Category Archives: Jason Schwartzman

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Image via The Guardian

Hollywood loves nothing more than itself. So I guess it’s fitting that a movie about Walt Disney was made by Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney made a movie about Walt Disney whether you like it or not.

That sets the tone for “Saving Mr. Banks,” a sometimes dark but mostly sugarcoated view of a Hollywood story that didn’t necessarily need to be told, but here it is anyway.

In actuality, “Saving Mr. Banks” is not even that much about Walt Disney, even if it was one of the film’s major selling points. It is really about P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the eccentric author of “Mary Poppins.” Mrs. Travers (as she would want you to call her) is the farthest thing from a sellout, but she is strapped for cash. Disney, who is played here by a mustached Tom Hanks, wants to buy the rights to “Mary Poppins” from her for a film, but Travers won’t do it until she can approve of Disney’s vision. So he sends her from London to Hollywood to work on the script.

Behind-the-scenes looks at Hollywood can be interesting. The process of getting a movie made is such a painstaking process that it usually takes an insane person to get a really good one made. “Saving Mr. Banks” is about pre-pre-production on “Mary Poppins,” before anyone even knew if it was actually going to get made. Therefore, “Saving Mr. Banks” is less about taking huge creative risks and more about the very early creative process of trying to come up with ideas. However, the film never really captures the frustration of trying to get an idea to stick. Rather, it is about a really frustrating person who will shoot down every idea she can.
“Saving Mr. Banks” takes place in 1961, and is intercut with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood. The flashbacks ultimately turn what could have been a fun, breezy look at Old Hollywood into a period piece that takes itself too seriously. The flashbacks serve to reveal Travers’ relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a man who gave her the cynical outlook on life that was a crucial part of her creative growth. While this is a necessary element of the film, it also feels like it could have been accomplished in just a few simple lines of exposition.

Meanwhile, the film tries way too hard to seamlessly transition into these blasts from the past. Little mind triggers take Travers out of the present and into the haunted events of her Australian childhood. The most ridiculous of these comes from a bowl of pears. From there, the biggest mystery of the film is this: what did pears ever do to her? Did a pear kill her father? Or have an affair with her mother? It was these questions that helped me stay awake through the film’s dullest scenes. I would have preferred that these flashbacks were shoved into the film in a sincerely messy way as opposed to with phony subtlety.

While “Saving Mr. Banks” lets the characters live, it never lets them move around, breath, and truly explore the space. Hanks, who gave one of the best performances of his career in “Captain Phillips” in the fall, seemingly phones it in here. Or at least his potential does not seem to be fully realized. Meanwhile, Thompson gives a standout performance as Travers. At first, her uptight quirks are pretty grating but as the film moves along, they become surprisingly endearing. However, there is a sense of humor that makes up her personality that one can only see from an actual recording of one of their writing sessions (Travers liked to record everything), which is played during the closing credits. Unfortunately, this seemingly funny British sensibility doesn’t come through as much as it should in her performance.

While bias usually only applies to journalism, it can be a major problem for entertainment as well. “Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t necessarily a blatant advertisement for Disney. However, it is definitely a piece of pro-Disney propaganda. While movies don’t need to portray the past accurately in order to be good, they should at least try to come close. Instead, “Saving Mr. Banks” portrays Walt Disney as a big kid with boundless imagination. While I am sure that Disney was like that, he also must have been a pretty ruthless businessman, given the scope of the empire that he created. Instead, we are expected to be sympathetic for him because he had a rough childhood. That tidbit, like most of what the film reveals, isn’t as big of a revelation as it thinks it is.

At one point, Disney gives a cheesy, self-congratulatory speech that is perhaps perfect for this film. We give tons of awards and money to people who make things up, so why do we all need to hear a speech about how important creative people are?

