Digging For Fire


A bunch of bros hanging out.

A bunch of bros hanging out.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Jane Adams, Tom Bower, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Ron Livingston, Jeff Baena, Timothy Simons, Padraic Cassidy, Steve Berg, David Siskind, Jude Swanberg. Directed by Joe Swanberg

Relationships are impossible. I mean, making them work is – first of all, you have to find someone with whom you can co-exist. Someone whose idiosyncrasies won’t drive you bonkers. Second, you have to find someone whose ideals, goals and philosophy is compatible with yours. Finally, you have to find someone with all that with whom you will grow in the same direction. What’s the secret to making all that happen?

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are housesitting for some Hollywood types out shooting on location. They’re treating it like a bit of a vacation since the home they’re watching is up in the Hills and has all the amenities you could possibly imagine. However, as of late, the two have been having problems. Tim has been feeling emasculated and when Lee’s mom (Light) and dad (Elliott) want to foot the bill to send their son Jude (Swanberg) to an exclusive pre-school that they can’t afford, that sensation only gets worse. Of course, if Sam Elliott were my father-in-law, I’d feel emasculated too.

For Lee’s part she’s tired of putting up with Tim’s childish behavior and his lack of inertia. He seems to be stuck in a rut and she’s frustrated – in more ways than one. To put it bluntly, she has been reading a book called The Passionate Marriage and it isn’t about fruit. When one of Lee’s friends (Lynskey) organizes a girl’s night out for her, Lee jumps at the chance, and agrees to take Jude to visit her parents, giving Tim some time to do the taxes which he has been putting off for too long. Tim found a bone and a rusted gun buried in the yard and he’s been obsessing over that.

Of course, Tim decides to chuck the taxes aside and brings a battery of bros over, including the somewhat over-the-top Ray (Rockwell) as well as Billy T. (Messina), Phil (Birbiglia) and Paul (Berg). Much alcohol and recreational substances are ingested, and Ray brings over a couple of girls including Max (Larson), with whom Tim begins to flirt.

When Lee’s friend is forced to cancel, Lee decides to just have a night out on her own. When a drunk obnoxious guy tries to hit on her, she is rescued by bar owner Ben (Bloom) who gets hurt when the drunk gets belligerent. Lee accompanies him home on the back of his motorcycle so she can give him some first aid; it becomes apparent that the two are attracted to one another. Can the two stay true to one another or are things that far gone?

Swanberg, one of the originators of the mumblecore movement, has retained some of the elements of those films here, although I would hesitate to classify it as true mumblecore. Swanberg tends to allow his actors to improvise their dialogue so the conversations sound real. He also has a tendency to examine relationships from a distance, a means I think of giving the audience some perspective which takes a little bit more work than making them feel invested or part of the relationship onscreen. Rather than rooting for Lee and Tim, we’re more observers of Lee and Tim. We’re not invested as to whether they stay together or not and so regardless of which way it goes, we don’t feel like it’s a monumental situation. As in life, there are reasons for them to stay together and reasons for them to drift apart and there really is no way to know which one would be best for them and just like in life, the decision has resonance in both directions.

The cast is extraordinary for a Swanberg film, and there really isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The humor here is bone dry (no pun intended) which is typical for Swanberg and it shows up in unexpected but appropriate places. Swanberg has a deft touch as a director and it really shows here to nice effect.

Some of the movie is a bit disjointed and some of the scenes feel like they were either added on as an afterthought, or were stranded when other scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I would have liked a little bit more flow. The movie’s denouement is on the quiet side and some may find that the payoff isn’t what they wanted.

I must say that I’ve been liking Swanberg’s work more and more with each passing film. He is certainly a rising talent with a lengthy filmography already to his credit (Swanberg regularly churns out two to four movies a year). While it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he might be behind the camera for a big budget franchise movie someday, I kind of hope he doesn’t. He seems to excel at movies that take a moment in time or a slice of life and let us examine it thoroughly. Through that lens, we end up examining our own lives, particularly who we are, where we are, what we want to be and what we want out of life and love. Heady questions to be sure.

To answer the question, there is no secret to making a relationship work. It takes dedication, focus, hard work and willpower. In other words, it takes the same things to make any sort of worthwhile pursuit work. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty cast. Dry sense of humor. Nicely captures inner workings of couples.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed in places. Payoff might not be enough for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references, some foul language and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell, Adams and DeWitt all co-starred in this summer’s remake of Poltergeist while Larson and Birbiglia also starred in Amy Schumer’s hit comedy Trainwreck this summer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Air

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The Forgotten Kingdom


An African road trip.

