Cast: Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Sheila Vand, Jon Hamm
Josh Norman (Quinto) has his fair share of issues – more, actually – and most of them relate to the strained relationship he has with his brother, Craig (Hamm). When he was nineteen, Josh suffered a psychotic break, and since then he’s been on a variety of medications for a variety of undiagnosed afflictions. In recent years, Josh has come to believe that Craig visits him from time to time, and in disguise as his latest role (and even if it’s an elderly homeless lady). Josh is aware that he is ill, and so he seeks out Emily Milburton (Slate), a licensed clinical support worker, to help him with his problems. Emily correctly identifies that much of what ails Josh stems from unresolved issues to do with Craig, but is unable to get Josh to face them – or Craig, who appears at Emily’s door one night. He and Emily begin a relationship, while Josh finds a measure of solace in a burgeoning romance with Hannah (Vand), with whom he goes for long walks. But Emily’s efforts to reconcile the two brothers aren’t as successful as she hopes they’ll be, and her own relationship with Craig suffers as a result…
The debut feature of writer/director Brian Shoaf, Aardvark is a curious beast (pun intended) that is likely to test the patience of viewers as they wait for Shoaf to work out just what it is he’s trying to say, and to put more than two scenes together that are organically linked. This is a meandering, focus-lite movie that generates a modicum of polite interest in its characters, all of whom interact with each other as if they’re meeting for the first time. It’s like a version of Chinese Whispers where no one deliberately pays any attention to what the other person is saying, and misconceptions and misunderstandings abound as a natural result. In Josh this would make sense as his perceptions are skewed anyway, but there’s no excuse for Emily, a therapist who is so obtuse that when her skill as a therapist is brought into question, you want to shout out, “Finally!” Perhaps Shoaf wants us to feel more sympathy for Emily than for Josh, and that would be fine if she weren’t so poorly defined as a character. Slate does what she can, but as Emily is called upon to look bewildered a lot of the time, perhaps it’s a more perfect meld of actress and role than expected.
As Josh, Quinto does well in portraying his character’s dissociative tendencies, and he does a nice line in wounded perplexity, but it’s still a performance that relies on the actor’s input rather than the script’s, or Shoaf’s imprecise direction. Josh’s friendship with Hannah also suffers, coming across at first as a staple meet-cute of romantic dramas but with added mental illness to help it stand out, something that doesn’t happen anyway thanks to Hannah’s status as a cypher and Josh’s judgmental narcissism. But Shoaf really scores an own goal with Craig, a character who appears to have all the answers for Josh’s condition, but is used more as a convenient plot device than a credible protagonist (you have to ask at what point Shoaf thought putting Emily and Craig together was ever a good idea). Stilted and frustrating, the movie wanders around in various directions without ever settling on a simple, straightforward through line, and by the end, all of the characters have been undermined for the sake of narrative expediency, and an ending that feels detached from what’s gone before. And the aardvark of the title? Hmmm…
Rating: 4/10 – an indie drama that plays at being smart and contemplative while missing the mark by a country mile, Aardvark is an awkwardly assembled reminder that good intentions alone don’t make a movie; a good cast can’t save this from being anything more than a curiosity, and even then, that curiosity is unlikely to be satisfied.
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Glenn Plummer, John M. Jackson, John Finn, Elizabeth Marvel, Keir O’Donnell
In a small town in Florida, seven-year-old Mary Adler (Grace) is reluctantly preparing to go to school for the first time. Up until now she’s been homeschooled by her uncle Frank (Evans). Brighter and more precocious than the other children, Mary still has a lot to learn about social interaction and the rules she needs to abide by. Her first day doesn’t go entirely well, but she does catch the attention of her maths teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Slate), who starts to suspect that Mary is a maths prodigy. An incident involving Mary and a boy on the school bus nearly sees her expelled; in turn it causes Mary’s grandmother, Evelyn (Duncan), to visit.
There is no love lost between Frank and Evelyn (his mother). In his own words, Evelyn is uncompromising, and she hasn’t seen Mary ever before. Her reason for showing up soon becomes obvious: she wants to take Mary under her wing and cultivate her gift with complex mathematics, just as she did with Mary’s mother, Diane. But Diane – who was just as gifted as her daughter, and working on the Navier-Stokes problem (one of seven Millennium Prize Problems) – committed suicide soon after Mary’s birth, and Frank blames himself for not seeing how unhappy she was. He also blames Evelyn for not letting Diane grow up like a normal child, something that he’s determined won’t happen to Mary. But Evelyn is truly uncompromising, and soon a custody battle is under way.
Frank and Bonnie begin seeing each other, while the custody hearing sees both sides in with a chance of winning. When Frank’s lawyer (Plummer) approaches him with a deal that’s been devised by Evelyn, and which involves Mary going to live with foster carers, Frank wavers in his commitment to his niece, and eventually agrees to the plan because he’s not sure he can give her the life she needs (even though he’s done really well so far). When the day comes for her to move in with the foster carers, Mary is understandably sad, and feels betrayed. With no other recourse at his disposal it takes a notice posted at Mary’s school to push Frank into getting Mary back, and revealing something about Diane that will ensure Evelyn relinquishes her claim on Mary.
Surprisingly, Gifted is only Marc Webb’s fourth feature, and it’s telling from the movie’s poster that any mention of a certain web-slinger isn’t going to be relevant here. But an acknowledgment that Webb made the terrific indie charmer (500) Days of Summer (2009) certainly is, as this tale of a troubled family, though genial and passively compelling, has the ebb and flow of Webb’s first movie rather than the bloated excesses of the last two Spider-Man movies. Where Webb’s skill and voice as a director was lost in the hubbub of taking on a Marvel icon, here he’s regained that voice and made a movie that’s more in keeping with his moviemaking sensibilities.
The crux of the matter in Tom Flynn’s straightforward, no frills script is whether or not Mary should be treated as the maths genius she undoubtedly is, or as a normal child who just happens to be good with exponential equations. Frank wants her to have a regular childhood, where she plays outside, has friends, and isn’t nose deep in a book of mathematical problems all the time. Evelyn wants Mary to eschew all that and devote her life – even at such a young age – to developing her skills and attaining the kind of recognition that Diane was beginning to achieve before she killed herself. The movie is keen to highlight the pros and cons of both sides of the argument, but as the relationship between Frank and Mary is a loving one, and the script makes Evelyn into a hard-hearted shrew from the moment she appears, there’s no prizes for guessing which way the movie wants the viewer to vote. (In fairness, the script doesn’t allow Evelyn any kind of redemption, and makes her self-serving and callous all the way to the end.)
Of course, the overall conclusion is that Mary should be allowed to have and be both, a child prodigy and an ordinary child at the same time. The signs are already there when we first meet her, and there are dozens of clues littered throughout the movie, from her karaoke nights with neighbour Roberta (Spencer), to the empathy she shows towards a boy in her class who’s the victim of bullying. As the movie progresses and Frank opens up to Bonnie about his sister, and the responsibility he took on in looking after Mary, his self-doubt becomes apparent, but the good work he’s done in raising Mary is also apparent. He may have sacrificed a lot to be a single parent, but he’s done a remarkable job, but the script never allows him a moment of true personal triumph; he’s never sure about what he’s doing, or if it’s the right thing. This does add to the drama of the piece, but when it’s relayed so often you just want to yell, “Get over yourself, man!”
Frank’s insecurities aside, there are too many times when Evans and the character are required to provide substantial amounts of exposition that slow the movie down. Evans is a more than capable actor but here he’s required to either dial back on Frank’s feelings, or limit any angry outbursts to one every half an hour of running time. The movie is on firmer ground whenever Grace is on screen. Whether pulling a frown that would have the Joker asking “Why so serious?”, or smiling with undisguised glee, Grace is yet another child actor who can’t strike a false note even if she tried. She’s the focus and the heart of the movie, and she gives a moving performance that at times is reminiscent of Ricky Schroder in The Champ (1979). As mentioned above, Duncan is the villain of the piece, and she does well to make Evelyn occasionally sympathetic in her desire to take over Mary’s life, but there are too many moments where the character’s humanity (seen occasionally) is pushed aside in order for her to behave appallingly yet again.
Spencer and Slate are given the odd scene to remind us they’re still taking part, though it’s hard to work out why Spencer’s character is there in the first place. Slate’s role diminshes the longer the movie plays out, and by the end Bonnie is there just to listen to Frank complain about the raw deal he and Mary have been dealt (even though he agreed to it in the first place). These are two very good actresses and it’s a shame to see them relegated to playing such under-developed characters. Webb handles it all with a surety and a conviction that helps overcome some of the movie’s more clichéd moments – Mary spots the deliberate mistake in a smug professor’s equation, Evelyn gets to make an impassioned speech on the witness stand that goes unchallenged – and keeps the movie from tipping over into unrestrained mawkishness, in particular during a scene set in a hospital waiting room – one that has a powerful, sentimental payoff.
There are times when the movie feels slighter than it needs to be, and other times where the drama threatens to overwhelm the relaxed nature of much of the movie. It’s not a movie that offers much in the way of originality but it does have a charm and a likeable nature that makes it eminently watchable, and Evans, despite the limitations of his character, remains an engaging, dependable presence. Littered with enough heartstring-tugging moments designed to have viewers teary-eyed and reaching for the nearest box of tissues, Gifted does pack an emotional wallop at times, and it does provide enough food for thought in terms of its central dilemma to offset some of the thoughtless moralising that passes back and forth between Frank and Evelyn. But it’s still a simple story, told well enough to hold the viewer’s attention throughout, and is a welcome return by Webb after too many years in the mainstream wilderness.
Rating: 7/10 – a largely effective exercise in manipulating an audience’s emotions, Gifted coasts in places and isn’t as focused in its second half as it is during the first; it’s still a good movie though, full of dry humour, winning performances, a sense of its own conventional nature, and overall, a more than pleasant experience.
Cast: Adam Scott, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Zoe Kazan, Charlie Hewson
Robbie (Scott) is blind. His brother, Bill (Kroll), is not. Robbie is an athlete who regularly takes part in sponsored sporting events such as marathons in order to raise money for charity (and hey, if it gets him a little press or TV attention, that’s okay, isn’t it?). Bill is the manager of a small printing firm who regularly finds himself helping Robbie with his training, and taking part in each sponsored sporting event. Does he want to? Well, yes and no. Bill loves his brother, but deep down he wants to be free to live his own life and not defer so much of it to Robbie. This makes him feel guilty, which in turn pushes him to help his brother, which in turn makes him want to feel free to live his own life, which in turn makes him feel guilty, etc. etc.
It doesn’t help matters that Robbie is a bit of a jerk, one who never credits Bill for the help and support he provides, and who rarely acknowledges that he even needs any help in the first place. Living in Robbie’s shadow for so long – Robbie has been blind ever since a childhood accident – Bill has become aimless, self-deprecating, and bored. So when he meets Rose (Slate) at the wake for her boyfriend (who was knocked down and killed by a bus while having an argument with her), Bill’s emotional guilt over Robbie is matched by Rose’s feelings of guilt over her boyfriend. They find they have lots of things in common, and later on that same evening, they sleep together.
But in the morning, Rose has second thoughts about seeing Bill again, and tells him so. Upset and humiliated, Bill tries to forget about her, but he finds that he can’t. Meanwhile, Robbie announces his latest plan to swim across a local lake, but Bill stands his ground and refuses to take part. Robbie continues with the plan and finds a volunteer willing to help him train, and be in the boat that guides him across the lake. Of course, the volunteer is Rose, and when Bill finds out she’s helping his brother, he begins to take more of an active role in Robbie’s training. This leads to some unexpected complications (unexpected except in romantic comedies such as this one), as Bill realises he’s in love with Rose, Rose develops feelings for Robbie, and after not too long, Robbie takes it for granted that Rose and he are a couple. As the day of the swim approaches, the relationships of all three are tested, and certain revelations muddy the waters enough so that on the day, nothing goes quite as planned.
Early on in My Blind Brother, Bill reveals to Rose how much he doesn’t like Robbie, and that he sometimes wishes him harm. Later, we see him leave open a kitchen cupboard in order for Robbie to walk into it face first. It’s darker moments like these that make the movie a little more interesting than you’d expect given its low-budget indie roots and general indie demeanour. But My Blind Brother does its best not to be so predictable, and even though the outcome can be guessed before you even sit down to watch the movie, there’s still enough there in the run-up to keep audiences involved and amused. This is thanks mostly to Scott’s performance as Robbie, whose narcissistic, self-centred, arrogant tendencies mark him out as a rare creature of little depth or self-awareness. At a restaurant, he criticises another disabled man for being too noisy, and makes no apology for it. The message is clear: his disability is more “important” than anyone else’s.
By making Robbie such a jerk, writer/director Goodhart – here expanding on her original 2003 short of the same name – allows the movie to retain a dramatic sensibility amidst the more standard rom-com tropes. As well, Bill is a bit of a maladjusted schlepp, the antithesis of Robbie’s hard-line positivity, a guy whose one ambition is to spend lots of time watching TV. When he discovers that this is one of Rose’s favourite pastimes, his face lights up with the unexpected joy of finding a kindred spirit. It’s no wonder he falls in love with her: she’s as unhappy as he is. But whereas Bill would be happy to wallow on his couch for the rest of his life, Rose at least wants to do something, even if she’s not sure what that something is. Thus her involvement with Robbie leads Bill to regain some of his self-respect, and shed the ennui that’s been holding him back.
These themes are spread throughout the script, and given equal screen time with the more comedic moments, such as the one pictured above, where Bill and Rose have been interrupted having sex by Robbie, and have to put their clothes back on without him realising what’s going on. Goodhart’s direction is so good in this scene. It’s not just the physical awkwardness of the moment, but the expressions on the faces of both Bill and Rose that makes the scene so funny. They barely have to say a word, and that’s what makes it so effective. Elsewhere there’s plenty of mileage to be made from Robbie’s overwhelming self-belief, whether he’s driving a car, jumping into a swimming pool, or patronising female reporters, and Bill’s perplexed looks when things don’t go his way.
The romantic elements are handled well, and though viewers won’t find anything new on offer, it’s the quality of the performances and the sharpness of Goodhart’s script that makes up for any failings in the material. Scott’s portrayal of Robbie is often harsh and uncompromising; he’s like the pantomime villain everyone wants to boo and hiss. Kroll (the former Bobby Bottleservice) is lovable and sympathetic as Bill, and handles the darker aspects of his character with understated aplomb. Slate, an actress who impresses with each role she takes, and who was especially effective in Obvious Child (2014), brings an off-kilter sincerity to her role that helps define the character and her quirky understanding of personal responsibility. There are good supporting turns too from Kazan as Rose’s roommate, Francie, and Hewson as Bill’s blind, stoner friend, GT, while the script balances the light and shade of Robbie and Bill’s relationship with a good deal of appealing charm.
Watching My Blind Brother is one of those movie experiences where you think you know exactly what’s going to happen and how, but again, Goodhart’s script is much better than the basic storyline suggests, and though it ends exactly as it should, its caustic approach to the combative nature of Robbie and Bill’s relationship (exacerbated by Rose’s involvement with them both) elevates the material and aids the movie in avoiding being too lightweight or frivolous by comparison. If Robbie’s “advanced spatial awareness” means he moves around or picks things up a little too easily, then that’s a small quibble to make, but overall this is an enjoyable mix of the conventional and the unconventional that is well worth checking out.
Rating: 7/10 – a winning combination of comedy and drama that is easy to like and which is unafraid to try a slightly different approach to its basic rom-com storyline, My Blind Brother has an agreeableness to it that helps it stand out from the crowd; likely to be overlooked amongst all the other rom-coms that get released these days, it would be a shame if it failed completely to attract an audience, or missed out on the attention it deserves.
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie
The latest from Illumination Entertainment, the creators of the Minions, The Secret Life of Pets asks that familiar-sounding but rarely asked question: what do our pets get up to when we’re away from home? And the answer seems to be: a lot more fun than we get up to while we’re away. In a multi-storey apartment block that seems built along the lines of the Flatiron Building, it seems that every resident has a pet or two. And each of these pets has their own thing they do each day. Max (Louis C.K.), a terrier, sits in front of the door waiting for his owner to come home again.
But his perfect life with his owner, Katie (Kemper) is destroyed by the arrival of Duke (Stonestreet), a big hairy stray that Katie brings home wth her one day. Soon Max and Duke are at loggerheads, until while out for a walk, they become separated from their dog walker, and end up victimised by a group of feral cats led by Ozone (Coogan). With their collars removed they’re soon picked up by Animal Control. Only a mission by Snowball (Hart) and his gang of “flushed pets” to rescue one of their own sets them free, but at a price that will see Max and Duke being chased by Snowball, and their animal neighbours – led by Pomeranian Gidget (Slate) – setting out on a rescue mission of their own: to bring back Max and Duke safe and sound.
The plot of The Secret Life of Pets is so slight as to be almost invisible. It’s one long chase movie bookended by convivial scenes of the animals’ home lives, and while there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with this approach, what it does mean is that if the jokes along the way don’t match up to the promises the movie has been making since around this time last year then the movie itself is going to fall flat on its face. Fortunately, the jokes do match up, and the movie contains enough laugh-out-loud-funny moments that the movie can’t help be rewarding – if only on a broad, superficial level. Animal lovers will enjoy this the most, and it’s true that some of the animals’ secret lives do involve some hilarious imagery, but anyone taking a closer look will be dismayed by the way in which the characters behave like stereotypes, and how little they develop over the course of the movie.
But this is mainly about two adversaries learning to let go of their differences and work together, and thus earn equal respect. If it’s a tried and trusted storyline, and it’s been done to death by now, the fact remains that it hasn’t been done by Illumination Entertainment, and they manage to bring a freshness to the tale that helps lift the often banal nature of the narrative. In the hands of directors Renaud and Cheney, the movie is a bright, garish, enjoyable fun ride with a plethora of great sight gags – Buddy the dachshund (Buress) climbing a fire escape is inspired – and a big heart. It’s perfect for children below a certain age (who will love it), but some adults may find it hard going. Nevertheless this is still a lot of fun, and features a performance by Kevin Hart that, for once, is easy on the ears.
Rating: 7/10 – not as engaging as expected but still enjoyable for the most part, The Secret Life of Pets tells its simple story with a great deal of verve but little in the way of imagination or invention; not exactly forgettable, but not exactly memorable either, a situation that could, and should, have been avoided.
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross, Paul Briganti
Donna (Slate) is an aspiring comedienne who uses her own life as the basis for her stand up routines. On stage she’s fearless and bold, inviting audiences to share in her bewilderment at the stains she finds in her underwear, and the equally bewildering state of her sex life with boyfriend Ryan (Briganti). When he splits up with her after a gig, Donna doesn’t know what to do. Matters don’t improve when her boss at the bookstore where she works – the wonderfully named Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books – tells her it’s going to be closing down. She looks to her parents (Kind, Draper) for advice but they both say the same thing: treat the current changes in her life as a challenge.