I might have a little bias here myself, as I have actually never seen “Mary Poppins.” I am not sure if this would have changed my opinion on the film or not. I doubt it, because in a weird way, the ending of “Saving Mr. Banks” was emotionally satisfying, even though it fell flat at the same time. Watching the whole film is like watching a good movie duke it out with a bad movie, as if it is trying to give itself an exorcism.

“Saving Mr. Banks” never strives to break new ground. It is a good remedy for anybody looking for a feel good holiday flick. It is more “Finding Neverland” than “Sunset Boulevard.” Disney’s big final speech fell a little short: he should have mentioned that telling a story involves a bit more honesty and sincerity than “Saving Mr. Banks” has to offer.

Brain Farts From The Edge

·      Having just seen “Inside Llewyn Davis,” every other portrayal of an artist going through a creative struggle just seems trite. And on that note, it is hard to say that Llewyn is a jerk (as many have) after seeing some of things that Mrs. Travers does.

·      I am still not sure if Mr. Disney was actually an anti-Semite, but I was half expecting him to yell “bring me your finest writer Jew writer!” at several points.

·      Speaking of which, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman were completely under-utilized. I could have watched an entire movie about them trying to write a musical.

·      PEARS

·      Walt Disney’s teddy bear attitude reminded me a lot of Hank Hooper from “30 Rock.”

·      PEARS

·      I should probably mention Travers’ friendship with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). This is probably the most weirdly used cliché in the entire film. I am not fully convinced as to how this one man suddenly made her like America more. Their friendship was way too predictable to be plausible.

·      I would love to see a separate Disney biopic made by a different studio that explores what could possibly drive somebody to have such a grand creative vision. The guy was a child, a businessman, and a futurist, all rolled into one.

·      In the film, Disney says that he likes to see the world through a child’s eyes. This film feels like a child’s perception of Walt Disney. That is not a good thing.

·      Everything in her present life echoes her past. Crazy, right?!

Wes Anderson Releases a New Film (Sort Of)

I’m a day late here, but I figured I’d post it anyway. Yesterday, Wes Anderson released a new short film called “Castello Cavalcanti.” Now, I usually form an emotional response to anything Wes Anderson makes pretty quickly, but I am still trying to figure this one out. As usual, it’s beautiful to look at. But, what is it about?

It looks pretty, but “Castello Cavalcanti” made me realize how Anderson’s characters are even more important than the visuals. I like the pretty visuals and the fact that everything looks like a giant toy, but it could use more dialogue like “that’s the last time you put a knife in me!” and “get your ass the hell off of my boat!” All I’m saying is that I’m still not sure why this ends with Jason Schwartzman ordering a bowl of spaghetti. Because Italy, I guess?

It definitely can’t beat “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders,” but its solid enough to make the wait for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” more bearable. Watch the video below:

Bored to Death Gets Cancelled: Blame It On Brooklyn

I guess three seasons is the charm. Today, HBO cancelled its smart and continually underrated comedy series “Bored to Death.” The announcement was not followed by outrage or backlash but simply, a series of copied press releases. 

  Unlike other shows that have struggled in the ratings in the past (“Arrested Development,” “30 Rock,” “Community”), “Bored to Death” never gained a loyal following. Viewers were few but those who watched it knew it was smarter and funnier than most of the shows they were used to. Unlike the other shows previously mentioned, “Bored to Death” has just as many, if not more, detractors as it has followers.

  One piece of criticism on the show that struck me most was a column publish for Entertainment Weekly’s website, in which writer Darren Franich said he felt exactly the feeling described by the title every time he watched an episode. Now there’s a joke even Jay Leno wouldn’t put into his opening monologue.

