Oct 30

“Men, Women & Children”: What the Reviews Say

It is the year’s scariest film simply because it’s the year’s most realistic: Welcome to your nightmare. Tom Long, Detroit News, about Men, Women & Children

Jason Reitman‘s Men, Women & Children, adapted from Chad Kultgen‘s novel, is about human disconnection in the internet age. One common critique is that too much ground is covered and not well enough.

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “It’s partly teenage social realism, midway between a John Hughes movie and Larry Clark’s ‘Kids,’ partly a lecture from somebody’s mom about how no one talks to anyone anymore, dammit, and partly an ‘ironic’ reminder that love can go wrong in so many, many ways.”

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “Though the story initially appears to be headed in a thought-provoking direction, it becomes superficial in its exploration of our online lives. Almost a soap opera, it’s a predictable tale of angst-filled teens and their clueless parents. Think a computer-driven, de-fanged Crash, without the ethnic diversity.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “It’s one of those multi-character morality plays — think ‘American Beauty’ meets ‘Crash’ — and it will play especially well to freaked-out parents, even as it distances itself from them by acknowledging that the kids (most of them, anyway) are all right.”

CHARACTERS AND PLOT

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic, offers a (snarky) synopsis that’s worth reading if you’re interested in knowing all the players:

Try to follow along as best you can. Don (Adam Sandler) and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a married couple deep in the sexual doldrums: He cruises porn on their son’s computer, his own having become irretrievably infected with malware; she and he will both pursue extramarital dalliances online—her, through the cheating site Ashley Madison, him via an escort service. Their son, Chris (Travis Tope), is also addicted to Internet porn, to such a degree that he is unable to respond sexually to the aggressive advances of vixen-y sophomore cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah is herself an aspiring actress whose single mother, Joan (Judy Greer), is promoting the girl’s career—and pocketing some cash on the side—by publishing racy ‘private photo sessions’ of Hannah for pervy subscribers to her website. Joan becomes involved with Kent (Dean Norris), a father whose wife abandoned him to run off to California with another man.

Still with me? Deep breath:

Kent’s son, Tim (Ansel Elgort), reeling from his parents’ breakup, has quit his starring role on the football team, withdrawn into his room, and devoted his waking hours to the online fantasy game Guild Wars. Tim’s only real-life connection is a tentative quasi-romance with classmate Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose paranoid helicopter mom, Patricia (Jennifer Garner) monitors her every virtual interaction—phone, email, Facebook, browser history—with a line-crossing avidity befitting the director of the NSA. Rounding out the digital horror show is the virginal Allison (Elena Kampouris), an anorexic who gets nutrition tips from a site called www.prettybitchesnevereat.com and who desperately wants to hook up with a jock so telegraphically sleazy that he might as well have ‘sex offender’ sewn across his varsity jacket. Finally, we have J. K. Simmons, who makes a token appearance as Allison’s dad, his only meaningful function being to reprise his Juno role as the Dad Who Finds Out His Underage Daughter Got Pregnant…

MIXED APPRECIATION FOR HOW THE THEMES ARE PRESENTED

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “To its credit, ‘Men, Women & Children’ seems to allow for a rational middle ground between technophobic Luddites and the lamentably over-wired. It never turns down the moral panic entirely, but neither does it let it completely boil over.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

Mr. Reitman, who wrote the script with Erin Cressida Wilson…has the wisdom to realize that the Internet cannot entirely be blamed for the unhappiness he surveys…At the film’s beginning and its end, an omniscient narrator with the sensible voice of Emma Thompson explains that the root of the problem is that we’re all human.

True enough, but this conclusion undermines the film’s premise, dissolving the thematic glue that holds its stories together and emptying out the lessons it wants to teach. Veering between alarmism and cautious reassurance — between technohysteria and shrugging, nothing-new-under-the-sun resignation — ‘Men, Women & Children’ succumbs to the confusion it tries to illuminate.

THE TRAILER:

Oct 29

“Olive Kitteridge”: Depression a Main Theme In HBO Movie

Many of us have read and loved Elizabeth Strout‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 novel. And now the mini-series is coming to HBO Sunday and Monday. Olive Kitteridge the film adaptation has so far garnered nothing but rave reviews, including for—and perhaps especially for—the lead performances.

