Representing the new comedy is “Trainwreck” (2015 / Universal / 129m / $24.98 BR+DVD combo / NR), written by and starring Amy Schumer who portrays a commitment-phobic type, forever getting drunk or chemically altered and indulging in one-night stands despite having a steady boyfriend who’s also a remarkable physical specimen (John Cena). Amy (playing Amy) works as a magazine writer and reluctantly takes on a feature assignment on sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader), despite knowing zilch about sports. Of course they become involved and of course she realizes she’s met Mr. Right and of course her normal behavior leads her to screw things up. Chief among the film’s problems is that it takes more than two hours to spin out the slim and predictable storyline and director Judd Apatow seems disinterested in goosing the proceedings with anything resembling pace.
I had expected better from this film given Schumer’s reputation (I confess I’ve never seen her sketch TYV series) and from a cast that includes Hader, who could be funny just reading the phone book, and such reliables as Norman Lloyd and Tilda Swinton in supporting roles. While Lloyd and Swinton do nicely with their minor parts, surprisingly it’s WWE superstar Cena and LeBron James (hilariously playing himself) who come off best. When the funniest turns come from athletes there’s something wrong with your film. The two-disc package offers the theatrical cut and the longer, unrated director’s cut. A shorter director’s cut – at say an hour and a half – would have been more advisable.
Bidding fair to be one of the best films I’ve viewed this year is “Mr. Holmes” (2014 / Lionsgate / 105m / $24.99 BR+digital / PG), which marks a reunion of director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen who last joined forces on the exceptional “Gods and Monsters.” This film, too, is a rumination on aging and focuses on an elderly Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), living in Sussex and keeping bees as he’d threatened to do in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. There is, by the way, a whole subset of Sherlockiana dealing with the consulting detective retired as a Sussex bee-keeper, beginning, I believe, with three novels by H. F. Heard; this film is based on a juvenile novel by Mitch McCullen.
The 93-year-old Holmes is fighting a losing battle with what was then called senility (the story is set in the post-WWII era) and finding neither royal jelly nor prickly ash of any benefit. He can’t always find the right word and can only recall the name of his housekeeper’s son because he has it scribbled on his shirt cuff. This is especially aggravating as he has discovered a manuscript by his late friend Dr. Watson fictionalizing his last case. The story makes him out to be the hero as usual but Holmes at least remembers that it was the case that caused him to cease detecting but aside from that he can recall precipus little else.
He is urged on in his attempt to uncover the truth behind the fiction by Roger (a truly winning performance from young Milo Parker) the son of his crotchety housekeeper (Laura Linney, who has also worked with Condon in the past). An unlikely alliance forms between the two and Roger even aids Holmes in his beekeeping. “Mr. Holmes” is also about the relationships between the three generations but cunningly cast in the context of a mystery, unpeeled gradually in the form of flashbacks as Holmes recaptures fragments of his past. With the action set over half a century ago from our time and dealing with events Holmes is trying to recall from several decades earlier Condon creates a multi-layered rumination on memories – both true and false – as well as on aging.
McKellen, whose work I’ve admired since his fascist “Richard III,” is magnificent – but has the man ever given anything but terrific performances? – and Linney and Parker score highly as well. This is a superbly cast film and a beautifully directed one as well (why does Condon have to take on assignments such as installments of the “Twilight” saga to pay the bills?). And while there are innumerable touches that will tickle Holmes fanatics the film can be equally appreciated by those who know nothing at all about Doyle’s creation.
Peter Bogdanovich’s “She’s Funny That Way” (2014 / Lionsgate / 105m / $24.99 BR+digital / PG) similarly deals with truth versus fiction but in a far more humorous way. The film is told in flashback by hot new film star Isabella Patterson (Imogen Poots), who relates her history to a journalist (Illeana Douglas). She was once a call girl whose clients included famous director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) who made a habit of gifting his hookers with large sums of cash and encouraging them to pursue their real dreams. Sometime later she finds herself cast in a play starring his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and her former lover (Rhys Ifans). This romantic quadrangle grows to include the playwright (Will Forte), who becomes besotted with Izzy, his ex-fiance (Jennifer Aniston, hilarious as the worst psychotherapist ever) and his detective father who is shadowing Izzy on behalf of one of her obsessed former tricks (Austin Pendelton).
Confusing? Well, only in trying to relate some semblance of the plot. This French farce by way of screwball comedy is vintage Bogdanovich (in some ways literally because he was trying to get it made in the 1990s with Tatum O’Neill in the lead role). The movie doesn’t always score – at least two sequences, including the finale, fizzle out rather than building to the epic confrontations they promise and the life of a prostitute is glamorized – but it hits the mark more often than not. If nothing else, it’s lovely to have Bogdanovich back in the director’s chair after too long a hiatus. And watch for Cybil Shepard, Richard Lewis, Jake Hoffman, Debbie Mazar, Tovuh Feldsuh and even Tatum O’Neal (not to mention listen for Joanna Lumley) in smallish roles. “She’s Funny That Way” is a throwback to older movie comedies and a refereshing change of pace from what is often foisted off as comedy nowadays.
Old-fashioned isn’t always necessarily a bad thing as the Lifetime movie “Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow” (2015 / Lionsgate / 90m / $14.98 / TV PG) demonstrates. This is strictly family fare from The Jim Henson Company – and reportedly developed from one of his ideas. When a divorced dad (Jay Harrington) takes his two kids for a surprise Thanksgiving visit to their aunt Cly (Mary Steenburgen) things aren’t quite as boring as initially thought. Ex-hippie Cly is devotedly vegan (beets figure somehow into everything, even desert); she’s also a turkey rescuer in a rural town where turkeys are the primary source of income. Additionally, there’s a sasquatch-like monster reputedly lurking in the woods and young Tim (Graham Verchere) undertakes to discover it; he does discover that the forest contains monsters, but of the small and adorable kind.
It all sounds insufferably sticky-sweet but it’s salvaged by some clever dialogue (I particularly liked Cly’s comment that a neighbors turkeys were “more full of hormones than a high school drama club”) and some nifty comic performances, particularly from Genevieve Beuchner as the daughter and Reese Alexander as a sheriff enamored of Cly and given to malapropisms that reveal his feelings. A musical number at the climax does plunge into cutesiness but the real drawback is Ludacris as an unfunny and unnecessary on-screen narrator. It’s strictly kiddie fare but adults won’t feel compelled to leave the room.
Two somewhat better-than-average thrillers have been released. “Tiger House” (2015 / Magnet / 83m / $27.98 BR / R) is of the home invasion kind as four ski-masked intruders break in with remarkable ease to the home of a banker. They tie up the wife and son and force the banker to accompany two of them to expedite a heist of his workplace. What they don’t know is that the son has snuck his girlfriend (Kaya Scodelario) in for an overnighter. Partly through the fortuitous discovery of a crossbow in the attic she goes up against the two miscreants (Dougray Scott and Ed Skrein) who have remained behind and the others once they return. Her success is inevitable but director Tom Daley keeps things moving and finds some nice camera angles along the way. Scott gets sidelined early after an unpleasant encounter with a pane of glass, so it’s mostly Skrein and Scodelario onscreen for much of the running time, and they do a fine job of holding interest in the formulaic proceedings. A clever ending does somewhat alleviate the feeling of déjà vu.
Familiarity also hovers over “Pay the Ghost” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 94m / $29.96 / NR) though director Uli Edel and writer Dan Kay (scripting from Tim Lebbon’s book) ultimately transcend the obvious influences. Cage is college professor Mike Lawford, whose English classes seem to be strong on scary fiction. Oh the irony, because his son has been seeing giant buzzards and a creepy cowled figure that no one else notices. The kid then vanishes at the Christopher Street Halloween parade while dad is purchasing an ice cream cone. A year passes during which pops has been tirelessly putting up posters and annoying the police. Both dad and mom (Sarah Wayne Callies, late of “The Walking Dead”), now estranged, have begun seeing visions of the little tyke so mom decides to bring in a medium. Typically for movies of this sort this ends in fatality for the psychic. One of Lawford’s colleagues offers the key to what’s been going on and she too buys the farm.
What seems like a refried “Don’t Look Now” takes a turn when it’s revealed the abductor is the vengeful spirit of a woman from a 17th century Celtic settlement, burnt at the stake along with her children and referred to as “The Crying Woman (which drags in a bit of Mexican lore that has been filmically treated several times south of the border). On the anniversary of the abduction, dad has the opportunity to pass through the portal to The Other Side (in a disused subway station no less – sort of like “the Sentinel,” where the entrance to Hell was in a Brooklyn apartment building) and rescue his son. Genre fans will be watching this film and playing count the influences (which may or may not involve chugging a beer as each is spotted) but the production is solidly made and a step up from some of the things Cage has been involved with lately. It may not be great but it’s better than it has to be.
With the documentary “The Wolfpack” (2015 / Magnolia / 89m / $29.98 BR / R) we enter truth is stranger-than-fiction territory. The title derives from the nickname that the teenage Angulo brothers have given themselves. Their Peruvian father has the notion that the neighborhood they live in is bad (though how bad can it be with the Empire State Building seen close by from their apartment window?) and so these teenagers have barely been left outside since they were born. The closest thing they’ve had to contact with the outside world is the movies dad has brought home over the years and they create their own versions of them and record them on video. (A Batman costume made from cereal boxes and yoga mats has to be seen to be believed, and the gun replicas created from similar repurposed items were realistic enough to cause a neighbor to summon the police.)
Crystal Mozelle’s film captures this brood as the older siblings are beginning to question their father’s peculiar notions – one even moves out and gets his own apartment in the course of the documentary. While the family derives income from home schooling, there are unanswered questions about the finances (dad is disinclined to work, something he declares is “slavery”), particularly as regards the expensive video equipment they possess. The sadness of their cloistered existence is brought home in a scene where the brothers do venture outside and one exclaims of the real world, “It’s like 3-D!”) It’s thus refreshing that the son who moves out is also obtaining jobs photographing independent films and shows indications that he might not be entirely incapable of socialization. This may be the oddest and most fascinating documentary I’ve seen all year. And no matter how eccentric you consider yourself, to be you’ll feel positively normal by the end.