Life Itself

September 24, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening
Directed by: Dan Fogelman (“Danny Collins”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Danny Collins”)

Dan Fogelman, creator and executive producer of the hit NBC series “This is Us,” seems to have the television drama formula worked out better than most — a little yank at the heartstrings here, a heartwarming relationship there, a dash of solid character development and throw in some nonlinear storylines. After only two seasons, viewers and critics are eating it up.

As the writer and director behind the feature film “Life Itself,” however, using a similar template is a disastrous exercise in emotional manipulation and pretentious storytelling. It’s the kind of screenplay that needed a few more rounds of workshopping. As is, it should’ve been tossed into a bin of scripts destined to never be seen again.

It’s regrettable since Fogelman, whose first foray into filmmaking was 2015’s Al Pacino vehicle “Danny Collins,” assembles a more-than-capable cast led by Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Olivia Wilde (“Drinking Buddies”). Broken into five muddled and overwritten chapters, the film starts with an introduction to Will (Isaac), a sad sack of a man we see during his happier times when he’s courting the love of his life, Abby (Wilde), but also during his court-mandated counseling sessions with his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening).

In this chapter, Fogelman pulls out all the stops and crams the melodrama with so many unnecessary and contrived components, one may wonder if he thought he would even get to finish the last four segments. This part of the film includes a nod to the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Will goes back in time to see random moments in the past that will likely shape his future. It’s one of the many times Fogelman needlessly reminds the audience that fate will catch up to everyone eventually.

Fogelman mucks up his clichéd screenplay even more by employing the storytelling technique known as the “unreliable narrator,” a term coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in 1961, which argues that a narrator of a story can’t be trusted because he or she is telling it from a single perspective. Fogelman essentially suggests that the storytellers he’s chosen to recollect their own memories might be remembering incorrectly. The decision to include this narrative device is a lazy choice that allows Fogelman to offer moviegoers various interpretations or perspectives of the same scene — scenes that ultimately fall flat.

As the film stumbles into the other chapters, Fogelman abandons most of his filmmaking gimmickry to connect Will and Abby to a host of other characters — their adult daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) and a family living in Spain — but by then it’s fairly evident where everything will end up. Unfortunately, wallowing in a cinematic abyss of tragedy, pain and victimization is better suited for fans of the “Saw” franchise.

The Seagull

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Annette Bening
Directed by: Michael Mayer (“Flicka”)
Written by: Stephen Karam (“Speech & Debate”)

During her decade-long career, three-time Academy Award nominated actress Saoirse Ronan has been a champion of independent cinema. While some of those films have reached incredible heights like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Ronan has hit a small rough patch with her last two less-than-stellar outings – “On Chesil Beach” and her most recent, “The Seagull.”

Adapted from a late 19th-century play of the same name by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “The Seagull” is a narrative that is probably fine as a stage production, but when put on film feels inelegant and amateurish. Many of the film’s problems lie at the feet of director Michael Mayer (“Flicka”), whose career successes have come mostly from his work on Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for the musical adaptation of 2006’s “Spring Awakening.” Sadly, Mayer is unable to create much of a pace or focus during what is, thankfully, a fleeting 98-minute stopover with a cast of particularly grating characters.

Set in a country estate not far from Moscow, the film stars Ronan as Nina, a love-struck young woman who lives nearby and comes for frequent visits to see Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright who views the modern theater as “trite and riddled with clichés.” He lives there with his uncle Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and the estate’s manager Ilya (Glenn Fleshler), his unhappy wife Polina (Mare Winningham) and their even unhappier, vodka-drinking daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who is also in love with Konstantin.

Family dynamics are thrown into disarray when Sorin’s sister and Konstantin’s mother Irina (Annette Bening), an aging stage actress, comes for a visit after learning that Sorin has fallen ill. In tow with Irina is her lover Boris (Corey Stoll), a celebrated writer Konstantin grows jealous of, and who begins to get closer to the impressionable Nina as she hurls compliments his way.