  What bothered me more than that joke was an accusation made by the author, which was repeated by many in the comments, that a show with a Brooklyn-centric appeal doesn’t belong on television. Why is it that the only base that writers, directors, and producers alike have to appeal to is “Middle America”? Maybe it is because Middle America is apparently into so-called mindless entertainment, and they makes up the majority of America. However, television has changed drastically in the past few years. Shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire” are more talked about than the “CSI” franchise, and while “Two and a Half Men” still dominates the ratings, a show with a twisted narrative like “How I Met Your Mother” can now occupy the classic sitcom format. Thanks to specialized cable networks, audiences have become more specialized than ever before, and niche shows can now survive and thrive alongside shows with mass appeal. 

 HBO is certainly justified in its cancellation, as the show never pulled in ratings, and it wrongfully never garnered a single Emmy nomination. But HBO is known for edgy programming, and it is a shame that they never gave “Bored to Death” the chance that it deserved. With a little bit of effort, this show could have had much wider appeal. So what if it takes place in Brooklyn? So what if a majority of its jokes center around Jewish neuroticism? “Curb Your Enthusiasm” targets basically the exact audience, and it has been running strong for eight seasons.

 “Bored to Death” is not just inhabited in the world of hipsters, but it is also an inside satire of sorts of that culture which anyone who has ever been to a big city or a modern college campus can appreciate.

 “Bored to Death” is also first and foremost a detective story, and each mystery is as surprising as it is entertaining. This show also pulls off the rare balancing act of having a season full of self-contained episodes that also fit in to a larger plot. Despite running on the exact same formula, each and every episode still feels refreshing and original. I would wager that a value of Middle America is familiarity, and any show with a consistent formula is usually able to build a loyal following. The Jews may run Hollywood (according to Professor Mel Gibson M.D.), but making them the center of any story will apparently make most of the country want to change the channel.

 “Bored to Death” did have some limitations in its stories, as it involves something of a literature and pop culture prowess to enjoy, but most of its humor was so madcap that anyone could have laughed at it. One of the gags that first got me into “Bored to Death” was in the second episode of the series when Ray (Zach Galifianakis) randomly falls on top of a baby stroller. In a later episode, he spills iced coffee all over another baby. Franich writes in his article that he thought the only growth that Danson’s George did was in the amount of pot smoking he does. First off, that element of the show has always been hilarious, as his habits once lead him to tamper a drug test by adding soap to a urine sample. But really, Danson grew into the character whether it was through his relationship to his daughter in the most recent season, or his brave decision to leave his job as magazine editor. Galifianakis was also more than just a prop for slapstick, and he showed more dramatic range in this role than he ever has during any other point in his career. 

  Thanks to Jonathan Ames, “Bored to Death” had some of the highest quality writing on television. Each season was better than the last. Some highlights have included a diner scene in season two that felt reminiscent of the finale of “Pulp Fiction” in the best way possible, and an episode where Jonathan (Jason Schwartzman), Ray, and George have a wild night in New Jersey that ends with them rear-ending a cop car. There was something habitually funny about the show’s writing and performances. Each of its three seasons were only eight episodes in length, or about one third shorter than the length of the average TV comedy series. The best part about this was that it allowed Ames to put an extra amount of focus and detail into every episode, as opposed to other shows where the writers have to create episodes like an assembly line. It is no wonder that each episode of “Bored to Death” felt like a serial in a larger novel series and not just a half hour television episode. 

   I know out there somewhere, there is a compassionate cult of “Bored to Death” fans who have yet to come together and express their outrage. This Hipster Noir of a comedy will eventually earn its place among the pantheon of great shows that were cancelled too early. Until that day comes, I say #OccupyBoredtoDeath all the way.  

Movie Review: I Heart Huckabees

Like any David O. Russell movie, “I Heart Huckabees” begins with a character talking faster than they can think. Or in the case of Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), he’s thinking faster than any normal human being should ever think. Then again, that’s just the kind of behavior we should expect from any character played by Jason Schwartzman at this point.

“I Heart Huckabees” is what would happen if “Being John Malkovich” crossed paths with “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Most descriptions of this film (even the negative ones) will describe it as “quirky.” This is an overused and condescending term to describe odd character-driven films. Yes, this film is full of strange moments and eccentric characters, but to call it quirky would be like calling it cute. Frankly, there is nothing cute about existentialism.

