ALL ABOUT NINA (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are dark comedies and then there is the first feature film from director Eva Vives (although she wrote the screenplay for RAISING VICTOR VARGAS). It’s really a dark drama with both feet in the stand-up comedy world, so we find ourselves laughing at the (profane) jokes, despite a lead character that is in desperate need of emotional salvation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dynamite as Nina Geld. And dynamite is meant to have two definitions here. She is terrific in the role, and she (her character) explodes with little notice. Nina Geld is definitely provocative. She is definitely a feminist. She is definitely funny, and she is most definitely messed up. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, and spend the rest of the movie waiting to see whether she self-destructs or is somehow saved.

We first see Nina as she delivers a set on stage at a comedy club. Her act is mostly about sex and the misery of relationships. We soon learn why she seems to have little happiness in life. The abusive married cop (Chace Crawford, Tony Romo’s brother-in-law) she has been seeing interrupts the one-night stand she was looking forward to. It’s quite unsettling to watch this unfold, and it seems to be the final straw needed to push Nina to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. It’s southern California where her agent (Angelique Cabral) has arranged for to audition for “Comedy Prime” – a one hour comedy special produced by Larry Michaels (played by Beau Bridges).

In L.A., Nina rooms with a stereotypical southern California “New Age” type (Cate del Castillo) who senses energy fields and remains quite civil in her arguments with her partner (played by Clea DuVall). Mostly we see what a damaged soul that Nina is, and bearing an unfair brunt are her mother (Camryn Manheim), her mom’s friend (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS), and a fellow comic (Jay Mohr).

When Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a rare leading man role), she begins to show her first signs of actual human connection. And of course she is confused by this, and her self-destructive being rears up. The big reveal as to the cause of Nina’s constantly confused state (I don’t believe the therapy sessions are working) is held back until late in the final act … and it’s a doozy that leads to a painfully honest on stage meltdown.

Ms. Winstead is really terrific here, and she is absolutely believable in her stand-up bits. In fact, the montage of impressions and her constant fine-tuning of the act are almost as good as the heavy drama pieces she excels at. The film itself is kind of a mash-up of stories, but it’s her performance that keeps us onboard … even as we question her character’s stability (and incessant hair tussling).

watch the trailer:

 


THE DESCENDANTS

November 19, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh … finally! I was beginning to wonder if 2011 was going to produce a film that I could whole-heartedly recommend to both cinephiles and casual movie goers. Writer/director Alexander Payne has delivered a gem. And in a giant surprise, it stars George Clooney as a guy going through real life stress, and in his own words, “just trying to keep his head above water“.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii who is also the trustee of a family land trust. Only this is no typical family land trust. It involves thousands of pristine Kauai acreage that has been left untouched for hundreds of years. The endless stream of “cousins” want him to sell to a developer for enough gold to make them all filthy rich. The locals don’t want him to sell as they believe in the spiritual nature of land, not the green backs of hotels and beachfront homes. And Matt only wishes this was his biggest problem.

 Matt’s fun-loving wife has been injured in a speed boat accident. She is in a coma and the prognosis is not bright. She also has a living will that states no life-support, which is another of the problems Matt must face. Additionally, he must re-connect with his two daughters. See, Matt has been the workaholic attorney that has left the child-rearing to his wife. The two daughters prove to be more than a hand full for the clueless Matt. Scottie (Amana Miller) is the youngest and is struggling with how to react to the state of her mother. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is off at boarding school in hopes that she can be tamed from her wild ways. These three must come together and really bond for the first time.

 Those three problems would be enough for any one man to handle, but Matt receives one more bit of information. Turns out his wife was having an affair at the time of her boating accident. So, “having a bad day” seems a little insufficient for Matt’s situation. At this point, the movie takes a sharp left turn turn and almost becomes a mini-road trip movie. Matt, his two daughters and Alexandra’s odd friend Sid (Nick Krause) take on the mission of informing friends and relatives, while also tracking down the “other guy”.

It may seem like I have given away much of the story, but in fact, all of that has been discussed in one of the trailers. What sets this film apart is how this web of stress is handled by Matt and daughters. The story is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and the screenplay is co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Watching Matt as he struggles through each decision and situation makes us pull for him, even though he really isn’t anything special … he’s not all that friendly or charming (a rarity for a Clooney character), and certainly not a polished parent.

 Alexander Payne has given us About Schmidt and it’s been 7 years since his last feature, Sideways. Both of those excellent films, and this one, give us a character on the brink … full crisis mode. Some of his characters lash out (Paul Giamatti in Sideways), while others turn to introspection (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). Here, Clooney’s character seems to have many decisions to make, but the biggest one is reconnecting with his own soul and being the kind of man he needs to be, for himself, his daughters and the sacred land.

 In addition to Clooney’s fine work, I was very impressed with Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter.  Veteran Robert Forster turns in a macho role as Clooney’s father-in-law, who harbors some resentment towards him.  Matthew Lilliard and the underrated Judy Greer play the crucial roles of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Speer. Beau Bridges plays the leader of the cousins, which also includes Michael Ontkean (from The Rookies in the 70’s).  You might also recognize surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Troy, the driver of the boat when Clooney’s wife is injured. The other two key characters are the beautiful state of Hawaii and the pitch perfect guitar and island music throughout.

The characters and story are so effective that you will find yourself tearing up in the same scene where you laugh out loud. And that will happen more than once. Few filmmakers can walk the high wire between comedy and drama better than Payne. We connect with these character as they are real people … we KNOW these people. And we know excellent filmmaking when we see it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a multi-faceted script with realistic characters and dialogue that sounds like something any of us might actually say OR you would like to see Clooney’s best performance to date (even better than Syriana).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to lean towards slapstick and your drama to be a bit less real-world scenario

watch the trailer: