Mistress America


Just two broke girls talkin'.

Just two broke girls talkin’.

(2015) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung, Charlie Gillette, Shelby Rebecca Wong, Joel Marsh Garland, Andrea Chen, Seth Barrish, Shana Dowdeswell, Dean Wareham, Amy Warren, Shoba Narayanan, Morgan Lynch, Adrea Teasdale. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There is New York, and then there is everywhere else. I suppose that those who live there have every right to feel a kind of smug superiority about where they live; after all, they have world class museums, world class concert halls, world class nightclubs, world class restaurants…hell, anyone who is bored in New York isn’t trying very hard.

Tracy (Kirke) is becoming a New Yorker. Well, she’s becoming a college student at Barnard. Keen to be a writer, she’s not the sort that fits in easily. That’s especially true lately, as her mom (Henderson) is getting ready to re-marry. Tracy yearns to become a member of the literary society at Barnard, who celebrate publication of a new author by sneaking into their room at night and throwing a pie in their face while they sleep. Rad, eh? However, she meets rejection even here. Tracy realizes to get in with the literary crowd she’s going to need something special to write about.

As part of her mom’s new marriage, she is going to have a new stepsister, so upon her mom’s insistence she arranges to meet her soon-to-be-sister, Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy takes an immediate liking to Brooke. She’s almost ten years older and established in the city; she’s getting ready to open a fabulous new restaurant and has some really cool ideas. She hangs out with cool people and lives in a loft that’s zoned for commercial use. She’s full of energy and life and talks a mile a minute, sometimes about deep things but sometimes just idle chatter.

When one of the investors in her restaurant – the one who happens to be her boyfriend – pulls out, Brooke is left dangling in the wind. She has no choice but to go to the home of her arch-nemesis Mamie-Claire (Lind) in the Godforsaken wilderness of Greenwich, Connecticut and demand her due. You see, years ago, Mamie-Claire stole an idea of Brooke’s and made a fortune out of it. That wasn’t the only thing she stole though – she took two of Brooke’s cats and her boyfriend at the time Dylan (Chernus) who was himself independently wealthy but is now Mamie-Claire’s somewhat henpecked husband. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

But things go from bad to worse as the discovery is made that Tracy has been writing a story with Brooke as the lead character – and not everything is complimentary. Brooke is feeling betrayed and everybody around her – even Mamie-Claire – think that was a dick move. But was it?

I do think Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote this thing, were out to make a modern screwball comedy. The rhythms of the dialogue are very similar and the patter is snappy, although not in a retro way. I’m thinking that this is a brilliant move on their part because in many ways Gerwig is a modern Carole Lombard.

But as smart an idea it is, the ambitions here are a bit more than the pair can chew. The trouble with screwball comedies is that they are a bitch to pull off right, and there are so many examples of great films in that genre out there that unless you’re damn near perfect from screenplay to final film, your movie is just going to suffer by comparison.

The movie here isn’t perfect. It starts out with a couple of very annoying characters whose dialogue is so unrealistic, whose attitudes are just so smug and self-important that it’s incredibly hard to do anything but despise them. If I ran into Brooke and Tracy at a cocktail party, I’d quickly find other people to chat with – they’re way too pretentious for my taste. When I think of indie films that Baumbach and Gerwig have collaborated on previously, the first half of the movie has the worst characteristics of their worst efforts. I really was ready to write this one off before I was halfway through the movie.

Fortunately it gets better. In fact, it improves a hell of a lot and the scenes set in Greenwich are inspired. Gerwig always seems to do better in large ensembles than in smaller groups; when it’s essentially just her and Tracy with Tracy being a shadowy image of Brooke, the movie is just annoying. When Brooke has a lot of people to bounce off of, the movie is enjoyable. I think that Gerwig is one of those actresses who needs to be diluted a little bit and the more people she has to interact with, the better she is. Da Queen has said that she can only take Gerwig in small doses and I can see why she has that effect on her; there is a bit of a narcissistic quality to the characters Gerwig plays in Baumbach films and those types of characters tend to rub Da Queen the wrong way.

I was very torn with this movie. The first part is excruciating but the second part I really liked. So how does one rate a movie like this? Straight down the middle; a zero for the first half of the film, a ten for the second for a cumulative score of five. Be warned that the first part of the movie is hard to sit through but the second half makes the first half almost worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Gets better as it goes along. Gerwig is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: Horrible first half. Characters act and speak like they’re in a 21st century screwball comedy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Lola Versus Gerwig played a character named Lola. In Gone Girl Kirke played a character named Greta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Digging for Fire

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Holiday Inn


Holidays are inn.

Holidays are inn.

(1942) Holiday (Paramount) Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Walter Abel, Louise Beavers, Irving Bacon, Leon Belasco, Marek Windheim, James Bell, John Gallaudet, Shelby Bacon, Joan Arnold, Edward Arnold Jr., Loretta Barnett, Irving Berlin, Ruth Clifford, Muriel Barr, Jane Novak, Lora Lee, Teala Loring. Directed by Mark Sandrich

hollynquill-2013

Although not strictly a Christmas movie (Christmas was but one of several holiday sequences filmed for the movie), it continues to be remembered as one and of course the presence of the timeless Christmas classic song “White Christmas” – which would win an Oscar for Best Song that year – guarantees this film a place in the annals of Christmas films.

The lightweight plot concerns a song and dance trio comprised of Jim Hardy (Crosby), Ted Hanover (Astaire) and Lila Dixon (Dale). Jim and Lila are preparing to leave the act get married and retire to a farm in Connecticut but Lila has second thoughts and instead leaves Jim for Ted in order to continue dancing. Jim is heartbroken and follows through with his decision to leave show business for farming.

Farming turns out to be easier said than done and Jim decides to turn his farm into an inn that is only open on holidays. In order to attract crowds, he hits upon the idea to present entertainment themed around each holiday. Wanna-be entertainer Linda Mason (Reynolds) manages to get a try-out and becomes a featured attraction and as the crowds begin to pour in, Ted and Lila are contracted by Jim’s agent Danny (Abel) to work at the Inn.

However, it’s no longer Ted and Lila – she’s left Ted for a Texas oil millionaire. Ted, looking for a partner, decides to come by the inn and is struck by Linda’s talent and beauty but Jim has fallen for Linda too and goes to extreme lengths to keep Ted from her. However when Linda discovers what Jim’s up to, especially when Ted arranges for a studio honcho to sign him and Linda, she leaves Jim and takes up with Ted, intending to marry him.

Once again Jim is devastated but even more so. His maid Mamie (Beavers) urges him to go to Hollywood and fight for the woman he loves. Jim resolves to do just that but is it too late?

The plot is paper thin and the story is incredibly dated. Modern audiences may groan at some of the twists and turns and there’s no doubt that the movie is definitely a product of its times. There is an enormous charm about it however and you really can’t go wrong with Crosby crooning and Astaire dancing up a storm. Those are the kinds of elements that can elevate any sort of movie.

There is a scene in which the performers put on blackface and perform in an idiom which today is considered racially offensive. Some networks such as AMC who air the movie from time to time will cut that sequence out. Most of the DVD versions do have it in the original form with the offending scene intact and Turner Classic Movies, who have a policy not to edit or alter their classic movies in any way, does air the movie in its original form. Those who are offended by such depictions should be aware that it is there however.

That aside this is a movie that remains a heartwarming classic. Some families make it an annual tradition to view this on Christmas day if for no other reason than to hear Crosby crooning the classic “White Christmas” the way it was first seen by the general public (he would go on to sing the song in two other movies). While generally I wouldn’t rate a movie as dated as this one this highly, the flaws of the film are overcome by its stars and by the Irving Berlin songs that elevate this above B-movie fare.

WHY RENT THIS: Timeless Irving Berlin songs. Cute plot. Astaire and Crosby.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some smoking if that kind of thing bothers you.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The popular hotel chain took its name from this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The commentary is not only by film historian Ken Barnes but also includes some archival comments from Crosby and Astaire.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Broadway Melody of You Name It

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Vicious Kind


Don't you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

Don’t you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

(2009) Drama (72nd Street) Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, Alex Frost, J.K. Simmons, Vittorio Brahm, Bill Buell, Alysia Reiner, Kate Krieger, Jordan Reid Berkow, Anne Gill, Emily Oehler, Jim Ford, Kevin Rogers, Robert Bizik, Rebecca Bond Nikeas. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Every so often you’ll run into someone who’s a real asshole. They say cruel things, express opinions that are deplorable, and their actions tell you that they are nothing more than self-centered misogynistic jerks.

Did I say misogynistic? Well, that’s because we’re talking about Caleb Sinclaire (Scott), a construction worker in Connecticut. He is estranged from his father (Simmons) and a bit overly protective of his virginal younger brother Peter (Frost) who is just back from college for Thanksgiving. He’s also brought his new girlfriend Emma Gainsborough (Snow), a sweetie whom Peter is over the moon for.

Caleb, not so much. He is deeply suspicious of her and when he hears the story of how they met (at a party she went to with a group of fraternity boys) he’s quite sure she slept with the lot of them, despite her denials that she slept with any of them. To Caleb, all women are cheating whores. His girlfriend Hannah (Berkow), to whom Emma bears a strong resemblance, was just kicked to the curb for that very thing.

Due to his strained relationship with Dad, Caleb excuses himself from the holiday but continues to run into Emma in odd places, mainly because both of them smoke and go outside to the same places for smoke breaks. An odd friendship begins to form…and an attraction that is a little disquieting to Caleb because he’d never hurt his brother, one of the few people on Earth that Caleb gives a damn about but he can’t deny what he’s feeling for Emma.

And Emma can’t deny Peter’s tender feelings for her as well. Peter is willing to give Emma his virginity which is no small thing – and yet she is beginning to be attracted to bad boy Caleb. As their encounters grow more and more erotically charged, Caleb embarks on an emotional rollercoaster that ranges from violent and threatening to weeping and helpless. Emma realizes that she is soon going to have to choose between the two brothers – the sweet but kind of bland Peter or the complex and unpredictable Caleb.

This is one of those movies that is out there with the very best of intentions but doesn’t quite hit the mark for one reason or another. It’s not for lack of trying however. Adam Scott, who’s been around and done a few fairly well-known roles (as his one in Step Brothers) shines here as Caleb. The character is a pretty tough nut to crack and as the movie goes on we do get some insight as to why Caleb behaves the way he does. That still doesn’t excuse him from assault, attempted rape, cruelty and yes – viciousness. It makes it hard to root for him even when he does start showing signs of becoming a new man.

Snow isn’t half-bad either although her performance tends to get ignored by a lot of critics who seem to be zeroing in on Scott – although I can’t blame them to be truthful. Still, Snow’s Emma is not everything she appears to be; she has a dark side which manifests first in the smoking habit she keeps from her boyfriend to her lust for Caleb and then finally in…well, that one you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The trouble here is that the filmmakers seem to think that nearly everybody cheats on their partners (nearly everybody in the movie does). The movie has a kind of cynical world view in which it’s okay to be a bitch/bastard to others because sooner or later they’re going to screw you over if you don’t do it to them first. I’m not sure I agree with that – while there are certainly people who don’t mind sticking it to other people, not everyone is that way in my experience – and thus I find a hard time relating to the film, which might contribute to my lower score for it. So that’s something to take into account.

Otherwise the filmmaking itself is pretty good from a technical standpoint. This is a pretty good looking film. It just didn’t reach out and grab me the way it should have with this kind of subject matter. Maybe the problem was that Scott gave too good a performance and the script was too vicious. Or maybe I’m one of those vicious critics who don’t get it. Golly, I hope not. So I’ll just leave it at this wasn’t my cup of tea but it just might be yours.

WHY RENT THIS: Snow and Scott deliver some pretty powerful performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script seems to have a pretty low opinion of people. Caleb is such a douche sometimes you finally give up on him.

FAMILY VALUES: The sexuality is a bit in your face as is the bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie received two Independent Spirit award nominations (Adam Scott for Best Actor and Lee Toland Krieger for Best Screenplay) in 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone

FINAL RATING:4.5/10

NEXT: Playing For Keeps

We Need to Talk About Kevin


We Need to Talk About Kevin

Sometimes the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty; it's just plain empty.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin, Erin Darke, Ursula Parker. Directed by Lynne Ramsay

 

Being a parent is a terrible job. You try to guide your child into making good decisions but yet they insist on doing things that are hurtful to themselves and others. Your advice is sneered at and your opinions are unwanted. It’s a lot like living with a demonic entity. You only can hope and pray that they’ll grow into responsibility and maturity which they generally do with no help from you. However, there are cases that are special – and not in a good way.

Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) lives in a kind of half-light between twilight and full-blown night. She self-medicates with alcohol and pills; her face is a mask of numbed misery, the face of someone who knows life is horrible and full of pain and meant to be endured, not experienced.

She wasn’t always like that. She used to be carefree and full of life. She had the love of Franklin (Reilly), a decent man and a kindred spirit. She traveled the world. Then she got pregnant.

From the beginning, Kevin (Duer) was a handful, screaming constantly to the point where while on walks with her baby in his carriage she would pause by the jackhammers of construction workers to drown his squalling out. Then, her husband would arrive home and the screaming would end. “See?” Franklin would exclaim, “You only need to rock him a little bit,” while the exhausted new mother looks on in disbelief.

As Kevin grows into a young child (Newell), his development is out of whack – or so it seems. He doesn’t speak – not because he can’t but because he refuses to and he never utters the word “mama.” He chooses not to engage with his mother. He wears diapers until he’s in grade school – not because he doesn’t know how to go to the potty but because he can torture his mother by pooping in his pants at inopportune moments. He glares at his mother because of some unspeakable crime only he knows about and sets upon punishing his mother for the act of giving birth to him – torturing her and beating her down with misbehavior, but absolutely delightful with everyone else.

As Kevin grows older, into his teens (Miller) his petty acts of vandalism escalate, killing the beloved pet of his little sister (Gerasimovich) and “accidentally” causing her to lose an eye when she knocks some household cleaners into it. However, these are merely the opening acts for a spectacular finale that is still to come.

Ramsay tells this story, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, non-sequentially, allowing the story to drift from present to past over 18 years. Some have found it confusing but I actually think it a brilliant move. Past and present exist as one in Eva’s benumbed brain, as she tortures herself with what every parent does – what did I do wrong? How could I have done better?

It becomes apparent early on that Kevin has committed some horrible act that has turned the community against Eva, causing them to splatter her home and car with red paint, to slap her outside her place of work and to break all of her eggs in their carton in the grocery store. She puts up with all of this with the misery of a self-flagellator.

Part of why this works so well is the performance of Tilda Swinton. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work here and to my mind should have gotten an Oscar nod as well. Eva represses her feelings big time but we see them in her eyes; she’s haunted by the specters of what could have been and what has been. She can’t escape her past and she doesn’t think she deserves to. She’s racked with guilt and is in every sense of the word a broken woman, but it wasn’t an abusive spouse or boyfriend who did it – it was her son.

Both Miller and Newell are absolutely creepy as Kevin at various stages of life. This must have been completely alien to their way of thinking – without any regard for human feeling, delighting in the agony of others. How, at such young ages, do they gather the life experience needed to play someone like Kevin so well? Yet they both do. Kevin at all stages of his life is entirely believable as a sociopath and if he hadn’t have been, Swinton’s performance would have been entirely wasted.

As a parent I left the movie thinking to myself “what would I have done?” Probably very much the same as Eva I suppose. Franklin was completely oblivious to Kevin’s growing evil, mainly by design. Kevin’s final act of horror is to create a torture so ingenious and elegant in its complete evil for his mother, tying her to an area where she will be the object of scorn and hatred as well as the memories of those gone before her.

And that’s the haunting element of the film. How could someone do something like that? What drives them? How is it that you could torture someone you love knowingly? These are questions that are generated by this movie and perhaps are impossible to answer. Did Kevin become evil because of the way his mother brought him up (which the movie shows wasn’t always the most loving in the world) or was he born that way, wired for it? I don’t have any answers for that and I suspect we probably never will.

REASONS TO GO: Swinton is spectacular here. Leaves you with many questions after the film is over. Extremely melancholic.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it morbid and too intense.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of sociopathic behavior and some violence, as well as a smattering of sexuality and some fairly raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was in development for six years, delayed mainly with BBC Film’s concern over the budget.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100. The reviews are resoundingly good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy

RADIOHEAD LOVERS: The music for the film was composed by lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The Innkeepers


The Innkeepers

Too much Visene can be a bad thing.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (Magnet) Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, George Riddle, Lena Dunham, Brenda Cooney, John Speredakos, Sean Reid, Kurt Venghaus, Thomas Maloney, Michael Martin, Michael P. Castelli. Directed by Ti West

 

All good things come to an end and so it was with the Yankee Pedlar Hotel. A more than 100-year-ld inn in bucolic New England,  it is down to once last weekend. Two staff members are left to oversee the grand dame who has  a reputation of being haunted. Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Healy) are there to take care of the few guests that are left.

The third floor has already been stripped, closed to guests as the work to gut the hotel to make room for a parking lot is preparing to get under way. Luke mostly watches Internet porn, when he isn’t working on a ghost website, regaling the impressionable Claire with stories about the hotel’s checkered past and his own supernatural encounters and ignoring the guests’ demands for towels.

