LEARNING TO DRIVE (2015)

September 10, 2015

learning to drive Greetings again from the darkness. Many movies have utilized the career-focused husband who is oblivious to how his inattentiveness leads to a crumbling marriage and estranged family. It’s much rarer to have a professionally successful woman at the core of a story where she is the neglectful one, and the dissolved marriage leaves her in emotional shambles.  The metaphor here is obvious yet effective, as the woman tries to put her life back together and discover herself in the process … by “learning to drive”.

Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy, a very successful New York book critic, who is blindsided when her husband (Jake Weber, “Medium”) dumps her for another woman. It turns out Wendy is infinitely more attentive to her computer screen than to her husband and daughter (Grace Gummer). In a fortuitous turn, the cab driver during the marital break-up is a Sikh Indian-American named Darwan, played by Sir Ben Kingsley.

Darwan’s second job just happens to be driving instructor, which means he can provide life lessons and philosophy to Wendy while simultaneously reminding her to fasten her seatbelt and check the mirrors. During this time, Darwan is also taking on a wife via arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury, “Homeland”). His patience and way of life is challenged by both women, so the teacher also becomes a student.

The scenes featuring Clarkson and Kingsley are the film’s best, and inject some moments of humor to go along with the force-fed melodrama. Ms. Clarkson is at her best here flashing anger, vulnerability and a realization that life opens up for those who open up themselves, but she can’t overcome what amounts to a film that should air on Oprah’s network.

Director Isabel Coixet also worked with Clarkson and Kingsley in her 2008 film Elegy. Though it teases some interesting topics, this story sticks mostly to the surface, never digging too deeply. Because of this, it’s a pleasant film that will easily entertain adult audiences who prefer their movies with no real surprises or suspense.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer:

 

 


FRANCES HA (2013)

May 30, 2013

frances ha1 Greetings again from the darkness. All the critics are raving about it. Love abounds for the latest from director Noah Baumbach and his co-writer and leading lady Greta Gerwig. What makes my ambivalence even more confounding is that I’m a fan of Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and Gerwig (Greenberg). The expert level of filmmaking and acting is obvious, the script details and dialogue are exceptional, and the situations and setting are realistic. So why aren’t I more excited about this one? That’s what I’ve spent the past few days wondering.

It seems Frances Ha delivers everything I look for in an indie film. The problem is that I find almost every character to be annoying and self-absorbed. The first act finds Frances (Gerwig) sitting on top of the world. She has a boyfriend, a frances ha2BFF/roomie, and is a dance company apprentice with the expectation of a dance career. Soon enough she watches Strike Three go by and her world is in a tailspin. We then watch Frances trudge on through uncertainty and instability in living arrangements, personal relationships and career path. It plays like a road trip that really never hits the highway.

Frances moves in with Lev (Adam Driver) and Ben (Michael Zegen) and she is oblivious to Ben’s interest as she obsesses about her former BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner). See, Sophie is trying to grow up while Frances wants to stay in her dream land where she and Sophie remain “the same person with different hair“. Frances then crashes at the apartment of a fellow dancer played with all seriousness by Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter). The two dancing opposites attend an awkward frances ha3dinner party at which Frances manages to spew an endless stream of absurd remarks that advertise her lack of maturity. Her response to this is to take a spontaneous trip to Paris … charged to a new credit card.

Make no mistake. Frances is a very energetic and sincere free-spirited twenty-seven year old. The kind that is only charming in the movies. If her quirk wins you over, you will find yourself rooting for her to get her life together. That would put you in the same corner as most other film critics. On the other hand, if you recognize the optimism, but are unmoved by the immaturity and self-absorption, then you are banished to the corner of those who “just don’t get it”. And I’ll be right there with you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can revel in the quirky world of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach and find joy in a flirtateous take on Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: annoyingly self-centered people talking a lot about themselves and other things of which they know little, inspires you to request a refund.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqMaeBtK9TA