Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a wonderful, funny, heartfelt fantasy that feels like reality because the characters are so warm and personable.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released May 11, 2012

Written by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

Directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

Starring Susan Sarandon, Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Rae Dawn Chong, Judy Greer, Steve Zissis, and Evan Ross

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Jeff (Segel) is 30 years old and lives in his mother’s basement. He believes that everybody and everything in the universe is connected and that everything happens for a purpose. He asks a question early on that defines his day and this movie, “What if there are no wrong numbers?”

Jeff’s brother, Pat (Helms), seems to have a job at a place called Poplar Paint, but we never see him there. He has an unsatisfying marriage with Linda (Greer) and they both admit that their marriage is in trouble. This might be mostly Pat’s fault, as he is continually seeking things that make him feel he has accomplished more in his life than he really has. For instance, he and his wife are barely scraping by, but he buys a Porsche.

Jeff and Pat’s widowed mother, Sharon (Sarandon), works in a cubicle and is fed up with her sons. She is isolated and so she is taken way aback when she suddenly has a secret admirer at her job.

Sharon has asked Jeff to get off his sedentary butt and fix the shutter, giving him money to go buy some wood glue. We never really learn why Jeff lives at home and why he seems so resistant to going outside. We do know that he watches Signs several times a day and that he is expecting the world to give him a sign of some kind for what his destiny might be.

When Jeff gets a phone call asking for Kevin, ostensibly a wrong number, he feels that the universe might have just given him a sign. Finally convinced that he should go buy wood glue, he heads out and soon sees a kid with the name Kevin on his shirt. This starts him on a journey of what others might see as coincidence but that for Jeff is simply the opening up to him of his destiny.

Jeff soon runs into Pat and we see that Pat thinks very little of his seemingly lazy, aimless brother. Pat’s problems with his wife, Karen, get worse as these brothers spend their day together, trying to figure out what is going on.

At the same time, Sharon and her friend Carol (Chong) discuss Sharon’s secret admirer, with somewhat unexpected results that help Sharon realize that living a life of joy is more of a choice than a result of the universe’s efforts.

The journey Jeff and Pat are on at times is a little madcap, at other times dramatic, and at other times quietly introspective. Everything comes together as Sharon and Pat both decide that finding love and happiness is a matter of choice and overcoming fear– and Jeff finds what he decides must be his destiny, although the audience understands that his destiny was to help his family be happy.

Critique

Jeff, Who Lives at Home would have been a waste of celluloid and money if not for the impressive performances of Sarandon, Chong, Greer, Helms, and particularly Jason Segel. There’s no winking at the audience by the performers or the writers/directors. This story is to be taken on its face, not as a parable, allegory, or fantastical absurdism. This approach works because Jason Segel captures Jeff’s simple purpose in each moment of screen time. You get the feeling that the part was written for Segel.

Seriously, this is a simple film that isn’t trying to preach a message of carefree, chill-out living. Instead, the Duplass brothers created a unique character in Jeff and simply explored what this day would be like if he were to follow his desire to find his destiny in a world populated by his unhappy brother and mother.

Thus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is very much a character and dialogue-driven movie. What action there is happens simply because the characters made a choice that led them to sometimes dangerous results. There are moments of hilarity, quiet warmth and wisdom, and excellent honesty. It’s a marvelous thing to see the characters come to understandings in the moment of open, honest communication; you almost feel as if the Duplass brothers discovered these truths at the same time that they were writing the dialogue.

Watch this movie. It will take less than 90 minutes of your time and you will be left with a deep feeling of tenderness for these people.

Content warnings: Some salty language and very minor violence.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

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Get the Gringo

Get the Gringo is surprisingly entertaining, and one wonders why it didn’t get more press. Mel Gibson, despite his turmoils, is still engaging and adept as an actor, making this rather random movie pretty watchable.

Here’s a trailer:

The trailer gives the film a more lighthearted feel than the flick actually has, although there is some surprising and quirky humor to it.

