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Talking With Jason Schwartzman of 7 CHINESE BROTHERS

I like to consider Jason Schwartzman and I best buddies. Now as to whether he feels the same way, I can only speculate a resounding “Yes.” The following interview took place during the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, where I first acquainted with the dapper star of Bob Byington‘s secretly hysterical 7 Chinese Brothers and took to asking him soul-searching questions pertaining to his preference for cats or dogs. Join us as we discuss injecting himself into the role, if he’s as snide as the characters he plays, his preference for a lazy day and what it’s like co-starring in a movie with his dog.

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Out in Theaters: 7 CHINESE BROTHERS

The old “I could watch so-and-so read a phone book” adage speaks to an ability to turn the banal into something unexpected and has been liberally applied to the works of anyone from Bill Murray to Daniel Day Lewis. In a similar but distinctly different vein, there’s something mundanely alluring about planting Jason Schwartzman in a room and allowing him to made snide riffs on each and every thing. The Rushmore-starrer possesses uncommon command over his ability to make you feel lesser, even if he’s day drunk, mostly unemployed and in the middle of getting punched in the face and Bob Byington capitalizes insanely on his ability to do such. Read More

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Talking With Jason Schwartzman and Patrick Brice of THE OVERNIGHT

I won’t easily admit to being one to be star-stuck but let’s just say I have developed a life-long BFF crush on Jason Schwartzman. From his debut in Wes Anderson’s electric Rushmore (and onward through a certifiable library of Anderson films) to his cult HBO amateur detective comedy Bored to Death to his truly standout indie-rock band Coconut Records (seriously, listen to them. They’re great) I would count myself amongst the Schwartz’s dedicated fanboys. Having the chance to speak with him not once, not twice but three times over a weekend proved my long-time suspicion: the dude is also an incredibly nice guy. Read More

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SXSW Review: 7 CHINESE BROTHERS

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The old “I could watch so-and-so read a phone book” adage speaks to an ability to turn the banal into something unexpected and has been liberally applied to the works of anyone from Bill Murray to Daniel Day Lewis. In a similar but distinctly different vein, there’s something mundanely alluring about planting Jason Schwartzman in a room and allowing him to made snide riffs on each and every thing. The Rushmore-starrer possesses uncommon command over his ability to make you feel lesser, even if he’s day drunk, mostly unemployed and in the middle of getting punched in the face and Bob Byington capitalizes insanely on his ability to do such.

7 Chinese Brothers – the title is taken directly from the REM song of the same name – relinquishes a fully-charged, fully-snarky Schwartzman upon an Austin, Texas that is none too welcoming of his indifferent ways and has very little to offer him in terms of escapism. Like a stationary Kerouac, Schwartzman’s Larry finds solace at the bottom of a plastic handle of booze, spending his time off of some lousy job or another to loiter in the gas station parking lot or pester his grandma (Olympia Dukakis) for a financial leg up.

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Larry can be described in part by his inherent opposition to dashing but periodically deceitful best friend/his grandmother’s caretaker Norwood (TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe.) Sure, they both pop the odd stool softener to judge its effects when paired with an ale but while Larry ducks and weaves any semblance of actual responsibility, Norwood approaches the bar. At the saloon, Norwood lands the hot girl leaving wingman Larry to pick up the none too interesting scraps. His affection for Larry’s grams comes from a place of genuine empathy rather than the performed attentiveness of a potential inheritee. Even though Larry tries to scare her off by letting slip that Norwood has a prosthetic leg (he doesn’t), Lupe (Eleanore Pienta) – Larry’s new boss at the oil change station and love interest – has eyes for his Norwood, that great bastion of lower-middle-class hard work.

The film plays fast and lose with Schwartzman’s lippy mannerisms and there’s not a scene that he enters and doesn’t exit victorious. From braying at passerby veterinarians (“You don’t throw hats at cars”) to waxing on the French language with real-life dog Arrow, he is a low-pitched firecracker, taking everyone and everything down a notch under his breathe.  But that doesn’t mean that he is a hostile or even unlikeable figure. 7 Chinese Brothers‘ Schwartzman is a pithy, blue-collar beatnik in the wrong place and the wrong time and even though a persnickety little shit, he’s far from the overbearingly bitter and caustic Schwartzman of Alex Ross’ Listen Up Phillip.

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Director and writer Bob Byington must have had the Schwartz in mind for the role as each and every lick of his script seems designed for the preternaturally salty comic performer. Equally, Schwartzman is tasked with handling the subtle dramatics of 7 Chinese Brothers, ensuring that the whole spiel isn’t tipped into a clinical cynic show. He does so effortlessly.

