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28
Sep

Get on the Bus


Get on the Bus (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

African-American men of diverse backgrounds take a bus from South Central Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to partake in the Million Man March. Some of the passengers include Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and Junior (De’aundre Bonds), father and son in chains, Xavier (Hill Harper), a UCLA student working on his film thesis, Flip (Andre Braugher), an actor waiting to hear from an agent about a role starring Denzel Washington, and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), an older gentleman with a talent for prose and music.

Over several days on the road, they get to know each other and it is revealed to them—and to us—that if they truly hope to make important changes toward the betterment of human rights, specifically within the black community, they will have to start with recognizing what they must work on from within. Though “Get on the Bus,” written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and directed by Spike Lee, may focus on the struggle of a group of African-Americans wanting to be heard, to be seen, and to be regarded as an equal, all minorities are likely tol find themselves relating with it.

The picture demands attention—to be seen, to be thought about, and to be evaluated—right from the opening credits. The focus is on a black body—black skin—pure, without clothing, makeup, or jewelry. This body is bound by chains around the neck, the wrists, the ankles. It is shown only in parts, interrupted by black title cards and names in yellow, never as a whole. The song “On the Line” by Michael Jackson is played prominently and beautifully as images and texts coalesce into a poetic and political statement.

Conversations that are worth leaning into have prejudice coursing through their veins. Flip asks Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith), “Are you a mulatto or just white-skinned?” The emphasis is on the word “just,” the real concern being the former, you see. Having a white mother and a black father, Gary takes offense. There is pause, a suggestion that perhaps his whole life he is plagued by this question, in one form or another, that he is used to being on the defensive. Who can blame him? There is an intonation, one that is resentful, in Flip’s question. Gary considers himself black but Flip, arguably, does not. If you consider yourself one thing and another tells or demands that you are another, how would you react?

“There are faggots on the bus,” someone claims after an argument breaks out between Randall (Harry Lennix), proudly out of the closet, and Mike (Steve White), unsure about whether he wishes to continue being in a relationship. A voice suggests that they be kicked off the bus. “How are they supposed to get to the march?” another asks. A joker declares that they ought to skip there. What is a black gay man’s role in the black community? For a group of people who claim to support equal rights, many of them choose the path of blatant hypocrisy: minorities putting down minorities. Is being black and gay mutually exclusive? Do these attributes cancel each other out?

The conversations and arguments are captured with great ear. They are allowed to unfold, sometimes neatly and other times messily, but the characters are not required to go through changes. In fact, what makes the film work as a reflection of modern society is that a lot of them do not change. There is no hero or villain. The people on the bus are just ordinary folks with hopes and dreams, capable of being mean and kind, choosing to be open, to be closed, to be tangled and lost in contradictions.

The emphasis is on the experience, as rocky as it may be, and the meaning of the movement to those aboard the bus on its way to the capital.

27
Sep

Upside Down


Upside Down (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

A decade since they last saw each other, Adam (Jim Sturgess) learns that Eden (Kirsten Dunst) is an employee of Transworld, a company that specializes in research and development and serves as a hub for the twin planets of opposing gravities. Adam lives on a planet called Down Below, widely known as home of the poor and the hopeless, while Eden resides Up Top where skyscrapers glisten and the future is bright.

It is considered illegal for anyone to cross between worlds. However, Adam cannot help how he feels so he goes through seemingly insurmountable roadblocks just to get to Eden. His love for her is so strong that, when they do meet, he does not appear at all fazed by the fact that she has no memory of him.

Visually arresting and its unique universe filled with possible surprising complications, it is most frustrating that “Upside Down,” written and directed by Juan Diego Solanas, does not strive to be a great movie—one that will be remembered by future generations. It seems content in telling a sappy romance picture with enveloping science fiction elements. In some ways, it delivers and yet in many ways, it is excruciatingly short-sighted.

Watching the film is like looking inside a gigantic snow globe with multiple kaleidoscopes dancing in unsteady rhythm; there is always something to look at. For instance, it is fascinating and creepy that in their worlds, since the planets are right next to one another, there is no open sky. A character looks up and what he sees is a metropolis; it might very well be that someone is looking back in his direction at that precise moment. I wondered if they knew what a star was or if they ever wondered about foreign worlds outside their own geographically-dependent class system.

