Logan Lucky.

Stephen Soderbergh’s retirement didn’t last very long, which is rather fortunate given how great Logan Lucky (now out on iTunes and amazon), the first film he’d directed since 2013’s Behind the Candelabra, turned out. A funny heist film filled with great dialogue and memorable characters, Logan Lucky deserved a much better fate at the box office than it received, and does a better job of channeling the vibe of his version of Ocean’s Eleven than that film’s sequel did. (I never even bothered with Thirteen.)

Channing Tatum, who was so good in a limited role in last year’s Hail Caesar, stars as Jimmy Logan, who works at a mine in West Virginia but loses his job just after the movie starts. Jimmy has a daughter, Sadie, who lives with her now remarried mother Bobbie Jo (a very gaunt Katie Holmes) but may move out of state to follow Bobbie Jo’s wealthy husband to his new job. Jimmy hatches a plan to rob the Charlotte Speedway, which apparently is right over the mine – I haven’t figured out the geography on this one either, other than that the mine must be several times longer than the Large Hadron Collider – in an elaborate scheme involving his one-armed brother, Clyde (Adam Driver); the Logans’ younger sister, hairstylist Mellie (Riley Keough); a currently in-car-cer-rate-ted explosives expert named, of course, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig); Joe’s two idiot brothers; and a few assists from other assorted friends and family members.

The plot itself is sort of wonderfully ridiculous, the kind of perfect crime that could never be that perfect in the physical universe but comes off almost charming in its Rube Goldberg sort of perfection. It’s the dialogue and the performances, especially those of Tatum and Craig, that really carry the film off. Craig is an absolute riot in the role, not quite mad bomber, but definitely a bomber and also a bit mad, smart (especially compared to his two idiot brothers, played by the sons of Brendan Gleeson and Dennis Quaid), and sometimes amusingly self-effacing. Tatum brings the charm, as he always does, but he gives Jimmy a strong resolve and belief that the plan will work, even when obstacles arise or the people around him try to convince him that it won’t. He’s somewhat used to people assuming he’s an idiot, even though he’s not one, and he seems to just play the role that’s expected of him so that one day he can take advantage of everyone’s ignorance. Dwight Yoakam excels as the fatuous prison warden who repeatedly denies that there’s anything wrong at his facility; Hilary Swank is a bit over the top as the FBI agent assigned to the case, although I thought her near-monotone delivery quickly established her character as the one person the Logan boys might have to worry about.

Not all the performances are so great, however. Driver’s attempt to do some sort of backwoods accent is distractingly bad, not least because he speaks … so … slowly … that you want to push him from the back so he gets to the end of his sentence sooner. (It’s also a bit hard to see how he and Tatum could ever come from the same gene pool.) And Seth McFarlane appears as the obnoxious (duh), unnecessarily British entrepreneur Max Chilblain, whose every word is just as painful as his surname implies, and who is wearing a dark wig of Jheri curls because I have no idea why I’m even talking about this guy. Casting him was a terrible decision and he ruins every scene he’s in.

Soderbergh and the pseudonymous writer Rebecca Blunt (likely Soderbergh’s wife, Jules Asner) keeps the pace moving between action and dialogue, never lingering too long on a scene, never worrying about establishing a Big Moment*, and infusing everything with humor. Just about every scene involving Joe Bang is funny, as are several of the scenes during and while the Logans break Bang out of prison (only to plan to return him to the facility before the day is out in a scheme within the scheme). There’s some humor at the Bang brothers’ – yeah, I know – expense, as well as a bit of a “that’s not funny, but I’m still laughing” moment involving Clyde’s prosthetic arm.

*Okay, the pageant scene near the end of the movie is probably too sentimental by half; I gave it a pass because it ties back to the scene that opens the film, and because Jimmy’s daughter is the primary reason he concocts this plan in the first place.

Logan Lucky died on the vine in theaters, despite glowing reviews and plenty of big names in the cast; it may just have been released at the wrong time, as late July is not a big movie-going time of year and this wasn’t an action flick or a blockbuster. It moves like very few movies I watched this year moved, and manages to fulfill its mission without gratuitous sex or violence, either. I suspect it’ll end up on my top 10 for 2017, or at least very close to it, whenever I end up compiling one.

The Big Sick.

The Big Sick was one of the few bright spots in an ugly summer for the movies, racking up over $40 million in a limited release to lead all indie films from 2017, 2016, or 2015. The romantic comedy is a rarity in its genre, a genuinely funny film with a big heart that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and is boosted by two strong supporting performances by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Oh, and one of the two romantic leads spends about half of the film in a medically-induced coma. (I know, it’s serious.) Amazon purchased The Big Sick in the spring but hasn’t put it on Prime (yet), so you can rent it from the usual sites in the meantime, including amazon and iTunes.

The script draws from the true story of Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), incorporating her real-life illness and the cultural conflict Kumail faced as the secular son of religious, traditional Pakistani parents in Chicago. The two strike up an unlikely relationship that falls apart when Emily finds out that Kumail hasn’t told his parents, who expect him to make an arranged marriage to a girl of Pakistani descent, that he’s dating a white woman. Shortly after their breakup, however, Emily ends up in the hospital with what appears to be a serious infection, and one of her friends calls Kumail – perhaps unaware how things ended between them – to ask him to go be with her in the ER until her parents get into town. In the interim, the doctors put Emily into a coma, so that when her folks, played by Hunter and Romano, arrive, Kumail meets them for the first time under strained cirumstances, and since they know what he did, they’re not especially open to his presence. Over the remainder of the film, of course, they grow fond of each other, pushed along by outside events, while Kumail has to confront his inner conflict between fealty to his parents and his desire for an independent, non-Muslim life in the U.S.

