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Entries in Drama (69)

Friday
Jun152012

Your Sister's Sister

Your Sister’s Sister begins with a somber moment. One year after the death of a man named Tom, his friends and family have gotten together to remember him. Most talk about how special and kind he was, a person who was always willing to lend a helping hand, but his still grieving brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), remembers him differently. He remembers him as the little hellion he was when they were kids, before everybody else in the room met him. After ranting about how terrible he could be (not out of hate, but out of his disgust for people who claim to know so much about him, but really don’t), his best friend and Tom’s ex-girlfriend, Iris (Emily Blunt), tells him to take a load off and get away for a while. She tells him to go to her father’s cabin where he will be shut off from the world, but when he gets there, he finds her lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has also retreated there to get away from a difficult situation.

This is where the movie takes a turn. It becomes more humorous and the two characters who have never met each other before begin to form a bond. After a long night of drinking, they end up having sex with each other. What’s clear in these early moments is that the characters are indeed facing central problems that motivate their actions, but the movie smartly never dwells on them. It never forces us to feel bad for either of them, instead allowing us to make up our own minds based on what they do and say, not how the screenplay wants us to feel.

A large portion of this could be because of its improvised nature, a staple of the recent so-called mumblecore film movement, but this isn’t like, say, Humpday, which consisted of 10 written pages with no dialogue. Your Sister’s Sister is a 70 page treatment that clearly has a narrative and emotional path in mind, yet it allows the actors to forge that path themselves. It’s the best blending of mumblecore with traditional filmmaking to date.

But while the characters are strongly defined through equal parts performance and writing, they’re stuck in a story that would feel like a gimmick in a romantic comedy. When Iris shows up the next morning after Jack and Hannah’s rendezvous, a number of things are learned, of which I’ll leave secret for fear of revealing spoilers. Although the events are handled more delicately than they would be in a more conventional rom-com, they are no less banal and inconsequential, the latter adjective used only because the film wraps up a hugely complex and precarious situation in an unbelievably tidy manner. The overly simplistic conclusion makes the conflicts feel minute in scale, despite their essentiality to the story.

Nevertheless, Your Sister’s Sister is a solid movie, featuring a trio of excellent performances and dynamic character relationships that ring true in every scene. Above anything else, the film is about sibling love and forgiveness, even when that sibling has done something unforgivable. For the most part, it succeeds both narratively and emotionally in what it sets out to do (despite a silly and heavy handed end speech), but Your Sister’s Sister never rises above that humdrum feeling its premise elicits.

Your Sister’s Sister receives 3.5/5

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
Mar232012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of the best selling young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, has been shrouded in secrecy. Little was revealed about the film leading up to its release and critics were even asked to sign non-disclosure agreements before watching the film, meaning if they broke the embargo set by the studio, they could be punished in court. It’s a little extreme to be sure, especially since it isn’t anything particularly special. It’s a good film, but the hype it has garnered is a bit much, though if audience reaction at my screening is any indication, it will be a huge hit.

The film is set in a dystopian sci-fi future where every year, 24 kids from the ages of 12 to 18 are thrown together in an arena to battle to the death, one girl and one boy from each of the 12 districts. In District 12 lives Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who has been forced to act as the head of the household. Ever since her father died, her mother has been useless and she has had to take care of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Well, Primrose has just hit the age of 12 and for the first time ever is eligible for what they call The Hunger Games. As fortune (or misfortune) would have it, Primrose is selected, but before she is taken off, Katniss volunteers herself in Primrose’s place. So along with the selected male in her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she heads off to compete, knowing full well she may be approaching her final days.

For film buffs who are familiar with Kinji Fukasaku’s masterful Battle Royale (which is also, coincidentally, based on a book), The Hunger Games is going to seem mighty familiar. The premise is more or less the same—kids are thrown in a remote area and must fight to the death until only one remains—but tonally, they are quite different. The Hunger Games injects more drama and heart into its runtime than Battle Royale, though that doesn’t necessarily make it superior. For what both are trying to accomplish, Battle Royale does a better job.

The Hunger Games’ greatest strength is its individual moments. It competently builds the characters to the point where you care about them not just because they’re too young to die, but also because of their motivations, selfless actions and realistic emotions. Katniss, for instance, is obviously fearful for her life, but doesn’t want to kill anybody, though she knows she’ll have to. When she runs into Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl of only 12 or 13, she befriends her only to watch her die shortly after. It’s a powerful scene and both actors sell it well. There are more instances like this too, but the problem is that these individual moments don’t ripple throughout the entire movie. After Rue’s passing, she’s never mentioned again and the trauma of such an event is never truly felt in Katniss’ behavior or actions. The respectable and affecting drama is too often traded for cheap thrills, like a late chase through the woods by a pack of wild beasts.

At its core, though, The Hunger Games is a commentary on society, on our bloodlust and our fascination with watching people destroy themselves via reality television. This is where the film works best, even if the ideas have already been explored more successfully in the ahead-of-its-time action film, The Running Man or, in a more dramatic sense, The Truman Show. With our idolization of people like Charlie Sheen, our fascination with shows like Celebrity Rehab and even our obsession with bloody, violent sports like boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s hard not to feel like we’re heading in the direction of pitting people against each other to the death for entertainment. The fact that the film is rated PG-13 is only another indication of our downhill slide because it doesn’t shy away from its brutal violence. Kids are hacked up with machetes, shot with arrows and punctured by spears. Showing blood used to be enough to garner an R rating, but blood splashes up through the screen here while little children are shown dead or dying. While I hesitate to call the violence overly gratuitous (this is no Saw film, after all), the sheer amount of it is startling given its rating, yet it works in favor of the film’s commentary.

Given its grim set-up that all children must die but one, which should lead to conflicting emotions and, ultimately, rich drama, a late movie twist feels a little bit like a cop out; if not a cop out (since they did, in all fairness, set this turn of events up fairly early), then a missed dramatic opportunity. This miss is indicative of the film as a whole. The set-ups aren’t followed through on and the dramatic repercussions of experiencing such a terrible circumstance are left unexplored. Still, those aforementioned individual scenes pack a punch, even if the movie as a whole doesn’t.

The Hunger Games receives 3.5/5

Thursday
Mar222012

October Baby

Ask anyone: it’s difficult to watch a film that doesn’t align with your own beliefs. Those who align themselves to the right rarely watch movies by Michael Moore while those to the left are quick to write off a political spoof like An American Carol. Those who devoutly believe in a higher power are less likely to watch a documentary like Religulous while less religious folk try to stay away from Christian propaganda like Letters to God and Fireproof. Well, this week’s pro-life movie, October Baby, is both a religious and right-aligned political film. Little more should need to be said for you to know whether or not this movie is for you, but for those still interested, read on.

The film follows Hannah (Rachel Hendrix), a college freshman who has landed the lead part in a stage play. While performing one night, she collapses and is rushed to the hospital. There, she learns that she suffers from epilepsy that was brought on by a failed abortion attempt when she was still inside her biological mother. The parents she knows and loves are forced to break the news to her that she’s adopted and she is understandably distraught. She wants to know who she really is, where she came from and why her real mother did what she did. Luckily, some of her friends, including hunky Jason (Jason Burkey) and his girlfriend, are about to head out on a trip to New Orleans to partake in Mardi Gras and a quick pit stop on the way is all that is needed to reunite her with her mother.

Religious movies are not inherently a bad thing. The best, like last year’s Soul Surfer, can tell a meaningful story wrapped around Christian beliefs without slamming its views down viewers’ throats. The worst are self-righteous and condescending to anyone who may not believe what the filmmakers do, like another movie from last year, Seven Days in Utopia. Most, however, are just merely bad, usually replacing offensiveness with schmaltz. October Baby is an odd mix of all three. It has some genuinely effective moments that viewers from all sides of the abortion debate will appreciate before devolving into arrogant religious grandstanding and abortion condemnations. A good example of these mixed reactions comes in a scene where a cop (who hilariously has just let Hannah and Jason off the hook for breaking and entering—a felony in all states—because he hears Hannah’s sob story about being adopted) spouts off some words of supposed wisdom, saying, “Hate the crime, not the criminal.” Its insolent stance on the abortion issue is absurd (besides, abortion is not a crime), but at the same time, it’s not promoting hatred like many religious institutions do. It’s not telling viewers to look down on those who decide to receive the operation. Later on, when Hannah finds her birth mother, the movie treats the situation with respect, never demonizing the woman, despite her evasiveness and standoffishness. As far as the movie is concerned, she is simply a human who had to make a difficult choice.

Still, the movie is decidedly pro-life, even if it thinks it’s being fair to all sides. Before reaching her mother, Hannah runs into an old nurse who used to work at the abortion clinic. She quickly begins to recount her days there and the awful things she saw. At this point, the film hastily throws in the idea that Hannah actually had a twin brother, who died soon after birth due to complications from the failed abortion. It begins to pack the imagery of the issue to the ceiling and pulls out every card it has in its deck to get the viewer to feel a certain way. While it’s true that the end results of an abortion aren’t pretty, it’s unfair to simplify the event in such a way. The abortion debate is not as simple as “it’s killing a baby” or “it’s a woman’s right to choose.” There’s much more to it than that, a notion captured fairest by the wonderful documentary Lake of Fire, which has more to say both for and against abortion than October Baby does in its one-sided approach.

October Baby’s biggest flaw, however, isn’t in its shortsighted view on such a serious issue, but rather that the movie just isn’t very good. The characters are hardly interesting and don’t behave like real people. These college kids (who, if you’ll remember, are heading off to Mardi Gras, which is practically a celebration of sin) are the most virtuous creatures on the planet. They don’t curse, they don’t drink, they don’t smoke and they don’t do anything even remotely sexual. When they stop off at a hotel for the night on their way south, the boys bunk together and the girls do the same. Even Jason and his girlfriend stay apart for the night. The film caters to a certain demographic that still holds onto the archaic idea that teenagers aren’t having sex and it plays far too safe because of it.

October Baby is also tonally inconsistent, with brief, random moments of forced humor popping up in between scenes of deep melodramatics, and the inspirational pop soundtrack is just awful, detailing exactly what is happening at that moment in the film, just in case some viewers find the already simplistic and overly straight forward narrative too confusing, but it’s not the worst movie in the world. Rachel Hendrix is actually pretty solid as the lead. She’s convincingly mopey and cries real well. There are even a few somewhat amusing jokes (despite their misplacements), like when a character played by past American Idol contestant Chris Sligh makes a crack about reality TV shows being fixed. Overall, though, October Baby just doesn’t work on any level, neither as an emotionally driven narrative nor a piece of pro-life propaganda. The already converted will surely find it to be a powerful piece of work, but everyone else will roll their eyes at its absurd silliness and over-the-top sentimentality.

October Baby receives 2/5

Friday
Mar162012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In one way or another, all movies are about destiny. The journey a character takes from a film’s opening moments all the way to its conclusion can easily be defined as such, yet critics and filmgoers still criticize those films for their contrivances and happenstances. Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens with a quote, directly telling the audience that the film they’re about to see is about fate, which will give certain critics a reason to look past the film’s contrived situations, but expressly stated or not, contrivances are contrivances and Jeff, Who Lives at Home is full of them.

Jeff (Jason Segel) still lives at home with his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). He’s 30 years old and nobody understands him. One day, he gets a call from a wrong number looking for a man named Kevin. Jeff sees this as a sign to look for someone named Kevin because, who knows, that person might just need his help. On a trip to the supermarket that same day, he spots on a man wearing a basketball jersey with the name “Kevin” etched on its back, so he follows him only to be robbed, beaten up and wandering the street where a whole mess of contrived situations lead him to what he thought he was looking for.

If I went through every single one of those aforementioned contrivances in an attempt to defend my stance on the film, I’d be giving away the entire story beat by beat because they continue on, quite literally, until the very last scene where characters who hadn’t seen each other the entire film just happen to intersect at a crucial point in time, so instead let me just give a few early examples. After taking a beating from the kid wearing the basketball jersey, Jeff takes a stroll down the road, the very same one that his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), just happens to be having lunch on (and only spots him because he leaves his table to take a conveniently timed call from his mother). Pat offers to give Jeff a ride home, but after some reckless driving, he slams into a tree, only for the two to spot Pat’s wife, Linda (Judy Greer), across the street at a gas station with another man (both of whom are oblivious to the fact that a sports car at top speed just slammed loudly and violently into a tree).

Jeff and Pat then decide to tail Linda and the mystery man, but eventually lose track of them, so they part ways after an argument. Pat hails a cab and out of all the streets in the entire city it could have driven down, it drives down the one with a Hampton Inn on it and where Linda’s car is parked. Meanwhile, Jeff has hitched a ride on a snack food truck because the company name just so happened to have the name “Kevin” in it. Guess where the truck’s next delivery is? You guessed it. The Hampton Inn. What happens after this point is too story sensitive to discuss due to potential spoilers, but you can be sure moments like those previously mentioned continue to occur, bringing about what can only be described as a mega-contrivance.

Frankly, it’s tiring. This movie is either too stupid to realize the opening quote doesn’t negate its contrivances or it’s so smart it realizes putting that quote there will fool people into thinking it’s something more than what it is. If it’s the latter, it’s a clever ruse, but something tells me the Duplass brothers, the directors behind this and other so called mumblecore films Cyrus and Baghead, aren’t smart enough to pull such a sham, given that they still haven’t even realized how to operate a camera. Like their previous films, Jeff, Who Lives at Home still looks (perhaps intentionally) like an amateur home video, complete with poor framing, little headroom (if any) and misplaced zooms both in and out.

An uninteresting side story involving Sharon’s secret admirer co-worker is just another drop in the fail bucket when stacked up alongside the film’s bigger problems, but it’s not all terrible. A few of the jokes are laugh out loud funny and the lead is quite likable. He’s a bit of a slouch and spends more time smoking weed than looking for jobs, but he genuinely cares about people, as evidenced by a number of scenes, including one where he helps an old lady cross the street. Segel’s sympathetic portrayal of a character that could have easily come off as little more than a loser carries Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but without strong supporting content to aid him, it’s still difficult to care.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home receives 1.5/5