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Don’t Look Up (2021)

A scorched Earth satire that flirts with a literal scorched Earth, Don’t Look Up is writer/director Adam McKay’s star-studded condemnation of everything stupid and myopic in media, politics, and pop culture. Jennifer Lawrence plays a doctoral student who discovers a comet heading for direct cataclysmic impact with Earth, and she and her astronomy mentor (Leonardo DiCaprio) are trying to sound the alarm but nobody seems to be listening. Not the president (Meryl Streep) and her inept chief of staff/son (Jonah Hill). Not the greedy CEO (Mark Rylance) of a tech company. Not the media where morning TV co-hosts (Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry) are more compelled by music star breakups than pressing science. It makes a person want to stand up and scream about priorities, and that’s McKay’s point, one that will be bludgeoned again and again. This movie is animated with seething rage about the state of the world and the cowardice about facing obvious problems head-on. It’s fit as a climate change allegory but COVID-19 or any scientific crisis could be applied as well. It’s about choosing ignorance and greed, about deferring to our worst instincts, and those in power who profit from inaction. I laughed at several points, some of it good cackling, and the movie is dark to its bitter end. This is the bleakest movie of McKay’s foray into his more sober, activist movie-making (The Big Short, Vice). It’s less Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, exploring the foibles of humans reconciling their last moments of existence, and more Idiocracy, where there is a lone voice of reason and the rest of the population are aggravating morons that refuse to accept reality even if it literally means just looking up with their own eyes. In some ways, the dark laughter the movie inspires is cathartic after years of COVID denials and mask tirades and horse medicine. The satire is bracingly blunt but also one joke on repeat. If you’re the right audience, that one joke will be sufficient. I don’t think the movie quite achieves the poignancy it’s aiming for by the end of its 138 minutes, but the anger is veritably felt. Don’t Look Up wants us to save the world before it’s too late, though the people that need to see the movie the most will be the ones fastest to dismiss it. Still, congrats to McKay for making a movie this depressing and relevant for the holidays.

Nate’s Grade: B+

XX (2017)

XX is the first horror anthology comprised entirely of female writers and directors. That’s the most noteworthy thing for this relatively disappointing movie. None of the four main segments are that interesting and several don’t really have endings. The first segment has the most potential, “The Box,” about a child that stops eating after getting a peak inside a stranger’s wrapped gift. The family joins him one by one except for the mother. That’s it. There’s no resolution, one moment of shocking gore, and the rest is straightforward maternal ennui. The second is from musician St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) called “The Birthday Party” and it’s not really horror so much as it is dark comedy with a heaping helping of slapstick. Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness) is an overextended mother who discovers the dead body of her husband on the morning of their daughter’s birthday. She has to go to elaborate measures to hide the body while still juggling all the responsibilities others expect from her. It’s amusing in spurts but is often too obvious. The third segment “Don’t Fall” is the most professionally realized and has some nasty special effects, but it’s nothing more than another throwaway entry in the teens-meddle-with-forces-in-nature-and-are-swiftly-punished subgenre. It’s the shortest segment so that helps too. Finally, Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) writes and directs “Her Only Living Son” which intends to flip the script on the Rosemary’s Baby scenario. The segment reveals its secrets slowly, which makes it a more engaging short to digest. However, it too ends on a perfunctory note. I know there are many talented female filmmakers out there biding their time, waiting for their chance to show their mettle in genre filmmaking, an area that skews heavily male. That’s what makes XX so frustrating. There has to be better material and better filmmakers out there who would kill for this kind of showcase. Maybe next time (XX2?).

Nate’s Grade: C

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

1800It’s the end of the world as we know it and I oddly felt fine… which is not a good sign for your apocalyptic movie. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a peculiar thing, all right. It takes place in the last three weeks of the human race. And lest you think the film wimps out on the promise of its title, think again. I was bemused for the first forty minutes, where writer/director Lorene Scafaria indulges in a series of one-scene vignettes of how humanity comes to terms with the certainty of annihilation. There’s an adult party where people joyfully try heroin, a hit man-for-hire service to bring back some of the mystery of death, and a restaurant where all the workers are spaced out on Ecstasy. I found each of these moments to be funny and a well though-out extension of the premise. But then the film’s diversions give way to the rom-com of our main characters, played by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as your standard manic pixie girl. And the more time I spent with them the more I found myself not getting engaged. My emotional empathy was kept to a minimum; they’re nice people and all but I didn’t find them that interesting. The resulting movie feels like one of the weakest avenues given the premise. I credit Scafaria for not wimping out in the end, but as these characters faced oblivion together, I felt little emotional stirrings in my chest.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Win Win (2011)

