Archives For September 21, 2011

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the most mainstream offering yet from the brothers Duplass. Let no one ever tell you that mainstream inherently means less worthy. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a simple comedy, but it’s very funny and rather poignant, surprisingly so. The film also completely justifies the existence of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, which instantly makes it great.

The film begins with Jason Segal’s character, Jeff, talking about how he just watched the movie, Signs. It seems the theme of simple destiny in that movie has had a profound effect on Jeff. He has come to approach life as a sequence of events that will all work out in the end, with signs and direction to guide him along the way. Things get kicked off when Jeff gets a phone call from a man looking for somebody named Kevin. Jeff begins to fixate on the name Kevin, and then goes out, following that name wherever he sees it.

Along the way he meets up with his brother Pat, played by Ed Helms. Pat is an asshole. There’s not two ways about it. He’s an asshole, and he’s killing his marriage from the inside out. Jeff and Pat are out in the town when they notice Pat’s wife out with another man. Pat gets Jeff to help him spy on her. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

Meanwhile, the guys’ mother, Sharon, played by Susan Sarandon, is at work, frustrated with her sons and her life, and she starts getting IMs on her computer from somebody claiming to be a secret admirer. Through the day she tries to figure out who the admirer is.

Everything comes together in a nicely perfect way, confirming Jeff’s feeling about the movie, Signs. But all three characters come to understand that they cannot simply let life lead them on random paths. They need to take action. This all happens in a fairly beautiful scene that could be seen by some as too pat, but then, that’s kind of the point.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a very funny movie. It’s got great characters, all acted very well by an able cast. And the film is actually very moving as well. What more could you ask for in a small modern comedy?


TIFF’11 Review: Like Crazy

September 21, 2011 — 1 Comment

Like Crazy is a nice film. If that sounds like dryly damning praise, then I guess that would be my general feeling toward the film. It really is nice. It’s got some beautiful moments, a tender romance, some sad heartbreak, and generally it’s very well shot and put together. And that’s about it. There is little power in the film beyond being quite nice.

The main reason Like Crazy doesn’t become transcendent is that it feels wholly constructed. The film moves from one plot point to the next, not only in obvious ways, but without much genuine feeling. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones play the couple in the film, and throughout the course of their journey they get together in a ridiculously idealized whirlwind of romance, and then they are split apart due to issues with student visas, and then they  get back together and split apart again and get back together again. And then it’s over.

Nothing in the film is particularly surprising, but worse than that, by the end of the story I’m not sure I even cared for these two people or their coupling. In fact, of all the characters in the film, I felt the most for the two people they date when they aren’t together. Jennifer Lawrence’s character in particular gets jerked around by Yelchin in such a way that I kind of resented everything about him. It plays out like a classic case of “fool me once, fool me twice”, but I could not help feeling badly for Lawrence.

Yelchin and Jones are both very good in Like Crazy, but the film does little more than play like a full-length, and somehow less emotive version of its trailer. In fact, the trailer did, and still does, make me want to cry. By the end of the actual movie I really didn’t feel much of anything at all. Like I said, it’s a nice film, but not much more.

TIFF’11 Review: Shame

September 21, 2011 — 1 Comment

Maybe it was unreasonable to expect so much from director Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature film, but then, Hunger is one of the best art-house films of the last decade. Yet, with Shame, a decidedly more accessible film than Hunger, McQueen somehow lost his insightful edge. What we get instead is a film that tries so hard to say so much, but ultimately says very little, and says even less effectively.

Shame tells the story of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, a man with some form of sexual addiction. This gives way to the first problem, which is that the film never really presents him as much more than a guy who likes having non-committal sex and masturbates maybe a little too much. Brandon’s life is given a bit of a shake-up when his sister, Sissy, played by the great Carey Mulligan, shows up at his apartment. This leads to the one thing about the film that really does work: the relationship between Brandon and Sissy.

It’s not entirely clear what went on in their past, though there are some hints of bad things, and maybe even incest. The upshot of this is that their scenes together are amazing. First of all, we are talking about a couple of the best actors to come about in recent years. The tension between them is amazing, and it makes every interaction between them weirdly touching and suspenseful.

I also think McQueen managed to build on some themes of private shame. Brandon is clearly ashamed of his addiction, but he also seems to be ashamed of his life in general. Again, it’s not clear what went on in the character’s past, but it is very obvious that nothing was peaches and cream. Brandon has an inability to connect properly with women, and he keeps his apartment like something of a private prison. When Sissy comes into the picture, his level of discomfort with her being there, living off his things, getting closer to him, skyrockets.

But that’s about all that works well. I suppose it would be inaccurate to label a film ‘pretentious’, but Shame does fit the bill. Scenes like a five-minute blues rendition of “New York, New York” or epically scored sex scenes seem to be there to add meaning and pathos, but end up feeling completely forced and meaningless. Whatever meaning might have been held is lost in a sea of self-indulgence. The majority of the film plays out this way, and yeah, it’s quite a shame.

I wouldn’t call Shame a bad film. There are certainly great aspects, the performances being a good example. But Shame is definitely a big disappointment. It does not work on the whole, and worse still, the air of high-mindedness betrays any real exploration of the issue of sex addiction or even the complexity of the lead character. It’s paint-by-numbers “art”, and that’s not something I can get behind.

You can listen to me discussing Shame with TheMatinee’s Ryan McNeil in his Matineecast TIFF dispatch series here.

TIFF’11 Review: I Wish

September 21, 2011 — 3 Comments

Going into I Wish, I had never seen any films by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Coming out of it, I swore to try and watch as many of his films as I could get my hands on. I Wish is one of the most beautifully heartfelt films dealing with the topic of children and divorce I have ever seen. Kore-eda brings reality to the film, but not in a needlessly stark fashion. Instead, I Wish is a celebration of children and family, even while it mourns the troubles of parenthood and marriage.

The optimistic viewpoint of the film no doubt comes from its focus on children. The main characters are two young brothers who now each live with one parent in different cities. Their greatest wish is for their family to be reunited and live together once more. Kore-eda does not indulge this fantasy, or even romanticize it. Instead, he shows us the reality of their lives for a number of months as the kids cope with their new lives.

The main plot of the film has the brothers making a plan to meet each other along the new bullet train line and make a wish as two of the trains pass each other. But through the film they also make new friends, learn lessons from their parents and grandparents, and we even get a glimpse at the lives of some of the other children. The relationships between the kids and the adults in the film is wonderfully rendered. The children don’t know much about life, but in some ways, neither do the parents and other authority figures around them. What Kore-eda shows us in I Wish is that in the end we are all just trying to find the best way to cope with life, and the most valuable thing of all is the families of people we create around us.

This could not be more clear than in the last half-hour or so of the film. The brothers, and a bunch of their friends, do meet up in a small town to wish on the passing trains. Through some very funny circumstances, they end up staying with an elderly couple who are very happy to have the company. As we see the bond re-form between the brothers, between their friends, between them and the older couple, and even later, between the kids and their parents, the messages of the film take hold powerfully. So powerfully, in fact, that I spent that last section of the film in various states of emotional wreck. Not because it was sad, but because the sense of loving melancholy Kore-eda crafts in those scenes was palpable. Even writing about it right now I am beginning to be overcome with emotion.

That’s the power of I Wish, and I could not recommend it enough. The love of humanity present in the film is as strong as in any I’ve ever seen. Kore-eda has made a masterpiece of a film, and I don’t say that lightly.