Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor
For Michael (Duplass), the news is very bad indeed: he has terminal cancer. For his neighbour Andy (Romano), the news is also very bad indeed: he will lose his only friend in the world. The two live at the same apartment building, and have developed a close bond, spending their evenings and weekends together, watching kung fu movies and eating pizza, and playing a game of their own invention called Paddleton. When Michael decides that he doesn’t want to reach the stage in his illness where he’ll be connected to tubes and wires and spending more time in hospital than not, he tells Andy that he wants to kill himself before he reaches that point. Having arranged through his oncologist to pick up medication that will allow him to do this, Michael and Andy set off on a road trip to collect it. Along the way, Michael becomes aware of just how much his impending demise is affecting Andy, and encounters with a pharmacist (Hardison) and a motel owner (Taylor) reinforce the sense of loss that Andy is beginning to feel. When they return home, it remains to be seen if Michael will carry out his plan, and if he does, whether Andy will help him…
Made under the banner of the Duplass brothers’ production company, Paddleton rolls out its stall in the very first scene. With Michael calmly receiving the news that he has a mass and it should be checked out by an oncologist, it’s left to Andy to react in the way that you’d expect most people to react: he gets flustered, questions what Michael has been told, and looks for a more positive response from the doctor they’re speaking to. There’s comedy and pathos here alongside the obvious drama of the situation, and these three elements are the mainstay of a movie that takes a subtle, nuanced approach to the idea of euthanasia, while also exploring the strength of a friendship that has never been tested by something so serious – and life changing – before now. It’s a measure of the way in which the script (by Lehmann and Duplass) tackles these issues that the movie remains affecting and emotional all the way through, and without coming across as melodramatic or insincere, or worst of all, patronising. With the friendship between its two central characters having been so carefully plotted and constructed, Paddleton is a bromance that has unexpected depth and honesty.
This is thanks to both the screenplay, and the combined efforts of Duplass and Romano. Duplass is a quiet, solid presence, imbuing Michael with a sombre nobility, and entirely convincing as a man who wants to die on his own terms. Romano is something of a revelation, taking Andy’s many insecurities and inhibitions and making the character a fully rounded individual whose lack of social skills hides a greater capacity for love and affection than even he may be aware of. Romano’s performance is affecting and full of little touches that illustrate just how much he’s already grieving even though Michael hasn’t gone through with his plan yet. And yet there are small moments of hope dotted here and there for both characters, and though the movie has no intention of proving itself untrue to both the characters or the narrative, it’s these small moments that add detail and poignant circumspection to a story that is both heartfelt and intelligently handled. Lehmann builds on the promise shown in Blue Jay and Asperger’s Are Us (both 2016), and ensures that the more dramatic elements don’t overshadow the comedy – which is both bittersweet and meaningful – and vice versa. The end result is a movie that tells its simple story with a great deal of subdued yet effective panache, and without short changing either its characters or its audience.
Rating: 8/10 – low-key but brimming with confidence in the material and the downbeat nature of its themes, Paddleton is the kind of low budget indie movie that comes along every now and again and reminds us that there are still valid stories to be told about the human condition; touching without being sentimental, and bold in not pandering to any unnecessary romanticism about Michael’s decision, this is a well crafted and beautifully acted movie that shows just how complex and rewarding brotherly love can be.
After another day of poor returns, depressed ice cream salesman Kenny Pantalio (Messina) contemplates throwing himself off a bridge and ending it all. But he’s interrupted by Lolita Nowicki (Spencer), a young woman with her own suicidal tendencies. When they discover they have the same therapist, it leads to them wandering through night-time Chicago until outside a swanky restaurant, Kenny is mistaken for a valet parker, and is given the keys to a Mercedes. Lolita convinces him to take the car, and that they should travel together to the Golden Gate Bridge where they can both commit suicide. As their journey takes them across country, Kenny and Lolita find themselves in a number of weird situations, from trying to rob a convenience store on the promise of their having a gun, to Kenny’s stealing a car that has a surprising cargo on the back seat, to a side trip to meet someone from Kenny’s past. Through trial and error they arrive in San Francisco, where Lolita’s own past catches up with her, and her relationship with Kenny prompts a sudden decision…
Despite the best of intentions, and the best efforts of its screenplay – by Jared Rappaport – its director, and its two leads, The Sweet Life lacks the necessary credulity to allow the viewer to connect with the characters and the plot. From the moment that Lolita interrupts Kenny’s suicidal reverie, the movie goes off in several different directions all at once, and it tries to become a drama, a comedy, and yes, a romance, and often, all at the same time. This scatter gun effect works well at certain moments, but falls flat at others, leaving the movie feeling haphazard and poorly constructed. Even if you accept the unlikely “meet-cute” that brings Kenny and Loilta together, the contrived nature of their subsequent relationship remains a recurring problem. The idea is that they will support each other during their road trip, but this rarely happens, as each is as selfish and inwardly focused as the other, and even when they do put aside their differences to come to each other’s rescue, it’s always because the script needs them to, not because it makes their journey that much richer or profound. That said, their journey does avoid easy sentimentality, and there are trenchant moments that work surprisingly well.
What Rappaport’s script also avoids is any in-depth explorations of Kenny and Lolita’s reasons for wanting to commit suicide. There are hints and clues, but none that are fleshed out enough to make sense, or allow the viewer to feel sorry for them. Kenny is depressed, and as it transpires, for a variety of reasons; Lolita is the same. But their intention to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge always feels like a stretch, the road trip a way of giving them time to realise that their lives aren’t as bleak as they think, and for the movie to make a number of telling comments about the nature of happiness. If you were watching the movie, and didn’t know why they were heading to San Francisco, you could quite easily believe this was merely another modern rom-com where opposites attract. And on many levels, when the script isn’t addressing this issue directly, the movie is much better for it. Messina portrays Kenny with an increasingly endearing manner that proves likeable by the movie’s end, but Spencer has the very hard task of making Lolita look and sound like someone who would exist in the real world. In the end, Spera’s direction proves too wayward to help matters, and the outcome is both dramatically and emotionally spurious, something that undermines those moments earlier in the movie that do work.
Rating: 5/10 – with little in the way of depth, and little in the way of examining the serious side of suicidal tendencies, The Sweet Life is a rom-com with dramatic pretensions it’s unable to pull off; a frustrating experience, it’s a low-key, genial movie that offers odd moments of poignancy, but never gels into anything more substantial.
Cast: Theo James, Forest Whitaker, Grace Dove, Kat Graham, Kerry Bishé, Nicole Ari Parker, Mark O’Brien
Will (James) and Sam (Graham) are a young couple living in Seattle who have recently discovered they are going to have a baby. Will flies to Chicago to ask Sam’s father, Tom (Whitaker), for his blessing to marry her, but the evening goes badly due to Tom’s domineering nature. The next morning, as he prepares to fly back to Seattle, Will is talking to Sam on the phone when something mysterious happens and the line is lost. Heading back to her parents’ home, Will finds Tom ready and packed to travel across country to Seattle to find Sam. With all flights grounded, Will goes with him. Their trip is fraught with all sorts of dangers, particularly when an encounter with a police cruiser leaves their car banged up and Tom with a couple of broken ribs. Reaching a small town, they meet Ricki (Dove), a car mechanic with plans to head west. Tom convinces her to come with them, and as they head towards Seattle, the mystery of what happened on the West Coast becomes ever more puzzling. With the US heading into a post-apocalyptic future, the trio have to overcome a number of threats and obstacles in order to find Sam and ensure she’s safe…
The script for How It Ends – by Brooks McLaren – was on the 2010 Black List of highly regarded yet unproduced screenplays. Now that it has been made, it would be interesting to make a comparison between the original Black List script and the final version used here, because this is yet another occasion where the initial hype is very far from justified. For one thing, the characters are paper thin, and barely fleshed out beyond their screenwriting 101 archetypes. Will is a lawyer but his occupation hardly matters as he has no personality or recognisable character traits to make him stand out in any meaningful way. Tom is the classic overbearing father, convinced no one is good enough for his “little girl” and initially dismissive of Will’s presence and minimal capabilities (during the encounter with the police cruiser, he can’t even use a gun properly). Of course, the pair will bond over time, and mutual respect will be formed, but here it happens almost as an afterthought, as if McLaren had forgotten about it, and then realised he needed to tick that particular narrative box before it was too late. The secondary characters are even less interesting, there to help move things along as and when necessary, though Ricki does add a little flavour to proceedings (though this is largely due to Dove’s performance, which looks out of place because she’s actually trying).
The narrative relies on too many moments of convenience – Tom talks their way through a military roadblock, Will convinces a town sheriff to let them through a barricade – and it creates danger at nearly every turn, with almost everyone they meet on the road out to rob them or kill them or both on nearly every occasion. This wouldn’t be so bad if director David M. Rosenthal was able to make these sequences tense or suspenseful, but there’s much that goes wrong in the editing of these sequences, so much so that they lack any appreciable impact, leaving them to slot into a movie that proceeds along a steady, measured pace for much of its running time. The mysterious occurrence on the West Coast goes unexplained for the most part (though there is a conspiracy theory trotted out near the end that is meant to sound plausible but isn’t), and its effects vary from late scene to late scene, until the movie climaxes with a final image that will literally have viewers saying, “This is how it ends…?” But by then, it will have failed to matter long before, making this an apocalyptic event that could have done us all a favour.
Rating: 4/10 – with nods to the breakdown of civilisation that is always expected to occur in these occasions (but within a day or two – and country wide?), How It Ends strives for relevance where it doesn’t need to, and aims for resonance where it doesn’t have to, making this a turgid trip through a less than convincing post-apocalypse Twilight Zone; with no one to connect to, and a series of repetitive encounters with people who have conveniently “turned bad” at the drop of a hat, the movie struggles with a number of ideas it doesn’t know what to do with, and instead of trying, it settles for being banal and dramatically commonplace.
Cast: Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing, Joe Dempsie, Alice Lowe, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Sally Phillips, Melanie Walters, Jane Asher, Nigel Planer, Matthew Kelly, Alison Steadman
Following the death of their friend, Dan (Farthing), best friends Seph (Carmichael) and Alex (Pirrie) find themselves tasked with spreading his ashes at four different locations. To help make sense of his choices, Dan has made several short videos that the pair have to watch when they arrive at each destination. At first, though, they aren’t keen on the idea, and decide not to do it. But when their grief and anger and confusion over Dan’s death from cancer causes both of them to lose their jobs (and Alex discovers her girlfriend is seeing someone else), they head out on the road to carry out his final wishes. Along the way, Seph begins to doubt whether she and her boyfriend, James (Dempsie) should be together, a detour to visit Alex’s mother (Walters) leads to the exposure of uncomfortable truths for Alex, and Seph’s behaviour threatens to cause a rift between them that’s exacerbated by some scathing comments by Dan on his videos. It all leaves Seph and Alex wondering if agreeing to Dan’s wishes was the right thing to do…
A charming mix of drama and comedy that often hides a melancholy centre, Burn Burn Burn is a deceptively sincere meditation on the nature of regret and the emotional toll it can take. Dan regrets the life he’ll no longer live and what he perceives as the mistakes he’s made with his mother (Asher). Seph regrets the choices she’s made both professionally (she works as a nanny for a therapist who consults from home) and personally (her relationship with James). And Alex has regrets over a childhood incident that causes her to push people away. It’s no wonder that they all became friends: how could they not when they’re such kindred spirits? The beauty of Charlie Covell’s nimble screenplay is that Dan uses his regrets as a way of challenging Seph and Alex to examine and overcome their own problems, and as the journey progresses from location to location, so Seph and Alex confront and overcome the things that are holding them back. There’s a welcome lack of empty sentimentality, and none of the cloying mawkishness that might ordinarily come with a movie such as this, and Button, making her first feature, keeps a tight control over the emotional dilemmas and resolutions that the screenplay delivers with aplomb.
