‘Stuber’ Has Its Moments, But Not Enough of Them

Stuber movie poster

Stuber” feels like an overdue return for me to action comedy genre. Seriously, it feels like I have been away from this particular genre for far too long. While there may have been many action comedies/buddy movies released in recent years, I cannot help but feel like the last one I bothered to watch was 2010’s “The Other Guys” with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. Watching “Stuber” brought to mind movies like that and also “Stakeout” in which Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez play Seattle detectives spying on Madeline Stowe, and it remains a classic I never get sick of watching. “Stuber,” however, doesn’t quite reach the greatness of “Stakeout” or “The Other Guys,” and watching it made me feel old as I begun to realize I have seen this type of movie so many times.

This movie starts off with a shockingly visceral action sequence as Los Angeles detective Victor Manning (Dave Bautista) relentlessly pursues ruthless drug trafficker Oka (“The Raid’s” Iko Uwais) inside a downtown hotel. This opening took me for a loop as the violence is not the least bit sugar coated as bullets inflect tremendous damage and the blood flows more freely than in the average comedy. Unfortunately, Oka escapes Victor’s grasp and mortally wounds his partner, Sarah (Karen Gillan), and this leads to a scene which has Victor more or less saying, “don’t you die on me!”

From there, the story moves to several months later where we meet Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) who, when he isn’t working his job at a corporate home improvement store, is out on the town as an Uber driver. Stu is also juggling his work life with his personal one as has deep feelings for his best friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) whom he is about to open a cycling exercise gym with. Then one day, while trying to maintain at least four-star rating on Uber so he can avoid deactivation, he gets a ride request from Victor who finds himself on the path of Oka yet again, and everyone’s life, career and Uber rating is on the line more than ever before.

The one thing which immediately stuck me about “Stuber” is how it reminded me of how the atmospheres of Uber and Lyft are completely different from one another. Whereas in “The Equalizer 2” where Denzel Washington got along with his passengers was only attacked by one but not because he was a Lyft driver, Stu invites trouble simply because Uber passengers are far too quick to give him a one-star rating for reasons which are not necessarily his fault. Seriously, Lyft has a better reputation than Uber, and this movie is a reminder of that.

“Stuber” is a movie aimed at entertaining its target audience and, as a result, employs an endless number of clichés which this genre is known for. Victor is a cop who is obsessed with bringing down the bad guy at any cost, and his endless pursuit has long since cost him the loving relationship he had with his daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales). When these two men are forced into a situation brought about by circumstance, each wonders who is more manly than the other as they are forced to deal with issues which they have put off to the side for far too long.

On the upside, the pairing presented in “Stuber” is perfect as these two actors and their characters could not be further apart from one another if they tried. Bautista is a former wrestler who became an unforgettable presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when he played Drax in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, and he has proven to be a memorable screen presence in “Blade Runner 2049,” “Spectre” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” Nanjiani is a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian, actor, and podcast host who is best known for writing and staring in “The Big Sick,” a movie I should have already watched. This should be enough to inform you these two individuals are exact opposites from one another.

Bautista makes Vic Manning into the typically obsessed detective you are bound to find in a movie like this, and he makes this character an empathetic one as he tries to fix things with his daughter while bringing down an especially devious criminal. Nanjiani’s character is the more human of the two as he tries to survive a situation he has been unexpectedly thrust into while trying to be honest with Becca about his feelings for her. Together, these two actors make quite the pair as they race through Los Angeles in an electric car which is leased instead of owned.

Having said that, “Stuber” falls victim to playing far too often with clichés this genre has dealt with for far too long, and it gets to where we know the direction this story is heading in. Granted, I did not go into this movie expecting something original, but the filmmakers still had a chance to give us something both fresh and entertaining and they did not quite pull it off here.

The problem filmmakers have in making action comedies is balancing out the action with the comedy, and it is a balance which is harder to achieve than anyone initially thinks. “Stuber” was directed by Michael Dowse, a Canadian filmmaker who previously gave us the “FUBAR” movies which dealt with two lifelong friends and head bangers living out their lives, and also the sports comedy “Goon” which dealt with ice hockey. One of his movies I especially liked was “What If” which starred Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in a romantic comedy that followed a well-established formula but still proved to be highly entertaining and absorbing nonetheless.

With “Stuber,” I couldn’t help but think Dowse would really freshen up the buddy comedy formula to great effect, but it only goes so far here. On one hand the action scenes are excellent and visceral, but on the other they seem too brutal for a movie which aims to keep us laughing hysterically. The shift from comedy to action is at times very jarring to where I wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing or clinging to the edge of my seat. And this movie doesn’t have the kind of action which could be seen as make believe. The bullets hit hard and leave a lot of damage, and the blood flows a lot more than it ever did in “Stakeout.”

When all is said and done, “Stuber” is not able to balance out the action and comedic elements with total success, and it is at times more violent than it needs to be. Also, I have seen this kind of movie so many times now to where it all feels routine, free of surprises and run of the mill despite a game cast that gives the material their all. Yes, it has its moments, and it is a reminder of why I would rather drive for Lyft instead of Uber, but for me this one is a near miss. I cannot say I didn’t enjoy it, but it is a movie which will not stay in the memory for very long after you depart the movie theater. Suffice to say, this is no “Stakeout” or “The Other Guys.”

Oh yeah, Mira Sorvino co-stars here as Vic’s boss, Captain Angie McHenry. It’s great to see her here. It’s great to see her in anything.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

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‘Love, Gilda’ Shows How the Late ‘SNL’ Comedienne Never Really Left Us

Love Gilda poster

You cannot help but fall in love with Gilda Radner. Even in death, her spirit radiates with a power nothing can destroy. Her smile stretched for miles whenever she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” and it never faded from our sight even as she fought a tough battle against ovarian cancer. When she passed away on May 20, 1989 at the age of 42, it really felt like a national tragedy, and I remember Steven Martin paying tribute to her on the “SNL” stage while on the verge of tears. After showing a video of him dancing with Gilda, he said the following:

“You know when I look at that tape I can’t help but think how great she was and how young I looked. Gilda, we miss you.”

It’s now been almost 30 years since Gilda died, and she is still missed. But with the documentary “Love, Gilda,” she is brought back to life for a time, and we get to see sides of her many have not seen previously. Granted, her life has been documented endlessly on various shows and in numerous books, but we get to see home movies of her youth and journal entries, most of which were previously unseen. Whether or not you think this documentary touches on anything new, just the chance to spend time in her company makes it a must see.

Among the most memorable images we get of Gilda are in home movies made when she was a child. Even back then she had a big smile on her face and a zest for life which never faded. We also see how she was overweight as a child to where she talked of how kids at school teased her viciously. One family member told her to make a joke about her weight if they made fun of her again, and this proved successful. From there, I think it’s safe to say comedy was Gilda’s weapon of choice for all the obstacles life would throw at her.

It’s a treat to watch “SNL” regulars like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Cecily Strong among others reading from Gilda’s journals as it is clear on their faces the love they had for her work, and of the effect she had on theirs. Poehler even admits many of the characters she created on “SNL” were essentially B-versions of Gilda’s characters, but her work still stands on its own regardless. I envied these celebrated performers as they got a glimpse of Gilda’s actual handwriting which gives a glimpse into her wonderful mind.

As “Love, Gilda” moves on, we see her reflecting on the fame she achieved through “SNL” and the overall effect it had on her. I believe her when she reveals how she was unaware of how famous she had become until the cast visited New Orleans. We also come to see how fame at times served to keep her chained to a certain place in life, and of the pressures it brought on which made her eating disorder even worse. Once again, comedy becomes her weapon as she finds ways to make fun of being famous as her spirit remains strong. While she came to fame in a time before the advent of social media and cell phones, being in the public’s eye probably wasn’t much easier.

This world can really beat you down to where we become overcome with disappointments and bitterness, and many often feel like happiness is a commodity far out of their reach. So, it’s always great to know that one person who maintains a strong spirit and a wonderful view of life in the face of personal tragedies. Even as we watch Gilda Radner in her most harrowing moments, going through chemotherapy and losing the ability to bear children, she still has a big smile on her face and an infinitely strong spirit which never faltered even in her dying moments. She also had the love of her life, the late Gene Wilder, at her side through it all. I can only hope to be as lucky.

Could director Lisa D’Apolito, who had the privilege of appearing in my all-time favorite movie, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” have dug deeper into Gilda’s life? Perhaps. Some parts are given short shrift like her brief marriage to guitarist G.E. Smith and her movie career which ended after the critical and commercial failure of “Haunted Honeymoon.” D’Apolito also uses audio of Radner reading from her autobiography “It’s Always Something,” which remains one of my favorite books ever. Anyone who has read it can testify just how revealing Radner is about her struggles, and it threatens to make this documentary pale in comparison.

Regardless, D’Apolito does excellent work in making us see what a strong human being Gilda Radner was, and of how her spirit and influence remain incredibly strong even years after her death. The “SNL” cast member was made to endure terrible things in her life and left us at far too young an age, and yet she came out fighting and left us laughing hysterically. She even found humor in her cancer battle and demonstrated this when she guest starred on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and her entrance was one full of victory. Nobody dared to make jokes about cancer back then, but she showed no fear in making fun of the most hideous of diseases. Even if it feels like there could have been more to this documentary than what we are shown, D’Apolito makes us see how Radner lives on in many ways.

Wilder founded “Gilda’s Club,” an organization where people with cancer can meet to build emotional and social support, after her death, and there are now over a dozen of them throughout America. Her book “It’s Always Something” is still in print, and I cannot recommend it more highly. And, of course, you can always catch her in “SNL” reruns which continue to entertain audiences of many generations. She may be gone, but “Love, Gilda” shows she never really left us. With a spirit as strong as hers, she never will.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Ralph Garman Continues to Walk the Showbiz Beat with ‘The Ralph Report’

Ralph Garman photo

I first became aware of Ralph Garman when he and Kevin Smith hosted a screening of “Red State” at New Beverly Cinema. In the movie, Garman plays Caleb, husband to Sara (Oscar-winner Melissa Leo) who is a shameless member of Five Points Trinity Church, an infinitely homophobic religious sect which puts the WBC to utter shame. While Ralph has no dialogue, he left quite the impression on audiences as film acting requires you to do more with your face than with dialogue.

Caleb Red State

But following the screening, which also served as my introduction to “Hollywood Babble-On,” a podcast I am a die-hard fan of, Ralph demonstrated to the audience a talent he has long since been gifted with, doing voices. Whether he spoke as Al Pacino, Christopher Walken or Sylvester Stallone (“GREEDY AND LAZY!!!”), it was clear he had more than eight voices in his repertoire.

Hollywood Babble On logo

Ralph Garman is an actor and radio personality who has appeared in such movies as “Sharktopus,” “Lavalantula,” “Ted” and “Yoga Hosers” to name a few. On television, he has lent his vocal talents to countless episodes of “Family Guy” and appeared on “The Joe Schmo Show.” But to many, he is best known for his time on “The Kevin & Bean Show,” a Los Angeles morning radio show on KROQ-FM. For almost two decades, he entertained audiences with his impressions and sketches which included him going nuts as Christian Bale and voicing the late Jerry Lewis so well to where he actually ended up talking with Jacques Chirac, the one-time President of France. This, of course, led to a lawsuit, but anyway.

On November 30, 2017, Ralph told audiences he was leaving “The Kevin & Bean Show” after 18 years and was very emotional about departing from a job he was at for a very long time. His exodus was the result of downsizing put forth by KROQ’s new management. To see him get laid off was painful as anyone who has gone through the same thing can understand the shock and sadness of seeing their regular routine upended for the sake of increased profits. It’s like your manager is telling you, “We would love for you to stay. We just don’t want to pay you and we figured you would have a problem with that.”

After interviewing with other radio stations for the possibility of employment, Garman came to realize he no longer wanted to work in an environment where he was told what he could and could not do. So, at the beginning of 2018, he debuted “The Ralph Report,” a weekly podcast which can be found on the membership platform website, Patreon. This has proven to be the perfect place for him to continue his work as he has developed a faithful following of listeners which he lovingly refers to as the “Garmy,” and it is a podcast I very much look forward to listening to Monday through Friday.

The Ralph Report Twitter logo

Wisely, Garman has tailored “The Ralph Report” to have different kinds of segments each day to keep things fresh and to not let it fall into a stagnant rhythm. He continues to “walk the showbiz beat” as he has said for years, looking at the latest news in Hollywood, listing the birthdays of celebrities, and checking out which movies did big business at the box office over the weekend. He also continues to have great fun at the expense of the reality show “The Bachelor” and its various incarnations along with his wife, Kari Watson. Hearing them riff on the latest “Bachelor” episode makes me want to watch it myself, and this is even though I typically live to avoid reality shows in general.

Like any good show, “The Ralph Report” continues to evolve to include new segments such as “Holiday or Holi-nay” in which he looks at each day’s national holidays to determine which one deserves to be celebrated over all the others. It’s constantly astonishing to see just how many holidays can be fit into a single day to where I wonder if there’s any day of the year which does not have one. It also reminds me of a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which the following dialogue was spoken:

    Mayor Quimby: “Henceforth, this date shall forever be known as Flaming Moe’s Day!”

    Advisor: “Uh, sir, this is already Veterans’ Day.”

    Mayor Quimby: “It can be two things!”

Yes, it can.

Eddie Pence eating a peach

In recent months, Garman has also brought on stand-up comedian Eddie Pence to be his vice host, and the two play off each other very well. You also have to give Pence points for bravery as loyal members of the Garmy continue to pester him about the foods he should like but does not, facts he often gets wrong (“EDDIE!!! Is Wrong”), and those who continue leaving voicemails which start off with “DAMN YOU, EDDIE PENCE!” I think he deserves more respect than people often give him, and this is even though I am annoyed with him describing the sci-fi cult classic “Tron” as, in his words, “boring.” Hey, Eddie, no movie which stars Jeff Bridges, “The Dude” for crying out loud, can ever be considered boring. And yes, that includes “R.I.P.D.”

