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: Swiss Army Man

29 06 2016

Swiss Army Man PosterFor what was likely the better part of a decade, I spouted off the line “Better out than in, eh?” from the movie “Shrek” without really knowing what it meant. The maxim refers to passing gas, of course, but the true and deeper meaning eluded me for quite some time. What the crude ogre really says relates to being yourself and embracing the stench rather than letting something you need to expel bottle up inside.

15 years later, “Better Out Than In” could be an alternate title – or at the very least a slogan – for the Daniels’ “Swiss Army Man.” (The directing duo Daniel Schienert and Daniel Kwan make it easy on everyone and go by just “Daniels,” like Madonna or something.) The movie has farts and flatulence to spare, but they are not some kind of sophomoric gag for easy laughs. Farts serve as a hilarious, self-effacing encapsulation of the film’s thematic heft. We have to embrace that which other people – and society as a whole – want us to keep inside. Sometimes, we even have to let it out, no matter how sloppy, stinky and unpleasant it might turn out.

Farts save the life of Paul Dano’s Hank, a depressed drifter about to hang himself in his beachfront isolationism. He hears them coming from Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny, a corpse (yes, you read that correctly) that washes ashore just moments before he tightens the noose. In many ways, the two men are ironic contrasts at first meeting. Hank may be the living, breathing and functioning human, but the involuntary toots make Manny’s lifeless body more animated than him.

From there, the film enters into a truly Gonzo realm – especially once Manny becomes more than a human-sized sack of potatoes for Hank to lug around on his back. The Daniels take daring absurdist leaps where the boundary between miracle and hallucination is never quite delineated. In a rustic playhouse of imagination that recall the most vividly realized creations of Michel Gondry, Hank begins instructing Manny on how to function in the world.

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REVIEW: Alex of Venice

27 03 2016

Alex of VeniceAlex of Venice” is the filmic version of the kind of “sad comedy” that thrives on a basic cable or streaming service. Perhaps, after binging five hours, it would feel like a satisfying, whole portrait of a woman rocked by the twin disasters of her marriage dissolving and the health of her father deteriorating. But it’s really just the first two episodes.

We get a decent idea about who Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Alex is as a person, though we never get the kind of deep dive that a filmic character study normally provides. There is something quietly courageous and inspiring about her tenacity through all the responsibilities she must juggle. As mother, daughter/caretaker and de facto head of house, Alex barely has time to do her job as provider. She does not just have one of those bogus movie jobs either; Alex is waist-deep in trying a major environmental case.

Director Chris Messina has worked with a number of great female talents in his time – Nora Ephron, Gia Coppola and quite extensively with Mindy Kaling on television’s “The Mindy Project.” It’s clear that he wants to replicate their earnestness in addressing what it means to be a woman in today’s world. But good intentions are not enough to salvage this undercooked, underdeveloped script from Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra and Justin Shilton. “Alex of Venice” feels halfway onto something good. Too bad it stops so short of its potential. C+2stars





REVIEW: 10 Cloverfield Lane

26 03 2016

I scarcely remember anything that happened in 2008’s “Cloverfield,” though I will never forget the nausea-inducing vertigo its constant shaky-cam gave me. I have a vague recollection of seeing the monster at the end (sorry if that spoiled something for anyone) and some kind of government cover-up of the whole thing. In other words, nothing had me clamoring for a sequel or offshoot.

Yet along comes “10 Cloverfield Lane,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg, written (to some extent) by “Whiplash” wunderkind Damien Chazelle and presumptively overseen by producer J.J. Abrams – and all of a sudden, they showed me that I did not know what I wanted. How refreshing to see a brand extension that serves as a brand revitalization. Rather than relying on the formula, mythology or beats of its predecessor, this bold new path in what now is supposedly a franchise delivers exactly what we need by giving us nothing we expected.

Most people remember “Cloverfield” chiefly for its marketing campaign. “10 Cloverfield Lane” arrived like Adele’s “25,” a teaser out of nowhere with the full product dropping shortly after. Ironically, the lead-up hardly presaged the experience. While the anticipation “Cloverfield” ultimately revealed thin substance, the somewhat muted hype machine surrounding “10 Cloverfield Lane” was only scratching the surface of the film’s tremendous impact. Trachtenberg’s film is like a master-class in suspense building, expertly and tautly edited to ratchet up the heat in every scene until it reaches a boiling point. In many ways, it could not be more different from “Cloverfield,” whose verité live video style relied on overwhelming the senses to communicate urgency and danger.

