Monthly Archives: January 2018

Clap On

Ed Helms shuns spotlight in quirky rom-com about Hollywood substrata

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Tracy Morgan & Ed Helms are paid audiences members at infomercial tapings in ‘The Clapper.’

The Clapper
Starring Ed Helms & Amanda Seyfried
Directed by Dito Montiel
R

There are many ways of “making it” in Hollywood, and not all of them involve landing a juicy role on N.C.I.S., receiving an Academy Award or getting a star on the Walk of Fame.

For Eddie Krumble, making it means being a paid audience member at tapings of TV infomercial programs, where he dutifully laughs and applauds on cue and sometimes gets an extra 50 bucks to stand up and ask a scripted question—like, “So you mean to tell me, with no money down…I could buy a house?

Krumble (Ed Helms) isn’t well-off, by any means. He’s barely getting by, zipping around in his little blue car when he can afford to buy gas, taking the city bus when he can’t, and using a computer at the nearly doughnut shop. But he’s satisfied, meeting up with his group of fellow “clappers,” including his best friend Chris (Tracy Morgan), and checking in daily for assignments with the infomercial casting agent, Louise (Leah Remini from TV’s Kevin Can Wait).

He’s found his groove—his job, his little niche in La La Land.

His mother (Brenda Vaccaro) badgers him over the phone about his lack of ambition. She thinks he’s in Hollywood to make a bigger splash, to become a bona fide actor. Eddie insists he’s fine being part of the background, part of the crowd. “I blend in,” he tells her. “I get paid to clap. That’s what I do.”

Director Dito Montiel—whose handful of other films includes Boulevard, starring Robin Williams—wrote the screenplay based on his own experiences with a friend when they both arrived in Los Angeles from New York and found work as sketchy “research marketers” and paid studio-audience members.

In The Clapper, the plot quickly thickens and things get a bit sticky for Eddie. A popular late-night L.A. talk-show host, the Letterman-esque Jayme Silverman (Russel Peters), fixates on “the clapper.” He wonders about the identity of the mystery man who keeps showing up in the audience of so many cheesy infomercials. Silverman blasts the screen with freeze-frame enlargements of Eddie’s face and challenges his audience to “out” the clapper, find who he is. Silverman wants him on his show.

Silverman’s camera crews scour the city looking for The Clapper and people who might know him. Giant billboards appear along Hollywood Boulevard. Clapper “spotters” create YouTube videos that become viral sensations. An enterprising producer finds Eddie’s phone number and tells him he’s “the biggest thing to hit late-night since Stupid Pet Tricks.”

Suddenly, blending in isn’t so easy for Eddie.

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Amanda Seyfried plays Ed’s girlfriend, Judy.

All this complicates things for Eddie and his new girlfriend, Judy (Amanda Seyfried), who doesn’t quite understand any of it. She works as a gas station attendant and her TV is broken, so she’s totally out of the loop of Eddie’s infomercial “fame.” Eddie shields her from the messy details—until they come knocking at the Plexiglas window of Judy’s attendant booth.

There’s an edge of spoof-ery to The Clapper, about TV culture, exploitation, infotainment, privacy and talk shows—and what happens when “reality” TV gets a little too real. Adam Devine of Maroon 5 plays a producer; in what would be his last acting role before his death in 2016, former Growing Pains star Alan Thicke does a dapper, self-deprecating turn as a pitchman-for-hire; Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank investor Marc Cuban appears as himself in the greenroom, waiting to appear on Silverman’s show.

But there’s also plenty of sentiment to go with the satire. The Clapper is a small movie with a big, generous heart; it never makes fun of its characters, even the guy who trots around downtown Hollywood at night in diapers, or the dude dressed up like a big baked potato. Helms, known for his comedic roles on TV’s The Office and in The Hangover movies, plays Eddie as a naïve, sheepish sadsack; you eventually find out the source of the heaviness he carries around like weights in the pockets of his baggy pants. Seyfried, who’ll star in Mama Mia: Here We Go Again in July, gives Judy a mousy, lovelorn beauty, and you never doubt for a second the magnetic mojo of those big, blue eyes.