If I have to choose one segment from “The Ralph Report” I have come to like above all others, it is “Sex U.” Ralph originally did this segment on “The Kevin & Bean Show” until KROQ and the FCC forced the program to drop it. At first, I thought it would be poking fun at sex in general or at the sexually inexperienced, but it has proven to be a very thoughtful segment which deals with sexuality issues in an intelligent way. One episode in particular dealt with adult virgins who still find themselves celibate for varying reasons. This is actually a bigger issue than many even bother to realize. How do I know this? I’m not answering that.

But what’s especially appealing about “The Ralph Report” is that it is hosted by a man who remains a very down-to-earth individual. He moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a serious actor, and while things for him may not have worked out the way he expected, I think he has ended up exactly where he needs to be. Ralph has a loving wife and daughter, his love of the “Batman” television show from the 1960’s has proven to be infectious, and he strikes me as a celebrity you can have an easy conversation with. Also, he has taken the large step of creating a business for himself through Patreon, and it has proven to be a success which has nowhere to go but up.

Please keep up the great work, Ralph! I look forward to seeing how “The Ralph Report” will evolve from week to week. Kudos to you as well, Eddie, for being an effective vice-host. Just remember Eddie, I love “Tron” and I mean it. Bye.

Click here to visit “The Ralph Report” website and learn more about the podcast and how to subscribe.

 

Gino England (1967-2015)

Gino England 1

Writer’s note: This article was originally written and published back in 2015.

I woke up this morning, had breakfast and checked out social media like I always do, and one post by John Massey caught my eye instantly:

“I lost a good friend this morning. RIP, Gino England.”

This had me in a state of shock and left me deeply saddened. I had the pleasure of working with Gino England for a few years at the Innoventions attraction in Disneyland, and I know he had spent the last year or so battling cancer. From all the pictures of him going through what he went through, his smile was always there to where it honestly looked like he had this merciless disease licked. But sadly, his body gave out and he passed away this morning at 10:00 a.m.

Gino England 2

Gino’s passing is another reminder of just how much I hate cancer. Like many diseases, it doesn’t care how old you are or how well you take care of yourself. And believe it or not, it doesn’t care if you are a smoker. People get cancer for many different reasons and it doesn’t always come down to how many Marlboro Light cigarettes you suck on. What enrages me is that it takes away some of the nicest and kindest people I have known in life at far too young an age. It robbed me of my friends Scott Boliver, Jim Kirkwood and Grant Martin, people who I believe still had a lot more to give. Gino was one of those people, so it is utterly devastating that he was taken away from us in this way. I don’t know his exact age, but I assure you that he was still a young man.

Cancer fucking sucks, there’s no doubt about that. Fuck cancer and the camel it came in on!

There are many people out there who can and should write a better eulogy for Gino. The last time I saw him was a few years ago when he and his wife were hosting a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. It was great to run into these two again as they are such wonderful souls, and seeing Gino there quickly reminded me of what a wonderful guy he was to be around.

Gino really was one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, and it was great to know that people like him could still exist in a world that keeps beating everyone down in different ways. Life in the real world seems destined to wipe the smiles off our faces, but that never ever happened with Gino. I guess that’s the thing I remember about him the best; he was always smiling no matter what life threw at him. I love that people like Gino existed because it’s far too easy to become such a complete cynic in this lifetime, and Gino never became that kind of person.

Gino England 3

Just look at the things said about Gino in light of his passing:

 

“Gino, I can’t believe you are gone. You were one of the greats. Thank you for being in my life. RIP.

                                                                                                                            -Erin Renee Scabareti

“What can I say about my friend Gino. He will be greatly missed. Always funny always giving and always punching you if you looked at his thumb and forefinger in a circle. So sad that he is gone. So thankful that I go to know him and act with him. Here is just one of the best bits the two of us got to do together. ” I say who on first, what on second, I don’t know is on third.” Don’t forget your part my friend will perform that routine again someday.”

                                                                                                                                              -Karl Jaecke

“Hey Gino remember the time I went to see your Special FX show at Universal Studios? We waited to see you show stop your own damn show. ::Sigh:: I’m going to miss you man. Love you lots!”

                                                                                                                                    -Esteban Ramirez

“We always said that Innoventions was a family. Today we lost Gino England to cancer and I feel like he was always one of us. Having lost my own mother to cancer, I can honestly say that I HATE CANCER but I am glad that Gino was in my life from the first day I hired into Inno(ventions). In fact, he was the greeter cm on the day I found I was transferring in. He called me Marcie from peanuts, and I would always respond with, “Yes Sir.” And he would always laugh. I am glad that Craig Smith brought Gino some comic relief because the newer kids all got to hear stories about him. We are a family. Any one of my Inno friends that I’ve upset in the past I apologize from the bottom of my heart because I honestly don’t want to lose any of you before I have to. RIP Gino.”

                                                                                                                                       -Robyn Gleason

 

“At (Knott’s) Scary Farm…

*Monster jumps out*

Monster: “Arrrgghhh….oh, hey Gino, I didn’t realize it was you. How the hell are you?”

Jess: “Damn it Gino, nobody is scaring us cuz they all wanna talk to you!!”

                                                                                                                                         -K.J. Van Nevel

“Gino was one of my favorite co-workers when I worked at Disneyland. He was always quick with a joke and could turn anyone’s bad day around. He was always kind to everyone. Lost children seemed to flock to him and I often remember him walking around with a tiny child by his side while he looked for their parents. You will truly be missed Gino. The world is a lot less funny without you.”

                                                                                                                               -Tricia Stahly Asbra

“My friends and family, today I lost my best friend and the best father, Gino England. He fought hard and was telling jokes until the end. He was one the funniest, bravest and generous people I ever knew.”

                                                                                                                       -Lisa Klubniken England

“Stunned…saddened…Reading this news put a pause in my heart. Whenever I think of Gino, it is always Joy and Laughter. Every single day I had the honor and privilege to work with this extraordinary person, I knew that I would smile and laugh. Every single time. I never knew a bigger heart, and all that goodness followed him. Rest in peace dear, dear soul. From now on whenever I hear thunder, I know it’s you laughing and making everyone with you laugh along.”

                                                                                                                                    -Drew Hayashida

 

“Why do we keep losing all the good ones to cancer? You will be missed, Gino England.”

                                                                                                                                              -John Collin

“’Gino, Gino…get a burrito!’

‘No thanks, Jess. I’m not mad at my ass today.’”

                                                                                                                                        -Jessica Balicki

“I can’t believe it, buddy. Just thought you’d make it through. Dammit…. I’ll never forget that time I ushered your Animation Academy show: a little girl in the audience held up her drawing mid show and you said, “Bitchin’!” We exchanged a quick look and then you went on with the show as if nothing odd was said. Or that time you recognized Eve Plumb after academy. Eve freakin Plumb! You’re the only person that would’ve recognized that Brady bunch gal. She was flattered to be recognized. Or that time you told Jamie off during Home rehearsals. Ohh good times. Or your general jolliness, talent and humor. That time we BOTH screwed up during the Home press opening haha… I’m so sad to hear of this, my thoughts are with your fam, RIP, say hi to my Mom up there.”

                                                                                                                                       -Carlos Campos

 

Gino England 4

Some of us can only dream of getting those kinds of notices when we pass away, and it should give you all an idea of just how appreciated Gino was while he walked the earth. We should all feel fortunate to have known somebody like him in our lifetime because most of the time we come to know people who are the exact opposite.

It’s been a long time since I have sighed so much and so deeply in a day, and that shows how saddened I am that Gino left us. Such wonderful souls like him deserve a longer stay on this crazy planet we reside on. But while his body has left us, his spirit remains as strong as ever. As long as we remember him, he will never be dead to us.

I am so sorry you had to depart this world the way you did Gino, but I will never ever forget you. How could I?

Rest in peace my friend.

Gino England 5

A memorial fund for Gino England has been set up on GoFundMe.com and I encourage you to make a donation. Even if you can only donate $5, that will still go a long way to helping his family deal with his tragic loss. Trust me, he is worth your effort. Click here to find out how you can donate.

Exclusive Interview with Ron Shelton about ‘Just Getting Started’

Just Getting Started Shelton with Jones and Freeman

When I first looked at the poster for “Just Getting Started,” I was very happy to see the following phrase on it: written and direct by Ron Shelton. Shelton is responsible for creating some of the best sports movies such as “Bull Durham,” Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and he has a true gift for creating fantastic dialogue and getting wonderful performances out of his actors. Somewhere along the line, he stopped making movies to where I wondered where he was and what he was up to. Now we know.

“Just Getting Started” takes place at a luxury resort in Palm Springs, California called the Villa Capri. This resort is managed by Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman), a man with a mysterious past who is determined to make sure his residents will never ever stop partying or having fun. But while Duke is the life of the party, his ego becomes threatened by the arrival of Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military man who wastes no time in battling Duke for the top spot of Alpha male at the Villa Capri. Things get even more complicated when a new resident, the beautiful Suzie (Rene Russo), arrives at the resort, and the two become determined to gain her affections in an effort to prove who is the better man. But once Duke’s past comes back to haunt him, he and Leo are forced to work together in an effort to stay alive.

It was a real pleasure talking with Shelton, and he spoke about what brought him back to the director’s chair for the first time in over a decade, how he goes about directing a comedy, and of what it was like to have Freeman and Jones go against type and play characters who are not so serious and eager to have fun. Shelton also talked about Glenne Headly who passed away recently, as this was the last movie she appeared in before her death.

Just Getting Started movie poster

Ben Kenber: I was very excited to learn you were directing another movie. This is your first feature film since “Hollywood Homicide.” What was it about this story which inspired you to get back in the director’s chair?

Ron Shelton: Well I had three or four movies which fell through at the last second, so it’s not like I suddenly decided to get off the couch and direct. I have been writing steadily and developing TV things and trying to finance features. In the independent world, there are so many moving parts to the financing that if one piece falls out, the whole thing falls apart. So it hasn’t been for lack of effort, and now I have a couple more I think that are gonna go. It won’t be such a dearth of time between them, and I got some other projects I’m working on. This one came together financially, that’s why this one got made.

BK: What inspired you to write this particular screenplay?

RS: Southern California where I grew up, and maybe you grew up, in the winters and Christmas, to me, I’m used to it. You go to the beach and play golf. But people from cold climates come out here and they are just like appalled; this doesn’t count as Christmas. And I started saying to half the world, this is Christmas, this kind of weather. What’s wrong with it? When the Nativity happened, it was probably more like Palm Springs (laughs). Then I remembered driving to Palm Springs at Christmas and there were dust storms and Christmas trees were blowing off lots down the street and Johnny Mathis was being piped in, and I thought, yeah, this was a good backdrop for a movie, so that’s where the backdrop came from. And then basically, the Duke Diver character is based on a hustler a producer and I knew who was a good hustler. He wasn’t a criminal hustler, but he was a guy everybody loved, and nobody ever knew what he did for a living or how he survived. So, I kind of turned that into this character, and the whole thing fell together.

BK: The characters played by Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo, they are not all they appear to be at the start.

RS: Right, exactly.

BK: Your movies take place in the real world which we all understand and complain about more often than not, and they also contain fantastical elements which you can only find in the realm of fiction. How much of a challenge is it for you to balance those two elements out?

RS: It’s what I prefer to do. What I couldn’t imagine is a movie set in outer space or in the future or time travel or Death Stars blowing up or toys that turn into monsters or Transformers. That doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in human behavior whether it’s tragic or comic, and all of my movies, however disparate they are, are about how people behave. I just think that’s the most exciting thing to observe, and I tend to like movies about human behavior and not special effects. That’s just me. I’m in the minority obviously when you look at the box office results out there. I like to take the audience into a world they never would go into except for a movie whether it’s playground basketball (“White Men Can’t Jump”), minor league baseball (“Bull Durham”), or the political world of Louisiana politics in the 1950’s (“Blaze”). That’s just what interests me. It’s as simple as that.

BK: I fear many people will consider “Just Getting Started” as a movie about old people, but it really isn’t. It’s more about how no one ever really acts their age and how we roll with the punches.

RS: Well you don’t go to a retirement home to die. You go there to party. Everybody onscreen is not looking back and reliving their loses which everyone has, looking at their high school yearbooks, or thinking about what might have been. Everybody there probably is divorced or widowed, and all they are doing is looking for what’s next in their life. I’m 70. When you get to 70, that’s all you’re doing. I don’t think of myself as old. I can’t hit a golf ball as far, but I’m a better golfer. Morgan’s 80 and Tommy’s my age. We’re all about moving forward, working more, discovering things about ourselves, and that’s really what I think interests me. Most people I know who are my age, whether they are in the movie business or not, are not looking back. They are looking forward and looking forward to tomorrow. That’s all it’s about.

BK: I love how you cast Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones in these roles. Both are known for playing dramatic roles with a lot of gravitas, so seeing them let loose here is a joy because we don’t see them often in comedic roles. When it comes to directing actors to be funny, do you let them play the joke or play the scene?

RS: Play the scene always. Never play the joke. I’m not a very good joke writer anyway. I try to write behavior and interchange and exchange that’s humorous or that’s real and based on behavior, and I just say play it. You’re the actors, play it. Don’t ever look for a laugh. Don’t ever worry about where the punchline is because there’s probably not a punchline, and that’s the way we do it.

BK: That’s great because a lot of movies today, filmmakers just like to play the joke and that doesn’t work.

RS: Right.

BK: I think the trick with comedy, especially with your movies, is to play the scene and never play it like you are in on the joke.

RS:  Exactly. A lot of times an actor, not these two because they are so good, but in another movie I’d be directing, they would say this line is so funny on the page and I don’t think I’m getting the laugh out of it. I said you shouldn’t be trying to get the laugh, just play it real. Play every line real, and the laughs come or they don’t come. Sometimes you think there’s going to be a laugh in the script, and it’s a smile. Sometimes a laugh comes when you least expect it, but it’s not going to come on the punchline because there aren’t any, or they rarely are.

BK: You worked with Rene Russo in “Tin Cup,” and she looks and is fabulous in this role. It looks like a serious role for her at first, but then she pulls out the stops.

