Movie Review ~ Before You Know It


The Facts
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Synopsis: A pair of sisters find out the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring on a soap opera.

Stars: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Alec Baldwin, Mike Colter, Mandy Patinkin

Director: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Once you’ve been to New York City and done all the touristy things, that’s when the real adventure starts. Only then can you truly get to the heart of the city and explore the neighborhoods to find hidden gems that are off the beaten path. Restaurants, clothing stores, art galleries, and little theaters are all over the place just waiting to be discovered. Back in the day, the films of Woody Allen that were set in the Big Apple had a way with making good use out of these little-seen corners of a mostly familiar city.

It’s probably not the best comparison to make at this time or might not be exactly the kind of praise the writers and director of Before You Know It would love to hear but there’s a Woody Allen-esque quality to this quirky comedy. It would be easy to fathom Allen conjuring up this NYC set tale on his typewriter, assembling his cast drawn from a stable of familiar faces, and garnering praise for its astute look at familial relationships that break down at the most inconvenient times. Yet this isn’t another offering from that divisive director but the product of two women that wrote, directed, and star in the film. Being so interwoven into the framework of the movie can, at times, be the kiss of death for those that take on multiple roles on a film production but that’s not the case here – in fact, it makes the movie richer.

Living above their tiny off-off-off Broadway theater, sisters Jackie (Jen Tullock) and Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt) have taken on their responsibilities to keep the operation afloat. Free-spirit actress Jackie takes to the stage and supplants that work with other odd jobs on the side while her more serious younger sister tends to the business side and directs. Their father, Mel (Mandy Patinkin), who raised them on his own after their mother died, is a former Broadway actor turned playwright that’s just earned a prestigious fellowship, one that will help produce a long gestating play the family has been working on together. Mel abhors the corporatization of the theater and doesn’t do much to ingratiate himself with his new benefactors…so when he suddenly passes away and leaves the sisters with mounting debts and an unfinished play they aren’t in the mood for more surprises.

A visit to their lawyer to hear the reading of their father’s will reveals a whopper, though. The mother they had been told passed away is actually very much alive is the sole owner of the theater…and she’s closer than they might have guessed.  Leaving her family all those years ago to pursue her dreams of stardom, Sherrell (Judith Light, Amazon’s Transparent, making a rare but welcome appearance in a feature film) is a famous actress on a popular soap opera that’s feeling the sting of ageism at work. When her daughters sneak onto her set and make a surprise appearance, it isn’t exactly the happy reunion any of them had imagine.  As they get reacquainted with a woman they don’t know and pretty much abandoned them for a different life, all three women are forced to take a hard look at their choices in the past and plans for the future.

Directed by Utt and written by Utt and Tullock, the women do more than just play on their strengths and fashion their movie around several highlighting moments. Jackie and Rachel both have their own hang-ups that get some attention but the spotlight is shared with the supporting cast as well. Having an affair with her daughter’s new therapist (played in brief cameo by Alec Baldwin, Still Alice), Jackie is used to taking the backseat to the stronger personalities she surrounds herself with. At the same time, without being able to find a work/life balance, Rachel is unable to maintain a steady relationship with any woman she finds interesting. When they meet their long-lost mother, instead of filling a gap they’ve been missing they find maybe her taking off wasn’t such a bad thing.

The trickiest role is given to the most interesting actor and Light steps up to the plate and hits a home run. Obviously drawing from her years starring in the One Life to Live, Light’s soap diva wants to be taken seriously but doesn’t want to look bad doing it. She’s OK if they make her an evil twin…just not an “ugly” one. Light makes the character brittle but not broken, vain but not vapid.  I thought I knew where her character was headed but was surprised at the little things Light does along the way to keep us interested. When Rachel offers to rewrite some of the dialogue her mom finds beneath her, they bond in a way neither expect…leading to drama between the sisters and their newly acquired parent.

There’s some extraneous storytelling when the action shifts from the sisters and Sherrell to Jackie’s daughter being befriended by an accountant (Mike Coulter, Girls Trip), who shows up to do the books. It’s the only askance bit of narrative I found in the film but it eventually finds a cohesive way into the story Utt and Tullock wrap up nicely by the end. Though writing as two there’s the feeling of a single voice in the screenplay and that helps keep the film buoyant, with laughs in unexpected places and honest bits of drama along the way.

Movie Review ~ Wish I Was Here

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Aidan Bloom is a 35-year-old man who finds himself at major crossroads, which forces him to examine his life, his career, and his family.

Stars: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon

Director: Zach Braff

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I’m nothing if not entirely honest in my film likes and dislikes so back in May when I reviewed the trailer for Zach Braff’s Kickstater-funded (sorta) dramedy I let the cat out of the bag that Braff’s critical darling of a directorial debut (2004’s Garden State) wasn’t my cup of tea.  It’s true that I’ve only seen that film once and probably owe it to myself to try it again to see if a more world-weary version of me responds better to Braff’s overly angsty exploration of twenty something (im)maturity.  Then again, after seeing his sophomore picture, I’m not sure I really need to.

