They say there's no business like show business, but what it really amounts to is: There's no business like Wall Street. By far the most unabashed in its selfish, greed-ridden aims, Wall Street represents an American concept that people either love or hate. And, chances are, if you love it, you're probably on the moneymaking end of things. For Jordan Belfort (played to the point of caricature by Leonardo DiCaprio), there was no limit to what he would do for more money. After all, one of his many memorable platitudes in the film is, "There is no nobility in poverty." But then again, as we see repeatedly throughout the story, there is no nobility in being an avaricious drug addict.
Belfort, who readily sold the rights to his memoir of the same name in 2008, was born to two accountant parents, Max (Rob Reiner, who still looks the same somehow) and Leah (Christine Ebersole) in New York. His appetitive nature didn't seem to flourish until his first job on Wall Street under the tutelage of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, who noticeably improved his acting chops this year [see: Dallas Buyers Club]). Belfort's naïveté is quickly negated by Hanna's insistence on regular drug use and a distinct disregard for what's best for the clients. Unfortunately, just when Belfort is ready to take this advice to the limit, October 19, 1987 (a.k.a. Black Monday) happens. Though he promises his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), he'll get a job as a stock boy, she knows it would crush his soul (though, for a lot of people, being a stockbroker would prove more soul-crushing). Happily, Teresa points him in the direction of a "firm" on Long Island that's hiring. It is there that Jordan discovers the concept of a penny stock and starts his own firm based on the pump and dump method (I know, it sounds more like a sexual term than a finance one).
Belfort's neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, who has happily returned to his normal size), is intrigued by how well Donnie lives even though he can't figure out how considering they inhabit the same building. When Belfort tells him he made 72,000 dollars in a single month, Donnie quits his job to start working for Belfort. From there, a complete team of sleazy misfits with a gift for sales is assembled under the company name Stratton Oakmont. Although Belfort's initial aim is to focus on selling penny stocks to poor people who don't know any better, Belfort is made to feel guilty by Teresa, who points out that poor people can't afford to lose money the way rich people can. Point well-made Teresa. And so, Belfort transitions the company toward a new clientele by selling blue chip stocks to the wealthy in addition to penny stocks (which he gets a 50% commission for).
Unlike Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Scorsese's film doesn't seem to showcase any means of redemption for its lead character. In fact, Jordan Belfort comes across as a one-dimensional machine obsessed with sex, drugs and money. But then, film tends to be a reflection of our culture. One of the few moments in which we're given insight into Belfort's motivations are during a speech (think Michael Douglas' greed speech) to his employees in which he urges, "Solve your problems by getting rich." And, sadly, this is perhaps the wisest advice you can give in America, for there's no problem that can't vanish without a large stack of hundreds.
As for the length of this biopic--the main source of concern for most moviegoers--three hours is a bit much, but it goes by more quickly than you would expect because of how enjoyable it is to observe a rich person's life and subsequent demise. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort, who makes a cameo in the final scene of the film, has proven that the only thing more American than being able to make as much money as you want is the ability to reinvent yourself after every personal downfall (and self-promote in the process).
Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) had to deal with some pretty real shit during his plight in Home Alone, but it was nothing compared to the hijinks that befell him in the 1992 sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. His accidental foray into a city that was still perceived as terrifying during the early 90s showcased a number of common desires that America's population seemed to have in this fresh new Clinton era. Prominent among these desires, of course, was taking an affordable luxury vacation.
As we're introduced to Kevin's upgraded new world (specifically, a Talkboy so he can record everything people are saying), it becomes evident that quite a bit has paradigm shifted in the two years since last we saw him. Instead of his family traveling to the far posher location of Paris as they did in the first film, expectations have become somewhat more realistic as Kate (Catherine O'Hara) and Peter McAllister (John Heard) decide to take their family to the everyman destination of Miami, Florida. Kevin, still trapped in an 80s mindset of excess and getting exactly what you want, complains of how annoying it is to go to a tropical climate without Christmas trees. His mother and other family members, particularly Buzz (Devin Ratray), are further vexed by Kevin after he refuses to apologize to Buzz in the wake of a Christmas pageant fiasco in which he causes the rest of his classmates to trip and fall during their performance.
When Kevin "accidentally" (though I think everything is deliberate with that wily mothafucka) follows the wrong camel hair coat wearing man (this is the problem with pervasive fashion trends) onto a plane bound for New York instead of Miami, the entire basis of the 90s begins to grow clear. Directed and written by John Hughes, who saw his plateau with Brat Pack movies in the 80s, the movie is early 90s enough to bear faint traces of the decade that preceded it. In this way, the predilection for excess and decadence is present in Kevin's decision to go for a room at the Plaza Hotel (now in a sad state with its condos). And yet, his desires while in New York are modest and decidedly all-American in scope: Wanting to ride in a limo, wanting his own pizza and wanting to explore a store that appeals to his material whims. The emphasis is always on both the simple and the having of one's own items, not to be shared with others.
Like so many other people inhabiting the 90s scope of ambition, life was about attaining something for yourself--a little piece of decadence to remind you that you were an American, and you could buy anything that suited your fancy, goddammit. Even the fact that Chris Columbus would later to go on to direct the film version of Rent in 2005 is in indication of how much the focus of story in film had changed to reflect the current economical climate. The Clinton years in comparison to the Bush years were indeed a drastic shift in terms of available wealth and general hopefulness.
The concluding scene of Home Alone 2 features a mound of presents under an ostentatious tree as members of the McAllister family gather round like pigeons pecking at one of the Pigeon Lady's (Brenda Fricker) offerings. The glee and elation wrought by as many material acquisitions as possible is the ultimate symbol of the United States middle class (remember the middle class?) in the 90s. And while Home Alone 2 may be just another essential holiday film for some, it's also a relic of what it used to mean to have the cleverness and chutzpah to get what you wanted out of life.
For the cynics and skeptics of love, you may have once scoffed at the adage, “There’s someone for everyone.” Spike Jonze’s Her proves this once bathetic statement to be true. Because, in the not so distant future, you can be with your computer’s Operating System. Jonze’s last major film, 2009’s Where The Wild Things Are, could never have given audiences the indication that he would go in the thematic direction of Her, which follows the story of an emotionally stunted letter writer (#612, to be exact) named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, constantly distancing himself from that time he was pretending to be a rapper with every new film role).
Living in Los Angeles (the perfect city to evince disconnection no matter what era it’s supposed to be), Theodore works as a writer for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Because the film is set in the near future, perhaps creating quaint-looking, heartfelt letters for other people is a lucrative business due to the sheer novelty of it. Theodore, modest and melancholy to a fault, is touched when the receptionist at his office, Paul (Chris Pratt), pays him a compliment regarding how moving his letters are. In fact, Paul is one of the few people he interacts with since his separation from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara, looking her most Natalie Portmanesque). Other than that, his sole comrade is an old college friend named Amy (Amy Adams, who is not nearly as hot in this as she is in American Hustle).
With such scant sources of in-person communication, it’s not surprising when Theodore uses his Operating System (the pre-Samantha [the voice of Scarlett Johansson] one) to find other people he can have, for lack of a better term, phone sex with. At first turned on by “SexyKitten” (the voice of Kristen Wiig), he is reminded why he can’t deal with women when she starts talking dirty about him strangling her with a dead cat. This, of course, is not the only awkwardly innovative sex scene in Her. There’s also about three minutes of blackness while Theodore and Samantha make noises of ecstasy together after they acknowledge they share a connection. Oh, and that time Samantha gets a "surrogate" named Isabelle to try to bone Theodore as she speaks through Isabelle's body.
