Review- In the Family

It seems to me more often than not, whenever I see a good to great film that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see there’s always at least a decent story to it. Somehow, in the barrage of year-end awards and best of lists, I missed noting the title In the Family, at the tail end of 2011. I guess I didn’t retain or read Slant’s list as carefully as I thought, either that or I hadn’t seen it anywhere near me so it was almost like it had yet to exist. However, that lack of availability kept it alive for this year’s BAMs. Now, oddly enough when I saw this month’s schedule at Theatre N, I saw it, it seemed like a likely view but it didn’t jump out not right away. Then the weekend it’s playing came, and thanks to an abysmal weekend of new summer releases it was the only game in town, so far as I was concerned. However, I was still under-informed. I read the synopsis, seemed good. However, I didn’t immediately note the running time.

In trying to schedule my day, I did. The film runs 2 hours and 49 minutes. I do not have hard and fast rules regarding running-times, as my commendations for Satantango and Berlin Alexanderplatz clearly indicate. Yes, I prefer comedies that run 90 minutes or less when speaking in generalities, that does not mean I’ve never liked one longer. The Avengers is only about 25 minutes shorter and I never heard anyone complain about how long it is. However, I do have to concede that it is a factor. So what I did was I started to read up on it, just a bit. Based on what I saw I wanted to give a go.

With this film, and my prior example, you have two instances that highlight the difference between running time and pace. Anyone can make a film this long, or longer, if they want to, and frequently early assemblies and cuts are. What matters is what you do with the running time you’ve allotted your story. I’ve seen films a third as long as this one that feel twice as long as it actually is. There are films that feel like they will never end and others you wish wouldn’t, and this one is much closer to the latter than the former.

The term deliberate pace is not, in my mind, a polite way of saying slow. There are scenes that don’t cut, but there are scenes that are rather quick, which add to the tone and help the film pace itself. It is by no means the test of endurance that The Turin Horse is, even though that film is shorter.

So preambles aside, the film works beautifully in large part due to the restraints is shows. The film tells the tale of of a custody battle following the death of one partner in a same sex relationship. That’s the film in its simplest terms, now the film could be handled differently and still work but then it would run the risk of pigeonholing itself as a gay film, or a racial film or a courtroom film, depending on how the plot unfolds. It could quickly become maudlin and melodramatic. However, in restraining its emotion, allowing it to build in its characters and its audience it creates a tremendously universal and human story that I’m sure many can relate to, whether it reflects anything in their life or not. One example of the restraint, and a litmus test of sorts for films with gay themes, is that the words “gay” or “homosexual,” or any pejorative variation thereof are not spoken. This is a clear choice it seems that underlines both the humanity of the story and the underlying hostilities and prejudices that exist.

Dave (Peter Hermann), Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), Jefferson (Eugene Brell), Joey (Patrick Wang), Paul (Brian Murray), Court Reporter (Marsha Waterbury) in In the Family (In the Family)

The drama in the film is always palpable because the film cloisters its characters. In certain scenes it just allows us to watch a few characters behave and interact, without dialogue but there is still much being said. There’s a lot of film theory banter about simply watching behavior, but like everything in this film it doesn’t push this aspect to the extreme either. There are small, delicate, wonderful scenes like this sprinkled throughout; a fantastic example is Chip (Sebastian Banes, credited in this film as Sebastian Brodziak) getting himself and Joey (Patrick Wang) a drink after the funeral.

Aside from having well-tempered scene lengths, the film also structures itself well and interestingly. There are three flashbacks, which all occur post-mortem. The film begins in medias res, after Cody’s (Trevor St. John) death is where we start to get to know him and miss him as Joey does. There are also I believe four segments of the film that begin in black with some audio coming in to precede the scene, bringing us slowly into the current moment and visually dividing the story (the first occurs at the very beginning with a gorgeously languid fade in).

Dave (Peter Hermann) and Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) in In the Family (In the Family)

The acting in this film is quite nearly impeccable. It can be said that a running time such as this gives the actors more time to develop their character, hone their performance but that would be ignoring the fact that the work still does have to be done. Wang particularly has a lot of heavy lifting to do in the third act, his physicality is a lot of what takes us along but at the end it’s just him, speaking to his family and speaking to us and it’s nothing less than monumental that this “unedited” deposition scene works. It keeps with the cloistered aspect of the film but brings things full circle and is riveting. However, Kelly McAndrew’s reaction shots during this scene are breathtaking also. The real find of the film, however, may be Sebastian Banes. Actors around his age, he plays a character who is six, with as much natural talent and charisma are rare. A few scenes in I was already comparing him favorably to Drew Barrymore.

