Thursday, May 2, 2019

Reserved Seating: April Discoveries

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who suffered through April showers to bring you these May flowers. Metaphorically speaking...the flowers are movie recommendations.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our “Discoveries of the Month” series continues into April with some of our favorite first-time watches! Be sure to list some of your own in the comments.

My first pick is the 2010 Edward Burns-directed romantic drama Nice Guy Johnny. On the Draft Day podcast, Patrick and I recently geeked out about our appreciation for Burns’ micro-budget filmography and that made me primed to see more of his work. I went with Nice Guy Johnny, which tells the story of an Oakland-based sports talk show host (Matt Bush) who goes back home to New York for a job interview at the behest of his fiancee (Anna Wood), who wants him to trade his dream job on the radio for a more fiscally stable position before they tie the knot. While there, Johnny goes through much angst due to his conniving, ladies-man uncle (Burns) being a bad influence, which includes introducing Johnny to a local tennis instructor/dream girl (Kerry Bishe, a Burns movie regular) who might actually be the right woman for Johnny.
I really dug Nice Guy Johnny. There’s just this easy watchability to Burns’s work and (though I’ve seen her in other movies like Argo and Newlyweds), Bishe is a real discovery in Nice Guy Johnny. She reminded me a lot of mid-90s Cameron Diaz in this film. I think you’ll like this movie if for no other reason than to see the scenes where Matt Bush is playing a sports radio host. It’s really not good. It’s one of those times in movies where the character is talking non-stop about their personal life or romantic Bull Durham-like digressions about sports instead of covering the local teams in their market. The last scene, especially, had me pulling my hair out in a good “what am I watching?” way. The biggest takeaway I had from this movie was it made me think about one of my past relationships (the fiancee character reminded me a lot of a former girlfriend) and that made me question a long-standing trope of romantic films: When a put-upon male lead has a mean fiancee and then meets an easygoing dream girl that he really should be with, isn’t the problem just as likely him? Like his fiancee was probably the easygoing dream girl once and the guy turned her into the shrill woman we’re supposed to dislike. We’re just siding with the man because he was established as our protagonist, right? Oh well, just a question for the movie void.

What’s your first pick?

Rob: I’ll check it out! I realized when you mentioned Edward Burns the other day that I’ve never actually seen any of his directorial work. This feels right in my wheelhouse. And yeah, that trope is totally a male gaze thing that gets obnoxious fast. One of the things I loved about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (a show many of us slept on too long) was the way it plays into and then subverts that trope with Gabrielle Ruiz’s “shallow bitch” character, Valencia. I’ll leave it at that for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

A quick note before I begin: April was a bit rough for me, and so I ended up sinking into older comfort viewings rather than seeking out new discoveries. As a result, my entries in this month’s column are going to be more “What Have You Seen Lately?” than “What Really Stood Out?”
My first pick is Mid90s, the 2018 directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill. It’s the coming-of-age story of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a thirteen-year-old latchkey kid living with his single mother (Katherine Waterston) and older brother (Lucas Hedges, whose presence made me think of your great comment on his career as a whole: “Doesn’t Lucas Hedges want to make movies his friends want to see?”). Lonesome and alienated by his poverty and dysfunctional relationships, Stevie strikes up a bond with delinquent skaters Ray (Na-Kel Smith), Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt). He acclimates himself with ‘90s skater culture through a series of misadventures and learns the standard lessons on conformity, maturity, love, community, and responsibility. Oh, and how to take a hit like a champ.

Mid90s is a tough nut to crack. On one hand, I see this as a story worth telling. On the other, I see this as a story that has been told better in other places. It has the shape of a profound childhood tale; the beats are there. The dialogue and staging have that Mountain Dew-soaked authenticity. It’s convincing and naturalistic. But what works best is its painfully accurate depiction of the posturing and ridicule that infect young manhood. I was cringing at each insult hurled Stevie’s way, each nugget of toxic childish wisdom he attempted to assimilate into his worldview (“Don’t say ‘thank you,’ you idiot. You don’t want anyone to think you’re gay”). Many of us remember receiving (and, admittedly, giving) similar misguided instructions. We’re hoping Stevie will know better, but we also see enough of his home life to understand why he looks up to these new, would-be mentors. Mid90s isn’t groundbreaking, but those moments ring true enough to justify our eighty-five-minute commitment.

Adam: There is more head trauma in Mid90s than in Man of Steel. It’s kind of incredible. I had a similar reaction as you did to the movie. It has some good moments, but overall it wasn’t particularly memorable for me.
My next pick is a 2018 drama called All About Nina, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a prickly stand-up comedian. Movies about stand-up comics are difficult to pull off (the comedy almost always is about sex and shitting for some reason), but where they often work is focusing on the sad lives of the people who go up on stage to make people laugh. All About Nina is one of the better examples of this type of comedy-drama. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a really strong actress and this is probably her best performance. After Smashed and 10 Cloverfield Lane, she just keeps getting better. At first I didn’t think she was a great fit to play stand-up (although she has an amazing Shakira impression), but when you see the full scope of the woman she’s playing, you understand why her casting is so smart. I heard once that a filmmaker should never cast based on who someone is in the first act, but always based on who they will be in the third act and that idea struck me when I watched this movie. The film co-stars Common (another actor whose gotten more interesting to me over time) as Winstead’s love interest and he’s really amusing and weird as a guy who tells the truth even when it’s disarming and makes him sound pretty bad. This was a pleasant surprise.

