The Skeleton Twins


Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

(2014) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Joanna Gleason, Paul Castro Jr., Eddie Schweighardt, Sydney Lucas, Ian Hyland, Genevieve Adams, Jennifer Lafleur, Truck Hudson, Cliff Moylan, David Garelik. Directed by Craig Johnson

Nobody is guaranteed an easy life. Between financial troubles, relationship woes, career issues, medical difficulties and scores of other stresses, happiness can be an elusive quality. Some of us have the ability to deal with life’s twists and turns. Others, not so much.

The Skeleton Twins opens with Milo (Hader) attempting suicide. His twin sister Maggie (Wiig) is quite coincidentally, also considering suicide but when she is informed that her brother has been hospitalized she flies out to Los Angeles.

The two haven’t spoken in ten years and it is clear Milo is perfectly happy to extend that streak but Maggie perseveres and gets Milo to move in with her and her happy-go-lucky husband Lance (Wilson). Milo isn’t terribly enthusiastic at first and is a bit stand-offish with his twin but eventually begins to warm up.

He also begins to revert to old habits. He goes and sees Rich (Burrell), his old English teacher with whom he had an affair with when he was just 15, leading to Rich’s dismissal as a teacher when Maggie turned them in. It’s most definitely not a healthy relationship but Milo, as many of us will do, pursues it nevertheless. For Maggie’s part she is stressed by the fact that Lance wants to have kids and although she’s agreed to try is taking birth control behind his back. That, and she’s cheating on him with a parade of adult education instructors she’s been having affairs with, the most recent being her hunky Aussie scuba instructor Billy (Holbrook).

Part of Maggie’s reluctance towards motherhood stems from her own attitude toward her flighty, New Age-y mother (Gleason) who seems to care more about her own self-discovery than in nurturing her kids. While Milo seems to have made at least some peace with her, Maggie still has clearly not forgiven her and her mom’s unexpected appearance sends Maggie on a downward spiral.

Neither twin is coping well with life. Milo, a failed actor whose string of relationships have all ended in disaster, suspects that he peaked in high school, a fate that his father had predicted for the kids that tormented him for his femininity. Maggie has a great husband but still has mommy issues and especially, daddy issues – their father self-checked out when they were both kids – and is afraid of losing what she does have. Both snipe at each other and take out petty vengeance on one another until it appears that they will once again go their own separate ways.

The interesting thing about The Skeleton Twins is that we see glimpses of Milo and Maggie as kids and there isn’t any doubt that the two were very much there for each other and supported each other despite their own differentness. Clearly that bond has been sundered over the years, but it’s still there at the end of the day. Casting SNL veterans Hader and Wiig as the twins was a masterstroke. The two have a long history together and are very comfortable with each other, much in the way of siblings, and it shows. They are totally believable as twins, even though the physical resemblance is marginal at best.

Hader, in particular, shows the kind of layered performance that he just doesn’t get to show in the myriad sketch performances and supporting roles he’s had. Milo’s inner pain is palpable and when he gets drunk, which is often, his self-loathing is even more evident. Still, he keeps putting himself out there which is admirable and even though he is occasionally hateful and snide, he is infinitely relatable. This is if you’ll excuse the pun, his coming-out party as an actor, serving notice that he is more than just a wacky comic actor. He’s got depth.

Wiig also has some terrific moments. I’m less a fan of her work post-SNL but she can be a terrific actress when given the right material and this is certainly the right material. She, like Hader, has to convey a great deal of self-loathing here. Unlike Milo, Maggie is very aware that what she’s doing is destructive and wrong, but ultimately can’t help herself. At some deeper level, Maggie is looking to punish herself and wants Lance to find out about her improprieties. While Wiig isn’t as spectacular a performance as Hader, it is nonetheless solid and commendable.

Water is used as a motif here; most of the really major events have some sort of water element in them, from the opening scene when Milo slashes his wrists in the bathtub to the scuba lessons in a local pool to the goldfish swimming placidly in an aquarium. Water often denotes life in the movies and it does to an extent here but it is also a metaphor for death as goldfish do die (although obviously Milo does not). There is another event involving Maggie late in the film that I don’t want to give specifics about in the interest of not giving away too much but it also takes place in water.

While some of the time it feels like they’re pushing too hard to be funny (i.e. the scene in the dentist’s office where Maggie works) writer/director Johnson strikes a nice balance between humor and pathos throughout the movie, allowing for maximum catharsis. Suicide is definitely not an easy subject to deal with and it hangs over the movie like a Damoclean sword. Johnson leaves a lot of that subject unspoken, preferring to illustrate how the twins are affected by the suicide of their father and their own tendencies towards it visually without resorting to much discussion on the subject. It doesn’t really allow for a great deal of illumination but it does give audiences the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.

