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Entries in Drama (69)

Friday
Sep212012

Liberal Arts

Writer/director Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It’s a true statement—knowledge leads to insight, insight leads to truth and truth is too often a sad and frustrating thing—but the movie never really capitalizes on this idea. The characters wax poetic about romantic literature and things of the like, but to say they’re somehow knowledgeable in any way is somewhat of a stretch. Only Radnor’s second film, Liberal Arts is just as misguided and unfocused as his first attempt, Happythankyoumoreplease, but that movie benefited from some substantial laughs and sizeable emotions whereas Liberal Arts doesn’t contain much feeling at all and its laughs are sparse. While I wouldn’t say it’s substantially worse, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Happythankyoumoreplease, and that was worth only a mild recommendation.

The story revolves around Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35 year old New Yorker who is asked to visit his old college where one of his favorite professors, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), is hosting his retirement party. While there, he meets a 19 year old sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who begins to develop feelings for him. Perhaps unluckily, Jesse begins to reciprocate the feeling, but the age difference puts him at a crossroad. Should he take a chance on Zibby or continue his lonely stroll through life?

If there’s one thing you can deduce about Josh Radnor from watching Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts, it’s that he has a big heart. He’s drawn towards heavily flawed characters, people who may not make the right decisions or say the best things, but he gives them redeeming qualities and you come to connect with them because of it. There’s a sense of optimism in his films, where even the saddest people can find happiness and any challenge can be overcome. In what seems like an increasingly cynical world, his view on life, love and friendship is refreshing. The problem is all in his approach.

Just like Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts is overburdened with inconsequential side stories that have no relevance to the main plot. Regardless of their positive intentions, their superfluous nature is readily apparent. For instance, there’s an entire subplot revolving around the Professor as he second guesses his decision to retire. Teaching was his entire life and now that it’s gone, he realizes he has nothing else. His early breakdown during his retirement speech is both forced and unnecessary and his character arc is shallow. Similarly, there’s a young student named Dean (John Magaro) who Jesse runs into on his journey who has his own emotional problems. He’s a loner and a manic depressive who is there solely to make viewers feel something, regardless of how manufactured it may be.

You then, of course, have the new indie film character archetype: a crazy, prophetic, seemingly all-knowing guru with a quirky outlook on life named Nat (Zac Efron) who shows up only when Jesse’s tangled emotions need realigning. Every one of his moments are horribly contrived, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole. Radnor overloads his film with insignificant characters like these and he tries to find meaning everywhere, but he instead loses much of what he could have had with a more focused effort.

That’s not to say Radnor doesn’t have talent. He does, and you can see it in many areas in both his films. The dialogue is sharp, clever and sometimes profound and he always gets the best out of his performers—the beautiful, charming and talented Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, raises the movie above its typical humdrum rom-com material—but he too often succumbs to cinematic ADD and loses his focus. It’s like he heard the term “bigger is better” as a child and it engrained in his head, translating over to his feature films. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, sometimes, less is more.

Liberal Arts receives 2/5

Friday
Sep212012

Hello I Must Be Going

Hello I Must Be Going is so similar to this week’s other 35-dating-a-19-year-old dramedy, Liberal Arts, that it’s impossible not to notice or compare. Normally, when comparing two movies, one clearly outshines the other, yet Hello I Must Be Going is no better or worse, but it’s exactly as bland. Both films think they’re saying something more than they really are and despite all around solid performances, they fail to make an impact. If one must be chosen as superior, I suppose it would be Liberals Arts, if only because it’s funnier and a bit more heartfelt, but that in no way makes this movie bad. It would have been bad even without the comparison.

Amy (Melanie Lynskey), like so many mopey movie characters these days, is down on her luck. Her husband has just left her, shattering her happy existence, and she has moved back in with her parents, Stan (John Rubinstein) and Ruth (Blythe Danner). She’s been holed up in that house for months now and has had little interaction beyond her family. However, her lawyer father is hoping to nail a big client and is having him and his family over for dinner, so she is forced to doll up and put on a smile. That night, she meets Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), a 19 year old actor and son of the big client, and they instantly make a connection, sparking a secret, off-limits romance that, if discovered, could have serious repercussions for her future and her father’s business endeavors.

