Tag: olivia thirlby

Welcome to Happiness


Welcome to Happiness (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A picture like “Welcome to Happiness,” written and directed by Oliver Thompson, will likely fail to hold up under scrutiny, at least under the standards of what makes a film palatable for the mainstream audience. It is weird in just about every definition of the word, from its story, the structure of the plot, the way it is told, how it ends. It is not impressive when it comes to dialogue, how it is shot, or how it looks. And yet I loved how it made me feel.

The plot revolves around a writer named Woody (Kyle Gallner) who is having trouble continuing his current book about a cat that is not at all curious despite the common saying. But the storyteller is most curious. He is given the task to let strangers who have hit rock bottom into his apartment when they knock on the door, to ask them questions, and to eventually lead them to his closet. Inside the closet is a small door that opens—and can only be opened from the other side—when the stranger is finally alone. No matter how hard Woody tries, the door does not open for him. He wishes to know why this is the case. And this increasing curiosity leads him to desperation.

Notice that each room we visit almost always has two things: paintings and books. But they are just not any other painting or book—the type of paintings and books varies depending on the person who owns them. Also, their numbers differ based on their owner’s income. Some of them are placed or hung near the floor, while others cannot be reached so easily without a stool or a ladder. Words and pictures dominate these characters’ lives. The more we get to know them, we can choose to categorize them under either tribe. Some of us may ask ourselves where we fall in the spectrum, words on one extreme and pictures on the other.

The material is interested in how its characters define happiness. Is happiness being with another person? Being with one’s most prized possessions? Being with oneself and his hobbies? Her passions? Is happiness creating something that the world can appreciate? Is happiness to forgive, to move on, to never look back? Or is happiness having the ability to fix or erase the unjust? I admired that the material asks big questions and more questions than any one movie can possibly handle. I think the point is neither to answer nor to probe deeply into them but rather to look inside ourselves and evaluate our priorities, our philosophies.

“Welcome to Happiness” will likely appeal to those with a taste for the bizarre. I can talk about well-written and well-executed scenes like the mysterious opening sequence or when Woody asks an amputee to go inside the closet so she can experience something that will change her life. I can talk about how vibrant colors are utilized as both metaphor or irony. I can talk about solid performances by Gallner as a tortured writer or by Brendan Sexton III as his character recalls his biggest regret. But I choose not to. And choice is, I think, the point of the film.

Nobody Walks


Nobody Walks (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Martine (Olivia Thirlby) takes a plane from New York City to Los Angeles to work on adding sound effects for her upcoming black-and-white documentary about bugs. Since she has to work with Peter (John Krasinski) anyway and his family has a pool house that often goes unused, he invites her to stay for the sake of professional convenience. Soon enough, Martine’s presence in the household proves to be unhealthy as she welcomes Peter’s advances and his wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), starts to become suspicious.

Written by Lena Dunham and Ry Russo-Young, “Nobody Walks” strives for an intimate feel but it lacks a central drama that forces its characters to question who they are, what they want for themselves and from each other, as well as how to go on about achieving such wants, and so the screenplay stinks of privilege. Due to poor writing, its subjects are unlikeable without depth to warrant much interest. They make their problems bigger than they should be and we are left wondering when the picture (and the whining) will be over.

The picture is riddled with cutesy scenes, from the flirtatious smiles that Peter sends Martine’s way to Kolt (India Ennega), Peter’s sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, admiring David (Rhys Wakefield), Peter’s mid-twenties assistant. Even more difficult to swallow is the intercutting of Martine’s documentary into real life scenes. It aims to parallel, I guess, the struggles of bugs’ survival and the struggles of mankind’s need to be loved. Although an ambitious thesis, it does not work because the characters’ struggles on screen lack a visceral element for the comparison to be justified. As a person who loves bugs and used to raise all sorts as a kid, I felt insulted for these astonishing and resilient creatures.

The characters most worthy of attention get very little screen time. I liked Leroy (Dylan McDermott), Julie’s ex-husband, because his presence challenged the dynamics of a boring family. Invited over dinner, I enjoyed the way McDermott’s eyes seems to be analyzing whether or not his former wife is happy with her new beau. Leroy makes for an interesting character because he has an agenda. The others sitting around that dinner table appear to be sleepwalking through life. Another presence worth noting is played by Justin Kirk as Julie’s patient. He wishes to be intimate with her and we feel her struggle to resist. As a counselor, of course submitting to her desires would be unprofessional. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want them to test the waters. Kirk and DeWitt share such a wacky chemistry that I wished the picture was mainly about them.

