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Happy Christmas (2014)

September 9, 2014

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It was only with last year’s Drinking Buddies that highly prolific filmmaker Joe Swanberg hit the “mainstream” in terms of relatively conventional indie cinema. Essentially, the film was his highest budget (a whopping…$500,000) and the first to sport a famous cast. Not only that, the film really did seem like the closest thing to a conformity (with only respect) to standard movie conventions. Despite being un-scripted, Drinking Buddies walks a familiar line with a will-they-won’t-they pair of work friends that clearly should be in love. Again, all the respect, it’s a solid film with particularly good performances from Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson. Having had a similar, albeit much more adolescent, version of that relationship, I connected painfully with the characters they created.

Happy Christmas marks the first film since Swanberg became “Director of Drinking Buddies“, and possibly a more house-hold name, at least for those who checked in with the previous film expecting all laughs and a cheery ending. His new film is honestly the best that could come from that heightened status. In fact, by hastily gathering the underrated Melanie Lynskey, fellow young auteur Lena Dunham and carrying over Anna Kendrick from his last cast, Happy Christmas is grounded in much more immediacy, likening it to his usual status quo. The film runs just under 90 minutes and hardly follows the steps for a typical 3-act structure. The characters are all very successfully felt out sketches from pieces of each actor participating, and the improvisation once-again lends to a hyper-organic feel.

Interestingly, Happy Christmas is shot on film stock, which reportedly is where nearly all of the $80,000 budget went. The case for this classic medium has been made on the rather epic scale, from the grand visual scope of Christopher Nolan to the sprawling, star-studded personal comedy of Judd Apatow, but it never dawned on me how great it might be to see someone as self-sufficient as Joe Swanberg shooting on film. To reiterate Marc Maron’s recent comments in his interview with Kendrick, the use of film with such a small, off-the-cuff film is the raised stakes of improvisation. There is not this sense of shooting until you get a handful of alternate line reads, but rather a fun tension to capture things right and move forward. This brings me to a recent conversation about John Cassavettes and how “mumble-core” filmmaking has developed into maybe the closest kindred spirit to the famed actor’s-director, at least since the early days of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith.

The story that unfolds in this film is also filled with that immediacy, while keeping a rather low-key pace void of any real expected down slopes (save for one burnt pizza incident.) The whole lost person moves back in with family to sort their shit out plot has certainly had its hundreds of variations. However, Swanberg’s crew keeps things fresh by never creating any dramatic tension for the sake of just having a movie. Lynskey’s character will accuse Kendrick of having a serious drinking problem, share drinks with her in the next scene, and just let their tendencies naturally flesh themselves out rather than address them as the types of “issues” that this film is going to deal with.

I wonder about my consistent fascination, appreciation and near-adoration for the films of Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, Dunham, Shelton, and Katz. They are the films that truly made me want to make films, but there is a strange notion to how comfortable it can be to watch people so perfectly embodying a reality close to ours. Happy Christmas may be the most enjoyable and dynamic of them, that is, if you really leave your mind open to a cool, yet nearly directionless, tide.

Also, Swanberg’s baby boy is just hilarious to watch, and is listed on iMDB as an actor/writer.

 

Happy Christmas is currently available for rent on iTunes.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

August 28, 2014

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Here’s the deal with an output as frequent as Woody Allen, patterns develop. This was not always the case, of course. His famous artistic high point post-Manhattan saw a string of fantastic films throughout the 1980s, an unbelievable home run streak. Naturally, one cannot keep that up if one is committed to releasing a film per year. So you see more of your You Will Meet a Dark Stranger and cherish every Midnight in Paris you can get. There has been a relatively distinctive line. When not writing sprawling messes like To Rome With Love, the seemingly easier path for him to follow, he will occasionally zero in on a real succinct character, such as Cate Blanchett’s award-winning lead in Blue Jasmine last year.

