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Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Snowpiercer (2014)

snowpiercer-posterI have seen Snowpiercer twice and it’s still a hard movie to describe. It’s the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Joon-hoo Bong, notable for The Host (the good one) and Mother. It’s based upon a French graphic novel only printed in France and South Korea. It’s an international production, filmed in the Czech Republic, and populated with recognizable actors like Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It’s a dark dystopian allegory about class warfare, it’s a stunning sci-fi action movie, it’s a parable about humanity, it’s a stylish thriller that puts most of Hollywood to shame; it’s many things, chief among them, an incredible movie that demands to be seen on the big screen when able.

To combat global warming, world leaders disperse a chemical to lower temperatures, and oh boy does it work, inadvertently causing a new Ice Age that kills almost all life on the planet. Almost, because a few hundred got aboard the train owned and operated by Wilford (Harris), a rich and secretive industrialist. He built a train that can circle the globe, running on a perpetual motion motor. The last of humanity is housed on Wilfrod’s train. After seventeen years aboard, the class system has become rather rigid. The important and wealthy are at the front of the train, and the poor are crammed in the back, given gelatinous protein blocks to eat, and kept in line by armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is plotting a revolt, biding his time, consulting with the wise Gilliam (Hurt), an aging leader missing several limbs. Together, they storm ahead, capturing effete Wilford spokesman Mason (Swinton) as a hostage, rescuing an engineer (Kang-ho Song) with a drug addiction who will help them open the train cars, fighting car by car to take control of the train. Naturally, those in power fight back in force to maintain the uneven status quo.

snowpiercer-main-review-e1375509690609Short of the adrenaline-soaked Raid 2, there hasn’t been a better action movie this year than Snowpiercer. It starts slow, drawing the audience in, setting up its initial burst as a prison break of sorts where the tail section passengers have to figure out a way past the guards and several security doors open for only a few seconds. When the break does happen, in a clever fashion, you feel the full rush of the new opportunity thanks to the movie properly setting up the stakes and obstacles. Each new car presents a new world and a new obstacle. There’s one car where Curtis and his revolutionaries are met with fifty ski-mask wearing grunts with axes. This is the standout action sequence because of how it keeps changing. At first its brawn versus brawn, complete with swinging axes. Then the fighting stops briefly and all the grunts put on night vision goggles. The train enters a long tunnel, condemning Curtis and company to the dark. The grunts then go to town, spearing and slashing the hapless passengers blindly swinging in the dark. I won’t spoil the solution to this scenario but it too is properly set up and leads to some extremely satisfying action imagery, the kind of stuff that pops in a trailer. There’s an entirely different sequence later that also stands out. As the train goes into a long curve in the track, certain train cars are visible from others. Our chief heavy, listed as Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), sees Curtis in the car ahead and starts firing. Eventually Curtis and Franco blast small holes in the protective glass and wait, wait for their moment, for their shot. It’s a tense neo-Western standoff moment, and another delightful addition. The accumulative action has a surprising degree of variety and development.

Snowpiercer is a stirring action movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it does an equally impressive job of building its world and adding dimension to its storytelling. Reportedly, Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the 126-minute film, but I’m puzzled as to where those edits would come. Every scene in this movie drives the film forward or imparts crucial pieces of information or metaphor that will play out later. Even something as comical as stopping for sushi in the aquarium car (balancing the ecosystem) has greater meaning and subtext when you look back at the film as a whole. Joon-hoo Bong and his co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have given serious consideration to how this world operates and what life would be like when all of humanity is confined to one long train. The past is revealed incrementally, gingerly allowing the audience to become consumed with this odd dystopian landscape, our fascination brewing with each new puzzle piece being added. I was enthralled with the rich details, the cruel methods of keeping those in the tail section in line, the regular head counts, the protein block bars and what they truly are made of, the annual celebration of passing a certain bridge marking their own New Year, and especially the deification of Wilford. The characters worship the engine, and why not since it is the source of life for them, or as the chirpy schoolteacher (Alison Pill) sings: “What happens if the engine fails? We all freeze and die!” The later reveals are the best, giving full explanation why tail section children are important and, particularly, why Curtis is so ashamed at having two good arms. That monologue by Evans, looking back on the earliest and most cruelly chaotic days on the train, is a whopper. I truly hope that aspiring actors will use it during future auditions. It will make an impression.

snowpiercer-tilda-swinton1Its dark sense of humor and political and philosophical subtext provide an even richer texture to this strange, bleak world. The political commentary isn’t exactly subtle, I’ll admit, but it’s exceedingly better executed and integrated into its plot than, say, last year’s Elysium. The class-consciousness provides a greater depth to the proceedings, providing a new spin on the have/have nots that’s just as relevant today. It’s not just tacked on, either. The political commentary is intertwined with the mechanics of the plot, as we’re witnessing class warfare against inequality, how barbarous acts can be co-opted for personal gain. When Curtis and his small company finally reach Wilford and the engine, it’s a moment akin to visiting the Wizard in Oz, the man behind the curtain they’ve heard so much about. There’s a great degree of incredulous humor from Wilford’s vaulted perspective, but the longer you listen, the more you start to follow his twisted logic and why exactly the status quo must be upheld despite the bloody consequences. Then there’s the macabre humor, which can be bracing at points, none more so than the school car sequence with Alison Pill (TV’s The Newsroom). Also doing plenty of comedic heavy lifting is Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, We Need to Talk About Kevin) with such an odd authority figure character. With a mouthful of fake teeth, some owlish glasses, and a peculiar speech pattern, it feels like she stepped out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and we’re all the better for it. Often she’s the only source of humor in what is otherwise a dreary story about the strong preying upon the weak.

Stylish, intelligent, rewarding in surprising ways while still being thoroughly entertaining, with tremendous technical attributes such as production design, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi flick that borrows from many but creates its own unique and enthralling landscape. Rare is the movie going experience where you sit at the edge of your seat, completely taken in by the creativity of the artists at work, transported to somewhere new and exciting, and you dread the approaching end credits. Snowpiercer is an experience that’s hard to describe beyond an unrelenting checklist of positive, glowing adjectives. Simply put, it’s movies like this that make going to the movies special.

Nate’s Grade: A

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

What happens when the millennial generation gets its own (attempted) seminal movie? It stays home and plays video games, letting the film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, languish at the box-office. I guess that’s what happens when you finance a movie whose target demographic will just as readily download the movie for free off the Internet.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old Toronto slacker. He?s the bass player for the band Sex Bob-Omb, along with lead singer Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and acerbic drummer Kim (Alison Pill), a former ex-girlfriend of Scott’s from high school. The band’s biggest fan is 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who also happens to be Scott?s new girlfriend. The world of Scott Pilgrim is abuzz with this scandal, especially Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) and Scott?s younger sister (Anna Kendrick). Scott insists it’s all on the level and he has no ulterior motives for dating a high schooler. Then he sees the mysterious and alluring Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who?s new to the area and American. Scott rabidly pursues her in what could best be described as stalking, eventually getting her to agree to date him. Trouble is, he hasn’t broken up with Knives just yet before starting this new venture. Scott is then confronted at the Battle of the Bands concert by a man who comes bursting out from the ceiling. He is the first of Ramona’s seven evil exes and Scott must defeat them all in order to earn the right to the violet-haired beauty. “Everybody has baggage,” Ramona says. “Yeah, but my baggage doesn’t try and kill me,” Scott wearily replies.

Visually, this movie showcases director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) using every crayon in the Crayola box. This is a visually resplendent film where every scene seems crammed with details to delight the eyes and light up the senses. It’s a rush to watch the kaleidoscope of colors and motions. The Scott Pilgrim universe clearly differs from our own. This is a realm that borrows heavily from old school video games, where people burst into coins when vanquished, where life-decisions are met with “leveling up,” where people have onscreen pee bars that will deplete after a trip to a urinal. Sound effects will routinely be verbalized on screen, everything from a “RIIIIIIIIIIING” of a telephone to the “Ding Dong” of a door. It’s amusing, though also easily overused. Jobs and stuff like that are for the real world, hence too square to be depicted. It’s this entire idiosyncratic comic book world treated like everyday reality.

The enormous display of style is impossible to ignore. Scott Pilgrim is a slick, flashy piece of entertainment that is riddled with nostalgic references for a select crowd. I appreciated how a nice walk was accompanied by the theme song from The Legend of Zelda, or that sound effects and onscreen graphics echoed the fights from Street Fighter II (don’t ask me which of the 800 versions). Scott Pilgrim is an excellent pop pastiche of a specific culture, namely a slacker, hipster, amiable, comics and gamer group. I myself was an avid Nintendo gamer back in my day, but I admit to waning interest when the games got too complicated and grisly (“Back in my day we had two buttons to push, one to jump and the other to shoot, and that’s how we liked it!”). The movie is an explosion of color, light, and (lo-fi garage rock) sound, which also might sound like the description of a seizure or a stroke to some. Like those ailments, Scott Pilgrim will be seen by some as an infliction. It’s hyperactivity and eagerness to please via nostalgic reference points will be what drives people to this film and what drives them away in equal measure.