An African road trip.

(2013) Drama (Black Kettle) Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube,  Sam Phillips, Jerry Phele, Reitumetse Qobo, Silas Monyatsi, Leonard Mopeli, Jabari Makhooane, Khotso Molibei, Mokoenya Cheli, Stephen Mofokeng, Harriet Manamela. Directed by Andrew Mudge. 

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

When one is a young man, one tends to judge the actions of their father quite harshly. We think of our old man as just that – an old man, ignorant in the ways of the modern world, one who doesn’t understand us and what we’re going through, one whose own actions are as unfathomable as a Lars von Trier film. Yet when we get some life experience of our own, most times the sins of our fathers (real or imagined) are brought into crystal clarity.

Joseph (Ngqobe) is a young man, living in Johannesburg, South Africa with a huge chip on his shoulder. He drinks, he carouses, he womanizes and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything or anybody. When he hears his father is ill, he’s not too concerned – his father has always been ill. When he goes to visit him in a mean, dirty tenement in a shantytown outside of the city, he discovers that his father (Phele) has passed away.

It becomes apparent that his father wants to be buried in Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa where Joseph (whose tribal name is Atang, which seems to irritate him) was born. After the death of his mother and after his father contracted AIDS, Dad had sent Atang into Jo-burg, which didn’t sit well with Joseph/Atang – ah hell, Atang – at all. However, he can’t deny his father his final rest so he takes the body back to the village in Lesotho.

The priest (Chabeli) seems to think that Atang’s father was a good man but Atang is having none of it – to him, his father was a coward who abandoned him when he needed him most. Atang is getting ready to go home when he is reintroduced to Dineo (Nkelemba), a childhood friend who has become the local schoolteacher. The two catch up somewhat and Atang realizes that his feelings for Dineo have deepened. However at last he has to go back to Johannesburg.

He gets a job, motivated to make some money and marry Dineo. However, when he arrives back at the village, he discovers that Dineo’s father (Mofokeng) has moved the family to a distant, remote village inaccessible by road or train. Dineo’s sister (Qobo) has also contracted AIDS and the shame has prompted dear old dad to move the whole family away, where he can lock up his diseased daughter away from the world.

With the aid of an Orphan (Ntsane) who happens to have a couple of horses, Atang goes off on a journey across the vast landscape of Lesotho. It is a journey in which he will discover who his father was, who he is and what is truly important.

Putting it bluntly, this is an early contender for the Best Movie of 2013. It is rare to find a movie that packs such narrative impact as well as emotional connection without having to sacrifice one for the other. The cinematography is breathtaking and Robert Miller has contributed a wonderful score that enhances the mood without distracting you from it.

While there are plenty of veteran South African actors in the cast, there are also many local actors and non-actors also in the cast. The performances are all compelling, but particularly that of Ngqobe who undergoes quite a transformation during the course of the film, from a somewhat sullen and self-centered man into one who has become much more self-aware and loving. His transformation is the center of the film, and the journey that he and the Orphan take across the stunning landscape of Lesotho is centered on that change.

Yes, in some ways this is a road picture in the tradition of Hope and Crosby but while there are some moments that are funny, this isn’t a comedy – but the basics are there. This is more of a self-discovery rather than a means to find laughs and as Atang discovers himself, so too will the audience. I can’t speak for everyone, but I felt very keenly the need to explore my own relationship with my father and my son, as well as my own roles as both. I felt my own background wash over me like a warm blanket, followed by the sense of Africa covering me and holding me in a warm embrace.

It is easy to sentimentalize Africa (considering that most of us, myself included, have never been there) but it is the cradle of civilization and evidence points that we all have a connection there in one form or another as human life began there. This movie neither sentimentalizes Africa nor demonizes it; we get a sense of some of the problems there, but we also get a sense of the beauty of the environment and of its people, not to mention the wisdom of their civilization which in many ways far outdistances that of our own. This is a movie everyone should experience and I’m very grateful that I got to see this with my own mother. It’s one that will dwell in both your heart and mind for a very long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and a story that will grab hold of you from beginning to end. Surprisingly well-acted.

REASONS TO STAY: American audiences seem to have a built-in prejudice against subtitled films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult themes, some bad language and a lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Ngqobe and Nkelemba were cast members in the popular South African soap opera Rhythm City.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just embarking on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Straight Story

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 5