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Out in Theaters: ‘ADDICTED TO FRESNO’

*This is a reprint of our 2015 SXSW review.

Addicted to Fresno benefits greatly from the duel casting of Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne as scrubby, flawed sisters who drag each other down a spiral of bad decisions. At the helm, Jamie Babbit makes her own series of bad decisions, often unable to get out of the way of a problematic script from Karey Dornetto and some off-putting and downright absurd character decisions throughout. It certainly has its moments of nigh inspired hilarity but the blistery chemistry between Greer and Lyonne can only do so much. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘GRANDMA’

“Time passes – that’s for sure” – an Eileen Myles quote that opens the film Grandma and could have just as easily come spilling from the churlish mouth of Lily Tomlin’s titular character. After all, Tomlin’s Elle Reid is no stranger to her own passing time. In her words, “I’m rapidly approaching 50” (Elle’s deadpan is matched only by her sense of irony –  Tomlin has around rounded her third quarter-century.) Her thick sheen of sarcasm is persistently cutting and deeply riotous and between the sharp writing and Tomlin’s pitch-perfect comic timing, there’s many good reasons to see Grandma. Forget that Tomlin’s name will be thrown all up and down the Oscar buzz aisle because award or no, her presence here is absolutely aces. Read More

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SXSW: FRESNO

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Fresno
benefits greatly from the duel casting of Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne as scrubby, flawed sisters who drag each other down a spiral of bad decisions. At the helm, Jamie Babbit makes her own series of bad decisions, often unable to get out of the way of a problematic script from Karey Dornetto and some off-putting and downright absurd character decisions throughout. It certainly has its moments of nigh inspired hilarity but the blistery chemistry between Greer and Lyonne can only do so much.

Fresno tells the story of two sisters who have just recently started working together in a not-so-idyllic position as hotel maids. Fresh out of sex rehab, Shannon (Greer) bears a chip on her shoulder and a hunger in her pants. She’s acerbic, mean-spirited and even cruel and Greer plays the eye-rolling indifference with an inbred intelligence. Even when her character is making disastrously immoral choices, Greer’s humorously numbed performance keeps us from completing hating the character, despicable though she may be.

On the other side of the fence is Lyonne’s Martha, the more responsible of the two and a hard-working, if easily influenced, ingenue who’s just been dumped by her gym instructor girlfriend. Martha either doesn’t notice that another gym instructor (Aubrey Plaza) has eyes for her or she doesn’t care but either way she wallows in the shoals of heartbreak and that makes her particularly susceptible to Shannon’s bad influence. 

When a horned-up and ready to rumble Shannon decides to bang a sketchy guest and ends up caught by Martha, she claims that he raped her. Next, she ends up accidentally killing him when pushing him and his wobbly, confused dong. Despite all signs that they should immediately report the incident to the police, Shannon convinces Martha to help cover up the “manslaughter” lest she end up in the slammer. Because all registered sex offenders go straight to jail when they’re involved in an accidental death? Immeasurable moral quandaries raised here aside, Fresno plays the scene for laughs when it might benefit it to tread lightly around such potentially controversial and dangerous territory. Especially if the writing is going to be so thin.

The rest of the film revolves around the girls’ efforts to dispose of the body as they carry him conspicuously to and fro in a motel laundry bin. Some of the situations they get themselves into are genuinely funny – a literal bag of dicks, a bemusing Fred Armisen/Allison Tolman cameo, pretty much anything Greer says and does – but it skates around most of the real dramatic issues that it red flags to return to later.

It’s worth mentioning that the film is directed by a woman, written by a woman, stars two women and the conversation rarely traverses the likes of men so it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Having said that, the product itself – if taken as a sort of blind taste test for cinema – should not be celebrated for its admirable gender composure alone, lest we provide handicaps that would ultimatley benefit no one. It’s a nice try but one that lingers too much in the kiddy pool.

