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.

watch the trailer:

BARE (2015)

October 29, 2015

bare Greetings again from the darkness. The debut feature of writer/director Natalia Leite takes on the all-too-familiar territory of a disenchanted teenager being smothered by a claustrophobic small town, and twists it into a nocturnal awakening that changes some lives, while leaving others forever jogging in place.

Sarah (Dianna Agron, “Glee”) is a bored, young local in a small Nevada town. She gets fired from her job as a supermarket checker and spends her time hanging out with her boyfriend (Chris Zylka) and their group of equally unambitious friends. One day she stumbles upon Pepper (Paz de la Huerta, “Boardwalk Empire”) who is sleeping in an abandoned store owned by Sarah’s father. Intrigued by the drifter, Sarah allows herself to be drawn into Pepper’s world of drugs and strippers. A quick trip to Las Vegas really opens up Sarah’s eyes to the great big world, and also leads to some amorous feelings toward Pepper.

Clichés abound here as the mysterious stranger awakens the spirit of the small town dreamer; the taboo love story; the judgmental family and friends; and the “one last shift” to earn enough money to flee this small town and discover one’s true purpose while living a carefree life. Pepper tosses out some philosophical musings and Sarah falls hook, line and sinker. We fully expect this to end badly for both.

Filmmaker Leite does a nice job of creating the feel of the night without judging its participants too harshly. Dianna Agron has the screen presence to pull off the innocent girl’s self-discovery, while Paz de la Huerta has the mysterious quality of one to whom someone like the Sarah character would be drawn. It’s interesting how Sarah is allowed to choose her own path, and explore the possibilities of what might be. At best, the film is one for a sleepless night, and it does provide two disparate female leads and a director who has earned more opportunities.

watch the trailer: