Friends With Kids

Written by on March 9th, 2012

Jennifer Westfeldt wrote about a sexually experimental neurotic woman in 2001’s Kissing Jessica Stein. She scripted a quickly married and quickly harried neurotic couple in 2006’s Ira & Abby. And now she’s juggling three neurotic Manhattan twosomes in Friends With Kids, her directorial debut. It’s fair to say that Westfeldt is shaping up to be the female Woody Allen. Only most Woody Allen movies would be slightly more tolerable if, instead of saying “I love you,” its characters whispered, “Fuck the shit out of me.”

It’s that kind of cutting that helps the saccharine of Friends With Kids go down — though it doesn’t knife through quite often enough to keep things from becoming an “Aww!” fest that traditional chick-flickers will lap up. The story centers on Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), best friends who are close enough to wake each other up with the little how-would-you-rather-die game they play but have never been tempted to sleep together. At the beginning of the film, they’re cabbing it out to Brooklyn (Brooklyn!) for a birthday celebration at the kind of restaurant where they and their friends look with horror at people who bring their kids.

At least, two-thirds of them still do: Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd) announce that they’re having a baby, and everyone coos on cue, including still-hot-for-each-other couple Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm, Westfeldt’s real-life paramore). Jump ahead four years, and they have a kid, too. Julie and Jason watch as everyone else’s life turns to chaos, their homes a mess, their romance fizzled, and their brats forever screaming their lungs out. You wouldn’t think that this kind of scenario would lead Julie and Jason to want a bundle of joy themselves. But they’re going to be smart about it, keeping love-love out of the equation and co-parenting as best buds only (with a convenient story for potential partners about a one-night stand).

Now, while watching Friends With Kids you become aware (or more aware) that you’re either pro-baby or, well, not exactly anti-baby, but not the kind of person who makes goo-goo noises whenever she sees a cute tyke onscreen. Because soon enough, there’s a LOT of cute-tykeness going on: Julie and Jason naturally have the most adorable and  perfectly behaved baby ever, and it’s the reason Friends With Kids goes off the rails for a while. But it’s not all touchy-feely. Westfeldt does have a gift for navel-gazing gab (when she calls Jason early on and admits she has a guy sleeping next to her, she says, “He’s, like, 11, he’s a bartender. What’s wrong with me?”) and scenes of their friends and their offspring are as funny as they are horrific (“It’s like I raped her to have a kid,” Ben mutters).

Westfeldt also goes deep for a while, with an excruciating group-vacation dinner scene during which everyone gets too drunk, too hostile, and too honest. The discussion mostly revolves around Julie and Jason’s child and how confusing it’s going to be for him once he gets older. And the film’s general premise, about how relationships change once kids are involved, is spot-on. Before they have their own baby and after one nightmare of a visit with their friends, Jason says, “We don’t know those people. Those people are mean.”

Yes, they’re the product of little sleep, constant disorder, and never enough time. They’re people you do know, or maybe you belong to the club yourself. Either way, Friends With Kids offers a fair dose of reality with its cute- and cleverness, a world in which fucking is as meaningful as making love.

The Forgiveness of Blood

Written by on March 9th, 2012


Should a son pay for his father’s sins? The answer is an unequivocal “yes” in The Forgiveness of Blood, Joshua Marston’s follow-up to 2004’s Maria Full of Grace. Though born in California, Marston made an Albanian film, which he co-wrote with freshman scripter Andamion Murataj. Not much goes on in the story; if the script were any more drawn out, the cast would be moving in slow motion. But the kernel of the central conflict is unique enough to keep the film compelling.

When the film opens, Mark (Refet Abazi) and his eldest son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), are taking a shortcut on the way home after a day of delivering bread, the family’s only source of income. They need to move stones to get through; the path has been blocked by the landowner, Sokol (Veton Osmani), even though in past generations the neighbors were friendly. One day a fight breaks out, Sokol ends up dead, and Mark needs to go on the run. According to Albanian tradition, however, the murder warrants a blood feud, meaning that Sokol’s family has every right to kill, if not Mark, a male in his family. Now Nik’s the one in hiding.

