Movie Review: Drinking Buddies (2013)

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are co-workers at a Chicago microbrewery, and they’re also great friends.  It’s clear that the two like each other a great deal, and their sexual tension simmers just below the surface, but neither one of them acts on it.  And why would they?  They’re both dating other people.  Kate’s time is spent with a wealthy older man named Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke has been with his sweet girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) for a very, very long time.  But over the course of several weeks, the dynamic between these four changes.  Along the way, they consume a lot of beer.

The first thing you should know is that this film, written and directed by Joe Swanberg, didn’t have a written script.  Almost entirely improvised from a detailed, original outline by Swanberg, the film succeeds largely because of the crazy, insane chemistry of the cast.  Seriously, the four actors that make up the majority of this movie share some of the best onscreen chemistry you’ll see this year, if not ever.  Their ability to work off of one another and improvise without over-thinking their characters’ motivations make this movie completely riveting, and completely genuine.

Although the general premise of the film is one we have seen before, it’s been a while since it was approached with such nuance.  The fact that both of the stars are in happy relationships adds an interesting paradox to what is transpiring onscreen.  The heat between Kate and Luke is safe as long as they are paired off with other people.  When Kate finds herself alone, though, Luke has to start to question whether or not he wants to be with the woman he loves or the woman that he could, maybe, love.

This is not a plot-driven movie.  It’s not even really all that driven by its characters, so if you’re looking for a fast-paced comedy or a raucous romp with these incredibly talented actors, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  What this movie really does is fully examine a single scenario, and the result is so real and so fascinating that it’s impossible to look away. So much of that credit has to be given to the actors, who really shine in their roles.

Johnson is the standout here, as he proves yet again that he’s a great, versatile actor.  He does a lot of the heavy lifting, but he’s helped out by his castmates.  Wilde is absolutely luminous in her most accessible role to date, as an assertive and strong female unafraid to instigate trouble and knock back more than a few craft beers.  Kendrick is also notable for a much more subdued role than is her normal fare, and Livingston is too damn good for you to dislike him.

It’s a few days later, and I’m still thinking about this one.  I’m still thinking about the characters, and the powerful performances of the cast.  This is one that will stay with me, and it’s one I plan on revisiting–soon.

Drinking Buddies is out now on iTunes, Amazon, and other VOD services.  It will be released theatrically in late August.

Movie Review: Hello I Must Be Going (2012)

Amy Minsky (Melanie Lysnkey) is in her thirties and fresh out of a marriage she didn’t want out of.  She’s back home with her image-conscious parents in their Connecticut home, and she’s a total mess.  When she meets Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), the 19-year-old son of one of her dad’s prospective clients, the two begin a steamy, secret affair and end up discovering themselves in the process.

This quiet, contemplative indie debuted at Sundance last year, and yet it manages to circumvent a lot of the quirky indie tropes that plague so many movies similar to this one.  Through it’s stellar cast performances and quiet, wry script, the movie ends up being a surprising little gem that you’ve never heard of.  This is definitely a title to seek out–it’s well worth your time.

For once, Melanie Lynskey gets to break out of her traditionally character-bit-part roles and shine as the film’s star.  She’s luminous onscreen, and watching her slowly peel away the layers of her depression and start to realize her own worth is amazing.  It’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen.  You can’t help but root for her, and hope that she’ll find her way–and herself–eventually.

She’s matched in talent and intensity by Abbott, who manages to create a 19-year-old boy who is searching for something just as much as Lynskey’s character.  Instead of going full-on brooding, though, Abbott creates a quiet intensity in his character that makes him all the more sympathetic.  It doesn’t hurt that the two of them have excellent chemistry, either.

The supporting cast is good and the movie doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.  Viewers should pretty  much know what they’re in for once the movie starts, but that doesn’t make it a less enjoyable experience.  Lynskey and Abbott are so good, and the movie’s rising action so satisfying, that this is one it would be hard not to enjoy.

Recommended.

 

Movie Review: Children of a Lesser God (1986)

James Leeds (William Hurt) is an unconventional speech teacher who arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine to teach at a deaf school.  There he meets a beautiful but stubborn janitor named Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), whose refusal to speak or learn to read lips baffles him. As the two embark on a romance, they must learn to speak the other’s language or face the fact that they’ll never be able to truly communicate.

Adapted from Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning play of the same name, Children of a Lesser God is an uneven movie that showed a great deal of promise before ultimately falling into some well-trodden cliches.  A stellar cast and fascinating look into Deaf culture can’t save the movie from being problematic, dated, and more than a little trite.  However, there’s a lot to examine within the film’s content.

