Archive | August, 2011

The Future

31 Aug

Title: The Future
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Miranda July
Writer: Miranda July
Starring: 
Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warhofsky
MPAA Rating: 
R, some sexual content
Runtime: 
91 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
6.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 
75%

 

Miranda July is a very polarizing figure. People seem to either totally revere and adore everything she does, or they seem to be unable to really embrace it. I fit in enthusiastically in the former group, I really love her stuff, her debut film, 2005’s Me You and Everyone We Know I ranked as my 23rd favorite film of that year, though I probably would give it an even higher spot if I redid my rankings now, and her short films and books and short stories are pretty damn amazing as well. So yeah, I was part of the bunch of people that was seriously looking forward to see The Future, and, much like it could have been expected, this is a film that will indeed polarize people’s opinions. Personally, I loved it, it had all those whimsical elements you can now expect from Ms. July and applied them to this awesome and rather dark exploration of life, and I thought it worked tremendously, but just like I loved it so intensely, I can also see rather easily how some people could find this whole film a bit too challenging an experience.

But you really do have to be open to this film to fully fall in love with it like I did. I mean, yes, the film is so wonderfully constructed and thoughtful and witty, but it’s also easy to see why the first part may be frustrating to some who will undoubtedly think it’s all too overrefined. But if you allow to really lose yourself and stop being to judgmental you’ll only feel yourself incredibly drawn to it, totally enchanted by its effect. This is a bittersweet film we have here, but one tinged with all of this quirky traits that make it stand out as something we haven’t really seen before. And the first quirky quality we find here is something that we first saw in another excellent film this year, which was coincidentally directed by Ms. July’s real-life boyfriend Mike Mills, and that film was the terrific Beginners, which featured narration by a dog. The Future offers an internal monologue by Paw Paw, the stray cat that rescueb by Sophie and Jason, a Los Angeles couple who found him with an injured paw.

The basic plot outline for The Future is that Jason, played by Hamish Linklater, and Sophie, played by Ms. July herself, agree to adopt Paw Paw. But they also worry that adopting this kitten, that agreeing to this small responsibility would take away their lives, would impede them from doing all sorts of great stuff they could maybe do. So during the month or so in which the kitten will be in a shelter getting better Sophie and Jason decide to truly embrace live, they quit their jobs they disconnect themselves from the stuff that had been grounding them and adopt an open approach to live, willing to embrace anything the universe might throw at them, to treat those 30 days until Paw Paw arrives to live with them as basically their 30 last days of life.

And that approach we would think would serve them well, because before that we saw Sophie and Jason were just a super passive couple, I mean, yes, they were sweet and seemed proper cool in a bohemian sort of way, but their approach to live was just really shy and calm. We see them sitting on the couch of their apartment, each with a laptop, looking more like kids trying to hold off adulthood than a real steady couple of adults well into their 30’s. She’s a dance instructor to young kids, he’s a stay-at-home employee who helps people over the phone with technical issues they might have, not necessarily the most ambitious twosome you can think of.

So then the turn they take with their approach to life you’d think would certainly alter things quite a bit, and while it’s true that Jason takes on a different approach that sees him paying extra attention to every little thing around him and talking to people he wouldn’t normally pay mind to, and even though Sophie takes a more active and ambitious approach to her art, and commits to filming 30 dances in those 30 days and posting them online, not really much changes in the end, no newfound sense of fulfillment comes from it, and as such they start drifting apart, he starts taking on different projects to try and feel something new, she embarks on an affair with another man.

So far this probably sounds like another quirky indie rom-com, though one that’s probably well-done if only because Ms. July’s in it, but maybe it doesn’t explain why I say The Future is something unlike anything we’ve really seen before in many ways. Because from this story about a couple in their bohemian apartment and the course of their relationship spawns a huge amount of scenes filled with magic realism. Scenes that are so gorgeous and well-made, and yet come out of nowhere, without any real explanation as to their nature, and yet because these characters already seem to be part of a dream world of sorts (and because there’s a cat providing narration) this movie treats them as the most logical next step for the film to take, and we’re quick to embrace them as such as well, and it works to the most sublime of levels.