For its constant employment of intelligent, off-the-cuff comedy and gentle ability to massage in a genuine message of city-slacking and “real life” reproach, 7 Chinese Brothers is a product of snappy smarts and comic girth. Schwartzman performs at the top of his game for a role custom fit for him and any fan of the acerbic funny man should consider this required viewing.

B+

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Sundance Review: THE OVERNIGHT

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Last year, Patrick Brice showed up to SXSW with Creep. Devilishly crafty and expertly focused, it fell in with the usual suspects of found footage horror, even though it was so much more than just another point and shoot, “gotcha!” scare effort. The natural tension that Brice was able to tease out of a scene – the inherent discomfort and overarching ambiguity of character relations – made for a plucky and generously bewitching offering of horror comedy.

Everything that Brice was able to achieve with Creep has been honed and amplified with The Overnight. Equally as reigned in character-wise – aside from a kiddy duo, there are only four principals – and pumped to the brim with laugh out loud comedy, it’s a singularly optimal amalgamation of talent in front of and behind the camera.

Adam Scott (Parks and Recreations) and Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) are recent LA transplants, here from Seattle on untold business. Scott’s Alex is a stay-at-home-dad with a small penis (it’s literally the first thing brought up in the film and yes, we eventually behold his itty bitty guy in full prosthetic glory) while Schilling’s Emily is a working professional. In the midst of concern that they won’t be able to land new friends in the deep blue sea that is Los Angeles, Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) arrives on the scene barking about gummy worm health detriments and boasting of his child’s “all vegan” diet. He’s joking but Schwartzman’s native ability to be a stuck-up shmoozer loser could have sold this character the whole way through. In no time, he’s won over the rainy city couple, tempting them into meeting up later that night with promises of a pizza playdate for their boys that’ll doubles as their chance to make new friends.

In the garish fortress that is this mystery couple’s home, Alex and Emily find themselves cautiously seduced by Kurt and Charlotte’s (Judith Godrèche) breezy, Euro charm. The resulting tension courts thriller elements but never really pushes too close to the edge what with all its healthy dousing of eruptive comedy. Over the course of the evening, the players find themselves steadily breaking out of their comfort zones as the libations are poured, divulging deeper and darker secrets in conjunction with the increasing number of bong rips they slug. From Kurt and Charlotte going full frontal for a skinny dip to popping on an explicit (and niche) DVD, Brice flirts with the idea of crossing the line without ever drawing one definitively in the sand. With incriminating evidence piling up, the dial points to a strong likelihood of swinger-dom and Emily and Alex must decide how to proceed in this uncommonly racy situation.

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Brice plays it cool though, creating a rich thematic dichotomy by implying something that might or might not be there. We find ourselves siding with the increasing suspicions of Emily though are equally willing to fall in line with Alex’s assumptions of this just being the “freewheelin’ California lifestyle”. Even more so than in Creep, we can never be certain of who exactly these people are and how roguish their intentions.

To chalk the whole film up to a feeling of uncertainly though misses the forest for the trees as this is through and through a brash, hysterical comedy. It just so happens that it’s that rare comedy with layers.

Each member of the cast fires their comedy shots with dynamic aptitude with Scott breaking new territory as a low-key but totally game fidgeter and Schilling playing incredulous like a weary jailbird. The undersung Godrèche is perfectly difficult to read as Schwartzman in the pole comedy position absolutely steals the show. From his equestrian-like male member (another prosthetic) to his general nonchalant demeanor, he chomps through his scenes like a horse to a bit.

The final result is both articulate and insightful, an uncommonly honest look at adult sexuality and the bargaining chips that married couples exchange. It’s also f*cking hilarious. Working from a much more finalized script (Creep was predominately ad-libbed), Brice proves his talent as a writer as well as a director and if he continues to pound out such accomplished work, he’ll be amongst the foremost directors worth of our anticipation.

A-

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Out in Theaters: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson
Comedy, Drama  
100 Mins
R

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Fiennes, Brody, Dafoe, Goldblum, Murray, Law, Swinton, Ronan, Norton, Keitel, Schwartzman, Seydoux, Wilson, Balaban, Amalric, Wilkinson. Wes Anderson‘s latest may have more big names working for it than ever before but their characters are more paper thin than they’ve been, more fizzle than tonic, more Frankenstein’s creations than humans. His company of regulars – joined by a vast scattering of newbies – are relegated to playing furniure-chomping bit roles, filling the shoes of cartoonish sketches, slinking in long shadows of characters. From Willem Dafoe‘s brutish, brass-knuckled Jopling to a caked-up and aged Tilda Swinton, gone are the brooding and calculated, flawed and angsty but always relatable characters of Wes yore. In their place, a series of dusty cardboard cutouts; fun but irrevocably inhuman.

