I think the record stands firm that for decades, Robert De Niro had been one of the greatest deliverers of four-letter words in the history of film. Sure, you’ve got Samuel L. Jackson, the late Dennis Farina, Pacino in certain roles. But De Niro is right up there. So the prospect of him in a role as a hard-living, constantly swearing old dude almost seems too good to be true, and on some levels it is. Dirty Grandpa is a mostly empty vessel into which De Niro vomits foul language and behavior, and in many ways, that’s quite funny and more than enough to keep people entertained. Buried under all of the partying and attempts to get laid is a message about family and finding out the previously unknown lives of people you’ve known all your life. But mostly it’s about De Niro trying to fuck Aubrey Plaza, who matches De Niro in her salacious language.
Directed by Dan Mazer (I Give It a Year, and a producer on many Sacha Baron Cohen television and film projects), Dirty Grandpa begins with 20-something Jason Kelly (Zac Efron) remembering fondly his younger years growing up, with his grandfather Dick (De Niro) doing a far better job raising him than his workaholic lawyer father (Dermot Mulroney). As the years went on, Jason also went into law—perhaps to get closer to his dad—giving up his high school dreams of being a photographer for something more practical. Now father and son work at the same firm, leaving grandpa Dick somewhat on the sidelines, and Jason is about a week away from getting married to the materialistic Meredith (Julianne Hough), who seems genetically engineered for Jason’s lifestyle.
But when grandma Kelly dies, Dick decides the time has come to cut loose after being utterly faithful for decades, and via trickery he recruits his grandson to accompany him to Florida to find some young tail. Early on the journey, the pair runs into Shadia (Zoey Dutch), an old classmate of Jason’s who is now an environmental activist. Dick isn’t just a master vulgarian, he’s a great liar as well, inventing stories to anyone who will listen about his relationship to Jason and where they are headed, all in the name of seducing Shadia’s sexually curious and eager friend Lenore (Plaza), who seems more into the freaky idea of sexing up an old dude than she is attracted to Dick.
From a screenplay by John Phillips, De Niro moves from funny, sexist, racist, comforting, cruel, you name it, all in a single sentence sometimes. It’s genuinely shocking what comes out of his mouth, but I’m not sure it amounts to much, even as he attempts to help his uptight grandson loosen up around the ideas of sleeping with another woman, doing drugs, drinking to excess and other borderline crimes. I’m all for raunchy comedies, especially ones that allow a few choice comic actors to shine in supporting roles. I particularly like Adam Pally as Jason’s cousin Nick, who is a little too involved in his dog breeding business; and Jason Mantzoukas as the ever-present drug dealer Tan Pam.
There’s also a strange subplot involving Dick’s past life in the military, hints of which pop up in their travels, but I’m not really sure that aspect to the storyline ever feels like anything beyond filler. I don’t need my comedies to always be full of substance (perhaps the wrong choice of words), but if a film is going to go out of its way to offend me, at least have the film deliver a solid payoff. No such luck with Dirty Grandpa, which doesn’t mean you won’t laugh heartily at times, but I can’t imagine revisiting this one on purpose or finding it nearly as interesting if I stumble upon it on cable in the future. I haven’t even mentioned Efron, who is part straight man for De Niro, part prop to be stripped down (there is more Efron man ass here than I would have ever imagined, and I’ve imagined a lot), drawn on, dressed funny, and generally taken to task for being a square. What he lacks in comic talent, he almost makes up for with enthusiasm.
Dirty Grandpa is a fun watch, but little or nothing is going to stick in your brain the next day. And if you’re easily offended by the slinging of bad language, stay far removed for this one. De Niro comes out looking the best because this is certainly a change of pace from the Meet the Parents movie or last year’s timid The Intern. He spouts out some masterpiece sentence construction and assorted put downs that would make a sailor blush and made me laugh, and in the end, that’s what is most important. There’s zero emotional weight to this story, which keeps it from being a classic, but sometimes you don’t need Mr. Right; you need Mr. Right Now. Gauge your mood and tolerance for rapid-fire swearing; you probably know already if you’re going to check this one out. You could do worse.