The deets:

Released March 15, 2012

Written by Mel Gibson, Stacy Perskie, and Adrian Grunberg

Directed by Adrian Grunberg

Starring Dolores Heredia, Mel Gibson, Dean Norris, Kevin Hernandez, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Peter Stormare, and Peter Gerety

Rated: R

*     *     *     *      *

Story

Get the Gringo starts with a driver (Gibson) who is unnamed throughout the film (except for aliases) careening in a car away from what we assume are authorities. He is wearing clown makeup and his accomplice is wearing the same. They have just robbed a mobster (Stormare) and money is flying everywhere. When his partner is shot and there is no more option for the driver, he crashes through the border fence (a perfectly good use for said fence) and is picked up by the Mexican authorities. These corrupt individuals proceed to keep all the money that they can find and lock the driver in a prison, where they likely hope he will die before long, given the anarchy that reigns therein.

Meanwhile, a local embassy guy (Gerety) shows up to take up the driver’s case. When he can’t find anything on the fellow, the embassy guy starts to realize he can make some money by tracking down the corrupt cops and screwing the driver.

The driver has a rough first day in the prison, but he’s a lifelong criminal, albeit with a heart of gold and he gets his feet under himself quickly. We like him for two reasons: he recognizes and disdains corruption and his narration gives him a sense of humor we enjoy. Yes, there is voice-over narration throughout.

He reluctantly befriends a kid (Hernandez) who lives with his mom (Heredia) in the prison complex and learns that the prison and a huge criminal enterprise are run by a guy named Javi (Cacho), who has kidney disease.

So this isn’t an American prison. People wander the complex freely and even some families live there together. Thus, the driver is able to pull off a few capers that get him some cash and a weapon. Which is lucky, since the mobster he robbed wants his money back and is willing to do all kinds of nasty things to get it back.

Conflicts arise as we learn more about the kid and why the leader of the prison wants him around and as the mobster and the embassy guy set in motion deadly events aimed at the driver. Thus, the driver needs to come up with a slick plan to stick it to all the baddies and save the kid, and the mother whom he might be getting sweet on.

We end up with all kinds of gunfights and a few explosions, but mostly a pretty smart denouement that gets people what they deserve.

Critique

Get the Gringo has multiple flavors to it. You’ve got some irreverent charm, ala Lethal Weapon. You’ve got some slick, well timed capers, ala Ocean’s Eleven and other smart heist films. You’ve even got some brutal action, in the style of Tarantino.

All in all, for a flick that didn’t spend any time at all in wide theatrical release, Get the Gringo is a pretty good movie. The writing is a bit precious, in that the narration is a bit Pulp Fiction, but Gibson’s got the chops to deliver the narration and quirky, at times brutal, humor well.

The performances are, as you might expect from non-A-list talent, darn good and nicely straightforward. Heredia does a particularly great job as a tough bear-mom who has a vulnerable side she absolutely refuses to show if there’s any chance of betrayal. Hernandez is a spunky kid who doesn’t seem at all intimidated by Gibson. Stormare is typically bombastic as the mobster. And Gibson is just, all of his baggage aside, a very good actor. His performance is deft and well-tuned to the material.

Get the Gringo deserved more love. It’s one of those scuffed gems that gleams in spots and maybe needed a little more polish. It’s certainly better than most of the formula-following, derivative stuff that pours in and out of theaters these days. For a film that isn’t formulaic, is pretty smart, has plenty of action, and offers a look at a prison culture that the movie audience should love, it’s sad it didn’t get more press and exposure in wide theatrical release.

Content warnings: Plenty of bloody violence and harsh language, some sexual material and drug use.

Writing: 4           Acting: 4.5            Overall: 4

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Les Miserables (2012)

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is quite an interesting animal. It’s the kind of animal that you can’t look away from, but that evolution is pretty much going to have its way with. Some fine performances and hit and miss production value add to the absolute and total lack of baritone and bass– reducing the impact of a film that one supposes was supposed to knock you silly.