After two stellar movies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), writer/director Thomas McCarthy has proven that he may be one of the greatest humanist voices working in cinema today. He writes wonderful stories about people who find connections via unorthodox family units. McCarthy can spin bizarre elements into deeply felt human dramas. Win Win is another hodge-podge of storytelling elements. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a midwestern lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to get by. Then a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer in his acting debut) lands on his doorstop looking to see his grandfather in Mike’s guardianship. The kid also happens to be a gangly wrestling phenom. Things are going great for Mike, that is, until the kid’s mother comes looking for him and wants him back. Win Win assembles a great group of flawed, empathetic, relatable characters that make conflicted choices that they then have to abate. Giamatti is reliably fantastic as the center of McCarthy’s humanist universe. He can communicate so much despair and relief just with his expressions. Teamed up with a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, and Jeffrey Tambor, the movie works best when you can just sit back and take in great actors relishing playing great roles. Win Win doesn’t all come together in the end like other McCarthy films; there’s definitely a missing ingredient feeling to the movie. Shaffer’s limitations as an actor hamper some of the later dramatic moments. The end is satisfying, but I felt like I should have felt more. While it doesn’t strike the same seamless balance of comedy and drama as The Station Agent, this is certainly a film that should be winning for most audiences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Informant! (2009)

Stephen Soderbergh’s comic farce is highly amusing from start to finish. I even watched it twice and still found myself shaking my head and chuckling in bafflement. That’s the best way to describe the tone of the film — baffled laughter. Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitaker, a corporate whistleblower whose grasp on the truth is tenuous at best. Damon’s character is a cut-up and his delusions of being a spy plus his scatter-brained narration are as fascinating as they are hilarious. This guy thinks he’s James Bond. And yet the film, while deeply comic, never comes across as snide or condescending even if most of the laughs come from Whitaker’s disconnect from reality. The film has a deliberately ironic tongue-in-cheek vibe, from the silly yet undeniably jaunty kazoo-aided score by Marvin Hamlisch to even the amber-colored cinematography (like the film was shot through the prism of a honey jar), the movie is an entertaining series of blunders and revelations. Damon is charismatic and deeply funny and Whitaker makes for such an interesting main character exactly because he is so unpredictable and unreliable. He doles out the truth in pieces like a kid caught. The Informant! is light and breezy but with some well-honed psychology of rationalization and self-deception. I don’t know how true this supposed true-life tale really is, but it’s a hell of a fun tale.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Up in the Air (2009)

Up in the Air is the kind of movie that slyly sneaks up on you. This charming comedy is much like George Clooney’s character, a man paid by cowardly bosses to fire their employees. He’s so good at his job that his skills appear effortless, but at the same time he can take heavy subject matter and make you feel better and thankful afterwards. The topical backdrop of corporate downsizing and layoffs could produce plenty of easy pathos, but Up in the Air works expertly on several layers; it’s a brisk, clever comedy with revealing repartee; it’s an adult romance that blissfully lets them behave like mature adults; and it’s a moving character piece about people realizing what they have gained and lost due to their lifestyle choices. When Clooney is fighting back tears from a crushing disappointment over being overlooked to walk his sister down the aisle, it may be the most compactly perfect moment of acting in his career. Throughout director Jason Reitman’s script (he co-wrote the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel), the human element is debated in our technological age. Clooney’s young cohort (Anna Kendrick) wants to simplify by firing people over the Internet. What is the cost of losing our human connection? Reitman doesn’t resort to a stolid happy ending, which is somewhat of a relief. The movie doesn’t present easy answers or pretend that life can be tied up with a bow. Up in the Air is a bristling comedy with an understated emotional current running alongside. It’s racking up tons of awards and deserves many of them, though I won’t get t the point of calling this the best film of 2009. However, Reitman has delivered another deeply entertaining, charismatic, and involving comedy that sprinkles in potent human drama.

Nate’s Grade: A

Away We Go (2009)

Away We Go sort of came and went in the blink of an eye over the summer. Some critics dinged the indie production as being insufferable, hipster, smug, and unlikable. I agree that the plaintive guitar-strumming score grates, and the costumes have that trying-hard-not-to-be-hip coolness, which can be insufferable, but Away We Go is more than just faulty hipster packaging. There is a moving and entertaining drama inside here. The problem is, you have to sift through some of the junk to reach it.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties and about to have a baby. They aren’t exactly hipsters but they have been living a somewhat fringe existence; Verona even points out that they have a cardboard window. Their existence has been mostly ramshackle and now its about to change forever. Burt and Verona decide to journey across the country and reunite with family and old friends. They’re studying widely different family units across the country to discover not just what kind of parents they will be but what kind of family they will be.

