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Column Fri Jan 31 2014

Labor Day; That Awkward Moment; At Middleton; 2 Autumns, 3 Winters & Oscar Shorts

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Labor Day

Whenever someone tells me that a trailer or commercial for a film doesn't make it clear to them what the film is about, I take that as a great sign. Yes, folks, sometimes a film is complicated enough that it doesn't easily reduce itself to a two-minute trailer. That doesn't mean the film is good, necessarily, but it's a healthy sign that there are still works out there that are trying to be something more than just cut-and-dry stories, where you can anticipate every turn and remain numb to every feeling. Based on Joyce Maynard's emotionally complex novel, Labor Day is a film with many layers and jumbled motivations, all of which director and screenwriter Jason Reitman (Up In the Air, Juno) has sifted through and made into something that presents a handful of broken character's all seeking to put themselves back together with each other's help.

Even how the film begins is unclear. Living in New Hampshire circa 1987, single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) is shopping for school clothes and supplies for 13-year-old son Henry (Dylan Minnette), when they are approached by Frank (Josh Brolin), who asks for their help while showing signs that he is injured to some degree. Without much coaxing and only a small amount of intimidation Frank convinces the two to take him to their car and drive him to their home. Is this a kidnapping? Or does Adele take pity on a fellow wounded soul in need of a change of luck? Each viewer will have a slightly different opinion on that, and that's a rare and great thing to experience in any movie.

It turns out Frank is an escaped convict, perhaps the most gentlemanly con in the history of the penal system, and after just a few hours in Adele's home, he makes himself useful by doing some handyman work around the house and even cooks up a few homemade dishes for this makeshift family. There's a pie-baking sequence that feels particularly naughty. Adele is a divorced woman, and it becomes clear that the break-up was devastating to her. The ex-husband (Clark Gregg) lives nearby, and his attempts to maintain a relationship with Henry seem strained and forced at best. Watching his mother find it difficult to even leave the house any longer doesn't sit well with the boy, and it's clear he blames his dad, now living with a new wife and young children.

For a great deal of Labor Day, the threat of Frank getting caught isn't really a major concern. A visit from an intrusive neighbor lady who needs Adele's babysitting help is about as tense as the film gets in its middle act. Instead the film transforms from this story of a convict in jail for a crime of passion into a slow-burn love story. But underneath the more sensual tale is something almost more moving. Labor Day is narrated by a now-adult Henry (voiced by Tobey Maguire, who is seen briefly at the end of the film), and it becomes gradually clear that this is a story about a growing boy finding a father figure in his life for the first time (Henry's dad is essentially useless in this department, opting instead to try to be his son's buddy rather than a role model). Henry even gets up the confidence to drum up his own tentative love interest in Brighid Flemming's Eleanor.

The film also features a handful of flashbacks into Frank's past, to a simpler time in his life when he was madly in love and had a child of his own. While these scenes do their intended job of filling in the blanks as to why Frank ended up in jail, they almost don't matter because we enjoy his company so much that if he'd told Adele he got drunk and killed a man accidentally in a bar fight, we'd probably be okay with that. But that's not what happened to Frank, and there is an inevitable tragedy to his story that does make us take pity on him, without exactly forgiving him.

There are certainly some who will never get past Adele's decision to accept this man into her life and not do everything in her power to get her son to safety. But we certainly never get a sense that Frank would ever harm these two no matter what. Even a sequence where he half-heartedly ties Adele to a chair to make it look like she's being held against her will when he's afraid the law has found him feels safe.

My biggest concerns with the film have to do with the end. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that, as you might expect, Frank does finally get discovered by the police and somehow manages to convince them that Adele was an unwilling participant in his escape plan. When you see the film, you'll understand how that scenario doesn't exactly hold water, but it's a minor point that does nothing to take away from the delicate structure and beautiful performances by Winslet and Brolin, who are masters of understatement in these roles. When one thinks of Brolin's body of work, some of his larger-than-life roles might come to mind, but he's at his best, I believe, when he's largely quiet and brooding. In Labor Day, he drifts between stoic strength and downright smoldering.

Winslet on the other hand is rarely seen in the film without a thin layer of sweat on her forehead, cheeks and shoulders. It's the end of a hot summer when the story takes place, and there's a healthy flush in Adele's face that no man can resist. Neither of the actors is playing sexy, but the non-verbal cues are all over the place, and if you find either of these performers appealing on a bad day, you won't stand a chance in Labor Day. But the film is far more about what's going on in the head than anything physical, and Reitman brings a nice, mature approach to the material, turning what might have been more like The Bridges of Madison County and making it into something more enlightened about the needs of these fractured souls. I came to feel for everyone in the movie in one way or another, and that's a rarity. Perhaps not for everyone, but I found a great deal of heart and understanding in this lovely work.