To read my exclusive interview with Dirty Grandpa star Adam Pally, go to (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/74214) Ain’t It Cool News.
THE 5TH WAVE
As is the case with every novel turned into a film, elements are cut, condensed and otherwise modified for time and to make them more cinematic. Sometimes screenwriters adapting from another source get creative, even ingenious, with these alterations. Other times, they just slash and burn to get things under two hours, and as a result, things feel rushed, mysteries are solved far too quickly, and big reveals are botched in the name of moving things along.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the ideas behind Rick Yancey’s young-adult novel The 5th Wave, a fairly clever take on the alien invasion story. In fact, there are some fairly smart ideas at play, especially in the way the unseen aliens opt for the slow and steady eradication of the human species, rather than mount the typical flying saucer attack on big cities.
The first four waves involve a global EMP to knock out all power, triggering earthquakes and tsunamis to wipe out all coastal populations (including cities by lakes, apparently), and a stronger strain of the bird flu that seems to do the most damage. The final step for the aliens in this process is to come to earth in human guise and find the last remaining human pockets and knock them out entirely, and the U.S. Army has apparently set up strongholds across the country to train children to combat and kill the aliens before they do it to us.
The film The 5th Wave is told from the point of view of Cassie Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz), a high school girl with typical high school girl concerns—cheerleading, boys and family, including younger brother Sam (Zackary Arther) and parents (Ron Livingston and Maggie Siff). We barely get to enjoy her crushing hard on football player Ben Parish (Nick Robinson, recently seen in Jurassic World), when enormous crafts appear in the skies over the earth, quietly looming, circling and generally scaring the bejeezus out of folks. The various apocalyptic events that the aliens spark do a number on Cassie’s friends and family, and before long she lands up in a refugee camp with her brother and dad.
Up until the Army arrives, I was firmly on board with this story and its approach to the alien takeover subgenre, but it seems instantaneously suspicious that the military would want to separate the children and adults. The primary faces of the military are Col. Vosch (Liev Schreiber, doing his usual brand of dark, handsome and highly suspect) and Sgt. Reznik (a wonderfully severe Maria Bello), who gives the young recruits their first look at the face of the alien invaders…sort of. She allows them to peer into special visors that show a facehugger-type creature on the brain of its victims. The kids are highly trained and disciplined to become killing machines, and I won’t lie and say it didn’t creep me out a little to see, in some cases, little kids (such as Cassie’s brother, who still sleeps with a teddy bear) at target practice.
While Sam is training, Cassie is making the slow journey to find him through the woods of her home state of Ohio. She crosses paths with Evan Walker (Alex Roe), a young man whose family has perished, and he’s managed to survive alone ever since. After tending to Cassie’s fairly severe gunshot wounds (courtesy of an alien sniper), he teaches her some handy self-defense moves and decides to accompany her in search of her brother at the base. As handsome as young Alex Roe is, this doesn’t exactly seem to be the place for a romance to blossom, but when did that ever stop anyone from shoe-horning one into just about every movie?
One of the film’s most impressive characters is Ringer, another senior-level child soldier played by It Follows star Maika Monroe, almost unrecognizable with jet-black hair and raccoon-style eyeliner. From the second we meet her, she presents as a take-no-crap leader who won’t tolerate disrespect in any form. She makes for a good match with Ben, who has now been renamed “Zombie” (all the child soldiers have nicknames like this), who need to get a little wild and loose to be a better, more aggressive soldier, or so he’s told.
As I mentioned, there are a couple of plot twists and reveals that are both easy to predict and unspooled so rapidly that audiences don’t have a chance to soak them in or react emotionally. We know these two storylines (Cassie’s and the events with the Army) will collide at some point, so the film becomes a drawn-out waiting game, mixed with a clumsy love story.
If The 5th Wave were a smarter and more patient film, it would feel like Moretz was slumming by being in it (the same could be said for many of the actors, come to think of it). She’s a gifted actor who deserves to work on something a bit more substantial. I’m not knocking sci-fi at all—there are certainly plenty of examples of intelligent science fiction lately—but this work is not that, even with three writers (Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner) on board. Director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) does a serviceable job keeping things moving and making the action sequences palpable, but there’s nothing especially notable about his visual sense. The 5th Wave is more Divergent series than Hunger Games franchise, in terms of everything from special effects to emotional depth. You don’t have to get it all right to work, but you have to get most of it working for you. This one doesn’t.