Entropy is an intimate drama’s best friend. Directed by Ry Russo-Young, “Nobody Walks” plays it too safe, mistaking playfulness and tease for transgressions worth blowing up. By the end, we are left with little to no understanding of what makes Martine tick when she is supposed to be the conduit of the would-be life changes in the household. Like a guest that we thought would be fun but turning out to be annoying, we wonder when she’s finally going to leave. And good riddance!

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), Americans in their mid-twenties, took a trip to Moscow excited that their computer program connecting tourism and social networking would be picked up for millions of dollars. But when a Swedish competitor, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), presented their idea as his own to the Russians, Sean and Ben decided to go to a club and drink their disappointment away. While in the club, they met fellow young Americans, Anne (Rachael Taylor) and Natalie (Olivia Thirlby), wanting to have a good time. Their four-way flirtation, however, was interrupted by yellow-orange lights capable of turning humans and animals into ashes. “The Darkest Hour,” based on the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, lacked the menacing atmosphere and dark energy in order to be a successful alien invasion film. Since it didn’t aim for campiness either, I wasn’t sure what it was attempting to be. In any case, the action sequences it offered felt uninspired. Consider the club scene when the invisible alien went on a killing spree. A lot of people screamed and ran around like panicked sheep yet there I was wondering why the alien wouldn’t just keep eradicating whatever got in its way. The scene was supposed to convince us that the alien was seemingly indestructible. It was almost a requirement so that the later scenes in which the characters discovered its weaknesses would have an impact. Instead, I got the impression that the alien was slow and as confused as the humans it had to destroy. The forthcoming scene was just as egregious. Sean, Ben, Anne, Natalie, and Skyler spent several days hiding in the club’s storeroom. If it weren’t for the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, I could swear we wouldn’t have any idea that they spent days in there. They didn’t look like they haven’t showered for days, the girls’ make-up remained perfect, and not a smudge of dirt could be found on their clothes. And there I was wondering how they used the toilet. One of the characters said something about urinating in a can. If none of them had to go number two for days, I’d say they had a bigger problem at hand. Forget looking for U.S. Embassy for extraction, go see a doctor as soon as possible. Fortunately, when they did decide to finally explore outside, there were some effective shots. Daytime was creepy because of the empty metropolitan. Nighttime was dangerous because whenever an alien was near, disabled lights would suddenly turn on. I liked the irony involving characters running away from the light. In horror movies or sci-fi pictures with horror elements in them, characters tend to run away from darkness, usually while in a tunnel, as it tried to engulf them. However, good, isolated shots do not make an entertaining movie. If “The Darkest Hour,” directed by Chris Gorak, had more fun with the material, it would have been a more bearable experience. Sean and his friends eventually made it to the mall. He suggested that they needed new clothes considering they hadn’t changed for days. I was so excited for them to go shopping since everything was for free. Instead, they glumly walked to different stores and tried on whatever looked the plainest. If I were in their shoes knowing that there was a big possibility that I might die, I would live to the fullest. If that meant taking my time to go shopping and leaving everyone annoyed, then so be it.

