THE INTERVENTION (2016)

August 25, 2016

intervention Greetings again from the darkness. Clea DuVall: Actress/Writer/Director/Producer. No one who has followed her outstanding career (especially as a standout in many independent films) can be surprised that she is spreading her creative wings into all aspects of filmmaking. Her directorial debut can best be described as a contemporary version of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) for today’s thirty-somethings.

Casting is key for an ensemble project, and it’s especially difficult for a serio-comedy exploring the insecurities and inherent unhappiness that corresponds to the closest relationships. The premise here is that four couples meet at a beautiful and isolated lake house just outside of Savannah. The motivation for this meet up of old friends is a “marriage intervention” for one of the couples … something that must have seemed better in theory than it plays out in reality.

The couple whose marriage is in the target zone is played by Cobie Smulders (The Avengers, “How I Met Your Mother”) as exhausted mother of three Ruby, and Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the long-ago-gave-up-trying Peter. The others are played by Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) as Annie, who has continually postponed her wedding to super nice guy fiancé Matt played by Jason Ritter; Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) as Sarah, long-time partner to Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall); and Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”) as Jack, who brings his free-spirited, much younger girlfriend Lola (Alia Shawkat, State of Grace).

We quickly witness the bitterness and lack of caring that has poisoned the marriage of Ruby and Peter, and of course, it doesn’t take long to spot all the cracks in the relationships and personalities of the others. Annie is a control-freak who appears to be a full blown alcoholic, while Matt is such a nice guy, that he refuses to stand up for himself and have some pride. Sarah and Jessie avoid any serious discussion regarding why they aren’t living together yet, while Jessie’s weakness for younger girls plays a role – as does Sarah’s secret. Jack is obviously avoiding dealing with some personal issue (which we later learn) as he plays kissie-face with the no-strings-attached Lola (not Lolita).

The script tries to tackle an enormous number of issues, sub-plots and characters, and while we pretty easily get a feel for each, we never understand how these people ever agreed that a group attack was the best strategy. No amount of charades, barbeque or kickball can hide the messes that define each of these folks … whether married or not.

The actors have tremendous comedy timing and handle these moments much better than the ultra-dramatic moments. Cobie Smulders and Ben Schwartz are real standouts here, which is quite a compliment given the tremendous on screen talents on display. It’s a group that can gracefully pull off a Subaru joke while also playing cut-throat charades and dodging thrown peaches.

Ms. DuVall will undoubtedly go on to make better films than this one, but as a first project it offers some terrific moments. Sara Quinn (of Tegan and Sara) scores the film, and though some excellent tunes are included, the music was at times disruptive to the flow of the story. The film will probably hit home with a great many who fall into the thirty-something age group, though older viewers will likely prefer to re-visit The Big Chill from more than 30 years ago.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)

August 31, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Brace for gushing. Upon attending a screening that included a fascinating Q&A with writer/director Stephen Chbosky, I was reminded of how personal and intimate and observant and incisive a well-made film can be. A well written script is so refreshing, and an exceptional script can be truly breath-taking. Mr. Chbosky takes the most unusual step of directing his own screenplay based on his own novel (a 1999 bestseller), and he left me stunned and enthralled, both onscreen and off.

The popularity of the novel would typically make the film version a disappointment for its fans. Not so this time. Mr. Chbosky remains true to the spirit despite the need to edit for the sake of pacing and brevity. The key characters spring to life thanks to the outstanding script and the four strong performances from young actors: Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson, The Three Muskateers) plays Charlie, Emma Watson (Harry Potter films) is Sam, Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, City Island) is Patrick, and Mae Whitman (“Arrested Development“) is Mary Elizabeth.

If you have read the book, you know the story … you know the characters … you know the themes. If you haven’t read the book, I will spoil nothing. The brilliance is recognized only as you get to know these characters and slowly uncover their stories. What we discover is that, regardless of our age, we recognize these characters from our high school days. We know the introverted, observant Charlie who so desperately needs a support system. We surely recognize the attention-starved, lacking in self-esteem Sam who is the epitome of “We accept the love we think we deserve“. And we all knew a Patrick … the flamboyant one who sheaths his pain with an over-the-top act of public confidence. What Chbosky does is shine the spotlight on these characters to ensure that we really SEE them this time.

The themes reminded me a bit of a darker John Hughes film (that’s a compliment). There were also pieces of two other really good films: Stand By Me and Almost Famous. The formative years of a writer determine the depths to which his or her work will reach later in life. Admittedly, the film is substantially autobiographical, so when Mr. Chbosky says it’s a personal story, we begin to understand the foundation of his remarkable writing style.  He even utilizes music to help us get a better feel for this period of time … especially “Asleep” by The Smiths and “Heroes” by David Bowie.  Watching the impact of the songs reminds us just what a powerful bookmark a particular song can be at a given moment in our life.

Welcome to the island of misfit toys.” When this line is spoken, we realize that most every high school kid has thought the same thing at some point. These are painful and difficult times and as Mr. Chbosky stated, we should encourage kids to fight through this stage and get on to the next … then work to find their true self. Clearly, the film made a strong impact on me. My favorite reaction to a movie is profound thought, and this one caused it in waves. The decision to release as PG-13 was wise. There is no excess of profanity or nudity to divert attention from what really matters … the characters. I can think of no finer compliment to a writer and filmmaker than to cite them as the cause of my internal discussions related to their film. My hope is that you have the same reaction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the book OR you believe that the high school years, in spite of how painful they might be, are formative years for helping us start the path to self-discovery

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer teen movies be doused in slapstick rather than reality

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5rh7O4IDc0


SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (2012)

July 2, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. First time director Lorene Scafaria is best known for her wonderful script for Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Directing her own script here, we are left wondering if the gaps are in the writing or directing, but it’s clear Ms. Scafaria loves long titles. Matilda, a giant asteroid, is headed towards Earth and life will cease to exist in 3 weeks. Upon hearing this news, Dodge’s wife Linda (played by Steve Carell‘s real-life wife) takes off running away from him and supposedly into the arms of her secret love affair partner.