In some ways the movie sounds grim but it really isn’t. It’s not all bright and sunny though so if you’re looking for an escape type of movie you’re better off seeking out something a little more brainless. If you don’t mind a little thought along with your laughter, this might be the tonic you’re looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Hader gives a nuanced performance. Good mix of funny and pathos.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard for laughs sometimes.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language, some sexuality and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Farris was originally cast as Maggie but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before I Disappear
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dolphin Tale 2

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The Odd Life of Timothy Green


The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Jennifer Garner. Alias. *sob*

(2012) Family (Disney) Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams, Odeya Rush, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, Dianne Wiest, M. Emmett Walsh, Lois Smith, Common, Ron Livingston, James Rebhorn, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Peter Hedges

 

Raising children can be explained as an imperative drive programmed into our DNA. The urge to reproduce is part of our survival instinct – in this case, survival of the species. We are not always, however, able to reproduce in conventional ways. Sometimes we need a miracle.

Cindy (Garner) and Jim (Edgerton) Green need such a miracle. After years of trying everything to conceive a baby they’ve had to come to the hard realization that it wasn’t going to happen. This is devastating to them both as it was one thing they both desperately wanted. So they grab a bottle of wine and write down all of the components that the fruit of their cohabitation would have had – a big heart, artistic talent (Picasso with a pencil), honest to a fault, and the sort of boy who could make an old man laugh but also score the winning goal.

They take these scraps of paper and bury them in a box in their garden. Lo and behold, as such movies are wont to do, a magic storm arises and lightning strikes. From out of the garden a young boy (Adams), covered in dirt, emerges. They are, of course, aghast and at first think he’s some sort of runaway. But as he addresses them as Mom and Dad, they slowly realize that this is the perfect child they dreamed of.

Say you want about the good citizens of Stanleyville, Pencil Capital of the World, but this small town in the Heartland takes the sudden appearance of a child in their midst in stride. Amber alerts are for big city kids; why, the Greens say he’s theirs so he must be. Of course Timothy (that’s his name, after all – the only boy’s name on the Greens’ list of names – there are 53 girls names on there to give you an idea) has leaves growing out of his legs but he keeps those hidden. And he also has a tendency to turn his face to the sun and stretch, much like a plant. Me, I’d be looking for a pod somewhere.

However, Timothy isn’t there to take over the planet. In fact, it’s not quite certain what he’s there for. He apparently is there to figure out if Cindy and Jim are decent parents and they appear to be, although they tell everyone repeatedly that they make a lot of mistakes. They’re both under a lot of pressure though, particularly Jim. The pencil plant where he works, run by Franklin Crudstaff (Livingston), his father (Rebhorn) and his iceberg-cold Aunt Bernice (Wiest), is in danger of being shut down and layoffs are happening in waves.

Cindy works at the pencil museum which is run by Bernice, with whom Cindy doesn’t get along well. Take You Kid to Work day is a recipe for disaster when you have a kid who’s honest to a fault but that’s not Timothy’s doing so much.

Timothy is far more interested in wooing Joni Jerome (Rush), an outsider like himself who looks to be about five years older in the way of girls the same age. The two are both artistic, but in hidden ways and they bring out the best in each other. That lead to affection that is more than friendly. Still, Timothy has much to do and a limited time to do it in – because every bloom must one day fade to make way for the next bloom.

This was written by Ahmet Zappa, Dweezil’s younger brother. It has the quirky element his dad would have appreciated, but it’s much more mainstream than he would have liked. In fact, in a lot of ways, the story is pretty predictable which probably doesn’t matter for the younger demographic of the target audience but their parents might not appreciate it as much.

The good thing is that the movie is well cast. Edgerton and Garner play like a sincere but somewhat inept couple who are in turns overprotective and at other times wanting their son to be his own man. These aren’t perfect Ozzie and Harriet parents by any stretch of the imagination, which makes the movie far more accessible.

The story is told mostly as a flashback during an interview with an Adoption Agency official (Aghdashloo) who is determining if the Greens are ready for a child, so we know that Timothy is out of the picture in some way. Which way isn’t clear, but it won’t be hard to figure out.

The movie is frank about loss and grieving, and there are several scenes of pathos that might be a bit much for the really small children. The movie is frankly manipulative which I usually don’t mind so much but I think that they could have been a little bit less formulaic about it.

I like the Midwestern charm here; the film seems to exist in a perpetual sunny autumn, a Hollywood Indian summer that allow for beautiful rainless days and harvest sunsets. It’s beautiful to look at, and I’m a sucker for the fall anyway so my snide remarks about the seasons will remain unsaid.

