TULLY (2018)

May 3, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody first collaborated on the filming of her debut script JUNO in 2007. Four years later they made YOUNG ADULT with Charlize Theron, and now all three reunite for this latest tip of the cap to motherhood and self-care. Simpatico is the word that comes to mind here with the perfect lineup of writer, director and actress. The biggest question is how to label it. Some will call it a comedy, while others will proclaim it a serious drama. As with much of life, there is a bit of laughter, a touch of drama, and a dash of most every emotion.

Ms. Theron stars as Marlo, mother of three. There is 8/9 year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland), 6 year old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who lands on the autistic spectrum, and now an unplanned newborn that threatens to rock a family already barely getting through each day. Sarah is a lovely sister and daughter, but the typical adolescent insecurities are magnified by her getting lost in the shuffle due to her two more needy siblings. Jonah gets booted from mainstream kindergarten by a principal who labels him “quirky” … an awkward description people use when they are trying to be polite (even though it’s exactly the opposite).

Ron Livingston plays Marlo’s husband Drew, a traveling businessman who, though a nice guy and loving father, is clueless to the stresses of running the homestead. Also in the mix is Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo’s brother who is equal parts wealthy and smug. When Craig offers the gift of a night-nanny to Marlo, she is tempted, but her pride gets in the way as she compares herself to the ‘cupcake’ super moms who always seem to have their act together. Ultimately, the relentless pressure and sleep deprivation, bring the young night-nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into the home. She and Marlo hit it off immediately leading Marlo (and us) to question if Tully is too good to be true.

As Tully entrenches herself, it becomes clear that her value is to Marlo more than the baby. The two ladies become friends, and Marlo confesses her fears and insecurities as Tully acts as a life coach encouraging her through some tough moments. Despite the surreal feel to these interactions, Diablo Cody’s dialogue crackles with cynicism and realism. The quips we’ve come to expect from her writing are delivered by her best developed character to date. There is a depth to Marlo, and her exchanges with Tully take us places a teenage JUNO couldn’t possibly.

Charlize Theron proves again that she is truly an elite actress when she commits to a role. Her 50 lb weight game adds the necessary realism, but it’s her emotional teetering that is most impressive. She is like a supermodel who also plays rugby – a rare blend of beauty, talent and skill. Mackenzie Davis is a revelation. She holds her own in every scene and it’s quite interesting to see her free-spirited modern day Mary Poppins with tats.

If a previous movie has dealt with the challenge and stress of motherhood with this level of depth and realism, it doesn’t come to mind. The movie kind of creeps up on you with a message regarding the importance of dealing with lost youth, while also never losing sight of yourself as an individual … all with incisive humor and pulling no punches on being an overwhelmed mom. Just don’t call it quirky.

watch the trailer:

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BLUE JAY (2016)

October 8, 2016

blue-jay Greetings again from the darkness. Mark Duplass is the master of awkward. As a writer he excels in awkward encounters, awkward conversations, awkward situations … and awkward people. He can even create awkward out minimalism – two people in a simple and normal environment.

A bearded Mr. Duplass stars as Jim, a seemingly normal guy who has returned to his small hometown to pack up his mother’s house after her passing. While at the local market, he bumps into his old high school sweetheart Amanda, played by Sarah Paulson, who just happens to be in town visiting her expectant sister. Their awkward grocery aisle reunion leads to a very unusual … and yes, awkward … evening.

First time director Alexandre Lehmann uses his extensive experience as a cinematographer, and a black & white motif, to create a beautifully filmed story that is both simple and layered. Only one other actor appears in the movie … one scene with the great Clu Galager (“The Virginian”, The Last Picture Show) as a local merchant who provides a link to the past for Amanda and Jim. The bulk of the time is spent in Jim’s mother’s house – a literal time capsule that allows for reminiscing for the two former lovers.

Amongst the old familiar clothes, photos, letters, books and audio tapes, Jim and Amanda somehow progress to a bizarre form of role playing/play acting as if they had married young and were now celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. You guessed it … awkward. Dinner, dancing, acting silly, jelly beans, Annie Lennox and cutting loose leads them to an awkward bedroom encounter. This moment finally produces an explosion of emotion which uncovers the long-buried source of their break-up … shutting down their fantasy game of recapturing the past.