Of all the sub-genres in science fiction, the toughest to get right (in my estimation) are time-travel films. But when a film does get it right, I fall deeply in love with it. In more recent years, I look to works like Primer, Timecrimes, and Looper as really fun time-travel experiences that work because they are trying something unique and thought provoking, within a familiar mold. Most recently, Predestination absolutely floored me, with its true crime elements mixed with themes of sexual identity. Now let’s add to the list Synchronicity, from writer-director Jacob Gentry, who returns to feature filmmaking (after spending some time working in television) after his ambitious previous work as co-director of The Signal.
Right off the bat, I’m going to suggest watching Synchronicity at least twice, not because the first time is confusing, but because you can tell almost immediately that this is a film that will resonate a bit more with each viewing. I’ll take a crack at giving you the introductory plot. In one of the nerdiest time-travel films since Primer, the story begins with three scientists led by Jim Beale (Chard McKnight, also from The Signal) along with Chuck (AJ Bowen from You’re Next, The Sacrament, and, of course, The Signal) and Matty (Scott Poythress), about to run their first test on a machine that will open up a wormhole for the purposes of time travel. The plan isn’t to jump back or forward in time, but to send something through the hole to themselves in the past, something easily recognizable as a message from them. They bring in their primary financier, Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside), to show him the fruits of their labor and his money.
Sadly, the first test seems to be a failure, but nothing could be further from the truth as footage of the experiment reveals two things—a blurry figure can be seen at the heart of the time machine and a rare dahlia flower has been apparently sent from a few days in the future. Is this the sign they were looking for? As Jim runs after Meisner to inform him the experiment worked, he runs into Abby (Brianne Davis), whom Jim at first believes might have been the figure he saw running from the machine. When he realizes she probably wasn’t, he immediately finds himself attracted to her and she seems receptive, which complicates things since she happens to be Meisner’s mistress, but she’s also a key part of this story, and her knowledge about science and time travel and life in general is important to the plot.
Eventually, one of the characters goes back in time and revisits key moments in the story with fresh eyes and minor alterations that make Synchronicity as much a puzzle as a narrative. And, as if the time-travel story weren’t complex enough, Gentry includes a love story that is absolutely vital to the primary tale being told, but you may not realize just how much until the very end. I assume that the film is set in the future, but even that feels deliberately nebulous, especially when you factor in the film’s old-school vibe (including a fantastic synth score by Ben Lovett and lush cinematography by Eric Maddison) combined with a cityscape that feels as if we’re looking at the future through 1980s eyes (think Blade Runner with less rain).
McKnight is the perfect combination of hero scientist and lovesick patsy. I’ve always gotten a vaguely Guy Pearce groove from him as an actor, never more so than in Synchronicity, and that’s absolutely a compliment. He wears many faces here, each of them meant to be distinct yet similar. Some may complain that the film wears its influences a little too loudly on its very long sleeve, but it’s for those very reasons that I adore it. It’s more about capturing an atmosphere than copying a classic. The end of the film is spectacular and something I didn’t see coming, and the questions it brings up about the time-space continuum are going to haunt me for quite some time. With its pretzel-shaped chronology, Synchronicity has heart and humor to counter its periods of despair and angst, and it all blends together with touch of grace and ambition that science fiction lovers are going to devour. I’m not sure when this one is opening in or around Chicago, but it is scheduled to open in some theaters and appear on various On Demand and streaming service beginning today; seek it out.
ALL THINGS MUST PASS; THE RISE AND FALL OF TOWER RECORDS
A documentary that is both informative and exceedingly heartfelt, All Things Must Pass is the labor of love directed by actor Colin Hanks about the meteoric rise and rapid fall of the Tower Records franchise. As someone who visited both Chicago locations on an alarmingly regular basis, it brought back a lot of great memories hearing former Tower employees and famous customers talk about the unprecedented inventory, variety and overall vibe of the store in its earliest incarnations in California.