In the Family
is a revelation in many ways, not only for my story of not really having heard about it and then having it fall into my lap but also for revealing the tremendous budding auteur that is Patrick Wang. It’s a crime how under-seen this film is and I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.

10/10

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Review- Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding has a simple enough set-up: in the very first scene a husband (Kyle McLaughlin) asks his wife, Diane (Catherine Keener), seemingly out of nowhere for a divorce. The second scene is the dinner party they were planning for and he seems his normal petulant, pedantic, socialite self and she’s affected. While the legalities are being straightened she decides to take her kids; college-aged Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and high school student Jake (Nat Wolff) to Woodstock to stay with her long-estranged mother. As they stay their the difficulties of reuniting and illustrations of why Diane left become readily apparent.

So the foil is established early inasmuch as you have in this tale a hippie mother (Jane Fonda), who still very much embodies that lifestyle and a conservative, attorney daughter. The film does well to arc a majority of its characters. This film is a bit like Boy because it’s not so much about all of its characters changing, but more about accepting your family for what it is. Fonda’s character won’t change, as adventurous as Diane gets on the odd occasion she fundamentally will not either, it’s really a progression of learning to accept and live and let live on the other side of the mother-daughter relationship. Zoe is an interestingly drawn character; seeing as how she’s a college student she is open-minded and politically aware, at least in theory, but meets people who challenge her preconceived notions in a very creative way. She is at a crossroads more than once in the film, and must decide if she’ll be more laissez-faire or more rigid, seeing as how she’s torn. Then there’s Jake who is perhaps the most deftly written character because he is awkward around girls he likes, tells mostly inappropriate jokes with his sister and takes his documentarian ethos wherever he goes (and sometimes makes mistakes in that regard). However, it is he that makes the most incisive observations in the film but he doesn’t express them verbally.

He expresses them through his free form poetic short film that debuts at a short film festival in the story. We see the entirety of the film and many of the scenes are spliced back creatively in juxtapositions that seem apropos of nothing when looking at just one pair of joined images, but as a whole the short serves to illustrate that in spite of the lunacy and at times chaos that transpired between the family members during their time away it was evident all the way there was affection amongst all members of the family there was just difficulty in expressing it.

So while having a few characters not fundamentally change, at least not yet, makes the rendering of drama a bit more difficult the relationships do work as a whole. What was not even a family per se before this film started; now is one. While the nuclear family fractures, the extended family starts to re-solidify and working a number of characters together, leaving them at peace with one another is something and quite true: their may be a truce but each individual will still have his or her own baggage.

The progressions aren’t instant, or in a bee-line, a bit like reality it’s two steps forward and one step back. However, there are gaps being bridged throughout the course of the film.

Of course, these relational dynamic would hold no interest, and would not be allowed to build as they do, if it were not for the performers inhabiting the roles. If the actors inhabiting these parts are not sufficiently interesting then the struggles they’re in will not be either, and each player in this film excels in their part. Jane Fonda has been infrequently on the big screen in the past few years, alas this is a role and a narrative truly worthy of her talents and she truly shines in the film. For her part Keener seems a bit too perfectly suited but she does do well and plays brilliantly off of Fonda, which is half the battle. It’s not Elizabeth Olsen’s best role, partially due to her screen time, but there are no small roles and having an actor so gifted in a supporting part is truly a blessing for any film. The male performers in this film for the most part take a backseat to the ladies, which is rare but that is not to say they are insignificant. I discussed Jake’s character above but the interpretation by Nat Wolff is quite natural and adept. Some young actors don’t have the reflexivity to play the inherent awkwardness of certain situations that come with the teen years for whatever reason be it range, their type, direction. Yet, everything he does works whether it be his flippant innuendos, self-deprecating humor, aloof artist mode or being painfully shy around a girl. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has a charm and confidence that is just enough to be very convincing as the free spirit who could get to someone like Diane. Some actors, or some other casting decisions, might place too strong a personality opposite here. He is winning but subtly so, not forcefully persuasive, which makes him harder for Diane to resist. Now, Chace Crawford does have to be an equal to Zoe as Cole, for nothing else would be so disconcerting to Zoe as someone who not only challenges her beliefs, but is as strong a personality as she is; and he succeeds most easily.