Instead, it comes off a little silly.

Here’s a trailer. Warning: quavery voices ahead.

The deets:

Released December 25, 2012

Written by William Nicholson, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil (screenplay), based upon the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Directed by Tom Hooper

Starring Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham-Carter, Isabelle Allen, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, and COLM WILKINSON

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Odds are that if you are interested in this movie, you know the story. That said, here’s a summary. Jean Valjean (Jackman) was sent to prison for theft and had his sentence extended due to escape attempts. But he has now done his time and his parole office, Javert (Crowe), says he is able to go about his life but will always be a thief and must check in always.

Valjean, who went to prison after simply trying to feed his sister’s son, has become a hardened criminal and he goes about trying to scratch out some life. When a bishop (WILKINSON!!!!) takes him in, Valjean makes off with some valuable silver but is caught. But then the bishop acts as if he gave Valjean the silver, gives some more valuables, and tells Valjean that Valjean must now live a life of giving and forgiveness; the bishop has ‘bought (Valjean’s) soul for God.’

Now Valjean must choose, and he chooses to live a life of prosperity and charity, becoming true to the good inside him. But Javert is always at his heels. Fast forward many years and Valjean owns a factory and in a moment of neglect, allows an innocent single mother to be fired. This mother is Fantine (Hathaway), whose life spirals out of control and she ends up on the streets, partly because the people she has caring for her daughter are cheating her out of every penny.

As Fantine closes in on death, Valjean intercedes in a squabble at which Javert has shown up. Javert finds out that this is Valjean, but Valjean cannot go back to jail; he has to help Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Allen). He gets the girl away from the terrible couple that have been ‘caring for’ her, the Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham-Carter). Javert and Cosette escape Javert.

Fast forward again and Cosette (now played by Seyfreid) is a lovely young woman who falls in love with Marius (Redmayne). But Eponine (Barks) loves Marius too. What’s more, Eponine is the daughter of the Thenardiers, so she recognizes Cosette. A love triangle ensues, while the Thenardiers try to find Valjean and steal his money and Javert shows up to still try to catch Valjean. All of this is done with the French Revolution happening. Indeed, Marius is one of the student revolutionaries along with Enjolras (Tveit).

We have multiple showdowns between the revolutionaries and the French army, as well as between Javert and Valjean– which leaves Javert questioning what he thought was his righteous cause. When all is said and done, the truth of who Valjean is revealed and the lovers are together and tragedy has been the mother of wisdom.

And this is all done with singing.

Critique

Which is why it isn’t very good.

The book and stage production are obscenely powerful. The book is a sprawling epic that explores humanism, royalty, forgiveness, redemption, charity, sacrifice, heroism, dreams, truth, love, loyalty, and honor. The book is written by a remarkable novelist at the top of his game.

The stage production cuts through much of the detail and narrative and highlights the most dramatic events of the book with music and lyrics providing the connecting bridges between these events. The stage production is produced and performed by professionals for whom this is their livelihood. You don’t get on that stage unless you are a world-class singer and performer.

The movie cast almost entirely actors, some of whom might even be able to sing. The cast sings on set, right into the camera; no lip-syncing– which is a nice gimmick and does add immediacy but these people generally just can’t sing at the level required by the characters, the melodrama of these events, and a production that is loved by millions.

Setting aside a set design that wavers between kind of amazing and then very small-fry and seeming like a plywood stage set, and setting aside a plot and pacing that seem to be in a massive, helter-skelter rush, the singing simply doesn’t get it done.

Sure, for those who haven’t got a long history with this production, it’s passable. And for a crazed fan like this reviewer, there are moments that are effective, but so much of the singing is so darn weak and lacking in power, that I wanted the director to have said, “Dear heaven, we need to do better.”

Russell Crowe, you sounded like you were out of breath, your heart was in your throat, and like you had no idea that you should be singing more than two very high-pitched notes. You were the worst of the bunch.

