Six LA Love Stories


Love can be exhausting.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Random Media) Beth Grant, Matthew Lillard, Stephen Tobolowsky, Carrie Preston, Alicia Witt, Peter Bogdanovich, Ashley Williams, Michael Dunaway, Ross Partridge, Marshall Allman, David Claassen, Jennifer Lafleur, Michael Milford, Davie-Blue, Hayley Polak, Mitch Swan, Don Most, Savannah Remington, Kayla Swift, Ogy Dunham, Summer Rose Ly, Jamie Anne Allman. Directed by Michael Dunaway

 

The rest of the country has a kind of love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. Some admire the beautiful beaches and the energy that has made it one of the world’s great cities. Others decry the shallowness that comes from essentially being a Hollywood company town. Still, like every town, city, megalopolis and village around the globe, love occurs on a daily basis.

This film takes place on a single day in sunny Southern California and follows six different couples, all at varying stages in their relationship. None of the stories are interconnected and all have just one thing in common; a couple either falling in love, deeply in love, or falling out of love.

At a pool party at a Hollywood producer’s mansion, Robin (Williams) bitches on her phone about her air-headed sister while Wes (Partridge) overhears. The two strike up a conversation and although Robin initially reacts with distaste, she soon finds that she and Wes have a lot more in common than she thought.

Alan (Lillard) arrives home early from work to discover his wife Diane (Preston) having sex with another man. Infuriated, then deeply wounded, Alan struggles to find out why she betrayed him like that; Diane’s answers aren’t what he expects nor are they necessarily what he really wants to hear.

Amanda (Lafleur) is the stage manager at a self-help convention event where multiple speakers are given a limited amount of time to address the audience. As Duane (Bogdanovich) goes up, Amanda is confronted with her ex-lover Camille (Dunham) who is getting ready to speak. As Amanda seems to be okay with things the way they are, Camille has something she specifically wants to say to her.

Mara (J.A. Allman) meets up for a drink with her ex-boyfriend Pete (M. Allman) whose acting career has stalled and has decided to take a stab at screenwriting instead. As Pete describes a recent meeting with a studio exec, Mara is reminded of all the things that led to their break-up but can’t quite deny that there isn’t a spark there.

Terry (Witt) visits her ex-husband Nick (Dunaway) to discuss the schooling options for their daughter. Nick appears to have moved on from their amicable divorce but Terry clearly hasn’t. Her feelings of anger towards her ex hide something much deeper and much less unpleasant inside her.

Finally, John (Tobolowsky) is the only tourist on the tour of the Will Rogers estate with Meg (Grant), a guide there. While they are initially at odds with each other – John is a college professor who also writes books for a think tank on Rogers and is a bit of an insufferable know-it-all – Meg senses that she can supply something that John may need even more.

The moods on the various vignettes vary from overtly humorous (Meg-John) to bittersweet and dark (Alan-Diane) to surprising (Terry-Nick). Like most ensemble pieces, the quality varies between the stories, ranging from authentic (Alan-Diane) to goofy (Meg-John) to downright unrealistic (Meg-John). The cast is pretty solid though and the performances are generally reflective of that, although Lillard and Preston essentially steal the show in their vignette which is very much the best of the six. While I liked both the Meg and John characters and the performances by Grant and Tobolowsky, I just didn’t connect with their story which seemed tonally at odds with the other five. The one that the director appears in as an actor oddly enough was for me ironically the weakest vignette of the six.

This was originally released on home video back in 2016 but was re-released last month by Random Media who apparently cleaned up some sound issues (reviews from the original release complained about the sound but I didn’t notice any problems with it). While it is reminiscent of Love Actually in terms of subject matter, this movie first of all doesn’t have the interconnection between the stories that film has which while totally not a bad thing, I found myself wondering why they needed a full length movie (albeit one only an hour and 20 minutes long) for this movie when six individual short films might have worked better. Besides, London at Christmastime trumps L.A. in the summer anytime.

The Alan and Diane story is the one worth seeing but because the six stories are intercut together, you have to watch the other five as well and while none of them are painful to watch, none of them approach the quality of the Alan-Diane saga so keep that in mind. Otherwise a solid effort by a first time narrative feature writer-director.

REASONS TO GO: The dialogue is generally pretty well-written.
REASONS TO STAY: The quality between vignettes varies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bogdanovich appears at the behest of his daughter Antonia who is a producer on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Actually
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hearts Beat Loud

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Family Life (Vida de Familia)


Look what dragged in the cat.

(2017) Dramedy (Monument) Jorge Becker, Gabriela Arancibia, Bianca Lewin, Cristián Carvajal, Lucas Miranda, Adara Casassus. Directed by Alicia Scherson and Christián Jiménez

Most cultures in humanity revere the family. For the most part, we all love our families and would do anything for them. Those without families by circumstance or by choice are often objects of pity, sometimes of scorn but generally we don’t trust people who turn their backs on family. Of course there are those who yearn for a family of their own. We always want what we don’t have.