With its humble beginnings as an offshoot of a drug store, Tower Records was the brainchild of founder Russ Solomon who treated his business like a family operation and his employees like brothers and sisters, for better and worse. That usually meant he spent money that he didn’t have and was driving himself into heavy debt. The film tackles the Tower history from two angles: one as a bastion of every type of record on its racks—classic, jazz, Latin, comedy, sound effects, blues, R&B, pop, and of course rock. They also excelled at stocking imports from all over the world, something I used to take advantage of frequently. The other POV is as a business, looking at the slapdash nature of the executive suite and the colorful people who staffed the back offices.
I also love the focus on the famous musicians that frequented Tower, especially the now legendary Hollywood Boulevard location. Elton John is interviewed at length about being such a regular customer (who always spent a great deal of money during each visit) that the store would open an hour or so early for him to browse by himself, long list of new releases in hand. Bruce Springsteen talks about coming to the L.A. location when he was on tour in his early years because it was effectively the place where the cool kids hung out. And Dave Grohl talks about getting a job at the Washington, D.C., store when he was young because it was the only place that would hire a long-haired kid like him.
All Things Must Pass chronicles the invention of the CD listening station, the wild parties held at many of the locations, the expansion into other U.S. and global markets, and the damage done to business after Napster launched. It’s a fascinating and ultimately quite sad story of a bunch of really good folks falling victim to changing times. The story of Tower moving into Japan (where it still exists!) could have been its own insane short film. The passing of Tower represents the passing of a certain type of music buying, and it acted as the pre-curser to the digital music age from which we’ll likely never recover. The film is lovingly put together, capturing the decades that Tower Records was open and the people that worked and shopped there. You have to seek this one out, but like a rare 45, it’s worth the effort. The film will screen on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 3pm, and Tuesday, Jan. 26 at 6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
In-demand screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) has taken a crack at directing with Mojave, one of the most singularly irritating films in recent memory with one of the coolest casts wasting minutes of precious time and energy trying to convince us that something of importance is happening.
Garrett Hedlund plays Thomas, a successful actor who, of course, is wildly unhappy and is contemplating killing himself. He wanders into the dessert where he stumbles upon a nasty piece of work named Jack (Oscar Isaac), who may be the devil or possibly Thomas’s dark thoughts. Either way, he grumbles a lot and calls everyone “brother” in a mildly threatening and utterly annoying manner. It becomes clear that Jack is going to kill Thomas (you can add serial killer to his list of might be’s), but Thomas gets the best of him and makes it out alive, heading back to his unfulfilling life, with a wife, a child and a hot girlfriend.
It’s not difficult to see why Thomas hates his life. He has a sleazy, nagging producer (Mark Wahlberg) on his ass, and a lawyer/fixer (Walton Goggins of The Hateful Eight) on speed dial. Thomas fancies himself an artist, with deep thoughts and a cavernous soul, but coming face to face with this vengeful drifter brings out his true, primal nature. Jack manages to locate Thomas back in L.A. and torments him using everything from mild stalking to threats of killing loved ones. But in the end, we know these two are going to meet again and have it out like sweaty real men do.
Mojave is little more than overblown macho behavior in the guise of too much talking in circles about a whole lot of nothing. It actually pained me to watch Isaac waste his talents in this. Of course he gives a compelling performance; that’s in his nature as a great actor. But so much of what he’s going as Jack feels like dressing up a pig. He’s adding depth via his acting that doesn’t exist in Monahan’s anemic script. Hedlund has never really impressed me to any degree in the past, but he’s especially tedious here, whipping his greasy long hair around and then asking the hordes of admirers to leave him alone. He and the film are Hollywood clichés, giving more depth and meaning to actors with tough-guy images than they deserve. In many ways, Isaac’s Jack represents how a real tough guy acts and looks, but that doesn’t stop the film from being a vapid experiment in how to piss your audience off. Spare me and spare yourself. The film opens today in Chicagoland at the AMC Loews Streets of Woodfield 20.