The Scott Pilgrim graphic novels total six volumes and approximately 1200 pages, which means it?s not the easiest fit for a two-hour window. It also hurts that the Pilgrim books have a wide supporting cast of characters to tussle with, plus there?s the whole seven deadly exes thing which means the movie has to provide about a solid 20 minutes of set-up before finding enough time for seven antagonists (or boss battles, following gamer parlance) and a reasonable amount of resolution. Add on top of this the fact that Wright keeps the movie moving at an outrageous, ADD-addled pace, like the plot conveyor belt lever got broken and the scenes speed one after another. Everything about this movie feels fast and over caffeinated. The editing in particular has characters holding conversations where every line is in a new location, implying an added sense of movement. So you shouldn’t be too surprised when the Scott Pilgrim film feels like a whole lot of a little; it’s moving at the speed of light to entertain.

Because of the plot mechanics and oversized cast of characters, Pilgrim can give off the impression of shallowness. It seems like all style and little substance and that’s because the movie attempts to cram an entire series of stories, back-stories, and conflict into two hours. The film version only has enough time to attempt to give Scott and Ramona characterization, though both come across as weak-willed, tentative, and less than charismatic, wondering if either party is worth the trouble. The movie tries to paint over these differences through distraction and force of will. The large cast of supporting players all elbows each other just to be mouthpieces for one-liners. Knives actually comes across as the most complete character, consumed by her infatuation, heartbreak, and then quest for misguided vengeance. She’s somewhat dismissed and yet she is the most developed person on screen thanks to Wong’s endearing and relatable performance. The entire experience of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World can be somewhat fatiguing when there’s little evidence presented for emotional investment. The books supplied the reasons for caring besides the whole underdog angle.

The movie aims to be a battle over love, but it’s not entirely convincing. Scott appreciates Knives because she’s simple, a relationship he doesn’t have to invest much within, something casual and enjoyable while it lasts or until it becomes too taxing. Then he goes ga-ga for Ramona and stalks her, wearing down her defenses. He’s purely smitten with her and willing to do whatever it takes to earn her affections, though he can?t explain why he feels this way. Here’s a note to screenwriters: when characters are asked why they love somebody, do not have them say, “I don’t know.” But for Ramona, Scott is her Knives. He’s something easy that won?t break her heart, an escape from the jerks she’s been dating before. He?s low maintenance. He’s something to pass the time. There’s an interesting dynamic here, made even more complicated by the fact that Scott’s time with Knives blended with his time with Ramona. There was not a clear end point. The movie takes a literal approach to the idea of love being a destructive force of nature. Scott is punished throughout because of his infatuation with Ramona, but he persists despite the bruises. And he doesn’t even really know much about her. There’s an interesting statement somewhere there about the punishment we endure, sometimes foolishly, over the affections of people we may love, or convince ourselves of, but not even like.

It may sound peculiar but I’m paying Michael Cera a compliment by saying his performance in Scott Pilgrim is the least Michael Cera the actor has ever been on screen. Gone is his gawky, awkward, ironic shtick that has fast become the Cera persona in films like Superbad and Year One. Scott is unjustifiably confident in his life’s pursuits, and Cera gets to act cocky and quippy, even if it?s done with a wink. He?s an unlikely kung-fu star but then again he?s also an unlikely leading man. Winstead (Live Free or Die Hard) is cute but plays her part a bit too toned down, like Ramona’s still searching for the right medication combination. Culkin and Pill are both scene-stealers of the first order, doing so with unabashed and flippant sarcasm. Every scene is made better by their presence. Among the evil exes, Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) has plenty of fun as a dim-witted super-powered Vegan bassist (“Vegans are just better than other people”), and Jason Schwartzman epitomizes hipster snark with such relish. The film is exceedingly well cast from top to bottom.

