F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 25, 2016)

25 08 2016

ThumbsuckerMuch of Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker” treads fairly standard young adult coming of age territory. Lou Pucci’s Justin Cobb, the protagonist whose titular habit serves an effective metaphor for his juvenility, must undergo familiar trials that provide him confidence and self-worth. He has to learn public speaking skills and romantic graces with a decidedly modern twist – Justin has just added medication for his recently diagnosed ADHD that totally transforms his personality.

But there’s something more to “Thumbsucker” that makes it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” Mills, working from a novel by Walter Kirn, does not stop the coming of age with Justin. As it turns out, his emotionally stilted parents have plenty of growing up to do in their own right. The film is just as much about their own slow maturation process as their son’s.

Vincent D’Onofrio’s Mike insists that Justin refer to his parents by their first names since the terms “mom and dad” make him feel old. He serves as the manager of a large sporting goods store while still nursing bitterness and resentment over a knee injury that thwarted his football career. His family serves as a daily reminder of what his life is not.

Meanwhile, his wife, Tilda Swinton’s Audrey, handles all the love and affection for their two kids. She’s genuinely curious and attuned to Justin’s issues. But Audrey cannot shake a girlish fascination with a soap opera actor Matt Schramm. The infatuation reaches levels that embarrass her children; they do not think she would literally cheat on their father, though she is not exactly quick to dismiss the possibility of her fantasy.

“Thumbsucker” shows everyone fumbling through this thing called life together in their own way, and that even includes Justin’s zany, hypnosis obsessed dentist Perry Lyman (played by none other than Keanu Reeves). With over a decade of distance since release, it feels very reflective of a mid-2000s suburban malaise that already feels like a time capsule. Mills is earnest in his explorations of what causes people’s unshakeable, throbbing sensation of vague discontent with their current situation. The sincerity goes a long way in making these unsatisfied characters ones that are worth spending time with to probe their pain.





REVIEW: Hands of Stone

24 08 2016

It’s generally always a pleasure to hear the voice of Robert DeNiro, but “Hands of Stone” writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz finds a way to render it ineffective. The legendary actor plays fabled Ray Arcel, yet for whatever reason, he gets tasked with telling the backstory of lightweight prizefighter Robert Duran (Edgar Ramirez). As he recounts a Panamanian youth tinted with rebellion against the United States’ neocolonialism, it raises the question … can’t Duran tell this story himself?

The film quickly jumps seven years and inexplicably turns Duran from scrappy youngster to full-blown man. At this point, one expects Arcel to assume center stage a little bit more as he elevates the boxing skills of his protege. But that moment never comes. He’s a glorified supporting character who, by virtue of being played by Robert DeNiro, has to hog a little bit of the spotlight. “Hands of Stone” should not be a two-hander, co-lead kind of film. But it is, and nearly every aspect of the film suffers from trying to much and achieving too little.

For example, “Hands of Stone” begins setting up Duran’s success in a clash of civilizations narrative. On television sets throughout the film, Jakubowicz plays out the diplomatic drama between America and Panama. Duran is positioned as an allegorical figure for his country to fight back against their perceived humiliation by the United States. But once Duran starts fighting Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV, as multi-platinum artist Usher would now you have call him), their rumbles in the ring becomes mere clashes of egos.

The film gets mired in far too many subplots beyond just Arcel’s presence. There’s the romantic lives of all three leading men – Duran, Arcel, Leonard – receiving way too much screen time. An estranged daughter abandoned by Arcel decades prior to the film’s events drops in for an odd scene. Yes, we get all of these things, but hardly any of what people really crave from boxing movies: rapport between trainer and fighter, genuine pulse-pounding fights, a sense that the sport actually means something more than just brute force. When it comes to what matters, “Hands of Stone” is just swinging at the air and whiffing. C-1halfstars





REVIEW: The Hollars

23 08 2016

The HollarsSundance Film Festival

With a tender blend of comedy and drama, solid work from a big ensemble cast comprised of some surprising players as well as an acoustic-heavy soundtrack, John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” more or less epitomizes the kind of film that put Sundance on the map. And yet precisely because Krasinski earnestly embraces just about every indie cliché, the film manages to move and delight.

Sure, we could probably do without Krasinski’s John Hollar, another struggling artist (a graphic novelist) who fumbles when it comes to commitment. But he’s worth taking a journey with since Krasinski endows him with the kind of idealized everyman charisma that he perfected in 9 years behind a desk in “The Office.” John does not hesitate to break down as his world collapses around him, and Krasinski is there with vulnerability and empathy.

Yes, we likely do not need another dying mother like Margo Martindale’s Sally Hollar, whose sudden brain tumor discovery brings John home from New York. A few minutes into her spewing Southern fried wisdom, however, and you hope she never stops. Sally knows exactly what to say to people while also possessing the uncommon gift of knowing when people need to hear her sharp observations. She’s the glue holding together the lives of her husband and two sons, and Martindale approaches her character’s dawning acceptance of the the inevitable with a truly moving grace.

Fine, we might not need the vast array of supporting turns. Anna Kendrick is delightful, per usual, as John’s newly pregnant girlfriend Rebecca, although the script gives her little to do besides constant worrying and supporting about her boyfriend. Charlie Day provides nice comic relief as a jealous ex-high school rival of John; the fast-talking pipsqueak routine is very in line with his persona, though. Richard Jenkins turns in another excellent performance as an emotionally distraught patriarch. (The only real surprise of “The Hollars” is Sharlto Copley, in his first non-effects driven film, as John’s unexplainably neurotic brother Ron.)

Complain all you want about this movie existing. Point out all the boxes it checks. But “The Hollars” is here whether you like it or not, and Krasinski welcomes all with a wide embrace and an open heart. Be it your first or umpteenth indie family dramedy, the genuineness of the film can be disarming for those willing to let their guard down and just fall for its charms. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

22 08 2016

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenSay what you want about John Krasinski’s directorial debut, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” but you cannot say the film does not fulfill its title. At just 80 minutes, it is brief. The film consists primarily of interviews of males conducted by conducted by graduate student Sarah Quinn (Julianne Nicholson). And for the most part, they are, in fact, rather hideous.

These men are not murderers and rapists; they are mostly just average schmoes with the potential for violence and misconduct lurking underneath their civilized veneers. All Sarah has to do is poke a tiny hole with her questioning, and it opens up their insides to reveal startlingly primal forces at the wheel of the decision-making process. While Nicholson does a fine job with her probing, it’s hard to shake the sense that most of the heavy-hitting investigation comes from Wallace as a writer – not from her as a character.

Krasinski’s first outing as a director seems primarily focused with letting the words shine and the performances breathe. (Two very important tasks, mind you!) He treats Wallace’s prose with the sanctity of a theatrical director regarding the words of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, which might explain why so much of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” feels like filmed theater. It’s a show I’d want to see, though – particularly one centered around Krasinski’s own character in the film, Ryan. He delivers a powerful nine-minute monologue that deserves to serve as the climax of an entire film about his character, not just a mere episode in a collection of vignettes.

But “Brief Interviews from Hideous Men” comes from a collection of Wallace’s short stories, and the film retains that sense of brevity. Like many an episodic narrative, it practically invites being judged and weighed as a collection of parts rather than their sum. Some portions work; others drag. Some interviews enlighten; others preach to the choir. All of brief, for better or for worse. B-2stars





INTERVIEW: Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America”

21 08 2016

In case you haven’t noticed from talented actors committing major blunders or fouls in an interview, the press process is long and grueling. I’ve sat at many a roundtable where journalists ask the most basic questions that were probably answered in the press kit (that the same interviewer probably chose not to read). In many ways, I almost cannot even blame talented filmmakers for getting frustrated right off the bat when beginning an interview.

That’s not what happened when I sat down with Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America” – in case you thought that’s where my lede was heading. Quite the contrary, actually. He had a level of respect for my questions due in large part to the fact that he himself spent many years doing writing about film himself on the site In Contention. Hartigan was also just three hours removed from the rapturous premiere of his latest film in front of the largest auditorium at the Sundance Film Festival, which didn’t hurt either.

But search “In Contention” here on my site, and you’ll see just how formative that site was for my opinions and writing style in the early days of Marshall and the Movies. Hartigan served as their box office writer, a hat he wore on the side while pursuing filmmaking. We got to talking about both sides of his persona and how they didn’t really collide in “Morris from America,” a sincere and hilarious coming-of-age comedy about a black teenager (Markees Christmas’ Morris) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson’s Curtis) trying to acculturate in a small German town.

Chad Hartigan Sundance Award

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REVIEW: The Hangover

20 08 2016

When I started writing this site over 7 years ago, it was the summer of “The Hangover.” This comedy sensation that came out of nowhere spawned Facebook wall posts and bumper stickers (remember those?) by the dozen. Lines entered the cultural lexicon at an unprecedented rate. Amidst 2009’s pretty great lineup of studio and indie entertainment, this was a film you wanted to go back and see again.

Obviously, much has changed since then. The original sensation went onto inspire a blatant cash-grab carbon copy sequel, and when director Todd Phillips and the Wolfpack tried to change courses for a third film, no one seemed to care anymore. By that point, Bradley Cooper reemerged as an Oscar-caliber actor, Ed Helms got bumped up the big desk at TV’s “The Office,” and Zach Galifianakis’ career began to sputter out doing similar schtick. Todd Phillips has only just returned to the directors’ chair, and unsurprisingly, he’s doing a bit of a career pivot of his own a la Adam McKay.

But do all these transformations do anything to diminish the original? Does “The Hangover” deserve to sit on such a high pedestal? Have all the rip-offs and imitators it spawned tarnished the sheen? Or, perhaps a bigger personal question for me … is the film so great because it came out around my 17-year-old summer? (A recent article on The Ringer made a pretty compelling case for why that year seems to always stand out when polling people’s favorite summer movie season.)

I rewatched start to finish the film for the first time in several years; I specify because I watched five to ten minute snippets constantly for the year or two it dominated HBO airwaves. The short answer – yes, it still holds up. Years later, “The Hangover” is one of the few comedies that can generate chuckles and belly laughs from home.

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REVIEW: Don’t Think Twice

19 08 2016

Don't Think Twice“Comedy shouldn’t be a competition,” says someone from the New York improv group known as The Commune while watching “Weekend Live” (an obvious stand-in for “Saturday Night Live”) in “Don’t Think Twice.” Listen to a long-form interview with a real-life comedian – or better yet, read Kliph Nesteroff’s superlative history of the craft, “The Comedians” – and you’ll know that Lorne Michaels’ comedy institution is truly the end-all, be-all for anyone in the field. There is no getting around the fact that the show represents a kind of Holy Grail for comedians.

The reality stemming from the position of one show as a kind of de facto finish line for comedians does, in fact, make comedy a competition. It’s an objective result created by subjective criteria. There become winners and losers based on seemingly arbitrary, unknowable preferences. Acknowledging this provides cold comfort for aspiring performers and writers who can make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dreams for years only to get upstreamed by someone fresher, newer … or maybe just more talented.

This existential dilemma forms the bedrock of Mike Birbiglia’s film as Commune member Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) gets the big call up from “Weekend Live.” The timing could not be worse, either, as the group faces an imminent crisis of continuation with the loss of their performing venue. If Jack is the chosen one from their troupe, then what becomes of everyone else who he cannot pull up?

Everyone deals with the reckoning in their own way – continue in comedy? Find a new group? Trudge ahead on the same path? Give up? Everything is on the table, and with their inflection point imminent, it brings out an urgency and honesty in every person. Birbiglia gives each character a story, a purpose and a chance to speak their mind without judgement – a remarkable feat given the Commune’s six comedians. The anxieties are highly specific to their field of choice, yet because of that, their internal tussles feel entirely relevant to anyone in an industry without a clear-cut trajectory of professional advancement.

There may well be someone in the film (mine was Gillian Jacobs’ Samantha, a spot-on representation of what it’s like to fear the next step in your career) who speaks to you directly. But you wouldn’t pluck him or her out of “Don’t Think Twice” and silence the other five members, right? There’s something special about hearing all the voices in an improvisational chorus, not a forced isolation. B+ / 3stars








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