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VIFF 2019 Review: Greener Grass

Greener Grass

Greener Grass is a comedy about dimwitted parents and dimwitted couples in a dimwitted world.

After seeing a lot of dramas at the VIFF, especially heavy dramas, you can bet I’d be in the mood for some comedy. I got what I needed on the last day of the festival with Greener Grass. It’s not your typical comedy, and all the better for it.

The film opens at a neighborhood children’s soccer game. Jill Davies meets up with her best friend Lisa Wetbottom. Jill’s son Julian and Lisa’s son Bob are playing in the game. Lisa is complimenting Jill on her newborn baby daughter Madison. Jill decides that Lisa can have Madison, to Lisa’s complete surprise. Lisa accepts with no problem.

The two drive home in their golf carts, which all the resident of the town drive. Arriving home, Jill tells Nick the news, and he’s okay with it. He’s happy that they still have Julian, even though he is a nerd who’s awkward at sports, which Nick is uncomfortable with. Lisa introduces baby Madison to her husband Dennis and son Bob. The others happily welcome Madison and rename her Paige. Lisa is proud of how Bob is good at sports, but uncomfortable how Bob is not that good at school. On top of that, her husband Dennis is shorter and pudgier compared to taller, more athletic Nick. Later on, the two couples meet together at a barbecue. They end up kissing each others’ spouses. However they all laugh it up and switch it back to the right pairings.

They try to go about their lives and raising their families normally, or as normal as it gets in that town. Nick may be unhappy Julian is not the athletic hero he hoped for, but he’s okay since they now have better pool water. The water’s so good, he enjoys drinking it. Soon there is the news that the yoga instructor has been murdered. The whole town is in shock. Both Jill and Lisa are nervous. There’s even a message of terror sent to Lisa’s golf cart.

One day, Lisa notices a volleyball left by a playground. She uses it to make herself look like she’s pregnant. And everyone including Dennis buys this. This starts to upset Jill. Lisa first noticed how unhappy Jill was at a children’s bowling game. At Nick’s birthday party, Lisa thinks Jill is best with getting a divorce. Soon Julian distracts from the party and talks about how terrible his life is. When he appears to take a suicide plunge in the pool, he turns into a dog. Everyone is in shock.

Jill goes about bringing the dog-like Julian to school, much to Bob’s shock, and music practice. However Nick is blown away how good Julian is at sports. He’s like the son of Nick’s dreams now. Jill tells Nick he wants a divorce. Nick agrees and takes Julian with him. Jill is now childless and empty. Meanwhile a ‘pregnant’ Lisa is shocked to see Bob watching Kids With Knives on the television. The show immediately turns Bob into a self-loathing angst-ridden monster. However Lisa decides to ‘give birth’ to the volleyball, and all including Dennis accept it as the new addition to the family.

Jill can’t handle it. It’s not just being childless, but the stress knowing the murderer hasn’t been caught yet. Jill then confronts Lisa. She wants Madison/Paige back. Lisa is hurt. Paige is hers. Plus he reminds Jill that it makes her look like an ‘Indian giver’… excuse me… ‘Native American giver.’ Jill can’t take it anymore. That night, she rips out the wire from her braces, furiously drives past the intersection in her golf cart without being polite and drives off into another town. She sees a house with children. She knocks on the door and talks to the mother. The conversation is friendly until Jill asks for one of her children. The woman politely asks her to leave, but one of the girls is looking at Jill as she walks off. Jill has a new child!

Jill makes it back into town and just on the eve as the murderer of the yoga instructor has been caught. At a children’s soccer game, Jill’s child plays her first game. Everybody is happy to see Jill’s new child, including Lisa. She’s happy to see that Jill is finally happy again. Or is she?

Watching this comedy does leave you wondering what the heck is going on? The world these adults live in make no sense at all. Perhaps that may be its best quality. Instead of this being a world that makes perfect sense, it makes perfect nonsense. It’s a world where the adults wear sweet pastel colors, all wear braces on their top teeth and all drive around in gold carts. A world where they’re too polite to make the first move at a stop sign. A world where they make huge decisions without rational thought. A world where they can love as conditionally as they want. A world a parent can simply give their child to another family and the family’s good with it. A world with TV shows where cooking contestants are judged with someone else’s entry, and they accept without hesitation. A world where the kids have their own weird bizarre traits and can instantly either turn into a dog or act like they’re possessed by the devil. A world where a woman can fake a pregnancy with a basketball and everyone would believe it, and even treat the basketball like it’s their baby!

