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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Tag Archives: Marcia DeBonis

12 and Holding (2005)

Small towns are way too weird.

Jacob and Rudy (Conor Donovan) are identical twins, in terms of the way they look and sound (sort of), but they are different in their own ways. Rudy is far more outgoing and considered “the golden child”, whereas Jacob, mostly due to a birthmark covering a large portion of his face, is forced to mostly stay indoors and keep to himself. However, they both get along well enough to where they spend as much time together and even build a tree-house, for them and all their friends to hang. But disaster strikes one night when, after messing with some bullies, the tree-house is lit on fire, with Rudy inside, trapping him and, as a result, killing him. Now, it’s up to Jacob to take most of the attention from his brother and he uses that attention to make a name for himself. Meanwhile, Leonard (Jesse Camacho), another friend, is overweight and trying to lose it all, while Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) tries to befriend an adult named Gus (Jeremy Renner), who is in town and doesn’t quite know what to make of this new friendship, as inappropriate as it may be.

Uh, like step away?

12 and Holding is another odd movie from the likes of writer/director Michael Cuesta and I mean that in the best way possible. Granted, compared to his debut, L.I.E., 12 and Holding doesn’t quite hit the same emotional notes, but it’s still interesting in that it focuses on a small, core group of people, gives them some development, a sense of conflict, and allows their stories to just be told to us. Sure, the stories don’t always work, but at least Cuesta’s trying something, right?

Well, yes. And no. Sort of.

See, one of the issues with 12 and Holding is that it tries a lot harder to be an outright comedy this go around, unlike L.I.E., that was far more serious and disturbing. There’s still that sense of dirt and grit here, but not nearly as in-your-face as it was with Cuesta’s debut; this time around, the disturbing-features are played up more for cringe-inducing and awkward laughs. Occasionally, Cuesta will hit a high spot for comedy, but often times, it can feel as if he’s maybe trying a tad too hard, as if the material itself wasn’t, on the surface, funny enough.

Which is odd to say, I know, considering that in the first 15 minutes, a kid literally gets burned-to-death, but still, you can tell Cuesta is going for the darker-laughs this time around and he doesn’t always hit his mark. He does develop these characters and give them enough to work with, however, he also can’t help but give us the occasional quirk, too. It would have helped if these quirks were, at some point, funny, but they aren’t and because of that, it can feel straining.

“So, how’s the food?”

That said, the drama still works and had the movie just been with that, then yeah, it probably would have been a slam-dunk.

If there’s one thing that Cuesta gets right, is the small-town, suburban malaise that, in a way, American Beauty dealt with. Sure, that movie did it a whole lot better and effortlessly, but 12 and Holding does something interesting in that it shows how grief messes with each and everyone of us, regardless of if we are willing to accept it or not. Cuesta shows that we all deal with it on our own terms and because of that, we act out in somewhat rather outlandish and insane ways; we can’t really diagnose it, or even excuse it, as it’s just in our human nature.

If anything, 12 and Holding is much more sad and depressing than anything, and had the movie focused on this much more, it would have been better. However, it didn’t and it dealt with comedy a tad too much. Still, the ensemble is pretty great with nearly all of the child and adult-performers putting in solid work. Perhaps the most shining star in the whole thing is Zoe Weizenbaum as Malee, the incredibly curious and sexually vivacious teen that makes a good half of this movie pretty uncomfortable. However, she’s so charming and lovely to watch, with Renner’s Gus helping out, too, that it makes these scenes go down a lot easier.

Not like L.I.E., of course, Nothing can quite be as disturbing and as off-putting as that.

Consensus: Uneven to a fault, 12 and Holding tries to be way too funny, when it probably didn’t need to, but still works as a small, sad and thought-provoking indie about small-towns and grief.

6 / 10

Gonna grow up to be some awfully weird adults. Just like the rest of us.

Photos Courtesy of: IFC Films

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L.I.E. (2001)

Get out of Long Island the first thing you do.

Still affected by the death of his mother, Howie (Paul Dano) has been having a bit of a rough go at life, for the time being. His dad (Bruce Altman) doesn’t seem to get him and is too busy spending time with his new girlfriend, who Howie obviously detests, and his best-friend Gary (Adam LeFevre), who he also has a love for, plans on moving out of their small suburban town in hopes of achieving his dreams of being rich and famous. Howie wants to profess his love for Gary, but he finds it easier to just go around causing all sorts of shenanigans with him, like for instance, robbing random people’s houses. One person that they rob is Big John (Brian Cox) an older, very charming man who has a certain affinity for young boys and immediately takes a liking to Howie. The later, all confused as to who to love or care for, immediately takes to Big John, too, and they both forge something of a friendship that gets dangerously close to being something much more. But will the two take the plunge, or learn to just respect one another?

Did Howie get his candy yet? You know, like he was promised?!?

A part of me feels like a great deal of the positive reception and, dare I say it, hype around L.I.E. has to solely due with the fact that it was touching on some really disturbing taboos that no one could get away with. Sure, the movie got slapped with an NC-17 rating nonetheless, but mostly that was due to the fact that it dealt with homosexuality, pedophilia, and sex in general, all featuring characters who seemed to be clearly underage. You could make the argument that the movie’s just another case of Larry Clarke’s Kids, but that would actually be an insult to L.I.E.

This movie’s much more thoughtful, whereas Clarke’s was just over-the-top and disturbing, for the sake of being so.

But still, L.I.E. isn’t quite nearly as good as it should be. One of the main aspects holding it back is that it’s the directorial debut from Michael Cuesta and in ways, you can tell. The movie’s dark, dirty, gritty, and grainy look, while giving it a realistic-look and feel, also feels amateurish, especially when the movie decides to stylize itself up a bit more with random, floating montages. You could say that it’s “pretentious”, but it isn’t entirely; a good deal of the movie is small, contained and actually, subtle, but there’s the other deal that also seems like a first-time director having a bit too much fun with a budget and a script in his hands.

That said, when the movie does settle down, L.I.E. works as a thoughtful and smart character-study of two troubled people coming together in a surprisingly believable way. It helps that we get to know each character very well before they meet one another, however, it also helps that Cuesta was able to get both Brian Cox and a very young Paul Dano in these lead roles, because they don’t just work well together, but they are actually the heart and soul of the whole picture.

Which is saying something, considering that the movie itself is pretty damn dark.

Don’t do it! Or do. It’s okay!

As Big John, Cox has the really troubling job of making a despicable and disgusting character seem somewhat sympathetic. And well, it works – not only do you come to care for this heinous wreck-of-a-man, but you also actually seem to get charmed by him. A part of the charm is his act and how he reels people in, and Cox gets by on this in spades, while all still seeming like one creepy individual. There’s more to this character that, in all honesty, deserved to be explored, but as far as portraits of actual monsters go, Cox’s Big John remains one of the more fully-realized and well-done.

Which is a shame because despite him trying very hard, Dano’s Howie doesn’t quite resonate as much. See, one aspect behind Howie’s character is that he’s a whole bunch of things that teenagers at that age are; confused, naive, angry, upset, and constantly fluctuating between emotions and how it is that they feel at any given moment. We get to see a lot about Howie and Dano makes it all work, but then, Cuesta comes around to making there more to Howie, like how he writes poetry, understands certain pop-culture references, and watches old movies, that don’t quite work. The movie wants to make Howie more than he actually is – which is just another upset teenager – and because of that, it takes away from what was already a smart and understandable character to begin with.

Oh well. Both Dano and Cuesta would continue to go on and do much better.

Same is obviously said for Cox.

Consensus: By touching on some disturbing themes in a very in-your-face way, L.I.E. can often times seem a little cloying, but still works because of the smart, understated and thoughtful performances from both Dano and, especially, Cox.

6.5 / 10

Love at first face-piercing.