While Nanjiani is affable and charming throughout the film, Hunter and Romano – especially Hunter – carry this movie beyond regular meet-cute territory, with performances that manage to feel real without crossing into pure sentiment. Hunter, playing Beth, pulses with a sort of quiet rage that spills out in the most unlikely place, where she defends Nanjiani from a bigoted heckler, signaling (obviously) a turning point in her view of her daughter’s ex and making clear that his ethnicity or background are just not relevant to her. The strained relationship Beth and Terry (Romano) have also gets a little more explanation as the story progresses, but this is primarily about how Kumail and Emily’s parents formed a bond while Emily was under, and Kumail’s own realization that he’d rather defy his family and face the consequences than walk away from Emily forever.

There are bits of The Big Sick that don’t work as well, that feel a bit more like, if not exactly cheap laughs, then slightly less expensive ones. I don’t know how true to life the scenes of Kumail with his family are, but we’ve certainly seen these assimilation stories before, right down to the mom blithely pretending she’s not trying to arrange a marriage for her son while she’s obviously trying to arrange a marriage for her son. His parents come off as very one-note in the film, and in an unconvincing way – the importance of tradition or religion for them is just assumed, never shown, and their reaction when he reveals that he’s dating a white girl and has no intention of accepting an arranged marriage feels out of proportion to what we’ve seen before then.

I also didn’t feel like Kazan, who of course isn’t in the movie as much as Nanjiani, brought a ton of personality to Emily’s character; she’s little, and has a cute smile, but there’s little depth to her personality on screen and Kazan’s youthful appearance ends up working against the character by making her seem insubstantial. The story is more about Kumail and Emily’s parents than it is about Emily, and there’s enough chemistry between the two leads that the romance itself is credible, but I thought Kazan was less than ideal for the role.

This feels like perfect fodder for The Golden Globes, with that show’s separate category for comedies, and could end up with nominations for best comedy, maybe best actor in a comedy (Nanjiani), and perhaps a supporting nod for Hunter (although the Globes don’t distinguish between supporting roles in dramas or comedies). It seems most likely to me to end up a film that while generally unrecognized by industry awards makes a slew of critics’ year-end top ten lists.

Love and Friendship.

My latest Insider post discusses why September prospect callups are a thing of the past.

If it’s possible for a Jane Austen work to be unknown, her novella Lady Susan likely qualifies. Written before her six completed novels but unpublished until fifty years after her death, the shortepistolary work tells the story of the widowed Susan’s attempts to marry off her daughter to a wealthy, amiable dunce, as well as her own juggling of affairs with two men, one the married Lord Mainwaring, one her sister-in-law’s brother Reginald de Courcy. As in most of Austen’s works, Lady Susan is full of dry wit, and the pressing need for women of that era to marry well for their own financial security is a major plot point.

American director Whit Stillman adapted the work for the 2016 film Love & Friendship (amazoniTunes), which peculiarly takes its name from an entirely separate work written by Austen as a teenager (with the title misspelled as “Love & Freindship”) and stars Kate Beckinsale as the conniving seductress of the novella’s title. Stillman’s direction is heavyhanded at times, but the dialogue is sharp and sparkling, while the key performances, especially Beckinsale’s, absolutely carry the film.

As the movie opens, Lady Susan is seen leaving the Mainwarings’ estate, having been thrown out by Lady Mainwaring – who is in hysterics every time she’s on screen – and arrives at Churchill, the estate of her late husband’s sister and her family, having nowhere else to go. Shortly after her arrival, she begins her temptation of Reginald, the young, handsome brother of Lady Vernon, an eligible bachelor who is intelligent but naive and quickly succumbs to the beautiful and more worldly Lady Susan’s efforts. The plot thickens when Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, arrives, trailed by the amiable dunce Sir James Martin, who has £10,000 a year and is as dumb as a sack of hair (although one of the script’s greatest strengths is making comedy gold of Sir James’ stupidity). Frederica wants no part of Sir James, while Lady Susan, who cares little for her daughter except as a means to a lucrative end, tries to put her maternal foot down, a move that eventually causes a conflict between her and her late husband’s entire family.

Austen’s plots are all straightforward, but she never crafted another central character as venal as Lady Susan, whom Beckinsale plays to the hilt as by turns coquettish and condescending. Beckinsale, now 43, fits Austen’s description of Lady Susan (“from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older”) quite well, but given her history of playing one-dimensional characters in mass-market action films, her acting prowess here came as a pleasant surprise; her performance drips with disdain for just about everyone around her, except her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who appears to live vicariously through her avaricious friend. (The character’s nationality is unspecified in Austen’s novella, and Sevigny’s American accent is jarring amidst all of the upper-class British characers.) Beckinsale has to drive the film, as she’s at the center of every strand of the plot, but she does so with alacrity.

The one other key performance is Tom Bennett’s turn as Sir James Martin, looking and sounding a bit like Discount Colin Firth but managing to pull off his performance of an extremely likable, well-meaning dimwit, to the point where the viewer has real empathy for him even while understanding why Frederica might balk at his companionship. Although the trailer highlighted Sir James’ confusion over Churchill boasting neither church nor hill, his scene around the “twelve commandments” was the film’s real comic highlight.

We get just a bit of Stephen Fry as Lady Johnson’s husband and Lady Mainwaring’s guardian, but he’s woefully underutilized, as are Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as DeCourcy’s parents. But the novella itself comprises mostly letters from Lady Susan, so Stillman’s script had to invent much of the dialogue and reimagine most of the characters beyond hers. He was more deft with that than with some of the peculiar shots in the film, from the odd way the characters are introduced to the strange close-ups we get of characters (one near the end of Lord Mainwaring looked like a mistake) at various points. Lady Susan is a trifle of a story compared to Austen’s novels, so the challenge for Stillman here was greater than it might have been in adapting Emma or Persuasion, but he and Beckinsale in particular have developed it into a fast-paced, often hilarious movie where no one gets what they want yet Lady Susan still seems to come out on top.

Everybody Wants Some!!

My first GenCon wrap-up post for Paste covers the top ten new boardgames at this year’s convention.

I wasn’t sure about seeing Everybody Wants Some!! (amazoniTunes), Richard Linklater’s 2016 movie about a college baseball team set in 1980, because baseball-themed films are generally quite terrible and I was concerned this might be a big bro-movie too. The indispensable Grierson & Leitch podcast convinced me to see it anyway when both critics put it on their top six movies of 2016 to date, and when Will Leitch said it’s only tangentially a baseball movie anyway (which is true). As it turns out, the movie is more of a slice-of-life portrait than any kind of baseball story, and it’s witty and endearing, full of memorable lines and characters, without getting too sentimental or losing its pacing.

There’s little plot to speak of in Everybody Wants Some!!, so Linklater has to keep the dialogue moving to keep the movie from dragging, but the script must have looked liked the one from His Girl Friday given how little silence there is anywhere in the film. (If no one is talking, it’s because there’s music playing, and if there’s music playing, there’s probably someone singing or rapping along with it.) We start with the arrival of Jacob (Blake Jenner), a freshman pitcher who was second-team All-State as a Texas high schooler, at the two off-campus houses where Southeast Texas State University’s baseball team resides, which also serves as a rapid-fire introduction to most of Jacob’s new teammates, led by the garrulous intellectual Finn (Glen Powell) and frat-boyish bro McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, former ASU baseball player and a dead ringer for Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in this film). Within a few minutes, Jacob is in the car with four of his teammates – Finn, Dale (J. Quinton Johnson, the only African-American player on the team), Roper (Ryan Guzman), and another freshman, slow-witted catcher Plummer (Temple Baker) – heading out on the prowl while doing a Bohemian Rhapsody-esque take on “Rapper’s Delight.” Their brief cruise puts Jacob in contact with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the film’s only substantial female character; his brief courtship of Beverly is the closest thing the movie has to an actual narrative, a meet-cute subplot that takes up maybe 10% of the movie.

From there we follow the boys – and the film makes it clear that these are boys who just look like men – from one party to the next, with only a little bit of action on the field, and a few hilarious scenes at the house (including the stoner/hippie Willoughby trying to exchange thoughts telepathically with Dale, Jacob, and Plummer). There’s no real direction but “forward,” so the film ends up driven by its characters and dialogue, the latter of which sparkles whenever Finn or Dale takes center stage, Finn for his rapid-fire delivery and vocabulary full of $20 words, Dale for his note-perfect delivery and spot-on facial expressions. The only character of the dozen or so we meet who misses the mark is Jay Niles, played by Huston Street’s brother Juston, a bombastic, tightly wound pitcher who claims he throws 95, was drafted by the Blue Jays, and calls himself “Raw Dog” … because he’s the raw dog. It’s all caricature, no nuance in a cast of characters who otherwise have some two-dimensionality.

Linklater captures the time and place of Everybody Wants Some!! perfectly between the music, the clothes, the hair, and the dialogue, and takes advantage of it in ways that he couldn’t if the movie were set closer to today. There’s some mild hazing of the freshmen, at least one part of which would be completely unacceptable today, and the boys’ attitudes towards women are definitely a product of their time. The sexual liberation of the 1970s is still in full swing with no thought of STDs, let alone the virus that changed the landscape in the following decade. The script takes full advantage of the liberties of its milieu, giving us comic moments that would be unsettling (or just offensive) in a contemporary setting.

Five or ten years from now, we’ll look at Everybody Wants Some!! as the starting point of the careers of a number of these actors, especially Powell and Johnson, each of whom grabs hold of the viewer’s attention whenever they get the opportunity. Johnson manages to be hammy the way a college kid plays for laughs without ever seeming to be “acting” so, and he gets extra points for writing the music for the rap song that airs with the closing credits. (He told me on Twitter that the actors each wrote their own verses.) Powell takes dialogue that would sound ridiculous out of just about any character’s mouth and infuses it with charisma that manage to make it just believable enough to fly in a film where no one else talks in a way remotely resembling his hifalutin speech. I wish Deutch had had more to do than to stand around and look cute; she gets two little moments to act, and the one at the costume party near the end of the film showed some comic chops that might have come in handy elsewhere in the movie.