Here in 2014, Anderson’s ability to attract such a gathering of marquee names to his eccentric scripts has never been as potent. He’s a talent magnet and his tractor beam is set to high. It’s just too bad that this gathering of the juggalos is as caricaturesque as they are (arguable even more than the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox). But what can you expect when your face is painted up and you’re dressed like a Slovenian underground fashion show. Upon dissecting what he’s got to offer, the seemingly indelible Wes Anderson appeal is as clear as day.

In the jungle of Hollywood, roles are mostly relegated one of two ways: the tentpole blockbusters, where characters are written like ham steaks – vessels for plot diversions, jukeboxes for one-liners, sarcophagi for the next action scene – and the smaller budgeted “independent” movie, wherein the tone is usually somber, the scenery is left unchewed, and emotional preparation ought to be through the roof. Anderson’s films flirt a very thin middle ground, a Bermuda triangle between indie cred and mainstream. To his credit, it looks like a blast.

Inside his pictures, Anderson’s stars are afforded a chance to play dress up in the midst of gorgeous sets at exciting locales. What’s not to love? Plus, this particular project had an added advantage: European travel. For these thespians, being a part of Anderson’s playground is like being a kid again. However, their childishness is more apparent here than in any of Anderson’s finest work (save for maybe Moonrise Kingdom). But through the haze of these colorful yet superficial oddities shines Ralph FiennesMonsieur Gustave, a beacon of complexity in an otherwise skin-deep cast of characters.

Gustave is a relic of the past. He’s an icon of chivalry, a servant dedicated to his craft, a well-groomed pet for his adoring clientele. He sluts it up for the elderly ladies who pass through his hotel (but he enjoys it too, so he tells us), making him a bit of a tourist attraction in himself. A hot springs for wilting feminine physiques, Gustave becomes the recipient of a pricy artifact (an ironic art piece called “Boy with Apple” – the customary brand of wry Anderson platitudes) when one of his doting golden-agers (Swinton) bites the dust. With her family trying to discredit him and blame the murder his way, Gustave must go on the run.

The cat and mouse, European romp to follow is as much an episode of Tom and Jerry as it is The Great Escape. Fiennes’ soulful gravitas brings immeasurable life to what is otherwise a series of cartoonish escape plots and hijinks. Anderson’s offerings are easy to consume and his persnickety eye for detail and Fiennes’ brilliant performance brings life by the pound to the otherwise far-fetched proceedings.

In this recent turn in his career, Wes Anderson has almost becoming a mockery of Wes Anderson. Though I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel it lacks the rounded emotional honesty of his pre-Fox efforts. He’s lost the intellectual intensity he had going in Rushmore, The Royal Tenanbaums and (I know I’m in the minority here) Darjeeling Limited, largely replaced by quirk by the bucket and enough billable names to make your head spin.  Nevertheless, Fiennes is magical; a perfect vessel for Andersonisms, the savior of the show.

B+

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Out in Theaters: SAVING MR. BANKS

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths
Biography, Comedy, Drama
125 Mins
PG-13
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Saving Mr. Banks may as well have been called How Walt Disney Saved The Day From The Curmudgeonly P.L Travers. It’s as whitewashed a narrative as can be, oozing Disney hallmarks to reinvent the notorious asshat that is Walt Disney into a salt of the earth type inspirationally adept at picking himself up by his bootstraps. He’s the American Dream personified and he circles Emma Thompson‘s P.L. “put the milk in the tea first” Travers with the predatory knack of a hawk.

 

Travers, whose opaque Britishness sticks out like Andre the Giant’s thumb if it’d been slammed in a car door, is a woman desperately struggling to maintain artistic control of a character she’s poured her very heart and soul into: Mary Poppins. Having either run dry in the ideas department or simply too stubborn to pen another Poppins adventure, Travers straddles the line of bankruptcy. Her only option lays in Walt Disney, who’s been hounding after the Poppins property for the past ten years.

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While Travers flies over to LA to be courted by Mr. Disney himself, the earnest, creative folks at Disney are pouring themselves into turning Poppins into a product, equipped with sing-a-long numbers and dancing animated penguins. It’s a far cry from her original vision, and she battles tooth and nail to preserve the soul of these stories that mean so much to her but in the process only comes across as a mean old kook. I mean, this is the 60s, women have no place asserting themselves, amiright?

As audience members, we’re expected to cheer for this moustachioed monopoly man trying to ink out another deal with his enterprising smile. And after Saving Mr. Banks dresses Disney’s acquisition of Mary Poppins up as a promise to his children to one day turn their favorite storybook into a delightful family video, how can you not want him to succeed? Think of the children!