The movie is essentially about tension between two people who speak different languages: James lives in the world of the hearing, and Sarah lives in a world of silence.  At times, the two seem to be at war with one another: James wants Sarah to learn to read lips and to speak, and Sarah is adamant that James enter and accept her world of silence.  This war doesn’t go very far, though, because the movie is only showing one side: James’s.

So, yes, the movie chooses to live in the world of the hearing, and it does so with an interesting strategy: subtitles are never used in the film.  Instead of ever allowing viewers to experience what Sarah experiences, the film has James translate everything that she signs, narrating her experience with his own voice.  At one point, he states, “I like to hear my own voice,” and it’s the line that helps pull off the premise.  And at the same time, it makes the film about him, because it only features his point of view.  Because of this, Sarah becomes the woman who is simply a stubborn object that must be conquered.  She is the problem that must be fixed.  And that might be the most frustrating thing about this movie, because it’s trying so hard to convince viewers that the opposite is happening.

There are some good things here.  Both Hurt and Matlin are excellent in their roles.  Matlin was only 21 when she made the film (it was her first) and more than holds her own against Hurt, who is convincing and powerful as the impassioned (if misguided) speech teacher.  A supporting performance by Piper Laurie as Sarah’s mother is also very good (although it’s somewhat of a thankless role).

The cast can’t make up for the film’s overall predictability, though.  The love story plays out exactly as viewers will expect it to, and although the chemistry between Matlin and Hurt is great (the two were involved in real life for a long time and had a very tumultuous relationship), they can’t save the movie from falling into every romantic drama trope there is.

Still worth a watch, if only for being one of the first movies to feature a deaf actress in a lead role.  The movie’s available on Netflix Instant for a few more days and can be found on DVD.

Movie Review: Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been friends since high school and are the perfect married couple.  They have the same sense of humor, love to hang out with each other, and understand one another perfectly.  All of this is why their friends can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that the two are separated–and have been for several months.  When Jesse decides to actually start to move on with his life, Celeste finds that it’s much harder than she anticipated to let go.

Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormick (and based on their own short-lived relationship), Celeste and Jesse Forever aims to be a romantic comedy-dramedy that subverts the traditional movies of the genre.  The problem is that the film can’t quite decide what it is.  This is a movie that doesn’t rock the boat of the genre so much as tap at the side of it ineffectually.  What results is an uneven, largely disappointing movie that leaves viewers wanting more depth.

It isn’t that the film doesn’t get anything right, because it certainly does.  Perhaps the film’s strongest moments are between Jesse and Celeste themselves, played convincingly by Jones and Samberg (who surprises here with more appeal than anything viewers have ever seen him do on SNL or in an Adam Sandler movie).  The two share the same sense of humor which is more awkward than actually funny, but that’s kind of the point: both are stunted by their shared intimacy.

Much of the credit should be given to director Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind), who manages to coax a great deal of warmth from many of the characters.  Krieger helps both Celeste and Jesse become appealing characters while allowing the audience to see their flaws.  The supporting characters, including McCormick as a very funny drug dealer and Emma Watson as a spoiled pop star, are allowed to be fleshed out enough that viewers care about them—at least a little.

More problematic, however, is Toland’s propensity to rely on handheld camera work and extreme close-ups to convey intimacy.  It weakens the film as a whole, and helps to further illuminate the fact that the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.  Too often, a beautiful shot (like one of Jones standing outside a wedding tent, smoking and drinking against a gorgeous night sky) is undercut by sophomoric gags (bong hits, anyone?).

However, the movie’s weakest point is the fact that too much of it feels like cliché, contrived situations. Virtually every event and reaction feels inauthentic.  After a while, it begins to seem as though everything that is happening in the film is happening not because of real moments but because these moments are going to bring about another situation.  That, perhaps, is the most disappointing part of this entire endeavor: it comes close to getting it right but always falls short.

Still, the film leaves itself open to some good discussions.  My viewing partner quipped afterward, “That was a really good iPhone commercial,” and while he was right, I’m convinced there are some things present in the movie worth talking about.  I’d rent this one, though, and not spend the money to see it in the theater.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is out now.

Movie Review: Take This Waltz (2011)

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen, playing against type) have been married for five years and are fairly pleasantly ensconced in a slightly-Bohemian domestic life in Toronto.  When Margot goes on a work trip and gets seated next to an attractive and charming man named Daniel (Luke Kirby), the two flirt rather innocently and then decide to share a cab.  Things become more complicated when Margot and Daniel discover that they live across the street from one another.  Thus begins Margot’s dilemma about her feelings for both Lou and Daniel.  While she doesn’t want to hurt her husband, she can’t deny that she has feelings for Daniel.