To sum it all up, it’s a world lacking of common sense, but full of smiley niceness, instant hurt and even insanity. I haven’t seen this much weirdness or bizarre human behavior since watching an episode of South Park. Though it’s not as warped as a South Park episode, it has a combined weirdness that has to both make sense and be consistent from start to finish. When you see a lot of the idiocies or the idiotic world created in the film, it does get you wondering. Will it hold through from start to its feature-length finish? Will the stupidity of the world be just as stupid at the end? Will the characters be just as dim-witted? To my surprise, the story did hold up. Instead of making perfect sense from start to finish, it made perfect nonsense. The world and the characters are just as idiotic at the end as they were at the beginning. The may have been some noticeable changes in the kids, but it ended with the same crazy energy.

This may be a comedy with nonsense from start to finish. However it does seem to resemble the envy people, parents, and couples. It’s a spoof on how we all think the grass is greener on the other side or how we keep up with the Joneses or how we try to chase something we can’t get. We can’t be happy with what we have. We have to think the other one’s better or try to one-up them. This film and the brace-cases in it spoofs it, and in bizarrely hilarious fashion.

This comedy belongs to Upright Citizens Brigade alumni Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. They wrote it together, directed it together and play Jill and Lisa respectively. Actually this is a feature-length version of the short film Greener Grass they created four years earlier. They took a story full of a lot of comedic ridiculousness and insanity and had quite the job to make it work as a smooth film from beginning to end. To my surprise, it works. The story and its combination of idiocy and insanity works from beginning to end. It had all the making of a story that would go off-path, but it doesn’t. Whatever different elements of the story get added in as if it adds to the story instead of interferes with it.

One thing about the film is that it’s obvious Jocelyn and Dawn are aiming for shocks. This film is a film that has people with a lot of experience writing for and acting in comedies. Here you can tell with a lot of the incidents and lines, they are aiming not just to weird us out, but shock us along the way. It’s noticeable with a TV show called Kids With Knives, Nick drinking pool water, the other-spouse kiss (which is full of saliva) and Bob uttering angry lines like “I wish I was aborted!”

The supporting acting is also funny. The husbands are played by two Saturday Night Livers: SNL actor Beck Bennett plays Nick and SNL writer Neil Casey plays Dennis. They both do a good job of adding to the idiocy of the story and even show a good male side to the idiocy in the world of this film. The two boys in the film were also good, but Asher Miles Fallica was quite something as Bob. He goes from a kid that’s your typical kid to a boy who suddenly acts like he’s possessed by the devil after watching Kids With Knives. That’s crazy!

Greener Grass is a comedy about suburban families that mixes in stupid with bizarre and insanity and insecurities. It comes off as a winning feature-length comedy from start to finish.

Summer Movie Spotlight: Superhero Movies

This was to be a triple-movie review I had planned to release shortly after the end of the summer.  The VIFF, feeling tired, and two illnesses kept it from publishing in due time. Even though most of the films here are on DVD, Blu-Ray or on NetFlix, I still feel this is a focus on summer movies worth publishing even now. Especially since many will be eligible for the technical categories of the Oscars. Hey, don’t rule them out.

And this one is on superhero movies, and rightly so as they’ve become the creme de la creme of the summer movie season. You can easily see why. Their popularity, their ability to bring in a wide range of an audience from children who love superheroes to action movie fans to thriller lovers. No doubt their the hype of the summer. I saw three such movies this summer– The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Ant-Man, and The Fantastic Four — and all three had something to say about them in either their successes or failures.

THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

The Avengers returned opening up the summer movie season with Age Of Ultron.

The Avengers returned opening up the summer movie season with Age Of Ultron.

The Avengers blew us away in their first movie back in 2012. It even set a box-office record for the first ever movie to open with a $200 million weekend. It was right that there be another Avengers movie in due time. Sure enough the sequel came this summer and it was the Age Of Ultron.

It’s one thing to bring a set of superheroes together as one team but also to have one of the superheroes’ main villains to be the bad guy of this Avengers movie is something else. I wasn’t expecting Loki to be the villain. Another thing I liked about this is that in the first Avengers movie, it looked like Tony Stark was stealing the show too often. This time it appeared like there was less of a case of one hero trying to steal the show.

Overall I feel the story worked as it delivered the excitement one would normally expect from a superhero movie. You know that when Joss Whedon tackles a Marvel script, he will deliver. That and dazzling special effects of course. The interesting thing is that the ending leaves one to think that there will be a new generation of Avengers and the original Avengers have retired from their duties as a team. Nevertheless there is talk of the next Avengers sequel — actually the sequel is divided into two parts– and that all the original Avengers will be back. Should be interesting.