While the screenplay does a solid job contrasting Up Top and Down Below, their disparities are only painted on a superficial level. Up Top has spacious environs and its denizens are professionally clothed. Meanwhile, Down Below is covered in trash, the buildings appear dilapidated, and people’s clothing seem secondhand. When it comes to feelings, there is a lack of complexity. Surely there are people Down Below who are happy and content. Likewise, certainly not everyone Up Top are well-to-do. The two worlds are established visually but they do not feel or come across realistic within the context of a futuristic science-fiction feature. There is a disconnect.

The romance between Eden and Adam, though not sharply written, is tolerable mainly because of the performances. Sturgess—with his perfectly disheveled hair—is charming as usual, but Dunst surprised me. Usually, even though she is very beautiful, I find her so cold on the outside that whenever her character is supposed to be feeling sad or tormented, I often detect a fit of forced histrionics as opposed to her acting natural. Here, playing an amnesiac works for her. Those eyes look like they are constantly searching for something. She portrays a softness here that I would like to see more.

If I were evaluating strictly on style, “Upside Down” would pass with flying colors. But substance is and made relevant by the writer-director’s decision to introduce the idea of love and soul mates. There is not enough depth in Adam and Eden to create a love story worthy of critical thinking and emotional investment.

26
Sep

Hellbenders


Hellbenders (2012)
★ / ★★★★

The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints (Clancy Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Andre Royo, Robyn Rikoon, Macon Blair, Dan Fogler) are men and women who serve God as well as licensed exorcists in Brooklyn, New York. But they are no ordinary holy water wielders: Instead of living their lives to serve as examples, they attempt to be as morally compromised as possible—defying the Ten Commandments and committing sins left and right—so that if or when the time comes that they are faced with a demon so powerful, they can invite it inside their bodies, kill themselves, and ensure that the demon be dragged to hell with them.

With a premise like that, one expects “Hellbenders,” written and directed by J.T. Petty, to be wild, imaginative, funny, ironic, and a hell of a good time. Instead, the energy behind the performances is unfocused, the dialogue is neither intelligent nor all that amusing, and visual effects are allowed to run rampart—especially during the last third—that a lot of it ends up looking fake and trying too hard to impress.

Part of the problem is that we are not really allowed to watch Hellbound Saints do terrible things. Most of them are merely mentioned. Someone who is married admitting that he or she has had an affair is not equal to the audience seeing it in action. I wondered if the writer-director was afraid to make his characters look bad out of fear that we would find them so despicable that we would not want to root for them. But the bottom line is that they fight against demons who wish to set the world on fire. Despite “terrible” actions they commit, we are still very likely to be on their side. Giving them a little freedom to act wild or crazy might have given the picture an element of fun.

Each Hellbound Saint is not given appropriate depth. Just about every scene focuses on a behavior which gets exhausting after a while. A movie being a comedy does not justify characters who lack the capacity to have thoughts or internal monologue. Because the majority of the scenes are behavior-driven, we never get invested in who they are or wonder who they were before joining the parish. Sometimes knowing a bit more about the character’s history can make the jokes funnier—even if they are not all that clever.

The back half is a slog. One would think that once a great evil has been released, the material would be more interesting. Again, it rests on telling rather than showing. Instead of showing us the random acts of chaos that are happening in the city, we get two or three lines about how horrible it is out there. One might cite the limitation of the budget. But I argue: Budget does not create tension.

“Hellbenders” might have learned a thing or two from a little movie called “John Dies at the End” (where Brown also stars in). The latter creates a certain level of uncertainty which matches the paranoia of its leading character. There is synergy between the internal and the external elements. The former, on the other hand, by comparison and independently, is one dimensional in that it relies too much on a physical challenge that must be overcome. It features scenes of demonic possessions—one or two nicely executed. But how about exploring personal demons, maybe the contradiction of being an agent of God who sins on purpose to serve Him?

24
Sep

Girls Town


Girls Town (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

It was supposed to be just another Friday, an exam during second period. But the teacher walks into her classroom with terrible news: one of the students, Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis), has killed herself. It is a surprise to everybody, including Nikki’s best friends, Angela (Bruklin Harris), Patti (Lili Taylor), and Emma (Anna Grace), because it seemed as though everything was going well for Nikki. She was even supposed to attend Princeton next year.

I suppose one can choose to digest Jim McKay’s “Girls Town” as a “feminist” film. After all, it involves three young women taking revenge on men who do or has done them wrong. But I choose not to view the picture through that lens. In fact, it was only after I had seen it that the pattern became clear: I was too involved in the lives of Nikki’s friends and how the death of someone they love has changed the way they choose to live their lives.