Claire befriends one of the guests, a former television actress turned psychic healer Leanne Rease-Jones (McGillis) who at first seems somewhat, for lack of a better term, bitchy. However as she begins to find the supremely naive but extremely likable Claire to be harmless, Leanne decides to delve into the Yankee Pedlar, only to find something very sinister that has Claire firmly in its sights – involving a bride who committed suicide years before and a cover-up by the innkeepers of the day that would only serve to make the bride’s ghost very, very angry – and you sure don’t want to be in the sights of an angry bride now do you?

West has developed a good reputation in the independent horror community with films like House of the Devil and The Roost to his credit. He has a reputation of movies that develop slowly, chock full of quirky but realistic (read: non-cookie cutter) characters who are brought out of their comfort zone and face to face with something terrible.

He follows much the same formula here too. There is the first half of the movie which belongs mostly to Paxton and Healy, who work very well together. Although theirs is a non-romantic relationship (no sex in this movie guys – move along if that’s what you’re looking for) there is chemistry nonetheless between them. They banter like co-workers who have a bit of a forced friendship due to the circumstances i.e. pending unemployment. There is a certain gallows camaraderie between them.

McGillis also figures into the first half significantly. The star of such films as The Witness and The Accused has been long absent from multiplex screens and it is a welcome return indeed. Even though she gets what I affectionately call “the Zelda Rubinstein part” (so-named for the diminutive actress who played the psychic in Poltergeist) she carries it off with grace and professionalism.

West is good at delivering the goods in the scare department and he does so here. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are a real wild ride, with some legitimate spooky scares. It’s just the getting there that may put some people off. Those who love a shock-o-rama from start to finish are going to get antsy sitting through the first portion of this movie.

I had a different reaction. I liked the first part of the movie, a lot. Horror movies that take the time to develop characters who are not clichés are increasingly rare these days as mostly the actors exist to be launched into a meat grinder. Taking the time to develop characters we can actually care about is almost unheard of, so many kudos to West for that.

The writers also take the time to develop a nice mythology which is crucial in any kind of supernatural horror. The background of the tale is at least as important as the scares and the writers pay close attention to that.

The trouble here is that the first part and the last part of the movie are so night and day. Some may find it jolting to go from a kind of almost sitcom-y feel into a balls-to-the-wall frightfest.  I actually thought the two parts reconciled well but admit it was a little bumpy in places. There really isn’t much of a transition.

This is a strong independent horror movie, something that I’m happy to say we’re starting to see more of and that’s a trend I strongly hope is going to continue. There is some inventiveness to it but not a lot and that’s okay – it just takes a little. In other words, this isn’t a game changer for the genre but it is a strong example of how good a well done ghost story can be.

REASONS TO GO: Paxton and Healy work well together. Well-written with a nice mythology behind it.

REASONS TO STAY: Real scares come late and when the horror aspect gets going is almost schizophrenic, at odds with the lighter tone earlier in the film.  

FAMILY VALUES: There are some terrifying images and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paxton is distantly related to actor Bill Paxton; she mulled over a career in music (she has sung on several soundtracks to her movies) although that appears to be on hold at the moment.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghostbusters

NEW ENGLAND INN LOVERS: The filmmakers shot this primarily at the actual Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, CT. which is supposedly haunted. The lobby is gorgeous filled with antique furniture. I wouldn’t mind staying a night or two here – if Madeline permits.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Holy Rollers

Another Earth


Another Earth

Brit Marling checks out a different point of view.

(2011) Science Fiction (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, William Mapother, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor, Flint Beverage, Diane Ciesla, Bruce Winant, Natalie Carter, Meggan Lennon, AJ Diana, Kumar Pallana, Ana Kayne, Matthew-Lee Erlbach. Directed by Mike Cahill

From time to time, we all do something wrong – either through our actions or inaction, we cause others pain and/or suffering. It is our human nature to want to make amends. However sometimes the things we do are so unforgivable that no amends are possible.

Rhoda Williams (Marling), a high school senior at West Haven High School in New Haven, Connecticut has just been accepted to MIT in the field of astrophysics. She goes out with friends to celebrate and winds up celebrating a bit too much, getting herself well and truly hammered. While driving home, she hears  a news report about the discovery of a new Earth-like planet visible in the night sky. As she cranes her head to take a look, she runs a stop sign and her car slams into another car, putting its driver into a coma and killing his pregnant wife and son instantly. Rhoda is sentenced to prison although because she’s a minor, her name is never released.

