Brad’s Status (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some reviews will claim that in order to have a complete appreciation for the whip-smart comedy “Brad’s Status,” written and directed by Mike White, one would have to be middle-aged because the topics it tackles requires considerable life experience. But I say anybody who constantly checks in with themselves will be able to connect with and enjoy the film for its searing honesty and ability to remain in touch with both the humor and the drama of a situation depending on one’s mood, personality, or general perspective when it comes to how life works. This film is clearly made for observant viewers.
The titular character, played by Ben Stiller, is most unhappy as of late because he constantly finds himself dreaming forward and regretting the past, rarely choosing to be present in the now, appreciating the great things in his life, and relishing what he has accomplished thus far. Although I do not relate to Brad’s suffering, despite his neuroses, I recognized this character right away: he is a colleague at work, a stranger walking down the street, a family member who puts on a fake smile during reunions. I empathized with him, but I did not feel sorry for him. The material is interested in dissecting differences between seemingly similar emotions.
Stiller fits the role like a glove. Observe how he expertly navigates a series of thoughts and feelings, often in one sitting and in quick successions, that run across Brad’s face. Couple the performer’s craft with an energetic screenplay that courageously combines daydreams, flashbacks, and scalding reality in a blender, what results is a highly watchable, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful look at a privileged man who has everything he needs yet still finds himself wanting for more. He doesn’t exactly know why he craves more, it’s just that he does.
He claims he is envious of his former college friends (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Mike White) because they possess power, ludicrous amount money, women, and fame, but notice how Brad, someone so detail-oriented when it comes to his yearnings, fails to describe what he would actually do if he acquired such things. Why is this man creating the pandemonium in his mind? Does he find pleasure in putting himself through mental agony? Does he have a mood or mental disorder? Is it his way of coping with the fact that his son (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician, is soon moving away for university? I enjoyed that the writer-director is not afraid to introduce possibilities thereby making the work layered, consistently worthy of exploration from different angles.
Perhaps the best moments in this sharp and humane film involve the father looking at his son and weighing whether the boy in front of him would become competition, whether the boy would eventually make him feel small, insignificant, like a loser—just like the way his former friends “made” him feel throughout the years. It is during moments like these that “Brad’s Status” is at its bravest and most uncomfortable—which makes it so worthy of our time because it forces us to look inwards, recognize, and perhaps even come to terms with some of our own monsters.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There are very few comedies that tickle me to the soul from beginning to end and “What We Do in the Shadows,” written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, is one of them. What could have been a one-note joke about a documentary crew capturing the every day lives of four vampires living together is turned into a wellspring of creativity that is so endlessly quotable, I wanted to see it again right after the credits.
The jokes command range. Perhaps easiest to pick up on are the pop culture references of recent mainstream films. At one point, a character (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) tells random people that he is the actor from “Twilight” and that is why cameramen are following him. One cannot help but wonder if these scenes were shot without the extras being fully aware that a feature film is being made because their reactions are so spot-on and natural. There is a synergy between acting and realism. Part of the enjoyment is seeing how ordinary people react to someone who they might consider to be drunk.
It requires a bit more attention to appreciate the subtler jokes. The dialogue is teeming with funny bits all at once that perhaps a second viewing is required. Exchanges amongst fellow flatmates are at their best when generational gaps are underlined. Each vampire has a distinct personality and perspective about how to live. For instance, the first few minutes highlights their differences, from Viago (Taika Waititi), who is three hundred seventy-nine years old, leading a house meeting because he has grown tired of the unkempt state of their flat, to Deacon (Jonny Brugh), the youngest of the group, who does not see the point of cleaning up for themselves exactly because they are monsters.
Even the images are genius. In-between scenes and during interview sessions, a series of drawings, paintings, and photographs are shown in order to convince us that these vampires have hundreds of years worth of history and that they have a history together. These seemingly insignificant touches elevate the film from being a good faux-documentary comedy to one that can and should be enjoyed decades from now. Also, kudos to the look and portrayal of the eight-thousand-year-old vampire named Petyr (Ben Fransham). He does not say a word but he is memorable.
Other creatures are sewn into the fabric of the story which makes room for even more laughter. Any scene with the pack of werewolves is hilarious. Even the zombies, who we normally expect to simply lumber around, actually get a chance to speak. There is a running bit about a servant-master relationship between a human (Jackie van Beek) and one of the vampires. Because our expectations are consistently turned on their heads, we look forward to what else it can offer. Thus, even though the film is less than ninety minutes, it feels much shorter than it is.
“What We Do in the Shadows” has intelligence, perfect timing, imagination, and is willing to take risks. At one point, I stopped to wonder if the work had been a real documentary. It would still work because the filmmakers treat their subject with empathy without dulling some of the more difficult aspects of living a life after death. This is not to be missed.
Men in Black 3 (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), the last of his alien species, manages to break out of a lunar prison with the help of a woman expecting to be swept off her feet. Once he arrives on Earth, he vows to rewrite history by going back in time to kill Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), the man responsible for destroying his arm and forty-year imprisonment. Agent J (Will Smith) comes to work the next day with everyone somehow convinced that Agent K has long been dead. With the help of a music shop attendant (Jeffrey Price), the determined Agent J time travels to July 1969.
“Men in Black 3,” written by Etan Cohen and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, is an exciting visual experience but certain technicalities of time travel are either ignored altogether or touched upon only superficially but far from ironed out that at times they tend to cause slight distractions from the central story.
There are plenty of instances when I wished I had the time to appreciate every alien that graces the screen, from the giant fish in Chinatown to the mod-inspired aliens posing in the MIB headquarters. With its rapid-fire dialogue, it is a challenge to pay to attention to what is being said by the characters, which contain important plot points as well as very funny one-liners, while admiring the time and effort that are put into each the creatures. Slow pacing is certainly not a criticism that holds weight against the film. If anything, it needs to be less hyperactive to make room for more meaningful exchanges, especially since the story revolves around Agent J’s love and admiration for his partner.
