TUMBLEDOWN (2016)

February 10, 2016

tumbledown Greetings again from the darkness. If I find myself three minutes into a movie and have already executed a couple of eye-rolls, any hopes for a decent little Romantic-Comedy-Drama would ordinarily be dashed. However, having Rebecca Hall’s character narrate her writing efforts as she taps away on the keyboard, actually does serve the story. The first feature from director Sean Mewshaw and his screenwriting wife Desiree Van Til takes advantage of a beautiful setting, a slew of contrasts, and some heartfelt music to keep us interested in how things plays out.

Ms. Hall plays Hannah, the grieving young widow who has stashed herself away in a lakefront cabin located in the rural Maine community in which she was raised. Her grief remains burdensome some two years after the tragic death of her husband Hunter Miles – a folk singer whose only album (and subsequent death) created a public mystique and a defensiveness on the part of Hannah to protect and control his legacy.

As a Ph.D from Brown, periodic contributor to the local newspaper, and soul mate of Hunter, Hannah undertakes the writing of his biography in the shadow of the studio monument that continues to expand with trinkets left at his gravesite by a cult of fans paying respect. Griffin Dunne plays her friend and owner of the local bookstore and publisher of the newspaper. His less than enthusiastic critique of her early pages of the biography correspond with the vigorous pursuit by a Hofstra Pop Culture Professor with a book publishing deal who wants to make Hunter a key element of his new project.

Jason Sudeikis plays Andrew, and his fast-talking big city mannerisms don’t initially mesh so well with the hyper-sensitive and protective grieving widow. The two spar like brother and sister, and the initial adversarial relationship means only one thing in the movie world … romance is in the air. Fortunately, the focus on telling the story of Hunter acts as a form of grief therapy for Hannah and a bit of redemption of spirit for Andrew. Of course, the path to enlightenment is not simple for either. Hannah’s “friend with benefits” is a hunky local power company worker played by Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”), and Andrew’s big city music industry girlfriend is played by Dianna Agron (“Glee”).  But as you would expect, the biggest obstacle faced by the two leads is their own stubbornness.

We learn the most about Andrew and Hannah when they are around others. An Easter luncheon with Hannah’s family is especially insightful. Her parents are played by Blythe Danner and Richard Masur, and as viewers we long for more scenes featuring these two characters (and terrific actors). We sense that these parents see right through Andrew and Hannah. Can Hannah let down her guard so that she can move on with life? Can Andrew quell his ambition so that the emotional connection takes place?

Beautifully shot (with British Columbia substituting for Maine), the aspect of nature plays a role in contrasting country girl with city boy, and it’s the accidental discovery of a long lost song that highlights the stark difference in motives … while also being the impetus for change. Hunter’s original music is heard throughout the film, and it’s actually Damien Jurado whose singing and songwriting add an element of intrigue and realism. Hannah, as narrator, states “In the middle, we feel like it’s never going to end.” While that may be true for many romance movies, the filmmakers here avoid the “too cute” moments that spoil most in this genre … and impressively overcome those early eye-rolls.

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SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE (2015)

September 9, 2015

sleeping with other people Greetings again from the darkness. In 1989, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally hit theatres, and many described it as an updated/contemporary version of Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall.  It’s been 26 years since Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan debated whether guys and girls could be “just” friends, and now writer/director Leslye Headland shows us that same debate continues to this day.

Jason Sudekis (“Saturday Night Live”, Horrible Bosses) stars as Jake, and Alison Brie (“Mad Men”, “Community”) stars as Lainey. These two characters meet in college and promptly lose their virginity to each other. (It takes a little imagination to accept these two thirty-somethings as college kids) Twelve years later, they meet again by happenstance at a meeting for sex addicts. It turns out, Jake’s biggest phobia is related to commitment, and he’s a womanizer who has mastered the break-up (yep, he slept with your sister).  Lainey’s issue is commitment as well, only it’s her misplaced commitment to a married doctor (Adam Scott) instead of her boyfriend (Adam Brody) that causes problems.

Jake and Lainey quickly pick up their legendary (in their own mind) repartee, and it becomes a friendship comprised of rapid-fire one-liners. Yes, I used the F-word to describe their relationship. To protect their platonic bond, they go to the extreme of creating a safe word as an admission/warning if one is feeling overly amorous towards the other … it’s like a fire hose to extinguish any thoughts not related to being a good buddy.