It would be pretty easy to compare the film to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) or Before Sunset (2004), and though it has more in common with the latter, this one comes across more raw and melancholy than those more celebrated films. We never once doubt this situation could play out, but the only word to describe two former lovers exploring “what could have been” is … awkward. It’s a captivating movie to watch and yet another feather in the cap of Duplass Productions.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


ADULT BEGINNERS (2015)

May 21, 2015

adult beginners Greetings again from the darkness. It’s certainly understandable that the Duplass Brothers (“The League”) are working relentlessly to take advantage of their window of creative opportunity. In the vein of their HBO show “Togetherness”, this is another com-dram with the theme of thirty-somethings coming to terms with adulthood and responsibility.

In their role as Producers for this latest project, Team Duplass has assembled a strong group: director Ross Katz (himself best known as a Producer of In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation), and funny folks Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Garces, and Celia Weston. Unfortunately, the script does not rise to the level of the on screen talent, leaving us with a mostly benign story with few laughs and little message.

Things kick off with Kroll’s character in full crash-and-burn mode when his entrepreneurial offering “Mind’s I” implodes just before it is scheduled for rollout. He loses his money, his investors’ money, and most any semblance of the fair weather friends one accumulates while living the high life in NYC. Packing up what little dignity he retains, Kroll heads to the suburbs to live with his pregnant sister (Rose Byrne), her husband (Bobby Cannavale) and their 3 year old son Teddy.

It’s not that the path is obvious, but rather than it’s executed so blandly. The zingers and physical humor are mostly lacking, and the film can’t seem to decide if it wants us to laugh, or if it would rather prove how tough parenthood and adulthood and responsibility can be. Bobby Moynihan spikes the comedy in a short scene, and Paula Garces may be the most interesting character despite only appearing in a few scenes. The swimming lessons sequences led by Jane Krakowski are mostly vacuous, and are used instead to focus on the insecurities of Kroll and Byrne. As in “Togetherness”, the kids seem to be an afterthought … like a lamp … but less than a sconce.

The scenes are well paced and the story clicks right along, but overall it plays more like a TV show … albeit one with an abundance of cursing, too few laughs, and no new insight into the tough world that awaits as we step out of childhood (evidently in our mid-30’s).

watch the trailer:

 


THE LAZARUS EFFECT (2015)

February 26, 2015

lazarus Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of direct-to-video and movie streaming, it’s a bit surprising that one like this secures a theatrical release. But then it does have a solid cast and a producer who has a proven track record of profitable box office success with low budget horror. The other thing it has going for it is the time of year – there is not much being released right now that can draw the weekend teenage groups, the audience this is clearly aimed at.

Horror movies can be fun, and with a cast that includes Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover and Evan Peters, this one has the foundation to develop a following. However, what starts out like a new age “religion vs science” battle, ends up as a schlocky pseudo-intellectual gore fest. It teases us by mentioning the big questions: What happens when we die? Is it possible to bring back the dead? Should we even try? There are philosophical and ethical questions that are just as relevant as the religious ones.  Unfortunately, the teases offer no payoff and instead we are left with cheesy special effects and a demonic presence that is not so interesting.

When a movie disappoints like this, comparing it to better pictures seems unfair; however, there are elements of Flatliners (1990), Pet Sematary (1989), and of course James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). We even get an “IT’S ALIVE” reference, tongue-in-cheek though it is. The biggest difference is that all three of those films knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish, whereas this first feature film from director David Gelb is a mish-mash of genres and styles.

The basic premise is that lovers, and co-researchers at a Catholic university, Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde), along with their assistants Clay (Peters), Niko (Glover) and Eva (Sarah Bolger, one of the sisters from the great IN AMERICA from 2002), began by looking for a way to extend brain activity in comatose patients. Their work evolved into attempting to bring the dead back to life. It’s no surprise – and included in the trailer – that one of the group dies and the experimental serum is used to reanimate that person. You probably won’t be surprised at this … things don’t go well.

There are some interesting moments and elements – the recurring dream sequence plays out well, but most of the good stuff is quickly dropped in favor of jolts of shock and awe. Jump-scares abound and that will go over well with the Friday night teenagers, but few others will find much to like here. Producer Jason Blum has a real feel for this genre and has turned 50 cents into mega-millions with such movies as the Paranormal Activity franchise, The Purge, and Ouija among others. Mr. Blum has 21 projects in the works for 2015 alone, making him one of the most prolific producers working today. He will learn that it’s sometimes better to let dead dogs lie.

watch the trailer:

 


THE ONE I LOVE (2014)

August 20, 2014

one i love Greetings again from the darkness. Starting out with a typical marriage counseling session, director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader lull us into a movie-going comfort zone based on our experience with such Hollywood fluff as Hope Springs and Couples Retreat. All that should be said at this point is … not so fast, my friends!

