Private Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
A subtle and thematically complex comedy-drama, Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” is the kind of picture that offers an honest look at how it might be like to face hardships of trying to get pregnant when a couple is on the verge of infertility. Deeply humanistic at its core, it is amazing how one scene can start off quite funny but readily able to turn quite sad within a beat or two, only to end up lighthearted again when, for example, someone makes an awkward remark in order to alleviate the tension of a situation. Because of its ability to draw us in emotionally, often playing with our own emotions in regards to what the couple deserves versus reality and probability, the personal story in front of us is wildly entertaining, led by performers who are able to communicate plenty without saying a word.
The central couple is Rachel and Richard, played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, both in their forties, who have, for years, been on an obsessive quest to have a baby. It appears they have tried nearly everything: fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, adoption… some of them more than once. These cost a lot of money and all have led to failure thus far.
Hahn and Giamatti are at the top of their game when the couple, finally, expresses their frustrations with one another. For instance, in a more dramatic confrontation, their younger selves are brought up, how one’s career-driven mindset has allowed time to pass and overlook an aspect of life that they now consider to be important. In a more comedic moment, on the other hand, Richard’s single testicle is referenced. There is an amusing bit about soda machines and what happens when it doesn’t quite function as it should. This captures the material’s interest in showing the lighter and darker sides of the couple’s conception troubles.
I admired that the film is not afraid to show cabinets full of drugs, routine injections, how it hurts, puncture marks on skin—even its color—after repeated shots, the waiting room and the lack of joy in there, how it can be an impersonal experience when meeting with a doctor, how patients are sometimes treated like cattle. I loved that the images are not like in more commercial films where everyone is smiling or peppy during an appointment. People look tired, frustrated, like they just want to get the whole thing over with. Should one look closely enough, it is these bits of reality that set this comedy-drama apart from its contemporaries.
There are truly heartbreaking moments because the central couple is good, generally happy, and have shown, through their interactions with Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s niece who has recently dropped out of college (she claims the university has allowed her to complete her degree while in absentia—is that a thing?), that they are partners capable of raising a happy child in a happy home. They don’t deserve the misfortunes and sometimes downright cruelty of some individuals they became involved with. But then again, that’s life. Sometimes things just don’t work out. We cannot help but remain hopeful, however. It is because the screenplay welcomes us to recognize bits of ourselves in Rachel and Richard.
“Private Life” is for an empathetic audience. Here is a film that tasks us to watch closely as the couple reaches the end of their rope of trying to have kid. It is fascinating to watch unfold not because there are plenty of life-altering events but exactly because the subjects have reached a plateau. I think the writer-director wishes to communicate that there is beauty in the every day. The final scene is fitting in that it dares to measure, or simply just remind us, how we perceive life thus far.
★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another film that attempts to pull off dark comedy but its screenplay is so devoid of genuine human drama that it ends up simply parading forced bad behavior. It is supposed to be shocking in content, but those who have experience with films that deal with teenage angst are highly likely to end up unimpressed. In the middle of its desert boredom, I thought I’d rather revisit the likes of Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” and Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion.” At least those films are not afraid to push the envelope so far that tension accumulates like a great storm about to burst.
The tale in this miscalculation involves a sixteen-year-old named Erica who engages in oral sex with older men while her friends (Dylan Gelula, Maya Eshet) record from a distance. In exchange for their silence, the unsuspecting men are forced to provide cash. Erica is played by Zoey Deutch whose talents are wasted here. While she commands the camera every time she is in front of it, the character remains uninteresting throughout because Erica lacks believable interior details. Notice how the more dramatic scenes, particularly those between Erica and her mother (Kathryn Hahn), come across as awkward at best. On top of this, we are supposed to empathize with Erica somehow as she concocts a plan to punish the man (Adam Scott) who was accused of having molested her stepbrother (Joey Morgan).
The most convincing element about the film are its extras. For instance, look at the background of scenes taking place at school. These are not fake teenagers. They look, dress, and act like real teens with genuine thoughts and problems. Notice the way they stand in one place and carry themselves as they walk. When there is a fight, there is almost apathy in their eyes—like it is the sort of thing that happens around them every day.
Authenticity is a crucial element that teen comedy-dramas cannot buy with effects or create out of forced conflict. It must be written into the script as if it were the very marrow that maintains everything else. Look at the way Erica interacts with her friends. They are supposed to be enjoying each other’s company as miscreants but we, the audience, do not feel their joy of being bad. Even the parents are cardboard cutouts. The screenplay fails to provide a strong background in its subjects’ lives.