The two of them make a cute couple, and when the riptide of Silverman’s show eventually tears them apart, you root for them to get back together.

Quirky and sweet, The Clapper illuminates a substrata of Hollywood working-class culture that doesn’t typically get the spotlight. It rallies around a group of characters who’ll never be “stars,” who live and work in the colorful, offbeat, teeming background—and who prefer it that way. Sometimes they meet and fall in love.

And I’ll clap for that.

In theaters Jan. 26, 2018

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How the West Was One

Christian Bale saddles up & seeks redemption in raw, rugged Western 

Bale-Hostiles (72)

Hostiles
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike & Wes Studi
Directed by Scott Cooper
R

The West is wild indeed in Hostiles, writer-director Scott Cooper’s grim, existential drama set in 1892 and exploring the brutal upheavals of America’s imperial, westward expansion.

Christian Bale saddles up to star as U.S. Cavalry officer Capt. Joseph Blocker, ordered to lead a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from New Mexico—where they’re being held as prisoners in a U.S. Cavalry stockade—back to their ancestral homeland in Montana.

Blocker has made his military career in the so-called “Indian Wars,” as the United States pushed its way further and further into territory previously occupied by Native Americans. War turns everyone into warriors, he says, he’s encountered Yellow Hawk before—and he’s in no mood to be his traveling companion, escort and protector.

“I’ve killed savages ‘cause that’s my job,” Blocker glumly notes. “I hate ‘em.” And he’s got a “war bag” of scalps—souvenirs of countless battlefield encounters—to prove it.

Hostiles_18

Rosamund Pike

But an order is an order, and soon Blocker and his troops head out with Yellow Hawk, his son and his daughter-in-law (Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas alongside Bale in The New World) on the uneasy, grueling, thousand-mile journey, and every horse-hoof clomp telegraphs the tension. Then they come across a grieving woman (Rosamund Pike) we’ve already met—in the movie’s opening sequence—who has suffered an almost unfathomable loss in a Comanche ambush on her prairie home.

The fine ensemble cast also include Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane and Timotheè Chalamet as young officers under Blocker’s command. If it seems like you’re seeing Chalamet everywhere, all at once, you are: He was a brooding high school musician in Lady Bird and generated awards buzz as the young man who falls in love with his father’s graduate assistant in the highly acclaimed Call Me By Your Name.

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Bale with Timothee Chalamet (left) & Jesse Plemons

Ben Foster (reuniting with Bale from their previous Western, 3:10 to Yuma) plays a military criminal who at one time served alongside Blocker. He reminds him that the two of them—and their gruesome deeds, done in the line of duty or otherwise—really aren’t all that different.

There are stretches of the movie where nothing much happens, action-wise. But the sense that something could happen, and will happen, is constant. And even the characters talking about what they’ve seen—and done—is horrifying: scalping, disemboweling, castration.

“Do you believe in the Lord?” Pike’s character asks Blocker at one point. He pauses several seconds before answering. “Yes, I do,” he says. “But he’s been blind to what’s been going on out here for a long time.”

The movie’s ever-present backdrop of frontier violence between white interlopers and Native Americans is set against the breathtaking stillness and natural beauty of the story’s landscape, captured in cinematographer Masanobu Takayani’s gorgeous, widescreen panoramas of skies, plains and mountains.

What does it mean? That beauty comes with such a high price? That America was born, shaped and sculpted in blood? That everyone, on both sides of any conflict, is capable of something atrocious and awful?

Or maybe it’s that anyone is capable of something gallant and good?

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Every major character in the film is haunted—by guilt, grief, past deeds, trauma, psychological scars, shackles and chains most of us can’t even begin to imagine. As one of them says, it “makes you feel inhuman after a while.” Indeed, in Hostiles, they’re a bunch of lost, wandering souls seeking some kind of redemption, release, some kind of cleansing, a fresh start, a new world.

And the journey they’re on becomes a shared mission they never envisioned, a journey that brings them together in more ways than one.

Hostiles won’t be everyone’s trail-mix snack of a movie. It’s somber and relentless and it doesn’t exactly lift you up, spin you around and set you back down with a big happy smile, galloping toward the sunset. But for fans of Westerns, it’s a handsome, well-crafted, thought-provoking journey into the raw, rugged realities of the American West with a group of characters who need a bit more than just a shave and a shower.

