Friday, October 31, 2014

Movie Review: Nightcrawler

Directed by: Dan Gilroy.
Written by: Dan Gilroy.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Louis Bloom), Rene Russo (Nina Romina), Riz Ahmed (Rick), Bill Paxton (Joe Loder), Michael Hyatt (Detective Fronteiri), Price Carson (Detective Lieberman), Rick Chambers (KWLA Anchor Ben Waterman), Holly Hannula (KWLA Anchor Lisa Mays).

Nightcrawler has already been compared to a lot of previous films – Network, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Collateral, Drive, Peeping Tom and many others. Writer/director Dan Gilroy has obviously been inspired by many of these films, but the one I couldn’t help but think of after watching the film was a strange – the documentary The Corporation, which applied the standard diagnosis of psychopaths to the actions of corporations, and found that many of them would be psychopaths. In America, where corporations are now legally treated like people, I couldn’t help but think of the main character in Nightcrawler – Louis Bloom – as the reverse - a person who behaves like a corporation. Bloom is clearly a psychopath – none of the pain or misery he films throughout the movie has any sort of effect on him or his emotions whatsoever. He basically exists solely to make money – and he will do whatever he needs to do to get that, no matter what ethical lines he has to cross. He treats everything as a business transaction. He is constantly spouting corporate speak – inspirational quotes that we normally apply to people who are successful – who we admire for working so hard to make something of themselves. But when taken to the extremes that Bloom takes them in Nightcrawler, it becomes deeply disturbing. The movie is many things – but that is what sticks with me.

 When we first meet Bloom, he’s breaking into a construction site to steal cooper wire, chain link fence and manhole covers to sell for a little bit of money. Cruising the streets of L.A. at night, he comes across a bloody car accident –and meets Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), filming it. He is a so-called Nightcrawler – a freelance cameraman who gets footage – the bloodier, the better – and sells it to the highest bidder. Bloom figures he can do the same thing – so he gets a cheap camera, a police scanner and heads out into the night to start filming. He isn’t particularly good at filming at first – but he has an advantage over the rest of the nightcrawler – he has no scruples, and gets in closer than the rest of them – and if that means he gets in the way of the police, firemen or paramedics doing their job, so be it – he needs the footage. He establishes a relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo) – an aging news director on the graveyard shift at the lowest rated channel in L.A. – who wants the bloodiest footage she can get to put on the morning show. She senses in him a kindred spirit – and so they are, at first, until Bloom starts pushing her even further than she wants.

The movie follows Bloom as he gradually ratchets up his actions to get the best footage – first just getting in closer, then moving things around – including bodies – around at scenes, before the police get there, to make for a better shot. In a mesmerizing, and disturbing sequence, he enters a house where a triple murder just happened – and films it all before the police get there, and then flees – keeping the identity of the culprits to himself – so he can use them later to stage even more bloodshed.

This is the best performance Gyllenhaal has given to date – and the fact that he continues to top himself each time out is impressive. He is charmingly amoral at first – and just gets worse from there. But he’s also likable – and somewhat funny. He’s like Rupert Pupkin, from The Kind of Comedy, in a man who won’t take no for an answer – and also doesn’t quite understand why no one else sees the world as he does. Not that he cares that much about other people. But he’s also like Patrick Bateman, from American Psycho, in that there is a charming surface, but the deeper you go, the less there seems like anything there but the surface. The movie is a pitch black comedy, and it gives Gyllenhaal some great laugh lines. We root for Bloom, in spite of ourselves, and then the movie leaves us to figure out what that means. Gyllenhaal is matched by Rene Russo (and it’s nice to see her in a movie again) – as the two become the central couple in the movie, and the sexual tension between them – despite their age difference – is palpable, even if it is really more of a business transaction for both of them.

Nightcrawler is a lot of things – a modern L.A. set noir, with brilliant cinematography by Robert Elswit, that makes the city look even darker, and creepier, than Drive or Collateral. A satire of the media, who sell fear to their audience even though crime is actually going down. A satire on our current culture of over documentation, where everything is immediately available for public consumption, even if it shouldn’t be. A character study of a psychopath. And it’s all wrapped up in a supremely entertaining, disturbing, funny, violent package. That it pulls this all off is what makes it one of the year’s best so far.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Movie Review: Goodbye to Language 3-D

Goodbye to Language 3-D
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Héloise Godet (Josette), Kamel Abdeli (Gédéon), Richard Chevallier (Marcus), Zoé Bruneau (Ivitch), Christian Gregori (Davidson), Jessica Erickson (Mary Shelley).

Over the years, I have often struggled with the so-called “late period” films of Jean-Luc Godard – although that late period has lasted far longer, and produced far more films than his so-called “early period” in the 1960s. Those films – from Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967)  produced numerous masterpieces and even if Godard had simply retired from filmmaking in 1967, he would still rank among the best and most influential filmmakers in history. Since then, Godard has pretty much turned his back on narrative filmmaking – going for more avant-garde films, filled with quotes, ideas, collages that can either add up to something profound, or something approaching a pretentious mess of junk. I hated his last feature, Film Socialism, although I will fully admit that I just didn’t get that film – the reviews by the films (many) champions left me confused, and had me wondering if we had seen the same film.

So when I got a ticket to see Goodbye to Language 3-D at TIFF this year, I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps the film would be another infuriating, confusing mess – at least to me – or perhaps it would be something brilliant – as again, many said coming out of Cannes, where the film won the Jury Prize. Watching the film, I was glad (for the first time) that I had seen Film Socialism, because it had prepared me for the content of Godard’s film. They are undoubtedly the work of the same filmmaker, working in the same style. But this time, the film won me over. Everything in it was a little clearer, a little more playful and funny. And above everything else, the visuals were quite simply stunning. This isn’t the best 3-D film I have ever seen – but I do believe it uses 3-D better than any other film I have ever seen.

In general, I’m not really  a fan of 3-D in live action movies. For every Avatar or Hugo or Gravity that uses the technology brilliantly, there are a dozen movies where the 3-D is unnecessary at best and a distraction at worse – it’s gotten to the point where I avoid 3-D whenever possible. What 3-D – which as a technology is capable of doing interesting things – really needed was someone like Godard to use the technology. Never one afraid to experiment, Godard uses 3-D in new, unique and revolutionary ways – including one mesmerizing sequence when the image pretty much splits into two, and you have to close one eye at a time to see thing clearly – and then the camera slowly loops back so that image comes together again. What’s the point of this shot? I admit it – I don’t really know – but damn it all if it wasn’t one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a movie. And Godard comes up with other images, brilliantly using 3-D to layer the image in ways that quite simply left with awestruck.