Flash-forward four years. A guilt-wracked Rhoda has just been released from prison. Even though she qualifies for better positions, she takes  a job as a janitor at her old high school. The new Earth is large in the night sky now, visible as a beautiful blue moon. It is coming closer and will soon be close enough for a manned mission to be possible. An Australian entrepreneur comes up with  the scheme to fly civilians to the new world and launches an essay contest for worthy participants in this adventure. Rhoda, still fascinated by other worlds, decides impulsively to enter.

Her crime gnaws at her however and eventually she makes her way to the home of the surviving victim who came out of his coma while she was in jail. John Burroughs (Mapother) was a noted composer before the accident; now he mostly is a hermit, uncaring and uncared for. She wants to apologize but is unable to bring herself to do it. Instead, she offers him a free trial housecleaning. After some reluctance, John accepts.

A one day free trial turns into a weekly housecleaning. A relationship begins to form. John begins to awaken from his life coma. Boundaries are crossed. And in the sky another Earth, an exact duplicate to this one inhabited by doppelgangers of the inhabitants of this Earth, becomes large and majestic, a serene, unblinking witness to events on our world.

This was an independent movie that became quite a sensation at this year’s Sundance, prompting a bidding war among distributors. It’s easy to see why. While ostensibly science fiction, this is actually more of a drama about atonement and moving on. However, it can easily also be interpreted about having several other themes, from rebirth to individual uniqueness to personal growth. Pick one; pick ’em all. You won’t be wrong.

The movie is underlit for the most part and sometimes grainy, with a lot of it being shot in the handheld style rather than on a tripod. This gives it a sort of kinetic energy while lending it an almost intimate “home movie” feel. For my own personal taste, a little of that is more effective and too much comes off as pretentious and too self-aware. Fortunately, the filmmakers don’t quite achieve those undesirable qualities.

Mapother is a respected character actor whose face you’ll probably recognize before the name (he is perhaps best known for his recurring character Ethan Rom on the much-missed TV show “Lost”). Here he is the romantic lead, a role that is certainly not one associated with him (even if he is Tom Cruise’s cousin and shares the same amazing smile) in his career to date. He is professorial here – a good thing since his character is a teacher – and vulnerable, obviously marinating in pain. As hope begins as an ember within him, we witness a bit of a transformation – subtle but undeniable.

Marling, who co-wrote the script and also garnered a production credit here has a far more difficult role in many ways and doesn’t quite hit all the right notes, but enough of them to make it a compelling performance. Her Rhoda is drowning in guilt, reaching out for the life preserver of forgiveness and instead finding herself holding on to the anchor of penance. Rhoda is brilliant but as young people are wont to do, makes some egregious mistakes. She becomes obsessed with the consequences of her accident and that obsession leads her to doing things I don’t think most of us would ever consider doing.

There are some beautiful shots of big blue planet Earth 2 hanging in the sky, growing gradually bigger as the movie goes on until it is a presence in the sky bigger than the moon. I like that the movie presented scientific debate on the nature of Earth 2 and asked a number of philosophical questions about the nature of our existence and how it would change if we knew there were doubles of ourselves running around somewhere.

Don’t trouble yourself overly much with questions about the science – asking what the presence of a planet the size of our own in such close proximity would do to our own world (one suspects the tidal forces of the gravity between the two planets would eventually tear both planets apart) or where this previously unknown world came from is not what this movie is all about. Rather, it is about questioning ourselves. Could we ask forgiveness? Could we forgive? Are we truly unique? All questions worth asking.

The final shot is ambiguous enough to remind you that a good filmmaker doesn’t answer your questions; they just inspire you to ask them in the first place. While I might have appreciated a little bit tighter on the editing (shots of Rhoda wringing her hands and looking soulful are only necessary once for a brief moment of time to indicate her anguish), this is nonetheless a very strong effort and indicates to me that we’ll be hearing much more in the future from Cahill, Marling and Mapother.

REASONS TO GO: The story can be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways. Mapother does a great job here.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally submits to “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome. Also has moments of pretentiousness.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of foul language, a little bit of nudity, some drug use and a somewhat disturbing accident sequence..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill used his own childhood home in New Haven, Connecticut to double as the Williams home; Rhoda’s bedroom was actually his own.

HOME OR THEATER: While this is out in limited release, some of the vistas of the new planet are spectacular and worth seeing on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Big Momma’s House

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee


Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy