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Ah, Christmas! That time of the year when a completely silly, seasonal movie hits our cinema screens. This year it's OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY, starring Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston (who were previously seen together in another Josh Gordon and Will Speck-directed film, THE SWITCH), and a host of comedians regularly seen on TV including Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon (GHOSTBUSTERS) and Randall Park (THE INTERVIEW), to name just a few.
The premise is not so unfamiliar for this type of fare: It's coming up to Christmas and everyone at a Chicago high tech company is kicking back in cynical anticipation of the company's very mundane "non-denominational holiday mixer" that evening. But Scrooge-like Carol Vanstone (Aniston) shows up that morning to throw a spanner in the works. She's the interim CEO of her late father's company and her good-time brother Clay (Miller) runs the Chicago branch. Carol says she's going to lay off almost half the staff unless they close a big account by that night. Clay, company CTO Josh Parker (Bateman) and Josh's second-in-command, Tracey Hughes (Munn), have an idea to throw the most epic office Christmas party ever and invite their lifeline prospect, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance, THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON), to the bash in hopes of getting him push his $14 million business their way, which will ultimately save the branch from Carol's axe.
Very quickly, all the party supplies arrive including a snow-making machine, an ice sculpture that doubles as a phallic egg nog dispenser, an iron throne (à la GAME OF THRONES), two reindeer, an actor playing Jesus and a baby (playing baby Jesus, of course). With the free-flowing alcohol, some misplaced cocaine, an enterprising prostitute and social media, it doesn't take too long before the party shifts into high gear. Carol returns to the office just as the party hits its frenetic peak but Clay and his co-workers may just have saved everyone's jobs in the nick of time.
When I saw the trailer last week, I thought this movie was either going to be really good or really bad. It turns out it's neither. OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY is not high art, by any means, and it probably won't end up on anyone's 10 Best Holiday Films list but it's not horrible either. The script has plenty of plot holes and leaps of logic in it (don't analyse it too closely and you'll be fine), but the pacing holds throughout most of the film. (It does run out of steam in the closing act though.) With so many comedians on the set, you can be sure there were plenty of takes as they riffed off of each other, trying to come up with the funniest lines. They were successful for the most part as there were a fair number of laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, there were also a number of jokes that didn't quite hit the mark and a few dry gaps that went on way too long.
As far as the acting goes, Bateman does his usual "nice guy who is the voice of reason when everyone else is insane" shtick. He does that well but perhaps it's time for him to take on a role where he plays a complete schmuck. For Aniston, she finally shows she can plays a character who is other than a version of Rachel Green and she does it surprisingly well here. Even so, I would have preferred to see someone like Melissa McCarthy (GHOSTBUSTERS; SPY; ST. VINCENT) or Lake Bell (MAN UP; NO ESCAPE) in that role. They can play the "uptight bitch" more convincingly than Aniston can. Each of the other comedians had their moments in the spotlight but no one will be talking about their performances, or this film for that matter, as they gather around in the office pantry in mid-January.
If you're looking for a reasonable amount of mindless fun with a fair bit of raunchiness, you could do worse than this film. However, if you're after something cerebral this holiday season, OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY is not for you.
The Zika virus is in the news now, with three cases being reported in Hong Kong in October. For most people, getting the virus is no big deal but if you're trying to have a baby or if you're already pregnant, it can be devastating. If you knew that your child would be born severely disabled, what would you do?
That's the dilemma stand up comedian Astrid Lorenz (Julia Jentsch, SOPHIE SCHOLL) and her partner/manager Markus (Bjarne Mädel, German TV's CRIME SCENE CLEANER) must face (though Zika is not the culprit here). At first, the prospect of having a child with Down's Syndrome is something that Astrid is ready to accept even though her nanny has already told her that she won't look after the child while Astrid is working. But when the news about the baby's health turns even worse, Astrid must decide whether she should continue with the pregnancy. In Germany, it's possible to have a mid-to-late term abortion so the option is there for her if she can live with the decision.
24 WEEKS tackles a very sensitive and controversial subject with tremendous restraint. It doesn't preach, nor does it lead the audience in one direction or the other. We feel for Astrid as she agonises over what's best for her unborn child and for her family, hoping that we never have to be in her shoes.
This is a very powerful film with great performances throughout. It's also a very challenging film to watch.
The autumn movie season has reached our shores and with it the Hollywood films that are receiving awards buzz. The latest buzz-worthy film to arrive here is DEEPWATER HORIZON, a movie "inspired by true events", which is legalese for "taking liberties with the facts". In case you forgot the tragic events of April 2010, Deepwater Horizon was the world's largest offshore oil drilling platform at the time. It went up in a ball of flames, killing 11 crewmen, and the ensuing seepage of about 800 million litres of oil from the seabed devastated both the environment and the communities along the Gulf of Mexico coast that rely on fishing and tourism for their livelihood.
