Tag: chris messina

Digging for Fire

Digging for Fire (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Married couple Lee and (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson) agree to house-sit a multimillion-dollar house belonging to an actress, Lee’s client, who is shooting a movie in Budapest. The day after they move in, while exploring a relatively untouched area of land, Tim comes across a bone and a gun. Thrilled by his discovery, he runs to his wife and tells her that he is convinced there are dead bodies buried nearby. However, Lee, concerned that they are overstepping certain boundaries, tells Tim that he should stop with the excavation and focus on being there as a family.

Written by Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson, “Digging for Fire” is a severely anemic picture, a bore from the moment it begins right until its nondescript, platitudinous ending. The premise sounds mildly interesting—hinting at a possible murder mystery—but do not be fooled: It is merely an attempt at a marriage drama with nothing interesting or insightful to say about modern relationships and the tribulations that come with it.

The script lacks dramatic pull. Because it never shows why Lee and Tim should or should not be together prior to them going on their separate journeys toward would-be realizations, it is hard to care about them and think about what might be going on in their heads as they consider choices that could lead to transgressions. And although it touches upon relatable problems like the couple having money issues about half a dozen times, these are so superficial that it is laughable. Not once do we buy these actors as real people. Thus, for example, when DeWitt’s character considers whether or not to buy an expensive leather jacket, I saw a successful actress pretending like she doesn’t have enough funds in the bank.

The film is rife with scenes that can be considered as junk or time-fillers. For instance, when Lee and her son go to see Grandma and Pop-Pop, Tim throws a little get-together with his male friends (Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Sam Rockwell). It wouldn’t have been a problem if the entire charade hadn’t been so dull. We watch them drink beer, talk about women, swim the pool, and dig up more bones but there is no sense of real camaraderie among them. One wonders what the writers wish to communicate. Is it that Tim misses male companionship so badly? If so, the picture does not provide a good reason why. His friends are written to be so generic, it is a challenge to keep our eyes open as we watch them interact.

Eventually, the movie is reduced to a recognition game. That is, plenty of familiar faces drop in and out: Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick, among others. What do these people have in common? They are real performers who have been in much better dramatic films. Here, they are not used wisely or efficiently. They might as well not have appeared at all. It probably would have made the film stronger because perhaps the focus would have been on the couple rather than the people they come across.

It is difficult not to feel robbed after watching “Digging for Fire,” directed by Joe Swanberg, because we keep waiting for something interesting to happen but it never delivers. The couple are boring together and apart, the people that share a connection with them are cardboard cutouts, and the subject of marriage is not delved into in an honest way. Just about everything about the film rings false.

Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a high school dropout, was only nineteen years of age, his novel was published and topped The New York Times Best Sellers. Now that he’s twenty-nine, he feels the pressures of writing a highly anticipated follow-up but he’s experiencing a drought of inspiration. When his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) encourages him to write–about anything, even if it is far from great–Calvin begins to put into words the ecstasy he feels when he’s with Ruby (Zoe Kazan), the girl in his recurring dream. One day, Calvin wakes up and discovers that not only has Ruby stepped out of his fantasy, she has the memory of them being a couple and living together for some time.

“Ruby Sparks” is successful in being an appealing love story with a twist not because of its quirks in the narrative or the idiosyncrasies of its the characters, but for the filmmakers taking the responsibility to embrace its premise and taking it all the way. The question goes beyond whether Calvin and Ruby are going to make it as a couple given that one of them is a real person and the other is, arguably, only sort-of real. There is a philosophical overcoat that the film explores: what responsibility does Calvin have toward his creation while at the same time wanting to be with her on a physical, emotional, and spiritual sense? It’s funny that the picture even acknowledges the awkwardness of this dilemma.

While the fantasy is the alluring element, the way in which select characters react to and digest the bizarre situation is tethered in reality. Chris Messina as Harry, Calvin’s brother, has a tricky role but manages to hold his own as our protagonist’s voice of reason without coming off overconfident and jealous. When Harry offers Calvin a piece of advice by citing examples from his marriage, we can feel the genuine love he has for his brother and yet at times there is a sly twinkle in his eye which might suggest that if he were in Calvin’s situation, he would take full advantage of what was put on his plate. Harry is given a complexity that is uncommon from supporting roles in zany love stories. I wished, however, that Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) had not been painted as stereotypical hippies.