After Theodore’s upgrade to Samantha, he starts to wash away the bad taste of unwanted blind dates (Olivia Wilde, playing a strange, throwaway character) and the feelings of moroseness he has as a result of his failed relationship with Catherine. Her vibrant, bubbly spirit bursts through even without a body to showcase it. And perhaps it was Jonze’s penchant for irony that prompted him to choose Johansson as the voice of the Operating System considering she has one of the most evocative bodies in Hollywood.
Even though the potential for having any real connection to Samantha is theoretically minimal, Theodore has never felt as close to anyone before as he does to her. And maybe because there’s no real risk involved—or so he thinks. But the more intimate they become, the more disarmed he is by their relationship, particularly when Catherine points out to him that it was always his dream to have a girlfriend without any of the real emotions that are involved. Theodore’s friend, Amy, by contrast, feels that, since we’re only here for such a brief period, we should do all we can to feel joy, even if that means having sex with an omnipresent voice.
Amy, also, is one of the most interesting characters in Her as we watch her marriage break down in just a few telling scenes. Although she was with her husband for eight years, she confesses to Theodore that she was tired of being made to feel like shit on a constant basis—and it was all set off by the trivial argument over her husband yelling at her to take off her shoes before she sat down on their couch. But such seemingly inconsequential requests were indicative of a larger need for her husband to control and change Amy. And it is this subplot that seems to act as a defined mark in the pro column for having a relationship with a non-person.
As Jonze’s first solo screenplay, Her is a testament to the fact that one can always reinvent the wheel of “the love story” genre. But Jonze isn’t simply highlighting the notion that human relationships are more complicated than any other. He’s also foretelling the nature of how humankind will interact with technology as time forges on and systems become more advanced. And, as creepy as that concept may be, it appears to be an inevitability. Though the very idea that a machine could throw as much emotional complexity into your life as the other people you already have to deal with is mildly ominous, one can only hope that Arcade Fire will likewise serve as the score to such a transition.
“Some of this actually happened.” So says the title card leading up to the opening of David O. Russell’s American Hustle (not to be confused with the 2007 Katt Williams movie of the same name). And, in fact, the film is based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation that took place in the late 70s and early 80s. Designed to target government officials accepting bribes on a massive scale, American Hustle takes elements from this fragment in FBI history and centers it around con artist Irving Rosenfeld (a grotesque Christian Bale), a real Long Island type.
Although Irving is married to a high-strung, manipulative woman named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, in a trashy role played to perfection), he quickly falls in love with, Sydney (Amy “Tit Showcaser” Adams), a gifted con woman with a shared love of Duke Ellington. The fact that Irving could love two women so disparate from one another is a testament to the male reproductive organ fiending for a taste of every type. His preference, though, is ultimately for Sydney. Their partnership in con artistry, unfortunately, is abruptly halted when they’re busted by small-time FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
In exchange for Sydney’s freedom, Irving cuts a deal with Richie: Four busts of high-profile politicians and Richie will forget about the whole thing. Richie’s attraction to Sydney makes Irving feel automatically uneasy about being under his thumb. The love triangles and squares of American Hustle are perhaps a mirror of the time period, as well as Rosalyn’s whimsical kissing of Sydney after they have an argument in the bathroom.
Still, Richie’s (who also happens to have a fiancée) so-called love for Sydney can’t be matched by Irving’s desire for her. Although, in the past, David O. Russell has revealed a more cynical side (e.g. I Heart Huckabees and Flirting With Disaster) with regard to love, there is a hopeful tone throughout American Hustle that reflects the general sentiment of a nation looking forward to the end of a recession and the end of Jimmy Carter.
Even the mention of divorce, which is at first appalling to Rosalyn, eventually seems like a commonplace idea for her—yet another indication of the 70s and how comfortable people were becoming with the idea. After all, Rosalyn “just wants to be loved,” as she tells Irving so vehemently after ratting him out to one of Victor Tellegio’s (Robert DeNiro) mafia henchmen about Irving being in cahoots with the FBI. Thus, Rosalyn’s dysfunctional methods for attention all seem justified to her, for it’s all in the name of Irving’s love. It is in this way that Rosalyn is one of the most deranged, emotionally complex characters in the film—in spite of coming off as a vapid Long Island wife on the surface.
And then there’s the relationship between Richie and his superior, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K., in a deadpan role that suits him). Stoddard’s reluctance and caution in pursuing heavy-hitting politicians like Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) irritate Richie to no end, especially when Stoddard tries to tell him a story about ice fishing in Michigan as a metaphor. Even though their rapport is a subplot of the movie, Russell displays such a knack for creating interesting character dynamics that it stands out as one of the most memorable friendships apart from the one between Irving and Carmine.
Although American Hustle is a film with many messages from which to cull, it comes down to two phrases stated by Sydney and Irving: “I wanted to be anyone else but who I was” and “You con yourself just to get through life.” And there’s no better country than America to achieve both of those sentiments at an optimal level.
Nicole Holofcener is no stranger to world of film and television. Her father-in-law is Charles H. Joffe (one of Woody Allen's go-to producers) and she was taught at Columbia by Martin Scorsese. Most of the shows and movies she's written or directed have received some sort of acclaim (from the 1996 cult classic Walking and Talking to her directing involvement on Sex and the City). Her latest film, Enough Said, however, proves to be something of an anomaly in Holofcener's canon. Of course, there is a certain amount of sentimentality surrounding it due to the fact that it was James Gandolfini's penultimate film. Thus, there are moments when it seems almost difficult to gauge if the movie is notable for its content or for the realization that it's Gandolfini's last hurrah.
Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a mobile masseuse/divorcée struggling with the notion that her daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) will be leaving for Sarah Lawrence in the coming months. To make matters less palatable, her massage clients all seem to embody some sort of bad L.A. stereotype: An gross older man practically orgasms every time Eva touches him, a trophy wife talks endlessly about her petty problems and a selfish young actor type watches Eva suffer every time she walks up his endless staircase. Her best friend, Sarah (Toni Collette), is a successful psychiatrist suffering through her own relationship issues with her husband, Will (Ben Falcone). The couple takes Eva to a party peppered with influential guests, including a poet named Marianne (Holofcener favorite Catherine Keener). Eva and Marianne hit it off somewhat awkwardly after Eva makes the usual trite "poet/know it" rhyme, after which she encounters--unbeknownst to her--Marianne's ex-husband, Albert (Gandolfini).
Although Eva and Albert both claim to not be attracted to one another, Eva can't resist when Sarah tells her that Albert asked Will for her number. Seeking the advice of her disinterested daughter and Chloe (Tavi Gevinson, who can't stop, won't stop), her daughter's best friend, the two seem encouraged by Eva's positive reaction to her first date with Albert. One would imagine that since it's hard enough to hit it off with someone at a young age, it must be even more challenging for someone older who has been burned by love and become more set in his or her ways. This undeniable connection she feels with Albert is marred when she learns that he is Marianne's ex-husband--the same ex-husband she's been talking all kinds of shit about before, during and after their massages together.
At first horrified by the revelation, it suddenly dawns on Eva that she can use the intelligence gained from Marianne to her advantage. Referring to Marianne as a "Trip Advisor" for the metaphorical hotel that is Albert, Eva begins encouraging Marianne to speak more freely about him. Marianne obliges, addressing everything from his lack of "night tables" to his disgusting habit of picking out onions from guacamole using his chip. While, initially, Eva just wants to know if there's anything truly wrong with Albert, she suddenly recognizes that she's incapable of being objective about him anymore. To make matters worse, Eva's clingy rapport with Chloe has only served to further alienate Ellen from her, who is already feeling an emotional distance in preparation for her departure to Sarah Lawrence.