Albert is an environmental activist currently fighting the development of a major department store, Huckabees, on open marshland. While Albert feels that his work isn’t appreciated, a strange coincidence triggers an internal crisis. In order to solve his coincidence, he turns to existential detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin). Quite fittingly, their office lies at the end of a long, blank, confusing maze of a hallway. The detectives study human motives as opposed to actual crimes, and they go through a process of psychology and stalking their clients.

Albert is brought further down an existential rabbit hole after he meets Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), who is able to disprove the Jaffe philosophy. Corn is inspired by another existentialist, Caterine Vauban (Isabella Huppert). While the Jaffes follow the belief that everything in the universe is connected, Vauban believes the opposite. The Jaffes and Vauban soon partake in a philosophical tug-of-war for Albert’s psyche. After Albert’s company teams up with the vacuous Huckabees boss, Brad Stand (Jude Law), the existential problems become a little too public, and it prompts Brad to hire the Jaffes to explore his own problem. Lost yet? Just hang in there, please.

“I Heart Huckabees” is ambitious in all of the existential ground that it covers. Some think “Huckabees” gets lost at times sniffing Sartre’s existential farts. The film definitely has a few loose ends and some factors that don’t quite add up. For example, if the detectives follow Albert around, and he can see them spying on him, then how can they know that everything they see is the candid truth?

Then again, one could argue that the film is as flawed as the sprawling theory that it sets out to explore. And with the passage of time, the film has taken on a new meaning. It also represents the time following the War in Iraq that was ruled by “existential threat.” I am sure that David O. Russell didn’t intend for this to happen, but it is funny what the passage of time can do. The best example of this would be the scene in which Tommy argues about the significance of oil with a nice Christian family, and unravels all of their lives comforts in such a flawlessly deadpan matter. That is what existentialism does: it takes apart the meaning of existence, and reduces it to its most simplistic form. For this scene alone, “Huckabees” is a film that was just one slight step ahead of its time.

The sum of “I Heart Huckabees” can be viewed in two ways: whether it works as a philosophical whole, and whether it works as a film. Let’s just say it works out in both ways. The film’s loose ends are somewhat smoothed by its undeniably curious nature, its wit, and its chaotic and totally free form.

The characters’ enlightened meltdowns are all understandable and abide by the idea that one can only see their flaws once they are fully laid out in front of them. That is why it is understandable when the Huckabees model (Naomi Watts) tries to hide her beauty when she realizes that she is totally replaceable, and when a story Brad repeatedly tells ends up making him physically ill. That scene represents the one of the best moments in Jude Law’s acting career.

As for the rest of the ensemble, Tomlin plays into the film’s free structure and brings out her improvisational past. While Hoffman, under that mop of gray hair, plays one of the strangest neurotic messes he has ever played. Wahlberg, meanwhile, shows why he has become a coveted actor. His character doesn’t seem like someone who would ever transform into a brilliant philosopher, but he fits the role with the sort of subtle comedy chops that I never thought he was capable of. And then Schwartzman is just playing what I assume is a heightened version of himself, which he has gotten better and better at playing.

“I Heart Huckabees” may lose a lot of people early on. However, there is a sense of genuine and convincing connections that exist between the characters that becomes more apparent upon a second viewing. Also, its rebellious spirit, including its putdown of corporations and most mainstream American ideas isn’t exactly daring but it is definitely is refreshing. With “Three Kings” before it and “The Fighter” after it, “I Heart Huckabees” shows what a versatile filmmaker David O. Russell truly is. He deserves an extra accolade for turning a philosophy by some of the world’s darkest thinkers into slapstick comedy.