Bruno (Carvajal) is an academic – a professor of Chilean poetry at the University in Santiago. He has been invited to spend a semester teaching the subject in Paris and is taking his young family – wife Consuelo (Lewin) and daughter Sofi (Casassus) with him. He needs a housesitter for their posh apartment and at the funeral of his cousin he meets Martin (Becker), his relative’s son. Martin in addition to mourning his father is unemployed and has just broken up with his girlfriend who he continues to pine away for. Sympathetic, Bruno offers the job of watching his house and caring for his cat Mississippi while he’s gone.

Bruno is kind of diffident and melancholy. He strikes the family in different ways; Bruno characterizes him as “a little weird” while Consuelo is a little bit more compassionate. When Martin makes an awkward attempt to kiss her the night before they leave, she rebuffs him but is nonetheless oddly moved by the man. He is handsome and has a thing about black leather, but he is also unemployed, single and nearly 40. Not exactly a catch.

Once the family is gone, Martin seems content to just hang out around the house. He is lonely but yet is unmotivated to go out and do things. A housekeeper is hired to assist but he doesn’t really feel right letting her clean once a month but he pays her the money that Bruno left for her anyway. He tries on Bruno’s clothes and goes though the family’s things like a criminal investigator.

One day the cat is missing and Martin puts up flyers. He is annoyed later to find flyers for a lost dog pasted over his own. Irritated, he calls the number on the lost dog flyers and gives the person an earful. Eventually the dog owner, Pachi (Arancibia) or Paz as she’s called in the iMDB credits, and Martin meet. She’s a single mom, strong and forthright but she is attracted to Martin. At first it’s a sexual thing but as Martin begins to bond with her son Seba (Miranda) their relationship begins to change.

Martin convinces Pachi that he is the owner of the house; he had taken down the pictures that featured Bruno, leaving only pictures of Consuelo and Sofi. He explains that those are pictures of his ex-wife and daughter; the divorce was acrimonious and she had taken his daughter and was refusing to let him see her. At first Pachi is suspicious – he must have done something to deserve such treatment – but her heart overrides her good sense and she falls very hard for him.

Even with the impending return of the real owners of the home, Martin maintains the fiction and seems for the first time to be truly content. Still, cracks begin to form in the facade as plans are made to introduce him to Pachi’s family. How far will he take the charade and what will happen when Pachi discovers the truth?

Scherson and Jiménez have directed three other movies each, although this is their first project as a unit. This is a much more quiet film than some of Scherson’s previous efforts. It is based on Alejandro Zamba’s book (Zamba did the initial adaptation which was then refined by the directors who are also given co-writing credit) and with nearly all of the action taking place in a single apartment, there’s a bit of a stage-y feel to it.

There is a definite sense of humor here although it is not broad or filled with pratfalls. It is more of a subtle sense of humor, the way old friends sit back and reflect on the absurdities of life. That is very much within the Latin temperament although those not familiar with Latin culture might be surprised, given that the comedies that come out of Latin countries are very often overly broad and slapstick.

But this isn’t strictly speaking a comedy; there are some moments of genuine pathos such as a climactic encounter between two of the characters in which in a moment it is clear that both understand exactly what’s going on. The irony of the movie is that the perfect family life that Martin initially yearns for is not what’s happening for Bruno and Consuelo. They have reached a kind of uneasy understanding between the two of them, but the tension is clearly there; even Sofi notices it as she displays on a somewhat shocking note she leaves on her wall.

The performances here are uniformly strong, with Becker being the most notable. While the motivations of Martin are opaque at best and he is something of an enigma, Becker keeps the character grounded and while we often are scratching our head about Martin, because of Becker the character never feels unbelievable or far-fetched. His motivations may be suspect and at the end of the day he isn’t a very likable character despite all his charm, but you won’t soon forget him and that’s thanks to Becker primarily. He reminds me a little bit of a young Thomas Kretschmann which is nothing but praise.

There is an awful lot of sex in the movie and those who are offended by such things should be forewarned. The pacing is a little slower than American audiences typically like, although European audiences should have no trouble with it. There is a slice of life aspect to the film that I found attractive; the life may be a bourgeois one but it’s a valid life notwithstanding.

Overall this is a solid movie. It debuted at this year’s Sundance and at the recent Miami International Film Festival won the Knight Grand Jury Prize, a very prestigious award. It’s beginning a slow theatrical roll-out in cities around the country; keep an eye out for it if it plays near here you live. If you’re looking for something that is going to make you think a little bit about the place of family in your life and what the ideal family looks like – and how it almost never is the family you get – this should be right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are naturalistic particularly by Becker. There is a sly almost gentle sense of humor that is more reflective than uproarious.
REASONS TO STAY: Martin as a character is a bit on the murky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity, sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Scherson’s own apartment.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Amnesia

Still Alice


Julianne Moore may have Oscar's pulse.

