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Our Friend (2021)

A sweet and heartfelt true story to friendship that also doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of illness and the elongating circle of grief. Our Friend is based on the life of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) whose life is thrown into turmoil after his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), is diagnosed with terminal cancer. They rely upon their devoted friend, Dane (Jason Segel), for help during the months and years after the diagnosis. The movie jumps around in time, for minimal effect, but does a fine job of laying out the three central characters and their core relationship of love and compassion. Dane is scoffed at by Matt’s friends as a loser who hasn’t gotten his life together, and Dane even contemplates some drastic personal decisions, but he finds a purpose and definition with his servitude, even as it impacts his own outside relationships. I was expecting more attention to the titular “friend” of the title, and it is a slight detriment, but the dramatic core of this movie is solid. The topic of terminal illness can easily veer into soapy, maudlin territory, but the movie is on firm grounding early during a scene where Matt and Nicole discuss how to tell their two young girls that mommy isn’t getting better. Her angry outbursts later and final moments are also unvarnished yet still in character. The acting is quite good overall and there are plenty of one-scene players that leave a favorable and empathetic impression, like Gwendoline Christie and Cherry Jones. The non-linear jumps feel like an attempt to create more meaning than a simple story about friendship will afford and an invitation to sift out connections and parallels. It’s a movie that doesn’t necessarily break away from your expectations as a cancer weepie. You know what you’re headed for. Our Friend is an enjoyable and heartfelt drama with better-than-average performances and overly disjointed editing. If you’re in for a decent tearjerker, give it a try.

Nate’s Grade: B

I Still Believe (2020)

I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.

Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.

As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.

Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.

This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.

The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.

The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.

I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.

Nate’s Grade: C

Collateral Beauty (2016)/ Manchester by the Sea (2016)

collateral-beauty_posterTrauma and grief are common colors in the palette of screenwriting. Wounded men and women overcoming loss and sorrow allow us all an opportunity to learn and heal through someone else’s personal pain and suffering. It’s the movie theater as therapist’s office with art serving as catalyzing event to help those in need. When 2006’s United 93 was released many critics thought it was too soon for a dramatic recreation of the events of 9/11. First, there’s never a right estimation for how long the world of art should wait to respond to shared tragedy, but I argued that United 93 could function as a facilitator for healing for select moviegoers. It helps to be able to live vicariously through fictional characters on screen, and it makes us smile when they overcome those obstacles and give hope to the rest of us. Two new movies have taken very different paths to explore responses to trauma onscreen. Collateral Beauty is a star-studded affair built from a screenplay that sold for an estimated three million dollars. Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance film Festival and blew away audiences with its understated and unsentimental portrait of loss. One of these movies goes big and miscalculates badly and the other delivers one of the better, more emotionally involving films of the year. I think once you hear the premises it’ll be clear which is which.

In Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising guru still reeling two years later from the unexpected death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s become a hermit who furiously rides his bicycle into traffic to tempt fate. He shuns his old friends and minority partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). He also writes angry letters to the concepts of Death, Time, and Love to note his general displeasure. Major accounts are lost because of Howard’s seclusion and now it looks like the whole company might go under unless they accept a stock buyout. Howard refuses to sign off on the purchase, which forces his trio of friends to hire struggling actors to play “Death” (Helen Mirren), “Time” (Jacob Latimore), and “Love” (Keria Knightley). These three personified concepts will converse with Howard to provide an unorthodox therapeutic breakthrough. The actors will be paid handsomely and they relish the challenge. If that doesn’t work, they will record his public feuds with the actors, digitally erase the actors, and make it seem like he’s gone crazy with grief. Along the way, Howard gets closer and closer to talking about his loss in a support group run by the saintly Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a woman also suffering the loss of her child. If the universe is all about making connections, Howard is on a collision course with the fates.

Few films have dropped in estimation so precipitously in my mind as Collateral Beauty. To its credit, while you’re watching the movie you don’t notice as many of the misguided manipulations from prolific screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, Just Go with It). You’re aware of their presence but they don’t remove you from the movie, that is, until you extend further thought on the full implications. Allow me to simply vocalize in print the Christmas Carol-esque premise of this “feel good” holiday movie.t-collateral-beauty

“A group of wealthy advertising executives scheme to get their grieving mentor and friend declared mentally incompetent so they can sell their company. They hire duplicitous actors to pose as metaphysical concepts, engage with Howard in public, and then they will digitally erase the presence of the actors, making it look like Howard fits the lazy man’s definition of crazy. And these people are the heroes.”

The characters give plenty of rationalizations for why they’re forced to set up their supposed friend, mostly about saving the company and saving jobs. Simon especially needs the money and medical insurance with where he’s headed. Howard is spiraling and they worry that he will take down everyone with him. That’s fine, but why do they resort to the outlandish and ethically dubious practices that they do? The hiring of actors seems like a helpful therapeutic exercise on the surface, unless you stop and think about a grieving man badgered by an antagonistic universe. Howard is already exemplifying mentally unsound behavior so I don’t know why the public spats are required. The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. They could have simply recorded Howard in his office for a week while he builds elaborate domino structures just to watch them topple (symbolism!). Even the characters call-out one another for this gaslighting trick. On another note, won’t Howard eventually find out? What if some enterprising digital effects editor has a moral crisis and confesses? This is the equivalent of false documents forged to push the rich old lady into the booby hatch so her scheming relatives could abscond with her vast fortune. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. Yes they have different degrees of guilt but that is tamped down by their moral relativism justifications. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.

I hope the audience is prepared for Smith to be sidelined for much of the movie because Howard is more a supporting character in someone else’s story. Howard is really more a catalyst than a fully developed character. He grieves, he suffers, but his point is how his grief and suffering affect others, which is a strange tact to take. His journey is quite similar to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. He must come to terms with loss, accepting the cruelty of that reality in order to move forward and let others in. Moving on doesn’t mean we forget, especially when that trauma is a loved one’s loss, and Howard holds onto that pain for so long as a means to still feel his daughter’s presence. It’s an acceptable character conceit but it flounders in the movie because EVERYONE simply talks at Howard. Smith’s asked to be teary-eyed and mute for most of the picture. Any significant breakthroughs, developments, or even passing of information occurs from others applying meaning to this sad silent man who must not remain sad.

pegasus_large_t_1581_107191149As a result, the movie pumps up the supporting characters and pairs them with one of the actors. “Death” relates with Simon for him to accept his declining health and to allow his family to know. “Time” relates with Claire over her worry that she’s sacrificed starting a family by prioritizing her career (this is another film world where nobody puts serious consideration into adoption). I need to stop and question this particular storyline. Doesn’t it feel a bit tacky and outdated? It’s also, by far, the storyline with the least attention; we literally see Claire glance at a sperm donor brochure and website for a scant few seconds and that’s it. Then there’s “Love” who relates with Whit to try and get him to repair his relationship with his rightfully angry young daughter after Whit cheated and broke up his marriage. “Love” literally just goads Whit to actually try being a parent and accept some responsibility for his failings. That’s it, and she has to use the incentive of a date to convince him to try and be a better father (Whit sloppily hitting on “Love” definitely lays a plausible peak into why exactly he’s divorced). “Death” and Simon play out the best mostly because Mirren is impishly amusing, and also benefits from naturally being Helen Mirren, and Pena’s character is given the most sincerity. He has the most at stake personally and setting things right for his family is taking a toll. Loeb has given each actor something to do, and the talents of the actors are enough that I was distracted from the overall machinations at least until the very end.

For most of its relatively brief running time, Collateral Beauty has kept to its own form of internal logic and avoided blatantly manipulative calculations for heightened drama. Sure Pena’s first instance of movie cough is an obvious telegraph to more astute members of the audience, but it makes some sense since this is less our real world and more the well-sculpted Movie World. Then the final ten minutes play out and the movie doesn’t just skid, it steers into this skid of counterfeit sentiment. I’ll refrain from spoiling both of the major reveals but they both serve to make you rethink everything. It’s not one of those eye-opening twists but more something my pal Eric and I were dreading in our seats, mumbling to ourselves, “Please please don’t.” These final two reveals are completely unnecessary. They disrupt the tenuous reality of the movie and the balance of tones becomes a mess. It also divulges how overly constructed the screenplay really was, designed to lead an audience to these chosen end points that don’t engender catharsis. It’s about pointing out how clever the screenplay was rather than the emotional journey, a movie in service of its twists. Neither twist serves strong narrative purpose other than to be out-of-the-blue surprises.

collateral-beauty-trailerLet’s get to that ungainly and clunky title. It’s a nonsense pairing of words that’s meant to sound profound but is really just confusing and remains so even though the characters repeat this clumsy phrase like eight times. There’s a conversation where it appears in every sentence, as if repetition alone can make this phrase/idea successfully stick. It doesn’t. I think I understand what it means, or at least what Loeb was going for, but I’m not sure. Madeleine talks about making sure to see all the collateral beauty in the universe, but is this merely a more obtuse way of restating Wes Bentley’s floating plastic bag declaration in American Beauty? Is it a more pretentious way of saying to stop and smell the roses? Here’s where I thought it was going with its meaning: “collateral” in this sense means accompanying and instead of accompanying damages we’re focused on the accompanying beauty, therefore a contemplation of the possible unintended helpful ramifications. This was going to make sense for Madeline since she uses her personal tragic experience to reach out and help others heal through their own tragedies. It’s the long ripples of human kindness reaching out far beyond our initial actions. And maybe, juts maybe, Howard and Madeleine would become romantically linked through coping with their similar heartache and find one another. However, the movie’s real ending torpedoes this interpretation. What we’re left with is a clunky pairing of words that still makes little sense by film’s end.

Collateral Beauty is probably the best-looking Hallmark movie you’ll see at the theaters this holiday season. It’s a gauzy and manipulative endeavor packed with movie stars doing their sad and redemptive best before hopefully cheering you up. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a good group of friends who only want what’s best for you while they take part in a criminal conspiracy to defraud you of your business stakes. That’s because even the most nefarious of behaviors can be forgiven with the right actor to provide a twinkle of the eye, a little swooning musical score to tell the audience how and when to feel, and the backdrop of lightly swirling snowfall. It’s a universe that refuses to allow Will Smith to stay sad and so it intervenes. Collateral Beauty has its draws, namely its core of great actors who each find some point of emotional grounding to their character’s plight. The finest actor in the movie is Harris (Moonlight) who radiates tremendous empathy and a bittersweet serenity. I’d watch the movie from her perspective. To Loeb’s credit, the movie is more grounded and less fanciful than its premise could have lead. It doesn’t sink to the depths of a Seven Pounds (“Do not touch the jellyfish”). Waterworks are shed all around, hugs are evenly distributed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a lump or two in my throat by film’s end. However, its emotional journey doesn’t feel anywhere as revelatory as Manchester by the Sea.

manchester-1Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living out an ordinary existence as a Boston apartment complex maintenance man. His routine is rudely interrupted when he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has fallen deathly ill. On the car ride north to Manchester, Joe passes away. Guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is entrusted to Lee much to his shock. “I was just supposed to be the back-up,” he says to himself to little avail. Lee wants to move back to Boston with his new ward but Patrick refuses, pleading that he already has a life in town he enjoys. Lee is itchy to leave because of his painful associations with his hometown, tracing back several years to a fateful night of tragedy he shared with his current ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee takes on the mantle of parent while trying to ignore the trauma he’s doing his very best to ignore with every fiber of his working-class Bostonian being.