If that sounds like your kind of ride, then c’mon and saddle up!

In wide release Jan. 19, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pressing Issue

Spielberg rolls the presses in heavyweight First Amendment drama

THE POST

The Post
Starring Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep
Directed by Steven Spielberg
PG-13

The stars align, in more ways than one, for this historically based political drama about the leak of top-secret Washington documents in 1971 detailing the long, pot-stirring political and military involvement of the United States in Vietnam.

The release of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” became a newspaper bombshell, decades before computers, the Internet or WikiLeaks. Their exposure of systemic government lies and secrecy about the war in Vietnam incurred the wrath of then-President Richard Nixon, who wanted to persecute the “leakers” for treason and bring down the boom on First Amendment rights of the free press.

In The Post (originally titled The Papers), heavyweight director Steven Spielberg top-loads his cast with superstar actors and fills out the ranks with an outstanding ensemble of supporting players. Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the Washington, D.C., socialite and the first female publisher of the family-owned Washington Post. Tom Hanks is her crusading, veteran editor, Ben Bradlee.

THE POSTLook, there’s Alison Brie, as Graham’s daughter and sounding board, Lally. Bob Odenkirk is reporter Ben Bagdikian, whose contact at the government-backed Rand Corporation, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), exposes the massive cover-up—which spanned four presidential administrations—and delivers 7,000 pages of documents to the Post and its competitor, The New York Times. Carrie Coon plays Post writer Meg Greenfield; Bruce Greewood is former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a major architect of the Vietnam War under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

And keep your eyes peeled for Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Zach Woods and Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s having a tremendous year with his other roles in the awards-buzz films Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water.

Speaking of awards, The Post is looking good on the road to the Oscars in March. Although it didn’t pick up any Golden Globes on Jan. 7, it was named the Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review at a ceremony long considered to officially kick off the trophy race, and Hanks and Streep were given top acting honors by the organization.

Hanks, especially, is outstanding, portraying Bradlee as a tough, gruff newsroom bulldog who won’t give up the chase—or back off on his bite—until he sinks his teeth into the truth. Streep conveys the complex, often conflicted spheres in which Graham circulated as a Washington trendsetter who hobnobbed with presidents and the D.C. elite, and operated as a businesswoman trying to keep her newspaper afloat in a sea of bottom-line male board members.

THE POST

Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep

As he’s demonstrated in his wide-ranging films, including E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg knows how to make populist movies that are both epic in sweep and scale, but personal and intimate in their characters and their connectivity to audiences.

To a dramatic score from his go-to composer, Oscar-winning John Williams, he reminds us of the high stakes of the story. After three front-page scoops, the New York Times—which got the Pentagon Papers first—is barred by a federal injunction from publishing any more of the sensitive documents the government wants under lockdown. The court ban, and some old-fashioned newsroom legwork, gives the Post a lucky break to move into the breach. But publication by the Post, in light of the injunction, could send Graham and Bradlee to jail, put their newspaper out of business, and cost everyone else their jobs.

McNamara, Graham’s friend, warns her if she does publish, the president will crush her. “Nixon will muster the full power of the presidency,” he says. “And if there’s a way to destroy you, by God, he’ll find it.”

It becomes a landmark First Amendment battle that reaches all the way to the Supreme Court.

It also reaches through the years to reverberate with a timely contemporary chill. The distant echo of Nixon’s seething contempt for the press finds relevance in today’s political climate where the mainstream media is routinely attacked by the current president as “fake news.”

The Post deals with something that happened nearly half a century ago, a time when reporters  used manual, clattery typewriters and coin-operated payphones and smoked cigarettes indoors. But it’s a rousing story that never gets old: How, once upon a time, a group of citizen-journalists believed a free press was worth fighting for, believed governments and presidents shouldn’t lie to their citizens and should be called out when they did, and believed exposing truth was worth taking tremendous risks.

And it suggests that right now is a really, really good time to be reminded of all that, all over again. Set the type, ink up the cylinders and roll the presses!