Babbit has mostly played the home box office game, lending herself out to direct television shows from Malcolm in the Middle to Gilmore Girls to The United States of Tara to Girls. Babbit jump-started her career in 1999 with queer satire But I’m a Cheerleader, which (ironically enough) marked the first real lead role for Natasha Lyonne. It – like Fresno – also featured Lyonne as a lesbian. Unforuntuately, what works on television doesn’t necessarily work in a movie and we see Babbit’s tendency to make affairs episodic and even hollow. The absurdity of any given situation often lacks reasonable followthrough and this seems in large part due to Babbit’s familiarity with a sitcom medium that champions quick laughs and surface level depth.

The product as a whole is reasonably entertaining during its run time, and certainly has its fair share of chuckles thanks to its pissy leading ladies, but is mostly unmemorable in the grand scheme of things.

C

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Out in Theaters: MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN

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Sorry Jason Reitman, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. We had a good run but, I think it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. Though Men, Women and Children is a marked improvement over Reitman’s nearly horrendous Labor Day, it still misses the mark by a long shot, offering a muddled, obvious, sentimental mess trying to pass as smartphone generation gospel. The film’s central thesis is as convoluted as a Reddit comments section, as insincere as an emoticon apology. Reitman’s throughline that “technology bites…or does it?” is set up with the cold precision of a Mac Store. The section on why video games are bad is over here, in the front we have scummy chatrooms, the dangers of technophobia is jammed back there and right this way is the destructive power of internet speed-dating. It’s a Tinder of hot topic issues; a mosaic of D.A.R.E. videos from middle school health class. Through a girth of over-sharing, Reitman steeps the film too deep in melodramatic strife and winds up imparting a cold, stiff, impotent feeling. Like grandpa when he’s taken far too much Viagra.

The film introduces us to not just one, two, or four main protagonists but a heaping ten of them. But before we even get to any of these men, women and children struggling within their mortal coils, Reitman introduces us to a character that will have a significantly larger role than you’d ever expect. That character is a satellite voiced by the wonderfully British Emma Thompson. I guess she isn’t technically speaking actually the satellite – nor is the satellite necessarily anthropomorphized – but every time we see the thing rocketing to the outer reaches of the Milky Way – something we’re supposed to believe is significant but never is – we hear her voice and vice versa. Thompson has a few zingers and crude observations that cull early laughs but the intermittent returns to said satellite is a consummate representation of the film at large. It’s odd, ill-fitting and just doesn’t work.
 
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Ansel Egort
is one of Reitman’s many targets. He’s coping with the fact that his mom abandoned him. He just quit the football team because he’s a teenager and life is pointless because a YouTube video called “Tiny Blue Dot” says so. Because all teenagers prescribe to YouTube philosophy. Now he spends his days playing League or Legends or World of Warcraft or whatever MMO was currently popular when Reitman was filming this. Not to imply that Reitman is actually tapped into what teenagers do and don’t think is cool. I wouldn’t dare suggest that. At school, Ansel’s friends have not only abandoned him but have turned to harassing and outright bullying him. All for tapping out of the varsity pigskin squad. As milk cartoons strike him down, he’s a statue, taking it on the chin like some self-imilkating monk. With him alone, Reitman deals with abandonment issues, bullying, teenage dating and even suicide. Had the princely-named Ansel and his trials and tribulations been the sole subject matter of Men, Women and Children, we could actually be convinced to care. As is, he’s just another brick in a wall of “woe is me”.

Spontaneous abortion is yet another. Anorexia another. Cheating on your spouse just one more. BDSM porn addictions? Check. Teenage impotence? Check. Underage maybe-pornography? Double check. Overbearing, technophobe mothers are an obvious shoe in for Reitman’s catalog of problems. But I know what you’re thinking. What about a woman pimping out her own teenage daughter to online yucksters? Yup, that’s in the mix too. It’s like Reitman fingered through the DSM and earmarked every other page. Then he went Urban Dictionary and yanked some of the most common entries. Finally he made a Facebook poll of what the biggest issues facing people in 2014 were and shoehorned the top ten responses into one bloated, junky, blood-and-thunder diatribe. The product resembles spending two hours on Chat Roulette. The statement, little more than a bunch of obscured dicks in your face.