I’ve read some reviews positing that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an elaborate fantasy taking place in the mind of its titular hero, that he blends his knowledge of comics and video games to help make sense of the troubled waters of relationships and lingering hurt from the demise of love. I think that’s a nice explanation but perhaps trying too hard to frame this film as some form of psychoanalytical commentary on modern youth’s interpersonal relationships and the value of love. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is really just a spastic, hip, clever wank that, as presented, gives little room or emotional investment. It?s a blurry, messy, prankish good time at the cinema that doesn’t translate into much more than the equivalent of sensory button mashing (video game reference). It’s fun while it lasts but it doesn’t have much beyond those astounding visuals to make it feel lasting, and I say this as a genuine fan of the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Alas, heavier discussions about the thorny, maddening issues of love are better left to more dramatic, and romantic, movies like Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even WALL-E. This movie is more preoccupied with spinning as fast as it can and then vomiting.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dan in Real Life (2007)

What is it about advice columnists that make filmmakers want to turn their lives upside down? I suppose there’s some karmic twist seeing someone who instructs others fall on their face when it comes to living their own life. I can readily think of several movies, mostly in the romantic comedy and sentimental weepie genre, that all involve an advice columnist who has their life torn asunder by fate. I suppose the extra dose of irony seems less cruel when dished out to someone who, supposedly, has all the answers. Dan in Real Life is an observant and enjoyable movie that centers on the stumbles and joys of the life of cinema’s favorite whipping boy.

Dan (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist raising three daughters on his own. His wife died years ago from an undisclosed illness and ever since he has been trying his darndest to be the best, if not slightly overprotective, dad. His oldest (Alison Pill) is eager for the car keys, his middle daughter (Brittany Robertson) is defiantly insistent upon her undying love for a boy, and his youngest (Marlene Lawston) is the kind of tyke that provides sage wisdom in time of need, usually at the very end of the movie. The lot of them head out to the family home along the Rhode Island coast to spend the week with the extended brood. Dan sleeps in the laundry room, is hated by his spiteful daughters, and forced into a blind date thanks to his concerned parents (John Mahoney, Dianne Wiest).

While Dan is out trying to decompress he stumbled across Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore. They spend hours talking, well Dan does, and suddenly the rain cloud over his head seems destined to fade. He stammers to tell his family the good news when he discovers that his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), has brought his new girlfriend to meet the folks and it’s, surprise, Marie. Dan respects his brother and tries to control his feelings of desire but still cannot help but flirt and pine for Marie, who is all too aware of the under the radar advancements.

I’m actually somewhat amazed at how well Dan in Real Life plays out in real life. The idea of a big family get-together as a source of comedy has been done to death, and this clan exists in an exaggerated world popularized by movies where families have spirited games of charades, robust sing-a-longs, and then perform a talent show complete with decorative furnishing. The family’s emphasis on togetherness plays out in expected wacky scenarios that would be regularly seen on TV sitcoms, but it is refreshing that an entire film based around an annual family reunion instills no fraternal bickering or bitterness. That’s got to be something new, and again, potentially a pure product of the cinema. Dan in Real Life has familiar staples and walks some dangerously sappy territory but the film manages to surprise and amuse because it all comes back to being character-centered. There’s a great scene where Dan is hiding in a shower and Marie is forced, in order to maintain the rouse, to step naked into the shower with him. Dan is thrown into some contrived situations, like the shower scene, but it is his wounded, deferential sensibilities that save him and also save the film from movie-of-the-week trappings.

Director/co-writer Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) knows how much anguish Dan can suffer before pulling back, and it gets to a point where Dan starts to seem like a comic Job (that might be redundant). Of course, like most sitcoms, lessons will be learned and wisdom will be doled out thanks to full and honest communication, and Dan in Real Life is no different in that regard. There’s a level of believability to the film that helps ground it even during the familiar sitcom moments, like the late rush to testify one’s feelings of true love.

Carell isn’t a stranger to drama or comedy with some painful underpinnings to it, just look at his work in Little Miss Sunshine or the brilliant awkwardness of TV’s The Office. He’s very effective at communicating the exhausting exasperation of raising a trio of feisty females. There are some tender moments and Carell plays them well. He just has a physically natural look of sad befuddlement with his droopy yet piercing eyes and those bushy brows, so he knowingly underplays broad expressions and gestures and this works exceedingly well with the film’s un-sensational tone. When Dan does unleash the wilder, sillier side it’s usually a culmination of his pent up feelings; being denied happiness that appears within reach. He is a quietly becoming unwound as he tries to squash the feelings he doesn’t want to extinguish.