Though released in the mid-nineties, aside from the clothing, it has not aged a day. I have met and know people who talk and carry themselves exactly like Patti, Emma, and Angela. Listening to them talk about silly things and subjects of particular importance is like being inside their circle of friends. Yet at the same time we come to understand why some of their peers judge them for being losers or troublemakers. These girls are not exactly angels.

But each of them has a kindness that is endearing. They are present for one another when one needs a laugh or a shoulder to lean on when things get to be too much. The screenplay juggles the rough edges of the characters with enough surprising moments of vulnerability that we grow attached to them eventually. What is exciting and fresh, however, is despite the problems that arise in the girls’ lives, they are always going to school.

These are not dumb girls who bully people for the sake of nothing. These are smart girls just being themselves. These are young women who are aware that they have a future which means they have something to look forward to and maybe even fight for.

The dynamics of the friendship is captured beautifully. Though each of the girls has a distinct personality, the acting is so fluid that it does not feel as though the script is forcing performances out of the actors. It does not rely on quirks to make the subjects believable. Instead, the film concerns itself on allowing us to have a taste of how Emma, Angela, and Patti are like when together as well as when they are alone with only their thoughts.

“Girls Town” is about substance. Though set in an urban milieu, not once do we see a gun or someone being shot. There are no drug dealers here. No one is sent to jail. There is violence. There are fights—between friends, family, strangers—but they occur to make a point. But then there is also peace. Together, these women find away to move on—not completely but just enough so that we feel they are all going to be all right.

22
Sep

Bone Tomahawk


Bone Tomahawk (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

An interesting hybrid of western and horror, “Bone Tomahawk” is a work that requires a whole lot of patience, a pinch of rumination, and a healthy dose appreciation for the small but calculated elements dispersed throughout its one-hundred-thirty-minute running time. Those craving for a film that is willing and unafraid to take risks are likely to welcome what it offers.

Notice how it takes its time. It is almost an hour into the picture when the plot is finally propelled to the forward direction and so for a while it makes us wonder where the story is supposed to go. We are given possibilities. Because the picture is a western, we expect a typical clash between the Indians and the white men. Instead, the material consistently strives to deliver more than what is expected. In some ways, it reminded me of a classic literature—the manner in which writer-director S. Craig Zahler lays the foundation so meticulously that payoffs are highly likely to prove fruitful. (And they do.)

The plot involves a rescue mission spearheaded by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell). He is accompanied by a “backup” deputy (Richard Jenkins), an educated man (Matthew Fox), a cripple (Patrick Wilson) whose wife is abducted. But the journey is not what the film is about. It is about the discovery of who these men are while facing their mortality. We learn of their pasts, their fears, their hopes, who they loved, and what they wish to accomplish once the rescue is over. Not all of them will see the end of the rescue.

The dialogue has color. Although a western and the words uttered are western-like, the attitude and the flavor of the various deliveries command a certain ironic-lite anachronism. Comedic exchanges tend to sprout out of nowhere and they are even bittersweet at times. It almost gives the impression that these men are aware, or have accepted the possibility, that they are walking toward certain death. Are they driven by revenge, honor, duty, curiosity? As the travelers push themselves to exhaustion, they open up, and eventually we are able to gauge their sense of morality and hypothesize what really made them choose to partake in this rescue mission. Perhaps they feel a need to rescue themselves.

Beautifully shot and well-acted, one can make a case that “Bone Tomahawk” is a case study of the male ego and what is expected of masculinity. Note that the women characters stay in the home, they are healers—even the female cave dwellers are blinded, crippled, their main function to get impregnated and deliver new life successfully. Most importantly, however, the film is an entertaining, highly watchable experiment that delivers potent thrills.

21
Sep

Haunter


Haunter (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Lisa (Abigail Breslin) and her family (Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, Peter DaCunha) are living in a loop: as each day wraps up, it begins on the day before Lisa’s sixteenth birthday. There are details that remain constant: laundry having to be done, the telephone being unavailable, and father fixing the car for the next day’s celebration. Lisa has somehow become aware that she and her family are dead. When the Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) learns of Lisa’s knowledge, he pays the family a visit.

“Haunter” is a most uninspired supernatural horror picture. Its premise is directly taken from movies like Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” so one would think that maybe it would strive to go beyond the fences of its concept. After all, if it did not, why make the film at all?

