Life Itself

September 24, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening
Directed by: Dan Fogelman (“Danny Collins”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Danny Collins”)

Dan Fogelman, creator and executive producer of the hit NBC series “This is Us,” seems to have the television drama formula worked out better than most — a little yank at the heartstrings here, a heartwarming relationship there, a dash of solid character development and throw in some nonlinear storylines. After only two seasons, viewers and critics are eating it up.

As the writer and director behind the feature film “Life Itself,” however, using a similar template is a disastrous exercise in emotional manipulation and pretentious storytelling. It’s the kind of screenplay that needed a few more rounds of workshopping. As is, it should’ve been tossed into a bin of scripts destined to never be seen again.

It’s regrettable since Fogelman, whose first foray into filmmaking was 2015’s Al Pacino vehicle “Danny Collins,” assembles a more-than-capable cast led by Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Olivia Wilde (“Drinking Buddies”). Broken into five muddled and overwritten chapters, the film starts with an introduction to Will (Isaac), a sad sack of a man we see during his happier times when he’s courting the love of his life, Abby (Wilde), but also during his court-mandated counseling sessions with his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening).

In this chapter, Fogelman pulls out all the stops and crams the melodrama with so many unnecessary and contrived components, one may wonder if he thought he would even get to finish the last four segments. This part of the film includes a nod to the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Will goes back in time to see random moments in the past that will likely shape his future. It’s one of the many times Fogelman needlessly reminds the audience that fate will catch up to everyone eventually.

Fogelman mucks up his clichéd screenplay even more by employing the storytelling technique known as the “unreliable narrator,” a term coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in 1961, which argues that a narrator of a story can’t be trusted because he or she is telling it from a single perspective. Fogelman essentially suggests that the storytellers he’s chosen to recollect their own memories might be remembering incorrectly. The decision to include this narrative device is a lazy choice that allows Fogelman to offer moviegoers various interpretations or perspectives of the same scene — scenes that ultimately fall flat.

As the film stumbles into the other chapters, Fogelman abandons most of his filmmaking gimmickry to connect Will and Abby to a host of other characters — their adult daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) and a family living in Spain — but by then it’s fairly evident where everything will end up. Unfortunately, wallowing in a cinematic abyss of tragedy, pain and victimization is better suited for fans of the “Saw” franchise.

The Guilt Trip

December 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Dale Dickey
Directed by: Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Crazy, Stupid Love”)

About halfway through “The Guilt Trip,” Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen) looks on as his widowed mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand) eats a 4-pound steak at a Texas restaurant during a layover on their cross-country road trip. Filled to the brim with red meat, I would have bet $100 that Joyce’s entire meal would have been violently vomited out all over the interior of the vehicle as soon as she buckled herself in. Never mind that the legendary Streisand would have been the one puking; it was the presence of Rogen, known for his roles in raunchy comedies, that had me waiting for something gross to happen. I mean, his frustratingly over-bearing mother ate a steak the size of a small dog and was cramming herself into a comically-undersized car. That’s a setup for a spew if I’ve ever seen one, right? Weirdly…no.

Anyway, anyone with a mother will find a frustration to relate to in “The Guilt Trip.” Rogen’s Andy lives far from his mom in Los Angeles. Andy is a former biochemist turned inventor struggling to pitch his all-natural cleaning product to disinterested retailers. Even from 3,000 miles away in New York, Joyce dotes on Andy, leaving dozens of voice mails about everything from the underwear she bought him at The Gap to theories she developed with her friends about his failed love life. When Andy visits his mother on the eve of a big sales trip, Joyce confides in him that he’s named after a long-lost love. Deciding that his mother, who hasn’t dated since her husband died more than 20 years ago, deserves to be happy, Andy concocts a plan. After secretly tracking down his namesake, Andy invites Joyce along on his road trip, intent on surprising her in San Francisco at the doorstep of the man she once loved.

