REVIEW: The Meddler

14 05 2016

The MeddlerKnow that person who has a heart of gold but lacks a silver tongue? Or has valuable wisdom but tends to share too much information? Who would be the greatest conversationalist in the world if they could just cut themselves off one sentence earlier?

That would be Susan Sarandon’s Marnie Minervini in “The Meddler,” though the beauty of her performance is that the character rings broadly true for so many people. For plenty, it will probably recall their mother or other family member. The meat of the film does focus on Marnie’s relationship with her adult daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), still a bit of a hot mess professionally and romantically. Marnie tries to intervene, as most mothers do, but Lori gives an unsubtle hint for her newly widowed parent to find a different hobby.

Rather than mope, whine or cause unnecessary tension between the two of them, Marnie essentially takes her charge. For decades, she played few roles besides “mother” and “wife.” This free time grants her the opportunity to be a friend, a surrogate parent, a mentor … and maybe even a lover. There’s certainly not a dull moment with Marnie, though sometimes the organization of her interactions leaves a little to be desired. Some secondary characters play pivotal roles only to drop off for big chunks of the movie.

Marnie’s adventures in role playing provide irresistible fun and joy, though they are always tainted with a slight sadness. These all serve as convenient distractions from the one person who really needs tending to: herself. Scafaria, in one of few script-level missteps, delivers this revelation through on-the-nose observations by Marnie’s therapists. But as it plays out in the events of “The Meddler,” her journey of self-discovery through (some perhaps unwarranted) service is altogether charming. B+3stars





REVIEW: Tammy

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





REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars





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: Arbitrage

6 10 2012

If Adrian Lyne ever made a movie about Wall Street, I have a feeling it would look something like “Arbitrage” (OK, maybe with a little less steaminess).  Nicholas Jarecki’s debut narrative feature has high stakes, heightened emotions, and well over fifty shades of grey in every character.  It’s a world where every character is suspect and every decision deserves a screaming match debating the respective merits of the choice.

Don’t get me wrong, I like when movies give themselves a sense of weight.  Sometimes to create drama, you have to do a little dramatization.  But it’s done to a bit of an extreme in “Arbitrage.”  When you hit a high note in the first third of the movie and keep at the same pitch for nearly an hour, you lose a sense of forward momentum propelling both the film’s story and the audience’s interest.  Not to mention, watching a movie so high-strung and strung out gets quite exhausting.

This exaggerated acting leads to some fine performances, especially from Richard Gere as a ruthless, conniving greedy hedge fund executive (apparently the only kind these days).  He’s slick, slippery, and seriously stupefying.  Gere’s Robert Miller is motivated by deep, dark forces, ones that the actor digs deep to wrestle with.  Dealing with the collapse of his financial house of cards and the death of his mistress at the same time tend to make someone that primal, though.

While Susan Sarandon as his scorned wife and Brit Marling as his conflicted daughter can both shout at his level, neither can match Gere’s intensity.  I just wish “Arbitrage” had toned down a little bit to stay level with Gere.  A little bit of internalizing and a little less monologuing could have done wonders for the movie.  As is, it feels like an all too familiar yell that dilutes its own message with heavy-handedness.  B





REVIEW: Solitary Man

9 12 2010

Michael Douglas, like most skilled actors, can deliver good performances in his sleep, but these types of actors are only exciting to watch when they try something different or really put in the work to elevate their performance.  In “Solitary Man,” it seemed to me like Douglas was sleepwalking through the entire movie.

It’s really a shame because this could have been a great role for him.  Fascinating performances often arise when actors take parts that reflect where they are in life, particularly at milestone ages.  From child to teen, from youth to adulthood, from young to middle-aged, and for Douglas, from middle-aged to the age of mortality.  The theme of confronting old age is particularly eerie to watch now given Douglas’ fight with cancer.

Yet while all the components are there, something just doesn’t add up.  I wouldn’t attribute it all to Douglas; the film’s plot is pretty weak and the self-examination severely underdeveloped.  This is such a rich topic, but the movie only brushes the surface.  Douglas’ Ben Kalmen struggles with a lot of things: his loneliness, his infidelity, his fall from grace in business, his desire to stay young, among others.

The psychological struggle is all provided by Douglas, not at all by the script.  Nowhere is there a great line for us to chew on or a particularly interesting plot development to leave us reeling.  There’s just predictable old plot gimmicks that run for 90 minutes, which hardly feels adequate for Douglas to give the character much depth.

He gets no help from an impressively cast ensemble including the likes of Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, and Mary-Louise Parker.  The writers don’t bother to give any sort of depth to these supporting actors; they might as well have just abandoned names altogether and called the characters “aging ex-wife,” “young new girlfriend,” and “beautiful daughter.”  There’s so much “Solitary Man” could have been, but not even Michael Douglas can save it from becoming an entirely forgettable snooze.  C





REVIEW: The Lovely Bones

24 05 2010

I generally agree with the consensus opinion on popular books, movies, and other works, despite how you might interpret my Rotten Tomatoes average of agreement with other groups that lingers around 75%.  But every once in a while, there is that one which I just can’t seem to embrace like everyone else;  Alice Sebold’s novel “The Lovely Bones” was one that fell into that category.  I found it overly melodramatic and an unrewarding experience after enduring three hundred pages of wrenching gloominess.

Nevertheless, I went into Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” with an open mind.  Maybe I would be able to tap into that love that everyone felt for the book.  In a nutshell, I didn’t feel much other than apathy, a pretty pathetic feeling for a movie that involves the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl.  That’s the kind of the thing that should rattle some cages, right?  Jackson can’t get the emotions in focus, and the whole movie in turn suffers from a pervading chilly feeling.

It’s hard to capture heaven on film because no one actually knows what it looks like.  But Jackson’s vision doesn’t really align with any sort of popular conception of heaven, and it gives off all sorts of weird vibes.  At times, it gets so crazy that it almost becomes laughable, particularly when flowers bloom underneath shelves of ice.

These vibes infect and contaminate the real world, which Jackson isn’t terrible at capturing.  However, anyone who has read the book can clearly see that Jackson wanted us to sympathize more with Susie Salmon’s family as they grieve her disappearance and assumed death.  I wanted to kill Susie’s mother (played by Rachel Weisz) in the book, yet here she gets a pardon.  Her most hideous actions are simply omitted.  The role of the police investigator (Michael Imperioli) and the grandmother (Susan Sarandon) are reduced to basically cameos.

The only part of this movie that was really good was Stanley Tucci, who plays the creepy neighbor that murders Susie.  He is startling, delivering a performance that is deep and truly haunting.  As the hairs on your spine stick straight up, you will most definitely be wondering what happened to the sweet little man who made us laugh in “Julie & Julia” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”  Other than Tucci, the only other cast member who’s any good is Susan Sarandon, but she has no screen time and looks 20 years too young to be a grandmother.  Rachel Weisz can’t make us feel anything towards her character, Mark Wahlberg is too intense for his own good, and Saoirse Ronan is just awful.  She screams and cries, and I didn’t buy any of it.

The only reasons I could give for watching this movie would be to get depressed or to watch Stanley Tucci’s transformation.  The latter is the only legitimate excuse; there are much better movies to get you in a melancholy mood.  C /