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

Robin Hood


Robin Hood

Never tell Russell Crowe that his rugby team sucks.

(Universal)  Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, William Hurt, Matthew Macfayden, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Eileen Atkins, Lea Seydoux, Mark Addy, Douglas Hodge, Simon McBurney. Directed by Ridley Scott

The legend of Robin Hood is central to English mythology. The character has made regular appearances on the silver screen and television, from the carefree bandit of Errol Flynn to the Kevin Costner version, with the heavy-on-the-mystical BBC series “Robin of Sherwood” somewhere in between. So how does this Robin rate?

Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer finishing ten years of war in the Holy Land alongside Richard the Lion Heart (Huston), the English King beloved by his people. I use the term “alongside” loosely; Richard is King and Robin is a lowly foot soldier. In most circumstances, the King would never interact with a commoner such as Robin.

However, times being what they are for the King, he can’t resist sacking one last castle, this one in the land of England’s ancient enemy, France. The English coffers are nearly bare after having paid for ten years of constant war. One evening, Robin gets into a fight with fellow soldier John Little (Durand) which is witnessed by the King and the King’s good friend Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge). The King is impressed with the honesty and bravery of both men, but Robin can’t resist speaking his mind when the King asks him to. For his honest criticism, Robin, John and Robin’s good friends Will Scarlet (Grimes) and Alan A’Dayle (Doyle) are put in the stockade for future branding and whipping.

Unfortunately during the siege the King takes an arrow through the throat and expires, throwing the ranks of the English into chaos. Robin, recognizing the situation, has a friend free the four of them from the stocks and they hie themselves hence for the coast to find passage to England before Richard’s army gets there and take all the boats for themselves.

In the meantime, the King of France (an actor who, amazingly, has gone uncredited for the role as far as I can see) is scheming with the vicious Godfrey (Strong) to assassinate the King on his way back to the coast. Of course, this is moot at this point but when Godfrey springs his ambush it is Sir Robert that is caught, innocently returning the King’s crown to England. Robin and his merry men come upon the ambush and force the assassins to flee, but not before Robin sends an arrow whistling Godfrey’s way, scarring him on the cheek. Robin comforts the dying Loxley by promising to return his sword to his father, a sword he had taken without asking. The four manage to make it to the coast and brazen their way aboard the King’s flagship by pretending to be Knights (by stealing the armor and cloaks of the dead men at the ambush) and flashing the crown. While sailing across the channel, Robin notices an inscription on the sword: Rise and Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions.

Meanwhile back in England, Prince John (Isaac) is cavorting with Isabella (Seydoux), niece of King Phillip, irritating his mother Ellen of Aquitaine (Atkins) no end, particularly since he is married to someone else. For most of the women in the audience this was a clear sign that John is an absolute jerk, although most royals of the time dallied pretty regularly – just another reason why, as Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the King. However, the party really starts when Robin – now masquerading as Robert Loxley – brings the sad news of the King’s demise, which elevates John onto the throne.

Times are hard in England and about to become harder. Taxes have just about bled the populace dry, even relatively wealthy former Knights like Walter Loxley (van Sydow) who, now well into his 80s, is blind and tended to by his son’s wife Marian (Blanchett). She is on the receiving end of the tender affections of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfayden) and is concerned that with all the good men of Nottingham away at war, too old, too young or broken, that the town will not survive the winter. With the new Friar Tuck (Addy) taking over the local church from the ambitious Father Tancred (McBurney) who is departing for York with all the seed grain for the town in his possession, which will make the coming harvest difficult with nothing to plant. Things look bad for Nottingham and they get worse when Robin arrives with the news of Robert’s death. However, Walter seems to recognize the name of Robin and in exchange for the sword he had just brought back, agrees to tell Robin about his past.

In order to keep the crown from seizing their property (because in England at the time only sons could inherit and with Walter’s dead, Marian would lose the farm as it were), Walter asks Robin to masquerade as his son and Marian’s husband in order to maintain the illusion that there was proper succession for the property. Robin agrees, having taken a shine to Marian (who of course doesn’t care much for Robin) and things get idyllic for a little while.

However, John has made the critical mistake of trusting Godfrey with the chancellorship of England, after sending the current chancellor William Marshall (Hurt) back home. Godfrey, who aims to start a civil war by using extreme brutality in the North, takes an army to cause mischief. He does this by importing a small army of Phillip’s men. Once England is in chaos, Phillip will invade and take the divided country with a minimum of fuss. England needs a leader more than ever – and a legend will be born.

This is the most unusual Robin Hood you’re ever likely to see. There is no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and very little of Sherwood Forest. There is no swashbuckling or derring-do; Russell Crowe is not the first name I’d call for actors who do that kind of thing. Crowe is more of a brooder and his Robin of the Hood does a whole lot of that; at least when he’s not perforating, slicing or dicing the French.

However, Blanchett makes a marvelous Marian, full of spunk and steel. She essentially runs the Loxley estate and takes no crap from anyone; if anyone tries to touch her, she’ll emasculate them as she tells Robin (or worse, as one of Godfrey’s men finds out later). She is elegant when she needs to be, rough and tumble when she has to be and feminine throughout.

Von Sydow is terrific in his role as the aging Knight, bringing his career full circle in some respects – you may be reminded that he once played a knight of the crusades who plays chess against death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and while the roles are nothing alike, I was reminded of it somewhat perversely. Regardless, von Sydow is nearing the end of his own career and yet remains as much a force as he has always been.

Strong, for my money, is the best villain working in the business today (although Danny Huston may give him a run for his money). Bald and scarred, he just looks terrifying without saying a word. Ambitious and amoral, his Godfrey would sell his mother if it would get him ahead – not that there’s much of a market for that sort of thing.

There are some very good action sequences, particularly the climactic battle between the French and the English. The movie is well over two hours long but still felt like it was missing some pieces; I got the distinct impression that there were some scenes that might have better explained things in the movie that were left on the cutting room floor, although if there are they will certainly wind up on the “Director’s Cut” edition that is sure to follow on the home video front.

This is more of an origin story than any Robin Hood to date, and more or less sets the tone of the times. There is no Errol Flynn leaping out of a tree, giving a jaunty salute and exclaiming “Welcome to Sherwood” with a twinkle in his eyes. This is a cross between Braveheart and Gladiator with a healthy dose of Kingdom of Heaven; the last two of which, not un-coincidentally, were directed by Scott as well. Like most films of the 21st century, this version of the character wallows in the dark side, brooding like the Renaissance Faire edition of Bruce Wayne. That’s okay by me, even if it’s becoming a little cliché. Still, I can’t fault a filmmaker for trying a new take on a venerable character as long as the essence of who that character is remains intact and I think Ridley Scott succeeds in that regard. This may not be your father’s Robin, or even your grandfather’s but it is Robin Hood nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A different take on the Robin Hood legend with a bit of political intrigue. Blanchett is magnificent as Marian, and von Sydow is delightful in a supporting role. Mark Strong may be the best villain in the movies at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: You get the feeling a good deal of exposition hit the cutting room floor. Crowe broods too much at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, particularly of the battlefield variety, as well as some suggestion of sexuality and rape; there’s enough here that I’d think twice about bringing the impressionable sorts but most mature teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tune whistled by Godfrey as a pass code to the French soldiers is “Frere Jacques.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the climactic battle should be seen on the big screen, but much of the movie foregoes the epic scope.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Cinema365 will be on temporary hiatus while I am vacationing in China. We will resume our daily movie reviews, previews and features starting on Friday, June 4th with a review of Soul Men.