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





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 18, 2016)

18 08 2016

IRMA.poster.1/2.output-finalMovies about movies are a dime a dozen these days, especially when three of the last five Oscar winners for Best Picture have centered on filmmaking. Understandably, many of these ultimately end up taking a stance or attitude that celebrates and valorizes the work done in the industry. (Otherwise, why make it – right?)

Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep,” on the other hand, is in a class of its own. The 1996 film plays like a backstage drama most commonly penned about the stage, but it highlights the inner workings and unglamorous minutiae of the collision of film art and commerce. There is far more discussion about international rights than talking through script mechanics, more trudging through the unglamorous technicalities of capturing image and sound than celebrating the magic of filmmaking.

Assayas does not resort to easy or obvious satire, either, that might lighten the blows he delivers. This pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is a scalding but well-considered dramatization of the issues plaguing French, American and world cinema in the mid-1990s. This time period is one where the Nouvelle Vogue began to fade, the blockbuster era in America began to crowd out artistry and the globalization of cinema spread more anxieties than ideas. “Irma Vep” captures a moment in high definition with the kind of clarity that usually comes only when examining a period retroactively.

Perhaps the situation at the center of the film was helpful in achieving such sharp commentary. Actress Maggie Cheung, playing herself, arrives in Paris to film an oddly conceived remake of a vampire-centric silent film. The role seems an odd fit for the actress, who prior to the film – both in the world of the film and reality – had yet to star in anything outside of her native Hong Kong. But it proceeds on thanks to the folly of over-the-hill director René Vidal (a perfect meta-textually cast Jean-Pierre Leaud of “The 400 Blows” fame) to hostility from the hard-working crew. The misadventures that follow raise fascinating questions about the state of cinema, many of which we have still yet to collectively answer – to our own detriment.





REVIEW: Morris from America

17 08 2016

Morris from AmericaSundance Film Festival

Diversity. Representation. Inclusion.

If you follow the conversation about what movies get made and who gets to make them, these buzzwords probably sound all too familiar. As the expansive world of filmed content continues to strive towards matching the demographic makeup of America, the oft-repeated dictum of “write what you know” takes on a scrambled significance. Who gets to tell whose stories while we wait for more storytellers? Can any meaningful progress be made for the characters on-screen in the meantime?

Chad Hartigan’s “Morris from America” offers a ray of sunshine in this debate. His accomplishment suggests our chicken-or-egg mentality when thinking about these complex issues need not guide all discourse. The writer/director spent a portion of his childhood living abroad in Europe and started writing a coming-of-age tale in that milieu. But to differentiate his film from the herd of similar flicks in the subgenre, Hartigan decided to change the race of the main characters as a way of further exploring their alienation in foreign lands.

How refreshing to see that a filmmaker can produce a work that is at once wholly personal and entirely open to assuming other people’s vantage points. (A most welcome side effect: this process also rids the film of the narcissism and self-indulgence that plagues so many indies.) “Morris from America” does not feel exploitatively race-swapped to push a cheap metaphor or argue a naive colorblindness. It strikes an appropriate balance between familiar and unfamiliar as well as comforting and daring. In other words, it’s a lot like the contradictions that define being an adolescent as a whole.

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