Review: Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019)
Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, and a cast of thousands.  Written and directed by Kevin Smith.

In 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, two side characters in Kevin Smith’s early films become central characters.  Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) learn a movie is being made about them without their permission, so they drive to Hollywood to stop the film. While the stoner-slacker buddy road-trip movie is stupid beyond words, it’s also smart, clever, and fun, and I’ll repeat my assertion that Smith is the most Gen X of Gen X screenwriters.

In 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, the same characters learn a reboot is in production — without their permission — of the movie they tried to stop in 2001, so they drive to Hollywood to stop the film.  Jay and Silent Bob Reboot takes aim at Hollywood’s recent creative climate of sequels, remakes, and reboots, while at the same time being all three.

I’m not kidding.  In one very explainy scene, our heroes learn the difference between a sequel, a remake, and a reboot, and it’s clear very early that the movie we’re watching is all of them.

The easiest thing to say about a Kevin Smith film in his View Askewniverse is that it’s so self-referential with so many jokes about itself, if you’re jumping in for the first time, you’re unlikely to enjoy it, because you’d have to appreciate it on its surface, and there’s just not enough there.  Chasing Amy is probably the one exception.

Yet if you see more than one of these films, it’s nearly impossible to miss the thing that makes Smith a hero to his faithful: his characters grow up, and in doing so, they show us Smith’s (and now Mewes’s) own growth.  Smith doesn’t merely wear his heart on his sleeve; he paints it on his forehead, openly discussing — in podcasts, interviews, and his live Q&A shows — not only his fears and failures, but his love for his family and friends, and his tenacious loyalty to both.

I saw Clerks II (2006) in a theater and hated it until the closing credits rolled and I realized I loved what Smith did.  He brought his characters back for yet another stupid-smart movie and delivered a treatise on Gen Xers hitting middle age.  Not just these Gen Xers, but Gen Xers as a whole.

So here’s this movie, laden with callbacks and appearances by characters from his past films, referencing Smith’s real-life, well-known adventures (a near-fatal heart attack and subsequent weight loss and conversion to veganism; a highly publicized adventure in an airplane where he was ruled too fat to fly) and loaded with his friends and family (his mother, wife, and daughter are in the film, as is Mewes’s daughter), plus stupid jokes and entire dialogues lifted from other films.

In one scene, a klansman steals Cyrus’s “Caaaaaan youuuuuuu digiiiiiiit?” from The Warriors and immediately after, in the same scene, Silent Bob delivers Alec Baldwin’s “always be closing” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s shameless idolatry and it’s pretty dang funny, because Smith’s purpose is not to create a coherent story.  It’s to have as much fun with as many friends as possible while allowing his characters to grow up the way real people do.

Because I’m Smith’s intended audience, I can’t lie.  I bought it, and then I watched it twice more. My only real disappointment is that the DVD doesn’t come with a director’s track.  The director’s commentary is the best thing about a Kevin Smith DVD, so I’ll be waiting for a tenth anniversary re-release by the Criterion Collection.

81/100
8/10

Review: Borg vs McEnroe

Borg vs McEnroe (2017)
Shia LaBeouf, Svirrir Gudnason, Stellen Skarsgård.  Written by Ronnie Sandahl. Directed by Janus Metz Pedersen.

In July 1980, the world’s second-ranked men’s tennis player John McEnroe faced the world’s best, Björn Borg, in the finals at Wimbledon, in what many have called the greatest tennis match ever.  I hadn’t yet gotten into tennis, but I had discovered CNN Sports Tonight, a nightly half-hour television program featuring highlights and commentary like nothing I’d seen before.  Until then, my sports highlights existed only in the final five minutes of the local news, or during Howard Cosell’s “Halftime Highlights” on Monday Night Football.

This is when my interest in tennis was born: with CNN’s regular coverage of McEnroe’s serve and volley on the court, and his tantrums on the sideline.  He was the kind of athlete I always favored as a boy. Muhammad Ali, Ken Stabler, Reggie Jackson, John McEnroe. Don’t tell any of those guys what to do, because they’ll just do the opposite, and then beat you while you whine.

I say all this to explain how I was once an avid pro tennis fan, John McEnroe was my gateway drug, there was an era when the characters in tennis were as fascinating as its competitions, and Borg vs McEnroe is a great trip back to a much funner time.  You don’t have to be a tennis fan to appreciate the film; in fact, it might be better for your enjoyment if you’re not. Still, if you are a fan, you’ll appreciate the memories of the stoic Borg, who had won Wimbledon four straight years before 1980, and tempestuous McEnroe, gunning for the world’s top ranking.