A crumbling marriage and the subsequent lack of success with communication, leads the therapist (Ted Danson) to recommend a weekend alone at a private country estate. The twists and turns that await Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), take marriage counseling to an entirely new spectrum. Sophie wants to reignite that early relationship spark and Ethan just wants things back to normal.

The setting does justice to the legend of beautiful California real estate, but things aren’t all they seem as Ethan and Sophie bounce back and forth between the main house and guest house. It’s in these moments where the big relationship questions are addressed … and the script is smart, funny, creative and dark. It’s not likely anyone can watch this without having some inner dialogue, and probably even some real discussion afterwards.

Mark Duplass (“The League“, Safety Not Guaranteed) and Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men“) not only carry the film, but also take on significant responsibility with wide-ranging personality traits and subtle physical changes. Duplass is exceptional and easy for most guys to relate to in how he handles the challenges. While I’ve never been a big fan of Ms. Moss, her performance here is quite impressive. Whether “together” or “apart”, they complement each other nicely.

The closest comparison I have for this one is Ruby Sparks (2012), but this one will have you questioning what makes a relationship work and what should we really expect from our partner. The idea of recapturing that initial spark is absurd and immature, but that doesn’t lessen the need for realistic expectations. For the first feature from director Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen) and writer Justin Lader, the unique and creative approach to such a complex topic make them filmmakers to keep an eye on.

**NOTE: I found the film very well done and quite thought-provoking until the last 15 minutes or so.  One of the twists kind of knocked me off the rails and raised too many questions that this little film just couldn’t address, much less answer. Still, that doesn’t stop me from recommending it to my fellow indie movie lovers. During the Q&A after the screening, director McDowell admitted that they completed filming in 15 days, and that most of the sound and dialogue was recorded live.  The unusual and effective score was, of course, added later.

watch the trailer:

 


PARKLAND (2013)

October 15, 2013

parkland1 Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years of investigation and research have spawned an endless number of theories about what happened, how it happened, and why it happened, that tragic day in 1963. President John F Kennedy and his lovely wife Jacqueline had captured the hearts of many Americans, and on a trip to Ft Worth and then Dallas, the streets were lined with eager citizens who just wanted to catch a glimpse … hoping some of that Camelot magic would rub off. Instead, a city and a country, went spinning off into feelings of anger and devastation. Rather than show us what we already know, this is a peek at a few individuals impacted in ways you might not have previously thought about.

Vincent Bugliosi made a name for himself as the prosecutor in the Charles Manson Family murder case, and then penning the corresponding book “Helter Skelter” (subsequently made into a movie). Parkland (the name of the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was taken after the shooting) is based on Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy”.

parkland4 The main stories we follow are that of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert (James Badge Dale), their mother Margueritte (Jacki Weaver), Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), local FBI Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), and the emergency room doctors and nurses who treated JFK and Oswald (Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, Marcia Gay Harden). You might think that’s too many stories for a single movie, and you are probably correct. However, it’s fascinating to see the frenetic pace and immediate fallout of just how these people were impacted. Sure, we would like more details and backstory, but that’s not the approach this film takes. It just provides a taste of the gut-wrenching decisions Mr. Zapruder has to make while grieving for his beloved President; and the shock of Oswald’s brother as reality hits; the jaw-dropping delusions of Oswald’s mother; the absolute frustration of the CIA and FBI agents knowing their historic failures will be their legacy; and the disparate emotions that enter the operating room with Kennedy and Oswald.

parkland5 The film doesn’t take any stance on the grassy knoll, CIA involvement, LBJ involvement, or number of shooters. This is not a crime solving story or research into conspiracy theories. No, this is a look at real people in extraordinary situations that no amount of preparation can pacify. There are so many little details revealed … one of the most powerful occurring at the Lee Harvey Oswald funeral, and another as the JFK casket is loaded onto Air Force One just prior to LBJ taking the oath. So many little things you have probably never before considered.

parkland6 If you were alive at the time of the assassination, you understand the impact. If you have read any of the stacks of books written about that day, you understand what happened and the messy investigation that followed. Bugliosi and director Peter Landesman effectively mix news reels from the day with dramatizations of the fallout, and the actors do a tremendous job of showing just how personally this affected those at the time. A different perspective brings with it interesting discussion … and a big thanks if your mother is nothing like Oswald’s!