The film, DEEPWATER HORIZON, only deals with the explosion half of the story, which is too bad but, then again, the movie would have been four hours long otherwise. Certainly, a film needs to be made about the environmental damage half. But in this film, we meet Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), rig operator Transocean's electronics technician. Mike is just your everyday guy, happily married to Felicia (Kate Hudson) and father to a sweet, 9-year-old girl who just adores him. As the story begins, Mike heads off for another 21-day stint on board the rig. When he gets there, we all learn that the rig is 43 days behind schedule in pumping oil from the Macondo Prospect and the boys from BP are on board to get things moving faster. The Schlumberger boys are also there but they're leaving just as Mike arrives. They've poured the concrete bed over the sea floor where the drilling will take place but BP feels there are billions to be made so why wait for the concrete to set? At BP well site leader Don Vidrine's (John Malkovich) insistence, the Transocean crew conduct some safety tests on the drilling pressure, but the results prove inconclusive. Nevertheless, Vidrine presses forward against the better judgment of rig boss "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell (Kurt Russell), and gives the go ahead to start production. Now it doesn't take a genius to know that disaster is waiting for them around the corner. Sure enough, a mixture of drilling mud, seawater and methane rushes up the pipe. The gas expands, coming in contact with the rig's exhaust system, and ignites. Within seconds, everything is exploding around the crew, raining fiery shrapnel down on them. Himself injured, Williams manages to rescue many of his colleagues, bringing them to safety.
There's no arguing that this movie is one terrific roller coaster ride. Director Peter Berg (LONE SURVIVOR) keeps dialing up the tension as the crew's situation becomes increasingly dire. (How anyone survived is truly amazing.) Wahlberg does a fine job as the movie's hero and Russell, as always, delivers a solid supporting performance. Where the film loses though is on the dialogue. Until all hell breaks loose, there's a lot of technical jargon being thrown about. If you're a mechanical engineer, you'll understand it. For the rest of us, it's just "blah, blah, blah". Then, when the rig starts exploding and fireballs race down its corridors, the dialogue switches to short sentences that all end in exclamation points, like "Watch out!" and "We gotta go RIGHT NOW!" It's not very creative but perhaps it's authentic.
Speaking of authenticity, Berg created a replica of the rig that was 85 percent to scale. (The real Deepwater Horizon was about the height of a 40-storey apartment building.) The computer monitors seen in the film are also accurate representations of what was on the real rig. As a result, the film seems less CGI'ed than it would otherwise have been. It is impressive work that is worthy of an Oscar nomination for set design.
DEEPWATER HORIZON is a reasonably good film that rivets you to your seat. I saw it on a regular screen but it's also showing in IMAX. It may be worth shelling out the extra bucks for this one.
What do a cello, a pipa, a shakuhachi, a gaita, a sheng and a kamancheh have in common? Aside from them all being musical instruments, they're all found and played to perfection in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.
The latest effort from Oscar (R)-winning music documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 FEET FROM STARDOM) profiles this musical collective from its inception 16 years ago in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts up to the present day, and gives audiences a brief glimpse into the back stories of five of its immensely talented virtuosi including Ma himself. Along the way, we are treated to some very special music coming from some instruments that most people have never heard of and being played in the most creative of ways.
Our main narrator on this east-meets-west musical exploration is Ma, who tells us that as a child prodigy he never gave much thought about what he wanted from his music but, after performing for a half a century, he began to wonder about his place in the world. He recalled what famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein had said years earlier about how music is a universal language, and he felt that he could be a force to unite musicians, composers, artists and audiences to bring hope to the world. With the tragic events of 9/11 and the subsequent political upheavals throughout the Middle East, the impetus to seek common ground across diverse cultures and ethnicities became all the more urgent and, with that, the Silk Road Ensemble became something more than just a one-off get together of a bunch of eclectic musicians.
As the group's name suggests, the music, the instruments and even the musicians themselves all come from countries along the historic Silk Road. (Close to 60 artists make up the ensemble.) From the western end comes Cristina Pato from the Spanish region of Galicia, who plays the gaita (Galician bagpipes). Years earlier, Cristina had the reputation of being somewhat of a bad girl in her homeland because of her unconventional musical styling. Today though, she's heralded by her people for reviving a dying tradition. From the central portion of the route come Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. Both men are political exiles now living in the US. (Kalhor has returned to Iran from time to time but he has been barred from performing there.) From the east comes pipa player Wu Man, a Chinese expatriate who is often compared to Jimi Hendrix. Her early life, too, was influenced by political events that turned her country upside down. These four people recount their younger days and their attempts to find their own inner voices as well.