RS: Rene plays the strong woman who’s really a mess better than anybody I know (laughs).

BK: How did you direct the actors? Did you just let them loose?

RS: When a director says “action,” his work is done. It’s like you’re a basketball coach; at the first tip, you’re done. Plus, with these people, you don’t have to direct them as much as you give them a note and then get out of the way. Just help stage it and shoot it. Tommy’s note was look you’re not competing with Duke, he’s competing with you. You’re not threatened by Duke, he’s terribly threatened by you. So that’s where some of the chemistry comes from. Tommy’s toying with Duke, and Duke is fighting for his existence with Tommy. So that just needs a slightly different motivation.

BK: When you write a screenplay, you usually have a vision of it in your head of how the dialogue should sound like. What is it like when actors speak the dialogue you have written?

RS: Well then, it’s the third thing: You write one movie, you shoot another movie, and then you edit a third movie as the old saying goes. Once they have it, it takes on a new life of its own. That’s the truth. Once you’ve hired the actor and I hand them the script, I always say look, until this moment, I know more about this character than you because I have been living with this character and writing him and figuring him out. Now, it’s yours. Now you’re going to discover things about this character I didn’t even think about. So in a certain way, I’m handing this character to you.

BK: I also liked the three ladies (played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley and the late Glenne Headly) whom Duke flirts with, and I loved their dialogue because you expect them to not know what’s going on, but they know more than they let on. What was it like writing those characters?

RS: They were great. I wish I had more time. It was a fast shoot. We had 28 days if you can believe that. If we had more time, we could have done more with those wonderful actresses. And yes indeed, it was a shocking loss when Glenne passed. Nobody anticipated it at all, and it happened suddenly too. It wasn’t like a disease. But they were all great to work with. They were so happy to be working in a nourishing environment where everybody was having fun, and there was mutual trust and we could play. But everybody was very respectful of the script. There was virtually no improvising in the whole movie, and they were just pros. I love working with pros.

BK: I really thought the dedication you gave Glenne at the conclusion of the end credits was really lovely.

RS: Thank you.

BK: In regards to the shooting schedule you had for this movie, how did shooting it in less than 30 days affect you as a director?

RS: It’s not a shooting schedule when a movie is shot in three different cities with 80 and 70-year-old actors with about 80 locations. It’s a schedule when you’ve got sets, and we didn’t have any sets, and you’re moving the company all the time. When you’re moving the company all the time, that’s what takes time. The second unit I shot in Palm Springs because we also shot in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and I picked up a day in Valencia. So that’s a lot of movie for 28 days.

BK: Another actor I was happy to see in this movie was Jane Seymour, and she is almost completely unrecognizable here. Was this by design or was it her idea to look completely different from any role she has played previously?

RS: When she said she would love to do this, she was a late add. She said, what’s my hair look like? I said I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that. And she said, I have two different wigs. And I said, why don’t you wear them both? We’ll just alternate them in scenes. She thought that was a great idea, and she said one is blonde and one is brunette. I said perfect, every time we cut to you, you’ll look different.

BK: How did this movie evolve for you while you were in the editing room?

RS: Well you keep finding the movie. The big question in editing was, how much should the audience know that you keep a secret? You don’t want to make it too much, and you also don’t want to say he doesn’t have a secret because when the golf cart blows up, it can’t be like, what the hell’s happening? It has to be oh, now we’re going to get to the bottom of the secret. So we were always playing with how much to share with the audience and how much not to share. That’s just a difficult kind of problem you address in post-production.

I really want to thank Ron Shelton for taking the time to talk with me. It was a real pleasure. “Just Getting Started” will open on December 8, 2017. Be sure to check it out!

Poster, photo and trailer courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Savage Steve Holland Revisits ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘One Crazy Summer’ at the Aero Theatre

Better Off Dead poster

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was sold out yet again when director Savage Steve Holland was there to talk about his two 1980’s comedies “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer” back in June 2008. But the big attraction of the evening was “Better Off Dead” as it still has a huge cult following 30 years after its release. Like many movies from our youth, it was a box office flop and got eviscerated by critics. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down, and Peter Travers tore it apart limb from limb, but it eventually found its audience on video, cable, DVD and Blu-ray. These days, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t watched “Better Off Dead,” and everyone who has seen it loves it.

“Better Off Dead” follows Lane Meyer (John Cusack), a teenager with an obsession for skiing and an even bigger obsession for his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss). But soon after the movie begins, Beth dumps Lane for the captain of the ski team, and this leaves him utterly devastated to where he tries to kill himself in order to get her attention. Throughout, he is forced to deal with a crazed paperboy who wants his two dollars, his mother’s bizarre ways of cooking food, his dad’s insistence on doing something about his Camaro which remains immobile on the front lawn, his kid brother who reads books on how to pick up “trashy woman,” and a lovely foreign exchange student who has the misfortune of staying with the dork heads, ahem, the Smiths next door.

After “Better Off Dead” ended, Holland came to the stage and was greeted with thunderous applause. Dressed in jeans, a white buttoned-down shirt and wearing a green baseball cap, he was so happy to see all these people who came out to see this movie which he made long ago. Along with Holland was Diane Franklin who played the French exchange student Monique, and Curtis Armstrong who plays Lane’s best friend Charles de Mar.

Holland said “Better Off Dead” was inspired by his own life experiences, particularly the one where a girlfriend dumped him for somebody else. One scene has Lane tying an extension cord around his neck in the garage, and Holland said he did the same thing and had attached the cord to a pole while standing on a plastic garbage can. Holland said he became terrified and couldn’t go through with it, and then the lid of the garbage can suddenly broke and he fell right into it. Then the pipe above him broke, water came out and he almost drowned as a result. His mother came into the garage to see what was going on, and she ended up yelling at him for breaking the pipe.

“Better Off Dead” did so well in test screenings to where Warner Brothers gave Holland even more money to make “One Crazy Summer.” The studio executives were so convinced they had a big hit on their hands, and they wanted to work with him again on his next movie. Unfortunately, “Better Off Dead” failed at the box office and, while he did get the opportunity to make “One Crazy Summer,” Holland said he was quickly consigned to what he called “movie hell.” This is the place you go to when your movie doesn’t have a big opening weekend, and all those friends you thought you had in Hollywood stop calling you as a result.

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One fan asked Holland what the difference was between making “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer.” With “Better Off Dead,” Holland said he had total creative freedom to where no one was looking over his shoulder, and this made it the best filmmaking experience he has ever had. With “One Crazy Summer,” it was very different because there was more money involved, and studio executives were on set watching his every move. A lot of this was due to their initial response following the first “Better Off Dead” screening as they came out of it horrified, thinking it was a sequel to John Water’s “Pink Flamingos.”

Franklin, as it turns out, is not French. She said her father is in fact German, so this may account for her looking like she is from another country. As for her French accent, Franklin said she took French classes in high school and became very good at speaking the language, and the accent came to her easily as a result. When she came in to read for “Better Off Dead,” Franklin was actually up for the roles of Beth and Monique. Franklin said making this movie remains the best experience she has had as an actress, and she remarked how Holland created a fun and comfortable atmosphere for everyone to work in. She also confirmed it was indeed a woman who did her skiing sequences in the movie and not a man as many assumed. Holland did say, however, that her stunt double looked almost exactly like her, and the only thing separating them was the stunt double’s tan.

Also up for the role of Monique was Elizabeth Daily who sang the movie’s title track at the school dance. But in the end, it was determined Daily was just “too hot” for the role.

Armstrong came up with some of the most memorable aspects of Charles de Mar. The scene where the ski captain asks Beth what her name is and Charles replies, mistakenly thinking he the one being talked to, was Armstrong’s idea. He also came up with the top hat Charles wears throughout the movie, saying it was inspired by his love for The Beatles and, in particular, George Harrison. It was also his idea to bring along the jar with the dead pig in it to school. However, Armstrong said he could not take credit for this famous piece of dialogue: “I have been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.”

Armstrong also brought up a brief conversation he had with Kim Darby who played Lane’s mom. At one point during a break from filming, Darby came up to Armstrong, took him by the shoulders and said, “Watch out! They’re trying to destroy you!” After that, she never spoke to him again.

Holland also discussed some of the movie’s deleted scenes, and among them was one which showed how Lane’s mother belonged to the cult of Gumby and was collecting money for it at the airport. Other deleted scenes included Lane’s father (played by David Ogden Stiers) coming home to find his wife vacuuming the lawn, Lane trying to practice the theme song to “Flipper” on his saxophone, and there is a seal there which ends up applauding another person who ends up performing it better than him. Also, the scene of the paperboy falling off the cliff actually lasted a lot longer as Holland had about three minutes of it on film, but test audiences had a very sickened reaction to it, and it got shortened as a result.

If there was one thing which dampened the mood for “Better Off Dead” fans, it is the fact Cusack hates the movie. Holland said he got along great with Cusack while making “Better off Dead,” and he really wanted Cusack to like it as much as he did. Before they began shooting “One Crazy Summer,” Holland got the cast members to hang out with each other in Cape Cod so they could become comfortable with one another. While there, someone was presenting a screening of “Better Off Dead” which they all went to. Twenty or so minutes into it, Cusack walked out. Holland figured Cusack had to take a call or something, but the actor never returned. Holland later caught up with Cusack who told him he thought the movie was horrible and that he no longer trusted him as a director. Suffice to say, this really brought the audience at the Aero Theatre down.

Someone else asked how Rupert Hine came to score “Better Off Dead.” One of the companies involved in the movie’s making was A&M Records which had worked on soundtracks for other films like “The Breakfast Club.” Hine was a featured performer on that soundtrack but had never actually done a film score before. “Better Off Dead” was his first effort as a film composer, and the resulting soundtrack release for the movie is indeed awesome.

This evening was a lot of fun for everyone involved, and it says a lot about “Better Off Dead” that it remains so popular decades after its release. One fan proudly proclaimed it as being “bar none, the greatest movie ever made.” Such a fan this guy was, he got Holland to sign an authentic air filter for a 1967 Camaro, just like the one featured in the movie. Along with that, he also had the original vinyl release of the soundtrack as well as the movie’s original script.

“Better Off Dead” is truly one of the most entertaining comedies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is a movie Cusack really should be proud of. What else can you say about a movie in which Steven Williams utters one of the most famous lines in cinema history?

“Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwing away a perfectly good white boy like that.”

The article’s over… You can go home now.

 

Exclusive Interview with Lake Bell and Ed Helms about ‘I Do… Until I Don’t’

I Do Until I Don't poster

Lake Bell made a name for herself as an actress in television on “Boston Legal” as well as in movies like “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached.” In 2013, she made her feature film directorial debut with “In a World…” and it showed her to be as talented behind the camera as she is in front on it. She now returns to the director’s chair with the comedy “I Do… Until I Don’t” which she also wrote and stars in as Alice. The story revolves around three couples who are at various points in their relationships, and they end up becoming subjects for a documentary directed by the highly regarded, yet hopelessly pretentious, filmmaker Vivian (played by Dolly Wells). What follows is a well-acted, written and directed movie which looks at marriage and asks if it is an institution worth preserving or instead worthy of a reboot.

Bell was joined by actor Ed Helms at the “I Do… Until I Don’t” press day held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California. Helms plays Alice’s husband, Noah. As the movie opens, the two of them have been married for 10 years, and they begin to wonder if boredom has become an overriding factor in their relationship as they discuss the possibility of having children. Just when you think you know where their relationship is heading, things end up taking an unpredictable turn.

I spoke with Bell about how the screenplay seemed to come together organically and how it evolved from when she started writing it to where she finished it. With Helms, we discussed how wonderfully he and the other actors worked with one another as their chemistry onscreen is never in doubt.

Check out the interview below, and be sure to check out “I Do… Until I Don’t” when it arrives in theaters on September 1, 2017.

‘The Little Hours’ Cast and Director Talk About Making This Satirical Comedy

The Little Hours poster

From its trailer, I figured “The Little Hours” would be a spoof of all the religious movies we grew up watching. But actually, it is a straightforward comedy which instead looks to satirize a culture we assumed was wholly religious, but was actually a lot looser and fun than history books ever made it out to be.

Based on the first tale of the third day from “The Decameron,” it stars Dave Franco as Massetto, a young servant who flees from his master after he is found out to be having an affair with his wife. Massetto is taken under the wing of Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) who agrees to hide him and pass him off to the residents as a deaf-mute to avoid detection. But among the residents are a trio of medieval nuns, Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Ginevra (Kate Micucci), who think nothing of berating a pleasant laborer, chafing at their given duties, and also spying on one another. When they become aware of Massetto, a wealth of sexual repression becomes awakened along with a dose of substance abuse and wicked revelry, and he wonders how long he can keep this act up before giving in to temptation.

The Little Hours Jeff Baena

“The Little Hours” was written and directed by Jeff Baena whose previous credits were “Life after Beth” and “Joshy,” and he was joined at the movie’s Los Angeles press day by actors Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Molly Shannon. Baena explained how, while he was studying filmmaking at NYU, he also earned enough credits to get a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This is where he learned about “The Decameron,” a collection of short stories written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century. The stories dealt with life lessons and love, and I asked Baena why he chose to make a movie out of one particular story from it.

Jeff Baena: I wasn’t expecting something as funny and bawdy coming from a source material that is almost 700 years old. So, when I read it, it just read to me as something so human and just highlighted how similar we are to these people even though obviously the context is completely different. I was just drawn to how amazingly easy it is to connect to this thing and find our commonalities and also highlighting differences and showing how much we’ve changed despite that. All that stuff was really interesting to me.

I was also interested in learning from Baena about how he conceived this movie. Like I said, I thought this would be a religious spoof after watching the trailer, but “The Little Hours” proves to be much more than that. I was curious to see how this story evolved for him as he went about turning it into a movie.

Jeff Baena: I just wanted to achieve something similar to what “The Decameron” does itself which is funny. It’s a humanist book, so more than anything I just wanted to get the tone of that silliness but also the historicity which is a sort of strange balance, and then highlight all these actors who I love being in this world and then finding a way to make it adjustable for people to digest.