Just by the fact that nobody dies at the end, this is a big departure for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). This low-key road trip comedy is quite different from the meticulous prestige pictures associated with the Mendes name. Away We Go is a scruffy, small, and disarming little picture that wants to say something. I was taken aback at how affecting I found moments of Away We Go, though it is only moments. Burt and Verona are not exactly the best equipped to start a family right now, which makes them anxious and nervous, and anxious about not being more nervous. They haven’t exactly matured much since graduated college years ago. But amidst their search for the definition of a “working family” they must accept the uncertainty of life. Burt and Verona have a comfortable interaction, from his upbeat sarcasm to her grounded realism. There’s a great running gag where Burt tries to raise the baby’s heart rate, so his goofy bouts of fake agitation will be immediately followed by a stethoscope and an adorable grin of satisfaction. They are a compatible couple and it is refreshing to see a movie couple that compliments each other in personality. They actually love each other, are good for one another, and are not beset with contrived conflicts. In fact, the movie ends up pretty much exactly where it began, only with a smattering more of wisdom. The lesson learned in Away We Go is that it doesn’t matter what the bumps in life may be, it’s all about who you have as your co-pilot.

Screenwriters and married partners, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, mix in small moments of weight and an overall tone of genial sweetness. The drama and the comedy are given equal share of the script, though the elements don?t mix that often. The funniest moment, by far, is when a little boy tells his mother exactly what he knows about babies (I won’t spoil the guffaw-inducing surprise). There are some quiet yet weighty moments of human observation here. There was a tender exchange between Verona and her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) that had me on the verge of tears. The sisters reminisce about their parents, long dead, and then Grace says that having this baby keeps their parents alive; the sisters can see parts of their mother in the baby’s face. Verona is giving back life to her dearly departed mother and keeping her parents’ legacy ongoing. This lovely thought struck me with such sudden force that I felt overcome with emotion. It could be dismissed as a common sense fact of genetic proliferation, but I had never thought of the birth of a child as a means of keeping the past alive and honored. To me, this is a simple yet wonderful and powerful statement. Another great moment is when Burt and Verona make lifelong promises to each other on a trampoline. Verona doesn’t want to marry, so the scene is the equivalent of the two lovebirds exchanging vows. It’s heartfelt and sincere and well within the bounds of the characters.

What?s frustrating to me is that the movie?s poignancy is undercut by its excisions with grotesque cartoon versions of bad parents. Burt and Verona visit different imperfect family units, but it isn’t until the end of the movie where we see anything resembling a semi-authentic brood. Alison Janney plays an obnoxiously loud parent who berates her children for laughs and accepts the brokenness of children; to her, she can’t fight against genetics and thus gives up parenting. On the flip side, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a narcissistic earth mother who still nurses her children and condemns the very idea of strollers (“I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away?”). In each case, the depicted family is a caricature and readily ridiculed for some easy and snide laughs. Even Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara) are figures set to be mocked for their self-absorbed bourgeois values. In some ways, Away We Go started to remind me of that awful movie North, where a young Elijah Wood travels the globe in search of new parents. At each stop, Wood encounters broad caricatures of different family units. In Away We Go, half of the movie is spent palling around with repulsive idiots who overstay their welcome fast. What’s even more frustrating is that the script becomes locked into a pattern, meaning that we spend the same amount of time (10-15 minutes) with each family. This is not helpful when Burt and Verona finally reach the relatable families, in Montreal and Miami, then the movie shortchanges the palpable drama. In Miami, Burt’s brother has had his wife run out on her family, abandoning their daughter. We’ve finally reached interesting and complex character, each with an aching sadness just below the surface about the hardships of parenthood, and the movie has to keep on moving because we spent too much time with the crazies for easy laughs. You’re supposed to spend more time with the good stuff, not the bad.

The noisy, exaggerated supporting characters are balanced by the believably baffled Krasinki (TV’s The Office) and Rudolph (Idiocracy). He’s effortlessly charming and Rudolph plays her character with subdued texture, uneasily taking everything in for due consideration. Both actors are likable and we grow in empathy with them as they go from stop to stop. The couple is so charismatic that it makes the drama-free reality of functionality forgivable. The rest of the cast play their parts to the hilt, but special consideration should go out to Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!, Heavenly Creatures) who plays the mother of a large adopted clan of kids in Montreal. Her problem is that she cannot conceive and she’s endured five horrible miscarriages. Her slow and melancholy dance around a stripper’s pole is heartbreaking, and that?s something I thought I would never write in my life.

Despite some missteps, Away We Go is a sweet and affectionate little movie that fights against being overly twee and precious. It’s definitely not sentimental but at the same time it rejects cynicism and detached irony, embodied by the compatibility of a couple that truly love each other. At the same time, the movie can be annoying with its loud side characters that act as distractions. The best moments in Away We Go are the small ones centered on Burt and Verona. It’s those handful of small moments that pierce your heart. It’s strange but after writing this review, I realize that I like the good moments even more and the bad moments even less. It’s like Away We Go has become more entrenched in my mind. This is a sometimes promising, sometimes frustrating, drama that knows enough about life to not settle for easy answers. If only it didn’t settle for easy jokes with stupid characters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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