Movie Review ~ Brittany Runs a Marathon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman living in New York takes control of her life- one block at a time.

Stars: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Sarah Bolt, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If you take a step back and look at the films released this summer and don’t consider the box office returns, it’s been a good year for female-led movies.  Finding their way to theaters (but, sadly, not always wide audiences) were Booksmart, Late Night, The Farewell, and maybe, if you’re feeling generous, even The Hustle.  All had strong points of view and boldly entered the arena, often in direct competition to highly anticipated and better advertised franchise blockbusters.  Aside from The Farewell, which continues to build on positive word of mouth, these movies suggested changing tides of appetite only to find themselves in discounted theaters within weeks of their release dates.  Destined to find their audiences when they hit streaming services, it doesn’t diminish the sting of feeling these should have done better.

The latest movie likely to fall under the same scrutiny is Brittany Runs a Marathon and it might just stand the best shot of breaking the cycle of summer underperformers.  Directed by Off-Broadway playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo making his feature film debut and inspired by the life of his best friend, this is a charming comedy that finds a nice balance between humor and drama.   I found a lot to laugh at within the movie but an equal amount of the time I was struck by how insightful it was into the inward struggle we all face when standing in front of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Approaching 30 and yet to shed the carefree lifestyle that worked for her in her early 20s, Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell, Office Christmas Party) works as a part time usher at a small NYC theater and doesn’t do much else.  Her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee, Wish Upon) is dating a handsome Wall Street-type and enjoys partying and late nights just as much as Brittany does.  Visting her doctor in hopes of snagging a prescription for Adderall, she instead leaves with a recommendation to lose forty to fifty pounds to avoid ongoing health concerns.  Having an “a-ha” moment, Brittany takes stock of her situation, where she is, and where she wants to be. Unable to afford a gym, she begins to run outdoors, eventually joining a running group on the suggestion of Catherine, (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust) a woman in her building.  Teaming up with Catherine and another newbie runner Seth, (Micah Stock), the trio set their sights on training for the NYC Marathon, each with their own personal reasons for wanting to cross the finish line.

To earn extra money, Brittany becomes a daytime house/dog sitter, eventually meeting Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect) who takes over for her at night.  While the two squabble like brother and sister at first, it isn’t hard to see where the good-natured fighting will lead…though it does take an intelligent route getting there.  As Brittany continues to train and sees her body changing, she overlooks that it was never about an outward change that needed to happen but an adjustment from within that was necessary.  Unable to be vulnerable even with her closest friends or accept their support in the simplest of matters, Brittany may lose everything she’s worked for if she can’t knock down the walls she’s put up to defend herself.

On the surface, Brittany Runs a Marathon might look like your standard offering of girl makes a change to better herself and the wacky ways she does it but Colaizzo isn’t interested in doing anything the old-fashioned way.  Yes, the movie is packed with humor both smart and smart-alecky but there’s never a time when the script is out to make fun of its title character.  It doesn’t spare her, though, from being held to the same human decency standard as everyone else.  Just as we wince when low blows are leveled at Brittany, when she does the same to another person late in the film, we hold her accountable as well.  Kudos to actress Sarah Bolt for her small role being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty putdown from Brittany and for the way she responds — it’s easily a top highlight of the movie.

I’m used to Bell’s more raunchy and ribald performances, often broad and playing to the back wall of the theater next door to the one you’re in.  So, it’s refreshing to see her, not so much restrained, but offering up a different side that’s just as entertaining.  She’s in every scene so if we didn’t like the character or the actress the movie would be in big trouble, but Bell clearly was the right person for this job.  The performance is strong and arguably one of the best of the year.  I also liked Ambudkar as her comic and romantic counterpart.  There’s a chemistry in both areas and that goes a long way in keeping the less funny moments afloat.  Watkins and Stock do serviceable supporting work, though some late breaking efforts to bring their personal lives into the mix feels like Colaizzo biting off more than he can chew in 103 minutes.  I’d rather have learned more about Brittany’s backstory, the only information we get are in snippets from her brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and even those are sometimes hard to track.

