About Alex (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Having received news that their friend, Alex (Jason Ritter), had attempted suicide, a formerly tight-knit group of friends from college decide to take a weekend and spend time with him—possibly even learn why he felt compelled to take his life. But Alex’ friends have their own set of problems and being under one roof might not be a good idea.
Written and directed by Jesse Zwick, “About Alex” is a meandering drama, highly frustrating in its style and execution, devoid of any real feelings or insight about friendships and human relationships. With its ironic title—the movie is not at all about Alex but about his so-called friends—the movie is largely a waste of time and I felt disappointed that otherwise good performers have chosen to partake in the film because the material is neither interesting nor does it offer characters that are challenging to play.
The characters are supposed to be in their late-twenties and it comes across so forced that most of them are already so jaded. To me, none of them has overcome true hardship. They are a bunch of complainers. Particularly prickly—and a bit of a prick—is Josh (Max Greenfield), a poseur who thinks that he is too smart and too good for things like social media. His tirades are a bore because the screenplay does not provide an equally forceful character that directly challenges his ideals.
The secret pregnancy regarding Siri (Maggie Grace) and Ben (Nate Parker) is a tired cliché. An interracial couple, I wanted to learn about them as separate individuals as well as partners but the material never dares to touch upon a subject that is worth a real discussion. The picture is a drama and about personal struggles, after all. Instead, we get a inanities like Ben experiencing writer’s block and Siri wanting to take a pregnancy test.
Exchanges between the characters are flat and uninteresting. There is supposed to be conflict simmering just underneath the pleasantries but the actors often have to raise their voices in order to make a point. This means that the script lacks the subtlety to genuinely engage. It is as if the film were taking place inside the mind of a teenager with an average intelligence, has little to no understanding about human psychology and complexities of relationships of people who are almost thirty.
There is nothing wrong with telling a story about narcissistic personalities clashing under one roof. However, there is a way to tell such a story so that the audience understands why each person is worth knowing further. Here, we are provided surface characteristics, the very basic qualities that may make up a person, but not the dirty details that force us to pay attention and feel encouraged to peel through the layers.
End of Love, The (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Shot in a cinéma vérité style, “The End of Love,” based on the screenplay and directed by Mark Webber, falls just short of greatness. By utilizing familiar actors who play a version of themselves, some of its grit—what makes the story so fascinating in the first place—is diminished. Instead of us focusing on what is being told, how, and why, many of us will wonder if an actor is playing himself or just another character that happens to be a popular performer on the big screen.
Upon his wife’s recent passing, Mark (Mark Webber) has been taking care of their two-year-old son named Isaac (Isaac Love, Webber’s real-life son). Since the single dad is a struggling actor with no job on the side, making ends meet is an every day challenge. There is pressure on rent payments, keeping himself and his son healthy, and also Mark still being in the process of grieving but not having anyone to talk to. When he meets Lydia (Shannyn Sossamon), a single mother, there is a glimmer of hope that Mark can get it together.
The romance between Mark and Lydia is not predictable. When they meet, the problems do not magically go away. We feel Mark making an effort to pick himself up just a bit, not to impress the woman in front of him but as to not appear so pathetic. We root for him because he is aware that he is not at his best but is trying to make the most of what he has to deal with. Mark and Lydia are tired parents. Though the camera does not spend much time on Lydia, we get a sense that some of her struggles might share parallels with Mark’s. In that way, we want them to get together so they can help better each other.
Love is perhaps the most talented two-year-old I have had the pleasure to watch on screen. During a handful of scenes, especially when the father and son are going through their every day morning routine, I was mostly at a loss for words. How does the child manage to articulate the lines so effortlessly and naturally? In addition to an almost perfect line delivery, he has the subtle expressions to match the words he is saying. Even teen and adult actors have trouble matching the two. I would love to have had a behind-the-scenes peek on how the filmmakers managed to get a shockingly good performance from the toddler.
The cameos by Amanda Seyfried, Jason Ritter, Michael Cera, Michael Angarano, and others hold the picture back in varying degrees. While understandable that the protagonist is friends with such familiar figures because they share the same profession, one or two would have been sufficient. Two-thirds of the way through, especially during Cera’s little get-together, it starts to feel like a parade. We wonder who will appear next instead of remaining invested in the poverty of father and son. Mark is running out of options.
Due to the cameos constantly disrupting the tone of the picture, I had a lot of trouble buying into some of the events in the final act. Mark explaining to his son what death means might have sounded good on paper but since several scenes leading up to it are distracting and atonal, we are not neck-deep into the drama. As a result, Mark teaching Isaac about what it means for a living thing to die is somewhat sad but not particularly touching.