The frustrating problem with his new film, Magic in the Moonlight, is that he has narrowed his focus as though to present one of his better films, but lets it seriously fizzle out rather abruptly toward the end of the second act. The film pits two great characters at odds: a magician well-known for his complete rationality and ability to debunk those who claim to have “real” magic, alongside a young woman who has repeatedly demonstrated a shockingly accurate knack for said “real” magic to an upper-class community in the south of France. Colin Firth delivers a familiar but still welcome performance as Stanley (a.k.a Wei Ling Soo), who scoffs and any and every notion of mysticism or spirituality. Emma Stone wonderfully wavers in and out of psychic “vibrations” as she reads the inner workings of the people around her, including Stanley who soon buys her talent and sees the world in a new light.

Yes, that is sincere praise for the film. At least for the beginning of the film. In the first half, these two have great moments of figuring one another out, all shot beautifully by Darius Khondji (who, among many great films, recently shot The Immigrant. Gorgeous.) Allen sticks to his resurrection of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio as he follows primarily these two and it is really quite nice to watch. However, as Firth muses toward the beginning of the film, the plot “thickens”. In other words, what feels like a path to an interesting, cerebral meditation on rationality versus faith, a debate Allen has long been involved with, the film turns into a half-assed hoax followed by a quick declaration of love between two people who are not only decades apart, but do not really establish that kind of connection very well in the first place. On top of that, there is a strangely orchestrated car accident involving Stanley’s cool aunt, an accident that seemingly has little effect on Stanley, and several moments of very forced conclusions ensue. By the time Allen wants to wrap things up into a love story, it is just way too late.

I could not help but think of Hannah and Her Sisters, one of the greatest Woody Allen films if not among the greatest films in general, and how he crafted such raw, tender and brilliant lines of dialogue for the three women at the center. He has always been known for this ability, and it was a wonderful reminder last year to see Blanchett working with such a ferocious, Tennessee Williams-inspired character. It also makes it that much more frustrating to watch Emma Stone, one of the finest young actresses working today, playing such an interesting character that ultimately climbs into a cookie cutter female movie role, so subservient to the irrational needs of this dude (and not irrational in the romantic, love is beyond reason kind of way.) Woody Allen knows better and can write much better.

Although Magic in the Moonlight sports brilliant cinematography and a chunk of a good story, the ultimate outcome is really just…quite bothersome.

 

Stage Fright (2014)

August 26, 2014

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Although it may not seem like it, the level to which a piece of art achieves ridiculousness is a craft on its own. Most often this happens by accident, like the sincere, earnest attempt at filmmaking that is Tommy Wiseau’s famously terrible The Room. Though not Wiseau’s intentions at all, The Room surpasses a type of “bad” classification that makes it fun to watch (at least for like the first 45 minutes..) The other end of this spectrum is something like the recently franchised Sharknado films, clearly created to be hilariously bad, but really not that fun to endure.

I do not mean to introduce Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright as a bad movie at all, but the film achieves the difficult status of abso-lutely striving for ridiculous and going far enough to be respectable. The film is a jarring mix of musical comedy and slasher horror, the former being true to theater camp gusto and the latter being almost unnecessarily enhanced with SFX to be laughably gruesome. A decade after the brutal murder of Camilia’s actress mother (nice to see Minnie Driver for a minute) after the opening night of The Haunting of the Opera, the musical is set to be revived at a theater camp where Camilia and her brother work as cooks and their adoptive guardian (MEATLOAF) runs the show. As though a cursed show, cast and crew begin to get picked off in the most grotesque fashion, set to screeching hair metal by a phantom-clad killer who repeatedly vocalizes his hatred of musicals.

That last part is where the ridiculousness really keys in, to a degree where any claim that Sable is actually trying for a real homage to De Palma is kind of a joke. Sure the aesthetic is often reminiscent of Carrie or, of course, Phantom of the Paradise, but the pure goofiness of Stage Fright‘s villain and most of its musical numbers renders it a definite, intentional joke. Though it is true, as far as looks go, the film can at times join the ranks of Ti West’s House of the Devil in that classic horror revival look. But let’s not pretend this is supposed to be an honest attempt at even classic Wes Craven, who already did have a certain amount of camp.