So, do I really understand what the hell was happening in Goodbye to Language – what the “story” was (and yes, there does appear to be a story, about a relationship between a man and woman – or multiple couples, who may be the same couple, but may not be, and then in the second half becomes a dog’s eye view of the world for at least part of its running time)? Not really. I understood it in the moment, and the many literary quotes and allusions also somewhat make sense – at least as I was watching it, but become harder to write about and piece together when looking back at the film. If I watched the film again – or a few times – I could probably piece it altogether. But my first reaction to Goodbye to Language 3-D was one of pure awe. Godard does things using 3-D that I doubt any other filmmaker in the world could – or would even consider attempting. Perhaps I don’t appreciate Goodbye to Language 3-D in the way I am supposed to. But appreciate it I do.

Movie Review: Life of Crime

Life of Crime
Directed by: Daniel Schechter.
Written by: Daniel Schechter based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Starring: Jennifer Aniston  (Mickey Dawson), Yasiin Bey (Ordell Robbie), John Hawkes (Louis Gara), Isla Fisher (Melanie), Will Forte (Marshall Taylor), Mark Boone Junior (Richard Monk), Tim Robbins (Frank Dawson), Clea Lewis (Tyra Taylor), Charlie Tahan (Bo Dawson), Kevin Corrigan (Ray).

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite novelists – his crime books are fast paced with great dialogue and a collection of colorful, often quite dumb, lowlifes who hatch complicated schemes that seem ill thought out, and always go horribly wrong. Screenwriters have learned over the years that the best thing they can do when they adapt Leonard is to simply copy his dialogue from the novel into the screenplay – they aren’t going to improve on it, and if you get actors capable of delivering it, they can make an entertaining movie. The latest Leonard adaptation, Life of Crime is based on the Leonard novel The Switch, which was a precursor to Rum Punch, which Quentin Tarantino adapted into Jackie Brown. In this film, Yasiin Bey (sorry, he’ll always be Mos Def to me), John Hawkes and Ilsa Fisher play younger versions of the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda in the Tarantino film – and a few questions of continuity aside (like the fact that DeNiro and Fonda don’t seem to know each other in the Tarantino film, although they meet here), the film basically works as a low-key, lightweight prequel to the later film. The three actors, especially Bey, have clearly studied the performances of their counterparts, and incorporated some of them into their own work. The film isn’t nearly as good as Tarantino’s underrated masterwork – he made an epic out of these lowlife characters, and writer-director Daniel Schechter aims far lower, but this is still an enjoyable little crime film.

The film opens in 1977 Detroit – a time and place it accurately portrays without going over the top with the clothes or hairstyles, as well it could have. Ordell Robbie (Bey) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) have hatched a kidnapping plan – they’ll take Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a real estate millionaire, Frank (Tom Robbins), who is doing a lot of things that are not exactly legal to grow his fortune. Robbie and Gara want $1 million from Frank to not kill Mickey – the only problem being that Frank is currently in the Caribbean with his mistress, Melanie (Fisher), and may not actually want Mickey back. As you may well guess, things get complicated on the other end as well – when Mickey and Louis start to get to know, and even like, each other. The movie introduces another few supporting characters to liven things up – Will Forte as Marshall Taylor, a weak willed little coward in love with Mickey, and Mark Boone Junior, as Richard Monk, a neo-Nazi who is working with Ordell and Louis in holding Mickey.

Life of Crime doesn’t come close to the best Leonard adaptations – like Jackie Brown, which had the courage to digress from the main plot often, and spend time just getting to know its characters, before shoving them into its complex plot of double and triple crosses, or Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, which was highly stylized and crackled with sexual tension. It also doesn’t have the glossy, Hollywood sheen of the two Chili Palmer movies – Get Short or Be Cool. Screenwriter/director Daniel Schechter keeps everyone in a lower key than that – and he gets fine work from his cast as a result. No one in the movie is all that bright, but some are smarter than they first seem (especially Melanie) – and Fisher gives the type of performance that makes me wish she would get better roles (much like she did in The Lookout). Bey and Hawkes work well together, with an easy chemistry – and Forte adds another fine, dramatic performance to his resume. Most surprising of all is probably Aniston – undeniably the biggest star in the cast, but she doesn’t overtake the movie with her star power, but genuinely becomes a part of the ensemble.

Life of Crime doesn’t reach the heights of the best Leonard adaptations. It’s lightweight and inconsequential – but it’s also a lot of fun. That could describe much of Leonard’s work on the page – and it’s a tone that the film gets just right.

Movie Review: Wish I Was Here

Wish I Was Here
Directed by: Zach Braff.
Written by: Adam J. Braff & Zach Braff.
Starring: Zach Braff  (Aidan Bloom), Kate Hudson (Sarah Bloom), Joey King (Grace Bloom), Pierce Gagnon (Tucker Bloom), Mandy Patinkin (Gabe), Josh Gad (Noah Bloom), Alexander Chaplin (Rabbi Rosenberg), Jim Parsons (Paul), Allan Rich (Rabbi Twersky), Ashley Greene (Janine),Mark Thudium (Terry), Michael Weston (Jerry), Cody Sullivan (Jesse), Donald Faison (Anthony).

Of the many problems with Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, the one that probably bothered me the most is that it is yet another glamorization of overgrown man children that Hollywood seems obsessed with – and have now started to infiltrate indie films as well. I’m not quite sure why movies seem so obsessed with men in their 30s and 40s who still act like children, who take a few tiny steps towards being an adult by the end of the film (usually because they find the love of a woman who has been idealized to unrealistic proportions) and this is treated as some sort of major victory for them. I don’t want to psychoanalyze the filmmakers or actors who make these types of movies – but I cannot help but wonder if it’s at least in part because being in Hollywood allows them to stay teenagers for years after the rest of us have had no choice but to grow the hell up.

To be fair to writer/director/star Braff, I do think he gets this on some level – and the film is partly about accepting reality, even if that means giving up on your dream. Braff plays Aidan Bloom, who wants desperately to be an actor (by the way, why is that successful actors always make movies about unsuccessful actors?) – but he actually hasn’t work in quite some time, and everyone around him knows that if he hasn’t achieved stardom – or even been able to make a living acting – yet, then he likely never will – but he will not give up. He’s married to Sarah (Kate Hudson), who is therefore stuck making all the money for the couple – and their two children,  Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Aidan is so self-involved, he doesn’t even realize that Sarah hates her job at the water company – even at some point saying that “Sarah is living her dream”. When Sarah finally confronts him about getting a real job, he sulkily responds “I thought you supported my dream”, to which she responds “When did this relationship become all about your dream?”. Aidan is, sadly enough, more mature than his brother Noah (Josh Gad) – who lives in a trailer, and blogs, and does nothing else. His big plan is to make a costume from ComiCon so he can score with his hot neighbor, Janine (Ashley Greene) – who is making her own costume.

The movie revolves around what happens to this extended family when Aidan and Noah’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with cancer, and given only a few months to live. This finally forces Aidan to examine his life a little bit – and grow the hell up. Noah is slowly on the uptake – he hates his dad, who let both of his kids know, repeatedly, how disappointed he is in them – but sooner or later you have to grow up. At this, perhaps the teenage Grace is well ahead of her father and uncle – or at least at the same maturity level.