While Sudekis and Brie are both talented and likeable, it’s the outdated pop culture references that create such an out-of-place feeling for the viewer. How many thirty-somethings these days reference Bobby Fischer, Anne Sullivan and Madame Butterfly during conversation? And the “Pontiac Aztec” line may be the best line in the movie, but how likely is it to resonate with most audience members?  There is certainly no shortage of dialogue committed to laughs, but so much of it seems out of step with the young adults it’s clearly targeting.

The obvious comparisons/tributes to When Harry Met Sally come in the form of the split screen during a text conversation (in contrast to Harry and Sally’s phone chats), and the uncomfortable scene featuring a glass tea bottle is the answer to Sally’s infamous diner scene. What’s lacking is the intellect and heart so prevalent in the 1989 film. It may be contemporary, but it’s missing any subtlety or nuance. Perhaps that’s the influence of Producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, both who specialize in laughs over nuance.

Additional support work is provided by Amanda Peet, as Jake’s boss and love interest; and Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, the married couple trying hard to help while delivering the film’s best and funniest scenes (the closing credits – wow!). Also contributing are Natasha Lyonne, Margarita Levieva, and Katherine Waterston (as the doctor’s wife).

Though they deliver some easy laughs (a good thing), if this movie and Amy Schumer’s recent Trainwreck are accurate social observations of the times, it’s difficult to have much hope for modern day relationships (not a good thing).

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SLOW LEARNERS (2015)

August 19, 2015

slow learners Greetings again from the darkness. One of the staples of Romantic Comedies is that the two key players are the only ones who don’t realize they are “right” for each other. This is often accomplished through one of two methods: either two characters who “despise” each other, or as characters who are “just good friends”. This little film manages to blend those two approaches … and make us laugh in the process.

The first 15 or 20 minutes of the film are packed with very sharp comedy writing and acting. Adam Pally (“Happy Endings”) plays Jeff, and Sarah Burns (“Enlightened”) plays Anne. These two misfit adults get along very well together both as co-workers and friends who quote literature at (not to) each other. Anne’s opening visit to the doctor (played by Peter Grosz of Sonic ad fame) is outright hilarious, while Adam’s book club features some real zingers from Bobby Moynihan, Gil Ozeri, and Reid Scott (“Veep”).

It’s not until Jeff and Anne make a pact to change their public personas in an effort to be “cool” and more attractive to the opposite sex that the film takes kind of a nasty – well at least unlikable – turn. Becoming alcoholic d-bags does help them experience a summer of wild escapades, but predictably, neither is especially happy. Anne picks up pointers from some trashy reality TV show called “Prisoners of Love” … a knock-off of “The Bachelor” that deals with convicts and the women who would love them.

Adding to the comedic elements are quick scenes with Cecily Strong, Catherine Reitman (daughter of Ivan) and Kate Flannery, along with a couple of sequences with Jeff’s parents (Kevin Dunn, Marceline Hugot). More interactions with the parents would have been a welcome respite from the extended d-baggery of Jeff and Anne.

Mr. Pally is a master of the deadpan delivery, while Ms. Burns can best be described as a Kristen Wiig starter kit (that’s a compliment). Co-directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce, and co-writers Matt Serword and Peter Swords lost sight of what delivered such a strong beginning for the film, and instead focused on reminding us to “embrace the darkness” and to “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”. Good lessons indeed, but maybe not the comedy gold mine that was expected.

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ALOHA (2015)

May 30, 2015

aloha Greetings again from the darkness. Since I can usually find something of interest, it’s rare that I feel cheated after watching a movie. Of course, feeling disappointed happens more often, but feeling cheated is something altogether different and, unfortunately writer/director Cameron Crowe’s latest is the perfect reminder of that difference.

Three outstanding lead actors (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams), a terrific and deep supporting cast, and a beautiful filming location of Hawaii mean that the fault lies with Mr. Crowe’s script and direction. The film plays like the broad strokes of a screenplay idea, rather than a finished product. It’s as if we are watching filmed rehearsals as a group of writers scramble to connect the story dots … still trying to determine if this is a drama or comedy.