Rob: You had me at Mary Elizabeth Winstead. My second pick is another freshman effort from an actor-turned-director, Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store. Larson directs and stars as Kit, a twenty-something art school dropout whose aversion to the 9-to-5 grind earns her consternation from her peppy parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack) and a sinking sense of existential despair. Kit makes do with a temp job (overseen by the awesomely-named Hamish Linklater as creepy VP Gary) until she receives a message from The Salesman (a whimsically-styled Samuel L. Jackson), a magical entity who promises to fulfill her childhood dreams of unicorn ownership. In order to earn her prize, however, Kit must demonstrate her ability to provide it with shelter, stability, and love. While hardware store clerk Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) helps her build a suitable stable, she finally confronts the demons fueling her perpetual adolescence.
Like Mid90s, Unicorn Store is a more of a solid statement of intent than it is an interesting or engaging film. Larson and screenwriter Samantha McIntyre shine in the witty moments (including a channel-surfing bit that recalls Shaun of the Dead), and there are some knowing nods to the self-defeating slacker ethos that Kit champions, but the quirky atmosphere never congeals into a coherent story, and we’re never really sure which bits are winking genre deconstruction and which are meant to be taken sincerely. Kit’s is a journey of self-discovery, of course — the unicorn is a stand-in for her unfulfilled desires — but to what end? Unicorn Store either doesn’t know or is too busy playing with glitter to care. Barring a few Joan Cusack line readings, it’s not all that funny, either. It’s nice to see Captain Marvel co-stars Larson and Jackson reunited (after...all this time), for sure. Here’s hoping it’ll land Larson another well-deserved job behind the camera. But this is mostly a team of world-class chefs pouring milk over cereal and presenting it with a shrug.

Adam: I haven’t seen Unicorn Store yet, but I’m intrigued. I feel that way about Brie Larson in general. She’s kind of mercurial but in a way that’s fascinating to me. Like, sometimes she’s unbelievable (Short Term 12, Room, 21 Jump Street) and other times oddly distant or too ironic. I’m a fan, but in part because I can’t figure her she’s Warren Beatty or something.
My third pick this month is a movie that I got lucky and saw as a sneak preview: the Charlize Theron-Seth Rogen romantic comedy Long Shot, which opens on May 3rd. It’s pretty wonderful. It’s very romantic. It’s extremely funny. Theron and Rogen have great chemistry. What more can you ask for? I appreciated that the movie was old-fashioned (in a way like The American President is old-fashioned) and reliant on the interplay and likability of its two leads (as well as a fun script) to lead the way. Romantic comedy (actually comedy in general) is sort of dormant right now, and Long Shot succeeds because it goes back to basics. Plus, another great performance by O’Shea Jackson Jr. That guy is perfect.

Rob: Hearing Rogen and Theron on a recent episode of "How Did This Get Made?" reminded me that I need to see this one soon. Glad to hear it’s good!

My last pick is 2018’s Tag, the latest studio manchild comedy to come out ten years too late. Based on the true story, it stars Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, and Jeremy Renner as a group of childhood friends who have carried their monthly game of “tag” into their mid-forties. But twist! Jerry (Renner, whose character has yet to be tagged) is getting married and quitting the game! Hoagie (Helms) gathers the transcontinental gang for one last ride, accompanied by his wife, Anna (Isla Fisher) and Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), a Wall Street Journal reporter whose corporate profile on Hamm’s character is hijacked by whimsical nonsense.

The one and only thing that works about Tag is that Jeremy Renner plays a smug douchebag. I hate Jeremy Renner. I don’t get how he became a thing. Whereas most films ask me to relate to him (even to find him funny), Tag gives me ninety solid minutes to hate him without remorse. Other than that, Tag is the standard “point cameras at funny people in medium close-up” fare we’ve come to expect. Non sequiturs. People falling down. I think there was a poop joke. It’s a shame that they couldn’t find a way to do anything real with the premise (the group will occasionally make off the cuff “amendments” to the rules, showing that the writers were at least thinking about it), but it all ends up just sitting there. Most offensive of all might be the final revelation that Helms is suffering from liver cancer. He’s probably going to die before next year’s game. Please laugh.
Adam: I’m fascinated by your Jeremy Renner aversion. I get why he’d not be someone’s cup of tea. I like him, especially when he plays people who are cracking like in S.W.A.T., The Hurt Locker, The Town, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, some of the Avengers films, etc. As for Tag, that was one of my walkouts last year. Does it get better after the 30 minute mark?

Rob: Isla Fisher’s wardrobe gets more sexily impractical. Other than that, no.

Adam: Other recommendations I have for April are Shazam!, which is charming and light on its feet, Avengers: Endgame, which I loved but hardly needs anyone’s recommendation at this point, and the Netflix documentary Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce, which is part concert film (covering her epic shows at Coachella in 2018) and part behind-the-scenes of the show’s making. My favorite part about it is it feels like Beyonce: Endgame, where she’s coming to a natural pause of her career, celebrating the past, but also looking forward to her future as an entertainer. The documentary does it in a way too that doesn’t feel egotistical, but more like how an artist thinks about their work and legacy. I really dug it.

Rob: I haven’t seen Endgame yet, but I hear both that and Homecoming are sights to behold. What are we covering next week?

Adam: Next week, Reserved Seating is on the road as I’m visiting Philadelphia for baseball and movie adventures, including a trip to The Mahoning Drive-In for Last Action Hero and Demolition Man, a Fathom Events showing of Batman (1989), the obligatory stop at CineMug, etc.

Rob: And a healthy dose of Al. I’m warming up my voice already. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely adore Edward Burns' flicks. Especially "The Brothers McMullen", "She's The One" & "Ash Wednesday" (I might be alone on that last one.)

    For about a year I thought Ed Burns, the co-creator of "The Wire", was Edward Burns and I was like, "Jesus, old Edward Burns has done so well. Good for him."