Wish I Was Here has a lot of problems – mainly that I think it bites off far more than it can chew, and takes itself far too seriously. When Braff made his first film – Garden State – a decade ago, I think he captured something real about his lost, drug addled generation. A decade later, Wish I Was Here tries for the same type of generation defining story, but it comes across as phony and self-indulgent. Braff still hasn’t really learn how to write female roles – Natalie Portman redeemed a thinly written character in Garden State, but neither Hudson or King can make Aidan’s wife or daughter feel like anything more than a screenwriter’s concept – wise characters who have to help the poor, dumb menfolk grow up a little bit.
But basically, I must admit I’m just growing really, really annoyed with movies about lost men in their 30s still trying to figure out who the hell they are, and refusing to grow up. It’s becoming self-indulgent navel gazing in a way I just find incredibly irritating. It’s time to grow up.

Movie Review: Fed Up

Fed Up
Directed by: Stephanie Soechtig.
Written by: Mark Monroe & Stephanie Soechtig.

It’s no secret that America – and the world – is getting fatter and fatter, and that obesity is the biggest health crisis facing us today. More and more people are obese – and are getting that way earlier in their lives. Things have gotten continuously worse over the past 30-40 years. The documentary Fed Up is an advocacy documentary for eating healthier, getting food companies to be more honest about the food they produce, and the government to take more action to help protect our children. There is nothing subtle about the documentary, nothing particularly artful, it doesn’t try to tell both sides, and it doesn’t really give any new information for those who have been paying attention. The problem however that the movie makes clear is that food companies spend millions of dollars to make it harder for the information people need to get out – and spend millions buying politicians to stop or amend any legislation enacted to help children eat better. First Lady Michelle Obama has tried in her various programs to get kids to eat healthier – but even her efforts are undermined by the companies who sponsor them – Coke, Pepsi and every other food producer who uses a lot of sugar in their processed foods. These are the same companies who somehow manage to convince Congress to recognize French Fries and pizza as vegetables for school lunches.

The film assembles a group of nutrition experts who explain why processed foods are so bad for us – mainly because of all the sugar – and why the lies of “reduced fat” or “lean” or other such phrases on packaging are just there for marketing purposes, and really are not much healthier than the regular ones. How this is just not an issue of self-control and exercise – but something much deeper, and darker in that it is a form of addiction – not unlike cigarettes. The documentary, apparently, did ask the food companies to participate in the film – but they declined. The movie does have some clips of various people who represent them – giving testimony to various government groups that would be laughable if it weren’t so sad (including the McDonald’s representative who says Ronald McDonald does not market junk to children – but educate them with fun).

I don’t really have much to say about Fed Up. It is an important documentary for people who have need education on the way food is processed, consumed and marketed. It isn’t a particularly good documentary – but that doesn’t seem like the purpose of director Stephanie Soechtig. She wants to educate more than anything else – and in that, she succeeds.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Movie Review: John Wick

John Wick
Directed by: David Leitch & Chad Stahelski.
Written by: Derek Kolstad.
Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Omer Barnea (Gregori), Toby Leonard Moore (Victor), Daniel Bernhardt (Kirill), Bridget Moynahan (Helen), John Leguizamo (Aureilo), Ian McShane (Winston), Bridget Regan (Addy), Lance Reddick (Hotel Manager / Charon).

American action movies have, unfortunately, become all about rapid fire editing, and shaky handheld camera work that emphasis visceral energy over coherence. If you are a director like Paul Greengrass, or Michael Bay on his best day, than this can actually be effective. But most directors don’t seem to know how to use this style well – so what happens in the action sequences is that become so tightly editing that everything becomes confusing to me – I have no idea what is really going on. I have always preferred Hong Kong style action – the type of thing practiced by John Woo in the 1980s and 1990s, or which Johnnie To does now. Even if Woo and To have a lot of differences in their style, the one thing they do share is that they let action sequences play out at length – they don’t favor the rapid fire editing to create false suspense or energy. The best thing about John Wick is that first time directors - David Leitch & Chad Stahelski  - allow the action sequences to play out a little bit longer than most action movies made in America today. The action in the movie is clean, crisp, bold and genuinely exciting.

The plot of the movie is typical revenge movie stuff. The newly widowed title character (Keanu Reeves) is grieving for his beloved wife, when the doorbell rings – and a dog is delivered – a last gift from his wife. The dog isn’t around very long though – the spoiled son of a Russian mobster wants Wick’s car – but he will not sell, so he and his goons visit Wick, steal the car, and kill the dog. What this spoiled brat doesn’t know is who Wick was in his former life – the deadliest assassin who ever worked for his father (Michael Nyqvist). Now, of course, Wick wants vengeance – and the Russian mob boss will stop at nothing to protect his son.

In broad strokes, there is not much difference between the story of John Wick and that of a film like Taken (or its sequel). I wasn’t a fan of either of the Taken movies – mainly because they were they were ridiculous, but took themselves way too seriously. That is a mistake that John Wick doesn’t make – the directors know they are making a goofy revenge action film from the start, and they never pretend otherwise. Reeves also knows this, and he rips into his role with a certain grim glee (if that makes any sense), relishing his violent action sequences, which he is expert at. The two directors of the film have mainly been stuntmen in the past – and they certainly want to show off what they are best at – and the hand-to-hand combat and gunfight scenes are probably the best I have seen in a movie this year. The rest of the cast get on the same wavelength of Reeves, and have a blast with their roles.

There is nothing original about John Wick – but there really doesn’t have to be. It knows precisely what it is, and goes for broke from the first scene to the last. It’s a hell of good time at the movies – a guilty pleasure to be sure, but a great one at that.

Movie Review: St. Vincent

St. Vincent
Directed by: Theodore Melfi.
Written by: Theodore Melfi.
Starring: Bill Murray (Vincent), Melissa McCarthy (Maggie), Naomi Watts (Daka), Chris O'Dowd (Brother Geraghty), Terrence Howard (Zucko), Jaeden Lieberher (Oliver), Kimberly Quinn (Nurse Ana).

Bill Murray is one of those actors that I would gladly watch in anything. I’m trying to think of an actor I became a fan of earlier in my life than Murray, and I am struggling to think of one. He has made his fair share of bad to downright awful films, but he is almost always doing something interesting in them. He is one of the few actors I can of think you legitimately doesn’t seem to care what others think of him – he just goes out there, and does what whatever he feels like. His latest performance, in St. Vincent, in one of his better in recent years – and even if the movie cannot quite match him; he’s so good that you hardly care. The film is a typical old, drunk asshole meets cute kid and the two teach each other valuable life lessons film – but it works because Murray, not to mention the supporting cast, make it work. It’s actually odd that no one thought of putting Murray in this type of role before.