Nik is pulled out of school to essentially become a recluse, playing video games, sending video messages to his crush, and increasingly becoming moody as his isolation drags on. Meanwhile, his sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), needs to forget school as well so she can continue delivering bread to maintain the family income. She’s also miserable about it and is occasionally shunned out in the merchant world, but Rudina becomes quite industrious when she sees an opportunity to make more money.

And that’s about it. Throughout, there’s a chance of a ceasefire, but it seems a perilous thing that must be negotiated just right and therefore an action the family is hesitant to take. Mostly the film comprises the danger that Nik feels every time he passes a window or, stupidly, slips out to go see his friends. Because of the small house, Nik’s danger is everyone else’s, too; there’s distressing scene in which shots are fired and Nik’s toddler brother nearly gets hit.

Marston makes the household all too real — you would never know this film wasn’t directed by an Albanian — with mostly rural trappings and concerns outside of the feud such as how many minutes they have left on the family cell phone, on which they occasionally get messages from Dad. Watching and waiting, however, is the crux of the story. And though it’s often fraught with tension, the film’s slow pace may leave you as stir-crazy as Nik.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Written by on March 9th, 2012


We Need to Talk About Kevin works as a family drama, an American horror story, and a strong argument for birth control. The Omen’s Damien has nothing on Kevin, a real-world devil child who tortures his mother seemingly even before birth and doesn’t stop, well, ever, at least up to the point when the film ends. That the family has another child, a delightful girl, doesn’t erase the “Do Not Procreate” message that Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay (adapted from a novel by Lionel Shriver) firmly lodges in your brain.

A note-perfect Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a travel-loving woman who’s happily married to Franklin (John C. Reilly, here as in Carnage not quite fitting the dramatic part) when she becomes pregnant with Kevin. She doesn’t seem all that happy about the pregnancy, and there’s a suggestion of postpartum depression as well. But when her son is born, Eva gives it her best — despite the fact that the baby’s colicky (yet calms for Daddy) and grows into a similarly petulant and downright mean toddler (but again, not around Franklin).

Kevin, played by Rock Duer and Jasper Newell throughout the character’s childhood years, splatters paint all over a room that Eva meticulously decorated with maps and souvenirs. He shadows everything she says with “Nyah nyah nyah.” She gets mad; he doesn’t stop. She tries to play nice — “Honey, do you mind if I stop off at the store?” — and that doesn’t get her anywhere, either. Eva once tells the boy through a gritted smile that “Mommy was happy before little Kevin came along!” and, when she really reaches the end of her patience, she throws Kevin against a wall (apparently aiming for a changing table), breaking his arm. “The most honest thing you’ve ever done,” the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller, magnificent) tells her. Meanwhile, he bonds with Dad over a play- and later a real archery set, and Eva and Franklin’s marriage deteriorates.

Yet, tragically, no one really talks about Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s not much of a secret that Kevin grows from a child antagonist into a teenage sociopath, on one horrible day using his archery skills to commit a school massacre. Ramsay, who co-wrote the script with newbie Rory Kinnear, doesn’t tell the story linearly, instead going back and forth in time in a way that’s as mesmerizing and haunting as the curtain shown billowing off an open balcony door in the film’s first shot. The film’s awash in implied blood, from Eva’s ecstatic dream of her crowd-surfing during a Tomatina festival to the reality she wakes up to, her modest house and car splattered with red paint. The town may vilify Kevin after the murders, but they hold Eva accountable as well.

Lending the film its nightmarish, off-kilter quality is its music, chipper-sounding stuff ranging from the Everly Brothers to, more often, old-time Americana. It contrasts starkly with all the misery being shown whether in the past or present; Eva’s tightly wound and exasperated pre-massacre and a veritable zombie post-, whether she’s at work at a shitty travel agency or visiting Kevin in jail. There’s only a passing reference to what might have been Kevin’s motivation — something about notoriety versus living a boring life — but in the end even he can’t give a reason for his actions. And it’s that shrug of ambivalence, clear in his deadened eyes as well as in his words, that makes Kevin a killer most chilling.

Undefeated

Written by on March 9th, 2012

Undefeated, the Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, is the Louder Than a Bomb of high-school football, a look at how an extracurricular activity can elevate students above their inner-city trappings and give them glimpses of what it’s like to succeed. Here, coach Bill Courtney is the central hero, having volunteered at Tennessee’s Manassas High School for six years and having little to show for it except a neglected family and, likely, rising blood pressure.

Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin make clear that Courtney’s competition throughout his coaching career wasn’t so much other teams — though the Tigers’ track record was pathetic — as was injuries, bad grades, and bad attitudes. One of his players, Chavis, spent 15 months in a youth penitentiary and still makes trouble with other team members when he gets out. Another, O.C., has terrible grades and gets to go all Blind Side, living with an assistant coach a few days a week to get tutored. Montrail, aka “Money,” gets sidelined with a knee injury toward the end of the season his senior year, always hearing heartbreaking news from his doctor as his high-school career nears its close.

You get the sense that coaching the Tigers is like herding cats, yet Courtney remains firmly optimistic — if a wee bit too bright-eyed — about it. “Young men of character and of discipline and commitment end up winning in life, and they end up winning in football,” he once tells his team. “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it,” he says during another speech. The concept of character is big with this guy, with him emphasizing that a person’s true character is shown by how they handle losses, not wins. And with this team, the players get the chance to show that a lot, having never won a playoff game in the school’s 110-year history and even being hired out as a practice team for more successful schools to fine-tune their skills against. Ouch.

Of course, a winning documentary can’t focus on an entirely losing team, and Undefeated is uplifting in all the right but, crucially, not the most obvious places. Courtney, though he’s a white semi-successful businessman with a loving family, identifies with many of his players because his father left when he was a small boy. “You start feeling like you’re not very valuable” when Dad’s not around, he says, though he notes the irony that he himself often spends more time with his team than with his own kids. He’s regularly pushed to the edge by the trouble-making players and questions when enough is enough. But Courtney’s constant yapping at them does sink in, because they not surprisingly start winning games.

The final game is, as are all final games in movies, a nail-biter. But wait and see what happens before assuming it goes the Tigers’ way. Undefeated’s title refers more to the inner strength of the players than the team itself. And, just like a well-fought playoff win, it’ll leave you a little misty-eyed.

New Avengers Trailer!

Written by on February 29th, 2012

This has pretty much all my movie-star boyfriends in it. Yes, I’m excited.

Bullhead

Written by on February 22nd, 2012

If only there were more focus on the bullhead in Bullhead. Writer-director Michael R. Roskam’s debut, a Best Foreign Film nominee from Belgium, starts intriguingly with a voiceover over blackness: “Sometimes in a man’s life, stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet. So quiet that no one even dares talk about it….because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked.”

We then meet Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a cattle farmer with a minifridge full of ‘roids for both himself and his animals. We see him strong-arming a former client into buying his meat again, then, a bit later, freaking out during a meeting with…some people. It’s about a shady deal — that we know for sure. And it’s likely related to a recent murder as well as what an news anchor calls the “hormone Mafia underworld.” There’s some business about a stolen car with a bullet hole and whether that car has its original tires. It’s all rather murky.

Then we flash back 20 years earlier, when Jacky was a child. Turns out a horrible thing happened to him, an event that led him to start taking testosterone out of necessity. So he’s been doping all this time, and it’s not exactly his fault.