Though While You Were Here is a totally different story, it’s filled with similar characters to his previous effort that lead a perfectly fine life but seem to only focus on what’s missing…and proceed to talk about it for two hours.  I’d liken the film to an overly tired toddler…vacillating between happy and sad but mostly just populated with the sound of whining.

Co-writer and director Braff (Oz, The Great and Powerful) plays a mid thirties out of work actor living with his wife (Kate Hudson, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and children (Joey King, White House Down and Pierce Gagnon, Looper) in a California home he’s too busy to put much time into.  Right off the bat the film feels like a cheese grater on sunburned skin as Braff and family pithily argue over the breakfast table about a jumbo swear jar that will factor into events later in the picture.

When Braff’s father (Mandy Patinkin, The Doctor) selfishly can’t continue to uphold his agreement to pay tuition for his grandchildren to attend an Orthodox private school because he’s, oh, dying, Braff is treated to a wake-up call that he needs to focus less on his dreams in order to support his family financially and emotionally.  Thus begins a series of scenes featuring the aimless father home schooling his children, first in a make-shift classroom in their den and then, when that doesn’t work, by taking them into the schoolroom of life including, but not limited to, a desert camping trip and making them read poems while they fix up their ramshackle house.

Braff and his co-writer/brother Adam have filled their script with so many clichéd moments that one wonders if they weren’t attempting a farce of some sort.  This type of melodramatic dreck had a place in the early 2000’s when sappy pontificating was de rigueur in young filmmakers but now its lack of justified sincerity is mostly just aggravating.  Famously funded initially by 3 million dollars worth of contributions on Kickstarter before a major film financier kicked in an extra 7 million bucks (causing a bit of a dust-up around why Braff resorted to Kickstarter in the first place) I wonder if anyone would have donated their hard earned money had they read the script.

If Braff’s script fails him, he’s equally off the mark in his acting.  With hair in a constant state of weed whacker mess (obviously no money was devoted to combs or Chap-stik for his alarmingly chapped lips), he moves through the film with a tightly puckered look suggesting he’s just tasted a Mega Sour Warhead.  Though Patinkin is usually king of melodramatic line readings, he isn’t able to eek out even a passing interest in his obtuse father figure…even when he’s on his death bed.  I can’t for the life of me get the appeal of Josh Gad (Frozen) who plays another version of the slacker socks-with-sandals comedic relief character he’s unfortunately called on too often to replicate.  His entire contribution could have been excised from the proceedings, saving the film 20 minutes and the audience a grossly superlative storyline involving Comic-Con and sex with furrys.

Only Hudson as Braff’s put-upon wife and King as his daughter coming into her own deserve praise for their performances, if only for the fact that they manage to make some awfully trite material seem valuable.  Hudson suffers through an unnecessary subplot involving a co-worker talking to her as his penis and several embarrassingly awkward romantic scenes with Braff to speak some truth to her hospitalized father-in-law.  King sheds some tears and shears her locks, valiantly rising above Braff’s heavy handed attempts to hold her down.

It’s a film where every scene seems to end with a declarative statement followed by the opening acoustic guitar strains of an indie rock song.  The soundtrack to Garden State was a phenomenon all its own and it becomes clear as the film and its songs play on that Braff was trying to recreate his entire experience from a decade ago.  Problem is, film has moved on while Braff has stayed put.  Wish I Was Here?  Yeah, Mr. Braff, we wish you were here too.

The Silver Bullet ~ Wish I Was Here

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Synopsis: Aidan Bloom is a struggling actor, father and husband trying to home school his two children when his father can no longer afford to pay for private education. Through teaching them about life his way, Aidan gradually discovers some of the parts of himself he couldn’t find.

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’m sure this will damage my overall cred, I was decidedly ho-hum about Zach Braff’s (Oz the Great and Powerful) freshman directorial effort, the critically praised Garden State. A decade later found Braff famously launching a Kickstarter campaign to help finance his follow-up, Wish I Was Here. Family dramas are a dime a dozen but I’m curious to see if Braff’s writing has matured over the years because the first preview for Wish I Was Here caught my interest. Featuring Kate Hudson (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Josh Gad (Frozen), Ashley Greene (The Apparition), and Joey King (White House Down) and set for later this summer, it remains to be seen if you’ll wish you were somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II.

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, William H. Macy, Werner Herzog, Mae Whitman, Jennifer Grey, Darren Criss, Elijah Wood, Ronan Farrow

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 126 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: After all these years of going to the movies it took The Wind Rises to finally get me to ask myself the question…can you truly appreciate a movie and not wholly like it?  If so, then legendary Oscar winning animator (and driving force behind Japan’s animation juggernaut Studio Ghibli) Hayao Miyazaki has wrapped up his storied career with a highly respectable and deeply personal tale that’s free of the whimsy of fantasia found in his early work and one that’s more grounded in historical reality.

Though the film is a highly fictionalized work, its central character Jiro Horikoshi was no figment of Miyazaki’s imagination.  Known today for creating the Zero fighter plane, Horikoshi served as chief engineer of many of Japans fighter planes during World War II.  Miyazaki takes the idea of the character of Horikoshi and his life’s work and fashions a biographical tale that has its share of moments that soar into the heavens but more often than not feels too earth bound.

A story that could have (and should have?  and will?) be told as a live-action film, it falls victim to the Miyazaki style of animation favors featureless characters that unfortunately all start to blend together after a while.  Even the animals have odd human-like faces that are more than a tad off-putting for a picture that seems to resist going for a mythical element as is found in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro

Yet even though Miyazaki is going for something more naturalistic, he finds ways to let his imagination run wild such as in the sequences of Horikoshi’s dreams that find him commiserating with Carponi, an Italian aeronautical architect who conjured up some awe-inspiring designs for the future of travel.  Accompanied by a soundtrack made up of human voices that stand in for an orchestra or sound effects, these passages may be cool to the touch but are warm in spirit.

Between earthquakes, sickness, the threat of war, and a love affair with a girl from his past, Horikoshi’s story is revealed in metered bits that somehow manage not to feel choppy or overly episodic.  As with most of Miyazaki’s work, the film runs over two hours and this one feels like it…so I could have done with the film clocking in twenty minutes shorter.  Even so, the value of seeing the final work of Japan’s master makes it worth the extra time in your seat.

Nominated for Best Animated Film at the 2014 Oscars, several theaters will be showing The Wind Rises in its original subtitled version or in a dubbed edition for those that are averse to hearing a film in its native tongue.  I saw the film with the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon), Emily Blunt (The Five Year Engagement), John Krasinski (Promised Land, Big Miracle), Martin Short (Frankenweenie), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), and Darren Criss (Girl Most Likely), though none of the Hollywood voices add much to the mix.

A work to be respected, I’m still not sure if I truly liked the film.  It’s slow and a bit of a slog to get through.  Still, like walking through a museum of fine art, I came out of the screening appreciative to have taken the journey.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Doctor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jack McKee is a doctor with it all: he’s successful, he’s rich, and he has no problems…. until he is diagnosed with throat cancer. Now that he has seen medicine, hospitals, and doctors from a patient’s perspective, he realizes that there is more to being a doctor than surgery and prescriptions.

Stars: William Hurt, Christine Lahti, Elizabeth Perkins, Mandy Patinkin, Wendy Crewson

Director: Randa Haines

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Even if you’re healthy as a horse, chances are you’ve seen more than a few doctors in your life.  Maybe it’s just a routine check-up, or maybe it’s for something more serious.  Bedside manner is an oft-joked on subject where the medical profession is concerned and we all are aware at how important and attentive an understanding professional opinion is when we need it most.  That feeling gets to the heart of what 1991’s The Doctor is really about, making it more than a personal story of one doctor previously out of touch with everything outside of an operating room.

The trouble with The Doctor, however, is in the title performance from Hurt who could play aloof in his sleep…it’s when he’s called on to become compassionate and caring that some serious false notes are struck.  There’s something quite resistible in his portrayal of a hot-shot surgeon that seems to see each patient for their stitches and maladies, rather than the person that is living with them.  He’s not very present in his personal life either with a wife (Lahti) and son (Korsmo) that have learned the hard way what it’s like to put too much faith in him to come through in a pinch.

That all changes when the doctor suddenly becomes the patient after being diagnosed with throat cancer by new colleague (Crewson), a practitioner even chillier than he is.  Through frustrating appointments, botched treatments, and a healthy dose of a taste of his own medicine, our doctor begins to see the light and makes strides to change himself.  This sounds like the plot for any countless big screen and small screen tales…so what makes this film notable?  Not much, really.

Twenty years later, the film still moves briskly through its paces and is amiable enough to be decent casual viewing.  Perkins is more interesting than any other person in the film as a cancer patient tasked with delivering the obligatory “Who do you think you are” speeches to Hurt as he blusters frustratingly along.  Hurt gives us such a removed and unlikable character at the outset that you really don’t care when the changes to his personality do come.  I mean, even Scrooge has to be somewhat redeemable for the ending of A Christmas Carol to work, right?   

It doesn’t help that Hurt plays the newly enlightened doctor as a holier than thou know it all.  It seems wrong to side with Hurt when he tells off a fellow surgeon for not caring enough when thirty minutes prior he was in the exact same situation.  Hurt and director Haines were more successful with their collaboration on Children of a Lesser God…probably because Marlee Matlin was easily the true star of that picture. 

A perfectly fine film that works better as home viewing, The Doctor has a nice little nugget of an idea (it’s loosely adapted from a novel) that might have gone down easier with a better lead.   Had Hurt not been present, audiences and critics might have responded better to the film upon its initial release.