The Little Hours Dave and Aubrey

“The Little Hours” takes place in the year 1347 and was shot in Tuscany, Italy. As a result, it was tempting to believe the actors did a lot of research in preparation for filming. But in talking with Franco, he explained why this didn’t end up being your average period film.

Dave Franco: I kept asking Jeff what kind of research I could do and what research I should be doing, and he told me not to overthink it. He said it is not about knowing about the time period or how they talked or what activities they were doing there anything like that. It was more about the human connection. Even though the movie is set in the 14th century, it’s just about the relationships and we want you to talk in your own natural cadence. We don’t want you having to talk flowerily language. So yeah, it was just about connecting to one another.

The Little Hours Nuns

Both Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza play nuns who are not at the convent for religious reasons as much as they are for some form of persecution. Many have asked the actresses what it was like wearing the nun costumes, and they replied they were heavy and itchy. But being an actor myself, I was more interested in how these costumes influenced their performances and if it changed the way they thought about their characters. Actors spend a lot of time preparing a role, and the costume is like the finishing touch or the missing puzzle piece which completes everything.

Aubrey Plaza: Yeah. Nun habits can feel really depressing. They are like really weighing you down literally, and only having just your face exposed is really hard. So, I think psychologically it helped get us all into character because we were totally de-sexualized, we couldn’t use our bodies, and we just felt after 10 hours of that we were all kind of like, “Can we get this fucking thing off?” Because it’s a drag.

Alison Brie: I feel like it made the character. The costume, the habit, is very oppressive and I found myself to be very depressed while wearing it, and my character’s in that same mental state a lot of the movie. So, it definitely helped and it did sort of change the way I went about performing in the movie because I’m a very physical person, and I think that that is one of my biggest tools that I use often. It’s like the tool I always reach for first in the bag. So, to have that kind of physicality taken away from you and also any sexuality robbed from you and to have just this small part of your face exposed, it was an interesting challenge in minimalism and in conveying ideas with as little movement as possible sometimes.

The Little Hours Molly Shannon poster

Then there was Molly Shannon who plays Sister Marea, easily the nicest and kindest character to be found in “The Little Hours.” When it comes to Shannon, we all know her best from “Saturday Night Live,” where she created Mary Katherine Gallagher, the awkward and unpopular Catholic schoolgirl prone to severe mood swings. Last year, I got to attend a special screening of “Superstar” which starred Shannon as MKG, and she spoke of how she went to Catholic school as a child and the experiences she had which to came to inform the creation of that character. I asked Shannon if MKG or her Catholic school experiences came to inform her performance as Sister Marea in “The Little Hours.”

Molly Shannon: That’s interesting. No, I wouldn’t say so much Mary Katherine Gallagher, but we did have a nun when I was in grade school named Sister Rosemary and she seemed really unhappy to me. She was fascinating because she seemed kind of miserable. She was young and she had a beautiful face. She was my first-grade teacher and she would take the hall pass and go, “Do you want to smell it?” Meaning like she wanted to hit you with it. I used to go pray at her convent after school to get extra credit, and I would just kind of study her and I was like wow, this is so weird. This young girl lives in this clean house. And then she left the convent and was seen on this golf course with a miniskirt like whooping it up with one of my schoolmates’ fathers and I was like, “Yay, she’s free! She got out!” I think about her in that little golf cart and I’m like, “Wow!” I could see she wanted to escape. She seemed unhappy. I think I always liked to study characters. I would study people. So, I think maybe I thought more of her.

While “The Little Hours” might seem crude on the surface, it is truly one of this year’s more original and subversively wicked comedies. It also shows how the 14th century was nowhere as stolid as we all have been led to believe, and it serves as a highly entertaining showcase for Baena and his super-talented cast. It opens in theaters on June 30, so be sure to check it out!

Stills, posters and trailers courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky

Jeff Baena photo courtesy of Getty Images

‘Get Him to The Greek’ Allows Us to Forget about Sarah Marshall

Get Him to the Greek movie poster

We have sequels and franchise reboots or remakes up the wazoo this summer, but it feels like it has been forever since we had a movie spin-off. I know there are tons of them on television these days, but TV spinoffs seem to be a necessity, especially with shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI.” We’re gonna have “Law & Order: Los Angeles” in the fall, proving the cancellation of the original “Law & Order” never ended anything. Personally, I’m waiting for “Law & Order: Barstow” and “CSI: Chico.” Now those would be the ones to really shake things up!

In fact, the last time we had a movie spin-off was “US Marshalls” which took Tommy Lee Jones’ character of Sam Gerard from “The Fugitive” and gave him his own movie. Looking back, it was more of a remake of “The Fugitive” than anything else.

Now we have “Get Him To The Greek” which takes Russell Brand’s character of spaced out rock star Aldous Snow from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and has him starring in his own movie movie. Give Hollywood some credit here for being a little more creative than usual. By making a movie based on a supporting character from another, they show an air of confidence they usually only pretend to have.

Whereas Aldous was drug free in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he is shown to haven fallen off the wagon big time in this one as we watch him suffering the after effects of a horrible song he wrote and recorded called “African Child.” The song was declared to be the worst song of the decade, and it places second to apartheid as the worst thing to happen to Africa. The love of his life, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne from “28 Weeks Later”), ends up leaving him along with their son Naples, and he proceeds to go on one drinking/drug binge after another as his life goes from worst to intolerable. Then he hits rock bottom, but this doesn’t stop his spiral any.

Several years later, a record company intern named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) brings up at a meeting how it is coming up on the 10 year anniversary of when Aldous performed a concert at the Greek Theater, one which resulted in one of the best-selling live albums of all time. After Aldous confirmed with Aaron’s boss, Sergio (Sean Combs), that he will do a new show to celebrate this occasion, Sergio sends him out to England to fetch Aldous and to make sure he makes it to the concert on time.

Judd Apatow is of course behind this one as a producer, and the setup reminded me a lot of his movie “Funny People.” Big fan meets his celebrity idol, discovers being where the celebrity is can be the loneliest place of all, and they somehow connect at the end in a way they never thought possible. But this one is just a flat out comedy and has none of the dramatic edge of “Funny People.” Its humor is vulgar and crude, but like all good Apatow productions, it also has a heart.

Like “Knocked Up,” “Get Him To The Greek” exists in the entertainment world. Hearing Aaron talk about how a new concert will spur large revenue for the record company, allowing them to re-release Snow’s back catalog in new remastered editions with bonus material struck a cord with me. I always fall for this stuff myself; remastered CD’s which make you actually feel like you’re in the room with the band as they jam together. I have been an addict of these remastered editions ever since I bought the one for Eric Clapton’s “Behind the Sun.”

This is not to mention all the cameos from artists like Pink and television personalities including Meredith Vieira from the “Today” show. You even have Mario Lopez and Kurt Loder poking fun at their public perception, something they probably would not have done ten years ago. “Get Him To The Greek” does not take place in some fairy tale world where everything ends up all nice and tidy. The laughs end up stinging much more here because they remind us of all those celebrity controversies the media thrusts at us every single day.