Doing that would have gone against the ethic of Everybody Wants Some!!, though, since at heart this is a smart “bro” movie, one that neither celebrates the idiocy of young men nor mocks them for the same. Instead it celebrates camaraderie with a heavy dose of nostalgia, hitting that moment right before you realize that your life choices might be limited, that the dream you’ve always chased might not come true, and that there are also new possibilities you hadn’t previously imagined. Linklater’s script is never maudlin, even in moments where the characters almost acknowledge that their baseball careers are probably stopping here on campus, and the humor doesn’t stop long enough for the mood to turn bittersweet. It’s a bunch of guys who are living in the moment and having a good time in that brief span of post-adolescence where you have yet to hit adult maturity, and while I didn’t see myself in any of these characters, it still evoked that memory of being part of a big group of people with nothing more in mind than having fun.

Safety Not Guaranteed.

The 2012 indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed takes a famous ad from someone looking for a companion on a time-travel expedition – claiming he’s “only” done it once before – and builds it into a cute, clever story about quirky characters in search of something more than what they’ve gotten out of life, all for different yet interconnected reasons. At about 80 minutes of actual content, it’s briskly paced with smart and witty dialogue, and sets up so well that the ultimate question of whether the time travelers actually travel in time becomes irrelevant. Call it a movie rule: If the story is crafted properly, and the characters are well developed, then the film’s ending doesn’t matter.

(UPDATE: It’s the iTunes $0.99 Movie of the Week as an HD rental. So you really have no excuse.)

Safety stars Aubrey Plaza, better known as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, as Darius, a recent college graduate in an unglamorous, unpaid internship for an alternative weekly paper in Seattle. Bored with basically everything life has thrown her and in a persistent depression since her mom died eight years earlier, Darius volunteers to go with the cocky staff writer Jeff to investigate the man behind the time-travel ad (which, in reality, appeared in Backwoods Home magazine in 1997 as a joke by a staff member), with Jeff figuring he’ll get a portrait of a harmless crazy person … except that Jeff really just wants to go hook up with an old girlfriend, with Darius and fellow intern Arnau, the film’s one stock character, doing all of the work.

The man who placed the ad, Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass, turns out to be completely earnest about the endeavor, definitely harmless, mostly a goofball, but also quite real – at home with his weirdness, with one exception I won’t spoil, totally focussed on this time-travel project so he can go back and prevent one thing from happening. He’s living in the present so that he can relive the past, with an intensity that resonates with the aimless Darius, who poses as a potential partner for Kenneth, going through “training” with him while Jeff hooks up with his ex and Arnau … does nothing all day, apparently, because they never finished writing his character.

Duplass’ character should be the centerpiece as the amiable dork whose passion for his project just sucks you into the story, but Plaza owns every scene she’s in, especially the ones she shares with Duplass, where she plays a character within a character, trying to manipulate Kenneth just to the point where he’ll accept her as a potential partner, but never with the contempt Jeff shows in his own abortive attempts to get the gig. Plaza’s character on Parks has morphed from the satiricial I-hate-everything girl to a more nuanced, more conflicted I-hate-that-I-like-things woman (and wife!) who appears to be hiding her inner Darius – a woman looking to just enjoy the present instead of feeling like the time is out of joint. April pretends she’s not sweet; Darius is sweet (but not saccharine) and wants someone, the right someone, to notice it. Kenneth is a little slow on the uptake there, since he is pretty locked in to the whole time-travel thing, but their relationship feels far more organic for how slowly it develops.

Duplass delivers a strong showing as Kenneth, playing the goofball as a serious goofball, not a wacko or a mentally ill or unstable person, just someone who’s looking backwards because what he sees forwards doesn’t give him much hope. Jake Johnson is appropriately annoying as the man-child Jeff, himself still unable to let go of a failed, long-dead relationship, yet aware enough of it that he can counsel Darius and especially Arnau to enjoy their early-20s primes. Both men are having midlife crises that don’t involve buying Porsches (which they can’t afford) or leaving wives (which they don’t have), instead doing, well, other somewhat stupid things, or doing smart things and screwing them up because they haven’t grown up enough yet. Arnau’s subplot is the one thread that comes through as an afterthought, and his best part in the film is his reaction in the final scene.

The conclusion is ambiguous, because Derek Connolly’s script handles the the Kenneth and Darius storyline so well that it doesn’t actually matter whether they get to travel back in time. Connolly even manages to sidestep the myriad reasons why time travel is impossible, simply having Kenneth treat it as real and moving forward from there, with its feasibility tangential to the main plot. He also granted Darius most of the film’s great lines, largely in response to Kenneth’s sincere nuttiness, with their dialogues, unusually thoughtful and long for a contemporary film, making up most of Safety Not Guaranteed‘s best moments. The movie only showed on a few hundred screens last year – I’m not even sure where it played near me, or exactly when – and made just over $4 million at the box office, which is a shame given how sweet and funny it is, without ever talking down to us (except with Arnau, a little). Perhaps it’s Aubrey Plaza’s curse to star in great vehicles that mainstream audiences just don’t watch.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

I’ve long had an interest, bording on the obsessive, with learning foreign languages, dating back to early childhood. I find the way they work fascinating, since we’re all expressing the same concepts and images and yet do so in sometimes inscrutably different ways. One such way is through idioms, like my favorite Spanish expression, “canta otro gallo,” which is the equivalent of the English expression “that’s another story” but literally translates to “another rooster crows.” It’s far more colorful and brings a concrete image to mind that even made it hard for me as a non-native speaker to remember.