Whenever Jacky’s the center of the narrative, Bullhead is compelling. Schoenaerts, who had to bulk up to bruiser proportions for the role, nevertheless has a boyish, Tom Hardy quality about him. A subplot has him nervously approaching a woman (Jeanne Dandoy) he sorta knew when they were kids, only she doesn’t immediately recognize him. It’s sweet — at least until it’s clear that he’s stalking her. A nightclub scene is especially disturbing, with Jacky getting wasted as he watches her and turning violent on a man she’s hanging out with. You feel sorry for him and fear him at the same time.

But then the film keeps returning to that deal and those involved in it, losing all momentum — and the ability to engage — as the details are piled on while the characters remain stubbornly ill-defined. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of plaintive music throughout, which quickly becomes irritating as you try to figure out the story. Yet, as a character study, Bullhead succeeds. If Academy Awards could be given to only half a film, it’d be a winner.

This Means War

Written by on February 22nd, 2012

Pop quiz! A good romantic comedy needs which of the following: 1) chemistry 2) conflict 3) car chases 4) explosions. If you’re director McG (Charlie’s Angels), the answer is all of the above, with particular late-chapter emphasis on death-defying stunts and massive fireballs in his latest feature, This Means War. Isn’t that sweet?

If you’re the audience, you’ll just be confused by this weird romance/action hybrid — or, more accurately, bored, at least until the pyrotechnics show up. The story involves CIA partners/best buds Tuck (Tom Hardy, charming but deserving better) and the ridiculously named FDR (Chris Pine — eh). FDR’s a ladies’ man but Tuck is a shy loner, unable to have a relationship with the mother of his son. Then there’s Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a workaholic who doesn’t take time to pursue a relationship. Until, that is, her bestie, Trish (Chelsea Handler), enrolls her with an online-dating site and creates a steamy profile. For some reason — though we don’t see when — Tuck answers Lauren’s ad. (Perhaps Trish was right when she said that guys would really react to the camel-toe photo.)

So Tuck meets Lauren at his usual hangout while FDR plays a clandestine wingman in a nearby video store in case the date goes south. The pair drool over each other but call it an early night, with Lauren mentioning that she’s going to…rent a video. Naturally, FDR comes on to her, having not seen a pic of his friend’s new friend. It’s hate at first sight, but FDR (boy is that name annoying) is persistent, showing up at Lauren’s job and badgering her into a date. The agents all-too-quickly find out that they’re pursuing the same woman, and, well, that means war.

This Means War was scripted by Timothy Dowling (Just Go With It) and Simon Kinberg (Jumper and X-Men: Last Stand), not the most pedigreed of screenwriters. Here’s a partial list of the rom-com cliches they employ: wacky/raunchy best friend. Shot to the crotch. Dogs both cute- and attack-. The line, “I trusted you!” The ex-boyfriend who’s now engaged and living a perfect life. The surreptitious apartment break-in. (The better to stalk her, my dears.) And, let’s not forget, our lead character, the gorgeous work-obsessed “loser” without a love life.

Throughout the courtships, Lauren whines to Trish about how hard it all is, Tuck tries to kick his nice-guy crutch, and FDR — what do you know? — becomes a romantic. There are a couple of minor laughs here and there, and if you think you know where things are heading — well, you actually don’t. It’s a nice if not entirely believable surprise. But after the shoot-outs and blow-’em-ups, you would have had to have entirely suspended disbelief by now anyway.

Coriolanus

Written by on February 22nd, 2012

Caius Martius is not a baby-kisser. In Coriolanus, the first big-screen adaptation of the lesser-known and notoriously difficult Shakespeare tragedy, the leader fights for his city of Rome, but he’s got no love for his constituents. Calling them “curs,” “fragments,” and damning that he’s forced to even share their wretched air, it’s unsurprising that he refuses to show them his war wounds to prove the sacrifice he made or try to make nice after a blistering speech. In short, Martius is too honest to be a politician, especially considering that the play is set in the era of cell phones and Skype.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Martius, later dubbed Coriolanus because of his triumph over the city of Coriole — the most satisfying aspect of which was his defeat of his most hated enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler, not always successfully hiding his Scottish accent). Fiennes also makes his directorial debut here, and considering the source material (adapted by Gladiator’s John Logan) as well as his fierce performance, it’s an impressive one. With a cast (including Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) that lets Shakespeare’s words flow off their tongues with speed and dexterity, you may not always pick up the lyricism of the language, but you’ll certainly get the gist.