The box office results for Avengers: Age Of Ultron are quite interesting. Their opening weekend of $191.3 million made it second only to the first Avengers movie’s $207.4 million as the highest ever. Both would eventually be bumped down a spot six weeks later thanks to Jurassic World’s record-setting $208.8 million. Eventually it would gross a total of $459 million in North America and $1.4 billion worldwide. Its totals make it the eighth-highest ever in North America and sixth-highest ever Worldwide.

The Avengers: Age Of Ultron show some common traits of the first Avengers movie but have some noticeable differences of their own. Nevertheless they still deliver on excitement.

ANT-MAN

Paul Rudd proves in Ant-Man size does matter. The smaller the better.

Paul Rudd proves in Ant-Man size does matter. The smaller the better.

Last year Marvel was able to unleash a superhero ensemble no one had ever heard of, The Guardians Of The Galaxy, and they became household names. Marvel attempted to unleash another unknown superhero to the public named Ant-Man. Although it didn’t have the same buzz as the Guardians, it was impressive and succeeded in making it well-known to the public.

Ant-Man is no recent superhero of Marvel’s. Ant-Man has actually been around since 1962. Here was Ant-Man’s first crack at the big screen.  It follows a formula familiar to Marvel superhero movies intended to be the first one of the superhero. It creates a clever opening scenario involving an humorous introduction to the person who will become the hero as well as an opening scene of the person to become the villain. That is to be expected in such Marvel movies as they are shelling these movies out to people of various ages from children to adult sci-fi fans. However it risks being a disappointment if not done right. It was not exactly done wrong but I did feel the beginning emphasized on the humor too much and the scenes involving Scott Lang and Luis started the movie on a cornball note. There were even scenes where Scott–ant-sized as he just discovers the Ant-Man suit–gets himself in humorously troubling situations. I know it’s natural for Marvel to add humor to their films for family viewing and enjoyment but I felt they overdid it there.

I do commend director Peyton Reed and the four scriptwriters for creating a good story that knows how to entertain and thrill. I also admire the special effects team for creating dazzling effects that fit the film well. I also commend the good acting from Paul Rudd, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly, Bobby Canavale and the other actors in the film. However I felt there was something missing in this film. I can’t exactly say what. Maybe because I can’t see of a superhero the size of Ant-Man being that believable. Whatever the situation, I felt it lacked a certain shining quality one would find in some of Marvel’s best movies like X-Men or even Guardians Of The Galaxy. Once again I reiterate Ant-Man was no disappointment. It was just lacking a certain flare.

Ant-Man didn’t have the same box-office success as the Guardians Of The Galaxy did last year. It made $179.5 million in North America but also scored an impressive additional $337.9 million internationally. The film’s success has prompted plans for a sequel in either 2017 and 2018. Rudd will be returning.

Ant-Man doesn’t have the same flare as Guardians Of The Galaxy but it is an impressive introduction to a previously unfamiliar Marvel superhero.

THE FANTASTIC FOUR

The revamp of The Fantastic Four fell short of expectations and enjoyment.

The revamp of The Fantastic Four fell short of expectations and enjoyment.

If there’s one film that failed to live up to people’s expectations this summer, it has to be this year’s revamped version of The Fantastic Four. If you saw it yourself, you could easily see why it was a disappointment.

The opening scene where Reed Richards and Ben Grimm first meet in elementary school and develop a friendship opens the movie on a promising and intriguing note. However whatever intrigue one has in the story is put to the test throughout the movie. The story when the four eventually adopt their superhero personas appears to take forever. I even remember one time around the halfway point, I had to check my watch asking “Are they the Fantastic Four yet?” Even the moments in the story that attempted to stimulate excitement and intrigue didn’t keep me from asking that.

Even after the four have adopted their superhero personas, it appeared that they weren’t together and not yet the team of the Fantastic Four. The middle of the movie does make obvious that the four have their superhero personas and their elements of action to go with it but it left me confused. Even as the four do eventually meet together and do battle against Doom on another planet, I was still left wondering when the four became The Fantastic Four. I felt leaving it until the very end was not a smart thing to do.

It’s not fair to say it’s a terrible movie. When I saw it had less than 10% at Rotten Tomatoes, I wondered how unwatchable it would be. I was expecting a disappointment or a clumsy disaster. It wasn’t. It was very watchable as a movie. In fact I consider Vacation a way worse movie from this summer. Even the young actors of Miles Teller, Jamie Bell, Michael B. Jordan and Kata Mara did nothing wrong and did well in their acting jobs. The problem is the movie made a lot of noticeable mistakes. The special effects of the film were excellent and one-of-a-kind but they could not hide just how off the story was.