Believe it or not, Shia Labeouf is excellent as McEnroe.  I suspect Labeouf identifies with McEnroe in important ways.  You never really think you’re looking at McEnroe’s body or face, but you do get a sense you’re seeing the person.  Svirrir Gudnason looks exactly like my memory of Borg.

The film sets us up for this Wimbledon final with flashes back to each man’s past, framing the confrontation at Centre Court as a meeting of surprisingly similar characters, each with sympathy for the other.  It’s a compelling story, drawn so that rather than foils, the athletes are parallels. If you’re hoping to get a deep psychological exploration of what made these seemingly different men so great at hitting a yellow ball, you’ll think this movie is a tease.  If you’re looking for a little bit of character analysis to go with your service aces, you’ll be pleased.

Viewers are unlikely to agree with my one major gripe unless they enjoy watching tennis on television or in person.  The action on the court is edited in such a way that you don’t see very much tennis. This is utterly maddening. You see and hear the racquets making contact; you see the expressions, the blurs of power and speed.  You sometimes see the ball hitting the court. You almost never see a rally from serve to point, and you see very little of the action from the usual angle, behind the receiver and over his shoulder. With the exception of one series of very cool overhead shots, none of this is an improvement in any way.

You could make the argument that it makes for better cinema and better storytelling, and I might understand.  After all, in Searching for Bobby Fisher, a movie I love, I never complained that chess games (or whatever they’re called)  aren’t shown in real time with realistic flow, because who wants to watch that except maybe chess spectators? However, this is tennis, not chess!

Thank goodness for the film’s ending, which heals some of my wounds.  Where the tennis action fails, the closing scene succeeds, showing us the action and giving us a resolution the competition denies us.  Very, very well done. Stick around for the closing credits too, which treat us to actual photos of Borg and McEnroe. They made me a little teary. 

As a film lover, I think it’s excellent.  As a sports film lover, I think it’s pretty good.  As a sports lover, I think it’s agonizing. For this, I have to penalize the film one point for unsportsmanlike behavior.

79/100
7/10

Review: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (2019)
Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson.  Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers.  Directed by Robert Eggers.

For a psychological horror film, The Lighthouse is quite watchable if you (like I) shy away from such pictures.  It’s unlikely to give you nightmares or to gross you out, so it’s worth a shot, because this is one compelling and gorgeous movie.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, lighthouse attendants on a remote island in the north Atlantic.  Wake is the barnacled veteran with a pirate’s aaaaarrrrgot, a grouchy taskmaster to first-timer Winslow. Their relationship begins tenuously and continues contentiously, the men’s interactions swinging from testy to amiable depending on how much alcohol has been consumed.

Wake and Winslow are stationed for four weeks, but a vicious storm extends their stay.  The men’s quarters are cramped, and they spend just about every minute together. This reality is heightened for the viewer by the film’s 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio, a frame that’s practically square, much narrower than a high-def television screen, even narrower than pre-HDTV television screens.

The acting is fabulous, but excellent performances by the principal actors highlight one of The Lighthouse’s major obstacles.  When great actors overact in service to the movie, we have to work out a certain tension.  When skilled writing goes over the top, we have to decide whether or not to accept it. At the height of one conflict, one character accuses the other of being a parody, so Pattinson, Dafoe, and director Robert Eggers are clearly aware of these issues.

Eggers’s commentary track reveals meticulous research and thoughtful filmmaking, so I’m inclined to accept the film on its terms.  Accepting the acting and writing makes it easier to accept the other strange sights and developments; my advice is to appreciate everyone’s considerable chops.  There’s almost no way the film satisfies if you can’t.

The Lighthouse is compelling and gorgeous.  Block off two evenings because it rewards a second viewing.

7/10
73/100

2019 consumption recap: film/whatever

First a quick few lists of (most of) what I saw in 2019.

2018 movies I saw in theaters in 2019
On the Basis of Sex
Aquaman
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Favourite

2019 movies I saw in theaters in 2019
Captain Marvel (twice)
Avengers: Endgame (twice)
Late Night
Spider-Man: Far from Home
The Farewell
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Blinded by the Light (twice)
Downton Abbey
Knives Out
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

A sorry showing to say the least. I will have to do better in 2020.