The first impression from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie is just how achingly authentic it feels. We drop in on the lives of these hardscrabble folks and glean important details as we progress, better forming a clear picture as to why they carry such pain with them as penance. In simplistic terms, it’s a two hour-plus journey to reach a point where the main character can openly cry. It’s also much more than that. It’s an incisive character piece on grief and tragedy, a surprisingly funny movie, and an effortlessly engaging movie that swallows you whole with its familiar rhythms of life. There is no formula here for Lonergan. Each fifteen-minute sequence opens the movie up again for further re-examination, especially a middle passage that is truly devastating. It provides compelling evidence why Lee has decided to become a recluse drifting through life. It’s not that Lee is lonely; he’s actively disengaged from all communities and connections. There are three different potential openings with women who seemed flirty and interested that Lee could have capitalized upon, or at least pursued, but he does not. A woman spills a beer on his shirt and squeezes closer to apologize, pleading to buy him a drink. He coolly looks away, ignoring her, and instead chooses to wait until closing time so he can get into a drunken fight instead. Lee would rather feel pain than momentary pleasure.

manchesterbythesea_trailerThe movie is also a poignant father/son relationship told in waves, with as much humor as emotional breakdowns. Lee is trying to fix the situation the best way he can as if it was another clogged drain. He’s thrust into a parental position that he doesn’t feel fits. It’s not that he’s actively evading responsibility as he does try to accommodate his nephew, even driving him back and forth and covering for one of his two girlfriends to sleep over. Lee cannot work in his hometown because of his own lingering pain and also because nobody will give him a job thanks to the reputation he carries. For a long while it feels like Patrick isn’t even registering the death of his father except for his distress at the thought of his father’s body remaining in a freezer until the ground thaws for a burial. He’s trying to live a normal teenage life filled with activity like band practice, hockey practice, and juggling some alone time with his two girlfriends. He seems like a normal teenager with a normal teenage attitude, and that flies in the face of our expectations. Hedges (Kill the Messenger) provides a nice dose of awkward comedy to keep the movie from drowning in sadness. The burgeoning relationship between Lee and Patrick takes on new familial elements and dynamics and each is feeling out that new role. This movie is more than an elegant bummer.

Lonergan has only directed two movies prior to Manchester, both of them insightful, complex character studies with meaty parts for game actors. 2000’s You Can Count on Me cemented the wide appeal and remarkable talents of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Then his follow-up, the criminally underseen Margaret, ran afoul with producers who wanted to trim its near three-hour running time. It was kept in limbo for five long years until 2011 where it met with a degree of fervent critical fandom, including yours truly. Manchester began as a starring vehicle for producer Matt Damon, but when scheduling conflicts got in the way, the project was reworked with Affleck in the lead and Lonergan told the story his creative impulses desired without studio interference. As a big fan of his previous directorial outings, I’m not surprised by the gripping results. He lets an audience draw conclusions from the impressions and pieces he offers, notably with Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) who he refers to as “not an alcoholic anymore.” There isn’t one big obvious scene but we’re given enough pointed clues about Patrick’s history with his mother and why Lee is adamant that his nephew does not live with his mother. The history of characters and their relationships follow this model, layering in further meaning as we continue at a safe distance in our seats. Things aren’t spelled out as they are allowed to breathe, the furtive connections becoming perceptible in time like a message written in the fog of a window. Lonergan has great affection for his characters and their flaws, insecurities, and struggles. This was evident in Margaret where the title character (vividly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) was a teenager exploding with emotions, opinions, and thoughts and Lonergan celebrated her for this fact. I appreciate Lonergan’s refusal to paint in broad strokes with all of his characters.

This is Affleck’s (The Finest Hours) movie and while good the more extroverted performers around him overshadow him. Affleck can be a gifted actor as evidenced with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He has a quiet intensity and a habit of burrowing inside himself to discover something raw and different. His performance feels like he’s trapped in a PTSD shield that saps the life from him. He’s drifting through his life and waiting to die, simply put. Because of his taciturn nature he doesn’t garner any sizeable monologues to spill out all his feelings. He has to use little moments and the nuances of choosing his words carefully. When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat it” those words are loaded with meaning that he can only convey in subtext. When he stops to process that Randi has gotten pregnant from another man we notice the subtle registration of pain and regret, a twinge of memories he’s trying to hold back. Affleck’s performance is very subdued for most of the movie but it’s in the final act where he cannot maintain his well-manicured bubble of resistance to the outside world. When Lee does start to cry, it will earn every ounce of your sympathy.

Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is more presence than character in the movie, but when she does stay long enough she leaves an emotionally gut-wrenching impression. I understand that “gut-wrenching” is a pejorative term but it’s really one of the more uplifting moments in the movie. That’s because her character’s reunion with Lee isn’t one of enmity but reconciliation, allowing her to make amends and say plenty of things that she’s been holding back for years. It’s an unburdening and once Williams starts it’s hard not to feel the flow of tears coming from your own eyes. She is a one-scene wonder, reminiscent of Viola Daivs in 2008 for Doubt, nominated for Best Supporting Actress and well deserving a win for one brilliantly acted scene. Fitting then that Davis looks to be Williams’ chief competition for Supporting Actress this year. I invested even more in this scene because the power of Randi’s emotional honesty almost pulls Lee out. He’s shaking, his voice cracking, and trying to stick to saying the customary conversational tokens that have gotten him through to this point. He’s avoiding confronting reality but the sheer emotive force of Randi almost pushes him to that genuine breakthrough.

If there is one noticeable drawback to such an exquisitely rendered film, it’s that it follows the narrative structure of real life perhaps a bit too faithfully. Life doesn’t normally follow a three-act structure with clearly defined character arcs and a carefully orchestrated system of measured payoffs. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an automatic entry in mumblecore paint drying, it’s certainly less indebted to familiar story structure, which does affect the overall motor of the story. You don’t have a strong sense of its overall direction, an end point, and while the pacing isn’t glacial it can start to feel bogged down in those wonderful New England details of everyday mundane life (how many times do we need to see Lee driving?). There are also probably more flashbacks than necessary to flesh out the characters in an implicit manner. If the movie wasn’t 137 minutes I might accuse it of padding its running time. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film but you feel a certain loss of structure and payoff. In contrast, Collateral Beauty is entirely reliant upon plot machinations and a formula serving a very Hollywood-styled ending. Sometimes maybe an audience would prefer a little more of a driving force and a little more oomph for an ending. While certainly lacking in just about every factor, I’d say that Collateral Beauty does feel more climactic with its conclusion than Manchester, which sort of rolls to a close that makes you say, “Oh, I guess that’s it then.” Sometimes realism can profit from a judicious nudging. Then again with Manchester it’s more the journey and Collateral Beauty is all about the destination.

manchesterWhile ostensibly being about two men overcoming the loss of someone close to them to function in everyday society once more with meaningful personal relationships, there’s quite a wide divide between Collateral Beauty and Manchester by the Sea. One represents a more calculated and morally dubious reflection of trauma as a theatrical game leading to Big Twists that are meant to leave an audience swooning from the magic of reconciliation. While fairly grounded on its own terms for a far majority of its time, Collateral Beauty can’t help itself and steers into a ditch of bad plotting, made even worse by the fact that it puts so much significance on its preposterous final destination. It manages to cheapen the movie as a whole in retrospect as an elaborate parlor trick that rivaled what the ethically challenged heroes of the tale were perpetrating. On the other side, Manchester by the Sea is a carefully observed and intimate portrait of grief and the consequences of self-destructive detachment from a larger world of compassion. The acting is terrific and lived in, authentic to its core and stuffed with meaningful details that Lonergan leaves to his audience to formulate. However, some of its indie auteur sensibilities do have a somewhat negative impact on the pacing and ultimate conclusive nature of the movie. It’s not that the film is open-ended; it’s just a “life goes on” kind of ending that doesn’t exactly inspire the strongest feelings of satisfaction. Grief will always be a topic that attracts filmmakers and especially actors because of its inescapable drama, stakes, and general relatabilty. I only implore any readers that if you’re trusting filmmakers with two hours of your emotion, make sure they earn that privilege.

Nate’s Grades:

Collateral Beauty: C

Manchester by the Sea: A-

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Me-and-Earl-and-the-Dying-Girl-trailer-della-commedia-premiata-al-Sundance-1In many ways Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels like the perfect specimen that was programmed and brought to life in some mad scientist Sundance film lab. It’s got a hip point of view, a meta commentary on its plot and the directions it doesn’t take, style to spare with lots of self-aware camera movements, and even Wes Anderson-styled intertitles and colorful visual inserts, including stop-motion animation. It’s about two amateur filmmaking teenagers, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (R.J. Cyler), who befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to have terminal leukemia. The movie has a good heart and it deviates from convention with its storyline, though it has to stop and add narration to point out how it does this, like it demands a pat on the back for not being a “typical cancer weepie.” The big problem is that we’re stuck with the perspective of Greg, who is the least interesting character and just trying to stay invisible. He has a low opinion of himself and his friendship with Rachel will somehow make him a better person. Earl and Rachel are both tragically underwritten but valiantly played by their actors. The annoying aspect is that Greg makes everything about him and so does the movie. The supporting parts are broadly portrayed and fit awkwardly with the larger setting, like Greg’s overenthusiastic teacher, Rachel’s lush of a mother who seems one drink away from committing statutory rape, and Greg’s mom, who forces Greg to hang out with Rachel, even though they were acquaintances at best, because the plot demands it. The script by Jesse Andrews, based upon his YA book, sets up the completed tribute film as an emotional climax that cannot be met, and the abstract movie results prove it. This is a likeable, funny, and entertaining indie with a sense of style and wit. It’s good, but it could have been better. I wish the “Me” had been removed from its title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

fault-our-stars-movie-posterWith a premise involving two teenagers with terminal cancer, you’d be correct to assume that The Fault in Our Stars is a sad experience. It wants to be an unsentimental version of the Big Cancer Weepie, like a more hip version of Love Story. It wants to obliterate your tear ducts but in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes from an overdose of maudlin material. Based upon John Green’s international best-selling young adult novel, the doomed romance of the year has already devastated millions of moviegoers. Is it the feel-bad movie of the summer with a soundtrack Zach Braff would approve?

Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl dealing with lung cancer. She lugs around an oxygen canister to her group therapy sessions, really to everywhere she goes. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) try and give her enough space, try to make her feel like a normal teenager, but they all know what is coming. Then one day at group therapy she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a tall, handsome, effortlessly confident young man in remission himself (he had a leg amputated from cancer). Gus hones his sights on wooing Hazel, winning her over. She resist at first but then finds herself falling for the charming fella (“I fell for him like falling asleep; at first slowly, then all at once.”).

