In My Sleep


Sometimes, the water isn't fine.

Sometimes, the water isn’t fine.

(2010) Thriller (Morning Star) Philip Winchester, Lacey Chabert, Abigail Spencer, Tim Draxl, Kim Overton, Michael Badalucco, Beth Grant, Tony Hale, Amy Aquino, Kevin Kilner, Aidan Mitchell, Alexandra Paul, Kirsten Vangsness, Allan Wasserman, Patrick Labyorteaux, Bellamy Young, Shanna Collins, Marcelle Larice, Kathryn Fiore. Directed by Allen Wolf

Sleep is a time for rest, for letting our bodies and minds recharge. But sleep is a mysterious state which we really don’t understand. Where does our mind go? What is it capable of? And how does our dream state relate to our waking state?

Marcus (Winchester) has a pretty good life. He’s handsome, the ladies love him (and he loves them too, one night at a time) and he works as a masseuse. His best friend Justin (Draxl) and Justin’s wife Ann (Overton) hang out in some pretty sweet digs, and his neighbor Becky (Chabert) is very interesting to him.

Marcus also has parasomnia, a form of sleepwalking in which he does things he can’t remember doing the next day. One morning he wakes up with blood on his hands and a bloody knife on the floor at his side. He finds out that one of his closest friends has been stabbed to death. Of course, the signs point to Marcus who can’t remember a thing about the night in question. Now he has to get to the bottom of the incident to find out what happened – to clear his name, or find out once and for all if he’s guilty.

The premise is fairly standard, although the sleepwalking aspect is something new. However we’ve seen the amnesia angle before, the “did I do it or didn’t I” question hanging over the proceedings. In that sense, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Winchester, who’s best known as Frank Stanton in the cult TV show Fringe is required to carry the movie and unfortunately, he doesn’t do it on this occasion. While he’s terribly good looking and is shirtless at every opportunity possible (and a few that aren’t) his character is pretty bland and forgettable. He’s kind of a generic thriller hero.

There’s a whole lot of eye candy in this film – not of the special effects kind but the beautiful people kind. For those who prefer female forms, there are a lot of women in the movie in various states of undress. Can’t complain about that – unless said states of undress are gratuitous and unnecessary, which they mostly are.

It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on and by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have figured it out (to be fair, there aren’t a lot of suspects to choose from). Quite frankly, by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have long since stopped caring.

Chabert has never been a favorite actress of mine but she more than holds her own here, leading me to think I should revise my opinion of her. Hopefully she’ll continue delivering performances like this and hopefully in better movies than this one. Sadly, this is a movie that had some potential but at the end of the day, simply doesn’t have much to recommend it, unless you don’t mind checking out all the beautiful people and their bodies that decorate the film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice premise. Chabert does a fine job. Winchester is awfully handsome.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks suspense. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: In addition to some fairly strong sexual content, there’s also some violence and foul language and some gruesome bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to help finance the movie, Wolf created Morning Star Games, a board game company that created award winning games that are still being produced today (one of them, “You’re Pulling My Leg” appears in the film).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel. On the Blu-Ray edition there’s also a music video and a gag nightmare..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90,093 on a $3M production budget; obviously this film was unprofitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trance

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Despicable Me 2

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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 Private Lives of Pippa Lee


Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy

Sleepwalking


Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

(Overture) Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Anna-Sophia Robb, Nick Stahl, Woody Harrelson, Callum Keith Rennie, Deborra-Lee Furness, Matthew St. Patrick. Directed by Bill Maher

We are all, in a sense, damaged goods. None of us makes it through our lives unscathed by trauma and tragedy alike. Some of us emerge stronger for it, but far more of us bear deep, open wounds hidden away by the veneer of civility. Press too hard on the scab and our true nature emerges, oozing from the sore like pus.

Jolene (Theron) has horrible taste in men. When her boyfriend is arrested, she is forced out of her apartment along with Tara (Robb), her 11-year-old daughter. With nowhere left to turn, she shows up at the door of her brother James (Stahl), a soft-spoken, weak-willed young man who is an endless doormat for his family and his friends, like his stoner co-worker Randall (Harrelson).

It doesn’t take Jolene long to find another loser to hitch her wagon to, and after a night of passion she impulsively runs away with her new beau, leaving James holding the bag. Completely ill-equipped to handle the needs of a young girl, he soon loses his job trying to be a ketchup father (coz he’s playing catch-up in the role…get it?) and is evicted himself. He goes to lick his wounds over at Randall’s, while Tara is put into the foster care system.

Predictably, Tara is put in one of the least hospitable foster homes on record and is soon begging for James to take her away, anywhere but there. In true desperation, he runs away with his niece, the two of them taking assumed names. They eventually make their way to the ranch of James and Jolene’s father (Hopper), a rattlesnake of a man who’s mental and physical abuse tormented his two progeny into lives of abject inability to deal with life. While James has defense mechanisms that help him deal with the old man’s cruelty, the spirited Tara is slowly being broken by dear old Dad. James must soon figure out a way to get away from their place of temporary refuge before Tara winds up crushed the way he and Jolene were.

This is not the most upbeat movie you’ll ever run into. Not only are the main characters constantly doing the wrong thing, they are dealt incredibly bad hands to begin with. They are poster children for the aphorism “if it wasn’t for bad luck they’d have no luck a’tall.” Director Maher compliments the grim mood with bleak landscapes; harsh winters, dry, dusty and lacking in color. Only Tara has any color to her, which is more or less a metaphor as far as I can tell.

Robb, so good in Bridge to Terabithia, proves herself a capable actress who could well wind up in the same stratum as Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin. Stahl, who has mostly played supporting roles throughout his career, is put in a position to carry this movie and for the most part, he handles it well, given that his character is a bit of a milksop as written.

What really drew me into the movie was the relationship between Tara and James. It defines the movie to a certain extent and is the best thing in it, the only aspect that generates any hope that their miserable lives will improve at all. Robb and Stahl make it believable and moving, two wounded creatures gravitating towards each other at first out of necessity and eventually out of true affection. The evolution of their relationship is the crux of Sleepwalking.

While the ending is a bit of Hollywood hokum, the truth is that there are lives that don’t get happy endings. Some people struggle and labor their entire lives only to get nowhere. Sometimes they are responsible for their own plight, other times it is just godawful luck. Observing a slice of their lives doesn’t necessarily make us feel superior; rather it makes us feel fortunate that we have what we do and reminds us that everything good in life comes with a price tag.

WHY RENT THIS: Robb and Stahl make a believable pair; their relationship is at the crux of the movie and provides all the rooting interest.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly bleak, and in a lot of ways, most of these characters are hard to relate to because of their many and varied faults.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language, a bit of sexuality and a scene where a child is emotionally and physically abused make this not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original working title for the movie was “Ferris Wheel.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Grace Is Gone