REVIEW: Maggie’s Plan

23 05 2016

Maggie's PlanNew York Film Festival

Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” makes for the kind of madcap, ensemble-driven romantic comedy that Woody Allen has not churned out since his relationship with Mia Farrow turned sour. And it’s certainly the kind of screwball comedy abandoned by studios altogether. But lest this review devolve into nothing but comparison to other works, it must be said that this is a wonderfully crafted and involving film in its own right.

Miller is the first person not named Noah Baumbach who seems to have a clue what to do with Gerwig’s considerable charm. Beneath her hip, ultra-modern exterior and droll delivery lies reservoirs of deep feeling and humanity still largely unexcavated. Miller might be the figurative Daniel Plainview to figure out the means to pull it out of the ground and siphon it to power other characters.

Gerwig stars as the titular Maggie, who might think she has a plan – but then life happens. Or fate happens. Or, heck, Maggie happens! Some odd mixture of time, self-realization as well as cosmic meddling seems to guide the proceedings of “Maggie’s Plan” as she stumbles and soars through a unique romantic escapade.

While trying to become pregnant to raise a baby alone, she falls in love with Ethan Hawke’s John Harding, a nebbish professor who feels like a wallflower in his marriage to Julianne Moore’s Georgette Norgaard. He struggles to complete a novel long in the works yet faces nothing but stern rebukes at home from his critical theorist wife. Both John and Maggie seek to seize the narrative of their lives … so they begin a relationship together.

Unlike so many stories involving older men who fall for younger women, Maggie never loses her agency in the courtship. In fact, it is far more often she who levels with John than the other way around. So it should come as no surprise that whenever things take a turn for the worse, it is Maggie who takes the initiative to grow out of their relationship.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 7, 2016)

7 04 2016

IdiocracyA new subgenre of criticism seems to have spouted up in the past few months eager to find things in culture and society to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. To be fair, I too have given him consideration on my site, but it has taken on the tenor of looking at things that might explain his popularity rather than directly cause it. A look back at the cinema of the ’00s shows various prescient takes on the underlying issues in America that have recently bubbled to the surface: xenophobia, nationalism, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism.

Few distill these into a frightening, humorous essence as well as Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” however. This comedy played as ridiculous when it was released in 2006; its studio, 20th Century Fox, regarded it as such and unceremoniously dumped it in theaters with no fanfare. But in the decade since, it becomes less and less like an imagined portrait of America and more like a plausible future. Such eerily insight, roughly as it might be presented, makes it a fitting selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

To say too much about how “Idiocracy” hits the nail on the head would only ruin its considerable pleasures for those yet to experience the film. Judge remarkably shied away from the easy targets of the time, choosing to satirize some less obvious culprits in the dumbing down of the country. He digs into demographic trends in population and education level to find the fault lines in society. He examines the cumulative effect of the “infotainment” dominating the news media. He takes corporate influence over the government to its logical extreme.

For Luke Wilson’s Corporal “Average Joe” Bauers, a man chosen for cryogenic freezing then unceremoniously forgotten for 500 years, this strange world of 2505 seems completely foreign. Yet even from a vantage point just 10 years ahead of when Joe gets frozen, this dysfunctional America hardly seems implausible. There are almost too many ideas packed into the running time of “Idiocracy,” so many that each issue gets a slightly cursory examination. If only Judge had the budget or the time of, say, a miniseries to really unpack his social critique. Sequel, anyone?





REVIEW: Sisters

16 12 2015

The pure bliss of simply seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler reunited on screen for something other than an awards ceremony makes “Sisters” worth the price of admission. These two comediennes feed off each other in a way that no other pair can match, and there is never a dull moment since their live wire energy can always produce sparks.

Whether the material they work with is as good as they are, however, is another matter. “Sisters” piles on the raunch and the craziness, which is slightly out of their usual wheelhouse of safe for network TV antics. Paula Pell’s script is a hard R, and those laughs come somewhat at the expense of genuine characters.

The duo’s last big screen outing, 2008’s “Baby Mama,” found that sweet spot of believable exaggeration for both women, stretching responsibility and irresponsibility to rational extremes. “Sisters” casts Poehler as the good egg of the siblings, the youngest child who strove to overachieve out of genuine compassion for others, and it’s almost like getting to watch her play Leslie Knope again.

Fey, on the other hand, throws everyone for a loop by playing the callous, selfish older sister. It proves surprising, even jarring, to watch scenes where she is not the smartest person in the room. Heck, sometimes it even seems like it throws her for a loop. Tossing out insults and profanities – rather than receiving such barbs from the “30 Rock” cast – is something she gradually grows into over the course of “Sisters.”

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REVIEW: Inherent Vice

25 11 2014

Inherent ViceNew York Film Festival

Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice” ends with his chief character, Doc Sportello,  attempting to discern shapes within a haze that has formed outside his car window.  Not to worry, this is not a spoiler since screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to end his cinematic adaptation on an entirely different note altogether.  But the passage is such an apropos summation of “Inherent Vice,” both in terms of its content and the ensuing experience, that it certainly deserves a place in the discussion.

While this is a not entirely unusual noir-tinged mystery surrounding corruption and vice, the story is hardly straightforward or easily discernible.  Characters drop in and out of the narrative at will, making it rather difficult to decipher who the key players really are.  Take no motivation and no appearance at face value, because it is likely to change in the blink of an eye.