Murray’s Vincent is an unemployed, chain-smoking, drunken gambler who lives in his rundown house in Brooklyn, driving his 30 year old wood panel station wagon and acting like a complete and total asshole to anyone and everyone who is lucky enough to come into contact with him. He’s broke, his reverse mortgage is maxed out, and he owes some money to some not very nice people – and has other expenses as well. This is when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) – a newly single mother moves in next door with Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a 10 year old on the small side, and through a series of weird occurrences, Vincent ends up being his afterschool babysitter. Of course, Vincent is the last person you would expect to be a babysitter – which is where the humor comes from.

There are a couple of different ways a film like St. Vincent can go – it can either be smartly sentimental and funny, or it can be cloying, annoying and overly sentimental. This is why casting an actor like Murray was smart for writer-director Theodore Melfi – Murray is incapable of playing a scene and having it come across as little more than an emotional ploy to try and manipulate the audience. While the movie itself is definitely trying to do that – the closing scenes are rather brazen in their manipulation – Murray sells it all with natural charm and wit.  

The rest of the cast is fine as well. It was nice to see Melissa McCarthy go a little quieter, and subtler for the first time in a while – she is a talented actress, who Hollywood seems to only want to go over the top every time – and while she does that well, she is capable of more than that. This movie doesn’t give her too much to do – but she does it well. Naomi Watts hides behind an over-the-tip Russian accent as a pregnant prostitute friend of Vincent – she’s amusing, but never quite believable. Without a doubt, the best supporting performance is by young Jaeden Lieberher as Olivier – who at first feels like a typical, cutesy movie kid, and while he does that, he slowly becomes somewhat more believable throughout. We have certainly seen Murray steamroll many a co-star during the course of his career, but Lieberher doesn’t allow that to happen.

Yes, the movie follows every cliché you can possibly think of in a movie like this. But Murray and company make it all worthwhile. The end of the film desperately wants to milk tears from the audience – and will likely succeed in many cases – but rare in a film like this, those tears feel earned.

Movie Review: The Heart Machine

The Heart Machine
Directed by: Zachary Wigon.
Written by: Zachary Wigon.
Starring: John Gallagher Jr. (Cody), Kate Lyn Sheil (Virginia), David Call (Dale), Louisa Krause (Jessica), Katie Paxton (Mary), Halley Wegryn Gross (Sarah), Libby Woodbridge (Caitlyn).

I don’t think it’s easy for a filmmaker to make a movie about our relationship with technology and not come across heavy handed or preachy. I don’t necessarily think Jason Reitman was trying to be preachy in Men, Women & Children – but his film certainly came across that way at times. Part of the problem with that film is that Reitman tries to do so much – tries to delve into the lives of so many characters and their relationship with the internet, that it couldn’t really do anything other than skim the surface – and thus seem preachy. By contrast, as cheesy and on the nose as the title is, The Heart Machine is a much better, more confident film about the ways technology now effects even the most intimate moments of many people’s lives. The film is structured much like a low-key thriller – a film that brings to mind masterpieces Vertigo, Blow-Up, The Conversation or Blow Out – and while the film is nowhere close to those films (an impossible standard for anyone to live up to), it is still effective, especially in its buildup, rather than its payoff. The payoff is rather anti-climactic – rather mundane really, but I think it still works, as it probably stays closer to life than a bigger, more exciting climax would have.

The film stars John Gallagher Jr. as Cody – a floppy haired, Brooklyn hipster – a seemingly nice guy who can be funny and charming, and doesn’t have much trouble attracting women. For reasons not entirely explained he goes on a dating site anyway – and it’s here he meets Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), an East Village dweller. The pair meet online and Skype with each other – before she reveals to him that she is currently living in Berlin for the next six months. The main action is a few months later – we see how these two met, and started talking in flashback – and Cody is convinced that Virginia is lying to him about where she is – and he starts digging to try and prove his suspicions. It starts innocently enough, but as the movie progresses he becomes increasingly obsessed, and increasingly creepy – crossing one line after another in an attempt to find out what he wants to know. An interesting part of the movie is that Cody seems to realize he is crossing the line, but he cannot help himself – he continues to dig himself in deeper. The film loses some of its tension when it starts flashing back and forth from Cody to Virginia – which happens late in the first act – but helps to deepen its two characters. While the movie mainly focuses Cody, it is Virginia who becomes the more fascinating character.

To say more would risk spoiling some of the plot of the movie, but I’m not sure the movie is really about its plot anyway. There is no doubt that the film is structured like a thriller through its first two acts – with Gallagher’s Cody slowly sinking further and further into his obsession – at risk of losing sight of everything else in his life. The film is more about his deteriorating mental state than anything else – and how he is willing to do anything to find out if he’s right. When the movie focuses of Virginia, it mainly keeps the audience at a distance – observing her actions, without explaining them. By the end of the movie however, they will essentially switch roles.

The film is the debut of Zachary Wigon, who uses technology in an interesting way in the film – more of a given, rather than something to be commented on. The two people at the center of the film – and everyone who enters the movie around them – are on the internet constantly, and use it in a variety of ways. This makes it easier for Cody to cyberstalk Virginia, and start piecing together all the clues he has. But the heart of the movie is still rooted in the same problems that have plagued relationship for years. The Heart Machine is a film that uses technology in a way that few films have – it doesn’t ignore its effects on our lives, but doesn’t dwell on them either.

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

Mood Indigo
Directed by: Michel Gondry.
Written by: Michel Gondry & Luc Bossi based on the novel by Boris Vian.
Starring: Romain Duris (Colin), Audrey Tautou (Chloé), Gad Elmaleh (Chick), Omar Sy (Nicolas), Aïssa Maïga (Alise), Charlotte Le Bon (Isis), Sacha Bourdo (La souris), Vincent Rottiers (Le religieux), Philippe Torreton (Jean-Sol Partre).

Michel Gondry is such a gifted, innovative director that I always want to like his films more than I actually do. I know when I watch a Gondry film, I’ll see some things that I have never seen in a movie before – as Gondry continues to experiment and try new things with practical, handmade special effects – which are charming and sometimes dazzling. In his career to date however Gondry has only made film – 20004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – where his visual skills have been matched by a screenplay and acting as great as Gondry’s visual gift – and such a perfect match for each other. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman probably deserves much of the credit for the movie, but Gondry raised his game to match the writer. Since then however, Gondry has made some decent films – and every one of them have something to marvel at – but he has never been able to match his 2004 masterpiece. His latest film, Mood Indigo, like the rest have some visual wonders that will leave you wondering how the hell Gondry did that. The film is also way overlong at 131 minutes, and overstays its welcome by quite some time. And the story – based on a novel by Boris Vian – takes a dark turn about half way through that Gondry seems ill-equipped to deal with – as he doesn’t want to abandon the whimsy he had in the first half. If the film is about a couple who live in a fantasy world until reality sets in when one gets sick, Gondry doesn’t really get the transition right – the couple don’t have reality crash done around them, but just a different, darker fantasy. Gondry is so concerned with his quirky visuals that the story seems like an afterthought.