The movie also offers up several surprising scenes that seem out of place at first, but which on closer inspection, relate closely to the characters and their predicaments. Alex makes a startling confession while tied to a cross (she’s standing in for an AWOL am-dram Jesus), while an overnight stay at a commune headed by counter-culture philosopher Adam (Rhind-Tutt) sees the pair part of a group gazing at the stars and determining what’s important in life. Moments such as these add appreciable depth and no small amount of artless candour to the narrative, and help make the characters’ problems relatable. As the troubled pair, Carmichael and Pirrie both provide astute, sympathetic, and likeable performances, and there’s fine work from Farthing that roots around in the despair of dying too young with a frankness that’s often unsettling to watch. The rest of the cast looks like a who’s who of acceptable British cameo providers, and Lowe aside (who’s once again asked to play the same character she normally plays, just in a medieval costume), they acquit themselves well, offering deft touches and character beats that flesh out their roles. Their portrayals are all in service to a movie that eschews the usual quirky road trip analogies, and which centres instead on telling its heartfelt story with quiet verve and incisiveness.
Rating: 8/10 – a winning blend of honest drama and good-natured comedy, Burn Burn Burn is a modest yet effective first outing from Button that is a pleasant and rewarding alternative to the huge number of similar movies that are out there; brimming with confidence, and unafraid to tackle some difficult topics head on, it’s bolstered by a moving score and soundtrack courtesy of Marc Canham and the indie band Candy Says, and leaves you wanting to know just how Seph and Alex get on once their trip is over.
Cast: Alex Sharp, Analeigh Tipton, Jeremy Irons, Edi Gathegi, Maria Bello, Karan Soni, Chad Faust
Working at an All Shop, Harley (Sharp) is enamoured of Stephanie (Tipton), who in turn is the object of store boss’ Mr Hankey’s (Faust) inappropriate attentions. One night, with the store closed, Hankey makes a play for Stephanie in his office, then attempts to rape her, but Harley comes to her rescue. In the ensuing scuffle though, it’s Stephanie who causes Hankey to fall through a window to his death. Panicking, Harley calls the police to let them know what happened, but in doing so, unwittingly sets the FBI – in the manic form of Agent McFadden (Bello) and her neophyte partner, Agent Nelson (Soni) – on his and Stephanie’s trail. Not content with it being just the two of them, Harley also takes along his war veteran grandfather, Garrison (Irons). Intent on using being on the run as an excuse to visit a number of roadside attractions on their way to meet an old flame of Garrison’s, the trio become a quartet when they pick up wannabe hippie, Fitz Paradise (Gathegi). As the trip continues, they visit several of the attractions on Harley’s map, and discover they share a camaraderie that deepens the longer the trip goes on…
From its opening scenes where Harley moons over the object of his affections while she behaves as if she’s in a world of her own (which, it turns out, she is), Better Start Running sets out its stall as a quirky indie romantic comedy. That it’s only partially successful is down to the narrative vagaries inherent in the script by Chad Faust and Annie Burgstede, which keeps realigning its focus every few scenes and adds moments of drama to the mix that don’t always sit well with the movie’s overall rom-com vibe. Whether it’s Bello’s gung-ho bordering on psychotic FBI agent, or Irons’ irascible and lovelorn grandfather, or even Gathegi’s mid-life crisis experiencing husband and father, the movie takes occasional lurches into more serious territory before righting itself and remembering it’s a rom-com. And even then the romantic elements are subdued, with Harley and Stephanie only coming together as a couple out of necessity rather than anything resembling true love. Maybe the movie is being deliberately counter-intuitive, but if the romantic angle doesn’t convince, then why have it there in the first place? In truth, it suffers because of all the other elements the script has seen fit to squeeze in along the way.
So the movie is uneven and often frustrating, though when it strikes the right note, it does so with a great deal of charm and skill. Some of this is down to the performances – Irons and Bello add a great deal of energy to proceedings – some of it is due to the offbeat nature of the roadside attractions that get a visit (give a big shout out to Devil’s Tower, everyone), but mostly it’s because this is a movie chock-full of laugh out loud one-liners. From Garrison’s earnest instruction to Harley (“If you must come to tomorrow, I need a flash light, concertina wire and buckshot!”) to Harley’s own admission early on (“I’m sorry. I have to go now. I’m going on the run.”), Faust and Burgstede’s script ensures that the movie retains a spirit of fun throughout, even when it can’t help but slide sideways into Seriousville. Simon juggles the various elements with aplomb but can’t unite them into an acceptable whole, and he never finds a way to offset the feeling that the writers have deliberately ensured that Harley and Stephanie aren’t the brightest bunnies in the petting zoo (which isn’t necessary at all). Still, it is amusing, and thankfully so, otherwise this would have been one road trip best conducted from the driveway.
Rating: 6/10 – with the comedic aspects triumphing every time over the script’s other, less developed or worthy elements, Better Start Running is a mixed bag that sadly, doesn’t always gel as well as it should; likeable overall, it should still be approached with caution, a bit like Agent McFadden when she’s got a perp in her sights: “A cost of a year’s incarceration? $50,000. Cost of a bullet? Fifty cents. Do the math.”
Cast: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, Megan Ferguson, Julia Denton, Frederick Weller, Bobby Cannavale
Ben Benjamin (Rudd) is a retired writer who takes a course to become a caregiver in order to support himself. He has a wife, Janet (Denton), but they’re in the process of getting divorced. Ben’s first job is to look after Trevor (Roberts), an eighteen year old suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, while his mother, Elsa (Ehle), is at work. As the two get to know each other, Ben becomes aware that Trevor has a fascination for roadside attractions, particularly the World’s Deepest Pit. Ben suggests they take a road trip to the Pit and take in some other attractions along the way. Trevor wants to but is scared of leaving his home, while Elsa has her own worries about his safety. In the end, he and Trevor set off on a trip that will take them a week. On the way, they give a lift to Dot (Gomez), who’s hitchhiking to Denver to restart her life after the death of her mother, and later to Peaches (Ferguson), a young pregnant woman heading home to Nebraska. But it’s Trevor’s determination to visit his absent father in Salt Lake City that changes the nature of the trip indelibly…
The road trip movie is a staple of American movie making, the country’s wide open highways and variety of physical locations often providing a vivid backdrop for what is usually a journey of self-discovery. Adapted from the novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, this is yet another movie that takes that basic set up and offers a mix of heartfelt drama and sprightly humour as it plays out its simple storyline. This is a straightforward, no frills, no surprises feature that ticks all the boxes dramatically and comedically for this kind of movie, but which does so in such an inoffensive, pedestrian, but likeable manner that it’s hard not to approve of it, even though a lot of the time you’ll be wondering, Is this it? At first, Ben is out of his depth, but soon becomes adept at caring for Trevor, while Trevor’s initial snarky behaviour (and practical jokes) soon transforms into a respect for Ben that he hasn’t shown toward any of his previous carers. So far, so predictable then, but it’s the lightness of Burnett’s direction, and the relaxed performances of Rudd and Roberts that help offset any criticism. For once, a movie’s benign approach to the material makes it all the more enjoyable.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t address some serious issues along the way, because it does. Ben has a tragic past that is affecting his divorce; Trevor wants to resolve the emotional issues he has surrounding his father (who left when he was diagnosed at the age of three); Dot has her own father issues; and there are minor shout outs to the quality of disabled access at roadside attractions, depression, self-imposed guilt, and betrayal. But again, this isn’t a heavy drama, rather it’s a movie that makes its points with a laidback approach that suits the material and which is content to explore these matters with a restraint that underscores the characters’ emotional states throughout, and with a subtlety that’s refreshing. That old phrase, Less Is More, applies here, even when the material does thin out alarmingly in places, but it always slips back on track, thanks to the solid work of its cast, Burnett’s sense of rhythm and pace, and evocative camerawork by DoP Giles Nuttgens. The whole thing ends on a perfect coda, as well, one that will viewers away feeling good about the movie and having seen it in the first place. And what more could you ask for…?
Rating: 7/10 – anyone expecting a movie with the kind of depth that the World’s Deepest Pit might be a metaphor for, will find The Fundamentals of Caring to be anything but; however, it’s a lovely movie full of bright moments and with good intentions, and though you can accuse it of being slight and innocuous, on this occasion, these are actually strengths that make the movie more than it seems at first glance.
Still grieving seven years after her son, Walker (Ashley), committed suicide at the age of twenty-four, Darcy Baylor (Hunter) learns that a friend of her son back then, Mark Wright (Jacobsen), appropriated a business plan that Walker had come up with, and has made a success of the idea. Wright has even used a childhood memory that Walker had that illustrated his original concept for a chain of hot dog restaurants. Darcy decides to head down to New Orleans – where Wright has opened a chain of Hot Dawg sites – to confront him and find out why he did what he did. She’s accompanied by her best friend, Byrd (Coon), and along the way they learn things about Walker’s last day, and particularly the last few hours before he died, that brings into question the perception that he killed himself. When Darcy reaches New Orleans she has far more questions than she started out with, but when she finally confronts Wright, she learns that the answers she’s seeking aren’t as cut and dried as she expected…
In assembling Strange Weather, writer/director Katherine Dieckmann has made a movie that combines an examination of personal grief, a mystery, and a road trip, and in such a way that the viewer never quite knows where each element is leading them, or if any of them will be resolved satisfactorily. In portraying the residual grief that Darcy feels, Dieckmann shows how hollow her life has been, and how difficult it’s been to move forward when so many unspoken questions have been holding her back. Dieckmann also shows how Darcy’s grief has kept her going at the same time, and how she’s used that grief as a form of emotional support. It all makes Darcy a flawed yet interesting character, and unpredictable as well, as evidenced by her taking the gun that Walker killed himself with, on her journey to New Orleans. Dieckmann also keeps the mystery surrounding Walker’s death ticking over in the background, ever present and fueling Darcy’s need for the truth, and Byrd’s reasons for going with her. As the road trip takes them inexorably to the Big Easy, it serves as a conduit for the truth, and as a reckoning for the grief that Darcy feels so intensely.
Darcy is played with impeccable artistry by Hunter, an actress who just keeps getting better and better, and who portrays the pain and sadness that Darcy feels so adroitly that you can’t help but be moved by the determination she shows in getting the answers she needs. Hunter shows both the character’s inner strength and her unacknowledged vulnerability, and gives a performance of such subtlety and range that Darcy’s actions, even those that are somewhat questionable, retain a credibility that makes her all the more sympathetic. The supporting performances are good too, but Hunter is in a league of her own, and Dieckmann wisely leaves her to it (when someone like Hunter is this good, it’s best just to step back and make sure the cameras are rolling). The movie is honest and sincere in its approach to the material, and while a couple of plot developments do feel a little forced (and lifted from a daytime soap opera), by continually returning to Darcy’s dogged quest for answers to questions she hasn’t formulated yet, the movie remains a fascinating, if low-key, journey into the world of a mother who just can’t find it within herself to close the door fully on the death of her son… and who is proved right in not doing so.