The trouble is, there really is a lot of really good acting going on within its midst. It’s a frustratingly similar case to Labor Day. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin weren’t bad so much as they were just trapped in an awful script, working for a director than had never been anything but competent. Men, Women and Children suffers an identical blow. The actors have shown up ready to put in the work but the script lets them down at every turn. Save for (miraculously) Adam Sandler, the sole survivor of Reitman’s mushy hand and the only character whose arc feels genuine and unsentimental. The only explanation for the fierce dichotomy of talent and production is that those Hollywood folk still haven’t gotten the memo to jump ship on Reitman. Accordingly, he’s still got a designer cast to work with and they give it their all.

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Even though I took issue with the trumped up dramatics of his character, Egort’s performance is airtight; frothing with pathos and interspersed with moments of true joy. Jennifer Garner excels as a dictatorial mother who safeguards each and every internet interaction for daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s easy to hate, though a bit hack-i-ly written, but Garner helps flesh her into an actual person rather than the one-dimensional character she’s sculpted as. As a villain, she works but only ironically and that’s still only because of the depth of Garner’s skill.

Another cast stand out is Dean Norris, father to Ansel and new boyfriend to the washed-up but nonetheless fashionable Judy Greer (the mom pimper). Norris was always a dark horse on Breaking Bad (side note: his garage confrontation with Walt alone should have earned him an Emmy nomination. COME ON!) and he unleashes much of the same macho man with a mushy inside energy here. That guys eyes vibrate when he’s worked up like no one else’s. And those jowls. Whoa mama.

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Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are as divided in their marriage as anal beads and bounce off each other just as much. Their romance is as snuffed out by the forces of the world as a dog queefing in the wind. Whenever sex needs to be scheduled (or, ugh, rescheduled) you should probably just buy matching his and hers FleshLights. As DeWitt and Sandlers sexual absentia mounts, they each turn to online lovers. Her via Ashley Madison – the go-to cheat on your hubby website (side note: I wonder if they paid a sponsorship for their inclusion)- him with a high class escort. And when I say high class, I mean $800 an hour high class. The only real bit of emotional honesty comes from Sandler’s awkward interaction with said hooker and how he ultimately decides to deal with his and his wife’s infidelity. But, as has come to be expected of a Reitman film, that emotional honesty is few and far between.

At its heart, Men, Women and Children is rochambeau. Not the French general, the nut kicking contest. With so many potentially nerve-striking issues on display, Reitman has money on the fact that at least one will get ya where it hurts. And he does. A few scenes legitimately sting. The duteously great acting makes this feat possible. This doesn’t however make Men, Women and Children “good” by any means. It’s just a statistical fact that if you’re blasting a shotgun blindfolded, you’re bound to hit something eventually. Can we have the old Jason Reitman back now?

C-

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Out in Theaters: CARRIE

“Carrie”
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Zoë Belkin, Ansel Elgort, Judy Greer
Drama, Horror
99 Mins
R

We all know the delightful bedtime story of Carrie and the Pig’s Blood Prom: strange, loner girl experiences first bloodbath period (literally and figuratively) at school and becomes the target of tampon-slinging ridicule from her merciless peers. Charitable popularite Sue repents and urges hot-stuff boyfriend, Tommy, to bring Carrie to the prom, where she receives an unexpected swine viscus shower and promptly employs telekinesis to exact a wrecking ball of bloody revenge. It’s squarely within the horror genre, but it’s never really been a scary movie. The subject is far more unsettling and grotesque, a step back from jumpy frights and into demented psychology. Kimberly Peirce attempts to navigate the open can of worms within that tender, twisted psyche but stops short, pursuing the studio-brandished sheen of an American Hollywood horror remake.