Indeed, it is the relationship between Chloe and Eva that proves to be one of the most interesting in Enough Said, especially when one considers the utter lack of motherly figures in Los Angeles, and thus, Chloe's intense need to be amid someone as "traditional" as Eva. Albert, who has an overly sophisticated, precocious daughter of his own, Tess (Eve Hewson, of This Must Be The Place fame), identifies with Eva's plight in watching her daughter pull away both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, in spite of his empathy and sweetness, her neurotic behavior toward Albert starts to manifest in the form of critiquing him in the same manner his ex-wife would have. And ultimately, her secret is found out.
The beauty of Enough Said is that the conclusion is neither entirely positive or negative. The entire film's point is to illustrate that you have to accept someone as they are--to try to change them inevitably means that they're not the right person for you. Hence, Holofcener's metaphor when she ensures to insert a line about how Albert still hasn't got any new night tables. Because he's still the same person, flaws and all, which is just who Eva wants him to be.
We're all recovering from some type of trauma. The trauma of leaving home, the trauma of working, the trauma of existing. But for Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), her form of suffering was (and is) the loss of her son, Anthony--renamed to Michael upon being adopted and taken to America (Sean Mahon). After giving birth to him as a teenage girl outside of wedlock, Philomena was forced into a convent where Catholic nuns told her to sign her rights away as a parent. Fifty years later, she still hasn't stopped thinking of Anthony.
Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who relishes any chance to play a bit of an asshole), a Labour party advisor recently dismissed from his position after being accused of attempting to "bury" information in the wake of 9/11. With no job on the horizon and a largely ostracizing interest in Russian history, Sixsmith grudgingly agrees to write a human interest story brought to his attention by a server at a party. The server turns out to be the daughter of Philomena, who finally confessed to her that she had a son fifty years earlier. Martin pitches the story to an editor friend, who is interested enough to foot the bill for him and Philomena to go to America to look at any existing records for Anthony Lee.
The disparate natures of Martin and Philomena become even more apparent while they travel together, with Philomena stopping at the nearest church for confession and Martin rolling his eyes over the ridiculousness of believing in God. Her ardent reading of romance novels and reciting the plots to Martin also wear on his nerves, and yet there is a certain affinity for the old woman he can't explain. Upon learning that her son was a well-respected advisor for both Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., Martin is saddened to learn that Michael (in an ironic twist of fate) died of AIDS in 1995.
Initially, Philomena feels as though she's "lost him all over again" (a quote Martin's editor urges him to use) and wants to return to England immediately. But, once at the airport, Philomena begins to reconsider, wanting to figure out more about her son by talking to the people who knew him. Searching for some sort of sign that he ever thought of her, Philomena becomes almost more determined than Martin to make the most out of her tragedy. As she unravels the truth about Michael's struggle with AIDS while working for an administration determined to strip all funding and research for a cure, Philomena feels a sense of closeness to him that she never could have imagined.
The script, which was written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, is directed with empathy by Stephen Frears (best known for High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things and The Queen), who portrays Philomena with a gentleness and understanding that makes her unwavering Catholic faith in the face of being so blatantly fucked over by the convent even more endearing. Her ability to forgive the hypocrisy of nuns who made her feel like an eternal sinner for an action she committed in a moment of passion and earnestness is the crux of what the film is about.
Striking the delicate balance between dramatic and comedic, Philomena is a story that illuminates the inner strength that each and every one of us is capable of in the face of strife, loss and generally shitty circumstances.
Sebastián Silva got off to a quick start with movie industry success (which, in this case, refers to recognition as opposed to financial gain). His 2009 film, The Maid, received plenty of critical accolades, allowing Silva to continue creating movies with artistic freedom. Crystal Fairy (or, as its alternately known Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and 2012) is a mythical, spiritual, intellectual tale that follows an unapologetic gringo named Jamie (Cera) and his band of Chilean friends as they seek the hallucinogenic nectar of the San Pedro cactus. Along the way, they are distracted by a spirited woman by the name of Crystal Fairy (the much under appreciated Gaby Hoffman) who enhances their journey without them truly realizing it until it's all over.
Crystal Fairy floats into Jamie and his friend Champa's (Juan Andres Silva) life at a party where she's seen prancing around in what Jamie dubs to be an embarrassing fashion. Coked out enough to approach her, he tells Champa that he feels compelled to help her stop humiliating herself. At first uncertain of her heritage (due to her dark features and thick hair--later a characteristic that garners her the name "Crystal Hairy"), Jamie is surprised to learn that Crystal Fairy is an American. Feeling an inexplicable sense of camaraderie in his drug-addled state, Jamie invites Crystal on his quest to find the fabled San Pedro cactus, a glorious plant filled with pure, potent mescaline (so of course it's outlawed in the U.S.).
The next day when Crystal calls up Jamie to take him up on his offer, he is slightly hazy on the details of ever having met her. Champa and his brothers, Pilo (Agustin Silva) and Lel (Jose Miguel Silva), however, are more than open to the notion of meeting Crystal in the town square where she says she'll be. When they come across her, she's in the midst of an argument with a group of cutthroat Chilean women after she tries to pay for something with a drawing. Jamie, already vexed by her slowing them down, is immediately offput by not only the drama Crystal causes, but her New Age/hippie persona. Only later does he comprehend that this over-the-top version of herself is a defense mechanism she uses against her past.
As the trip progresses and their hunt for a cactus intensifies, Jamie--called "the Pollo" by the band of brothers he's with--only grows more irritated by what he views as Crystal's crackpot theories and sentiments slowing them down. From helping to purge their chakras to walking around in front of them naked, Crystal upsets the balance of what Jamie had in mind for the trip in many different ways. It isn't until they actually head to a deserted beach to enjoy the fruits of their beloved plant that Jamie finally begins to appreciate Crystal.
Shot in a method that calls just enough attention to its low-budget nature, there is something about Crystal Fairy (both the film and the person) that keeps you captivated throughout--even though, for the most part, very little is actually happening. Perhaps this is because Silva based Crystal on someone inspirational from his own life, a woman who barely graced it, yet influenced him profoundly. In an interview with Movieline, Hoffman noted:
"There were biographical things about her that he told me. You know, he’d actually had this experience with this woman, so, I don’t want to reveal too much, but elements of the character, like the story she tells at the end, are factual. But, for me, it was more about taking those facts and making her dynamic instead of one-dimensional and cliché, which she could easily have been."
Among other life imitating art factors in Crystal Fairy is the fact that the actors were legitimately tripping on mescaline during the filming of the movie. This detail shines through minimally on film, and perhaps because the performances are so understated, you realize that the experience of and the rapport between the actors is real. In blurring the lines (goddammit, Robin Thicke) between where the acting begins and the improvisation ends, it makes sense that Crystal Fairy would be the project to reignite Hoffman's interest in acting and offer Silva a chance to pay homage to someone significant in his life.
When it comes to movies, there seems very little emphasis on or interest in portraying small town America. Generally, the films we see are set in some metropolis that's supposed to be New York or L.A. Very rarely is much thought or attention given to what goes on in the many places outside of these two cities (granted, not very much goes on at all). Still, it is a testament to Alexander Payne's nuanced style of filmmaking that he would be the one to bring Midwest life to the forefront. Payne, born in Omaha, is one of the few writer-directors willing to give a story and its characters the time they need to develop and, not necessarily arc, but at least have a revelation or come to terms with something unpleasant.
For Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, who has been having a come-up since appearing in Django Unchained), that unpleasant something is realizing that a million dollar sweepstakes notification he received in the mail is completely bogus (a word I try to use apart from talking about Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey). His son, David (Will Forte, in a role that proves he's so much more than an awkward drag queen in 30 Rock), is saddled with the responsibility of constantly fetching him whenever he tries to make the trek from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect his winnings from the sweepstakes headquarters. Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb), is all too wary of his behavior, clinging to the help of her other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk, who comes across surprisingly un-Saul like), to back her up on putting him into a home.
David, the most sympathetic to the real reason Woody is chasing the ghost of a good thing, insists that they indulge him in his fantasy at least for a little while. With his own slew of problems to contend with, including working a dead end job as a salesman at a home entertainment and electronics store and his girlfriend recently moving out of their apartment, David is all too eager to take a trip elsewhere for a simple (though minimal) change of scenery. The dynamic between David and Woody is archetypal in terms of the new school penchant for emotions colliding with the old school predilection for stifling every possible feeling. Because Midwestern men's communication skills are, to put it mildly, sparse, it's fascinating to watch Woody's latent sentiments come through as the plot progresses.
Another element of Nebraska that highlights the ways of "the common man" is the modesty of the primary characters' desires in life. Woody's sole interests after getting a million dollars are to buy a truck and a compressor. A soulless bourgeois East or West Coaster would find far more financial damage to cause with that kind of money. But modest desires stem from modest expectations, which is what many Midwesterners have been conditioned to adhere to (a history of scarcity has instilled too much fear in them not to). Shot in black and white, the ennui and grimness of such an austere existence shines through in the cinematography and stylistic nature of Nebraska.
While audiences might assume that a story about the Midwest is, invariably, a story about the American dream, Nebraska is, more than anything, a story about the value of acceptance, contentment and being satisfied with what you have and what you're realistically able to materially gain. Payne's gift for striking the perfect balance between the tragic and the comic is what makes all of his films seem timelessly resonant. For the themes of Nebraska will always be relevant in human existence. At least average, non-famous ordinary man existence.
It’s difficult to imagine a feel good movie about sperm donation, and yet, that’s exactly what Ken Scott’s Starbuck is. Starbuck, the donation alias of David Wozniack (Patrick Huard), ends up becoming the unwitting father of 533 children—142 of which have filed a class action suit against the LaFrance Clinic (where he donated between 1988 and 1990) to find out the identity of their father. Largely an ill-fated fuck-up, Wozniack gradually begins to view this newfound information as his raison d’être (the French flourish was necessary. After all, the story is set in Quebec).
Already recently informed by his girlfriend, Valérie (Julie LeBreton), that they’re going to have a baby, Wozniack, a meat delivery man (ignore the euphemistic overtones), has been bombarded with reasons—all of the propagating variety—to change his ways and become a better person. Unfortunately, this desire to become better is negated by an $80,000 dollar debt he owes to some gangsters that are rather fond of randomly showing up at his apartment and drowning him in his bathtub. And, although the gangsters are Canadian, they’re still fairly ominous and pesky (though not as pesky as the fact that the cause of this $80,000 dollar debt is never broached upon).
To supplement his minimal income in order to repay his debt, Wozniack attempts to grow pot in his apartment, with little success. He goes so far as to shamelessly ask his brother (Marc Bélanger), a butcher at Wozniack & Sons, to help him, as he’s the one with the green thumb in the family. But even this brother, the more sympathetic one—actually called "Frère Symathique" in the credits—refuses to play into David’s slacker methods for moneymaking. Desperate for cash, David turns to his lawyer friend, (Antoine Bertrand), who, like David’s brothers, has no name except “Avocat” (lawyer). His friend, in turn, insists that David should sue the clinic for threatening to expose his identity.
By this time, even though he’s met many of his children and acted as their “guardian angel,” helping one son get an audition here and preventing another daughter from going to a methadone clinic there, David is too enslaved by his debt to ignore the potential wealth from such a lawsuit. In the meantime, all of Quebec (which is the bulk of Canada that really matters) and beyond has heard the repugnant tale of a masturbating fiend who has somehow managed to father hundreds of children.
While no one bothers to question the reasons behind the elusive Starbuck’s motives for so many generous donations—assuming he’s just a lazy, money-hungry asshole—the intention behind David’s fiendish self-love from 1988 to 1990 stemmed from his desire to take his family on a trip to Venice before his mother died of cancer. It is one of the least maudlin of all the maudlin revelations of the film—the most cringe-worthy scene being after David has his 534th child and his other offspring come to the hospital and engage in a giant group hug with him.
I suppose the core message of Starbuck isn’t difficult to glean, but it is difficult to swallow (much like sperm in a cup): No matter how worthless your life is, you can always redeem yourself by telling others you had a child or two or five hundred. It’s a get out of jail free card for uselessness. Apparently, it’s a beloved enough theme to have warranted Ken Scott remaking the movie into the current box office hit, Delivery Man, with Vince Vaughn.
“A writer is the sum of their experiences.” So says William Borgens (Greg Kinnear), a successful writer who hasn't written anything in the three years since his wife, Erica (Jennifer Connelly), left him. This school of thought has often been one of the divisive elements in what constitutes a good writer: Someone who bases their work on experience (often at the expense of others in their lives) or someone who actually has the imagination to come up with a world of their own. For the Borgens family, experience trumps imagination--especially in matters of love. Josh Boone's debut writing and directing effort, Stuck in Love, reveals that, often, one of the primary benefits of pain and anguish is channeling it through one's artistic medium, in this case, writing (though the existence of Fifty Shades of Grey seems to have taken the pain part a bit too literally, so maybe that's why it's so unpalatable).
Among the Borgens family members using troubling life experiences to their advantage is Samantha (Lily Collins), a college student who has just received news that her manuscript, Under the Pink, is going to be published by Scribner. Although William is happy for her success, he is miffed over the fact that she didn’t tell him she was working on an entirely new novel from the one he had originally helped her edit. Explaining that she didn’t want his voice to become her own, William realizes his over-controlling nature is, once again, affecting his familial relationships—just as it did with Erica. As a result of her parents’ separation, Samantha makes it her point never to get attached to anyone, pursuing only one-night stands as her source for writing material and human intimacy.
William’s son, Rusty (Nat Wolff), has also been blessed with the talent for writing, though William fears his lack of experience is hindering from becoming a truly great scribe. To help remedy this, William encourages Rusty to pursue the girl he’s been obsessing over, Kate (Liana Liberato), a more seasoned girl in the way of sex and drug use. When Rusty takes a chance on punching her boyfriend out at a party after he pushes Kate, the gamble pays off and the two start dating.
Samantha, in the meantime, has allowed her heart to open—albeit very reluctantly—to Lou (Logan Lerman of The Perks of Being a Wallflower fame), a fellow student in her Advanced Fiction Writing class. As they grow closer and closer, especially after Samantha discovers that his mother is dying, she begins to soften a bit, though not enough to break down the barrier she has created between herself and her mother, whom she blames entirely for her parents’ separation (after all, she did catch Erica cheating with another man, scarring her for life in the aftermath). Ignoring Samantha’s vitriol for her mother, Lou takes a chance on inviting Erica to the book release party in Samantha’s honor. The outcome is an icy exchange that sends Erica into further emotional upheaval.
Rusty’s girlfriend has also managed to cause drama at the book party, disappearing into the night with another guy after too many glasses of champagne. Rusty must finally admit that her coke problem is a reality (it sounds more after school special than it comes across). Erica and William, concerned over her whereabouts, bring Samantha and Rusty with them to the apartment of another college student, where they find Kate passed out from the champagne/coke combination. The agony of his first love being ripped apart from him (Kate is forced to go to rehab after the incident) prompts Rusty to write a story that ultimately gains the attention of his literary idol, Stephen King. It is at this point that you would think that things have become too mawkish, yet somehow the plot jives without making you feel totally uncomfortable.
While for some, Stuck in Love might tend to seem utterly pretentious, there is something too earnest about it to ignore—the primary case in point being the use of a Raymond Carver quote for the closing line of the film: “I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” If you think about it, it’s a quote that applies perfectly to film, as well as writing, in that the fade to black at the end of a movie and the shared experience audience members simultaneously marinate over encapsulate the aphorism perfectly.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s roles in Hocus Pocus and Sex and the City might, at first glance, seem like two unlikely characters to compare, but, upon closer examination, it’s easy to see just how similar the ditzy witch, Sarah Sanderson, and the “sexual anthropologist,” Carrie Bradshaw truly are. For one, both women rely heavily on their feminine wiles to get things done. Though Sarah is more overt about it, Carrie is just as ready and willing to use her vagina as a means to an end. And, ultimately, don’t most people view the vagina as some sort of sorcery anyway?
What Carrie Bradshaw is most noted for, her innovative fashion sense, is also something Sarah Sanderson possesses. Granted, she’s generally wearing a velvety dress from the 1600s and a cape for most of it, but still, it’s pretty revolutionary for 1993, the year the Sanderson sisters are resurrected. Paired with the ultimate functional fashion accessory, her broom, to tool around town, Sarah might actually be more chic for not bothering with the gauche practice of taking a cab (or, in those rare moments, the subway). Although, what Carrie does have over Sarah is living in New York City, instead of some drab, dreary town like Salem. But again, the comparisons arise in that they both gallivant around a city on the Eastern Seaboard.
The most overt similarity between the two women, however, is their stance on men. Viewing them as something of a sport—specimens to be toyed with—both Sarah and Carrie look to boys, men and everything in between that resembles the gender as things to be toyed with and explored. It might even be viable to say that Sarah is exactly what Carrie was like in her early 20s and still had yet to care about her carefully cultivated image. All it would take for Sarah to get to the Carrie point is one heartbreak from the wrong warlock.
The final nail in the coffin of likeness (in trying to keep with the Halloween motif of Hocus Pocus) is the fact that both Sarah and Carrie roll with a coven. Sarah’s crew might only have two fellow witches to Carrie’s three fellow bitches, but each woman still embodies the same archetypes. Mary (Kathy Najimy) is the obvious choice for Charlotte—prudish and unassuming—while Winnie (Bette Midler) is the Miranda of the group—intelligent and condescending. Sarah represents both Carrie and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) in the free-spirit/slut combo role.
The jump from witch to rich seems simple enough for Sarah Jessica Parker in terms of character roles. But she’ll always have her original, fun-loving sorceress to thank for reaching Carrie Bradshaw status. And so, Candace Bushnell and Michael Patrick King might actually have Hocus Pocus screenwriters Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert to thank for their carefully crafted HBO franchise.
Surprisingly, no one has ever thought to adapt one of David Sedaris’ short stories into a film. Of all the possible selections, “C.O.G.” seems like one of the less appealing choices (though it is one of the more robust stories in Naked, starting at page 153 and ending at 201). Still, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s second feature shows undeniable promise—even though his debut, Easier With Practice, is far superior. Alvarez’s attraction to the story is simple enough to understand as it's about a sheltered type renouncing his normal way of life to go apple picking and get off the grid for awhile. The potential for hilarity knows no bounds, especially when you’re picturing David Sedaris in this scenario. Unfortunately, it is Jonathan Groff (known for his roles in Glee and Taking Woodstock) you have to see instead—who is not nearly as gawkily humorous as Sedaris.
There are a number of problems with transforming a short, distinctly autobiographical story into a watchable narrative. The first and foremost issue with C.O.G. is that Sedaris himself is so singular in his mannerisms and affectations, that it seems pointless to try emulating his “character.” The adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors suffered a similar fate. Presumably one of many coming-of-age stories in Sedaris’ wheelhouse, C.O.G. takes one of the author's more esoteric experiences and turns it into something decidedly weird and uncomfortable, rather than entertaining and enlightening (as most of Sedaris’ work is). Although in the short story version Sedaris is escaping his prior job working as a dishwasher for privileged college students, C.O.G. changes it to the main character being a graduate student from Yale who seems to have lost his sense of purpose.
David's motives for going to Oregon to try his hand at apple picking remain the same: His friend, Veronica--or Jennifer (Troian Bellisario) in the movie--is inspired to pronounce, "Migrant labor, that's the life for us" after reading a copy of The Grapes of Wrath while living with Sedaris in San Francisco. One of many discrepancies in the film is that Jennifer leaves David before she even arrives in Oregon, whereas, in Sedaris' version, it isn't until after a season of picking together, when the two return to North Carolina, that Veronica gets a boyfriend and decides not to return with David.
Among the few friends David makes is Timothy, better known as Curly (Corey Stoll), a fork lift operator who works at the apple factory where David has been recommended by his former boss, Hobbs (Dean Stockwell) at the apple orchard. Unlike in the story, David is actually eager to be friends with Curly, who seems to pick up instantly on the fact that David is a repressed gay man. Conversely, when Curly makes a move on David in the source material, David's internal reaction is: "...it horrified me to think that he might have mistaken me for one of his own. Was it my clothing? The pallor of my skin? My tendency to let my mouth hang open while bored?" David's situation is worsened once Curly lures him back to his trailer and into his bedroom. While the film incarnation of David is wont to stand there mutely in front of Curly's collection of dildos, the literary version sounds a bit more coherent as he muses, "Whatever Curly's theatrical fear, it could not begin to match my genuine horror as he opened the door to his bedroom."
The motives and aspirations of film David and literary David are also very different. The David in the movie is escaping a recently revealed truth--that he's gay--to his parents, while the David in the short story is about exploring new options and starting anew, noting, "If I could just stay here a little longer, perhaps I could form the emotional calluses people needed to leave their pasts behind them and begin new lives for themselves." It is at this point in the short story that Jonathan Combs, C.O.G. (Denis O'Hare) is introduced. Earlier in the film, however, David encounters him after Hobbs demands that he goes to refill his container of gas. Once David rolls the barrel all the way into town that he encounters Jon passing out a pamphlet that asks, "Are you with C.O.G.?" Naturally, Jon's inclination is to start harassing the obviously faithless David by asking him what he thinks C.O.G. stands for, to which David replies, "I don't know. Capable of genocide?"
In both the movie and the story, David has no choice but to turn to Jon for help--particularly after he surrenders his job at the factory. The relationship they share in each incarnation is disparate. Ultimately, in C.O.G., the rapport between Jon and David leads to a dramatic and saddening conclusion, while, in the short story, it takes on a much more light-hearted tone. What can be said for C.O.G. is that it gives you hope for another, better David Sedaris story to be rendered on film--and hopefully next time something much more comical (maybe something from Me Talk Pretty One Day, so Amy Sedaris can play herself to perfection).
