Sundance ’16 Review: ‘CAPTAIN FANTASTIC’

With Captain Fantastic, writer/director Matt Ross has tapped enlightenment like a spigot into a maple tree and funneled it into crowd-pleasing dramedy. With a first-rate cast that includes Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella and Ann Dowd, Ross’ second feature shows a filmmaker emerging with a booming voice, immediately confident enough to corral such talent into one articulate, sarcastic and smartly realized vision. The result is a righteously comic and deeply-felt examination of a family experimenting with life on the fringes of society. Read More


Out in Theaters: ‘THE VISIT’

I could spend the bulk of this review talking about the precipitous rise and fall of M. Night Shyamalan. I could praise The Sixth Sense and Unbroken, give small credit to Signs and even portions of The Village and bury later “horror” duds like Lady in the Water and The Happening. I could extend a wilted rose towards the cinematic sharts that were The Last Airbender and After Earth but what’s the fun in that? After all, we’re no longer celebrating a funeral so much as a man’s comeback, because make no mistake The Visit is a comeback and a pretty damn entertaining one at that. Read More


Out in Theaters: THE D TRAIN

Original, odd and almost entirely charmless The D Train exploits the lovable loser side of Jack Black to tell a high school reunion comedy that inexplicably transforms into a dour drama about sexual assault, repression and survivor’s guilt. I know you’re probably saying to yourself, “Wait, what?” I know how you feel, just stick with me. This is about to get weird. The D Train is duplicitous in its conceit, almost caught unawares of its violently two-faced nature. The off-colored handling of sexual tension proved riotous to some of the members of my audience but I felt left in the cold, deeply questioning those guffawing at instances of rape being made light of onscreen. So on the one hand, we have some very thematically heavy material, frightfully mismanaged and borderline harmfully mishandled and then we have JB, bounding around in tighty whities oblivious to the underlying implications of this sour narrative. The D Train is, to put it lightly, a very confusing (and confused) movie.

When we meet JB’s Dan Landsman all evidence points to the fact that he’s a noxious nobody. He’s the brand of personified stink bomb that claims insignificant titles (“Chairman of the Reunion Committee”) because he’s got nothing else going in his life. At home, he’s got a loving (if impractically supportive) wife in Kathryn Hahn but still finds himself deeply unsatisfied. I’m not sure if we’re meant to pity him or find his petulance amusing but hoisting said central figure up the flagpole by his underpants establishes some strange hurdles for the film to overcome.The script is tasked with turning JB’s Dan into a chubby Llewyn Davis right quick and writer/directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul are no Coens.


At a fated high school reunion committee meeting, Dan tasks himself with landing big fish Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the pedestalized class cool kid and, more recently, shirtless Banana Boat spokesman. Dan insists they used to be as tight as his whities back in the day. Everyone else on the committee begs to differ. Not one to fall in line with reality, Dan cooks up a crackpot scheme that involves lying to his wife and – more importantly and completely unnecessarily – manipulating his boss into sending him to LA to land “a big deal” with a non-existent business mogul when he is only visiting the foothills of LA to meet up with Lawless with hopes of convincing him to attend the fated reunion. Sound like a movie scheme? Thought so.

Later in the film when all of Dan’s lies come to an inevitable head, a distressed Jeffrey Tambor – whose performance as a Dan’s tech-unsavvy troglodyte boss is way better than the movie deserves – asks why he had to be brought into all this. Sure the fine dining and champagne were all well and good in the moment but now the company’s in the drain. We, as thinking audience members ought to ask the same. Why Dan? Why you be such a douche? Magically, Oliver Lawless is three times as douchey. And herein lies the problem to D Train, it features two repulsive, manipulative men being repulsive and manipulative. And then there’s that whole raping thing. There’s so much to D Train that just doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense and leaves you with a fetid taste in your mouth and pretty much all of Dan and Oliver’s actions fall into this category.


D Train‘s only workable comedy comes in the form of Marsden’s inappropriate role as a sexual adviser to Dan’s son (Russell Posner), involving some image comedy involving stacked lawn chairs. Aside from that, I looked upon the characters with too much pity or resentment to summon a laugh of nearly any shape or size. That’s largely because its messages are so mixed and so off that one could conceivably confuse its confusion for malcontent. Worse, one could confuse it for actual comedy. In the age of bullying, Dan’s desperate pleas for Oliver’s approval holds a mirror up to society only to give it a big, approving thumb’s up. It’s like a movie made up 80s kids in leather jackets who still listen to White Snake while talking smack about the fat kids. Out all by it’s lonesome, this kind of thoughtless film is truly an island of shudders.

When it finally comes to a halt, The D Train arrives in the station a thinly veiled assault allegory poorly masquerading as a comedy; a stupid and ugly mess that doesn’t have the balls to own up to what it actually is and what it’s trying to say. It’s a very strange product, intended for those tickled by the “grossness” of man-on-man sex and with little capacity for sussing out deeper meaning. Which is frustrating because it really does have a good cast.


