Happy Death Day


Isn’t reliving the same day over and over and over again a scream?

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse) Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Boyle, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews, Ramsey Anderson, Brady Lewis, Phi Vu, Tenea Intriago, Blaine Kern III, Cariella Smith, Jimmy Gonzales, Billy Slaughter, Donna Duplantier, GiGi Erneta, Lindsey Smith, Dane Rhodes, Caleb Spillyards, Missy Yager. Directed by Christopher Landon

We all have days that we’d rather forget. Days in which things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, days in which we do things we’re not proud of, days when we’re the victims of bad circumstances. Think about how awful it would be to relive those days over and over and over again; it would be enough to drive anyone insane.

Tree Gelbman (Rothe) is having that kind of day that nobody wants to relive. The Bayview College sorority sister wakes up after a night spent partying in a dorm room – a dorm room! – apparently having spent the night with a cute but nondescript guy named Carter (Broussard) whose name she has already forgotten. She makes her way across campus to the sorority house, encountering a global warming activist, a couple soaked by a sprinkler and a fainting frat pledge. Her dad keeps calling and she keeps on ignoring the calls.

He’s calling because it’s her birthday and she’s going to have an even worse day than she’s already had. That evening, on the way to a frat party, she is ambushed by someone wearing a mask of the college’s mascot (the Bayview Babies – really?) who shoves a knife into her – several times.

But then she wakes up, much to her surprise and then she relives the same day, the same events, only to meet the same fate. No matter how she changes things up, her killer always finds her. She realizes she’s going to have to find out the identity of her killer if she’s to escape his homicidal rage and bust out of this strange and terrible time loop.

This is a movie that borrows liberally from other movies, most notably Groundhog’s Day and Scream. I don’t think a movie has to reinvent the wheel every time out but there should be at least some originality and some effort put in to developing the characters so they aren’t just two-dimensional types but that doesn’t really happen here. And that’s okay so long as the movie remains entertaining and thankfully it does.

Rothe is the centerpiece here. Tree starts out the movie self-centered and shallow in what is pretty much a sorority stereotype but as you’d guess during the course of her many relived days she begins to discover what a bitch she’s been and  begins to actually grow. By the end of the movie she’s still not entirely likable – wisely the writers don’t go a complete 180 on us – but she’s more likable. Rothe, a veteran of young adult movies and the Mary + Jane TV show on MTV, shows a great deal of presence and camera-friendliness. I hope she’ll be able to break out of these teen stereotype roles and get some meatier parts at some point soon.

I do like the meta twist at the end – that was an unexpected delight – but discovering who the killer is isn’t going to take a lot of brain power for anyone who has seen more than one or two slasher movies in their time. I would have liked to see more of the self-awareness that the writers showed at the end as it would  have made the movie a lot more fun since the slasher aspect was so rote.

The movie has done pretty well at the box office especially considering it’s bargain basement production budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a sequel or two on the horizon. There are some pretty fun aspects here and if your expectations aren’t too high you should get a kick out of the film, although I would tend to recommend it more for teens and young adults who haven’t seen a whole lot of slasher movies but like the ones that they’ve seen. On that basis what they see here will seem a lot more fresh and new than it does for older farts like this reviewer who has been there and seen that but was entertained nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Rothe has some potential as a lead actress. The Meta ending was much appreciated.
REASONS TO STAY: The film borrows too liberally from other movies. The plot twist is a little too easily figured out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and scenes of terror, some crude sexuality as well as brief partial nudity, profanity and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers couldn’t get the rights to use the ringtone in the trailer, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” so they were forced to use an original tune as Tree’s ringtone in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Groundhog’s Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Light of the Moon

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The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

The Two Faces of January


The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

(2014) Thriller (Magnolia) Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky, Yigit Ozsener, Karayianni Margaux, Prometheus Aleifer, Socrates Alafouzos, Ozcan Ozdemir, Nikos Mavrakis, Ozan Tas, Omiros Poulakis, Evgenia Dimitropolou, Peter Mair, Pablo Verdejo, Brian Niblett, Mehmet Esen, Kosta Kortidis, Okan Avci, James Sobol Kelly. Directed by Hossein Amini

In Tom Ripley, novelist Patricia Highsmith created a character whose moral compass pointed straight at himself; Ripley remains fascinating in the imagination not just because of his ability to become a chameleon but because he takes acting in his own self-interest to the ultimate.

While Ripley doesn’t appear in the latest film adaptation of a Highsmith novel, his ghost is hanging around the fringes of the themes here. Things start out pleasantly enough; Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his stunning wife Colette (Dunst) are vacationing in Greece in the summer of 1962. They wander around the Acropolis relying on Greek guidebooks that may or may not be terribly useful when they come upon an American named Rydal (Isaac) who is a tour guide who speaks fluent Greek. He’s also a bit of a hustler, although Colette doesn’t realize it. Chester however, wouldn’t trust the guy to mow his lawn although he does humor his wife and allows her to hire him to guide them the next day.

They spend a pleasant day together and if his eyes linger on the beautiful young Colette a little bit too much and if she is a bit too taken by him, it seems to be harmless. However, Chester is far from the innocent that his summer white suit would indicate. He left behind a mess back in the States of fraud and larceny which catches up with him in his five star hotel room that night. When that ends badly, it is inadvertently witnessed by Rydal who helps Chester clean up a literal mess. It becomes necessary for Chester and Colette to make a hasty getaway but they are unable to pick up their passports from the hotel, without which they can’t leave the country.

Rydal takes the couple to Crete where they can hide out. The ex-pat knows a guy who can forge some documents and while they wait for the passports to arrive, they try as best they can to lay low but once again things don’t go according to plan. Now paranoia and suspicion rule the day and getting out of Crete won’t necessarily be the end to their problems.

Amini, who earned his Hollywood stripes as a writer, chooses a writer’s writer to adapt for his first feature as a director and does a credible job for a debut. He sticks to a basic visual style, relying on his cinematographer Marcel Zyskind to bring the Greek and Cretan landscapes to life. The charming villages, the urban ruins of Athens, the desolate landscape of Crete all play a role in the action.

It doesn’t hurt that each of these lead characters are essentially flawed and make morally-challenged decisions, and yet we still root for them and identify with them. In a sense, there are no villains here; each character is his or her own villain. If there is a villain, it’s Lady Luck; if it wasn’t for bad luck, poor Chester wouldn’t have any luck at all.

Mortensen has ended to choose obscure roles after his breakout performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I had predicted big stardom for him at the time but Mortensen hasn’t really taken roles that would further his profile, preferring to stick to small budget indies and lower profile films with roles that interested him. More power to him. Dunst has taken a similar career path, with only the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy having that kind of major star profile. She has since taken meatier roles like this one. Isaac, on the other hand, is an emerging star who is about to embark on a major franchise of his own, the new Star Wars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised though if he stayed the same course that Mortensen and Dunst have taken on.

Highsmith doesn’t exactly write empty-headed upbeat novels so don’t go into this looking to escape. It requires a certain amount of brain power and a willingness to accept behaviors you might not ordinarily approve of; these are after all desperate people far from home and if you understand that, you’ll understand why they act the way they do.

There are some twists and turns, not all predictable. However I must admit that the movie seems to slowly lose steam during the last third and maybe it’s the somnolent atmosphere of a sleepy small town in Crete or the hard-baked prairies of the center of that island. It just doesn’t bustle with energy is what I’m saying.

This is a much better than average thriller, although maybe not as gritty as noir lovers might like, nor as fast-paced as the average thriller junkie might be comfortable with and yet this is one worth seeing if you get the chance, which Central Florida filmgoers can if they hurry.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific triumvirate, every one likable. Gorgeous Greek scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum over the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (none of it bloody), some sexuality, a bit of foul language and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the directorial debut of Amini who is best known as a writer for such diverse films as Killshot, Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Third Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Big Eyes

This is Where I Leave You


A rooftop tete-a-tete.

A rooftop tete-a-tete.

(2014) Dramedy (Warner Brothers) Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz, Aaron Lazar, Cade Lappin, Will Swenson, Carol Schultz, Kevin McCormick, Olivia Oguma, Beth Leavel, Carly Brooke Pearlstein. Directed by Shawn Levy

It is well known that you can choose your friends but not your family. Families can be a tricky thing. We may grow up in the same house, have pretty much the same experiences and yet still turn out to be different people. My sister and I were born eleven months apart but I’m sure there are times that she wondered what planet I’d been born on.

The Altmans are gathering for a sad occasion; the patriarch of the family has passed on and their mother Hilary (Fonda) is insisting that the four siblings and their families stay at her house to sit shiva – a Jewish tradition in which the family of the deceased sit in low chairs, host mourners at their home and say prayers for the dead – for seven days. It was their father’s dying wish, she tells them. When it comes to this particular ritual, they may as well have called it seven days in hell.

Judd (Bateman) is a wreck. He caught his wife (Spencer) cheating on him with his boss (Shepard) and apparently the affair had been going on for a year. His sister Wendy (Fey) is married to a prick (Lazar) and is saddled with two small children including a baby. She would have married the love of her life, Horry Callen (Olyphant) but a car accident left him brain damaged and he essentially pushed her away. She still pines for him though.

Oldest brother Paul (Stoll) runs dad’s hardware store now and is trying to get his wife Alice (Hahn) – who used to date Judd before he got married – pregnant. Finally the baby of the family Philip (Driver) is kind of the black sheep/family screw-up who is dating his much older therapist (Britton) but still manages to screw that up too.

They all come for the week, grudgingly. It doesn’t help that Hilary wrote a best-seller based on her kids and overshares on a regular basis. Also in the mix is Penny (Byrne), a high school sweetheart of Judd’s who is still in town. Everyone in the family, Judd wryly observes, is sad, angry or cheating.

I was surprised to discover that this is based on a novel. The reason for my surprise is that the film has kind of a sitcom feel to it, a dysfunctional family trapped in the same house together. Like a sitcom, the whole supposition here is that a week together as a family can cure all the troubles that plague the individual members of the family and make everyone whole again. We all know that when families are forced to stay together usually the opposite tends to be true.

Director Shawn Levy, who has a hit franchise in Night at the Museum, is not the most deft of comedic directors but he does have some touch and having a cast like this certainly doesn’t hurt. Fey and Bateman are two of the most accomplished comedic actors in the movies these days and Driver is heading in that same general direction. When you have Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne and Kathryn Hahn in support you must be doing something right as well.

Strangely though the ensemble doesn’t quite gel; it feels like a bunch of actors reciting lines more than an actual family. You don’t get a sense of closeness from anybody except for Fey and Bateman and even they seem a little bit distant from each other. Still, they capture the squabbling and occasional affectionate ball-busting that goes on in a large family quite nicely.

Of course, most of the family are fairly well-off financially (except for maybe Philip and his girlfriend is apparently quite wealthy) and the problems are definitely of the white people variety so that may put some people off right there. One thing that works about the family dynamic is that nobody really talks to anybody else. Not about the important stuff, anyway. When Judd arrives, for example, only Wendy is aware his marriage has ended. It isn’t until several days in when everybody wonders where his wife is that he finally blurts it out angrily. It illustrates the inherent dysfunction but then again in a family in which your mother has essentially paraded all your secrets out for everyone to see I can understand why some of them might be tight-lipped.

There are enough laughs to carry the movie along more or less and enough pathos to make you feel good at end credits roll, so I can give this a reasonably solid thumbs up. However, the movie is pretty flawed considering the talent working on it so be forewarned in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the dysfunctional family dynamic. Really great cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat manipulative.  Unrealistic “sitcom syndrome” ending. Ensemble doesn’t quite gel.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of swearing, some sexuality and a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the source novel, Judd recalls a childhood incident in which he observes his mother exercising to a Jane Fonda workout video. In the movie, his mother is played by Jane Fonda.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Wish I Was Here


The kids both know who farted.

The kids both know who farted.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, Alexander Chaplin, Allan Rich, Ashley Greene, Michael Weston, Cody Sullivan, Donald Faison, Bruce Nozick, Matt Winston, Taylor Bagley, Jennifer Terry, Jackie Johnson, Bob Clendenin, Silvia Curiel, Nicole Galicia, Kevin Ho, Ross Ingram, Meli Alexander. Directed by Zach Braff

Growing up is a messy business. As we ride the crest of the wave that washes us from 20-somethings into 30-somethings, our lives have taken on a different cast. No longer are we carefree, without much responsibility. For most of us, that it the time of life where we find life partners, get married, have kids. Our focus changes from following our own dreams to becoming responsible for the dreams of our kids and sharing dreams with our spouses. It can be a scary, soul-churning thing.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is in that spot. An aspiring actor whose aspirations have not yet been rewarded with actual success, his two kids Tucker (Gagnon) and Grace (King) attend a Jewish private school run by their local synagogue. Given the uncertain nature of his profession, normally he could never afford that kind of schooling for his kids but his dad Gabe (Patinkin) pays for their tuition. His wife Sarah (Hudson) works in a crappy cubicle job opposite a man (Weston) whose inappropriate behavior forces her to go to her superior (Winston) who basically tells her to suck it up. She hates her job – although given the wariness that most businesses have for anything that would leave them potentially vulnerable to a sexual harassment lawsuit, the way her boss reacts doesn’t ring true.

However, Aidan is forced to make some changes when his dad announces that he can no longer pay for the kids’ schooling. Gabe’s cancer which had been in remission had returned with a vengeance and the only thing that might save Gabe’s life is an expensive experimental treatment that isn’t covered by insurance. Aidan and Sarah decide that the only alternative is for Aidan to home school the kids.

At first that looks on the surface like an utter disaster. Aidan isn’t the most reliable and responsible of men although his brother Noah (Gad), a disappointment to his dad from whom he had been estranged for some time, makes Aidan look rock solid by comparison. However, a funny thing happens on the way to the rest of his life – Aidan uses the opportunity to experience life with his kids, reconnecting with them in a meaningful way. In many ways, Aidan has grown beyond his father in ways neither man could ever expect.

 

Eight years ago, Braff – then the star of the hit sitcom Scrubs – directed Garden State which was essentially the state of the union for Zach at 20-something. This in many ways fulfills the same function for him at this point in his life. Not that Aidan is Zach or vice versa, but one gets the feeling that many of the challenges that face Aidan aren’t unknown to Mr. Braff in real life; the dilemma of pitting one’s dreams against the realities of responsibility and life. Of how to put your kids ahead of yourself when it wasn’t long ago that you were a kid too. It is a time of life when the tomorrow you were putting things off for has finally arrived.

In many ways this is a very Jewish movie and this may resonate more with those of that faith than with others. However it must be said that Grace’s struggle to integrate her very strong faith with a more modern lifestyle is something plenty of young people of all faiths are grappling with and that particular subtext is done with a good deal of sensitivity and a refreshing lack of judgment. Sometimes Hollywood tends to take sides in that particular struggle.

Hudson, playing the patient wife Sarah, is at her most lustrous best. She has certainly become her own actress, separate from her mother over the years and this may well be her best role ever. Sarah has a heart of gold but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have regrets or frustrations. She hates her job but she endures it for the sake of her husband and her children. She never pushes him to give up on his dreams of being an actor but you get the sense that she isn’t far from her limits on that score. She has a scene with Patinkin – call it the matriarch scene – that is absolutely terrific.

 

Speaking of Patinkin, he is as low-key as ever and plays the role of a dad who is certain he is right about most things, including how to relate to his sons. He doesn’t realize how alienated his eldest son is, or how deeply his actions hurt him. Gad plays that son with a certain amount of humor and a goodly amount of pathos. Braff’s former Scrubs mate Faison makes a memorable appearance as a used car salesman.

The movie bogs down in cuteness upon occasion. Aidan and his brother had played as children, pretending they were heroes of fantasy who were the only ones who could save the world and this feeling that he needs to be the savior is played out in Aidan’s head as a kind of space knight, followed by a cutesy 70s-style robotic orb and opposed by a dark, menacing cloaked figure whose identity is eventually revealed. These tend to be distractions that appear to be there to sate the Comic Con geeks (a scene was filmed there) and at the very least are unnecessary. The children, who most of the time are played fairly realistically, sometimes descend into forcing their quirks as opposed to making their characters real. It’s a mistake many young actors make but it can be annoying nonetheless.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a deeply heartfelt project for Braff and I applaud him for getting it made in his own way rather than having a studio finance it and exert control in an effort to make the movie more marketable. Some have criticized Braff for going the Kickstarter route, questioning whether it was a good thing to fork over cash to a millionaire because he asked for it but I think that this kind of controversy is all Internet bovine crap. At the end of the day, Braff got the film made the best way he knew how and who really gives a rats tush how it gets financed as long as the film is of good quality?

In fact, this is a good quality film although the critics have been surprisingly ambivalent towards it. I think there is a good deal of insight to be had here if you don’t get hung up on the character’s hang-ups – Aidan and his dad are both fairly neurotic and there are some moments that you wonder if you can really get invested in either one of them, but at the end of the day if you are willing to hang in there you may find yourself really liking this, perhaps more than you anticipated.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure it should be said that my son Jacob was one of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign.

 

REASONS TO GO: Some tender and touching moments. Hudson has never been better.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the issues with faith may not necessarily resonate with everyone.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language (but not a ton) and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Braff was inspired by the success Veronica Mars had with their Kickstarter campaign; ultimately over 46 thousand donors raised over $2 million, some of which were given “thank you” shout outs in the end credits.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: A Most Wanted Man

Yellow (2012)


Beware of yellow in the pool.

Beware of yellow in the pool.

(2012) Dramedy (Medient) Heather Wahlquist, Melanie Griffith, Sienna Miller, Gena Rowlands, Lucy Punch, Ray Liotta, David Morse, Max Thieriot, Daviegh Chase, Riley Keough, Brendan Sexton, Ethan Suplee, Elizabeth Daily, Cassandra Jean, Onata Aprile, Gary Stretch, Nancy De Mayo, Malea Richardson, Bella Dayne, Tonya Cornelisse. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Florida Film Festival 2014

There are those of us who live mainly in our heads. What must that be like if they are constantly bombed out of their skulls on drugs and alcohol?

Mary Holmes (Wahlquist) is a substitute teacher who fits that description. She brings her yellow painkillers and bottles of alcohol to school with her. Some of the teachers at the school think of her as the school bicycle – everybody’s had a ride. When one of the parents partake of her pleasures, she loses her job.

Mary copes with an often harsh reality by escaping into fantasy. School meetings turn into opera; a bike ride in the neighborhood becomes a psychedelic animation. She talks with her non-existent children, all of whom were aborted. When she goes home to Oklahoma to lick her wounds, her family is perhaps more eccentric than she – a hyper-religious grandmother (Rowlands), a sister (Punch) who is mentally ill and a mother (Griffith) who is as far away from reality as Mary herself.

Nick Cassavetes is a talented and promising director. His father John was known as one of the founders of independent cinema and was a tremendous actor and director in his own right. In many ways, this film hearkens back to the freak-out cinema of his father’s era.

I’ve been deliberately vague about the plot. I think the movie works best when you don’t know so much about what’s coming. Some of the movie’s best moments come out of left field so I’ve left the plot description short and, hopefully, sweet.

David Morse, who plays Holmes’ therapist, is always a welcome addition to any cast. You will quickly realize the truth about his character if you’re reasonably observant and maybe have seen a movie or two. Melanie Griffith looks as good as she has in years, and this is one of her best roles ever. She is manic when she needs to be, nurturing at least on the surface and carries the wounds of a sordid past deep in her eyes. It’s a terrific role, particularly as the movie begins to divulge details about Mary’s past.

There are times that it is difficult to distinguish between Mary’s active fantasy life and reality. There is one point where the film violates its own internal logic and that has to do with Mary’s bitchy older sister Xanne and Mary’s illusory children. That’s a big no-no, but it only happens once thankfully.

The effects are pretty nifty (considering the minuscule budget the movie surely had) and the cast is impressive as well, again considering the budget. The movie looks awfully good. My issue with it is that the characters are just so damned unlikable. Nearly everyone in the movie has some sort of mental or emotional instability to varying degrees, enough so that I felt like I needed a shower after the screening was done.

Yellow was actually made in 2012 and is only getting to the festival circuit now. There hasn’t been a great deal of press on the movie thus far, at least that I could find, but nearly all of it has been highly laudatory. That should tell you something. Critics have a tendency to like films that are different. For most audiences, this is going to be a bit of a stretch. The movie didn’t connect with me personally and I found most of the characters to be repellant. There wasn’t anyone I could really latch onto and identify with which makes it difficult to engage with the film. Some of you out there won’t have that issue and will find this imaginative and innovative. I have no argument with that. However, I don’t believe that most audiences will feel the same. If you like things out there, a bit different and a bit edgy, you’ll be in heaven. Most audiences will find this bleak, confusing and too cerebral. Me, I found it to be a movie whose aims I respected but the execution for which I found unsatisfying.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative. Some of the sequences are funnier than frack.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too out there for most.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s drug use – lots and lots of drug use – and plenty of foul language with some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlquist, who co-wrote the screenplay, is Cassavetes’ wife and of course Rowlands is the director’s mother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Blue Ruin