The Spanish language also has a wonderful phrase for what we call old age or might euphemistically refer to as one’s “golden years” – la tercera edad, meaning “the third age,” after childhood and one’s working adult life. The idiom seems better to reflect the expectation today that people in developed countries will outlive their working years by a decade or more, and must, therefore, plan accordingly lest they outlive their money as well. The idea of a third age confers hope and promise on a period that automatically conjures fears of mortality, indigence, ill health, and loneliness. They are years to be lived, actively, not to be dreaded or avoided.

For the seven characters who populate the film and the building The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this third age begins with subtle hopes for a fresh start in India, away from varying disasters they’ve left behind in England. The retirees find, of course, that the hotel is nowhere near what it promised to be, but once there, ostensibly without funds to return home, most of the guests choose to make what they can of the situation, developing new relationships while adapting to their shared fates.

The setup is brief, as it should be, as the magic only truly begins when the performers are thrown together in non-air-conditioned methods of transportation on the subcontinent. The various characters are retirees who have moved to India to stretch their retirement funds further, or get a hip replacement faster than would be possible in England, or to avoid an ignominious decline into grandma/babysitter territory. Once there, they encounter a comedy of errors in the titular hotel, in which the phones don’t work and most guest rooms have doors. The hotel is run by the perpetually optimistic and fast-talking young Sonny, who is desperate to make his plan to “outsource” old age work both as a vocation (so he can marry his very pretty girlfriend Sonaina) and as a purpose in life, but who has the business acumen of a sea cucumber. (As opposed to anemones, who are surprisingly good at identifying core competencies.) Most of the Indian characters involved here are thinly drawn and exist primarily for the Englishmen and -women to play off, although given who’s playing those roles, I find it hard to argue with this approach.

The movie boasts the greatest cast of any movie released in 2012, with two Oscar winners in Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (twice); a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee in Tom Wilkinson; another Golden Globe winner in Bill Nighy (who excelled as the editor-in-chief in State of Play); and Penelope Wilton, winner of several major awards for British theatre and now better known here as the do-gooder Isobel Crawley, with all four performers honored as Officers of the British Empire or higher. Unsurprisingly, Smith and Dench steal most of their scenes, with Smith dropping a few Lady Violet looks on the locals and Dench often sounding like the Queen of England (and occasionally like the voice from Spaceship Earth). Celia Imrie is a bit one-note as the cougar of the group, although she gets in her share of one-liners, while Ronald Pickup is the amiable past-prime Casanova who gets the best introduction to the audience and plays it to the hilt. It’s a loaded group, given a witty and clever script, yet there’s an underlying seriousness to the performances (rooted in their characters) that elevates the film to the status of award consideration.

You can’t make a film about seven old people without something going awry, and a few things do, perhaps fewer than expected – but the film is a hopeful comedy at heart, so we can give the writers a bit more leeway. It’s the interactions between the characters that make the film sing, and within those it’s the interactions between the actors themselves – Nighy and Dench, Nighy and Wilton, Dench and Wilkinson, Smith and pretty much anybody – that are so striking. You want to see Justin Verlander face Mike Trout, but you hope it doesn’t end with an intentional walk or a hit batsman; you want to see a ten-pitch at bat where each player is at his best, regardless of the final outcome. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel boasts a dozen or more such at bats and some of them are epic. Dench earned a Golden Globe nomination, with Smith nominated in the same category for her role in Quartet; the film was shut out at the Oscars, but I could have seen a case for either actress or for Nighy, whose role is central to the film and who must play the exasperated husband clutching at a straw of happiness while his raincloud of a shrewish wife stews in the next room. He and Dench share two of the film’s most memorable scenes, and while their relationship on-screen grows almost glacially (he is, after all, a married man), there’s a remarkable chemistry between them that derives almost entirely from outside of the film – that these are two performers so effortlessly comfortable in their roles and with each other that they can convey the interest in each other on screen with barely any words or action to depict it.

The film doesn’t pander to the viewers with a giant, rousing finish, rewarding us and some of its characters with small victories rather than large ones, all under the general theme that the third age is one to be enjoyed and appreciated. The one character most determined to throw these years away will undoubtedly succeed in doing so, while those who choose to maximize their experiences – even just exploring their new hometown of Jaipur and seeing its tourist attractions or shopping in its central market – will be all the happier for doing so. You could really extend the same lesson to the first and second ages as well.

Silver Linings Playbook.

David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated 2010 film The Fighter underwhelmed me relative to its critical acclaim because the story felt so generic, salvaged by great performances in the lead and supporting roles. With his follow-up, Silver Linings Playbook, based on a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Russell is mining more serious territory – most of the central characters are grappling with various forms of mentall illness – but with the general tone of an indie comedy, resulting in a film that takes its serious issues seriously, but not so seriously that the movie drags or becomes something less than enjoyable.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, showing unexpected range) is just getting out of an eight-month stint in a mental institution where he’s been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder after “the explosion,” an incident (later hashed out in full) that resulted in a plea agreement that kept him out of jail but left him with a restraining order against him and some fear and prejudice among neighbors and former co-workers. His parents, played by Oscar winner Robert Deniro and Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (for 2010’s Animal Kingdom), form an unstable support system for Pat, unable to fully understand his disorder or, in the case of Pat’s father, to separate his own needs from those of his son.

