles Grodin as Watt’s father. Baumbach sets us up for a stereotypical “good feeling” Hollywood ending when Stiller figures out what is really going on. But, that would be too easy and he turns that trope on its head. This is a really great movie that I loved without reservation. It really spoke to me on several levels. Go see it, while you’re young. — Alan Yudman
The old saying goes, you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. Unless your name is Dominic Toretto. Because in FURIOUS 7, Toretto (Vin Diesel) doesn’t have friends, he only has family. Anyone who is close enough to be a friend is really a part of his extended family. But family is also what threatens to bring down Toretto and his entire crew. In this seventh and final installment of the wildly successful franchise, the brother of Owen Shaw (the villain from the last movie) is out for avenge his brother. Deckard Shaw is played with appropriate menace by the fantastic Jason Statham, although he doesn’t have much to do here other than grunt, glare, smirk and kick ass. He finds out it was Toretto’s team that put his brother in the hospital and with apologies to Jimmy Malone, he wants to send them to the morgue. He attacks Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in his DSS office. He goes to Japan and kills Han. Then he blows up Toretto’s house trying to kill him, Brian, Mia and their son. He misses. Bad mistake. Now Toretto is out to kill Shaw and that’s where the plot gets a little syrupy. Kurt Russell shows up as some shadowy government covert operative who can give Shaw to Dom, but only if Toretto captures some new surveillance gizmo and rescues its creator. The plot doesn’t mean much in these movies. They are all just excuses for the outrageous set pieces. Parachuting cars onto a mountain road, chasing down a bus and it’s heavily armed escorts with those cars, running from drones in Downtown L.A. Those are just a few of the visual treats in FURIOUS 7. But all is not fun and games. There is a pall over the whole thing because of Paul Walker’s death. Every line about family, and coming home and sacrifice carries extra weight because you know they actor died in a car accident while the movie was being filmed. I spent the whole movie waiting to see if they were going to kill off Brian (no, I’m not going to reveal anything about that). The ending is an homage to Walker and his role in the films. It felt like they handled it right and I left feeling satisfied. There are plenty of car chase movies that have been made in recent years. All are trying to match F&F. But all fall short. This is the gold standard and because of Walker’s untimely death we’ll have to live with the seven we have and savor those until someone does it better. — Alan Yudman