You can bet that just before the movie’s release and even after, the bad news came out and in various forms. Later on I read stories of how the director Josh Trank lost interest in the project and that it caused problems in terms of finishing the story. If that’s the case, it shows. Even despite the lackluster story, I felt ten years was too soon to release a revamp of The Fantastic Four. I remember the first one. It was a fun story that was enjoyable and a thrill to watch. It appeared Marvel did the right moves. Here, it looks like it’s aiming for a darker story with less comedy which makes it less enjoyable than the first. I can understand the aim for more drama than entertainment but this is a movie that really tests our patience despite the top notch special effects.

The box office results showed how disappointing this Fantastic Four was. It cost $120 million to make but didn’t even make half of it back in North America: $56.1 million to be exact which is less what the two previous Fantastic Four movies made in their respective opening weekends. The foreign box office of $111.6 million kept it from being a complete flop. There was talk of plans to be a sequel at first but the box office numbers definitely will put it in question.

Yes, superhero movies were one of the tour-de-forces of the summer box office as has been in recent years. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron prove they’ve still got it, Ant-Man proves that introducing a new superhero is still a challenge and The Fantastic Four proves even Marvel is not infallible to shelling out flops. We’ll see how next summer’s crop of superhero movies fares.

Movie Review: Whiplash

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on Miles Teller in Whiplash.

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on a drumming student played by Miles Teller in Whiplash.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful that good job.

One of the year’s biggest surprises has to be Whiplash. You think a movie about a jazz drumming student and his teacher wouldn’t be one to win people over but you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Andrew Neiman is a 19 year-old jazz drummer who has been accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory to pursue his dream of being one of the greats like Buddy Rich.  Despite practicing long hours, he does take time to take things easy watching movies with his father and even dating the girl working at concessions.

That all changes one day when during class, instructor Terence Fletcher who already has an infamous reputation among students substitutes for one instructor. It’s more than instruction as Fletcher is looking for a new drum alternate for the school band he conducts. Sure enough, Andrew catches his eye. Actually Andrew caught his eye days before while practicing alone.

On the first session, Neiman learns that part of Fletcher’s rehearsal methods is manipulating emotions out of his students. It is while rehearsing the Hank Levy song ‘Whiplash’ that Fletcher makes Andrew his target of attacks including berating him verbally especially when Andrew is brought to tears, throwing a chair at him and even slapping him for going off tempo. The rehearsal ends with Andrew being the alternate drummer and relegated to page turner for the lead drummer.

Instead of quitting, Andrew is determined to win over Fletcher and master ‘Whiplash.’ He listens intensely to its drumline and studies videoclips of the drummers. He even cuts his movie time with his father and breaks up with Nicole to intensely pursue his ambition. Then bad luck happens during a competition when Andrew misplaces the drummer’s sheet music. However Andrew is determined to perform ‘Whiplash’ without the notes. To the astonishment of all including Fletcher, he does it perfectly and becomes Fletcher’s new lead drummer.

However it’s short-lived as Ryan a drummer from Fletcher’s former class, is promoted to lead drummer. Andrew is frustrated to the point he confronts Fletcher only to learn Fletcher decides who has earned the part. That only drives Andrew to practice intensely to the point his hands bleed. Just before Fletcher starts rehearsal one day in tears, he reveals to all that one of his former students from six years ago Sean Casey, whom he describes as a ‘marvelous musician,’ died in a car accident. He starts rehearsal on ‘Caravan’, the next competition piece, but has a hard time picking out the right drummer for the song. Fletcher gets all three drummers including Andrew continually trying out the piece for several brutal hours until he makes his final decision at 2:30 am. He decides it to be Andrew.

Andrew buses to the competition but the bus suffers a flat tire. Andrew’s determined to be there on time to the point he rents a car but forgets his drumsticks at the rental office. Andrew only finds that out once he arrives and Fletcher dismisses him for not having his drumsticks. Determined to play, Andrew rushed back to the agency to get the sticks. Speeding to the concert hall and talking to Fletcher on his phone, Andrew is hit by a car. Despite the car flipping over and Andrew bloody and injured, Andrew rushes to the hall to play. A stunned Fletcher lets him play but it’s obvious Andrew is off as his injuries cause him to drop his drumsticks continuously. Fletcher gives him the words onstage: “You’re finished.” That causes Andrew to attack Fletcher onstage in front of the audience.

