REVIEW: Person to Person

24 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Connection seems like an awfully vague term to declare a main thematic thread for a film festival – it’s a bit like “love,” deployed as a convenient catch-all in cursory analysis. But far more than 2016’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, where I saw several films about protagonists trying to connect with themselves, many in 2017 showed a greater concern for how we connect to each other and the world around us.

This was most apparent in Dustin Guy Defa’s New York-set feature “Person to Person.” I made a conscious effort to avoid the kinds of films that might pertain primarily to the so-called “coastal elites,” which can present themselves as microcosms for America while only showing a narrow slice of existence. That’s not to say that these movies are meritless or rendered useless in this brave new world. But after the primal electoral howl of November, some perspective on the limited application of what Judd Apatow deemed “west-of-the-405 problem” films (and their East Coast counterparts) does not hurt. That said, I still had to see some. Forgoing them entirely would be akin to a cinematic Atkins diet, taking out an entire component of the pyramid structure for quick change.

“Person to Person” starts off feeling like a Jim Jarmusch-Noah Baumbach hybrid, a series of vignettes that send signals that they will converge in a manner we’ve come to expect from “hyperlink cinema.” Some of them do. The center of gravity is a murder case that involves the victim’s wealthy Brooklynite wife (Michaela Watkins), two clueless investigative reporters at a no-name tabloid (Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson), and a watchmaker (Philip Baker Hall) with the clue that could hold the key to the entire case. On the periphery, Defa also follows a vinyl collector (Bene Coopersmith) dealing with a dishonest client, a wandering boyfriend (George Sample III) who gets shaken down by the angry brother of his partner, and a verbose young woman (Tavi Gevinson) probing the boundaries of her toleration and sexuality.

Defa has built up high regard, making short films for several years, even earning a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015. (Take four minutes to watch “Review” instead of that Jimmy Fallon clip your friends have shared on Facebook.) That background does rear its head in “Person to Person,” which can play more as a compendium than an omnibus. Still, the old pan that something is “less than the sum of its parts” does not quite apply here. There is loose connective tissue for all the stories: violence, unseen but affecting all of the characters in significant ways. Not the cheeriest take on human relations, but it’s hard to deny given that many of 2016’s most fervent moments of collective emotion came in the wake of celebrity deaths. B

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





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 3, 2015)

3 09 2015

Afternoon DelightJill Soloway appears in just about any feature being published these days about the changing face of television for women behind the camera and trans representation in front of it.  Even before “Transparent” landed at Amazon, she was making waves as a writer and producer on shows like “Six Feet Under,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “United States of Tara.”  And somewhere in her schedule, she found time to make a narrative film.

Had I been paying attention to her feature debut, “Afternoon Delight,” I would surely have run instead of walked to “Transparent.”  This character-driven dramedy lives up to the latter word in its title … and would suffice at any time of day, for that matter.  Soloway serves as writer as well as director, and her voice shines through in the movie, my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

“Afternoon Delight” might mark the first film to fully realize the wealth of talent possessed by Kathryn Hahn, an actress dangerously close to becoming the next Judy Greer.  She’s almost too good at making her presence felt without overpowering the lead, be it dramatically in “Revolutionary Road” or comedically in a movie like “We’re the Millers” or television’s “Parks and Recreation.”  But Soloway grants her lead status here, and she runs away with the film.

Hahn’s character Rachel, a stereotypical L.A. Jewish carpool mom, needs something to get her out of a rut.  A lethal cocktail of sexual frustration and the white female savior complex leads her to “rescue” a stripper, Juno Temple’s McKenna.  If Rachel wanted something to shake up her relationships with her husband and friends, she certainly gets that and more with her new “nanny.”  McKenna becomes an object of pity for Rachel, yet her presence also draws out the green monster of jealousy.

The cumulative effect manages to spark some major changes, not all of which are good.  But if you need any indication of just how gifted a storyteller Soloway is, watch how much more you feel for Rachel as her behavior goes from erratic to desperate to practically indefensible.  Her characters, be they small or silver screen, never lose their solid steeping in humanity.  I can only hope “Afternoon Delight” is not the full extent of Soloway’s venture into feature filmmaking.  The world of indie cinema needs her gifts too much.





REVIEW: In A World

23 08 2013

In a world where the movies began to buckle under the weight of copious cliches, one movie dared to be different.  It was not a romantic comedy yet still had romance.  It was not a drama but managed to tackle serious issues convincingly.

While I might have made Lake Bell’s “In a World” sound like some kind of panacea, it’s really just a nice, simple movie that does a lot of things very right.  As a feature debut for Bell (who I only knew from her supporting turns in “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached“), the film is certainly promising for many great things to come.  She makes no major missteps in her finely-tuned comedy, but it is rather safe and risk-free.

Bell also wrote the film’s script, which contains a smart and well-observed feminist critique.  In a summer where “The Heat” was the only major studio release with a female protagonist, “In a World” opens up a fascinating dialogue about sexism and male hegemony in the art of voice-overs.  While much of the film is industry-specific, Bell gives us plenty of food for thought about women in any workplace.  She even manages the current impasse for many women between symbolic affirmative action and equal judgment with finesse.

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