Somewhere Beautiful


If you’re going to dump someone anywhere, you may as well dump them somewhere beautiful.

(2014) Drama (Bueno) Maria Alche, Anthony Bonaventura, Pablo Cedrón, Albert Kodagolian, Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Dominique Pinon, Robyn Buck, Zoe Kodagolian. Directed by Albert Kodagolian

 

The end of a relationship can be full of noise and fury, or a quiet exit. Just as no two relationships are exactly alike, no two break-ups are exactly alike either.

Kodagolian, a first-time feature director, took his inspiration from Atom Egoyan’s critically acclaimed 1993 film Calendar as he details the ends of two relationships. The first is set in Patagonia as a nameless American photographer (Bonaventura) takes his girlfriend Elena (Alche) to act as translator for his Argentinean guide (Cedrón). The photographer is so immersed in his work he scarcely notices the beautiful vistas he’s given to photograph or that his girlfriend is falling hard for the guide.

In the meantime, Albert (A. Kodagolian) who works in the film industry in Hollywood, is shocked when his wife Rachel (Buck) leaves him abruptly without explanation. He is an instant single dad, caring for his toddler Zoe (Z. Kodagolian), To help out, he hires a nanny (Lutz) who herself begins to see hidden depths to Albert that maybe his wife missed. As Albert and Elena start moving towards different chapters in their lives however, they must first deal with the end of the previous chapter.

The two relationships don’t intersect other than only in marginal ways – Albert is preparing to make a movie of the goings-on in Patagonia, but beyond that the characters have little in common. At times the tenuous connection between the two stories leads to some pretty rough cuts jumping from one to the other; the effect is jarring and takes the viewer out of the movie by reminding them that they are watching a movie, a cardinal sin of movie making.

There is some beautiful cinematography here, from the natural beauty of Argentina to the angular interiors of designer L.A. homes and sun-dappled drives down Sunset. This is a beautiful film to watch and sometimes the images are so mesmerizing that one can forgive the dialogue which can be pretentious at times. There is a distinctly 90s art house vibe to the film which may or may not invoke a sense of nostalgia depending on your opinion of 90s art house films.

What really saves the film are the performances, from the lustrous Alche who allows the emotions of her character’s situation to play upon her face and in her gestures. The photographer character she is with is so emotionally shut off that Elena’s feelings are like rain in the desert. We find ourselves needing to experience them. One of the more heartbreaking moments in the film is when she is saying goodbye to the photographer, trying to express some affection towards him but he stolidly turns his back on her and refuses to engage. It symbolizes all that must have been going on in that relationship and yet as a man, I could certainly empathize with the photographer who being dumped wants nothing to do with the woman dumping him. It feels very real – and very sad.

Veteran French actor Dominique Pinon, who plays a friend and colleague of Albert’s, also reminds us why this eminently likable actor is one of the most beloved stars in France. Here he plays something of a Greek chorus for Albert, at length telling him to get off his ass and start living, soldering in the device with his own experience. Pinon has always been an engaging character actor but he shows he can pull out the stops and deliver some worthwhile dramatics as well.

The soundtrack is full of indie rock songs and the filmmakers are to be commended to getting some good ones. The music is strangely upbeat for a movie that is portraying such discordant relationships but the juxtaposition is at least interesting and it truly never hurts to have good music on the soundtrack regardless of the scene that’s playing along with it. I didn’t get a chance to catch the soundtrack listing but there are certainly quite a few songs there that I wouldn’t mind adding to my digital collection.

There is a lot going on here but although Kodagolian sometimes goes for art house tropes that fall flat, for the most part this is extremely watchable and the relationships failing or not feel genuine. I don’t know how autobiographical the Los Angeles portion is – the fact that Kodagolian used his own child to play Zoe is telling – but Kodagolian, who might be a little bit too low-key here, projects some real emotional commitment.

This isn’t for everyone. Cinemaphiles will enjoy the Egoyan references and those who like slice of life movies will relish the peek into these lives. Those that need a bit more emotional release will probably have issues with this as the movie essentially begins in media res and ends that way as well. Still, it is a worthy feature that might be worth seeking out at your local art house or on VOD when it arrives there.

