REVIEW: The Intervention

5 12 2016

the-interventionI watched most of Clea DuVall’s “The Intervention” while working out recently – it met my qualifications for entertainment that was breezy enough without any nudity – and found myself committing a major gym foul. I had figured out exactly how the movie was working to the point where I could predict the next line of dialogue. And then, it happened. I caught myself involuntarily reciting the next line out loud. (I was right, for the record.)

This wannabe Gen X version of “The Big Chill” features indie stalwarts like Melanie Lynskey, Jason Ritter and Cobie Smulders on a weekend retreat in Savannah (likely for the tax credits) to stage an intervention in a failing marriage. But, of course, in a grouping of four couples, that one relationship is not the only one in need of some axle grease. Be it a fissure between siblings, lovers or friends, no one can escape the squabbling – including us.

Not every relationship drama needs to be an Edward Albee play, but a little bit of subtlety could have gone a long way in “The Intervention.” No fraying connection can be discovered naturally; instead, it must be laid out a scene of two characters discussing it first in whispered, vague terms. The conversation topics around the dinner table or porch seats could not be more provocative if they tried. If everyone in the film were truly as miserable as DuVall would have us believe, no one would brooch these subjects.

Naturally, the band-aid gets ripped off, opening the floodgates for the closeted resentments to spill out into open conflict. Yet once the truth comes to light, the result is neither cathartic nor enlightening. With every chance, DuVall would rather end a scene with an explosion instead of concluding it honestly or dwelling in the messy irresolution that often defines the sparring between friends and lovers. In “The Intervention,” the easy way is apparently the only way. C2stars





REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2 05 2016

At its core, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is very much a political thriller. The film concluded production around the time of the Edward Snowden leaks, so any correlation between the two would have been primarily atmospheric in the editing bay. But the nods of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to the kind of political unrest and institutional mistrust of the 1970s feels totally applicable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s SHIELD and Hydra, themselves proxies for the present day surveillance state.

The good news for audiences is that this kind of smart throwback is attached to a Marvel movie. The bad news, though, is that the movie still has to be a “Marvel movie.”

Every time the film starts developing its ideas or delving into the ramifications, it has to start hitting the predictable comic book movie beats. The need to have a big action set piece every 25-30 minutes ultimately becomes oppressive and counterproductive to the film’s intelligent ambitions. Though the sequel bears the subtitle “Civil War,” the name seems as applicable to that film’s content as it does to the form of “The Winter Soldier.”

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo struggle against the Marvel formula to interesting and more thoroughly entertaining effects. They fail to break the mold, however. The real auteur of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Kevin Feige, the company’s president. What is commercial will likely continue to prevail over what is artistic or iconoclastic. Looking at the numbers, sadly, can anyone blame him? B-2stars





REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

28 08 2015

At this point, I am unsure how much good it does me to review “Avengers: Age of Ultron” as I would a movie.  I feel like it would be more useful to write up the experience of the film as a writer for Consumer Reports would describe a car – with matter-of-fact bullet-points and statistics.  What is the point of trying to capture the artistry of a film in the intricacies of prose when that film is little more than a top-of-the-line product?

The latest item off the “Avengers” conveyer belt amounts to little more than an 150 minute billboard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Perhaps the one notable difference between “Age of Ultron” and its predecessor is that the events tend to sow discord that cleaves a wedge between the heroes as opposed to uniting them.  (I can only assume that was a decision that arose organically from the material and not as some kind of tie-in to the impending “Civil War.”)

Maestro Joss Whedon ensures that the film matches all the tech specs any fan looks for in a comic book movie.  It has action sequences the way cars have cupholders.  To top it all off, he assembles a climax that feels like it could (and maybe should) just exist as its own movie and is probably fetishized in the same way automotive aficionados value a powerful engine.  Maybe some of this would be exciting if it were not so painfully predictable.  Rather than inspiring me to marvel at the screen, it just made me feel numb.

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REVIEW: Unexpected

24 07 2015

UnexpectedIn Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” pregnancy functions as something more than just a nine month-long sentence that brings agony and joy in unequal measure.  Here, it serves as a springboard into the future that simultaneously forces a reckoning with the present.

As the film’s title might imply, Cobie Smulder’s protagonist Samantha Abbott finds herself in the family way at a very inopportune moment.  The school where she currently teaches must close its doors due to budget cuts, and she still feels a strong enough urge to impact the lives of students that she cannot simply hang up the cleats to become a stay-at-home mom.

Swanberg’s script, co-written with Megan Mercier, gives her little to do other than endure pregnancy with one of her students, the promisingly bright Jasmine (Gail Bean).  Whether they are working through Jasmine’s college application, preparing with a session of prenatal yoga, or just plain gorging on a milkshake, “Unexpected” always delights even when largely void of dramatic tension.

The film does deliver (excuse the pun) on a subtle interrogation of the “great white savior”/”nice white lady” trope that often makes its way to the forefront in films involving two characters from different backgrounds.  Swanberg and Mercier put Samantha and Jasmine in the same situation, which itself levels the playing field between them somewhat.  But in spite of her best intentions, Samantha discovers that even – and perhaps especially – when it comes to maternity clothes, one size does not fit all.  Vast socioeconomic divides still exist between them, and “Unexpected” probes these macro-level prejudices and disparities brilliantly through the use of micro-aggressions.

This commentary makes for a nice addition to the film, but what really makes the price of admission worth it is Cobie Smulders.  For heaven’s sake, can she just tear up her contract with Marvel and keep doing small, heartfelt indies like this (and “Results,” for that matter)?  Smulders possesses an uncanny ability to convey a devastating sense of fragility in her characters, a particularly remarkable feat considering that she also erects an iron-clad facade of normalcy for them to hide behind.

She turns in touching work in “Unexpected,” so natural-feeling that it cannot help but evoke a suspicion that Smulders has yet to reach the apex of her dramatic talents.  What a sight that will be.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Results

10 06 2015

ResultsAndrew Bujalski’s comedy “Results,” which revolves around a number of characters in the fitness business, recalls far too many of my own workouts.  That is to say, it starts strong with a big burst of energy that fizzles out fairly quickly and then plods along at a moderate pace.

Bujalski primarily follows three characters: rich schlub Danny (Kevin Corrigan), who wants to gain the ability to take a punch, hires hardcore trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders) from a gym owned by the toned Aussie Trevor (Guy Pearce).  Their relationships are in constant flux, moving well beyond provider-client and boss-employee over the course of “Results.”  Individual scenes are well-written and directed, but they fail to unify because Bujalski never decides on a protagonist.

Bujalski is far more successful at finding hilarity in mundanity than he was in 2013’s “Computer Chess,” and he certainly demonstrates an incisive understanding of how ulterior professional and romantic motivations cloud judgment and communication.  Even as it sags somewhat in the back half, “Results” still entertains with these moments of insight into its characters and how their appearances reflect but also belie their personalities.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: They Came Together

5 07 2014

They Came TogetherGenres naturally go through cycles, and right now, the romantic comedy is in a bit of a slump.  When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, it was riding high with smash hits like “The Proposal” and “The Ugly Truth.”  If you look at the market now, there hasn’t really been a rom-com hit since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” largely because those kinds of movies just aren’t being made.

Why exactly they have gone out of fashion so dramatically is anyone’s guess.  It’s likely a combination of many factors, but two films point out some of the reasons why no one is rushing to finance “28 Dresses.”  Back in 2009, “(500) Days of Summer” took a revisionist angle on the genre, pointing out many romantic comedy conventions that needed to be reworked in order to be more in touch with the audience.

And now, in 2014, “They Came Together” marks the point where the genre’s hallmarks are so recognizable that they can be mercilessly sent up in an unrelenting satire.  David Wain, the great mind behind “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models,” dismantles the romantic comedy with confidence and pinpoint accuracy.

His script lays bare all the subtext that most of us blindly accept when we encounter a standard genre pic, pointing out everything from the stereotypes of the characters (clumsy girl, non-threateningly masculine guy) to the role of New York City (like another character).  “They Came Together” is at its best when Wain performs his point-by-point deconstruction of all the clichés that normally trap the genre, due largely in part to how wonderfully Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler can cut up while sending up the trademarks.

“They Came Together” winds up coming slightly undone, however, by the sophomoric silliness that fills the moments that aren’t so brutally self-aware.  Wain is usually quite clever with his comedy (the notable exception being “Wanderlust“), and here, he drops to the level of Seth MacFarlane in “Family Guy” or “Ted.”  It’s funny on occasion but wildly inconsistent overall with one joke bombing and the next hitting the sweet spot.  Thankfully, it never quite stoops to the level of the movies it lambasts, but Wain might have had one of the most spectacular spoofs of all time on his hands had he just stuck to the more high-minded humor.  B-2stars