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.

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HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS (2016)

March 18, 2016

hello my name is doris Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood has long ignored the pushback on its habit of casting younger women as the love interest of older men. In most of those movies, the relationships are treated as normal and expected. In the few movies that turn the tables, a relationship between an older woman and younger man is typically treated as either comedy or scandal … consider Harold and Maude (1971) and Notes on a Scandal (2006). In this latest film, writer/director Michael Showalter (The Baxter) and co-writer Laura Terruso strive to balance heartfelt emotions with situational laughs.

Sally Field returns to leading lady status as Doris, a never-married frumpy accountant in her late 60’s who has been living in her childhood home whilst caring for her ailing mother … hoarding everything from magazines to packaged food seasoning to a single water ski. The film begins with the open casket funeral of Doris’ mom, and we see her brother (Stephen Root) and his obnoxious and rude wife (Wendi McLendon) immediately pounce on Doris to clear out the clutter and sell the house. They even set her up with a hoarder specialist/therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who finds the case quite challenging.

The real fun in the movie begins with a close encounter in the office elevator, when Doris and her cat-eye glasses come face to face with a handsome and charming young man who offers up a compliment – something Doris rarely experiences. Of course, a few minutes later, we learn the young man is John (Max Greenfield, “New Girl”), the new artistic director in Doris’ office. For years, Doris has depended upon cheesy romance novels to supply the fantasy in her life, and now the lessons from that reading kick into full gear.

It’s a night out with her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly) that results in a chance interaction with a cocky motivational speaker (Peter Gallagher) whose catchphrase is “Every week has seven days. None of them are named Someday”. He leaves Doris with this thought: “Impossible means I’m possible”. When combined with those romance novels, Doris now sees a realistic chance for love if she pursues the man of her dreams … the aforementioned (and half her age) John.

With the help of Roz’ teenage granddaughter (Isabella Acres), Doris learns how to Facebook stalk, and soon enough ends up at a concert with John’s favorite techno band, Baby Goya and Nuclear Winters (led by Jack Antonoff of Fun.). John and his group of hipster friends are enamored with Doris’ vintage clothes and quirky sense of style and speech. She soon finds herself posing in spandex for Baby Goya’s album cover, going to dinner parties, and joining a rooftop knitting group of millennials.

Judging by the boisterous laughing by women in the theatre, this is a prime GNO flick for women of all ages. Most of the comedic situations seemed pretty obvious and predictable, and I found some traits of Doris to be less than appealing. However, as a statement on what happens when the outside world passes by, and generational gaps become almost impossible to bridge, the film makes a bold statement on real friendship between mature women. It poses the question, what determines whether a personal awakening is real or imagined?

Sally Field (turning 70 in 2016) gives a terrific performance, and it goes much deeper than someone who puts her reading glasses on top of her regular glasses and wears giant bows in her giant hairpiece. Ms. Field has excelled in such previous work as “Sybil” (1975), Norma Rae (1978), Places in the Heart (1983), and Lincoln (2011). She understands comedy and human drama, and as Doris … you’ll kind of like her. You’ll really kind of like her!

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ADDICTED TO FRESNO (2015)

September 17, 2015

addicted to fresno Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not quite a unicorn, but it seems fair to call it a White Harbour Porpoise. Yes, it’s that rare to see a Comedy movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring women in a story about women. And it’s that rarity which makes it all the more disappointing when the finished product doesn’t match the expectation.

The cast is loaded with funny people, many of whom are best known for their work on TV. However, that’s not what makes this feel like an aimless TV sitcom straining too hard to make us laugh, often through cheap shock value. The movie leaves us with the feeling that writer Karey Dornetto (“Portlandia”) and director Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader, “Gilmore Girls”) have spent too many hours studying the work of Judd Apatow, rather than letting their own voices speak. We are teased with glimpses, but mostly just left wanting.

On the bright side, Judy Greer finally gets a lead role after seemingly hundreds of support roles where she has often been the best thing about a movie. Yet somehow the filmmakers manage to dull Ms. Greer’s natural glow as she plays Shannon, a registered sex offender with little desire to break her sex addiction, or even become the least bit likeable. The very talented Natasha Lyonne plays Martha, Shannon’s younger lesbian sister who is her personality polar opposite, yet never can quite escape the “bad luck” following her around.

