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Films I Neglected To Review: Dinner Is Served
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Band Aid," "Beatriz at Dinner," "The Hero," "Kill Switch" and "Once Upon a Time in Venice."

''Band Aid'' tells the story of a couple--Uber driver/failed author Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) and freelancer/failed artist Ben (Adam Pally)--whose marriage is clearly on the rocks until they hit upon the notion of dusting off the musical instruments in their garage, forming a band and channelling the various unending fights that make up their shared existence into songs. With the aid of their drummer next-door-neighbor (Fred Armisen), they begin composing and find the kind of creative and personal satisfaction that has eluded them both for far too long. (Hey, it worked, at least for a time, for Richard and Linda Thompson.) Making her debut as a writer-director, Lister-Jones has made a debut film that is not entirely without interest---her performance is quite good and the scenes in which Anna and Ben work through their problems three chords at a time are fascinating to watch. The trouble is that the film as a whole is awfully uneven in spots--the stuff involving Armisen (whose character turns out to be a sex addict with a number of gorgeous women as his sponsors) is a little too broad at times, Lister-Jones and Pally seem too close as a couple to make their rifts seem truly believable and the turn to the serious in the final third, where we discover the real reason behind their shared unhappiness, doesn’t quite come off as convincingly as one might hope. Still, Lister-Jones, best known to viewers as one of the co-stars of the sitcom ''Life in Pieces,'' has made an interesting debut behind the camera and while the end result may not quite work when all is said and done, it is intriguing enough to make one curious to see what she will do next.

''Beatriz at Dinner'" is a film that is so completely of the moment that it practically feels as if it is being created right before your eyes. Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a massage therapist and practitioner of holistic healing, visits the home of wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton) for a treatment and gets stuck there when her car breaks down. Since Cathy considers her to be a ''friend of the family,'' she invites Beatriz to take part in a work-related dinner party that she and her husband are throwing that night. One of the guests turns out to be infamous real estate developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a monumentally greedy sort who cheerfully brags about all the corners he has cut and all the money that he has made in the process. When they first meet, Doug thinks Beatriz is the help and asks her for a drink but Beatriz thinks that she knows him--could he be the magnate who decimated her small hometown in Mexico by forcing all the people out in order to build a gaudy resort that failed within a year? Beatriz tries to be as quiet and polite as possible but Doug’s braggadocio, topped by a photo he proudly shows of the kill he made on a recent African safari, finally push her over the edge.

The film was written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, whose ''Chuck and Buck'' was a darkly funny film involving a confrontation between two seemingly opposite people (a music executive and the geeky childhood friend who is now stalking him, and it shows that they have not lost their touch at all when it comes to dreaming up exquisitely discomfiting social situations--everything from the vacuous small talk made by the guests over drinks before dinner to the Yuppie types reacting quizzically to Beatriz’s tendency to greet people with a hug is presented for maximum squirm value. At a certain point, however, the film begins to run out of gas as it starts to repeat itself, though I do like the fact that it pretty much admits that there are no easy answers to be had about such subjects as economic disparity and the eternal conflict between the haves and the have-nots. The best thing about the film are the performances by Hayek and Lithgow, two excellent actors who tear into their parts and each other with gusto--even when the film threatens to go off track, they continue to make it well worth watching.

With his instantly recognizable voice and even more recognizable mustache, Sam Elliott has been one of the most reliable presences in American movies of late and on the heel of his standout supporting turns in ''I'll See You In My Dreams'' and ''Grandma,'' he gets to step up into a rare lead role in the new drama “The Hero.” In it, he plays a veteran actor whose once-thriving career has been reduced to spending his days smoking pot with a former co-star (Nick Offerman) and doing the occasional voice-over work for barbecue sauce commercials to pay the bills. When he receives dire news after a medical checkup, he is moved to attempt to make amend with his estranged ex-wife (Katherine Ross) and daughter (Krysten Ritter) while beginning a new relationship with a stand-up comic (Laura Prepon) who is just about his daughter's age. There even seem to be the possibility of a career comeback when a speech he delivers at a chintzy lifetime achievement award ceremony unexpectedly goes viral. Written and directed by Brett Haley (whose previous work was ''I'll See You In My Dreams''), the film is basically a low-rent version of “Birdman” and offers nothing from a story perspective that we haven’t seen before. What it does have that almost makes it worth watching is the strong showcase that it provides for the talents of Sam Elliott--there may be cliches aplenty to be had here but Elliott somehow manages to make them seem as authentic as can be with his plain, no-nonsense manner and that inimitable voice.

If you have been inexplicably yearning for another film along the lines of ''Hardcore Harry''--the lousy over-the-top action film whose chief distinguishing feature (not to mention one of its most irritating aspects) was that it deployed a first-person visual scheme in which we saw everything through the eyes of the central character--then you might find ''Kill Switch'' to be of interest. Utilizing the same first-person gimmick (save for the occasional flashback sequences that are shot in a normal fashion), this film tells the story of Will (Dan Stevens), a former NASA pilot who has taken a job with a shadowy conglomerate that has just fired up a tower capable of producing endless amounts of cheap and clean energy. It turns out that they have actually created a parallel Earth that is being used as a power supply and, needless to say, things start growing screwy. Dan is charged with going to the parallel world in order to take a mysterious box to the power source and, with the help of an executive with the conglomerate (Berenice Marlohe) and a security guard friend Tygo Gernandt), tries to carry out his mission while dodging flying drones, debris from collapsing buildings and a shadowy group of soldiers and trying to figure out what the box is really for in the first place. While nowhere near as irritating as ''Hardcore Harry,'' the film is still kind of a drag thanks to a story that gets more and more confusing as things progress, fairly drab performances from the cast and a visual style that might have been effective in a short film (which is the actual genesis for this one) but which eventually grows monotonous over the course of 90 minutes. There are a few welcome moments of levity here and there (whenever Will gets injured during the first-person scenes, a message flashes on the screen warning him and us to seek medical attention for a possible concussion) and director Tim Smit has done a fairly good job of making the most of what was clearly a very low budget with occasionally striking visual effects. For the most part, however, watching ''Kill Switch'' is a lot like watching someone else play a video game--it looks neat for a while but the whole thing just becomes tedious after a while.

Over the last few years, the career of Bruce Willis has taken a bewildering turn as he has found himself turning up in supporting roles--clearly only shot in a couple of days--in a series of utterly anonymous and instantly forgettable genre films that have pretty much gone straight to video after getting a few token screenings in a couple of theaters. In his latest film along these lines, ''Once Upon a Time in Venice,'' he actually takes a front and center role for the first time in years but the end result is no less crappy. The film stars Willis as a wisecracking private eye in located in the Venice Beach area of California who finds himself juggling cases that involve everything from a local real estate developer (Adam Goldberg) whose buildings are being defaced with homophobic graffiti to a coke dealer (Jason Momoa) who tries to get him to do some dirty work for him by kidnapping his beloved dog. Oh yes, there are also a couple of Samoan brothers who want to beat the crap out of him for repeatedly sleeping with their sex addict sister. Written and directed by Mark and Robb Cullen, the guys who wrote the script for the previous Willis disaster ''Cop Out,'' the film is clearly trying to go for the same shaggy dog mystery-comedy vibe as ''The Big Lebowski''--right down to casting John Goodman (part of an absurdly overqualified cast that also includes Thomas Middleditch, Famke Janssen, Kal Penn and Elisabeth Rohm) as Willis’s blustery pal--but never quite manages to find the right tone with the final product coming off more like one of those terrible Quentin Tarantino knockoffs that flooded the marketplace after the release of ''Pulp Fiction.'' As for Willis, he may be doing more work here than he has of late in terms of screen time but he clearly isn’t putting much of an effort into it--then again, you can hardly blame him for trying to coast through a film in which one of the big comedic set-pieces is an endless and not especially amusing sequence in which he finds himself escaping from bad guys by skateboarding through town naked. The whole thing is a top-to-bottom mess and while it may not be even remotely close to the worst film that Willis has been involved with (which says more about the dire nature of some of his projects than anything else), even his most devoted fans will find little to celebrate here.

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originally posted: 06/17/17 01:50:56
last updated: 06/17/17 02:04:59
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