Day, Slate Finally Center Stage in Charming ‘I Want You Back’

A refreshingly mature romantic comedy from writers Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger, I Want You Back stars Charlie Day and Jenny Slate as strangers-turned-friends who help each other in the disappointing love department. Set apart from cookie-cutter “romcoms” from the last two decades, this Valentine’s Day release gets back to basics: characters who form a believable bond like When Harry Met Sally, who have unfulfilled dreams like in While You Were Sleeping and who create a tangled web of sabotage a la My Best Friend’s Wedding. Director Jason Orley and director of photography Brian Burgoyne bring the story to life through wide shots in and around Atlanta, Georgia, creating a delightfully old-fashioned, contemporary classic. 

Day and Slate are center stage, finally. The shift is welcome after years of both actors being pigeonholed into zany, wise-cracking supporting roles. Here, they play Peter and Emma, respectively, two thirty-somethings who are both reeling from their unexpected breakups. He wants Anne (Gina Rodriguez) back, she wants Noah (Scott Eastwood) back and, together, they devise their own Parent-Trap plan to make it happen. The film works well not because of the hook, but in spite of it.  Contrived plots can be easily slathered with cliches, twinkle lights and twinklier actors and be called a romantic comedy. But This is Us vets Aptaker and Berger go deeper with both the romance and the comedy. 

Romance in I Want You Back looks like Peter and Emma laughing at a movie together, eating french fries in an unglamorous diner, talking about their unfulfilled dreams and helping an old woman with her food tray. It’s poignant in its simplicity, surprising in its maturity. And while the script itself is full of funny beats like hot tub jumping and awkward threesomes, Day and Slate elevate the material naturally; both pros at comedy and sincerity in equal measure. 

What sets this film and the aforementioned classics apart is the idea that the universe reveals its plan while you’re looking the other way. That trope in the genre can become – and has become – cliched, but when done correctly, it can work like a charm. For the first time in a long time, there’s a romantic comedy that works. 

I Want You Back is available exclusively on Prime Video on February 11, 2022.


Sorkin Scores Again With Smart, Intimate ‘Being the Ricardos’

It doesn’t get better than this. Much like Lucille Ball, Aaron Sorkin is a master storyteller and uses his magic, once again, to write and direct Being the Ricardos, an intimate look at a woman, a marriage and a high-pressure job of performing for 60 million people every Monday at nine o’clock. While some viewers may expect a chronological biopic or a recreation of grape-stomping, chocolate conveyor belts and Vitameatavegamin, Sorkin instead places the film’s heroine during a tumultuous week of shooting I Love Lucy, from the Monday morning table read to camera blocking to the Friday night live studio audience. It allows viewers not only into the world of the television sitcom and the genius behind the physically comedic Lucy Ricardo, but into the intimate, unglamorous world Ball. 

Together with the talented Nicole Kidman, Sorkin doesn’t tell the audience who Lucy is, he shows us what she wants: a home, a faithful husband, a voice, to name a few. She wants freedom to be pregnant on air, to run a show without infringing on Desi Arnaz’s ego, to challenge the producer and writing staff to be better, to not dumb things down for either the characters or the viewers. The script, unsurprisingly, is compact and rich, always keeping you at attention with flash forwards and flashbacks, all while keeping you wondering what was going to happen. If Lucille Ball is accused of being a communist, will the show go on? We know it will … yet, we still watch with suspense of what happens next. 


Kidman and Javier Bardem embody the spirit of Ball and Arnaz, painting a picture of a doomed marriage and wildly successful business partnership. The backdrop of Los Angeles infuses their story with both old Hollywood glamour and tired melancholiness, whether they’re at the top of Mulholland Drive at sunrise or on a Desilu Productions soundstage on a weekday afternoon. It’s done tastefully and subtly, never over-playing the time period or showing even a glimpse of the Hollywoodland sign. 

Along with a stellar supporting cast in J.K. Simmons, Tony Hale, Nina Arianda, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy, Being the Ricardos is an entertaining, important story that reminds us that our heroes within our four walls at home or three walls on television are just as human as we are. 

Amazon Studios will release BEING THE RICARDOS in theaters on December 10, 2021; Globally on Prime Video December 21, 2021.


Nostalgic ‘Tender Bar’ a Subtly Poignant Coming-of-age Story 

Based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, The Tender Bar is a nostalgic, coming-of-age story that’s simple in premise and complex in character. Directed by George Clooney and adapted by screenwriter William Monahan, the film centers on a young man’s (Tye Sheridan) life in Long Island; a lower-middle-class life full of eccentric characters like a struggling mom (Lily Rabe), a grumpy grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and, most importantly, a very cool uncle (Ben Affleck). 