I loved this film, I loved how Miranda July yet again crafted a very-near-perfect piece of work, one in which she has the luxury of embedding all of these magical elements into your typical Los Angeles day and yet it all feels totally in place and not weird at all, that’s not easy at all to do. And yes, it may all be a bit too whimsical for some, I get that, but for me it was just right, it has all of these lovely little moments to hold on to, which always fall just shy of being too cute because Ms. July is apparently an expert on administering just the right amounts of quirky, I loved how even though the film seemed totally ingenue it was still undeniably focussed at the same time.

Go see The Future, be open about it, and I promise you won’t regret it. Simply put it’s a story about people who want to feel love, but one that somehow manages to use time and space as malleable setpieces that it can change to illustrate what it wants, and that magical quality is what makes this film so powerful and utterly charming, if not a bit unsettling. The title of the film is also something that stands firmly in the two realities the film deals with, on the more metaphysical spectrum it it’s this abstract concept marked by the end of things, by death, but in the more ordinary sense it poses a question just as scary, which is: what is the next step for you in life?

Grade: A

Cowboys & Aliens

28 Aug

Title: Cowboys & Aliens
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Jon Favreau
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on a screen story by Mr. Fergus, Mr. Ostby and Steve Oedekerk, based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Starring: 
Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Noah Ringer, Adam Beach, Abigail Spencer, Ana de la Reguera, Walton Goggins
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference
Runtime: 
118 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
6.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 
45%

You can go right ahead and write down Cowboys & Aliens as one of the biggest disappointments of the 2011 movie year. To be perfectly honest it wasn’t a bad film, I liked parts of it a fair bit, but the truth is that I was majorly excited for this film, I thought it would be one of the funnest two hours spent in the theater, and I had been thinking that for a while now, so to finally get to see it and get this was a huge let down. I mean, look at it on paper and it’s just a geek dream-team made in heaven. You have a self-explanatory title that promises to marry the western and sci-fi genres in one insanely nifty adventure. You have Jon Favreau, he who directed the first two Iron Man films, calling the shots. You have a script by the two guys who wrote the latest Star Trek, the guy who spearheaded Lost, and another two-guy team that were the ones that did the screenplay for the first, and best, Iron Man film and the Oscar-nominated one of the masterpiece that was Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. And then you have all of that on-screen talent as well: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Walton Goggins… this seemed too good to be true, and ultimately, it was.

Seriously, I was ridiculously excited about this film, the whole concept, the whole team assembled to make it, that awesome first trailer. And then we get this, a truly uneven film that while certainly not all bad, certainly didn’t live up to its potential. I don’t really know what it was, maybe it was the fact that even though all five screenwriters are pretty genius, they were still five different people collaborating on a single project (and regular readers may be aware of how much I dislike films with that many writers), maybe it was the fact that Mr. Favreau, no matter how wicked cool he is, apparently wasn’t ready to really handle the tonality changes that were such a big part of this movie and was brought down by his own ambition. I don’t know, really, all I know is that Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t the geek dream I was looking forward to watching multiple times on the theater and then getting my hands on the blu-ray the minute it was released.

The whole thing just lacked the incredible pacing that would be really necessary to accomplish a successful mesh of these two disparate genres, because the way it was done, Cowboys & Aliens was just a mash-up of two genres, but not a very smart one, because for all of its ambitions of envelope-pushing concepts, it was still too tied down to the formula of today’s blockbusters, which in turned meant that it could really give us not much of a cool western and not much of a cool sci-fi, either. And again, I’m pained to say that this really falls mostly on Mr. Favreau, I mean, sure, the script probably could have been better considering the talent assembled to pen it, but as a director it was his job to really achieve a neat balance of these two genres, and for the vast majority of this film it seemed as though he was just a fanboy interested in filming some guys with pistols on horses next to a CGI-created spaceship and having things blow up. And, don’t get me wrong, that’s all good and fun, but it’s really not much else, and it’s only good and fun for a limited amount of time.

The acting I thought pretty awesome, though, and it’s what made me like Cowboys & Aliens to whatever level I ultimately did. I mean, Mr. Craig and Mr. Ford were pretty much meant to play their roles, even though they don’t bring much other than their natural predisposition to play them to the film, and the supporting cast features Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Walton Goggins, who are all outstanding actors who always rock supporting roles and that, if you get to think about it, are the sort of actors who would actually be incredible in actual westerns if anyone actually still made those films today. And, to be honest, as much a sci-fi geek as I may be, and as much as I loved the idea of marrying these two when I first heard of it, I now fully believe that Cowboys & Aliens would have been a much better film without the alien part of the title, and instead as a straight-up western with all of the same players involved.

I won’t really get into the plot at all, if you’ve seen the trailers you actually get all you need to know from them no matter how mysterious they’re made out to play as. If you see this film you may have your fair bit of fun, it warrants it to be honest, but you’ll also feel as though you should have gotten something better, and not just an exercise by Mr. Favreau with a humongous budget in taking his time to get to a predictable cowboys vs. aliens climax, that once it arrives will be pretty well-made and loud, but will offer essentially no thrills. Maybe I would have like this film a bit better had I seen it on a different day, but today was also the day I saw the outstanding Attack the Block, which was a tremendously well-done alien movie with a low budget but that succeeded in all the places this one failed because it knew how to execute its formula. Perhaps if this one would have been smart enough to just stick to the western bits, it would have fared the same way, instead it’s just a so-so movie when it should have been a pretty awesome one.

Grade: B-

Attack the Block

28 Aug

Title: Attack the Block
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Joe Cornish
Writer: Joe Cornish
Starring: 
John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, Nick Frost
MPAA Rating: 
R, creature violence, drug content and pervasive language
Runtime:
88 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
7.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 
89%

Attack the Block is one of finest films of 2011 so far, it’s really as simple as that. And even though I was looking forward to it a great deal to begin with, because it had some great buzz surrounding and, most importantly, because it came with producer Edgar Wright’s seal of approval, I really wasn’t expecting to love this film as much as I ultimately did. Edgar Wright is one my favorite directors, so the fact that he was supporting this project meant a lot, and he clearly has a lot of trust in Joe Cornish, who’s making his feature-length writing-directing feature here, as the two collaborated (alongside the equally awesome and geek-friendly Steven Moffat) on the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Adventures of Tintin, as well as in the one for the Ant-Man adaptation that Mr. Wright has had his eyes on to direct himself for the past few years. So that meant Attack the Block was a must-see for me, but again, no matter how much faith I had in it, I wasn’t expecting such a sensational film full of very-British wit and a terrific visual style that make for one of the best sci-fi films in recent memory.

Attack the Block sees aliens arriving to a South London housing project in these pods that are camouflaged in the sky as it’s Guy Fawkes Night and there are fireworks going off all over the sky, making the arrival of the fiery pods most inconspicuous to the naked eye. And what’s awesome about Mr. Cornish’s style is that he wastes basically no time at all in building up some sort of setup to tackle the alien arrival, but instead he introduces us fairly quickly to this bunch of sort of reprehensible teenagers, led by Moses, who are busy mugging Sam, a young nurse who’s returning home after a night shift. And just then we have the first alien landing. And it’s awesome that the movie does that because it means that it adapts this insanely awesome fast pace from the very get-go and instead of wasting precious time with exposition and getting to know the characters it introduces that main event from the very beginning and it speeds off, and we’ll get to meet this crew at the same time as they battle these new foes and try to protect themselves, their block and their weed. Not to mention that the nurse decides she’d be safer staying put with these thieves.

