Category: Indie Comedy


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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Absurdist humor is not easy to pull off. For every Wet Hot American Summer or The Big Lebowski that birth surrealist brilliance, you have a million half-baked comedies that think they can replace jokes with randomness and still derive real humor. What makes those two classic films (well Lebowski is a classic, WHAS is just a really funny cult film) work despite their seeming utter absurdity is that every absurd or “random” moment is actually a brilliantly executed gag. And less absurdist comedies lose sight of the power of gags. They don’t understand that everything in a film has to have some purpose (even if that purpose is to draw attention to its own meaninglessness, read: the entire plot of The Big Lebowski). And, sadly, for its first half, Martin & Orloff doesn’t understand the power of gags and actual humor which is ultimately a disappointment because it climaxes in a manic, nearly brilliant final act.

Although, similarly to Wet Hot American Summer, 2002’s Martin & Orloff features some hilarious minor turns from comedic actors before they became stars in their own right. And, much like Wet Hot American Summer (which was a project of sketch comedy group, The State), Martin & Orloff is the product of another prestigious comedy group, the Upright Citizens’ Brigade which was home at one or time or another to many of today’s most promising comedic writers/performers. But while Wet Hot American Summer suffered from its share of hit-or-miss jokes, it seems like an astonishingly even film in comparison to the much, much, much spottier Martin & Orloff. A lot of comedy is predicated on throwing out as many jokes as possible and hoping that enough stick to score ample laughs, but for nearly the first hour of this indie comedy, the laughs simply never arrive.

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After a failed suicide attempt, Martin Flam (Ian Roberts) seeks solace and advice from his new psychotherapist, Dr. Eric Orloff (Old School‘s Matt Walsh). Martin Flam designs mascot costumes for a marketing company and after a vague incident involving an evil Chinese food company, Martin is struggling both at work and in his personal life and he hopes Dr. Orloff will help him sort things out. Unfortunately for Martin, Dr. Orloff is even crazier than he is, and all of Orloff’s friends and patients are an order of magnitude higher on the crazy train. During Martin’s first session alone, Orloff ends it minutes into the meeting to play in a softball game that he forgot about, and he drags Martin with him where Martin proceeds to get his ass kicked when he’s forced to play umpire. And over the next day or two, Martin’s life spirals even further out of control as Orloff’s unconventional therapy methods seem to cause more harm than good.

I get what they were attempting in this film. Upright Citizens’ Brigade and the State and all of these other sketch comedy groups are born-and-bred on improv theater. And, Martin & Orloff is no exception to this. The whole film feels as if it was the product of improvisation. Even if there actually was a real script (I don’t know for sure), there were many moments where it seemed like Ian Roberts was trying to figure out what his line should be (that may be because he’s not a very good actor of either the dramatic or comedic variety). And that sense of improvisation explains why so much of the film feels tacked-on and without meaning or context. Most of the first half feels like little thought was put into what should happen and the jokes fail on that score. It isn’t until the final 30-40 minutes or so where any of the jokes finally begin to have any bite or actual humor, and some of the bits by the end become almost brilliant.

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When Martin & Orloff works, it nearly reaches a sense of madcap genius. A (astonishingly early) sequence has a strip club where some of the dancers themes are Goya or the Chuck Yeager biopic The Right Stuff. A recurring gag about a minor character’s comically large penis returns as a near deus ex machina in the film’s climax. The evil leader of the Chinese food conglomerate momentarily becomes a villain straight out of a John Woo film at the end. When the jokes are focused and aimed squarely at something, they work. And sadly that isn’t always the case. I can’t heartily recommend Martin & Orloff because the film is a chore and tedious for so long. But, if you’re patient and a fan of Wet Hot American Summer, the end doesn’t necessarily make things worthwhile but it becomes a laugh riot in its own right.

Final Score: C

 

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There are certain films that I have to watch a couple of times before I realize how brilliant they are. It wasn’t until my second or third viewing that I began to truly appreciate how great The Big Lebowski or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were. But, sometimes, there are films I simply fall in love with on first sight. They speak to me with such resonance and deeper meaning that they become a window in to my own life. Chasing Amy and Annie Hall are the classic examples there. While Marc Webb’s (The Amazing Spider-Man) 2009 directorial debut may not quite reach the zenith of one of the greatest films of all time as Annie Hall does it has certainly earned its moniker as the millennial generations response to that classic film. I’ve watched the film more than a dozen times since it was first released and with each subsequent viewing I find something to love about this modern classic.

What separates (500) Days of Summer from the rest of its romantic comedy brethren is what separated Chasing Amy and Annie Hall from their peers. Though the film is nominally a comedy and scores plenty of laughs, (500) Days of Summer is as much a drama about the inherent silliness and psychological danger of intense romantic commitments and putting “dream girls” on a pedestal as it is any type of typical comedy. It is a serious treatment of the last hurrah of “young love” before we realize that maybe the world doesn’t work the way we’ve wanted it to. It earns its comparisons to Annie Hall through a strikingly non-linear structure and an almost total lack of a fourth wall, but it is in its grown-up and honest portrayal of modern romance that (500) Days of Summer makes its most momentous impact.