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REVIEW: Faults

4 07 2015

FaultsDon’t believe the marketing – “Faults” is NOT a cult movie. The film is, however, a story a pathetic middle-aged man, Leland Orser’s Ansel, looking to pull a quick swindle by “deprogramming” the brainwashed daughter of some gullible people.

Ansel needs of money because his ex-wife took the rights to his best-selling book, so now he resorts to peddling a cheap knockoff of the text and giving canned speeches at hotels that make the backpack talks from “Up in the Air” look like a State of the Union address. Here, two concerned parents approach him for help with their daughter, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Claire, whom they recently rescued from a fringe religious group known as “Faults.”  Since Ansel probably rented a VHS of Jane Campion’s “Holy Smoke” at a Hollywood Video, he takes on the duty of bringing her back to help pay off some debts.

His not-so-elaborate ruse doesn’t feel convincing for a second, and Ansel seems resigned before he even begins.  Fatigue sets in early with his questioning of Claire, largely because their conversations go nowhere. Writer/director Riley Stearns reveals precious little about the religious cult through Claire, so it becomes hard to tell if she is deliberately being vague about the titular cult … or if Stearns just didn’t think that far.

Winstead gives it her all, admirably, trudging on despite how little she has to work with from Stearns.  “Faults” does get slightly more interesting when Claire manages to flip the script and start asking the questions to Ansel.  But by the time the conclusion rolls around, Stearns’ call for gasps just elicited a big groan from me.  As if a big twist at the end of the road could somehow make the rest of the wandering worthwhile… C2stars





REVIEW: Kill the Messenger

20 03 2015

Michael Cuesta’s “Kill the Messenger” plays like an “All the President’s Men” for an era of the lone eagle rather than the journalistic tag team.  Jeremy Renner stars as muckraking journalist Gary Webb, a reporter who uncovers a 1980s CIA conspiracy that use the smuggling of crack cocaine into the U.S. as a front to launder weapons into Central America.  In essence, poor American communities are collateral damage to freedom fighting operations.

The first half features him uncovering the story, and the second half follows the fallout after publication.  Unlike Woodward and Bernstein, who had the backing of the Washington Post, Webb just wrote for a small outlet out of San Jose that lacked the resources or the confidence to stand with the controversial piece.  The CIA, of course, sought to discredit the story, and archival footage shows how the mainstream media ran with their smear campaign.

Renner is potent and forceful as the leading man of the film, clinging to his ethics and pride when all else around him seems to fail.  “Kill the Messenger” thrives because of his righteous anger.  His work also receives bolstering from a tremendous supporting cast with solid turns from character actors like Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

I can scarcely think of a critique for “Kill the Messenger,” except maybe the fact that it lacks an X-factor to take it from very good to great.  Still, Cuesta turns Peter Landesman’s tightly wound script into an entertaining, enthralling watch.  I can’t complain about that at all.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Smashed

11 08 2013

Finding comedy in alcoholism and recovery, two notoriously heavy subjects that hit close to home for many audiences, is no easy task.  “Smashed” is hardly a gut-buster or a laugh riot, although a little humor does help some of its rougher and rawer moments.  It’s no “Rachel Getting Married” (nor the lesser-known “Sherrybaby“), that’s for sure, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its smaller triumphs.

Director James Ponsoldt, newly heralded as an emerging director (and being entrusted to helm an upcoming Hillary Clinton biopic and an adaptation of the musical “Pippin”), steers the film rather uneasily.  As a result, the film has some abrupt and rather jarring tonal swings.  I’m not quite sure if he intended “Smashed” to leave a comedic or a dramatic impression, but it really winds up leaving very little impression at all.  Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is good, yet it never goes the full mile like Anne Hathaway or Maggie Gyllenhaal in the aforementioned dramas.

If it sounds like I’m being vague on details, that’s because I remember very few of them.  “Smashed” is a film I didn’t dislike, but it failed to win me over or secure a spot in my memory.  Regardless, it’s an interesting and, at 81 minutes, brief bauble of a film that isn’t entirely a waste of your time.  At the very least, you’ll enjoy seeing a union of some of TV’s best talents: Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad,” Nick Offerman of “Parks & Recreation,” and Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace.”

Oh, and there’s Octavia Spencer (Oscar-winner for “The Help“) as an AA sponsor.  She never disappoints.  2halfstars