Don’t Think Twice


Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

(2016) Dramedy (Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Emily Skeggs, Chris Gethard, Sondra James, Richard Kline, Sunita Mani, Steve Waltien, Kati Rediger, Pete Holmes, Richard Masur, Adam Pally, Lena Dunham, Maggie Kemper, Ben Stiller, Miranda Bailey, Seth Barrish, Erin Drake. Directed by Mike Birbiglia

 

Funny isn’t easy. If it was, everybody’d be a comedian. Of all the comedic disciplines, improvisation is one of the hardest. It requires quick thinking, a quicker wit and gluttony for punishment. Improv artists have a tendency to live hand to mouth and the odds of them making it are long indeed.

The Commune is a long-time improv group in New York City founded by Miles (Birbiglia) and currently consisting of MC Samantha (Jacobs) who is the girlfriend of Jack (Key), the most promising individual comedian in the group. Allison (Micucci) is an aspiring graphic artist and Lindsay (Sagher) smokes a whole lot of pot and is the daughter of wealthy parents who pay for her therapy. Finally, there’s Bill (Gethard), a kind of sad sack kind of guy who has a number of personal problems.

All of them harbor the ambition of getting an audition with Weekend Live (Saturday Night Live if they could have gotten the rights to use the name and footage). However, they’ve been hit with the bombshell that the run-down theater they’ve been using has been sold and is about to be converted to an Urban Outfitter; they have one month to get out.

But all is not lost. While they look for an affordable space, a couple of members of the Weekend Live group caught the group at a performance and have extended audition invitations – but only to Jack and Sam, largely because Jack grandstanded at the performance knowing that the cast members were there.

The group is happy for them, but it is happiness tinged with jealousy, anger and disappointment. Miles, who makes a great deal out of the fact that he had auditioned for the show ten years earlier and had been, as he puts it, “inches away” from the big time, is particularly out of sorts about it. He’s also teaching improv to pay the bills and beds his students whenever possible.

Bill is dealing with a family issue that is taking up much of his attention, although he is grateful for his fellow Commune-ists who surround him and make inappropriate jokes to keep his spirits up. However, as the days wind down, it turns out that Jack gets the gig at Weekend Live and Sam doesn’t, although she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing for reasons that become clear later on in the film but you should be able to figure out without any problem. Now with Jack gone and the clock ticking, the group is beginning to disintegrate as it becomes clear that not everyone is going to have their dreams come true.

Birbiglia is a gifted stand-up comic and as his first time in the director’s chair for Sleepwalk With Me showed, he has some potential in that role as well. As in that film, his character here is not always the most pleasant of people – Miles is arrogant and a bit jealous of Jack’s success which only points out the lack of his own. He sleeps with students which is a major no-no even though the students he’s teaching are adults, and he puts down his friends with barbs that have just enough truth in them to bury themselves in the skin.

Key shows off his formidable talent here better than he has in anything other than his Comedy Central show with partner Jordan Peele. In many ways, Key mirrors his character; of all the actors here (other than Stiller, who makes a cameo as himself) he has the best chance to reach stardom. With more performances like this under his belt, he certainly will get a look from the studios and the networks.

Most of the main actors here have improv experience other than Jacobs and she underwent rigorous training in the art which as mentioned earlier is not as easy as it looks. As a team they work well together and the onstage footage has some pretty fun moments, but the drawback is that improv really is best experienced live; it rarely holds up as well on film. Still, the movie has an air of authenticity about it because of the experience of Birbiglia and his cast (as well as Seth Barrish, the co-writer who also appears as a Lorne Michaels-like figure in the film).

It is a dramedy so the moments of savory and sweet are fairly balanced out, although given the subject matter I would have appreciated a bit more comedy than drama. There is a little bit of tendency towards soap opera in the middle third as the relationships begin to collapse and the Commune begins to implode.

For all that, this is a solid film that has some wonderful moments (a discussion between Jack and Sam that makes it painfully clear that their relationship is over comes immediately to mind) as well as a few misfires. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if you aren’t into improv. The truth is that this is the kind of movie that might actually make you a fan, or at the very least, more respectful of those who practice the art.