Rating: 8/10 – an impressive performance by Hunter is the bedrock of a movie that is effective in terms of its examination of the nature of overwhelming grief, and which offers unexpected insights at several points along the way; David Rush Morrison’s cinematography provides a rich colour palette for the characters to appear against, and there’s a terrific soundtrack courtesy of Sharon Van Etten that complements the material in a rewarding and unforeseen manner, making Strange Weather the kind of movie that deserves a wider audience.
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vazquez, Deanna Reed-Foster, Cicely Tyson
A man walks into a bar… From this inauspicious beginning, writer/director Richard Linklater provides us with another unmissable movie that bristles with humour and thoughtfully constructed drama, and which introduces us to three of the most fully rounded characters you’ll meet all year (and in one movie to boot). Adapted from the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, this is a loose sequel to Ponicsan’s The Last Detail (1973) (which he also wrote the screenplay for), and features three ex-Marines, all former friends who have lost touch since coming home from Vietnam. There’s Sal (Cranston), a bar owner, Larry aka “Doc” (Carell), who still works in a civilian capacity for the Navy, and Mueller (Fishburne), who has since become a pastor. Larry is the man who walks into a bar, in order to ask for Sal’s help with something. They travel to the Mueller’s home, where Larry reveals that he would like the three of them to go to Washington. The reason? Larry’s son has recently been killed while on duty in Iraq. His body is on its way home to be buried in Arlington cemetery, and Larry would like his two old friends to help him.
And so begins a road trip that sees Larry defer much of what happens to Sal and the Mueller, animosities long forgotten dusted off and trotted out, the trio encountering insensitive bureaucracy, the Mueller being mistaken for a terrorist, some detours along the way, and their friendships withstanding the test of both time and their being together again after so long. The script also reflects on matters of grief, regret, guilt, doing the right thing, and persevering through emotional and physical anguish. It’s a movie with many layers, all dovetailing neatly together, and providing one of the most affecting experiences of 2017. Linklater and Ponicsan have made a movie that is about the basic humanity in all of us, and how it brings out the best in us, even when we’re not sure if what we’re doing is the right thing. All along, Larry believes that what he is doing is what is appropriate and correct. At first he’s happy for his son, Larry Jr, to be buried at Arlington; after all, he’s been told his son died a hero in a skirmish with insurgents. But when the truth is revealed, his feelings change. And when he’s confronted with a different point of view, his feelings are challenged and his point of view shifts again. The clever thing is, at no point is Larry wrong about how he feels or what decisions he makes.
If it’s a simple statement to make – that Life isn’t always simple or easy – it’s still an important one. Linklater and Ponicsan are on point here, and the way in which Larry’s deliberations affect both him and his friends infuses much of the interplay between the three characters. For much of the movie, Larry is reticent and appearing to be in a world all his own, as he might well be. Sal is the motor mouth, always ready to challenge authority, politics, religion, anything that he disagrees with (and there isn’t much that he doesn’t disagree with), while the Mueller, actually called Richard, is a mix of the two, thoughtful and contemplative thanks to his religious beliefs but also forthright and aggressive when he feels he needs to be. You can see how they would have been friends in Vietnam, and how they emerged from that period to become the people they are now. Their experiences back then are used to inform the characters they’ve become, and thanks to three very gifted performances, spending time with them is an absolute pleasure.
Cranston has the more showy role, talking non-stop, Sal getting the three friends into trouble deliberately or without even trying, but always making him sympathetic, someone you can see is just trying to do their best in any given situation. The actor is on rare form here, judging the mercurial aspects of the role perfectly, and also showing a more reflective side to Sal that helps make the broader tones of his portrayal that much more believable. Fishburne is, in some ways, our way in to the characters, his quiet, brooding presence more reactive than passive, and despite the Mueller’s continued reluctance to be making this extended trip (nothing quite goes according to plan – as you might expect). It’s a role that also serves to remind us of what a terrific actor Fishburne is when given the right script, the right character, and he’s encouraged by the right director. And then there’s Carell as the distant, heartbroken Larry, his emotions pushed and pulled in opposing directions, and never quite sure if he’s in the moment or merely watching it all from a distance. Like his co-stars’ it’s a perfectly pitched performance, sincere, honest and entirely credible, and when his feelings do break through, all those tempered emotions mentioned before – grief, guilt etc – come flooding through and it’s almost overwhelming, for him and for the viewer.
Of course, this being a Richard Linklater movie, it’s not all doom and gloom or a completely depressing drama. The movie is infused with a dark, satirical kind of humour that offsets the heavy lifting the script does elsewhere. Sal provides much of the verbal comedy, his quick-fire retorts and pithy observations leavening the serious nature of the material, while there are a handful of visual gags, usually juxtapositions, that pop up here and there to good effect. And then there is a scene in the baggage car of a train where reminiscences and regrets come together to form one of the movie’s most engaging and humorous moments. Line by line, and minute by minute, this is the part of the movie that highlights the true spirit of friendship that exists between the three friends, and which is perhaps one of the funniest scenes you’ll see all year (even if you don’t see this until 2018). It’s also a point in the movie that is very much needed in terms of lightening the load, and it’s perfectly executed by all concerned.
That said, there a few caveats to be made, mostly in the form of certain scenes that prove superfluous, such as one involving Yul Vazquez’s oily, dislikeable Colonel where he vents his anger at the lack of respect shown to him by Sal in particular, and a side trip to visit the mother of a fellow Marine whose death wasn’t as heroic as she believes. This is one of the movie’s main thrusts, whether the truth should be told on every occasion or are there times when a lie is justified. Quite rightly, the movie errs on the side of “depending on the situation”, but it’s a valid question and one that is ripe for debate within the movie’s own context. And the movie ends on a sentimental note that, while providing Larry with a sense of closure, is at odds with the ambiguous nature of much of the material in relation to his son’s burial. It doesn’t quite ruin the movie – it would take something much more momentous than that – but as a way to finish things off feels more contrived than anything else seen or heard up to that point.
Rating: 8/10 – some judicious trimming would have made this a 9/10 easily, but this is still a terrific movie that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible; with humour, poignancy, wonderful performances, and often beautiful cinematography from Shane F. Kelly, Last Flag Flying tackles its themes with intelligence and wit and style and huge amounts of unashamed humanity, making this another Richard Linklater movie that steals both our hearts and our minds.
D: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley / 99m
Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Charlie Day, Catherine Missal, Ron Livingston, Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall
Q: When is a movie a remake, a sequel and a reboot all put together?
A: When it’s Vacation!
With movie franchises being extended or rebooted at every turn, it was only a matter of time before we started to see an influx of movies made from comedies out of the Eighties (there’s a Police Academy reboot in the works, and Kevin Smith is still keen to make another Fletch movie). But while we anxiously await the arrival of a further Lemon Popsicle or Porky’s installment, we have this latest attempt at producing a contemporary version of a much-loved comedy favourite.
The set up is clever enough: now grown up, Rusty Griswold (Helms) has a family of his own: wife Debbie (Applegate), teenage son James (Gisondo), and pre-teen son Kevin (Stebbins). Each year he takes them all to the same cabin in the woods that everyone except Rusty is tired of. But when he overhears Debbie complaining about it to one of their friends he realises he needs to come up with a different destination this year. Remembering the trip he took to Walley World with his dad Clark (Chase), mom Ellen (D”Angelo) and sister Audrey (Mann) when he was a kid, Rusty decides the best way to get his family to be more excited about going away is to plan a road trip to the theme park that he recalls so fondly.
It’s at this point that the movie casts a knowing wink at the audience, and does its best to sound cleverer than it actually is. In response to James’s statement that he’s “never heard of the original vacation”, Rusty replies confidently, “Doesn’t matter. The new vacation will stand on its own”. It’s a bold though far from oversold moment, and one that will have fans of the original saying to themselves, “Really?” And that particular word will be one that viewers will come back to time and again as the Griswold family road trip unfolds from Chicago to Santa Monica with all the grim inevitability of an influenza outbreak in an old folks’ home.
With the original framework firmly in place, Vacation relies on a mix of modern day gross out humour, old fashioned puerility, and laboured jokes to provide the comedy while asking its cast to take a back seat and not do anything too funny. It’s a strange circumstance, but watch the movie closely and you’ll find that Helms, Applegate et al aren’t that funny in themselves (or as their characters), and that the script by Goldstein and Daley has the Griswolds acting largely as observers of their own road trip. On the few occasions when one of them is directly involved in a comedic situation, such as Rusty helping Stone Crandall (Hemsworth), his sister’s overly endowed husband, to round up some cows, the initial joke of his killing one is outdone by the one that follows, when one of the other cows chows down on the remains (yes folks, it’s a movie first, cannibal cows).
Elsewhere we’re treated to a paedophile trucker, a side trip to Debbie’s old alma mater, the Griswolds bathing in raw sewage, a rental car called the Prancer that comes with a remote control that includes buttons labelled with a rocket and a swastika (wisely, Rusty never presses that button), Stone showing off his “six pack”, a love interest for James, a white water rafting trip that goes wrong thanks to just-jilted guide Chad (Day), and the sight of Kevin trying to suffocate his older brother with a cellophane bag – twice (though, admittedly, the timing of this makes it a whole lot funnier than it sounds). There are various subplots: Rusty and Debbie’s attempts to put the spark back into their marriage by having sex wherever and whenever they can; Kevin’s bullying of James; Rusty’s run-ins with rival airline pilot Ethan (Livingston); and the whole notion of a family trying to bond over a trip only one of them wants to make (again).
If you’re easily amused, and don’t mind how uneven the movie is, then Vacation will seem like a great movie to sit down with a few beers and watch on a Saturday night, but the reality is that it’s hard to tell if writers/directors Goldstein and Daley were either in a rush with the script, or felt constrained by having to follow the original in terms of the movie’s structure. Whatever the case, the movie coasts along without making too much of an impact, and mixes gross out humour with long stretches of quiet amiability, and some very awkward moments that can’t help but feel out of place e.g. Rusty’s uncertain knowledge of sexual matters leads to James wanting to give the girl he likes a rim job (he thinks it’s kissing with your lips closed).
The cast cope well enough, and it’s good to see Chase back as the Griswold patriarch, but equally it won’t be long before you’re wondering what’s happened to his eyelids. There are some cameos dotted here and there, and a certain singer appears in the closing credits, but there’s no standout character or performance. What this movie really needed was someone like Cousin Eddie to come along and really stir things up.
Rating: 5/10 – not as amusing as the original movie it tries to emulate, Vacation suffers from trying too hard to be funny, and not having the conviction to be as subversive as its predecessor (watch it again to see how dark it is); beautifully shot however, and with a great soundtrack that features Seal’s Kiss from a Rose, this is technically well made but not a movie you’ll want to watch more than once.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Nik Pajic, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Carrie Brownstein
Therese (pronounced Ter-rez) Belivet (Mara) is young, has a devoted boyfriend, Richard (Lacy), works in a department store, but is unsure of her future. One day a female customer in the store engages her in conversation, and even though the customer makes mention of being married with a young child, it’s clear to Therese that there’s a mutual attraction. When the woman leaves her gloves behind, Therese goes to the effort of finding the woman’s address and sending them to her. This act of kindness leads to the woman, whose name is Carol Aird (Blanchett), inviting Therese to lunch. They meet, and a friendship begins, one that starts to cause problems between Therese and Richard, as she begins to lose interest in a planned trip to Europe with him, and spends more time with Carol.