No Strings Attached


No Strings Attached (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Emma and Adam met in their teens. They lost contact over the years but they met again in their late twenties. Emma (Natalie Portman) was completing her residency and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) was an assistant for a “Glee”-like television show. The two were obviously attracted to each other but decided to keep their relationship strictly sexual. Adam found it difficult but Emma handled it with ease. Directed by Ivan Reitman, “No Strings Attached” was an amusing sex comedy that was better than it should have been due to the leading actors’ sheer charm and genuinely funny supporting characters. Portman and Kutcher shared undeniable chemistry. Their awkward sex scenes, especially the one when they were under a time limit, were believable enough to the point where we were comfortable to giggle or laugh when watching them. But it was Emma and Adam’s friends who almost stole the film. Emma lived in an apartment with fellow future doctors: Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Shira (Mindy Kaling), and Guy (Guy Branum). They oozed sarcasm, shared knowing looks, and menstrual cycle. There was a hilarious scene of the roommates sprawled on the couch because their period thrusted them into depressed moods. One of them claimed it was like a crime scene in her pants. Meanwhile, Adam’s friends, Wallace (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Eli (Jake M. Johnson), were there for moral support and, not atypical in men, bad advice. They were funny in an understated way. The picture often had a crude sense of humor but I enjoyed it. As far as romantic comedies, I found it refreshing that the characters were mature enough that they could talk about sex, penises, vaginas without bursting into laughter. However, the movie lost momentum during the second half. Instead of two people enjoying the joys (and pitfalls) of casual sex, it became about Emma wanting what others had–the idea of normalcy in a form of having a man. It was insulting because the product had mixed messages. It wanted to be both commercial and a statement piece about the freedom of sex regardless of gender. As a result, Emma’s change of heart didn’t feel loyal to her character. The problem was mostly the writing. Emma had to face her sister’s wedding (Olivia Thirlby) and her mother having a new man in her life. I found it obvious and unnecessary. There were other, more subtle ways for Emma to realize that Adam was the right person for her. She didn’t have to feel the threat of having to be alone for the rest of her life. I believe she was stronger than that. It should have been enough that Adam had a big heart, that he was funny, and actually not bad in the eyes. Sometimes the walls we have designed to protect ourselves from being hurt just come down on their own. Something just changes inside of us. It doesn’t require explanation because the feeling is beyond reason.

The Answer Man


The Answer Man (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Arlen Farber (Jeff Daniels), the author of the very popular book “Me and God,” decided to hide from the world because he was sick of people coming up to him and asking him questions about the being above and what they should do with their lives. When his back went out, he decided to see a chiropractor (the always charming Lauren Graham), unaware of the author’s identity, who happened to be a very protective mom of a boy (Max Antisell) who believed his father would come back for him in two weeks (he actually hasn’t returned in three years). Furthermore, a recovering alcoholic (Lou Taylor Pucci) learned who Arlen was and constantly asked guidance concerning where his life was going. The film had a very slow start and I have to admit that I almost gave up on it. Luckily, things finally started coming together in the last two-thirds of the picture and I eventually had an idea about what the movie tried to say about coincidences versus the actions we put in to achieve certain goals. However, the movie was supposed to be a comedy. I did not find it particularly funny or witty. I thought it was unfortunate because spirituality was a big part of the picture but it did not take advantage of that topic. It could have easily have been a satire (millions of people worshipped Arlen) but the movie had no idea what to do with itself. In the end, it was just a series of scenes that were sometimes awkward, sometimes cooky (considering Olivia Thirlby and Kat Dennings had small roles but both characters were very underdeveloped), and often forced. There was supposed to be a romantic angle between Daniels and Graham but they were in critical need of chemistry. I did not see why they would be interested in one another in the first place so when one of them finally made a move, I had a difficult time swallowing what I saw. I thought the movie worked best when there was friction between Daniels and Graham or when Daniels was just being a much-needed father figure for the boy. Written and directed by John Hindman, “The Answer Man” would have been a stronger project if it offered more answers than questions. For the past twenty years, Arlen lived a life of a recluse but the movie did not really peel away his layers. For instance, why was he so compassionate toward Graham’s character (aside from the fact that he had a crush on her) but the opposite toward others? Thinking of all the missed opportunities for the movie to be great makes me feel more disappointed. It had small moments of brilliance but they were not enough to save the entire work.