If all those elements sound like a classic setup for a melodramatic tragicomedy — where all the characters mope around wishing that somebody who didn’t love them loved them and complaining about the misfortune of making art — then “The Seagull” has found its audience. For others, “The Seagull” is a pity party that can’t be salvaged by the couple of scenes where Bening’s Irina, who is disappointed in her son for wasting his time making pretentious plays, is able to really show off her character’s cruel and critical nature.

Aside from Bening — and a few of Masha’s one-liners (“I’m in mourning, for my life,” she says when asked why she always wears black) — there’s not much that makes “The Seagull” notable. It’s a film about tiresome characters telling tiresome stories. Everything else is lost between all the pouting.

Ruby Sparks

August 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”)
Written by: Zoe Kazan (debut)

Vanity Fair had the right idea late last year when it started recapping episodes of the comedy series “New Girl” by categorizing each of Zooey Deschanel’s idiosyncrasies as either “adorkable” (a personality trait described as dorky and adorable) or “tweepulsive” (the same trait, but at a more cloying level). It’s not a standard gauge for most critics, but with a surge of overly-quirky scripts like “Ruby Sparks” finding their way to the big and small screen in the last few years, it’s one that definitely needs to be adopted faster than Greta Gerwig can ride her vintage Schwinn to a nerdcore concert. Aren’t stereotypes fun?

Add the name Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan) into the ever-growing list of annoyingly-charming actresses who will find it difficult to inject the right amount of cuteness into a role before someone decides they want to put a pillow over said actress’s face. The possibility for asphyxiation is two-fold for Kazan who not only stars in Sparks, but is also credited as the lone screenwriter. The story follows Calvin (Paul Dano), a novelist with writer’s block who writes a female character (with his typewriter, of course) for his new book and is stunned when she appears in the real world.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), “Sparks” is a clever little idea reminiscent of 2006’s underappreciated Will Ferrell comedy “Stranger Than Fiction.” Its problem, however, lies in Kazan’s calculated screenplay, which never materializes into anything as interesting as its initial concept. Kazan shows signs of potential, but she fluffs up Sparks instead of examining its darker elements. Until she learns naming a writer’s dog F. Scott Fitzgerald is beyond pretentious (and even more so if she is being ironic), she’ll settle somewhere in the middle of the pack where writers suffering from writer’s block isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Mother and Child

June 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington
Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”)
Written by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”)
 
It’s never been more evident how well director/writer Rodrigo Garcia knows his female characters than with his most recent work “Mother and Child.” The film tells the story of three women who have all been affected differently by the adoption process. Through an intelligent and multilayered narrative, Garcia, who is the son of Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”), takes the often-sensitive subject and instills some realism into a series of poignant moments that will easily break your heart.
 
Forced to place her baby for adoption at the age of 14, Karen (Annette Bening), who is now a grown woman, has spent her entire life regretting the choice her mother made for her years ago. The decision has left a gaping hole inside Karen and shaped the bitter relationship she has always shared with her elderly mother. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a cynical, hard-working lawyer who was adopted as a child and knows little about the woman who gave her up. Filling the constant void in her life through empty sexual affairs, including one with her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson), Elizabeth reaches a crossing point where she decides she wants to know where she comes from. Finally, Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a hopeful mother currently seeking out a child to adopt with her husband after being unable to conceive on her own.

As the stories weave together, Garcia is able to avoid most of the melodramatic pitfalls until the final act. By then, these women have exposed their souls to the audience. Their unhappiness and resentment toward the fate that has been handed to them is a compelling look at the significance motherhood has in each of their lives. As the always-off-putting Karen, Bening (the first real Oscar-worthy performance of the year) is fantastic as is the rest of the cast, which includes Jimmy Smits as her soft-hearted love interest who can’t seem to find a way to break through Karen’s callous personality.

More than a story about adoption, “Mother and Child” is about loss and surviving those disappointing and life-altering moments that define who you are. Garcia may not be very subtle in exhibiting the pain these women are experiencing, but you have to respect the way he boldly confronts the issue with a unique blend of passion, empathy, and intimacy.