Sarah Polley wrote and directed this quiet little independent movie, and it’s by far her strongest film yet.  Rich in characters and emotionally generous, this film is one to see if you like contemplative character studies that offer emotionally raw situations with no easy answers.  By far one of my favorite films of 2012, this is one worth seeing.

Ambivalence dominates the movie, and viewers will have to work to figure out who the characters are and what they want.  Margot is indecisive and confused about what she wants, but she is never passive about it.  As she continues to flirt with Daniel, she clearly worries about how it will impact her mostly happy marriage to the sweet, clueless Lou.  She’s split down the middle with desire for the man she knows and loves and the stranger she can’t stop thinking about.  That’s part of what makes this movie so effective: her desire is palpable and her confusion is real.

All of the characters in Polley’s movie are remarkably well-done.  No one is any one thing, and that helps create the feeling of total uncertainty that dominates the movie.  Viewers are given some information but are not privy to what goes on inside each of the character’s heads.  As a result, the viewers sit in a state of suspense about what will happen for much of the movie.  It’s intense and riveting.

The movie never crosses over into melodrama and is never overly melancholic.  Instead, it presents the story and allows the viewer to create their own conclusions.  Although this reviewer’s reading of the film was ultimately fairly depressing, not every viewer will walk away with that feeling.  Polley injects the film with warmth and color and music, and the strong performances linger long after the film has finished.

Seriously, seriously worth seeing.  Highly recommended.

Take this Waltz was originally released in September of 2011 (but didn’t show up here in the Twin Cities until last month).  You might still be able to catch it in theaters or On Demand, but the DVD is due in October.

Movie Review: Magic Mike (2012)

When young, lost Adam (Alex Pettyfer) ends up meeting a charismatic guy named Mike (Channing Tatum), he inadvertently changes the course of his future.  Mike introduces Adam “The Kid” into the world of male stripping, and the two share in the exploits and adventures that result from that lifestyle.  All of this is much of the dismay of Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who disapproves of her brother’s choices but can’t help but be drawn to Mike’s charm.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh with a script by Reid Carolin (part of Tatum’s production team), this movie elevates itself way, way above what the trailers would have viewers believe and ends up being a smart, exceedingly well-cast movie that is both comedy and drama.  This is an exceptional film, worthy of viewers’s time and money.  Everything about this movie works on every level.  It’s one of the best films of 2012.

Much has been made of the fact that this movie is based on Tatum’s own experiences working as a stripper when he was 18 or 19.  Even though (the sometimes wooden) Pettyfer is playing the role of a similar young man, this is still Tatum’s movie.  If this isn’t a star-making role for Tatum, nothing will ever be.  Tatum is absolutely riveting as the charismatic, funny Mike, and his dance moves have never been more fun to watch.  There’s no denying that this is an actor with actual talent, and viewers will find themselves surprised by Tatum’s range and ability to embody the character of Mike–it is impossible not to root for this guy who has genuine ambition but is more than a little lost.

The rest of the cast is also very good.  Despite Pettyfer’s tendency to be a little stiff (much of what might come from his attempt to put on an American accent), he’s a natural on the stage, and watching his transformation from virginal, hesitant teenager to an egomaniacal professional stripper is fairly gripping, too.  Matthew McConaughey is at his greasy best as the club’s owner and MC.  The rest of the stripper bunch–including Joe Magniaello and Matt Bomer–are good in the scenes they’re given.  But like I said, this is Tatum’s movie, and viewers won’t be able to look away.

Adding to the film’s depth is a tentative, budding relationship with Adam’s sister.  Horn plays the character of Brooke with a natural easiness.  She serves as the movie’s own skeptic, watching what’s happening from an outsider’s perspective.  The chemistry she has with Tatum is palpable, but Soderbergh is careful to never let this aspect of the story overtake the rest of the film.

It’s exceptionally smart and frequently funny, but the movie doesn’t shy away from darker subject material.  As Adam becomes more enmeshed in the seedy parts of the business, the film allows viewers to experience it with him, but the tone is never moralistic or judgmental.  This is part of what makes the movie so great, but it’s the performances that elevate it to another level.

Highly, highly recommended.  One of my favorites of the year.  Magic Mike is out in theaters now.

 

Movie Review: Chronicle (2012)

When loner Andrew (Dane Dehaan) and his much more popular cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and their charismatic friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) stumble upon some sort of alien-pod thing, they’re endowed with super powers that continue to grow and evolve.  As the three boys experiment with their new-found telekinetic powers, they discover that having that kind of power comes with consequences, and they’re going to have to make some tough choices.