It seems the film was cast with a full-out comedy in mind, but then somewhere along the line, a narrative shift occurred with the hope of making a statement on the privatization of the military and space exploration. There is also an undercurrent of the mistreatment of native Hawaiians, as we are teased with cultural myths, legends and the distrust of the military. Trying to balance these topics with a more traditional romantic-comedy-three-way involving the main characters, results in a disjointed viewing experience that provides only a few chuckles, and a half-baked story of redemption.

The gradual connection of Cooper and Stone (cast as a Navy Fighter Pilot) offers some initial verbal sparring that had potential for comedy gold, but inevitably spun off down a bunny trail of Hawaiian lore or the magic found in the sky. The re-connection of Cooper’s and McAdams’ characters seemed to have continuity holes that might have been left on the editing room floor.  John Krasinski plays McAdams’ husband, and his non-verbal exchanges are the highlight of the film, though the later subtitled version seems lifted from that drawing board straight comedy mentioned earlier.

Bill Murray is cast as the duplicitous billionaire at the core of Cooper’s mission and chance at redemption, though mostly he just acts like Bill Murray with little explanation for his motives. Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin and Bill Camp have their moments, but much more should have been devoted to McAdams’ kids played by Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Danelle Rose Russell.

Cameron Crowe seems to have a driving need to examine interpersonal relationships and what causes some to work, while others falter. His film classics Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous are impressive, but also many years in the past. The last fifteen years have produced Crowe projects that teeter between optimism and outright sap. On the bright side, he always has a knack for music, and on that front, he comes through again … “Factory Girl” is blended with traditional Hawaiian songs and even Dylan and The Who. It’s because of this, that you won’t know for sure if your toe-tapping is due to the music or that gut feeling of being cheated.

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LOVE, ROSIE (2014)

March 8, 2015

Love, Rosie Greetings again from the darkness. More Romantic-Drama than Romantic-Comedy, the story spans 12 years – a necessary change of structure from the 45 year saga of Cecilia Ahern’s novel and source material “Where Rainbows End”. It’s a familiar theme of boy-girl friendship muddled by quasi-romantic interludes of frustration, confusion, missed signals, and misplaced pride.

Rosie (Lily Collins) and Alex (Sam Clafin) have been friends since they were 5 years old, and their bond means they discuss everything from Alex’s weird dreams to leaving England together. Well, everything except what they really think of each other. On Rosie’s 18th birthday, a poorly executed, drunken spin atop a barstool, leads to the proverbial fork in the romantic road … and off to the dance go Rosie and Alex with other partners. One cringe-inducing condom mishap later and Alex is headed off to school in the U.S., while Rosie stays behind to tend to other responsibilities.

In the mode of One Day, or Four Weddings and A Funeral, we track the separate lives of Rosie and Alex. Though connected mostly through texts, the next dozen years bring more than enough opportunity for these two to right a wrong, but predictably bad timing is always their worst enemy. The adapted screenplay from Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls) and the direction of Christian Ditter allow us to really understand Rosie and care for her, while the supermodel dalliances of Alex keep him at arm’s length.

The film’s best scenes and most interesting sequences are those centered on Rosie. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) really steps up her game here and shows some promise for things to come in her career. Most enjoyable are her scenes with the more streetwise Ruby (played by Jaime Winston, daughter of the very cool Ray). The film’s weakest moments involve the attempts at slapstick humor. The two worst: a scene involving handcuffs and a headboard and an elementary school; and another scene with the group awkwardly scurrying through an airport. Both seem out of place with the almost pensive nature of so many other moments in the film.

In an attempt to lighten the mood and ensure the viewers are on track, numerous songs are utilized and act almost as a narrator for the dramatic turns. Most of these are a bit overbearing rather than serving as a complement to the story. Despite the shortcomings, the message of friendship and dreams is one worth delivering … even if the presentation may be a bit cheesy except for the most hopeless of romantics amongst us.

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MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)

August 3, 2014

magic Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most prolific writer/directors since the end of the studio era, Woody Allen cranks out a script and film every year. A few are great, while the others fall somewhere between highly entertaining and watchable. None would be considered a true dud. His latest is a bit fluffy and falls comfortably into the watchable category … with nary a glint of anything more ambitious.

