The apocalypse is in the air these days. Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster is the first of four end-of-the-world comedies set for release this year—the others being May’s Rapture-Palooza, June’s This Is the End, and August’s The World’s End—and it sets the bar very high for those to come. A character study of eight self-centered friends who congregate for brunch, soon discover their cell phones, Internet, and TV are dead, then learn that they’re in the middle of World War III, It’s a Disaster starts off threatening to be an insufferable exercise in hipsterism.
Emma and Pete’s marriage is on the rocks—they’re hosting the brunch so as to announce their divorce—because Emma (Erinn Hayes) slept with Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) and Pete (Blaise Miller) slept with Lexi (Rachel Boston). Yes, Buck and Lexi are a couple too, and they are basically closeted swingers. All seem like clichés: Emma is an uptight suburbanite with hair carefully parted, red lipstick strategically applied, and pearls lovingly draped. Pete is a classic yuppie bordering on a midlife crisis. Buck is a stoner washout with a Hulk Hogan mustache. Lexi is a free-spirited glockenspiel player who’s proud of the fact that she and Buck consummated their marriage in the bathroom of a TGI Fridays.
As for the rest of the brunch attendees, Emma and Pete’s doctor friend Tracy (Julia Stiles) is a mess of neuroses, maybe because she exclusively dates crazy men, or because none of her friends believe that her boyfriends have been crazy. Her new bf, Glen (David Cross, in full Tobias Fünke mode), seems more promising: he’s a fourth-grade history teacher, and the only crazy thing about him is that he’s okay with shutting off the 1812 Overture right before its famous climax. At least he’s not like Shane (Jeff Grace), Hedy’s (America Ferrera) long-term fiancé, who shuns human interaction at the brunch in favor of obsessively bidding online on a rare Alpha Flight comic book.
So yeah, all those characters sound like clichés. On paper they most definitely are. But when brought to life by this talented ensemble, they’re anything but. And once it becomes clear that their lives as they’ve known them are over — an unknown attacker drops dirty bombs and nerve gas on New York, Los Angeles, Orlando, and multiple other cities — then it becomes really interesting. Especially once they realize that the nerve gas will very shortly seep into Emma and Pete’s house and kill them all. It’s like Portlandia meets Melancholia, and it’s fascinating to see how each of the characters orients himself or herself toward the prospect of imminent death.
Worry wort comic-book freak Shane leads the charge to tape up the doors and windows and try to find some way to survive, while endlessly speculating over who attacked them — the enemy couldn’t have been from this world, right? — and planning to deal with the post-apocalyptic motorcycle gangs they’ll surely face if they live. His completely neglected fiancée Hedy, a chemistry teacher, goes into a negative panic and starts making home-cooked Ecstasy to cope. Tracy sets up one of the best jokes of the movie by lamenting all the things she never did in her life: she never went to Europe, never went to the ballet, never fell in love, never watched The Wire. The response of Glen? "All of those things are overrated…except for The Wire.” Oh, and as for Cross's Glen? Well, you’ll have to witness his unique solution for dealing with Armageddon yourself.
It’s a tricky thing to mine humor from a feel-bad situation as thoroughly awful as this — Berger even shoots his movie like an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama — but whereas this summer’s all-star comic extravaganza This Is the End appears to strive for raunchy belly laughs, It’s a Disaster settles for a general mood of wry amusement as its characters ponder questions of their own mortality that they’ve probably never pondered before…and maybe still aren’t. Two of the couples at least, Emma and Pete and Buck and Lexi, are so self-absorbed that even the end of the world can’t make them look beyond themselves: Emma and Pete are still squabbling with each other over past infidelities, and Buck and Lexi can’t overcome their “party on!” attitude toward life to appreciate the gravity of their situation. When Lexi asks Buck if he thinks there’s a band in heaven they’ll get to join once they pass through the pearly gates, Buck says, “I know there is, and we’re going to be a part of it. ‘Cause guess what they need? A glockenspielist.”