One would be forgiven for expecting this to be a typical Seth Rogen comedy. After all, there aren’t many live-action movies featuring the actor that you’d be comfortable watching with your mother in the same room. “The Guilt Trip” changes that, though, with an amusing (if not laugh-out-loud funny) screenplay from Disney and Pixar vet Dan Fogelman and a fun performance from Streisand, who is game all the way through. This time around, it’s the younger viewers who might be experiencing discomfort as Streisand’s character hits a little too close to home. While Joyce often veers dangerously close to stereotypical “annoying Jewish mother” territory, she winds up tossing out just enough recognizable nuggets of nagging Rogen’s way to spark twinges of, “Ugh, my mom says the exact same thing!” recognition in every member of the audience.

Yeah, sorry Mom. Even me.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

July 29, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra (“I Love You Phillip Morris”) and John Requa (“I Love You Phillip Morris”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Tangled”)

Forget marriage counseling. If you really want to know the status of your relationship, pay attention to what’s happening under the dinner table during a romantic evening out. Playing footsies means there’s still some spark. Flatfooted and aloof? You might as well start drawing up those divorce papers.

At least that’s where loving husband and father Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) finds himself during the opening scenes of the surprisingly pleasant albeit conventional and ineffectively titled romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” There’s no footwork here. In fact, his wife and high school sweetheart Emily (Julianne Moore) fesses up to an affair and pulls the plug on 25 years of marriage. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman (“Tangled”) doesn’t give much explanation as to how their marital problems have reached criticality, but you know things are extremely broken.

Drowning his sorrows at a posh local bar,Calbecomes the pet project of smooth-talking ladies man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who takes pity on him and his middle-aged lameness. Their goal (besides referencing “The Karate Kid” and inventing the verb “Miyagied”): to rediscover Cal’s manhood and – most importantly – get him laid.

Fogelman doesn’t end his matchmaking venture with Cal. As in 2003’s British rom-com “Love Actually,” the narrative in “CSL” is layered with smitten characters and sometimes-underwritten secondary storylines. Here, Cal’s 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is infatuated with his babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) who actually has a crush on Cal; aspiring lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone) hopes her nerdy boyfriend (Josh Groban) will pop the big question before she falls prey to Jacob’s charm.

While clichés are no stranger to “CSL,” the all-star cast is able to class up the situations to make them feel as funny and original as possible. Most of the film’s emotion hinges on Carell’s dramatic turn now that he’s proven he can be both hilarious and poignant in dramedies like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Dan in Real Life.” In CSL, Carell trades barbs with Gosling and tears withMoore, but through subtle dialogue and gesture.

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind the gay jailhouse romantic comedy “I Love You Phillip Morris”), “CSL” doesn’t offer anything on the marital front we wouldn’t have learned from watching a rerun of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” But like Cal, there’s something genuinely refreshing about its soft heart, honesty, and squareness, even while our hero mismatches tennis shoes and khakis with a straight face.

Tangled

November 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy
Directed by: Byron Howard (“Bolt”) and Nathan Greno (debut)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Bolt”)
 
Disney knows a few things about princesses. Beginning with the unadorned appeal of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” over 70 years ago, the studio has since introduced audiences to a collection of distinctive stories featuring a diverse group of animated princesses all vying for the same thing: true love.
 
Sure, the image of a princess has evolved over the years to incorporate the more contemporary, independent woman (Princess Fiona from DreamWorks’ “Shrek” series can kick some serious butt), but at the core, the themes that connect films like “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and last year’s less enjoyable “The Princess and the Frog” haven’t changed much.
 
As Disney’s 50th animated film, “Tangled” fits in perfectly with Disney’s previous offerings. It’s a classic narrative combined with creative characters, beautiful computer-generated animation, and a gleeful soundtrack that matches some of the best Disney music since the early 90s. 
 
If “Tangled” really is the last of the fairytale-type movies Disney will make in the foreseeable future (a statement the company made last week), it’s definitely an impressive way to bid a fond farewell.