It’s a fairly simple premise that doesn’t waste any time trying to explain away the fanatical elements of the plot.  Director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis, both still in their twenties, take the found-footage phenomenon and provide a fresh twist for viewers.  As the boys become more powerful, the dynamics in their relationships begin to change.  This is most clear in the case of outcast Andrew, who begins to embrace his power in a way that the other two boys do not.  Although the plot is fairly predictable, it’s still a very fun ride up to the movie’s slightly ridiculous climax.  Fantastic special effects (especially considering the movie’s relatively low budget of $15 million) help round out this total thrill ride.

What is interesting to note is how good all three boys are in their respective roles.  There is nothing more natural than the way the boys react to their new powers: first with glee, then with a sort of reckless abandon.  Viewers know that things are going to get dark, but it’s impossible not to laugh along with them as they figure out how to move things, fly around, and play pranks on unsuspecting bystanders.  Both Jordan and Russell are completely charismatic and likeable in their roles, but it is Dehaan who is the standout.  Dehaan’s portrayal of the bullied and broken Andrew is poignant and heartbreaking, and his plight is sympathetic.

Although the film takes a noticeable stumble in its final scenes, it’s still completely enjoyable.  By not focusing on the whys or the hows, the film manages to sidestep much of what would slow down the excellent pacing and compelling story.  It’s surprisingly watchable and completely entertaining.  Recommended.

Chronicle is out on DVD now.

Terrible Movie Review: The Princess and the Marine (2001)

Some time ago, I got it into my head that doing a Terrible Movie Review feature would be fun for the blog.  I like bad movies–and I watch them fairly frequently.  I’ve even reviewed a few of them here before.  The first Terrible Movie Review I (officially) reviewed was the Selena Gomez schmaltzfest Monte Carlo.  Then…nothing.  Well, I’m here to tell you that you need not wait any longer, Gentle Readers!  TMR has returned–with a vengeance!

U.S. Marine Jason Johnson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is stationed in Bahrain in 1999.  It is there that he meets Meriam Al-Khalifa (Marisol Nichols), a  young Bahraini woman who also happens to be Bahraini royalty.  Despite the fact that Meriam is Muslim and Jason is Mormon, the two fall in love.  When news of their romance reaches her family, she is forbidden to see Jason.  Jason devises a plan to sneak Meriam out of the country using forged papers and a New York Yankees hat.  Of course, once she’s stateside, she’s taken into U.S. custody and attempts to apply for asylum, claiming that if she’s forced to go back to Bahrain there’s a good chance she’ll be killed.  In the meantime, she and Jason get married (he was 23 and she was 19).  Is there love for real or just infatuation amped up by their circumstances?

I was sixteen when the movie premiered on NBC.  Readers, no matter how jaded and cynical you are now, you have to admit that there’s something there, right?  A modern-day Romeo and Juliet?  Star-crossed lovers?  Two people who are completely different and defy the odds to be together?  Whatever the case may be, a movie like this plays into one of the ultimate fantasies (and is essentially the title of a romance novel).  At sixteen, this was the kind of movie that worked for me: I realized it wasn’t particularly well-made, but I loved it anyway.

Rewatching it in my late twenties, it’s been an entirely different experience.  The things I was willing to ignore–the cheap sets, the lack of any detail regarding the story, the fact that most of the acting is mediocre at best–are a lot harder to ignore now.  There’s no getting around this one: this made-for-TV movie is not very good.  It’s pretty terrible, actually.

I don’t mean to discredit it completely, though.  Both Gosselaar and Nichols are very sweet together and have a nice chemistry onscreen.  The two do the most they can with what they’re given to work with, but it’s not enough.  Not by far.

The fact is, the sets do little to try to convince viewers that they’re actually in Bahrain (it almost seems as though Bahrain the country is nothing more than Meriam’s palace and the local shopping mall).  Viewers are forced into Jason and Meriam’s romance without any real set-up for it, and from that moment forward, everything is rushed: their first kiss, their declaration of love, and their discovery.  There’s no time here to allow things to unfold, and the result is a total mess.

All the standard made-for-TV movie issues are present here.  The script is not particularly well-written, the story is dumbed down for the audience, there are moments edited with the intention of a commercial break, etc.  There’s also the issue of the dubious casting choices–Nichols is actually Hispanic, and most of the other Bahraini girls she associates with seem to be of Indian descent.  The bottom line is that when it comes down to it, the movie isn’t very memorable.