REASONS TO GO: A glimpse of what goes into making an improv group work.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some more laughs.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of swearing and a good deal of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The cast performed as an improv troupe for two weeks prior to shooting. Some of the footage of their performances is used in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Little Sister

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New Releases for the Week of September 2, 2016


MorganMORGAN

(20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Brian Cox. Directed by Luke Scott

A corporate troubleshooter is sent to a remote lab to investigate a recent accident and to evaluate whether the program being conducted there should be continued. When she arrives, it soon seems that the culprit behind the chaos is a seemingly innocent whose facade hides enormous potential – and incredible danger.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for brutal violence and some language)

Don’t Think Twice

(The Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Keegan-Michael Key. When the member of a popular New York City improv troupe gets a big break on an SNL-like late night sketch show, the others in the group – all friends – begin to realize that the odds are that not all of them are going to make it after all. And maybe, none of them will.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language and some drug use)

Kickboxer: Vengeance

(RLJ) Alain Moussi, Georges St-Pierre, Dave Bautista, Jean-Claude van Damme. After his brother is killed in the ring by a brutal fighter, a young man swears vengeance upon the man that killed him but in order to beat him, he’ll have to get training from the best of the best – a kickboxer by the name of Durand.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

The Light Between Oceans

(DreamWorks) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Jack Thompson. Just after the First World War, an army vet takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on the rugged, isolated Australian coast, two days ride from anywhere and only seeing a supply boat once a season. Here he brings his strong-willed wife and here they try to bring a baby into the world, but meet with miscarriages and a stillbirth. One day she hears a baby’s cries on the wind and finds a baby in a lifeboat with a dead man. Believing this to be a sign from God she keeps the baby for her own against her husband’s better judgment. However, when they return to the mainland, they discover that their choice may have been devastating for someone else – a woman who may well be the true mother of the child.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual content)

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

(Miramax/Summit) Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aaron Paul, Oliver Platt. After surviving eight near-death experiences, a little boy plunges off a cliff – and miraculously survives, but is left in a coma. In order to find out what really happened, an acclaimed neurologist tries an experimental procedure to get inside the boy’s mind – and finds something sinister lurking there.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Supernatural Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for some disturbing images and brief strong language)

No manches Frida

(Pantelion) Omar Chaparro, Martha Higareda, Monica Dionne, Rocio Garcia. After a bank robber is released from prison, he goes to recover his stolen money which he’d buried in a schoolyard. Unfortunately, while he was inside the school built a gymnasium on top of where he buried the loot. In order to get into the gym and dig for his cash, he must masquerade as a substitute teacher at the school – which quickly escalates into chaos.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC The Loop, Epic Theaters at Lee Vista

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual content, drug material, teen smoking and drinking, brief strong language and gestures and thematic elements)

The Sea of Trees

(A24) Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe, Katie Aselton. A suicidal American enters a Japanese forest at the base of Mt. Fuji to finish himself off. While there he finds a Japanese man lost in the impenetrable woods and the two become friends. Finding the way out of the forest however turns out to be a lot more difficult than finding their way in. This is the latest from director Gus Van Sant.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing images and brief strong language)

Yoga Hosers

(Invincible) Johnny Depp, Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Adam Brody. A pair of comely convenience store clerks in Winnipeg, Manitoba is chagrined to discover they’ll have to be working when they could be at the party of the year. To make matters worse, their store is ground zero for an interdimensional invasion of…Nazi sausages. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. Thankfully, director Kevin Smith can.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (playing Friday night at midnight only)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for crude humor, sexual references, some violence and brief drug material)

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

Trainwreck


Tea for two.

Tea for two.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Brie Larson, Dave Attell, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Jon Glaser, Ezra Miller, Evan Brinkman, Mike Birbiglia, Norman Lloyd, LeBron James, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Method Man, Tim Meadows, Nikki Glaser, Matthew Broderick, Marv Albert, Chris Evert, Rachel Feinstein. Directed by Judd Apatow

Romantic comedies are beginning to get a terrible reputation among both critics and filmgoers alike. For the past decade or so, Hollywood has churned out mass-produced paint-by-numbers rom-coms that are as predictable as Republicans opposing whatever the President proposes. After a while, people get tired of the same, stale old thing.

Apatow has been one of the most successful directors, writers and producers of comedies in roughly the same period. He has done coming-of-age comedies as well as yes, romantic comedies and has become a money-making machine for the studios to a certain extent. He has specialized in outrageous humor with a somewhat over-the-top attitude towards comedy, with a regular stable of actors including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, his wife Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

&None of them appear in his latest, which in an unusual move for Apatow is not written by him but by star Amy Schumer. Schumer is a somewhat controversial comic who went from Last Comic Standing to the hit Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer. Her humor is somewhat raunchy and is unashamed of the comic’s own sexuality, which is in-your-face. If a guy comic did that, it would be taken in stride but when a woman does that people just lose their minds but Schumer has become something of a poster child for being her own woman and not really giving a rat’s fig about what other people think.

Here, she plays Amy, a writer for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff which specializes in stories like “Are you gay or is she just bored?” and take a fairly cynical look at modern man-dom. When her dad (Quinn), a serial philanderer, divorced her mom, he drove home the point that monogamy is unrealistic. Young Amy took that to heart and has kept relationships to a minimum. She’s kinda seeing Steven (Cena), a cross-fit guy but when she’s not going to the movies with him she’s getting drunk and having sex with a parade of guys whom she wants nothing else from and there certainly are plenty of those sorts of guys in Manhattan for her to choose from.

She banters with her sister Kim (Larson) who is married to a sweet but somewhat vanilla guy (Birbiglia) who has a demonically polite son (Brinkman) from a previous relationship. She also has a homeless friend (Attell) who hangs out near her apartment. Her boss (Swinton) is a Brit with an attitude who is sort of a low-rent Ricky Gervais; she assigns Amy to do a piece on Dr. Aaron Conners (Hader), a sports medicine specialist who is getting ready to try a radical new surgery for knee injuries that cuts the recovery time in half.

Amy isn’t really the right person for this particular job; she doesn’t know anything about sports and doesn’t really want to, but she and the Doc hit it off and before too long his best buddy LeBron James (himself) is urging Dr. Conners to call her back. They couldn’t be more of an odd couple; she’s an uptight party girl, he’s a laidback stay-at-home guy; she is cynical and occasionally cruel; he’s optimistic and wants to help people; she’s a loose cannon, he’s a little too tightly wound. Of course they’re going to fall in love.

To the movie’s detriment, it follows the typical rom-com formula pretty much from there; one of them has to overcome a personal tragedy. The two eventually split up because they can’t communicate. They both mope around, missing each other horribly (one of the best scenes in the movie is LeBron James organizing an intervention for Dr. Conners with Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert providing the play-by-play) and eventually, one of them making a grand gesture to bring them back together again.

The difference here is that the gender roles are switched; Amy is the one who needs to grow up and it will take the love of a great sensitive guy to help her do it, rather than the guy being the one who is tamed by a beautiful, patient girl. I suppose that’s considered thinking outside the box in some circles, but for me, this is merely the same running back in a different jersey.

Fortunately there are some fine performances around her, particularly Colin Quinn as her douchebag of a dad, Cena as her musclebound but sensitive boyfriend, and James who shows impressive comic timing in his first feature film. And quite frankly, there are some really good laughs here, and Schumer is often at the center of them.

I didn’t fall in love with this movie like a lot of my friends and colleagues have. That’s not to say I didn’t like it – I did – but only up to a point. It’s more a matter of personal taste for me and your opinion is likely to differ. Schumer is not really my cup of tea as a standup comic so that’s something that you’ll need to take into account. There are plenty of people who find her funny as all get out and that’s cool by me; I’m more of a Ron Funches kind of guy these days. If you like her humor, you’re going to love this. If you don’t, you’re less likely to. If you’re not sure, Google her and find a video of her stand-up performances or an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. If you find either of these funny, then head out and buy your ticket at the multiplex. I’ll go on record as saying it’s funny enough to see, but not the funniest summer comedy of the past few years by any stretch.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny in some places. Supporting cast superb.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally uncomfortable. If Schumer is not your cup of tea, you may find this unpalatable.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality galore, some nudity, crude language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lloyd, who plays a friend of Amy’s dad at the assisted living facility, is 100 years old – he was once a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What’s Your Number?
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wolfpack

New Releases for the Week of May 8, 2015


Hot PursuitHOT PURSUIT

(New Line) Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew del Negro, John Carroll Lynch, Mike Birbiglia, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Mosley. Directed by Anne Fletcher

After the death of a drug kingpin, the Texas underground is turned upside down as it appears his widow may be telling the secrets of her late husband to the authorities. With murderous gunmen and crooked cops gunning for her, it is up to a serious, by-the-book Texas Ranger to keep her alive and deliver her to the courts to make her testimony. That is, if the Ranger doesn’t kill the outrageous, outgoing, sexy and impulsive widow first.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, violence, language and some drug material)