Peace, Love and Misunderstanding is most definitely a character study. However, it’s not a talking heads drama. There is visual interest and the short film does add some artistry in the edit. It’s a film that will have you think on it a bit and the kind that got a little better as I wrote this. It’s definitely worth a shot.

7/10

Review- Bully

Kelby in Bully (The Weinstein Company)

Clearly with all the press that Bully had received from its initial rating, to the online animus it caused, to the subsequent edits and marketing campaign; there are many things outside of simply what’s in the film that can be discussed, even as it pertains to filmmaking. However, that doesn’t really apply to the film itself and if further discussion needs having I will post it here. That situation mutated a few times, therefore it’s best I didn’t comment pre-release, and therefore I will proceed.

Similarly, the subject of bullying itself is one I could talk about extensively. I’ve seen from afar, yet closer than most, some of the effects that it can have. How it should be handled can be couched many different ways based on your cultural or political background, however, that’s neither here nor there in this review as this film, like many documentaries are and should be, isn’t about finding a cure for the issue but rather examining the issue. And let’s face it, in spite of increased media coverage of incidents, there are still those in this country who will say there isn’t an issue.

Eseentially, my feeling is that there’s always been an issue, it’s worse and harder to deal with in today’s world, and we as a society have been too slow to act but we need to.

Yet, what of the film Bully? As I stated above, what it does is seek to examine a very broad subject on a closer level by citing several different kinds of examples. In some cases the students in question are living with it on a daily basis, some have confronted the issue, some shy away from confrontation, in some cases we only meet the family as the bullied has since committed suicide. In another, a student reacted harshly and goes through the juvenile justice system. While the film could’ve been slightly more geographically diverse, it does do a good job of going around our vast nation and showing the similar patterns of behavior and administrative inaction and/or ineffectual action.

However, that conclusion is the one I’ve drawn. The film does volunteer the occasional dissenting opinion about the severity of the issue, however, the film never through a narrator or through over-manipulated editing, tries to espouse a dogma. Instead, it allows the subjects to offer their opinions and feelings. On a few occasions, it captures incidents but merely displays them rather than invoking judgment within the narrative. It’s presenting evidence, which we are parsing.

Perhaps the best and most persistent example of this technique is the fact that, wherever possible, the main cause of a student’s being bullied is suppressed or hardly commented upon. For it truly is not the point, and while the film doesn’t actively try to impose an opinion on its audience it’s made from an anti-bullying point of view and there is ample footage and facts to support it. However, anti-bullying can be a secondary and tertiary rallying cry of other activists, therefore to focus it strictly on the issue of bullying by removing the catalyst as much as possible, it examines the phenomena, its impact on its victims and keeps its focus and scope as narrow as possible, which is essential in documentary work.

In keeping with the theme of the film’s scope, there are a number of case studies made within the film but the film is very astute at establishing these personalities and locations such that as cuts are made from narrative to narrative there is minimal reminding we as an audience need of who these people are, where they’re from and what their precise situation is. It’s a credit to the filmmakers because it allows the film to have a sense of flow rather than being segmented case-by-case it traverses the nation over the course of a year and follows an emotional ebb and flow to its conclusion.

What stands out most in that the film is at its most effective when it reveals how these things affect those who love the victimized. Typically, the bullied are resigned to one extent or another or not present. What’s most revealing is the collateral damage caused in the families examined.

The fact that some people searched for a solution in this film just shows that they acknowledge that there’s an issue and they’re desperate for there to be an answer for this generation’s sake, and for those to come. However, while this film is zeitgeist to some it still has to contend with a faction who dismiss the notion and it as propaganda. I think the film very strongly and steadfastly makes its case that there is, in fact, an issue and that it must be addressed and it will continue to be an issue until serious actions are taken and policies are adhered to. The film is a heartbreaking necessity, both in its making and its need for an audience. It’s a film that should be seen by all and I hope it has a long life.