And the gist is that Coriolanus is so stubborn and arrogant that he gets banished from Rome, where the people are fed up over a food shortage as well as their leader’s contempt. He seems startled but not overly concerned about this; if anything, his mother (Redgrave) is more disappointed, having previously shown such intense pride of her son in her half-crazed eyes that it could easily be mistaken for bloodlust. (She boasts of his scars, as well as tells his wife, played in a throwaway role by Chastain, that if she had a dozen sons, she’d be quite happy to see 11 of them die nobly for their country.) Even if you don’t understand her character’s zeal, Redgrave’s a marvel.

So too is Fiennes, who hisses, bares his teeth, and fights with a blood-covered face in a role not all that different from his Voldemort in Harry Potter. He’s venom in human form, showing humility that’s only based in a desire for vengeance when he’s banished from Rome and decides to approach Aufidius for a possible partnership. (Coriolanus’ trip is one of the film’s only laughable moments, as the clean-shaven character hitchhikes until he looks like Jesus in a scene that takes about a minute.) He’s either gonna get Rome or die trying.

Fiennes frequently employs an unsteady cam to capture action, even if the action is only a swarm of citizens shouting their dissent. It lends the film an immediate, tense documentary feel, one that seems particularly representative of current events when soldiers are shown kicking in doors and sticking their guns in the faces of innocents. There are parallels to Iraq, Afghanistan, and, indeed, all the other conflicts going on in today’s world, though this is more about a man than a war. Whether you read into the themes of Coriolanus or simply take it as a particularly cutting character study, Fiennes’ work as both director and star is a balls-to-the-wall effort even a tyrant could admire.

Man on a Ledge

Written by on February 22nd, 2012

Man on a Ledge is as pedestrian as its title, a by-the-numbers crime thriller that traffics in ridiculous happenstance, dull action, and witless, spark-free interactions. That it stars Sam Worthington, who’s not exactly building a thrilling repertoire, should be no surprise. That it offers Elizabeth Banks as an NYPD cop, however — well, perhaps an absurd casting weighs in just above an uninspired one.

Director Asger Leth’s first feature film starts off interestingly enough. Nick Cassidy (Worthington) checks into a posh New York hotel and orders a day’s worth of room service and champagne. Then he wipes his prints off the silverware, leaves a note, and, yes, climbs out onto the ledge of his 21st-floor room. (Apparently this is the only hotel left in the world whose windows open.) “Right there! There’s a man on a ledge!” a passerby helpfully points out.

The film hops back one month earlier, when Nick is incarcerated. We also find out he’s an ex-cop. While attending a funeral service for his father, Nick escapes. It’s the one action sequence that’s mildly exciting, with Leth’s camera bobbing along inside the truck Nick’s driving across rough grounds and railroad tracks as Nick’s former colleagues chase him. He escapes, happening to have civilian clothes under his orange jumpsuit as well as access to a storage space with everything an escaped convict could need — I.D.s, cash, files on people. (Files?) He’s seems set for life, if it weren’t for one final thing…

That final thing in Pablo F. Fenjves’ script hasn’t really been kept a secret. Nick assumes a new identity and climbs on that ledge to distract New York while his brother, Joey (the always-irritating Jamie Bell), and Joey’s way-too-hot-for-Jamie-Bell girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), rob a real-estate mogul’s jewelry vault in a building across the street. Part of Nick’s plan to ensure maximum diversion is to request Officer Lydia Mercer (Banks) to try to talk him down. Mercer, who’s shown waking up looking like a supermodel, has a checkered past, too, the better to complicate the caper.