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Told over the course of (you guessed it) 500 days, the film is the type of total portrayal of a relationship that is hardly ever seen in your typical rom-com. It chronicles the early attraction, the courtship, the break-up (trust me it’s not a spoiler), and the emotional fall-out of a tough break-up. Tom Hanson (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, idealistic romantic stuck working in a dead-end job writing greeting cards in L.A. because he’s too scared to pursue his real passion of architecture. Tom believes in “true love” and destiny which can be blamed (to quote the film) “on an early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” And when the effervescent but complex Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) stumbles into his life, Tom thinks he has found the one. But, once again to quote the film, “This is a story of boy meets girl but this is not a love story.”

Summer and Tom are clearly a match from the first moment that Summer compliments Tom on his fandom of the Smiths as “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” plays on his headphones in a shared elevator ride. And though Summer is very much attracted to Tom, Summer is not looking for a real relationship. She believes in being young and casual and not tying oneself down with stifling commitments. Tom tries to go along with Summer’s wishes to keep things slow, but Summer can be the master of mixed signals, and whether either one liked it or not, their relationship begins to show signs of the messy emotional entanglements Summer so desperately wanted to avoid. And when Tom’s intense feelings for Summer aren’t reciprocated equally, it’s only a matter of time until their magical relationship comes crashing to a destructive end.

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Before my viewing of this film again on Friday night (with the same friend that I watched Primer with; I mostly watched the film cause he had never seen it), I hadn’t watched the movie in over a year and a half after I watched it with a girl that I was… dating? It was complicated in the same way that Tom and Summer’s relationship was. It was a (unknown at the time) depressingly prescient viewing of the film as our courtship would play out almost to the tee the way the movie played out with me as Tom and her as Summer (though I was thankfully never as hopelessly lovestruck as Tom… Thank God). And as much as I appreciated the themes of this film even before I lived out a real-life version of its plot, this particular viewing was especially emotionally brutal as I could finally relate to just how honest and richly detailed (500) Days of Summer‘s portrayal of unreciprocated romance.

It also doesn’t hurt the film that (500) Days of Summer has a fully realized and masterfully achieved aesthetic vision guiding its also excellent storytelling. If the movie is iconic for any reason whatsoever (outside of its intense fandom), it’s the general recognition that it has one of the greatest soundtracks of the last twenty years. Along with Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rushmore, I can’t name many films with a better integrated soundtrack.  There’s a sequence in the film where Regina Spektor’s “Hero” is being played that is possibly one of my 10 favorite scenes in any film ever where Tom’s expectations of the events of a party Summer is throwing are shown simultaneously with what really happens to positively brutal effect. And who can forget the glorious use of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams” for a fourth-wall shattering sequence after Summer and Tom sleep together for the first time.

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But the film’s aesthetic strengths are more than just its brilliant soundtrack (a perfect mix of modern indie pop and classic British pop like the Smiths). The friend I watched the film with is a sucker for great style in terms of clothing, and he consistently remarked on how the film’s fashion aesthetic was practically perfect. And, alongside Tom Ford’s A Single Man (a film that I watched last night with the same friend), I would be hard-pressed to name a film that labors such an almost fetishistic effort into presenting the best of fashion (in this film’s case, modern fashion as opposed to A Single Man‘s 60s fashion). And, the visual beauty goes beyond the clothing. The movie is gorgeously shot. And the cinematography accurately mimics Tom’s state of mind so that the film is stunningly beautiful when he’s happy and dark and miserable when he’s sad. Not to mention the fact that the movie finds itself capable of mimicking multiple different cinematic styles when it engages in its fourth-wall leaning fantasy sequences (i.e. Bergman and Fellini references).

And of course, the performances from the two leads are sublime. Alongside his breakthrough turn in Brick, this was one of the movies that really shot Joseph Gordon-Levitt into the mainstream consciousness. I hate to belabor my Annie Hall comparisons but if you took Woody Allen’s performance as Alvy Singer but gave Woody actual dramatic chops, you’d have an idea of what to expect from JGL in this film. It’s one of the strongest romantic comedy performances in recent memory, and the way that he makes you feel Tom’s psychological torment is astounding. Zooey is also phenomenal. Jess from New Girl and Summer from this (her two most high-profile roles) couldn’t be more different, and in many ways, Summer is meant to be a subversion of the typical Zooey “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype. She shows a modern woman with complexity and depth that you never see in modern rom-coms and it must be commended.

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I’m hungry and need to eat lunch so I’ll draw this review to a close. If you can’t tell, I adore (500) Days of Summer. Though I don’t think it’s necessarily one of the greatest films ever made (as evidenced by the score I’m about to give it instead of an “A+”), it is, without question, one of my favorite films of the last 10 years. Without fail, I force every single one of my friends to watch this film that haven’t seen it already. I don’t even know if I can name any real substantive flaws with the movie off the top of my head. The movie has developed an odd hatedom over the last couple of years which I mostly chalk up to hype backlash and a general fatigue of Zooey Deschanel. You shouldn’t let that deter you from watching this true modern classic of the romantic-comedy genre. It’s a beautiful and important look at modern relationships.

Final Score: A

 

Gayby

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Well, I have new go-to example of how a terrible movie title (and a bland and unappealing plot description) can ward me away from watching a movie that is, in reality, absolutely delightful. I have a special interest in LGBT fiction (I mean, A Single Man is one of my favorite films of the last five years), but when your film is called Gayby and it’s about a straight woman and a gay man trying to have a baby together, my mind starts to wonder somewhere along the way. I can admit when I’m wrong though, because Gayby is a comedic breath of fresh air. A fast-talking, constantly witty that would have been right at home with the classic screwball comedies (though clearly not with its subject matter), Gayby marks Jonathan Lisecki as a smart and fresh new voice in indie comedy and his film is a beautiful display of modern friendship and modern dating.