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“Bad Words”
Directed by Jason Bateman
Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Steve Witting
88 Mins

Jason Bateman
‘s directorial debut, Bad Words, is aptly congruously to his post-Arrested Development career. That is, it’s no good. Like Identity Thief and The Change-Up before it, Bateman has proved that having his name on a movie’s billing is a blaring warning sign of slow and low-blow comedy to come, a notice of an impending La Brea-sized originality tar pit, a Bat-Signal in the shape of a crotch kick. While some of us may have suspected Bateman of being on the receiving end of some Les Grossman-level manhandling – a puppet maliciously directed into comic obscurity – as the proud director of this comedy clunker, Bateman has shown his wisecracker cards, revealing that he may not be playing with a full comic’s deck after all.

To call him a hack seems harsh but it’s the only description I can find fitting the dreck that he continuously churns out. The pedestrianly crafted Bad Words, for example, earns Bateman his gold standard R-rating with a string of unimaginative and unfunny curse words. Since R-rated comedies have turned into something of a marketable commodity since the first Hangover movie, we’ve seen more and more comedies (which once mostly existed within the PG-13 realm) turn to this “Restricted” hail sign. But rather than employ that R-rating to their artistic advantage, the folks behind the helm of Bad Words simply use it to check mark their way through George Carlin‘s seven dirty words like a record stuck on repeat. In essence, Batman has made the equivalent of a feature film version of the Blink-182 song so sophisticated titled “Shit Piss Fuck”. Charming.

Comedy being as sink or swim as it it, it’s a true tragedy that Bateman has relied on the life raft of obscenity to keep him afloat over the past five year. Subbing in swear words for jokes is a shortcut cohabiting the same hoary level of the time-honored fart. The first time history heard a squeak of gas passing through an actor’s anal cavity and into the light of day, it must have been an uproariously occasion. The first time the word ‘fuck’ was used in the film Ulysses (1967), I’m sure people were gasping “Well I never”s as they minted their juleps, pinkies upturned.

In 2014 though, we’re in a post-Three Stooges-era. Last year, we saw The Wolf of Wall Street drop the infamous f-bomb a total of 522 times. Though Wolf still probably wasn’t the easiest film for the more conservative film-goers to digest, it hardly elicited the “Off with their heads!” outrage that it would have in years past. So even though the crew behind this missed the message, us in the real world are aware of how humdrum and trite swear words in themselves have become. They’re not shocking, they’re not gasp-inducing, and when used as a fill in for comedy, they’re boring, inert and downright lazy. Now don’t get me wrong, I cuss like a sailor but it’s just part of my regular lexicon, not to be confused as a substitute for real comic goods. Batman and crew miss the distinction.

In Bateman and script writer Andrew Dodge‘s out-dated notion that everything needs to be racketed up to the next level, that bigger is indefinitely better, we come to see these bad words transform into snoozy strings of non-sequitors. Again though, it’s nothing more than lazy cliches playing dress up as comedy. If this is Bateman riffing, he needs to enroll in an improv course. If this junk was actually written down, Dodge shouldn’t quit his day job. With Bateman’s rump half-stuck down the farty, sweary rabbit hole, he’s stuck confusing racism, boobies and cussing for something truly funny. When he tells a 10-year old Indian kid to “shut his curry hole,” the writing is on the wall. And that’s only about 20 minutes in.

The premise itself is somewhat intriguing, if not at all profound: 40-odd-year old Guy Trilby (Bateman) enters spelling bee competitions after discovering a loophole that stipulates contestants must have have not yet finished the fourth grade. Being an elementary school dropout and gifted speller, there’s no regulations in place to keep him out of the contest that he’s become intent on winning. At the cost of becoming a national pariah and the target of scorn from hordes of maligned parents, Guy won’t reveal why he in enduring such derision. There’s a $50,000 prize at the end of the tunnel but we’re repeatedly told its about more than that. “Hmmm,” we think, “where could this all be going?” But after stringing us along for 88 minutes of watching Trilby be a flat out bad person, the ultimate payoff is unsatisfying and predictable. Another tired excuse for resolution, another narrative shrug.

No matter how adorable little Rohan Chand is as Guy’s unsuspecting sidekick, the chemistry to develop between the two feels like it was cooked up with all the artistry of a bowl of instant ramen. We’ve seen it before but, in the past, we’re at least lead to like the curmudgeonly protagonist by the end of it all. Here, it feels like we’re dealing with Holden Caulfield who’s bigged himself into Jason Bateman. Immature and unlikable throughout are not admirable traits in a main character. But in its attempts to be Bad Santa, its always more Bad Teacher. I guess if you find humor in being racist and borderline sexually abusive towards kids, you’ll probably get a kick out of Bad Words. Otherwise, it’s probably a good choice to avoid this one.