Love in the modern world is no easy feat. When you have a porn addiction, love becomes an even more unattainable concept. In Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut writing and directing effort, Don Jon, the lines between need and addiction, love and abstraction are blurred. Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt), a quintessential New Jersey type (the guido aesthetic, greased hair, accent, etc.), will tell you he only cares about a few things in life: His body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls and his porn. Obviously, the list should be reprioritized to put porn at the top--because it's a daily activity he can't go without. Unlike real sex, Jon can "lose himself" completely for those few minutes of masturbation in a way he can't during traditional boning. Enter Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), "the most beautiful thing" Jon has ever seen. Too blinded by her measurements, Jon can't see that she's the worst kind of New Jersey princess.
As Jon grows increasingly entranced by Barbara's spell, he starts to do things he never would have envisioned himself doing before--chiefly, not having sex every night as he waits for her to decide when she's finally going to give it up. Instead, Barbara does just enough to make him cum in his pants, causing his laundry regimen to get even more arduous. He even goes so far as to start taking a business night class at Barbara's behest (after all, being a bartender is so gauche). After Barbara catches him watching porn and threatens to leave him if she sees him do it again, Jon takes to watching it on his phone. A fellow classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore), glimpses what he's watching as she's trying to apologize for crying in front of him the week before. Denying her accusation, Jon grudgingly accepts her apology. It is this sort of grumbling, offbeat rapport that sets the tone for Jon and Esther to be able to talk about anything.
When Barbara finally gives up the holy grail--her vagina--it still isn't what Jon thought it would be. And so, he goes on with letting out his frustrations (both sexual and otherwise) out through watching porn. In his view, the buildup to orgasm and the money shot can never be trumped by sex with Barbara. And, though he doesn't realize it yet, this revelation leaves him feeling emptier than when he was simply having one-night stands. As things between him and Barbara shift from the honeymoon phase to the tenser, arguing phase, she shows her true colors even further by giving Jon shit for cleaning his own apartment. The fact that she tries to mold Jon throughout their entire relationship should have been an indication to both him and every objective outsider that she's an asshole. Unfortunately, the only person who seems to see this is Jon's sister, Monica (Brie Larson, who may have the best role in the movie), whose constant silence makes one of her only statements in the third act have more clout than anything else others in Jon's life have said.
After snooping around on his computer, Barbara discovers the severity of Jon's porn addiction and immediately breaks up with him. This sends him right into the arms of Esther, who Jon somehow feels a natural affinity with--a comfortableness that is usually reserved for two people who have known each other their whole lives. Jon and Esther confess details to one another that they wouldn't ordinarily share with anyone. Esther, for instance, tells Jon that her husband and son died in a car crash fourteen months ago, while Jon tells her that sex has never been as good for him as porn. Esther suggests that perhaps the reason Jon feels this way is because he fucks women in a one-sided fashion--totally detached from the body attached to him in the moment.
As Jon comes to terms with his porn addiction and how it relates to his approach to sex, he starts to see that maybe there is such a thing as a happy ending--though not how you pictured it to be, and never quite so perfect as they make it out to be in the movies. What one takes away from Don Jon is that the only people worth impressing are the people who accept you as you are, in all your absurd, idiosyncratic glory--because only then will you change of your own volition.
I will say this for Nick Frost and Simon Pegg: They loathe homogeneity. With The World’s End, the dastardly duo has completed a trilogy of films (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz preceding) aimed at comparing the current human race to some form of drone. In Shaun of the Dead it was zombies, in Hot Fuzz it was homicidal townspeople killing anyone who didn’t comply with their ideal of perfection. The World’s End bears a bit more similarity to Hot Fuzz in that Gary King (Pegg) and Andy Knightley (Frost) return to their childhood town, Newton Haven, to find it has been taken over by a group of “peaceable” robots.
A bit more macabre in terms of characterization, The World’s End begins with Gary narrating the events of the best night of his life, June 22, 1990, from his AA group. On this magical night in question, he and his four best friends, Andy, Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Steven (Paddy Considine), attempted tackling a pub crawl of twelve pubs known as the Golden Mile. As teenagers, the quintet failed, ultimately going their separate ways—though Gary did manage to shag Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike), at one point during the evening as a consolation prize. Finishing his grand tale, one of his fellow rehab members asks, “Were you disappointed that you never finished it?” Realizing that completing the Golden Mile is his only life’s ambition, he gathers his old friends together to finish the job.
Andy, the most reluctant to have come on this jaunt, is duped into it after Gary tells him his mother died recently. The others are along for the ride for old time’s sake, doing what they always did best: Follow Gary’s lead. From the moment Gary picks them up in his ancient car, The Beast, the emphasis of the film becomes about the music of their adolescence. Blaring the quintessential Britpop song, “There’s No Other Way” by Blur, Gary solidifies his status as the eternal youth, plagued by arrested development. The soundtrack then segues into “I’m Free” by The Soup Dragons. This song sets the tone for the entire theme of The World’s End, which is, no one can tell humans what to do. Plus, there’s Happy Mondays songs galore, presaging the act of “twisting the melon.”
Punctuating the motif of cookie cutter sameness, director Edgar Wright also made it a point to take plenty of jibes at the globalization, so to speak, of pub culture. For the most part, all the charm and quirkiness of British pubs have been drained in favor of the Starbucks model. Maybe that’s also why one of the pubs serves the gang pints of Foster’s, prompting the question: What self-respecting Brit—let alone Aussie—would drink Aussie beer? In any case, Wright succeeds in driving home his point with every pub they walk into.
While, of course, the beautiful combination of Pegg, Frost and Wright can do no wrong as far as this viewer is concerned, it isn’t quite in the same thermosphere as their past projects, Spaced included. The real test of this trio’s genius lies in branching out to a new genre, preferably a tragic love story as opposed to a comedic horror one. Perhaps in the next trilogy.
It's an age-old story: A male and female friendship veers past the line of appropriateness with (or without) alcohol. In Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg (the king of the microbudget film/writing, directing and producing all of his movies) takes a new approach to this time-honored storyline. Instead of laying on the drama real thick (as with a friendship/romance like Dawson and Joey's--come on, you know I had to go there), Swanberg builds the tension in such a subtle and unexpected manner that you can't even see the buildup to Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke's (Jake Johnson) ultimate moment of truth coming.
As a party and event planner for Revolution Brewery in Chicago, Kate spends most of her days acting as just one of the guys--drinking beer, talking shit, playing pool, etc. Among her favorite members of the brewery group is Luke, an all-around "good guy" type who already has an equally "good girl" type of a girlfriend named, what else, Jill (Anna Kendrick, who seems to me to be one of those actresses you can't quite pinpoint the reason why you dislike so intensely). Kate, her polar opposite, is the natural representation of "the whore" in Luke's world of stereotypes. At a particularly huge party, Kate decides to finally introduce her boyfriend of eight months, Chris (Ron Livingston, in one of his typically "blah" roles), to the rest of the gang. From the outset, Chris' attraction to Jill is overt, though--in Swanberg fashion--guilefully portrayed.
When Chris invites Jill and Luke to his house in Michigan, the potential for Shakespearean betrayal escalates. However, instead of Kate and Luke doing the betraying, as you would expect, it is Jill who lets her lustful yearnings get the better of her, engaging in a kiss with Chris that she later refers to as "pathetic and gross." Though a dalliance with Luke is Kate's main aim when she agrees to build a bonfire with him on the beach in the late hours of the night, nothing comes of it when she tries to lure him into the water for some skinny dipping. When the quartet returns to Chicago, Chris immediately breaks up with her. The following morning, Kate seizes the opportunity to announce her breakup to all the brewers and demand, "Tonight, no one is going home to their significant other because I no longer have one." Perhaps imagining that this is going to be his grand chance, Luke becomes vexed when Kate starts overtly flirting with another of their co-workers, Dave (Ti West).
Constantly toeing the line between friend and lover, Luke, is, in many respects, more of a tease than Kate. After Jill, racked with guilt over her impure act, decides to leave for Costa Rica with some friends for a week, Luke and Kate quickly fall into an old married couple routine. Offering to pay for her dinners, help her move (about which Kate rightly notes, "You don't wanna help me move. Moving is what goes on in hell.") and generally entertaining her fantasy that they could be together, it seems as though a bit of infidelity is inevitable. As the sexual tension between them amplifies, so, too does the symbolism. As Luke and Kate carry her couch out her apartment, Luke's hand is stabbed with a nail. Christ-like implications aside, it happens at a moment when Luke and Kate have almost gone too far in their affections for one another.
In the midst of this move, Kate finally lets her true feelings be known, calling Luke out for wanting to have it both ways: Making her feel like a slut for wanting to go out with other guys, yet not offering to make a so-called honest woman out of her. Johnson, who is no stranger to playing roles that involve pushing the boundaries of friendship (New Girl) acts this part to perfection, revealing how truly torn he is between two women. Of course, Swanberg, somewhat legendary for his undetermined endings stated, "It's hard for me, knowing how uncertain the world is, to put a certain, definite ending on a movie. I feel like I'm hopefully hinting that there's a resolution without it being cemented down, or hammering you over the head with it." Personally, I'm rooting for Kate, but we all know men never actually want to marry "the whore," now do they?
Centered around the most destructive fire in the history of Texas, Prince Avalanche is a story that parallels the wreckage of said wildfire on an emotional level. Although this event took place in Bastrop County in September of 2011, the film is set in the summer of 1988. Alvin (Paul Rudd) has taken on the job of repainting the road and replacing other traffic related markers destroyed in the fire's wake. As a favor to his girlfriend, Madison, he hires her brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch, who has something of a Joaquin Phoenix way about him), to help him. The two forge a bond that occurs only after a series of denials, arguments and general contention.
Alvin’s stoicism is in direct opposition to Lance’s fun-loving, adventure-seeking nature. David Gordon Green (best known for All The Real Girls and Pineapple Express) adapted the script from an Icelandic work entitled Either Way. His ability to imbue the screenplay with bare bones dialogue and a minimalist setting to match is remarkable to watch play out onscreen. The controlled performances of both Rudd and Hirsch complement one another seamlessly, while the static backdrop of ravaged Texan land punctuates a sense of restlessness and uncertainty.
As Alvin writes letters to Madison and attempts to learn German for when they ultimately move there together, Lance does his best not to lose his mind over sexual frustration. The only other person they encounter in the woods is an old man (Lance LeGault) who advises Lance to go into town to try to find himself a lady. Lance already has a girl named Peggy Johnston in mind to “squeeze the little man,” as he refers to it. The only problem is, Peggy is already spoken for by one of Lance’s friends, Kip (it doesn’t get more 80s than that in terms of guys’ names). Regardless, Lance sets off for the weekend on a mission to get laid.
In Lance’s absence, Alvin entertains himself by cooking various roadkill and talking to an old woman he encounters who busies herself among the ruins of her home. She laments that now that all of her possessions have been burned, there is nothing to prove her accomplishments or even her existence. It is a strange, yet valid point to be made, particularly in American culture, wherein we are defined but what we have amassed. Alvin eventually grows weary of talking to her and goes off on his own jaunt, involving quite a bit of talking to himself.
When Lance returns, there is an aura of jadedness about him. Dressed in a lab coat and wearing sunglasses, he somberly exits the car and, when probed by Alvin about his weekend, asks if they can just “enjoy the silence.” After a while, he finally admits that nothing happened between him and Peggy Johnston apart from making out because Kip caught them leaving the bedroom at a party together. He then removes his sunglasses to reveal a black eye. Feeling sympathy for his plight, Alvin sardonically offers, “In your own mind, you really do see yourself as a gentleman, don’t you?”
In spite of Alvin’s exhibited devotion to Madison--emphasized by a letter he writes to her featuring the aphorism, “True love is like a ghost: People talk about it, but very few have actually seen it”--she still ends up breaking up with him. This information wreaks havoc upon his fragile heart, leaving only Lance to pick up the pieces. Instead of consoling him, however, he tells Alvin that it was deserved, that he’s never actually there for Madison. Outraged by Lance’s accusation, Alvin attempts to get in a fight with him, but it only leads to getting drunk and growing closer (god, male friendships are so much simpler than female ones).
Prince Avalanche is a breath of fresh air, proving that you don’t need more than a $60,000 budget to make a memorable, meaningful movie. It is also a testament to how an environment can reflect our own emotions back to us—much to our dismay. Plus, it’s been awhile since a truly great story about male bonding has been released (I would even venture to say not since Grumpy Old Men).
Hollywood's ultimate financial bread and butter--the Midwest--has been reflected back to itself rather mockingly in We're The Millers. The concept of “the family unit” seems decidedly quaint in the current culture. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s We’re the Millers serves to accent this fact and make fun of those who still somehow find themselves in a traditional family. Thurber’s style, as cultivated in Dodgeball, reflects a straightforward, simplistic aesthetic that works well with the equally straightforward script—written by Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders and John Morris (it’s generally a bad sign when that many people need to have a hand in writing a screenplay). While the film is clearly aimed at making Midwestern audiences laugh, there is something decidedly contemptuous about the tone in so doing.
What makes the film stand apart automatically for its Midwest-friendly vibe is that it takes place in Denver (which nothing ever does). This everyman sort of city is the ideal place to depict low level drug dealer David Clark’s (Jason Sudeikis) mediocre life. At the beginning of the film, David encounters an old college friend (played by Chris Parnell) who marvels at how static David’s life has remained. Indeed, it is instantly clear that David’s few interactions are with his neighbor, Rose (Jennifer Aniston), who—it is apparently important to consistently note—strips for a living, and his other neighbor, Kenny (Will Poulter), an awkward, neglected 18-year-old. David makes the mistake of involving himself in Kenny’s attempt at saving a runaway named Casey (Emma Roberts) from getting her phone stolen. As a result, all of David’s drug money, as well as the drugs, are taken.
With no way to pay back his eccentric, yet scary, boss, Brad (Ed Helms), David is forced to obey Brad’s request to go to Mexico and pick up “a smidge and a half” of weed to bring back to Denver. Knowing full well he already looks the part of a pothead/pot dealer, David devises a plan to create a fake family, rent an RV, drive it back under the guise of having gone on a family vacation and never risk suspicion at the border. The small hiccup in the plan to serve as dramatic irony is that David has no idea that the weed he’s collecting actually belongs to a Mexican drug lord.
With all of the necessary players in place (Kenny’s got nothing to do, Rose’s strip club wants her to start having sex with customers so she quits and Casey needs some sort of roof over her head), David begins the makeover process. Getting a haircut at some Super Cuts-esque establishment and telling Casey not to spend her money at Hot Topic are just some of the ways in which sweeping generalizations about "typical" middle class families are made.