In wide release Jan. 12, 2018

Deal Me In

Jessica Chastain holds all the cards in ‘Molly’s Game’

MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain & Idris Ilba

Molly’s Game
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
R

Aaron Sorkin loves words, and he packs a lot of them into Molly’s Game.

The award-winning screenwriter for The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, A Few Good Men and TV’s The West Wing makes his directorial debut with this true tale of Molly Bloom, whose Olympic hopes as a skier were derailed on the slopes in a trial event that crunched her back and crushed her dreams.

Based on Bloom’s own book, published in 2014, Sorkin’s film shows how Bloom picked herself up and found a new passion running one of the world’s most exclusive poker games.

Until she was busted by the FBI.

Molly’s Game, which features an outstanding starring performance by Jessica Chastain, is heavy on narrative, typical for a movie fueled and fed by a zippy, zappy Sorkin script. Molly tells us what she’s thinking, what she’s doing and why, either while she’s doing it or explaining herself in flashback.

Like when she coolly tells her expensive defense attorney (Idris Elba) why she can’t successfully be persecuted for illegal gambling, based on the textbook definition of gambling—because “poker isn’t a game of chance, it’s a game of skill.”

Or, as we watch one of her games get rolling, she explains in a voiceover why everything is strictly above-board: “In this room, you couldn’t buy your win, you couldn’t buy me and you couldn’t buy a seat at the table.”

MOLLY'S GAME

Michael Cera (left) and Jeremy Strong

Sorkin keeps things moving at an almost runaway pace, continually switching between settings, time periods and places. (Samantha Isler and Piper Howell do nice jobs playing Molly as a teenager and child, respectively.) We learn how Molly grew up with some serious daddy issues as the only daughter, with two brothers, of a Colorado university professor (Kevin Costner) who pushed her to demanding extremes in her ski training.

Through montages and flashbacks, we see Molly start over in Los Angeles and help her schmuck-y Hollywood boss (Jeremy Strong) run his weekly poker party, getting a very raw deal as his overworked, underpaid assistant. After setting up his game nights, working for tips and watching bigwigs stream in to put their money down, Molly knows she can do it on her own—bigger and better.

She quickly builds her poker game to an empire—setting up what a literary agent later calls “the world’s most exclusive, glamorous, decadent man cave”—first in Los Angeles and then in New York City, attracting superstar athletes, Hollywood actors, wealthy schmoes with money to burn, and eventually unsavory international “businessmen.”

Michael Cera plays a poker regular known only in the film as Player X, a Hollywood actor (reportedly based on the book’s depiction of actor Tobey Maguire) who turns out to be more rat than shark. “I don’t like playing poker,” he says. “I like destroying lives.” Bill Camp is a low-key, wary gambler who gets sucked into a reckless, desperate losing streak. Chris O’Dowd provides some woozy chuckles as a boozy Irishman who introduces Molly to billionaire Russian mobsters.

MOLLY'S GAME

Bill Camp

But nobody’s laughing when the Slavic connections connect the dots to Molly and a goon shows up at her door—with a gun, a warning and a few hard whacks to drive home his ominous message.

Sorkin packs plenty of punch into his story, Chastain delivers a knockout performance and Elba gets to serve up the movie’s best speech—a stirring defense of Molly that completely shuts down a pushy federal D.A.

Molly riffs on James Joyce’s Ulysses and quotes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, uses Egyptian geometry to explain her ski accident and spouts information like a fire hose. But she doesn’t want to give up her players, to compromise the lives of the men who trusted her with their money and their anonymity—even though some of them clearly were scoundrels. It’s obvious the Feds want her to name names, to help them build a bigger case, cast a wider net and reel in much bigger fish.

Smart, sharp, proud, ambitious and persistent, Bloom blossomed in a cutthroat, crazily high-stakes world dominated by wealthy men and surrounded by danger. This isn’t a traditional poker movie, or a traditional sports movie—and Molly wasn’t a traditional entrepreneur. Sometimes tradition can be overrated. With Jessica Chastain holding the cards, Molly’s Game is a winner. Deal me in!

In wide release Jan. 5, 2018