Julianne Moore may have Oscar’s pulse.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Seth Gilliam, Stephen Kunken, Erin Drake, Daniel Gerroll, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maxine Prescott, Orlagh Cassidy, Rosa Arredondo, Zillah Glory, Caridad Montanez, Caleb Freundlich, Charlotte Robson, Jean Burns, Erin Drake. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Some movies benefit from strong storylines, great special effects or subject matter that is timely. Still others benefit from perfect or near-perfect casting, with a performance that elevates the movie from merely ordinary into something else.

Dr. Alice Howland (Moore) is a brilliant linguist, a respected professor at Columbia University and an author of what is pretty much the definitive textbook on the subject. She lives in a beautiful Manhattan apartment with her husband John (Baldwin), himself a talented and in-demand research physician. Their three adult kids are Tom (Parrish), a promising med school student, Anna (Bosworth) who is married to Charlie (McRae) and who is trying to get pregnant, and the black sheep Lydia (Stewart) who alone lives in Los Angeles (the others are all clustered near New York) and is trying to get an acting career started, although her mother nags her to go to college because she considers acting a waste of Lydia’s intellect.

But then she begins to forget words and names, forget where she put her keys. All signs, her husband assures her, of growing older; the memory is one of the first things to go. But then she goes for a run around Columbia and stops suddenly, terrified; she doesn’t recognize a thing, it’s a completely alien place, even though she has been teaching on this very campus for 20 years. She goes to see a neurologist (Kunken), privately. No tumors. Nothing to really explain what is causing these memory lapses. Then comes the MRI and the news couldn’t be worse; early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alice is devastated As an academic, she has built a career and a life based around the power of her mind. Now that is to all be stripped away from her. Alice is a fighter however; she uses memory techniques to keep hold of the important things. Her family rallies around her, although John longs for escape and is seriously considering a position at the Mayo Clinic which would be great for his career but would rob him of a year with his wife, possibly her last year as herself. The sort of Alzheimer’s that Alice has is genetic, which means her kids might be carriers. This gives Alice an enormous sense of guilt when one of them turns out to be positive for the disease as well.

Alice can’t imagine life as essentially a vegetable and as we watch her deteriorate and her frustration grows, we see those around her change as well. The devastation her disease creates not just to Alice which is observable, is heart-breaking. Still, being who she is, she has devised a way out, to spare her family the worst of her disease. Will she be able to take it?

Based on the novel by Susan Genova, the movie is a bit rote in terms of how it follows movies of similar coping with disease themes; small symptoms, easily dismissed, leading to larger symptoms, not so easily dismissed, followed by the diagnosis which is excruciating in its own right followed by the repercussions of the disease itself. I suppose most diseases follow the same timeline in reality but there is nothing particularly adventurous in the way the movie handles the subject.

What works here is Moore’s performance. She’s already won the Golden Globe for her work here, along with every significant acting award with only the Jewel in the Crown, the Oscar, waiting in the wings and she’s the odds-on favorite for adding it to her collection. This is absolutely scintillating work, as we watch the terrible progression of the disease. Moore humanizes the character; you feel for her but she doesn’t make Alice pitiable but rather as strong as anyone can be in the face of a disease that robs you of who you are. This is easily one of the best performances of the year and certainly worth the accolades she has received and should she win the Oscar, I don’t think anyone can really argue with it.

Baldwin actually does a pretty good job himself. He tends to play characters who are much more smarmy than this one, but this is a little bit out of his comfort zone in a lot of ways. There is a scene where John breaks down with Lydia, which summarizes the hardship this has been on him, caring for his wife and watching her slip away from him. It’s a heartbreaking moment and one of the worthier moments of the film because it is arrived at honestly. Not all the moments in the film are like that.

Stewart still remains an actress I have trouble connecting to. It’s not just because of her Twilight connection either; it’s just that there is a wall between her and me – maybe not for everyone in the audience, but for whatever reason I can’t seem to penetrate it. There is a disingenuous vibe about her that just makes me feel like she’s acting rather than creating a personality. Maybe it’s just me being unfair to her and I will cop to the possibility that it’s true, but she has yet to truly inspire me in any role she’s played to date.

I can’t say that this is a great film but it is a decent film that is elevated by the performance of its star. Without Moore, this would be just passable, worth the time only if you’re either interested in the subject matter or have seen most of the other items that are in theaters at that moment. With Moore, this is powerful in places and dominated by an actress who’s at the very top of her game. See this for Moore; it’s one of those sorts of performances that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performance by Moore. Baldwin provides strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally wanders into the land of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The overall theme is pretty adult. There is some occasional profanity as well as a sexual reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Co-director Richard Glatzer suffers from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and is unable to speak; he used a text-to-speech app on his iPad to communicate with cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Project Almanac

Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words