The film also shows its confidence by sometimes making Calvin downright unlikable. Like real person, he has a specific personality and viewpoint of the world. Watching him, I wasn’t certain that he would be the kind of person I would like to have as a friend. He has a proclivity for neediness and self-pity that I find somewhat repulsive. So when Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), an ex-girlfriend he despises for breaking up with him only days after his father died, criticizes him at a party, what she says has merit. If this had been a one-dimensional screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Lila would have come across as a villain and we would have been completely on Calvin’s side. Though we do not see Calvin and Lila’s relationship develop, we get a sense of their history and the feel the wounds they are still recovering from.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Ruby Sparks” shows insight as to what makes its subjects tick. Because of its consistent awareness and ability to surprise without being showy, I am very disappointed with the ending. It is nothing but a convenient and superficial way of reminding us that it is ultimately a love story. Sometimes love is not about having a person next to you but about having the courage to accept the way things are and hoping not to make the same mistake when another opportunity presents itself.


Devil (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

The plot of “Devil,” based on the story by M. Night Shyamalan, is simple: five people (Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O’Hara, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Logan Marshall-Green) are stuck in an elevator and a cop (Chris Messina) tries to save them. But here’s the first twist: one of the five is the devil and it is up to us to determine who it is. I know it’s strange to mention but I really liked the opening credits. The images were upside down which suggested that what we were about to see was not ordinary and we should expect the unexpected. The film was not particularly scary. I was more curious than scared. Since the movie is only about an hour and twenty minutes, it had no choice but to get to the meat of the happenings beginning with a suicide that supposedly signaled that the devil was coming. Since the material wasn’t too scary, I wished it was more character-driven. Instead of merely mentioning the characters’ respective backgrounds, I wanted more flashback scenes. By showing us actual images regarding where they come from, the audiences become active participants and it allows us to interpret what we see. It also allows us to judge whether the characters deserve to be in their current situation. Since the film had religious overtones (Jacob Vargas had some funny moments which were nice breaks between intense scenes), allowing us to judge implies that we are gods and it is up to us to categorize the sinners. The movie gave me the creeps. The characters trapped in the elevator were observed by the cops and the maintenance people through a camera. (The film could have commented on the nature voyeurism and the difference between experiencing something first hand versus through the lens, but it didn’t.) In one of the scenes, the devil’s face appeared on screen. That didn’t do much for me. But for one barely noticeable split second, as a person who likes to relish every frame, I saw that one of the characters had horns on his/her head. It led me to the correct answer regarding the identity of the devil. Indeed, I questioned whether I was right again and again because I had this feeling that the filmmakers were trying to trick those who saw the minute detail, but it was nice that they didn’t. I desperately wanted a rewind button to see if my mind was simply playing tricks on me because I was very into the moment. In the end, I had a plethora of questions left unanswered. For instance, I didn’t quite understand why the devil gave one of the characters a chance to come clean but the others weren’t given the same chance. If the devil, as it claimed, really wanted this particular person’s soul, why give that person a chance? But perhaps I’m just being too analytical. I am aware that “Devil,” directed by John Erick Dowdle, is the first of “The Night Chronicles” trilogy. Hopefully, the series continues not only for the purpose of possibly answering some of the questions in my head but also because I thought the film was a nice treat. It had a concept that reminded me of situational horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a refreshing break from the torture porn so-called horror movies like increasingly uninspired “Saw” franchise. What “Devil” lacked in blood made up for its curious nature.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Adapted from a short story by David Foster Wallace, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” stars Julianne Nicholson as a graduate student who gathered varying perspectives from men about what women wanted emotionally, sexually, and physically. Or so that was what I got from the movie considering it did not bother to explicitly state what the main character wanted to accomplish. And since the lead character was conducting her own anthropological research, I saw this film as if I was reading an essay or a laboratory report consisting of a clear hypothesis, evidence which supported the hypothesis, deviance from the expected outcome, and a thoughtful discussion in the end. I thought this movie had an interesting idea but unfortunately the execution was weak and unfocused. John Krasinski, the director and the actor who played the lead character’s boyfriend, had made too many cuts just when a scene was about to get interesting. For instance, I wanted to know more about the man who claimed that there were three kinds of men in bed. I also thought that the director had too many scenes that didn’t contribute to the film as a whole. He would start a scene in which the lead character’s friends would gather and ten seconds into it, we would be on a completely different scene. Those elements were so distracting to the point where I became more frustrated with the picture as it went on. I wanted to know more about the people being interviewed such as the student with outrageous ideas about rape and how it could actually help someone’s well-being and the man whose father made it his career to hand towels in the bathroom. Most importantly, I wanted to know more about the main character. Since I didn’t get to know her much, the impression I got by the end was that she was weak and, as edgy and smart as she was, maybe she was the kind of woman who needed a man by her side. I think this is the movie’s biggest problem: it didn’t know its protagonist so the vision and focus was lacking. I think this adaptation was a missed opportunity because there were really good supporting actors such as Chris Messina, Lou Taylor Pucci, Will Arnett, Ben Shenkman and others who weren’t quite pushed to do their best or didn’t have enough screen time so the audiences couldn’t really see what they were capable of. In the end, I was left confused more than educated or inspired. And for a movie that was only an hour and twenty minutes long, it felt so long because it didn’t know what it was doing. It was like reading an essay or a lab report with so many words but so little content.

Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

I really enjoyed this movie even though I’m not much of a cook (though I do absolutely love eating) because it was able paint a portrait of two women from very different times but with significant similarities. The film was definitely full of charm and it was funny. Meryl Streep, a chameleon as usual, played Julia Child, a woman who was at first lost when it came to what she wanted to accomplish in life. However, she knew that she didn’t want to be just another housewife who lived to serve her husband. So, with the love and support from her husband (Stanley Tucci), Julia eventually decided to attend a cooking class and worked her way up to publish a book called “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Fast-forward to 2002, Amy Adams played Julie Powell, a woman who worked for the government in a cubicle who was mostly unhappy with her career. After observing how busy and accomplished her friends were, she decided to make a blog: in a span of one year, she was going to cook all of Julia’s recipes. I don’t consider this a spoiler so I’m going to say that she succeeded. She was eventually able to publish a book called “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen” even though the journey was quite rocky due to her own self-doubt, sometimes unrealistic expectations, and rising tension between her and her very patient and supportive husband (Chris Messina). This movie made me smile from start to finish because of the two leads. Even though Adams and Streep did not interact at all, their commonalities were enough for me to be emotionally invested in the picture. I commend Nora Ephron, the director, because there was something very modern about the style of the movie yet it didn’t sacrifice its substance. I loved looking at the food and I could literally smell their delicious scent whenever they were on screen. The only major criticism I have was that its pace somewhat faltered in the middle. It lost some of its urgency, a feeling that dominated the first and the last thirty minutes. Nevertheless, I thought watching “Julie & Julia” was a very pleasant experience because it really highlighted the passion that Julie and Julia had not only for food but also accomplishing something that they could be proud of. Speaking of being proud of something, Julie reminded me of myself when I started blogging in the early 2000s. The rush she felt when she finally received her first comment on her blog made me feel very nostalgic so I couldn’t help but have this big smile on my face well beyond five minutes after the scene was over. I thought Ephron and Adams really captured, at least from my experience, how it was like to put something out there and have people read it. That theme of connection was nicely explored in this film and it made me feel warm and inspired (not to mention hungry).

Away We Go

Away We Go (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This movie came as a surprise to me because I remember wanting to watch it in theaters (I wanted to see John Krasinski because I love him on “The Office”) but decided against doing so because I thought it was just going to be another one of those quirky small indie comedies that’s all style and no substance. How quickly I was proven wrong because the story was actually quite poignant. Krasinski and Maya Rudolph decided to travel across the country to find the perfect place to live for their child who was about to be born in three months. Along their travels, we got to see their friends and family members, all very different and all very, very colorful (to say the least). I loved Allison Janney as the mother who had no filter especially when she negative things to say about her children and husband (Jim Gaffigan). Even though she did make me laugh out loud (literally–every time she talked, she was so blunt and umcompromising), there was something about that particular family that was very sad in its core. The disdain and possibly even hatred was reflected in the facial expressions of the children and the husband. I also enjoyed the new age parents played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton. At first I thought they were just quirky but by the end of the visit, I thought they were borderline crazy. Gyllenhaal was absolutely perfect in her role despite her limited screen time. Lastly, I loved the visit with Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey because it showed that families that were really happy on the outside may not necessarily be happy on the inside. That third visit was very realistic and really painful as we got to the truths regarding the characters and the solace that they choose to embrace despite certain hurdles they couldn’t quite jump over. The emotional content of this movie really took me by surprise because it had a certain insight which made me realize that I have a lot more maturing to look forward to. There was that brilliant scene when Krasinski and Lynskey were considering if they were “fuck-ups” prior to their cross-country trip and by the end they realized that they actually had it pretty good. I thought that was a very good message because we often wallow on our own insecurities, when, in reality, others have it so much worse. “Away We Go,” directed by Sam Mendes, is more than worth a hundred minutes because not only did it make me smile and laugh, it made me think and feel hopeful for the future.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.