REASONS TO GO: The film is beautifully shot. The soundtrack is tres cool.
REASONS TO STAY: The film jumps a bit from scene to scene. A wee bit pretentious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of mild profanity and some drug use..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Patagonia sequences were shot in 16mm while the Los Angeles sequences were shot in standard 35mm.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Calendar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dave Made a Maze

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The Truth About Romance


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A beautiful girl on the bank of a canal - ah, English Spring!

A beautiful girl on the bank of a canal – ah, English Spring!

2013) Romantic Dramedy (A Tiny Adventure/Vimeo) Jordan Greenhough, Danielle Jackson, Craig Asquith, Donna Parry, Leonora Moore, Margaret Cowan. Directed by James G. Wall

There is something about twenty-somethings. At that age, emotion is felt most keenly and love is a life or death struggle. When you make it to my age, you look back on that time of your life with a mixture of nostalgia – I do miss the intensity of feeling and that bloom of love that makes life so much more colorful – and relief. Relief in that I no longer have to put up with that crap.

Josh (Greenhough) is unfortunately smack dab in the middle of that age and like many men that age is caught in the undertow and treacherous currents that are smashing him about the rocks of life. He has been in love with Jessie (Moore) – a co-worker of his – for years. They’ve been sharing a lift to work each morning and Josh has finally decided to confess his feelings to her.

She has news of her own however: she has a new job, one that will take her to Paris. Josh is devastated. His shrill harpy of a mother (Cowan) warned him that this was going to happen and now it has. He texts his pal Chris (Asquith), meaning to get together with him to drown his sorrows in lager. Chris receives his texts at the breakfast table, oblivious to the sad looks that his girlfriend Zoe (Parry) is shooting him. She is thinking they could go out together tonight but Chris has already said yes to a boy’s night out. Resigned, she watches him leave for work.

Josh is eating his lunch on a park bench disconsolately when a beautiful young woman sits down next to him. Perky and pixiesque, she draws him out of his funk somewhat and before he knows what is happening he has given her his name, accepted an invitation to a party that evening and taken a note with her address and mobile number on it. She introduces herself as Emily (Jackson).

At first Josh is reluctant to go to the party but Chris insists once he finds out about it. He knows full well that the best thing for Josh is some meaningless sex, preferably with someone who has absolutely no ambitions. Josh winds up misinterpreting Emily’s signals but the two wind up in her bedroom, getting to know each other in a non-Biblical sense and for his part, Josh is completely enchanted by her.

Chris on the other hand gets rip-roaring, out-of-his-mind, stupid drunk. He meets a pair of young women at the party and sleeps with both of them…at once. When he gets home, Zoe can smell their perfume on him and demands to know what happened. Chris confesses his sins and Zoe tells him to get his bottom right out the door. He ends up staying with Josh.

Josh is rightfully concerned for his best mate but he is completely head-over-heels in love with Emily and in all honesty, it’s hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t be. She’s bright, sexy, funny and flirtatious. She draws Josh out of the shell he’s in and slowly he lets her in.

As the weekend progresses, Josh’s relationship with Emily seems to be going better and better whereas Chris and Zoe are disintegrating before their eyes. Chris realizes that he loves Zoe and doesn’t want to be without her but that ship may well have sailed. As for Josh and Emily, he can’t bear to be apart from her…but does she feel the same way about him?

Wall has previously made a handful of short films; this is his feature debut. Like an increasing number of young filmmakers, he is eschewing the system of shopping his film to distributors and instead is putting it right on YouTube and Vimeo for anyone to stream or download at their leisure – those interested in seeing it can click here if they wish. With a production budget of under £200 (about $325 U.S. at current exchange rates) this is the kind of movie even I can afford to make – but to Wall’s credit, it doesn’t look at all like a movie that costs less than an annual Disney pass.

It is also a lot better written than most first-time features. There’s an authenticity here that you generally don’t find in a big-budget Hollywood production. These are people who are awkward and unsure of the rules of the game – like playing chess with checker pieces on a Monopoly board. They are terrified of rejection, longing for acceptance and lonely in the soul-crushing way that can only be experienced by someone in their 20s. Constantly glued to their iPhones texting one another, playing videogames and waiting for that phone call, this is as realistic a portrayal of people in their 20s in the second decade of the 21st century as you’re likely to find. If these aspects place the film firmly in this era, I still think that there is a timeless element to the goings-on as well.