There’s a method behind Nick’s yawn-inducing madness; he wants to prove he’s innocent of the crime that landed him in jail. The further the plot unfolds, however, the more bored you’ll grow. Nick’s constant stalling tactics grow wearisome and his exchanges with Mercer are occasionally head-scratching. (More fun is watching Banks trying to believably bellow, “This is my negotiation!”) The subplot involving Joey and Angie clearly tries to invoke Ocean’s Eleven in strategy and playfulness, but the couple’s mild bickering never translates into true or entertaining chemistry. And wasted in small roles are Ed Harris and Kyra Sedgwick, the latter of whom plays a reporter with the name Suzie Morales, which she pronounces with a full “R” roll while remaining as Caucasian as can be.

Even the views from that 21st-floor ledge get progressively less gulp-inducing, with one scene in particular — Nick scaling to another floor — recalling the far-superior stunt Tom Cruise pulled off in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. The one element that will give you a kick, albeit for the wrong reasons? A marriage proposal that’s tacked onto the end for no good reason except as an attempt to add some sentimental depth. But really, it can’t be called out, for it’s just about as realistic as everything that came before it.

Albert Nobbs

Written by on February 22nd, 2012

Albert Nobbs has for nearly three decades been Glenn Close’s passion project — ironic, then, that it completely lacks passion. Close stars as the titular character, a woman passing as a male waiter at an upscale hotel in 19th century Dublin. Nobbs has been dressing as a man since she was 14; her current goal is to remain invisible among the occasionally raucous staff and guests until she can save enough money to buy her own tobacco shop.

Albert’s supposed to be a fly on the wall, blending into the background so no one suspects her secret. But as portrayed by Close — unfathomably nominated for an Academy Award — the character is more accurately described by Helen (a saucy Mia Wasikowska), a fellow servant: “Sometimes I think you’re soft in the head!” More often than not, when Close’s Albert is asked a question, she stares blankly. When hotel guests pass her by, she stares blankly. And when she’s not staring blankly, she looks mildly startled.

Well, to be fair, there’s a moment when Albert looks majorly startled: Her insular world is upended when she way-too-conveniently meets Hubert Page, a painter whom the hotel owner lets share Albert’s room while completing a job. You see, Hubert is played by Janet McTeer — yes, there are two cross-dressing women in this film, and they not only happen to meet, they’re forced under the covers together. When Hubert, having had enough of Albert’s constant begging not to tell her boss, rips open her own shirt to reveal some unmistakable breasts, Albert just about passes out. Then it’s back to being annoying, with Albert peppering the very assured and more believably masculine Hubert — McTeer is terrific, deserving of her own Oscar nom — with questions.

If Albert’s passivity doesn’t infuriate you, the coincidence will. Overall, the film (directed by Rodrigo Garcia and co-written by Close and John Banville from a novella and off-Broadway play) is as stilted as the hotel’s service, even when Albert tries to mimic Hubert’s life and find love. The object of her affection is Helen, and between the actors’ age difference and Close’s weird performance, their scenes together are mildly creepy and rather delusional. (“Should I tell her before we’re married, or save it for our wedding night?” Albert asks herself.) Also, it’s unclear whether Albert is actually a lesbian. When Hubert tells her, “You don’t have to be anyone but who you are,” it’s not helpful, because if Albert knows the answer to that, the viewer never finds out.

That leaves any meaning behind the story a question mark. It is a tender moment when Hubert asks Albert for her real name and she still says, “Albert.” And there’s a sign of life when the pair go out in dresses and Albert ends up running on the beach. So who is Albert Nobbs and, more crucially, what’s the point? The film doesn’t bother justifying itself with sufficient context; there’s a glint of the consequences of subsuming one’s true identity, but it’s not fleshed out enough for this It Gets Better world. And when a performer’s big achievement is pulling off a short haircut, muffled voice, and men’s clothes, offer her a Globe and be done with it.