Donna uses the break up with Ryan as part of a routine but it goes badly. Afterwards she meets Max (Lacy) and they hit it off and end up having a one-night stand. Weeks later, while out on a shopping trip with best friend Nellie (Hoffmann), Donna realises she’s pregnant. Not ready to have a child yet, she decides to have an abortion. It’s at this point that Max reappears in her life, but while they begin to build a relationship together, Donna doesn’t tell him about the pregnancy. It becomes even more difficult to tell him when he reveals he can’t wait to be a grandfather after they see an elderly couple in a restaurant.
When Donna arranges with Max for him to come to her next show, she leaves with old friend Sam (Cross) before he can get there. They have an awkward moment at the kerbside that derails their relationship, leaving Donna feeling guilty and Max feeling confused. She tells her mother who confides that she was in the same position when she was young. From this, Donna decides to tell Max but he doesn’t find out until he goes to another of her shows and hears her discussing the pregnancy (and her plans to abort it) as part of the routine. The next day, and just as she’s leaving for the clinic, Max turns up with flowers…
Expanded from a short made in 2009, Obvious Child is an indie movie that mixes traditional romantic comedy fare with more considered dramatic elements and fuses them together to make a curious mix that is both beguiling and intriguing to watch. It all hinges on whether or not you buy into the character of Donna as a confident artist on stage, but an insecure, diffident person off stage. Thanks to Slate and writer/director Robespierre, Donna is someone we can all relate to, her lack of self-confidence away from the mic no different from the way in which any project or hobby or interest can elevate our faith in ourselves, if only for a short while, and allow us to put aside the more humdrum or mundane aspects of our daily lives. Donna’s also in her early twenties, still unsure about a lot of things, and like most of us at that age, still trying to find a place in the world around us. Her stand up routines are the way in which she works things out and puts some perspective on her life.
With Donna so cleverly and concisely drawn as a character, it leaves plenty of room for Slate to develop the role into something with a much greater depth than you’d normally expect from a comedy with such dramatic overtones. Donna is a mass of insecurities, flaws, uncertainties and self-doubts, but once she becomes pregnant she undergoes a sea change. It’s gradual but it’s there, a growing capacity for clear decision making, as the demands of Donna’s life become easier to deal with and her perception of herself becomes less debilitating. In short, deciding to have an abortion proves the making of her.
Abortion as a means to self-empowerment may not be the angle the filmmakers were aiming for, but it’s there nevertheless, and whether by design or not, it makes Donna all the more credible as a character. Cliché or not, adversity often brings out the best in people, and here, despite a couple of wobbles early on, Donna’s decision is one that proves to be a turning point, allowing her to grow and improve as a person. Slate is flawless in the role; she’s funny, poignant, touching, and she doesn’t strike a false note in the entire movie (and it’s helpful that’s she’s reprising her role from the short). It’s a star turn, able and arresting.
The rest of the cast provide more than capable support, with Lacy making Max the kind of amiable, dependable boyfriend material that all mothers would like to see their daughters hook up with, and Hoffmann providing an often acerbic turn as Donna’s best friend. Robespierre provides everyone with great dialogue – the exchange between Donna and her father at the dining table; Nellie’s admonishment, “You’re dizzy because you played Russian roulette with your vagina” – and directs loosely but with a judicious use of close ups. Donna’s stand up routines are darkly hilarious, and it’s great to see a female comic speaking as candidly as she does about such otherwise “hush hush” topics.
The subject of abortion may not be to everyone’s taste, and pro-Lifers may feel angered by the approach the movie takes, but this is one woman’s considered, positive reaction to an event she’s unprepared for, and on that level it works tremendously well. Robespierre and Slate et al should be congratulated for making a movie that doesn’t shy away from its contentious topic and doesn’t seek to complicate matters by referring to all the other agendas out there that relate to the issue.
Rating: 8/10 – an indie movie that is honest, emotive and rewarding, Obvious Child crams a lot into its short running time, and has much to recommend it; a breath of fresh air and seriously funny.