I mean, seriously, the phantom killer at one point wedges his butcher knife under the strings of an electric guitar so he can play a quick solo in front of a victim.

The killer happens to be voiced by impressionist Rick Miller, who starred in the one man show MacHomer (which I got to enjoy at the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, MT once upon a time), giving his 100% at an Axl Rose on really strong speed. The commitment is commendable, and though none of the campers singing is anything to write home about, the lead performance from Allie MacDonald is pretty impressive, notably in the penultimate scene scene where her real life horror is well composed on her face, center stage as everything seems to be at its worst.

Bottom line, Stage Fright is not a particularly great movie, but it is unique and far-fetched enough to be worth a watch. If you have experience with theater camp or theater kids in general, definitely check this out. Just mind the copious gore and the hair metal that accompanies it.

Stage Fright is available for streaming on Netflix, and probably all the VOD outlets

Boyhood (2014)

August 24, 2014

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Most likely, unless you have avoided anything movie-related on the internet, or maybe even, heh, deleted your Facebook, you know the more-than-general consensus that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, finally out after 12 years of shooting, is a brilliant, landmark film. Before seeing it, hell, before it even had a trailer out earlier this year, I had loved this movie. Seeing, I think it was, Untitled 12 Year Project on Linklater’s IMDB page for so many years had just added to the immense respect I already held for the director. He’s a landmark kind of artist. When I was in my early teens, my older brother gifted me my first entry from the Criterion Collection: Slacker. The debut film from Linklater cannot help but change the life of anyone who sees it, even if just to force a reevaluation of what movies can be and have become since 1990. Then there was already the unique, awe-inspiring experience of watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy grow together over three decades with The “Before” Trilogy, which saw its third film hit theaters last summer.

But the hype is true, people. Boyhood is all on its own in terms of tremendous solidarity from anything in cinema history. That being said, it does take a particular thread of attention and care for “moments” rather than scenes, for emotional brushstrokes rather than dramatic turns. Boyhood does have the lit up flare of Linklater’s youthful works (Dazed and ConfusedSchool of Rock, etc), but it is all combined with natural flow of the “Before” films or Tape and Slacker. The real-time nature of the film may appear to lend itself to a wash-over-you viewing experience, but it is very much the opposite. There are many moments where those same open windows of realism make you have to really work with the film. Your engagement is absolutely necessary. Luckily, everyone has grown up, and despite the title, Boyhood does not limit itself to a gender specific journey.

Now, I must divulge a pretty great thing about the timing of my growing up/my friends’ growing up. When on-screen Harry Potter was an 11-year old kid learning about the magical other side to our world, I too was an 11-year old, right there with him. When 17-year old seniors Evan and Seth argued over pornography and lamented life after high school in Superbad, my 17 year old self and all my friends filled a row in the theater, laughing ourselves to tears about the truly weird parallels. Soon after, we cried legitimate tears as Andy passed his beloved toys on in Toy Story 3, as we too were packing our things and moving away from home.

The additional sublime beauty of Boyhood for me is to see the same years of my youth unfold on the screen. Linklater clearly caught the key moments of any given year for shooting this film. From the midnight release parties of the Potter books to the Travis Barker remix that made Soulja Boy cool enough to maybe listen to, Boyhood is like this parallel thread that so perfectly captures the real experience of growing up “millennial”, a word so often used in a near-derogatory way to cast us off as “Generation Nice” or “Wuss” or whatever. Sure there has been iPhones and Twilight, and sure that is easier to use as a definition of a generation in a think-piece, but we must not lose sight that adolescence is still adolescence. Good parents are still good parents. Douchebag seniors are always douchebag seniors. And the moment when you know you should probably lean in to kiss someone will always be that moment.