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I don’t think I have to tell you whether or not Disney got his grubby hands on the rights to Poppins. So with that, the moral of this Disney story reads something like: big business always triumphs over the solitary artist. How sweet.

For all the tomfoolery that tries to pass as morals here, Thompson is undeniably powerhousing it as Travers. She’s confounding, frustrating, pitiable, and, for a majority of her screen time, detestable. Her 50 shades of gray comes in two flavors: frowny and disappointment. With a no-nonsense attitude so caustic she makes Professor McGonagall look like a bonafide class clown, Travers is the stuff of fairytale stepmothers – strict, rude, and utterly indifferent. But Thompson plays her with understanding, lacking an ounce of judgement. This year’s Best Actress talks have been all about Cate Blanchett but, with a performance of this caliber, Thompson might just have what it takes to knock her off her horse. There is one big thing standing in the way of that though: Travers is entirely unlikeable.

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Typically, it requires a bit of mental gymnastics on behalf of the audience to acclimate to a character who is so legitimately awful and yet director John Lee Hancock makes no attempt to skirt around the dozen or so sticks up her butt. In fact, that seems the primary function of the first act – to reveal just how uptight Ms. Travers is. For most of the movie, she might as well be a plum. Says Hancock’s film, she’s a dried up old cooze more pleased by naysaying than any of this smiling nonsense. She wants for nothing save a paycheck so she may return to her flat in London and live out the rest of her days on trumpets, tea, and sighing. As she closes in on signing over that character which has come to define her and her career, she’s hardly a popular figure on the Disney campus. Making friends along the way is about as high a priority as stepping in a pile of dog shit. To her, they may as well be one in the same. With all her humbuging, she’s the Ms. Scrooge of the 2013 Christmas season.

But there’s no illusion that this pinecone of a woman won’t shed her crusty shell and reveal the little sweet girl inside, that flax-haired Aussie who we become well acquainted to through an unexpectedly prominent series of flashbacks. In his milking of the emotional teat, Hancock knows that you’ve got to show just how sour someone is to make their inescapable third act transformation all the more power. Most will likely fall victim to his ringing of the waterworks bell, but they’ll probably also be smart enough to see through the highly visibly emotional manipulation at work. So though you may cry, you’ll likely feel a sucker for it.

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On the sidelines, the film is stuffed full of cheery secondary characters who either have helped raise Travers into the woman she is or those unlucky dogs who have to deal with her now that she’s grown into a froofy-haired, red lipstick-wearing bulldog. B.J. NovakJason Schwartzman, and Bradley Whitford are a fine trio of slick-job comic relief and their many colored reactions to Travers’ totalitarian workmanship are amongst the best moments of the film.

In stark contrast, Paul Giamatti‘s thick take on a white version of Driving Mrs. Daisy‘s Hoke Colburn is a prime example of Saving Mr. Banks as a hokey tearjerker while Colin Farrell‘s bubbling but bumbling alcoholic father is shaded with true characterization. He’s far richer in depth than many of these hackneyed stereotypes but belongs in a whole other movie; one far darker and sadder. Then again, the wealth the flashback scenes do seem like another movie entirely. It’s not until the end that it all finally comes together and we see the pieces for a whole. Nonetheless, Hancock never really justifies the amount of division the film must carry and the emotionally stirring conclusion still isn’t enough to make up for the sluggingness that clouds the first hour.

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Saving Mr. Banks
is yet another Disney export of saccharine in the highest degree, an uplifting tale that also serves to reinforce the likeability of a dynasty that has swept up Pixar, Marvel, Stars Wars, and just recently Indiana Jones. But for those of us who’ve heard stories of Disney as a man who aligned himself with anti-Semitic organizations and would work his employees to the bone, attempts to make him seem like Saint Walt come across as disingenuous at best and full-blown falsification at worst. But it’s hard to look down your nose when Tom Hanks is playing the role with all his usual charm and gumption. Well played Disney, well played.

C+

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Check out the New Wes Anderson Short, Available Here

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Even though it’ll still be a few months before Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel debuts, you can still satiate your Anderson cravings with the latest short which sees the exuberant director teaming up with fashion giant Prada titled Castello Cavalcanti. A very rat-faced Jason Schwartzman steps in as a Formula One driver who drives his car into a Jesus statue and ends up in an out-of-body experience in which he wines and dines with his ancestors. Heady and ethereal as that may seem, it’s all filmed in the same color-coordinated precision of a Anderson flick, aided here by cinematography from Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris).

If you missed the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, give it a look here and then check out this latest short that no doubt will be packaged with the film. Whether or not it’ll show in front of the film in theaters is uncertain but it will certainly be included in the inevitable Blu Ray package.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is directed by Wes Anderson and stars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, and Tony Revolori. It will hit theaters March 7, 2014.

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