I think it’s important to look at the movie not for what it’s putting Brittany through but what the ultimate goal is.  The point of the movie isn’t for us to watch her lose weight.  It isn’t about her running the marathon.  It’s a way to show there is value in everyone no matter what they are capable of or hope to achieve.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and offering help is not a sign you don’t believe in someone’s ability.  That Colaizzo is able to weave that message in among a hearty supply of appealing situational comedy and lively performances is a real gift.

Movie Review ~ Aquarela


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Water and ice are shown around the world, in all of their many powerful forms.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  It’s nice to see movies for free.  There, I said it.  I like that, as a one-man band critic I’m afforded the great opportunity to watch films in theaters for free and then get to write about them for everyone to read.  I feel that part of doing this work and committing to it is seeing everything that comes your way, even if it feels outside of your comfort zone.  Those that review only mainstream films or projects that are easy to consume lack a well-roundness that gives their critical eye a sharper focus.  So yes, you should see the Martin Scorsese film, but you should also be getting your butt out of bed early on a Saturday morning to see whatever kids movie is screening at 10am or watching an independent film no one in your peer group has heard of.  That goes double for documentaries, a genre that’s easy to forget about until the end of the year rolls around and you only have to focus on the five nominees vying for the Oscar.

Part of the benefits of reviewing films is that often we have the option of screening the movie at home or watching it in the theater.  I almost always opt for the theatrical experience because I feel that’s what the filmmaker was making it for when they started out.  With evenings getting packed, though, and weekends having more time available I’ve been getting used to watching upcoming releases from the comfort of my own home/sweatpants.  It doesn’t come close to seeing it a theater but at least I’m able to take it in in some form, right?

There was a dilemma facing me when the Aquarela screening was rolling around.   I could have screened it at home but then we were teased that the movie was going to be shown in a high-resolution presentation, allowing for a superior moviegoing experience.  Though my gut was telling me this was one I could get by with seeing when I had 90 minutes to spare, I am, after all, a sucker for all the bells and whistles a reclining seat and state-of-the-art sound system can ring.  Thus, I decided to forego the home viewing and trek out to watch this documentary on the big screen.  I should have trusted my gut.

I honestly don’t know where to even start this review…which is maybe why I’m only beginning to talk about the film four paragraphs in.  Director Victor Kossakovsky has offered up a beautifully shot but gratingly dull doc that is 99% dialogue free and completely lacking in narrative.  Though filmed at a rate of 96 frames per second (fps) when most movies are shot at 24fps, the life-like clarity brought to the images is totally missing in every other aspect of the film.  It’s a movie that’s all establishing shots; impressive to look at for a while but quickly becoming a gigantic bore.  I don’t need a cut and dry narrative in my films, especially in a documentary which is allowed to be a bit more free-form, but I do need to feel there is some point, some direction, some goal, to what I’m watching.

That’s not to say there aren’t occasional spots where the movie comes to life.  There’s a sequence near the beginning following a team of workers trying to retrieve a car that has fallen through the ice.  As they go about their process to pull the sunken vehicle from the icy waters, we see other cars in similar peril racing across a thawing lake hoping not to be swallowed by an expanding fissure.  Kossakovsky doesn’t stay in one place too long, though, and without any fanfare we’re watching icebergs float, crash, bob, or just stay motionless while the camera lingers around their massive widths.  Only when the camera ventures underwater and the view blessedly changes will you snap out of the sleepy trance Kossakovsky has cast over you.

Your eyes will start to look for something, anything, that is happening on screen to focus on.  Any time the perspective changes or the landscape alters there’s the hope of something greater to come but it’s not to be. Sure, I guess you can say Kossakovsky is tracking water from its most solid state at the opening to its airy etherealness as it vanishes while cascading off of Venezuelan waterfall by the end.  The problem with all of this is nothing about these images is moving or inspiring.  The filmmaking (aside from the frame rate) doesn’t seem particularly difficult or boundary pushing and I have no clue how the movie was edited into what it wound up being.  Every image looks like a screensaver to me.

There’s a fear on my part with these heady movies that I’m missing the point or failing to rise to the challenge posed by the filmmaker but with Aquarela I don’t see a line in the sand (or water, as it were) being drawn.  The only challenge Kossakovsky poses to his audience is to stay awake for 90 very long minutes.  The title, Aquarela, is from the Portugese word for watercolor…which is the most interesting tidbit I could offer you. And to think, I could have skipped a shower and slept through this at home instead of “resting my eyes” at the theater.

Movie Review ~ Love, Antosha


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A portrait of the extraordinary life and career of actor Anton Yelchin.

Stars: Irina Yelchin, Viktor Yelchin, Anton Yelchin, Drake Doremus, J.J. Abrams, Sofia Boutella, John Cho, Willem Dafoe, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Chris Pine

Director: Garrett Price

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Love, Antosha starts out like many documentaries about a life cut short often do.  A young child is being filmed by his dad showing off his imagination in creating a world of his own.  Even in this brief moment, we see the light of interest in the boy, a spark of undeniable joy of life and you can just imagine what the parent on the other end of the camera was feeling in watching their son.   The boy would grow up to be a loving son, a trusted friend, a gifted artist, a curious man, a photographer, a movie star, and the victim of tragic accident that took his life at 27.

Born in Leningrad to parents famous in their own right as figure skaters in the Ice Ballet and qualifiers in the 1972 Olympics, Anton Yelchin and his family came to America in 1989 with the hopes of starting a new life away from the oppression of the Soviet regime.  Barely six months old when he arrived in the United States, Anton grew up in California and, nurtured by parents that supported their only child, found his way into acting, first in commercials and eventually in small movies that lead to bigger roles.  Early co-stars included Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Diane Lane, and Robin Williams. An engaging lead or a scene-stealing supporting player, Yelchin was equally at home in bold indies or big blockbusters.

Director Garrett Price has amassed a healthy collection of archival footage of Yelchin (Green Room, Only Lovers Left Alive, Star Trek) from personal videos to press interviews and he intersperses those with memories from his family, friends and co-workers that clearly held him in high regard.  Not surprisingly, there isn’t anyone that has a bad thing to say about the young man and with good reason.  From the hand-written letters to his parents to videos with friends, he seems like the thoughtful and considerate life-of-the-party.  If he couldn’t speak it, he would put it to music and sing it.  And any note to his mother always ended with the two words in the movie title.

What gives Love, Antosha an extra boost is that while Yelchin was a familiar face from his numerous film and television credits, he wasn’t much in the public eye during his time in Hollywood.  Most of his closest friends weren’t in the business and if they were, they too kept a low profile.  That allows Price an opportunity to spend more time showcasing the Yelchin we didn’t get to see, and it gives the interview subjects a moment to shine a light on their fallen friend and collaborator.  We also learn some surprising facts about Yelchin related to his health only released after his death that show how much the actor overcame to get where he was, which weirdly winds up giving greater irony to his fatal accident.  Yelchin may already have been playing on borrowed time, so his zest for life wasn’t entirely without preparation.

Considering how many productions Yelchin was involved with, it’s amazing Price was able to get small slices of time with a host of A-List talent and ask them to reflect on their time with the actor.  Directors like Jodie Foster and J.J. Abrams speak of an intellectual actor able to make even the smallest moment matter in unexpected ways, co-stars Chris Pine and Willem Dafoe remark on Yelchin’s extra-curricular activities as a photographer interested in the seedier side of things, and friends Jennifer Lawrence and John Cho offer additional insights into what made Yelchin such a dynamic presence to be around.  Special mention for Kristen Stewart who speaks with a mixture of youthful embarrassment but adult graciousness on how Yelchin was her first heartbreak. Most poignant are the moments spent with his parents who came to this country searching for a better life and now spend each day visiting their son’s grave.

The bits and pieces of a life could never be summed up in 90 minutes but Price has done wonderful work sketching out the trajectory of how Yelchin came to make his way up through Hollywood.  At the same time, it miraculously doesn’t dwell in the melancholy of his tragic death, either.  Though obviously still grieving the loss of their only child, his parents have a matter-of-factness to the way they speak of their son.  They clearly still have that image of the boy working through new make believe in front of the camera in their heads…and now they have Love, Antosha to remind them how much he meant to others as well.