Aside from the divine achievement of watching these characters grow with such visceral and incredible truth, the filmmaking also happens to be oh-so top notch. Because it’s true, this film was not necessarily guaranteed to be great. Someone could have fucked this opportunity up. In fact, many filmmakers could have. But Linklater is so in touch with the world we live in that he makes these wonderful choices, even if they may never add up to be important. Everything from shooting at a Major League Baseball game to an incredibly smooth tracking shot as a fellow classmate wanders with Mason down an alley just to reveal some girl likes him, it all ends up being important because there is no set structure. Boyhood is able to glide along at a quick 2 hours and 40 minutes because we are not expecting anything. No 1st, 2nd, and 3rd acts. Just whatever comes next.

What makes me extra pleased with this film is that when all is said and done, this is simply another achievement from a massively important filmmaker. This is not a peak, but just part of a series of home-runs from someone who does not just swing until its out of the park and then puts his feet up, but from an unstoppable force.

This is just my regurgitation of initial reactions. This film will occupy my head for quite a while. So, please, just go see it.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

August 22, 2014

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In Sin City, revenge is a dish best served cold. At least, that’s how everyone talks about the dish. You can’t walk down an alley in Sin City without it being offered. Right under your nose. Constantly.

Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s long-awaited follow up to the much beloved Sin City, falls very, very flat very, very soon into its first chapter. Like the previous film, A Dame to Kill For holds to its comic structure, interweaving (basically) three story threads with a fairly common theme. That cold dish of revenge is the driving motivation for the three men and one woman that lead the film.

Using this vague theme, Miller and Rodriguez dumb each of these characters to essentially one unified, tiring, “hard-boiled” voice. No five minutes go by without a character basically offering a new city slogan for their devious stomping grounds: “Sin City’s where you go in with your eyes open, or you don’t come out at all” or “Death is just like life in Sin City. It always wins.” It all rings together in one monotonous tone, which can be somewhat expected from returning brute Mickey Rourke as Marv, but is a real shame to see carried over with Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon Levitt. Even when it comes time for Jessica Alba to take over, the constant narration is extremely predictable and often times way too literal. These films are known for their visual spectacle, but it’s hard to fully enjoy that element when everything on screen is being so dumbly reiterated by voiceover.

And seriously though, at one point, like so many grandpas across the world, Josh Brolin gives the most gritty attempt at: “I was born at night, but not last night.”

Maybe Sin City has always been about overemphasizing that heavy-handed noir voiceover. It carried the comics and certainly the original film. However, what was once lovably corny is now groan-worthy, and not because the whole thing is dated, but because it is truly not very good writing. Parts of A Dame to Kill For sound like what my 14-year old self and his friends would have come up with in writing some poor knock-off to the first film, with which we were certainly obsessed for a time. There is even borderline tragedy in seeing holdovers from the first film rehashing watered down versions of their old lines. Bruce Willis makes brief appearances, wandering both with the screen presence of and as a literal ghost, looming over Alba’s Nancy, who is maybe the most interesting lead character with the least amount of screen time. Marv returns essentially to just wander in and out of the whole film as a spiritual guide to his fellow burnt out brutes, even stopping to remind Brolin’s Dwight that, yes, that woman in front of you is the dame in question for which he should kill.

The titular dame, played by Eva Green, is clearly intended to enhance the visual splendor of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For by being primarily nude for the duration of the film. Though she is pretty great at being coolly menacing, her story falls most flat by pure disappointment from Miller’s script. The “dame to kill for” plot just ends up answering, what does one really kill a dame for? Having too much power? Being too much of a cold hearted bitch? However you want to simplify.

Wanting to not let my 14 year old self down, it was hard to face my true instinctive reaction to this film, just as it was hard to see a giant theater with only about 8 people on premiere night. Rodriguez certainly will always have a keen eye for what is visually stimulating, and how to cut together action like a true pro. Yet, these things too thinly veil the utter emptiness at the cold, dead heart of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

On Robin Williams

August 11, 2014

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The first time I ever truly thought about death, I can actually remember, was in a movie theater. This would have been the winter of 1999, I was 8 years old, and my family had gone to see Chris Columbus’s Bicentennial Man. In the film, Robin Williams plays an android that has been manufactured purely as a 24/7 butler for upper-middle class families in the future. Over time, as the family grows, Andrew (Williams) grows as well, adapting more and more human-like features and comprehension levels. When he starts to experience loss as time goes on, he begins to understand the beauty in mortality, how it is the key to being human. As an 8 year old, this was my first time truly attempting to grasp the idea that there would someday not be a “me”, and that eternity would follow without a “me”. The realization of our temporary existence frightened me, but maybe the reason I didn’t run crying and screaming from the theater was the notion presented by the movie that death is okay. I’ve defended and thought about that film ever since.