I also took the morning off from work to see The African Queen in a theater, my second-favorite film of all time. And I saw three concert films in theaters: Rush’s Cinema Strangiato, Metallica’s S&M2, and Slayer’s The Relentless Killogy. All quite good but Rush especially.

Movies I saw via streaming or on DVD in 2019
The Last Detail (1973)
First Reformed (2018)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Hearts Beat Loud (2018)
Mid-90s (2018)
Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (2018)
Twilight (2008)
Noelle (2020)

This is not counting movies I re-watched, which would include multiple viewings of Hell or High Water, The Muppet Movie, The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men, and The Greatest Showman.

I no longer have the attention span to truly binge-watch a TV series, but I did take my time through Silicon Valley seasons 3 and 4, Downton Abbey season 1 and some of season 2, Æon Flux the second series. I re-watched Silicon Valley seasons 1 and 2 and Forever season 1.

…and dang it. I just learned that Forever was canceled. So annoying. The first season was freaking brilliant. I’m pissed. And I also discovered that Atlanta will air seasons 3 and 4 in 2021. Also annoying, but at least it’s coming back.

In retrospect, I guess the best film I saw in 2018 (not counting The African Queen, because that’s cheating) was If Beale Street Could Talk, but my favorite is probably either Downton Abbey or Spider-Man: Far from Home.

I thought Silicon Valley lost some focus in seasons 3 and 4, but it was still hilarious, and I imagine without T.J. Miller it should be a lot more focused for seasons 5 and 6, which I plan to watch this year. It really couldn’t stand up against Downton Abbey, though, which is wonderful.

There is a movie in this list I think I will always think of when I remember 2019. I won’t say what it was, but it’s the movie I invited Crush Girl to see with me, that evening I was friendzoned. I went to see it anyway, by myself, and it was rather good, and someone in it is likely to be nominated for an Oscar. I really thought she was signalling me for takeoff, but I was shot down in flames. I’m still recovering in case you can’t tell, and while the movie is good enough to be remembered for much better things, it will remind me for a while of the beginning of a few months of pretty dark stuff.

As depressive episodes go, this wasn’t nearly as dark or crippling as others I’ve gone through, but it was pretty long, and it comes back every so often. I suspect that Crush Girl shooting me down in the year of my being XXXXX years old is part of it — it’s excellent fodder (I use present tense because it’s still present) for who-am-I-and-what-am-I-doing-with-myself ruminations and reflections.

I suspect this will be my journaling theme for MMXX, which is a nice segue into resolutions, which I’ll post in a day or two.

Even at My Worst, I’m Best with You

I can’t tell you why the title of this entry is relevant, but the song is playing on the speakers in this establishment, and the song is an especially good soundtrack to part of what I’m writing here.

I don’t know if I have it in me to do the Friday 5 this late Sunday evening. I’ll type a few thoughts and see.

My part in the stressful project at work isn’t as finished as I thought. I’m not sure when my part will be done — it seems when I think they’re happy with my draft, they come at me with “can we do this?” And it doesn’t bother me much but the communication this past week was weird. Like people are saying, “Why did you do this?” And I’m saying “You know why I did this. If you wanted to reverse it you totally could have, or just told me you wanted it reversed and I’d have been happy to do it.”

I understand my role, and I embrace it. I’ve embraced it for going on three years, and usually it’s not a problem. Tell me what you want, and I’ll write it. If I disagree, I may say something about why, but I’ll almost always defer unless the point of contention is about grammar or some other mechanical aspect of the language, which I consider myself better informed about than almost everyone I work with.

People I work with appreciate and respect my expertise. I don’t know much about most things, but I know what good writing is, and I know how to produce it. On this project, though, I think people aren’t being clear about what they want and don’t want. So I assume the drafts are fine until I’m told that I need to change certain things and I need to change them now.

Geez. I wouldn’t really mind that either, but be a little nicer about it, you know? And don’t make it sound like the draft is where it is now because of me. If I’m waiting for you to tell me what you want, and you don’t tell me what you want until seconds before you need it, don’t act like I’m the reason nothing’s been done yet.

Arrrrrrrgh.

This project has been making me lose sleep, and it’s not the work itself. I haven’t been nervous or stressed a single moment about the work, which involves some very high stakes. This team I’m part of always produces excellent work. High stakes don’t change any of that. I want our project to succeed, but I’m not afraid of its failure. That’s how you do good work.

It’s the communication that’s been driving me insane.

I’m working myself up just typing this, so I’m going to back off a bit.

