Digging For Fire


A bunch of bros hanging out.

A bunch of bros hanging out.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Jane Adams, Tom Bower, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Ron Livingston, Jeff Baena, Timothy Simons, Padraic Cassidy, Steve Berg, David Siskind, Jude Swanberg. Directed by Joe Swanberg

Relationships are impossible. I mean, making them work is – first of all, you have to find someone with whom you can co-exist. Someone whose idiosyncrasies won’t drive you bonkers. Second, you have to find someone whose ideals, goals and philosophy is compatible with yours. Finally, you have to find someone with all that with whom you will grow in the same direction. What’s the secret to making all that happen?

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are housesitting for some Hollywood types out shooting on location. They’re treating it like a bit of a vacation since the home they’re watching is up in the Hills and has all the amenities you could possibly imagine. However, as of late, the two have been having problems. Tim has been feeling emasculated and when Lee’s mom (Light) and dad (Elliott) want to foot the bill to send their son Jude (Swanberg) to an exclusive pre-school that they can’t afford, that sensation only gets worse. Of course, if Sam Elliott were my father-in-law, I’d feel emasculated too.

For Lee’s part she’s tired of putting up with Tim’s childish behavior and his lack of inertia. He seems to be stuck in a rut and she’s frustrated – in more ways than one. To put it bluntly, she has been reading a book called The Passionate Marriage and it isn’t about fruit. When one of Lee’s friends (Lynskey) organizes a girl’s night out for her, Lee jumps at the chance, and agrees to take Jude to visit her parents, giving Tim some time to do the taxes which he has been putting off for too long. Tim found a bone and a rusted gun buried in the yard and he’s been obsessing over that.

Of course, Tim decides to chuck the taxes aside and brings a battery of bros over, including the somewhat over-the-top Ray (Rockwell) as well as Billy T. (Messina), Phil (Birbiglia) and Paul (Berg). Much alcohol and recreational substances are ingested, and Ray brings over a couple of girls including Max (Larson), with whom Tim begins to flirt.

When Lee’s friend is forced to cancel, Lee decides to just have a night out on her own. When a drunk obnoxious guy tries to hit on her, she is rescued by bar owner Ben (Bloom) who gets hurt when the drunk gets belligerent. Lee accompanies him home on the back of his motorcycle so she can give him some first aid; it becomes apparent that the two are attracted to one another. Can the two stay true to one another or are things that far gone?

Swanberg, one of the originators of the mumblecore movement, has retained some of the elements of those films here, although I would hesitate to classify it as true mumblecore. Swanberg tends to allow his actors to improvise their dialogue so the conversations sound real. He also has a tendency to examine relationships from a distance, a means I think of giving the audience some perspective which takes a little bit more work than making them feel invested or part of the relationship onscreen. Rather than rooting for Lee and Tim, we’re more observers of Lee and Tim. We’re not invested as to whether they stay together or not and so regardless of which way it goes, we don’t feel like it’s a monumental situation. As in life, there are reasons for them to stay together and reasons for them to drift apart and there really is no way to know which one would be best for them and just like in life, the decision has resonance in both directions.

The cast is extraordinary for a Swanberg film, and there really isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The humor here is bone dry (no pun intended) which is typical for Swanberg and it shows up in unexpected but appropriate places. Swanberg has a deft touch as a director and it really shows here to nice effect.

Some of the movie is a bit disjointed and some of the scenes feel like they were either added on as an afterthought, or were stranded when other scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I would have liked a little bit more flow. The movie’s denouement is on the quiet side and some may find that the payoff isn’t what they wanted.

I must say that I’ve been liking Swanberg’s work more and more with each passing film. He is certainly a rising talent with a lengthy filmography already to his credit (Swanberg regularly churns out two to four movies a year). While it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he might be behind the camera for a big budget franchise movie someday, I kind of hope he doesn’t. He seems to excel at movies that take a moment in time or a slice of life and let us examine it thoroughly. Through that lens, we end up examining our own lives, particularly who we are, where we are, what we want to be and what we want out of life and love. Heady questions to be sure.

To answer the question, there is no secret to making a relationship work. It takes dedication, focus, hard work and willpower. In other words, it takes the same things to make any sort of worthwhile pursuit work. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty cast. Dry sense of humor. Nicely captures inner workings of couples.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed in places. Payoff might not be enough for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references, some foul language and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell, Adams and DeWitt all co-starred in this summer’s remake of Poltergeist while Larson and Birbiglia also starred in Amy Schumer’s hit comedy Trainwreck this summer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Air

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All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

hollynquill-2013

It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa

Greenberg


Greenberg

Greta Gerwig is surprised that Ben Stiller knows his way to the kitchen.

(2010) Dramedy (Focus) Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Susan Traylor, Merritt Wever, Blair Tefkin, Mina Badie, Mark Duplass, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, Max Hoffman. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There are those among us who are just harder to get along with than others. They, for whatever reason, seem bound and determined to alienate everyone around them, pushing them away with the firm hand of someone who has no intention of letting anyone near, but terrified that they will spend their lives alone.

Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is like that. After a stint in a mental hospital, he has returned to his old L.A. stomping grounds (he used to be in a band) to housesit for his successful older brother (Messina) who is opening a new hotel in Vietnam.

His job is to care for the dog and the home while the family is gone. His brother’s assistant Florence (Gerwig) is left to hold the bag and inevitably become Greenberg’s assistant, not by choice but by necessity. Greenberg is prickly and socially awkward. He lashes out the people around him, writing letters to express his deep disappointment to various institutions and corporations. He holds people to standards he himself refuses to meet.

He hooks up with old friend Ivan (Ifans), a former member of his band and has trouble understanding why Ivan and the other bandmates were hurt by his actions, abandoning them just as it seemed they were about to achieve success, moving to New York City to become a carpenter. In the meantime, he is building a doghouse for his brother and entering a tentative, somewhat strange relationship with Florence. It is borderline abusive – Greenberg is often cruel in his remarks, sometimes purposefully so. He does things often without thinking. In short, he’s not a very nice guy. He himself doesn’t realize it – in many ways, he is the least self-aware character you will find in the movies.

Baumbach is one of the most interesting indie directors out there, with such movies as The Squid and the Whale in his credits. He has a flair for taking an unlikable character, as Greenberg is, and making them front and center and without resorting to cutesy Hollywood clichés gives the audience a way to if not relate to them at least understand them somewhat.

Stiller does perhaps the best work of his career as Roger Greenberg. Stiller’s work in comedies often puts him in the persona of a poor man’s Seinfeld – handsome, charming and quirky – but here he really comes into his own. A role like this is a bit of a chance – stars often feel the need to protect their persona as zealously as they trademark their images – but this certainly is a far cry from Stiller’s usual roles.

Gerwig has gotten a lot of positive reviews for her performance and that’s no accident; she has a very different role to tread, portraying a vulnerable and sweet girl without getting too cloying. Florence is one of those kinds of girls who you run into in bookstores from time to time, who flash that sweet but self-conscious smile for a millisecond that lights up an entire room like a flashbulb, then reverts to that mysterious half-smile that girls seem to learn from birth to bewitch guys. Her character has a shy, un-self-confident air about her and its rather sweet, but again, not cloyingly so.

Ifans is also charming, playing a bit of a sad sack, long-suffering friend who puts up with the slings and arrows Greenberg sends his way until he finally can take no more. He has a scene near the end where he has it out with Greenberg that is one of the movie’s highlights. It’s a tribute to him as an actor that you rarely notice how good he is in his role, until you think about it afterwards and realize that he was as good if not better than anyone else in it.

This is the kind of movie that defies conventions and typical Hollywood stereotypes. It’s not an easy move to watch at times – Greenberg can be an absolute rotten bastard. However, it is rewarding in that you find perhaps parts of yourself that up to now have not held up to self-examination. There’s a little bit of Greenberg in all of us; just hopefully, not a lot of him.

WHY RENT THIS: Exceedingly well-acted character study that is as fascinating as it is at times repellent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Roger Greenberg isn’t the most likable protagonist ever; you may find yourself rooting for him to get his just deserts.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was composed and arranged by James Murphy of the electronic band LCD Soundsystem.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last King of Scotland