Palm Springs

Release: Friday, July 10, 2020 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Andy Siara

Directed by: Max Barbakow

Palm Springs, a buzzy new Hulu original starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons, for me has an unusual distinction. This romantic comedy about two strangers stuck in a time loop at a wedding boasts one of the best post-credits scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It seems like such a small thing, not even worthy of mentioning in a review much less in the lede, but the closure it provides is just so satisfying it improved my opinion of the movie overall.

That might seem like a slam against everything preceding it. It’s not. Max Barbakow’s modern reinvention of Groundhog Day is far from perfect but it is very enjoyable and it ends in a way that sends the audience off on a high. Any movie that has the potential to get fresh eyeballs on that Bill Murray classic is okay by me. Palm Springs is perhaps even an homage to it, with lines like “it’s one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about” seemingly gesturing in the direction of the late Harold Ramis’ beloved 1993 comedy, or at least, toward a recent history of films inspired by it.

Harder to ignore is the fact the famously goofy 42-year-old positions himself as an intensely cynical, occasionally even unlikable leading man who has to get over himself in order to break free of the barely metaphorical cycle of living without purpose or fear of consequence. Samberg is Nyles, a drifter doomed to wake up on the same day in November ad infinitum. He takes the expression “going through the motions” to a whole new level with his presence at a wedding for Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). His only connection is his high-maintenance girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is in the bridal party.

Groundhog Day fans already know the drill: Nobody else is aware of his situation, and nothing he does seems to change it, not even multiple, technically successful, suicide attempts. After being stuck here for an indeterminate amount of time Nyles’ ability to care has been worn down to a nubbin. Then, during one loop, he introduces himself to Sarah (Milioti), who sticks out like such a sore thumb due to her visible discomfort in seeing her younger, far more successful (and selfless!) sister get her happily-ever-after that it kind of amazes me how Nyles does not pick up on this any sooner.

Mostly this is because the script from Andy Siara prefers giving the former SNL star the space and time to do his sketches rather than worrying too much about internal logic. Not for nothing, there are some really creative inventions as the filmmakers play around with the character’s prescience. A memorable sequence early on has Nyles going through a dance sequence so bizarre no person would possibly be able to pull it off without his “experience.” It also is a really fun way to get the two main characters to initially hook up. Of course, just as things are turning amorous a series of crazy happenings causes Sarah to fall into the same trap Nyles has been stuck in. All I will offer is that it involves a crazy-eyed, face-painted J.K. Simmons wielding a bow and arrow, and a cave of glowing light.

Palm Springs not only asks you to suspend disbelief for a minute (or two, or depending on how cynical you are, maybe 90) but it also seems like one of those movies that would rely heavily on dramatic irony. However it moves surprisingly quickly beyond that, evolving into a quasi sci-fi adventure and thereby making Sarah a more interesting, smarter character. When she comes to accept what’s happened, she proves to be very (and darkly hilariously) solutions-oriented, especially when she learns a little bit more about the guy she’s stuck here with. Time loop movies can go to some dark places and Palm Springs, despite its tropical setting, is no exception.

For a story steeped in the tradition of two icy hearts gradually warmed by shared intimate experiences, we don’t really get a lot of character development. Interestingly Sarah feels like a more fleshed out character than does Nyles. That feels like a first. Generally speaking Palm Springs relies on actor personalities. For example, J.K. Simmons. Every time I see him in a movie — with the notable exception of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash — I just want to kick back with a stogie and a glass of whisky with the guy and just shoot the breeze. Less involved but also fun are Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride and the wonderful June Squibb as an older wedding guest. And though the conclusion is patently predictable, I just cannot deny the warm fuzzy it leaves you with.

I feel ya buddy

Recommendation: Andy Samberg plays one of his more “unlikable” characters that I can recall. I put quotes around that word because it’s just really hard to gauge where his attitude stems from — bad childhood? Too many loves lost? Parental issues? Wtf is his deal? The movie isn’t great on character development. But it is big on mood and ideas, and that’s plenty enough for me to give this a hearty recommendation to fans of smartly done romantic comedies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t keep waking up in here. Everything that we are doing is meaningless.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb 

Harpoon

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited) 

→Showtime 

Written by: Rob Grant; Mike Kovac

Directed by: Rob Grant

Harpoon is a horror-comedy set at sea that is bizarrely compelling considering what actually happens in 80 short minutes. It’s a vicious little social experiment concocted by writer/director Rob Grant, who quite brilliantly uses little more than the bare essentials of filmmaking — a couple of good actors, a camera and a smart script — to hook you in to a situation that gets increasingly wild and unpredictable.

As a movie founded upon twenty-somethings dealing with hurt feelings and betrayals Harpoon totally overachieves in the entertainment department. Of course, in this movie backstabbings are refreshingly literal, and I am also skirting around some meta-textual stuff lashed onto the sides — an allusion to a certain Biblical story about a man-eating fish, as well as to some “silly” sailing superstitions.

