Sunday, September 29, 2013

Happy/Sad Ending: "Enough Said" winningly sweet and funny with a tender final turn from Gandolfini

Enough Said (2013)
93 min., rated PG-13.

The majority of praise Nicole Holofcener's romantic comedy "Enough Said" is receiving essentially falls on it featuring the late James Gandolfini's penultimate performance on screen. One can ponder the notion that if Gandolfini were still alive, would the film still have such a poignant impact? The answer is yes, due in no small part to Holofcener's knack for smart, honestly observed slices of life with richly drawn characters that could fall into well-to-do, navel-gazing types but never do, sharp-witted dialogue that never feels precious or less than natural, and having an eloquent, low-key hand behind the camera. Beguiling, funny, and generous, "Enough Said" is yet another winner in the writer-director's filmography and will surely make moviegoers mourn the loss of such a teddy bear of a talent even more.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced masseuse, living in L.A. with her Sarah Lawrence College-bound daughter Ellen (a natural Tracey Fairaway). Accompanying her married friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) to an upper-class poolside party one night, she first meets a poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener) and gets another client out of their meeting. Next, Eva is introduced to Albert (Gandolfini), a big tree trunk of a man, and a couple days later, they're on a date. She initially isn't attracted to him, but the conversation flows and the laughs come easy. They also have something in common: they're both divorced and both dreading empty nest syndrome, as Albert also has a daughter, Tess (Eve Hewson), about to go off to college. ("I guess we should develop hobbies," says Eva. "Actually, I weave…yeah, I do it in the garage," Albert jokes.) When Eva begins having sessions with the Marianne at her euphorically decorated home in Santa Monica, the two become friends, sharing stories of their ex-husbands. Then, just as Eva is cozying up to Albert and finding him sexy more and more, she puts it together that Marianne's ex-husband is, you guessed it, Albert. But with Marianne in her head, Eva hopes every little flaw she's learned from her new client doesn't poison her perception of Albert. Aside from the middle-aged romance, the film also threads in the pending emotions Eva and Albert both suffer from having to see their daughters fly the coop, as well as Ellen's friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), who, without any mean ulterior motives, turns a little needy and starts spending more time with Eva without Ellen even being there. Understandably, Ellen is a little taken aback when Chloe gets to meet Albert before her and even has breakfast with her mom and new boyfriend.

As with 2001's "Lovely & Amazing," 2006's "Friends with Money," 2010's "Please Give," and now "Enough Said," what Holofcener does is tricky, refusing to compromise her characters or push them around an artificially contrived farce, nor does she lose compassion or coddle them. Unlike Nancy Meyers, who showers her characters with mouth-watering, upper-crust digs and simple solutions, she resists putting a neat button on things, too. Holofcener actually takes her time to develop her characters' relationships before spilling the propellant plot hook on us. It could be straight out of "Three's Company" or any shticky, eye-rollingly forced sitcom reject, but the writer-director doesn't push hard to earn big, wacky laughs, instead allowing uncomfortable humor to flow in on its own and come from a more human place. As it plays out, the fact that Eva's new love interest is Marianne's ex-husband feels more like a coincidence than a screenwriter's construct. Is it a conflict that could be solved in a matter of minutes? Yes, but Eva is in a sticky spot, curious to know Albert's flaws before experiencing them for herself without ruining what she already has with him. The characters feel like people, not just cogs in the plot, and that's how it should be.

Finally given the chance to lead a feature film after her years of TV work on "Seinfeld," "The New Adventures of Old Christine," and now "Veep," Louis-Dreyfus is enormously engaging and terrifically handles the fleshed-out role of Eva with unassuming grace and her infectiously expressive comic face and laugh. It's a testament to her skills as a comedic and dramatic actress that even as she throws some digs at Albert and fails to acknowledge the truth of her relationships to both Marianne and Albert to their faces, she remains appealing and sympathetic. The recurring montages of Eva's massaging sessions with her three other clients—a man with bad breath, a woman who complains Eva's ear off about her first-world problems, and a twentysomething guy who just stands at the top of his steep staircase as Eva struggles to carry up her heavy massage tableare memorably amusing without mugging or slapstick. In a dumber movie, Eva would have left her smarts by the wayside and behaved like a dippy, overly neurotic nincompoop, but not on this filmmaker's watch.

Of course, the main draw is Gandolfini's posthumous lead performance. Though having always shown shadings and a sweet side in his many indelible supporting roles and persona as Tony Soprano, the role of Albert happens to be his rarest opportunity with a gentle, tender, and self-deprecating turn. He's a sweet, comfortable guy with his own quirks, a few that separately involve bedside tables, guacamole, and whispering in a movie theater. His job as a TV archival historian is also slyly knowing in that both actors jumpstarted their careers on two of the most culturally important TV series. If Gandolfini had to go, and it's heartbreaking to watch him up there, this may be the sweetest swan song. These two fiftysomethings are a delight together, sharing interesting, funny give-and-take that never rings false and an easy, genuine chemistry that is as watchably romantic as watching two teenagers fall in love for the first time. After talking about feet, their first kiss on Albert's back stoop is so adorable and lovely.

Also, it wouldn't be a Nicole Holofcener film without the bristly presence of Keener, whose Marianne isn't the most pleasant or easygoing person but feels deeply lonely, too. Collette (sporting her native Australian accent for once) and Falcone, as Eva's therapist friend and her husband, are held on the periphery but still have likable, flesh-and-blood parts to play. They experience household problems of the rich and white variety, including rearranging furniture and deciding on whether or not to fire the maid who keeps placing odd objects in the kitchen drawers, two situations which may not be the most relatable but are humorously played without a heavy hand. 

A romantic comedy about imperfect, identifiable grown-ups? What a concept. "Enough Said" isn't revolutionary filmmaking; it's simple and doesn't have a particularly new story to weave but it's in the perceptive, true, and entertaining way it's told and acted that makes it so dear. It's that rare kind of film you want to embrace — enough said. 

Grade: A - 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

GTL + Porn: "Don Jon" wise, funny, and assured with a filthy R-rating

Don Jon (2013)
90 min., rated R.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has already proven himself to be one of the most appealing actors working today, turning in great, eclectic work. Now, he's a triple threat, putting himself on the map as writer, director, and star of his bracing, self-assured directorial debut "Don Jon." His first film may penetrate the crippling addiction to porn, but it's more audacious than that. It's about the dichotomy of sex and love represented none too well in both porn and idealistic Hollywood movies and comes from the potentially sleazy point-of-view of a libidinous, egotistical guido who could be the missing cast member from MTV's "Jersey Shore."

Gordon-Levitt positions himself as the lead, Jon (nicknamed Don Jon), a slick, slick-haired New Jersey lothario who works as a bartender. His simple, routine life can be narrowed down to eight things — his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and . . . his porn. Yes, when he's not lifting at the gym and reciting his prayers during reps, angrily driving to get to church for confession, sitting at the dinner table for pasta dinners in his wife beater with his Italian-American family—parents Jon Sr. (Tony Danza) and Angela (Glenne Headly), and bored sister Monica (Brie Larson) who's forever on her phone—and scoring conquests every night at the clubs where he rates girls with his two buddies, Jon sits in front of his laptop and gets off to Internet porn. He says he prefers porn over the real thing in the bedroom because he loses himself in it, but doing it up to twenty times a day points to addiction (and costs him a slew of Hail Marys). Then one night, from across the bar, Jon meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a gum-chewing Jersey "dime" in a red dress. On their first date, she forces him to go to a sappy romantic-comedy (Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum amusingly headline the fake "Special Someone"), and then wants them both to meet the other's friends and family. After a month as a couple and finally engaging in coitus, Barbara tries to change Jon by having him enrolled in night school. One thing she can't change is his proclivity for porn, until she walks in on him pleasuring himself and flips out. Can Jon rid porn from his life for good?

An impressive, independent-minded directorial bow, "Don Jon" practically announces a fresh voice behind the camera from the get-go with its zappy, propulsive editing rhythms and snappy, attention-grabbing visual choices. Gordon-Levitt utilizes voice-over narration and montages of our sex-driven culture, along with a graphic on-slaught of moaning, pelvic-thrusting porn clipsdevices which can be lazy crutches for first-time effortsbut they get the point across in a flitly paced fashion without coming off more repetitive. Originally "Don Jon's Addiction" at Sundance, the film had to have its porn-video shots trimmed down to secure an R but one wonders how much was actually cut. The MPAA must have been catching a nap when screening the finished product because it doesn't lose its nerve. It's transgressive and refreshing for a film, which, mind you, isn't getting a platform release but a wide release, that refuses to throw the covers on the topic of sex.

In front of the camera, Gordon-Levitt is so magnetic and shaded that he can even make a hypocritical, contradictory meathead, full of bravado, oddly endearing, and on the other side, he shows a keen eye for casting down the line. Johansson is terrific and full of gusto as Barbara, not only nailing the gum-smacking and "Joizey" accent with impressive accuracy but never broadly playing her as a stereotypically airheaded Jersey housewife-to-be. She's a full-bloodied person who means well and is just set in her ways, her values of love being romanticized, archaic, and skewed from what she sees in swoon-worthy Hollywood boy-meets-girl weepers. Barbara might even be a little entitled and shrewish when appalled that Jon enjoys cleaning his floors, telling him not to waste his time but to use her cleaning lady to do it. Surprisingly, there's never a stench of contemptible misogyny to how Barbara is written and played, and that's pretty remarkable in a movie about someone who's addicted to videos that objectify and degrade women. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Julianne Moore plays the middle-aged Esther, a kooky, forlorn peer in Jon's night class. The unlikely friendship they strike up would feel manufactured on paper, yes, but it plays more organically than expected. Little more than a plot device, Esther is drawn into an earthy, lovely, devastatingly real presence by Moore, the character's wisdom related to love being obvious but more realistic than Barbara's reasoning and pretty insightful to Jon. In supporting roles that spring to life no less, a hilariously loud Danza is fun to see as Jon's blustery father, especially if one remembers that he co-starred with his then-thirteen-year-old director in "Angels in the Outfield," and Headly is very charming as Angela, who just wants to see her son find Miss Right and give her grandchildren. As essentially mute, phone-glued sister Monica, Larson earns laughs without saying a word and then saves her voice-of-reason comments for later.

