When I first saw the trailer for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl…I thought, “Great…another cloying oh-so-insightful movie about teen angst…with cancer!” But then the reviews started coming in and I heard how it was an audience favorite at Sundance, and I thought, “Hmmm, okay, maybe this will be more like The Perks of Being a Wallflower which also had a cliché-ridden trailer but turned out to be a surprisingly good movie.” Both films take place in Pittsburgh oddly enough (an unlikely city that plays nicely on film) and both are based on well-regarded young adult novels.
Now having seen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I’m here to report it’s actually more like The Savages, you know, that under-appreciated gem of a character drama starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as estranged siblings dealing with their father’s descent into dementia (and eventual death). Both films are about the living learning how to live while watching the dying die.
And it’s okay to spend half of my review talking about and comparing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to other films because it’s a film for film buffs. Continue reading →
It’s that time again for The Spin to whip up a seemingly random hodgepodge of recent films viewed in theaters, on VOD and on Netflix and draw tenuous lines connecting their themes while passing judgment on the merits of their attempts to be profound or entertain.
All of the films feature main characters dealing with serious father issues, three are from first time feature film directors, three of the films feature troubled and/or precocious kids, two feature single mothers raising sons, and two were funded by Kickstarter. Here’s the rundown:
First up is the Kickstarter-funded first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD. In The Babadook (a title, that like the film, can take on multiple meanings), a single-mom/nurse (Essie Davis, absolutely outstanding at becoming unhinged) is struggling to raise her out of control, starving for affection and monster-obsessed six-year old son (Noah Wiseman, effectively obnoxious and cute and seriously troubled) whose father died in a car crash on the day he was born. Their toiling roiling relationship reaches a fever pitch when a creepy would-be charcoal-etched kid’s book, Mr. Babadook, finds its way into their house and refuses to be ignored. The film, an expressionistic psychological thriller neatly wrapped in a horror gift box, is derivative as hell but also smartly crafted to show the damaging effects of not dealing with grief, unmanaged stress, sleep deprivation and paranoia. The creepy music, sound effects, cinematography, and art design are all well woven by Kent, who hints at a very promising future. The ending will be a let down to some, but like the best psychological thrillers, is open for multiple interpretations depending on whose POV (the mother’s or the son’s) one takes. The Babadook represents the best of what films can and should get funded through Kickstarter and is a creepy fun ride for anyone with any passing interest in psychology and the horrors of a human mind unwound. Continue reading →
There’s a truly fantastic scene about half-way through Craig Johnson’s dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, where Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig lip-synch to Starship’s hilariously 80’s anthem, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” It’s been highlighted ad nauseam in the TV spots for the film, but it’s even more dynamic and infectious on the big screen. Its almost painfully prolonged unfolding is built upon the rising tension of Wiig’s character being supremely pissed off right now and refusing to play along with her brother’s antics until that moment comes where she just can’t take it anymore and has to join the insanity. The look on Wiig’s face as she reluctantly (yet deep down so happily) mouths the lyrics, “Let them say we’re crazy…” is a perfect moment for this gifted actress inside a wildly imperfect film. Hader, likewise, is borderline idiot genius with his mannerisms and body language. It’s a shame then that writer-director Craig Johnson saddles them with such obvious clichés.
The dysfunctional sister-brother relationship dramedy has long been the bastion of many an indie filmmaker. Most of these films star Laura Linney (think You Can Count on Me, or probably the ultimate example of this sub-genre, The Savages). Wiig is an interesting substitute for Linney, as the comedic actress has never been allowed to go dramatic before, but with such a great built-in chemistry with Hader (who is most beloved as SNL’s Stefon, the worst NYC tour guide EVER) the two click whether they’re lip-synching to bad music or revealing devastating secrets to each other. Continue reading →
In the sharply tuned rom-dram-com Crazy, Stupid, Love (currently on Blu-ray and DVD) our sad sap of a hero Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) remarks – while lamenting the disintegration of his marriage after his wife (Julianne Moore) reveals she’s been cheating – that no one ever seems to use the word “cuckold” any more. But that’s what he is. A cuckold.
In Alexander Payne’s shockingly bleak and depressing dram-dram-com The Descendants (currently in theaters) Matt King (George Clooney) is a cuckold, too, only his cheating wife is left in a coma after a freak accident.
Both films feature nice, good-hearted, middle-aged guys desperately trying to hold their families together and feature kids in uncomfortable situations…but Crazy, Stupid, Love mines for laughs while The Descendants mines for gold (Oscar gold). Continue reading →
Just six months after introducing us to one of the most unlikable and miserable movie couples viewers had ever seen in Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes takes us on a little detour from his usual style/genre and allows us to meet one of the most likable on-screen pairings in recent years with Away We Go.
TV’s John Krasinski is the amiable goof-ball and insurance-futures’ salesman Burt and SNL alum Maya Rudolph (in a quietly revelatory performance built on her gift of perfectly timed facial expressions) is his long-time girlfriend Verona who does illustrations for medical textbooks. Suddenly they find themselves pregnant and searching for a real home in this semi-autobiographical tale from scribes Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The pair, untethered to their current situations, decide to travel all over North America visiting family and friends so that they might find that perfect spot to lay down roots. Fans of Eggers’ books should be pleased that the screenplay is imbued with his popular brand of sharp humor mixed with diluted sentimentality. The tale of these two thirty-somethings trying to do the right thing not only for themselves but for their daughter-to-be is filled with humor, warmth and a subdued pathos that allows us to relate to the both the chaos around the characters and their desire to shield their baby from it.
Under Mendes surprisingly laid-back director’s hand, the material and the performances rise above the clichés of the “she’s having a baby!” sub-genre of dramedies while successfully interweaving elements of “discovering yourself on a road trip” indie flicks. Episodic and sometimes meandering in nature, the film’s acts range from laugh-out-loud hilarious (including a scene-stealing Allison Janney making a bid for worst mother of the year in grand comedic style) to laughably absurd (witness Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-righteous alterna-mom with an unfounded hatred towards strollers) to unexpectedly poignant (in an unexpected side-trip to Miami to help Burt’s brother through a crisis). You won’t find any screamingly awful delivery room scenes here, and while there is some semi-crude sexual humor, it’s reality-based instead of raunchy and never overshadows the film’s heart.
As with any Mendes’ production, the cinematography (this time from Ellen Kuras) is artistically sound and serves as the perfect place for Mendes to paint his details. When the director uses a steady tracking shot moving through the passengers on a plane in mid-flight to focus in on the sun’s hazy golden light coming through the windows highlighting the faces of our two stars sitting side-by-side, you can see Burt and Verona unified in a yearning pensive loneliness that makes you instantly root for their success. The promise of that scene is wonderfully fulfilled in the closing act (the details of which I will not divulge) which is probably the most hopeful denouement — beautifully understated and with minimal dialogue — you will ever find in a Mendes’ film. As with anything in life, even in the most hopeful of atmospheres there is still some uncertainty, but if we’re lucky, we’ll see the talented Maya Rudolph in more lead roles and Sam Mendes will take time for more pleasant detours such as this.
A struggling single mom named Rose (Amy Adams in her comedy/drama wheelhouse) gets tired of working for a maid service and boldly decides to branch out into crime scene clean-up with her lay-about sister Norah (Emily Blunt, ironically named) in Christine Jeffs’ observant and easy-going Sunshine Cleaning.
Although it has been marketed as one of those quirky dramedies the studios love to shove down our throats every year, Jeffs’ film (from a solid screenplay from Megan Holley) is more in tune with somber yet hopeful indie character studies. The film deals with some dark subject matter and poignantly explores grief and family dysfunction but maintains a positive outlook and contains some solid situational laughs. The combination of an interesting set-up, smart writing, likable characters and winning performances make the film, even when it teeter-totters from dark to sappy, go down smooth. None of the characters seem forced upon us, unlike the overtly quirky family from Little Miss Sunshine or the stylized dialog spewing teens from Juno. These characters talk and interact like real people and there’s a naturalism in the way their relationships develop.
It makes for engaged viewing when a film like this doesn’t feel the need to explain every detail or tie up every loose end so nicely. Some subplots involving Norah taking a personal interest in one of the clean-up jobs that leads to an awkward friendship with a blood-bank worker (Mary Lynn Rajskub of 24 fame) or a one-armed supply store guy (Clifton Collins Jr.) who takes a shine to Rose aren’t resolved in a typical fashion, and some things are never made known or left open-ended. It makes the film feel truer to life. Even when Rose’s precocious kid (Jason Spevack) tries to talk to heaven on a CB radio in what would normally be considered a contrived and cutesy moment, you feel like you’ve grown to know the character and it’s just something he would do. Likewise, Alan Arkin as the sisters’ scheming entrepreneurial father behaves and acts like a real guy who’s had to struggle raising two girls alone and is just trying to help them catch a break.
Amy Adams, of course, is an absolute delight. (An earlier ode to Ms. Adams can be read here.) Something about her girl-next-door good looks combined with her innate talents as a comedienne and her theatrical background that produces some of the best facial expressions and crying-on-cue you’ll ever see make her the perfect choice for this type of role. While it’s easy to sing the praises of Adams, and she’s never been more endearing or relatable than here, Emily Blunt proves to be an excellent foil. It’s Blunt’s sharp portrayal and her character’s story arc that provide the film its emotional weight. Both actresses deserve to be remembered come awards season, and Sunshine Cleaning is that rare spring-time bird: a film worthy of buzz.