Some dark comedies offer such wild premises that we question whether they are supposed to be comedies. Here, I just found the whole charade to be repulsive. I felt as though Max Winkler, the director, never takes accusations of sexual molestation in a serious manner. Its approach is almost always flippant to the point where it disregards real-life issues and their consequences. Had there been a balance between hyperbole and subtlety, it could have made a strong statement about the current state of our society.
Captain Fantastic (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Too few movies end in such a way that we know exactly what the main character is feeling, thinking, and hoping for precisely because we had gone through a defining journey with him or her. “Captain Fantastic,” confidently written and directed by Matt Ross, ends in silence, just as it should, because it has said and done everything it needed to in order to provide its viewers a complete, worthwhile, unique story about a man named Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who has raised his six children in the wilderness (George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell).
Some might say the picture is about parenting, whether it is right or wrong of Ben to choose for his children to grow up away from modern society, including all the good and bad things it offers. But more discerning viewers will recognize the material strives to show more than that. It is about observing a specific lifestyle, how it works, when it does not, the challenges it brings, how it contrasts with our very own every day lives. What it shows is an alternative. Sometimes it is refreshing, other times it is amusing, occasionally it can be uncomfortable, questionable. I argue it is not about right or wrong but the blurring of these two ideas. It is perfectly captured during the dialogue shared between father and daughter, the latter explaining how Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” makes her feel and why it makes her feel that way.
In less capable hands, the children would have likely ended up as cartoon characters, all exaggeration and not enough substance. While each has his or her own quirk, notice their beautifully drawn interior details. Particularly intriguing is the rebellious Rellian. He grows increasingly angry with his father especially after hearing news that their mother (Trin Miller), confined in an institution, had slit her wrists and died. Rellian personifies the confusion, helplessness, and frustration the family feels as a unit. On the surface, the boy might come across as the most vocal, daring, a contrarian. At the same time, I argue, he is one of the most sensitive, most feeling of the bunch.
Hilarious moments ensue when Ben and his children interact with members of modern society. A standout involves a visit to Ben’s sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), before the funeral. The contrasting cousins offers one level of comedy. But look underneath the epidermis. The dinner scene is combustible exactly because it is a boxing ring of opposing ideologies. It asks the viewer to consider how one would rather raise children: protecting young minds so much that they know pretty much nothing or giving them a chance to be as knowledgeable about the world to the point where there is barely any filter between parent and child. Most may likely say the happiest medium is the middle ground, but, in all honesty, the latter approach is more appealing to me. However, there is no universal correct answer for it all depends on what a family, as a unit, chooses to value.
“Captain Fantastic” made me think of Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” one of my favorite pictures post-2000, not because they share a certain look, or plot, or any surface characteristics. No, it is because they both touch upon a certain feeling of alienation toward modern society, how we somehow, over time, have lost touch of what should matter to us as intelligent beings who are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for.
Bad Words (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is determined to participate on The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, a competition for kids, despite already being forty years of age. A silly loophole in the rulebook is a loophole nonetheless and so the people in charge have no choice but to allow him to compete in spite of very angry parents.
Written by Andrew Dodge and directed by Jason Bateman, “Bad Words” is neither as edgy as it premises itself to be nor is it raucously funny that it becomes easy to overlook its shortcomings. Its screenplay is underwritten, its characters are underdeveloped, and its sense of humor is so one-note that it becomes tedious to sit through eventually.
No writer should ever assume that just because his or her main character curses like sailor in front of children does not mean that the subject is inherently funny. Here, while Guy is supposed to be a first-class jerk, he is not interesting enough to warrant our sympathy—which makes the final ten to fifteen minutes especially cheesy and embarrassing. One of the biggest clichés—one of which the film never recovers from—is a jerk on the outside turning out to be not so bad when it comes down to the wire.
Because Guy’s motivation to compete goes unmentioned for so long—and unexplored throughout—we end up not caring so much. Instead, the minutes are padded with fillers such as montages of Guy and a ten-year-old competitor, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), hanging out or Guy and a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) supposedly not liking each other but almost always ending up in bed. None of these scenes make us want to know Guy on a deeper level despite him being unlikable.