The D-Train

(IFC) Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor. Dan Landsman aspired to be the cool guy in high school but could never quite rise above the strata of nebbish that he had been assigned to. Now years later planning the big reunion, he finally gets his chance if he can bring to the party the coolest guy in school – who happens to be the face of a national tanning lotion ad campaign.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Selected Theaters
Rating: R (for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use)

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

(Music Box) Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Shmil Ben Ari, Gabi Amrani. In Israeli society, there are no civil marriages; every marriage takes place within the Jewish faith and can only be dissolved if both parties give permission and a tribunal of rabbis agree, Viviane Amsalem has been trapped in a loveless marriage and has been attempting to secure a divorce for three years, but her devout husband refuses to give her one despite the fact that he has been as miserable in the marriage as she has. This Oscar-nominated film points out the absurdity of the system as everything, no matter how minute, is brought up for scrutiny by the rabbis.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

Ride

(Screen Media) Helen Hunt, Brenton Thwaites, Luke Wilson, David Zayas. When her son drops out of college to surf and find himself, a New York mom flies to Southern California, ostensibly to talk him out of this course of action. Unable to sway him, she decides instead to try and understand him and takes up surfing herself with the unexpected effect of finding herself.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: R (for some language and drug use)

Welcome to Me

(Alchemy) Kirsten Wiig, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Tim Robbins. A slightly mentally unstable woman wins the lottery and puts the money to good use – by buying herself a talk show in which the daily subject is…herself. This was the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language and brief drug use)

The Fault in Our Stars


In order to make an omelet...

In order to make an omelet…

(2014) Drama (20th Century Fox/Fox 2000) Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Emily Peachey, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Randy Kovitz, Toni Saladna, David Whalen, Milica Govich, Allegra Carpenter, Emily Bach, Tim Hartman, Bethany Leo, Alexis Hodges, Jean Bressard, Carly Otte, Elyse Alberts. Directed by Josh Boone

Life in general is rarely fair, but for teenagers who must deal with a deadly disease it is particularly unfair. Watching their lives ebb away, knowing that in the end their stay in this life will end prematurely, they try to find some meaning in their brief lives. It is hard to find much drama in the ins and outs of teen angst when you know your death is just around the corner.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She is unable to breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank. At age 13, she very nearly died, her tearful mother (Dern) whispering that it is okay to let go but that’s not in Hazel’s DNA. She’s a fighter and she survives, managing to stabilize her deteriorating situation by undergoing an experimental treatment that she refers to as her miracle.

She is withdrawn and reads the same book incessantly – An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten, a reclusive American author who has exiled himself to Amsterdam. The book intrigues her because she can relate to the cancer-stricken heroine but also because it ends mid-sentence, indicating that the heroine has died. She wants to know what happens to the supporting characters after the lead character has expired but van Houten has consistently refused to answer questions of that nature despite many entreaties by fans of the book to do so.

She reluctantly attends a support group that meets at a local church with a well-meaning youth pastor (Hartman) who rolls out a giant rug with a portrait of Jesus and abjures his group of cancer-stricken kids that they are literally meeting “in the heart of Jesus.” Hazel isn’t really looking to reach out and make friends – what’s the point – but she attracts the attention of Augustus Waters (Elgort), a free-spirited survivor who was there to support his friend Isaac (Wolff) who is soon to have surgery that will render him permanently blind. Isaac at least has the comfort of a girlfriend (Peachey) who asserts that she’ll love him “always” but is eventually freaked out by the reality of his situation and dumps him.

Augustus had bone cancer which eventually cost him the use of one leg. Before the amputation, he had been a star basketball player in basketball-mad Indiana. An unlit cigarette dangles rakishly from his lips to symbolize that he is embracing his cancer but not giving it power over him. Not the most realistic of symbols, but he’s a teenager and entitled to do things that in the long run don’t accomplish the desired effect.

She attempts to keep the irrepressible Augustus at arm’s length but we all know (including Hazel Grace herself) that eventually he will win her over. Her mom and dad (Trammell) are both overjoyed that Hazel has connected to someone else. The two grow closer but the real kicker comes when Augustus uses his wish with a Make-a-Wish type group to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet van Houten (Dafoe). Hazel would have used hers but at 13 she had used it instead to go to Disney World. Priorities, after all.

