The Skeleton Twins

September 22, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Dramedy is a much used descriptor these days for movies and TV shows. It’s an ill defined term that creates a pretty large field, from “Ally McBeal” to “Shameless.” So, I’m not sure how to narrow down the flavor of Dramedy present in “The Skeleton Twins.” It is definitely funny, laugh-out-loud funny in parts, and there is more humor than I expected. And there is a dark, bleak vein running straight through its middle. That darkness shades every single joke and plays around the edges of every single interaction, creeping more and more across the narrative until there is little room for laughter by the end. This is difficult stuff (suicide, emotional emptiness, betrayals, broken trust) and it is not dealt with tritely. There are some difficult, complicated scenes to watch, where brother and sister are genuinely angry at each other and you’re not entirely sure how you feel about what either one of them has done. The film’s willingness to stay in these uncomfortable moments without rescuing the audience is admirable. Though the real take away here is the two fine performances from our leads.  Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) and Bill Hader (“Superbad”) are both primarily known for their 9 years on “Saturday Night Live” and are hardly who I would have thought of as dramatic actors. Yet, both of them play their characters with depth and vulnerability. Likewise, Ty Burrell (“Modern Family”) really shines in a very difficult role, bringing humanity to a character that could have easily been a stereotype. The film does let me down a bit at the end. After a powerfully climactic showdown between siblings, the final scenes feel a bit simplistic and predictable. And the film wraps up neatly a few minutes later. It felt as though writer/director Craig Johnson didn’t know where to take it after the big explosions and so just put a bow on it and tucked it away. As I said, I’m not sure how to describe Dramedy here. I laughed again and again and I was made uncomfortable again and again. A less conventional ending really would have put this film over the top. Still, though, a worthwhile addition to the genre and I will definitely be keeping an eye on what these actors do next.

The Maze Runner

September 20, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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See, this is what happens… When there hasn’t been a movie worth watching for 3 weeks, what do I do? Well, I see a film that I’m fairly sure is bad that’s based on a book that I didn’t really like that much. And, yes, it wasn’t a great film but, ya know something?  It wasn’t really a bad one either. This is simple YA fiction at it’s most basic. The author clearly woke up one day with a clever premise in his head (ie “what if a kid with no memory woke up trapped in the center of a giant maze with a bunch of other kids with no memory”) and then went about trying halfheartedly to figure out why they would be there. The most disappointing thing about this story is that it sets up a compelling mystery whose final answer is so silly and implausible that it kind of retroactively ruins the mystery. However, if you can set aside any need for a sensible story, you will find this one to be reasonably fun. A group of young, largely unknown,  actors all play their characters admirably enough. None of them are Jennifer Lawrence but they certainly do as well as anyone in “Twilight” or “Divergence” and this film is a good sight more enjoyable than either of those ones (but what is it with YA films and hiring actresses that look like Kristen Stewart? The one young woman here is virtually indistinguishable from her). The film is also visually more arresting than those two. The giant maze is rendered well and the scenes inside of it are fun to watch. The evil “reavers” are also well designed and appear much scarier and more interesting than they were described in the book. In general, the film hits all the key elements but mostly improves on the story line by trimming it down and minimizing some of its sillier elements. Interestingly, the author of this book joins the “Twilight” author and Orson Scott Card, who’s “Ender’s Game” was just made into a movie, as yet another Mormon fantasy writer who Hollywood is throwing money at. I hope for him more success than “Ender’s Game” had (which is by far a better story) but less success than “Twilight” had (nobody needs quite that much success). This book is the first in a trilogy, of course. All of them are fairly dark and action packed, which used to be rare for YA fiction but now, thanks to “Hunger Games,” is the norm. So, if you want a fast pace, kids in peril, some death, some poignancy, a fortunate dearth of adolescent love, and minimal thinking required, this may be right up your alley.