That’s stuff best left for Brett Gelman to explain though, who serves as our delightfully snarky narrator. He sets up the scene and observes it with a cool detachment and from what turns out to be a safe distance, citing Aristotle as he launches into a foreshadowing spiel about the different types of friendship, their benefits, and which kind best describes the one we are about to witness fall apart spectacularly.

Harpoon begins with a punch — a sucker punch, straight to the chops. This is supposed to be a fun weekend where three best friends, Richard (Christopher Gray), the puncher, Jonah (Munro Chambers), the punchee and Sasha (Emily Tyra), the reason behind the punch, are getting together to celebrate Richard’s birthday. Plans change when Richard badly misreads a text message, assaulting his own best friend and doing something even worse to his parents. To make amends he takes everyone out on his dad’s yacht to celebrate/commiserate. Apparently the mobster life pays handsomely. And also apparently, Richard is just a chip off the old block, prone to violently destructive outbursts.

So obviously it’s not ideal when the least stable person on the open water A) has his suspicions confirmed that his “long-term partner” and his buddy are sleeping together and B) is gifted a friggin’ harpoon for his birthday. Making matters worse, something goes wrong with the boat’s engine, stranding the trio with a breezy afternoon’s worth of critical supplies but plenty of enmity toward one another. As days bleed into each other (and I do emphasize the bleeding), more revelations come to light and everyone’s true nature comes bubbling to the surface.

The screenplay by Rob Grant and Mike Kovac crackles with intensity, especially in the dialogue. Their approach is thin on backstory and yet you never doubt that these people have a history, that what you’re seeing is the weight of that history bearing itself in some savage ways in the present day. The young cast are 100% game for the roles they are to play in this farce that becomes fatal, whether it’s Gray fully embracing his inner loose-cannon frat-boy hothead; Chambers, thrillingly deceptive as a sad sack pushover; or Tyra, switching gracefully and gleefully between peacemaker and manipulator.

Their chemistry is critical because in Harpoon the bad guys outnumber the good guys 3-0. These are not likable people and yet throughout, as events take one ridiculous turn after another, the movie has a knack for getting you to invest — perhaps more like a rubbernecker than an audience member — in what crazy, terrible thing happens next. Despite being shot under the blazing sun, Harpoon starts off as dark comedy and trends darker until it reaches a place of legitimate horror. It’s a whacky indie production perfectly content to fly under the radar or at most be a blip on it in terms of 2019 releases — a genre offering very much defined by its own uniquely crazy energy. I, for one, define my relationship with this movie as purely pleasurable.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but it is worth repeating. To get on this movie’s wavelength it helps to have a weird, possibly morbid sense of humor. For higher budget, more recognizable faces and more action, there’s Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. More in its vein though is E.L. Katz’ supremely entertaining Cheap Thrills, low-budget and all indie and stuff. If your reaction was positive to either or both of those films, you’ve gotta check this one out. 

Rated: NR (but let’s call it R)

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, let’s make a deal. I grovel, and pamper you guys unconditionally, and you just try to remember a time before I went apesh*t.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed  written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb 

Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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Photo credits: IMDb

Uncut Gems

Release: Christmas Day 2019 

→Theater

Written by: Ronald Bronstein; Josh and Benny Safdie 

Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie

If they have proven anything in their last two movies it’s that few filmmakers stress you out quite like the New York born-and-bred Safdie brothers. Uncut Gems is, in a word, intense. This is a very aggressive mood piece that puts you in the headspace of a man losing control — of his wares, his sanity, his life. Relentlessly paced and cacophonous at almost every turn, the provocative presentation tests your nerves from the opening frame to the very last.

Starring Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic turn, Uncut Gems is the sibling’s follow-up to their attention-getting Good Time (2017). Indeed, if you watched that movie and noted the irony of the title as you watched things go from bad to worse for Robert Pattinson, you’re better prepared for the gauntlet that comes next. Uncut Gems throws us into New York City’s Diamond District and up against walls as Howard Ratner, a high-end jeweler and compulsive gambler, frantically runs around trying to pay off old debts by incurring newer, bigger ones. He’s in deep with the mob, but he also must contend with a wife who hates him, a girlfriend on the side, a basketball player’s superstitions and a doctor with news about a certain body part. It’s probably never been great being Howard but he’s certainly seen better days.

As for the guy playing him? You’d have to go back to the start of the new millennium to find a time when there was this much love for “the Sandman.” He became a critical darling for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) and the praise is arguably even more deserved 17 years later; the 53-year-old is a hurricane force in Uncut Gems. He’s playing a version of characters that have made him a household name in silly comedies galore, but this is one perpetual screw-up whose failures are decidedly unfunny. Not even Barry Egan’s life was this messy. And Sandler really seems to be having fun looking ridiculous, blinged out head-to-toe and sporting extra-curly, extra-greasy hair and a set of fake pearly whites that really pulls the sleazy image together nicely. The wardrobe department helps him look the part, but it’s up to Sandler to walk the walk and talk the talk — and oh boy, does he “talk.”

The theft of a big chunk of stone from the Welo mine in Ethiopia sets the wheels in motion for one wild, turbulent ride. This stone contains pockets of rare opal and is what they call in the trade an uncut gem. Its very existence seems to inspire chaos as we watch crowds swarm around a miner who has just broken his leg in an attempt to extract it. Given the way the movie opens on a different continent, I feel like there’s meant to be some quasi-Blood Diamond commentary here on the real human cost of the gem trade, how first-world materialism is inextricably linked to the suffering and exploitation of the third world, but there’s not quite enough content here to support that wild theory. Ultimately the opening sequence is more effective at establishing aesthetics rather than ethics. There is a hyperactive quality that extends to the rest of the film, particularly in the way people interact, that never allows us to get comfortable. Characters yelling over each other will become an anxiety-inducing motif.

We shift from Africa circa 2010 to America two years later via a crafty (and kinda gross) opening title sequence married to the curious synths of Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never)’s explorative electronica. The New York captured in Uncut Gems is shaped by the Safdie brothers’ experiences growing up with a father who worked in the Diamond District and has a very specific energy that cinematographer Darius Khondji helps convey through his frenetic camerawork. As it is set in a part of town largely characterized by family-run business, the filmmakers restrict the cityscape to a claustrophobic network of small, private rooms where access is a privilege and often a source of frustration.

Howard’s gem store, a cozy little nook where the world’s creepiest Furby dolls reside, is one such hallowed space. Though we pass through the malfunctioning security vestibule without complication, we are immediately bombarded with Howard’s problems. It’s a particularly bad day today because his debt collectors have come calling. He owes a six-figure sum to a nasty loanshark named Arno (Eric Bogosian), who also happens to be his brother-in-law. He’s bad news enough, but his enforcer Phil (Keith Williams Richards) is the kind of guy whose phone calls and texts you avoid to the detriment of your face. Together these two make for some of the most memorable thugs in recent movie memory — arguably since Daniel Kaluuya went all bad-boy in Steve McQueen’sWidows.

Howard just may be able to save himself when he procures that precious infinity gem stone. He’s confident it will sell in the millions at auction. As we quickly learn his clients have deep pockets — he caters mostly to rappers and athletes, no small thanks to the hustle of his assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) — so he just can’t help but show off the product to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who expresses interest in purchasing it. After listening to Howard wax poetic about its mystical properties KG becomes convinced being in possession of the opal will elevate his game in the NBA Playoffs. To placate the seven-footer (who is actually very good playing himself), Howard agrees to loan him the rock for a night, taking his 2008 championship ring as collateral. He then deviates from his original plan by pawning the ring to place a large bet on the upcoming game. If there’s one thing Howard is more aware of than the danger he’s in it’s the opportunity to make a little profit.

The Safdies actually wrote this screenplay ten years ago, along with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein. They’ve created a deliberately circuitous narrative to reflect the sloppy manner in which Howard conducts his business, at the office and elsewhere. Nothing goes smoothly. There are so many intersecting dynamics and diversions and dead ends along the way it’s amazing we even have the time to see what his family life is like (spoiler: it ain’t pretty). His long-suffering wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) knows all about the affair he’s having with his assistant Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). She has agreed to wait until after Passover to divorce him but the way work keeps following Howard home — the little incident with the car trunk, for example — just may expedite that process. Meanwhile his kids don’t really fit into his busy schedule. Of course the neglected family dynamic is a familiar trope, but the Safdies — and particularly Menzel who is really fun to watch — creatively thread it through the narrative to give us a better understanding of how much Howard is truly losing here.

In the end, Uncut Gems offers a unique but pretty uncomfortable viewing experience. The truly nerve-wracking climax simulates the thrill of a gambler’s high. This confronting drama is a curiosity you admire more than you purely enjoy, though I personally did get a kick out of seeing sports radio personality Mike Francesa pop up in a cameo as one of Howard’s restaurateur friends, Gary — just one of several non-professional actors involved. Uncut Gems is a perfect reminder that being entertained can sometimes mean feeling like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown for two straight hours.

“I’m not smiling inside.”

Recommendation: Like its protagonist, Uncut Gems is by and large caustic and unpleasant. Sandler acquits himself very well, playing a character you really can’t take your eyes off of even when you want to. Yet for a movie whose style is very in-your-face, it’s the abrasive dialogue that you may have a harder time getting out of your head. To put it magnanimously, the colorful language comes across as authentic New Yorkese. To be more honest: it is the single most compelling reason for me not to sit through this ordeal twice. Please understand this Recommendation section is not written on behalf of Common Sense Media — I’m not one to complain about swear words or someone who evaluates all movies for their Family Values appeal, but in Uncut Gems the f-bombs are excessive to the point of becoming a distraction. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Come on KG! This is no different than that. This is me. Alright? I’m not an athlete, this is my way. This is how I win.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

Paddleton

Release: Friday, February 22, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix 

Written by: Mark Duplass; Alex Lehmann

Directed by: Alex Lehmann

It’s not often that the Duplass brothers make a heavy movie. Darting in and out of the so-called mumblecore scene and playing with time in pleasantly nostalgic trips down memory lane (Blue Jay) or lurching ahead into the future with spirited abandon and childlike naivety (Safety Not Guaranteed), they typically go for heartache rather than rip-your-heart-out. But the timeline we’re dealing with in Paddleton makes it absolutely the bitterest of sweet efforts from the guys who got away with making navel-gazers about a guy living at home and a puffy chair.

Yeah Paddleton is another slice-of-life drama (supposedly the first in another four-picture deal Duplass Brothers Productions have secured with the streaming behemoth Netflix), but then it’s also a story dealing with cancer and mortality so it’s really more like the whole damn cake we’re tucking into here — life, death and . . . haunting your friend in the afterlife, maybe? This is a more serious movie, there’s no doubt about that, but if there’s a way to find the humor in something as distressing as one’s own impending death, leave it to the Duplasses to find that way.

In Paddleton Mark Duplass plays a 40-something bachelor named Michael and he’s given a diagnosis that turns out to be terminal. As an actor Duplass is a pretty reliable commodity at this point and so it’s Ray Romano playing his upstairs neighbor Andy who’s the revelation. He might never have been better than he is in this utterly neurotic, quietly devastating role — his second consecutive dramatic persona following a supporting part in Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick (2017). The two eke out a quiet, fringe existence wherein they escape the 9-5 doldrums by watching kung fu movies, eating pizza and engaging in this strange but totally fun-looking game they’ve invented called ‘paddleton’ — a hybrid of tennis, squash and basketball played off the back of a dilapidated building.

It doesn’t look exciting or rewarding but they slip into this routine like one pulls on their favorite torn Levis. There’s a comfort and security in simplicity, a notion that’s only reinforced — and with surprising profundity, too — once we’ve arrived at the crux of the movie, when Michael decides to end his life on his own terms rather than wait for the disease to land him in the hospital, hooked up to machines. Michael’s choice sets up a philosophical conundrum that Andy of course wrestles with, urging his friend to fight back. Michael doubles down, insisting this is a quality-over-quantity situation. He’d much prefer to spend his remaining time doing just what they’ve always done: pizza, kung fu, paddleton. Not necessarily in that order. Indeed there’s comfort in having a routine. No bucket-list stress, no grand speeches (well, there might be a good half-time speech delivered by Andy at some point). No plastic feelings, please.

Director Alex Lehmann previously worked with Duplass alongside Sarah Paulson in 2016’s Blue JayThe collaboration resulted in two outstanding performances and that’s been duplicated here. Romano and Duplass make for an endearing bromance that shoves the likes of Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill/James Franco and Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly to the way back seat. Paddleton is an amiable drama that toots along at about two miles an hour, features about five actors total, and physically goes almost nowhere — the narrative briefly kinks out into a brief road trip “comedy” of sorts when the pair have to procure some controversial medicine — and yet it manages to hit some profound depths along the way.

What starts out as an air of melancholy progresses to a rather stunning, emotional climax, a responsibly handled if challenging to watch dramatization of those last, ultra-heady stages of the grieving/dying process. Acceptance is a toughie, mostly because of the stepping stones you have to cross to get that peace of mind. A moment of paralyzing fear becomes the Duplass’ signature capital-A awkward scene. Yet for all the excruciating detail, Paddleton is ultimately life-affirming. These two dudes care for each other deeply. Despite being tinged with some ugliness the movie is beautiful because it makes this relationship the focus.

“Okay, so . . . if reincarnation is actually a thing . . .”

Recommendation: Two note-perfect performances elevate Paddleton above the potentially overly-sentimental, sugar-coated drama it might have otherwise been. Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, Paddleton is probably the most challenging Duplass Brothers movie currently on offer but along with the pain comes plenty of reward. A high recommendation for fans of Mark, Jay and whatever other Duplass may be lurking out there. Oh, and Ray Romano too. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “I’m the dying guy!”

“I’m the other guy!”

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen 

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

For a fleeting moment The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Coen brothers film — a big shiny red apple waiting to be plucked from the ever-growing Netflix tree — was also available for more traditional consumption in theaters. But who wants to be a traditionalist when what is most conveniently available to you is a dingy theater chain down the road called Cinépolis — a place where the box office is no longer used, the employees couldn’t care less about making patrons feel welcomed, the quality of the projection is appalling and the seating choices you’re given are either Sticky Seat A or blown-out Chair B. I don’t know about overrated, but when one weekend outing to this crumbling facility costs you the same as if not more than a one month subscription, “tradition” is inarguably overpriced.

Netflix and the like will never replace the wow factor of the big screen, yet they are making life a little cushier, providing more viewers more direct access to more quality offerings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a prime example, a six-part western anthology soaked in the Coen aesthetic — it’s equal measures funny, strange and morbid, features spectacular landscape photography and it’s all pulled together by a wonderful cast, not to mention the filmmakers’ deep, abiding love for the genre. Their latest marks a return to ingenuity following 2016’s rather forgettable Hail, Caesar! and has garnered Oscar nominations in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Song categories, firmly placing Buster Scruggs among the better streaming options of the New Release variety.

The Coen brothers’ 18th collaboration provides a collection of independent stories ranging in tone from playful and romantic to macabre and downright weird — one chapter tickling your ribs before the next punches you in the gut. Speaking of tradition, the narrative style draws attention to what has consistently set the Coen brothers apart from the rest, their ability to merge the farcical with the fucked-up not only on display within each scene but as well highlighted by structural juxtaposition (right now I’m thinking of the contrast between “Near Algodones,” featuring James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against Stephen Root’s bank teller, and “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson playing a traveling entertainer willing to do anything for a better paying gig).

Like the Coens’ previous effort, Buster Scruggs is a lovingly crafted ode to a historically significant time in Hollywood — the era of the great western. Unlike Hail, Caesar!, however, here you’ll find a more harmonious balance of style and substance, the film literally bookended by the opening and closing of an old hardback, each segment segued by page-turning, complete with colored illustrations and a few sentences that clue you in to what is about to unfold.

Meanwhile the production design is brilliantly realized, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel adapting different color gradients and tints to coordinate with the predominate colors in any given vignette. Take for example the pastel yellows of the opening movement, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a fast-talking, even faster gunslinging outlaw who has to his name one of the most creative kill shots of all time; the piney greens of “All Gold Canyon,” featuring singer Tom Waits as a lonely prospector; and the dusty browns of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the film’s longest segment and arguably most emotive, with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young maiden whose 1000-mile journey to Oregon is complicated when she meets a true gentleman along the way, a wagon train leader named Billy Knapp and played by Bill Heck.

Despite the lack of common characters and an array of different outcomes the arrangement is hardly random. The action contained within each chapter — some of which are more loquacious than action-driven, admittedly — address a motif of survivalism, or more accurately, the fatalistic way life and death often intersect on the unforgiving frontier. The final segment — “The Mortal Remains,” which finds five strangers en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado via stagecoach debating the “two types” of people who exist in the world  — wraps both the physical and the philosophical journey up on a decidedly weird note, addressing not just the mortality of man but his morality as well.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the best Coen brothers film — it’s not even their best western (that honor still belongs to No Country for Old Men with Bad Haircuts). Yet the overall experience is never less than intriguing and more often than not surprisingly hard to predict.

The best daggum chompers you ever did see on a cowboy

Recommendation: What’s most appealing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the variety of experiences offered up. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for another 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It may not be among the Coens’ most original works but it may be one of my personal favorites, packing a hell of a lot of intrigue into two-and-a-half rather fleeting hours. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”

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Anomalisa

'Anomalisa' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman; Duke Johnson

Someone please give Michael Stone a hug. I’m starting an online petition to see if we can get Michael Stone just one good hug, because he really, really, really, really, really needs one. Either him or writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I’m not sure who needs it more. Anomalisa is perhaps the slowest trek through misery and loneliness he has yet made, and that’s even keeping in mind 2008’s Synecdoche, New York.

Very much like that epic slog, Kaufman’s latest, an experiment in stop-motion that feels very much overdue considering his offbeat and peculiar sensibilities seem tailor made for the style, is almost too cold to handle let alone enjoy. But it is something to admire and admire I did; I just wish I could put my arms around the thing and connect with it on the level Kaufman clearly wanted me to. The misanthropy is one thing; I can handle misanthropic characters. I often eagerly embrace them and go on to love them. It’s the monotony that really killed my enthusiasm over this technical achievement.

Michael (David Thewlis) is a successful customer service agent whose latest book ‘How May I Help You Help Them?’ has just been published. He’s traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech to other service agents looking to boost their careers. At the same time he’s promoting the new book and . . . searching for a way out of his current marriage and domestic life, both of which have whittled his zest for life down to the bone. He becomes smitten by a woman he meets that is somehow “different” than everyone else — meaning, she’s the only other supporting character not voiced by Tom Noonan. (He is credited simply with the responsibility of voicing Everyone Else.)

Michael’s staying at the Fregoli Hotel. It’s a swanky joint whose odd name isn’t meant to merely induce giggles (although it is a pretty funny word); ‘fregoli’ is actually a social anxiety/disorder in which the sufferer sees everyone around them as the same person, voice and all. Michael seems to be experiencing that very delusion but it’s not clear at first whether this is just how this guy views Cincinnati — after all he already scoffs at the lesser intelligence of anyone else who happens to be in the room with him — or whether he’s suffering the effects of a psychological condition that’s gone untreated far too long — something he himself ponders often.

Anomalisa confines itself almost entirely within the walls of this hotel. The limited setting is successful in inducing boredom and cabin fever. We watch as Michael shuffles around, utterly disconnected from the world and disinterested in doing much beyond finding some ice cubes to put into a glass and make a drink. That scene takes approximately ten minutes to eventuate. After this he shuffles around some more, grumbling over the introductory remarks in his speech notes. The shuffling takes us on a tour of the Fregoli and its many oddities, including, but not limited to the hotel manager himself. (Again, Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan everywhere.) He also gets obsessed with tracking down old acquaintances that either turn out to be painfully awkward, generally unpleasant episodes or wild goose chases. All this running around while annoyingly doing nothing eventually introduces us and Michael to two adoring fans, a couple of local girls who somehow find the author a very interesting man.

