Tag: jason reitman

Labor Day


Labor Day (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

While looking through the comics section, thirteen-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is approached by a bleeding man and asks for help. The man’s name is Frank (Josh Brolin) and he has escaped from the police while at the hospital due to appendicitis. Adele (Kate Winslet), Henry’s depressed single mother who rarely goes outside except for the monthly visit to the store, does not want to help the stranger, but her son’s safety is at stake. So they take him home. The plan is to have him over only until next morning. But the trains do not run on holiday weekends.

“Labor Day,” based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, is not the subtlest small town drama that focuses on a two-person family in an emotional rut. However, it is spearheaded by rock solid performances by Brolin and Winslet and supported by an equally strong acting by Griffith whose character is required to communicate a balance of sadness and strength to come off as a believable short-term support system of his character’s depressed mother.

Though censured for its melodramatic tone, the criticism should have been more focused on the fugitive written too nice at times. Although there is a level of danger to Frank during the scene in which he is introduced, once he gets to the house, the threatening element about him disappears too quickly—a problem because Adele and, to a degree, Henry are still wary of the man’s intentions. Thus, the character lacks a well-defined arc which renders the flashbacks—glimpses of his younger self (Tom Lipinski) and the circumstances that led to his incarceration—informative but powerless. The most effective dramas are almost always driven by character arcs—this also being a character piece—and so it is somewhat off-putting that the stranger is not given more complexity.

We experience the story unfold through Henry’s perspective. We feel the sweetness and tragedy of his relationship with his mother, fears and anxiety of possibly being separated from her, and the hope of possibly having a much-needed father figure in his life. Though they may come off syrupy at times, I still enjoyed the scenes between the boy and the convict on the run. Though they are strangers, their interactions are rich such as when Henry is being taught how to fix a car and how to throw a baseball. Compare these with scenes between Henry and his biological father (Clark Gregg) and we wonder if Henry being around Frank in the long run would be more beneficial for the boy.

The inevitable attraction between a convict and his hostage may sound tacky but it works here. Winslet does a commendable job communicating so much with only her eyes and how slowly she moves. Her character has so much nervous energy and fragility that just about every action she makes while out in public can be a source of concern. We believe that what we have in front of us is a woman who needs a little bit of fire—for her sake and her young son’s.

At one point in “Labor Day,” based on the screenplay and directed by Jason Reitman, Henry’s biological father tells his son that the reason why he left them is because he just wanted to live a “normal” life. In other words, he could not continue living with a depressed person. I wished the picture had more of that searing honesty. The confession did not have to be kind. It did not have to be right. It just needed to be true. Henry looks at his father and for once there is respect there. It dares the viewer not to be moved.

Tully


Tully (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a project determined to provide a raw portrayal of pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child during its early weeks post-birth that we rarely see in the movies. We do not see the pregnant woman emitting a perfect radiant glow, a silly panicked rush to the hospital once her water breaks, nor do we come across a miraculous instantaneous recovery once she has been discharged from the hospital. Instead, it is interested in showing the reality of many ever day mothers, particularly the exhaustion that takes over as they struggle to maintain the stability of the household. Although it shows the less than sunny side of how it is like to be a mother, it is a love letter dedicated to them nonetheless. It reminded me of times when I would simply observe my mother as she juggles cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, vacuuming, and making a list for the next day’s trip to the supermarket—all of it after a long day at work while standing most of the time.

“Tully” is directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Their partnership results in a savagely funny work that speaks multiple truths even with just a simple shot, a line of dialogue, or the precise timing between action and inaction. They trust that viewers are not only intelligent but that their life experiences are valuable, unique, but also universal. Not once do they cheapen the material by inserting an uncharacteristic turn of event just for the sake of making people laugh. We laugh not because there is hilarity unfolding in front of us but because we recognize a part of ourselves in the images and feelings on screen.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three who not only looks haggard on the outside but one who is actually wilting on the inside. It is smart for Theron to choose to play her character with a muffled strength even though Marlo is falling apart. For example, the protagonist is quick with to employ her wits when joking or being sarcastic even though her body suggests she is weak, ready to fall over from fatigue. Because we are reminded of the fire inside of her from time to time, instances when she summons unexpected vigor—when she must confront, confess, make a stand—are not only believable. These moments feel exactly right for this particular character that we must examine. We learn to appreciate her complexity as a mother who wants to do it all but is unable to, as well as a mother who decides to seek help eventually from night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).