Further proving how far Gordon-Levitt's talent goes, his first shot isn't really an addiction drama or a feature film version of "True Life: I'm Addicted to Porn." Rather, it's an uncommonly smart and provocative American movie with something to say about finding two-sided love after being bred on the artificial expectations presented in romantic comedies and finding true intimacy during sex when one is consumed by the instant gratification of pornography. And hey, it's even sharply funny and addictively entertaining, even if some audiences going blind into this hard-R film will surely find discomfort in the subject matter and graphic nature. Filthy and boldly racy, "Don Jon" also has a wisdom and a sincere heart under its trousers.

Grade: B +

Friday, September 27, 2013

Body Double Party: Nifty, original "+1" a double-seeing kick

+1 (2013) 
95 min., rated R.

It's been four years since director Dennis Iliadis made his effectively brutal (and superior) 2009 remake of "The Last House on the Left," and maybe all that time lapsed so he could concoct something original and daringly different for his next feature. Double the teenage archetypes from "Can't Hardly Wait" and "Project X," meld those movies with an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "Another Earth" wrench, and you have a vague bottom-line of what you're in for with "+1" (or "Plus One"). It would sound hyperbolic to say this cool, unorthodox part-teen comedy, part-sci-fi, part-horror humdinger flips the teen party comedy genre on its head, but that's precisely what it does, and in a year of genre movies that have been given fresh spins, you can add "+1" to the list.

During his first summer after high school graduation, David (Rhys Wakefield) stayed in his hometown to be with his girlfriend of two years, Jill (Ashley Hinshaw). After making the grave mistake of kissing a girl in the same white uniform at her fencing tournament, David can't quite shake it off, attending a house party with his pal Teddy (Logan Miller), who's ready to have the night of his life. David hopes to be able to talk it out with the unforgiving Jill, who won't answer his phone calls and text messages, and Teddy just wants to get laid. Then a meteorite crashlands nearby, causing a power outage and, unbeknownst to them at first, disrupting the space-time continuum. Nobody really thinks much of it, and then David and Teddy get to the bacchanalia in a huge mansion lit like a Christmas tree by their enthusiastic host Angad (Rohan Kymal). The beer is unlimited. The rave music is pounding. A human sushi tray is set up. They play tennis with a fireball. Even Teddy gets his chance with the attractive Melanie (Natalie Hall). Then, suddenly, there are two of everybody, as the kids observe their other selves repeating what each of them just did a few minutes ago. Are their replicas out to get them? Is there going to be a massive clean-up of disposable bodies at the end of the night?

If you could meet yourself, what would you do? Would you take advantage of the situation, or would you be quick to react and hurt the other you? Could it be fun or could it be dangerous? With a distinct conceit backed up with seamless effects, "+1" is so pleasurable in that we recognize the boy trying to make right with the girl, the horny best friend, the loner, and the sexpot, but we never know where they'll be taken this time around. Iliadis and screenwriter Bill Gullo have fun playing with time and space and know better, washing their hands of a cut-and-dry explanation that could have threatened to take the viewer out of the already-absurd story. Instead, they opt for ambiguity, allowing us to be on the same page as the partygoers and dwell on the implications of such a head-scratching conundrum. Then the horror elements come in once David witnesses one "Kyle" shooting "Kyle 2.0," realizing how life-threatening this situation is going to be, and it all comes to a memorably frenzied head in a pool house.

Of course, the movie wouldn't convince without a competent team of young actors. Wakefield ("The Purge") and Hinshaw ("Project X"), as David and Jill, have to create a layered relationship worth caring about and they pull it off. Miller is fun rather than off-putting as the libidinous Teddy, and the gorgeous Hall takes her Melanie in a surprising direction, giving Teddy exactly what he wants and not turning out to be malicious. Just so happening to have a twin named Colleen, Suzanne Dengel looks like she could be related to Lauren Ambrose (à la Denise Fleming from "Can't Hardly Wait") as loner Melanie, who feels like a bird in a cage. Sometimes the actress mutters her lines, but how Melanie reacts to her doppelgänger is satisfying and touching.

Try picking holes in the logic of it all and you may start to see double yourself. If there's any reason to be persnickety of one in-the-moment viewing, pieces of dialogue are a bit too on the nose, like Jill telling David, "You made me feel replaceable," before she realizes that she actually could be replaced by another version of herself. But, in the grand scheme of things, it moves at a clip rate and nothing can erase how this enticingly nifty and thrillingly loopy ride ups the stakes from the standard party scene. It's one of those little, unknown movies that deserves a chance and a wider release.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "Kings of Summer" a wonderfully weird little coming-of-ager

The Kings of Summer (2013)
95 min., rated R.

The debut of first-time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and first-time screenwriter Chris Galletta, "The Kings of Summer" is sort of a He-Man Woman Haters Club version of Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." As roughly the two-hundredth entry in the subgenre of "that one summer" coming-of-agers, the film travels through some pretty familiar turf about youthful nostalgia but goes down easy like a laid-back, directionless summer day with a scrappy, independently made quality.