The cast is surprisingly able. Josh listens to music constantly on a pair of ear buds and occasionally warbles a tune or two of his own. Greenhough instills Josh with a goofy kind of charm, a big kid with shoes on the wrong feet. Somehow you end up rooting for him even though he can be a frustrating handful – at one point he waits for Emily to call him but clearly is desperate to talk to her. You want to shake him by the scruff of his neck and scream “CALL HER YOU IDIOT!!!!” I can completely relate to the character, having been a shy and graceless twenty-something myself once. Fortunately, I survived and so will Josh.

Jackson is crazy beautiful, the kind of gorgeous that makes you look twice to make sure you saw her right the first time. In a lot of indie films, this kind of character is full of quirks and neuroses that if you met that sort in real life you wouldn’t want to spend five seconds with them let alone 90 minutes. Jackson gives her a vulnerability that is curiously moving as well as an intelligence that makes you hang on her every word. With Zooey Deschanel getting fame and fortune on television, there is a void in the indie film world that I think Jackson could potentially fill; indie filmmakers should have her number on speed dial.

I also liked Asquith as the lovable schlub Chris who gets drunk and makes a startlingly bad decision. I know from experience that cheating is a deal-breaker for a lot of women and frankly, I felt a certain amount of sympathy for him but also for Zoe as well. Their relationship was clearly on the ropes already with both of them being desperately unhappy but they were too frightened to let go. One might argue that his indiscretion might have been the best thing for the both of them as it allows them both to move on. I’m sure a lot of women might disagree with me there. In any case, Chris as played by Asquith isn’t a particularly mean or rotten guy; he’s just not very sensitive or wise about women. Women generally characterize guys like him as jerks but that might be a bit harsh – Chris really doesn’t intend to hurt anybody. Of course, intentions are immaterial; he in fact does wound Zoe deeply and there are consequences to that which Chris eventually accepts.

I remember the great American film critic Gene Siskel used to love movies like this, films that give you a peek into ordinary lives and through that glimpse allow you to draw insights into your own life. I think he might well have given this film a solid thumbs up although there are a few things that he would have called it to task for – one of the most glaring is that the music is mainly composed of Jacko Hooper’s indie pop songs with vocals which sometimes make it difficult for you to hear the actual dialogue of the film. While I understand this is meant to give you an idea of what Josh is listening to on his headphones or on the radio or at the party, it is distracting when you are trying to make out what the characters are trying to say. I wound up having to rewind a couple of times until I understood the dialogue. Perhaps Mr. Wall would have been better served to get instrumental tunes on the soundtrack.

Be that as it may, this is impressive not just for a first time film, not just for a film with a three figure budget but for any film. Love and relationships is a tricky subject for any filmmaker; while we all have been through the romance wars, few of us truly understand what love is and entails. Even at my advanced age I can’t say as I’m an expert; not everything that works for me will work for others and vice versa. All I know is that it is wonderful and terrible to be in love. It is far worse not to be.

REASONS TO GO: Looks like it had a far bigger budget than it had. A realistic slice of life.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes hard to hear the dialogue over the pop music playing constantly in the background.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and drinking, along with some mildly bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily, when asked to name her favorite book and band, names Blankets, the award-winning autobiographical graphic novel by Craig Thompson, and Jacko Hooper who wrote and performed the music and songs for the film.

CRITICAL MASS: Because this film has been release via YouTube and Vimeo there is no page for it on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Girl Waltz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 Begins!

Friends With Benefits


Friends With Benefits

Just a couple of couch potatoes.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Screen Gems) Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins, Bryan Greenberg, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, Shaun White, Nolan Gould, Emma Stone, Masi Oka, Rashida Jones, Jason Segel. Directed by Will Gluck

 

Humans crave intimacy on several levels, beginning with the base physical and into the higher realms of friendship and love. We need it as surely as we need food to eat and air to breathe; without it our lives are empty and meaningless.

Jamie Rellis (Kunis) is a corporate headhunter with a history of relationship issues. Her assignment is to find an art director for GQ Magazine in New York and she thinks she’s found one. Dylan Harper (Timberlake) works as an art director for a small internet company and mainly takes the interview for the free trip to New York, especially after he breaks up with his girlfriend.

It turns out that Dylan and GQ are a match made in heaven, but Dylan is reluctant to take the job offer – he likes it in LA and isn’t particularly disposed to leaving his family and friends behind.  However, a night on the town with Jamie convinces him that New York is the place for him to be so he accepts.

Jamie helps him get settled and soon the two become friends – mainly because Dylan doesn’t know anybody else. One night when he is hanging out in her apartment watching movies with her, the two begin to talk about relationships and sex. Both are single and as it turns out, both are missing sex.

After some discussion, they both come to the agreement that sex shouldn’t need emotional connections – it should just be a completely physical act separate from love. They then agree to have sex without commitment or emotional attachment.

At first it’s a novelty and a whole lot of fun. As time goes on Jamie begins to feel less and less satisfied and realizes this isn’t what she wants at all so she decides to start dating again and lets Dylan know that the sex is coming to an end. She does date again, a man named Parker (Greenberg) and at first he seems to be what she’s looking for but after going to bed with him after the fifth date he calls it off. Furious, she tells him off, then cries about it to Dylan. He invites her to California for the Independence Day weekend and although reluctant at first, she flies west with him.

She meets his family – his father (Jenkins) who’s in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and his sister Annie (Elfman) who has been caring for him. Dylan and Jamie share an evening where it appears there’s a deeper connection between them – until Dylan runs his mouth to his sister afterwards, overheard by Jamie, claiming that this is just purely sex for him. Afterwards, she lets him know in no uncertain terms that she wants nothing to do with him.

The two however both realize that they have deep feelings for one another but neither knows how to navigate their way back. Is it possible to salvage anything, and make a relationship out of a purely sexual friendship?

I look at this in a lot of ways as a kind of 21st century version of When Harry Met Sally. The question about sex and friendship between men and women is one that still rages in debate. Gluck, who co-wrote the script, definitely has his ideas on the subject, although he approaches it in a different way than the previous film which asked “Can men and women who are sexually attracted to one another be friends” while this movie asks instead “Can men and women who are friends have sex without ruining their friendship” which is an entirely different ball of wax.

The movie hinges on the leads, and Timberlake and Kunis are very attractive and have some chemistry between them – the relationship doesn’t feel as contrived as it does in other romantic comedies. The problem here is that it just isn’t sure whether it’s a romantic comedy or a raunchy sex comedy – and at times that schizophrenia torpedoes the otherwise good intentions of the film.

Kunis is becoming one of my favorite actresses with stellar performances in Black Swan and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to her credit. She is sexy and sweet, able to do drama and comedy equally as adeptly. She’s come a long way since “That 70s Show” and may against the odds wind up becoming the biggest star to emerge from that show.

Timberlake is developing nicely as an actor and although this doesn’t really build up his career up acting-wise, the box office success continues to cement his reputation as a bankable leading man and to be truthful the performance doesn’t set his reputation back either. He’s still a little stiff in some ways, but he’s definitely getting better at it – he is certainly a star in the making.

I like the dialogue here. The relationship between Dylan and Jamie is acerbic at times, with the two trading snappy one-liners in the style of a screwball comedy in a good way. Maybe the movie really isn’t a raunchy sex comedy or a sweet rom-com – maybe what it really is could be termed a modern screwball comedy. The jury’s still out on it but the results are the movie doesn’t work as smoothly as I might have liked it to and maybe that led me to be harsher in my rating than it deserved because it does do a lot of things right, particularly in the case of Kunis and Timberlake. It just doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole.

WHY RENT THIS: Some decent chemistry between the leads. Snappy dialogue.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can’t decide whether it wants to be a raunchy sex comedy or a sweet rom-com.

FAMILY VALUES:  As you might guess, there’s a whole lot of sexual content and a fair amount of bad language, some of it sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In director Will Gluck’s last movie (Easy A) Clarkson also played the mother of the lead character (Emma Stone, who cameos here early on as Dylan’s girlfriend).  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are about seven minutes of outtakes, mostly having to do with flubbed lines and pranks. The Blu-Ray also has a featurette on the choreography of the flash mob scene.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Strings Attached

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.5M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a big box office hit.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Marvel’s The Avengers!

High Fidelity


High Fidelity

This is my movie and these are my people.

(2000) Romance (Touchstone) John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

John Cusack is one of those actors who is quirky, engaging, charming, occasionally irascible but always interesting to watch. In short, a young Jack Nicholson. From time to time, Cusack will produce small-budget films on his own that are generally paid for by his appearances in big-buck extravaganzas such as Con Air. Like Cusack himself, these less fiscally ambitious movies are nearly always quirky yet endearing and generally include his sister Joan in some capacity (see Grosse Pointe Blank).

In High Fidelity he plays Rob Gordon, who owns an eclectic record store in Chicago that actually sells records, and by that I mean vinyl. The store specializes in classic rock and soul and indie rock. Gordon has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura (Hjejle), who left him to take up with a New Age ex-hippie named Ian (Robbins). While Gordon’s store employees – the loud, rude and opinionated Barry (Black) and the soft-spoken music nerd Dick (Louiso) – try to keep the store running (such as it does; the store is nearly broke), Gordon is busy trying to figure out why he keeps getting dumped.

A compulsive list-maker, Gordon seeks out the girlfriends responsible for his top five worst breakups in an effort to discover why they chose someone else over him.

Cusack imbues Gordon with complexity. He yearns for stability and contentment, but always sabotages himself with the wrong impulses just when those goals seem attainable. Moody, temperamental, a musical snob and more than a little bit of a jerk, Gordon is nonetheless sympathetic. He admires excellence (particularly in music) and champions the underdog without fail, which is why he sells vinyl, a sort of Don Quixote of music retail. He smokes compulsively, talks to the camera like it’s a confessional and plunges into all situations without fear. It may sound awful on paper, but Cusack is likable enough to pull it off.

To his advantage, Cusack surrounds himself with a great cast. Black and Louiso are hysterical as his employees. Sister Joan is her usual acerbic self as a mutual friend to the estranged couple. Robbins shows flair as the new boyfriend. Catherine Zeta-Jones is lustrous in an uncredited cameo as Charlie (one of Cusack’s top five)and indie film queen Taylor, as another one of Cusack’s list, lends cachet. Bruce Springsteen even cameos as himself, displaying a heretofore unrevealed knack for the craft.

This was pretty much Jack Black’s break-out performance. It was from here that he went on to get leading roles and it’s easy to see why. His on-screen charisma is simply astonishing here. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, culminating in a stunning performance of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” in the final reel. He’s manic, hysterically funny and infectious in this role which has to be considered one of the best performances of his career.

As a rock critic for an independent alternative weekly for six years, I can tell you that this is MY film and these are my people. Director Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears wisely lets Cusack take center stage, letting the rest of the performers play off him and build their performances off of him. Cusack takes up a ton of screen time – he’s in almost every scene – so if he’s not your cup of tea, you should probably pass on this one. Still, there are some great laughs herein (particularly the scene in which Cusack and Robbins meet face-to-face in the record store), a lot of insight into why we mess up our relationships, and an awesome soundtrack, much of which was selected for the film by Cusack himself.

The film began life as a novel by Nick Hornby (from whose pen also spawned About a Boy). That was set originally in Hornby’s native London but was transplanted to Chicago by Cusack who co-wrote the script. I think the shift works really well; the action seems germane to the Windy City setting and one gets a sense of life among Midwestern hipsters. Chicago has always been a center for musical trendsetting and separate from L.A. or New York is a far more grounded location, making for more down-to-earth kind of realism rather than a boatload of trendies struggling to be the first to the Next Big Thing.

High Fidelity didn’t do killer box office, but it shouldn’t be overlooked among the wave after wave of teen sex comedies, self-indulgent Oscar leftovers, event movies and niche films that populate the video store. It’s a well-written, enjoyable movie that will be on your mind long after you turn off the TV slash computer slash smart phone.

WHY RENT THIS: Killer soundtrack. Fine script and excellent performances by Black, Louiso, Hjejle and both Cusacks. Some laugh-out-loud moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Cusack you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexuality and a lot of four-letter words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The location of Rob’s store Championship Vinyl used to be a Wax Trax record store, the retail outlet for the influential Chicago-based Industrial and Punk label.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $30M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Wanderlust