A Fault In Our StarsWith constant life and death stakes and the certainty of a young life, it would be easy for the film to go overboard with its emotional histrionics, and yet the real grace of the film is its more realistic approach to portraying this life. It just doesn’t seem fair for someone so young to be stricken with a deadly disease that will pluck him or her from the Earth before settling into adulthood, but these things happen. Hazel and Gus are characters that aren’t begging for sympathy or even special treatment; they’re tired of being treated like lab specimens too fragile to be left on their own. It’s easy to lose the person when the outside world completely identifies them as afflicted. The skill of this movie is that it’s heavy with drama and sadness but it doesn’t quite overwhelm, at least until the last act. Until then, much like the characters, the movie finds the moments of happiness, connection, and tenderness with human contact. You feel the bursts of nerves and excitement over the flirty connection between Gus and Hazel. You’ll enjoy the couple-y moments they share, finding their own identity as a pair, like claiming “okay” as their own secret coded language. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy over that first kiss. It’s a winning pairing that produces a steady stream of sweet exchanges and discoveries. This is something of a silver lining movie that can make you ruefully smile through your tears.

But as a Big Cancer Weepie, and with two suffering lovers, there is a definite cloud that hangs over the entire movie. You’re nervously waiting for some sort of turn for the worse. From a storytelling standpoint, I think every ticket-buyer knows with two cancer-stricken leads that at least one of them will be dead before the end credits. And so we wait for the bad news, wait for that other shoe to drop, and this unsettling dread permeates the first half of the movie, tainting all those happy couple moments. Gus and Hazel have several cute moments, but I found myself holding back, waiting for the proverbial hammer to drop on their small shared happiness, and sure enough it will come. The entire third act is dominated by one character’s descent into terminal. For the sake of spoilers I won’t say which, though readers with keen analytical skills can likely guess which of the pair is more expendable from a plot standpoint. It’s at this point when the movie transitions from sad to full-blown weepie, looking to draw out every last tear. With the diagnosis set, our couple heads toward that date with oblivion, and we get all sorts of weight heart-to-hearts, teens grappling with their own legacy, and even a practice funeral for friends to say exactly how much the soon-to-be-departed loved one mattered. Every step is wrung out, even to the point of one last letter/message before death that serves as the closing, considerate voice over. It’s hard to resist the cumulative effect of all these big dramatic plays at your emotions (I got teary at several points but held my ground).

The question arises at what point is this blatant emotional manipulation? The first half of The Fault in Our Stars finds a balance between the heaviness and the levity of first love, grounding its characters and their emotional highs. However, with that aforementioned turn of sullen events, the plot then becomes one long series of Sad Ruminations. What will the friends do without their pal? What will the family do? What does this harsh realization do to other terminal characters and their own family relationships? What about coming to grips with certain death? And then there’s the practice funeral. For a movie and a set of characters that refused to dwell in a pit of sadness, that’s all that the second half of the movie feels like. It also feels like the two-hour-plus plot is overextended to squeeze in one sad ruminating scene after another. In a way, it reminded me of the onslaught of emotional punishment that was the last act of Marley & Me, an otherwise enjoyable movie that devastated every dog owner by its conclusion. It feels a bit much.

fault-in-our-stars-movie-trailer-twitter-reactions-mainAnd this leads me to another issue with the adaptation process, namely that Gus is actually a character with little depth to him. He’s a smiling, immensely likeable figure who doggedly pursues Hazel and falls for her hard. But what is he as a person? He’s overly confident, compassionate to others, witty, charming, but these are more superficial descriptions than deeper analysis. I suppose one could argue he’s just decided to embrace life smiling, but for the most part Gus comes across as a prime figure of squishy wish fulfillment. He’s too good to be true, and with a lack of stronger characterization, that’s the way he plays. Now, I certainly liked the character and found Elgort (Divergent) to be a charming lad, but when the film transitioned to sadder territory, my feelings felt blunted. I would have felt more for this couple had Gus felt more like a real person.

It’s a good thing then that Hazel is the protagonist and main point of view, especially when Shailene Woodley as lead actress. I’ve raved about Woodley before, particularly last year’s underrated Spectacular Now, but every new leading performance is further proof that she is one of her generation’s best young actresses. There is no artificiality in this woman’s body. Her performances are master classes in exuding naturalism, blending into the character, finding subtle ways to express a wide range of emotions; seriously, this woman can express so much just with a tilt of her head and the right kind of smile. Woodley is terrific once again, instantly locking in your sympathy. Her trial of love and suffering run the danger of being heavy-handed but Woodley seamlessly anchors the movie, guiding the audience back to her sphere whenever things get too overwrought. When she tears up, I teared up. When she unleashes a howl of grief, I had to fight every impulse in my body to join her. Her chemistry with Elgort is suitable if unspectacular, but Woodley sells every emotion and without a hint of artifice. If she were in a Big Cancer Weepie, you’d never know it given the skill of her performance.

I can’t imagine there will be much surprise for anyone who watches The Fault in Our Stars. Two young lovers with terminal cancer have a way of writing itself. What separates this story from other sappy tearjerkers is its presentation and perspective. This is a movie that flirts between jaded and maudlin, scoffing at the overt sentimentality of grief culture yet finding a middle ground that feels humane and honest and earned. Woodley’s strong, emotive performance helps ground the film even when the long string of manipulation begins. I wish Gus was a stronger character rather than a charming romantic compliment, a dream boyfriend who indeed comes across as too good to be true. I wish the movie also would not get swallowed up by the heavier elements it found balance with before. With all that being said, this is an engaging drama first and an amiable romance second. You may see the end coming from the start, but the same can be said about all of us. We all know how our own story is going to end. The only difference is the people we touch in between the start and the stop. That is our lasting legacy. The Fault in Our Stars is more a journey than a destination, and it does enough right with enough sincerity and intelligence to endure the pain.

Nate’s Grade: B

50/50 (2011)

50/50 is based upon the experience of screenwriter Will Reiser, a writer for HBO’s Da Ali G Show who contracted cancer before his 30th birthday. Reiser’s real-life travails with his buddy Seth Rogen (who serves as executive producer) through the good times and bad. I guess when you get cancer it helps to have an established movie star as your good friend. It also helps when you write a terrific script, which Reiser has accomplished. Originally titled I’m With Cancer, I guess the studio felt that a movie with “cancer” in the title was a hard sell to mass audiences (On a related note, Showtime’s comedy-drama The Big C, about Laura Linney finding the humor through cancer treatment, was previously titled The C Word. I don’t know about you, but when I heard “the c word” the first thing that comes to mind is not “cancer.”). Even with a more oblique title, 50/50 manages to walk between comedy and drama with flair. It’s probably the funniest movie you’ll ever see about cancer. Definitely funnier than My Sister’s Keeper.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a relatively healthy 27-year-old. He likes his job writing for a Seattle National Public Radio station. He likes his girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), an aspiring painter. He likes his best friend, Kyle (Rogen), a dude prone to speaking whatever is on his mind. Then one doctor’s visit changes everything. Adam has a very serious form of spinal cancer. He begins chemotherapy to try and stop the tumor’s growth. Rachel drives him to his hospital treatments, helps him during his long nights of nausea, but ultimately it proves too much to bear. She leaves him. Luckily, Adam has a young therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), helping him put his life in order. Adam’s chances of surviving this rare cancer are exactly as the title proclaims, 50/50. As he comes to grips with the measures needed to survive, Adam finds himself growing closer to his therapist in a completely unprofessional degree.

50/50 may be the least sentimental movie I can recall about the realities of living with cancer, and that is its greatest attribute. That doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t cover serious issues in a flippant manner. Instead of hitting cheap sentiment and milking cancer for easy tears, the movie, thanks to Reiser’s sharp script, forgoes false feelings and finds something more rare and true. There’s no real playbook for something as unexpected as a person in their 20s being diagnosed with terminal cancer. It seems like a cruel irony to be stricken with an illness so young. Adam doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t even drive due to the danger. He’s pretty mild-mannered and a bit of a pushover. Adam tries to not let cancer get to him, to shrug off the heavy implications, and to just make it seem like any other personal setback. If he doesn’t treat it like a big deal, maybe it won’t be and his friends and family can follow his lead. This kind of self-manufactured blasé attitude, even in the face of cancer, seems like an apt approach for a younger relaxed generation. Naturally, this denial-heavy approach doesn’t exactly work. It’s too easy to confuse numbness with acceptance. Fortunately, Reiser does not let his story slip into easy maudlin theatrics. We don’t need anybody reminding us, or Adam, how serious his situation is. On the other hand, we also don’t need anybody moralizing about any self-help slogans. Not everyone sees adversity as a blessing into Discovering Who You Truly Are. Reiser refrains from his characters making anything approximating Big Life Statements. Cancer does not lead to automatic personal epiphanies. If it did, we’d have a lot more people inhaling carcinogens and volunteering to work in the Chernobyl ruins.

50/50 doesn’t ignore the sometimes odd and dark humor that arises from life’s predicaments. That means this is the only cancer movie where the guys try and use the disease as a way to convince girls to sleep with them. At no point do I remember this occurring with Terms of Endearment or Beaches. And this opportunistic babe hunting doesn’t make the boys come across as sleazy. Adam can’t even enjoy the one-night-stand as his back pain robs him of the pleasure of his nubile well-wisher. The tone is very controlled. The raunchy comedy is not a distraction; at no point does any situation feel like a comedic setup. The comedy comes from the characters being genuine to who they even through the trying circumstances. If your friends are funny, chances are they’ll still be funny talking about cancer. The humor doesn’t make light of things nor does it just play everything for laughs. Humor is how we humanize, how we make the insurmountable digestible.

50/50 also treats its characters with a bittersweet sense of reality; these people are flawed and relatable. They are not instantly made into self-actualized saints thanks to cancer. Adam’s girlfriend actually breaks down because she cannot handle the extra responsibilities and emotional wear and tear. Their relationship fizzles. This seems far more realistic considering many people will feel like they did not sign-up for sleepless nights, 24-hour care, and watching their loved one waste away. It’s a strong individual that can endure that kind of collateral pain, but the movies make it seem like every romantic partner is unnaturally selfless. They become ideal partners, but really most of us would just bail. Reiser easily could have easily written his ex-girlfriend as an insensitive shrew. While she does cheat on the guy, thus making her easy to dispel, Howard makes her vulnerability relatable. She even comes back trying to make amends, forcing kisses upon him to weaken Adam’s resolve. Kyle relishes the opportunity to finally be able to tell off Rachael, a girl he admits to disliking from the start. I don’t get the instant hate, but maybe it’s my complete adoration for Howard even when she’s playing a bad girl that blinds me to her offenses. To dismiss her as a “bitch” seems unfair. How would you react if your boyfriend/girlfriend were suddenly diagnosed with cancer? Could you last?

I found all of the characters to be empathetic and relatable (though a lead who waxes about the glory days of radio and works for NPR seems a bit hipsterish), especially in their personal struggles surrounding Adam’s illness. Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), can be overbearing and would have easily been kept as a caricature in other movies. In 50/50, the film examines her own struggle – a husband with Alzheimer’s who can’t talk to her and a son with cancer who chooses not to talk to her. The isolation she feels, the loneliness, always putting other people’s needs ahead of her own, this is culmination of the caregiver, a role as I’ve stated that too often gets canonized. In 50/50, the reality of living with illness is dealt with in a meaningful manner. The people surrounding you are also affected by your illness. You cannot shut them out to spare them from pain. Adam realizes this too as the film progresses to its moving conclusion.