To add serious insult to injury, Johnson and Al-Khalifa aren’t even together any more.  The two divorced in 2004, after Johnson claimed that the Las Vegas lifestyle had been too appealing to Al-Khalifa.  This bums me out, not least of all because Johnson was discharged from the Marines after the smuggling stunt he pulled.  Talk about lose-lose.

Movie Review: Friends with Kids (2011)

When Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and longtime platonic friend Jason (Adam Scott) decide to have a baby together and split the parenting duties right down the middle, their friends (Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O’Dowd) are dubious at best.  When the experiment seems to work fairly well, everyone’s surprised.  Then Julie and Jason start dating other people again (Ed Burns, Megan Fox), and complications arise.

Friends With Kids marks Westfeldt’s directorial debut.  She wrote and starred in 2001′s Kissing Jessica Stein, a bi-curious comedy that seems almost tame compared to the movies produced today.  In Friends With Kids, Westfeldt attemps to explore the complications that arise when two people decide to have kids–whether or not they decide to do it in the traditional way.  Unfortunately, the result is only partially successful, and the film’s decision to end in a predictable, obvious way makes whatever impact it could have had much, much weaker.

That’s not for lack of trying, either.  Westfeldt has surrounded herself with a cast of great actors.  Real-life partner Jon Hamm, it-girl Kirsten Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O’Dowd all do the best they can with what they’re given.  However it is Scott who really shines here, proving that he can play leading man material so long as he’s allowed to have some quirks.  Unfortunately the cast can’t make up for an overlong, overly familiar premise.  We’ve seen this before–a lot–and there isn’t really anything new to add to the discussion.

For a movie so concerned with how parenthood changes people, Westfeldt shows no actual interest in children.  The child she has with Scott’s character is a chubby-cheeked plot device and offers no depth or dimension to the story.  Instead of concerning itself with the construction of families, the movie focuses instead on the will-they-won’t-they plot until the audience is practically comatose with apathy.

There are some funny moments, and a couple of astute observations about men and women and children.  In the end, though, Friends With Kids is too talky, too predictable, and too inflated with its own superior sense of what it is.  I wanted it to be so much better than it was.

Movies I Love: Benny & Joon (1993)

Long-suffering car mechanic Benny (Aidan Quinn) has been taking care of his mentally ill sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) since their parents died in a car accident when they were young.  When Joon loses a bet in a poker game, they end up with a virtual stranger on their couch.  Sam (Johnny Depp) is strange, with an affectation for Buster Keaton impersonations and a tendency to be quite quiet.  Joon and Sam find themselves drawn to each other, but Benny has serious doubts about their chances of making it alone in the real world.

An often-overlooked gem of a movie from the early 90s, Benny & Joon has been a favorite of mine for years.  The movie’s premise–a schizophrenic woman falling in love with a functionally-illiterate man who often lives in a world of his own–threatens to be way too quirky to work, and yet it does, for a number of reasons.  One of these reasons is that the film takes such care with its characters that it never feels overwhelming or overly-didactic.  Another, bigger reason is that the cast is so devoted to their roles.  This is a very talented cast, and the fact that each actor commits so fully to their roles helps propel the film from run-of-the-mill to something really enjoyable.

Depp’s Sam could easily become a caricature of himself, but he doesn’t.  Sam is quiet, a little mysterious, and maybe crazy.  He lives in a world of film and often incorporates bits from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films into his life (the scene in the park is iconic).  Depp handles Sam with care and aplomb, and his ability to convey so much through facial expressions works especially well here.  Masterson handles Joon’s schizophrenia with a grace that is remarkable.  Although there are ample opportunities for Joon’s character to succumb to cliches and manipulations, Masterson resists them and crafts a character who is funny, smart, and engaging.  Quinn’s Benny often has to play the straight character to the other two leads, but he manages to convey his love for his sister and devotion to her care in every scene.

There are liberties that the film takes with the truth, of course.  When the film was released, it was marketed as a quirky romantic comedy (there was nary a mention of Joon’s illness).  There’s also the fact that Benny & Joon skirts the issue of Joon’s schizophrenia in the long run, choosing instead to hint at the concept that love can cure all.  Despite all this, the movie’s charm and the cast’s talent make it easy to ignore and just enjoy it.

The movie is currently available to stream instantly on Netflix.  It also boasts Oliver Platt, Julianne Moore, and Dan Hedaya as supporting cast members.  If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance.  I love this film hardcore.

Fun fact: Depp did all his own stunts for the film, including the tumbling in the park.