Anderson cycles through events at such a dizzying speed that trying to connect the dots of “Inherent Vice” in real-time will only result in missing the next key piece of information.  (I found myself drawn to read Pynchon’s novel after seeing the movie to get a firmer grip on the plot.)  Might I suggest just to kick back, allow the film to wash over you, and let Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello be your spirit guide through the fog of Los Angeles in 1970.

In a fictional beach community outside the city proper, steadily stoned private eye Doc tries to make sense of a strange case in a transitional time period.  The city is still reeling from Manson mayhem, and hippies are no longer cute animals at the zoo but entities whose every move is subject to suspicion.  People are beginning to anticipate Nixonite and Reaganite malaise, though it remains unformed and intangible.  Ultimately, his understanding is about as good as ours – which is to say, it scarcely exists.  What begins as a routine investigation of Doc’s ex-flame and her rich new lover quickly spirals into something far more sprawling.

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REVIEW: The Way Way Back

4 08 2013

Two years ago, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash stood on stage at the Academy Awards behind Alexander Payne as he delivered the majority of their acceptance speech for writing “The Descendants.” While Payne waxed poetic to millions of people, Faxon and Rash drew the attention of the cameramen through a bizarre stunt – mocking Angelina Jolie’s flaunting of her flawless leg as it protruded out of her dress that very night.

As soon as I saw that, I thought to myself that they must have provided the humor in “The Descendants,” and the tragedy and drama came courtesy of Alexander Payne. But after seeing Faxon and Rash’s directorial debut “The Way Way Back,” which they also wrote together, I’m not so sure my assumption was correct. The dynamic duo crafted a truly heartfelt and genuine film that is equal parts uproarious comedy and poignant drama. Not a moment in the movie feels false as everything hits home just by being honest.

The film might not be the most original as it is a fairly typical entry into the coming-of-age sub genre. The protagonist, Duncan, is a shy turtle of a 14-year-old boy headed for a summer at the beach with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Both of them struggle to fit into Trent’s pre-existing world, although Pam has no escape. Duncan manages to find a surrogate family for the summer at the Water Wizz water park under the tutelage of the quick-witted Owen (Sam Rockwell).

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REVIEW: Friends with Kids

22 12 2012

The title “Friends with Kids” sounds an awful lot like “Friends with Benefits,” the 2011 Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis sex-friends comedy. Though the two differentiate themselves over the course of their respective films, they actually share quite a bit in common.

Both begin with a ridiculous premise: here, it’s the idea that two people can have sex once, procreate, and be parents without forming any sort of emotional connection to each other. It’s an idea that Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt) hatch one night after seeing how miserable their once happily married friends become when they have kids. And those same friends, like us in the audience, laugh at their foolishness and know it can only lead to disaster.

Their friends, by the way, are essentially a “Bridesmaids” reunion 15 years early for their People shoot. Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm are Ben and Missy, a sex-crazed couple whose kids take a toll on their marriage. And on the more reasonable end, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd are a couple coping with the same issues but on a more authentic scale. All that’s missing is some Wilson Phillips (and perhaps a little defecating in sinks just for fun).

Yet just about every time you think it’s going down the path to predictability or genre, Westfeldt surprisingly turns the tables on you. She’s written a very thoughtful movie in “Friends with Kids,” one that makes some insightful revelations about marriage and parenthood. Though Jason and Julie move on to other people – him Megan Fox’s Broadway dancer Mary Jane, her Edward Burns’ family man Kurt – they find each other and their real feelings through those people. It might seem slightly cliched, but with all the laughs and the honesty, I didn’t really mind. B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Bridesmaids

14 05 2011

It’s all too easy to label Kristen Wiig’s uproarious new comedy “Bridesmaids” the female equivalent of “The Hangover,” and it works for a quick comparison to sell the movie to a doubting friend.  However, for accuracy’s sake (something of great consequence to me), let’s set the record straight.  If you put “The Hangover” in a room with “27 Dresses” and allowed them to have a baby, and that baby turned out to be a girl, they would spawn “Bridesmaids.”

In other words, it’s a mixture of raunchy comedy that makes guys howl with the romantic comedy that makes girls swoon.  Call it the best of both worlds, but such a combination doesn’t make the great equalizing date movie a great movie.  The hybrid has a bit of an uneasy consistency, mainly because the belly laughs come to a screeching halt as soon as Wiig’s Irish-accented love interest comes on screen.  Maybe it’s just the critic in me that’s rom-com weary or the male in me that doesn’t really care how the girl inevitably winds up with the guy, but the cliched romance could easily have been excised to maximize the laughs.  (Not to mention it could cut down on the length, which is over 2 hours – epic length in terms of comedic films.)

So rather than endlessly compare “Bridesmaids” to “The Hangover,” I’ll let it stand on its own merit.  The credit for the laughs, both shocking and sensitive, goes to star and co-writer Kristen Wiig, who after years of stealing the show finally gets to be the show.  I feel very vindicated seeing her success after being a vocal advocate since 2005 when she joined “Saturday Night Live” and a written advocate ever since beginning to blog in 2009 (from “Extract” to “Whip It” to “Adventureland” to “Date Night” and even amidst the dung that was “MacGruber”).  But this shouldn’t be about me; it should be about her.  This is her big moment, and I hope she uses it to fly higher than previous female “SNL” comediennes like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

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