Saturday, September 13, 2014

New movie review: The Skeleton Twins

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play siblings in the new comedy-drama The Skeleton Twins.

There are bonds that can never be broken, and there are bonds that must be broken. As The Skeleton Twins progresses, it becomes clear which are which. It is undeniable that twins Maggie and Milo share the former, but as the movie begins, they have not spoken in 10 years. The intrigue comes less from the dawning realization of what drove this wedge between them and more from the careful mending of the wounds it left.

When we meet Milo, he is living in a cluttered apartment in Los Angeles and seems to be reeling from a breakup with his most recent boyfriend. He blasts his stereo, hops in the bathtub, and slashes his wrists. Across the country in upstate New York, Maggie stares at herself in the mirror, then looks down at a handful of pills. She, too, is going to end it, but moments before she does, she gets a call that her brother is in the hospital. She picks him up and invites him to stay with her and her new husband. He accepts the invitation, and everything else flows from there.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play the titular siblings. Every scene between the two resonates with depth, warmth, and humor, and despite the movie’s dark tone, the pairing of Wiig and Hader cannot help but bring light to the proceedings. Though not portraying solely dramatic or tragic characters, the actors are afforded the opportunity to show new sides to their well-known comic personae.

In particular, Hader infuses Milo with the energy and wit so often indicative of the characters he plays in his films or on Saturday Night Live, but The Skeleton Twins allows him to show what happens to the smartass when the door closes and there is no else left in the room. His go-to tactic of making jokes even in the darkest times reveals a person who wants to make others happy despite his own happiness remaining elusive.

As Milo is released from the hospital, he is reading “Marley and Me.” Maggie arrives and accidentally spoils the ending. He plays the victim, and she feels bad, before he reveals that he already knew how it ends, that everyone knows how it ends. She says, “I see you’ve still got your sense of humor.” He responds, “They can’t take that away from me.” This is another joke, but it also is a moment of raw vulnerability. He is a struggling actor who waits tables and keeps only the company of his fish. All he may have left are his wisecracks.

Maggie is so mired in her rut that even her humor escapes her. Her job is uninspiring, and though her marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson) tethers her to reality, it also causes her no end of guilt. We never see what her days were like before Milo showed up, but Wiig’s performance makes it clear Maggie checked out of her life a long time ago.

The ways she tries to shake herself out of her depression are observational of the limited options she sees for herself and the passive role she plays in her day-to-day interactions. But the more she lies to herself, the deeper into the muck she sinks. Milo comes back into her life at her lowest moment, but it is just the nadir of a low ebb that has gone on since before we can know. She did not get here overnight. She got here over years.

Wilson’s scene-stealing turn as the husband who may be the nicest guy in the world is both hilarious and sad. A genuinely good, generally happy person who plays fantasy football and enjoys The Deadliest Catch, Lance does not belong among these people. His light-hearted optimism is the antithesis of what Milo and Maggie experience, and his persistent upbeat attitude has the effect of rubbing the siblings’ noses in a state of being they could never enjoy.

Though there is some family backstory, including a father who battled depression and lost, the script relies too much on “The Big Event” in their lives that brought Milo and Maggie to this point. Writer-director Craig Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman seem to understand what it is like to suffer from depression and the difficult process of recovery, but they seem at a loss to explain its origins.

Depression is an impossibly multifaceted disease caused by myriad genetic and environmental factors, and it would be a lot to ask for a movie to explain. But by pinning so much of the siblings’ current state to one major event from their teenage years, the movie undermines its potential for exploration and growth, instead settling for deep characters defined by shallow circumstance.

That Hader and Wiig are great in these roles in undeniable, but one gets the feeling that given more incisive material, their performances could have been transcendent. At the same time, the filmmakers clearly set out to make an affecting comedy split evenly between pathos and humor. At that, they have succeeded, and no one can take that away from them.

See it? Yes.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fall film season blasts off: My 10 most anticiapted upcoming movies

With Labor Day weekend upon us and the first film festival of the fall underway in Venice, the summer movie-going season is coming to a close. The comic book movies and young adult fiction adaptations will linger at the box office, and the next Hunger Games sequel is on the horizon, but for the most part, we are approaching the prestige season.

It is that time of year when studios set their sights on the Oscars and break out the kind of high-minded, star-studded films they hope will strike a chord with critics and audiences alike. In other words, it is my favorite time of the year to go to the movies. With that in mind, I put together a list of my 10 most anticipated films set to screen over the next few months. Feel free to chime in with yours in the comments section.

10. Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan (release date: Nov.7)

Nolan is a filmmaker I admire more than love. I appreciate that there is a director of his stature taking the risks he does on the budgets he is given. While I am often lukewarm on the films he makes, I am in awe of his tenacity in getting them made. A new movie from Nolan is reason enough to be excited, but one that deals with space exploration, the fate of mankind and this planet, and the kinds of deep connections that make us human? Count me in.