Russell Brand’s own drug addled past has been chronicled for some time now, so part of the fascination with watching him here is figuring out where he ends and Aldous Snow begins. Regardless of how out there he may seem in the media, there is something about his personality that makes us watch his every move. Not once does he do anything to hide his character’s hedonistic ways, and he scores one solid laugh after another. I’m not sure what to say about him as an actor because I haven’t really seen him in anything else, but watching him again as this character was indeed worthwhile.

Jonah Hill also was in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as a waiter, but here he plays an entirely different character. From “Superbad” to “Funny People,” he’s been basically playing the same kind of role over and over again. Here, he plays his most grown up character to date. As Aaron Green, he also gets to lose his trademark hairdo which makes him look like Little Orphan Annie. Clearly, his high school days are behind him, and he has us laughing at the most insane and compromising positions his character keeps stumbling into. Hill even has a great “Pulp Fiction” kind of moment, but I leave it to you to discover it for yourself.

But while Brand stole every other scene in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he has this movie stolen from him by Sean Combs. That’s right, Puff Diddy is in this movie as record company executive Sergio Roma, and it allows him to parody his own image as a hip hop entrepreneur. What I loved about his performance is you never get the feeling he was trying to be funny. The more serious he gets, the more gut-bustlingly hilarious he becomes, and no one sells the term “mindfuck” the way he does here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing for laughs instead of playing the scene, but Combs never falls victim to it here.

You also have some nice supporting performances from actors like Colm Meaney, the “Star Trek” journeyman actor who plays Aldous’ father Jonathan, and he makes this man anything but a father figure. Having used his drug addicted son for his own gain, it is very surprising these two actually bother to be in the same room together. Rose Byrne also has some great moments as the love of Aldous’ life, Jackie Q, and her own music is ridiculously controversial in its own terms.

“Get Him to The Greek” was written and directed by Nicholas Stoller who also helmed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller does good work here, but he does let the pace drag towards the end to where there are lulls where you are waiting for the next big explosion of laughter. All the same, comedy is hard work, so you have to give him credit for the loud laughs he does get out of us.

Is this as good as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”? Not quite. In fact, “MacGruber” was a funnier movie in retrospect, regardless of its audience not showing up when it was released. The plot itself is no different from a lot of road trip comedies, and you could compare this one a bit to John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” when you think about it. Still, I had a lot of fun with it, and it is easily more fun than a “Geoffrey.” Trust me; just see the movie and then you will know what I am talking about. I’m sick of giving away the best parts of movies anyway.

* * * out of * * * *

Adam McKay on the American Economy, Ayn Rand, and ‘The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas’

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“The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas” is one of 20 short films which make up “We the Economy,” a series that uses innovative story techniques to give us a better understanding of the U.S. economy. This particular short film was directed by Adam McKay, best known for directing the “Anchorman” movies, “The Big Short” and for co-founding the comedy website “Funny or Die,” and it’s an animated short film and a thinly veiled parody of all those “My Little Pony” cartoons children are still crazy about watching. It takes place in a magical land filled with long-lashed, multi-colored Alpacas who love lollipops, rainbows, and friendship, and they have just graduated from school and are looking to get well-paying jobs in the business world. But once they are made aware of the sharp divide in wealth distribution which mirrors America’s, the growing evidence of inequality gap makes them turn against one another with hilarious results.

A press day for “We the Economy” was held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and McKay was one of the directors who attended it. “The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas” is not only the funniest short film in this series but also one the most informative. McKay said the inspiration for it came in part from his kids watching “My Little Pony” cartoons all the time, but another one came from an unexpected source.

“There was actually a documentary about the richest building in New York City on Park Avenue, and it was made by Alex Gibney and it was called ‘Park Avenue (Money, Power and the American Dream),’” McKay said. “He describes how the children of the super billionaires would always come through the lobby and be so friendly with the doorman, and the doorman would go, ‘How was your soccer game?’ And then the doorman described how one day when they were like 11 or 12, the light just went off. It was like someone had told them you were different and they no longer connected with the doorman. The guy was talking how sad that is, and so I think just vaguely that was in my mind that when you’re a kid, these differences don’t mean anything. And then when they become real, all of a sudden you’ll notice all the alpacas start fighting with each other and they’re no longer friends. So yeah, I think we’ll give Alex Gibney credit for that.”

Making this short film also proved to be very educational for McKay as it made him fully aware of just how bad income equality is in the United States.

“I was shocked,” McKay said. “I came in knowing that the U.S. had a problem with income inequality, but I didn’t know just how bad it was and that our upward mobility was so stagnant and that it’s actually not that great in the U.S. I was shocked about the numbers about the middle class. Our middle class has almost completely evaporated. I knew we were bad, but then when I worked with Adam Davidson and looked at the actual numbers… Damon actually contacted us and was like, ‘I think there was a mistake made when you said 50% of the wealth went to the top .1%.’ We’re like, ‘No, that’s not a mistake.’ And I had the same reaction he did which was like, that’s gotta be a typo.”

“I didn’t know that we are by every definition of the word in the U.S. an oligarchy. I had no idea that that was the case,” McKay continued. “A strict definition of oligarchy, that is the U.S. more so than Russia or China than any country you can think of. It’s a little depressing but at the same time a good opportunity to let people know about these numbers.”

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One of the images which really stood out in my mind was when the Alpacas are shown a portrait of a company CEO who is shown holding a copy of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” For the record, I have not read any of Rand’s books, but her name has been coming up a lot even though she died back in 1982. There were three movies based on her book “Atlas Shrugged,” the first which was a critical and commercial flop, and yet the filmmakers still made a pair of sequels to it. John Oliver even did a segment about her on “Last Week Tonight” as he wondered why she was still considered relevant. I had to ask McKay why this book was so prominently featured in the portrait, and he helped school me in what Rand was really about.

“She was a refugee of Communist Russia, so she had been given the hard boots,” McKay said. “I think she was a fun partier supposedly so she hung out with the billionaires and was like fuck everyone else, let’s have a good time. She had seen the overreaction of the Communist Revolution so she was an extremist in the other way, and then you have these guys with dynastic wealth who have inherited millions of dollars who kind of feel shitty about it. And then here’s a woman telling you, let’s go have a big sex party and you shouldn’t feel shitty about having your money. She’s perfect for the Koch Brothers and it’s like she’s their bible because, otherwise, they’re going to have to give away a lot of their money, and they don’t want to do that.”

“Ever since I’ve been in college, I’ve always been having arguments with the Ayn Rand devotees,” McKay continued. “My point on Ayn Rand is she’s always been a bad writer. John Milius is a big right-winger, but the guy can write (remember Robert Shaw’s famous U.S.S. Indianapolis speech from “Jaws?”). You can be a right winger or whatever you want to be, just don’t be a shitty writer.”

“It’s funny because she becomes more important the more you get income inequality in our country, and the more billionaires you get the more her name comes back into the public,” McKay said. “In the 50’s and 60’s, she was fringe. The interview with Mike Wallace with her was like she was a cuckoo bird, and it is only now that our country’s kind of a little bit broken that suddenly she’s back in the mainstream.”

“We the Economy” is now up and running, and it has proven to be a clever and innovative way to teach us more about the U.S. economy. Be sure to check the website, and you can view “The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas” below.

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