This is pure entertainment, stylishly done in the tradition of those B-movies of some three decades ago, that had the cast of unknowns and the special effects that weren’t top notch but that still looked awesome and just had that tangible energy that elevated the film to tremendous heights of fun. Not to mention that it was a terrific decision by Mr. Cornish to have it all take place in that housing project, because that meant the location got to become sort of like an extra character, and it meant our characters were in their home turf, so we get to really meet them as best as we could. And Mr. Cornish has done a fantastic job at crafting these characters, as those criminals become individuals who we feel for and we start liking quite a bit, and the alien attack for them becomes sort of like the ultimate learning experience, as many of them discover a lot about themselves and what they have to offer. And the way we achieve that familiarity and sympathy for them is terrific, as it’s in the midst of jokes and action set pieces that Mr. Cornish starts adding layers to their very distinct personalities and that we start caring a lot for them.

And not only are the characters pretty awesome, but this cast of unknowns is also pretty damn wonderful at playing them. John Boyega, who plays Moses, does a seriously spectacular job. Because it’s Mr. Boyega who really draws you into this film and allows you to really care not just about Moses, but also about everyone else, he was a truly fortunate find by Mr. Cornish, as we believe Moses as the leader of the pack, we believe his great knowledge of the block and its residents and how he always seems to find the perfect way to deal with them. Other than Moses we also get to meet a mixed group of individuals, and they all work splendidly in all sorts of levels, from the nurse, to the rest of the gang, to the crimelord of the area, to the drug dealer of the block, Mr. Cornish has done an insanely satisfying job of providing some really neat characters and identities.

I loved this movie, it’s one the year’s best and it seriously establishes Joe Cornish as a very talented writer-director to keep an eye on. And it’s no wonder that he’s friends with Edgar Wright, you get the feeling that the two are cut from the very same cloth, two guys that clearly have a lot of love for a lot of films, and they use them as tremendously useful inspiration points in their own work, and much like Mr. Wright’s masterful debut, Shaun of the Dead, this is a film that manages to be truly hilarious without ever once feeling as a spoof, but instead managing a pitch-perfect blend of comedy and thriller. Attack the Block proves that you don’t need to be a hugely-budgeted film with an A-list cast to be one of summer’s most exhilarating and best movies, you only need to know how to execute your formula and have the right people to do it with. This film achieves all of that to the highest of levels, the fact that it does so with a nifty local jargon that will remind you of the one in A Clockwork Orange is but an added bonus.

Grade: A

The Guard

24 Aug

Title: The Guard
Year: 
2011
Director: 
John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: 
Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Mark Strong
MPAA Rating: 
R, pervasive language, some violence, drug material and sexual content
Runtime: 
96 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
7.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 
95%

 

In Bruges was my fourth favorite film of all 2008 (behind only, in order, The Wrestler, Synechdoche, New York and The Dark Knight), it was a truly masterful film, written and directed by the insanely genius playwright Martin McDonagh, it boasted probably one of the best screenplays of the past decade, full of sensational one-liners and situations and a love for perfectly used curse words, and a couple of superb performances by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. I have recommended that film to pretty much everyone I’ve had the chance to, and more often the not they thank me like crazy for it. Now, that undying love I have towards In Bruges is what embedded in me some pretty high expectations for The Guard, a film produced by Mr. McDonagh and written and directed by his brother John Michael McDonagh, and that also had Mr. Gleeson in a starring role and that looked to be a cousin to In Bruges insofar as it seemed to be another masterful black comedy with all kinds of perfect uses of the word “fuck” in great Irish accents.

Now, The Guard ultimately really wasn’t as amazing as In Bruges was over three years ago, but it’s still just so tremendously dark and witty, with all of these terrific crime sequences punctuated by a razor sharp comedy that make you quickly realize this has the McDonagh gene pool all over it, and that’s something I really can’t get enough of. And, really, Mr. Gleeson is a damn fine actor, and he’s becoming a McDonagh staple now it seems after starring in In Bruges and his turn in Six Shooter, Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-winning short film from 2004, but yeah, this guy is just a fantastic actor who just knows how to own a role, his body becomes as much part of a character as the lines and circumstances, he really gets in it, and sells the role to you. And in here he stars as Sergeant Gerry Boyle a garda who’s in charge of patrolling Connemara, a district of the west coast of Ireland.

Boyle is this policeman who we learn all we need to know about in the opening scene, as he witnesses a high-speed crash on a coastal road and then rapidly proceeds to check the victim’s clothes for drugs he can then transfer to his own pockets. This is the sort of law enforcer Boyle is, he gets high on stashes of criminals, he orders up prostitutes in his day off, not because he’s a bad guy, but because in such a quiet town there’s really not a lot of crime to go around, and he needs something to cut the monotony of his life with. And that whole boredom makes the events of the next day pop out even more, as Boyle and another young police officer find a the body of a young man with a bullet in his head and the number “5 1/2” smeared in his blood on the adjoining wall. The young officer says it’s probably a serial killer who only half-killed one of his victims (showing that in Connemara police officers probably learn most of their craft from films) but in fact it’s something bigger, a crime wave tied to a drug ring operation through the area that the FBI is actually investigating. And to coordinate the investigation with the local authorities the FBI sends over Agent Wendell Everett, played by Don Cheadle.

Mr. Cheadle by the way is another seriously dependable actor who has also been quite terrific in past roles, and his casting in this film is as much a stroke of genius as Mr. Gleeson’s, because those two really couldn’t be more different from each other, and that’s the whole point of this film. You see, for one, Boyle doesn’t want someone partnering with him, he drinks on the job and he fears that will keep him from that, not to mention that the guy, if not a racist, is certainly incredibly naïve about black people, and has no sensible tact when approaching Everett whatsoever, his opinion of him being based apparently on whatever he has heard about black people on stereotypical TV shows.

And it’s really great what Mr. McDonagh does with the whole culture clash, he makes fun of the local people, for sure, makes them seem ignorant, but also uses them to make fun of Mr. Cheadle’s character, who can’t really move forward with the investigation of his own because the locals don’t want to speak English to him and instead reply in Gaelic. That’s what pushes him to team up with Boyle, a man who says racism is part of his culture, and that’s really when The Guard, as good as Mr. Cheadle is, really becomes a Brendan Gleeson show. The way Mr. Gleeson plays Boyle is just sheer perfection, his comments, coming from a splendid script, are delivered by him in a way that have you doubting if Boyle is just this really dumb and ignorant guy, as they come with enough hints of wit that you have to think that maybe he’s the most intelligent guy in the room and the only one who really knows what the hell he’s doing.

The film has a lot of formulaic elements, that’s for sure, good cop/bad cop, a guy who’s out of his element, a relationship that didn’t want to happen in the first place, those are all familiar themes in these kind of movies, but the script makes all the familiar things seem fresh. Seriously, this is just really awesome writing which often has characters engaging in a conversation that’s just so wonderfully done and full of black humor delivered by some of the very best that’s impossible to look away. Again, this really isn’t as great as In Bruges, but it’s still a remarkably good film, you just have to sit back enjoy and prepare yourself to laugh out loud many times as Brendan Gleeson shows you how it’s done.

Grade: A-

The Myth of the American Sleepover

22 Aug

Title: The Myth of the American Sleepover
Year: 
2011
Director: 
David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: 
Marlon Morton, Amanda Bauer, Claire Sloma, Brett Jacobsen, Nikita Ramsey, Jade Ramsey
MPAA Rating: 
Not rated
Runtime: 
93 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
6.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 
77%

I kind of sort of loved every little thing about The Myth of the American Sleepover, a tremendously good debut feature-length film by writer-director David Robert Mitchell. Seriously, this is just a lovely film to watch and lose yourself in, and that’s because it’s all kinds of true, I mean, we get to watch these kids during a long night at the end of summer in a small city in Michigan, and with them Mr. Robert Mitchell deconstructs the myth the title of the film refers to, because the film focusses on a couple of teenage summer sleepovers and parties and lakeside gatherings that have long been associated with sex and drugs and booze, and yet we get a very tender and effective look at the fact that it’s not as all-out wild as it sounds, but it’s actually a much more innocent affair.

You get all of those things you encounter as you approach adolescence: smoking, sex, liking someone, having someone like you, having someone you like not like you back. But this film doesn’t present all of these things in a way it has been done before, it never once wants to exploit those facts to get some sort of graphic or teasing scene that will make it all seem superb or extraordinary, no, if The Myth of the American Sleepover feels extraordinary it’s solely on the basis of how ordinary the lives it presents are. And that’s because Mr. Robert Mitchell doesn’t shy away from acknowledging something few films like these acknowledge, and those that do acknowledge it do so to make fun of it, but it’s something The Myth of the American Sleepover just recognizes it as a basic truth, and that’s the fact that these teenagers are just confused.

Like I said, some films of the type do take a big long look at the fact that teens are confused, but they do so in order to attain some sort of melodramatic look at the youthful period of life, to make it seem as though it’s dangerous being a teen. This film is not like that at all, a character in the movie actually goes ahead and says that adolescence isn’t that much of a wild ride and that all of those movies and stories convince you to give up your childhood for something that really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be at all. And that’s one of the things Mr. Robert Mitchell gets impeccably right, the fact that teenagers can give statements like that, statements that are deep while still absolutely embedded in some sort of naïvety that’s endearing to watch be displayed so perfectly. Seriously, this is a coming-of-age story like all those typical movies are, that much is true, but the way it’s told, with a fresh sort of insight into the dealings we’ve heard so much about before makes it all seem like it’s brand new territory we’re exploring here.

In the course of the long night during which the film takes place we get to meet a lot of young people, all of whom share very similar objectives, the most general, and deepest of which is to connect with someone in a significant level. That aim is dealt with with these kids trying to hook up with a specific person, with them trying to go to all the parties available in their neighborhood. We have Maggie, this lovely blonde with a pixie haircut who feels she hasn’t done enough with her summer and wants to leave an impression, there’s also Scott, who’s become fascinated with a blonde named Avalina, and Rob, who wants to sleep with twin sisters (or at least just one of them) and has a comic confusion about which twin is which. These are all different objectives and they obviously work to make the film tremendously fun and to give us insight into all of these characters that are played by young actors, who in their majority are making their debuts here as well, but once you get to the core of it it’s all about trying to experience a sense of belonging, and that’s an infinitely relatable theme that drives this film.

The tact Mr. Robert Mitchell shows when tackling all of these stories is also utterly delightful, he knows what to make fun of, what sort of teenage self-discoveries to point the amusing parts of, but when it’s all said and done this is a writer-director who above all is quite compassionate in how he treats these stories. This is a film that deals with a group of characters experiencing events and feelings that are totally specific in detail and depth, and that yet are at their core incredibly timeless and easy to identify with, a film that’s really all about observation, helmed by a guy who’s wonderfully good at it and who I can’t wait to see what he does next. And in observing very ordinary events the film discovers some very substantial things, but never makes any sort of grandiose statement about them. This film isn’t perfect, there are a couple of things that I guess could be better, and sometimes you could tell these kids weren’t experienced professional actors, but adolescence isn’t perfect either, and, if anything, that whole awkward acting vibe adds to it all.

Grade: B+

Sarah’s Key

21 Aug

Title: Sarah’s Key
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Writers: Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay
Starring: 
Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, thematic material including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust
Runtime: 
111 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 
73%

 

Kristin Scott Thomas is one of the very best actresses living today, it’s really as simple as that, the woman can act just insanely well and is right up there with the Streep’s and Blanchett’s and Winslet’s in my book. And even though she’s still very good in Sarah’s Key, I really didn’t fall in love all that much with the movie. I mean, it’s definitely a very decent flick, but I wanted something better for Ms. Scott Thomas to shine in. This is the adaptation of a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, adapted by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and co-writer Serge Joncour, and the script does a fine job of expanding the vision proposed in the novel, of dramatizing the events told there, but it doesn’t get to achieve a good balance between the two stories it tells.

One of those two stories, that are interconnected with one another, is of Ms. Scott Thomas’ character, Julia, a determined journalist who sent on a mission to dig up truths, even if what she starts uncovering begins to have harrowing effects on both her family life and herself. The other story is that of what Julia, has to investigate about, and it has to do with a Holocaust story, told through the eyes of a child that offers more than one moment for Mr. Paquet-Brenner to try and manipulate some tears out of our eyes. I didn’t think, however, that the balance between the two stories was handled correctly, I mean, as stand-alone pieces they were both quite good, but put together I just thought that it was an uncomfortable fit, and I think that the present-day story sort of diminished the impact that the more tragic story about the Holocaust could have had had it been left alone.

You see, the story has to do with Julia having to investigate the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup of 1942, an event during which the French government aided the Nazis to arrest and deport thousands of Jews from the country. Julia starts becoming obsessed with the story she’s pursuing, the focus of which is tracking down a girl named Sarah, who protected her younger brother from that roundup by locking him inside a closet, even though the more she starts pursuing the subject the more her husband’s family starts pressuring her to stop doing so, as she’s starting to uncover some truths about them they’d rather she didn’t. This is all played alongside scenes of Sarah in her own timeline, trying to escape the Germans to go back to Paris and free her brother, the key the title refers to obviously being the one she needs to unlock the closet in which she got her brother into, and which stays with her through a series of harrowing events.

But really, this is all about Sarah’s story, because it’s by far the more interesting one to watch unravel, and the series of events she goes through to stay alive and to get to her brother are all pretty extraordinary to witness, and they are all played by Mr. Paquet-Brenner for melodramatic purposes, some of which work and some of which actually don’t. For instance, the parts of the story about the Vélodrome d’Hiver feel appropriately horrifying and are really well told, but once you turn the page you are expected to feel the same way about Julia being pregnant and her husband wanting her to terminate the unplanned pregnancy, and I mean, those fights are great because Ms. Scott Thomas is there to act it all out splendidly, but once you put it into comparison with Sarah’s story, as you’ll inevitably do, then you don’t get why it’s all there, just a distraction from a much bigger issue. You feel like it’s all done for some sort of cheap narrative momentum that will get Julia thinking about her baby just as she is learning about Sarah and all that she went through, and the film just didn’t work at all for me on those moments.

In the end, though, I just didn’t love Sarah’s Key all that much. I will recommend it because Ms. Scott Thomas was superb as she always effortlessly seems to be, speaking French as though it was her first language and doing her best at tackling a true grown-up drama, and you know she’s doing her best here, she’s being her usual excellent self as she tries to give Julia’s story the emotional weight required for it to be able to carry the whole movie. However, in the end, this is all about Sarah’s story, and no matter how gut-wrenching and absorbing the Holocaust scenes may be, they are let down by the balance they achieve with the present-day ones, no matter how impeccable Ms. Scott Thomas may be. Because they were just very conventionally written and directed that they feel horribly flat when compared to the other part of the film, and those scenes take away from the effectiveness of the whole piece, the artificial feel of the present-day scenes taking away from the impact achieved by the historical ones.