Its attempts to scare lack sense. We learn very early on that Lisa and her family are deceased and yet there are about half a dozen scenes where the protagonist is supposedly scared of some malevolent presence. She goes to investigate a strange noise. She breathes heavily. More strange sounds. More heavy breathing. I stayed in my seat in complete astonishment. Was screenwriter Brian King really convinced that what was on paper was actually scary? Lisa is the ghost! Is it supposed to be ironic?

The character is not written very smart. Lisa lives—or lived—in the mid-‘80s, not the Middle Ages. She appears to be in touch with pop culture given that her bedroom walls are covered with posters of musicians and movies. And yet we are supposed to believe that she does not know how to use a Ouija board properly? A whole lot of scary movies in the ‘70s and early ‘80s show characters communicating with the dead using the spirit board. Still, Lisa, who is supposed to be desperate to contact the other side (the living), fails to keep her fingers on the planchette. I wanted to scream at her.

The first half is a complete slog. Just because the day repeats with certain details having to be repetitive, there is no excuse for the material to be soaked in boredom. Lisa is bored—Breslin is good at rolling her eyes and portraying a hormonal, whiny teenager—and so we are bored, too. Our protagonist, the one who is supposed to be the anchor of whatever paranormal phenomena is occurring, fails to do anything interesting or come up with ideas that are truly out of the box, decisions designed to snag our attention.

The special and visual effects are showy and at times unnecessary but that is the least of the film’s problems. “Haunter,” directed by Vincenzo Natali, suffers from a lack of a workable screenplay. It underachieves instead of being willing and really pushing to be more than an experience to be forgotten right when the end credits appear. I am not convinced that anybody, especially the filmmakers who helmed this mess, can tell you with a straight face that is worth your time.

19
Sep

Nebraska


Nebraska (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a letter from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing which claims that he has won a million dollars. Since he is not allowed to drive and his wife, Kate (June Squibb), refuses to take him, every day Woody attempts to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. But he is not a winner. One of his sons, David (Will Forte), explains to him that the letter is a scam. The aging man remains unconvinced. So, in order to put an end to his father’s dangerous disappearance acts, David elects to drive Woody to Nebraska.

In its very essence, “Nebraska,” written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, is a story of letting go: Woody must relinquish the fact that the piece of paper he so desperately cherishes is a disappointing dead end and David, in a way, must deal with the reality that his father will soon no longer be around. At one point, a woman asks the son if his father has Alzheimer’s. David says that the old man gets a little confused sometimes. We know better. Especially with Woody’s history of alcoholism.

I admired the director’s decision to showcase the picture in black and white. It is the correct route to tell this story. On one level, it highlights the austereness of forgotten America: farming communities, very small towns, folks who stare into the television all day as if watching an exciting alternate universe. And yet, on another level, it allows small emotions and possible thoughts to stand out more ferociously.

Given that the relationship between David and Woody is largely defined by small stings—a dismissive comment one moment, an expression of disappointment the next—it matters that faces are lit up—front and center—and the background is almost fading away, almost far away than it ought to be. In other words, though the core deals with real issues like the disconnection among family members, the environment embraces a dream-like quality which creates an interesting contrast. Unlike many pictures, the feeling behind the images on screen is not flat.

It bothers to keep a little bit of mystery. With films that touch upon family dynamics and generational gaps, it is easier to relay all of the information in order for the audience to be able to understand or appreciate everything that is going on at once. Here, it holds back a little. Of particular interest to me is a woman named Pegy Nagy (Angela McEwan), Woody’s former girlfriend. Though she and David interact in only two scenes at most, it is a meaningful connection because we are asked to participate. As Pegy tells David about the romantic history between she and Woody, we try to imagine how they must have been like as a couple. Images I constructed by my mind were worlds away between what Woody and Kate share. Still, I wondered if Pegy and Woody would have worked out in the long run.

“Nebraska” is an effective drama because it does not rely on words or obvious explanations to paint a complete portrait. Sometimes love is an unspoken thing—which can be difficult if it is not expressed at all—and that reflects the relationship between father and son. And yet it is surprisingly funny, too. The director has a tendency for embracing ironic flourishing without being mired in them.

18
Sep

Don’t Breathe


Don’t Breathe (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Fede Alvarez, director and co-writer of “Don’t Breathe,” takes inspiration from great horror-thrillers which utilize space effectively in order to establish, sustain, and release tension. At one point, there is reference to an excellent scene in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” where the heroine is trapped in a confined space with her attacker. What results is a picture that, although not original, is highly watchable and consistently entertaining because the equation is feverishly being evaluated as complex factors are introduced to it.

