REVIEW: Landline

18 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline” prominently features a 1995 speech where Hillary Clinton claims, “However different we may appear, there is far more that unites us than divides us.” Unlike many time capsule items in the film — CD listening stations at music stores, Blockbuster Video, payphones, floppy disks — 5this line doesn’t feel like it’s just been lifted out of a BuzzFeed listicle about “25 Things You’d Only Know If You Were Alive in 1995.” It’s a dictum simple to say yet difficult to practice, as shown by the family in the film.

Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm craft an indelible portrait of the women in the Jacobs family, each at different life stages yet all struggling to feel the love with important companions. Matriarch Pat (Edie Falco) puts so much effort into maintaining family structure and function that her relationships have frayed with everyone, especially her charming but wishy-washy husband Alan (John Turturro). Adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) waffles on a marital commitment to fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), even going to the extent of acting out an alter ego named “Bedelia” that indulges her pent-up desires. Teenage daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) takes to surrounding herself with drugs and dancing to dull her disinterest with the traditional roadmap laid out ahead of her.

If “Obvious Child” showcased that Robespierre could helm a character study, then “Landline” exhibits her talent with an ensemble piece. There are many complicated relationships to juggle in the film, each of which she handles with specificity and tenacity. (On a personal note, I found the tension between Dana and Ali spot on; as someone with a much younger sibling, Dana’s negotiation between being a quasi-parent and friend resonated tremendously.)

Robespierre is not afraid to have the tough, awkward conversations – and then dwell in the messy resolution, or lack thereof. For all the times I worried in the first 30 minutes that the film would be little more than a nostalgia-dripping scrapbook, she met them with incisive observations about how difficult it can be to connect with the people closest to us. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.





REVIEW: Gifted

10 04 2017

Movie dads are a dime a dozen, but we rarely get movies about the specific pressures of paternity. It’s tough to tell, then, whether the pleasures of Marc Webb’s “Gifted” are organic or simply a refreshingly different story in a crowded environment.

There’s plenty to enjoy and identify with in Chris Evans’ Frank Adler, an uncle-cum-surrogate dad who mills about working-class Florida in his dirt-stained undershirt and seemingly permanent bedhead. He’s raising his niece, the film’s titular savant Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), based on his hardscrabble and wisecracking instincts. Segregating the exceptional from the average, he jokes, only produces congressmen. His everyman parenting style gets a shock from the arrival of his ivory tower-minded mother, Lindsay Duncan’s Evelyn.

From there on out, “Gifted” plays out like the Florida Man edition of “Kramer vs. Kramer” with a little dash of “Good Will Hunting” to liven up the familiar settings of family court and therapy sessions. How much that affects each viewer probably depends on their individual tolerance for the well-executed cliché and the obvious emotional moment. When Frank and Mary spend some quality time watching new dads come out of delivery to the hospital waiting room, it’s possible to read the scene as hopelessly cloying or truly touching.

I found “Gifted” somewhere in between, affecting in fits and spurts while never truly melting my heart like a stick of butter in the sun. Evans clearly has a big heart that he pumps into the film, yet Tom Flynn’s script gives him remarkably little agency. Frank is defined primarily in relation to other characters, many of whom float in and out of the plot with whiplash-inducing speed. (And let’s not even brooch the serious ethical debate that Flynn completely sidesteps in the film’s big finale.) But don’t worry everyone, there’s a truly great movie about an uncle struggling to provide adequate guardianship for the orphaned child of his departed sibling – and it’s readily available to watch. B-





REVIEW: The Lego Batman Movie

7 02 2017

Spoof movies largely do not exist American cinema anymore, or, at the very least, they do not reach a wide audience anymore. We’re about a decade removed from the heyday of the “Scary Movie” franchise and their ilk, which eventually went off the rails because they lost sight of what allows this particular style of humor to work. It’s ok to rib and roast, sure. But when they moved from playful lampooning to pointed lambasting, the jokes started feeling mean-spirited.

The Lego Batman Movie” arrives in the wake of last year’s “Deadpool,” another superhero movie that took potshots at its own genre. The “merc with the mouth,” however, decried too many tropes that movie itself lazily embraced. Meanwhile, the latest burst of creative building block energy affectionately sends up the Nolan Batman movies and gets in a few jabs at lesser-loved outings with the Caped Crusader. The film even satirizes his macho posturing by making him struggle with waiting for food to heat up and bungling which HDMI connection he must select to watch a rom-com. And dare I say, it’s even gently – albeit with a wink – progressive.

Writer Seth Graeme-Smith, along with a plethora of other credited scribes, embrace and lean into the necessity of juvenility for their target audience. Their embrace of simplicity leads to a work that achieves two different goals for two different age groups. Adults will recognize the common skeletal structure of the modern superhero movie from the writers scaling back the narrative’s scope to child-comprehensible (and appropriate) levels. We know the dramatic beats so well that we can predict them. So does “The Lego Batman Movie,” which has an uproarious, subversive twist at every moment when we catch wise.

This laughter at recognizable, perhaps hoary elements of the superhero flick does not discredit or disparage the genre. Rather, it reaffirms their power, and that’s why sharing it with incredulous younger viewers is such fun. For many, a physical Lego Batman might be the only version of the hero they know. Will Arnett’s parodic voice work provides a gentle introduction to the darker stories that surround the vigilante antihero. Combining his pitch-perfect embodiment of Batman’s essence with the boundless imagination of the animators and storytellers makes “The Lego Batman Movie” earnest family fun. Though it sounds contradictory to say a film can function as both a genre primer and a critique, director Chris McKay pulls it off. A-3halfstars





REVIEW: Joshy

9 08 2016

JoshyAs predicted by myself and many people smarter than me, the so-called mumblecore movement shot to cultural prominence in the wake of 2013’s “Drinking Buddies.” These low-budget, short production films began attracting some bright talent from television and cinema. With their unscripted, improvisation style and lived-in qualities, it’s no wonder that comedians and dramatists alike rushed to appear in their own.

With a large cast featuring small screen scene stealers like Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, sketch performers like Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman, indie dream girls like Jenny Slate and Alison Brie, and even filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg themselves in front of the camera, Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” feels a bit like “Mumblecore: The Movie.” (Or at least what our culture has decided it will be today.) The simple pleasures of watching this group interact for an hour and a half cannot be understated.

Yet recent films of a similar ilk such as “Digging for Fire” felt like a hangout for hangout’s sake, with thematics tacked on and a narrative throughline threaded in as an afterthought. The conversations and group dynamics of “Joshy,” however, are baked into the films reason for existing itself. After the eponymous character suffers a tragedy that lays to waste his marital plans, his motley crew of buddies use the house reserved for his bachelor weekend as the venue and occasion for a cheer-up mission.

It quickly becomes obvious that while his trio of bros attempt to play the role of fun-loving therapists, they too are all undergoing hardcore emotional stressors of their own. Each attempts some level of macho posturing – whether in relation to booze, drugs or strippers – to mask the pain. Their buddy makes it all too easy to feel superior; the pet name Joshy suggests both femininity and childishness.

If the film feels at times meandering, it’s because Baena both admirably gives the main men space to work out their issues while also providing ample space to critique them. By being at the center of the film, Joshy and pals are inevitable magnets of symapthy and understanding. But Baena never lets the men of “Joshy” off the hook for what could come across as tunnel vision or indefensible behavior. A more “grown-up” family, played by Joe and Kris Swanberg, drops in on their retreat and delivers a pretty firm scolding. Similarly, a group of call girls makes reference to the gang as resembling creepy serial killer types. It’s a pretty satisfying way to balance the competing impulses of developing the characters and indulging the actors. B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Secret Life of Pets

11 07 2016

Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment has been collecting plenty of money in the 2010s thanks to films like the “Despicable Me” series, but what is their identity? Prior to “The Secret Life of Pets,” the answer was unclear. Now, they might have found their answer.

Each prominent animation division has its strengths – Pixar’s is packaging adult themes into child-friendly tales; Disney Animation’s, charming with old-school fairy tale morality; DreamWorks’, creating parallel humor tracks for children and parents. Illumination feels well-positioned to capture a middle ground between all three, should they follow in the example of “The Secret Life of Pets.” And they definitely should.

The film feels like their “Toy Story” in many ways, and not just because the premise, story and characters feel so obviously indebted to Pixar’s debut feature. What that 1995 film did for toys in the chest, Illumination does for pets in the crate. Coming over twenty years later, their work might not feel nearly as ingenious, but it is still quite imaginative nonetheless.

Much like Woody was threatened by Andy bringing home Buzz, comfortable house dog Max (voice of Louis C.K.) feels endangered when his big-hearted owner rescues the lumbering stray Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. Rather than finding a way to coexist, the two wind up lost and endangered. Only for these conflict-riddled canines, the environment they must navigate is not a nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s the sprawling metropolis of New York City.

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REVIEW: Zootopia

29 02 2016

ZootopiaTalking animals, a town whose title mashes up “zoo” and “utopia,” the Disney brand – all good signs for an evening of escape away from the madness of the world around us that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, right? Actually, wrong. “Zootopia,” the latest in-house effort from the Mouse House, actually feels more plugged into contemporary problems than many “issues” movies manufactured during prestige season.

Given the escalation of the American presidential election even in the past month, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston could not have imagined how relevant the message of their script would become when they started writing back in 2013. The titular city of “Zootopia” is a metropolis of the animal kingdom and a hotbed of diversity, like New York City or Houston. Predatory animals like tigers and foxes have learned to live in harmony with their former prey like rabbits and sheep due to the evolution and adaptation of their culture.

The promise of this pluralism attracts optimistic young bunny Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Never one to let her size or species discourage her unbridled enthusiasm for justice, she defies the odds to become the first rabbit cop in Zootopia. The average family film would simply let Hopps flounder for a bit and eventually find her footing by tapping into some inner strength. With all due respect to the charms of “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Frozen,” the lessons of “Zootopia” go much deeper. They examine the very tenets that form the (now seemingly shaky) foundations of our society.

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REVIEW: Digging for Fire

1 09 2015

Digging for FireAs writer/director Joe Swanberg wanders the corridors of marital discontent in his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” I could not help but wonder if this is what Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” would look like when refracted through the lens of low-budget indie cinema.  Over the course of a weekend spent apart, previously unknown rifts and fault lines appear between Tim (Jake Johnson, also a co-writer on the film) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) while they amble and converse freely.

Each’s journey appears cross-cut with the other’s, and the spouses might as well be occupying entirely different films.  Tim hangs out to drink beers and smoke pot with his buddies – one of whom arrives with a young woman on each arm – but proves unable to put his mind at ease about some suspicious bones he spotted in the yard.  Lee, meanwhile, drifts between scenes and choose mostly to let the words of others trigger her thought process.  He is aggressively verbose in expressing his own frustrations; she reacts to hearing those from others.

At moments, “Digging for Fire” shows real insight into the listlessness of marriage and parenting.  Johnson feels especially at home since he gets to speak (presumptively) dialogue he helped write.  When Tim expresses his frustrations and anxieties, they clearly come from someplace personal and resonate accordingly.  For all those looking to use art to deal with their own life, try to model this to avoid self-indulgence.

Swanberg, though, sometimes gets carried away by his posse of ever-ready actor pals.  Since his movies shoot so quickly and efficiently, it makes sense that these stars want a chance to flex their muscles in between the paycheck gigs.  In this case, the ensemble of comedians and dramatists alike can detract attention from what might have played more effectively as a tighter two-hander.  Between the screen time allotted to Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, and Anna Kendrick, “Digging for Fire” can sometimes feel like a party at the Swanbergs for which he provided a loose plot and great camerawork.  B2halfstars