For his film Sans Soleil Chris Marker wrote, “I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me.” He has a kindred spirit in Berger, who seems amused and even a little charmed by humanity’s boundless penchant for the mundane. Berger doesn’t place himself above his characters, which makes it all the easier to imply the question: what would you do if you knew you only had hours to live? Would you suddenly experience life as exceptionally heightened and sensually gratifying? Or would nothing really change? It’s fitting that It’s a Disaster should be released the same weekend as Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a film that insists upon finding holiness and serene beauty in every single shot — and by extension life itself. It’s a Disaster recognizes how much of the human experience takes place in the realm of the banal, and just how okay that is.
What do you think? Tell Christian Blauvelt directly on Twitter @Ctblauvelt and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
At the moment there are few greater clichés in the media than the freaking out single woman on the cusp of 30. Of course clichés are clichés for a reason worth exploring even through the lens of just one or two women as in Lola Versus. Unfortunately while the intention behind Lola Versus isn't that we should all be happily married by the age of 30 it still fits into the same rubric of all those "Why You're Not Married" books.
Lola (Greta Gerwig) has a gorgeous fiancé Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and they live in a giant loft together the kind of dreamy NYC real estate that seems to exist primarily in the movies. Just as they're planning their gluten-free wedding cake with a non-GMO rice milk-based frosting Luke dumps her. It's cruelly sudden — although Luke isn't a cruel man. Lola finds little comfort in the acerbic wit of her best friend the eternally single Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones) who is probably delighted to see her perfectly blonde best friend taken down a peg and into the murky world of New York coupling. Lola and Luke share a best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) a messy-haired rumpled sweetheart who is kind and safe and the inevitable shelter for Lola's fallout. Her parents well-meaning and well-to-do hippie types feed her kombucha and try to figure out their iPads and give her irrelevant advice.
Lola Versus is slippery. Its tone careens between broad TV comedy and earnest dramedy almost as if Alice is in charge of the dirty zingers and Lola's job is to make supposedly introspective statements. Alice's vulgar non-sequiturs are tossed off without much relish and Lola's dialogue comes off too often as expository and plaintive. We don't need Lola to tell Henry "I'm vulnerable I'm not myself I'm easily persuaded" or "I'm slutty but I'm a good person!" (Which is by the way an asinine statement to make. One might even say she's not even that "slutty " she's just making dumb decisions that hurt those around her just as much as she's hurting herself.)
We know that she's a mess — that's the point of the story! It's not so much that a particularly acerbic woman wouldn't say to her best friend "Find your spirit animal and ride it until its d**k falls off " but that she wouldn't say it in the context of this movie. It's from some other movie over there one where everyone is as snarky and bitter as Alice. You can't have your black-hearted comedy and your introspective yoga classes. Is it really a stride forward for feminism that the clueless single woman has taken the place of the stoner man-child in media today? When Lola tells Luke "I'm taken by myself. I've gotta just do me for a while " it's true. But it doesn't sound true and it doesn't feel true.
In one scene Lola stumbles on the sidewalk and falls to the ground. No one asks her if she's okay or needs help; she simply gets up on her own and goes on her way. It's a moment that has happened to so many people. It's humiliating and so very public but of course you just gotta pick yourself up and get where you're going. In this movie it's a head-smackingly obvious metaphor. In one of the biggest missteps of the movie Jay Pharoah plays a bartender that makes the occasional joke while Lola is waiting tables at her mom's restaurant. His big line at the end is "And I'm your friend who's black!" It would have been better to leave his entire character on the cutting room floor than attempt such a half-hearted wink at the audience.
Lister-Jones and director Daryl Wein co-wrote the screenplay for Lola Versus as they did with 2009's Breaking Upwards. Both films deal with the ins and outs of their own romantic relationship in one way or another. Breaking Upwards a micro-budget indie about a rough patch in their relationship was much more successful in tone and direction. Lola Versus has its seeds in Lister-Jones' experience as a single woman in New York and is a little bit farther removed from their experiences. Lola Versus feels like a wasted opportunity. Relatively speaking there are so few movies getting made with a female writer or co-writer that it almost feels like a betrayal to see such a tone-deaf portrayal of women onscreen. What makes it even more disappointing is how smart and likable everyone involved is and knowing that they could have made a better movie.
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.