Talking Movies

September 8, 2019

From the Archives: Year of the Dog

Digging in the pre-Talking Movies archives throws up this forgotten tale of lonely office worker Peggy (Shannon); devastated when her dog dies, but her life changes when a vet (Sarsgaard) offers her a dog to adopt.

Mike White is a gifted comedy writer. He has penned School of Rock, Orange County and Nacho Libre as well as the more serious dramedies The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck. So when you hear that he’s assembled an interesting cast for his directorial debut your expectations get raised ever so slightly. Which is what makes Year of the Dog such a terrible let down. Things start off promisingly enough as we’re shown the empty life of office worker Peggy (Molly Shannon) whose best friend is really her dog Pencil, who promptly dies of toxic poisoning leaving Peggy distraught. But that unexpected emotional punch makes it obvious that we have been sold a pup by the misleading trailer. Peter Sarsgaard arrives as the big romantic lead…and announces he’s celibate owing to the trauma of childhood abuse. That’s a good summary for how far this film is from the advertised sweet romantic triangle between Peggy (Shannon), Al (John C Reilly) and Newt (Sarsgaard); dog lovers all.

White’s script infuriatingly introduces a host of horrible people who could be the stuff of comedy and then refuses to do anything funny with any of them. John C Reilly dunders around as the loutish next door neighbour but then disappears. Laura Dern makes your skin crawl as Peggy’s sister-in-law who treats her children as if she’d read Howard Hughes’ guide to parenting but is given little screen-time. Regina King (Layla) is given the joyfully offensive line; “I believe there is someone in this world for everyone, even retarded cripple people get married”; but precious little else to flesh out Peggy’s best friend. All of these characters are thrown away in favour of focusing on Peggy’s journey towards becoming a vegan, or a nutjob which is how she turns out, which is ironic given that writer/director White is a vegan.

It’s hard to watch someone betray their family and friends, commit cheque fraud, lose their job as a result and adopt 15 dogs from the city pound and accept it as a spiritual epiphany. White lamentably falls into the Hollywood cliché where the mechanics of what happens next is conveniently never explained. If she’s unemployed, and for a reason that makes her unemployable, where does Peggy get the money to pay her rent let alone her dog food bills? It’s hard not to think these are really the first steps to homelessness, which is a disquieting thought when you’re meant to be cheering along Peggy the newly minted animal rights activist. Year of the Dog ends up in the nightmare pitfall of dramedy where there’s enough sweetness to keep you watching in the hope of a joke popping up again fairly soon (which it probably won’t) but not enough dramatic meat to make you believe in these characters as real people. A dog of a debut…

1/5

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January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

September 26, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s comeback run continues with a third straight humdinger – this time in a more tragic vein as Cate Blanchett essays a comic Blanche DuBois.

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Humbled socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) arrives in San Francisco, pleading poverty but still flying first class, to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Both women were adopted, but Ginger always felt their parents loved Jasmine more, and Jasmine continues their disapproval as she instantly disapproves of Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale); insisting that he’s no better than Ginger’s loutish ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). Chili, however, gives as good as he gets, and his constant nagging steers Jasmine into a receptionist job with punctilious dentist Dr Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg). Jasmine’s disruptive memories of her pampered life with ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), however, see her trying to recreate her previous social standing by landing bereaved diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). She also introduces Ginger to a boyfriend a step up from Chili, sound engineer Al (Louis CK). Will love triumph?

Woody Allen manages to combine fantastic comedy with a quite touching tragedy. Jasmine may appear a boozy socialite at first, with an unnerving habit of launching into intimate conversations about her life with complete strangers. Really she’s heavily medicated after a nervous breakdown and gets into those conversations because people assume she’s talking to them, when in fact she’s talking to thin air in which she sees Hal or other people. Blanchett is extraordinary in the lead, retaining our sympathy even as she delivers the most horrible lines. Blanchett is able to shift from gorgeous and intelligent to haggard and schizophrenic within a scene by dint of sheer facial expressiveness. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, in his second film with Allen after Vicky Cristina Barcelona, bathes the film in warm golden tones which make Jasmine’s sudden mental disintegrations all the more disturbing.

Jasmine’s life with Hal is patiently revealed in flashback to illuminate both the reasons for her breakdown, and just why Augie holds her so responsible for ruining Ginger’s life by trying to do her one good turn. Baldwin is on fine imperious form as the high-flying Wall Street tycoon whose fly-by-night practices Jasmine is (purposefully?) oblivious to, just as she doesn’t notice his endless affairs. But the other side of the comedy-drama tightrope being walked with such skill here is hilariously unhindered performances from Louis CK and Stuhlbarg as remarkably unsubtle suitors of the sisters. Blanchett has any number of waspish lines that are hysterically funny, and her relationship with her two nephews affords great opportunity to deploy them. Yet the comedy never undermines the dramatic substance and betrayal, infidelity, corruption, bad advice and bad luck subtly power the film.

The combination of two women’s romances and mental disintegration inevitably recalls Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this is a more ambitious and more successful film.

4/5

March 7, 2013

Robot and Frank

Frank Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as his personal robot make  for a most unlikely criminal duo in this compact caper movie set in the quite  near future.

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Frank Langella plays Frank (how that naming decision must have taxed the  makers), a retired cat-burglar shambling forgetfully around a small town in  upstate New York. Concerned that Frank’s visits to a long closed restaurant for  his meals are getting too frequent his son Hunter (James Marsden) foists upon  him a personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to attend to his healthcare  needs. Robot will cook Frank proper meals at regular intervals, harass him into  taking his medicines when he should, and force him to start gardening to sharpen  his memory skills. Frank pleads with his technophobic daughter Madison (Liv  Tyler) to get rid of the android, until he realises that Robot can be cajoled  into breaking locks. And his beloved local library just happens to have  something worth stealing for librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) before the  books are shipped out…

Robot and Frank is a deeply odd  movie. It is at heart a caper flick. And like all capers there’s a lot of fun to  be had in preparing for the heist, plotting it out, dealing with the unforeseen  disasters that occur, and playing bluff with the long arm of the law. Jeremy  Strong is sensationally obnoxious as the patronising yuppie Jake, intent on  replacing the library with a hipster hangout because printed material is  obsolete. Jeremy Sisto is also good value as the sheriff who half suspects Frank  is up to his old tricks, but mostly is just harassing him to placate the rich  Jake. Peter Sarsgaard is obviously enjoying himself as the robot given to  ineffectually shouting “Warning –do not molest me!” at strangers who poke at  him, but this movie is really all about Langella’s disquieting lead.

Can you address a topic as serious as dementia in the middle of an amusing  crime caper? I don’t think so. Frank’s memory noticeably improves as he plots  his heist with Robot, but that feels a bit off. This is a future with technology  not too far advanced from ours, bar the (child in a space-suit) titular robot,  but the sci-fi leaves little trace on your memory compared to how a casual line  of dialogue turns out to have a devastating relevance later. As the children  dealing with their ailing father Marsden is thoroughly underused and made  needlessly unsympathetic, while Tyler is given more screen-time but her  character’s motivations are not probed as searchingly they cried out to be.  Sarandon brings far more charm to this role than last week’s Arbitrage, but this part is even more of a  cipher.

Robot and Frank is amusing, but it  feels like a film about dementia had a sci-fi heist written around it to secure  it financing.

3/5

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