The Trip to Italy

September 2, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon cleverly begin this sequel to their surprise 2010 indie hit, “The Trip,” by acknowledging Hollywood’s history of failed sequels, while aspiring to be their own “Godfather II.” Well, they do not, by any means, manage that. Nor do they even manage to be as good as their original film.  But this is no “Blair Witch II,” either. The first film was a much-funnier-than-it-should-have-been romp through Northern England restaurants, ostensibly to review them, but mostly as an opportunity for Brydon and Coogan (both fairly big in England but almost unknown here) to get silly, snarky and hilarious through random jokes, commentary, impressions and endless attempts to outdo each other. This time, they do the same thing all over again only with a bigger budget. So, rather than the hidden gems of England’s Lake Country, we watch them dine at some of Italy’s great restaurants from Rome to Cinque Terre to Tuscany. Along the way, we get all of the same cavorting and commentary on steroids. More impressions! More free association! More celebrity mocking! In fact, this film just felt like “The Trip” in overdrive. Not that it doesn’t work. In fact, it does. While I may not have laughed as hard or as long, I still laughed a lot and throughout the film. In a way, I was reminded of Christopher Guest films, in that everyone seems to love most the one they saw first. After that, it is just variations on the theme. It’s a clever theme but the same joke is never quite the same twice. “The Trip” ended on a bit of a melancholy note, with Coogan alone in his apartment, highlighting his loneliness and isolation, while Brydon went home to his wife. This time, the same theme plays out slightly differently and with more melancholy than the first film. The moody, middle-aged man, existential emptiness feels tonally like an odd way to end both films and it is even more jarring here. For a film so committed to zany fun to end so abruptly on such a downer note seems odd.  But this is a small quibble. The truth is, if you liked the first film, you will surely like this one. And, if you haven’t seen the first one, then you’ll probably like this one even more.

Love Is Strange

September 1, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is it’s title. In fact, if anything, the theme of the movie seems to be that love is ordinary. That, gay or straight, love is really a very ordinary thing. Ben and George (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, respectively) have been together 39 years, living most of that time in the small apartment they bought in New York City. The film starts on their wedding day in 2013, surrounded by a small group of family and friends. Shortly thereafter, George is fired from his job at the local Catholic high school. Unable to maintain their home on Ben’s pension, they are forced to sell it and live separately with friends/family while they regroup. The film is essentially the story of these men living apart for the first time in four decades and the stress that puts on them and the people they live with.  For all of that, this is not a sad movie. It’s light, funny, sweet and feels deeply real. Director/Writer, Ira Sachs’s last film (“Keep the Lights On”) was, in some ways, the opposite of this one. It followed a young gay couple as they met, fell in love and then fell apart over the course of 10 years. That story was of the heart-wrenching failure of love over many years. This one is of love’s success, as seen over just a few months. However, what they both share, is a sense truthfulness about relationships. All of the interactions, every scene and bit of dialogue, felt believable to me; nothing was cloying or overly dramatic. Much of the core drama of the film lies in the relationship between Ben’s nephew (who he is staying with), his wife and his teenage son. They argue about the sort of silly mundane things that we tend to fight about and Ben watches as an uncomfortable witness to it all. If there is any meaning to the film title, it might be as commentary on the teenage son, Joey’s relationship with his best friend. We are clearly meant to suspect something between them, as Ben and the boy’s mother do. But what? Unlike the graphic nature of “Keep the Lights On,” everything here is dealt with with great subtlety. Perhaps the two boys are involved sexually. Perhaps they’re in love. Or just experimenting. Or there is an unrequited love. It’s unclear to everyone, including perhaps to Joey. This could have been played to great dramatic effect, with several opportunities for sweeping monologues on love, acceptance, etc. Fortunately, Sachs is a much better writer and director than that. Instead, we have some beautiful scenes were something could have been said, where Ben could have intervened with sage advice but, as is more often true, nothing profound is said and life goes on. I was struck particularly by an argument at the dinner table between dad and son. A lesser director would have turned it into a “learning moment,” giving Ben a noble soliloquy. Instead, he chooses realism to much greater effect. This tone, of simply letting life live as really as possible on film, pervades the whole movie and makes the bittersweet ending so well earned.  And it is so bittersweet, so melancholic and joyful and uncertain all in the same moment.  In the darkness of the rolling credits, I felt more complexity of emotion than most films are capable of.  I walked out feeling a little happy and a little sad and quite touched. Much like real life.

 

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