Review: This is Where I Leave You

thisiswhereileaveyou Not by any means a fantastical story or even a unique one, This is Where I Leave You, works not in spite of those facts but because of them. A film based on the novel of the same name and directed by Shawn Levy (A Night at the Museum movie series) is the right story at the right time. Hitting theaters after the blockbuster summer fest is a well written, smart, funny, and heartwarming story about where lives intersect and what happens when they do. Starring Jason Bateman as Judd Altman, a middle child of four who works as a radio show producer. Due to the death of his father he is forced to go back to his hometown and deal with the fallout. The cast of characters that make up the Altman family is a cornucopia of hilarity, sincerity, and unflinching sadness at times. Hillary (Jane Fonda), the matriarch, welcomes her son back home along with his three siblings Wendy (Tina Fey), Phillip (Adam Driver), and Paul (Corey Stoll). The dysfunctional dynamics between the five characters becomes apparent rather quickly. Hillary is a retired therapist who has used her children as some sort of case study for decades and their emotional distance from her is prominent. All four children and their significant others have some level of distress happening to them. From failing marriages to an inability to conceive children the movie runs the gamut. There is some personal relationship that you can either relate to directly or at a minimum have the ability to empathize. Due to the dying request of their father, the five are forced to partake in the Jewish tradition of “Shiva.” This is a mourning ritual that demands all five family members stay in the house and meet friends and family who stop by to pay their respects to their father. This of course creates immediate conflict between the "hard ass" brother, the “play it safe” brother, the “smart ass” sister, and the perpetual "screw up" youngest son.

What works for This is Where I Leave You most is its ability to switch from the sometime juvenile comedic moments to the gut wrenching dramatic scenes with relative ease. Its never feels awkward but rather familiar. As a viewer you might catch yourself very wrapped up in the intersecting story lines that seem more like normal family gossip than a detached movie scenario. Each of the siblings are flawed and you root for them all at one point or another. Very few things are cut and dry as is par for the course in films like these. I don’t want to give away too much of the story but this is one of the better character driven stories I have seen in a while. Characters have definitive arcs that bring things to a point of conclusion. Its not all happiness and rainbows, but just a level of human understanding and growth. This is Where I Leave You is a personal story. The characters get bumped and bruised and do their fair share of dishing it out. No one is clean and perfect hero, but rather flawed by the lives that they have led.

The performances were individually more than satisfying for this type of story. However, with this being an ensemble cast the considerable heavy lifting happened when the mother and siblings lives intersect. Adam Driver as the perpetual screw up giving at advice to his sister, Tina Fey, is a particularly touching moment. Lines like “...you raised me, you are the voice in my head” allow you to glean the characters' relationships underneath it all. Jason Bateman steers the ship with his everyman ways and spot on comedic timing. He was a pitch perfect casting choice here. Corey Stoll does a wonderful job as the staunch older brother who approves of nothing his siblings are doing. He is riddled with insecurity and guilt about his current life and he shows it in subtle, yet effective, ways. Last but certainly not least, Jane Fonda as the mother and general instigator to all this family drama. Fonda, works because she keeps and emotional distance from her children but in the right moments she is in fact the most vulnerable. A great performance with perfect mix of comedy, culpability, and a dash of mother’s guilt. This is Where I Leave You was a movie that threw a lot of balls into the air but managed to keep track of them all and deliver a great post summer blockbuster experience.

[easyreview title= "Review of This Is Where I Leave You" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.0" overall= false]

Review: Labor Day

Labor Day

Labor Day tells the story of a woman who falls madly in love with an escaped prison convict over the course of a Labor Day weekend. At first glance, a movie stacked sky high with ridiculous platitudes and even a ridiculous premise to match. However, Labor Day tends to have a little more to say than early footage would suggest. This film could easily be written off for the general schlock of grocery store romance novels, but in the end it rises above.

Opening in 1987 we meet Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). The two live a rather sheltered lifestyle. We are to assume that Adele is an emotional wreck from her divorce from Henry’s father (Clarke Gregg). She is a mess and refuses to leave the house more than once a month. Henry narrates this entire story and develops a close and helpful relationship with his mother. Never being able to fulfill the lost that she suffered, Henry also feels levels of inadequacy.

When Adele and Henry go to a local department store to pick up their monthly supplies is when things get interesting. During their shopping, Henry walks off to look at the comics (just an excuse to look at the sexy ladies on the magazine covers). He encounters Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin). Frank makes it very clear that he needs their help, and let’s Adele know she has little choice in the matter. He is of course the escaped convict on the run from the local police. He makes Adele and Henry take him back to their place so he can rest from his injuries and decide his next move.

At this point in the movie you get the feeling that this is nothing but a series of stockholm syndrome moments brought on by Frank’s ability to fix the car, work on the broken stairs, and of course make a peach pie from scratch. Teaching both Adele and Henry these skills makes Frank seem like a standup guy, which he is. Throughout the movie we get flashes of how Frank became a prisoner and you as the audience are left to decide whether or not it was deserved. As Frank continues to cook and clean for Adele and Henry we go further down the rabbit’s hole to meet the world’s greatest guy! I have to be honest, I thought this was incredibly contrived and basic. Exactly what I was shown in the trailer and none of this was a surprise; good or bad.

What brought the movie from a mediocre viewing to something of real meaning was what happens next. The reveal (and for the sake of not ruining the movie I won't say what happens) of why Adele is really so torn down as a person is fantastically handled. Showing the full range of emotions surrounding the events are genuine and gripping. These moments elevated the movie above the nonsensical level of a story with a shirtless Fabio character on the cover. Kate Winslet delivers a great performance even with the limited material she is given. Brolin also makes a valiant effort. His brooding Frank Chambers was fairly one dimensional, but Brolin made it work. Gattlin Griffith does a wonderful job as well with what he has. The main hinderous to the movie is its thin character development. Had the three main characters been flushed out more this could have carried the movie a tad further. While not a full experience, Labor Day gives us hope that not all films in January are complete garbage.

[easyreview title= "Review of Labor Day" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.5" overall= false]

Review: Her

Her

Director Spike Jonze’s latest science fiction/romantic comedy is a not only a fun and interesting premise, but a sharp piece of societal onlooking. Taking on the idea of a man who falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system that runs his computer seems like a easily dismissed topic, but in the hands of Jonze the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.

We start with an awkward anti-social type named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He works, ironically for a company that writes heartfelt letters for those who can't do it themselves. The film takes place in the not so distant future where computers and artificial intelligence are now common place. Theodore's life is fairly mundane and routine, his letter writing is his only outlet. His job plays well as a juxtaposition of his own lack of ability to express himself to the outside world.

When walking down a public corridor, Theodore happens upon an ad for the OS1, a new operating system that promises a fully functioning custom artificial intelligence experience. Soon thereafter we see the unveiling of sorts of the OS1. Prompting unusual questions such as ones about Theodore’s personality and parental relationships the system begins to go fully online and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is born. Immediately you can’t help but to notice her ability to speak at a normal human cadance. This helps to get the audience through the premise of the man and machine connection. Samantha is no HAL9000 nor is she Siri. The breathy voice of Johansson lends to the notion of a real person just on the phone far away; making Samantha that much more valid. I found myself many times almost completely forgetting that this isn’t a person in this world, there would be no reveal in the end, no wizard behind the curtain. Instead, Samantha is as present and fully weighted as any other character in the film.

During Theodore and Samantha’s budding relationship we see some of his real life friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher) working through their own marriage, which seems at times to not be as even footed as a man and an operating system. This of course leads to the largest social on look of the film. Her asks the basic question of “what defines a relationship?” Its up to the audience to decide if what they have is valid. JOnze provides some breadcrumbs to move you along, but ultimately the decision is yours.

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is simply beautiful in the greatest sense of the word. Two people who are trying to navigate the murky waters of what life has to offer, together. While Theodore is slowly recovering from his pending finalized divorce from his emotional train wreck of an ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Samantha is learning the infinite space in which she resides. Both growing as people together at completely different rates and possibly directions.

Jonze has truly reached auteur status with this film, and there is no turning back now. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema. His flair for dramatic imagery and positioning is as close to perfect as I’ve seen in a quite a while. Spike Jonze really impresses with long and deliberate shots of thought provoking silence, tasteful sex scenes with only your imagination at work. He brings you into both Theodore, and equally, Samantha's perspectives. Phoenix has often been cited as one of the best currently working actors in Hollywood. Her, amongst his many previous works, makes that claim again...with purpose. Last, but certainly not least, Scarlett Johansson is fantastic as Samantha. She is able to exude a naiveté and curiosity of a child in parts, and the maturity of a woman coming into her own in others. Her lack of physical onscreen time is never an issue. She makes her presence known from the beginning and it never lets up. Her joins a group of absolutely stellar films in its release year. Run, don’t walk to see Her.

[easyreview title= "Review of Her" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]

Review: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina With seven previous movie and two television adaptations under its belt, Anna Karenina has been a massively popular story since it was written by Leo Tolstoy in 1877. The story of a woman in Russian high society who decides to risk it all for an affair with a younger man clearly resonates with audiences and its not hard to imagine why. Director Joe Wright takes aim at putting his very own spin on the story, and what a spin it is. Wright’s version of Anna Karenina is beautifully shot and the world he portrays is quite unique.

Our story begins with a woman, Anna (Keira Knightley) who is of high society in 19th century Russia. She has a son and is married to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law). Alexi is a staunch and rigid man who lacks any ounce of passion. Their marriage is one of societal pressure and convenience hardly of love. This seeds the ground for Anna to look elsewhere for someone who can match her passion. Anna isn’t necessarily unhappy but she certainly isn’t happy; just floating through life from one empty and mundane moment to the next. Things begin to change however when Anna leaves her husband and son behind in St. Petersburg to take a trip to Moscow. While in Moscow she meets the younger and dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). From their very first glance their fates are sealed. Interconnected for a lifetime whether they wanted to admit it or not, circumstances be damned. Vronsky feeling simply overwhelmed with passion for Anna pursues relentlessly. Anna withdraws and Vronsky pursues further. The classic cat and mouse game was broken of its cliche feeling by Anna being honest in her hesitation. She was certainly not staying away from Vronsky for affect. She knew their relationship would destroy them both, and the lives of her son and husband would also hang in the balance. Unfortunately, love and passion have a way of ruining best laid plans and the two engage in a steamy affair. They become the very hushed talk of St. Petersburg. The age old question of how far are you willing to go for love is the overarching message here. Is Anna and Vronsky’s relationship worth it? Passion versus stability. Love versus status.

One element that simply cannot be ignored in this version is the transition and stage presence. Director Joe Wright shows the audience that they are watching a play inside of a film. I wasn’t aware that the film would be shot like this and it was a pleasant surprise. All the scene changes were comprised of curtain raises, manual furniture moving, and camera manipulation. This was baffling at first but after a mere few minutes you will adjust. The scenes themselves were well shot and lit perfectly. The costumes were absolutely breathtaking. High society in 19th century Russia was extravagant and whoever created the costumes did an excellent job reaffirming that.

The acting in the film was astounding. I have really enjoyed Keira Knightley’s move into more serious and indie roles like this. As of late, her work on A Dangerous Method and now Anna Karenina shows that long have the days past of Knightly showing up in a vapid romantic comedy. Her ability to portray the tortured soul of a woman conflicted was fantastic. As her life shifted from pure passion into a social death spiral Knightly conveys the human transition wonderfully. Alongside her is her stoic husband Alexi Karenin played by Jude Law. While known as a Hollywood handsome man, here he is anything but. A cold man whose looks are purposefully dulled to emphasize Count Vronsky’s charm and good looks. Law presents a case for the effects of stoicism, able to stay calm and stay the course in the face of a crumbling marriage and societal respect. The mirror opposite of Law’s stoicism was Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of Count Vronsky. The dashing cavalry man who steals the heart of Karenin’s wife is truly a likeable rogue. Taylor-Johnson makes Vronsky vulnerable, relatable, and in some ways a very sad character. He seems like a man who has everything that he wants but also he suffers from having no true agency. He is lead around by his mother and then by Anna. Rarely making true decisions for himself. Supporting roles of Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfayden) and his friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) gave the film a level of comedy and sweetness. Especially Gleeson’s role of a man who refused to give up on love and his rejection of being apart of Russia’s high society.

In conclusion, a true gem right before Oscar season. Anna Karenina plays to every period piece strength and almost none of their weaknesses. Helmed by a director who knows the genre all too well and starring actors who have really come into their own over the last few years. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s transition from a skinny crime fighter in Kick-Ass to a formidable drama star beginning with Albert Nobbs and now with Anna Karenina to Keira Knightley’s powerful performance I would not be surprised if Oscar nominations are laid at the feet of many people in this cast.

[easyreview title= "Review of Anna Karenina" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]