1. Ghost Town
“All work and no play makes Jack- a vital member of society.”
Whether you like Ghost Town or not, I suspect, will partially depend on how much you like Ricky Gervais. I was a big Gervais fan, back in the day, British The Office era, when he and Stephen Merchant would gang up and brutalize poor, hapless Karl Pilkington on a radio show. It was somehow… okay? Back then, he seemed refreshing. Maybe it was just the proximity to Stephen Merchant. I remember when he came to do a stand-up show in Los Angeles, and I was in the second row, directly in front of the cast of Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show was… fine. Extras, on the other hand, was great, especially the music composition scene with David Bowie, but in general I loved how Gervais made himself the butt of every joke. The fastest way to comedy heaven is a gift for self-effacing humor.
So, what is Ghost Town? Well, a dentist, Gervais, goes in for a routine surgery and afterwards, his surgeon, Kristen Wiig, begrudgingly informs him that he was legally dead for seven minutes.
Since he was brought back from the light, he can now see dead people. Ohohohokay! We know this song and dance.
Our hero refuses to interact with the ghosts and tries to na-na-na them away, but it’s no use, not until he is able to see the humanity in them can he find his own humanity, and in doing so, win the heart of the hyper-intelligent paleontologist bombshell that Greg Kinnear’s ghost left behind.
Tea Leoni is always great, and while I know some people are put off by whatever Greg Kinnear’s schtick is, I kind of like it.
Aasif Mandvi plays Gervais’s dental colleague and kills it. I love him.
In general, Ghost Town is far better than it ever should be, but it’s tight and sure and the predictable, but necessary, beats that are the hallmark of every good rom-com are sound and well navigated. My favorite part of the movie, by far, were the last two lines, which are chef’s kiss perfect.
If you can believe, somehow, that a Tea Leoni-type might end up with a Ricky Gervais-type, you’re going to get a few good laughs out of Ghost Town. And I applaud that life hasn’t made you paralytically jaded yet.
2. Blue Chips
“I’ve become what I despise.”
I was excited to see this Ron Shelton-scribed film because Bull Durham is one of my all time favorite films. I found Blue Chips to be more Tin Cup than Bull Durham, but still a good watch.
Nick Nolte plays Pete Bell, a two-time national championship-winning college basketball coach who is at the tail end of a rough season. Faced with a prolonged path to mediocrity, he takes the road more traveled and uses illegal methods to recruit three Blue Chip caliber players from their respective high schools. From there, we watch as Bell’s team opens the season against the top ranked Indiana Hoosiers, and wonder if fracturing the sanctity of the sport will have lasting implications on Bell, his friends and his players.
If you’re a basketball fan, you’re gonna love this movie. There’s a scene toward the end where you go into the huddle during the big game and see Bell whiteboarding plays for his players, and then you go to the other side and see equally problematic coach Bobby Knight doing the same for his players, to counter what Bell is coaching. It’s a fun, entertaining piece of cinema, and fans of the sport get some great cameos and spot performances. Larry Bird and Bob Cousy make appearances. There are bit parts for some solid actors in Alfre Woodard, Ed O’Neil and J.T. Walsh. Two of the Blue Chip recruits are NBA stars Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. Dick Vitale scream-announces the opening to the hoop season. It’s a ton of pageantry and pomp.
Another fun featurette is seeing the national recruiting game playing out in small, podunk towns where big time coaches from D1 programs descend like birds of prey to fight over the up and comers who will ultimately protect and validate their seven figure incomes.
Blue Chips is a 90s movie and it really, really feels like it. Mary McDonnell, whom I admit I have trouble seeing in modern attire after she played Stands With A Fist in Dances With Wolves, plays a refreshingly interesting character as Pete’s ex wife. She clearly cares for him, but has had to put up a series of boundaries to keep his passion and competitive addiction from destroying them both.
A strong ending ties up this film from Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin. In fact, there’s a Network-esque speech at the end which made me feel like Shelton wrote the whole movie just so he’d get to write that speech. It was a good one.
3. A Long Way Down
“I don’t mind the pain. It’s the hope that kills me.”
I think at one point or another, we’ve all probably perused our favorite comedies and thought, the only thing these need is more suicides.
That’s more or less the plot of A Long Way Down.
It’s New Year’s Eve in America, for some happy few, a time of hope and rebirth. For many others, a time to paint your pants on to go to that irritating party when all you want to do is stay home and watch TV in your sweatpants. For still a third group, the darkness is too great, and the onset of a new year feels overwhelming. This group can sometimes choose to look for a way out, or a mechanism to just stop all the pain. Whew. It’s so hard.
That’s where A Long Way Down begins. On top of a tall building, where Pierce Brosnan’s Martin is about to make the great plunge. But as he lights a cigar, taking in the final moments of his existence, he realizes he’s not alone. Maureen (Toni Collette), a kindhearted, meek woman, is patiently waiting her turn. As the two quickly work out an impromptu schedule, two others show up to end it all. Jess, a heartsick young woman played by Imogen Poots and J.J. a pizza delivery guy played by Aaron Paul.
As you might imagine, no one chooses to go through with it that night, and instead this foursome opt to make a pact: they will all stay alive until the next biggest suicide holiday, Valentine’s Day. And for six weeks, they form a gang of sorts, getting to know each other, building community and exploring their demons.
A Long Way Down is like the first sip of soda where the carbonation hits your lips. It’s so light and airy, it isn’t even the soda. Effervescent and intentionally slight, it tackles a very touchy subject mostly by barely naming it at all. I never read the Nick Hornsby book upon which it’s based, but the film has a deft, lighter touch, and never demands too much of the viewer. The plot follows a standard cadence, and mostly the film rises or falls based on which particular character vignette we’re exploring.
