REVIEW: 21 Years: Richard Linklater

5 04 2016

21 Years Richard LinklaterWhen the folks assembling the Criterion Collection edition of “Boyhood” go scouting for bonus features (and apparently this is happening), I hope they include Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s documentary “21 Years: Richard Linklater.” Such is really the best location for an anecdotal and borderline hagiographic tribute to the perennially underappreciated director.

The directors do not necessarily cast his work in a new light or uncover latent themes running through his filmography. “21 Years” is simply a magnificent feting of Linklater as told by the people who love him the most, both collaborators and contemporaries. Linklater is noticeably absent from the proceedings, talked about but never speaking for himself.

But even without a particularly revelatory angle, Dunaway and Wood still find ways to delight, amuse and enlighten with “21 Years.” Want to know how Linklater gets such natural sounding dialogue while also maintaining a high degree of precision? Let his actors tell you an amusing story about how they got cooly chided for veering off script. Curious about Linklater’s casting instincts? Listen to Anthony Rapp or Zac Efron recount how the director believed in them when they did not necessarily believe in themselves.

The portrait sketched is one of a gentle, unassuming yet visionary artist. So maybe with a little more vision, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” would be the celebratory toast he deserves. But even absent that, it’s a worthy explainer and salute that would be all too perfect directly before or after one of the director’s masterpieces. B2halfstars


18 07 2015

CreepNear the midway point of Patrick Brice’s found footage horror flick “Creep,” a lingering shot on Mark Duplass’ Aaron yields a moment of intense vulnerability capped with the line, “If I got to know you before you got to know me, I thought I would be less scared.” It’s one of the most incisive lines uttered on screen in recent memory, quickly alerting any smart viewer that this is far more than a standard-issue scare.

“Creep” is astutely attuned to the terror of the new generation of overzealous Internet commenters and predators, and Brice beats Lifetime to the punch on the concept.  (Just wait for it, we’ll see “The Tinder Killer” in no time at all.)  Duplass stars as Josef, a man who claims his life will soon be cut short by a malignant brain tumor and thus seeks a videographer to film some footage for the son he will leave behind.  In need of some cash, unwitting Aaron (played by Brice) answers the Internet posting and comes to Josef’s cabin to help.

Little does Aaron know that Josef is the kind of fanatical weirdo that makes every girl regret that swipe right on Tinder.  He has little regard for the personal space or feelings of others, constantly making ill-advised practical jokes and comments that make Aaron extremely uncomfortable.  Tellingly, Josef finds a kindred spirit in the wolf, a creature that he sees as loving deeply but also dangerously out of an undeveloped social instinct.

“Creep” proves so terrifying because Josef is not a pathologically ill menace, seeking to exact harm due to an unexplained chemical imbalance or traumatic childhood experience.  Our screen-addled, intimacy-phobic culture bred him.  It hardly seems like a coincidence that in the back half of the film, Josef delivers his threats to Aaron in a video message for playback on a DVD player.  Even when talking life and death, he feels safer behind the remove of a screen.

Unfortunately, Brice gives in far too often to the easy temptation of the jump out scare, but “Creep” nonetheless lingers in the memory with its chilling message.  Perhaps with the help of availability on Netflix’s streaming service, this film could become the next “Catfish,” only without any qualms over the blurry line between fiction and reality which plague that documentary.  “Creep,” wholly fictional, only has to stay true to its concept and internal logic – two things Brice pulls off expertly.  B+ / 3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 12, 2014)

12 09 2014

True Adolescents

Though the world of a great movie may feel hermetically sealed while you watch it, all sorts of factors outside of it have decided the manner in which you get to experience it.  I’ve made the argument before that the 2008 financial collapse has infiltrated the content of films, yet it probably exerted an even greater influence by limiting our access to a whole world of independently created cinema.

