The Gift

August 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Directed by: Joel Edgerton (debut)
Written by: Joel Edgerton (“The Rover”)

On the surface, “The Gift” appears to be nothing more than a run-of-the-mill thriller about a creepy guy who inserts himself too aggressively into the lives of our heroes. Dogs go missing, expensive fish are poisoned, and nightmares are had featuring Gordo the Weirdo (Joel Edgerton, in his directorial debut) executing classic jump scares. But then the film evolves into something different, twisting the relationships sideways and transforming “The Gift” from a too-familiar domestic thriller into…well, a domestic thriller with some motivational ambiguity.

When young professional couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move back near Simon’s home town for a fresh start, a chance encounter at a home store with Simon’s former classmate Gordo—who Simon barely remembers—throws a wrench in their plans. After tracking down the couple’s address, Gordo begins dropping by unexpectedly and leaving gifts on the front porch, starting with a bottle of wine. In an effort to remain polite, Robyn keeps inviting Gordo inside as Simon’s frustration grows. When an aborted dinner party at Gordo’s house goes wrong, catching him in an elaborate lie, Simon and Robyn break off ties with Gordo, but slowly the secrets about how he and Simon know one another begin to unravel, leaving Robyn wondering just who her husband really is.

Lots of praise has been heaped on actor-turned-director Edgerton for his first time behind the camera, and it’s a promising if somewhat safe and predictable debut. After threatening to turn the adult thriller genre on its head with ambiguous protagonists and antagonists, Edgerton instead goes for the low-hanging fruit of a nigh-implausible revenge fantasy resolution. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the character of Robyn, to whom the movie really belongs…until a last minute twist turns her into nothing more than a tool for vengeance in the film’s off-putting climax involving what may or may not be a horrible crime. Hall’s drug-dependent Robyn slowly comes to realize Bateman’s Simon may be hiding something from her, pushing their relationship to the breaking point, only to have Edgerton pivot and hand the movie back to Simon. Edgerton has some talent as a director and a storyteller, and with some more time to polish his resume, he could afford to avoid taking roles in junk like “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and become the Australian Ben Affleck.

The Town

September 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall
Directed by: Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”)
Written by: Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”), Aaron Stockard (“Gone Baby Gone”), Peter Craig (debut)

As impressive as actor Ben Affleck’s directorial debut was in 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone,” there is still a lot to be desired in his follow-up film “The Town,” a taut but mostly formulaic crime drama set in Boston with hints of deep-seated tension that never really boil over long enough to take seriously.

Along with his duties behind the camera as director and co-writer, Affleck stars in the lead role as Doug MacRay, the leader of a four-man banking-robbing crew who don’t seem to spend as much time planning out their capers as much as they do dodging across their Charlestown neighborhood with cops in pursuit.

In the opening scene of the film, Doug and his band of masked men, which includes his good friend James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), clean out a bank vault and scare the hell out of pretty bank assistant manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) by taking her along for a post-robbery ride only to drop her off unharmed when the coast is clear.

A romantic relationship between Doug and Claire follows soon after when Doug begins to trail her to make sure she isn’t giving the cops information that can somehow link the crime back to him and his boys. A flirty run-in at the Laundromat and a lunch date later and Claire is smitten. It makes less sense as their courtship continues and Doug and Claire have to make decisions when the truth is finally revealed.

John Hamm (TV’s “Mad Men”) stays two steps ahead of everyone as FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley who quickly fingers the thieves with some smart detective work, but can’t close the case without concrete evidence. Other characters like actor Chris Cooper as Doug’s imprisoned father and actress Blake Lively as James’ wired sister and Doug’s former fling fall victim to Affleck and co-writers Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig’s storytelling woes.

There is more to these characters than our trio of screenwriters would like to have us believe. Renner shows the most range with a bit more edge and controlled rage than the rest of the cast. Affleck, too, keeps a tight grip on his role and doesn’t allow it to become too similar to heist movies of the past.

Overall, Affleck’s sophomore picture “The Town” isn’t without its flaws, but the performances and strong direction play a good equalizer for the narrative issues and unexceptional Boston setting.

