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Entries in Catherine Keener (3)

Friday
Jun082012

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding aspires to be an indie darling, a movie that is seen by few, but is recognized by critics and indie film fans alike as something special. It will most likely get the first half of the equation right, but I’d be shocked if it got the second. Peace, Love & Misunderstanding is so outrageously bad that even the impressive and talented cast couldn’t pull it anywhere near the point of mediocrity, much less quality. This is one to avoid at all costs.

The plot involves Diane (Catherine Keener), a conservative lawyer who has just been asked for a divorce by her husband. Upon hearing the news, she grabs her two kids, Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jake (Nat Wolff) and sets off on a trip to visit her hippie, left wing nut job of a mother, Grace (Jane Fonda), who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. There she meets the hunky Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who looks like he may help her begin her healing process, while her kids find their own romantic interests in Tara (Marissa O’Donnell) and the town butcher, Cole (Chace Crawford).

Peace, Love & Understanding tries to do many things and it fails at all of them. At its core, it’s a movie about the crumbling of a dysfunctional family and the effect that dysfunction has on the growing minds of the kids. It’s like The Squid and the Whale, only without the profundity, subtext or three dimensional characters. It attempts to make statements on a number of things, including war, love, sensationalist infotainment as “news” and the idea of peace being an antithesis to freedom, but these things are said in passing and featured in so few scenes as to have no impact. The one thing it explores in depth is the idea of forgiveness and loving those who love you, different though they may be, but the contrived set-up that throws characters with differing viewpoints into each other is uninteresting and a perfect example of shallow screenwriting. Diane’s conservative attitude is constantly at odds with Grace’s liberal sensibilities, for instance, while Zoe’s love for all life clashes with Cole’s job of cutting up animals for sale. When Grace drags Zoe and Jake to an anti-war protest (which she does every Thursday if for no other reason than because she thinks the government is waiting for her to tire out), Diane freaks and pulls them away, not wanting the hippie mindset to take control of her kids, which is understandable given how bizarrely they act. I would say jokingly that hippies were more realistically represented in this year’s Paul Rodd comedy Wanderlust if my friend and critic Nell Minow hadn’t already said so seriously.

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding wants so badly to be interesting. It tries to be profound, but its observations are trite. It tries to be dramatic, but it’s too cheesy to be so. It thinks it’s a deep study on human emotions, motivations and reason, but it’s really no more than another silly romantic comedy. It has a few good messages, like the idea that our deficiencies are really just a state of mind and all we need to succeed in both life and love is a little courage, but it’s portrayed in such an obvious and heavy handed way that its effect is rendered moot. The film’s problem isn’t so much that it lacks substance—even thematically simple movies can be good—but that it tries so hard to be deep yet reaches the cinematic equivalent of a kiddie pool.

From a technical perspective, the film is a mess as well, complete with occasional awkward framing and editing (the movie has such a poor flow that even the filler shots fail to make a convincing transition between moments), but the majority of its deficiencies continually stem from a group of characters that are impossible to root for or care about. Grace, in particular, is beyond annoying and speaks in more prophetic phrases than Robert Duvall in Seven Days in Utopia and their manufactured problems are all resolved so quickly, it’s like they never happened at all.

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding has an arrogance about it, as if it’s as thoughtful a movie that has ever come out, but its ignorance knows no bounds. If “thoughtful” is on one end of the spectrum, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding is on the other.

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding receives 0.5/5

Friday
Jun252010

Cyrus

Film is ever changing. There’s no doubt about that. If it’s not Avatar leading the 3D movement, it’s something else shaping how we make and view movies. Cyrus is the latest example of what some would call a “mumblecore” film, a relatively new genre that employs a low budget, no name actors and improvised scripts. Other examples include Baghead and last year’s overrated Humpday, both of which, coincidentally, the director of this film was involved in. Starring in the latter and directing the former, Mark Duplass has once again stepped behind the camera with his brother Jay Duplass and churned out another awkward, misguided, unfunny movie.

John C. Reilly plays John, a lonely, desperate man who has been divorced from his wife Jamie, played by Catherine Keener, for seven years. Despite this, they remain friends and she acts as his confidante. One night, she pressures him into heading out to a party with her where he meets a host of women, none of whom seem very interested. That is until he meets Molly, played by Marisa Tomei. He instantly falls for her, but soon finds out that she has a 21 year old son still living with her. His name is Cyrus, played by Jonah Hill, and although he acts courteous, John suspects Cyrus may not want him in their home.

The pairing of John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei is the most unbelievable hookup since Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, and I say that not only because their physical appearances are on two different plains, but because I can’t see any woman finding a shred of affection for Reilly’s character. They first bump into each other as he’s urinating in the bushes outside, stumbling over his words in a drunken stupor and instead of taking interest in her, he rushes inside when he hears his favorite song playing and makes an idiot of himself. Next thing you know, they’re in bed together post-sex. Nothing about the set-up came close to resembling any type of reality because if women were attracted to drunken men acting like morons, I’d have prospects lining up around the block.

So it’s a stretch. I suppose that’s ok. The bulk of the movie is spent with Cyrus and as long as that worked, it would be easy to look past the weak opening. But it doesn’t. The reason is that the titular character is handled so haphazardly you never truly get a feel for what he’s thinking. He clearly resents John for infiltrating his household and threatening to tear his mother away from him and he uses humiliation tactics to prove his point, but there’s an odd sexual tension bubbling underneath. Is he upset because he’s losing his mother or because he can’t, as he puts it, love her the way John can?

