Being Flynn


Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

(2012) Dramedy (Focus) Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi, Lili Taylor, Eddie Rouse, Victor Rasuk, Liam Broggy, Chris Chalk, Thomas Middleditch, Sarah Quinn, Benjamin Foronda, Dale Dickey, Joshua Alscher, Dawn McGee, Billy Wirth, Michael Gibson, Kelly J. McCreary, Deidra O’Connell, Michael Genadry, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Paul Weitz

The relationship between father and son can be tricky. Not everyone who fathers a son can be a father. Often, whether or not we choose to accept it or even acknowledge it, the sins of the father are inherited by the son.

You wouldn’t think there was much of a chance of that in the case of Nick Flynn (Dano). He hasn’t even seen his dear old dad Jonathan (De Niro) in 18 years and has demons of his own to deal with. His mother (Moore) has recently committed suicide and he has continued to sink into a well of addiction, infidelity (his girlfriend has kicked him to the curb for both of these reasons if one wasn’t enough) and depression. He gets work at a homeless shelter, doing the kind of work that most people would shy away from – delousing new residents, bathing them, that sort of thing. Nick is a writer who has lost his muse; this could be a gold mine for him if he chooses to view it that way.

Unfortunately, Nick is too self-involved in a downward spiral of booze and guilt to see the opportunity and that spiral only gains speed when he finds his father taking a bed at the shelter. Jonathan, who is happy to tell you that he is the great American writer you’ve never heard of, has lost his only steady employment as a taxi driver and has been kicked out of his apartment for starting fistfights, is almost certainly suffering from some sort of dementia, growing more aggressive and misanthropic by the day until his antics get him ejected from the home, further straining the bonds between the two men. Both are if not at bottom pretty damn close; can they get past their demons and reclaim their relationship and use it to help each other rise above or are they destined for the same shabby fate?

De Niro has been in the pantheon of America’s greatest actors for decades although as of late he hasn’t had a truly memorable performance, sticking to mainstream comedies, mob roles that are a shadow of his triumphs with Martin Scorsese, and a few maudlin dramas here and there. This is a reminder of why he is De Niro, perhaps his most scintillating role since Casino which coincidentally was the last film he made to date for Scorsese. Jonathan is larger than life, an Irish bard with the edginess of a Holden Caulfield and the cynicism of a film critic. De Niro inhabits the role, giving us a man whose actions are unpredictable and mainly self-aggrandizing but there still remains somewhere buried deep among the bravado and the BS a decent human being.

Dano who has in the last few years begun to emerge as a pretty decent actor after years of playing the same sorts of roles has the thankless job of playing with De Niro but actually manages to hold his own. Nick refuses to acknowledge his own issues and like many addicts doesn’t see the dangerous reefs he is steering directly towards. There are times that his character is heart-rending but others when you just want to give him a good smack across the chops.

Also worthy of note is Moore in a brief but memorable turn as Nick’s mom and Jonathan’s ex. Even in the face of two really excellent performances she manages to stand out in her limited screen time. If I haven’t said it before, Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses in the world today and she deserves more discussion when it comes to that.

Where the production suffers is that Weitz (in all likelihood pressured by the studio) has made a kind of schizophrenic movie and I’m not even talking about the dual narration (we get the POVs of both Jonathan and Nick). What I mean to say is that there are times when the movie is edgy and gritty, but then others when it sinks into cliche. I get that this is based on a true story – yes, there really is a Nick Flynn and he really did run into his dad at a homeless shelter that he worked at – but there are some moments that really don’t ring true here.

This is one of those movies that came and went quickly with little fanfare or attention which is kind of a shame because De Niro’s performance alone is worth checking out. While the movie itself is flawed, there are some pretty good moments in the movie that you might want to give your attention to. If you haven’t already seen it, this is one of those movies worth watching when you’re looking for something different to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro is in top form here which is all you should really need.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes cliche instead of edgy.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some sexual situations, some drug usage and alcohol abuse as well as some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City which is the same title that the memoir that it is based upon is titled but studio brass balked, feeling that it would alienate its potential audience before they even walked in the door.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $540,152 on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Asylum

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Janie Jones


Janie Jones

Alessandro Nivola gives Abigail Breslin some lessons in rock star cool.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Abigail Breslin, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Shue, Brittany Snow, Peter Stormare, Joel David Moore, Frank Whaley, Frances Fisher, Rodney Eastman, David Lee Smith, Michael Panes, Guy van Swearingen, Jessica Joy. Directed by David M. Rosenthal

 

Reaping what we sow is an American pastime. It is easy when you’re young to go out and have a good time and think yourself consequence-free. Sooner or later though, those pesky repercussions come storming back into our lives, sometimes with devastating effect.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the rock star industry. Musicians tour from city to city, often with a groupie at every port. They party, they live for the moment and then their inspiration dries up. That’s exactly what’s happened to Ethan Brand (Nivola), once a promising talent who is on the downward slide of his career. Once a young lion of the alternative rock movement, Brand goes from one dump to another, each one getting progressively dump-ier.

At one such dump-o-rama a groupie named Mary Ann Jones (Shue) makes her way backstage where Ethan and his band – drummer Chuck (Whaley) and bassist Dave (Moore) are celebrating as bands do the end of another successful gig. Mary Ann has had some substance abuse problems and is going off to get clean. However, before she goes she wants to leave her precocious child Janie (Breslin) with her daddy. That would be Ethan.

Ethan and his bandmates react with guffaws. No way they can take it seriously, right? Wrong. While the band is loading out their equipment, Mary Ann moseys, disappearing into the sunset (were it not 2am) and leaving Janie with nowhere to go. Ethan just wants to dump the kid in whatever hellhole they can find but a friendly police officer (Smith) convinces Ethan that the best thing for him to get out of the state un-arrested would be to take the girl on tour with him.

At first Ethan doesn’t want the girl anywhere nearby – a rock tour isn’t anywhere for a 13-year-old girl to be. But a funny thing happens; the two begin to bond over music. Janie has a surprising amount of talent (surprising to Ethan anyway) not only at singing and playing guitar but writing some pretty nifty songs (which were written for the film by Dutch power pop legend Eef Barzalay) which interests Ethan’s manager (Stormare) and the two get closer which irritates Ethan’s girlfriend (Snow).

But Ethan’s got a streak of self-destruction a mile wide. He is often irritable and egotistical; even his bandmates are beginning to weary of his diva-esque attitudes. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, Ethan’s world is spinning into wreckage and the only thing that might save him is a 13-year-old girl.

Fans of films like Crazy Heart will find the territory familiar here. Fading star with demons galore on the rock and roll/country/blue road trying to reconnect with family and finding that connection after a series of disasters. It’s almost like an Afterschool Special version of rock and roll.

Nivola has been the star that wasn’t. He has plenty of charisma and acting chops but he tends to choose material that’s more cerebral than mainstream audiences tend to look into and he lacks the kind of blockbuster to build on that Viggo Mortensen has. You can see it here – not Oscar-winning material to work with necessarily but at least something with a bit of bite to it.

Breslin is simply put one of the greatest juvenile actresses of our time. The kind of depth she puts into Janie is rare in an actress twice her age. Janie is not merely some precocious child who is going to save her dad in spite of himself by the end credits, she is wounded and wary, having been stuck with parents who were far too busy indulging their own needs to worry about those of a young girl. Not many actresses could pull off a role like this without resorting to cliché tricks, let alone one not old enough to get a driver’s license (when it was filmed).

The music (with Breslin and Nivola both singing their own parts) is actually pretty outstanding. It’s a little bit on the folky-rootsy side of adult alternative – a helping heaping of Ryan Adams, a little more Tommy Keene and a dash of Howie Day. It’s got that singer-songwriter vibe that can be a little pretentious but let’s face it – Ethan’s a bit of a jerk and that vibes fits perfectly with his character.

Now, this is kind of a romanticized version of life on the road and quite frankly, it’s beginning to be a bit outdated given the realities of the music business. Still, the grin of a small time tour full of fleabag hotels and cheap fast food grabbed quickly and economically between point A and point B is all here in spirit if not onscreen.

While I’m not sure any self-respecting cop would allow a 13-year-old girl on a rock tour with musicians who may not necessarily be the best of role models stretches credibility a bit far even for a movie, for the most part the movie feels authentic. With some good music and fine performances starting with the two leads, this is really one of those dark horse movies that you wind up going in not knowing much about it and leaving it happy you saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: A cut above these sorts of movies; nice performances throughout. Breslin is outstanding. The music is surprisingly good

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there, done that. Stretches credibility.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drinking and drug usage, a whole lot o’ foul language and a teensy weensy bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer-Director Rosenthal based the movie on his own experiences learning at age 30 that he had a 13 year old daughter – in fact, the film is dedicated to her.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,840 on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was not a winner at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Somewhere

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2012

Goats


 

Goats

This is what it looks like when David Duchovney loses a bet.

(2012) Drama (Image) David Duchovney, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Keri Russell, Anthony Anderson, Dakota Johnson, Adelaide Kane, Evan Boymel, Justin Wheelon, Timothy Gibbs, Olga Segura, Nicholas Lobue, Ricardo Andres, Caleb Dane Horst. Directed by Christopher Neil

 

As the saying goes, we can choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. We’re kind of stuck with them, regardless of how much (or how little) we like them. That can be a bad thing but it can be a good thing too.

Ellis (Phillips) would probably lean towards the former if you asked him. His parents are divorced, and are none too friendly with one another. His mom Wendy (Farmiga) is a trust fund hippie who never met a new age concept she didn’t become obsessed with. She’s self-centered and vindictive; not the best mom on Earth (as Ellis normally is the one who has to pay her bills because she’s so flighty) but she’s not the worst either.

How his dad (Burrell) wound up with her is something of a mystery. He went to an exclusive prep school in New England where he’s used his connections to get Ellis accepted into. Although a snooty prep school would seem to be a completely alien environment for Ellis, who’s used to the desert psychedelics of Arizona, he recognizes that it would be a boon for his future so he goes but not without much whining from his mother.

Ellis isn’t particularly upset at being separated by so many miles from his mom, but he does feel something for Goat Man (Duchovney) who goes by Javier but who’s real name is Steve. Goat Man is a herbologist and botanist who look like a cross between Jerry Garcia, Grizzly Adams and Moses with a Smith brother thrown in for good measure. He lives in the pool house with his goats, in exchange for tending the pool and landscape for Wendy. Their relationship is strictly platonic. Goat Man is most interested in botany so that he can grow some amazing marijuana, which he shares with Ellis. Goat Man takes Ellis on treks which are essentially walkabouts with no particular destination in mind – just an exploration of the land and its inhabitants.

Ellis is doing well in school but the pressure is getting to him. His roommate Barney (Lobue) is clearly not a good influence on him; his father is making overtures at reaching out and establishing a relationship with his estranged son. Goat Man, who promised to send Ellis weed hasn’t sent him anything and Wendy’s obnoxious lout of a boyfriend (Kirk) won’t let Ellis talk to his mother.

But Frank turns out to be a decent soul even though his impending marriage to Judy (Russell) is doing the fandango in Ellis’ brain, almost as much as the impending birth of his half-brother to the very pregnant Judy has. And he’s been coerced by the coach (Anderson) of the track team to run cross country, which he’s not really comfortable with at first. How can you run towards a future if you don’t even know which way you’re going?

Based on a novel by Mark Jude Poirier, this is one of those quirky indie movies that really wanders aimlessly through the plot the way a Deadhead might wander through a pot field, with a benevolent smile and a lack of purpose. Ellis doesn’t really have to much of a major crisis; sure he drinks too much for a15-year-old, and he does way too much pot, but he’s getting straight A’s and for the most part is a pretty well-adjusted kid given to bouts of douchebagness from time to time which is not out of line with the behavior of most real life 15-year-old boys.

Duchovney has always been a big draw for me. His easy-going laid-back charm meshes nicely with his intelligence. That the X-Files movies didn’t make him a major movie star has more to do with what was going on behind the camera rather than in front of it; both he and Gillian Anderson have all the tools to be big screen power players. In her case, I think it’s a choice not to go down that path; that also might be true of Duchovney.

I don’t think Farmiga really knew what to make of her character and in many ways that’s my main frustration with the movie. She’s quite the self-centered bitch throughout but there’s no doubt that Wendy really loves Ellis with all her heart and soul; Frank’s betrayal, whatever it might have been (and it’s not really explained why they split up, at least not that I can remember) really devastated her and has been in some ways the focal point of her life. She has certainly poisoned her son towards her father, making it impossible for Frank to see him. Early in the movie, Ellis believes his mother about the behavior of his dad, but as the movie progresses and he gets to know not just his dad but also his sweet-natured fiancé his attitude towards him changes.

There are no real epiphanies here other than that adults aren’t perfect and that there’s nothing wrong with life that a little toke can’t fix. Phillips plays Ellis like he’s living in an “Afterschool Special” and doesn’t do too bad a job of it, but I never really got to know Ellis all that well and found Goat Man far more interesting. Now, I’m wondering if there’s going to be a sequel all about Ellis’ discovery of peyote.

REASONS TO GO: Duchovney is interesting, even behind all that hair. Dynamic between Ellis and Frank works nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Too quirky for its own good. Meanders quite a bit. A movie for stoners.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use, including teen pot smokers and alcohol drinkers. There is also plenty of bad language, some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers had to hire someone to teach Duchovney to roll a joint like an expert – the actor claims he’d never rolled one in his entire life..

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dead Poets Society

NEW MEXICO LOVERS: Several of the “trek” scenes are shot in the beautiful New Mexico highlights, doubling for Arizona.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King