Binoche is a famous French actress who has an Oscar to boot, but she is simply radiant in this film and makes her character a prize worth perusing. She has an adorable sense of displacement and she and Carell exhibit a nice chemistry. Even in the tight timeframe, both the plot (3 days) and the film’s running length (93 minutes), Binoche manages to make us believe that someone could fall in love with her so easily.

Dan in Real Life is laid back, affable, and a sweet homespun comedy that escapes the sitcom trappings it very easily could have fallen prey to. What makes Dan so winning, ultimately, is how quietly and unassuming it goes about telling a familiar story of a sad man taking his first steps toward happiness. The movie has a gentle nature to it and succeeds thanks to an effective Carell performance and a really great turn by Binoche. Dan in Real Life is a feel-good drama that seems primarily aimed at adults, at least those with a working knowledge of the terrors of teenagers. This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking but it is heartfelt, somewhat moving, and very easy to like. My advice: give this movie a chance and prepare to be surprised.

Nate’s Grade: B

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004)

There was a glut of teen-oriented princess fantasy films in 2004 but none seemed as artificial, as simplistic, as transparent, and as dull as Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Lindsey Lohan played Lola, a flamboyant new girl at school trying to fit in and find her way. This Disney confection aggressively spoon feeds its life lessons. You can successfully guess the entire plot of this trifle from the first second on. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen has a prolonged musical climax that’s a shameless ploy to set up Lohan as a pop singer and ensnare preteens into buying the soundtrack. When you get down to it and count the life lessons, simplicity, costume changes, and musical numbers, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen isn’t a movie, it’s an awards show patting itself on the back.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Pieces of April (2003)

The set-up for Pieces of April, a low-budget film starring Katie Holmes, is a pastiche of familiar independent film elements so much so that it could across as parody. Holmes plays April Burns, a beleaguered teen living on her own in a grungy New York apartment. Today is Thanksgiving and her family will be stopping by for a grand Thanksgiving meal prepared by April. Her cantankerous mother (Patricia Clarkson) is ailing from breast cancer, and when she tries to think of one good memory she’s had with April, she can only conjure memories belonging to younger daughter Beth (Alison Pill). She also will be introducing her family to her new boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke of Antoine Fisher). April has 24 hours to cook a memorable meal for her family and it could be the last Thanksgiving they spend together.

In the world of independent film, it seems like there’s a whole sub-genre of movies that revolve around chaotic Thanksgiving dinners and dysfunctional families. The holiday setting, her mother’s cancer, April’’s spirited attempts at autonomy in the big city, interracial dating and an apartment complex full of cute oddballs all seem like tried-and-true staples of indie film.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges, writer of What’’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and co-writer of About a Boy. His pedigree would certainly state that he knows something about family drama, and Pieces of April is a nice continuation of his observational humor. Hedges has a skilled confidence in his writing. The characters feel real and we gravitate to their vulnerability and hope. We see every sincere detail of April’s plight to make her family proud. The choice to shoot Pieces of April on digital video adds an extra element of intimacy, like we’re trapped inside a home video.

Holmes gives her best performance to date. April, with patches of bright orange hair and arms enclosed with bracelets, is a sweetly vibrant character. When a neighbor asks about her relationship with her mother, April describes herself as the first pancake. “She’’s the one you’’re supposed to throw out,” another neighbor explains. Holmes’’ performance is like a slow simmer of frustration, optimism and determination that wins your heart. Her more dramatic moments of helplessness and disappointment are quite affecting.

The supporting cast for Pieces of April is top-notch. Clarkson gets some weighty moments as the ailing mother, like when she runs out of the car in tears because she can’t afford one more bad memory with April. She gets the showy part but enlivens every moment. Oliver Platt further feeds my theory of his quest to be in every movie ever. In Pieces of April he plays the put-upon father who frets his wife could pass any moment. Pill shines as the hyperactively cheerful and overachieving Beth. Her cherubic cheeks and glowing smile leave an indelible impression, and makes me question if her face ever got sore from excessive smiling.

Pieces of April is a pleasurable little comedy that’s borderline touching. It’’s not much more than a small slice of family drama, but with excellent writing and strong acting, Pieces of April distinguishes itself as more than a collection of familiar staples, and as a warm and quietly charming homespun comedy with an extra helping of heart.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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