Bag of Hammers, A (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) made a living by pretending to be valet parking attendants at a cemetery. As soon as the unsuspecting grieving people handed the car keys to one of them, Ben and Alan picked up their “Free Valet Parking” sign, loaded it in the car, and drove the vehicle to a car shop owned by Marty (Todd Louiso). Marty would then pay the duo thousands of dollars, all part of a day’s work. When Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her young son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), moved in next to the crooks’ house, it became increasingly obvious that Kelsey was being neglected. “A Bag of Hammers,” written by Jake Sandvig and Brian Crano, was a comedy-drama with some good ideas but since its characters weren’t fully fleshed out, the revelatory scenes that were supposedly charged with intense emotions didn’t feel entirely convincing nor earned. The script did a good job establishing that Alan and Ben were goofballs. The early scenes which involved the two of them pulling scams were mildly amusing. The actors benefited greatly from their charming looks. If Ben and Alan were played by buff guys with tattoos, there would be nothing funny about their actions. But what was the true nature of Ben and Alan’s relationship? The two lived together. They didn’t date anyone. Ben had an ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) but hell freezing over had a better chance than the two of them getting back together. Understanding their relationship, in which one could either translate as a romance or a bromance, was of particular importance because of the happenings in the latter half. We learned that Ben and Alan had difficult upbringings, but I wasn’t convinced that their partnership, as vague as it was, was strong enough to be able to relate to the kid being abused by his mother. Alan and Ben’s struggles were different–though it isn’t to suggest any less serious–and potentially moving, but since the script did not allow us to get to know them openly and in consistently meaningful ways, a strong emotional bridge wasn’t established as they tried to convince Kelsey that they could relate to what he was going through. Luckily for the film, Preston did a wonderful job portraying a woman who was drowning–drowning in poverty, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and depression. Each time her face, so tired and forlorn, was front and center, especially during her job interviews, every part of her screamed desperation, from her nervous yet glowering eyes to her very tense shoulders. It was scary and sad when she entered the house in a rage and Kelsey just sat in the kitchen, living off another Monster Energy drink for dinner. The moments when I felt something real–something visceral–most often involved the scenes of mother and son. Another interesting but underdeveloped character was Mel (Rebecca Hall), a waitress at a diner and Alan’s sister. Although she was the voice of reason with an air of seriousness about her, I liked it when she smiled. You could tell she was smart, so why not give her funnier and wittier things to say? Directed by Brian Crano, for all of the weaknesses of “A Bag of Hammers,” it managed to hit some emotional truths. It felt right that our sympathies were almost never toward Ben and Alan but always for the boy trapped by the cards he’d been given.
Peter and Vandy (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Jay DiPietro, “Peter and Vandy” (Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler, respectively) told the story of a couple who initially got along great during the beginning of their relationship but as time went on, the little things that bothered them about each other erupted into big fights and it got to the point where they could no longer stand each other. Told in a non-linear manner, since we started in the middle, we immediately get to see the turning point of their relationship and determine what exactly went wrong as the story inched toward how they met and how they broke up. The more I watch Jason Ritter’s films, the more I am convinced that he knows how to pick independent projects with potential–projects with a certain quiet power that movse and makes me think beyond what was presented on screen. I liked the fact that DiPietro had characters who were charming and likeable but flawed. Therefore, it makes it difficult to pick sides regarding who was in the right or wrong. The scene that stood out to me most was the peanut butter and jelly scene. It was emotionally devastating because everyone knows that what they were fighting about was not about how to properly make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was about how suffocated the characters were of each other. It was about the fragility of the front they put up just so that they wouldn’t have to argue especially when they took up the same space 24/7. It was also about how two people are just not right for each other and no amount of effort could change that fact. Although that scene was very confrontational, oddly enough, I found it to be amusing as well. I was impressed with how something so serious could have elements of silliness. Like the highly successful “(500) Days of Summer,” this film relied on two things: the non-linear structure that aims to reveal its many layers and the strong acting. The two leads know how to use their eyes to convey a specific emotion which differs from the words coming out of their mouths. In other words, the movie treated its audiences with respect because it didn’t settle on the obvious. Although definitely not one of the most romantic movies, I think “Peter and Vandy” is a good movie to watch during Valentine’s Day or whatever-month anniversaries because it was painfully honest in its portrayal of modern relationships. Instead of showing us just the good, it shows us the bad as well which sometimes makes our relationships stronger once we overcome the hurdles. With a running time of only eighty minutes, “Peter and Vandy” was effecient with its time and I actually wanted it to last longer because I wanted to know more about the characters.
Education of Charlie Banks, The
★ / ★★★★
Fred Durst directed this movie about a violent teenager (Jason Ritter) who believed that he could change after visiting the college of two of the people who fear him (Jesse Eisenberg and Chris Marquette) ever since childhood. Not only is he violent, he gets into fights for the most stupid reasons and his opponents either end up in critical condition or dead. My main problem with this picture was its tone. It never really got its right footing so the whole movie looked different than what I should be experiencing. Durst had a very contradictory style. Just when you think he’s trying to tell a story about a person who can achieve redemption despite his dark past, he completely switches gears and makes an argument that a broken man will always remain a broken man. By the end of the movie, I felt like I was watching a bad episode of “The O.C.” where all the rich kids get physically harmed in some way. I also didn’t appreciate the way Durst (despite his intentions) glorified violence. What struck me the most was the final scene when something extremely serious was happening on screen yet this peaceful melody was playing on the background. I was slightly disturbed and I felt rotten just watching it. As for the characters, I did not believe for one second that Eisenberg could stand up to Ritter. For me, Eisenberg’s character started off as a little mouse and he ended up like one. The absence of evolution in the characters left me asking what the point was of the whole experience. The only person I enjoyed watching was Sebastian Stan (“The Covenant,” “Gossip Girl”) because I completely believed that he was this rich kid who doesn’t care about his education and goes off buying things he doesn’t need for the hell of it. Most of the time, I wished the story was about him instead of the other so-called main characters. I say skip “The Education of Charlie Banks” because nothing quite holds up.