Uncertainty


Uncertainty (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

A couple played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins decided to flip a coin because they couldn’t make up their mind regarding how to spend their Fourth of July holiday. Once the coin was flipped, we were immediately taken on two paths: the couple spending their time with the girlfriend’s family (the talented Olivia Thirlby among them) and the couple finding a cell phone in a taxi which criminals desperately wanted in their hands. I really liked the concept of the movie but it just didn’t move me in any way because it was very uneven. I understood that a big part of the picture was its use of contrast but I felt like it spent more time developing the thriller aspect (the cell phone) instead of balancing it with drama (the family). They could have done so much with the family such as expanding the tension between the boyfriend and the girlfriend’s mother or perhaps going deeper into the uncle’s illness. Instead, the movie focused on the characters running all over New York City; while initially it was exciting because I was curious about why certain people wanted the cell phone so badly, over time the tension caught a bad case of diminishing returns. I just grew tired of the couple making one bad decision after another. I was even surprised that they managed to survive for so long. I found it difficult to believe that the couple trying to survive was the same as the two who were having dinner with nice and welcoming people. While the events were very different from one another, it would have been nice if we saw certain characteristics of the lead characters that crossed boundaries set by the cinematic style. There was also a disconnect between the level of acting between Gordon-Levitt and Collins. When the former tried to achieve depth, the latter almost always decided to go for the obvious, not just in the way she said the lines but the body language lacked subtlety. I wished that Thirlby was the lead female instead because, from what I’ve seen from her other films, she can achieve subtlety without sacrificing charisma. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, I saw potential in “Uncertainty” but it took far too many missteps and I lost interest in it over time. While the use of contrast was nice, it didn’t quite break out from the usual patterns to go for that element of surprise. It needed more time to ponder over why one small decision could lead to big (and sometimes unfortunate) events in our lives. I guess I needed the movie to actively connect with its audiences instead of just being stuck in its own universe. With such an interesting premise, I thought it would be more versatile in terms of its tone (especially since McGehee and Siegel both directed one of my favorite films “The Deep End”–the masterful balance of thriller and drama) and it wouldn’t be afraid to take risks time and time again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

New York, I Love You


New York, I Love You (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released in theaters for more than a year so I was really excited to see it when it finally was. Unfortunately, out of the ten segments (presented in order of appearances on screen–directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin and Joshua Marston) only about five worked for me–the second (starring Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan), the third (Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci), the fourth (Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q), the fifth (Anton Yelchin, Olivia Thirlby, James Caan and Blake Lively), and the tenth (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman).

I really wanted to love this movie as much as “Paris, je t’aime.” What made the first one so great is the fact that even though we encounter so many different genres and tones throughout the picture, it felt cohesive because we truly get a sense of who the characters were in under five to seven minutes. In “New York, I Love You,” it all feels a little bit too commercial. I felt as though it wanted to impress all kinds of people so much to the point where it held back emotionally and avoided taking risks. I’m also astounded by the fact that there were no homosexual storylines, barely any segments consisting of African-American or Latino characters, and most of clips consisted of a person falling in love or lust with another person. There are many dimensions of love (love for the city, love for a pet, love for oneself…) but it didn’t quite think outside the box. Those missing qualities are crucial to me because New York is supposed to be a melting pot of ethnicities, sexualities and mindsets yet we got to see the same kinds of people time and again. With “Paris, je t’aime,” we get diversity and in more than half of them, there was not a happy ending, which I thought was closer to real life than the stories presented in this film.

The five segments that I thought were standouts had a certain passion in every single one of them, whether it’s about a woman who doesn’t quite feel comfortable about getting married; an artist struggling to read one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s books and whose curiosity of a woman he’s only met through the phone bothered him to the core; a man who thinks one way about a woman turning out to be someone completely different than we all expected; a teenager who goes to prom with a blind date unknowing of the fact that his date is unlike anyone he expected; and a couple celebrating their marriage that lasted for more than sixty years. Those are the kinds of stories I want to tune into and dissect because hidden layers are embedded in them. What I don’t want to see is someone supposedly falling in love unless he or she has something truly significant or different to contribute. The other five segments that I didn’t quite like should have been taken out and replaced by stories from other genres such as horror or science fiction, or they could have had a different mood or perception such as in a black-and-white reality or featuring a person so wasted in drugs–a way in which we could see the world through their eyes. That would have made more sense to me because we are essentially a drug culture. Or it could have featured at least one fashion model or a fashionista because New York is one of the biggest fashion capitals in the world. Instead of really embracing to tackle issues mentioned previously, the movie was way too safe with those other segments.

Having said all of that, I have to admit that I’m particularly hard on this picture. Since I don’t do half-star ratings, it must be said that I consider this a solid two-and-a-half star movie. When I came out of the theater, I was certain that I was going to give it three stars out of four but after thinking about it a little bit, it made me realize how much potential it didn’t use to create a truly magnificent project. For such a fascinating place like New York City, you just can’t play everything safe and get away with it. At least not with me because I’m big on seeing diversity and reality in certain kinds of films, especially in slice-of-life cinema. I’m not saying at all to not see this in theaters. By all means, please do to support a film released only on limited release. But what I want you to take away from this review is the awareness that what’s being presented on this film is not the gritty and dirty New York but the clean, nice New York we see on a prime time television shows.

Hopefully, the next project from this film series would not be as afraid to branch out.