The material is light on character development which can be overlooked due to its fast pacing. The respective motivations of the three burglars (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto) who decide to break into the house of a blind man (Stephen Lang) and steal six figures worth of cash are simple and clear, each one given a specific place on the moral spectrum. Character depth is icing on the cake but not necessary in a film like this.

Silence can be deafening considering the fact that the faintest noise, like the creaking of the floorboards, can alert the blind man, who is not as innocent as he seems, to the location of burglars-turned-potential-victims. Standout scenes involve silence partnered with tightly controlled lighting that create ominous shadows and the camera pans around the room—we wait in careful anticipation when the silence will be shattered and it is time for the thieves to move briskly in order to have a chance at survival.

Although the story for the most part takes place inside two-story house with a basement, it gives the impression that every room is utilized to its maximum capacity. We grow familiar to the layout of the home with dark and tragic secrets. Notice that just about every space revisited later in the picture contains a memory involving the unsuspecting trio, whether it be the hall in front of the door to the basement, the closet, the laundry room, the homeowner’s bedroom, the front door leading to freedom… or at least an impression of it.

Lang plays the blind man with a convincing air of dominance. Despite the character’s inability to see, highly memorable are instances when he uses his hands to pummel the trespassers into unconsciousness. The sheer brutality of it is not found in his eyes or even his arms—but the hands: they are like sharp branches one second, a steel hammer the next. The camera sits still when his hands are used, less still when a gun is involved.

“Don’t Breathe” is relentless, even in the manner in which the story ends. I admired that there is neither an easy nor a clean-cut happy ending. With the kind of brutality that transpires in that Detroit home, it is clear that no one should walk away unchanged physically and internally. That kind of trauma sticks around for years, if not till it’s time to check out.

16
Sep

Sudor frío


Sudor frío (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Roman (Facundo Espinosa) and Ali (Marina Glezer) visit a dangerous neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Ali has set up a meeting with a blond guy she met in a chatroom, Ali knowing that he is the same person that Roman’s ex-girlfriend, Jacquie (Camila Velasco), is presumed to be seeing or dating. By meeting with him, Ali and Roman hope to learn more about Jacquie’s whereabouts given that it seems like she has disappeared off the face of the earth.

But Ali is in for a surprise. Once inside the house, she sees her chatroom friend. As she gets closer, she notices that he is tied up and one of his arms falls to the floor. Meanwhile, Roman waits in the car and begins to suspect that something is very wrong.

For a movie that mostly takes place inside a big house, “Sudor frío” is a bit of a surprise because it finds creative ways to entertain. While it is willing to take more than a handful of risks, the biggest gamble is in its choice of villain. While it is a fresh choice, I was not fully convinced that the antagonists are menacing or threatening enough to hold a candle against Roman and Ali. As a result, some scenes come off rather forced and it impedes the necessary momentum to pull an effective horror-thriller.

Because the antagonists are physically limited, the picture might have benefited if they had been written smarter. Instead, we are presented throwaway flashbacks about their history which barely have anything to do with the big picture. These are men who have continually lured, overpowered, and tortured women. They have to be intelligent and very careful to have avoided suspicion by their neighbors and the police.

Their endgame is not clear. Are the torture chambers simply there to serve as a playroom for their sick minds or is it there for a reason? The first thirty minutes suggests the latter but as the film goes on, it appears as though it no longer matters. The hiding and chases inside the nondescript abode take precedence over explaining or showing their motivations.

I enjoyed its use of close-ups. The villains’ weapon of choice is nitroglycerin, generously applied on their victim’s skin. If the woman moves too quickly or forcefully—in the act of trying to escape—the punishment is a quick but messy death. When the camera focuses on the skin, hair, or clothing covered with the dangerous chemical, it is highly uncomfortable. A different kind of horror is invoked; it is more intense than watching the characters running around the house or hiding in the shadows when their captor has entered the room.

“Cold Sweat,” directed by Adrián García Bogliano, is not the most engaging horror-thriller because it requires too many leaps of faith and it does not give a big enough return for our investment. Taking risks is a positive attribute but it really is a double-edged sword: when it works, what is shown on screen feels fresh but when it does not, it comes off trying too hard to be anything of value. At least it is never boring.