Pat’s one constant friend, Ronnie, himself dealing with a pretty serious anxiety problem but receiving no help for it, ends up introducing Pat to his sister-in-law Tiffani (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed young woman with serious issues of her own beyond her grieving, and the two form an immediate connection over dinner when discussing the side effects of their various medications. (I particularly laughed at the discussion of Klonopin, an anti-depressant I was once prescribed as a sleep aid but never took because I was concerned about … well, exactly what Pat and Tiffani described.) Their partnership in healing is uneasy between Pat’s lack of any filter between his brain and his mouth and Tiffani’s wildly varying emotional states, but it’s also evident from the start that the two will end up together – and, to the credit of Cooper and the always-impressive Lawrence, it feels surprisingly natural. Tiffani extorts Pat into being her partner in a couples dance competition, which feels a little implausible, and that ends up a family-wide event due to a rather improbable two-event parlay that was the movie’s one real false note for me. The Pat-Tiffani storyline works independently of the bet, which is played for laughs rather than plot and only provides a reason for Pat’s father to be there at the end to give his son some advice that Pat didn’t actually need after all.

The film is absolutely carried by the performances of its four principals, led by Lawrence, who I argued was worthy of the 2010 Best Actress Oscar over the landslide favorite, Natalie Portman, for Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone. Lawrence has a stronger groundswell of support now, as one of Hollywood’s It Girls, thanks in part to her lead role in The Hunger Games, but she does the most in this film with the hardest role because her character lacks emotional boundaries – she varies from desperate to angry to crushed to sultry from sentence to sentence, and conveys her grief over her husband’s death and her own previous emotional problems as much through body language and tone as through her dialogue. (She’s also stunning as a brunette.) Deniro turns in what is probably his best work in a decade, playing Pat’s highly superstitious father, himself likely dealing with an undiagnosed mental illness, loving his son and yet obviously fearing him at the same time because he can’t understand why his son acts and speaks the way he does. Weaver, an Australian actress who dominated Animal Kingdom as the amoral head of a ruthless crime family, nails the Philadelphia accent and the role of the subservient wife to a husband who’s probably been something between difficult and impossible for their entire marriage. I could see all three earning Oscar nods, while Brad Cooper, who lacks the others’ history of work in serious roles and would be up in the most competitive category, gets Jim Carrey’d and ends up on the outside looking in. We even get a few great scenes from Chris Tucker, talking faster than ever, and Julia Stiles, somewhat surprising as a domineering wife to Pat’s friend Ronnie.

I was also very happy with how the film dealt with mental illness, taking it seriously but infusing what could have been a very depressing subject with humor, both dark and silly. (Anupam Kher has a couple of scene-stealing lines as Pat’s therapist.) Pat has several episodes of manic or depressive behavior, as well as the “explosion” shown in flashbacks, and some of them are, appropriate, quite painful to watch. I’ve seen several reviews, including the A/V Club’s top 20 films of 2012, that denigrated the film as a “rom-com” that implies that the cure for bipolarity is finding the right, quirky girl. I think those critics miss the point entirely: Pat gets better over the course of the film once he starts taking his medication, investing himself in therapy, and following his therapist’s advice to develop coping strategies and expose himself to potential triggers. That’s how treatment works for any mental illness, including the anxiety disorder for which I’ve belatedly getting treatment this year. Silver Linings absolutely makes it clear that the medication and treatment are working because Pat’s character doesn’t evolve until he gets serious about them. His moods change, his filter reappears, and his word choices start to reflect things he’d likely be hearing or discussing in therapy. Russell doesn’t shove this down our throats, elevating the romantic element (even though Pat and Tiffani don’t actually kiss until the penultimate scene) over the mental-illness storyline, but he lays it all out for anyone who’s paying attention, and respects the subject even while often deriving humor from it. I don’t see how anyone could walk away from this film getting any other message about mental illness beyond “get professional help.”

Silver Linings Playbook is a comedy, and there is a romance, but calling it a rom-com doesn’t do it justice because it omits what sets this film apart from even indie romantic comedies. It tackles a serious subject with intelligence and wit while enveloping the viewer in a compelling romance that builds organically through mostly natural plot elements. The character development is far stronger than in even a good “rom-com,” and the performances are all Oscar-worthy, especially in what seems to be a weak year for serious films. And it’s pretty damn funny too. All rom-coms should be so good.

Bread and Tulips.

Bread & Tulips (Pane e tulipani) was a huge success in Italy when it was released in 2000, sweeping their version of the Academy Awards and even earning “official selection” status at Cannes and at the Toronto International Film Festival. Yet it’s actually a light, tender-hearted comedy about second chances in life and love, especially where kind souls are involved. (It’s available on Netflix Instant video as well.)

Licia Maglietta plays Rosalba, a harried, unappreciated housewife who, while touring ancient ruins in the Italian countryside with her fatheaded husband and their two sons, ends up left behind at a rest stop, for which her husband blames her even though he failed to notice she was missing for a few hours. (He’s a real peach, the lone one-dimensional character in the film, but at least one used to good purpose as the plot’s main punching bag.) On a whim, she hitchhikes to Venice, a city she’s always wanted to visit but has never seen, and through another series of misfortunes ends up settling there, taking a part-time job, and rooming with an Icelandic waiter, Fernando (played by Bruno Ganz), who has to delay his plans to hang himself due to his unexpected houseguest.

