The Skeleton Twins (R)

9 Stars

This is my least favorite type of movie.

I call them ‘sad swamps.’ Trekking through can be an emotional chore.

The best examples coming to mind are The Fault in Our Stars (thumbs-down) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (thumbs-up).

The Skeleton Twins is no exception; there’s some heartbreaking stuff in here. Don’t expect it to relent, either.

Plus it’s an out-and-out quirkedy, and super low budget.

All that being said, I really enjoy The Skele Twins.

Wow, comedy has flourished this summer.

On top of Neighbors, 22 Jump Street and Let’s Be Cops; The ST brings the tally to four consistently hilarious entries for the genre.

Plus, we’ve still got the sequels to Hot Tub Time Machine and Dumb & Dumbr looking forward.

The Skeleton Twins is similar to Let’s Be Cops in several ways.

Take the shooting style for instance. The edges of the frame are oftentimes hazy with only the characters in focus.

During a scene near the end, through a window in the background the viewer can see it’s snowing outside. It’s hard to tell because of the blurry visual, but it’s a misleading inconsistency.

The comedy is similar as well, because a lot of it seems improvised.

The cast is tiny.

Besides the two leads, there’s only a pair of other recognizable faces.

Ty Burrell is one of our finest actors working today. Here he turns in another performance befitting that reputation.

Luke Wilson is outstanding. He’s great in a number of movies (especially Idiocracy) but this may be his best role ever.

He plays a refreshingly sympathetic husband to Kristen Wiig’s character. Which is illustrative of a greater theme.

The Skeleton Twins highlights compelling character interactions through the context of a complicated relationship.

Bill Hader is incredibly convincing playing a gay role. In fact, he is so similar to my college roommate, I found myself reminiscing about my old buddy.

With his wide-eyed expression, the brutal honesty and even-toned sarcasm. Oh and the mastery of lip-syncing and impromptu dancing. I was totally sold on his character.

Kristen Wiig is spot-on, as always.

Her timing is just so perfect. Plus she has a way with demanding sympathy from the viewer.

That woman’s got the Midas touch. She only appears in great movies.

Although it takes an emotional toll (I was tearing up on 2-3 separate occasions in the 93 minute duration) The Skeleton Twins is a very funny movie that covers a number of timely issues.

I highly recommend it to any and all interested viewers.

To note a final similarity to Let’s Be Cops, the ending doesn’t necessarily wrap everything up.

But when the credits abruptly roll, getting mired in this sad swamp feels worthwhile.

The Descendants (R)

6 Stars

Alexander Payne doesn’t direct movies for me.

Much like Wes Anderson’s work, I appreciate the look, about 25% of the humor and the smart writing. I also applaud the directors for having a distinct visual style to their films.

After The Descendants I feel the same way I did after watching Nebraska; somewhat disappointed, pretty bored, and uninspired.

The only other Payne flick I’ve ogled is About Schmidt, which I found even more underwhelming than his two most recent works.

What’s good about this movie is it’s subtle, but it’s a long wait and a lot of Hawaiian soundtrack in between each nuance. I think more of the humor is supposed to hit home.

George Clooney’s the best part of this movie.

At the same time, it’s my least favorite film starring the Cloondogger.

This is at least his second time in the starring role where the movie opens with his voiceover. Up in the Air is another.

That Shailene Woodley’s a solid young actress. I dig this chick; she seems very promising.

Shailene delivers just as excellently in The Spectacular Now where she plays a lovable sweetheart. (A great movie by the way.)

Judy Greer is the type of actress you’ve seen all over the place. She plays a hysterical character in Arrested Development, and is all-around tremendous. Hopefully we see more of her in the future.

Payne’s clearly a fan of reversals and double reversals. He likes to build a swell of emotion, rinse it away with a wave of disappointment, and then provide a glimmer of hope through an unexpected and unprecedented character’s behavior.

For example, in Nebraska, against all odds, Will Forte finds Bruce Dern’s dentures lost in abandoned train tracks. When he shows them to his father, Dern claims they don’t belong to him. Eventually, grabbing them, he says, “Of course they’re my teeth.” Up until that moment, we’re given no hint Dern’s character has a sense of humor. A similar exchange takes place when they steal the wrong air compressor.

This type of character interaction recurs throughout The Descendants. For example, Alex’s friend Sid (played by Nick Krause) seems like an oblivious moron. He says something inappropriate to Matt, causing him to pull over the car.

Matt: [to Alex] Your friend is completely retarded, you know that?

Sid: Hey man, I’ve got a little brother who’s retarded. Don’t use that word in derogatory fashion.

Matt: Oh.

Sid: [laughing] Psych! No I don’t have a retarded brother.

Ultimately, I come out of these moments feeling disappointed and unfulfilled. Sure the exchange catches me off guard but that jolt seems to be the end to the means. It happens four or five times. I guess that and the stilted humor are what I essentially disagree with. The shocking reversals and muted humor don’t add up to a great film. (Despite such potential in the story’s framework.)