This is going to sound a little weird, but I’d kind of like to piss Crush Girl off. Not about anything important, but maybe some minor way that sets her off. I haven’t seen her mad (although I’ve certainly made her mad; I just wasn’t around to see it!), and I suspect she’s beautiful when she’s angry.

I can think of two friends who got really beautiful when they were mad. One is Janice, with whom I spent a lot of time before she married my former college roomie Sterling. I was on the receiving end of at least four very angry scoldings and I have to tell you, that fury made a beautiful woman beautiful. A few times I saw her unleash it at others, and how great it was when I wasn’t the target. I could get a closer look, for one thing.

The other is R, whom I’ve seen angry more than anyone I’m not related to, and only a very few times was I the person she was angry with. Hers was a little different — she went right up to the line between anger and psycho. Once, when she was mad at her mom, I am quite sure I saw her go a step or two over the line, and that was pretty scary. I didn’t have anyone to compare it to until Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as Bellatrix LeStrange. Yeah, it was that kind of psycho-beautiful.

I’ve only noticed in the past couple of months (that is, in the time since she friendzoned me) that Crush Girl has a really musical way of speaking, especially when she’s either going a little gaga over a doggie or a baby, or when she’s listening sympathetically to someone else’s sad story.

I’m actually trying to learn a thing or two from her on that last thing. She makes all these really sympathetic sounds that I’m not sure would work coming from me, but the vocalizations are so sympathetic that I think they help all by themselves. When I hear someone telling her about their bad day or whatever, and she makes these (I’m not even going to try and spell them) sounds of caring, I feel like little daggers are going right into my heart.

I still don’t know her very well, especially not outside the one context in which we interact, but when I see the way she listens to people, I think she’s someone I could love. That’s never enough, I know, so don’t remind me. It’s a good sign, though. There’s a really good person in there.

R had a very musical way of speaking, which over many years of being her friend I picked up a little of, which I’m sure doesn’t help my already semi-effeminate speaking mannerisms, which have led many people to ask if I’m gay, which I’m not. Or from California, which I also am not.

Crush Girl’s musical inflections are different. Like she’s singing along with a completely different orchestra. Like she’s got a story to tell, and if you just wait a moment, she’s going to sing it to you. I’m picturing Amy Adams in Enchanted, although it’s not quite like that. I need time to think about it, because I’m pretty sure I can think of an actor she reminds me of.

this is a crappy picture of the movie on my tablet, but there are NO good still images on the web for this film! but dang: isn’t she pretty?

Speaking of Enchanted, I saw the new Anna Kendrick movie, Noelle, which is streaming on the new Disney +. It’s not great, but Anna is great in it, so I’ll probably see it a few times a week between now and the new year. It reminded me of a cross between Elf and Arthur Christmas. It’s going to remind everybody of Elf.

A coworker also saw it, and she said it reminded her of Elf and Enchanted, and I can see that too.

It has moments of cleverness and genuine, sincere kindness. It has moments of stupid, too, like when Noelle is required to address the North Pole denizens about what Christmas means to her. Ugh. Ugh. Bleah. Vomit.

But you know, I teared up twice and actually shed tears once. Anna really sells the kindness.

Now that things aren’t going to happen with Crush Girl, I should probably give Anna another chance. Although really, if she goes another ten years without calling me, I might stop waiting around.

Is this thing on?

So yeah. My brain’s been a little drained lately, specifically the part that writes stuff. I get home lately, have a small dinner, and hit the sack. Consequently, this will probably be short and will undoubtedly be a bit shallow, not to mention ineloquent.

Reading. I just finished Flour Babies, something I picked up used at the annual Friends of the Library book sale. Proper review later, but it was an interesting read. I couldn’t decide until the very end whether I liked it or not. I did. Anne Fine, the writer, does something really strange, unless I misread the novel. She’s certainly a fine writer, but in the last five pages or so she really cranks up the writing, and it sounds almost like a different person. The last five pages are lovely, almost heartbreaking prose. I’ll probably skim it again to see if I missed something earlier.

I’m now in the middle of Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, my favorite book of the 2000s for sure. It received the Newbery Medal in 2006, the year I wrote my master’s thesis on the Newbury Medal, and honestly it’s the book I’ve been trying my whole life to write. It’s possibly better this second time through.

Amazon says I’ve purchased the book six times, which doesn’t include my original purchase at the local Barnes and Noble. I like giving it as a gift.

I saw Spider-Man: Far from Home last week. Fun movie! It’s really sweet, like a good teen flick, and the web-slinging is the coolest it’s ever been. And holy moly Marisa Tomei.

In the evenings before bed, I check my BP, but I have to sit still a while before I hit the button on the machine, and then I sit still a while more so I can take a second reading. Usually during this sitting still, I watch an episode of Silicon Valley, of which I’m nearly finished with season three. It doesn’t match the first two seasons’ creativity and genius, but it’s still pretty smart, and despite one story arc that’s distracting and stupid, it seems to have concluded that arc and done something pretty neat with the character involved. I’ve got season four on DVD on its way to my mailbox. Ordered it on physical media so I could pass it around.

Concert scene’s been a little dead after what’s been a pretty great previous twelve months. I’m okay with it, really. My last show was Michael Franti in early May, and I left the concert while it was still going on. I think he’s great but his audiences drive me crazy. I didn’t enjoy myself the last time I saw him a couple of years ago either.

But Keb’ Mo’ is coming next month, and he’s terrific, and last week I purchased tickets I can’t afford for Patton Oswalt in the lovely Hawaii Theater. It’s the night before my birthday so I couldn’t resist. Now I gotta find someone for the other ticket. Still on the fence for Keb’ Mo’. Gotta decide this week.

Review: Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, Toni Collette, Sasha Lane.  Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch. Directed by Brett Haley.

I’m always disappointed when music documentaries don’t show us the process of creating music.  There’s a bit of this in Dave Grohl’s Sound City, but I’m drawing a blank trying to think of another film that lets us in this way.  Hearts Beat Loud, if it had been about a real band, would have satisfied some of my yearning.

Nick Offerman is Frank Fischer, the widowed owner of a vinyl-only record store in Brooklyn.  His daughter Samantha is a few days from leaving for UCLA, where she’s an intended pre-med major.  Deeply immersed in studies for a summer course, Samantha resists her father’s pleading to join him in a jam session in their studio, but finally caves, and we’re treated to a no-dialogue sequence where father and daughter lay down tracks in the creation of a song called “Hearts Beat Loud.”

It’s a good song.  Frank is certain Samantha has it in her to make her living as a performing musician.  She’s laser-focused on UCLA. Frank secretly uploads their song to Spotify, and it quickly gets attention.

Hearts Beat Loud is loaded with well-conceived characters I won’t describe because they and the movie’s songs are pretty much the heart of the movie.  The story exists for character development, as do the settings and circumstances, and the movie’s joy comes from watching characters interact in different moments against different backdrops.

This is normally the kind of movie I love, but I have mixed feelings about this one, and I shouldn’t.  The acting is very good; I especially liked the supporting characters played by Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, and Toni Collette.  Kiersey Clemons as Samantha has future star written all over her, and Nick Offerman seems perfectly cast as the frustrated musician running a failing music store.

My problem is that for a film laden with emotional set-up, there’s just not enough emotional expression or confrontation.  What we really want is some kind of work-through for Frank, with his friend the bartender, his landlord, his daughter, and his mother, but we never get it.  I’m not asking for fireworks, but I’m asking for something, and we don’t even get that. We get setup and kind of an aftermath, and I want this to satisfy, mostly because I have similar problems in my own writing, but it doesn’t.  Also a problem I have in my own writing.

The acting and music are good enough to recommend it but not enough to love it.

7/10
71/100

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins.

If Beale Street Could Talk is adapted from a novel by James Baldwin.  It’s a discouraging film, but it’s a beautiful discouragement.

Tish and Fonny are a young black couple, friends since childhood, ready to begin life together in 1970s Harlem. She works at a perfume counter in a department store. He’s a talented sculptor. At a moment where things seem finally to be turning their way, Fonny is locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish’s family rallies to clear Fonny’s name.

Some themes are familiar, and this is not a movie for everyone. Yet I recommend it for excellent acting, the beauty of Baldwin’s prose (delivered intermittently in well-chosen voiceovers), and gorgeous filmmaking. When people say this about a film they almost always mean visuals, and while the visuals are excellent, the audio is stunning. Ambient sounds from distant record players playing jazz, mumbles of conversations through thin walls, traffic on distant streets below, and rain create a background against which you might expect intimate triumph or enormous heartbreak. I can’t remember when the background noise of a movie moved me this way.

One scene by itself will justify the cost of your ticket and make up for a couple of bad decisions by director Barry Jenkins. Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi in Atlanta on FX) was in six movies this year, and if you’re not familiar with him yet you’re about to be, because he delivers a monologue about the effects of prison on a man, and it will stop your heart.

82/100
8/10

Review: Aquaman

Aquaman (2018)
Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall. Directed by James Wan.

There was a point at which I almost said aloud, “This is completely ridiculous. How in the world am I supposed to believe any of it?”

Then in the very next second, I had a flash of some of my favorite movies, many of which would be unbelievable in any world outside the worlds created for them, for an audience ready to believe them. The Harry Potter movies, which I love, are in a fantastic world right against the real world. If I could accept the fantasy of Hogwarts, why not of Atlantis?

This is when my entire movie-watching self simply relaxed. I popped some Junior Mints into my mouth and eased comfortably into a world where a man speaks to fishes and his half-brother rides giant seahorses. Perhaps I’m ready to give The Shape of Water a try, now that I’ve seen and enjoyed Aquaman.

It’s a big, dumb, super-enjoyable movie, kind of a refreshing break from the darkness and ponderousness of DC’s recent films. Let Superman have his fortress of solitude and Batman his cave; Aquaman will do fine with a few enormous tankards of beer with his homies in the neighborhood bar.

Arthur Curry (the alterego I didn’t know Aquaman had) is the product of a romance between a lighthouse keeper in Maine and the queen of Atlantis. His half-brother, who sits on the throne in Atlantis, rallies the other undersea kingdoms for a war against the humans of the surface. To intervene, Aquaman must find the trident of his ancestor kings, so he might defeat his brother and claim his place as ruler of the sea.

Aided by Mera, a princess from another sea kingdom, and of course all the creatures of the sea, Aquaman chases the legend of the trident in something of a Temple-of-Doom manner. It’s all rather predictable but getting there is entertaining. The acting is fine, highlighted by Nicole Kidman and Amber Heard. Jason Momoa as the prince of Atlantis is like a better-looking Thor with slightly less acting talent.

It works for me, and it pretty much accomplishes exactly what it intends: brain disengagement and an escape from the sad ruminations of daily living, and who couldn’t use a bit of that?

7/10
70/100

Review: Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas (2014)
Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber. Written and directed by Joe Swanberg.

Happy Christmas is the first film I’ve seen by Joe Swanberg, but this guy gets me, and I want to see more of his work. Starring Anna Kendrick (one of my favorite actresses) and Melanie Lynskey in mostly improvised dialogue, this is a good example of a movie that doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet it goes so many interesting places that I look forward to seeing it several times more.

Kendrick plays Jenny, a twenty-something emotional cripple coming out of what seems to have been a very painful breakup. She moves in temporarily with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), themselves only recently out of their twenties and only recently new parents. It’s unclear where she’s moving from, but Jenny arrives in a cab from the airport, so she is a new part of this young family’s everyday life.

Jeff and Kelly seem to have a solid grip on the parenting. They’re careful but not stressfully careful, and they seem genuinely to enjoy their new duties as mom and dad. Only Jeff, however, seems to have figured out where fatherhood and his career as a film director fit together. Kelly, a writer who has published one novel, hasn’t worked out any time for her own career.

Jenny is the kind of upsetting force that will bring family issues to the fore. Everyone loves her, including the baby, but she occasionally self-medicates in dangerous ways, dangerous for her and for people around her.

Yet this is not that kind of movie. It’s not about Jenny’s drinking or weed-smoking, or about how emotionally needy and self-destructive she is, just as it is not about a young married couple trying to reconcile the needs of career and the duties of parenthood. Swanberg as director uses these premises instead to let his actors explore their connectedness, especially their compassion for one another at this moment in these lives.

Jeff and Kelly can’t undo their parenthood, but they can express their feelings about this moment, and with sympathetic hearts motivated by (I’m interpreting here) basic goodness, try to reconcile conflicting needs. Whether Jenny makes it happen for them, whether they all make it happen for each other, and whether they’ll continue to do so is irrelevant to this movie, something that may disappoint many viewers who expect cinematic closure. The fact that they are doing it in the moment, and that we can see how it happens, is what matters, and this is what makes Happy Christmas beautiful.

Swanberg is (according to his Wikipedia article) a major figure in the mumblecore school. This film has definite mumblecore filmmaking sensibilities, but it’s quite a bit less lo-fi than most movies I’ve seen in the genre. It still has indie written all over it, but despite its improvised dialogue, it doesn’t feel as messy as those other films while it maintains a kind of DIY vibe I enjoy.

Kendrick is an A-list Hollywood force now. I love that she still has room in her artistic life to do a film like this.

80/100
8/10