The heart of 50/50 concerns two sets of relationships. The one that will catch the most attention is Adam’s budding romantic relationship with his therapist. Their romance feels like it emerges naturally, albeit in a slightly hurried up pace for our small timetable. It’s a romance built upon the chemistry of the two actors, the strength of their individual performances, and the fact that Reiser forgoes anything obviously romantic. He cleans out her car. She gives him a ride home. It’s little things that seem like they matter on a personal level, not the outsized theatrics of romantic gestures. The movements are small but they add up, and we can feel it too. So when Adam, at his lowest point, calls her and says, filter down and radiating in emotion, “I bet you’d be a good girlfriend,” it’s a moment that feels earned. I also greatly appreciated Katherine’s own insecurity about being a therapist. Too often movies depict therapists as omniscient beings that have a fortune cookie answer for all of life’s mysteries. Kendrick hides behind evaporating smiles as her character’s defense mechanism. In 50/50, we get to see a character that is honest about her insecurities about a job that advises others. It’s refreshing. The other main relationship is between Adam and his best friend, Kyle. His best buddy is his spark, the guy who gets him out, who shakes him from moping around. He cares but goes through unorthodox methods to show that care, including trash talking and ball busting. He remains likable to his shaggy core because he has Adam’s best interests in mind, even if that means scoring with girls.

Director Jonathon Levine (The Wackness) gives the movie an improbably beautiful look. This is one cancer comedy that is simply pleasing to watch for the cinematography alone. He doesn’t overpower the narrative with self-aware visual touches, though there is one that stands out. When Adam receives the news from his doctor, the audio becomes distorted after the shocking word “cancer” is uttered. The picture becomes blurred. The world seems to have been swept away. I imagine this sonic body blow is pretty much how Reiser recalls receiving the news, and if not it still feels authentic. The score by Michael Giacchino (Up, Super 8) is subtle and doesn’t intrude too often, ably assisting the drama instead of smothering it.

50/50 is an unsentimental film that manages to be moving and genuinely entertaining on its own terms. It can be rude but that doesn’t mean it lacks sincerity. The characters and their dilemmas feel all too relatable, even the ones we hope don’t become us. The 50/50 production has followed a subdued edict, forgoing sappy melodrama and easy pathos. These emotions are earned the old fashioned way, through characters we care about and drama that feels truthful. The mixture of the course and sweet gives the film a decidedly Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) flavor even though his name is nowhere to be seen. Gordon-Levitt, who at this point can do no wrong in my eyes, gives one of the best performances of his already accomplished career. The comedy, lead by Rogen’s obnoxious best friend, keeps the movie from being bogged down in melodrama. It’s the only way to stay sane, and 50/50 recognizes this and delivers a film that earns its tears and laughs.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Last Song (2010)

Miley Cyrus is tragically miscast and way out of her depths in this mawkish drivel. I don’t really understand the appeal of Billy Ray Cyrus’ achy-breaky star progeny. The girl’s all teeth. Her acting repertoire from her gigantically popular Disney TV series and movies has lead Cyrus to the motto that bigger is better. She plays every scene much louder and bigger than required, mistaking volume for drama. I don’t think (right now at least) that she has the acting capabilities to carry a drama, let alone a drama weighed down by so much overly serious, heavy-handed material. But then heavy-handed is a Nicholas Sparks trademark, same with someone dying of a terminal disease by film’s end (the streak continues). What’s remarkable about The Last Song‘s ineptitude is that Sparks wrote the screenplay and the novel at the same time, tailoring it specifically for Cyrus. The part was written with her in mind, which makes the failure even larger. Cyrus cannot do teenage angst to save her life. If you wanted a moody, angst-driven, hip-to-be-square, believable young actress, then they should have hired Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). Cyrus is a troubled teen who mopes all summer, forced to spend time with her divorced father (Greg Kinnear, fighting to find some dignity in the film) before, well, you can guess where we’re headed. For melodrama, it all comes across as fairly dull and sterile (PG-13: wrestling in mud, PG: throwing mud). What’s even worse is that the titular “last song” Cyrus performs to honor a fallen loved one is powerfully bland. And yet I have the sneaking suspicion this stab at expanding Cyrus into adult roles could have been much worse. As it is, The Last Song is a sudsy dud.

Nate’s Grade: C

My Sister’s Keeper (2009)

How could a movie about dying children be so schlocky? The best-selling Jodi Picoult novel, My Sister’s Keeper, is awash in drama but it never tipped the scales into absurd and tone-deaf melodrama. How does one botch a tear-jerker? You need only watch the big screen version of My Sister’s Keeper for a primer on how to turn a complicated, challenging book into maudlin mush (hint: make sure to have a sizeable budget for obtaining music rights for endless montages).

Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is dying from cancer. Her little sister, Anna (Abigail Breslin), was conceived by her parents, Sara and Brian (Cameron Diaz, Jason Patric), to be a genetic match. Anna was born so that she might be “spare parts” for her ailing big sister. Jesse (Brennan Bailey), is the oldest child, and his needs have been overlooked because of Kate’s illness. Anna’s life has been one of prodding and pricking and testing and operations. Then one day, Anna consults with high-powered lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). She wants to sue her parents for the rights to her own body. She’s tired of undergoing numerous medical treatments. She wants a life of her own, something more than being “spare parts.” Needless to say, Sara and Brian are horrified. Anna clearly loves her sister but by refusing to donate a kidney she is signing her sister’s death notice.