While all these stories are interesting to listen to, and perhaps these are even people whom we'd like to hang out with over a coffee at Starbucks, Neville doesn't fare too well trying to tie everything together into one emphatic final crescendo. It's like we're watching all the musicians warm up but we never get to see the concert. Sure, there are scenes of the ensemble in performance but they are too few and too short, and most often they focus on how much the musicians appreciate each other's talent rather than what the audience thinks or who has been inspired by the musicians to go out and build their own bridges of hope. Who composes or arranges all the pieces? Who chooses the programs they perform? We're not told. We see there's a visual artist (Syrian émigré Kevork Mourad) but how did he get involved with them and are there other non-musicians in the group? Again, we don't know. Most importantly, though, what are the ensemble's educational activities? We do see the two Syrian artists visiting children who are living in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon but, again, the interlude is too brief and not enough information is told. Granted, there are probably so many stories here that Neville could have made a six-hour documentary but in keeping the film to just over 90 minutes, he left a lot out and kept a fair amount of repetition in.
If the litmus test for making a good music documentary is whether the viewer will want to go out and buy the soundtrack album afterwards, then Neville and Ma have succeeded. There's enough of the ensemble's music to whet the appetite but it's no more than just a nibble. So, while THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE succeeds overall, it's neither as good as it could have been nor is it as good as what we have come to expect from the director.
Writing and directing screwball comedies must be a dead art because we haven't had a good one in a very long time. Last year's SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY wasn't funny in any way and, while this year's HAIL, CAESAR! had its whimsical moments, it ultimately came up short in the end. MAGGIE'S PLAN hits close to the mark a few times but it also fails to sustain the momentum throughout. Oh, how I miss those classic screwball comedies like BRINGING UP BABY; HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE; WHAT'S UP, DOC? and SOME LIKE IT HOT!
In MAGGIE'S PLAN, reigning indie queen Greta Gerwig (FRANCES HA; MISTRESS AMERICA) plays Maggie Harden, a Midwestern gal who works in an admin position at The New School in New York's Greenwich Village. In her mid-30s and unable to sustain a long-term relationship, she's now considering her options, one of them being self-insemination courtesy of Guy (Travis Fimmel, TV's VIKINGS), an acquaintance from her college days who is now an artisan pickle entrepreneur in Brooklyn. (Oh, how New York hipster, haha... not!) Through a payroll clerical error, she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke, BOYHOOD), who is not just any professor at her school, he's the "bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology", (oh, how pseudo-intellectually witty, haha... again, not!) according to her best friend, Felicia (Maya Rudolph, TV's SNL). Maggie and John strike up an immediate connection but John is already married to Georgette (Julianne Moore, STILL ALICE; DON JON), a tenured professor at Columbia who takes every opportunity she can to emasculate him. On the very night that Maggie goes to work with Guy's guyhood, John professes his love for her. Fast forward a few years and Maggie is now married to John and little Lily is almost three.
Unfortunately for Maggie, John hasn't turned out to be all she hoped he would be. He's still in the middle of writing his magnum opus and he doesn't seem to have any interest in anything else, least of all Maggie. Once again, Maggie has fallen out of love and she begins to think she may be better off without a man in her life. So she hatches a plan to get rid of John by putting him back together with Georgette.
On paper, MAGGIE'S PLAN seems like it should work as a screwball comedy and certainly, if you watch the trailer, you would think it does. Moore does her part to inject humour into the film, putting on a Danish accent and being as tightly wound as the bun on the top of her head, but the fun gets dragged down by real-world problems - infidelity, one failed marriage and one failing marriage, and resentful kids... and that's just to start. As a result, while MAGGIE'S PLAN lifts off, it fails to gain much altitude.
The film, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, is based on an original story idea by her friend Karen Rinaldi, who is a publisher at Harper Collins. Rinaldi has said that MAGGIE'S PLAN is loosely based on her own experiences of giving up on finding a partner but wanting to have a child. Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, may have been the wrong choice for this project though. Her previous efforts (THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE; THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE; PERSONAL VELOCITY) have all been heady affairs. This film needed to have a light tone throughout but sadly it didn't. As for Gerwig, it's great that she's found her niche playing quintessential, 30-something New Yorkers but this fan thinks it's starting to wear thin. We'll be seeing her again in a few months' time in the biopic, JACKIE, starring Natalie Portman. The advance word on the film has been positive but there hasn't been any press about Gerwig's contribution.
MAGGIE'S PLAN is a so-so film. If you've got nothing else to watch at the cinema, go see it.