That’s the way the movie wants you to think about it at least. The reason the father wants to nail this client so badly is so he can retire, so the worst thing that could happen is that he’d have to wait a couple more years, though a late movie twist makes this reasoning moot anyway. As for Amy and Jeremy, they aren’t doing anything illegal or manipulative. They both clearly have feelings for each other—and as they say, love knows no age—so the consequences seem negligible at most. The stakes are never truly high, though they carry the guise of importance. This realization makes the movie feel aimless, unaware of where it wants to go and what it wants to say. It has the ingredients to make for interesting commentary, but, despite coming close to profundity a couple times, it mixes those ingredients into something most unsavory. It’s the cinematic equivalent of having something on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t find the words to create the meaning.

Similarly, the idea of having to be someone others want you to is forced into enough nooks and crannies of the film that the idea ends up becoming a self-parody. Jeremy, for instance, is pretending to be gay because his mother thinks he is. The why behind this decision is hardly explored, instead passed over by a quick throwaway line of dialogue, something about how it’s sometimes easier to be someone that others want you to be. Although not a bad theme, the character motivation doesn’t follow it through. Amy’s eventual maturation doesn’t come from support and understanding from those around her, or even from a realization that she deserves more than what life has given her, but from pressure from others to move on, to forget about the love of her life that dumped her and the second love of her life that is forbidden. She seems to move on by conforming to the ideas of others, not from her own desire to do so.

Hello I Must Be Going is a mess in search of a meaning. The performances are terrific and Lynskey, who is too often relegated to supporting roles, is finally given a chance to shine. She makes the most of it, even if her awards chances are slim, and she crafts a likable, sympathetic character whose charms manage to outweigh the whininess. But the movie as a whole is just there, trying really hard and not doing or saying much of anything. Even its contradicting title, one would assume, is meant to carry meaning, but it does little more than provide an easy zing for movie reviewers like myself. Frankly, it wasn’t long after saying hello that I was ready to get going.

Hello I Must Be Going receives 1.5/5

Friday
Sep072012

The Words

The Words is a movie that gets by on its idea alone. It comes from Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman, first time writers/directors, and therefore is a little rough around the edges—even its talented cast comes off like first time actors who have finally caught their big break and are unconvincingly trying way too hard, a problem which hearkens back to the amateur directors—but where it lacks polish, it more than makes up for with an engaging story and an interesting, if somewhat obvious, twist. A movie that seemed so simple at first suddenly becomes surprisingly poignant. It’s an Inception like narrative that is weaved together in a way that creates a character parallel that is difficult to explain, but is immediately apparent when watching. It may be a stylistically rough movie, but thematically, it’s quite beautiful.

The movie stars Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, an author who is reading his latest book to a crowd of fans who have gathered around to hear him. As he reads, we’re pulled into his story and meet his character, Rory (Bradley Cooper), an author himself who is struggling to get his first book published. He’s put three years of work into his novel and despite his admittedly excellent writing, he is turned down by every publisher he submits his book to. One day, while on vacation in London, he finds a worn down valise that contains a manuscript that is among one of the best he’s ever read. He begins to type it into his computer, not with intent to plagiarize, but, as Clay the narrator says, to feel the words flow through his fingers. However, his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), soon stumbles upon what he typed up and begs him to shop it around, not knowing every word of it is stolen. In order to not disappoint his wife, he does just that and the book is immediately bought. It quickly becomes a hit and Rory finds himself among the top authors in the world. A few years later, an old unnamed man played by Jeremy Irons appears and begins to tell his own story (which we also see onscreen) about a man who wrote a story back near the end of World War II, but then lost it. Rory quickly realizes that the old man is referring to the story he stole.

The Words, a story about an author reading a story about a struggling author stealing a story that another author wrote many years ago, may sound confusing, but it isn’t. It somehow manages to balance the accessibility of the narrative with complex themes and meanings. It never dumbs itself down for fear of isolating some audience members (aside from a few tiny narrations from Quaid as he reads from his book) and if nothing else, it should be commended for it. It doesn’t always succeed in what it sets out to do, but The Words is unique, taking a basic foundation made popular by 2010’s Inception and tweaking it to fit within the context of a dramatic story.

Nearly every aspect of the movie, from its performances to its looks to everything in between, is a give and take. For every one thing I would fix, there’s something else I wouldn’t touch. Some scenes work wonderfully while others fall flat on their face. The best example of the latter comes when Dora tells Clay that reading his novel was more honest, true and passionate than anything else he’d ever written. She tells him that the book contained all of him, even the parts she didn’t know existed. Of course, the book wasn’t written by him, so while she thinks she’s giving him a compliment, she’s really crushing him on the inside. The scene is a catalyst for all the events to come, but it’s more amusing than it is dramatic and more worthy of laughs than it is tears.

As far as visuals go, The Words is, like everything else, a mixed bag. For example, there is some awkward framing prevalent throughout the entire movie—sometimes it’s too uncomfortable to see these actors that close up, especially given their by-the-numbers performances—but once again, it’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Interestingly, the directors opt to shoot their movie using both the digital and film formats, the former for the current time settings and the latter for the World War II setting. This gives the movie some much needed style that is missing elsewhere and it creates a distinct feeling for each time period, keeping them separated before their thematic relation is finally revealed.

It’s a nice touch in an otherwise bland looking movie. In fact, the whole thing could essentially be summarized like that. The remnants of a bad movie are there, but there is enough thought and care put behind its creation that it comes out as much more. While I hesitate to hype it up more than it’s worth, The Words is nevertheless a surprising, underrated gem that is definitely worth a look this weekend.

The Words receives 3.5/5

Friday
Aug312012

Sleepwalk with Me

It’s difficult not to think of FX’s “Louie” while watching Sleepwalk with Me. They don’t have much in common other than the fact that the main stars are real life comedians playing fictional versions of themselves, but it’s the novelty of seeing a stand-up comedian, who is most comfortable on a stage, act out a story and try to find meaning. Although certainly flawed, “Louie” does a pretty good job of that and manages to surprise with its smarts at every turn. Sleepwalk with Me isn’t quite up to its level. It’s a good movie, but at a mere 80 minutes (and that includes credits), it’s a little light on story and much of its desired meaning is lost.

The film stars Mike Birbiglia as Matt Pandamiglio, an aspiring stand-up comic who spends more time bartending than he does telling jokes. He’s in a relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), whom he loves dearly, but nevertheless, he’s not ready to get married. The problem is she is. His sister’s impending marriage is only causing more eyes to turn his way with the hopes of him finally making the decision to settle down. These pressures cause his anxiety to spike and before he knows it, he’s sleepwalking to an extreme level, to the point where he could potentially harm himself or others.

Frankly, his whole sleepwalking predicament is beside the point. Aside from the obvious parallel between it and his drab existence, where the clichéd message of “look how some of us are sleepwalking through life” rears its ugly head, there isn’t much to it. It provides the occasional fit of laughter, like in an early scene where he starts kicking a laundry basket and yelling that there’s a jackal in his room, but for a device to be so central to the story, it’s surprisingly thin. With little writing experience other than his own stand-up routines, Birbiglia falls to the first-time-indie-writer problem. He thinks his movie is far more profound than it really is.

Even with this flaw, Birbiglia nevertheless manages to create likable characters that we care about, even if we don’t care about what they’re doing. Pandamiglio is your typical everyman. He’s relatable, but only because he’s common. He isn’t buff, successful or even particularly good looking, but neither is he scrawny, unsuccessful or ugly. He’s merely average, but he carries with him a passion most will be able to connect to and appreciate. Even his girlfriend, who is frustrated by his lack of commitment and becoming increasingly unhappy with their relationship, supports him in his comic endeavors, which are far more likely to fail than succeed. These are really interesting characters with complex personalities that are unfortunately coasting through a weak and inconsequential story.

Still, the movie does provide the occasional insight or emotional moment. One sequence in particular is simultaneously sweet and crushing as it flashes back to when Matt and Abby fell in love in the midst of a current relationship that is falling apart, but other transitions aren’t quite as seamless. Matt’s own metamorphosis from fledgling comedian to popular funnyman is rushed and unconvincing, as is his sudden attractiveness to the opposite sex, but I suppose at only 80 minutes, there isn’t much time for lollygagging. This short runtime also fails to allow enough time for Matt and Abby to be together (as Matt is out on the road for the majority of the movie), so what eventually happens to their relationship is both expected and narratively extraneous.

With so many structural problems and an ego that thinks it says more than it really does, Sleepwalk with Me is nothing more than a serviceable time waster. It succeeds (if only slightly) on a few decent laughs and the charm of its characters, but because it rarely gives them anything interesting to do, the film feels dull and lifeless. The final product from a stand-up comedian turned first time screenwriter and director could have been a lot worse, but Birbiglia will need to expand on his ideas next time if he hopes to succeed as something other than forgettable.

Sleepwalk with Me receives 3/5

Wednesday
Aug152012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The titular character in Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a wondrous kid, the type any parent would be happy and proud to have. He’s generous, kind, funny and lovable and he always sees the positive in things. Early in the movie, when he fails miserably at soccer, his coach asks him why he’s smiling, to which he glowingly replies, “I can only get better.” He’s an ideal kid for any parent and it’s impossible not to love him. If only the same could be said for his movie. While certainly not bad, it fails to grab the viewer in a meaningful way. Its wish for tears brings only the occasional goose bump and its humorous moments are only funny in a “how cute” kind of way. It’s enough to get it by, but the film clearly has higher emotional aspirations and it doesn’t ever fully reach them.

The film begins with Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) at an adoption agency. They’re in the process of telling a strange and miraculous story to an adoption agent, but it begins with a sad notion. After trying for years, they were told that they would never have children, a thought that crushed them. One night, they decided to write out on little cards what their ideal child would be like. They hoped for a child with a big heart who was honest, artistic and funny—not burp and fart funny, but actually funny—among other things. They took those wishes, placed them in a box and buried the box in their backyard garden. That night, a storm hit and a child popped into existence with all the characteristics they wrote out on those cards. They didn’t quite know what to do at first, but after he revealed his name was Timothy (CJ Adams), the only boy name they had picked out, they realized something special had happened. They quickly took him in, but strangely, he had leaves poking out of his legs. They didn’t know it at the time, but those leaves had a strong significance and they were eventually going to find it out what that significance was.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a silly premise given a silly execution and a heavy handed ending. It goes nowhere you don’t expect it to and it hits each emotional beat as surely as a jump scene in a horror movie, but its central character’s likability cannot be denied and it elevates its dramatically rote story from tolerable to entertaining, even if only mildly so. Its only surprises come from an uneven tone that sometimes feels more like one of those jumpy horror movies than a family friendly adoption tale. The beginning in particular, if not for the slow, soothing music could easily be mistaken for one. When the storm hits, the camera heads outside where it’s shown that something is pushing its way through the soil. Back inside, the door is open, making enough noise to make Jim check it out. He closes the door and grabs a drink at the fridge before heading back to bed, at which Timothy promptly runs in front of the camera, a shadow in an already darkened interior, the only thing missing being the startling musical cue. Coupled with the fact that the house is isolated from any neighboring town or person, it almost felt like I was watching The Strangers 2 than a Disney movie.

Its creepy factor extends from these horror elements, though, into at least one strangely sensual and increasingly awkward scene where Timothy paints a portrait of Cindy’s boss. Before he begins, he walks up to her and slowly takes her glasses off before letting down her hair with a softness that would have led up to a sex scene in another movie. It’s an uncomfortable moment and it blows my mind that nobody involved in this film’s production spoke up about it.

So I suppose the question is: why am I recommending it? Because the moments mentioned are only brief departures from what is otherwise a feel good charmer. It has some plot turns that don’t work, including the death of Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh), who is shown in one scene prior, which is certainly not enough to make an impact, and it thinks it’s more profound than it really is, but the performances are good and it will make you smile more than it will make you cringe. The world these characters inhabit isn’t perfect, but it’s also not violent and its goodness outshines the rampant negativity we’re used to in our own world. If nothing else, The Odd Life of Timothy Green allows you to live in a happy place for two hours and for that alone, it’s worth seeing.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green receives 3/5