ODE TO JOY (2019)

August 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. You might be familiar with the disease “narcolepsy”, but unless you or someone close to you suffers from it, you’re likely unfamiliar with “cataplexy” – a symptom of narcolepsy that causes sudden and extreme muscle weakness typically brought on by severe emotions such as sadness, anger or excitement. For Charlie (played by Martin Freeman, THE HOBBIT), the trigger is happiness, so he has learned to (mostly) cope by avoiding his triggers: puppies, weddings, random acts of kindness, kids playing, and relationships. What he couldn’t avoid was being a groomsman in his sister’s wedding, which is how director Jason Winer and co-writers Max Werner and Chris Higgins choose to begin the film. We see the full effects and fallout (no pun intended) of Charlie’s disease.

Charlie listens to Wagner’s “Funeral March” on his commute to a calm job (out of necessity) at the public library, and his co-workers have mastered the art of assisting in keeping Charlie thinking non-happy thoughts. As tends to happen in life, love finds a way. Charlie crosses paths with Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a spirited woman who appears to be Charlie’s opposite in most every way … making the attraction even stronger. At a first date to a community theatre where a one-man show titled “Great Depression” is playing, we get the full effect of the challenges Charlie faces.

Cooper (Jake Lacy), Charlie’s younger brother, has been his main support system for most of his life – which is even more remarkable when we get the story of how Cooper got his name. When things fizzle between Francesca and Charlie, Cooper swoops in to date her and they set up Charlie with Bethany (a brilliantly funny Melissa Rauch). Bethany’s own quirks seem to be a good fit, even if Charlie’s torch for Francesca still flickers. Surely you’ve never seen an oboe sing-a-long to the Cranberries “Zombie”, and if somehow you have, it likely pales in comparison to the one Ms. Rauch performs.

The laughs are many, yet the script and Freeman’s performance remain respectful to the disease and those who suffer from it. Jane Curtin appears as Francesca’s Aunt who is cancer-stricken, and no, the purpose wasn’t to show a disease worse than cataplexy, but rather to show we all have challenges in life – and how we deal determines the type of person we are. The story was inspired by a segment on Chicago TV’s “This American Life”. It’s a delightful (if you can get over the use of a genetic disease as comedy fodder) little gem that I caught at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and hopefully it will find an audience.

watch the trailer:

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DIFF 2019 Day 5

April 17, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Day 5 means we are now past the halfway mark for this year’s festival. Originally I had 4 films scheduled for today, but I opted out of the late movie since it would have required more than a 90 minute wait after the end of the third movie. It’s that kind of situation that makes festival scheduling a bit frustrating. Despite that, all 3 movies were worth the time: a documentary profile of an Italian model, a low budget quirky comedy, and a masterclass from two veteran screen actors.

 

 

Here is my recap of Day 5 films:

 

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MY MOTHER (doc)

 Caution is usually the best policy when choosing a biographical documentary shot by the subject’s family member. Often objectivity is sacrificed in the pursuit of a worthy tribute film. Oddly enough, it’s the mother-son relationship that provides the necessary spark as cinematographer Beniamino Barrese turns the lense on his mother Benedetta Barzini, a fashion model icon in the 1960’s and feminist spokesperson in the 1970’s.

We see photographs and flashbacks that prove what a stunning beauty Benedetta Barzini was at the peak of her modeling days. We also see clips of her appearances as a feminist spokesperson, and it’s in these that we see the fiery personality that is so prevalent in the current day exchanges with her director-son as he coaxes her through the process. There are also segments where she is mentoring younger girls and a return to the catwalk during Fashion Week.

She’s now in her 70’s, and remains physically striking with a lithe body that defies her age. But it’s the words coming out of her mouth – many pushing this to an “R” rating – that define the woman of today. The title of the movie refers to her preference to ‘disappear’ rather than ‘appear’ in the images of photos, film or social media.  When discussing the obsession society has with youth, she explains that Youth equates to Life, while Old age is associated with Death. That philosophy is a bit of a downer, but is an example of the insight she brings. In describing today’s marketing, she says women are usually associated with nature, while men represent thought and reason. The outspoken and wise feminist lives on.