The film stars Romain Duris as Colin – an “independently wealthy” inventor, who never has to work, and gets to play around with his weird creations all day, while being served by his manservant (played by Omar Sy – in a role that Gondry should have known was a horrible stereotype). Colin is lost in his own whimsical world, and when his best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) announces that he has fallen in love, Colin decides he wants to do the same. It isn’t long before he meets, and falls for Chloe (Audrey Tautou) – and soon the two are married. She also lives in a fantasy world, and the two indulge each other. But then Chloe gets sick – and the money that seemed like it would always be there slowly starts to drain away. And their candy colored fantasy land that these characters live in gradually becomes duller and darker – and by the end, Gondry will actually switch completely over to black and white.

Gondry is more comfortable in the first half of the movie than he is in the second. In the first half, I had no idea where the film was going to go – it seemed to be nothing but over-the-top whimsy, with one inventive scene after another. In this part, the film drifts with no real focus – but there is enough to enjoy that it doesn’t really matter that much. When the film takes it dark turn in the second half, Gondry doesn’t seem as interested as switching along with the subject matter. Instead of going from dream to reality, which I think was the intent, it goes from one dream world to another. If the film is supposed to be a class conscious parable – about the clueless, idle rich who get their comeuppance when they lose their money, that doesn’t come across either – as Gondry seems to love his characters too much to really make them look bad, even as puts them through hell. If it’s just supposed to be all about the emotions – of love and loss – that never comes across either, as the film is so obsessed with its surfaces, that it never gets below them.

The film has other problems – the length kills the movie, as it is nearly impossible to sustain this level of whimsy for so long. Duris and Tautou – and their co-stars – are a little too old for me to believe they would be this naïve about the real world – and poor Tautou, who is a talented actress, seems to be forever pigeonholed as Amelie, with no chance to escape.

There are moments in Mood Indigo that are breathtaking to look at. Gondry remains an inventive director – and there is evidence of that throughout Mood Indigo. But in this film, there is just too much here – and Gondry indulges his every whim, and takes what should be a fun little film, and turns it into a one, long slog.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review: White Bird in a Blizzard

White Bird in a Blizzard
Directed by: Gregg Araki.
Written by: Gregg Araki based on the novel by Laura Kasischke.
Starring: Shailene Woodley (Kat Connor), Eva Green (Eve Connor), Angela Bassett (Dr. Thaler), Sheryl Lee (May), Gabourey Sidibe (Beth), Christopher Meloni (Brock Connor), Thomas Jane (Detective Scieziesciez), Shiloh Fernandez (Phil), Dale Dickey (Mrs. Hillman), Mark Indelicato (Mickey).

All of the films of director Gregg Araki have a deliberate artifice to them. They are stylized in a way that at their worst – like The Doom Generation (1995) – that they can become completely detached from reality, and be little more than a smug, overly clever genre exercises that revel in their own style. At their best though, like Mysterious Skin (2004), thar artifice works well with the story – and make the films play like a distant cousin of David Lynch – using that artifice to actually go deeper into the story and characters than would be possible otherwise. His latest film, White Bird in a Blizzard, is somewhat in between those films. It is definitely Lynch-like in its candy-colored portrait of the dark side of 1980s suburbia. It is told from the point of view of a teenage girl, who seems incapable of seeing those around her clearly, perhaps because she, like all teenagers, are incredibly self-involved. The film is, in some ways, a mystery – but it’s really only a mystery to the narrator, as everyone else in the film (and the audience) can tell what happened before she can. As such, the film is rather anti-climactic – but it’s that way by design (at I think it’s by design).

The movie stars Shailene Woodley in her best performance this year (in a film that will make a tiny fraction of her two huge hits – Divergent and The Fault of Our Stars, two bad films that she nonetheless shines in) – as Kay Connor, a 17 year old girl. Her parents are Eve (Eva Green), a wildly theatric mother, prone to erratic behavior, who belittles her husband, and seems both overprotective and jealous of her daughter – and while some of the revelations late in the film help explain her some of her behavior, it doesn’t explain all of it. Her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni) is a quiet man at home – and seems to accept his wife’s belittlement with barely a comment. Kat loses her virginity to her boyfriend and neighbor, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), who is a complete idiot in many ways, but a hunky one. Soon after he loses her virginity, she also loses her mother – as Eve simply vanishes from their lives with no explanation. The cops are eventually called, and Detective Scieziesceiz (Thomas Jane) investigates – but they don’t find anything. Her disappearance haunts Kat for the rest of her high school life, and into university, while Phil starts to drift away from her, and Brock becomes more distant from her as well.

The film is told from Kat’s point-of-view, and revolves her almost completely. No matter who she is talking to, the conversation is about her – even when discussing her mother’s disappearance, it’s more about how it made Kat feel, than who Eve really was. As a result of this, Kat is the only three dimensional character in the film – and Woodley makes the most of the opportunity, playing charming, funny, smart, sexy, and also self-involved and rather selfish. The rest of the cast basically exist only in the roles that Kat has cast for them in her life – the neurotic mother, the henpecked father, the sexy dumbbell boyfriend, the sexual exciting older cop, the ever supportive black friend , the comedic gay sidekick, the shrink, etc. As the movie goes along, and Kat therefore gets older (it takes place over the span of a few years), she starts to see the characters more for who they are, and less who she cast them as – they become more complicated and complex.

This is both fascinating, and somewhat frustrating. The film is based on a Young Adult novel by Laura Kasischke, which I have not read, but the film it has inspired is more honest about life as teenager than most Young Adult novels are. This one sees teenagers more as they actually are, than how they want to be perceived, which is what those novels usually feed. The film is basically about growing up – and how as we grow, we become less self-involved, and are better able to see clearly those who are around us – not just the way we see them. The supporting performances are stuck being one note for the first two acts, and then at least some of them take on darker shades in that third act. Eva Green, who plays Eve, never really gets that chance however – she’s already gone by then. She is slightly more subdued here than in 300: Rise of an Empire of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – two bad movies this year that she enlivened whenever she is onscreen – but is more distracting, as she never quite seems to fit in with the rest of the movie (which, to be fair, may be the point).
The end of the movie is anti-climactic, and rather abrupt – but then again, I think that is the point here. The only scene in the film that doesn’t really involve Kat in anyway is supposed to help explain the mysterious behavior of three of the people are Kat, and to a certain extent it does, but it also comes out of left field. All of this is I think what Araki is going for here – but that doesn’t mean it’s wholly satisfying. I think ultimately White Bird in a Blizzard is a film that is more interesting to talk about than it is to see – although perhaps a second viewing, knowing what Araki is going for what be beneficial. But it is still another distinct entry is a very strange filmography by Araki – and that in itself is reason enough to see it.