10/10

Review- Being Flynn

Robert De Niro and Paul Dano in Being Flynn (Focus Features)

If one watches the trailer then a lot of Being Flynn is revealed. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in this era of film, but it was enough to convince me to watch this film, and it also illustrates the major hurdle the film has. The film deals with what occurs when Nick (Paul Dano), a youth seeking direction in his life, starts to work in a homeless shelter and sees his estranged father (Robert De Niro) there.

It’s a plot in the trailer that makes it seem like a very unlikely chance encounter. In actuality, the leap of faith needed to believe this scenario is not nearly as large. There are furtive awkward reunion attempts prior to fate intervening as it does. This is a very good thing indeed and it allows all the baggage the two characters have to be dealt with when tension is at a boiling point.

The film does use a good deal of voice over narration and what’s more it has two narrators, father and son. Voice over is always a treacherous balancing act but this film does rather well with it and gives additional insight into these two not completely dissimilar characters. Voice over can be looked at as a story-telling bridge, bridging the gap that a visual cannot for editorial or aesthetic reasons. The key is to build footbridges not suspension bridges, to build them intermittently and this film does that.

That does not mean this film is devoid of visual signature and style quite the opposite there is quite a bit of visual interest, which is mainly added through the edit. The film has quite a few flashback sequences that mainly serve to illustrate Nick’s upbringing and the impact his father’s absence had. The film enters these passages creatively and more often than expected but always with great results and it really resonates.

These flashes aside from giving us very good fragmentary performances from Julianne Moore, shades of her turn in The Hours, and Liam Broggy as Young Nick, also help establish the tonality of the film. The sequences aren’t juxtaposed as much as they are forerunners to the twists and turns of fate in the present day. There’s a bittersweet quality as it shows what was, with hints of what could’ve been and eventually there are echoes of the past in the present that seem equally unavoidable.

Yet as dour as the film is at times there is a certain balance of emotions at play. There is some humor to it when appropriate and certainly tenable drama not just voyeurism, you feel this movie not only watch it.

This is the kind of film that for all its other merits hinges on its performers and with these two the film excels. This is the kind of challenging emotional and engaging work that Paul Dano does frequently and that Robert De Niro doesn’t do nearly enough of anymore. They work brilliantly together and regardless of the frequency with which either does this kind of film it’s great that they do it here.

Since the Weitz brothers have stopped working exclusively in tandem they’ve done some rather interesting work, and this film is no exception. While this film takes its unexpected turns and ends well but a bit loosely but is very good and worth seeking out.

9/10

Review- You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

This film will be released on video tomorrow.

Naomi Watts and Anthony Hopkins in You Will Meet a Tall Stranger (Sony Pictures Classics)

I, unlike many, will attest to the fact that reports of Woody Allen’s demise are greatly exaggerated. While last year’s reviews for Whatever Works were greatly mixed it does not seem like the kind of film that you can use to illustrate that someone had “lost it.”

In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger you can see why people would say that, however, the way I see it is that you get in the film a pastiche of what’s both great and not so great about Allen. At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical fan who likes the “early, funny movies” it must be stated for the record that this film is a drama before all else.

Moreover, it examines some similar questions as both Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona examined. It’s principally about life and love but to paraphrase Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman “What else is there?” Where the film is somewhat lacking is that it could dig deeper.

What really holds the film back is that fears that were caused by the trailer are realized and it’s the voice over. It is perhaps the worst-delivered most poorly-acted voice over narration that I’ve been privy to listen to. Zak Orth’s delivery could not be be drier if he tried. The only thing that helps this film overcome it is the fact that there’s not a whole lot of it and he’s speaking Allen’s words. Sadly, it also unnecessarily spoon-feeds a relatively simple film and by speaking the film’s conclusion to its hypothesis this renders it more banal than it otherwise would’ve been.

The Bergman reference above is not totally misplaced as this is another examination by Allen of a subject that obsessed Bergman: death. Through these intertwining tales Allen not only examines how we deal with mortality but conversely, of course, with life and what the point to all of it is.

Barring the aforementioned narration the acting is good across the board. The characters are actually a bit less neurotic than Allen’s usual dramatis personnae and feel more like well-rounded, less erudite types. While these characters can come across as more flat it is a tribute to the actors in this film that they breathed life into them.