Home clips from 1999 and a visit with long-time friend Lauren Hutton offer up more bits of what makes the woman tick, as does her listening to Leonard Cohen and smoking cigs and vaping at an alarming rate. In her mid-70’s, whether she likes it or not, her smile still lights up the screen and any room she is in. Still, we understand she has earned her own liberation from the camera, even as she puts a cap on it. Fin.

 

ODE TO JOY

 You might be familiar with the disease narcolepsy, but unless you or someone close to you suffers from it, you’re likely unfamiliar with cataplexy – a symptom of narcolepsy that causes sudden and extreme muscle weakness typically brought on by severe emotions such as sadness, anger or excitement. For Charlie, the trigger is happiness, so he has learned to (mostly) cope by avoiding his triggers: puppies, weddings, random acts of kindness, kids playing, and relationships. What he couldn’t avoid was being a groomsman in his sister’s wedding, which is how director Jason Winer and co-writers Max Werner and Chris Higgins choose to begin the film. We see the full effects and fallout (no pun intended) of Charlie’s disease.

Charlie works a calm job (out of necessity) at the public library, and his co-workers have mastered the art of assisting in keeping Charlie thinking non-happy thoughts. As tends to happen, love finds a way. Charlie crosses paths with Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a lively woman who appears to be Charlie’s opposite in most ways … making the attraction even stronger. A first date to a community theatre where a one-man show titled “Great Depression” is playing, we get the full effect of the challenges Charlie faces.

Cooper (Jake Lacy), Charlie’s younger brother, has been his main support system for most of his life – which is even more remarkable when we get the story of how Cooper got his name. When things fizzle between Francesca and Charlie, Cooper swoops in to date her and they set up Charlie with Bethany (a wonderful Melissa Rauch). Bethany’s own quirks seem to be a good fit, even if Charlie’s torch for Francesca still flickers. Surely you’ve never seen an oboe sing-a-long to the Cranberries “Zombie”, and if somehow you have, it likely pales in comparison to the one Ms. Rauch performs.

The laughs are many, yet the script and Freeman’s performance remain respectful to the disease and those who suffer from it. Jane Curtin appears as Francesca’s Aunt who is cancer-stricken, and no, the purpose wasn’t to show a disease worse than cataplexy, but rather to show we all have challenges in life – and how we deal determines the type of person we are. The story was inspired by a story on Chicago TV’s “This American Life”, and it’s a nice little gem that hopefully will find distribution.

 

THE TOMORROW MAN

 Noble Jones worked as the second unit director on David Fincher’s award-winning film THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and he has made quite a name for himself in music videos and commercials. This is his first feature film as director and he also wrote this interesting script. On top of that, he cast two top-notch veteran actors to bring the story to life: John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. At times it feels like we are watching a masterclass in acting and many of their scenes together have a live theatre feel.

Ed (Lithgow) and Ronnie (Danner) cross paths at the local grocery store where they each shop at an alarmingly frequent rate. It turns out Ed is preparing for doomsday and Ronnie is hoarder. As they spend time together, their fondness for each other grows, but we are never really sure if it’s loneliness or connection that inspires the relationship.

Despite both having a very serious approach to life, there are many moments of levity and sweetness, but also doses of reality that keep us off-balanced – just as life does. Ed proclaims the world would be such a disaster with ball bearings … of course his view is a bit skewed since he spent 17 years on the business. Ronnie is brave enough to attend Thanksgiving dinner with Ed at his son’s house, and the explosive family dynamics drive home the challenges of co-existing with others at any age.

Ed tells the new checkout clerk that it’s “good to know your neighbor. You never know when you’ll need them.” His preparations for doom and gloom … or as he calls it, SHTF … are offset by Ronnie’s sweetness, and a yard sale leads to the surprise ending. As a bonus, filmmaker Noble has finally found a good use for the song “Muskrat Love”.


DIANE (2019)

March 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a film that is both grounded in realism as well as playing like an ode to underappreciated character actresses, our wonderment turns to full comprehension once we realize this is the work of Kent Jones. Mr. Jones is one of today’s foremost authorities on film, having been a respected film critic, served as director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and delivered a tremendous documentary showcasing the conversations of two more publicized film experts with 2005’s HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. In other words, he’s a man who loves cinema and has both a trained eye and an instinct for what makes a film worth watching.