While the meeting with van Houten doesn’t go exactly as planned, it still ends up being a memorable trip although it concludes with devastating news – Augustus’ cancer, which had been in remission, has reappeared and it has spread everywhere. They both know that Augustus has been given a death sentence but they are determined that now that they are comfortable with being in love with each other that they will make the most of the time they both have left.

This is a movie that I am conflicted about in many ways. As most of you know, the movie is based on the bestselling novel by John Green that in turn was based on his experiences working with support groups of the sort Hazel made fun of early on in the film (and Hazel herself is based on a real person, Esther Earl, who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 16. Green, who was very involved in the production of the movie, pulled no punches in the book although for time constraints some of the suffering  at the hands of the disease that the protagonists had to deal with had to be left out – but then again, the movie isn’t about their suffering per se.

Shailene Woodley is one of the best young actresses working today and already has an Oscar nomination under her belt. She may well get another one here although Academy voters are not known for remembering good work from summer films. She captures the many dimensions of Hazel and keeps her real. A role like this could easily lose its humanity with actors trying to play her too heroically or not heroic enough. Hazel is an ordinary hero, a young girl living with lungs that don’t work properly and the prospects of a short life. She does tend to push people away but as it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her heart in the least.

Elgort is a handsome guy with an engaging grin, but the part is rife with cliches – the free-spirited dying kid who is full of life. Not that there aren’t kids like that running around, but there are a disproportionate number of them in Hollywood. Hazel narrates that she’d like to say that Augustus kept his sense of humor (after the cancer returned) but that wouldn’t be true, but then the writers go ahead and make it true. Don’t say that a character changes without having them change. It’s dishonest. None of that is Elgort’s fault by the way – and I don’t doubt he has a fine career ahead of him.

You need to keep a couple of things in mind when seeing this movie. First of all, it’s manipulative. Holy Christ is it manipulative! How could it not be, considering the subject matter? Brave kids facing a painful death? And yes, you will be anywhere from misty-eyed to outright sobbing when the end credits roll. Expect it and deal with it.

Secondly, this is a movie aimed very squarely at young teen and pre-teen girls. Augustus fits into the young female fantasy of a sensitive, caring boy who happens to be breathtakingly hot and free-spirited, willing to accept the love of his life as she is and wait for her when she’s not certain. He’s loyal, loving, affectionate, funny…if he pulled out a guitar and played a love song he wrote for every girl in the audience he couldn’t have been more perfect. And of course Hazel herself is brave, beautiful, and of course in mortal jeopardy but never backs down for a moment, fighting for her life with dignity and grace.

There are those who sniff that this movie isn’t about cancer, but that’s disingenuous. No, the movie isn’t about cancer – you’re not going to learn the ins and outs of the disease from watching this film – but cancer informs this movie. There’s no movie (or book) without it. This movie isn’t about cancer in the same way The Godfather isn’t about the Mafia.

There are some beautiful truths here to be had here but you have to plough through some fairly predictable elements to get to them. I would have liked to see the characters be less perfect and more human. I would have loved to see Augustus scream at the faulty stars at the raw deal he’s getting. I would have liked to see Hazel lash out more than she does. I would have liked to see the movie pander less to the target audience and respect them more. However, that doesn’t mean this movie won’t satisfy their needs and strike a powerful chord in their hearts, and who am I to dismiss a movie that can accomplish that as well as this one does?

REASONS TO GO: Woodley shows off her Oscar-nominated form. Not a typical teen romance.

REASONS TO STAY: Manipulative and maudlin and unnecessarily so.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, occasionally salty language and mature thematic content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s title is a reference to a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50/50

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Miss Bala

Your Sister’s Sister


Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia, Kimberly Chin, Mike Harring, Kathryn Lebo, Jennifer Maas, Jeanette Maus, Jason Dodson, Dori Hana-Scherer, Steve Snoey, Pete Erickson, Evan Mosher, Seth Warren. Directed by Lynn Shelton

Florida Film Festival 2012

 

A relationship between two people is complicated enough. Add a third wheel and things get really crazy. When there’s also a fourth person in the mix (who happens to be dead) well, then, we’re talking crazy here.

Jack (Duplass) is mourning his brother Tom (Harring) who has been dead a year. Jack seems permanently stuck in the anger phase of grieving; at a party celebrating his brother, Jack seems intent on alienating everyone by explaining what a dick his brother was and that just because he’s gone doesn’t earn him a candidacy for sainthood.