Dodge (Carell) has little reaction to the bailing of his wife or even to the impending Armageddon. In fact, he strikes us as the guy who has had little reaction to much in life and has no idea who he really is. While he does have some acquaintances and a predictably boring job at an insurance company, Dodge shows no inclination to join in the festivities of excess (drugs, sex, religion, riots) enjoyed by others, and instead offers up a lame, sure-to-fail suicide attempt to go with his droopy demeanor and overall lethargy.

It takes little time for Dodge to be saddled with an abandoned dog named Sorry and a crying neighbor named Penny (Keira Knightley). This part of the film is actually its best feature. We get the forced partnership of this odd couple and a road trip that allows for some interaction with others. The others include standout scenes with William Peterson, Bob Stephenson and TJ Miller (below, left, the host at Friendsy’s, a TGIF themed diner that devolves into a lovefest that neither Dodge nor Penny care to partake.

 The road trip does have the outline of a purpose. Dodge wants to re-connect with his high school sweetheart and Penny wants to get home to England in time to say goodbye to her parents. However, it’s pretty clear that the main reason for the road trip is to allow Dodge and Penny to fall in love. Just another apocalyptic rom-com.

I totally get the “opposites attract” approach, but I found Knightley to be far beyond quirky (John Cale and Leonard Cohen vinyl) and closer to her mentally unstable character in the first hour of A Dangerous Method. As for Dodge, he may be the nice guy that Penny sees, but mostly his life force hovers just above zero, while wearing sweaters that would fit right into Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It’s not until he visits his estranged dad (Martin Sheen) that he shows signs of a pulse.  It’s kind of interesting to pay attention to the names in the film.  Dodge is ironic given what’s headed toward Earth.  Penny may or may not be lucky depending on your interpretation.  A survivalist named Speck, who doesn’t get that his preparations make no difference.  And, of course, a dog named Sorry.

2011 brought us two fascinating end-of-the world films in Melancholia and Another Earth.  This one avoids the manic depression of one or the science fiction of the other. While I never really bought into the heightened attraction of these two who miraculously become kindred spirits thanks to the time constraints, their relationship does provide fodder for thought. What would you do if you knew things were ending in 3 weeks? Would your true self finally make an appearance? If so, what are you waiting for? The message really is … our time is limited so don’t waste it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wouldn’t mind a little Herb Alpert with your apocalypse OR you need a primer in the greatness of vinyl records, even if the knowledge won’t help once the asteroid hits

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a hyper, twisted-faced Keira Knightley is not your ideal partner at the end regardless of the pristine condition of her John Cale and Leonard Cohen albums

watch the trailer:


WIN WIN

March 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Thomas McCarthy‘s first two directorial outings were excellent: The Station Agent, The Visitor. This is his third and it seems clear the first two were not flukes. He is a filmmaker who knows what he is doing and is attracted to real people in real life situations. All three films feature the reactions and adaptations when strangers collide and a family-like atmosphere is created.

In this film, Paul Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer who also coaches the local high school wrestling team. Times are tough for Giamatti’s practice and when he stumbles on a chance for some “easy” money, his wrestling match with his conscience doesn’t last too long … even though it is not in the best interest of his client. By taking the easy way out, his elderly client is moved out of his home and into a long-term care facility. Giamatti knows his decision isn’t right, so he hides it from his wife, the talented Amy Ryan. Their home life seems very typical until the Giamatti decision leads to further complications … the client’s long-lost grandson shows up.

 The kid turns out to be quite perceptive and fits right into the Giamatti/Ryan family … especially when it is discovered that he is a top notch high school wrestler. Newcomer Alex Shaffer was cast because of his wrestling skills, but shines in the film due to his ability to come across as a real kid in real world conflicts. There are times his actions and decisions are more adult than the adults.  An interesting running theme throughout the film is “whatever it takes” … sometimes this is used for good, sometimes things are a bit gray.

The grandfather client is played by Burt Young, who was Paulie in the Rocky movies. Giamatti’s best friend is played by Bobby Cannavale, whose character is going through marital hell, and whose lively spirit and outspoken tendencies provide many of the laughs in the film. Cannavale shines in this film, much as he did as the slightly desperate vendor in The Station Agent.

 Things are going along pretty well for the new “family” until Shaffer’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) is released from the drug clinic and she shows up to re-claim her son and her share of grandpa’s wealth. She and her attorney (another nice role for Margo Martindale) expose Giamatti’s earlier unethical decision and force his hand. The strength of the family is severely tested.

What I really like about this and the two previous McCarthy films are that no  Hollywood tricks are used. He hits situations head-on with realistic levels of comedy and uncomfortable people who are just trying to get along in life. In Win Win, the stellar cast brings life to these characters and draw us right in to their attempts at conflict resolution. Even though the theme is not too far removed from that of The Blind Side, Mr. McCarthy provides us with characters who could be from our own lives or even our own families. That makes all the difference.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  real characters dealing with real life situations create the type of com-dram you enjoy OR you just want to see a movie with high school students who actually look like high school students (not 28 yr old actors) OR you want to see the power of a strong ensemble cast

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: The Blind Side was as realistic as you prefer movies to get OR you want to avoid the sight of Paul Giamatti jogging or unclogging a toilet