**NOTE: Since I am a Dallas resident, I was relieved to see the film didn’t dwell on the hatred directed at the city following the shooting

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the stress and emotion experienced by so many after JFK was assassinated.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for another conspiracy theory in the mold of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

watch the trailer:

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


ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

January 5, 2013

zero Greetings again from the darkness. Kathryn Bigelow entered the realm of elite directors when her war thriller The Hurt Locker exploded onto the Oscar scene a few years ago. Once again she proves why the critics adore her, and the movie going masses stay away. She is an expert filmmaker, a brilliant technician, though not much into the whole entertainment scene.

We always try to label films and this one doesn’t quite fit as thriller or action, or even war genre. It’s really a tense, procedural drama focusing on the behind-the-scenes CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, it’s mostly the story of one obsessed CIA agent’s research and un-wavering pursuit of the one most responsible for the tragic events of 9-11-01 (as well as many others).

zero4 The film started out as a story of the nearly decade long pursuit and the failure to find him. Everything, including the movie, changed on May 2, 2011 when Navy SEAL Team Six pulled off the daring and historic mission to kill bin Laden. The book “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen (pseudonym for real life SEAL Matt Bissonnette) was released and many of the details became public. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal (former journalist) went even deeper into research mode and now the film has instigated Congressional hearings in regards to some of the scenes.

Bigelow presents this as old school, hard core males vs the intellectual, instinctive and brazen Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. In the book, she is referred to as “Jen”, but her name matters not. What’s important is her laser-like focus for almost 10 years, despite the numerous attempts by her superiors to ignore her theories.

zero3 Much of the film deals with the group meetings and presentations to CIA mid-managers, who either don’t trust her or refuse to put their own careers on the line. Maya remains relentless. She finally gets a audience with CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) and introduces herself as “the M*****F****R who found this place, sir”. This comes across as confident, not disrespectful.

Bigelow and Boal refuse the temptation of providing any real backstory or personal life on these characters. We do learn that Maya was recruited right out of high school, so we can assume she wasn’t a typical 18 year old. The only thought of a romantic interlude is quickly shot down by Maya proclaiming (in so many words), she’s not that kind of girl.

zero5 Most of the men in the film are presented as near Neanderthals. Jason Clarke is the old school field agent who has mastered the use of torture, water-boarding and humiliation to gain information from detainees. The “60 Minutes” clip of Obama saying that America will no longer utilize torture is one of the few tips to national politics that the film offers up. The only other politics are those played by station chief Kyle Chandler, who is protective of his job, and Mark Strong, who seems relatively helpless without the support of his superiors. All the while Maya keeps pushing and pounding for action.

The Langley desk jockeys vs actual Field work provides a distinctive line in the sand between the two worlds, and emphasizes just how easy it is to make a mistake in judgment. What if we had been wrong on the location of bin Laden? What if the “fortress” had belonged to a drug dealer instead and the SEAL team had invaded a private home within the boundaries of our supposed ally zero2Pakistan? Jessica Chastain is believable and tough in her role, and Jason Clarke dominates the screen in his early scenes. Other fine support work comes courtesy of Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, and Jennifer Ehle. When we finally get to the strategy session for the mission, we meet SEAL’s played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton. The 25 minutes or so dedicated to the helicopter mission are filmed as if we are wearing the same night-vision goggles worn by the brave souls storming the castle. It’s a very impressive sequence.

If you enjoy the details of a procedural drama, then you will find much to like here … knowing the ultimate outcome doesn’t affect the suspense one bit. However, if you seek an entertaining respite from your daily grind, this one will offer no assistance … despite another excellent and minimalistic mood score from Alexadre Desplat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you get a kick out of the details involved in a CIA procedural OR you enjoy expert filmmaking, regardless of entertainment value OR you need further proof that Jessica Chastain is a major star OR you want to see Mark Strong’s best impersonation of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: it’s still too soon after the actual event OR you can’t stomach the thought of torturing detainees

watch the trailer:

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