The line of actors maneuvering for a role in Mr. Allen’s films stretches around the proverbial casting couch.  The list of those involved with this one is again quite impressive: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney, Catherine McCormack, and Hamish Linklater. They each perform admirably, yet aren’t enough to elevate a somewhat lackluster script. Ms. Stone and Ms. Atkins are especially enjoyable.

Woody mixes his love of magic with his cynical religious views, and blends those with his too frequent older man/younger woman sub-plot.  The scenes with Firth and Stone are fine, but their onscreen banter would have been better served as Uncle and Niece than awkward rom-com aspirants. Despite this flaw, there remain some excellent lines and moments, plus some staggering shots of the south of France locale. The wardrobe and cars are beautiful … the film is set in 1928.

Screwball comedies are clearly a favorite for Mr. Allen to write, but his directing leans more towards the leisurely pace found in more traditional rom-coms. The mixed genres don’t always fit together, even when stacked with a superior cast. Still, it must be noted, that even at his least brilliant, Mr. Allen delivers films that are pleasant and watchable. As movie lovers, we can live with that as we await his next masterpiece … or at least his next movie in one year.

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OBVIOUS CHILD (2014)

June 14, 2014

obvious Greetings again from the darkness. One of my movie review rules is about to be broken. Typically I don’t judge movies based on the filmmaker’s gender, but there is a good reason to do so this time. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre delivers an extraordinary film that avoids the extremes we have come to expect: the “shock for shock’s sake” of HBO’s “Girls” and the fantasy world of glamour and shoes of Sex and the City. Instead we get an authentic look at a lead character that seems like a woman we might actually know.

Based on Ms. Robespierre’s popular 2009 short film of the same name, this one features a brilliant collaboration with Jenny Slate whom many will recognize from “Saturday Night Live“. Ms. Slate brings a grounded, believable quality to both the stand-up sequences and the struggling Brooklyn 30-ish woman’s clunky transition into adulthood. This story works because we like Donna (Slate’s character), we empathize with Donna, and we root for Donna.

You may have heard this referred to as “the abortion comedy”. While it’s common to apply simple labels to movies, this seems to be a case of mistaken identity. Absolutely there is humor present – Donna’s hobby is stand-up comedy. And yes, the decision to have an abortion is a key element in the script … but there is also a strong Rom-Com element, a study in friendship, a look at relationships, a peek at the bond between adult kids and their parents, and the ever-present struggle between independence and the hope for true love. Much is happening here, and most of it is handled exceptionally well.

The film kicks off with an uncomfortable foul-mouthed stand-up segment from Donna. While I have never been a fan of fart-poop-pee humor, it’s our introduction to her thought process and how she uses her own life as subject matter, creating a kind of self-therapy. Soon thereafter, we witness a most unorthodox break-up between Donna and her boyfriend. This is followed by lots of wine consumption, blind support from her friend Nellie (played by Gaby Hoffmann – all grown up since her time as the young daughter in Field of Dreams), and a drunken fling with ultra nice guy Max (Jake Lacy from TV’s “The Office“). Their “date” includes pretty much everything except a condom, which leads to the abortion story line.

Handled with dignity and frankness, Donna’s decision is one faced by many women. It’s a part of life and receives straightforward treatment (save one questionable joke). The real joy here is not just how the story focuses on a female character, but that it’s told from the female perspective … two rarely seen approaches from Hollywood. The dialogue rings true and the clichés are minimal. There is even a nice guy to offset the big jerk!

The closest comparison I can come up with is Knocked Up, which was much more concerned with generating laughs, and treated abortion as a taboo topic, rather than a real life decision. Donna’s parents are played by Richard Kind and Polly Draper, and both add an element of realism and love that rings true. David Cross and Gabe Liedman have interesting and funny support roles as well. But understand that this movie belongs to Jenny Slate and especially director Gillian Robespierre, two very strong and talented women who just upped the standard for filmmaking … not just female filmmaking.

**NOTE: yes that is Paul Simon‘s 1991 song “The Obvious Child” that plays during the Donna and Max “date”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need proof that a women’s perspective on screen can be interesting and ring true OR you want to see the works of two up-and-coming voices in Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some massive political diatribe on the abortion topic

watch the trailer: