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Even at a teppanyaki restaurant family dinners can get awkward.

(2016) Comedy (Amazon) Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Ali Ahn, Marquis Rodriguez, Jordan Carlos, Finn Wittrock, India Menuez, Charlotte Ubben, Roger Peffley, Raffaella Meloni, Eric Tabach, Noah Tully Sanderson, Amy Carlson, Ezra Barnes, Megan Byrne, Adam Enright, Ian Jarvis, Christine Sherrill. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

 

Some movies seem to be more gender-specific than others. That doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed by both sexes but one is going to find it more relatable than the other. So it is with the sophomore effort by Gillian (Obvious Child) Robespierre.

The year is 1995 and it promises to be a banner one for one particular Upper West Side family. Mother Pat (Falco) is a bigwig for the EPA and is the main breadwinner for the family although wannabe playwright ad copywriter Alan (Turturro) does okay. Their daughter Dana (Slate) is working as a graphic artist and engaged to Ben (Duplass) with whom she lives. Ali (Quinn), their younger daughter, is a senior in high school and has a bright future ahead of her.

But things are only wonderful on the surface. Dana is frustrated at her relationship with Ben which has turned somewhat vanilla. Pat is frustrated that she is taken for granted in the household. Ali is frustrated with everything, acting out and hanging out with all the wrong friends, snorting heroin at raves and having sex with all the wrong guys. The worst is yet to come though; Ali accidentally discovers a floppy disc (it is 1995 after all) with erotic poetry that her father wrote. That’s cringeworthy enough but it turns out that he may have written them for another woman who isn’t her mom.

Ali and Dana have been like gasoline and matches for some time but when Dana, needing a break from Ben, moves back into the house, the two begin to bond over their dad’s potential infidelity. They go on a mission to find out who the mysterious woman is and whether the poems were in fact written for her. In the process, they discover their own skeletons are just waiting to leap out of their own closets.

I can understand why Da Queen loved this movie more than I did. Being a sister herself, she related to the movie more deeply than I did. It’s not that I can’t relate to female characters mind you but certain situations are going to speak to women more than men and vice versa. There’s no shame in that – that’s just life. And I think women are going to relate to this in a big way. The movie gives a lot of exploration to how infidelity can absolutely crush not just the partner being cheated on but everyone around them. The movie also spends a lot of time exploring the bonds between sisters – and between mothers and daughters.

Slate and Quinn both look like they could be sisters, which helps further the illusion. Da Queen was insistent that the relationship between the two felt authentic to her and I’m not one to argue with her, particularly on such matters. To the credit of both actresses, they play people who have a lot of baggage; Dana also is unfaithful to Ben while Ali is right on the cusp of being a poster child for teen overindulgence which could lead to being a statistic. The snorting of heroin is disturbing but I get the impression that the filmmakers don’t think it’s as big a deal as I do. I’ve seen what heroin can do so perhaps my triggers are a little bit more sensitive in that regard.

I thought Turturro and Falco were absolutely great here. Turturro is one of those actors who can elevate mediocre movies and when he gets a good part in a good part (a la O Brother Where Art Thou) can absolutely kill it and that is what happens here. Even better is Falco, an Emmy-winning actress who has consistently shown through two major TV shows that she is one of the finest actresses working today; personally I think her performance here is worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration and it’s not inconceivable that Amazon might have the wherewithal to promote her for it. I sure hope they do – it would be well-deserved.

While the movie doesn’t wallow in nostalgia like other period movies this summer have done, it does boast a killer soundtrack – as other period movies this summer have done. There are some subtle moments however – as when a television is tuned to former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s landmark speech in Beijing on September 5, 1995 when she proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” a point that seems to need re-making in an era where her victorious opponent for the Presidency has allowed those human rights to be threatened with erosion. I do think that the point is intentional.

There is definitely some “first world problems” issues here and some moments when I thought the movie seemed a bit too self-involved for my tastes. Again, I think women are going to “get” this movie a lot more readily and appreciate it more than I did, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. Nevertheless there is plenty here for men to digest as relationships, never a simple subject, are particularly convoluted here. Robespierre is certainly a major talent whose future output I will be absolutely keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is terrific. Turturro and Falco deliver the goods, particularly Falco whose performance is Oscar-worthy.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a little bit self-involved. Quinn and Slate look like sisters and act like sisters but were less compelling than I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, drug use and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Turturro is the cousin of Aida Turturro who was a cast member on The Sopranos along with Edie Falco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronically Metropolitan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

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Side Effects


Is this what depression looks like?

Is this what depression looks like?

(2013) Psychological Thriller (Open Road) Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia, Ann Dowd, Debbie Friedlander, Polly Draper, Marin Ireland, Katie Lowes, Elizabeth Rodriguez. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a society we’re drug-happy. Our physicians and psychiatrists prescribe willy-nilly and Big Pharma encourages them to. Modern American medicine has largely become a matter of knowing what pill to prescribe. That’s not to deny there haven’t been serious advances in pharmaceuticals – but the question has to be asked if we rely on them overly much.

You would think Emily Taylor (Mara) would be happy. Her husband Martin (Tatum) is getting out of prison after doing four years for insider trading. Sure, their lives which had been all about privilege and pampering had gone to a more hand-to-mouth lifestyle but at least they’re together. Emily though suffers from depression and after a failed suicide attempt is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an expatriate Brit plying his psychiatric trade on American shores.

Various prescriptions of anti-depressants prove to be ineffective until Jonathan runs into Emily’s former shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) at a conference. They discuss her condition and Victoria recommends Ablixa, a fairly new drug, as an alternative (she’s even got a promotional pen to give him). Dr. Banks agrees to give it a try.

At first it’s everything advertised; Emily feels a lot better, her sex drive has returned and things are looking rosy. There are a few blips on the radar – she’s sleepwalking which is a common side effect of Ablixa but that’s not worth stopping the treatment. That’s when a tragedy occurs that changes everything, turning Emily’s life upside down and calling into question Dr. Banks’ abilities as a psychiatrist and threatening to destroy his life as well.

Soderbergh excels in these sorts of psychological thrillers and while this isn’t his best, it’s still a solid effort. He has a strong cast (particularly among the lead four) and casts Law perfectly into a role he specializes in. Law is equally adept at playing heroes and villains, largely because he is a bit twitchy to begin with but is also likable. That serves him well here as he is somewhat morally ambiguous although clearly he’s also having his strings pulled.

Mara has only had three leading roles thus far but she’s been excellent in all of them and here she plays a completely different character than her last big part – seemingly mousy, frightened of the world and everything in it, somewhat high maintenance. She’s a bit of an enigma and the movie relies on her being so. Plenty of actresses can be enigmatic but Mara makes her engaging enough that you want to see her get better, want to protect her and take care of her. That’s exactly what the part calls for.

Longtime readers know I’m not especially a fan of Tatum’s acting but in all honesty he does pretty darn well here. He’s certainly morally ambiguous – all of the characters are, a Soderbergh trademark – but he’s also much more warm and likable than I’ve ever seen him. I might just have to revise my opinion about the man.

Zeta-Jones has of late done some fine character acting. She’s still as beautiful as ever but her range has always been much greater than she’s been given credit for and she gets to stretch it a bit here. I’ve always liked her as an actress and she’s given me no reason to think differently now.

While well-written and even brilliant in places, writer Scott Z. Burns falters in the middle third. However the beginning and the last 25 minutes or so are taut and imaginative. You may see some of the solution coming but it’s unlikely you’ll see the whole picture unless you’re pretty damn clever and observant. This is an effective thriller that is sharp, brainy and sexy – everything you want in the genre. That’s not as common as you’d expect.

REASONS TO GO: Skillfully written thriller. Law and Mara deliver fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity to skewer Big Pharma. Middle third muddles about a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sex, a bit of nudity, a surfeit of foul language and some sudden and graphic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Soderbergh has said that this will be his final feature film as a director (he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a premium cable mini-series) although he hasn’t ruled out coming back to the profession in the future.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100; the film has been getting good reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Firm

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Warm Bodies