Unbeknownst to Therese, Carol and her husband, Harge (Chandler) have separated due to his awareness that his wife has had an affair with her best friend, Abby (Paulson). Willing to overlook this “indiscretion” if she stays with him, Harge warns her that if she doesn’t then he’ll seek sole custody of their little girl, Rindy. With Xmas approaching, he takes Rindy to his parents for the holiday period; Carol decides to invite Therese to come stay with her. Although nothing happens, Harge returns home unexpectedly and sees them together. Fearing that Carol is embarking on another lesbian relationship, he files for divorce and sole custody of Rindy. Unable to see her child until the custody hearing, which will take two or three months to happen, Carol invites Therese on a road trip, where they can spend some time together, and where Harge can’t find them.
They stay in a succession of motel rooms, at first staying in separate rooms. At one particular motel they stay in the Presidential suite; the next morning, Therese gets to talking with a travelling salesman called Tommy (Smith). Although he tries to sell them something from his sales kit, he has no joy, though Therese wishes him well in the future. At the next motel, she and Carol finally make love. But a telegram Carol receives the next morning reveals Harge’s awareness of where she is, and the fact that she and Therese are now lovers. Unable to risk the now serious possibility of losing the custody hearing, Carol decides she has to return home to face Harge, and sends Abby in her place to see Therese gets home safely. But for both women, returning to their old lives proves unsatisfactory…
There’s a moment in Todd Haynes’ beautifully crafted Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, when it looks certain that the title character and Therese will make love for the first time. It’s a moment that the movie is clearly heading toward, and it’s a moment that audiences will be expecting, but Haynes, along with screenwriter Patricia Nagy, holds off from that first time and maintains the sense of anticipation that both characters (and viewers) must be feeling. For the audience, it’s also a moment – among many others – that shows just how much control Haynes has over both the material and its emotional centre, and how finely calibrated it all is, for Carol is without a doubt, one of 2015’s finest movies.
Of course, with previous projects such as Far from Heaven (2002) and the TV version of Mildred Pierce (2011), Haynes has already shown an affinity for what used to be termed “women’s pictures”, but here his immersion in a time – the 1950’s – when lesbianism was still something to be kept hidden, and where male attitudes towards the issue were still highly aggressive, feels also like a snapshot of an era where female empowerment was beginning to gain the upper hand, despite the so-called Lavender Scare that was prevalent at the time. Through Carol’s determination not to be defined by her sexuality, we get to see an example of what, in historical terms, was a turning of the tide, and also a love story that is simply that: a love story.
This simplicity is at the heart of Haynes’ confident handling of the story, and it shows in every scene, with every look and every gesture, and in the way that he brings Carol and Therese together within the frame – these moments where they’re “close but not touching” are so charged with pent-up emotion and increasing desire that the idea that they might be kept apart by Harge’s machinations becomes intolerable. These scenes are so expertly handled, with repressed longing so forcefully expressed, that the viewer is swept along with the characters’ desire to live freely and without sanction. Haynes makes great use of the era’s sense of propriety, using it as a touchstone against which Carol and Therese’s affair can be measured in both intensity and necessity. Therese quizzes Richard about same sex relationships but he has no point of reference, and has no understanding of why they occur; he loves her unequivocally but can’t see that two women – or two men for that matter – might feel the same way about each other as he does about Therese. It’s another of those moments where the audience can see just how difficult it was to live a life outside the (perceived) norm.
With the historical and social background of the story firmly in place, and with Nagy’s script making it clear that lesbians were expected to pretend to be happy in heterosexual relationships or face the social consequences, the movie paints an honest portrait of two women, both of whom gain increased confidence in themselves through their relationship, who come together at a point in both their lives where they’re looking for a way to find future happiness. That they find it in each other, if only briefly, and with such passion, gives value to the idea that any relationship is worth pursuing or fighting for. And even though Carol leaves Therese to fight for custody of her child, it’s not the end of their affair, but rather an interruption (albeit for Therese an unexpected one), and even though the younger woman is upset by it, her feelings remain, and though the movie tries for an air of ambiguity in its final scene, viewers won’t be fooled at where Carol and Therese’s relationship is likely to find itself.
The difference in ages might feel like it should be an issue but it’s left unexplored, and with good reason: it doesn’t matter. Love is love, and though an argument could be made that Therese is looking for a guide or a mentor first and foremost, it’s not the role Carol adopts in their relationship. As the “older woman”, Blanchett gives yet another astonishing, awards-worthy performance, striking the right balance between heartfelt longing for an honest life and acknowledging the difficulties that longing entails. Her brittle, striking features show the pain of Carol’s situation without too much need of more overt playing, but in those moments when overt emotion is required, Carol’s fears and hopes are etched indelibly on those striking features. It’s a magnificent performance, sincere, heartbreaking at times, and riveting.
She’s matched by Mara, whose portrayal of the unmoored, ingenuous Therese is so finely tuned that watching her blossom, however slowly, into a stronger, more confident young woman is like watching a flower grow out of the shadows to its full height. There are moments where the camera focuses on her smooth, unlined features and the only expression is there in the eyes, but Mara uses this approach to such good effect that the viewer is never in doubt as to what Therese is thinking or feeling. And as the movie progresses, Mara subtly shifts the weight of Therese’s longing for love so that it becomes a part of her, and not the whole, leaving her a character as strong in her own right as Carol is in hers.
With two such commanding performances, it would be a shame if the supporting cast were overshadowed, but Chandler, in what is superficially the “villain” role, brings out Harge’s pain and sense of loss over Carol with such force that his actions are less stereotypical than expected and driven more by his own deep love for her. In the same way that society says Carol can’t have Therese (in public at least), it also says that Harge can’t have Carol because of her “sexual impropriety”. Both characters are in danger of losing what they want most, and both are suffering as a result. Chandler is unexpectedly moving in the role, and his scenes with Blanchett are so emotionally charged it’s like an intense version of force majeure. Meanwhile, Paulson comes late to matters as Abby, but gives a brief but potent performance as Carol’s longtime friend, confidant and ex-lover, filling in the gaps of Therese’s knowledge about Carol, and providing further context for Carol’s emotional and sexual desires.
It’s all beautifully filmed by Edward Lachman, with lots of bright primary colours mixed in with rich earthy tones, making the period seem so alive as to be almost intoxicating, and acting as a dynamic background to the impassioned nature of Carol and Therese’s relationship. There’s some equally impressive attention to historical detail, and Haynes makes the era come alive as a result; this is a fully realised world, even if it does appear at first to be bathed in nostalgia (the scenes in the department store appear right out of a Fifities child’s fantasy of what such a store should look like), but in many ways it was a simpler time, and the script reflects this with aplomb. And the whole thing is embraced by a smoothly nonchalant yet spirited score by Carter Burwell that complements the on-screen proceedings with well orchestrated brio.
Rating: 9/10 – a firm contender for Movie of the Year, Carol is a masterpiece of mood and repressed emotional yearning, with two outstanding performances, and a director on the absolute top of his form; a model of period movie making, and rewarding in every department you can possibly think of, this is a movie that should go to the top of everyone’s must-see list.
Cast: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono
Ever since Margo Roth Spiegelman (Delevingne) moved in across the street from Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Wolff) when they were kids, Quentin has looked on her as his one true love. But even though they grew up together as friends, and spent a great deal of time together, they’ve drifted apart and no longer even acknowledge each other in high school. All that changes however when, one night, Margo comes in through Q’s bedroom window and asks to borrow a car. She tells him that she has nine things she needs to do that night (some of which are illegal), and she needs his help. Reluctant at first, Q agrees to help her, and they take his mother’s car and head to the nearest Costco.
There they pick up various supplies including duct tape, a lot of Saran wrap, and a raw catfish. Margo explains that she’s out to get revenge on her boyfriend and her close friends; her boyfriend has been cheating on her with one of her friends, and at least one more friend knew it was happening and didn’t say anything. As the night progresses, and they play prank after prank, it becomes more and more like the times they spent together as kids, and Q finds his attraction for Margo rekindled. The next day though there’s no sign of Margo; a few more days pass before it becomes clear that Margo has disappeared.
Q is certain that Margo has left for a reason and that she wants to be found. He bribes her younger sister to look for clues in her bedroom. A Walt Whitman quote leads Q to finding a note with an address on it. With his friends Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams), he goes there and finds an abandoned store but they don’t find another clue. The next day, Q is approached by Lacey (Sage), one of Margo’s friends who is concerned about what’s happened to her. When the boys go back to the abandoned store she follows them there, and the four of them discover an atlas with a page torn out, a page that indicates Margo has gone to a small town in upstate New York called Agloe.
Q decides to throw caution to the wind and travel to Agloe. His friends, and Lacey, all agree to go with him, but only as long as they can get back in time for the upcoming prom. Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Sinclair), comes along with them. Along the way they have a near-miss with a cow that sees their car spin off the road. Stranded for the night, Ben and Lacey develop a fondness for each other, while Radar and Angela pre-empt the plans they have for after the prom. The next day, with the car repaired, they finally make it to Agloe, but what they find there isn’t exactly what Q expected…
A teen romance where the romance is potentially illusory, and a teen drama where the drama is assembled through the filter of a mystery, Paper Towns is a heartfelt ode to teenage longing and seizing the moment. It features several moments where it seems the narrative is being forced along by contrivance and crude coincidence, but the movie has the presence of mind to excuse itself by a trick of the very same narrative. This is to do with the clues Margo has left behind, and the way in which Q responds to them, but as they are the crux of the matter – even more so than Q and Margo’s relationship – it’s hard to imagine the movie working out in any other way, faithful as it is to the structure and tone of John Green’s novel.
However, what is difficult to pin down successfully in the novel is also difficult to pin down in the movie. Q’s commitment/devotion/attachment to Margo is never quite believable, despite Wolff’s compelling performance, and hinges on that one night of prankdom that in itself seems unlikely. Some viewers might not be too concerned by Margo’s appearance in Q’s room after so long, but it’s hard to believe that after so long “apart” that she would rekindle their friendship, and then make it so memorable for Q before disappearing. And Q’s disappointment only lasts until it becomes clear that Margo has run away, but instead of feeling taken advantage of, he becomes certain she wants him to find her. All of which begs the question, is Q just lovesick, or a stalker in training?
Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter’s adaptation does its best to portray Q’s search for Margo as the grand romantic gesture it appears to be, but the script never manages to make his obsession credible or based on anything but an intellectual challenge (can he find her from the clues she’s left behind?). As a result, and again despite Wolff’s engaging portrayal, Q comes across as a loyal puppy dog willing to do whatever he believes his mistress wants him to do. So wedded to the idea of his being with Margo does Q become that a more appropriate liaison with Lacey is quickly nipped in the bud by pairing her off with Ben, a relationship that would be more credible in a Revenge of the Nerds movie.
In the end the movie’s central concept is that we – or more particularly Q – should live for the moment, and create our own dreams instead of following someone else’s, and while this is a tenet that’s worth taking to heart, here it follows in the footsteps of too many other teen dramas to be either relevant or anything other than jaded. But thanks to its gifted cast, and a sense of fun that is more appealing than the drama that occupies centre stage, the movie is by no means a chore to watch, and features warm, soothing cinematography by David Lanzenberg, and a charming score by Son Lux. Schreier’s direction is unobtrusive for the most part, and with the help of Wolff and Delevingne he imbues the scenes between Q and Margo with a sense of unspoken yet mutual affection that is entirely touching.