Against all odds, J.R.’s smarts and skills land him at Yale University where he makes friends, falls in love and gets the idea to become a writer. But it’s the “remember where you came from” feeling that fills in the gaps where most people expect plot. And herein lies the beauty of stories like The Tender Bar – its characters are plot enough. 

Sheridan’s charisma and likability magnetically carry you along J.R.’s journey from his college acceptance letter to his first day as a young writer at The New York Times. He leads a charming supporting cast, most notably Affleck in an atypical role of paternal bartender Uncle Charlie. While it can be difficult to adapt an entire life’s memoir into a two-hour film, Monahan highlights the necessary points in J.R.’s journey for the story to make sense to the viewer: his girlfriend, his father, his mother’s cancer diagnosis. It all comes together to create a subtly poignant story of growing up, moving out and returning home again – through memory.


Long Brothers Bring Silly Back in ‘Lady of the Manor’

“Laughter is such a great part of life,” Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) explains to a ghostly Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer). And laughter is what writing/directing team Justin and Christian Long know best. From a stoned tour guide to a spoiled man-child (Ryan Phillippe), the Long brothers show off their keen observation of ridiculous human behavior in the purely silly, entertaining Lady of the Manor.

Starring Lynsky as an “aimless ne’er do-well,” the Pygmalion-like story centers on the unlikely friendship between a tour guide of a historic estate and the manor’s prim-and-proper ghost with unfinished business. And if you take the premise too seriously, then you’re really not in on the joke. Lady of the Manor is filled with farts, funny faces and complete mockery of humanity’s douchiest (i.e. Phillippe ordering a “vod sodes,” short for vodka soda). The outtakes of “tangerine juice” and “mint chocolate chip shake, no chips” are worth watching in their entirety.

This original buddy comedy is reminiscent of films that would line the shelves of family-owned video stores; the kind that would jam up the VCR because the rewind button was hit one-too-many times. Here, Hannah’s knack for accidentally flatulating in front of people is a particular highlight. Lady of the Manor might not be the comedy for everyone, but it’s a fun Friday night film if you’re willing to suspend your seriousness for a mere 90 minutes.

If Lady Wadsworth can do it, so can you.

Justin Long and Melanie Lynskey in ‘Lady of the Manor.’ Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

‘Jungle Cruise’ is refreshingly silly summer fun

I did not want to see Jungle Cruise. There, I said it. And I typically never include first person in my reviews, but it’s warranted here. I groaned at the prospect of seeing a big screen adaptation of a Disney attraction, one I was certain was going to be green screen scene after green screen scene. But in all honesty, I loved it. And I laughed a lot. As the credits faded in and out and the text read “Screenplay by Michael Green” it all made sense to me – of course it was. Everwood is, was and always will be my favorite television show of all time and Green being one of it’s key writers, I must have sensed his storytelling touch and regretted my preconceived notions of the film being less than a good time. Also worth crediting co-writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, encapsulates the spirit of the Disneyland ride that set sail in 1955, Walt Disney in tow. It’s full of color, puns, the roaring hippopotamus and the eight wonder of the world – the backside of water. Add Paul Giamatti and Jesse Plemons to the mix and it’s an “I can’t stop myself from laughing” kind of laugh. There’s something for everyone here – action, adventure, thrills and humor that Johnson and Blunt can deliver easily and naturally. With children, especially, deserving of a solid live action tentpole with silly summer fun, Jungle Cruise fits the bill.


Wahlberg gives subtle, career-best performance as complicated ‘Joe Bell’

Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg gives a subtle, career-best performance as a complicated man on a mission in Joe Bell. Based on a true story, the film (from Brokeback Mountain writers Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry) follows a working class Oregonian father on his long, strenuous walk across the country in support of his gay son. His journey of speaking out against bullying becomes one of self-reflection and, as a result, Joe Bell becomes a character study of a very flawed, very human father. 

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men; upcoming King Richard) introduces us to teenage Jadin, an energetic cheerleader at his rural high school where he is the only openly gay student in 2013. If this had been a fictional film and in no way based on true events, I would have critiqued it for being unrealistic. It would be nearly impossible to believe there was only one openly gay student and equally as far fetched to believe he would be relentlessly bullied for being gay. Yet, despite the progress that the LGBTQ community has made (even in the 15 years since the release of Ossana and McMurtry’s Brokeback Mountain, this happened. The brilliance of Wahlberg helming a project like this as lead actor and producer lies in his ability to draw in audiences who might need to see a story like this. Joe Bell wanted to change the mind of at least one person, and perhaps Walhberg can, too. 

Reid Miller in JOE BELL | Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert | Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Reid Miller portrays an emotionally conflicted Jadin Bell with heartbreakingly raw honesty. He doesn’t fit in at school and despite his mother’s best efforts (Connie Britton in an unsurprisingly poignant performance as Lola Bell), he doesn’t quite fit at home either. His father doesn’t reject him for coming out as gay, but he never fully accepts him either, making for a more dimensional relationship rarely depicted on screen. 

While we never quite feel the impact of Bell’s anti-bullying visits to high schools across the country, it’s his run-in encounter with a local sheriff (Gary Sinise) that grounds the film as a whole. Along with Britton, Sinise was Wahlberg’s choice for the Joe Bell supporting cast and both play as close to “real” as you can get. It’s worth watching for the cast. With nuanced, vulnerable performances, they make you care. And when you care, you listen. And when you listen, you learn. That’s the point of Joe Bell, movie and man. 

Joe Bell opens in theaters July 23.

Mark Wahlberg and Gary Sinise in JOE BELL | Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert | Courtesy of Roadside Attractions


‘The Boss Baby: Family Business’ A Silly, Sweet Reprieve for Kids

A sequel to DreamWorks Animation’s 2017 Oscar-nominated blockbuster, The Boss Baby: Family Business is a welcome, comedic reprieve for children and their parents alike. From returning director Tom McGrath, the story of brothers Tim (James Marsden) and Ted (Alec Baldwin) Templeton continues, amplified by a new cast of zany, brainy characters fit for the big screen. 

Set decades after the original film, Family Business finds the fully-grown brothers living completely opposite lives – Ted is a hedge fund CEO, Tim a suburban stay-at-home dad to two daughters, seven-year-old Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) and newborn Tina (Amy Sedaris). Worrying that Tabitha is growing up too quickly at her prestigious school for advanced children, Tim yearns for his daughter to have a youthful, fun-filled imagination. Instead, she wants to be just like her Uncle Tim. 

(From left) Ted Templeton (Alec Baldwin), Tina Templeton (Amy Sedaris, back to camera) and Tim Templeton (James Marsden) in DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby: Family Business, directed by Tom McGrath.

Enter: baby Tina, a top secret agent for Baby Corp. on a mission to uncover secrets about her sister’s school and its devious founder (Jeff Goldblum). On a mission to stop an evil genius, Tim and Ted set out on a journey together that ultimately reveals the true meaning of family. 

Based on the books by Marla Frazee, this sequel screenplay from Michael McCullers and McGrath is as enjoyable as its predecessor. With enthusiastic voice work from Baldwin, Goldblum, Marsden (additionally, Eva Longoria, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), there is enough on screen to satisfy the youngest and oldest of viewers. Perhaps the most giggle-inducing, unsurprisingly, is Amy Sedaris in the role of baby agent Tina (lines like, “Men, am I right?” might go unappreciated by a young generation, but are sure to entertain a tired parent). “Each one of them is a wonderful ad-libber, and they brought so much to their roles,” producer Jeff Hermann says. “They shine every time they are on the screen.” While the plot and screenplay are joyous and silly, the obvious ad-libbing is a highlight.

After a long, difficult year for children, “silly” is something they deserve. Whether they see it on the big screen this Fourth of July weekend or stream it on Peacock, The Boss Baby: Family Business fits the bill.

Tina Templeton (Amy Sedaris) in DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby: Family Business, directed by Tom McGrath.

In ‘Here Today,’ Crystal Makes Real Life More Interesting

In an era of moviemaking when films are pigeonholed by genre, scale and scope, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s beauty in the middle. Short scenes can get big laughs, small stories can have big heart. In Here Today, director Billy Crystal and co-writer Alan Zweibel bring back a bygone era of storytelling, when comedy and tragedy are best at their subtlest.

Set in New York, comedy legend Charlie Burnz (Crystal) goes to work at his late-night cable sketch show, acting as the honorary “mentor” to young and mostly smarmy writers. When he encourages them to aim higher than profanity or gross-out schtick, they think his institutional memory is more or less useless and as outdated as his typewriter. Herein lies the heart of the story – the wisdom that comes with age, the precious gift that is memory. In Charlie’s world, he’s losing both. 

Based on Zweibel’s short story “The Prize,” Here Today sets up Charlie’s journey with dementia a few stages in – he knows what’s going on, he knows he’s slipping and he’s writing a book dedicated to his late wife and emotionally estranged children because of it. That’s when he meets his saving grace in free-spirited singer, Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish). Despite the age gap, their unexpected and unlikely friendship becomes the driving force of the film; both funny and not, complicated and not. Haddish uses her tried-and-true brand of humor, but delves deeper into making the character of Emma a realistic one. She’s a good, young soul who happens to connect with a good, older one; an atypical dynamic rarely shown on screen. While the group of millennial comedy writers didn’t fully understand Charlie, it’s nice to see someone who does – better yet, a female almost half his age. 