This has the pitfalls and positives of the average 21st century family film. The elements of the supernatural harkens back to such Disney classics as Darby O’Gill and the Little People only with much better special effects. There’s enough schmaltz to make an atheist choke and the inherent messages of accepting those who are different and never giving up no matter what the odds pass muster for Disney kid messages. Despite the fine performances from the adults and the fine chemistry between Adams and Rush, at the end of the day the movie is merely adequate and certainly fine if you want to take the family to a non-offensive family movie that isn’t a blatant marketing ploy to sell toys and Happy Meals.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Garner and Edgerton, and Adams and Rush. Very sweet in feeling. Doesn’t shy away from pathos.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels manipulative. Not always true to its own internal logic.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some of the themes here might go over the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used here was the same one where Halloween II was filmed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are somewhat negative but more towards the mixed side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Race to Witch Mountain

SOCCER LOVERS: Timothy shows off some pretty impressive moves in his moment of glory on the pitch.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Burke and Hare

Spiral


Spiral

Joel David Moore is getting tired of all the wedgies.

(Anchor Bay) Joel David Moore, Amber Tamblyn, Zachary Levi, Tricia Helfer, David Muller, Annie Neal, Amber Dahl, Kristin Luman, Ryan Chase. Directed by Adam Green and Joel David Moore

We are, all of us, victims of our past. The demons that are a result of past traumas often drive our present behavior. Some of us have demons that are more insistent and more deadly than others.

Mason (Moore) is a socially awkward cubicle dweller living in Portland, Oregon. Most of his fellow co-workers ignore him; Mason’s neuroses are many and notorious at work. That suits Mason just fine; he tends to be on the reclusive side in any case and prefers to spend most of his time listening to jazz records (we’re talking LPs here; Mason prefers the warmth of vinyl to the cold soullessness of CDs) and painting, and Mason is surprisingly talented at both.

At work his only friend (and we use the term loosely here) is Berkeley (Levi), who also happens to be his boss. Berkeley is not particularly a nice guy, but he seems to have a soft spot for Mason and kind of adopts him, which Mason seems to accept albeit not with great enthusiasm. Mason exists in the curious shadowland that is Portland in the fall, when the nights get darker and the rain falls incessantly in a cold curtain of camouflage.

His life turns around when he meets Amber (Tamblyn), a new co-worker who is as gregarious as Mason is shy. She is drawn to the shy young man, her curiosity piqued and for his part Mason is moved by her kindness and starts to come out of his shell. When Amber discovers Mason’s talent as an artist, she insists that he paint a portrait of her.

What Amber doesn’t know is that Mason is not at all well; he has been scarred by the murder of his mother by his father and is tormented by awful nightmares, nightmares that Mason thinks might possibly be real and if they are, Mason could very well be a mass murderer. Only Berkeley knows about the dreams and has dismissed them as just that, dreams. If he’s wrong, however, Amber is in mortal danger.

Moore’s name shows up all over this film as a co-writer, co-director and co-producer, as well as the lead actor so much of the blame or credit, depending on your opinion of the movie, will be directed his way. He certainly surrounded himself with able support; co-director Green went on to direct the much-acclaimed thriller Frozen, while Levi is best known for his work in “Chuck” (and he’s quite good here in a very different role). Tamblyn is one of the more underrated actresses working these days and she turns in a terrific performance as the lonely and insecure Amber who masks her insecurities with a kind of false sense of bonhomie.

Moore himself is best-known as being the gangly geek in Dodgeball and the scientific nebbish in Avatar. His own performance is not too shabby; he seems to be on the verge of tears often but there is a rage and tension just below the surface that makes you wonder if instead of tears we might not see homicidal mayhem instead. That’s the centerpiece of Spiral and the movie doesn’t work if you don’t believe it. Fortunately, I did.

I liked the sense of place and time in the movie; the environment of Portland becomes a big part of the mood and it is shot exceedingly well. There is almost the feel of an indie romantic drama here, and that also serves the movie well, making the jolts more effective when they come.

Like most movies, there is a twist to it and it’s not a bad one. One of the problems with psychological thrillers in general is that you’re expecting a twist so you spend most of the movie looking for one, and most veteran observers of the genre can usually spot them early on, but I didn’t so kudos on that account.

On the negative side, this feels a bit long and some of the scenes felt more like padding. It could have used a little more judicious editing to cut out some of the material that seemed to me to be extraneous, with certain scenes merely confirming what has already been established elsewhere in the movie. Still, this is a satisfying movie for its genre, a sandwich that could have used a bit more meat and a little less bread, but delicious even so.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie works because of its indie romantic drama feel that helps make the jolts more effective. Fine performances, particularly from Tamblyn and Levi, as well as Moore, characterize the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes were unnecessary in terms of plot development and action and could easily have been snipped out.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly disturbing imagery here as well as partial nudity and a bit of violence. The language is a bit blue in places. Probably okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amber Tamblyn’s dad Russ, he of West Side Story fame, shows up here as an extra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: TiMER