Rating: 7/10 – in many respects a missed opportunity, Paper Towns has a superficial fascination that draws in the viewer but will leave them feeling less than fully satisfied by the movie’s end; competently made but missing that vital spark needed to make the material sing, it has another delightful performance from Wolff, and gives Delevingne the chance to shine in what is the movie’s most important, and unexpectedly fascinating, supporting role.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara, John Carroll Lynch, Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Robert Kazinsky, Richard T. Jones, Benny Nieves, Michael Ray Escamilla, Joaquín Cosio, Vincent Laresca
After an unfortunate incident involving a taser, San Antonio policewoman Rose Cooper (Witherspoon) finds herself stuck in the Evidence Room. She’s the butt of her colleague’s jokes, and things aren’t helped by her too eager nature and strict adherence to the police manual. But when a female officer is needed to help escort Felipe Riva (Laresca), a member of a drug cartel and his wife to Dallas, in the company of renowned Detective Jackson (Jones), her boss, Captain Emmett (Lynch) gives her the job. When they arrive to collect their witness, they find Riva engaged in an argument with his wife, Daniella (Vergara). While Cooper tries to convince Daniella not to take all her clothes and shoes, two armed men in masks break into the house – one of whom has a longhorn tattoo on his wrist – and start shooting. Then two more armed men show up and during the crossfire Riva is shot and killed. Jackson too is shot, leaving Cooper to get Daniella out of there.
They manage to escape, and though Daniella makes various efforts to get away, Cooper keeps hold of her until she can contact the San Antonio police. Two of her fellow officers, Hauser (Del Negro) and Dixon (Mosley), arrive to escort them back but Cooper notices that Hauser has the same longhorn tattoo that one of the armed gunmen had. She and Daniella evade the two officers, but discover later on that they are both wanted in connection with the deaths at Riva’s home; Cooper is even described as armed and dangerous. Having stolen a truck the two women begin to get to know each other, until they learn that there’s a man in the back of the truck. The man is called Randy (Kazinsky), and he’s a felon with an ankle tag who’ll gladly help them get to Dallas in return for the removal of his tag.
They hole up in an Indian casino for the night, but while Cooper and Kazinsky become closer, Daniella makes another escape attempt. Cooper stops her just as Hauser and Dixon arrive at their room, and thanks to Randy’s help they escape onto a tour bus. Pursued by the two crooked cops, as well as the other two armed gunmen, Cooper and Daniella manage to avoid being captured or killed, but when the bus stops, Cooper finds that Daniella has a plan that doesn’t include testifying against her husband’s boss (Cosio), but taking a more drastic approach. Daniella gets away, and later, when Cooper is back in San Antonio, Captain Emmett commends her for her work in keeping Daniella alive and tells her to take some time off. But Cooper can’t rest knowing what Daniella plans to do, and set out to stop her.
You’re an A-list Oscar winner who’s just made a movie that features what many critics regard as your finest performance, a true life tale that reminded everyone of just how talented an actress you are. But then, what to do next? Another heavy, emotional drama that might attract more awards for your mantelpiece? An ensemble piece that combines comedy and drama to good effect? Something completely different perhaps, something you’ve never tried before, like a sci-fi movie, or even a horror flick? Of all the options and possibilities, what will be your next choice of movie?
If you’re Reese Witherspoon, then the answer is simple: go back to making the kind of comedy movie where mismatched characters learn to become best buddies during a road trip, and which offers all kinds of humorous encounters for a casual audience to laugh at. For such is Hot Pursuit, a formulaic, sporadically amusing comedy that does just enough to stop itself from being completely predictable, and which coasts along for much of its (admittedly) short running time like a student in detention asked to write out the same lines a hundred times.
There is talent here, but it’s in service to a script by David Feeney and John Quaintance that tries for substance but often resorts to the time honoured tradition of having two women insult each other in shouty voices for its humour – though they’re nowhere near the inspired level of abuse that Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne hurl at each other in Spy (2015). Aside from one visual gag involving a dead deer, and a short sequence involving a severed finger that leads to Witherspoon performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on a dog, Hot Pursuit moves from scene to scene without too much consideration for what’s gone before, or even what’s ahead. A lot of it doesn’t add up, such as Randy’s ankle tag: one minute it’s a way of their being tracked, the next it’s off and chucked in a river. If there’s a dramatic or even narrative need for this to happen, then it’s hard to work out why.
Fletcher’s previous movie was The Guilt Trip (2012), the Rogen/Streisand team-up that nobody wanted, and while Hot Pursuit is better than that movie, she still seems unable to add a level of madcap energy that most movies of this type require in order to succeed. Without the commitment of Witherspoon and Vergara, the movie would be even more difficult to sit through, and it’s thanks to them that it even partially succeeds. Witherspoon is an old hand at this sort of thing, and handles even the daftest developments with a practised shrug and a “let’s move on”, while Vergara doesn’t quite get out from under the role of pampered, shallow sex object (though there does seem to be a competition between the two actresses in terms of who can show the most cleavage).
Rating: 5/10 – if you were to switch off your brain and just go with the flow, Hot Pursuit would prove to be pretty enjoyable, but alas its tired scenario and merely acceptable heroics wouldn’t fool anyone who’s paying attention; not as lame as some other, similar comedies, but not quite the rib-tickler it’s trying to be either.
Cast: Juno Temple, Jeremy Dozier, Milla Jovovich, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, William H. Macy, Nicholas D’Agosto, Tim McGraw
It’s 1987 in Oklahoma, and Danielle Edmondston (Temple) is constantly pushing the boundaries at her high school, being vulgar in class and unapologetically promiscuous. As a result of her behaviour, the principal transfers her out of regular classes into what is called The Challengers, a class Danielle regards as being for kids with special needs. At her first lesson she’s paired with Clarke Walters (Dozier), and they’re tasked with looking after a pretend baby (in this case a bag of flour) and keeping a diary of its daily life.
Danielle is less than impressed by the assignment but Clarke persuades her to go along with it. They begin to spend more time together, and to get to know each other. Danielle tells Clarke about her absent father, who bailed before she was born, while Clarke talks about his father, Joseph (Yoakam) and how he hates gays (Clarke is 35% gay according to a doctor he’s seen, but he’s keen to make it past 50%). When Danielle reveals that she has photos of her mother and father from before she was born, a check of the high school yearbook from when they were together reveals her father to be the assistant football coach at the time, Danny Briggs (McGraw). They find an address for him but when they go there, they learn that he’s moved to Fresno, California.
With her mother, Sue-Ann (Jovovich), planning to marry a Mormon named Ray (Macy), whom she detests, Danielle decides it’s time to go and meet her real father. She asks Clarke to go with her but he’s too afraid of what his father will do if they use his dad’s car (Ray has confiscated the keys to Danielle’s car). But when he gets home and discovers that his father knows about the gay porn he’s kept in his room, Clarke makes his escape in his dad’s car and picks up Danielle. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, Joel (D’Agosto), a stripper heading for Las Vegas. Clarke is attracted to Joel and when they make an overnight stop, Danielle leaves the two of them alone. The next morning, however, Joel is gone.
Meanwhile, Joseph has gone to Danielle’s house and broken in in an attempt to find out where the two friends have gone. But with nobody home, he’s arrested and put in jail. His long-suffering wife, Peggy (Steenburgen), arrives at the jail but refuses to take him home. Instead she leaves him there and decides she’ll look for Clarke and Danielle herself. She calls on Sue-Ann and together they fly to Fresno so they can warn Danielle’s father that she’s coming. But Joseph’s car breaks down, leaving enough time to go by for Joseph to be released and catch up with them. When he does, Clarke confronts his father and gives Danielle the chance to get away and still get to Fresno.
The phrase, “Nobody likes a dirty girl” is uttered twice in Dirty Girl, first by the principal as a pointed reminder that Danielle’s behaviour will only get her so far, and then by Danielle herself as an ironic statement reflecting how she’s developed over the course of the movie. In both cases it’s a badge of pride for Danielle, one that defines her within the milieu of her high school (but not in the wider world, where she is just another teenager with “issues”). Basing his script on his own experiences growing up in the Eighties, writer/director Sylvia has fashioned a tale that shows what can happen when self-assurance gives way to longing, and how that longing can prompt a change in attitude in even the most rebellious and uncompromising of teenagers.
However, the reason for Danielle’s behaviour is never properly explained. Sure, she’s never known her father, but it’s a fragile hook to hang such an unhappy personality on, and the role of Sue-Ann in Danielle’s life is too vague for comfort (one scene aside, Jovovich plays Sue-Ann as if she’s reacting to everything a few seconds too late, leaving the character looking somewhat adrift from the action). Danielle picks out her future conquests then drops them just as quickly, but if you were to ask why, the movie hasn’t got an answer. Nor does it try to explain why Danielle would hook up with a shy, overweight homosexual (other than that if they didn’t, the movie would be a lot shorter). As odd couples go, they’re not that odd either, just a couple of lonely individuals who learn to support each other, and where haven’t we seen that before?
With the script prompting more questions than it can answer, and with too many scenes bumping awkwardly against each other, Dirty Girl tries for an emotional honesty that doesn’t quite come off, leaving some moments feeling preachy and tired. As the aggressive, troubled Danielle, Temple proves yet again what an intuitive young actress she is, and it’s easy to see the neediness behind her flirtatious image and attitude. Likewise, Dozier – making his feature debut – portrays Clarke’s goofy, endearing personality as if it’s the only thing about him that’s any good. Browbeaten by his father, Clarke lives that life of “quiet desperation” so beloved of screenwriters everywhere, but here it’s less pointed and apparently more manageable, thus limiting the drama. Dozier is very good in the role but he has to work extra hard sometimes to make Clarke less compliant.
With a great supporting cast doing their best with a script that doesn’t give them an awful lot to play with, Sylvia does his best to make Danielle and Clarke’s journey a rewarding one both for them and for the viewer, but he doesn’t quite manage it (though he does manage to offset the drama with some well-judged pockets of humour). While Dirty Girl isn’t a bad movie per se, what it is is a movie that you can engage with on a straightforward level and not be disappointed. But when you start to look at it more closely, it’s a movie that lacks the depth necessary to carry off the narrative. There are plenty of teen dramas out there, but this one misses out on being truly memorable.
Rating: 5/10 – lacking the necessary freshness needed to make this stand out from the crowd, Dirty Girl is forced to rely on two quality performances from its leads; a sharper script would have helped, but based on its own merits it’s only occasionally diverting and less satisfying than its premise might imply.
Cast: Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Patrick, Kyra Sedgwick, Ali Hills
Following the death of his mother, Vincent (Sheehan) is persuaded by his estranged father, Robert (Patrick), to attend an experimental treatment centre for his Tourette’s. After meeting with the head of the centre, Dr Rose (Sedgwick), Vincent is taken to the room where he’ll be staying, and meets OCD sufferer, Alex (Patel). Alex is horrified at having a roommate and does what he can to get Vincent moved to another room but his plans fail. Vincent also meets Marie (Kravitz), who is there because she suffers from anorexia (and who almost died a few months before).
Vincent and Marie strike up a friendship, but when he gets into trouble with Dr Rose, it’s she who offers an unexpected solution: take Dr Rose’s car and go wherever he wants to go. Vincent decides on the ocean so that he can scatter his mother’s ashes. He and Marie take off one night, but not without first having to abduct Alex and take him with them (he was going to inform on them to Dr Rose). When their absence is discovered, Dr Rose contacts Vincent’s father and tells him what’s happened. Despite being a politician in the middle of an election campaign, Robert agrees to come and help find his son.
He and Dr Rose struggle to get along as they pursue the runaways, while Vincent, Marie and Alex begin to forge stronger relationships. When Robert and Dr Rose catch up with them at a lake, they manage to get away. As they travel to the ocean they begin to learn to trust each other, and Vincent and Marie grow closer, while Robert, through talking about his son to Dr Rose, begins to realise that he’s not been the kind of father that Vincent needed while he was growing up. Meanwhile, Vincent and Marie’s relationship becomes intimate, but this angers Alex, who has seen her manipulate other patients at the centre in the same way. He takes off and leaves them stranded.
They catch up with him at the next town, and there is a violent confrontation, but it leads to a reconciliation, and they carry on to the ocean. But when they get there, Marie has a relapse and is taken to hospital, leaving Vincent to make the hardest decision of his life so far.
A dramatic comedy – or comic drama, whichever you prefer – The Road Within is an enjoyable, if formulaic, road movie that pitches itself somewhere to the left of inspirational, and partly to the right of sentimental. It’s a feelgood movie about people who can’t always, if ever, feel good about themselves, and as such has an air of wish fulfilment about it that it never quite shakes off. Alex’s OCD is a good case in point: he has to open and close doors four times before going through them but this comes and goes at the script’s discretion, and when he doesn’t do it it’s ignored rather than celebrated. But in the end, the movie is intelligent enough not to administer any miracle cures to Vincent, Marie or Alex, just some appropriate development in the way they deal with their conditions.
First-time director Wells, working from her own script, creates a narrative that most viewers will recognise from other road movies, and while sometimes familiarity can cause viewers to react in a blasé, seen-it-all-before way, here the journey is entirely important for the way in which it makes the characters interact. If the movie had been set entirely at the centre, then the metaphor of travelling toward an understanding of themselves would have been negated. And sometimes, comfort zones have to be left behind if we’re going to make any progress. These are obvious points to make, but the movie makes them with a sincerity and a sense of humour that allows the viewer to invest in the characters and care about what happens to them.
Thanks to the cast’s clever and often intuitive performances, the characters of Vincent, Marie and Alex never seem like the caricatures they could so easily have turned out to be. Vincent lives in the shadow of his father’s disappointment in having a son who causes him embarrassment, while Marie’s rebellious nature hides a young woman’s need for approbation despite how her illness makes her feel about herself. And Alex wants to be normal even though he knows at the same time that the likelihood of that ever happening is so minimal as to be impossible. Sheehan displays a vulnerable side to Vincent’s character that makes him instantly likeable, but there’s a deeply angry side to him that Sheehan exhibits with equal effectiveness, both aspects given due weight throughout. Kravitz gives Marie a bruised quality that highlights the suffering she’s endured and makes her the most damaged of the trio; it’s a surprisingly delicate performance, and one that keeps the viewer’s attention on her in any scene she’s in.
Patel, however, operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to Kravitz, portraying Alex as a screaming, panic-driven doomsayer – every pothole he hits while driving is someone he’s run over, like a pregnant woman – and providing someone for Vincent and Marie to play tricks on. It’s a confident performance, strident at times, but as with Sheehan and Kravitz, he portrays the character’s burden with sincerity and no small amount of sympathy. (This helps offset the several occasions when his tantrums make the viewer want to reach through the screen and give him a good slap – or wish the other characters would.)
The movie is attractive to watch, with beautiful location work at Yosemite National Park proving a highlight, and the various themes of longing, connection and displacement given pertinent, if sometimes too gentle, attention, and Wells’ direction keeps the focus on the main characters’ often unsteady but quietly determined steps toward making their lives better, even if it’s just in small ways. This keeps the movie grounded and credible, and if the way in which Robert opens up to Dr Rose near the movie’s end seems a little too predictable or unlikely, then it’s a small misstep in an otherwise very enjoyable production.
Rating: 8/10 – not without some minor flaws – but none that keep the movie from being entertaining – The Road Within takes three people with serious illnesses and refuses to use those illnesses to define them; blackly comic in places – Vincent’s outburst at his mother’s funeral sets the tone – and with its heart in the right place, this is a movie that rewards the viewer on a small scale, but very effectively nevertheless.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Nat Faxon, Toni Collette, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Falcone
Tammy (McCarthy) is having a bad day: first her car is hit and totalled by a deer, then she’s fired from her job at Topper Jack’s for being late. To make matters worse, when she gets home she finds her husband, Greg (Faxon) having a romantic meal with their neighbour, Missi (Collette). With no car, no job, and her marriage over, Tammy does what she always does when things go wrong: she plans to leave town. However, her mother (Janney) refuses to lend Tammy her car. Enter Tammy’s grandmother, Pearl, who’ll let Tammy use her car, but under one condition: that she can come along for the ride. Tammy has her misgivings but when Pearl says she can pay for the trip as well, Tammy agrees she can come along.
After a first night where they both end up drinking too much, Tammy wants to go home, but Pearl persuades her to stick with the trip, and they head for Niagara Falls. On the way Tammy stops off to go jet skiing but she wrecks the jet ski and Pearl is forced to pay for it. Next they go to Louisville where they visit a bar that serves the best barbecue around; there they meet Earl (Cole) and his son, Bobby (Duplass). Pearl and Earl quickly hit it off – so much so that they end up having sex in the back of Pearl’s car – while Tammy and Bobby make a more restrained connection.
The next morning, Tammy discovers Pearl in a liquor store mixing whiskey in a Slurpee and trying to buy alcohol for some minors. The police are called and both Tammy and Pearl are arrested. Pearl pays for Tammy’s bail, but doesn’t have enough for herself. Tammy robs a local Topper Jack’s to get her released but she’s beaten to it by Earl. The robbery makes the news, and Pearl persuades Tammy to return the money. From there they travel to meet Pearl’s old friend Lenore (Bates) and her partner Susanne (Oh) and be a part of their annual Fourth of July party. Earl and Bobby turn up as well, and although Tammy and Bobby’s relationship deepens, Pearl’s drunken behaviour on the night causes a rift between grandmother and granddaughter that leads Tammy to rethink her life and what she wants from it.
Co-written by McCarthy with her husband (and director) Falcone, Tammy is ostensibly a comedy, but by the movie’s end it’s morphed into a somewhat sombre drama that abandons laughs in order to get across its message: that you can be whoever you want to be as long as put in the effort. This shift in tone does two things: it adds some much needed depth to proceedings, and makes the viewer wonder how much better the movie could have been, played as a straight drama. For this is the strange problem with Tammy: the more serious aspects are handled far more effectively than the comedic ones.
Part of the problem here is that, thanks to The Heat (2013) and Identity Thief (2013), McCarthy’s particular brand of comedy is fast becoming “old hat”, with her childish prolonging of bad behaviour and infantile arguments having lost their ability to amuse already. It’s not so much that McCarthy is a one-trick pony, more that she plays the same character in each movie and with little variation. But here, thanks to the way in which the script has been developed, McCarthy shows how adept she can be when giving a more balanced performance (perhaps it’s because she’s acting alongside the estimable Susan Sarandon; she certainly ups her game in their scenes together).
With the storyline proving more and more lacklustre as matters progress, and with Tammy herself made more considerate and less “dumb” as she interacts with Bobby and Lenore, the humour fades in service to the demands of an increasingly serious chain of events. It’s almost as if McCarthy and Falcone ran out of funny ideas and decided to make more of an issue of Pearl’s alcoholism, while at the same time bringing Tammy up short and make her more responsible. It’s like watching a character being made to grow up at the same time as the movie she’s in.
So, are the opening scenes funny? Absolutely, but at the expense of Tammy’s likeability, and while the script wisely allows her to leave behind her childish attitude, it’s clear that her behaviour is so closely tied to the movie’s humorous set pieces that without them it struggles to reassert its identity. Sarandon acts like she’s taking some time out from acting more sensibly and with greater purpose, while supporting turns from Janney, Cole, Collette and Aykroyd are little better than cameos. Bates is fun to watch as a lesbian with a fetish for blowing things up, and Duplass brings his indie sensibility to a role that is largely there to help Tammy regain her self-esteem (as if she can’t do it for herself).
Falcone directs with confidence even if he doesn’t quite have an entirely sure hand on the material, and gives his cast the room to spark off each other. It leads to mixed results throughout, and some scenes are less effective than others, particularly those where Tammy’s challenging of authority is more a scripted necessity than a clearly defined character trait. But as noted before, the sobering final half hour – in a weird way – rescues the movie and the director is on firmer ground. And there’s one last comedic flourish courtesy of a clutch of outtakes, and the revealing of McCarthy’s “secret” – now that’s funny.
Rating: 5/10 – disappointing in its approach and execution but still largely watchable, Tammy provides evidence that McCarthy needs to find herself a serious role to play, and soon; not as warm-hearted as it would like to be, and short on belly laughs, the movie gets by on McCarthy’s easy-going charm and Sarandon’s devil-may-care approach to the material.
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Scott Speedman, Treat Williams, Kate Burton, J.K. Simmons, Ian Nelson, J. Omar Castro, David Jensen
Jay Wheeler (Speedman) is a man with problems. He doesn’t have a job, he owes $37,000 to a bookie, and to make matters worse, he’s on probation. When his next brush with the law sees him assigned to community service mopping floors at an L.A. psychiatric hospital, Jay uses his easy-going manner to charm the staff and patients alike – except for sceptical Dr Bertleman (Simmons) who thinks Jay will screw up there just as he has everywhere else. One day a new patient, Daisy Kensington (Wood), arrives at the hospital. Jay is immediately attracted to her, but he’s not allowed to have any contact with her. One night, Jay rescues Daisy from the attentions of another patient; having hit him, Jay knows he’ll end up back in prison and attempts to leave – but not without Daisy who tags along with Jay despite his best efforts to dissuade her.
Having already agreed to attend his brother’s wedding in New Orleans, and having lied to his parents (Williams, Burton) about his work and that he has a girlfriend, Jay decides to let Daisy tag along and be part of “the plan” to hoodwink them. Daisy, who has never been outside the apartment where she lived with her mother until her mother died recently, has very little social awareness, and is easily stressed. At the wedding reception she comes under pressure from Jay’s father and has a panic attack. With his parents realising something isn’t right about Daisy (and her relationship with Jay), a confrontation between them all leads to Jay and Daisy heading back to L.A. in his father’s prized camper van.
As they travel across country, Jay and Daisy’s relationship develops as they try and avoid the police – Jay has violated his probation by travelling outside California, and the hospital authorities view Daisy as potentially dangerous to others (they believe she killed her mother) – and their increasing love for each other prompts Jay to reevaluate his life and turn things around. But first, he has to get Daisy back to the hospital…
Ostensibly a romantic comedy – albeit a deceptively dry one – Barefoot is a remake of the German movie Barfuss (2005). It moves at a measured pace that suits the material, and offers the viewer two equally measured performances from its leads. It’s a movie that treads carefully around the possibility that Daisy may have actually killed her mother, and underplays the seriousness of the plight she and Jay find themselves in while travelling back to L.A. (at one point they’re chased by a police cruiser but make a successful getaway without any other police being involved). Even Jay’s estrangement from his father, potentially a rich source of drama, is neatly dispensed with after having served its purpose at the wedding celebrations. Barefoot only makes a real effort with the romance between Jay and Daisy (deliberately named after the characters from The Great Gatsby?).
Fortunately, this is the area in which the movie succeeds the most, and with simple efficiency and a great deal of charm. As the couple who find they can’t live without each other (even if one of them may be a matricide), Wood and Speedman are a great match, her curious expressions, coupled with wide-eyed amusement at the world she’s only glimpsed via TV, highlighting the naiveté and lack of guile that makes Daisy such an engaging character. It’s a quietly impressive performance, not too showy and yet not so insular that Daisy lacks depth or is unsympathetic. Speedman’s performance complements Wood’s, making Jay a good-natured heel who, despite some bad choices, knows when to do the right thing, and knows the value of his relationship and what it’s loss will ultimately cost him. Like Wood, Speedman keeps it low-key, hitting the emotional beats with quiet intensity, and in doing so, makes Jay’s blossoming sense of responsibility to others entirely credible.
Wood and Speedman are ably supported by Williams et al, and if the script by Stephen Zotnowski opts for secondary characters that often serve as functions of the plot, rather than as fully fledged individuals, then they’re still competently played (Simmons stands out as the doctor who tries to give Jay a second chance). In the director’s chair, Fleming handles the material well, fashioning an at times offbeat romantic comedy and making a virtue of its lightness of touch. Even though it’s a predictable journey that Jay and Daisy take together, Fleming still keeps it interesting and draws the audience in with ease. There’s some beautiful location photography courtesy of DoP Alexander Gruszynski, and Michael Penn’s laid-back score is augmented by the inclusion of songs by the likes of Nick Drake.
Rating: 7/10 – overcoming its lightweight, predictable storyline thanks to two accomplished lead performances, Barefoot won’t get the wider audience it deserves, but those that do find it will be amply rewarded; a treat for fans of romantic movies, and moviegoers in general.
Cast: Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt, Ryan Eggold, Nina Arianda, Ahna O’Reilly
Ellie Klug (Collette) is a music journalist working for Stax magazine. Ten years before, her then boyfriend – and well-loved musician – Matthew Smith disappeared; his car was found abandoned and it was assumed he’d committed suicide, though his body was never found. Ellie has never really recovered from Matthew’s disappearance, and has yet to put it behind her. Her boss, Giles (Platt), challenges her to write a story about Matthew and how much his music means ten years on. Ellie is hesitant but grudgingly accepts the assignment, though she’s unsure of just what she’s going to write. Her friend, Dana (Arianda), asks the all-important question: doesn’t Ellie want to know, once and for all, what happened?
Ellie is still unsure. While she works out the best way to approach the assignment she meets aspiring musician Lucas (Eggold). They begin a tentative relationship, but Ellie isn’t sure about about committing to this either. At a bar she bumps into Charlie (Church), an ex-boyfriend who decides it would be a great idea if he made a documentary about Ellie’s search for Matthew (as he’s just completed a documentary filmmaking course). They embark on a road trip, visiting places that were important in the early days of Ellie and Matthew’s relationship, including his home. They also have a lead on Matthew’s whereabouts, footage of a singer in a club who may or may not be the missing musician. Although the man who says he shot the footage turns out to be a fraud, Ellie comes to believe the footage really is of Matthew. Meanwhile her relationship with Lucas becomes more serious, and when Charlie announces his engagement to Charlotte (O’Reilly), Ellie and Lucas are happy to go as a couple.
With the story on hold, Ellie attends Charlie’s wedding by herself, Lucas having gone to L.A. for talks with a record company (though he promises he’ll be back in time). When Lucas fails to turn up, Ellie winds up in bed with one of the other guests. Lucas discovers them together; to make matters worse she insults Charlie as well. Ellie hides away in her apartment, ignoring her calls and fixating on the supposed footage of Matthew. It’s only when Dana shows up to jolt her out of her misery that Ellie realises she may know a way of finding Matthew after all. She apologises to Charlie and they resume their road trip…
Lucky Them has several themes woven through its meandering script, though none of them are particularly original. There’s lost love, perceived betrayal, irreconciled emotions, and they all lead to Ellie’s unwitting withdrawal from Life. She’s a close approximation of the person she was ten years before, surrounded by reminders of the time she spent with Matthew, and tortured by not knowing why he disappeared (and if she’d only admit it, still in love with him). Ellie hasn’t moved on from that time, hasn’t found a way to let go of the past. She takes part in Life at a superficial level and derives no real enjoyment from it; she lacks passion, though it’s instructive that she becomes more expressive when talking about Matthew’s disappearance to a woman in a bar, almost defending him. She’s also easily led, allowing Giles to dictate the nature of the assignment to her, allowing Lucas to pursue her and almost force their relationship into being, letting Charlie decide about the documentary and cajoling her to reveal more and more about herself during the filming. Without the people around her, Ellie would be living her life completely in the past.
As Ellie, Collette has a tough time making the character sympathetic. She’s a walking bundle of apathy and negativity, and while the reasons for her being so are clearly outlined, it doesn’t help draw the viewer in; there’s no point at which you’re hoping that she’ll turn everything around (though obviously she will). With Ellie being so emotionally constipated, Collette doesn’t quite manage to make her a more interesting character, and settles for a kind of low-key cynicism in order to provide Ellie with a defining trait. Charlie refers to relationships being unable to last if they can be summed up in a single sentence (e.g. “I was the exotic aesthete to her mid-Western homebody”). For Ellie, the extrapolation would be, “A woman who refuses to see the good life going on around her”. With this obstacle established from the beginning, Lucky Them struggles to give the viewer anyone to root for.
That said, it’s a relief that screenwriters Huck Botko and Emily Wachtel have come up with the character of Charlie, a socially awkward, dry-humoured man who doesn’t always appreciate the finer points of social interaction or etiquette. In Church’s more-than-capable hands, Charlie is the movie’s saving grace, a direct, emotionally distant demi-pedagogue who’s funny throughout and the kind of true friend that Ellie really doesn’t deserve. Church adopts an almost stentorian way of speaking that makes Charlie sound pompous at first until you realise just how awkward his manner is. He’s also a bit of a bully, but in a caring, let’s-have-none-of-that-nonsense kind of way. As the movie progresses, Ellie warms to him, and they bring each other out of their respective shells. It’s these moments that have the greatest resonance in the movie, and as played by Collette and Church are also the most emotionally rewarding.
With Ellie proving such a poorly drawn character, and with her troubles being entirely self-inflicted, Lucky Them often goes off at a tangent in its efforts to hold its audience’s attention, and the search for Matthew often takes a back seat while Ellie continues to behave selfishly. The answer to the question, is Matthew alive after all, is resolved in a satisfying manner, but without all the digressions could have been arrived at a lot sooner. The subplot involving Lucas is both predictable and dull, while Giles is the kind of patrician mentor figure who seems out of place in today’s publishing world. It’s not surprising then that the movie is directed in unspectacular fashion by Griffiths, and there’s little in the way of visual styling or flair, while the soundtrack is populated by a succession of indie tracks that only occasionally enhance what’s happening on screen (though fans of Rachael Yamagata will enjoy the end credits song she provides).
Rating: 5/10 – a disappointing exploration of how someone copes when the person they love most disappears suddenly without explanation, Lucky Them flounders for most of its running time and rarely convinces; saved (rescued even) by Church’s note-perfect performance, and best approached as a curious mix of emotional apathy and (very) low-key romanticism.
Cast: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner
Movies where there is only one central character are notoriously difficult to pull off, and there are very few movies where there is only a single character for the audience to connect with, without anyone else impinging on the set up, either through a telephone call, or a flashback, or an imagined exchange. There’s also the difficulty connected with keeping that one character in a single location – e.g. Colin Farrell in Phone Booth (2002), Ryan Reynolds in Buried (2010) – and Locke is no different. When we first meet Ivan Locke (Hardy), he’s leaving work and getting into his car. Once he’s behind the wheel we learn that he’s on his way to London (from where isn’t fully disclosed) where a woman, Bethan (Colman), he had a one night stand with is having his child.
Ivan is a man who needs to be in control. He has a list of phone calls he has to make while he heads for London. The people on the list includes his wife, Katrina (Wilson), his boss Gareth (Daniels), a colleague, Donal (Scott), and of course, Bethan. In making these calls he’s looking to make sure a variety of things are taken care of: his marriage, the pouring of a major load of concrete the next morning at the building project he’s been working on, and that Bethan – who he regards as “fragile” – follows the doctors and nurses’ advice during her labour.
For Ivan, making the journey to be with Bethan is both an inconvenience and an obligation, but an obligation that he’s determined to go through with. Bethan is in her early forties and all alone, and to an extent, Ivan feels sorry for her, but the main reason he’s determined to be at her side is due to the mistakes his father made when Ivan was born. At odd times during the journey, Ivan talks to his father as if he were travelling with him, and he’s nothing less than vitriolic in his scorn for the man. However, even with this, his commitment to Bethan – the crux of the movie – seems forced and doesn’t really convince.
His relationship with his wife is problematical as well. For such a pragmatic, practical man, Ivan is sure that Katrina will forgive him as it’s “the only time” he’s ever slept with someone else, and there was a lot of booze involved. Katrina is understandably horrified by her husband’s revelation, and while his two sons watch a football match he was expected home for downstairs, she shuts herself away upstairs trying to make sense of what Ivan’s saying, and what she should do next. Ivan’s naiveté is at odds with his confidence in other aspects of his life, though whether he knows Katrina might leave him is open to question, and even when he speaks to his sons (Holland, Milner) he maintains a positive outlook that he can’t be sure of.
But Ivan’s personal issues take a back seat to his determination to ensure that the pour planned for the next morning goes ahead as arranged. Unable to be there in person he entrusts the details – including checking rebars, the mix, road closures – to subordinate Donal. At first, Donal is petrified of the responsibility but through a mix of cajolement and bullying Ivan persuades him to see things through. At the same time he fields calls from his boss, Gareth (called Bastard in his phone’s contact list), who has been forced by Ivan’s unexpected absence to inform their bosses in Chicago. Ivan expects to be fired, but he has decided to ensure the pour goes ahead without a hitch irrespective of his bosses’ decision, and as a matter of personal pride. He keeps in touch with Donal throughout the journey, and as problems arise, coaxes Donal through each one until they’re dealt with.
Locke is a difficult movie to categorise. Ostensibly it’s a drama about one man’s attempts to deal with a crisis of conscience, and there are certain thriller elements, but it’s also an emotional roller coaster ride as each time Ivan’s phone rings the audience is on tenterhooks as to what’s coming next. It’s this involvement that helps the movie tremendously. As conceived by writer/director Steven Knight, Ivan Locke is a hard man to empathise with, and spending almost an hour and a half with him isn’t easy. His insistence on being with Bethan makes no real sense, and the justification for it – not repeating the sins of his father – feels arch and ill-conceived. His devotion to the pour shows him at his most animated and motivated, while his handling of the calls to and from Katrina are conducted as if he were dealing with someone he doesn’t know (or maybe even care about). He’s also unable to reassure Bethan on anything but a superficial level, and is dismissive of her with the hospital staff.
As portrayed by Hardy, Ivan’s dour exterior and closed-off emotions are effectively portrayed. Adopting a soft Welsh accent, Hardy is hypnotic, and while he’s not on screen the entire time – Knight intersperses shots of the motorways Ivan travels along with interior shots looking out as well as Ivan shot from different angles – his performance is a bravura one, with not a false note throughout. Colman and Wilson offer solid support, but it’s Scott who wins the vocal plaudits, Donal being a memorable creation all by himself (look out for the conversation about cider). In the director’s chair, Knight adds a kineticism to the journey that grabs the audience and never lets go, but can’t quite make up visually for the contradictions and anomalies in Ivan’s character.
Rating: 7/10 – at times gripping, but with a worrying tendency to underplay its main character’s reluctance to engage emotionally, Locke is often tense and nerve-wracking; a shame then that Ivan Locke is not someone you’d any more time with than necessary.
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
When Woodrow “Woody” Grant (Dern) receives a letter saying he’s won $1,000,000, he heads off on foot to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The fact that he lives in Billings, Montana, means nothing to him, nor does his age or that he walks like someone who’s had a bad hip replacement (if what we see isn’t Dern’s natural gait then it’s an impressive piece of character development). Woody believes the letter wouldn’t have been sent to him if the offer wasn’t legitimate, and though it’s clearly dubious, his resolve to travel to Lincoln doesn’t falter.
When it becomes clear Woody isn’t going to give up on his plan to claim his prize money from the promoters in Lincoln, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him there, even though he knows the prize offer isn’t as clear cut as it seems. David is struggling to make sense of his own life, and plans to use the trip to work out his problems. His relationship with Woody is strained as well, and as the journey begins, shows no sign of improving. With a stopover on the way at Woody’s hometown of Hawthorn and a stay with various relatives who all seem to want a slice of Woody’s money, David needs all his wits about him to avoid both a family feud and the more violent reprisals that sleazy ex-partner Ed (Keach) refers to if Woody doesn’t pay back the money he feels he’s owed.
Nebraska‘s strength lies in its main character. Woody is a man who has found himself at a distance from his family and his life. The money has given him a new purpose, and its the non-supportive response he receives from those nearest and (hopefully) dearest to him that goads him into action. There’s a case to be made for Woody knowing that the money isn’t “real”, and there’s a further case to be made that he’s enjoying the attention he’s getting, but Woody is a plain man with plain desires, and while everyone around him attempts to complicate matters, Woody keeps his head down and only occasionally looks up to see what’s happening around him. And when he does, it’s hard not to think he looks amused at all the shenanigans he’s caused. Woody is a wonderfully nuanced character, one who appears lost in a fog of early-onset dementia, but he’s a canny creation as well, diffident about most things but quietly impassioned about the things that matter to him.
Using such a wonderful character as their base, director Payne and regular scriptwriter Bob Nelson have fashioned one of the most heartfelt and engaging movies of 2013. Shot in luminous black and white by Phedon Papamichael (This Is 40, The Descendants), and with a wonderful emotive score by Mark Orton, this is perhaps Payne’s most fully and perfectly realised feature to date. Dern is superb, an old man on the verge of giving up but who latches on to the prize money like a quest. Forte, usually a comic actor, here finds a quiet grace that instils his character perfectly, while Odenkirk as his brother Ross shines in a supporting role. Keach provides credible menace, but it’s June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate who steals the movie; she gets the best lines and delivers them all impeccably, including the best line in the whole movie.
With its bittersweet undercurrent and meditation on what it’s like to try and hold on to a sense of purpose as old age takes over, Nebraska is charming, heartwarming, life-affirming and altogether a gem. With its gentle, often hilarious comic moments and a clutch of winning performances, allied to a superb script and Payne’s sublime directing, this is one road trip you won’t want to end.
Rating: 9/10 – Nebraska tells a simple tale but adds several layers to give it an impressive depth; Payne continues to build an equally impressive body of work and stake his claim to being the US’s premier indie filmmaker.
Cast: Vincent Perez, Vahina Giocante, Jérôme Kircher, Chloé Coulloud, Jacques Weber, Nicole Calfan, Côme Levin, Judith Siboni, Astrid Veillon
Businessman Jean-Marc (Perez), along with his partner Bertrand (Kircher), has clinched an important deal with a Russian company, but at the expense of a small, family-run business he’s dealt with for years. Incensed by his attitude, and the fact that her father’s company won’t survive without Jean-Marc’s patronage, Marie (Giocante) heads to Paris to confront him. However, Jean-Marc is heading out of Paris for his daughter’s wedding; her name is also Marie (Coulloud), and she is sure her father won’t make it, so focused is he on his work. A general strike doesn’t help matters, and with one mishap after another – including having to abandon his car and use an electric car instead – Jean-Marc and Marie end up travelling together, he to the wedding, she back to her home town and her parents’ farmhouse. When they arrive at Marie’s parents’, Jean-Marc discovers who Marie is but keeps quiet about his own identity, having begun to realise he is in love with her. With the wedding getting ever closer, and still more hold-ups to come, can Jean-Marc get there on time, and can he find a way to keep his budding romance with Marie from failing when she, inevitably, finds out who he is.
With a script by Luc Besson, this is a charming romantic comedy with a modicum of dramatic moments dotted here and there. Besson packs a lot in to the short running time, and the story is ably realised by Lellouche, showing off the French countryside to beautiful effect, and his two leads in the same manner. Perez is wonderful, arrogant and egotistical at the beginning but gradually coming to terms with what he’s missed by being so fixated on his work. Giocante matches Perez in the performance stakes, and makes her aggrieved daughter a more fully-rounded character than at first might be expected. The dialogue, while not really that original or sparkling, is still affecting in places and Besson is clever enough to avoid the potential pitfalls from such a clichéd scenario. The supporting cast provide much of the laughs, but it’s a gentle humour that runs throughout the movie, and it never overwhelms the romantic storyline.
To be fair, this is the kind of movie the French can do in their sleep, and if it’s not the most original of storylines or plots, it doesn’t really matter. The familiar set up, the predictable outcome, the warmth even estranged characters have for each other – Jean-Marc and his ex-wife Liliane (Veillon) – all these things act to reassure the viewer that there won’t be any nasty surprises, and the course of true love, while never quite running smooth, will have a satisfactory ending, whatever the obstacles in its way.
Rating: 6/10 – a minor but enjoyable effort, heart-warming and inoffensive at the same time; perfect for a romantic evening in with your partner of choice.
Cast: John C. McGinley, Paul Hipp, D.B. Sweeney, Ed Harris, Janet Jones, Moira Kelly, Rex Linn Tanya Mayeux, M.C. Gainey, Mark Moses, Pat Hingle
Three friends, Mark (McGinley), Jason (Hipp) and Billy (Sweeney), embark on a road trip to see a championship football match, partly because they haven’t done anything together like this for ages, and partly to escape the troubles they each have at home. Mark is a gambler, in deep with his bookie. When a collector (Brian Doyle-Murray, the movie’s co-scripter) comes to his home, his wife Sherry (Jones) takes their son away with her until Mark can get his gambling under control. Jason is a bit of a nerd, disrespected by his work colleagues and unlucky in love; he just wants to break away from the small town ties that bind him. And Billy, a singer who never saw a musical career materialise and who now works in a warehouse, has discovered his wife Kate (Kelly) is having an affair.
On the way to the game the three friends must overcome the usual hurdles – losing their map, arguments amongst themselves, deciding whether or not to fake their deaths, to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms or not to – and find the inner strength to make their lives a whole lot better.
To date, this is actor D.B. Sweeney’s only directorial outing, and while Two Tickets to Paradise is wildly uneven and struggles to maintain its dramatic focus, there is still much that works. Working from his own (co-written) script, Sweeney’s strengths as a director come to the fore in his handling of his cast. McGinley and Hipp give life to otherwise stock characters, and the supporting cast add flavour to the proceedings. The lead trio have a great chemistry together and if the resolutions to their individual dilemmas are entirely predictable, then it’s no fault of theirs.
Where the movie fails is in its structure and its storyline. The events that happen during the road trip don’t always ring true, especially when the guys try to impress three stoned young women and Jason ends up remarking on one woman’s “hoe tag” (tattoo); it’s a horribly misogynistic moment that sits uneasily with the movie’s mainly light-hearted approach. There’s no urgency about the trip, even when they lose their car, and it seems as if the game is weeks away. Sherry has a change of heart about Mark and decides to meet him at the game, but misses him, only to reappear later when one of them ends up in the hospital (and how did she know they were there?). Likewise the collector, who finds Mark at a motel they hadn’t booked ahead of time.
There’s also a recurring subplot involving Billy’s inability to stand up for himself. Time and again Mark tries to goad him into reacting, and while it’s fine once, by the fourth time it’s not only tired but frustrating as well (we get it!). Add to that the unlikely romance between Jason and Janice (Dilsey Davis), born out of a shared love of darts, and you have a movie that fails to work in so many ways that it almost becomes distracting.
I say “almost” because even with all this, Two Tickets to Paradise is a lot of fun to watch. It all hinges on the performances, and the humour Sweeney and Doyle-Murray have imbued the script with. The three leads are obviously having fun and this comes across as they make the best they can of often very thin material. (It would be interesting to know if there was any improvisation that made it into the final cut.) The humour, while broad at times, is still underplayed by all three, and there are plenty of one-liners that hit the mark with well-timed accuracy. Add in a touch of pathos here and there, and Two Tickets to Paradise proves vastly more effective on the comedy front than it does with the dramatic.
Rating: 6/10 – hit-and-miss throughout but on the whole an entertaining movie with enjoyable performances from its leads.
Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Dan Fogler, Christie Burson, Miracle Laurie
When two friends, Mitchell (Duhamel) and Carter (Fogler), take a road trip together and the truck they’re in breaks down, the stage is set for a tense battle of wills – first against each other, and then against the elements as they fight to survive being stranded in the desert.
Taking the basic premise that these two long-time friends are both failing in their lives and their ambitions, and are equally embittered, Scenic Route wastes no time in peeling back the layers of each character and showing them for the disillusioned, desperate people they are. Mitchell is trapped in a marriage he feels obliged to continue with, while Carter is homeless and failing to get his writing career off the ground. Both men are unable to break the chains they have wrapped around themselves. As they argue and fight over their respective failures – each summing up the other’s deficiencies – their arguments spiral out of control and become violent. To make matters worse, the stretch of road they’re on is miles from anywhere, and there’s almost no traffic.
On the whole, Scenic Route is a tense, involving movie that fares better than perhaps it should. Kyle Killen’s script is punctuated by the kind of smart one-liners that nobody in this kind of situation would come up with – the two men’s initial exchanges are needlessly verbose – and one or two plot developments (which I won’t spoil here) smack of convenience rather than organic advancement. What saves the day is the committed performances of Duhamel and Fogler. Duhamel gets an extreme makeover that looks odd at first but then really suits his character, while Fogler displays a depth and range that hasn’t been evident from his comic performances. This is a tough, physical movie (shot in Death Valley) and neither actor outshines the other, making this a movie about two men who begin as equals, struggle to maintain that equality and then who learn how to survive by fighting for each other.
Aside from the 1998 short Mass Transit, Kevin and Michael Goetz haven’t directed a movie before, and while this is their first feature, they keep things tightly focused on the truck and its immediate environs, placing an emphasis on keeping Mitchell and Carter in close relation to the vehicle. Even when they move away from the truck the frame remains obstinately restricted in its point of view. There are some long shots but these serve only to highlight how isolated and alone the two men are. The photography by Sean O’Dea emphasises the rugged natural beauty of the surroundings, while editor Kindra Marra ensures each scene is played out to maximum effect, including the extended coda that tries to take the movie into another territory altogether.
The movie does have its faults. Some, as mentioned above, are due to the script and hinge largely on the dialogue. Developments in the plot detract from the straightforward telling of the story – a flashback proves unnecessary and distracting – and the likelihood of the final outcome will always be in doubt. The two men also seem to get by without any food or water for over three days. How much these things will detract from a viewer’s enjoyment of the movie, though, will be down to the individual.
Rating: 7/10 – a modest suspenser/drama that plays well throughout and is bolstered by two above average performances; not as clever as it would like to be, perhaps, but still worth a look.