Grade: B

A Little Help

18 Aug

Title: A Little Help
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Michael J. Weithorn
Writers: Michael J. Weithorn
Starring: 
Jenna Fischer, Chris O’Donnell, Rob Benedict, Arden Myrin, Daniel Yelsky
MPAA Rating: 
R, language, some sexual content and drug use
Runtime: 
105 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
5.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 
45%

 

I like Jenna Fischer a lot, I really do, and that’s the only reason why I like and will recommend A Little Help, because she really shines in this film. The thing is that, save from the performances, not much else in this film really works that well, so in the end it’s just a pretty decent flick even though it had a lead performance worthy of a pretty great one. And it’s really great to see Ms. Fischer tackle a role like the one she gets to play in this one, because most people know and love her from her role as Pam Beasley in TV’s The Office, but her film career has been marred with supporting roles in comedies like Blades of Glory (which was actually pretty good), The Brothers Solomon (which was horrible), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (which was quite good), last year’s very good dramedy A Solitary Man (which I gave an A- to) and this year’s Hall Pass (which I awarded middling C to), so yeah, even though she’s been in some good flicks, she never has gotten the chance to really stretch herself and show us what she can do. A Little Help provides her with that chance, and she really makes the most of it.

The woman Ms. Fischer plays is Laura, a character appealing because of how imperfect she is, because we can relate to her in great ways. And I like the Laura character because we don’t really get to see mothers like her in film nowadays, we usually get moms who are sort of heroic and just tremendously good, but yet here we have a woman who really isn’t loving life all that much and isn’t afraid of taking a beer to deal with it. Not taking a beer in the sense of being an alcoholic mother who’s a total mess and irresponsible like crazy, but taking a beer in the sense of getting buzzed enough to not mind as much about all of her things, but also buzzed enough so that when things go wrong they go worse then they probably should have. It’s this character and Ms. Fischer’s portrayal of her that make A Little Help as good as it ultimately is, because even though this isn’t the perfect image of motherhood we know and have grown up with in films and television, we can still immediately connect with Laura, because deep down we know we’ve all had days like the ones she seems to constantly have.

I guess that inherent likability was something I should have been fully expecting because I’m a huge The Office fan and I know how adorable Ms. Fischer is, but it was still awesome to see her bring those qualities to a new role. Because a lesser actress could have easily made Laura a character we don’t necessarily root for, but Ms. Fischer finds a way to make her incredibly real, and in doing so she wins our hearts because we realize that Laura isn’t a bad person at all, she’s just a woman who’s apparently being played a huge prank on by life. I mean, her sister seems to have life figured out, her mother has been criticizing her since she was a kid, her son lies a lot, and her husband cheats on her. So we feel for Laura, we feel for her because she doesn’t seem to have a moment to breathe, always having somebody on her case.

Michael J. Weithorn, a long-time TV writer/producer of shows like The King of Queens and Family Ties, makes his feature-length writing/directing debut with this film, and his script is pretty fun, and it’s a pretty nonstop series of things that start going wrong in one way or another. The funnest one of them all is the one that’s featured in the trailer, the fact that Laura’s son being the compulsive liar that he is tells the kids at his new school that his father was a fireman who died on 9/11 (the movie is set in 2002), and because of that gets the attention of a lot of kids. And Laura goes along with her kid’s lies. This is just one the many things that happen to Laura in this film, and even though the film ultimately felt a bit too manipulative for my liking (and that’s the biggest reason as to why I’m not grading it higher), I really did like it, I liked the supporting cast and I loved Ms. Fischer who makes Laura such a mess it’s hard not to fall for it and follow her through it all.

It’s all maybe a bit too understated, but it really works in the end, because Ms. Fischer is fantastic at playing a woman trying exceptionally hard to do the right thing during a time in which absolutely everything seems to be going the wrong way, and because we believe her as that is that A Little Help gets to succeed. Not to mention that her scenes with Rob Benedict, who plays Laura’s brother-in-law, one of the few people on her side, are seriously terrific to watch, and the chemistry between the two makes for some really touching moments that I loved every moment of. If you’re a fan of Jenna Fischer from her work in The Office I really advice you to give this film a watch, it’s what you need to realize just how great she is.

Grade: B