Tag: greg kinnear

Dinner with Friends

Dinner with Friends (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell) have just returned from Italy and cannot wait to talk about their adventures with their best friends, Tom (Greg Kinnear) and Beth (Toni Collette). The doorbell rings. There appears Beth but no sign of Tom. She says her husband had to go to Washington, D.C. for business. But the truth comes out before dessert: Tom is leaving her for a stewardess. Karen is furious for Beth and Gabe is at a loss for words—twelve years down the drain.

“Dinner with Friends,” based on the play and adapted to the screen by Donald Margulies, appears to be just another standard marriage drama where one couple’s break-up forces another to reflect upon their relationship. While it embodies that quality on the outside, the film is actively interested in the human condition and how painful truths about love, friendship, and companionship can be confusing, exhausting, and surprising. And yet it works on another level, too. In my eyes, the message is that an evaluation of a relationship may not be pretty or convenient at times but it is an important part being together for it forces a couple to appreciate what they do have—even if everything may not be perfect.

The performances are consistently on a high level. The first few scenes are deceptive in that it appears as though what we are seeing on screen are caricatures: Karen the perfectionist, Gabe the husband with not much to say, Beth the victim, and Tom the jerk. But the more the characters speak, even though we may not agree with their opinions or courses of action, the more we want to get to know them. In just about every scene, a layer or several layers of complexity is added to the characterizations. We are constantly getting to know the characters.

In addition, the script has captured the rhythm, mood, and tone of white, middle- to upper-middle class dialogue. While the film is interested in exposing their flaws as people, it abstains from judging them. The judging is left to us and so we are engaged. At time same time, it is difficult to judge them because they are relatable. I found a piece of myself in every one of them.

The latter half is most impressive because it manages to capture the sadness of potentially broken relationships. No, I am not necessarily referring to just the marriages. Most interesting is how the friendships are portrayed between the men and the women. In two key scenes that unfold over lunch, we feel two people sharing a meal slowly drifting away even though physically they are only an arm’s length away. They feign as if there is nothing wrong but we—and they—know that things have gotten difficult and awkward. How do you continue to love someone when you recognize that the person that you thought you knew for years has suddenly turned into someone you can no longer relate with?

Directed with perspicuity by Norman Jewison, “Dinner with Friends” captures a critical moment in time when four people must evaluate where they stand. Sometimes the scariest thing is taking a moment and asking ourselves whether we are happy with the way things are. Karen, Tom, Beth, and Gabe assumed that nothing would ever change among them because they were so close. We are all guilty of that assumption and so when changes do occur in special friendships, sometimes it’s the most difficult task to accept and let go.

Little Men

Little Men (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of Ira Sachs’ masterful slice-of-life picture “Little Men,” it is seemingly meandering, directionless, not at all interested in plot and the usual contrivances that come with it. It’s so refreshing to come across a film that has the potential to become anything—just like its thirteen-year-old protagonists who forge a friendship after they meet during a funeral. From the ashes sprouts a sign of life and we wonder for the entire duration of the material whether this life shared by two can endure the roughest storms.

Credit to the casting director Avy Kaufman for choosing young, tyro performers to play Jake and Tony, the budding artist and the aspiring thespian, respectively. These characters are winningly played by Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, the former’s character an introvert and the latter portraying quite the polar opposite. There is a natural feeling about them that is contemporary, magnetic, and relatable but without the sugary cuteness that plague numerous films—mostly mainstream works—that fall under the same sub-genre. Credit goes to the director and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, for not writing the young adolescents as lovable or delightful when they are as intelligent and interesting as they are. We get a genuine sense of Jake and Tony’s personalities and how these change or adapt when they are together and apart.

The picture forces us to observe—sometimes something important, other times nothing of relevance. We watch the boys the ride scooters and roller skate, play video games, sketch, attend acting classes, interact with their peers at school or at the park. We watch the parents at work, how their entire being changes when at home, their reactions to conflicts in which there are no easy solutions. Notice how images from the chest up are employed more often toward the latter half as if to magnify the stresses everybody is going through.

But the picture is also about listening. We listen to the boys talk about what they want to become, their interests, their hobbies, what they think about their parents and each other. We listen to the adults sometimes talking in circles unnecessarily, stressing out about money, how happy they are that the boys have formed a strong connection. And then we listen to the interactions between young and old yet there is almost always a rift there even when they are connecting. Notice that the decibels have gone up as the story begins to conclude, as if to release the strain that everyone has carried inside them for so long.

There is a vitality and rhythm to “Little Men” that many films simply lack or do not at all bother to achieve. And yet these films are supposed to be about every day lives of every day people. Sachs understands that in order for the big picture to be entirely believable, the details must be exactly right or else discerning viewers would see right through the sham. He respects us as observers and so we can’t help but identify, or at very least respect, his project. And this is why “Little Men” stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries.

Salvation Boulevard

Salvation Boulevard (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

After a campus debate, Professor Blaylock (Ed Harris), an atheist, invites his opponent, Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), an evangelical Christian, and Carl (Greg Kinnear), a former Grateful Dead devotee who became God’s follower, into his office to offer a proposal of co-authoring a book called “The Great Divide.” In theory, its contents would present their respective sides which could be beneficial their missions.

For Pastor Day, he hopes to bring non-believers to Christ and for Blaylock, he hopes believers can learn to see reason. However, just when the two are about to seal the deal, the pastor playfully aims an armed gun at the professor and accidentally presses the trigger. Carl and Pastor Day stare in horror at the lifeless body sprawled on the floor.

“Salvation Boulevard,” based on the screenplay by Douglas Stone and George Ratcliff, are peppered with very good ideas about the conflicting tenets of a religion by highlighting the sanctimoniousness and gullibility of its followers but it has one too many poorly executed characters which blurs its focus so consistently, its tone never quite aligns with the supposedly biting satirical jokes.

It is appropriate that Carl is almost always on camera because he serves as the questioning sheep. Kinnear does a wonderful job playing Carl as a man who is experiencing a crisis of faith; instead of going for easy histrionics to appear funny, the actor makes fresh choices and does the opposite.

In a handful of scenes, especially when Carl is forced under a spotlight by being the topic of conversation, directly or otherwise, he has a way of almost withdrawing into his invisible shell. Kinnear’s body language, even though his character is somewhat of a shy person, communicates plenty: Carl considers his history with sex and drugs as a stigma and so people in his community, even his family, cannot help but pick up on his private shame. He is a scarred man in that he has never been allowed to move on from his past. And yet although we feel for Carl, the screenplay is smart in not allowing us to pity him.

Despite a rather complex protagonist, the film is impaired by supporting characters who lack dimension. Since each of them has one goal, it is as if the writing felt obligated to follow their strands up to a certain point while not doing a very good job in staying with Carl’s story. For instance, there is a businessman named Jorge Guzman de Vaca (Yul Vazquez) clearly designed to provide a bridge between Carl—the sheep—and Pastor Day— the shepherd. While an intense character when things do not go his way, he is not utilized in such a way that he comes across crucial to the arc of the story, just a passerby who must be placed in a specific spot while looking stern when necessary and to be taken out when it is time for comedic or ironic punches.

A similar technique is executed with Honey Foster (Marisa Tomei), a security guard and former Deadhead fan. She is such an energetic character—for a lady who loves her weed—and it is awkward how she seems to just disappear right in the middle of the movie. We only hear about her again at the end when the subtitles inform us what eventually happens to her.

Based on the book by Larry Beinhart and directed by George Ratcliff, there are lines of dialogue in “Salvation Boulevard” that made me laugh hard. Even the more obvious jokes made me chuckle. When the funny does come, however, I was reminded how much sharper the material could have been if the script that removed unnecessary distractions for the sake of buying time.

Stuck in Love

Stuck in Love (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Since the divorce of Bill (Greg Kinnear) and Erica (Jennifer Connelly) two years ago, the Borgens household has become an abode for serious writers. Over Thanksgiving break, college student Sam (Lily Collins) reveals that a book she had written over the summer is getting published. Bill is extremely proud but Rusty (Nat Wolff), Sam’s only sibling, sneers across the table. He has yet to publish any of his material. His muse is right around the corner, however, when he is forced to read one of his work in class—a poem about a girl (Liana Liberato) who sits several feet away but happens to be seeing another guy.

Written and directed by Josh Boone, “Stuck in Love” is full of whiny, irritating, arrogant people with bland personalities. It takes a solid premise—a family of writers who have a certain competitiveness in their blood—and minces it into a standard three-piece love story where the outcomes are easily predicted by anyone who is half-asleep.

It makes the mistake of allowing the supporting characters to overshadow those who we are supposed to care about most. A character worthy of an entire film is Louis (Logan Lerman), Sam’s classmate and a potential love interest. Like Sam, he is a writer but one that specializes in mysteries and detective stories. Unlike Sam, his life is interesting and his personality has genuine substance. He deals with illness but he is pleasant to be around. Lerman is smart to reel in some of the awkwardness and turn some of that into charm.

Equally lovely to see on screen is Kristen Bell who plays jogging-obsessed Tricia. She and Bill have sex from time to time and they have a common understanding that what they share is purely physical. Unlike Sam, Tricia is no love interest. I enjoyed her relationship with Bill because they seem to fit well as friends. One of the highlights of the picture involves Tricia helping Bill with his wardrobe prior to going on a date. It is unfortunate that the screenplay does not make full use of the friendship, to delve into it more, and build emotional resonance out of it. She appears and disappears for comedic effect.

Louis and Sam’s banters are tolerable and amusing at times, but I found Rusty and his class crush quite unbearable to watch. Perhaps part of the problem is that Wolff and Liberato share little to no chemistry. During the more intimate scenes, it feels like watching two inexperienced actors rehearsing. There is not enough rhythm or flirtation to make the scene magnetic. Rusty is supposed to be a hopeless romantic. It is feels off that the relationship bears little romance.

The Borgens’ problems are not at all deep despite the drama happening all around. Right about the halfway point, I caught myself wondering if I was supposed to care and whether the screenplay would even bother to throw a curveball that is designed to break the ennui. The point is, the Borgens’ problems can easily be solved if they just acted like real people for a change. Hold a family meeting. Person A does not want to see Person B? Tough luck. In reality, people are required to do things they might not particularly like or agree with.

The central problem is foreshadowed in the title. The screenplay is essentially stuck with a familiar formula, only occasionally colored by slight brushes of independent filmmaking. There is nothing wrong with attempting to appeal to a wide audience while saying something intelligent or insightful. The key is an elegant script that this film lacks.

Green Zone

Green Zone (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

U.S. Army officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) decided to go rogue when his team constantly stumbled upon inaccurate intelligence provided a U.S. Intelligence Agent (Greg Kinnear). Miller eventually found an ally (Brendan Gleeson) within the U.S. government and both aimed to expose the false reasons why the United States went to war with Iraq. I’ve read a lot of reviews comparing this movie, inspired by the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, to the actual war in Iraq. I chose not to see it from that perspective because at the end of the day the material was fictional. Instead, I saw it as an action picture with an emphasis on Miller’s struggle on three fronts: his loyalty to his country and the American people, his struggle to trust the powers that lead (or controlled) the U.S. government, and the role of the media (specifically Amy Ryan as a New York Times foreign correspondent) in and out of Iraq. As an action movie, I thought it worked. It was suspenseful because I cared about Miller’s dangerous mission to expose the big lie that led the United States to go to war. Paul Greengrass’ signature shaky camera that defined the second and third “Bourne” films worked especially in increasingly enclosed spaces as Miller’s character chased after targets in residential areas. I felt the danger and uncertainty that he and his men felt so my eyes were glued to the screen. I was also impressed with the way Greengrass’ shots shifted between indoors and outdoors. With each shift, the tone changed but it wasn’t jarring or distracting because the intensity regarding what was happening was consistent. But there were some scenes that fell completely flat. The ones that stood out to me in a negative way were the “Don’t be naive” admonitions accompanied by intense eye contact between Damon and Gleeson. I couldn’t help but laugh because it was so heavy-handed and obvious about the messages it wanted to convey to its audiences. I wanted the movie to let the images and the characters’ decisions to speak for themselves and tone down the obvious propaganda as much as possible. Lastly, I would have liked to see Ryan’s character to have done more instead of just standing around begging for a story. Nevertheless, “Green Zone” ultimately worked as a political (but fictional) action picture because of well-shot and involving action sequences. Others may have the usual complaints of, “The camera was so shaky and I got dizzy” but I suppose it’s an acquired taste. I think Greengrass chose that style because he wanted to us to feel like we were right there with the characters.

Ghost Town

Ghost Town (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

This movie wouldn’t have drowned in mediocrity if it had spent less time trying to be funny and actually tried to propel the story forward. Greg Kinnear is a fine actor but it’s too bad he wasn’t given a lot to do. Most of the time, we see his character just moping around the streets with other dead people and annoying Ricky Gervais. As for Gervais, he really did surprise me because I thought he was more obnoxious-funny prior to watching this film. He convinced me that he can do awkward-funny (almost or just as good as Steve Carell) and subtle-funny. (That overly sensitive gag reflex bit was hilarious!) I haven’t seen Téa Leoni in a lot of movies, but I really liked her here as the wife that couldn’t quite move on due to the recent death of her husband. What’s nice is that she doesn’t know that she can’t let go because she’s her denial runs deeply. Still, I felt like this picture could’ve been so much more–more daring, more original, and definitely funnier. To me, a sign of a film that is running out of ideas is when it results to slapstick, especially in formula comedies. And I felt offended when Gervais’ character was making fun of Chinese names. I’m not Chinese but I still found offense to it even though it’s supposed to be just for fun. There was no reason for those jokes to be in the movie at all. If David Koepp, the director, had added more edge–perhaps some darkly comedic moments or showing us ghosts that are covered in blood and guts, this would’ve been a far superior film. Instead, it was too safe and too ordinary for a ghost story.