Mary Kay Place (THE BIG CHILL, 1983) is Diane. Our first reaction upon seeing her is that she has the well-worn, hangdog look of a woman burdened by life. As we follow her around, we soon learn that’s very true and that there is even more to her story. Diane is the kind of person who, rather than keep a list of things to do, keeps a list of people for whom she has to do things. And there are many on her list. Chief among these are her dying cousin Donna (Diedre O’Connell) and her drug-addicted son Brian (Jake Lacy). The self-imposed penance Diane pays all day each day stems from a story referred to as “The Cape” … a long ago act of betrayal and indiscretion that has clung to Diane ever since.

The rest of the cast is filled with faces you’ll recognize (and names you can’t recall), many for their work in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, including: Estelle Parsons (Best Supporting Oscar winner for BONNIE AND CLYDE, 1967), Andrea Martin (MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, 2002), Joyce Van Patten (sister of Dick, ST ELMO’S FIRE, 1985), and Glynnis O’Connor (ODE TO BILLY JOE, 1976). But don’t mistake this for some nostalgic tribute – each of these women offer up exactly what’s needed for their respective characters. It’s a joy to behold their work – and easy to take for granted.

This little Massachusetts community is tight-knit and speaks freely on the lives of each other. There are few secrets. Everyone asks Diane about Brian – her son that lies to her face, acts perturbed when she tries to help, forces her to listen to bible-thumping, and finally comes clean on why he’s treated her the way he has. Filmmaker Kent’s first narrative feature is an organic character driven story about aging, carrying a burden, striving to make amends, and suppressing true feelings by constantly serving others. When Diane writes in her journal, “My loved ones are gone and I’m left to be”, it takes her (and us) closer to her soul than any soup kitchen possibly could. Casserole dishes can only heal so much, and a lead role for a respected actress serves us all.

watch the trailer:


MISS SLOANE (2016)

December 8, 2016

miss-sloane Greetings again from the darkness. Timing can be crucial for a film attempting to capitalize on a hot social or political topic or event. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were excited to open this film on the heels of a Hillary Clinton victory … a story about a powerful woman, laser-focused on her mission to push through gun-control legislation. With an unexpected election outcome, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera may just luck out since their film can alternatively be interpreted as a scathing commentary on a corrupt existing system … the single biggest reason for that surprise election result.

By now we have become accustomed to stellar performances from two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Here she plays super-lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane – always impeccably dressed while spouting the voluminous dialogue and quick quips that make up this workaholic, dedicated-only-to-winning viper who rules the snake pit known as politics. When her big firm boss (Sam Waterston) tries to strong arm her into working with the NRA to quash the proposed gun-control legislation … encouraging her to ‘get women excited about guns’ … she quickly takes her competitive nature (and most of her staff) to the opposition, resulting in escalated political warfare.

Much of this plays like an Aaron Sorkin spin-off, but it’s surprising how few movies have focused on the fascinating world of lobbyists. Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Casino Jack (2010) are probably the most widely seen, but it’s Michael Clayton (2007) that seems to have the most in common tonally with this look at ethics (or lack thereof), conniving strategy, and backroom maneuverings.

Ms. Chastain owns the film and the role, and there is strong supporting work from Mark Strong (as her new boss), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (making the most of a few scenes), John Lithgow (as the Senator running the Congressional hearing), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a worthy adversary), Jake Lacy (as Sloane’s only diversion), Alison Pill (her assistant), Dylan Baker (a talk show host), and David Wilson Barnes (her attorney). It’s an impressive group that adds substance to the project.

Do the ends justify the means? Is anyone as ambitious and adept at political games as Elizabeth Sloane? Are ethics really this compromised in the world that creates our laws and policies? However you choose to answer those questions, a look at the misplaced priorities of our elected officials … and the influence of powerful lobbyists … are absolutely worthy of our attention, and undoubtedly contributed to the biggest election surprise in recent memory.

watch the trailer:

 


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: