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Coming Through the Rye (2015)
Angsty feel-good teen flick
Many people will enjoy the crap out of this movie because of its angsty hero and the story of his perseverance in the face of a hostile world. The directional arc of this story is almost religious in its message of faith, of feeling chosen, of attempting to interpret the uninterpretable, and forcing yourself to push through the darkness. If that's what the movie had been about, it would have been an absolute masterpiece. Maybe I'm asking too much for a movie to be so aware of its message that its context and narrative go in that direction also.
Unfortunately, the movie is about the universal nature of the mythic Holden Caulfield character. The screenwriter has done exactly what Salinger told him not to do, to interpret the mythos and reduce it to a cheap psychoanalysis of what that character means. As a fan of the book myself, it's disheartening to see just how misinterpreted it becomes even in the most capable of hands.
Don't get me wrong, this movie is enjoyable in and of itself. The movie itself is great looking and moderately satisfying. Cooper is particularly enjoyable as the man himself, operating as both the wise man on the hill and the man behind the curtain. The filmmaker did a fine job with what he had to work with, which was a flawed script that comes to conclusions that don't quite fit together. The hero on a quest motif works extremely well here, but there were many missed opportunities on the journey to reach for more. The opening half-hour comes from a pretty dark and intense place, but that energy isn't sustained, as it instead veers into syrupy redemption rather than attempting to make any statements about where that darkness and intensity comes from. It's apparently enough just to state it exists, like the dragon that must either be slain or domesticated. I don't dislike this movie, but it's frustrating to see a fairly pat story applied to a very complex subject, and attempt to get away with it by shrugging about what it means. The story could very easily have been about what it means instead of simply the shrug.
The Daughter (2015)
Real, palpable narrative momentum
Solid generational drama with real, palpable narrative momentum. The actors were fabulous, it looks fantastic, and the script is top notch. It doesn't hurt to have Ibsen behind you, but this movie goes far beyond the constrictions of a stage production. The only real problem for this movie is the obviousness of the premise from very early on. Some of the drama is leaked out of the story because of this. It's still a worthwhile watch though, because it's carried off quite well. The lack of suspense of what the situation is becomes the suspense of what the characters are going to do about it when it plays itself out. And unlike many other movies with this structure, the actors are all up to the task.
5 to 7 (2014)
Flat and weirdly pointless
You expect a romance movie to have something to say about romance, the idea of romance or love. And while this movie has a lot of cheesy dialogue that would point in that direction, it ultimately has nothing to say. And when a romance movie has nothing to say about romance, you would typically expect to see a kind of chemistry that draws you in. And while the female lead attempts to portray this pretty well, the male lead appears to have no idea that his character is in a romance, let alone is in love. And when a movie like this has nothing to say about romance, and has precious little chemistry between the leads, you would at least expect it to have a smart script. Alas, the dialogue leads from one laughably clichéd line to another. The weirdly pointless bench taglines portrayed as "the best writing in NYC" should give us a clue about where the script is going and how the narrative will play out.
Not to say this movie isn't worthwhile in other ways. The character of Jane, the editor, may be the only 3-dimensional one here, and she completely takes over many of the scenes -- of the precious few she's in. Her absence is sorely noticeable when she's not there. The male lead's parents, while not quite as fleshed out as we'd like, are nevertheless extremely enjoyable. The story itself is nothing special -- it plays out as melodrama (stock characters in a situation that forces them to act in stock ways) which isn't necessarily bad if it's well done, but it just isn't.
Something else to mention about the story: The universe in which this story exists is one that rewards and ultimately revolves around complete sincerity. This is intensely aggravating, not just because it makes the whole thing unrealistic, but also as it implies that the people here have no interior lives. That the only thing that matters is what they have chosen to do in a completely sincere manner. That is, the important thing is not who they are, but what they do. For a purportedly delicate character study, this is a weird narrative choice.
There is one piece of irony that is probably not intentional, but which completely destroys any integrity this movie may have had at one point, and the following isn't a spoiler. The line "What would you do for love?" is intended to apply only to the woman and her life decisions, but it ultimately applies to the man as well. Because his own implicit answer to this question is what leads this movie to go into the depths of self-indulgent pretension. All of which could be forgiven if any of the other faults mentioned above were also addressed.
Girlfriend's Day (2017)
A nice little absurdity
Some will indulge the weirdness, others won't. But if you bail you'll be missing out on a nice little absurdity. It's not exactly laugh-out- loud funny, but it does have its moments, and the cast mostly seems to go along with the idea, playing it mostly as a deadpan film-noir parody. If you think of it that way, it all might fall into place. Odenkirk's world-weary greeting card writer frequenting a card-writer's bar is just a small example. Again, the oddness will put off some people, which is understandable. The narrative, if taken at face value is just as laughable as many other thrillers, but because it's being self-conscious, it has the charm of self-deprecating irony. It can get self-indulgent with how much it falls into this area, and it really has to work to get over its Saturday-Night-Live style setting but I think that's part of the point -- and it does get over itself quite well. And the fact that I'm in love with Amber Tamblyn has nothing to do with this positive review.
The "Reality" Game Show Phenomenon
The current incarnation of the game show, the "reality" show, usually features a large group of people who eventually get winnowed down to a single winner, often through common consensus of the contestants -- voting. This movie is that idea written into a pseudo-plausible sci- fi scenario. Instead of voting people off the island, you vote them off of this mortal coil.
The idea is clever, and the closed-room concept is a great way to keep your filmmaking budget down. But the script focuses on media stereotypes of who we're supposed to expect that people are when the cameras are watching. Which is to say that even though it was inspired by the reality game show phenomenon (alliances, gliding under the radar, obvious villains, shocking twists, etc.) it also took the strict game aspects of it without bothering to examine if those aspects have any validity in an actual real-world setting. Which is to say that the takeaways from the movie aren't really any different from the takeaways of one of those shows. These people are exactly who we would expect them to be and there's no room for nuance. The filmmakers really missed a golden opportunity to allow characters to bloom to demonstrate actual humanity instead of certain "ideal" game theory character types.
This movie answers the question "what if a reality game show really was life or death"? But there is little else to ponder.
The Steps (2015)
This movie shot for more than it could handle, in my opinion. It looks like it was intended to be a dysfunctional family comedy like The Family Stone or many other "homecoming" style movies about holidays or meeting the new spouse or whatnot -- there are many movies in this category.
But the overall tone of the movie is less comedy than of a kind of hollow absurdity. The actors appear to have been told to inhabit the script as if it were a Chekhov play. As if the inherently ridiculous things that were happening could be played straight without real- world consequences or effective symbolism.
In a comedy, with a sufficiently comedic tone, those ridiculous moments could be forgiven as just being ridiculous, and you can laugh at the absurdity of it along with (or at) the characters. But they instead try and play those moments off as just that much more extreme moments of personal humiliation that have driven their characters' failures. And instead of exploring those particular ideas, the narrative plods right along as if it were a comedy, almost completely ignoring these moments for the rest of the movie. And the characters tend to drag us down along with them. It gets difficult to watch sometimes because of this awkwardness. This may have been intentional, I don't know. It's certainly possible to blend these elements and have the result come out really well, and you have to give props to the filmmakers for trying, but it's just not there.
There are some pretty good performances here if you can look past its flaws. Lahti is fabulous, as is Chriqui. Ritter is what you might call serviceable -- he seems to be projecting that same sort of awkward conflict between seriousness and comedy -- but he at least seems to get it, whatever that "it" might be in this case. And although the writing gets a little flimsy and self-satisfied at times, it's mostly pretty entertaining. Just don't expect a whole lot.
About Alex (2014)
It hits all the right issues about modern isolation and the nature of friendship, but it hits on them only tangentially and without any depth. And it doesn't really use its theme to its advantage very well. If there's one very positive thing I can say about this movie it's that once a scene gets going it starts to really get going. And then the scene ends way too soon and we're left with a sense of incompleteness. It's as if the director didn't want the players to do too much "acting" to get in the way.
The set-up is weakly explained, the relationship dynamics are barely believable, and the resolution is too neatly tied up. But if you like some of the actors, it will be a pleasant if not terribly worthwhile experience. Overall, it was a missed opportunity to explore how technological progress has affected how we make and sustain friendships in a post-Big Chill world.
Normally a movie of this type will be interesting and fun for most of the first 80 minutes and then end in a clunky manipulative way. It is that rare movie that is stubbornly insufferable for more than 80 minutes and then ends in a weirdly satisfying if predictable way.
It can be unbearable at times to watch Helen Hunt try and act her way through her impassively clay-like new face, as if she were a Star Trek Changeling character. It can be maddening at times at how sympathetic and misunderstood she thinks her character is. And it can be frustrating at how mechanical the scene construction and the in your face symbolism feels.
But I have to admit that there is a charming tone that coalesces nicely in the last 15 minutes. You know what's coming, and the unflinchingly cheesy dialogue up to this point is often unintentionally amusing, but when it happens at the end it feels real, just like the ending to the story she's been discussing with her son. There's just enough of a spark there to make you understand why she wanted to make this movie.
Implausible and charming
Don't look too deeply. This is a movie that wants to be fun and adventurous and a little bit dangerous. If you're in the right mood, you don't need much more than that. Sure it's ridiculous and implausible and poorly edited, and Scott Speedman only has two gears, and the writing is a little off, and the central relationship is a little creepy on several different levels. No matter. This is one of those movies that is touched by the magic of the movies -- maybe not enough to make it great or even good as a movie, but it has a relentless sparkle-eyed charm that makes it pleasant and irrationally satisfying as an experience.
Last Weekend (2014)
Misery rises to the level of comfort
The people in this movie are clueless narcissists, very well portrayed. I know people like this, limousine liberals, and this is perfectly spot on. And then the portrayal of their humanity gradually shining through the fog of pretension infects every character and makes for a great movie experience. Patricia Clarkson is once again fabulous in a lead role, and the others play off of her nicely. The pretty scenery doesn't hurt, and the director makes full use of the stunning light show that the California/Nevada mountains provides. I question some of the devices that went nowhere, like the screenplay and the Indian museum. They are not used as devices so much as character filler, most of which is not necessary for our understanding of the characters, but which also doesn't get too much in the way.
I have liked Mays in other things she's done, but I thought she was a bit miscast for the role she was asked to play. I thought the story could have done more with the Nora-Sean couple other than just fill up the house and provide background. Overall though, I really liked the way this movie was put together. It does a very good job of showing how insular this world can be and how people who want for nothing will manufacture their own problems just by calling them problems. Misery rises to the level of comfort. All this without veering off into melodrama. Highly recommended.