Another problem the film battled was the edit. The film is a bit too methodical. It never quite gets slow but it could quicken its step through the second and into the third act. True there are four interconnected storylines to resolve but they all end up more or less where we expect them to when we expect them to such that not as much time need be devoted to each to make the point that each segment is trying to make.
While the valid point that sometimes “delusion works better than medicine” is well-made and ties up the film nicely albeit heavy-handedly there is a surprise that develops towards the end that is never really resolved. Now while we can surmise what will happen and the dilemma the character in question is left with it would still have been nice to add a little more closure to that chapter than we get.

Although not a great work and not a minor work, Woody Allen’s films are still vital because he is not overly-concerned with genre or the trappings therein. He through his writing and his cinema is still one of the few American auteurs who is willing to ask real and serious questions with every film he takes on and for that reason his audience should spring eternal and not age with the great cineaste.

6/10

Review- Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 2 (Paramount)

If it’s even possible this installment of Paranormal Activity is even worse and more anti-climactic than its progenitor. It is a film that takes tedium to delirious new heights (or depths) and is the sad side effect, the grotesque underbelly of the Effect of YouTube.

Why I say this is that it is a bamboozling experience. It looks terrible and therefore expects you to accept not only substandard imagery but also expects you to riveted by a film which is most lacking in incident. While I can credit the first installment with having a rather consistent strain of tension that never quite amps things up, this film is nowhere near as fortunate, or even as enjoyable, as that mess.

The first thing that will quickly grate on your nerves is that this film takes the Rule of Three to the Nth power. Nearly every day in the story, of which there are many, starts with the same half-dozen establishing shots. Few of which ever lead to an incident almost none of which ever leads to anything of real consequence.

These shots artificially inflate the running time of a film which ought not reach feature film status. Now there may have been other scenes shot that ended up on the cutting room floor that would’ve been more interesting but we’ll never know.

There is a reason that the New Wave hated establishing shots. They are more often than not unnecessary. There is something reassuring, not disconcerting, about the predictability in the pattern of the edit remaining the same when no new information is conveyed through the shots. We know what the location is always, the film doesn’t leave the house, so these shots are unnecessary and don’t advance the story in any way, shape or form.

Furthermore it is a film that handcuffs itself by being beholden to the surveillance camera angle to capture the action with. Yet this film like the previous one feels no need to pay lip-service to how someone found and cut together the footage. There is just a title that is meant to fool the more gullible element of the audience into thinking this really happened.

Lack of incident isn’t a cardinal sin in and of itself, there are plenty of things that can create tension when the big scare isn’t happening but this film either chooses not to utilize (score) or doesn’t utilize them effectively (cast), such that the film just becomes and exercise in banality and the cinematic equivalent of a “surprise symphony” in which the filmmakers will nearly lull the audience to sleep and then a rare, big shock will rouse the audience to life. Sadly, not all the major scares are effective. Only one can be called truly effective and more than one are laughable.

To carry off a mockumentary style you need pristine acting like you got in The Last Exorcism and even that fell short. Here you get Acting with a capital A, which is the antithesis of being naturalistic which is paramount when the bill of goods you’re trying to sell is one of veracity. For some sense of the quality of thespian you have in this film the best in the cast are twins William Juan and Jackson Xenia Prieto, as Hunter, the baby; Vivis as Martine and the dog.

Pace is the child of Necessity in film. What pace does the story necessitate to be effective? This is an equation in which the film does not have the answer. It plays an overly-methodical hand thinking it is constantly, but slowly, ratcheting things up but it is not.

It is a film quite nearly fails to comprehend the function of a scene. What came to mind was Hitchcock’s example of building suspense. You show a bomb under a table and cut to the conversation above. You periodically cut to the bomb counting down anew and regardless of what the conversation is about suspense is built. This film treats its entire narrative as one scene and doesn’t set up plot points but one or two major incidents such that the journey is nearly pointless and it ends up being a waiting game, which goes back to not knowing the function of a scene. Each scene needs a purpose. Each scene needs to progress the film. Not every moment of this film is essential. Not every scene moves the story, nearly none of them build suspense.

It is a poorly told, wasteful exercise in narrative cinema.

1/10

Paranormal Activity 2 is available on DVD and Blu-Ray today.