Back in 2009, a small dramedy by Craig Johnson called “True Adolescents” played the SXSW Film Festival.  It was well-received and went on to play some smaller local festivals, but it sat around for three years waiting for theatrical distribution.  Before the economic malaise (or even now in our platform-agnostic present day), this is the kind of film that would be a no-brainer for a company like Fox Searchlight to pick up.  Due to the unfortunate timing of its release, however, it wound up getting a minuscule release thanks to Cinedigm.

Perhaps with “The Skeleton Twins,” Johnson’s second feature which is getting a much wider rollout courtesy of Roadside Attractions, people will begin to discover the joy of which they were robbed years ago.  While the production is small-scale, the film pays off big with its richly observed script and properly defined characters.

The man-child is getting a little tired thanks to brute repetition by Seth Rogen and friends, but it feels good as new in “True Adolescents” thanks to a very authentic incarnation by Mark Duplass.  His Sam has clearly blown past the twentysomething mark and is well into his thirties, hapless and essentially hopeless.

Hoping for some easy sympathy, he goes to crash with his aunt (played by a pre-Oscar win Melissa Leo) and winds up being forced to work for her charity.  Sam gets the distinct pleasure of taking his teenage cousin Oliver and his friend Jake on a camping trip.  I’m not too far removed from that adolescent mindset to know that it takes a special kind of person to handle boys of that age; suffice to say, Sam lacks the requisite saintliness.

As with any narrative centering around a journey in the great outdoors, an inner journey takes place in the characters.  But that’s pretty much where “True Adolescents” stops falling in line with what you expect it to do.  Writer/director Craig Johnson provides a surprising amount of depth within the familiar framework, opting to explore deeper into the complex characters at every turn where melodrama or clichés would be easier.  It’s a real treat to watch him embrace the true in the title of his film rather than the latter word.

REVIEW: The One I Love

23 08 2014

The One I LoveIt is not uncommon to see movies tackling troubled relationships, as human relationships and conflict are often two crucial building blocks of any great story.  “The One I Love” puts a couple on the verge, Mark Duplass’ Ethan and Elisabeth Moss’ Sophie, front and center from the very first scene.  We see them at a therapy session, only to be sent off immediately by their headshrinker (Ted Danson) to a secluded locale that has apparently worked wonders on other couples.

Yet after about the first ten minutes of the movie, all that we think we know goes flying out the door in Justin Lader’s ingenious script.  Writing any specifics about the premise might spoil all the fun of “The One I Love,” but think of it as all the dimension-defying surreality of “Alice In Wonderland” without the exaggerated acid trip.  In other words, there’s no way you could possibly mistake this movie for the 2009 Vince Vaughn comedy “Couples Retreat.”

The alluringly unique magical realism of the story also comes with a relatively fresh take on issues long debated in relationship movies, such as the things people look for in a relationship and the benefits they expect to derive from it.  The revelations of “The One I Love” may not be earth-shattering, but at least they feel profoundly felt thanks to the committed performances of Duplass and Moss.  The two actors play deceptively tricky characters, and they navigate every turn with brilliant poise.

Director Charlie McDowell, on the other hand, does not necessarily hit every note correctly in his feature debut.  “The One I Love” often jumps around in search of a genre, usually vacillating between a intimate, two-hander domestic drama and a suspenseful micro-thriller.  Lader’s script thankfully lends itself to some abruptly jarring shifts, and the lack of tonal unity winds up coming aiding the film’s unpredictability on a moment-by-moment basis.

Though I doubt any major studio would ever go this far out on a limb with a big project, “The One I Love” offers a fascinating example of a fairly conventional setup being executed brilliantly through a refreshingly unconventional script.  B+3stars


12 07 2014

With their collaboration on “Tammy,” writer/star Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Ben Falcone construct what may very well be the cinematic equivalent of Sarah Palin’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.”  It’s a film about a road trip to nowhere that gets everyone involved in its making nowhere.

Coming off an Oscar nomination and three box office hits, it’s a shame McCarthy spent what was likely carte blanche with the studios on a project that offers nothing new for her talents.  Even though she was so heavily involved with the film’s creation, “Tammy” offers little humor other than jokes at the expense of her character’s weight or lacking mental capacity.  It’s almost as if she wants the two characteristics to be linked, which baffles me.

Was the point is to prove that McCarthy can play the woman-child archetype as well as, say, Vince Vaughn can play the man-child?  Or that a character like McCarthy’s Tammy can pull in a romantic conquest in spite of her figure and eccentric personality?  I could maybe see “Tammy” sounding like a great feminist victory in its premise, yet in execution, the movie is every bit as bumbling as its titular character.  If McCarthy really wanted to do something radical, she should have made a film where her figure was never addressed at all.

Over the course of 96 minutes (that feel much longer), Falcone and McCarthy give us a whole lot of time on the road with Tammy and her grandmother Pearl, an alcoholic played by Susan Sarandon.  Tammy and Pearl don’t quite have any grand purpose to be road tripping in the first place other than … well, something had to give “Tammy” a plot!

The quite-literal journey in the story is the perfect opportunity to explore a similar progression in the protagonist, but they can never quite figure out what virtues or values Tammy is going to discover.  The film toys with the idea of her gaining self-appreciation while also contemplating a familial love angle, never taking the time to fully develop one or the other.  It ultimately slaps on an ending favoring a rediscovered bond between its two female leads, and the conclusion feels rather unearned.

That’s not to say that McCarthy did not earn the opportunity to make “Tammy,” though.  The fact that this is film she chose to make from that position, however, is likely to remain a question mark for the rest of her career.  C-1halfstars

F.I.L.M of the Week (August 2, 2013)

2 08 2013

As soon as I tell you the plot of Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday,” my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie), you’ll immediately jump to unfair conclusions about it. You’ll inevitably start to imagine what it must be like and decide it’s not your cup of tea. I know because I, too, judged it unfairly based on the story. But once you get past that, I promise you that it’s a fantastic and well-observed comedy that feels incredibly real.

“Humpday” is about two heterosexual male friends, one of which is married, considering making a gay porn video.

While I don’t want to say too much, don’t worry, this is NOT a pornographic movie. There’s no sex, not even artistically or obliquely done. There’s no nudity, either, because the film is not about the pornographic film industry (I’d recommend Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” if you want to see that, though). “Humpday” is a movie about relationships between people and the nature of intimacy.

Old friends Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) reunite after many years and find themselves locked into a dare to film an amateur scene for an adult film festival. Neither wants to be the one that backs down, so what ensues is a series of conversations between friends and lovers about what the basis of the ties that bind them to each other.

Shelton’s film takes an unconventional approach to get to these central questions of interpersonal connections, but the result is incredibly rewarding drama and insightful wisdom. “Humpday” is all brains and heart – no skin.

REVIEW: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

19 12 2012

The mumblecore movement is slowly gaining more notoriety as some of its key figures such as Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers (specifically Mark) are getting some traction as mainstream personalities.  They don’t seem to be bringing the genre that made them along for the ride, though.  Movies like “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” are a reminder that even with popular actors like Jason Segel and Ed Helms, this style of comedy is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before it hits its stride.

But if anyone is going to make that happen, it’s still going to be the Duplass brothers.  Though their latest film is a definite step down from the slyly clever “Cyrus,” it still brings quite a bit of good humor and heart to the table.  Some of the peculiar directions that “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” takes feel rather forced, particularly the storyline of Susan Sarandon’s matriarch Sharon and her secret admirer.

The Duplass brothers might be taking a few too many hints from films like “Napoleon Dynamite” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” movies so quirky that they feel set in a different universe despite having their feet firmly planted in reality.  Indeed, the protagonist Jeff, Jason Segel’s great stoner-philosopher (that plays like a mellowed-out version of his Sidney Fife from “I Love You Man”) feels like a little bit too much of a constructed character and not authentic in the slightest.  Ed Helms’ ultra-nebbish Pat is slightly better, but he’s so high-strung that it negates most of his ties to a grounded reality.

These outlandish characters make “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” funnier than “Cyrus” – there’s one scene in particular that had me in stitches – but at the cost of what makes mumblecore … well, mumblecore.  It’s disassociated from the humdrum reality that creates the humor (or lack of it) to create an artificial universe for its characters where the absurd is far more plausible.

As a result, it feels like a disingenuous entry into the subgenre.  That is, if you would even call it a subgenre flick since it straddles the line between mainstream and mumblecore comedy, never fully committing to either one.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Your Sister’s Sister

7 10 2012

All too often, small-scale indie comedies fall into the “coulda been a contenduh” category.  They have great potential to succeed, but like Greek tragic heroes, all have some kind of flaw that prevents them from achievement of their goals.

I’d feel bad beginning my first sentence of a generally positive review with unfortunately because that could give an impression that I thought unfavorably of the movie … but unfortunately, Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” makes one of the most common indie comedy mistakes: resorting to mainstream conventions.  For the first two acts, the movie feels fresh and incisive like a Woody Allen movie from the 1970s.

The humor flows so naturally from Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt, who play Jack and Hannah, two dilapidated souls seeking comfort in solitude in a quiet lakeside retreat.  Neither realize the other will be there, though, resulting in some initial awkwardness (as is the territory these types of movies generally tend to dwell in).  Then, they start peeling back the layers of each other’s facades, revealing all sorts of startling truths about each other.  And as they start to connect emotionally (as well as become more and more intoxicated), a physical connection just seems to occur naturally.

Then Iris, played by the gorgeous Emily Blunt, arrives … and introduces utter chaos into the house.  She is Hannah’s sister and Mark’s best friend, thus rendering their romantic evening a subject unable to be broached.  The two new friends, having seen each other laid bare, now have to sort out their true feelings while masquerading as something they aren’t.  Shelton lays out some fascinating conditions for which the drama can unfold, but then she rapidly shifts gears.

In the third act, as the characters begin to really grapple with what has gone on, “Your Sister’s Sister” takes the easy way out.  It relies on dumb montages and hokey, hyperbolic monologues to get Hannah, Mark, and Iris out of their conundrum.  I can’t tell if the ending is just lazy or if it was directed by someone entirely different.

It satisfies, sure, but it doesn’t soar like the rest of the film.  Shelton concludes it far too cleanly to be consistent with the tone of the rest of “Your Sister’s Sister.”  Let messy people dwell in their messiness.  It’s more authentic that way.  B

REVIEW: Safety Not Guaranteed

19 06 2012

Maybe my response is partly Pavlovian due to four seasons of conditioning from “Parks and Recreation,” but I thought just about everything Aubrey Plaza said or did was hilarious in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a quirky indie comedy featuring the comedic dynamo.  At best, her muted enthusiasm elicits gut-wrenching laughs; at worst, a good and wholehearted chuckle that leaves no after-taste of guilt.  So forget Tom Cruise’s half-baked rocker impersonation and Adam Sandler’s self-parodic baby voice; this is the summer comedy you deserve to see.  And then maybe see twice.

Plaza plays Darius, a magazine intern in Seattle working for an aspiring Miranda Priestly (a lovely cameo by Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe from “24”).  Suffering from a bad case of cubicle tedium, she escapes by going out on assignment with Jeff, a lazy Lothario played with appropriately little decency or discretion by Jake Johnson, and a fellow intern Arnau, an Indian intern whose life motto must be “work hard, computer game harder.”  Together, the three investigate a very odd classified ad seeking a time traveling companion.

Don’t expect “Back to the Future” from “Safety Not Guaranteed,” though; this comedy follows all the antics leading up to a trip to the future with Mark Duplass’ Kenneth, the enigmatic man who placed the ad.  Darius must track him down, entice him, and then woo him into allowing her to see the details that would make an interesting piece.  The lines between the story and real feelings quickly blur, but the film has plenty of tricks up its sleeves along with an abundance of fantastic lines and nuanced comedic performances to guarantee satisfaction.  B+