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:

 

 


SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

February 11, 2013

side Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steven Soderbergh says this is it. His final film. At age 50, he says he is walking away from making movies. Over the years, he has provided some good and some not so good, but never has he bored us. Movie lovers will always be grateful to him for his 1989 Sex, Lies and Videotape, which single-handedly brought the spotlight back to indie film. While I am quite skeptical of his retirement claim, it’s noteworthy because the absence of one of today’s true auteur’s would be a loss for the art of cinema.

As for this “last” film, it begins as Hitchcock-esque, but concludes as more like Basic Instinct or Dressed to Kill. Put simply, the first half is mesmerizing while the second half devolves into a trashy pulp thrille … which, depending on your tastes, may or may not be a negative.

side2 The first half brought to mind the term pharmacological thriller. It seems as though Soderbergh and frequent writing collaborator Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) are making a statement about our current societal trend of seeking answers, and even cures, through medication … despite the risky side effects. We meet Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) as he is released from prison (insider trading) and she is falling back into her depressive ways. She is soon enough being treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a doctor who seems typical in his belief that finding the right pill cures most ills.

Since this is a suspense thriller filled with numerous twists and double, even triple-crossings, it’s impossible to go too deep into what happens without spoilers … something I won’t do here. What can be said is the pharmacological thriller shifts into legal drama and finally a who-done-what kind of conclusion. The solving of the mystery comes courtesy of another oft-used Hitchcock theme: the wronged man seeking vindication.

side3 Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent here and to whatever extent the story works for you, they deserve the credit along with Soderbergh. Ms. Mara was outstanding in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mr. Law continues his transition from lame rom-com’s to quality dramatic actor. The same shouldn’t be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Dr Victoria Seibert, Emily’s first psychiatrist. Every scene she shares and every line she speaks just screams “look at me”, not a desired quality for a supporting role.

Support work is provided by Polly Draper, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), Vinessa Shaw, Peter Friedman, Laila Robins, and Ann Dowd. Soderbergh does not disappoint from a technical aspect. His odd camera angles and unique shots are quite impressive and effective in sustaining the mood, even as the story spirals towards far-fetched. If it’s truly his swan song, it seems appropriate that we see both the highs and lows of director Soderbergh. Here’s hoping he returns very soon to the medium where his impact is needed.  If not, the side effects aren’t pretty.

**NOTE: If you look quick, there is an advertising poster featuring Julia Roberts. (Ms. Roberts is a Soderbergh favorite from films such as Erin Brokovich)

**NOTE: Soderbergh does have a TV project set to air later this year.  Behind the Candelabra is the story of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe it’s Steven Soderbergh’s final movie OR you enjoy a pulpy thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer psycho-thrillesr that avoid the slide towards trash-pulp

watch the trailer:

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