The basic plot description of the film is deceptive and hides the many layers running throughout this film. Jenn (Jenn Harris) is a thirty-something yoga instructor who realizes her biological clock is ticking when she hears about her younger sister’s plans to adopt a child. Matt (Matthew Wilkas) is a thirty-something comic book store clerk and aspiring graphic novelist who hasn’t been in a serious relationship in six months after the dissolution of his seven year last relationship, and all of the men he meets won’t respect his physical boundaries. One day, Jenn texts Matt asking if they want to have a baby together like they’ve talked about since college, and in a moment of desperation and loneliness for both of them, Matt agrees. There’s only one catch. Jenn wants to make the baby the old-fashioned way. She wants Matt to have sex with her.

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That turns out to be one of the more minor obstacles in the film. With a little self-revving of his own engines, Matt can get himself to the point where he can attempt to inseminate Jenn though their sex is about as unsexy as you can get. And as the pair are trying to conceive a baby, they’re also trying to put their own shambled lives back together. Jenn wants respect at her yoga clinic where her only friend is her other gay best friend, Jamie. With some prodding from his own gay best friend, Nelson (director Jonathan Lisecki), Matt finally gets his feet back in the dating game when he starts seeing a nerdy father and divorcee who more or less comes out to Matt in a passionate moment in the comic book store. But, sex complicates every relationship, and Matt and Jenn’s path to parenthood is as rocky as their screwed-up lives.

Matthew Wilkas is a natural performer (he’s currently in the Broadway Spiderman musical) and bears an absolutely freakish resemblance to Michael C. Hall back on his Six Feet Under days. It was kind of uncanny. When at all possible, the Wilkas character subverts practically any and all homosexual stereotypes (he’s neither a twink or a bear). He’s more like what Jack called in one episode of Will & Grace, the “hot gay nerd.” A lot of the dramatic weight of the film rests on his shoulders, but he also delivers plenty of great one-liners. Jenn Harris is less capable of carrying the dramatic scenes, but when she lets loose either in a hilarious yoga lesson where she’s hopped up on a libido-enhancing herbal medicine or calling herself a “hag from birth,” she scores several of the film’s biggest laughs.

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My only complaint about the film is that it seemed like too many of the gay characters fit into the overly feminine, campy Jack McFarland territory, but since it was written and directed and performed by one of the me in that camp, it wasn’t malicious or stereotyping. I just wanted to see more characters along the Matt line. If you have even the slightest patience for (i.e. you’re not a homophobe) and interest in LGBT storytelling, you should watch Gayby. It’s currently on Netflix instant, and it was thoroughly delightful. It’s definitely a specifically New York hipster LGBT comedy, so it probably appeals to a pretty niche audience. I mean, there’s an Antony and the Johnson‘s cover of “Crazy in Love” in the film if that tells you anything. But, if you fit into the niche the movie will work for, it’s worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. After I put up this review, I will have now seen and reviewed all of this year’s Best Picture nominees except for Amour which still doesn’t even have a release date on Netflix yet. The Michael Haneke directed foreign film may take a while to make it to our shores in DVD/Blu-Ray form. Anyways, that’s exciting so I can finally move back to my core list of films which I’m still in the process of remaking.)

Perhaps because it is the most easily commercialized and most consistently mass-produced genre of film this side of low-budget horror movies, it’s real easy to cast aside most romantic comedies out of hand. With cookie-cutter plots, emotionally vapid stars, and diabetes-inducing sweetness, rom-coms are an easy contender for one of the worst film genres. Which is sort of funny when I consider that two of my top three films of all time are romantic comedies (Annie Hall and Chasing Amy). So, leave it to David O. Russell (whose The Fighter I found almost uniformly over-rated barring the performances) to provide one of the best romantic comedies in years with the darkly comic and subversive Silver Linings Playbook.

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Part of me is suspicious of how much I enjoy Silver Linings Playbook. Because despite the pitch black comedy trimmings, the film is still structured very much like a conventional romantic comedy. It’s only in the details where David O. Russell (and the author of the book the film is based on) finds ways to distinguish his tale. But, the details are so intimate and impressive that you almost forget the familiar story structure. And in a film where the lead performances are as electric as this one, it’s easy to forgive yourself for just wanting to bask in the glow of what will certainly be remembered as career-defining roles (not simply because Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for this film).

After spending eight months in a mental hospital for nearly beating a man to death who was sleeping with his wife, Pat Solitano (Wet Hot American Summer‘s Bradley Cooper) returns home to live with his parents in Philadelphia. Determined to win back his wife’s love (despite a restraining order), Pat tries to get in shape and turn his life around with the help of his dad (The Godfather: Part II‘s Robert De Niro) and mom. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, life itself is a struggle for Pat and his anger, and all it takes to set him off in to a rage some nights is disappointment in the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

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One night, at a friend’s dinner, Pat meets Tiffany Maxwell (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence), a widow whose sister is close friends with Pat’s ex-wife. Tiffany has her own mental problems and after suffering from severe depression after the death of her husband, Tiffany began sleeping with nearly any person she could just to feel something. Tiffany promises to give Pat’s wife a letter if he’ll help her enter a dancing competition. And so, as these two become closer and learn to deal with their anger and depression and mood swings together, the question becomes whether Pat will get back with his ex-wife or if he’ll find love in the arms of the wounded Tiffany.

Jennifer Lawrence is 22 years old. She is a full year younger than I am. Yet, she has now been nominated for two Oscars and won one for this film (making her the second youngest Best Actress winner behind Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God). She’s starred in two of the biggest summer blockbusters of this decade (The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class). Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t simply set herself up to be one of the greatest actors of her generation. She is easily the best actress of her peer group. If I thought she was great in Winter’s Bone, I was not prepared for the tour-de-force performance she brought to bear in this movie.

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Her performance as Tiffany in this film is the kind of role most actresses spend their entire career trying to land. The fact that she’s playing a character with such depth and emotional complexity at the age of 22 is just astounding beyond words. Jennifer Lawrence should only get more talented as she ages, and I expect her to rack up a Meryl Streep-esque career before it’s all said and done. Tiffany is a contradictory, explosive, deeply hurt woman who is barely hanging on by a thread, and with every second she spends on screen, Jennifer Lawrence makes you feel her pain, joy, and love. Congratulations Oscars. You actually got this one right.

And Bradley Cooper… I was almost at a loss for words when the film ended. I did not think Bradley Cooper was a good actor (except for his awesome work on Alias), let alone a great one before watching this movie. I literally could not have been more wrong. This may sound crazy, but Bradley Cooper was so much more interesting in this role than Daniel Day-Lewis was in Lincoln (though I still think Joaquin Phoenix should have won for The Master). Bradley Cooper committed so much to the craziness of Pat that it became frightening in some of the more intense scenes. Maybe this performance was a flash in the pan and a fluke, but I pray that it’s a sign of great things to come from Mr. Cooper.

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It also doesn’t hurt that Robert De Niro gives what is arguably his finest performance since Goodfellas as Pat’s obsessive compulsive father. It becomes clear rather quickly that Pat Sr. has just as many anger problems as his son (with a serious OCD problem thrown in for good measure and a gambling addiction), and Silver Linings Playbook gives De Niro a chance to flex his acting muscles that he hasn’t been using after a decade of stale comedies. Chris Tucker is also surprisingly excellent as a fellow patient from Pat’s mental institution who is always escaping early with hare-brained excuses and plots.

Silver Linings Playbook‘s willingness to deal so frankly with mental illness and depression and anger is beyond refreshing. Though the film is a comedy (and my sister and I found ourselves laughing hysterically during the movie), the movie doesn’t make light of Pat’s bipolar disorder or Tiffany’s acting out. When it occurs, it is tragic and scary and real. And through this lens of actual human frailty, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds where most other rom-coms fail by presenting two realistic, flawed heroes to guide us through a tale of growth and redemption. That the film still manages to be hilarious is a testament to just how strong the writing is.

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If you pushed me to try and find flaws in the movie (and the reason I’m giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” trust me it was close), I would have to say that perhaps the ending feels a tad bit rushed and that the visual direction of the film is a little stale. Otherwise, Silver Linings Playbook has even eclipsed the wonderful Life of Pi as my favorite of the Best Picture nominees of 2012. For fans of great acting, great storytelling, and great romance, Silver Linings Playbook has it all. And, I imagine it will be a couple years before another romantic comedy this great rolls around.

Final Score: A

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(A quick aside before my review. I watched this movie Thursday before I went to bed. and then I went to a Fleetwood Mac concert on Friday and I worked open to close shifts Saturday and Sunday. I’ve only just now had a chance to sit down and write this review. I also have to review Django Unchained which I watched at my dad’s when I got home from work Saturday (and then immediately went to bed after it ended. So, if this particular review seems short, it’s only because I want to save my energy for the more complex Django.)

Despite his often sophomoric sense of humor, Kevin Smith is one of my favorite writer/directors of all time. Obviously, I don’t actually think he’s one of the best, but his particular brand of pop-culture humor and existential crises speaks to me on a fairly intense level. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Chasing Amy is my third favorite film of all time (behind Annie Hall and Pulp Fiction). Beneath the dick jokes and the literal shit humor (I’m looking at you, “chocolate pretzel” scene from Mallrats), Kevin Smith usually has something insightful to say about the rat race, love, and coming to terms with our own possibilities. 12 years is a really long time to wait for a sequel, but Kevin Smith’s long-anticipated follow-up to Clerks may not have the freshness and sense of wonder it had a decade ago, but Clerks II makes up for it with a surprisingly touching tale of male friendship that had me in tears after my first viewing.

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Taking place over a decade after the original film, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall’s (Jeff Anderson) lives are different but, at the same time, not much has changed at all. The Quick Stop has burned down and the duo have moved on to the only thing lower on the service industry totem pole than retail. They now work in fast food at a Mooby’s Burger (a chain Dogma fans should recognize). The movie begins on Dante’s last day before he moves to Florida with his fiancee to start a new life and leave Randall behind. Dante doesn’t really love his girlfriend though; in fact, his true feelings lie with his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson), who he once had a one night stand with. As the clock ticks down to Dante’s last day in Jersey, Randall begins to truly feel the loss of his best friend, and Dante must choose if he should do what society wants or live his life the way that will that make him happiest.

Clearly, Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson aren’t great actors. It’s why we haven’t seen them in many films outside of the View Askewniverse (the interconnected world where all of Kevin Smith’s Jersey films take place), but I could never imagine another pair playing Randall and Dante. Perhaps, they simply aren’t playing characters too far removed from themselves prior to the success of Clerks, but Brian O’Halloran in particular captures the weariness that comes with working in the service fields (I’ve only been doing it for three years in two different jobs and it already makes me hate people). If he seemed beat down and cynical in Clerks, by Clerks II, he’s turned into almost a shell of his former shelf. And, props must be giving to Jeff Anderson for his willingness to really sell the filth and vulgarity that is Randall, but when he’s required to have his big emotional climax, Anderson nails the basic humanity of the character.

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The film’s best performance though was arguably Rosario Dawson whose smart and put-together Becky is a side of low-wage life you rarely see, the person who gets trapped and never allowed to escape despite their talents. She too has her own weariness and concerns (as you find out throughout the film), and Rosario’s natural charm made it easy to see why Dante might be willing to give up his whole life for a girl like her. And the film, in true Kevin Smith fashion, had a bevy of wonderful supporting performances. Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee, Ben Affleck, and others all make appearances, and even Jason Mewes seems like he has more to do than usual as the always obnoxious (but weirdly funny) Jay.

Like I said, I also want to review Django Unchained tonight (and I see that review eclipsing 1500 words or so) so let me end this review on a couple of notes. Clerks II is hilarious. I’ve seen this film at least a dozen times, and I still laughed my ass of the entire run time of the film. But, in addition to its deliciously low-brow sensibilities (all of the scenes where Randall tortures his Christian, nerdy coworker Elias spring to mind), Clerks II has the most heart of any Kevin Smith film whose name isn’t Chasing Amy. It’s the rare film where you may literally laugh and cry. Apparently, Kevin Smith is at work on a Clerks 3, and if it ever sees the light of day, I can only hope it’s half as good as this now classic 2000s comedy.

Final Score: A-

 

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A lot of really talented directors/writers have a hard time finding a balance between endearingly quirky and artificially eccentric. As much as I love Wes Anderson films, it often feels like Anderson is trying too hard to make his characters seem original by making them insufferably and unrealistically off-beat. Sometimes it works, Rushmore; sometimes it doesn’t, Moonrise Kingdom (though that film has its brilliant moments as well). Juno suffered from the same problem because as realistic as Juno’s problems are, there are no actual teenage girls that talked like her. At least, there weren’t until that film came out and inspired girls to speak like Ellen Page. Jared Hess’s breakout directorial debut, Napoleon Dynamite, has become a bit of a modern cult classic, but I have always found it to be so bad that it’s nearly unwatchable and that Hess’s characters are almost all artificially eccentric and not in the slightest endearingly quirky.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a mouth-breathing, chronic-lying nerd with a penchant for drawing pencil doodles of fictional creatures. He lives at home with his grandmother and his 32-year old, effeminate brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Kip spends his day chatting on line with his internet girlfriend Lafanda, whose reality is a legitimate question for most of the film. Napoleon gets bullied at school and his only two friends are transfer student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and shy Deb (Big Love‘s Tina Majorino). When Napoleon’s grandmother is in a dune buggy accident, his creepy uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is sent to look after him and Kip. Rico longs for his glory days on the football field in high school (although the film implies that he was only a backup quarterback), and his endless schemes to make money and glory only serve to nearly ruin Napoleon’s life at every turn.

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Jon Heder gives arguably one of the worst lead performances thus far for this blog. I could go back and look at every single movie I’ve reviewed (I probably won’t), but I imagine I would be hard-pressed to find a more unbelievable and grating performance than his. Anyone who’s seen Gentleman Broncos knows that subtlety isn’t the strong suit of any part of any Jared Hess film, and he was unable to coax a life-like performance from the wooden and slack-jawed Jon Heder. No one on this actual planet talks like Napoleon. You consistently feel like you’re watching a performance in a student film where they’re trying to give an example of how to be as awful as humanly possible in a performance. And the actors playing Kip and Pedro are not remotely any better.

The only two performances in the film that make the acting in the movie bearable are Tina Majorino as Deb and Jon Gries as Uncle Rico. I remember when I first watched this film that I thought Tina Majorino gave the worst performance of the whole movie. Now, I can easily say it was the best. Whereas Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Aaron Ruell turn awkwardness into camp and stiff artificiality, Tina Majorino makes Deb seem like the shy but sensitive girl we all knew in high school. She just dives right into the part and doesn’t hold back. In fact, had the film been about Deb, it might have actually been a decent film. And Jon Gries becomes one of the only consistent sources of humor in the film as Uncle Rico. He’s the only actor with a real sense of comic timing, and he finds the creepiness and despair that both lie at the heart of Rico.

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I’ll keep this review short because I simply don’t like this movie, and nothing I can say about it will persuade its legions of fans that it’s unwatchable drivel. Let me then close with this. Some films are so bad that they’re brilliant. Rocky Horror Picture Show is objectively an awful movie, but the fun and camp at it’s heart makes it a bizarre classic. Jared Hess tries to make a film that is so bad it’s great with Napoleon Dynamite, but instead, the movie remains almost entirely so bad that it’s a trainwreck. The film has its moments that made me laugh but I could count them on one hand, and the one truly great sequence (Napoleon’s final dance number) isn’t enough to make up for an hour and a half of a film that is too painfully awkward to watch and not in that good Freaks and Geeks type of way.

Final Score: C-

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During one of the countless intellectual interludes in My Dinner With Andre, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory debate about the purpose of art. Wally Shawn, a struggling playwright, feels that art, particularly the theatre, should capture the pain and heartbreak of life in honest detail. Andre Gregory, an unstable eccentric, feels that art should “take us to Mount Everest.” That it should transcend the pain that we all feel and show us a path to our better selves and out better futures. I don’t think that either man is entirely right and that superb art from both schools of thought has been continually released for much of man’s existence. Whether you want the blunt, harsh fury of Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth or David Simon’s The Wire or you prefer the fantastical uplift of The Tree of Life, someone is making a great work of art that suits your needs.

I bring that conversation from My Dinner with Andre up not because I just reviewed the film (though that moment stuck more than almost any other) but because the second directorial feature from How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor seems to have found the magical balance between the honest and the transcendent. Josh Radnor made his directing mark with the charming if muddled HappyThankYouMorePlease, but nothing from that film or his television work could have prepared me for the emotional powerhouse of his latest film, Liberal Arts. For fans of movies like Garden State or (500) Days of Summer, Liberal Arts isn’t simply an easy film to recommend. It is an absolutely must-watch film from a young writer/director who is proving himself to be one of the freshest voices in indie film-making if he can keep this type of quality up.

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Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) is a college admissions counselor in his mid-30s yearning to recapture the magic and endless possibilities of his own college days. When his favorite (well, second favorite) college professor (Six Feet Under‘s Richard Jenkins) retires and asks Jesse to speak at his retirement party, Jesse immediately grabs the opportunity to return to his alma mater and bask in the nostalgia of his youth. At a dinner with his professor’s friends, Jesse befriends their 19 year old daughter, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson). Jesse has to return to the real world in New York City, but he begins a correspondence with the Ohio-bound Zibby about classical music and it isn’t long before the seeds of romance form. But is their connection simply an attempt by Jesse to bottle the magic of being young or is it something real? And can his conscience handle the moral dilemmas that arise when you date someone 16 years your junior.

Josh Radnor has a tendency to oversell a bit on How I Met Your Mother, but it’s a network sitcom. I guess it’s to be expected. But much like HappyThankYouMorePlease, Liberal Arts affords Radnor the opportunity to prove how talented and multifaceted of an actor that he truly is. Jesse is a complex figure. Sensitive, pretentious, effete, nostalgic, full of regret, still hopeful, love-struck, morally conflicted, lost. Radnor slips into all of these forms with a stunning ease. Though there are certainly similarities between Jesse and Ted Mosby and Sam Wexler, the nuance and subtlety of Radnor’s performance just radiate a talent that Radnor’s been suppressing on network TV for almost ten years now (and I’m a huge How I Met Your Mother fan making that complaint). If more people noticed his skills, he could be a big star.

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Elizabeth Olson garnered a lot of buzz in 2011 for her fearless performance in Martha Marcy Maylene, a film I’ve yet to see but which is on my list for this blog. Now, it’s easy to see why. She is a young actress with a maturity and presence beyond her years which made her a perfect fit for the precocious and sagely Zibby. Although Zibby possesses a maturity and perspective that is at least ten years ahead of where she should be in life, Olson still gives the character the tenderness and raw vulnerability that any girl who’s not yet twenty would have particularly as her romance with Jesse hits rough spots. Proving herself to be more talented than both of her more famous sisters combined (though lets face it; what was the last thing you heard about Mary Kate and Ashley), Liberal Arts is another notch in the quickly growing belt of a young starlet that everyone should keep their eyes on.

And the film has a bevy of supporting players buoying the two lead stars. Richard Jenkins turns a heartbreaking performance as the college professor who thinks he wants out of the academics game only to realize too late that the emptiness of retirement and his own impending mortality is more than he cares to face. Juno‘s Allison Janney provides one of the film’s funniest moments as well as one of its most revelatory scenes as an old professor of Jesse’s who Jesse maintained an infatuation with even fifteen years after college ended. John Magaro also rends the heart as a David Foster Wallace loving nerd whose hellish college experience was the antithesis of Jesse’s collegiate bliss and strikes up a fruitful friendship with Jesse. And certainly not least, Zac Efron steals every second he’s on screen as the hippie sage Nat who helps the confused Jesse find his center.

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But above the wonderful performances, it was Radnor’s insightful script and sensitive directing that took Liberal Arts to the rank of a new modern indie classic. It’s the rare film that captures something inherently true about love and growing up while still showing honest (the most important word in this sentence) hope that we can get our acts together and find the happiness we seek. Liberal Arts understands the way we romanticize our youth. It understands how that is a byproduct of getting older but while we’re young, we feel our own set of terrors and doubts. It recognizes the instant charm of attraction and innocent romance but then subverts the holy hell out of every “older man dates younger girl” story you’ve ever seen. The film isn’t afraid to break your heart but by the end of the movie, Radnor finds the truth and beauty past the pain and uncertainty and you feel hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we can reach the Everest that Andre Gregory spoke of.

Watch this film. If you ignore the rest of my ramblings in this review, walk away with that bit of advice. I watched the film last night when I got home from a long, stressful day of work, and for 97 minutes, I escaped my own problems and my own neuroses and lost myself in the beautiful tale that Josh Radnor wove. If this is the sign of what the rest of Josh Radnor’s writing and directing career is going to look like, I am excited because Radnor has great things in his future. For everyone who has loved and who has longed for an emotional/intelelctual/romantic fulfillment that never seems to arive, Liberal Arts is the movie for you.

Final Score: A

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(A quick prelude before the actual review begins. I’M BACK! So, I’ve been on a hiatus since early November. Long time readers/friends in real life know that I’ve been working on a screenplay. I’ve written five, count ’em, five drafts of my original screenplay Aftertaste. I’ve plotted out scene-by-scene the direction of two other screenplays and written about 30 pages of the actual script of another. I’ve read Syd Field’s book on screenwriting and just generally, I’ve been in the midst of a creative renaissance. It’s been really fantastic. So take into account all of the writing I’ve been doing, the fact that I had finals at the beginning of December and I’ve spent the last month and a half as the assistant manager at my local FYE working 30-40 hours a week, it’s easy to see why I’ve been too busy to update this blog. But, I have THREE consecutive days off in a row from work for the first time in what feels like an eternity, so I thought I’d return to the hobby that got me my internship in NYC last spring as well as the hobby that inspired me to write my screenplay in the first place. I’m back everybody!)

Barry Levinson’s Diner is one of the great under-appreciated coming of age films of all time. It didn’t gloss over the awkward pains and embarrassments of growing up or try to tidy up the ambiguities we face as we enter the real world. With subtlety and a terrific cast, it succeeded in delivering a realism that almost no other coming-of-age tale could hope to equal. 1994’s Reality Bites, directed by Ben Stiller, has a reputation as being the ultimate Gen-X coming of age film and while it has moments of almost heart-breaking veracity and is supported by a stellar cast at the top of their game, the film at times comes off like a blatant hodge-podge of 90s hot-button issues.

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The mid-90s was the end of an era. Grunge was beginning its slow descent into being corporate sell-outs and only a few years removed from post-grunge atrocities like Nickelback and Creed. Generations of teenagers who had rejected the “Generation Me” mindset of their Reaganite parents were about to learn the cold hard truth that their own counterculture would eventually have to grow up. You can fight the power as long as you want but eventually, someday, somebody’s going to have to pay the bills. In the angst-fueled Reality Bites, a small group of friends face the post-college world and come to terms with becoming an adult in their own painful ways.

College valedictorian Leilana Pierce (The Age of Innocence‘s Winona Ryder) thinks she’s on the right track. An aspiring documentary film-maker, she’s a production assistant on a popular television talk show. She’s beginning a healthy relationship with TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller), and her parents just gave her a BMW. But when her slacker best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), who may also be in love with her, moves in with Leilana and her friend Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), Troy and Leilana’s complicated history and Leilana’s unexpected unemployment force everyone in their circle of friends to grow up more quickly than they expected.

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Similar to Diner, much of the film’s appeal can be attributed to the movie’s strong cast. As terrible as this may be to say, Ben Stiller’s acting career likely peaked with this performance as the sensitive and mature but still screwed up Michael. Winona Ryder’s career performances fluctuate from brilliant (Heathers) to awful (The Age of Innocence) but she was at her best here as the ambitious, bitchy, vulnerable, and lovelorn Leilana. It was a demanding role which required her to vascillate between sympathetic audience surrogate and angsty, whiny brat at the drop of the hat and she pulled it off.

The real star of the film though was the intense and naturalistic performance of Ethan Hawke. Although the writing of the Troy character occasionally bordered on ridiculous and some of his actual dialogue was absurd, Hawke’s mesmerizing performance made you forget any flaws with the writing. With his piercing stare and James Dean wounded vulnerability, Hawke turned this performance into the stepping stone for the rest of his star career although said star has been on the wane lately. It’s a shame Hawke never become a true top-tier talent.

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The film’s writing doesn’t always due justice to the film’s wonderful cast. Although the angsty, self-centered narcissism of the film’s cast may have seemed authentic and gripping in the mid-90s, it makes the cast seem remarkably unlikeable for most of the film and not necessarily in interesting ways. And while Leilana’s characterization seems sufficiently 3-dimensional, the supporting players often act in ways that are utterly unbelievable and the film can never seem to get a tag on what role they want Troy to inhabit. That may have been the intention but at times, it just makes the film seem muddled.

And on that same note, the film’s use of “facing the camera” vignettes (which are part of Leilana’s in-universe documentary) tell parts of the story to directly when a more subtle approach would have been affective. The film isn’t afraid to “tell” the audience the story it wants to portray rather than showing it. When the film tackles themes like sexuality and finding a meaningful job or alienation, it does them well but Reality Bites is just as likely to have a character make some type of bland platitude directly into the camera and insult the audience’s intelligence in the process.

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Minor complaints aside, Reality Bites is still a wonderfully charming indie romance and it’s easy to see why so many people that were teenagers in the 1990s find it so meaningful. My screenplay Aftertaste actually shares many thematic similarities to Reality Bites and could almost have the exact same logline. So, this film gave me some ideas about some pitfalls that I need to avoid in my own film as I continue to write more drafts of Aftertaste in the hope of selling it. If you’re a fan of indie coming of age films, Reality Bites might not be perfect, but it’s a genuine and deeply enjoyable gem from the indie film’s heyday.

Final Score: B+

 

(Quick side note. I promised you all I’m on a streak. Somehow, Netflix sent me 4 instead of my usual 3 DVDs, and they’re all films that I’m very excited to watch/think have the potential to be really good or great. This film was one of them. It was really good. Plus, I just bought Cabin in the Woods on blu-ray. It’s Joss Whedon. How can it not be good? We shall see though. We shall see. I’m loving this blog right now though.)

A lot of films are victims of inaccurate publicity. Brokeback Mountain is so much more than the “gay cowboy” movie. Watchmen had much grander psychological motivations than simply being another action-fueled superhero movie (although it still had plenty of action). Magic Mike was a tragic examination of the death of the American dream and a reverse-look at sexual objectification. It wasn’t just a stripper movie. When I first heard about 2007’s indie “comedy” Lars and the Real Girl, I thought it was going to be a semi-exploitative look at one man’s sexual obsession with a life-sized sex doll. Even Netflix’s description of it makes it seem that way. Thank god that’s not true. It’s a touching and intimate look at loneliness and the self-defense mechanisms we create for ourselves to protect us from the pain and hurt of the real world.

In the frozen reaches of the Dutch Midwest, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a sad and dejected loner living in the garage of his late parents’ house where his brother Gus (The Assassination of Jesse James‘ Paul Schneider) lives with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). He only leaves his garage for church and work, and despite the regular invitations to dinner from his sister-in-law, he spends time with no one. One day at work though, he hears a co-worker talking about life-sized anatomically correct female dolls, and six weeks later, one arrives of his own. He names her Bianca and has deluded himself into thinking she’s a real girl. However, he doesn’t have her for sexual purposes. She’s simply the friend and companion he’s always needed, but his eccentricity has his brother convinced he’s mentally ill, and with the help of local shrink Dr. Dagmar (Pieces of April‘s Patricia Clarkson) as well as the rest of the town, they try to help Lars through this strange patch in his life.

If that plot description seems either vague or boring, fear not. I simply don’t want to ruin the direction the film takes which is one of the most optimistic and hopeful statements on our ability to rally around and help each other in our moments of need that I can think of from modern cinema. That it manages to do so without seeming hopelessly naive speaks to the endearing idealism and hope that permeates throughout the film. And the film moves at its own stately pace, but it’s never dull. For a film that’s characterized as a comedy, it’s never especially funny. That’s alright, ultimately, because it’s an engrossing character study in loneliness and despair while simultaneously looking at those parts of small-town America that we can still cheer for (as opposed to the economic implosions, the bigotry, and the small-mindedness).

Ryan Gosling’s career is one of Hollywood’s most interesting to study. He made a name for himself as having the potential to write his own ticket after starring in one of the definitive chick-flicks of the 2000s, The Notebook. He could have played it safe and made a career as the sensitive and troubled romantic lead. Thank God he didn’t go down that route. Instead, he transformed himself into one of the indie darlings of the aughts, a role he continues to play into this decade. Along with Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl is one of Gosling’s most high-profile indie roles, and it’s easy to see why. He never turns Lars into a joke. He’s a sad and lonely boy trapped in a man’s body. And you watch him learn to accept and come to terms with his place in grown-up society over the course of the film as well as work through decades of feelings of abandonment and lost love.

The film was overflowing with great supporting parts as well. Paul Schneider is a terribly underrated character actor. If you need any proof of that, just watch the criminally under-appreciated All the Real Girls with him and Zooey Deschanel. If you’re wondering how you would react if your brother started talking to a life-sized sex doll, it would probably be something like Paul Schneider’s Gus, but he also shows some sensitivity as he wrestles with his guilt of leaving Lars behind when he left for college. Kelli Garner is also charming as Margo, one of Lars’ coworkers who has a serious crush on Lars, but he’s too shy and awkward to even notice her existence. Emily Mortimer is fine (she always is), but she has considerable difficulty suppressing her British accent during many of the most emotional parts of the film. And has there been a role where Patricia Clarkson didn’t shine?

As someone who is shy and occasionally withdrawn (which makes my past political aspirations so weird in retrospect), the parts of this film where it explores Lars’ almost pathological inability to function around other adults was simply awe-inspiring. It’s a story about a man who went far too long (and he’s never formally diagnosed in the film) without getting proper care for a serious case of Social Anxiety Disorder, and it then becomes a tale of how a community rallies around a member who needs it the most in order to help him get better. But any moment in the film where we see Lars physically unable to make emotional or actual physical contact with other people was painful to watch because of how terribly real it all felt. I’m not nearly that shy, but the fear that we’re never going to be able to connect with the others around us is so real, and Ryan Gosling and the script bring that fear to life.

That a film can make you care about the imaginary relationship between a social trainwreck of a man and his life-sized doll girlfriend is a testament to the heart and insight of the script. It’s a small, quiet film (which is shocking considering the subject matter) with a subtle grasp of the fragility of our mental state and our relationships with those around us. It may not speak to some of the largest existential questions that face us as a people but the way it so freshly captures a tiny aspect of our harried time on this planet is sublime. For fans of quirky and ultimately moving indie comedies/dramas/romances (Lars and the Real Girl covers all those bases), this film will leave you sated.

Final Score: B+