9. While We’re Young, directed by Noah Baumbach (release date: to be determined)

Baumbach has a tendency to be hit or miss, occasionally climbing too deep into his particular milieu. Those who saw Margot at the Wedding know what I mean. But The Squid and the Whale is among my favorite films, and last year’s Frances Ha was a genuinely surprising delight. Here, he reteams with Greenberg’s Ben Stiller and adds Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver, and the wonderful Charles Grodin, about whom it is impossible to write enough nice things. The cast alone is enough to spark my interest in this admittedly clich├ęd logline: A middle-aged married couple loosens up after meeting a younger couple.

8. 99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani (release date: to be determined)

One of the late Roger Ebert’s favorite young directors, Bahrani specializes in stories of the American Dream and how that dream is pursued and perverted. As such, the story of a man forced to work for the real estate broker who cost his family its home would seem to be right in his wheelhouse. Add to that Michael Shannon, whom I would watch paint a fence, and Andrew Garfield ditching the Spider-man suit, and the recipe is there for a searing portrait of life in the U.S. after the economic collapse.

7. Fury, directed by David Ayer (release date: Oct. 17)

Truth be told, I am a sucker for a good war picture. Any era, any war, plop me down in front of a band of brothers on a mission, and I am yours. Fresh off an Oscar win for producing 12 Years a Slave, Brad Pitt executive produces and stars in this actioner about a tank crew in the last days of World War II. Ayer, perhaps best known as the writer of Training Day and the original The Fast and the Furious, is behind the camera for this one. In his previous directorial efforts, he has displayed an eye for unique visuals and a capacity for intensely claustrophobic action sequences.

6. Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher (release date: Oct. 3)

I am unfamiliar with the source material, other than its status as a megahit bestseller. Fincher is at his best with pulpy thrillers like Seven, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and this one should line up nicely alongside those titles. Rosamund Pike stars alongside Ben Affleck, who having proved himself behind the camera will hopefully have a chance to flex his acting muscles before focusing on his real muscles as Batman.

5. Leviathan, directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (release date: to be determined)

All I have to go by on this one is reputation, but that reputation includes a win for its screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival this year and near-universal praise for this far-reaching tale of human insecurity and weakness. This may be a bit more under the radar than some of the other films on this list, but everything I read about this film suggests it is pure cinema at its best.

4. Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie (release date: Dec. 25)

When people talk about “Oscar bait,” this is the kind of movie they mean: an inspiring true story about an Olympic athlete who also was an honest-to-goodness war hero (Louis Zamperini, who died in July at the age of 97). The film is practically dripping in prestige, but I firmly believe Jolie is not chasing an Academy Award or anything of the sort – after all, she has an acting Oscar for Girl Interrupted – rather the story itself is so compelling that she simply had to tell it. That alone is worth celebrating.

3. Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (release date: Dec. 12)

Anderson is incapable of directing a boring film. I was head over heels for his last effort, The Master, and find myself more intrigued with each new movie he releases. Joaquin Phoenix delivered a performance of stunning power and control the last time these two worked together, and it is intriguing to think what they might pull off this time – with source material from Thomas Pynchon, no less. While Anderson has shown a penchant for strict formalism of late, this film is shaping up to be a return to the pulsing rhythms and gonzo energy of earlier works like Boogie Nights.

2. Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller (release date: Nov. 14)

The notices were stellar coming out of Cannes, where Miller picked up a Best Director prize for his work on this picture, and the buzz around it has only grown louder. Miller made his name with the true crime/biographical film Capote and looks to be returning to that fertile ground once more. Steve Carell looks downright terrifying in the trailer, and this may prove to be the perfect vehicle for Channing Tatum, a wonderfully talented comedic performer, to announce his presence as an actor ready to tackle more serious fare.

1. Birdman, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (release date: Oct. 17)

This sits at the top for a host of reasons, not least among them the reviews trickling out of Venice, which could not be more laudatory. Inarritu’s “Communication Trilogy” (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel) stands among the towering achievements in cinema over the last 15 years. If you have not seen any or all of those films, I urge you to make a special trip to the video store – or more likely get your Netflix queue in order – and block out some time. You will be glad you did. For Birdman, it seems as though Inarritu has narrowed his focus to the mind of one man without sacrificing any of the scale of his previous efforts. Michael Keaton looks to be doing career-best work in the leading role, and I am equally excited by the prospect of supporting turns from Edward Norton and Emma Stone. This is all not to mention the technical prowess of the filmmaking, which I understand is considerable. These films will all have my full and undivided attention, but I will be first in line on opening day for Birdman.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

New movie review: Frank

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, and Domhnall Gleeson star in Frank.
There is a moment toward the end of the great music documentary Westway to the World when the late Joe Strummer is talking about the dissolution of The Clash. His songwriting partner, Mick Jones, had been removed from the band because he had become impossible to work with, and drummer Topper Headon was fired because his drug problems began to interfere with his work.

Strummer and founding member Paul Simonon soldiered on with a new lineup, but the magic clearly was gone. Looking back on that tumultuous time, Strummer has the insight that for whatever problems they had with each other, The Clash were Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon. He says:

Whatever a group is, it was the chemical mixture of those four people that makes a group work. That’s a lesson everyone should learn. Don’t mess with it. If it works, just let it. Do whatever you have to do to bring it forward, but don’t mess with it. And like, we learned that – bitterly.

Frank, the new musical comedy-drama from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, approaches this chemical mixture from another angle and finds a different kind of misery that results from changing the formula. Instead of taking away from the solution, the band fronted by the titular Frank adds an element that does not belong, and as amateur chemists have learned throughout the ages, the result is an explosion.

Light on plot but brimming with anarchic energy, Frank is at once the story of a brilliant artist composing his masterpiece and a talentless hack frustrated by having nothing to say and no way to express it. Michael Fassbender is the artist, Domhnall Gleeson is the hack, and both are pitch perfect in their portrayal of what happens when these two forces collide.

Gleeson plays Jon, a struggling songwriter who takes the advice to write what you know to its logical conclusion, singing ditties in his head about everyone he passes on the street. His lyrics are uninspired, and his musicianship is lacking, but at a low point, he has a chance encounter with Soronprfbs as the band’s keyboardist tries to drown himself in the sea. Jon is recruited for the group’s gig that night. The performance ends in disaster, but with the keyboardist sent to a mental hospital, Frank (Fassbender) invites Jon to join the recording sessions for the band’s album.

The film’s second act takes place entirely at a cabin in the woods where the Soronprfbs will try to capture their particular brand of lightning in a bottle. In addition to Frank and Jon, the band consists of first keyboardist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), angry Francophone guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil), and enigmatic drummer Nana (Carla Azar), as well as manager Don (Scoot McNairy).

I have yet to mention what likely will leave viewers with the most lasting impression – that Frank wears a giant cartoon head at all times. He is loosely based on English comedian and musician Christopher Sievey (to whom the film is dedicated), and Frank’s head bears more than a passing resemblance to a similar piece of headgear worn by Sievey’s most famous character, Frank Sidebottom.

The head is a striking image and a deft metaphor, but it does not define Frank. Frank radiates the energy and brightness of the sun, and everyone else orbits around him like planets caught in the gravitational pull of his positivity and openness. Early on, Jon has many questions about the mask and the man behind it. Don tells him just to go with it and that Frank is the sanest man he knows. This may not be strictly true, and more on this is revealed as the film goes on, but it is undeniable that Frank’s luminance casts beautiful light on everything in his presence.

But where there is light, there is dark and there are shadows. Jon is that darkness and the shadows his growing frustration. Once again, Don offers sage advice – there can be only one Frank – but Jon cannot hear him, his ears filled with mediocre songs and his eyes blinded by delusions of his own brilliance. Everyone wants to be a bright and shining star, and more than that, Jon thinks he deserves to be.

He updates his Twitter, his Tumblr, and his YouTube account with stories of the band’s – and thereby, his own – successes. He uses Soronprfbs to feed his outsize ego, to convince himself that belonging to something great makes him great as well. He never stops to question his own irrelevance to the group. After all, how important is the second keyboardist, particularly when the previous man at the post was replaced by a kid off the street?

In his infinite goodness and optimism, Frank cannot see the threat Jon poses, but Clara can. Gyllenhaal is great against type as a woman who has been wounded and relies on the strength she derives from Frank to carry on. She is skeptical of Jon and antagonistic toward him. She knows how the elements combine and can see that Jon is poisoning the mixture.

Gleeson, whom most will recognize as Bill Weasley from the last two Harry Potter movies, captures the combination of naivety and arrogance that drives so many who want to be artists to try every way they can to express themselves. That Jon has nothing valuable to express will not stop him, but what does is that he lacks the creative instinct to know where to start. It is a cruel irony, and Gleeson is expert at portraying Jon’s frustration with his circumstances.

Frank, on the other hand, is the kind of musician who composes masterpieces seemingly at will. When he sings an impromptu song about a tuft of thread sticking up on the back of a chair, mirroring Jon’s own attempts to sing about the world around him, Frank elevates the improvisation to the level of art. And like Salieri watching Mozart, Jon is filled with awe by what he can see and seething with jealousy over what he cannot create.

As most any actor will tell you, the most important tool a performer has is his face. Here, Fassbender replaces that tool with a big, expressionless head, but his performance shines through no less. If Frank is the shining star around which the film revolves, then Fassbender is the engine that keeps Frank spinning. With masterful control over both his voice and physicality, he brings nuance and subtlety to a character who could easily exist as a sight gag.

For ease of conversation, Frank offers to say his facial expressions aloud, and when he says, “Inviting smile,” you see it because Fassbender’s relaxed posture and soft tone already have made you feel it. It is thanks to Fassbender that as the film goes on, we no longer see the head. We see only the fully realized character behind it. Jon cannot get to this point because when he looks at the head, all he wants to see is himself. But Don is right – there can be only one Frank.

See it? Yes.