Robin Williams has brought us to dwell on death once again with his truly tragic and heartbreaking passing today. The loss of such a presence will have quite a layered impact on his different fans. Williams was a legend of stand-up comedy, known for his recklessly energetic specials with some of the greatest personas, characters and that trademark lightning fast delivery. To many of us, he was a staple of our childhood. He brought that one-of-a-kind energy to Genie in (I think) the greatest of the Disney animated 90s revival. He made us all wish for adventure when our parents had the night out after he burst free from a mysterious board game in Jumanji or while battling for youth in Spielberg’s Hook. He was a treasure of comedy (The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire), a treasure of drama (Good Will HuntingDead Poet’s Society) and an unforgettable treasure of the two combined (The Fisher KingWorld’s Greatest Dad.)

While its easy to imagine that warm, smiling face when thinking of this loss, I find it hard to let go of just how much of Williams’ career has dealt with death in some way. There are the directly associated projects, most notably What Dreams May Come but also lesser-knowns like The Final Cut, but he often portrayed characters wrestling with the psychological ramifications or just the interpersonal journey that comes with life moving on. Just months ago I first watched The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam’s surreal drama with Jeff Bridges as a Howard Stern-esque DJ, with the shock value turned to the max, who falls into drunken obscurity when his on-air tear down of an unstable man causes a mass shooting. Williams character was at the shooting and watched his own wife’s brutal murder. He then completely loses his mind to a mythical quest for the Holy Grail, as he actually lives amongst vagrants and sleeps in a boiler room. His performance is William’s shtick turned ultra-manic and it perfectly captures a manifestation of raw grief.

In an opposite but still incredibly weighted role, Robin Williams won his first Oscar for playing Dr. Sean Maguire in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Here, Williams is purely in dramatic mode, but there is still a notable variety as he shifts from a relatively muted composure to a man unhinged and face-to-face with his surfaced grief. Though often referenced as a very “Academy Awards” moment, there really is an irresistible gravity to that key moment between Williams and Matt Damon, which I’m sure will more than ever be remembered as a potent moment for the actor. It’s also so effective because he was magnetic to those like-a-father roles. Very few actors could have pulled off John Keating in Dead Poets Society with that level of sincerity. In fact, a handful have attempted and failed. He embodied a role model figure, not just as a character type, but as a figure in each viewer’s separate takeaway.

In the years following Robin William’s big night at the Academy Awards, he never broke from his stride of making interesting and highly diverse choices. The aforementioned What Dreams May Come and Bicentennial Man were within the following year. In 2002, Williams starred in probably his two darkest roles: Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. The latter still remains one of my favorite films of that decade, a pins and needles thriller about a photo developer with a sprawling obsession over one particular family. The film is brilliantly constructed and held with a tight grip by Romanek, but absolutely carried by the most internalized ferocity Robin Williams probably ever put to the screen. At times, he is playing off that ability to connect the viewer with a friendly neighbor-like feeling, but there is this unmatchable void behind his eyes that is truly unforgettable.

The last movie of us his that I fell over the moon for was Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark-is-putting-it-lightly comedy World’s Greatest Dad, where a father restages his son’s accidental erotic-asphyxiated death into a tragic suicide and proceeds to soak in national attention for a diary he penned in his son’s name. There was something so refreshing in seeing Williams blur the lines between his fine dramatic acting and his ready-to-burst comedic antics. Goldthwait seemed to know that this was a part Robin was born to play, as he did bring the actor back to the stand up stage in the later half of the decade and worked closely with him as a friend and fellow comic. Again, World’s Greatest Dad is Robin Williams bringing the utmost personal weight to a story about death, which no one else could have pulled off quite the same.