As the film opens, Peirce provides a new introduction to Carrie. We meet her as a slimy head emerging from her mother’s womb, met with all the warmth and motherly love of a trembling butcher knife clutched by Julianne Moore‘s Margaret – a woman convinced her child is the product of sin and, accordingly, born of the devil. This new scene solidifies the weapon-wielding, love-hate relationship between mother and daughter that will go on to become a through line of Peirce’s retelling of the story while also playing at our natural guardian sensibilities that no baby should be inches from a razor sharp blade. It invites the right type of winches and cringes from an uneasy audience desiring something fresh.
 

Securing Moore as Margaret is a move of inspired casting. Moore’s usual warmth is gone, replaced with jitterish paranoia and a penchant for closet-rearing corporal punishment. The real irony though is that in spite of all of her bible-thumping madness, she is pretty much right on the money all along. Carrie’s abilities may not necessarily be born of the devil but a very easy utilitarian argument could be made that if Margaret pulled the trigger on her infanticide instinct, she would have saved the town a lot of grief and a lot of lives. But tricky debates of this nature are tabled and left wholly unexamined.

Skirting around these deeper philosophical questions that would have made for a much more interesting movie (more of a reinvention than an outright remake) Peirce’s Carrie settles with being largely a paint-by-numbers remake, doused in a blanket of digital makeup from all the wonders of current CGI technology.

Hunched like a troll, the teenage version of Carrie is awkward like a platypus. Corner-standing and slinking seem to be her main primary hobbies around the high school she attends, so it’s no wonder she doesn’t have a Facebook full of friends. In fact, she doesn’t really seem to have a Facebook at all (gasp). 

Following her unsettling shower scene though, Carrie seems to somehow become more confident than she was before, as if her virginal menstration opened up a new chapter in the book de Carrie’s mind. But that probably has less to do with that nasty pool of time-of-the-month blood and more to do with the telekinetic powers that seem to accompany her corporeal transformation into an adult. I don’t know if Carrie’s physical coming into womanhood is supposed to be linked to the emergence of her powers but they definitely both seem to start their flow around the same moment.

At any rate, Carrie goes about wielding her new found powers with the sneakiness of a jitterbug-thumbed high-schooler texting a storm in the midst of Spanish class. That is – how the hell is no one noticing?! She screams and tampons flutter away from her, she’s visibly upset and water coolers crumble like piñatas. While this version really ratchets up the degree of foreboding in the escalation of Carrie’s powers, it fails to take into account the reactions of those around her. It’s as if they’re all used to telekinesis, like it ain’t no thang.

Conceivably, their ignorance could be a side effect of the fact that everyone at this untitled Maine school is pretty much the worst person in the world. Even the English teacher mocks Carrie between takes eye-banging his female students. While I’m sure that opening the floor to debate about the relative ease or difficulty of people’s high school experiences is another can of worms entirely, I’m a homegrown Mainer and I don’t think you could pinpoint any school, Maine or otherwise, where every single person would burst out laughing at you in the midst of the most unfortunate moment of your life. Surely, they’re the next level of “tough crowd”. I’m fully aware that this is a work of fiction and as such everything is amped up a notch for effect but this “everyone is the worst” reality really stood out to me in this version as disingenuous and irritating. 

As Hollywood’s go-to girl for teenage risqué, Chloë Grace Moretz works well as Carrie and is far easier to empathize with than the otherworldly pale Sissy Spacek from Brian De Palma‘s version. She’s more of an ordinary girl under extraordinary circumstances than a full-blown weirdo –  someone who could have been perfectly normal if she wasn’t subject to the manipulation of her Looney-Toon mama.

It’s clear to me that the main issue with this film and with the story, is that it only works if everyone, save for Carrie, is the worst. Otherwise, we’re rooting for a serial killer. Dexter may have proved that that formula can work, but only if it’s done right. I understand that we’re supposed to sympathize with poor Carrie and the ghastly deeds brought down on her but the world in her reality is just so plastic, so invented, and so aggravating. Couple that with the fact that you’re probably going into Carrie already knowing the conclusion and it’s hard to imagine that what Peirce has cooked up will satisfy those who are looking for more than mere updated special effects.

C-

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