Movie Review: The Book of Life

The Book of Life
Directed by: Jorge R. Gutierrez.
Written by: Jorge R. Gutierrez & Douglas Langdale.
Starring: Diego Luna (Manolo), Zoe Saldana (Maria), Channing Tatum (Joaquin), Ron Perlman (Xibalba), Christina Applegate (Mary Beth), Ice Cube (Candle Maker), Kate del Castillo (La Muerte), Hector Elizondo (Carlos Sanchez), Danny Trejo (Skeleton Luis), Carlos Alazraqui (General Posada / Dali / Chuy), Ana de la Reguera (Skeleton Carmen), Emil-Bastien Bouffard (Young Manolo), Elias Garza (Young Joaquin), Genesis Ochoa (Young Maria), Plácido Domingo (Skeleton Jorge), Jorge R. Gutierrez (Skeleton Carmelo).

For the second time in a month, we have an animated film for children that touches on darker themes than we usually see in children’s films. But while The Boxtrolls was a dark film visually, and had some moments that would truly be scary for smaller children, The Book of Life is a film brimming with colors and life. The film looks great from start to finish – and if I end up preferring The Boxtrolls it’s more because it seems more aimed at my sensibilities than The Book of Life does.

The film, by first time director Jorge R. Gutierrez, centers on the well-known Mexican holiday The Day of the Dead. The character design is based on the puppets and carved figurines associated with the holiday, and are ingeniously designed and complex. The film has a framing device of a Museum tour Guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) telling the tale of a love triangle in a Mexican of yesteryear. As children, Manolo, Maria and Joaquin are inseparable. The sensitive Manolo loves music, and wants nothing else but to play his guitar – although his father makes it clear that their family are all bullfighters. Joaquin is a more “manly man” – wearing a fake mustache in childhood, and wants nothing more than to be a brave hero. Maria is an empowered female animated character – smart, tough, wickedly funny – who loves both of her friends. The trio is torn apart when she is sent to Spain for her education – returning years later, which only resumes the love triangle.

Two deities – La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) – who were once in love – make a bet on these three children. La Muerte, who rules of the Land of the Remembered, the vibrant, lively part of the afterlife, believes the sensitive Manolo will win Maria’s hand. Xibalba, who rules over the darker Land of the Forgotten afterlife, thinks it will be manly Joaquin. Both help their chosen man in childhood – and they grow up to become who each wants them to be. Who will Maria choose? She is her own woman, and will not be pressured by her father – the General who runs the town – into choosing Joaquin – even if it will make him stay, and fight off the bandit who threatens the town.

The film, is if anything, a little too busy for its own good. Gutierrez admirably tries to combine all his different story threads into the film – but the film takes a little too long to get going (the story that the trailer sells doesn’t really appear until about an hour into the film). He has to juggle so many characters and plot threads – and he does a decent job, but perhaps a little less ambition would have yielded a better film.

He is helped by the voice cast – especially Zoe Saldana, perfect as the empowered adult Maria, and Channing Tatum, amusingly brash and over-confident as Joaquin. And even if the film seems to be constantly on the movie – never letting it settle truly into its story, it is always a colorful marvel to look at. There are darker elements to the story (one of the kids in the tour group does ask the guide at one point “What kind of story is this? We’re just kids”) – and while Gutierrez doesn’t dwell on this darkness, he doesn’t ignore it either – treating the darker elements with a directness that is refreshing.

The film is a joy to watch, but unlike something like The Boxtrolls, or other, stronger animated film, it doesn’t really stay with you in the same way. It's fun, and despite its dark elements, more family friendly than The Boxtrolls. But it doesn’t quite measure up to that film. But for a family film market –starved for entertainment – The Book of Life delivers.

Movie Review: Print the Legend

Print the Legend
Directed by: Luis Lopez & J. Clay Tweel.
Written by: Steven Klein & Luis Lopez & J. Clay Tweel.

I think the biggest takeaway from the documentary Print the Legend is that ideals are easy to keep when you have nothing at stake except your ideals. It is easy to say you will never sell out to “the man” when the man has no interest in buying you. But once they come knocking, what do you do is really what defines how strong those ideals are. Print the Legend tells a familiar story – one that we have seen again and again in different mediums over the years. This one focuses on a few companies – and their founders – who want to bring 3-D printing the masses. It focuses mainly on two companies – Masterbot and Form Labs – and their founders, and how they navigate a world that is ever evolving, and how their companies, and the people involved, change over the years. Everyone is idealistic when the film starts – but slowly, but surely, that begins to change. It doesn’t ignore the darker side of 3-D printing – represented by the controversial Cody Wilson, who designs gun parts that you can use a 3-D printer to create – the scary part being that they actually work.

The film starts with Masterbot – a startup company run by three friends out of an old ice cream factory. It mainly focuses on Bre Pettis, who becomes the face of the company, and in many ways the face of consumer 3-D printing. He says like everyone else, he wanted to be Steve Wozniack, but because he is charming, camera friendly, and smart, he wound up in the Steve Jobs role instead. Once in the Jobs role, he embraces it fully. As one of his former employees says that the worst thing that happened Pettis is that he read Steve Jobs biography – and took that as an excuse to be an asshole himself – because Jobs was. Masterbot started out extremely idealistic – even insisting that their hardware be Open Source – meaning that it was available to all to make changes and improvements that can then be implemented. But then, as often happens, money becomes involved – Masterbot gets some investors, and the reality of Open Source, becomes untenable. Pettis jumps at turning the hardware proprietary, and growing the company more and more and more, and leaves his partners behind. As often happens, what start out idealistically ends in hurt feelings, broken friendships and a company that grows so big that it becomes more difficult to get anything down.

Form Labs is somewhat different. It is, again, led by three friends – but the face of the company becomes Max Lobovsky – who is not suited to be Steve Jobs. He is quiet, shy and socially awkward. Like Masterbot, what started out small gets bigger, faster than they can handle. A Kickstarter campaign draws millions in pledges – promising a 3-D printer if you donated a certain amount of money – but the release of these gets delayed repeatedly. They also draw the attention of some of the bigger companies in the game – those focused on more commercial applications – and lawsuits follow. Again, hurt feelings and broken friendships follow – although at least here, things seem to be resolved somewhat satisfactorily in the end.

Then there is Cody Wilson. He doesn’t have a 3-D printing company – but immediately sees the potential in the technology. He starts designed gun magazines and receivers for weapons – and wants to make a functioned 3-D gun. He is an anarchist, and believes that everyone should be treated exactly the same – that if the military and police can have a weapon, than so can the average person. The scary thing about 3-D guns, is that they can be made out of plastic, and still work. He is on his own – but he draws a lot of attention.
As a documentary, Print the Legend is fascinating, if a little overlong. As it moves along, the film starts seeing patterns emerge, and scenes almost seem to repeat themselves. Interview subjects who at first seem nothing but enthusiastic, end up turning sour and bitter – but then the film dwells on that bitterness, and essentially has several people say the same thing over and over again. As a film, it is fairly straight forward – talking heads mostly – but done well. We have seen this story, and will see this story again in the future. Everyone thinks that their company will be different – that they will change the world, and do things differently. No one really does – but it is a pattern that is destined to keep repeating itself.