One girl, a chatty blonde who is more outspoken than her considerably stranger and more socially awkward friend Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is saddled with, you guessed right, a man’s voice. Leigh Lisa stands out for her unique voice and face in a sea of sameness. Her demeanor is strange but beguiling, at least it is to Michael. To us she comes across a kind of simpleton with a knack for contributing to the film’s quota of depressing introspective soliloquies. Also, her voice eventually starts breaking into that of Tom Noonan. Nothing good ever seems to last.

Aha! We have struck a nerve. Temporary constructs like one-night stands are radically misconstrued for representing the start of something new, something fresh. Poor Michael can’t figure out how to even start spelling ‘h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s’ let alone experience it. Anomalisa is an exercise in wallowing in self-pity despite its billing as a dramatic comedy; Michael’s stuck-in-a-rut attitude feels more suffocating and hopeless than The Lobster‘s persecution of single folk. It’s certainly more uncomfortable. It bears all the hallmarks of a Kaufman think-piece, one that delves far beneath the surface of the kinds of conversations a great many screenwriters offer up. There’s no denying Anomalisa is uniquely his. But the lack of interesting material feels unfamiliar.

Michael, torn between leaving his family behind for a fresh new start and a responsibility to his son . . . oh wait, yeah that’s right. He doesn’t really seem to care about that either as he can barely muster the interest to speak with him on the phone for longer than five minutes. Yeah, forget this guy man. And almost everything about this really tedious, beautiful, boring, complex, ultimately off-putting experience.

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Anomalisa'

Recommendation: “The most human film of the year,” maybe. But the most entertaining? Hardly. Charlie Kaufman has built a reputation for being a tough filmmaker to embrace and Anomalisa is just another solid example. It’s a film for the Kaufman purists I think. Unless you are a glutton for punishment and enjoy sitting through true downers, I have to say give this one the old swerve if you’re the least bit skeptical on the filmmaker. Damn. I really wanted to like this, too. So I’m kicking it an extra slice for the technical marvel that it really is. The stop motion is incredible, truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

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The Fundamentals of Caring

'The Fundamentals of Caring' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Rob Burnett

Directed by: Rob Burnett

A long time ago I made some comment to the effect of being frustrated by how easily I’m tricked into watching movies starring Paul Rudd. This knee-jerk reaction was inspired by a viewing of the terrible 2012 comedy Wanderlust which paired him with Jennifer Aniston. That movie did nothing for the world of comedy or fans of either performer, but it was wrong of me to question my loyalty to Rudd.

Because here’s the thing about him: Paul Rudd is still Paul Rudd in poor films. In great movies he’s . . . holy crap, Paul Rudd. The Oxford grad-turned-professional-penis-joke-teller has weathered a few flops in his time and yet he emerges on the other side grin still intact. Every. Time. He’s never what’s wrong with a film and more often than not he’s the major box office draw. That couldn’t be more true when it comes to Netflix’s road trip comedy The Fundamentals of Caring, a movie that will have no box office intake to speak of, but will still leave audiences satisfied and smiling.

He plays Ben, a retired writer now looking for a way to move on after the loss of his young son. The restraint in his performance marks something of a diversion for Rudd, taking on a more dramatic persona here (though he’s not completely sullen — just think more stoic, as in Perks of Being a Wallflower and dial the infectious inanity of Anchorman down to 1). Ben turns to caregiving and starts looking after Trevor (Craig Roberts), a teen with muscular dystrophy and a dark sense of humor. His mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) isn’t exactly enamored when she finds out Ben has little experience in care-taking, especially since her son is more needy than the typical teen.

Ben thinks it would be good for Trevor to get out of the living room and see some of the world before his cynicism suffocates him. So he’s going to take him on a road trip to see “the world’s deepest pit.” Because the rest of the movie needs to happen, Elsa gets over her (completely understandable) fears in a heartbeat and soon we’re on the road, packed into an old van bound for a few tourist traps and maybe even some personal revelations along the way. Of course there’ll be a girl, too. The fundamentals of at least a decent road trip comedy. Check, check and check.

Rob Burnett’s adaptation of Jonathan Evison’s novel rarely breaks out of Checklist Mode, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments worth savoring. One manifests as a trip detour when Trevor decides he wants to see his estranged father who he hasn’t seen since he was three. He’ll have the chance to get some answers at the luxury auto dealer he now runs. We all know how this is going to go, but let’s just say there’s even less reconciliation in this scene than what’s expected. Bob (Frederick Weller)’s a cold-hearted bastard who’d rather shell out $160 than offer even a hint of an apology to his son.

The encounter is pretty heartbreaking. It has immediate repercussions that are hard to watch unfold as well, such as when Trevor, in a moment of bitter dejectedness, interprets the entire cross-country endeavor as a favor to Ben to make himself feel better, rather than the mutually-beneficial adventure Ben intended it to be. The fall-out is one of those many boxes the film must ultimately tick but because it, like much of the story’s moodiness, is handled with a particularly appealing brand of brashness (if that’s actually a thing), it doesn’t become another throw-away moment.

In stark contrast to what’s familiar and/or predictable, Selena Gomez ends up doing something absurd. She actually helps endear us to Fundamentals‘ bent-but-not-broken spirit. Though her character, a strong-and-silent type named Dot (terrible name), doesn’t have much to do or say, Gomez finds a way to inject sensitivity into a story that heretofore has largely lacked it. Truly, it’s Roberts’ cynical, self-deprecating outlook that funds the nonchalance. There’s an unshakable sense that Burnett never really wanted his project to be different. Just darker. Gomez doesn’t expose a truly complex character but she helps steer Trevor out of his deep funk. Her presence is perpetually welcomed.

Shot in just 26 days, Fundamentals is only ever a trio of lesser performances away from being forgettable road trip fluff. Because of the obvious comfort and chemistry between said performers, the adventure soon becomes one that’s surprisingly difficult to disembark from.

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Recommendation: Performances make The Fundamentals of Caring worth sitting through for there’s not much else separating it from the dearth of other road tripping adventures. Paul Rudd restrains himself once again to effect yet another example of how he is much more than just a penis-joke-teller. Best of all, he never overshadows his co-star Craig Roberts, who is also a lot of fun, and hey, even Selena Gomez is good here. Everyone’s all in on this one, and it shows.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Yes, and I’m not an a**hole. And since you want an a**hole, my not being an a**hole makes me more of an a**hole than the a**holes that you normally date, because they’re giving you exactly what you want; whereas I, by not being an a**hole, am not. Which makes me an a**hole.”

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The Lobster

'The Lobster'

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos; Efthymis Filippou

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Outré black comedy The Lobster might be likened to a religious experience for those looking for their fix of anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments. If you look hard enough you  could even find enough evidence to validate its romance label as well, but it’s so weird and so brutally dispassionate, even the most bitterly spurned, those who firmly believe they’re forever damned to loneliness, may become exhausted in their effort to keep up with its madness. And really, this dystopia is quite mad:

Single people are being persecuted; they’re getting abducted from The City — somewhere in England or Ireland if accents are anything to go by — and brought to an isolated hotel miles away where the staff insist they find a suitable romantic partner within 45 days, otherwise they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and cast out into the woods beyond. Turns out, it’s neither a joke nor a mind game. There’s a room actually called The Transformation Room where, apparently, it all goes down. Should the unlucky sod find him or herself still single on day 45, Olivia Colman’s hotel manager advises them to partake in some activity that they won’t be able to once transformed. A one-night stand, for example, would be a waste of precious time given that animals still have the ability to fornicate.

Our best chance for understanding how the world operates in The Lobster lies in David (Colin Farrell) and his journey from being recently dumped to finding companionship in the most unlikely of places. And I know that’s a cliché, but I’m talking the epitome of unlikely places; so much so that the symmetry is almost cloying when he runs into Rachel Weisz’ Short-Sighted Woman after his ordeal at the hotel. He escapes and finds a group of stragglers abiding to their own equally radical but opposing ideals: The Loners, led somewhat ironically by Léa Seydoux and constituted by fellow hotel escapees, are vehemently against the pursuit of romance and intimacy.

Dress codes and segregative practices — you can extrapolate the latter to the two major factions we come across, as well as to the way single people and couples are treated differently in The Hotel — lay the groundwork for brutal revelations: in this world, the sum total of who we are is measured by our ability to attract a mate. Single people are lower down in the social hierarchy than couples. Sex isn’t much more than a survival strategy; it’s procreation, not love, that conquers all. The steel-blues and grays of Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography reinforce an achingly melancholic mood.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his fifth feature presentation, tackles the loneliness and despair of single-hood, an approach that dovetails nicely with the sacrifice of being in a relationship and he does so with a conviction as forceful as an avalanche against a lone pine tree. Strange, stilted dialogue castrates the piece of humanity, while the frankness of conversations recalls Wes Anderson . . . really, really pessimistic Wes Anderson.

One might naturally assume Lanthimos has it out for those who can’t help but remain stubbornly (or maybe just hopelessly) single, but he’s actually more critical of the societal pressure that falls upon everyone to couple up. While there are few rules governing how “loners” should meet others, The Hotel encourages bonding over physical traits, even ailments and/or disabilities, no matter how superficial those connections may seem. Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man goes to some extreme lengths to get with this girl he likes who happens to suffer from frequent nose bleeds. John C. Reilly is convinced once he meets a woman with a speech impediment like his he’s set for life. Suicide entices some to escape in a different way. All of this becomes a driving force for David to make the decisions he makes.

There’s not a lot of happiness in The Lobster. I think that much is obvious. But it bears mentioning again. The warning sirens must be heard clearly before too many enter the film with certain expectations. It’s one of the most brutal black comedies I’ve seen, capped off by one of the most memorable endings 2016 has yet produced. Presently I struggle to reconcile my enjoyment of Lanthimos’ work, when only two years ago, I was babbling incessantly about my distaste for John Michael McDonagh’s similarly pessimistic Calvary. The two share more in common than I really would like to admit.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 12.22.09 AM

Recommendation: The mileage one gets out of this cynical view on modern relationships I think will depend on one’s own propensity for being cynical themselves. Performances are universally strong, although this is very much a ‘message’ film. However, that message is unlikely to make an impact upon those who can’t latch on to the absurd tone, dialogue/speech patterns and occasionally shocking developments. This is quite a heavy watch but it’s also one of the most unique releases 2016 currently has on tap.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Why a lobster?” / “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.”

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Demolition

'Demolition' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Sipe

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Jake Gyllenhaal has played a variety of oddballs in his time. He’s navigated his way carefully through a maze of mental illness — including, but certainly not limited to, sociopathy, obsession and depression — and often bravely inhabited characters who we’re almost dared to embrace at the expense of our own conscience. But even when he’s playing characters who are either lowlives or who find themselves at low points in their lives, rarely do we regret spending time watching him.

Alas, that is the case in Demolition, the new film from Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée. I suppose the good news is that I can’t remember the last time I was able to say Gyllenhaal failed to captivate me, wasted my time or anything similarly negative. I’m not talking about a movie in which he starred or had a juicy supporting part, but something he appeared in. That’s quite a streak this utterly directionless and ultimately pointless black comedy has just broken. If I were the movie, I’d feel pretty bad about that, because while Gyllenhaal has certainly been better, the fact the film passes without significance isn’t entirely his fault.

Demolition is the story of a successful investment banker who seems to mentally check out of reality following a traumatic event in which he and his wife are involved in a bad car accident. Rather than breaking down into tears or exhibiting any of the symptoms someone in his position would typically exhibit, particularly in the immediate aftermath, his Davis Mitchell feels nothing. He seemingly moves on with his life as if nothing happened. We, the appalled, are challenged to interpret whether his behavior is something indicative of some kind of mental deficiency, or if he’s just a coldhearted bastard. (Either way, there’s something wrong with him.)

Bryan Sipe’s talky, introspective but ultimately forgettable script pivots around a rather crass catalytic event in which Davis — and this is just hours after his beloved Julia (Heather Lind) has succumbed to injuries sustained in the accident — begins writing a series of letters to the company that owns the vending machine that just screwed him out of a pack of peanut M&M’s. I know. Life is unfair. For awhile we’re lead to believe that these letters are just a way for him to vent, that perhaps he’s just this bad at expressing anguish. After all, grief is grief and there aren’t really any rules for dealing with this shit.

But then we learn that Davis’ letters are being received by a customer service rep named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts, less annoying than usual) — a customer service rep in desperate need of a raise because she’s seemingly the only one who ever pays attention to such outmoded forms of communication. Complaint letters being read. Pah! What a quaint idea. The set-up is so serendipitous it’s ridiculous. Maybe if Davis were a character we could actually get behind, the fact Karen’s entirely too trusting of a strange man might not be something we’d notice. After all, Karen’s essentially a polar opposite to Davis, a kind-hearted soul who’s struggling financially as a single mother raising a bratty kid who can’t stay unsuspended from school.

Davis finds comfort in divulging intensely personal tidbits about his marriage and his childhood through letters to someone he’s never met. He’s also further alienating himself from the brutal truth of being made a widower at the ripe age of 30-something. What begins as a pen-pal relationship soon turns into clandestine phone calls whose tones range from stalker-ish to flirtatious; meanwhile Julia’s parents are still trying to get over their loss. Those phone calls that then turn into face-to-face meet-ups aren’t the extent of Davis’ ‘descent.’ (I put that word in quotes because Davis himself admits he didn’t even know Julia that well, other than that marrying her was an easy thing to do. So, good chance this guy was insufferable even when she was alive.)

Promotional material for Demolition seems fixated on the character physically destroying things. There’s the clip of him taking a bulldozer to his posh, angular, suburban abode and a bathroom stall at his office lying in pieces on the floor. By the time we actually get around to these moments we’re so numb to what we’re seeing they don’t really register. There’s a faint whiff of tragedy underlining Davis’ increasingly absurd behavior but it’s all for naught because the story and the character haven’t given us any reason to feel empathy; this is quite literally 100 minutes of watching Gyllenhaal getting free license to go willy-nilly with a sledgehammer and other construction materials.

In fact it becomes so difficult to identify with Davis we end up feeling terrible for his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) as Phil continues to give Davis entirely too much leeway around the office. (Does he have much choice? Um, how about firing him?) Perhaps the only behavior Davis displays that we can understand is his lack of ability to stay invested in work-related projects. In an early scene, Davis is recounting what it was like getting to know Phil in the early stages of his relationship. Not one to mince words, Phil shouts down from the top of a flight of stairs, “I don’t like you Davis.” Yeah, no kidding. We’re with you on that one, Phil. Fortunately for us, we figured that out within about an hour. You had to endure this man’s sociopathic behavior for years.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.23.09 PM

Recommendation: Demolition revolves around a through-and-through unlikable protagonist, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But the story also asks us to start taking sides (with him) as Davis begins a new relationship — to the film’s credit, one that’s only ever platonic — with a customer service rep who decides she likes the way he writes. Everything just feels so false. Jean-Marc Vallée has dealt with the selfish, brooding, sociopathic and self-destructive type before but this one really pushes limits. One for actor/director completionists only.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “There was love between me and Julia. I just didn’t take care of it.”

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