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

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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





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





REVIEW: Happy Christmas

26 06 2014

Happy ChristmasJoe Swanberg had a modest little hit on his hands last summer with “Drinking Buddies,” a more mainstream-friendly comedy.  And thanks to all the stars he packed into the film (and thus the cover art), it seems to have found some nice legs on Netflix.

Happy Christmas” seems unlikely to win over those new fans once more, and it may not even wholly satisfy those more tolerant of the mumblecore style.  Swanberg shows his talents, sure, but the whole enterprise just feels slight and disposable.

It’s a slice of not particularly interesting life that gets in and out within 82 minutes.  During that runtime, the film doesn’t really have much to say, either.  Anna Kendrick gets to have some fun as Jenny, a hapless twentysomething who moves in with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife, the sometimes-writer Kelly (Melanie Lynskey).

She brings headache and heartache along with her, as plenty of our own family members are capable of doing.  This familiar narrative device yields little new to ponder or even laugh about.  Unwrapping “Happy Christmas” is like opening the gift from that random aunt of yours … and realizing it’s the same thing you got from her last year.

Though the film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, that’s not to say it doesn’t boast some great facets.  The “cool girl,” seemingly down-to-earth Kendrick is a perfect fit for Swanberg speak.  She stammers like a natural, fumbling over “like” just as any of us would and reacts to her surroundings with startling authenticity.  Kendrick brings the honesty and fun to “Happy Christmas” where everyone else just seems kind of dour and depressed.  At least we can say we spent some time basking in her aura of awesomeness.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Win Win

10 10 2012

It’s been well over a year since “Win Win” hit theaters, and I’ve somehow managed to avoid writing a review.  It was my favorite movie of 2011, and I’ve seen it no less than five times.  Why the wait?  I think I admire Thomas McCarthy mastery far too much to shame it with words that don’t accurately describe just how stirringly brilliant this movie is and how strongly it resonated with me.

I don’t even think it’s hyperbolic in the slightest to say that if Frank Capra were making movies today, they would look a whole lot like “Win Win.”  Light-hearted while tackling serious themes and always celebrating the decency of the average American, McCarthy captures all the buoyancy of the old classic comedies but doesn’t fall into a trap of idealistic naïveté.  The writer/director finally strikes gold after “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” just barely missed the mark.  (He did co-write “Up” as well, which is as close to pitch-perfect emotionally as you can get.)  This movie, for my money, puts him in the highest echelon of modern humanist filmmakers alongside Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman.

McCarthy’s film, much like Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” is one distinctly of its time but also for all times.  “Win Win” shows how the specific money crunch resulting from the recession can cause us to commit immoral deeds, but it’s also a more general parable about weathering hard times by standing firm in our convictions.  The movie never feels like a morality play, though, because McCarthy never preaches.  He just tells a story by truthfully depicting human emotion and conscience.  That’s where the best drama always comes from, and the conflict that plays out is so compelling because we never doubt its authenticity.

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