15-year-old outsider Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) and his tough, sarcastic father Frank (Nick Offerman) constantly ruffle each other's feathers ever since Mom died. Frank tries to date, but Joe makes sure it doesn't work out, leaving a family game of Monopoly when he doesn't get his way and then calling the cops on Dad. Meanwhile, Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is just annoyed and trapped by his lame, overbearing parents (Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson), who greet him with a wet washcloth to put around his neck after school and won't let him go to a friend's house without taking some vegetable soup. Both high school freshmen want an escape, so when Joe and a weird hanger-on named Biaggio (Moises Arias) scout the woods one night, Patrick is convinced to build a clubhouse from scratch and live on the land, where they can make their own rules. They "hunt" their food from a Boston Market dumpster. They bang sticks on a long pipe like Stomp percussionists. They even grow facial hair. After weeks go by, the boys initially returning home for home goods and supplies, neither the parents nor the cops (Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Thomas Middleditch) can find them, even though they're not that far from the Ohio suburbs.

"The Kings of Summer" gets off to a rather uneven start, feeling half-authentic and half-Quirky McQuirkerson. Joe and Patrick are tough to warm up to, unlike the kids in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Mud" and "The Way Way Back," and the adults begin as either jerks or morons. Then the film redeems itself and sneaks up on you with an unexpected melancholy and an underlying sweetness. While director Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta indulge a little too much in quirk at first, they have their own off-kilter style (cleverly silly dream/fantasy interludes included) and wisely give the film a timeless feel (the characters don't take their cell phones to the woods).

Newcomer Robinson is quite good as Joe, especially when he grows a light mustache, experiences his first heartbreak, and starts smoking stogies. He shares such a comfortably real chemistry with co-star Basso that we grow to care about them as friends. As for the rail-thin, bug-eyed Biaggio, he's an oddball creation that would feel more at home in "Napoleon Dynamite" and a half-formed character with a non-sequitur shtick. He creates a ransom note, carries a machete around, and says that he doesn't see himself as having a gender, but Biaggio is played with total commitment by Arias. As widower Frank, Offerman is hilariously off-putting and then admirably underplays his touching moments with Robinson. The always-welcome Megan Mullally (of course, Offerman's real-life wife) is amusingly clueless and meddling as Patrick's mother who, at dinner, tells her son, "We watched a very good movie ["Hancock"] on the cable last night" with "Will Prince." Also, Alison Brie makes her brief moments count as Joe's older sister, who made the smart choice of moving out of the house but sticks up for her brother when she's home, and Erin Moriarty, who could be Alison Lohman's younger double, does nice work as Kelly, Joe's friend and crush who might just come between his friendship with Patrick.

Like a film that celebrates rebellion and unsupervised youth should, this one has a memorable (and unusual) soundtrack, with Ryan Miller's evocative score mixing samplings from video games and featuring thematically perfect tracks like MGMT's psychedelically poppy "The Youth" and Douglas James & Kevin Writer's hip-hoppy "How I Rise." Entitled "Toy's House" at Sundance, this little film probably owes a debt or two to "Stand by Me," but in the main, it's just wonderfully weird, funny, and resonant. "The Kings of Summer" came out in a year with plenty of coming-of-age film competition, and while this isn't some classic, it's likable and has its little charms.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Have You Checked the Children?: Thoughtful, unflinching "Prisoners" puts you through the wringer

Prisoners (2013)
153 min., rated R.

How far is too far? Are you willing to cross moral lines and set aside rational thought to get your missing child back? Do the ends justify the means? A harrowing, unflinching, and unremittingly dark gut-punch, "Prisoners" explores such tough, uncomfortable questions, unafraid to get its hands dirty and wade in the darkness. It's actually three films rolled into one: a dramatic morality play, an engrossing police procedural, and a complex, page-turning mystery-thriller. The two films are arguably more effective than the last, but this is still a haunting, meticulously crafted piece of filmmaking.

It's a wet Thanksgiving Day in suburban Pennsylvania. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), wife Grace (Maria Bello), and their two children, teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and 8-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), walk down the street for their feast at the Birch family's home. Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) also have two children around the same age, daughters Eliza (Zoe Soul) and young Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). When the girls first go out to play, they're being watched by their older siblings and start playing on a parked RV. Later in the day, Anna and Joy go missing. As the only evidence points to that mysterious RV, lonely Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracks down the close-mouthed driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has an IQ that of a 10-year-old and lives with his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). But when nothing concrete turns up in the RV search, Alex is released and immediately attacked by the distraught Keller, who hears Alex whisper something about his daughter. With that being enough evidence that Alex had something to do with Anna's disappearance, he abducts the mentally handicapped boy, holding him prisoner and beating him to a bloody pulp in hopes that he'll confess. Loki has solved every case he's ever been assigned, so Alex is just a red herring, right?

Marking the Hollywood debut of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve after his 2010 film "Incendies" (the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film), "Prisoners" runs close to two and a half hours, but what a two-and-a-half-hour gripper it is. Villeneuve admirably lets the film simmer slowly, his directorial choices so effectively simple and quiet without the obtrusion of a thunderous, manipulative musical score, and as skilled as anything by David Fincher (one will be reminded of Fincher's own "Zodiac"). He sprinkles in religious iconography, with crucifixes hung from car rearview mirrors and characters reciting The Lord's Prayer, but nothing is addressed with a pretentious bludgeon to the head. Though released into the mainstream by Warner Bros. as a kidnap-revenge exploitation pic, "Prisoners" bravely pulls no punches in its depiction of upsetting, grimly disturbing subject matter. While it could have been a melodramatic revenge exploitation pic with nothing to chew on, Aaron Guzikowski's script is a lot more thoughtful than that as a morality play about raw, primitive human nature, the human condition, and vigilante justice refracted through a crime potboiler prism. Photographed with an arrestingly bleak mood by the reliable Roger Deakins, the film lulls the viewer into its chilly, rainy Pennsylvania milieu (subbed by Georgia). Even before the families are left broken, a pall of dread hangs over the very opening shot of a deer about to become dinner. Right before the girls go missing, the camera pushing into a tree outside the Birches' home is a subtle, foreboding touch. A scene in which Loki spots a strange man (David Dastmalchian) creeping at a nighttime candlelight vigil and chases him through the backyards of the neighborhood is eerie and suspenseful.

This is truly an actors' film in which everyone in the cast is great up and down the line because every character feels like a real, living person. By the sweat of his brow, Jackman acts the hell out of this, turning in his richest, most intense work as Keller. The character is established as a man who's a survivalist and prepared for anything, judging by his stocked, apocalypse-ready basement. Sure, Jackman has some showy moments of pain and fury that would be bait for an Oscar reel, but his emotions are never too histrionic, just perfectly pitched and controlled for the screen material that calls for his character to do anything to find his daughter (waterboarding the suspect wouldn't be out of the question). On the same level, Gyllenhaal is quietly compelling, his performance consisting of twitchy blinking and a simmering under the surface; he doesn't need an expository backstory to get Detective Loki's focus and frustration across. Given less screen time but enough meat to work with, Bello is truly heartbreaking as Grace, who copes with her loss in despair by self-medicating and sleeping the day away; Davis doesn't fail to bring a palpable gravitas to Nancy, especially upon facing her daughter's possible captor; and Howard believably takes the moral high road as Franklin, even though he's complicit in his friend torturing Alex, and wants his own daughter back as much as Keller. Last but definitely not least, Dano is so scarily good as Alex that he could become typecast as a child-like creep every time, and Leo proves once again that she can do anything, losing herself in each character she vividly creates, even as she's made up to look older and unglamorous.

Executing a potent emotional catharsis, Villeneuve seems to be in full control of the film he wanted to make, and then the final 15 minutes come and it takes a more conventional Hollywood Thriller approach with its turn of the screw and the mystery kidnapper having time to discuss his or her motives with a gun raised. Piecing together puzzle pieces of the mystery, which is strewn with snakes, mazes, a necklace, and an alcoholic priest with a secret in his basement, is less satisfying than what has come before, but within this story's context, none of it feels too preposterous or arbitrary, most of it is carefully thought-out, and the holes are few in hindsight. And, for viewers who like finite conclusions that spell out everything in their stories, this one might infuriate some but will add more to the conversation for those who favor ambiguity and irony. More unsettling than most horror films and grueling where it has to be, "Prisoners" asks a lot from the audience, not only to stomach it but to crack the case and ruminate its themes. With its powerhouse roster of class-act thespians all being at the top of their game here, the film is worthy of attention come awards season. Even so, it's a motion picture that may not be a happy time at the multiplex, but it needs to be seen. Also, if you have children, you will never let them out of your sight.

Grade: B +

Friday, September 20, 2013

No Boinking: Smart, surprisingly frank "Thanks For Sharing" does the work

Thanks For Sharing (2013)
112 min., rated R.

Glancing at the poster with three couples of recognizable actors, one would predict "Thanks For Sharing" to be yet another cutesy, glossy Hollywood Squares romantic comedy. However, aside from the radiant Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo smiling at one another, there's something more dramatically risky at work here, like the subject of sex addiction. Written and directed by half of the writing team of 2010's "The Kids Are All Right," the film is Stuart Blumberg's first hand at directing and rarely seems like a first-time effort. With a likably appealing cast and a smart, sensitive script (co-written by Matt Winston), "Thanks For Sharing" doesn't always soft-pedal its subject matter nor does it have all the answers when it comes to addicts and their carnal (and non-carnal) relationships.

Environmental consultant Adam (Ruffalo) can't walk down the Manhattan streets without getting an urge from a lingerie billboard or an attractive woman. Sober for five years, he's a recovering sex addict who's finally found self-control, thanks to his 12-step support group and sponsor Mike (Tim Robbins). When Mike encourages him to date, Adam soon meets Phoebe (Paltrow), a breast cancer survivor turned health nut, at a "bug party." She's up front to Adam about her cancer and her triathlon-competing nature, but can he keep his addiction in check while still being in a romantic relationship and will she accept it? Meanwhile, Mike himself is also a recovered alcoholic, working as a contractor but really making it his life's work to help other addicts. (To Mike, sex addiction is "like trying to quit crack when the pipe is attached to your body.") One night, he and his wife, Katie (Joely Richardson), think they have a home intruder, but it's just their son Danny (Patrick Fugit), who promises he's given up substance abuse. Can Mike make amends for his history with Danny and will Danny be different this time? Also in the group: Adam's sponsee Neil (Josh Gad), a perpetually sweaty ER doctor who's been court-ordered to join the program, is not only a compulsive eater but can't help himself from rubbing up against women in subways and rubbing one out to porn. He needs help more than anyone, especially when he keeps lying to everyone (and himself) that he's earned himself a 30-day sobriety button. Then Dede (Alecia Moore, a.k.a. pop singer Pink), an outspoken thirty-year-old salon hairdresser who's only ever been able to relate to men through sex since she was a young girl, starts attending meetings, and if Neil can help her, maybe he can help himself in the process.

Making a more commercially accessible movie about addiction (let alone sex addiction), writer-director Blumberg isn't opposed to respecting his subjects' problems with honesty and letting mostly natural humor derive from the situations, pulling off the tone more often than not. Many will fuss that "Thanks For Sharing" is specious and only scratches the surface of addiction, but with a script that doesn't curtail any of the three interwoven storylines, Blumberg manages to actually flesh out and dimensionalize his characters. His screenplay finds Adam, Michael, and Neil at different points in their addictions, gliding from subplot to subplot with cohesion. Adam has total self-control of his life by not owning a phone with Internet capabilities and having no TV or computer in his affluent apartment and, when staying in a hotel room on business, asking for the TV to be removed. It makes sense why he'd be tight-lipped about his disease with Phoebe before she finds his "sobriety medallion."

When certain characters fall off the wagon or come close to it anyway, there are too many crises all at once, but the performances help level out the story bumps. Ruffalo is affable and relatable as ever here as Adam, and when his strength cracks and he gives into temptation in one of the film's surprisingly frank and dark stretches, it feels organic rather than chained to the addiction-redemption formula. Paltrow is effervescent as Phoebe, a confident cancer survivor who doesn't know if she can handle another addict in her life again but owns up to her own flaws; she has her naggy moments, but believably so. Carrying over their nice chemistry from the 2003 stewardess comedy "View from the Top," these two have adorable, playful chemistry (and even some sexual heat) that it's a testament to them that their relationship feels real. As Mike, Robbins does some of his most impressive work in years, and Fugit does a lot with a little, pouring emotion into the role of Danny, who "white knuckles" his substance abuse withdrawals and tries bonding with his father over building a koi pond, even when this subplot momentarily bursts into melodrama. Reeling in the initial abrasiveness of Neil when his addiction and panic aren't being played up for laughs, Gad is terrific, and as a result, his platonic relationship with Dede is where the film's heart lies. Neil and Dede are there for one another, steering each other away from their perverse vices; the scene where she invites him to a non-sexual interpretative dancing event is lovely and liberating. In her acting debut, Moore is more than watchable; she's engaging and hugely charismatic. It'd be devaluing the rest of the film to say that one almost wishes it were all about Dede, who isn't only the strongest female character but the strongest character. Even if the performer playing Dede is Pink, Moore is a fresh face on screen and brightens every scene she's in. 

In the face of everything that it gets right, "Thanks For Sharing" is a little rough around the edges. The appearance of Becky (Emily Meade), one of Adam's past flings, makes sense of how much a disease Adam's addiction is, but their climactic role-playing foreplay is almost too big and jarring, and ends up forcing an overly neat, hug-it-out wrap-up. Also, Billy Bragg's slow a cappella song "Tender Comrade," though powerful on its own and meant to celebrate the close-knit camaraderie between addicts, clunkily and obtrusively plays during the film's final moments until the credits roll. Before those minor debits, the film has more nerve and recognizable humanity than expected. While we already have the tough, darkly grim wallow of 2011's "Shame," we can thank Stuart Blumberg and cast for this sympathetic, pleasantly lensed, comparatively lighter dramedy that no less makes a credible case for sex addiction being nothing to snicker about.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Baguettaboutit!: "Family" uneven but wickedly tasty lark

The Family (2013) 
110 min., rated R.

Severed fingers. Sheet-wrapped corpses in trunks. Fiery deaths. Beatings with baseball bats and tennis rackets. None of this sounds like fodder for a frothy family comedy, and when you bring in the context that the film's generic title alludes to a mob family, all bets are off. "The Family," directed by Luc Besson (he of 1994's "Léon: The Professional" and 1997's "The Fifth Element"), is an offbeat charcoal-black comedy that's brutal and amusing, sometimes even in the same scene, and while certainly uneven and perhaps never laugh-out-loud hilarious, it's a wickedly tasty lark.

After ratting out the Brooklyn Mafia, patriarch Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) enters the Witness Protection Program, packs his family's bags, and relocates them to a sleepy, charming village in Normandy, France. Assuming the alias name of Fred Blake, the former don and his family, including wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), 17-year-old daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and 14-year-old son Warren (John D'Leo), never stay in one place for very long, but they're going to have to adjust somehow. Unfortunately, old habits die hard and each family member has a short fuse. Regularly checked on by FBI Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), Giovanni/Fred decides to stay at home and write his memoirs, hopefully without blowing his cover, but if the plumber is going to give him the runaround or rip him off, the mob boss-turned-informant might have to break his legs. Meanwhile, Maggie confesses her deep, dark secrets to a horrified priest; Belle delivers the beatdown to touchy teenage boys and school-supplies thieves, and then pines after a college-aged math tutor; and Warren is like the godfather of his school, taking out bullies and co-owning a blackmarket cigarette business. Then, when the mafiosos learn of the Blakes' whereabouts, Normandy itself is walking on a razor's edge. Who will end up sleeping with the fishes?

Based on Tonino Benacquista's book "Malavita" and co-scripted by Besson and Michael Caleo, "The Family" initially doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. Fortunately, it toys with expectations in not being what everyone is expecting a broad, stale, patronizing farce. While it's still played for chuckles, the threat of the mob is more gravely serious. In the early going, the tonal shifts from the family trying to fit in to committing (and in some cases, fantasizing about) harsh, bloody acts of violence can be jarring and schizophrenic, sometimes leaving the viewer unsure of whether or not they should be laughing or cringing. However, Besson finds a facetious middle ground without making his fish-out-of-water mob comedy a spoof or a snarky exercise in nihilism, compensating for its lack of gradual development with darkly humored carnage and sharp performances. In one of the lighter moments, a scene where Giovanni agrees to attend a community film screening and discuss a certain "American classic" is a knowing, slyer-than-it-could-have-been highlight (executive producer Martin Scorsese even gets a shout-out). And since Besson will never be known for his comic timing or light touch without there being a body count, he lends some snap and style to the proceedings. Another plus is the integration of Gorillaz's song "Clint Eastwood" during the mob's siege on Normandy before the film culminates in a violent, expertly tense, and excitingly bad-ass finale with a near-suicide, pyrotechnics, a chase, and retribution.

At times, it seems like everyone in the cast is acting in a different movie, but they all make it work. By now, De Niro must like to just work, no matter the material (despite his most impressive work to date in "Silver Linings Playbook"). Here, as Giovanni, he can do this type of role in his sleep but makes him less of a cartoon than he's been content to play lately. As the matriach, the agelessly radiant Pfeiffer reaches a bit more, injecting some prickly edge, unexpected humor, and empathy to a role she knows well from playing a mobster's wife in both 1983's "Scarface" and 1988's "Married to the Mob." Also, it's a kick to see the wickedly beautiful Pfeiffer, with her still-fantastic high cheekbones and Brooklyn accent, ask which aisle the "peanut butta" is in, tell the American-bashing cashier to keep the change and then blow up a supermarket. Relative newcomer D'Leo has a wise-guy presence that's perfect for Warren, and "Glee's" Agron makes her strongest impression on screen. The camera loves her and she hits some honest notes playing Belle as a teenage girl who can very well take care of herself but won't deal well with first love when it's unrequited. Jones plays himself, a world-weary grump, and doesn't bring anything special to his underwritten and pretty superfluous part, although he makes a suitable straight man in a key moment with De Niro.

Despite the pedigree of De Niro and Pfeiffer getting American audiences into the theater, it's difficult to say what many will make of "The Family." It won't be for all tastes. It doesn't have a laugh track to remind you when to laugh. It doesn't always click as much as you'd like it to, either. A trifle in hindsight, "The Family" can be sinfully, morbidly funny and still manages to come out in the wash anyway.

Grade: B - 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Less Tiptoeing, More Traveling: "Insidious: Chapter 2" offers new/old, creepy/hokey goodies

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

2011's indelible, immersively creepy "Insidious" was like recently prolific filmmaker James Wan's anti-"Saw" (which put both he and co-writer Leigh Whannell on horror fans' radars). In exchange for gory crimson, the film favored old-world tension and ominous atmosphere, delivering jack-in-the-box scares and visual/aural humdingers in spades and adding up to what might be one of the most legitimately goosebump-inducing mainstream horror films in quite some time. Now, the tides have turned a bit with "Insidious: Chapter 2," which is solidly crafted for what it does but nowhere near the jittery heights of its predecessor or "The Conjuring," Wan's more classically scary frightfest from a couple months ago. It's a disappointment when no pieces of your armrest will be in between your fingernails after this one.

More of a direct continuation than a whole new story, "Insidious: Chapter 2" is exactly what it says on the tin, so a word of advice to those wandering into this without a pre-screening of "Insidious": don't. With that said, the story actually begins with a 1986-set opener wherein young medium Elise (Lindsay Seim with Lin Shaye's dubbed voice, "A League of Their Own"-style) first meets Lorraine Lambert (Jocelin Donahue, "The House of the Devil") to help her son Josh (Garrett Ryan), who's haunted by an old woman. Then it's back to where we put our bookmark. Before the cut-to-black, to-be-continued coda of the first film, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and wife Renai (Rose Byrne) reunited with their son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), after he traveled out of his physical body and was trapped in the spirit realm of "The Further." While Josh did rescue their son, something in a black wedding dress followed him back, strangling medium Elise (Lin Shaye). Now, Josh is still experiencing an out-of-body experience and might have had something to do with Elise's murder. He tells Renai that "nothing is going to hurt us again," but she's not exactly sold on her husband's assuredness after they, along with their other son and baby daughter, go to stay with grandma, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Renai starts hearing and seeing things again, as does Lorraine, and Dalton thinks something is definitely wrong with Daddy. Things are going to get worse before they get better.

For their second chapter, director Wan and co-writer Whannell definitely write themselves out of a corner in some cleverly nifty ways. Whereas "Insidious" combined astral projection with haunted-house tropes, "Insidious: Chapter 2" furthers the "Further" mythology with the kind of loopy metaphysical logic that might even make Freddy Krueger scratch his noggin, whilst turning the timeline of the first film into a knot and filling in some gaps. Though sprinkled with jump scares that are accompanied by instrumental stingers working overtime, the film really does feel like a later chapter, taking a while to pounce and actually gaining more stamina as it goes along. That doesn't mean it's bereft of spooky-fun goodiesa noisy light-up baby walker and a non-player piano both won't shut up, a "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"-singing woman in a white dress pops up around the house, and someone who's not his brother just wants to talk to Dalton with two cans and a stringbut it's more of a one-trick pony than before. The tone of this film is even more theatrical and borderline-campy than the first, especially when exploring the twisted backstory of its spectral threats. The shrieky caterwauling of the score might be even more akin to being snuck up on by a full-size orchestra. The narrative is also meandering and takes a while to settle into a steady rhythm. 

Without cashing it in, even on the heels of "The Conjuring," Wan is still very disciplined behind the camera. He knows how to play his audience like a fiddle, using every inch of his frame and throwing boogeymen and women out at us to give us a surprising fright. There's one surprising, seat-jumping "Mommie Dearest" moment, and a memory that Lorraine relives when she worked at the hospital "Our Lady of the Angels" and dealt with an elderly ICU patient leaves a more haunting impression than any cheap gimmick. Later moments in the visionary, fog-drenched world of "The Further" have some of that enveloping anticipation and fear that's mostly missing in the first half. The horror genre isn't always blessed with the most competent and grounded actors, but the "Insidious" films have been lucky, as no one shows a lack of commitment. Byrne and Hershey handle the familial support-system stuff and horror reactions with aplomb, while Wilson gets to ham it up a bit when he goes into Jack Torrance mode with wrinkles. Someway, somehow, Shaye returns as Elise and, though it won't be spoiled how, she's always a welcome presence. Her friend and former assistant, Carl (Steve Coulter), who uses lettered dice to contact spirits, is an okay addition, and those Mormon-dressed paranormal experts, Specs and Tucker (Angus Sampson, Whannell), are back to bring a sizably quirky, tongue-in-cheek comic relief that's ample without killing the mood. 

If we have to compare one to the other, the specters here are never as mind-burningly nightmarish as the fiendish red-and-black demon of the first, and, regrettably, the inspired use of Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" is never heard once. Too many of this one's scares involve some ghostly specter standing behind (or in front of) one of the living, too. But while the filmmakers' mistake of playing up the astral-projection angle so much gives way to this one jumping the proverbial shark, "Insidious: Chapter 2" isn't a total loss if all you want is a jolting, increasingly hokey cinematic funhouse that meets its goal to complete the full story. It won't be the most startling pre-Halloween scream this year, but horror fans and completists might dig it as an entertaining Friday night in a dark room on a giant screen.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Darn Epidermis: Lynn Shelton loses her touch a bit in bare "Touchy Feely"

Touchy Feely (2013)
89 min., rated R.

The Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg aren't the only ones traveling outside of the "mumblecore" world while still keeping alive their kind of observational, character-driven, improv-heavy films. Also proving her confidence as a DIY filmmaker who gives just enough material and even more freedom to her actors is writer-director Lynn Shelton, who makes what might be her first ensemble piece (her previous films, 2009's "Humpday" and 2012's "Your Sister's Sister," mainly juggled three characters). Tiny in scale with a lived-in feel, "Touchy Feely" has interesting ideas, flawed characters, and very fine actors, but never quite gels into a worthwhile whole. 

Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a Seattle-based New Age massage therapist in a relationship with bike owner Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Living in the house they grew up in, Abby's introverted brother Paul (Josh Pais) runs their late father's dental practice, a business that is not booming, and his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) works there as a hygienist. Triggered by Jesse asking her to move in with him, Abby develops a sudden aversion to human touch. (And no wonder she's repulsed, as Shelton gives us plenty of epidermal close-ups.) As Abby finds an operational hazard in her own profession, Paul becomes a curer for his patients with TMJ and, by word of mouth, starts getting more business and making people happy.

"Touchy Feely" is in an odd position. Perhaps because it's more scripted rather than 85% improvised, Shelton's latest feels like a real movie that pushes and pulls its characters around a plot and trades rushed montages for development. Little to no fault can be given to the performances, however. The perpetually lovely and intuitive DeWitt grounds everything she does with her earthy warmth and relatable presence, but Abby is made to do a lot of moping around instead of taking charge before she takes an LSD tablet that apparently cures everything. Pais is one of those actors who's been seen working in film and TV for a while but has never been given that one role. Here, as the standoffish Paul, the offbeat performer is awkwardly amusing and gently affecting. McNairy is such a watchable up-and-comer but gets little more to play than the scruffy, supportive boyfriend, and Page has tender moments, even in a weakly formed part as Jenny. As Abby's friend, Reiki therapist Bronwyn, Allison Janney is more subdued than her usual self and does wonderful work, but her cursory character really goes nowhere except off-screen. Ron Livingston (DeWitt's real-life husband) fits in here somewhere as Abby's first love, not entering the story until midstream.

Though it's nicely acted and moves along at a tight, natural clip, "Touchy Feely" is too uneven and thinly written when it should add up to more than an insignificant dramedy. Shelton might demonstrate how messy real life can be with a naturalistic approach in her films, but here, the happy resolution she winds up with feels unearned and not terribly satisfying, letting almost everyone off the hook too easily. It's a pity Shelton doesn't deepen her characters and their relationships with one another or follow through with her main hook in any interesting or meaningful way because all the skill and talent were there. Hopefully Shelton hasn't lost her touch already.

Grade: C +