The centerpiece is the relationship between the two women, one being at least forty years of age while the other is twenty-six. Cody’s screenplay does a tricky thing by using Tully and Marlo as a sort of mirror into the past and future—but not so completely that their relationship ends up becoming just another cliché.

Theron and Davis share excellent chemistry as their characters open up to one another about their personal lives, their thoughts regarding where they are now, what they have or have not achieved thus far, where they think or hope they will be in the future. Their exchanges command a wonderful ear for dialogue. We lean in a little closer in order to dissect and understand what they mean exactly, not just with words but the manner in which words are expressed. But like Elio and Oliver’s unexpected bond in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” we know that their relationship—as employer and employee—comes with an expiration date. It is as clear as day that this is a comedy that works as a drama.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the film is its willingness to show how adults relate to children. For instance, the opening scene shows Marlo gently brushing the body of her son “like a horse,” according to Marlo while conversing with Tully, because it is believed that this makes the “quirky” boy less reactive to various external stimuli. (It is never said outright that the child might have a mild form of autism.) Notice how Tully holds the baby in a seemingly awkward position but the infant is at ease. How Marlo performs a duet with her daughter during a birthday party. How the father (Ron Livingston) looks at his three children after a long day at work. The keen eye from behind the camera and the performances underline the humanity of the material. It is most beautiful during nuanced moments, moments that can be easily overlooked.

Men, Women & Children


Men, Women & Children (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” is an attempt to look at our relationship with the internet and how it has come to define our lives in the past decade or so by focusing on a small American suburb. While the picture commands an interesting and relevant premise, it is not a successful picture. Not only is the running time too bloated—a surprise given there are multiple subplots worthy of exploration—but characters, especially in the latter half, are reduced to clichés. For a movie that tries to tackle a modern subject, it is not forward-thinking enough.

The varying strands are all cautionary tales. Perhaps most fascinating is Patricia (Jennifer Garner) who makes it her mission to protect her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), from the dangers of social media. She is convinced that if she learns every password, keeps track of every keystroke, and knows about her daughter’s location at all times, Brandy will be safe. Patricia is so busy keeping up that she fails to realize that she has a good daughter and her “protecting” is doing more harm than good. Garner plays the mother with fervor but stifles the emotions just enough to prevent the character from turning into a caricature.

A curious but undercooked character is Allison (Elena Kampouris), formerly a fat girl who lost a lot of weight during the summer. She has anorexia but she is admired by her friends for “looking for beautiful.” Boys even want to sleep with her now. Each time the focus is on Allison, I could not help but think about Lauren Greenfield’s excellent but not widely seen documentary called “Thin.” That movie understands eating disorders at its core. On the other hand, this film, for the most part, makes it look like Allison’s eating disorder is about wanting to be liked rather than having an irrational obsession to restrict.

Weaker still is the strand involving a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) who are bored with each other and so they use the internet to hookup with strangers. We never understand why their marriage is stale. Instead, we watch them on the couch looking bored and sort of mentioning about how often they had sex years ago. Many of their scenes come across almost farcical—situations that are easily found in bad comedies. Don and Helen are not characters but stick figures. I would rather have learned more about Kent (Dean Norris) and Donna (Judy Greer), a father with a depressed son (Ansel Elgort) and a mother with a daughter craving stardom (Olivia Crocicchia).

To get us into the mood of its characters, the picture is shot in warm, pale light especially when a scene is taking place at night and indoors. This is an elementary approach but the way it is done here is most inelegant. We notice the technical elements because the drama is not completely captivating.

Lastly, given its subject of the internet’s ability to affect all lives, I was surprised to not have seen more diversity in both casting and characters. By the end, one gets the impression that this story is only about white, middle-class, heterosexual people. Them being more or less the same contributes to the screenplay running out of steam just before the halfway mark.

Young Adult


Young Adult (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), divorced and currently single, was finding it a bit difficult to focus on finishing her final novel for a formerly popular young adult fiction series. Every time she sat down to write, she found her mouse scurrying its way to her inbox so she could look at an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend in high school, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who just had a baby and was very happily married with Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), a drummer in a local girl band. In Mavis’ mind, the e-mail was some sort of signal that Buddy wanted to rekindle their relationship. So, Mavis packed her bags, dog in tow, left Minneapolis behind, and drove to the sleepy town of Mercury, Minnesota. Written by Diablo Cody, “Young Adult” was another story of an unhappy woman who felt compelled to find love in the most inappropriate circumstances, but what allowed it to feel fresh was Theron’s ability to play with nuance. Mavis was not a likable person. She acted like she was above everyone else because, unlike most of her peers, she made it out of her hometown and succeeded in establishing a life in the city. Most importantly, through her creativity, she was able to make a name for herself by being a ghost writer. Yet there were plenty of moments when it was impossible for us to not feel sorry for her because, despite her ambition and determination, she was deathly short-sighted. A lot of us know people exactly like her: unable to detect if she’s overstepping boundaries, desperate for approval even from those who barely knew her, and living a life like she never had to say sorry. I was supremely embarrassed for Mavis because she had no shame in throwing herself on her former flame. Since she wanted him back so badly, she was more than willing to throw her successes out the window and act like a pimply teen girl with a big crush on a hunky guy. But she was no teen nor was Buddy a stud. Because I felt that Mavis was an exaggerated version of Theron and the actress wasn’t afraid to make fun of herself, I was comfortable laughing at her and with her. A plethora of negative adjectives could describe Mavis but being devoid of a sense of humor was not one of them. Her jabs might be pricked with poisonous needles, but I loved that she was direct and didn’t waste any time thinking about how she was going to get what she wanted. The person who consistently attempted to talk some sense into her, serving as the audience’s voice, was Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky guy carrying a bit of extra weight who was jumped by a bunch of jocks in high school because they mistakenly suspected he was gay. The most striking scenes involved simple conversations between Mavis and Matt; Mavis was the seemingly impenetrable wall and Matt was an untiring hammer that drove nails into it. They clicked because both were stubborn in their own way. Directed by Jason Reitman, “Young Adult” was entertaining because the screenplay was sharp and full of irony. Although there was vitriol in the dialogue, it did not overshadow real human emotions like desire, fear, and shame.

Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007


Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007 (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

2007 was one of my favorite years for movies released in the year 2000s because independent movies demanded to be noticed. My top ten favorite movies from that year largely consisted of indie films. Mario Diaz’ documentary discussed the hard work in getting independent movies financed, the long and arduous process of making such films, and hopefully getting them picked up by studios for wider distribution. It also highlighted the role of the renowned Gotham Awards in putting the spotlight on indie pictures so they could have a chance to be seen by audiences all over the world. Some successful passion projects included (but not limited to) Sean Penn’s free-spirited “Into the Wild,” the Coen Brothers’ ruthless “No Country for Old Men,” Tamara Jenkins’ vitriolic and wildly amusing “The Savages,” Todd Haynes’ philosophical “I’m Not There,” and Jason Reitman’s verbal exercise that was “Juno.” On the other side of the spectrum, although it did win key Gotham Awards, movies like Craig Zobel’s “Great World of Sound” didn’t quite captivate audiences in a worldwide scale. It was great to hear from the aforementioned filmmakers about what their movie meant to them. It was a nice reminder, especially for people like myself who watch hundreds of movies each year, that every film should be approached with an open mind. And if it somehow underwhelms us, it’s important to treat it with respect and explain why, in our opinion, it just didn’t work for us. Because all movies, whether they be good or bad in our eyes, have a story to them. The directors, the crew, the actors, and the producers take the time and the money to create something that would hopefully pass as a work of art. I think my love for independent feature films stemmed from the similar themes they so often tackled: identity, one’s place in the world, one’s relationship with others, and the way an individual received, processed, evaluated information, and how one’s thought differed from one’s actions. Independent movies appeal to me because I was going through those very same themes back in the tenth grade when I was just beginning to see movies as more than a source of entertainment. I was drawn to their daring subject matter, complex characterizations, and shocking honesty. I think that parallel will always be a part of the way I see motion pictures. That’s why I always lend a critical eye to the characters and the way they attempt to deal with and adapt to their specific circumstances. The documentary also shed light to the fact that women filmmakers weren’t as high profile and prolific as their male counterparts. It’s unfortunate because I strongly believe that women, in some ways, view things differently than men and it will benefit the world if women’s visions are shared just as equally as men’s. “Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007” needed an extra thirty to forty minutes for more in-depth exploration, but it managed to tackle many interesting ideas with the time that it had.

Up in the Air


Up in the Air (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jason Reitman directed this tale about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) whose job is to fly to various cities across America and fire people who work for different corporations. Ryan enjoys being constantly on the move, collecting frequent flyer miles, and values the isolation and sense of pride that comes with his work. His way of life and mindset are challenged on two fronts: when he met a woman version of himself named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) and a plucky twentysomething named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who wants to revolutionize the way the company works. That is, instead of firing people face-to-face, she argues the corporation can save a lot of money by firing people via a computer. Ryan then has to balance his budding romance with Alex as well as helping Natalie realize that there is a real value in having the courage and putting in the time to actually face the people to tell them that they have lost their jobs. In a grim American economy, I thought this film could not have arrived at a more perfect time because not only did it have a real sense of drama, it had a sense of humor, intelligence, and heart when it comes to the lead characters as well as to those who are recently unemployed.

I thought the director’s decision to actually put real-life people in front of the camera to express how they felt when they got fired was a wonderful idea. It felt that much more real and heartbreaking. Instead of a movie featuring a corporate person (the bully) and the person being fired (the bullied), which is one-dimensional, there was a certain sense of understanding between the two camps even though the people who were being fired were angry and sad when they heard the terrible news. I enjoyed the conversations between Clooney and Kendrick because they were so different. There was real humor when it came to the generational gap, their outlook on marriage and how to deal with people. I’m very happy with the fact that the movie did not result to Clooney being the teacher and Kendrick being the student. They actually learned from each other even though neither of them was a picture of perfection. Even though they were very different, I felt a certain level of respect between them. I also loved the one conversion that Farmiga and Kendrick had concerning what they wanted in a man. That conversation has got to be one of my favorite scenes in the entire film because, in essence, it’s the same kind of question that my friends and I try to answer. It got me thinking about what I really want in a partner ten years from now instead of just focusing on my wants for the present. It also got me thinking about whether I really want to be married. Before watching the film, I thought I knew my answer but now I’m more unsure. I don’t consider that a bad thing at all because the picture really challenged the way I saw certain aspects in being a committed relationship. I saw myself in each of the characters so I was invested throughout.

“Up in the Air” is an ambitious film with great writing and heartfelt performances. Even though the film is essentially a comedy (some unfairly label it as a romantic comedy), it really is about the big questions we have about our life, where it was, where it is now and where it is going. It’s not the kind of movie that tries to be quirky just to feel different. In fact, it follows some of the same structured formula of Hollywood filmmaking. But the material is so rich to the point where it didn’t matter. It felt natural so I thought the characters didn’t feel like they were just characters in a movie. When I look back on the movies that came out in 2009, “Up in the Air” is really one of those pictures that really got it right in terms of reflecting real life.