Movie Review: Policeman

Directed by: Nadav Lapid.
Written by: Nadav Lapid.
Starring: Yiftach Klein (Yaron), Yaara Pelzig (Shira), Michael Moshonov (Oded), Menashe Noy (Michael), Michael Aloni (Nathanael), Gal Hoyberger (Ariel), Meital Barda (Nili), Shaul Mizrahi (Hila), Rona-Lee Shim'on (Hila's Father), Ben Adam (Yotam).

The Israeli drama Policeman is separated neatly into three different parts. The first exploring the title character, Yaron (Yiftach Klein), a member of an anti-terrorist task force. We see Yaron in two different modes – the macho policeman, all backslaps and “bros” when he is with his fellow officers – who are facing an investigation into an operation gone bad, but plan to stick together through that. He seems like little more than a macho, meathead asshole in these scenes – but perhaps he’s just putting on an act, because we also see him rather sensitive and tender with his pregnant girlfriend – we are told throughout the movie that she may go into labor at any moment. After about 40 minutes of this, minutely observed passage, the movie abruptly changes viewpoints – cutting to a different group. This is a group of four affluent Jewish kids of college age, who we are introduced to taking target practice. They want to start a “revolution” – they consider the rich in Israel to be criminals, when there is so much poverty all around them – even though it becomes clear that none of them have experienced that poverty first hand. They are planning some sort of action in the next few days – which they will use to get media attention to read their manifesto, written by Shira (Yaara Pelzig) – the member of the group that the film focuses most attention on, even though she isn’t their leader. After spending time with this group, we then cut to the finale – when they take three wealthy people at a wedding hostage – and are stuck with the bride as well, who refuses to leave her father – and, of course, Yaron and his group are called in to end the situation.

There are some interesting things touched on throughout Policeman. The difference between who an individual is in private, and who they are as part of a group being chief among them. It also takes a rather unique view of terrorism for an Israeli film, in that the terrorists are Jewish, and not Arab – something that hits Yaron hard in the closing minutes of the film, as he looks at Shira and is confused by what it all means.

The problem with Policeman is that it merely skims the surface of the characters and their situation. The first two acts of the movie basically repeat similar scenes over and over again, to drill the point into the audiences head. The last act seems to be artificially elongated, so that writer-director Nadav Lapid can once again emphasis the points he already made in the first two acts, and take a few other potshots throughout.

There is some interesting stuff going on in Policeman – but it never really delves deep enough into the issues it raises to be satisfying. A more interesting film seems to be starting just as this film ends – one that may involve the type of introspection that this film studiously avoids. The film came out earlier this year – after spending nearly 3 years on the festival circuit and Lapid already has his second film, The Kindergarten Teacher, making the rounds now. I think there is real talent here – but in Policeman his ambitions outreach his ability.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Movie Review: Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip
Directed by: Alex Ross Perry.
Written by: Alex Ross Perry.
Starring: Jason Schwartzman (Philip Lewis Friedman), Elisabeth Moss (Ashley Kane), Krysten Ritter (Melanie Zimmerman), Joséphine de La Baume (Yvette Dussart), Jonathan Pryce (Ike Zimmerman), Jess Weixler (Holly Kane), Dree Hemingway (Emily), Keith Poulson (Josh Fawn), Kate Lyn Sheil (Nancy), Yusef Bulos (Norm), Maïté Alina (Clare), Daniel London (Seth), Samantha Jacober (Mona), Eric Bogosian (The Narrator).
There has been a lot of talk recently about “likable” protagonists and characters – something that has never much interested me, and clearly doesn’t interest writer-director Alex Ross Perry. The opening scene of Listen Up Philip has his “hero”, Philip Lewis Friedman, played by Jason Schwartzman as the worst possible future version of his Max Fisher from Rushmore, waiting in a restaurant for an ex-girlfriend to give him a copy of his latest novel. When she has the nerve to show up 25 minutes late, he goes on a bile infused rant about what a horrible person she is, never lets her get a word in edgewise, and then stocks off into the streets of New York. Feeling good about his outburst, he then gets together with his old college friend, and similarly browbeats the man as a sellout – about how he has abandoned their declaration of principles, and how only he, Philip, is the real artist. When the old friend decides he has had enough, and leaves, the scenes pitch-black punchline comes, and delivers one of the first of many shocked laughs.
Philip lives in a world where everything is about himself and his work – which he knows is genius, even if no one else seems to quite agree with him. He informs his publisher that he will not be doing any press for his new book – hell, if shunning the press was good enough for Tolstoy, then it’s good enough for Philip Lewis Friedman. His novels draw the attention of Ike Zimmerman, an old author with a similar affliction of narcissism and misanthropy, clearly based on Philip Roth – and played brilliantly by Jonathan Pryce. He feeds Philip’s ego, and encourages him to live the lifestyle that Ike himself has so successfully lived – which if Philip was paying attention he would notice has left Ike a rich, but lonely man – with no friends that he has alienated, and a daughter, Melanie (the always welcome Krysten Ritter) who despises him – and longs to get the better of the man, who will not let her get the upper hand ever.
It’s not like Philip really needs Ike’s advice on how to be an asshole to those who love him, for some reason. Even before he meets Ike, Philip is doing his best to deliberately alienate his girlfriend of two years, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) – a photographer, who like Philip has had her career start to take off a little bit – and is stuck between artistic freedom, and perhaps selling out. From the opening scene with one ex-girlfriend, to a later scene with another ex (played by the wonderful Kate Lyn Sheil, who was the lead in Perry’s last film – The Color Wheel) – where she literally runs away from him in mid-conversation, we know where this relationship is likely headed. Strangely, for a film centered on a man, who leaves his girlfriend behind, the movie itself doesn’t leave Ashley. The movie has one, extended sequence where it follows Ashley after Philip has retreated to Ike’s upstate retreat to write, and eventually take a teaching position at  small college (before he leaves, Philip tells Ashley “I hope this will be good for both of us. But especially me”).  This sequence is unlike much of the rest of the film, where the dialogue flies quickly, and is actually relatively quiet – making the most of Moss’ ability (honed after years on Mad Men) to do so much with her face, which shows such complex emotions without utterly a word – or saying one thing, while meaning another. It’s also a rather welcome respite from all the masculine bile being spewed by Philip and Ike – which because the writing is so sharp, and the performances by Schwartzman and Pryce so good is both hilarious, and disturbing look at a certain type of male, narcissistic artist.
Roth is an obvious impersonation for the film – the brilliantly designed fake book jackets of his novels look very much like Roth’s – and Perry shares his bleak view of humanity and relationships and narcissism. The movie is, in many ways, structured like a novel – with flash backs, and narrative derisions that usually get edited out of movie, and jumps forward in time. The cinematic influences range from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach – in particular I was reminded of Allen’s own Roth inspired comedy, Deconstructing Harry (1997), one of Allen’s best and most underrated movies – and the one where Allen seemed to care least about his character being liked. Like Allen in that film, Perry most often uses a handheld camera, which captures everything as another character in the film. Mostly, while Allen’s films have examined New York intellectuals and writers like Philip and Ike in the past, there is usually an undercurrent of goodness beneath the outer cynicism of his characters. Nothing like that appears in Listen Up Philip, which dissects both Philip and Ike in merciless detail. These two men feed each other’s ego, and at times they seem to be competing over who can be the bigger asshole. Schwartzman and Pryce are both brilliant in their roles – as is Moss, who eventually sees Philip more clearly than he can ever hope to see himself. The film is narrated by Eric Bogosian, as a kind of all seeing God-like figure – who knows everything, and often narrates it with hilarious detail. His final lines in the movie – which are the final lines spoken – confirm what we already suspected what would happen to Philip when the narrative ends.