Amanda Seyfried, you are adorable, but the quaver is distracting and actually shreds any emotional power you were trying to transmit.

Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, it’s not your fault. You were both good, but the director didn’t give you time to be sleazy enough.

Hugh Jackman, you started strong, but stayed at the exact same level.

Eddie Redmayne, dude, you can sing. Now get some freaking baritone.

Samantha Barks, thank you for being amazing.

Colm Wilkinson, I nearly died when I saw you as the bishop. You are flawless.

Tom Hooper, and for that matter Alain and Claude-Michel, what the freaking frak? Not one bass note was sung in this show. Maybe two baritone notes. Every dude singing in 2nd tenor? Seriously? “Singing the song of angry men?” If they’re men, where are the basses?

Ugh.

Also, slow down. Seriously.

See this movie, enjoy it for what it offers, but don’t expect powerful musical performances.

Content warnings: Plenty of melodramatic violence and implied terrible things. 

Writing: 4 (story will always be amazing)       Acting: 4       Singing: 2       Overall: 2.5

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Dredd

Dredd is a surprisingly good time. This is most likely because Karl Urban, whose face we never see, is great as the lead and Lena Headey is not a stupid big baddie. She’s vicious and smart and nearly impossible to beat.

It’s also a very well realized world that adds specific difficulty to our heroes’ conflict.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released September 21, 2012

Written by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, and Alex Garland

Directed by Pete Travis

Starring Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Karl Urban, and Rakie Ayola

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

The world has gone to hell. Much of the USA is now a mess, with a huge city called Mega City that extends from the old Boston to the old D.C. containing millions of people. Slums are vertical buildings, some 200 stories high, mini-cities of their own.

Violent, brutal crime is rampant and it would seem that in Mega City, your chances of dying young are incredibly high. Life in this world really is mean, nasty, brutish, and short.

The only hope for the city is the Hall of Justice. From the Hall sally forth hundreds of Judges– law enforcement personnel who are charged as judges, juries, and executioners. Dredd (Urban) is one of the best of those judges. On this day, he is showing a rookie the ropes. This rookie, Anderson (Thirlby), has some heightened psychic abilities due to radiation-based mutation.

They respond to a brutal crime and find that they might have a line on the controller and distributor of a new drug called Slo-Mo. This is a chemical that makes its users feel as if every second is drawn out and slowed down. It is highly addictive and incredibly dangerous, in that people using it become dangers to those around them.

Now Dredd and Anderson enter a high-rise slum to take down Ma-Ma (Headey), a truly vicious woman with ambitions to control the city. But for now, she controls every inch of the massive high-rise and can see into pretty much every cranny of the building. And she traps Dredd and Anderson in the building so she can hunt them down. This means that the only way out for Dredd and Anderson is through Ma-Ma.

So Dredd becomes a chase, escape, and blow-everything-up film that storms forward with the stolid determination of the lead, Dredd himself. The film wastes no time with backstory for Dredd, simply letting the audience learn about this guy as the story unfolds. He is smart and tough and has to use everything he has to catch up to Ma-Ma and survive her intelligent and terrifying plans.

Critique

Dredd is violent, explosive, mostly joyless, and very entertaining. It’s grim and means business, just like its lead, and if you are the type that likes stolid heroes who will not rest or give up, along with all kinds of creative ways to do harm to people, you will like this movie. The writing is straightforward and the characters make choices that are totally in keeping with who they are– and the plot events stem from each of those choices.

Urban is particularly good, mostly because he sets any ego aside and disappears behind the  helmet and then expresses himself with righteous violence. Any attempts at humanizing this character would have weakened it. Thirlby does a nice job, as she should since she is the character with an arc. She starts out hesitating and questioning and ends up confident and powerful. Headey is also a joy.

Action film buffs will get a kick out of this explosive film and will particularly enjoy the creative filming and solid production value.

Content warnings: Very strong language and graphic violence.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4.5

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