It’s too soon to anticipate the full impact of this tragic loss, and it is also too soon to make any musings on where the man was at with life if and when he decided to move on. I do think it’s important to look back and see just how often this profoundly unique individual distracted us from tragedy with the rawest of comedy, and notably brought us to face death and interact with the notion of death. In mourning this legend, we can turn to his immortal body of work.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams.

About Alex (2014)

August 10, 2014

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“#Sex #Jealousy #Wine #Regret – After all, what are friends for?”

The above tagline for Jesse Zwick’s About Alex alludes to the film’s biggest, most distracting problem. The ensemble dramedy has been repeatedly deemed The Big Chill for millenials. Yes, the film is a strikingly identical plot to Lawrence Kasdan’s recently reissued classic of the 1980s, but the bigger issue is the “for millenials” part.

Prior to watching About Alex, I had just seen Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, based on the short story collection by James Franco, which is sort of an American Graffiti/Dazed and Confused-style portrait of, not to overuse this term, “millenials”. A major theme of the individual threads in that story is how teenagers, now maybe more than ever, do and say lot of things with no understanding of reason. Franco’s characters have a particularly sexual and occasionally violent undercurrent to their aimlessness, but there is enough ambiguity to leave the viewer room to make a decision about what may or may not be going on.

The characters of About Alex are roughly 10 years old than those of Palo Alto and roughly 10 years younger than those of The Big Chill. They are post-grads in their mid-20s, and in one way or another, each in their own paused state. When Alex (Jason Ritter) attempts suicide, his college friends come to visit him for a weekend. In the several years since college, the group has drifted considerably, at least enough to have waved off the cries for help posted by Alex all over social media (though, I think we know that the reality of social media would mean at least someone you hardly know would be responding to your suicidal cries for help.) And yes, as Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) references, the whole thing is reminiscent of some 80s movie. Or, y’know, that one 80s movie.

But let’s not get too caught up in comparisons with Kasdan’s film. The structural similarities are so similar that it seems reasonable to assume Jesse Zwick (son of Ed Zwick, who directed a different, much lesser 80s ensemble which recently got the remake treatment) was well aware of The Big Chill while making this. It is a unique type of movie that is not exactly rendered useless for this particular age group. The focus of both Lena Dunham’s debut film and much of her show has been about post-grad dissolution and holding together emotionally heavy groups of friends.

However, the main difference between either Tiny Furniture‘s Aura or Girls’ Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna is that they are fully submerged in their generation and culture. About Alex has one-too-many cringeworthy moments of either name dropping “iPhone 4S” in reference to a character named Siri, or pretentious breakdowns of Bruce Springsteen and Arcade Fire. Both those lines come from Josh (Max Greenfield), who unfortunately brings the most annoying flair to the film (unfortunate because I truly adore his performance as Schmidt on New Girl and anticipated some nice improvisation from him in this film.) Josh embodies this sort of hipster-angry-about-hipsters that is actually a relevant character to be explored in cinema, however, his lines especially feel so crafted by a voice removed from this current generation. About Alex feels way too “for millenials” that maybe “by millenials.”

When it comes down to it, most critics are just not able to drop The Big Chill from the back of their minds, and really, I cannot blame them. Had I not just recently seen and loved that decade-defining film, I think I would still find About Alex problematic in form and content, but not a bad film. I have had the great, unbelievable fortune to have had a cohesive family unit of best friends since even before college, who I could very easily see coming together later in life to rehash our histories (obviously I don’t foresee the same circumstances as these films.) So, there are elements of this film as a modern take on that scenario that really touch my heart.

There is a lot that is forced and poorly written, but the performances are mostly genuine and that’s a huge key factor in this kind of film. Because of those performances, there is a felt connection between these people which makes for some truly nice scenes. There is just a little too much effort to make sure the audience “gets” the way this generation talks, clouding up the opportunities to just observe it.

About Alex is currently in select theaters and available to rent on iTunes.