Movie Review: Men, Women & Children

Men, Women & Children
Directed by: Jason Reitman.
Written by: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson based on the novel by Chad Kultgen.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Don Truby), Jennifer Garner (Patricia Beltmeyer), Rosemarie DeWitt (Helen Truby), Judy Greer (Donna Clint), Dean Norris (Kent Mooney), Emma Thompson (Narrator), Olivia Crocicchia (Hannah Clint), Kaitlyn Dever (Brandy Beltmeyer), Ansel Elgort (Tim Mooney), Katherine C. Hughes  (Brooke Benton), Elena Kampouris (Allison Doss), Will Peltz (Brandon Lender), Travis Tope (Chris Truby), David Denman (Jim Vance), Dennis Haysbert (Secretluvur), J.K. Simmons (Allison's Dad), Colby Arps (Tanner), Shane Lynch (Angelique), Timothée Chalamet (Danny Vance).

Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children has already been roasted by critics, and greeted with indifference by audiences. My expectations heading into the film were low – not only because of the reviews, but because I read Chad Kultgen’s novel, which Reitman and Eric Cressida adapted, and thought it was horrible. Watching the film, I know why most critics have hated it – it isn’t a good film in any way, it’s characters are one dimensional and for the most part uninteresting, and the film merely skims the surface of the issues it raises. But the film isn’t quite as bad as many critics seem to think – and I don’t really think that the film is the screed against technology and the internet many seem to think it is. What is strange to me is that while computers and the internet have changed everything about our culture – including everything about the movies – there really haven’t been too many movies actually about the internet and social networking. What Reitman film is attempting – and I think for the most part fails to do – is to show how people live now. It doesn’t necessarily lecture about the dangers of technology, but does show how so many people live their lives online – and not in RL (or Real Life) as one character explains to a clueless adult. Much like Reitman’s last film, Labor Day, I admire the effort behind Men, Women and Children, even if I didn’t much care for the execution.

The film has been called the “Crash of the Internet” – a title that should actually belong to last year’s, far worse film Disconnect – because it is another of those films that takes a loosely related group of people, and spins out multiple storylines from it. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a middle aged married couple, with a couple of sons, who don’t really have sex anymore. Helen decides to go onto Ashley Madison and find a partner for an affair, while Don decides to go online and find a prostitute. Their son Chris (Travis Tope) is 15, and has been browsing increasingly deviant pornography from the time he was 10, and now cannot get it up for “normal” sex with a girl his own age – even when faced with the attractive little cheerleader Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah dreams of being a celebrity in the Kim Kardashian way, and her mother Donna (Judy Greer) supports this – it was her own dream once as well – and runs a website for Hannah, which started as an online resume, but now has an “members only” section of pictures of Hannah is various “costumes” requested by her “fans” – all of which Donna takes. Donna, a single mother, and starts to date Kent (Dean Norris) – a man whose wife has left him and run off the California with another man. Kent’s son is Tim (Ansel Elgort), once a star running back on the high school football, who has decided to quit this year – and seems to have no other plans than to play “Guild Wars” online. Then he meets Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), another outsider at her school, and their relationship develops rather sweetly – like we are accustomed to seeing in movies about teenagers. Brandy’s mother is Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who runs an “Internet Safety” group – and monitors every single keystroke her daughter makes online and on her phone, and is obsessive about her daughter’s safety to the point where she can no longer be a normal teenager. Then there’s Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), who lost a lot of weight over the summer – essentially by not eating anything, and going online for “thinspiration” – who, because of that weight loss, has been able to attract the attention of her crush Brandan (Will Peltz) – although it’s clear from the start the one thing he wants from her.

There are some interesting observations and scenes in the film – but for the most part, Reitman tries to accomplish so much in the film, tell so many stories, that he never really gets beneath the surface to any of these stories. The film feels dated – not because of its observations about the internet, but because of its focus on an exclusively white suburbia – where nothing is as perfect as it seems on the surface. It feels like an online version of American Beauty more than anything else – but one in which focuses on so many characters, that none of them can pull attention towards themselves.

There are good scenes in the movie. I almost wish the film had focused exclusively on Don and Helen – and truly explored their relationship – but there is something interesting about two people no longer interested in sex with each other, but still want to stay married – and find satisfaction outside their marriage. DeWitt is a talented actress – and she is able to do a lot with not a lot on page at times. Her scenes with the various men – particularly Dennis Haysbert, as her first, she comes alive – all in the eyes. Sandler is actually quite good in the film – given us a portrait of a middle aged man, who feels impotent, who strays from his marriage and also finds happiness. The final scene between these two is the best in the movie – and that’s mostly due to the way Sandler acts that final scene – with quiet confidence. It is a reminder of how good Sandler can be when he wants to be – which unfortunately only seems like something that happens a couple of times a decade.

The rest of the cast is nearly as good or as interesting as these two. True, Dever and Elgott are both fine, charming young actors – and they sell their relationship as much as the screenplay allows – but that’s not much. Crocicchia is fine as Hannah, as is Kampouris as Allison, but the movie only gives both one note to play. Dean Norris is nicely downbeat and depressed – slowly coming out of his shell throughout the movie. I never did buy the impotent 15 year old boy storyline – it felt forced. And poor Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer are given impossible roles to play, and do their best, but there just isn’t much to do with their roles.

In short, Men, Women & Children never really works. Even in its best storyline – between Don and Helen – the movie doesn’t delve deep enough, and go far enough in its examination of what their mutual adultery actually means for their marriage. Reitman has improved what was a horrible book – thankfully cutting out much of the most ludicrous stuff that Kultgen included purely for shock value. But he cannot solve the main problem with the book – that these characters are just not very interesting, or examined in any meaningful way. I appreciate what Reitman was attempting in the film – but he doesn’t pull it off in any meaningful way.