HBO’s official description:

A look at a seemingly placid New England town that is actually wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, all told through the lens of Olive, whose wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center. The story spans 25 years and focuses on Olive’s relationships with her husband, Henry, the good-hearted and kindly town pharmacist; their son, Christopher, who resents his mother’s approach to parenting; and other members of their community.

Olive and her husband are played by Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins; son Christopher by John Gallagher, Jr.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “While not all the book’s 13 interconnected stories and throng of characters are covered, the tone is captured and the essential elements given ample breathing space in this emotionally satisfying, funny-sad four-part HBO miniseries. Produced by Tom Hanks’ Playtone banner, it’s directed with an impeccable balance of sensitivity and humor by Lisa Cholodenko and expertly adapted by Jane Anderson.”

According to Robbie Collin, Telegraph, Cholodenko has dubbed the material’s tone “traumady.”

DEPRESSION IN THE FAMILY of Olive Kitteridge

Peter Debruge, Variety:

Thematically speaking, shotguns and fathers’ suicides loom heavy over much of the miniseries, which tends to view its ‘Our Town’-like cross-section of Crosby residents in generational terms, where children are constantly dealing with their parents’ baggage, and where middle-school teachers [like Olive] appear to have relatively little impact on the lives of their students…Depression may or may not run in Olive’s family. She certainly seems to have passed it on to her son, Christopher…who grows up resenting his mom, and in the teleplay’s opening scene, we see Olive, widowed and unhappy at the end of her life, going for a picnic in the woods where, instead of bringing food, she unpacks a revolver.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Depression is a significant theme here. It drifts like gray clouds across the sleepy town and the gorgeous New England scenery, surfacing from one generation to the next in family histories. One of the most affecting threads concerns couch-bound Valium popper Rachel Coulson (Rosemarie DeWitt), and later, her grown son Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), back from doing psychiatry at Columbia and ready to give up on life until Olive interrupts his despair.”

OLIVE

Peter Debruge, Variety: “For much of the mini, Olive actually appears to be a secondary character in her own life, sort of the surly opposite of a busybody — a woman who’s always present, but seldom wants to engage with other people’s troubles.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “A blunt, abrasive woman with a cutting sense of humor, she has little time for words of comfort or flattery, and while she’s not without compassion, she shows it sparingly, on her own strictly unsentimental terms.”

OLIVE AND HENRY

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Their union is a classic mismatch, and one shudders often as Henry’s upbeat observations and affectionate gestures are struck down by Olive’s unvarnished worldview, distilled into a sardonic quip. In the first and arguably strongest episode, ‘Pharmacy,’ they both entertain the notion of more suited soul mates — Olive with her fellow teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), a complicated man with an affinity for the haunted poetry of John Berryman; Henry with the sweet-natured mouse Denise (Zoe Kazan), who works for him. Watching Jenkins’ face transform into giggling boyish delight around her is a heartbreaking joy.

CHRISTOPHER

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “As Chris goes through one unhappy marriage and a lot of therapy before finding a more workable though still imperfect domestic situation, his resentment bubbles up over the difficulties of growing up with a mother like Olive.”

TRAILER for Olive Kitteridge

One of the available previews has a great opener that addresses the depression within the family:

Sep 19

“Touchy Feely”: Massage Therapist Averse to Physical Contact

The phrase “touchy feely” has some negative connotations, doesn’t it? Too experiential. Too expressive. Maybe even boundary-crossing bad behavior.

Fortunately, that isn’t what the new film Touchy Feely by writer/director Lynn Shelton is all about. Here’s what Rotten Tomatoes says:

TOUCHY FEELY is a closely observed examination of a family whose delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a sought after massage therapist and a free spirit, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) thrives on routine and convention, running a flagging dental practice and co-dependently enlisting the assistance of his emotionally stunted daughter Jenny (Ellen Page). Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which not only makes her occupation impossible but severely hinders the passionate love life between her and her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy.) Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s ‘healing touch’ begin to miraculously invigorate his practice as well as his life outside the office. As Abby navigates her way through a soul-searching identity crisis, her formerly skeptical brother discovers a whole new side of himself. TOUCHY FEELY is about the experience of living in one’s own skin, both literally and figuratively. The film, written and directed by Shelton, and co-starring Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and newcomer Tomo Nakayama (of the indie rock band Grand Hallway), is filmed on location in Shelton’s hometown and urban muse of Seattle.