Photos Courtesy of: Alter Ego Entertainment

Whatever Works (2009)

Living with Larry David can’t be all that bad.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is pretty tired with the world around him. When he’s not picking a fight with the kids he teaches chess to, he’s crying on and on about everything he can find himself to complain about like politics, sex, books, entertainment, and yes, women. He even goes so far as to talk to “them” – mysterious people out there in the world that he thinks are always watching him, no matter what he does or says. That’s why, one night, he decides to end it all and throw himself out of a window. Problem is, he doesn’t succeed and is forced to live with his sad and miserable life. It all changes one day though, when a random drifter named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), comes to his door-step all of the way from the Deep South. While Boris is initially against Melody, the two end up hanging together, more and more, teaching each other things about life that neither originally knew about. Which is fine and all, until they start to fall for one another – something that everyone around them seem to have problems with.

Even Ed is begging for that next season of Curb.

Even Ed is begging for that next season of Curb.

Why haven’t Larry David and Woody Allen worked together before? Honestly? I mean, with the exception of his small bit in Allen’s segment in New York Stories, it’s crazy to think that two people on this Earth as similar as David And Allen haven’t gotten together to cook-up something lovely and magical before. Sure, you could blame that on the fact that David liked to stay behind-the-scenes for a large portion of his career, but either way, it’s worth bringing up because, even though Whatever Works isn’t Woody’s worst, it also isn’t his best, either.

Which is a shame because, once again, David and Allen could make magic happen.

However, time has passed and over the years, Woody Allen has definitely lost his touch. That’s why another story featuring a much-older man and much-younger woman falling for one another, for no reason because they stand one another and talk about the more infuriating things in life, already sounds boring. After all, it’s the story that Allen’s been working with since the beginning of his career and honestly, just taking him out and putting David in can only help matters so much.

And yes, David is playing himself, but he’s also the stand-in for Allen himself, which is a tad bit confusing, because the two aren’t all that different. In fact, it’s honestly a wonder to me how much of this was scripted, or how much of it was David deciding to take an eraser to some stuff he didn’t like and just roll with what he had? I really don’t know, but regardless, David is fine in this role; he can sometimes lash out and say the same things, over and over again, but that’s sort of the point of this character. He’s supposed to be a grump and always have an issue with the world around him.

In other words, he’s Larry David. Signed. Sealed. And delivered.

Others around David are quite fine, too. Evan Rachel Wood’s character may start out as a caricature, but eventually starts to show more shadings that make her likable; Patricia Clarkson shows up about halfway through and makes the movie a whole lot better; Henry Cavill in a young role of his, is as charming as they come and as you’d expect for Superman to be; and Ed Begley, Jr. showing up for not too long, is actually the funniest of the whole cast.

Where's his glasses?

Where’s his glasses?

But still, a fine cast doesn’t always make a great movie, and that’s where Whatever Works sometimes falls. It isn’t that the movie itself is bad – Allen’s annoying writing is toned-down enough to where it doesn’t get in the way of the story, or the characters – but it also doesn’t change much up about what we’ve seen from Allen in the past. His characters talk about existentialism, they fight, they screw, they drink, they host dinner parties, they listen to jazz, they go on walks to the park, and yeah, that’s pretty much it. Occasionally, Allen himself will throw a small twist in there for good measure to make us think that he realizes a lot of his movies are the same, but really, does any of it matter?

Woody is getting up there in age and a lot of his movies are starting to seem a little like the same thing, over and over again? Does that make them “bad”? Not necessarily; they’re enjoyable and pleasant because he has a knack for catching the right tone with his movies and always getting the best and brightest talents for his flicks, but that doesn’t always make a “great” movie.

Even if your movie does have Larry David complaining to the camera.

Now, how could that be “bad”?

Consensus: While not his worst, nor his best, Whatever Works gets by because of its charming cast, but really, is a solid example of Woody possibly running out of ideas.

6 / 10

She's going to learn to hate life and everyone in it after that conversation.

She’s going to learn to hate life and everyone in it after that conversation.

Photos Courtesy of: A Woody a Week