There is one exchange at the very end of “I Heart Huckabees” that stands out (don’t worry, this quote barely gives anything away). When discussing a protest involving chaining themselves to a bulldozer, Tommy asks, “Should I bring my own chains?” Albert ambiguously and succinctly replies, “We always do.” Once you’ve seen the whole movie you’ll understand that he wasn’t just talking about the protest.

Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

There are some movies that, no matter their subject matter, just give you a new sort of energy after walking out. With its hilariously gimmicky comic book inspired universe, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” did just this.

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” felt so fresh and inviting because it simply did its best in trying to achieve so many things. It made use of action and comedy quite effectively because it comes from a director who can mash both genres like few others working today.
To like “Scott Pilgrim” and Scott Pilgrim, it is your task to throw away all of your hatreds you may have toward the film’s star. The titular hero is portrayed by Michael Cera. Scott Pilgrim is a timid bassist playing for a struggling Toronto band. Pilgrim doesn’t have as much trouble getting girls, as he does keeping them.
Pilgrim can’t get over the horrible way his last relationship ended. His relationship with a girl (Ellen Wong), who’s quite a bit younger is a bit troubling. But then, Scott sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and knows he has found the one.
Ms. Flowers doesn’t come easy though. The girl with the constantly changing hair color has also had quite a number of bad breakups in the past. In order to win her over, Scott must battle her seven evil ex-boyfriends. With such competition as skateboarder Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), tough lesbian Roxy (Mae Whitman), and powerful record producer Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), the task will prove to be just as hard as it sounds.
I wouldn’t call “Scott Pilgrim” flawless (some scenes ran on slightly longer than they needed to), but I still found so few things I could complain about. Everyone involved, whether writer, director, or actor, fulfilled their roles to the highest of their abilities. When this happens, a strange sort of tangible magic occurs. It is one that can’t easily be broken.
Cera made a name for himself early on as the teenager who’s too awkward for words. From “Arrested Development” until “Juno,” this image worked in his favor. Then of course, the backlash formed. Anyone who won’t give “Scott Pilgrim” a chance because they think it’s just another awkward performance will miss the point entirely. Cera has been developing a new character since “Youth in Revolt.” It’s basically a slightly deeper extension of his old one. It is awkward with a mix of pretentiousness and a lack of respect for both himself and others. Cera is no longer just playing himself. He knows how to be a comedic actor.
While the film is all about Scott Pilgrim, it is not just centered on him. “Scott Pilgrim” does an excellent job developing its entire ensemble. All of the characters have very well established backgrounds and traits. Each band member and everyone else in Scott’s life have at least one certain odd defining characteristic.
Aside from Cera, some of the cast highlights include Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay and gossipy roommate Wallace. He manages to steal every scene he’s in. Then there’s Anna Kendrick, who manages to prove herself a better actress with every role. Aubrey Plaza, as the always present Julie Powers, continues to find a perfect dry humor in her monotone voice and even more monotone attitude toward life.
“Scott Pilgrim” is following a new series of graphic novel adaptations that are almost jokes on the whole comic book genre itself. In addition, its the first comic book movie I’ve seen that truly felt like a comic come to life.
This story is complete with onomatopoeic sounds bursting out in word form. Just like a comic book, the audience sees every Boom! and every Bam! The characters can see every one of these effects as well, giving the film a much more self aware element.
The film also ties in elements from video games. Every evil ex is like a level from a video game. “Scott Pilgrim” could best be described as “Mortal Kombat” meets “Kick-Ass.”
I hope to credit as much of this as possible to the film’s co-writer and director, Edgar Wright. Wright has garnered a great reputation over the years for tongue-in-cheek satire of various entertainment genres. Perhaps he’s so good at it because he truly seems to know his stuff. Within all of the jokes about video games and comic books, Wright infuses a dose of satire of everything from the typical action film to the tired rom-com.
Like his past efforts, Wright shows great talent for getting big laughs out of such small details. To really laugh at an Edgar Wright film, one must have a very keen eye for detail. Take for instance one moment in “Shaun of the Dead,” where if you look close enough in the background, you might spot a homeless man about to eat a live pigeon.
Wright also constantly challenges what the human brain can laugh at. Wright can hurt his characters without being mean and tell jokes about gay people without seeing homophobic in the slightest bit.
The action in “Scott Pilgrim” is directed in a way that is both silly and serious. As hilarious as it can be, it is also a feast for the eyes. So much effort was put into every little shot. Much of the action feels like a hybrid between a video game and a comic book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In this way, the action can be seen as a comment on our current fast-paced, video game obsessed culture. It’s better though to ignore this fact and just see the film as the hilarious product of entertainment that it truly is.
For a film that is so unique and inventive, “Scott Pilgrim” ends almost exactly the way anyone could have predicted. Yet, how it gets to that moment is a bit surprising, and extremely mature for a film like this. “Scott Pilgrim” is a film that truly cares about its characters. Think of it as the most thoughtful video game movie ever made.
To all of you die hard “Arrested Development” fans out there, watch out for a few very good references.