It’s worrisome to say the least, but his quirks don’t end there. At times, Cyrus is voyeuristic and watches John and his mother as they walk through the door and make their way to the couch about to partake in some sexual activity. At others, he seems to have homicidal tendencies, appearing behind John at night with a knife and a cold blank stare. There’s something unsettling about Cyrus, deliberate or not, that keeps this movie from leaving the ground.

But then out of nowhere it reverses tones and concludes on an upbeat, happy-go-lucky sequence where the previous tension and hatred dissolves faster than an antacid in water, which didn't fit the sometimes dark and uncomfortable hour and 20 minutes preceding it.

Cyrus simply isn’t very good narratively, but it fails from a technical standpoint as well. It's shot like an amateur home video, full of camera zooms and intentional poor framing, which worked against its intended purpose. Instead of drawing me in through what the directors hoped was a more realistic documentary-esque feel, it became a distraction and pushed me away.

That those are only the beginning of my criticisms shows how hackneyed this poor excuse for a film is. Although categorized by some as “mumblecore,” I would argue it contradicts too many of that genre’s defining features to be considered such. But you can call it what you want. Cyrus is a mess either way.

Cyrus receives 1.5/5

Sunday
Feb142010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

I suppose we can thank good 'ol Harry for this. Due to the success of the Harry Potter franchise, we now have a countless number of books being adapted to the big screen in an effort to start a lucrative series. Harry Potter, Twilight, The Chronicles of Narnia, Cirque du Freak, all hope to grab that cash from you. While not all were successful, namely the latter one, all shared that same trait. Now we have a newcomer hoping to wedge its way into the fold in the form of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Despite a few problems, it largely succeeds and proves itself as a fun, entertaining fantasy adventure that will tide fans over until the next Potter film.

Logan Lerman plays the title character, a teenager who is about to find out that his entire life is a lot more complicated than he thinks. His father is actually Poseidon, god of the sea, played by Kevin McKidd. Years ago, he came onto land, fell in love with his mother, played by Catherine Keener, and they had him as their child. Now, Poseidon's brother Zeus, god of thunder, played by Sean Bean, has accused Percy of stealing his thunderbolt. He has 14 days to return it or the gods go to war, destroying the heavens and the earth. As a result, Percy is taken to a camp exclusively for demi-gods, kids who are half human and half god, to train. Once he arrives, however, he watches his mother get abducted by Hades, god of the underworld (or more precisely, the Devil). He is played wonderfully by Steve Coogan. So Percy decides that he must get his mother back and treks across America with Annabeth, played by Alexandra Daddario, and his protector Grover, played by Brandon T. Jackson, in search of three pearls that will grant them entry and exit to the underworld.

Phew. You wouldn't think so given the PG rating and marketing towards kids, but this film has a lot going on. On their journey, the kids meet Medusa, battle a 10 headed dragon, and travel down into Hell to confront Hades. I felt like I was watching an epic for the ages, an exciting, scary, violent romp through the best parts of Greek mythology. The funny thing is that despite the kid-centric commercials, this thing is more for adults and teenagers. It features decapitations, a drug induced happiness that is played as cool and the aforementioned descent into Hell. Top onto that the intense battles with all sorts of mythical creatures and you have a film that is actually quite creepy. This thing's scarier than The Wolfman.

Although comparisons are unavoidable, especially given that this director helmed The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, Percy Jackson differs from Harry Potter in these respects. The Harry Potter films are more polished, but Percy Jackson is more fun. This doesn't waste its time in endless set-up with zero payoff (much like the fifth Potter). It's more of a droll, white knuckle action fantasy that moves at a brisk pace towards its conclusion. If you're looking for a better film, go with Potter, but if you're looking for something you can put on and enjoy at any time, Percy Jackson is your best bet.

Still, the film is nowhere near perfect and actually stumbles the most when it tries to mix that drollery with a serious story. The humor rarely works and feels out of place when one-liners are thrown out in the heat of battle. Its tone gets mixed so frequently that I'm not sure one is ever established. For instance, when they first arrive in Hell, they see thousands of tortured souls below them. The visual is haunting. Then they meet the Devil and his, shall we say, mistress, played by Rosario Dawson, and it turns lighthearted with an eerie sexual tension bubbling beneath the surface. The movie would have been helping itself had it gone the full scary route rather than attempting to juggle the two.

Then you have the ineffective side stories about Percy growing up without his father and the kindling romance between him and Annabeth. You see, Percy has been bitter his whole life about his father running out on him and his mother. He was only 7 months old when it happened, so he never even got to meet him and now he's stuck with his nasty stepfather who treats his mom like a piece of meat. The ending tries to resolve these daddy issues and the cheese is stacked up high. The romantic chemistry between him and Annabeth was missing, rendering that moot as well.

If you're looking at the film from an analytical point of view, this is a great story told haphazardly, but if you're looking at it through a normal citizen's eyes, this is great fun. It won't ever reach the success of Harry Potter, but here's hoping it makes enough money to warrant a sequel. Percy Jackson deserves at least that.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief receives 3.5/5