In “Tangled,” the reimagining of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “Rapunzel,” the original story is given a fresh take while still sustaining elements from animated films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.” In the latest version, an infant Rapunzel is kidnapped from a king and queen by a witch named Gothel who locks her in a tower and raises her as her own child. Obsessed with staying young forever, Gothel takes the baby when she learns Rapunzel’s hair possesses healing powers and works like a fountain of youth.

Now, held captive in the tower (although Rapunzel believes Gothel is just an overprotective mother) with only her always-suspicious chameleon Pascal to keep her company, a teenage Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), whose extremely long golden hair keeps her mother young, dreams of one day leaving her tower and traveling to the kingdom to see a festival of lights that occurs every year on her birthday. Little does she know the lights released into the nighttime sky are for her and that the king and queen have always believed she would find her way home some day. Guiding her through the kingdom is an Aladdin-type thief named Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) who scales the tower to evade the king’s soldiers who are in pursuit.
 
Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno working on a clever script by Dan Fogelman, “Tangled” might not get to the highest echelons Disney has ever reached, but there is a brilliant sense of nostalgia as well as a touch of modern-day sassiness that reminds us even without Pixar there for support the Mouse House can still produce plenty of happily-ever-after moments.

Bolt

November 10, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman
Directed by: Byron Howard (debut) and Chris Williams (debut)
Written by: Chris Williams (“The Emperor’s New Groove”) and Dan Fogelman (“Cars”)

Leave it to Pixar to inject some much-needed imagination into the recent animated efforts of Walt Disney Studios. As the first animated feature entirely under the watchful eye of John Lasseter (chief creative officer of both studios and director of “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life”), “Bolt” may not win best-in-show, but he’s definitely a charmer.

In an opening scene shot like a canine version of “The Incredible Hulk” or “Spider-Man,” we meet the titular American White Shepherd, who is the superhero star of his own TV show. Not only can Bolt (John Travolta) run at lightning speed, he can also shoot laser beams from his eyes, lift cars between his teeth, and flatten anything in his path with a startling superbark. Eat your heart out Underdog!

While Bolt honestly believes it is his mission to protect his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) from the sinister Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of futuristic foot soldiers, the TV show’s director (James Lipton) insists the entire production crew and actors continue to lead Bolt to believe that he really is a superdog. A bit reminiscent of “The Truman Show,” everyone’s in on the intricate scheme and is able to shoot each episode without Bolt’s knowledge by using guerilla-style camerawork and special effects. The initial premise might seem outlandish (especially for a dog who always seems on script), but for argument’s sake, it works.

But when the director decides to change the show’s format because of low ratings and make each episode end in a cliffhanger, Bolt doesn’t understand what’s happening when shooting wraps one day without the usual defeat of his nemesis. Still believing Penny is in trouble, Bolt escapes his trailer on the studio lot and ventures off to save his “person.” But as Buzz Lightyear discovers in “Toy Story,” using superhero powers during real-world scenarios isn’t too encouraging for the psyche when they fail to produce the same results as in the fantasy.

Coming to the realization he might not be a gene-spliced pup after all, Bolt meets Mittens (Susie Essman of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), a stray cat with abandonment issues who helps him learn what it is to be a normal dog by teaching him how to fetch, dig, and stick his head out the window, and Rhino (Mark Walton), a hyperactive fanboy hamster who religiously watches Bolt’s show on the “magic box” and secretly wishes to become his butt-kicking action sidekick.

Apart from the scene-stealing furry rodent who rolls around in a plastic ball for most of the film and says hilarious things like “I’ll snap his neck” or “I’ll get the ladder” with total seriousness, there are plenty more laughs and soft-hearted moments that make Bolt one of the more memorable family-friendly movies of the year. Sure, “WALL-E” will probably scavenger up most of the animation awards, but there’s no shame for other animated films to aim for silver.