His best friend Iris (Blunt) wisely takes him aside and tells him he needs to take off and put in some me time to work through his feelings. She suggests her family’s vacation cottage on an island in Puget Sound (did I mention this takes place in Seattle?) as the perfect place to sit around with no distractions, contemplate one’s navel and maybe do a little psyche repair work so that he can rejoin the human race. Realizing that she’s right, Jack agrees.

He bikes over to the ferry that runs to the island and quickly realize that he’s a little too old for this. It’s dark by the time he arrives at the cottage and he quickly realizes that the house isn’t vacant. There’s a naked woman in the shower. She turns out to be Hannah (DeWitt), Iris’ lesbian sister but he doesn’t know that and she doesn’t realize that her sister had invited Jack up so she clocks him with an oar.

Eventually the confusion is resolved and the two, with Iris in common, sit around and talk circles around why they’ve come to the island for the solitude – Jack’s grief and Hannah’s own as her longtime relationship (seven years) has ended. Talking turns to tequila, as it often will and tequila turns to sex – as it often will.

Iris arrives the next morning unexpectedly and Jack and Hannah scramble to hide the evidence of their indiscretion. You wonder why seeing as Iris isn’t Jack’s girlfriend – if anything, she had a relationship once upon a time with his brother. But as the three of them hang out and things get awkward we begin to see that the dynamics between the three people aren’t what they thought they were.

This is refreshingly a movie for adults. While the synopsis sounds a bit like a typical Hollywood romantic comedy, this is far from one. Shelton, who has been gathering a reputation as a fine writer/director on the indie circuit (her Humpday was one of the best-reviewed films of recent years) has written these as flawed individuals – as are we all – who do dumb things without really understanding why we’re doing them (and sometimes knowing full well why but powerless to stop the dumbness), even though they’re all basically decent people.

Duplass, a highly-regarded filmmaker in his own right, is developing into a fine cinematic Everyman. He isn’t buff, he isn’t tone and he isn’t always right. He’s just a guy, struggling with his own issues and those that come brightly packaged with being a guy in the second decade of the 21st century. You’ll probably recognize him as someone in your own life – a brother, a boyfriend, an ex, a son or a co-worker. He’s passive almost to the point of inertness, wallowing in an endless cycle of grief that he can’t seem to find a way out of. Most of the things that happen when he’s sober (other than the sex with Hannah thing that is largely his flirtatious suggestion) are at someone else’s impetus and he seems incapable of making decisions for himself until the movie’s end (more on that later). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – a lot of people are like that – but it can be infuriating to watch in a movie.

Blunt and DeWitt are both beautiful and smart actresses. There’s even a superficial resemblance and if you can get past the difference in accents (Blunt is British and doesn’t even attempt to hide it with a faux Yankee accent), they could well be sisters. When Hannah’s betrayal becomes apparent, it drives a wedge between them as you’d expect that it would but the way that they reconcile is also how you’d expect sisters to pull together.

What really hurts this movie is the ending. Not the very final scene, which actually is pretty cool  but the way things get resolved. It’s so Hollywood and doesn’t really resonate as the way real people act which is quite jarring when you’ve been admiring throughout the film that these characters are acting exactly like how real people act. Having seen this on Blu-Ray, I was moved to turn off the movie before said final scene and take a walk outside the house to cool off. I felt a bit betrayed to be honest which if intentional worked brilliantly. However I suspect it wasn’t; it was just a means of moving the film from point A to point B (or more like from point W to point X) and smacked of lazy writing, which I’m not accustomed to from Shelton.

Still other than that this is a standout film. Terrific acting, realistic situations, reactions and characters and a beautiful environment to put them in. While I was bothered by the movie’s resolution, I still believe in Shelton as a talented filmmaker who has plenty of wonderful cinematic moments left in her and hopefully, her best work still remains ahead of her. This one isn’t half bad though.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances. Emotionally powerful in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Duplass’ character is too passive for my tastes. The ending is an abrupt stumble at the finish line.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, some adult situations and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rachel Weisz was originally cast as Hannah but when the shooting schedule for the movie was pushed out, Weisz had to drop out of the film due to a scheduling conflict with her film The Deep Blue Sea.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $125,000 production budget; the movie was a modest success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five-Year Engagement

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival Begins!!