To read my exclusive interview with Labor Day author Joyce Maynard, go to Ain't It Cool News.

That Awkward Moment

The first film from writer-director Tom Gormican takes the long way around to get to a truth most of us already know, although it's one that isn't presented in movies very often. The idea is that men, for all of their macho posturing and supposed fear of commitment, are just as susceptible to falling in love and desiring a relationship as women are. As I said, this may be an obvious realization, but in the realm of romantic comedies, which That Awkward Moment certainly is, it's not a theme that is often explored, I suppose because if men and women were treated as too similar, where would the tension and comedy come from? ("Good writing," is the answer, but let's not quibble.) And Gormican makes his characters (and the audience) jump through a whole lot of sometimes burdensome hoops to arrive at this "duh" conclusion.

The story concerns three male best friends at various stages in their emotional growth. Mikey (Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan) is married, but his marriage is in trouble, and his wife has just told him she wants to separate. His friends (both single) Jason and Daniel (respectively, Zac Efron and Miles Teller, best known from his devastating performance in The Spectacular Now) make two promises to their buddy: to take Mikey out with them to get his mojo back with the ladies, and to stay out of committed relationships until Mikey is fully recovered. So naturally, all three almost immediately find themselves in some type of attachment within days of making this vow together. Mikey ends up secretly having sex with his ex-wife, who finds single Mikey more interesting than the one who's her husband; Daniel hooks up with the guys' female friend/wingman in picking up other women, Chelsea (relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis); and Jason meets the bright, funny and beautiful Ellie (Imogen Poots).

The real source of drama for the guys isn't whether or not they should be in relationships (they all seem varying degrees of happy doing what they're doing). Instead, the only real tension in the film is the other guys finding out and disapproving. The title of the film refers to that moment in many casually dating couple's existence when one of them says "So, where is this going?" (the film's original title was Are We Officially Dating?, which is actually far more appropriate), but that question isn't really much of an issue where these women are concerned; they both seem okay not defining the relationships. The biggest disappointment about That Awkward Moment is that if there wasn't this gimmick about keeping these relationships secret, it might have been a funny little coming-of-maturity story about these three lunkheads.

The big surprise about the film is that the Ellie and Chelsea characters are far more developed and fully realized than any of the men. We get to see them with their extended families, we experience some of their personal drama (outside of the relationship), and we care far more about them coming out of this story unscathed than we do the men. Poots is pretty much always good in whatever she does, and there's an effortless (and quirk-free) charm to Ellie that makes you like her. In the scene where she meets Jason in a bar, it's almost a tie figuring out who's picking up whom. But it's Davis who's the real discovery here. She matches her male counterparts in terms of rude behavior, a filthy mouth and her general attitude about bedding a good friend. She rolls with every immature turn Daniel throws at her and always coming out looking cooler than she did five minutes earlier.

The film's attempts at shocking, R-rated humor are hit or miss at best. There's a bit about two of the guys trying to urinate while on Viagra that is kind of amusing, but a bit involving Mikey and a bottle of bronzer is just dumb. It's almost as if director Gormican didn't have the confidence in his material, and covered his ass with juvenile jokes. With characters this smart, it wasn't necessary. The bigger issue in the film that there are a few dramatic turns that didn't seem authentic, particularly one in which Jason fails to help Ellie through a crisis in her life because he's afraid if he does, it will look to his buddies like they're dating. What he does (or doesn't do) probably qualifies as an unforgivable offense, but not in this movie world, where people can be forgiven with a simple public gesture of affection. Don't try this at home, kids.

That Awkward Moment has a lot going for it, first and foremost its impressive cast. But a little more sincerity and less posturing would have gone a long way toward making this a more enjoyable experience. I can recommend the women in this film without hesitation, both in the way they're written and the performances by Poots and Davis. But as in life, it's the men who need finishing school. They feel like sketches of far more interesting men, and that's a shame because they each go through fairly interesting developments in the course of this story. But it's so bogged down in nonsense that the point or any signs of growing up are lost. It's a closer call than you might think, but That Awkward Moment doesn't pull it together in the end.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with That Awkward Moment star Imogen Poots; stars Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan ; and writer-director Tom Gormican.

At Middleton

Some films get by on the strength of the performances from their actors and some squeak by on charm alone. From first-time director and co-writer Adam Rodgers, At Middleton is a odd duck of an tale about George (Andy Garcia) and his son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) going to visit the campus of Middleton College, a potential school Conrad is considering attending. George clearly sees the trip as an opportunity to bond with his son, but Conrad has already started drifting away and is easily talked into hanging out with Audrey (Taissa Farmiga) — visiting with her mother Edith (Vera Farmiga, her real-life sister) — on the guided tour. This leaves George and Edith adrift, so they decide to bail on the sanctioned tour and skip around the school grounds on their own, perhaps recapturing a bit of their lost youth in the process.

I'm not sure everyone who watches At Middleton will agree, but Edith's eratic behavior and noticeable mood swings led me to believe she was unhinged in a way that goes way beyond quirky. When she and George stumble into an acting class, the teacher asks them to step on stage and improvise a break-up scene between a married couple. The results are rather nerve-shattering (for us and them) and provides the emotional highlight of the film, but the devastating things that Edith says are clearly either words she's gone over in her head hundreds of times or perhaps even said to her husband at one point. Both adult characters are still married, but that doesn't stop them from going through the early stages of falling for each other — he's attracted to her vulnerability (that's healthy) and she to his strength.

Meanwhile, the kids seem less dreamy eyed about each other, but they seem to be getting along. Audrey has her heart set on convincing a prestigious linguistics professor (Tom Skerritt) to be her mentor, even though he has a policy against taking on freshmen, while Conrad is a bit undecided about whether this school is for him and what he might do there. He runs into a middle-aged DJ (Peter Riegert) for the campus radio station, and naturally he's wise beyond his Hawaiian shirt and full of obtuse advice.

At Middleton is wildly uneven both as a narrative and a character study. Garcia and the older Farmiga are so busy trying to look like they're behaving kooky and spontaneous that it all feels very staged, and their kids barely register as fully realized people. Both Farmigas (Farmigi?) fare better than their male counterparts, but that isn't saying much. One sequence where the parents get high with a college couple in their dorm room is like every bad attempt to approximate stoned behavior mashed into one, and the result is embarrassing for everyone in a three-mile radius. The funniest moments come from characters who pop in and out so fast into the lives of one or more characters that they barely register before they vanish forever.

The film is a rare misstep for Vera Farmiga and an all-too-frequent one for Garcia, whose career choices of late (outside of the Ocean's movies) are beyond questionable. The one bright spot in the film is Taissa Farmiga, whose character shows a bit more backbone than she has given us in any previous roles, including two seasons of "American Horror Story." Audrey is headstrong to a fault, and when she doesn't get what she wants, she's literally at a loss for words. In the end, At Middleton reveals itself to be a pretentiousness work with characters that have so much, it makes them sad. When I find the time, I'll cry for them.

To read my exclusive interview with At Middleton star Vera Farmiga, visit Ain't It Cool News.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters

This is an odd bird, made all the more so by the fact that its four leading characters all take turns narrating the film, often to the camera, and yet I feel like we only scratch the surface of their personalities and what makes this tick and function the way they do. From relatively new French director Sébastien Betbeder (Nights with Theodore) is this chaotic love story about former art student Arman (Vincent Macaigne), who goes out jogging one day in an effort to finally improve himself in some way, when he runs into Amélie (Maud Wyler), whom he's taken with instantly before she jogs off, seemingly forever. After repeated attempt to run into her again, he actually next sees her when she's nearly raped in an alleyway by a couple of thugs, who proceed to stab Arman, landing him in the hospital with Amélie watching over him.

Naturally, the two start to date, and the rest of 2 Autumns, 3 Winters (the duration of the film) follows the peaks and valleys of their relationship, as you would expect. Other than the constant turning to talk to the audience, the film's structure bares some similarities to About Last Night... (the original film, not the new remake), as it brings the couple's friends, former significant others and family members into the picture, and we get to see how everyone reacts to everyone else's quirks and eccentricities. The film is often funny, sometimes tragic, but rarely does it seem insightful or educational, as it barely pulls back the curtain to show us the twisted workings of this relationship.

Betbeder drops in a couple bizarre cultural references to really make us wonder why the French find certain things so significant. An extended discussion about how great Judd Apatow's Funny People is went right over my head. For such a fairly lightweight piece, I was surprised how often I felt that the film's uniquely French qualities were lost on me, and I say that as someone that devours French cinema like it was yummy escargot. 2 Autumns, 3 Winters has a few funny and probing moments, but the digressions and sometimes contemptible characters often put me off to the primary story of this young, struggling couple that seem hopelessly driven to each other. I was rooting for them to survive as a unit, but the structure of the film kept making me care less and less if they actually made it.

The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Oscar Shorts

Look, I never tell you to go see something or not; I give recommendations, tell you what I liked, etc. But it's not my job to say "Go see this." All I'm required to do is tell you if I liked something or not; the rest is up to you. With that being said, this month or so leading up to the Academy Awards is really the only time every year many cities are given a shot at checking out the Oscar-nominated shorts programs in the categories of Live Action, Animated and Documentary. For the first time ever, I've actually gotten a chance to see all 15 nominated shorts (the only reason I didn't before is that two or three are usually not available as part of the package deal given to critics for review). But this year, everybody got their acts together, and I'm here to tell you there isn't a lame category in the bunch. Whichever one(s) you select, you're going to see some great stuff; even the weaker individual selections are very good. In some cities, the separate programs are being shown at different theaters (the Doc Shorts have been broken into two separate programs due to their length), so do a little digging and then do a lot of watching.

In the past, since sometimes the Animated program can run on the short side, the distributor supplements the nominees with a couple of other shorts that were in contention or previous year's winners/nominees. I'm not sure that's the case this year, since the total nominee's program is fairly lengthy and really strong. It includes the Disney short that played before Frozen, Get a Horse!, starring Mickey Mouse, an amazing tribute to the original Mickey shorts, done in hand-drawn, black-and-white animation that transforms into, well, I don't want to ruin the surprise if you haven't seen it.

Also included in the Animation selection is Freal, featuring a boy raised in the woods by wolves who is brought back to civilization in an attempt to make him a normal child again; Possessions, a stunning Japanese work in which a 18th century tinkerer stumbles upon a haunted shrine in the woods during a storm, but rather than get scared, he finds ways to improve the spirits' surroundings; Room on the Broom features a bevy of famous (mostly British) voice actor (and is narrated by Simon Pegg) and is based on the much-loved children's story about a friendly witch trying to get all of her animal friends on her broom; and my personal favorite Mr. Hublot, a Luxembourg-France co-production about a world where the people and everything around them are composed to varying degrees of mechanical parts. The title character's is a reserved worker bee, who takes in a robot dog that disrupts his life but wins his heart; it's a great, inventive, beautifully rendered work.

Perhaps the weakest of the three program by just a smidge is the Live Action nominees, but there are still come great ones among them. Finland's Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? kind of makes you wonder how bad the other potential nominees were, not because it's terrible; it's just so damn ordinary. Faring slight better are Helium from Denmark, about a hospital janitor befriending a dying child in the hospital; it's dripping with sentimentality, but it's undeniably a sweet story. That Wasn't Me from Spain tells the story of an African child and Spanish woman that has a bit of hurried drama to it, but doesn't really amount to much. My personal favorite is the beyond-tense French entry Just Before Losing Everything, which feels like the best scene out of bigger film and concerns a woman attempting to escape her abusive husband with her two kids; this is pure edge-of-your-seat stuff and the acting is superb. But undoubtedly the fan favorite of this bunch will be The Voorman Problem from the UK, starring Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, "Sherlock") as a psychiatrist brought in to examine a mental patient (Tom Hollander) who claims he is a god. I'll say no more, but if you have any friends or family in Belgium, you may be compelled to call them after watching this. It's terrific.

The Documentary shorts are by far the most compelling overall, no more so than director Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (which will debut on HBO March 31), about an elderly war hero living out the final weeks of his life in prison due to a life sentence received decades ago; the story begins there, but it's just as much about the makeshift hospice unit and care givers at the prison that help these dying patients move on peacefully. The film is desperately sad and incredibly moving.

The film is joined in the category by The Lady in Number 6, about a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor who was a famous concert pianist in her youth and still plays in her small London apartment every day. Her story and words of wisdom will make you, as the saying goes, laugh and cry. Karma Has No Walls is set in Yemen's capital, with a population that had more guns than people; the film centers on the movement to have the long-sitting leader step down finally. The more curious of the bunch is Facing Fear from the United States about a former neo-Nazi skinhead, who once nearly beat a gay man to death in a L.A. parking lot, who quite by coincidence meets this man again and becomes friends with him through a long process of forgiveness. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring but least consequential of the Doc shorts is CaveDigger, about a New Mexico artist who digs massive, manmade caves in the sides of small sandstone cliffs using only hand tools (no electric ones). It may sound ridiculous, but when you see these epic, stunning creations (which take him years sometimes), you'll understand and appreciate the method to his madness.

This nation's aversion to short films is shocking and confusing. The gems you can discover are endless, especially among this year's crop of short film Oscar nominees. Seek them out, do a little research and see which ones you might find the most interesting. But here's a clue: they're all varying degrees of great. For Chicagoans, the Animated and Live Action shorts programs are opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cineman, while the two-part Documentary Shorts entries are showing at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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By Steve Prokopy

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