Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

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Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey


Life’s a beach.

(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders

 

Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.

Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”

Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.

Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.

The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”

The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.

There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.

The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

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

The Truth About Romance


(

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Girl Waltz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 Begins!

Sleepwalk With Me


Sleepwalk With Me

Mike Birbiglia listens to Mitt Romney’s greatest speeches.

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, Lucy DeVito, Philip Ettinger, Marc Maron, Emily Meade, Sondra James, Cristin Milioti, Amanda Perez, Amy Schumer, Ben Levin, Kristen Schaal, Loudon Wainwright III. Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish

 

Stand-up comedy is not a career for the faint of heart. It is also mighty rough on relationships. Aspiring comics spend long, lonely nights on the road and often utilize intimate details of their relationships as fodder for their acts.

Mike Birbiglia knows that better than most. His experiences as a struggling stand-up comic led him to write an Off-Broadway one man show, a regular gig on the NPR hit This American Life, a best-selling book and a comedy album, all of which this film is based on. In other words, on his own life.

Here he plays Matt Pandamiglia, the son of a driven, somewhat judgmental physician (Rebhorn) who praises his gay physician son (Levin) while constantly criticizing the son he views as a failure – unmarried, working in a bar, his career non-existent. He has a point.

But Matt isn’t entirely unsuccessful. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Abby (Ambrose) who puts up with his idiosyncrasies with the patience of a saint. They’ve been together eight years, pointed out in a somewhat snarky manner by Dear Old Dad when the comparison to Matt’s sister Janet (Milioti), who is wedding her beau after two years, is made.

Matt’s career as a stand-up comic is in neutral and quite frankly, with only eleven minutes of material – none of it any good – and the kind of delivery that would put a meth addict high as a kite instantly to sleep. Matt is also showing signs of sleepwalking, which concerns his father but also Abby as well, both of whom urge Matt to seek help.

Matt is a master avoider however, and pretends not to hear when un-pleasantries are brought up, or simply changes the subject. He is the very definition of passive-aggressive and isn’t always the sweet cuddly guy he seems to be.

However, when it comes to stand-up comedy, it’s often more who you know than how talented you are. He finds himself an agent (James) who gets him crap gigs in crap venues for crap wages. It keeps him on the road, which is just as well since it’s just as easy to bomb at home as it is to bomb somewhere else. However, as he starts working his frustrations with Abby, who wants to get married – and who in a moment of panic not wanting to lose her he has proposed to – into the act, his act begins to improve. The gigs begin to get better. The road trips begin to get longer. The relationship begins to crumble. And the sleepwalking gets worse.

Birbiglia asserts that all of this is true on several occasions and it has that ring of truth to it that comes from an autobiographical work. Birbiglia for the most part comes off as likable and charismatic, which bodes well for his future; however, he sometimes comes off as a real bastard which shows more bravery than his character Matt shows at any time here.

One of the nifty things about the film is that often it is difficult to tell if you are observing Matt’s life or one of his dreams until things start to get weird. It keeps the audience just off-balance enough to keep us honest. The stand-up comedy, particularly in the later sequences when Matt gets good at it, are pretty damn funny.

This is really all about Birbiglia. The other characters in the movie, even Abby who shares the most screen time with him, really don’t get a ton of development. Even the delightful Carol Kane, as Matt’s mom, is given little to do than to act batty and protective. Matt’s passiveness is often frustrating but this is definitely worth hanging in there with. When Birbiglia focuses on his relationships, the movie seems more energized. When focusing on Birbiglia alone, it loses focus a little bit. It’s not a perfect movie (few movies are) but it is certainly worthwhile enough to make an effort to seek out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: Birbiglia is engaging most of the time. Weaves dream sequences in skillfully.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used more character development of the characters not named Matt.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of sexuality and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to play himself, Birbiglia lost more than 20 pounds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100. The reviews are definitely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

STAND-UP COMEDY LOVERS: There are several sequences of stand-up comics, particularly Birbiglia, practicing their craft.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waltz With Bashir

The Open Road


The Open Road

Jeff Bridges wondering when his flight leaves.

(Anchor Bay) Jeff Bridges, Justin Timberlake, Kate Mara, Mary Steenburgen, Harry Dean Stanton, Lyle Lovett, Ted Danson, Bret Saberhagen. Directed by Michael Meredith

The gulf between fathers and sons can be wider than the Gulf of Mexico and many times deeper. We can reach out to one another but in the end, sometimes there are no bridging gaps when all you have to work with is smoke and mirrors.

Carlton Garrett (Timberlake) is a minor league baseball player for the Corpus Christi Hooks. He’s fairly talented but of late he has been in a tremendous slump and his hopes for a major league career are fading by the minute.

Carlton has a lot more on his shoulders than the average minor league ballplayer though. His father is the great Kyle Garrett (Bridges), Hall of Famer for the Houston Astros, who not so coincidentally own Carlton’s contract. However, Carlton hasn’t spoken to his father in eons. Dad loves to tell stories of the good old days, especially when he’s drinking which is most of the time. While Kyle was hitting homers and getting plastered in anonymous bars all over the National League, Carlton was learning what it was like to grow up without a dad.

Carlton’s mom Katherine (Steenburgen) is also very sick and her condition is getting worse. She desperately needs surgery to fix her heart, but she is hedging a little bit. The surgery is extremely dangerous and she doesn’t want to go under the knife without seeing Carlton’s dad. Carlton is extremely reluctant to do it but he knows his mom might die if he doesn’t. He enlists the support of on-again off-again girlfriend Lucy (Mara) to come with him.

So Carlton tracks down his father at a baseball memorabilia show in Cincinnati and at first jovial dad is all for flying down to Houston, but the flight winds up being canceled and so determined to get his reluctant dad down to Houston as soon as humanly possible, Carlton rents a red SUV and proceeds to drive down there.

Along the way many unresolved grievances will be aired, not just between Carlton and Kyle but also between Carlton and Lucy. However, Carlton’s frustration is going as Kyle does everything he can – in a sort of passive-aggressive manner – to sabotage Carlton’s efforts to get him to Cincinnati. Kyle, you see, has issues of his own.

This is a movie that takes it’s time getting to where it’s going. One wag said after seeing it that he could have driven to Houston from there in the time the movie took to get to Memphis. It’s a bit of an exaggeration but I can understand the sentiment. In that sense, it’s almost a European film only in an all-American framework. The issues, however, are universal – America doesn’t own a monopoly on dysfunctional father-son relationships.

Meredith put together a pretty terrific cast which largely doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Bridges, who filmed this before his Oscar win for Crazy Heart, is terrific as he usually is in the role of the charming but ultimately shallow Kyle. This is the kind of role he could easily do in his sleep but he chooses not to, giving the role his full attention and that just about single-handedly elevates the movie above mediocre.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have any support. Steenburgen is endearing as always and Danson, Stanton and Lovett have too-brief cameos. Timberlake isn’t a bad actor, but he is nowhere near the level of Bridges and it shows. Mara is a gamer in her own right, but once again she is overwhelmed by Bridges’ performance.

This isn’t a rotten movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes a good deal of focus to stay with. Once the actual road trip begins things pick up a little bit but ultimately this is a movie about three people in a car for whom awkward silences are a bit of a blessing.

WHY RENT THIS: Bridges is delightful as always. Supporting cast does solid work, although frankly not up to the level of their best performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So low-key that it’s almost sleepwalking.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language but probably no worse than you’ll hear in the average high school lunchroom…or even middle school gymnasium.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Michael Meredith, the son of former Dallas Cowboys great and Monday Night Football color commentator Dandy Don Meredith, is a frequent collaborator of the German director Wim Wenders.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Eat Pray Love


Eat Pray Love

Julia Roberts looks soulfully at the Eternal City.

(Columbia) Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Tuva Novotny, Luca Argentero, Giuseppe Gandini, Rushita Singh, Hadi Subiyanto, Christine Hakim, Anakia Lapae, Arlene Tur.  Directed by Ryan Murphy

Most of us, at one time or another, undergo a rigorous self-examination of the soul, one usually brought on by some kind of crisis. We are forced to face our own deficiencies, define who we are and compare ourselves to who we need to be. Most of us must do us all by our own lonesome; some of us use the benefit of a therapist. Others take a different route.

Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is a successful freelance writer who’s married, lives in a great apartment in Manhattan and is surrounded by a coterie of friends and admirers. Of course, this means she’s absolutely miserable. Her husband Stephen (Crudup) is a bit of a self-involved dweeble, perpetually trying new careers in an effort to find something that’ll stick. He has announced that he is going back to school to get his masters, just as Liz is looking forward to spending some time in Aruba. When he asserts “I don’t wanna go to Aruba,” she replies tearfully “I don’t want to be married.”

Stephen contests the divorce and doesn’t want to let go. Liz does what any sensible woman just getting out of a marriage to a decent enough guy that she was miserable in – she leaps into the bed of David (Franco), an off-Broadway actor who has adopted Eastern philosophies and follows an Indian guru. He is just as superficial as Stephen is, and Liz decides to leave on a year-long journey of to find out who she is since she feels numb inside, as she tells her best friend Delia (Davis). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that despite being cleaned out in the divorce, her publisher paid for the trip with an advance on the book that Liz would eventually write (a fact not mentioned in the movie).

Her first stop is Rome, where she meets Sofi (Tuvotny), a Swedish ex-pat; Giovanni (Argentero), Sofi’s Italian boyfriend and Luca Spaghetti (Gandini), who claims his family invented the namesake pasta. Here, she dives headfirst into Italian cuisine, from Neapolitan pizza to Roman pasta to gelato and everything in between. She eats without feeling guilty, launching herself into La dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing. Check.

From there, she goes to the ashram of the Indian guru that David follows. Here, she meets Richard (Jenkins), a garrulous Texan who, as she puts it, speaks in bumper stickers. He chides her into finding a way to meditate despite the attacks of mosquitoes and an inability to clear her mind. He calls her “Groceries” because of her appetite and the two wind up being pretty good friends, enough so that Richard confesses to her the reason he’s there in one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.

She also befriends a young girl (Singh) who is about to enter an arranged marriage, which troubles the both of them. Eventually she gets with the program, but Liz not so much, the wedding reminding her inevitably of her own. Eventually, she finds some inner peace. Check.

After that, it’s off to Indonesia – Bali to you and me – to meet up with the medicine man Ketut (Subiyanto) whom she met a year earlier and predicted that she would be back to teach him English. She stays in the area, translating old parchments for him in the mornings and exploring Bali in the afternoons. It is here that she meets Phillipe (Bardem), a Brazilian ex-pat who runs an import business. The two begin to fall for each other, but Liz doesn’t need a man anymore – does she?

This is based on the New York Times bestseller, and it’s appeal to women can be measured by its appearance on Oprah (the daytime talk diva devoted two entire shows to the book) and the number of women in the audience at the movie, which was roughly about 80%. There is certainly an empowering element to the book and the movie, which teaches women that they need to find fulfillment from within.

At least, that’s the message I think is intended, but the movie doesn’t really bring that across so much. Most of the wisdom that Liz arrives at comes from others, be it the irascible Texan in India, or the gentle healer in Bali. She seems to bring little to the table internally other than a penchant for whining about how unfulfilled she is.

I don’t know the author personally so I can’t guess at how accurate the portrayal of her is. I’m sure she couldn’t have been disappointed to have Roberts, one of the most beautiful women on Earth, playing her. Roberts is a fair actress in her own right, as Erin Brockovich conclusively showed, but this won’t be measured as one of her finer performances. To be fair, it can’t be easy to portray someone whose chief trait seems to be inner emptiness but you never get a sense of that emptiness being filled in a significant way. Perhaps that’s a subtlety I overlooked.

She is also matched with two of the best actors in the world in Bardem and Jenkins, and neither one disappoint. Jenkins’ rooftop soliloquy in the Indian portion alone may win him Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor, if Academy members remember that far back come voting time this winter. Bardem plays a wounded divorcee who desperately loves his children, but is terrified of getting his heart broken again.

Murphy crafts a very slick, good-looking movie that runs a very long time – I was definitely shifting in my seat right around the India sequence – and doesn’t have as much depth as it purports to. As Liz accuses Richard of speaking in bumper stickers, so is the movie a series of motivational posters of cats hanging from ledges and eagles gliding into sunsets. There is nothing truly profound here, other than the simple advice not to worry so much about what you eat, find balance in your life, and then find a hot Brazilian to fool around with. Sage advice all, but especially for those who can afford to take a year off and embark on an all-expenses paid journey of self-discovery. Most of us don’t get that kind of opportunity.

The secret to finding self-realization is to look inward. You’re simply not going to find it in a book or a movie, although those desperate enough will look in those places first. As Richard says repeatedly to Liz (repetition is a theme in the movie), you have to do the work. Nothing comes easy in this life, not even something simple like a plate of spaghetti. Realizing that is the first step towards wisdom.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem and Jenkins are two of the best actors working and are worth seeing in their roles. Gorgeous cinematography makes this worth checking out.

REASONS TO STAY: Spiritual aspects are a bit hazy. Quite frankly, this seems quite self-indulgent and new age-y.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and occasionally bad language, as well as a bare male derriere; otherwise, it’s suitable for teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Murphy is responsible for creating the hit Fox Network show “Glee.”

HOME OR THEATER: There is some beautiful cinematography here, but not the sweeping majesty that would compel home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Trucker