Krause turns in a solid performance as well, but the scene in which he laughs at ‘Tu-Tu’ feels off.

The character of Scottie (played by Amara Miller) is painful. It reminds me of how I feel about Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, another quirkedy with an annoying little girl. I don’t understand the appeal in these types of characters.

When Scottie flicks off the well-meaning guy in the restaurant, is that supposed to be funny? The ‘twat’ scene, the cursing and stupidity? When she’s wearing her sister’s lingerie and dancing poolside? When they have the conversation about the sand in her bikini top?

Are all of those moments supposed to make us laugh? They’re neither funny nor cute and detract greatly from the overall film.

Look. I know every feminist shakes her head at me and replies with some dismissive comment like, “Oh just get over it,” or “Well then look forward to parenthood buddy.” But my criticism is the exact same as it was after Moonrise Kingdom (a Wes Anderson film ironically enough):

It does the male audience a great disservice by having an excess of screen time featuring scantily clad little girls.

Not because of some gross proclivity.

It’s the same aversion I feel to images of male genitalia. Every second it remains onscreen, I cringe into the seat cushion a little bit further.

And I only bring up this natural feeling of discomfort because I think that’s what Payne’s trying to ‘challenge’ (so to speak, I’m using that word loosely). Or he thinks she’s adorable and funny. Either way, I don’t think anything is gained through Scottie’s character.

It’s illustrative of a pattern I’ve recognized in A. Payne’s recent filmography. Going back to the reversals thing, he likes to have women in the polar extremes of age exploring sexual and explicit themes. Just like June Squibb, an older woman, pulling up her skirt in front of some guy’s tombstone. She’s rubbing it in the dead guy’s face that he never got inside her pants. I find that scene morbid and off-putting; not empowering, insightful or worthy of a chuckle.

There’s a beautiful camera shot down a set of hospital stairs, while Matt’s voiceover speaks above the sound of his ascending footsteps. He is heading to find out his wife must be taken off the machines and will soon die.

And the entire movie is a series of sequences; a number of character interactions where others talk down to Matt about his choices. Like the staircase, they can only watch from above, and patronize.

Except the kids, all other characters condescend to Matt, are inconsiderate of his feelings and pride themselves for praising his comatose wife in comparison. It’s mostly a despicable lot he encounters.

And yet he keeps his mouth shut. Towards the end, we see a tiny victory in this choice.

But this ‘glimmer in the darkness’ doesn’t distill the discomforting sadness (and often boredom) one must wade through to get there.

I don’t know. I’m not trying to rain on the Payne parade, but it’s just not my spot of tea.

The Descendants is a good enough movie. I call it ‘good’ because it’s visually stunning, and intelligent. It’s easily watchable, but there’s just a lot of better stuff out there. Especially starring Clooney.

Might I suggest the aforementioned Up in the Air, instead, perhaps?

It touches on a bit more sadness, but it’s just as intelligent plus more captivating and fun.

Best of all?

No quirky teenage girls.

The Fault in Our Stars (PG-13)

4 Stars

Betrayed by the Top Critics Score, yet again.

The Rotten Tomatoes percentage hovered in the mid-eighties a day after theatrical release.

As the ticket taker scanned my phone, a nearby police officer demanded I toss my recently purchased coffee in the garbage. I replied instinctively.

“Yes sir.”

My shoulders fell as I dropped the cup, lid still stoppered, into the pit of complete and utter waste.

For two weeks, I’ve been painting my sister’s house in Nashville to make a little money. After paying $10.50 thru Regal’s online ticketing system (a procedural headache of questionable ethics), it didn’t feel good; setting fire to $2.80.

I’m a regular, oftentimes bi-weekly, customer at Regal. It took added time and planning to attain the coffee, not to mention the work and care required by the barista.

What does that godforsaken cop stand to gain by interrupting my inquiry toward the ticket taker’s disposition?

In retrospect, perhaps politely requesting a reason would have been sufficient to reach a compromise.

But I shudder at the thought!

The Nashville taxpayers can rest easy knowing their police force keeps a devoted eye on Regal’s potential streams of revenue, and defends them from foreseeable risk.

By the way, an outside beverage policy at a movie theater is downright selfish and uncharitable to their devoted customers. It’s entirely unethical.

Anyway, back to the horrible crowd awaiting in my theater. It’s packed and buzzing with female teens and young adult couples when I sit down.

The couple sitting in front of me playfully flirts and chitchats throughout the initial half-hour of the movie.

For the first time in my life, I lean over and say, “Could you guys please stop talking?”

The girl is disgusted. And periodically reminds me with dirty looks for the remainder of the film.

The boyfriend doesn’t turn around.

Their efforts to remain silent, albeit not rigorous nor without hint of antagonism, were enough to cease the distraction.

Throughout The Fault in Our Stars, a choir of hapless sirens relinquishes groan after moan, highlighting each character’s obvious emotions, and inflating the tortuous plod of lack-luster plot.

Anderson Cowan, cohost of the best podcast ever, The Film Vault, said it best when describing, ‘the crowd of early-teen females cooing and goo-gooing,’ at every emotional turn.

A girl was bawling, crying like an infant in the back of the theater after Gus died. I’ve never been in a movie where someone subjects everyone else to their weeping.

And hey, more often than not, I’ve got leaky ducts.

But I sure as hell don’t thrust it on others. And I’ve never been uncontrollably sobbing. Most assuredly I’d make a hasty retreat out the theater.

Okay, enough personal anecdotes. I’ll complain about the actual movie now.

This film isn’t made for me. Perhaps people who like the book can’t help but enjoy the on-screen adaptation. At best, though, educated filmgoers can only qualify it as a ‘guilty pleasure.’

The Fault in Our Stars is not a good movie.

I should have known better than to trust a poster title scrawled in a chalkboard font. The use of handwritten script in the lettering of the title has become a staple of the ‘Dromantic Quirkedy.’ [Dramatic romantic quirky comedy.]

In fact, any theatrical release poster utilizing ‘the creative quirky penman theme’ with handwritten fonts, doodling on spiral notebook stock, or blackboard sketching is generally a red flag.

I haven’t read it, but I didn’t appreciate The Fault in Our Stars. It’s not okay or mild; it’s a poor film. And here’s why.

The acting is not great on Ansel Elgort’s part. His character, Gus, is overly theatrical; breaking into grandiose soliloquys which are meant to be cute and uplifting. Gus is a bit too romantic; his optimism too paper-thin. His haughty bravado is never convincing, and ultimately serves to detach the viewer. Thereby oftentimes reminding the audience they’re watching a motion picture.

Nat Wolff, who plays Isaac, is clearly meant to be ‘the funny guy.’ Of approximately thirty attempts at humor, his jokes hit home twice for the briefest of chuckles.

A lot of the black humor, such as the jokes about Isaac losing his sight, are just not funny. My God, some of the moments that get the audience roaring with laughter, are actually very tragic and harsh.

Just because something is played for laughs, doesn’t make it funny.

When Isaac’s feeling up his sexy girlfriend in the parking lot, the timing’s so stilted; it’s disorienting even discerning what’s intended to be funny.

Jokes are measured by the quality of the humor, not by the purity of a writer’s intent.

Willem Dafoe’s character is somewhat compelling, and I enjoy his off-type performance most.

The confusing scene in Anne Frank’s house is contrived and cheesy nonsense. Firstly, it feels (in a misleading manner) like something surreal’s happening.

The two American tourists start sawing face in the attic hideaway, and the surrounding European strangers respond with applause?

It’s absurd. And silly. Not uplifting.

Laura Dern, as Frannie (Hazel’s mother), is a bit of a shmoop.

Dern’s usually tough to swallow. Her performances consistently include an odd tic; an overly ambitious facial expression or touches of melodrama (I’m thinking specifically of Blue Velvet).

But in TFIOS, she’s just overly soapy. All the mother-daughter bonding moments are painful. And when she shows up wearing the towel, does anybody believe for a second that Frannie had just leapt out the tub?

All I can see is Laura Dern pretending to don a towel.

Shailene Woodley is good, as always. She’s best in a very good film, The Spectacular Now, and is one of the redeeming elements of Alexander Payne’s dreary snore, The Descendants.

The film leans on the supposition a viewer will feel unquestionable sympathy for Hazel. To be frank, she’s quite off-putting and not necessarily likable.

As far as the story goes, it’s dull and depressing. I marched out the theater feeling unfulfilled, confused and defeated.

The policeman watched as I sauntered out the exit, brandishing his nightstick and releasing a satisfied chuckle. But I’m too wrapped in thought to recognize his villainous ways.

The question I keep asking myself: What’s the rub?

My sister read the book, so I asked her.

What’s at stake? What am I supposed to take away from this story?”

“I thought it was nice they got to spend the one night together before he died.”

So there’s the selling point: The takeaway is the experience of becoming absorbed and swooning in the romantic notion of romance.

I find zero experiential value in this narrative, since the merit of an unfunny ‘Romantic Comedy’ supposedly resides in the ‘feeling of romance.’

Most men are the same way. It’s not a redeeming quality. We don’t derive satisfaction from the swooning sensation.

This is why most ‘date movies’ are bad.

But anybody older than twenty (without nostalgia for the book) will realize this is a sub par film.

Please don’t drag your significant other to this movie.

Go see Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, Maleficent or How to Train Your Dragon 2 instead.

Way more laughs (and feel-good moments) in all four.