The Title

Andrew Schenker, Slant:

The title of Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, which literally refers to lead character Abby’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) profession as a massage therapist, serves as a guiding metaphor for the film’s exploration of human connection and emotional estrangement. As far as ruling metaphors go, it’s a rather obvious one, but Shelton overcomes the base literariness of the conceit by crafting a film of astonishingly sustained mood and by tying this beguiling atmosphere to the mental states of her characters.

The Trailer

You can see (and touch-y and feel-y if you really want) the preview below:

What’s Really Abby’s Problem?

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly:

…a conventional soul who’s hiding her anxiety — even from herself. Abby gives tantric massages, and also gets them from Bronwyn, an aging hippie (Allison Janney, acting mellow for a change), all to keep herself centered. But when Jesse (Scoot McNairy), her boho bike-shop-repairman boyfriend, asks her to move in with him, and she agrees, she falls apart. She suddenly can’t touch anyone’s skin, because she’s so uncomfortable in her own.

Not really sure what happens to Paul, but relationships in this film at the very least tend to be interesting.

The Therapies Involved

Ella Taylor, NPR

What’s different here is Shelton’s joshing affection for practitioners of the flannel-shirted New Age healing therapies of her beloved Pacific Northwest. ‘Your energy’s off,’ Abby’s serene, dirndled mentor Bronwyn (Allison Janney) tells her — and for once, we’re invited neither to snicker nor particularly to believe in the innate powers of reiki massage. You just have to believe, rather, that these walking wounded believe — and that their commitment to weird signs and portents might spur them to take control of their faltering destinies.

Overall the reviews are not exactly “ecstatic” (the drug Ecstasy is used in the plot’s climax). One concluding comment from Ella Taylor, NPR

…Not since Jane Campion’s wonderfully warped Sweetie has a movie so artfully demonstrated that a little magical thinking, or some creative appropriation of pop-culture symbols, or a bit of attention to the signals of the body can propel a lost soul to feel her way toward renewal. In Touchy Feely, faith – and hey, maybe a little therapeutic drug abuse — doesn’t have to be justified. It just has to get you up and running.

Mar 29

“Rachel Getting Married”: Rehab Interrupted, Emotional Chaos

The contemporary slice-of-life film Rachel Getting Married (2008), directed by Jonathan Demme, features Kym (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who’s tried substance abuse rehab a number of times and hasn’t yet succeeded. In fact, she’s currently on a weekend leave from her most recent rehab—in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Cue plenty of opportunities for emotionally loaded dysfunctional-type interactions.

Here’s the trailer to get you started:

Having seen and liked the movie, I appreciated reading the following review of Amy Biancolli‘s (Houston Chronicle) so much that I have to quote a significant chunk of it:

It hurts to watch Rachel Getting Married. It hurts because it captures, better than any film of recent vintage, the wild emotional undulations of life in a dysfunctional family.

It hurts because addicts are inevitably selfish, and movies about them are inevitably claustrophobic. It hurts because Anne Hathaway is rawer, bluer, meaner, truer, more broken than you’ve ever seen her — than you’ve ever seen just about anyone portraying a lost soul in recovery.

It hurts because Bill Irwin, the actor playing her father, seems to split down the middle as we watch. It hurts because Rosemarie DeWitt, as the Rachel getting married, conveys without an ounce of malice the outrage and exhaustion of loving someone who’s so far off from normal. And it hurts because our joy at seeing the warm, familiar face of Debra Winger turns to shock when her calibrated performance — as a detached mater familias — abruptly kicks into hellfire-spitting fury.

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on as well, including an underlying theme of a tragic family loss—for which Kym is held responsible.

And lots lots more is packed into the few days represented in this film. Wesley MorrisBoston Globe: “Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet have given us an epic rehearsal dinner, ceremony, and reception that’s half-cabaret, half group-therapy session, and completely multiracial, multicultural, and multisensory.”

This is one of those quirkier films that the critics loved and the non-critics not so much. It seems that having to sit through loads of family dysfunction is an undesirable for many—imagine that—especially if they already have that at home.

But I feel compelled to let another critic have the last word on this one. Michael Dequina, TheMovieReport.com: “The messiness that goes with genuinely flawed and complex people is what makes the film ring so true and cut so deep.”