More Thoughts on Funny People

This is an unofficial second review of Funny People. Some movies are just so big, they need to be reviewed twice.

Usually, once I review a film, it’s done. But sometimes, I am so conflicted over a film that I can’t help but go back to it. This happened with “Funny People.” Critical consensus is telling me not to like this movie, but something inside me is telling me not to listen.
I finished my review of “Funny People” still partially undecided. I am still mixed on my opinion, but if I had to choose one end of the spectrum, “Funny People” would fall towards the “good” end.
The reason I have decided to revisit “Funny People” is because so much happens in this long movie, and I feel like I barely got to cover everything I wanted to in one review. One thing I really would like to talk more about is the film’s massive supporting cast. I talked plenty about Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, but not enough about Jason Schwartzman. Schwartzman is one of my favorite comic actors today, and his performance in “Funny People” as an actor who caught a lucky break on a horrible sitcom was a highlight of the film. His performance reminded of his performance in “Rushmore;” like Max Fisher, his “Funny People” character always casts off an air of superiority for minor achievements. He was born to play smug.
Also worth mentioning is the always great Leslie Mann and the breakout performance by Aubrey Plaza. On that note, a post on PopWatch today made a fascinating observation about the portrayal of women in “Funny People.” While some wrongly accused Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” of being sexist (*cough* Katherine Heigl *cough*), the women in this film are portrayed as being no different then the men. Plaza’s Daisy is just a struggling comedian like the rest of the guys. Meanwhile, Mann’s Laura seems much less reactionary than Debbie in “Knocked Up,” despite hiding much more sadness.
There are so many great characters in “Funny People.” The real problem with the film was that even with its long running time, you still feel like you want more from the characters. Maybe the problem with the film wasn’t that it was too long, but that it wasn’t long enough. I’m not much of a sequel person but I would not at all mind seeing more of these characters’ lives (luckily, a Randy movie is reportedly in the works).
Overall, it seems impossible not to recommend this movie because overall, it is a well made movie. It’s a comedy that’s not like most comedies coming out nowadays: it’s not formulaic, it’s not predictable, and it’s real. Each of these characters feel like real people with conflicting emotions and even the power to change. But then again, it is an Apatow film.
“Funny People” is definitely different from the rest of Apatow’s oeuvre. Most of his film’s endings are decided from the beginning, but it’s the path to the end that is unpredictable. “Funny People” takes the opposite approach. In “Knocked Up,” you know from the beginning that one way or another Alison will have the baby, and Ben will one way or another be there. In “Funny People,” we know that George will try and win Laura back. Whether or not he’ll succeed at it, remains unclear. I don’t know which approach is better but in the end, both work. I am excited to see whether Apatow continues this new approach to comedy. If he does, then “Funny People” was just an experiment, something that wasn’t meant to be perfect. His next film then, should be comic gold.