By the time they hit the road, they practically are a real family--bickering and all. Between several awkward encounters with fellow family travelers Don (Nick Offerman), Edie (Kathryn Hahn) and Melissa (Molly Quinn)—the Fitzgeralds—an impromptu striptease to escape the clutches of Pablo Chacon (Tomer Sisley) and an incident involving the inflation of Kenny’s ball, getting the drugs across the border proves to be the least of their worries. But all of this is merely a series of hijinks serving the ultimate outcome of We’re The Millers, which leads to each fake family member realizing they don’t actually like being alone, with no one to answer to. Is it a gimmicky and predictable ending? Absolutely. But that’s not what makes it unpalatable. It’s the overt disingenuousness of appealing to a certain demographic by maligning their way of life. On the plus side, the outtakes show Jennifer Aniston’s co-stars blaring “I’ll Be There For You” on the radio.
Inspired by the voice of Don LaFontaine (a.k.a. "The Voice of God"), In A World... is a unique film for myriad reasons--chief among them being the concept and the fact that Lake Bell wrote, directed and produced it. It's very rare for movies to get overly scrutinizing about the nature of women versus men in the entertainment industry. Bell, intimately acquainted with the various facets of the business, exposes the disparity without ever verging on the precipice of preaching. For Bell has been in enough films and TV shows to know that getting too bathetic with a message never works.
Struggling voiceover artist Carol Solomon (Bell) ekes out a living through voice coaching (including actors like Eva Longoria). Her true dream, however, is to land a gig for a movie trailer voiceover. In the wake of Don LaFontaine's death, Carol's father, Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), is one of the few industry titans left in the business. To honor LaFontaine's memory, a movie franchise known as The Amazon Games (try to bite your tongue) seeks to bring back the famed catch phrase "In a world..." for their trailer. Vowing to bow out gracefully of the competition, Sam rallies for up and comer Gustav Warner (Ken Marino, who I always associate with WB--or CW, if you will--programming like Charmed and Dawson's Creek). In the meantime, Sam has kicked Carol out of the house at the behest of his much younger girlfriend, Jamie (Alexandra Holden).
With no where else to go besides her sister Dani's (Michaela Watkins), Carol feels like she can't get much lower until she gets a call from Louis (Demetri Martin, a more awkward version of Jason Schwartzman), who works at a voiceover studio called Sound Mixalot, informing her that a temp track she put down for a "children's romantic comedy" trailer was very well-received. Feeling herself on an upswing, Carol's optimistic attitude seems also to help land her a Sunny Delight and hair commercial. In spite of this newfound success, Carol's obsession with recording people's voices for their accents and dialects does not subside--especially after hearing an Irish guest at the hotel where Dani works at the concierge desk. She begs Dani to let her record him, but she refuses to oblige. The guest's interest in Dani also makes her nervous considering how dissatisfied she's been in her marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry, in a more versatile role than usual). This love triangle sets the tone for other ones that begin to develop as the film progresses.
At a party thrown by Gustav Warner, Louis brings the daffy (don't you just love that word?) receptionist at Sound Mixalot in an attempt to make Carol jealous. Unfortunately, Carol is too busy avoiding her father and his girlfriend and subsequently getting hit on by Gustav, who is blissfully unaware of her identity (both as Sam's daughter and the voiceover artist who recently ousted him from a job). The two end up having a one-night stand, after which Gustav quickly discover who she really is. The morning after, Carol comes home screaming, "Guess who's a dirty slut?!" about herself, only to find Dani crying alone on the floor. After Dani did as Carol asked and recorded the Irish hotel guest, Moe overheard the flirtatious tape and fled from their home. Although this drama serves to make the film engaging, it seems somewhat out of place in the context of the story.
As In A World... reaches its denouement--meaning the unveiling of The Amazon Games trailer--we are left feeling satisfied if not somewhat disoriented by the fact that Carol doesn't really have to work all that hard for what she's getting. Yes, she has talent, but it is somewhat far-fetched that, out of nowhere, the second she makes a slight effort, she is the darling of the voiceover world. Then again, Hollywood can have you on an upswing or a downswing all in the utterance of one influential person's say-so. And perhaps this is one of the underlying themes of In A World..., apart from most audiences being beatifically oblivious to hearing solely male voices during every trailer or commercial.
The sex comedy is a difficult genre to get right. For the most part, it's been dominated and perfected by male leads and writers. Unfortunately, Maggie Carey’s writing and directorial debut, The To-Do List, does not serve to vindicate this genre for women. Every so often, it also seems necessary to release a comedy set in a different decade—you know, so you can make fun of how quaint it seems in retrospect (e.g The Wedding Singer). Thus, The To-Do List takes place in the Boise, Idaho of 1993.
The story follows the virginal life of senior valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), whose feelings of sexual inadequacy begin to mount after her friends, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), take her—against her will—to a post-graduation party where she encounters Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a decidedly douche bag type with a Zach Morris aesthetic. So enraptured by his mere presence (which also devolves into an uncomfortable fantasy wherein everyone else disappears from the room, leaving Rusty to serenade her a terrible version of “Pour Some Sugar on Me”), Brandy can’t help but get extremely drunk to cope with her emotions. Before the end of the night, Fiona and Wendy have to escort her into an empty bedroom to pass out. Rusty, thinking she’s someone else even though it’s not even that dark (because he’s just that dense), starts to make out with her, but Brandy is so awkward that she ends up blurting something about herpes. This prompts Rusty to realize she’s not who he thought she was and quickly leave the room.
Humiliated by her inexperience, Brandy vows to make up for lost sexual time over the summer. Consulting with her older, much sluttier sister, Amber (Rachel Bilson), Brandy compiles a list of all the acts she must complete before giving herself to Rusty. Her nerd status, however, makes it difficult for her to attract interest from the opposite sex—save for her best friend and chemistry lab partner, Cameron (Johnny Simmons, whose best role will always be as Chip in Jennifer’s Body).
Unluckily for Cameron, Brandy only sees him as a means to gain experience and nothing more. He doesn’t recognize this fact until after screaming “I love you” in a movie theater (to see The Firm) in the wake of getting a hand job from Brandy. Surprised to find her Trapper Keeper filled with sexual notes and her to-do list, Cameron hurls Brandy with insults, exclaiming, “I hope you get AIDS!” This sends Brandy right into the arms of Cameron’s best friend, Duffy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse a.k.a. McLovin in his usual role)—allowing her to check dry humping off the list.
Her sexual frenzy continues with fellow lifeguard Derrick (Donald Glover, who seems to have chosen a forgettable part). Derrick offers to eat her out so that he can learn how to better satisfy a woman. Pretty soon, Brandy’s reputation begins to precede her, particularly when Willy (Bill Hader), her drunken boss, catches her giving head in the shower of the pool’s locker room. Although The To-Do List is clearly intended to empower and affirm female self-reliance—one of Brandy’s repeated phrases is “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”—it ends up coming across as a series of mixed messages. Not wanting to settle entirely on the theme of “sex is meaningless,” Carey waffles on the point by essentially saying “sex may or may not be meaningless, so just sleep around in the interim.” And it is this vacillation that takes away from The To-Do List, highlighting the fact that it is a feature film virgin’s (full-circle, you see?) project.
The film’s attempt to take the best elements of classic plotlines like Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds and Say Anything (all 80s movies, it should be noted—though the early 90s did still have the aesthetic uncertainty of its preceding decade) and mash them up to revamp the sex comedy genre ultimately falls short. Moreover, it's a huge step down for Plaza from the amazingness that is Safety Not Guaranteed. And so, until someone like Sofia Coppola or Zoe Cassavetes tries her hand at this style, I’m afraid women will have to be saddled with Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow for their sex comedy fix.