In addition to an endearing Haddish, familiar actors round out the cast, with Anna Deveare Smith as Charlie’s doctor and Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley as his grown children. But it’s Crystal, himself, who is more engaging with an emotional monologue than any flashback could accurately evoke. It’s the comedy and tragedy he wears on his face, subtly delivering a funny one-liner and, in the next second, breaking your heart. From a directing standpoint, too, Crystal makes it work. New York is the third most-important character, here, with breathtaking wide shots of a cityscape that fills the frameline. It’s a love letter to New York or at least feels like one.

Perhaps it’s familiarity or intuition, but the ways in which the writers seem to draw from the well of personal experience breathes genuine life into fictional characters. Whether it was Zweibel’s experience writing for Saturday Night Live or Crystal’s similar history of meeting his wife at the beach or getting the dreaded knock at the door after fighting with a loved one, moments in Here Today feel supremely human. Maybe it’s years of my family reading Crystal’s memoirs or crying at 700 Sundays or crying laughing at the Chicago Theatre. Or perhaps it’s just good writing. 

As we slowly return to the movies, my hope is that there are more films like the one Crystal and Zweibel put together. I hope they’re full of dimensional characters that make us laugh, cry and think more deeply about caring for someone and caring about them. I hope they make us appreciate the beauty of the people and places around us – while they’re here, today.


Chloe Zhao’s Inspired ‘Nomadland’ Resonates After Year of Uncertainty

Consistently nuanced actress Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao’s poignant Nomadland, a film that will undoubtedly resonate with both Academy voters and a wide-ranging audience looking for hope after a year of earth-shattering uncertainty. The grey-toned journey of life on the road feels more like a documentary than a scripted “Neo-Western drama,” as it’s described.

Set in 2011, McDormand stars as Fern, an out-of-work widow who loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down. Packing her entire life into a van, she sets out on the road and picks up seasonal shifts at an Amazon fulfillment center and other odd jobs to get by. It’s out of the ordinary, making it an extraordinary subject for Zhao to explore and for McDormand to perfect.

Every person we meet along the way is a non-actor (save for David Straitharn) who live their lives free of convention in search of a greater purpose, or at least greater self-contentment. There’s Linda May and Swankie and Bob Wells, all “characters” in the truest sense of the word. Their perspectives on living life from place to place is another take on minimalism, a philosophy that has resonated with American viewers as of late. But each viewer can take from it what they will – the film is meditative that way. It’s a blank slate for Fern and, in a way, a blank slate for the audience. 

“No one ever says goodbye. We just say, I’ll see you down the road.” While this film was made before the Coronavirus pandemic, its release and awards buzz come at the perfect time when more than half a million people in the United States of America have lost their lives to Covid-19 at this point. Every human being has been forced into a resilient-like state, metaphorically packing what they deem necessary into their van-like bubbles. But Zhao’s Nomadland is a silver lining. It’s a reminder that, while our journeys may look different, we’re never alone. It’s a reminder that we can change at any age, meet new people along the way and know that whoever we’re missing, we’ll see down the road.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in the movie “Nomadland.”

Tucci, Firth give career-best in painful dementia drama ‘Supernova’

“You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they’re still alive.” Summarizing the theme of Harry Macqueen’s poignant, heartbreaking drama Supernova in one line of dialogue, Stanley Tucci gives a career-best performance as dementia-ridden Tusker. With an equally dynamic Colin Firth as his longtime partner Sam, the two travel across England as a makeshift farewell to family and friends.

The devastating subject matter and weight of the film unfortunately fit the tone of the time we’re living in, when death is at the forefront of people’s minds. Here, a slow death is inevitable for writer Tusker who has good days and bad days, sometimes lapsing in his ability to button a shirt or read a letter aloud. Macqueen’s subtle approach to Tusker’s decline makes Sam’s frustration all the more compelling. 

It’s a love story, albeit a peek into the final chapter of one. The homosexually aspect is never dwelled on, looked down upon or used as a plot device – rather the opposite. It’s an endearing partnership from the opening scene as Sam and Tusker drive their old RV through the English countryside, stop at roadside diners and take their dog for a walk. The “normalcy” of it all adds to the undercurrent of bleakness, with both men knowing what the future holds and trying to navigate what’s best for both of them. 

While there are moments of levity (provided mainly by Tusker as he pokes fun of the situation), it’s consistently and overwhelmingly sad. When you have veteran performers like Tucci and Firth, though, sadness can lend itself to a cathartic viewing experience. Such is the case with Supernova.

In select theaters January 29. Digital on Demand February 16th.

Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street