The movie strikes one false, heavy-handed note after another. There is rarely a moment that feels authentic or genuine; everything comes across as powerfully manipulative and cloying and contrived and like a tuneless melodrama. Things are cranked to such a high degree of overkill. I swear to you that, no joke, at least seventy percent of the scenes in this movie involve somebody crying. People don’t argue, they flail and shout until they go hoarse. There is nothing subtle to be found here. I didn’t feel emotionally invested in these characters and one of them is a freaking teenage girl suffering with cancer! The first half of the movie feels far too rushed, and the majority of scenes last under two minutes, meaning that the plot lurches forward but the film fails to round out and establish its central characters. The movie’s idea of covering up its screenwriting shortcomings and lackluster character development is to produce an extended music montage. There are over five music montages (I lost count) and it possibly takes up a fifth of the movie’s total running time. I don’t know about you, but watching characters smile and laugh set to music that is so painfully on-the-nose literal does not make due. After so many matching lyrics, I was waiting for a song to literally describe everything I was watching on screen, like, “Heaven/We’re all gonna go/You’re gonna go sooner/Because you’re a little girl with cancer/Don’t you think your mother’s crazy?/So what’s on TV?” Is it better drama to hear a somber cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? It’s just one of several flimsy filming decisions that rip you out of the story and make it perfectly obvious that you are watching a movie, and a poor one at that.

There is just way too much material here for it to succeed as a streamlined, two-hour weepie. There are complicated moral issues here about exploiting one child in efforts to save another. Grief can transform the nucleus of a family in small ways. This requires a delicate adaptation and this movie is certainly not it. This is an adaptation that alternates between syrupy music montages and falling anvils. My Sister’s Keeper is beset with convoluted flashbacks, and I often was confused as to where in the timeline several of the scenes were taking place. Is this before or after Sara shaved her head in solidarity? Is this before or after she Katie starts chemo? There are multiple characters that share voice over duties, often just offering up a line or two. What’s the point of having Jesse announce in voice over, “I wondered how much trouble I was gonna be in,” when he sneaks into his house late at night? Could we not communicate this effectively without the added voice over? And only for a single line? This is just shockingly lazy writing and proof that the filmmakers have no trust in their audience. In fact, Jesse as a character is entirely pointless. He adds nothing to the story except to make things more confusing. Why does he sneak out at night to drink milkshakes in downtown L.A.? Why are judges unclear why a lawyer of such fame and stature as Campbell Alexander has a helper dog? There are intriguing dramatic setups that just get overlooked. What kind of life goes on in a family home when one child is suing their parents? Show me this stuff.

By far, the only believable part of this mawkish mess is a lengthy flashback to Kate’s boyfriend, Taylor (Thomas Dekker, sporting a good-looking dome if you ask me). This is the only segment that’s allowed to breathe and feel naturally developed. It is during this tender sequence where Kate feels like a character instead of a broadly drawn sketch of Cancer Girl. The interaction between Kate and Taylor is sweet and relaxed, until an obvious conclusion that has to spoil Kate’s small hold on happiness. The supposed twist ending is predictable and nullifies the court battle, which makes the ethical struggle of bio-engineered babies just a plot gimmick. In the end, I got the overwhelming impression that the screenwriters, Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) and director Nick Cassavetes, are projecting. We conclude on one character’s voice over, remarking, “I don’t know why she died. I don’t know why what happened happened. I don’t know why we did the things we did.” It’s like a thinly layered confession by the screenwriters that they were clueless. Any tears that manage to squeeze out are unearned and are only the byproduct of such gloomy material.

The acting is typical of such hyperactive melodrama. Diaz fares the worst as the overprotective mom who fights tooth and nail to save her daughter at the expense of everybody else. She’s abrasive and grating even when the movie tries to make her sympathetic. Diaz can do drama and can even manage understatement, as she showcased in the criminally underappreciated 2005 film, In Her Shoes. Cassavetes only knows how to direct actors when they’re being histrionic and unrestrained, as Alpha Dog and John Q. prove. The rest of the cast slogs through the overwrought material with plenty of tears to bailout the Kleenex industry. The lone bright spot amongst the cast is Vassilieva (TV’s Medium) who makes you feel her pain and manages to, at times, cloud your mind that you’re being shamelessly manipulated.

My Sister’s Keeper is supposed to be one of those moving, heart-tugging episodes that allows us all to re-evaluate life. The movie, in actuality, is a maudlin and overstuffed melodrama (cancer kids, dysfunctional families, court disputes, secret schemes, last wishes, etc.) that is so poorly executed that it manages to make Lifetime movies look like grand art. Cassavetes grounds down all the tricky ethical questions and tortured feelings down into simplistic soap opera gunk. Nothing feels genuine or honest, everything comes across as incredibly forced and contrived, and enough with the music montages. Hitting the soundtrack button does not erase screenwriting deficiencies. My Sister’s Keeper is a malformed, overwrought, clunkily insensitive excuse to empty audience tear ducts. I suppose indiscriminate fans of the weepie genre will find the material forgivable, though fans of Picoult’s novel will find the changes to be unforgivable. I like my emotions to be earned and not strangled to death.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Fountain (2006)

After six years of anticipation, I cannot escape my crushing disappointment with writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited follow-up to one of my favorite films, Requiem for a Dream. While the film manages to be visually resplendent, there is no emotional involvement at all because of how abbreviated the story is. This thing barely covers 90 scant minutes and, this may be the first time I’ve ever said this, but The Fountain needed to be an hour longer, minimum. The separate time frames bleed into each other and there’s a lot of repetition, but then we discover that the cutaways to the 16th century and the visions of the LSD-heavy future are simply side trips detailed in a book. The real meat of the story is on one man losing the love of his life to illness and how they come to grips with eventual loss; however, I can’t feel any empathy when he movie fails to take any time to set up characters. Aronofsky keeps things interesting, and rather weird, but this romantic fable ends up being nothing more than a misguided folly thanks to a total lack of breathing room for the characters to live. This was probably my single biggest disappointment of all the 2006 movies.

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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