The attack caused Andrew to get expelled form the school. Soon Andrew learns from the lawyer of Sean Casey’s parents that Casey actually committed suicide and believes it was because of the personal torment endured by Fletcher’s teaching methods right from when he first started. Andrew agrees to testify, leading Fletcher to be dismissed from the school. Just when it seemed to be all over for Andrew, he learns months later Fletcher is performing in a club. Andrew and Fletcher meet up again and it’s during a drink together that Andrew learns why Fletcher teaches the way he does. Because he drives his students to be the next jazz great. And he saw it in Andrew more than the other two. Fletcher agrees to have Andrew as part of the band he’s conducting for the upcoming JVC festival where they will be playing the same songs. Andrew agrees. However things do not go as planned as Fletcher tells Andrew he knew he got him out. On top of it, the band opens with a piece Andrew never rehearsed. This leads to an ending that’s unpredictable and entertaining.

One can simply say it’s a story about a student with the drive and the teacher determined to make him succeed no matter how soul-crushing his teaching methods. I myself saw a lot more to it. I see it as about music and arts in general. We see and hear a lot of great pieces of music, great acting performances and great pieces of art. One thing we don’t often see is that it takes everything out of a person, especially their heart and soul. We also see that here in teaching as Fletcher verbally beats his students into the ground to bring out the best in them. He feels he’s doing the right thing even as he was blamed for Sean Casey’s suicide. He even brings up the example of Charlie Parker who was a substandard saxophone player until his bandleader threw a cymbal at his head. That was the turning point. I myself have taken acting courses and there have been times in which I was encouraged to dig deep into my soul even to the point of remembering some of the more upsetting moments of my life. It’s not uncommon for teacher sin the art to be that tyrannical to their students to bring out the best in them.

It’s not just about a teacher putting his students through such agonizing torturous methods to better his students and bring the best out of them. It’s also about the drive of a student. Andrew is determined to be the best drummer ever. In his mind, he thinks it’s better to be a success even if it means dying in his 30’s and having no friends than it is to be not so successful but live a long life and be beloved. Andrew is willing to practice drumming until his hands bleed, willing to give up his girlfriend and even determined to make a competition even if he’s in a car accident and the car flips over. The crazy thing is that there are a lot of people in the arts that feel that same way. That success in their art is better than being loved and even worth dying for. We see that in Andrew.

Even there, it’s not just about the teacher and about the student, it’s the relationship between the two. Fletcher can be brutal and abusive both verbally and physically but he pushes Andrew because he sees a quality in him he has not seen in a student before. Andrew is driven to succeed but he sees something in Fletcher’s tutelage that he feels he can’t get anywhere else. He senses Fletcher and only Fletcher can help him to be the best jazz drummer ever. And he’s willing to take it on even with the physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Even after both Andrew and Fletcher are both dismissed from Shaffer, Andrew still relies on Fletcher’s judgment on his abilities. Often Fletcher’s teaching and pushing Andrew can remind a lot of people of sports coaches who are that tough on their athletes but are determined to bring out the best in them. Andrew willing to endure it all to be the great he wants to be will remind you of athletes who wholeheartedly trust their coach to the point that they’ll willing to do illegal things like steroids upon their urging.

Without a doubt, J.K. Simmons owned the movie. His portrayal of Fletcher determined to bring out the best in his students even if it requires him to deliver physical or verbal abuse stole the movie. His focus on perfectionism, his love for jazz music and the greats, his portrayal of that kind of teacher will keep you glued to your seat. Even though Simmons owned the film, credit should be given to Miles Teller. He as well delivered an excellent performance of a student with a dream and determined to succeed even if it means taking physical abuse from a teacher. He also did an excellent job of showing how Andrew’s determination to succeed almost destroys him at times. Miles himself also drummed as a kid so it’s kind of natural he was chosen. Plus if director Damien Chazelle was interested in making his film bankable, he could have chosen Nick Jonas as Andrew. Miles was one who could both drum and act.

The film is actually the brainchild of director/writer Damien Chazelle. Chazelle wanted to become a successful jazz drummer in high school. He was in a very competitive jazz band in high school and had an intense music teacher who would become the inspiration of Terence Fletcher. However unlike Andrew, Chazelle knew he wasn’t good enough to excel in jazz drumming and turned to film making instead. You could rightfully call this film his baby. This film has won the Sundance Audience and Jury Award for Best Drama and the reception has been excellent.

 Whiplash is as much about the punishing training and studying music students go through to pursue their dreams as it is about the determined teacher, the driven student and the turbulent but solid chemistry between the two. It will also remind all you young ones with musical dreams that if you think chasing your musical dreams is a cakewalk, you couldn’t be wronger.