The film marries two old movie tropes, the bored housewife making her escape and the stranger in a town of lovable eccentrics, in a way that shouldn’t work as well as it does. The script’s beauty is that it presents these various oddballs as they are, in favorable lighting but without commentary and often without much definition. Fernando’s neighbor, the “holistic masseuse” (and perhaps lady of the evening) Grazia, ends up in an intrigue involving the hapless plumber-turned-detective Constantino, who should be the story’s main antagonist as an extension of Rosalba’s husband but ends up winning our affection because of his determination and ineptitude.

Bread and Tulips is sweet yet seldom sentimental, and if it’s a little unrealistic at times, it’s more to avoid getting bogged down in the mundane details of a woman just taking off without much cash or means of support. There’s a fair amount of slapstick humor along with some good situational gags, such as Rosalba’s husband asking his mistress to iron a shirt or two for him, while Giuseppe Battiston handles the clownish role of Constantino in a way that engenders sympathy for him as even he tries to ruin Rosalba’s fantasy.

The only false notes in the film, to me, were the dream sequences, in part because they’re not set off from the film in any clear way, and in part because they felt like a clumsy method of demonstrating Rosalba’s own inner turmoil at her abandonment of her family obligations. Awake, she seldom shows any guilt, and relishes her freedom, her independence, her ability to put herself first and revisit long-dormant dreams, including an apparent passion for music that resurfaces when she finds a disused accordion in the wardrobe of the room she rents. The dreams seemed forced, as if the writer or director felt that we needed a reminder that she’d fled her family or that she at least loved her two sons.

Roger Ebert’s review of Bread and Tulips praised the film, but contains one line in the first paragraph that I found shocking to the point that I was slightly offended by it:

Not a classic beauty, not a ”movie star,” but a 40-ish dreamer who’s just a little overweight, with the kind of sexiness that makes you think of bread baking, clean sheets and that everything is going to be all right. 

Man, I like Roger Ebert, but this is a seriously cracked view of beauty. Maglietti – who was around 45 when the film was made – looks gorgeous as soon as she gets to Venice and out of her frumpy-mummy clothes, spending most of the film in flattering sundresses that would certainly have exposed her as “a little overweight” if she had had any weight over. And I’m not even sure where to go with Ebert’s opinion on what’s sexy about an attractive 40-year-old woman (or about the type of women who bake bread?). Besides, if everything’s going to be all right, maybe you’re doing it all wrong.

What Ebert might have said was that Maglietti’s sex appeal is paired with a youthful visage that makes her seem more approachable, not just for the audience, but to lend credence to the idea that strangers in Venice would just take to this woman, offering her a place to rent, a part-time job, or help keeping her location a secret from her husband (who seems to want her back to take care of the house, not to be his wife or lover). Maglietti doesn’t look close to her age in this role, playing a woman in her late 30s with a cuteness that renders Rosalba’s personality as something even younger. She carries the film, with plenty of help from her supporting cast, in the kind of romantic comedy that would never be made by a major U.S. studio because it relies too much on tired tactics like strong writing and actors who bring their characters to life.


My ranking of the top 100 draft prospects for 2012 went up earlier today for Insiders. Twenty-two of them now have full scouting repots, with more to go up over the rest of the month.

Last year’s independent comedy 50/50 seems to have garnered little notice outside of some positive reviews, even though it’s quite funny and never as depressing as the premise would indicate (and perhaps not as dark as it should have been). Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a 28-year-old public radio reporter who discovers that a pain in his lower back is actually caused by a tumor on his spine, a rare form of cancer with a survival rate that gives the film its title – yet despite that morbid plot, the film mines substantial humor from all aspects of its protagonist’s experience.

Adam is in a dysfunctional relationship with a somewhat self-centered artist when he gets his diagnosis, but it’s his best friend Kyle (played by Seth Rogen) who rallies, with well-intentioned if not always well-executed attempts to keep Adam’s spirits up through the diagnosis and treatment. Adam’s girlfriend, who doesn’t seem to be that into him before he gets the news, isn’t quite up to the task (and is easily the film’s worst-drawn character, although neither of the other two female characters is all that well fleshed-out), while his therapist, Katherine, is still in grad school and is lost when her sessions with Adam veer off script, and his mother, played affectingly by an almost unrecognizable Angelica Houston, is mostly around to get on Adam’s nerves.

Gordon-Levitt carried Brick and was superb in a minor part in Inception, so it’s no surprise to see him excel here as an overly sensitive, slightly meek guy who gradually comes out of his shell while facing his own mortality. But Rogen, who helped produce the film (based on the true story of the experiences of Rogen’s friend, writer Will Reiser, with a similar cancer diagnosis), stole more scenes than anyone else as the loud, boorish, very crude best friend who also happens to care more for Gordon-Levitt’s character than anyone else in the film, even more than Rachael. I’m sure Adam’s mother cares for him, but she only appears in a handful of scenes and is more of a nuisance than a loving parent until the very end of the film – and even then, Kyle takes center stage when the doctor discusses the results of the last procedure. (I wonder if Reiser was working out his issues through the script here, or how his mother felt about her portrayal.) Anna Kendrick fares much better here than in Up in the Air, putting her great talents for appearing flummoxed and looking vulnerably cute to much better use here as Adam’s therapist, yet she’s still overshadowed by Rogen’s character and ends up short on screen time given how important her character is to the plot.

The problem with 50/50 is that it’s only a witty dark comedy, nothing more. The cancer is merely a plot device for exposing how the patient’s relationships with friends and family change once he receives the diagnosis – but only the humorous aspects of the changes, not the subtleties. I have no problem with cancer being played for a laugh, but when the film was over, I thought of a dozen ways in which the film had fallen short, from Mark’s father’s dementia to the way the film made chemo almost seem easy to the fact that every female character was two-dimensional. It’s a funny film, and it’s a well-acted film, but the script was too superficial for it to have any lasting impact with me.

The Kids Are All Right.

The more I think about The Kids Are All Right (currently $6.59 on amazon), a 2010 comedy nominated for Best Picture with every other movie made in Hollywood last year, the more frustrating I find it. It is extremely well-acted, with as many as five strong performances depending on your standards for younger actors, and deliberately uncomfortable almost from the first line of dialogue. Its exploration of the nature of complex long-term relationships by using one we might (wrongly) consider “unusual” and making it look as usual as it should be is insightful and unflinching. And then the whole thing falls flat in the final ten minutes, as if the writers just ran out of steam – or were encouraged to deliver a more traditional ending.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) Allgood are a married lesbian couple who have raised two children, 18-year-old Joni and 15-year-old (I think) Laser, each borne by a different mother but from sperm from the same anonymous donor. Laser pushes Joni to call the sperm bank and request to contact the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a modern-hippie restaurateur who becomes involved in the kids’ lives, much to the chagrin of Nic. Jules, meanwhile, is trying to get a landscape design business for which she seems fairly unqualified off the ground, and agrees to take on Paul as her first client, only to – mild spoiler here – end up sleeping with him. (The scene where they first have sex includes a hilarious nod to the scene in Boogie Nights where Moore’s character first sees Dirk Diggler’s jiggler.) The consequences of that act, while fairly predictable, aren’t fully played out at the end of the film, particularly not for Paul, whose storyline was cut off without a fraction of resolution, a shame for a character that was both central and well-developed, flawed yet sympathetic, often the lens through which we see the Allgoods more clearly.

At first blush, I took the film to be a meditation on the nature of families and how delicate the balance can be even in what otherwise appears to be an emotionally strong family; the fact that the parents are gay is only relevant in that it allows for the sperm-donor plot line, as otherwise the Allgoods are a standard nuclear family. But now I’m wondering if the film is really about Nic, and how destructive her own controlling personality is on her family, especially on Jules and Laser. She crosses the line into overinvolvement in some of her interrogations of her kids (and the third degree she later gives Paul). She uses Jules’ and Paul’s affair as a weapon to drive wedges between Jules and the kids as well as between Paul and the kids, and to reestablish her dominance in her relationship with Jules. In the dinner scene at Paul’s house, she brings the entire conversation to a halt with a seemingly innocent move that is designed to get all eyes on her. Even before the final blowout with Jules, their arguments revolve around her dissatisfaction – and if Jules tries to get a word in about her own complaints, Nic manages to refocus the argument about herself. She might be a narcissist, but even if not she clearly has a driving need to control everything she can in her life, even if that means detracting from the lives of those closest to her.

Bening is off the charts in her performance as Nic – what a year for actresses in starring roles – infusing nearly every scene, even light ones, with the tension that defines her tightly-wound character. Moore was also excellent in her typical up-for-anything role, but I thought Bening’s task was tougher, as Nic is written with strong masculine and feminine sides; she’s the head of household, breadwinner, decision-maker, with boyishly short hair, yet wears makeup (Jules doesn’t), shows more outward emotion, takes more care of her overall appearance … perhaps the character is just overwhelmed by the extent of the role she expects or is expected to fill, and just when she has the balance right, in comes Paul to upset everything. This conflict makes it all the more unsatisfying when the storyline ends so abruptly. A clean, complete resolution would be unrealistic, but there’s an “everything’s going to be fine” vibe to the closing scenes that I didn’t think was set up by anything that came before it.

Ruffalo was affecting in an understated role as the soft-spoken, warm-hearted Paul, living a twenty-year-old’s dream life only to realize through his discovery of an instant family that he doesn’t have the life he really wants. The script easily could have left him as simply a vehicle to expose the fragile structure holding the Allgood family together, but instead he was a fully-formed character who establishes different relationships with each of the four family members. Laser ended up with the least development – although he has one of the better lines when his mothers catch him and a friend watching an adult DVD, a scene that is about as awkward (in a good way) as any realistic movie can get – and his relationship with Paul is also underexplored, especially since he was the one who originally pushed his sister to call the sperm bank.

I can watch and appreciate a tough, complex, uncomfortable movie if there’s a decent payoff at the end – again, not necessarily a clear dénouement wrapped up in a bow, but one where the protagonists are, if not better off, at least materially changed because of the conclusion of the episode they’ve just experienced. The Kids Are All Right does so many things well, but the characters end their story under an illusion that nothing at all has changed. Maybe that’s the point, but for me, it took away from much of the reward of watching the first 90 minutes.

Apropos of nothing, the title of this film has put the Supergrass song “Alright” in my head for the last week.

Next up: The 2011 remake of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska, who played Joni in this movie, as the title character.