Pierce Brosnan’s Martin was good. I’ve been a fan of Brosnan since the Remington Steele days, and always suspected that he was one of the very few actors whose looks got in the way of the actor he might have otherwise wanted to be. I think he’d gravitate to more comedy than he’s been able to, for example. But he’s a celluloid version of the music industry’s George Micheal: a man put in a box. I found it telling that when I went to follow him on Twitter, the suggested follow under him was Matt Leblanc. Brosnan may never shake that himbo status.
Aaron Paul’s curse is different. He played such an iconic character as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad that all anyone will ever see him as, is Jesse. That is, until he finds another role that can compare. So far, he hasn’t been close. I was watching this thinking, There’s Jesse Pinkman! His speech is the same, his mannerisms are the same, his posture is the same. If it walks like a Jesse Pinkman and quacks like a Jesse Pinkman…
But at least wardrobe was trying to break him out of the rut by putting him in the style of t-shirt popularized by international fashion icon Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Imogen Poots’s Jess was more of a demanding character and seemed to get away from Poots from time to time. I really loved Imogen Poots in the Showtime series Roadies, a show so beloved it has vanished completely from the universe. You can’t even buy it anywhere to stream it. It’s not even on Showtime. (Sometimes the music licensing fees kill a show like that, which is what I suspect happened.)
Imogen Poots is lovely and talented, and she’s been in some things, but I never get the sense that I’ve seen her at the top of her game yet. I think there were some inherent limitations with the writing of the role of Jess, but Poots managed to slap together a performance that ultimately worked.
And then there’s Toni Collette as Maureen. Toni Collette is a goddess. She is so sublimely talented it’s ridiculous. The low notes she hit in this film were so goddamn powerful it’s like “Um, did anyone mention to Toni that this is like, a cheese and cracker comedy and we’re like not supposed to win awards or anything?” But how do you turn off talent like that? You can’t!
The Maureen vignette, centered around a single mother caring for her chairbound adult son with severe disabilities was captivating. Just seeing her tend to him, using a portable in-house winch system just to get him in and out of bed. Watching shows with him and talking to him without ever getting a response back. She had considered taking her own life so that her son would become a ward of the state and be entitled to better care than she could give him. Whew. I could cry just typing it days later. The performance was so strong, and was a love letter and virtual hug to all the parents out there who give everything for their children. If for no other reason than to watch the indomitable Toni Collette shine in yet another role, watch this film.
4. Jeff Who Lives At Home
The Duplass Brothers, Jay & Mark, don’t get enough credit for somehow managing to make low budget art films in an era where no one else seems to be able to pull it off. The thing that sets them apart is that long ago, after they had blown all their money on a fancy-looking, uber-produced feature that just plain didn’t work, they went back to the drawing board and resolved to emphasize authenticity over glam.
You can see that in full effect in Jeff Who Lives At Home. But the movie is a fooler. It’s a thinker. I saw it years ago and it was a bit of a shoulder shrug for me. Good, but not particularly memorable. Maybe I wasn’t as evolved when I first saw it. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to delve deeper into what they were trying to say, but upon rewatching it, I feel like Jeff Who Lives At Home hits some very resonant chords with people who are looking for more in their lives.
The story follows Jeff, played by Jason Segel, who is just kind of a broken, burnout living in his mom’s basement. At first you’re not sure what to make of him. It’s his mom’s birthday and she asks him to do one thing, glue a broken shutter, and he tries to get out of it. So he kind of seems a bit dickish.
We find, though, that he’s still coping with the loss of his dad, and every task seems overwhelming to him. Clinical depression is a hell of a thing. So Jeff is sitting there, the epicenter of a life devoid of any meaning, and you can feel him yearning for something to believe in. He obsesses about the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs, and how important it is. A throwaway line from an infomercial about destiny piques his interest and then a wrong number where a man is looking for someone named Kevin makes Jeff re-attune his environmental feelers. Everything happens for a reason. There are no coincidences in the universe. With that, and some yelling from his mom, played by Susan Sarandon, he motivates himself to get up and out of the house.
From there, the story takes off. Jeff starts noticing things, and attributing a Signs-like value to them. He veers off his normal route, engages with a man in a jersey that says Kevin on the back, and the story burgeons from there. Along this new path of self-discovery, Jeff runs headlong into his emotionally barricaded brother Pat, played by Ed Helms, and together they find a shared destiny that never, ever would have existed if Jeff hadn’t opened himself up to the world and followed the signs.
I think it’s Jason Segel’s best performance. I think it’s Ed Helms’s best performance.
Judy Greer is always great and she kills it in her role as Pat’s emotionally abandoned wife. But maybe the most beautiful part of the film is the interaction between Susan Sarandon and her co-worker Carol, played by Rae Dawn Chong.
When Sarandon’s Sharon finds out she has a secret admirer at work, she immediately discounts it as a cruel prank. She’s so down on herself that it can’t possibly be true. When the admirer is revealed, Sharon goes through a wonderful metamorphosis that we see happen in real time, as she re-evaluates what’s truly important in a relationship, and how we’ve all been trapped in a system that may not always make for strong interpersonal foundations. I don’t want to give too much away, but Sarandon is excellent and so relatable, sitting there in her cubicle, bags under her eyes, desperately hoping to be loved but refusing to believe it’s possible.
Jeff Who Lives At Home is a small movie that says a lot. In a world where everyone walks head down, cornered by the four walls of their iPhones, the film suggests that we all open up a bit more to the magic of the universe around us, and in doing so, like Jeff, we may just find our destiny.
We’d love to hear what you thought about these films. Don your best beret, pop in that monocle and join us in the comments for some chatter. Thanks for being part of the Plex family, and as always, thanks for reading!