There are only a few very funny scenes. During the early rounds of the spelling bee, Guy is shown sabotaging the kids who end up sitting to his left. The mind games he executes are so cruel but I found myself laughing. Why couldn’t the rest of the picture function on a consistent darkly comic level? Why must the writer feel as though he needed to soften the blows when the story is clearly at its peak, when its sense of humor is rough around the edges? The movie wanting to be liked is the antithesis of the protagonist’s attitude to everyone around him. Is it supposed to be ironic?
Actors like Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are given nothing worthy to work with. It is always distracting when one can tell that the performer is trying the best she can to elevate the material and yet still being unsuccessful at it. Janney and Hall are so good at what they do. Why not give them material that is challenging for them and fruitful for us?
“Bad Words” is a fake black comedy—or one that completely fails as one. Movies like Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” Todd Solondz’ “Happiness,” and even Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion” shine because they need not compromise their characters’ motivations. They are written to see things through without the need to be liked. We may or may not like them as people but it cannot be denied that we are fascinated with them as specimens. Black comedies, like the best dramas, are about a specific human condition.
Visit, The (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
There is mold in the basement so Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are prohibited from going down there. The energetic siblings are visiting Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) in rural Pennsylvania for five days which is special because it is the first time they will meet and get to know one another. A strained relationship between Mom (Kathryn Hahn) and grandparents had led to them to have no communication for fifteen years—for reasons unknown. Becca and Tyler hope to find out, not knowing what is in store for them in that farm house.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, “The Visit” offers low-level terror, mid-level creativity, and a high-level of willingness to impress—which results in, for the most part, a mixed bag. Throughout the picture, humor courses in its veins which I found to be unusual because it is not meant to be a horror-comedy. Most of the time, in successful, straight-faced horror-thrillers, comedy is utilized to relieve tension. Here, it is used in two ways: as a means for us to get to know the siblings when they are together and as a distraction from the secret to be revealed in the final twenty minutes.
“What is really going on here?” is a question that discerning viewers will ask themselves more than thrice. We are given bones of information suggesting real possibilities. Pop Pop is very secretive about the shed. Nana sleepwalks at night in the nude. Pop Pop is caught “only cleaning” a shotgun when a spit-second before he realizes someone is watching, the muzzle of it is in his mouth. Nana stares at walls laughing uncontrollably. She claims she must laugh in order to keep something away. Is this a haunted house film? Is the place atop an Indian burial site? Have Nana and Pop Pop checked-in to the loony bin due to isolation after all these years? Are they simply suffering from dementia?
Strange events pile on top of one another as Tyler and Becca’s visit trickle away. After a big scare—real or false alarm—bold, red text is shown on screen displaying the day of the week—implying how many days left the two must endure in the house of horrors. I was reminded of bold European horror-thrillers like Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”—which is perhaps the point because there is a playful but macabre tone underneath it all. Meanwhile, Nana insists on feeding the children cookies and other snacks when she wishes to steer a conversation away from certain topics. Is something in the food? Is Nana trying to fatten up her guests? (I thought about Kevin Connor’s “Motel Hell.”) Where are the neighbors? The possibilities are too delicious not to think about.
The film’s weak point is the hand-held, documentary style. Earlier, I mentioned that the film is willing to impress. This is a negative example of that trait. The found footage style is played out, tired, and rarely surprising these days. I got the impression that the writer-director hopes to reel in audiences—specifically younger audiences—this way. I found it insulting because I think Shyamalan is so creative and talented—despite a few disastrous projects and more than a few naysayers—that he is so much better than to succumb to this particular way of storytelling. He should have known this, too.
The smart decision to have taken is to mix hand-held camera techniques—maybe when Becca and Tyler question their subjects and when the two are clowning around, trying to get in each other’s nerves—and camera keeping still. The latter allows us the opportunity to be able to stare—and appreciate—the more terrifying images head-on instead of us having to struggle to make out what is so scary in the first place. The art of the camera staying still in horror movies has almost become a lost art—and it is a shame because the point of horror movies, in my opinion, is for the audience to be able to face fears rather than to be distracted from the experience.
“The Visit” earns a mild recommendation because there is more than a handful of creativity here. Futhermore, DeJonge and Oxenbould are entertaining as siblings. They each get their moment to shine; the former in the dramatic field and the latter in the comedic and uh… musical field. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing performers who are capable of range and natural charisma rather than just would-be child actors who just have to look cute or afraid. The movie is best seen outside of one’s bedroom after 9:30 p.m.