The action sequences are thrilling in a cartoonish way. They are not suspenseful in a sense that we feel genuine worry when our protagonists traverse dangerous grounds, whether it concerns shootouts on land or racing toward something in great heights. It’s thrilling because we are consistently kept on our toes in terms of what special and visual effects it can show us next. I was surprised that no matter how many times an alien is shot and turns to goo, it never wears its welcome. The only sequence that manages to capture genuine suspense while remaining cartoonish is when Agent J is required to jump from the Empire State Building, wait for the device to turn green at a certain height, and activate it. I even held my breath for a second or two.
Josh Brolin as the twenty-nine-year-old Agent K is a pleasure to watch. I found myself so focused as to when he would slip from his impression of Jones. There were times when I did but it really doesn’t matter because he succeeds in making Agent K his own. Instead of creating a caricature, a one-note joke, Brolin creates enough differences between the younger and older agent: welcome changes like his own brand of humor and a more easy-going personality.
What the film lacks is a stronger closing minutes. Although Agent O (Emma Thompson), the new chief of the MIB headquarters, is introduced, it is of great disappointment that she isn’t given important things to do. The picture touches upon a certain history between Agent K and Agent O. It feels off that we never hear from Agent O again after Agent K goes back in time. Instead of using a running gag as a punchline before the closing credits, is it really that much trouble to take the time to actually write a scene that’s more inspired?
Dinner for Schmucks (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Tim (Paul Rudd) wanted to be a more powerful executive in the company he worked for. But in order to become one of them, his boss (Bruce Greenwood) invited Tim to attend a dinner party in which the company men were required to bring an idiot with whom they could make fun of as they enjoyed their meal. Plagued by thoughts about why his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) wouldn’t accept his marriage proposal, Tim accidentally ran over Barry (Steve Carell), an IRS agent who had a penchant for collecting dead mice and putting them in a box for display. Desperate to impress his girlfriend, he invited Barry to attend the mean-spirited dinner. Based on Francis Veber’s “Le dîner de cons,” “Dinner for Schmucks” committed an unforgivable sin: It was a comedy that was devoid of humor. Forty minutes into the picture, I stopped and wondered why not once did I laugh at the craziness that was happening on screen. There was a lot of yelling, particularly between Tim and Barry, but Jay Roach, the director, had mistaken screaming for energy. Instead of exploring the relationship between the pathetic Barry and the even more pathetic Tim, the movie spent more time with unnecessary distractions. Worse, the distractions were supposed to be amusing. There was Lucy Punch as Tim’s insane one night stand from a few years ago. Her character was taken out of a horrible pornographic film. Jemaine Clement as the vain French artist made me feel uncomfortable and seeing him made me wish he put on a shirt. Even Ron Livingston and Zach Galifianakis’ appearances as Tim and Barry’s rivals, respectively, were uninspired. Each scene was like watching a bad sitcom that lasted for almost two hours. I kept waiting for the film to slow down and take the time for Tim to realize that what he was doing to Barry was not only wrong, that his actions said a lot about himself. In an early scene, he told his girlfriend that there was a version of him that she didn’t know and she should find a way to deal with it. But maybe there was a version of him that he himself wasn’t aware of. There were times when I thought Rudd was miscast. When he was supposed to summon a bit of darkness and malicious intent, it didn’t quite work. He remained harmless and adorable. The lack of focus in terms of the relationship between Tim and Barry ultimately felt forced when Tim’s conscience was finally at the forefront. I couldn’t help but feel that “Dinner for Schmucks” was supposed to be a man and his blind ambition to further his career so that he could live the so-called American Dream. The gags should have been secondary and, more importantly, the humor should have had range.
Despicable Me (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a supervillain resembling Penguin from Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” felt pressure to top Vector’s (Jason Segel) recent accomplishment–stealing a pyramid in Egypt. So Gru came up with a brilliant idea: steal the moon. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money to create a rocket that would launch him to outer space. An opportunity disguised as three orphans named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) knocked on Gru’s door and slowly he began to realize that perhaps having a family was more important than being known as the world’s most famous supervillain. Although “Despicable Me” did not have anything particularly new to offer to its genre, like most successful animated films, its simplicity worked to its advantage. The humor was obvious, we knew exactly where the story was going and it was easy to relate to it because it played on the inner child within all of us. It was the small details in animation referencing to pop culture not at all dissimilar to the “Austin Powers” franchise and tiny tweaks to the typical storyline that elevated this movie to the next level. Its cuteness was constantly on overdrive especially the scenes with Agnes’ big eyes combined with her hilarious one-liners and Gru’s sometimes unintelligible minions (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Jemaine Clement). The action sequences were silly but inspired (my favorite was when Gru was finally successful at entering Vector’s lair), the psychological explanations involving Gru’s motivations brought a silly grin on my face, and even the will-he-or-will-he-not-make-it scene involving a ballet recital was strangely involving. What completely did not work for me, however, were the dance sequences. Those were unnecessary because they felt cheap, out-of-place and lame. Since the material was already over-the-top, being more over-the-top hindered its momentum and I would have preferred more jokes even if they involved a little bit of slapstick. “Despicable Me,” directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, is a harmless but entertaining movie full of charm and fiery creativity. The picture reached its peak when we were allowed to reenter a child’s sense of wonder–a quality that, unfortunately, most of us have lost. Gru may be a supervillain with a penchant for making kids happy one minute and then taking away their source of happiness the next, but he is far from despicable and definitely more lovable.