Please Give

June 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Rebecca Hall, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener (“Friends with Money”)
Written by: Nicole Holofcener (“Friends with Money”)

Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt take advantage of other people’s misfortune in “Please Give,” a cutting, character-driven indie comedy about self-image, guilt and mortality that matches wits with recent films including Adrienne Shelly’s “Waitress” and Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages.”

As owners of a high-end antique shop in New York City, married couple Kate (Keener) and Alex (Platt) have quite an eye for priceless old furniture, which they purchase for basement-low prices from the families of the recently deceased. Most people don’t want to worry about what to do with grandma’s armoire after she’s gone, so Kate and Alex, who certainly don’t reveal the actually value of the small treasures to the next of kin, scoop them up and make a pretty penny.

Their predatory approach to death isn’t limited to antiques. Kate and Alex are sort of waiting around for their stubborn, elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert) to kick the bucket so they can expand on their apartment. Andra’s granddaughters, the passive Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the all-too-blunt Mary (Amanda Peet), know the neighbors are restlessly waiting, which makes for the awkward friendship they share throughout the film.

Riddled with guilt about how they make their living, Kate tries to set her conscience at ease by giving money to the homeless people she sees on the street. Her charity is not met with support by her young daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), who isn’t happy her mother would rather give money to a stranger than buy her own insecure daughter the things she needs to feel better about herself (a $200 pair of designer jeans and pimple cream should do the trick).

While the narrative feels a bit forced at times, filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, who also made the small gems “Lovely & Amazing” and “Friends with Money,” develops the authenticity of the picture from the eccentric personalities she allows to share the screen. It’s through watching their gauche and sometimes irksome flaws clash together that makes “Please Give” such a delight.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

August 27, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz
Directed by: Woody Allen (“Match Point”)
Written by: Woody Allen (“Scoop”)

Calling a Woody Allen film the best film of this summer (excluding animated trash-compacting robots, of course) might rub some comic book fans the wrong way, but with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” the New York City-born auteur has returned to form and does it out of his East-Coast element.

The setting might not be in Manhattan like many of Allen’s films, but in Spain, the three-time Oscar winner has found a fanciful way to display his unique take on the difference between passion and love in both relationships and fine art.

In the film, Oscar winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) plays Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter who makes an indecent proposal to two American tourists vacationing Barcelona for the summer. When Juan Antonio audaciously walks up to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and asks them to spend a weekend with him, the duo is bemused by his debonair style and disregard for possible rejection.

Vicky is engaged to be married and has no interest in Juan Antonio but joins him anyway, while Cristina, who had noticed the smooth talker earlier at an art gallery, is easily persuaded to take up the offer. Although it is a lovely weekend for the trio, the scheduled sexual escapades are altered when Cristina becomes ill and Vicky is left to fend off Juan Antonio’s charm.

The complexities of these characters are revealed even more when Allen pulls an ace from his sleeve in the second half of the film when he introduces us to Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who’s fierce attitude and semi-psychotic behavior has been the downfall between her and her heart’s conquistador.

It’s Cruz’s intense performance that is the show-stopper in “Barcelona.” In her best role since earning an Oscar nomination for Pedro Almodovar’s 2006 film “Volver,” Cruz owns the screen as a woman scorned, not only by a love lost but also by life itself. When her and Bardem share scenes, the raw emotion and brutally honesty of the film climaxes. Whether the ex-lovers are fighting in the streets of Barcelona or when Juan Antonio is pleading with Maria Elena to speak English when she is talking in front of Cristina, Allen’s definitely got a handle on searing verbal conflict.

Cruz deserves another Oscar nomination this year in the Best Supporting category. Along with her performance, director Allen’s trek across the Atlantic is inspiring despite missing the boat on his last two voyages with “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Scoop.” But in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Allen writes a foursome of characters that epitomize what the word “desire” means. It truly is a sexually-engaging (and not just because of the buzzed ménage a trois scene between Bardem, Cruz, and Johansson) and fascinating cinematic travelogue of neurotic narrative.