15
Sep

Waiting for Guffman


Waiting for Guffman (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

The sesquicentennial anniversary of Blaine, the heart of Missouri, is coming up so the small town’s community is very excited about the special show to be performed at the end of the festival. This year, the mayor (Larry Miller) and his council appoint a high school drama teacher, Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest), along with a music teacher (Bob Balaban), in charge of the highly anticipated play that is expected to cover the town’s rich and idiosyncratic history.

Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, “Waiting for Guffman” is a highly energetic mockumentary that skewers community theater and yet it does not humiliate its subjects. Thus, the picture works a good-natured comedy. Not once is the audience made to feel as though the characters are mere caricatures. It points out the eccentricities of American small towns but it has a loving attitude toward them, too.

The picture is divided into chapters: the audition, the rehearsal, the night of the play, and three months after the performance. The casting by Parker Posey as a Dairy Queen employee, Levy as a dentist, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard as a married couple who ironically run a travel agency even though they have not been outside the country, and Guest as a former New Yorker who hopes to make it to Broadway some day is near perfect because these are actors who know how to adapt with one another’s rhythm.

Notice that in scenes that come across as ad-libbed, and they are quite easy to spot, they do not break character when someone says or does something that is way out there. Instead, they all play along even though there unintended smiles are drawn across their faces. Small moments that would have been typically removed in the cutting room floor are left here. These moments are actually brilliant, arguably some of the funniest bits in the movie.

Its extemporaneous nature and approach is crucial to the success of the film because we get a sense of realism. The rehearsal scenes do not feel at all rehearsed or controlled. Rather, everyone is trying on a hat. The comedy comes in the form of the hats not quite fitting perfectly. We even grow increasingly worried as the night of the play approaches. I was surprised that I cared whether those who made it through the casting process would make a fool of themselves in front of their peers and neighbors. Some of them think they are more talented than they actually are.

The long-awaited performance is a joy to watch, from the colorful personalities that drive energetic numbers, ballads, and comedic exchanges to props that surprisingly work despite a few distractions—for instance, a figure being too prominent relative what we are supposed to be paying attention to. “Waiting for Guffman,” directed by Christopher Guest, is an entertaining spoof with a discerning eye but loving hands.

13
Sep

At Middleton


At Middleton (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

There is a scene that takes place in the middle of “At Middleton,” written by Glenn German and Adam Rodgers, that hints at how wonderful, sweet, and romantic the film could have been. Two strangers who had met each other only about an hour or so climb to the top of a tower. Edith (Vera Farmiga) would rather inhale the breeze and admire the view, but George (Andy Garcia) would rather read off a brochure and learn the importance of the place they stand on. But a couple of minutes later, we discover that the situation is not as simple as it appears.

George and Edith are married—but not to each other. George has a son, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco), who has no interest in the university that his father attended. Edith has a daughter, Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), who, unlike Conrad, is dead set on attending Middleton because she hopes that the linguistics professor she admires will agree to be her advisor. During a campus tour, Edith and George decide to break from the group and get to know one another better—even though they seem to be complete opposites.

The film is at its best when it sticks with the conceit of two people just talking to one another and trying to figure each other out. Though not quite on the level of Richard Linklater’s signature series of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, there is an effortlessness in Farmiga and Garcia’s performances that helped me buy into what their characters could have had even though the actors, physically, are not exactly attractive or alluring together. Farmiga is luminous as a woman who enjoys living in the moment and Garcia is fascinating as a man who does not say much but one can tell he feels and thinks a whole lot.

A standout scene involves the central couple having to act on a stage in front of a group of theater students. While on that stage, notice how the camera moves and nails itself in one position. The silence builds to a boil then becomes somewhat overpowering. Both stuck in marriages that are not exactly working out, we learn about Edith and George’s profound sadness. More importantly, we discover how badly they want to escape.

Significantly less impressive are the more comedic scenes in the latter half. One scene that runs too long involves the couple meeting a pair of twenty-year-olds in a relationship. They spend some time inside the dorm room getting high and complaining about what they feel is wrong in their lives. The clash between an elegant exorcism of romantic wants and needs versus an overt disclosure of what they feel are wrong in their lives do not work tonally. Why not make an adult picture that does not try way too hard to be funny and stick with it?

I enjoyed that the screenplay does not force Audrey and Conrad to have any sort of romantic feelings toward one another. The actors look good together physically so writers with less resolve might have been tempted to put a little spice into the equation. Instead, the film, directed by Adam Rodgers, makes the two young people more complicated—even unlikeable at times—than what we come to expect. On that level, it respects the audience.