Martha decides to make Shannon’s recovery her mission in life, and secures her a job so they can work together as maids at a local motel. What follows is an accidental murder, a frantic attempt to dispose of the body, a mentally challenged housekeeping supervisor, multiple instances of sexual confusion, a sex shop hold-up, blackmailing pet cemetery owners, a profane rapping boy at his bar mitzvah, an inappropriate relationship with a therapist that breaks up a marriage, and a running gag with a chubby hotel guest in a Hawaiian shirt carrying a little dog. All of that zaniness leads to a disproportionately few number of laughs, although we do get a terrific Cousin It impersonation and an extremely rare (maybe a first ever?) Hammer-throw joke.

What’s lacking here, despite the best efforts of Ms. Greer and Ms. Lyonne, is any semblance of humanity or realism … necessities for comedy. We just never make any connection with the main characters. The supporting cast provides numerous diversions and feature the familiar faces of Ron Livingston (the therapist mentioned above), an underutilized Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, the duo of Fred Armisen and Alison Tolman playing opportunistic small business owners, Jessica St Clair as one of the more emotional front desk clerks you’ll ever see, Jon Daly as one of the more unfortunate characters, and Malcolm Barrett as Shannon’s latest love interest/poet.

Of course, in keeping with the film’s title there is a never-ending stream of insults directed at the city of Fresno. If that much attention had been paid to the sister relationship and the forming of characters, perhaps the comedy would have been more effective. Instead, if you are all set on watching sisters working together in the clean-up business, the better recommendation would be Sunshine Cleaning.

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SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE (2015)

September 9, 2015

sleeping with other people Greetings again from the darkness. In 1989, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally hit theatres, and many described it as an updated/contemporary version of Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall.  It’s been 26 years since Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan debated whether guys and girls could be “just” friends, and now writer/director Leslye Headland shows us that same debate continues to this day.

Jason Sudekis (“Saturday Night Live”, Horrible Bosses) stars as Jake, and Alison Brie (“Mad Men”, “Community”) stars as Lainey. These two characters meet in college and promptly lose their virginity to each other. (It takes a little imagination to accept these two thirty-somethings as college kids) Twelve years later, they meet again by happenstance at a meeting for sex addicts. It turns out, Jake’s biggest phobia is related to commitment, and he’s a womanizer who has mastered the break-up (yep, he slept with your sister).  Lainey’s issue is commitment as well, only it’s her misplaced commitment to a married doctor (Adam Scott) instead of her boyfriend (Adam Brody) that causes problems.

Jake and Lainey quickly pick up their legendary (in their own mind) repartee, and it becomes a friendship comprised of rapid-fire one-liners. Yes, I used the F-word to describe their relationship. To protect their platonic bond, they go to the extreme of creating a safe word as an admission/warning if one is feeling overly amorous towards the other … it’s like a fire hose to extinguish any thoughts not related to being a good buddy.

While Sudekis and Brie are both talented and likeable, it’s the outdated pop culture references that create such an out-of-place feeling for the viewer. How many thirty-somethings these days reference Bobby Fischer, Anne Sullivan and Madame Butterfly during conversation? And the “Pontiac Aztec” line may be the best line in the movie, but how likely is it to resonate with most audience members?  There is certainly no shortage of dialogue committed to laughs, but so much of it seems out of step with the young adults it’s clearly targeting.

The obvious comparisons/tributes to When Harry Met Sally come in the form of the split screen during a text conversation (in contrast to Harry and Sally’s phone chats), and the uncomfortable scene featuring a glass tea bottle is the answer to Sally’s infamous diner scene. What’s lacking is the intellect and heart so prevalent in the 1989 film. It may be contemporary, but it’s missing any subtlety or nuance. Perhaps that’s the influence of Producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, both who specialize in laughs over nuance.

Additional support work is provided by Amanda Peet, as Jake’s boss and love interest; and Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, the married couple trying hard to help while delivering the film’s best and funniest scenes (the closing credits – wow!). Also contributing are Natasha Lyonne, Margarita Levieva, and Katherine Waterston (as the doctor’s wife).

Though they deliver some easy laughs (a good thing), if this movie and Amy Schumer’s recent Trainwreck are accurate social observations of the times, it’s difficult to have much hope for modern day relationships (not a good thing).

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