The Little Death


Pillow talk.

Pillow talk.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Bojana Novakovic, Josh Lawson, Damon Herriman, Patrick Brammall, Ben Lawson, Tasmeen Roc, Erin James, Stephanie May, Lachy Hulme, T.J. Power, Lisa McCune, Kate Box, Kate Mulvany, Hiroshi Kasuga, Zoe Carides, Matt James, Darren Gallagher, Paul Gleeson, Kim Gyngell, Stephen James King, Alan Dukes, Genevieve Hegney. Directed by Josh Lawson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Romantic relationships are tricky, complicated things. There is so much going on, so many layers in play that it’s remarkable that any can survive. Intimacy is by nature an element of a romantic relationship, and there are so many different types of intimacy that mastering all of them is a feat that requires commitment and hard work.

This pleasant Aussie film features five couples in suburban Sydney dealing with a variety of relationship problems and sexual fetishes. Paul (J. Lawson) and Maeve (Novakovic) live together and seem happy enough, although there are those who frown in disapproval that the two seem to have no plans whatsoever to get married. One night, Maeve tells Paul that she would like him to rape her. Not as in, take her unwillingly but to make her think she’s getting raped – not tell her in advance when he was going to do it, wear a mask so that there could be some element of doubt .

Paul is somewhat taken aback but he truly loves Maeve and wants to make her happy. He makes a pretty decent attempt to rape her but she falls out of the mood when she smells his cologne. Eventually, he makes an elaborate attempt which goes quite wrong – although in the end she gets that he would do anything to make her happy, even that which goes outside his comfort zone. That one’s a keeper in case you were wondering, Maeve.

Dan (Herriman) and Evie (Mulvany) are having intimacy problems and are seeing a relationship counselor. He advises them to do a little role playing; get out of themselves and become other people. At first, it’s kind of a giggle but the two end up consummating and in a big way. Dan is inspired to do further role playing, even taking up acting classes. Soon, to Evie’s dismay, the role becomes more important to Dan than the play.

Rowena (Box) is trying to get pregnant and her husband Richard (Brammall) is giving it his all but after three years they’re still trying. The failure is beginning to get under Rowena’s skin and she sees a doctor about it, who advises her that orgasms can actually help with fertility. Shortly after that, Richard’s father has a heart attack and dies unexpectedly and her manly husband breaks down in tears for the first time in front of his wife. Rowena is quite moved by this – and quite aroused, to her surprise and delight. She finds that she can orgasm only with the use of tears but getting her husband to cry can be quite the challenge.

Phil (Dukes) is having problems sleeping. He wants some tenderness from his wife Maureen (McCune) but while she is a beautiful woman, she’s also a shrew and tends to belittle him every chance she gets. As for intimacy? Forget it! She’d rather get some sleep, so Phil doesn’t. He falls asleep at work and his boss (Hulme) warns him that if this continues, he will have no choice but to fire him. He gives his employee some not-strictly-legal sleeping aids. Phil often gets aroused at the sight of his sleeping wife; when she accidentally drinks a cup of tea in which he’d put the sleeping powder, he finds that he can make of her the perfect wife; cuddly, loving and affectionate. He is happy for the first time in a long time.

Finally, Monica (James) works as the interpreter at a video center which allows her to sign for deaf people who can’t hear the people on the other end of the phone. Ironically, she wears a hearing aid which has a nasty habit of going on the fritz at inopportune moments. In any case, one night she gets the assignment to translate a phone sex call for Sam (Power), a lonely insomniac graphic artist. Although Monica is uncomfortable with the graphic talk, she and Sam strike up a conversation afterwards and find that they have a good deal in common.

A thread running through the movie is Steve (Gyngell), a new neighbor in the same Sydney suburb who introduces himself with baked goods that are racially insensitive and are generally frowned upon in Australia these days although it does set off a sense of nostalgia in most of those who receive them. Steve then tells them that he is required by federal law to inform his neighbors that he is a convicted sex offender. The running joke is that nobody is paying attention to him when he says this, being either wrapped up in their own problems or in the hazy glow of nostalgia that comes from the golliwogs.

While sexual fetishism is used as kind of a linking device to each vignette, the truth is that this isn’t about sex so much as it is about relationships. Josh Lawson, a veteran Aussie actor, not only directed the movie – his first go-round in the director’s chair by the way – he also wrote it as well. One gets the sense that Lawson has a liking for irony because there’s a lot of it here; the couple that communicates the best is the deaf one, for example, while the most “normal” of the couples is the one trying to enact a rape role play.

Most of the couples have some sort of issue in their relationship, be it the aforementioned communication with each other (or lack thereof), or truthfulness within the relationship (or lack thereof). We watch at least one of the couples drift apart; we see another one, in which one member takes the other for granted, end up in a situation in which that won’t be an issue anymore.

The movie is funny in a breezy sort of way and while there is some uncomfortable sexuality, it isn’t necessarily raunchy in the way American sex comedies can be. Even though some might look upon this as a celebration of deviant behavior (and some critics have), what it really is at least to me is an expression of what it takes to make relationships work and how difficult that can be. The sex only appears to be the be-all and end-all to the movie; it is at the end of the day the relationship that is important, more so than the sex which is merely a component. Just as in life.

REASONS TO GO: Believable relationships. Some genuinely funny vignettes. Insightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Might make the prudish uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sexual content and graphic language, some partial nudity and a few disturbing scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title comes from a 19th century French euphemism for orgasm, le petite morte.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What to Expect When You’re Expecting
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pixels

Short Term 12


Sharing is caring.

Sharing is caring.

(2013) Drama (Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva, Harold Cannon, Silvia Curiel, Melora Walters, Bran’dee Allen, Danny Roper, Elyssa Gutierrez, Garryson Zamora, Michael Marto, Patricia Barrett, Tanya Maria A. Bitanga. Directed by Destin Cretton

We call them “at-risk” kids but for the most part, we haven’t a clue what they’re really at risk from. Sure, we have a general idea that they’re runaways and come from less-than-perfect homes but the horrors that these kids live through doesn’t really hit home unless we’ve lived it, or know someone who did.

Grace (Larson) is the floor supervisor at Short Term 12, a residence facility for troubled teens. Most of them come from homes of abuse both physical and emotional and some of these kids can barely function in a normal society. She is compassionate and actually listens to the kids which makes her atypical for most humans. Her boyfriend Mason (Gallagher) also works at the home, along with newbie Nate (Malek) who’s just started.

Some of the kids are pretty messed up. Sammy (Calloway) periodically runs out of the facility screaming at the top of his lungs; he has a collection of toys that he clings to and has a somewhat creative imagination. Marcus (Stanfield) is about to turn 18 at which time he’ll be forced to leave this temporary facility and he’s intimidated at having to make it in the real world, so his normal quiet demeanor has turned angry and he is acting out more than usual, particularly when it comes to Luis (Hernandez) who likes to pick on him.

Into this volatile environment comes Jayden (Dever), a young girl with a whole lot of attitude. She’s a cutter – inflicts wounds on herself in order to relieve her psychological pain – and has a hair-trigger temper that explodes at the least provocation. She’s a problem child but Grace is patient and soon begins to notice that the two of them are not quite so different as it would first appear.

Grace however turns out to have some issues of her own – she rarely takes the advice she hands out her own kids and talk out her problems with Mason. However, Mason isn’t willing to give up on her and with the patience of a saint, waits for whatever it takes for her to open up and commit and as Grace faces an imminent life changing event, everything she’s built threatens to crumble down around her.

Cretton apparently worked in a facility such as the one depicted here and the first observation that comes to mind is “authentic.” The kids here aren’t monsters but they aren’t saints either; they’re just trying to cope despite having a deck particularly stacked against them. Grace, likewise is neither monster nor saint – she tries to help out the best she can but there is little authority that she can exercise (while the kids can be forcibly be brought back inside if they try to run away, once they actually leave the property they can’t be touched although staff member will follow them to whatever destination they have in mind and try to talk them back). As she tells Nate “We’re not therapists. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.” That’s a task not unlikely trying to juggle chainsaws and live hand grenades.

The relationship between Grace and Mason is genuine as well. They’re both twenty-somethings who spend nearly the entire day together but Grace has intimacy issues – not necessarily having to do with sex. Letting Mason in is nearly impossible for her and as it turns out with good reason. He is moon-crazy about her and she knows it and it tears her apart that she can’t give him what he needs. This is romance in the real world although men as patient as Mason are pretty hard to come by. Most guys would have said “hasta la vista” to Grace awhile ago.

This is extremely well-acted. Gallagher, who has turned a few heads for his work on the acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom shows big screen promise here. While at times Mason’s a bit too good to be true, he’s basically the kind of guy that most young women search their entire lives for. Not all of them find one.

Dever, who plays the youngest daughter on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing is also a revelation. This is a very different role for her, much more of a stretch than Gallagher had to make. I was impressed at the depth of emotion Dever went to and basically this is her clarion call to one and all that here is a very fine young actress who is going to be competing for some top acting awards in the future. Meryl Streep, watch your back.

However the movie truly belongs to Brie Larson and this is also a big step forward from The United States of Tara. If this movie had been distributed by a major studio, Larson would doubtlessly be on the short list for Best Oscar actress buzz this year. Maybe she still will be – certainly if critics voted for them she would be. This is a layered, deep portrayal of a young woman helping kids with some pretty serious issues while her own just-as-serious issues remain unresolved. She’s keeping it together with smoke and mirrors and as her façade begins to crumble, we see at last her rage and sorrow not just at Jayden’s predicament but at her own.

This isn’t all hankies and angst. There are some pretty humorous moments, like the opening scene in which Mason tells a self-deprecating story which very cleverly sets up the rules for the facility and sets the tone for the film. It is a masterful piece of writing (and acting) that labels Cretton as a talent to keep an eye on. While there are a few scenes that are somewhat predictable if you’ve watched any of ABC’s Afternoon Specials, by and large this is a rare take at a major societal problem from a point of view we rarely get to see – those young people who are actually responsible for the day-to-day care for troubled kids at facilities like this.

Many critics and film buffs have labeled this one of the best movies of the year and I have to agree. It’s still out there on a few screens but your best bet to catch it is on home video where it will be arriving soon. Keep an eye out for it – this is the kind of movie that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-breaking and heart-warming. Larson, Dever and Gallagher are amazing. Exceedingly authentic and well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: A couple of scenes carry the faint smell of Afterschool Specialness.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly salty language and a bit of sexuality, not to mention some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cretton previously directed a short film with the same title and setting but with a completely different cast of characters and plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warrendale

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Escape Plan

Everybody’s Fine


Everybody's Fine

Are you looking at me?

(Miramax) Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Lucian Maisel, Damian Young, James Frain, Katherine Moenning, Brendan Sexton III, James Murtaugh, Austin Lysy. Directed by Kirk Jones

Family dynamics can be a very complicated thing. Often, the relationship between the parents and the children is channeled through the mom. When that’s the case, what happens to that relationship when the mom passes away?

In the case of Frank Goode (De Niro), the relationship deteriorates. Frank was responsible for putting the protective coating on telephone cable, millions of miles of it. He’s retired now, with a nice house and bad lungs from years of inhaling toxic chemicals. He is also mourning the loss of his wife some eight months prior.

Growing up, he always pushed his kids to be achievers and he is proud that they have done just that. Amy (Beckinsale) owns a successful advertising agency and has a great marriage and a son of her own. Rosie (Barrymore) is a dancer in a successful Las Vegas show. Robert (Rockwell) is the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Then there’s David (Lysy), the youngest whom Frank pushed the hardest. David is an artist living in New York City.

He’s invited them all over to the house for the weekend. It is an ambition of his to have all of his children eating a meal at the same table. He goes to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for a memorable steak dinner; he even buys a new state-of-the-art barbecue grill just for the occasion. Then, one by one, they call and cancel.

Frank decides to visit them all, one by one and see what is going on. His doctor advises against it and forbids him to fly – the pressurized environment could cause problems for his lungs. So, he takes the train and the bus. With him he brings his medication and an envelope for each of his kids. When he gets to New York, to his surprise David isn’t at home. He slips David’s envelope under the door and heads west.

He will find that his ideas about his children has been mistaken and that in fact far from being fine, they have been hiding things from him and in some cases outright lying to him. The secrets of his children at last come out, as does the contents of those mysterious envelopes he has been giving to his adult kids.

This is based on the 1990 Italian movie Stanno Tutti Bene. I haven’t seen that one so I can’t really compare the two, but on its own I can say that director Jones has assembled an impressive cast. What can you say about De Niro that hasn’t already been said? Even when he is at his worst, he is still always an interesting presence. Heck, I’d go see one of the Twilight movies if De Niro was in it.

Rockwell is no De Niro but he is still a superb actor who seems to get better with each role. Here he is much more in a supporting role but he plays Robert note-perfectly. Barrymore is truly America’s sweetheart if Julia Roberts is not (and certainly Barrymore is heir to that throne if she is). Beckinsale, after years of being considered more of a genre star for the Underworld series has proven herself a capable actress in movies like Snow Angel and this one.

There are some unexpected twists to the movie – the contents of the envelopes, for one. One of the problems however, is that the overall structure is a bit cliché – you know the kids aren’t telling him everything. You know that Frank isn’t telling his kids everything. You know there is going to be a great emotional upheaval. You know that everything happens for a reason and that the filmmakers take great pains to make sure that what appears to be throwaway bits of business or characters will turn out to be significant in the end. And quite frankly, the metaphor of the telephone lines for inter-familial communications is shoved down our throats overly much, and doesn’t work quite as well in a cellular phone world. It worked quite well the first couple of times but after that it was more of “Okay we get it we get it!” type of thing.  For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I strongly recommend you don’t read the last paragraph – it may alter your enjoyment of the film.

One of the things that I found to work well for me is that the movie is being promoted as a heart-warming holiday film and it truly is not. The more cathartic moments worked for me because I wasn’t expecting them quite frankly. So in that sense, that’s the great strength of the movie. That and another opportunity to watch one of the greatest film actors in history work his craft.

REASONS TO GO: Hey, it’s De Niro – he’s always interesting, even at his worst. The supporting cast is superb. The storyline goes to some unexpected destinations.

REASONS TO STAY: It gets a bit maudlin in places. While there are some interesting twists and turns, there are also some stretches that are cliché-ridden.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some strong language and some of the subject matter is not for the young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell played Barrymore’s lover in Charlies Angels and Beckinsale’s ex-husband in Snow Angels.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate film and perfectly good on a small screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover