Movie Review: End Of July Triple Threat
As we head into the final vestiges of summer, movie distributors are sating our craving for good storytelling and filmmaking (not to mention the need to be in air conditioned comfort), flooding us with small movie gems, each glistening like a pebble on a sunlit beach. So while the kids are off at camp or the neighbor’s pool, spend a little adult time with some of these bits of movie magic.
Magic is the operative word with Fox Searchlight’s RUBY SPARKS. Written by the singularly unique voice of actress-screenwriter Zoe Kazan, and directed by the award winning couple of “Little Miss Sunshine”, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris, RUBY SPARKS is filled with charm, intelligence, wit, love and laughter. Drawing on her own love of literature, Kazan weaves a spell that calls on elements of Greek mythology with touches of Galatea and Pygmalian, plus a little bit of Frankenstein, celebrating the written word and the imagination of a writer.
Starring real-life couple Kazan and Paul Dano as RUBY SPARKS and best-selling author Calvin Weir-Fields, we first meet Calvin who is crippled by a severe case of writer’s block. Undergoing intensive psychotherapy in an effort to get his juice flowing again (and his empty heart), Calvin’s therapist gives him a unique assignment - write a paragraph about the perfect woman who would love your imperfect little dog. Rushing home, Calvin immediately starts clacking away on the keys of his beloved manual typewriter and blank pages begin to take shape. But as his paragraph turns into pages and pages, strange things begin to happen. Lacy undies pop up in drawers and between sofa cushions and pink razors appear in the bathroom. And then, RUBY SPARKS herself appears. Is it a dream? Is he insane? No. Ruby is real. She is everything that Calvin has dreamt of, everything he has written - word for word. And she’s not disappearing. As Calvin embraces this miracle and Ruby starts turning Calvin’s once monochromatic lonely life upside down. But what happens when the world itself starts tweaking his “product”, giving Ruby traits and responses that Calvin doesn’t like. Will he try and play God to maintain full control over his creation or will he destroy the very thing that brought him to life?
Kazan and Dano ooze charm and sweetness at every turn, even during some very emotionally challenging scenes. They are a joy to watch. A real treat is seeing Dano flex his comedic chops with befuddled sincerity a la Jimmy Stewart. A real winner is Chris Messina who, as Calvin’s brother Harry, just soars with heartfelt genuine laughter. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas easily step in as Calvin’s parents. The complete antithesis of Calvin, they are the embodiment of the 60's flower power generation filled with life, color, energy and love. (And they even get to have their movie home in the fantastical house that once belonged to Sid Kroft.) Never have we seen Banderas like this and it’s fun, while Bening harkens to her character in “Mars Attacks!” Warmth and generosity of spirit are the first words that come to mind watching Elliot Gould who plays Calvin’s psychiatrist.
Beautifully lensed by Oscar winner Matthew Libatique, his work goes far in furthering the performances and Kazan’s unique voice. Led by Dayton and Feris, according to Dano, who worked with them on “Little Miss Sunshine”, they are the perfect directors for RUBY SPARKS as they know to exact “the tone of having something be really funny and magical and fun, but also have some depth and be grounded and explore something and not be afraid to find a dark moment.”
Watch the sparks fly with a new timeless classic, RUBY SPARKS.
Do I see a trend beginning? Last year we had Michael Fassbender wow us in Steve McQueen’s “Shame” which garnered an NC-17 rating. This year, it’s Matthew McConaughey in William Friedkin’s KILLER JOE, which the MPAA also saw fit to designate as NC-17. And let me say up front, while the rating is warranted due to nudity and extreme sexual innuendo, Friedkin mesmerizes with his exploration of the psyche, fear, manipulation and control, pushing the envelope into the controlled psychological stratosphere, eliciting not only an Oscar worthy performance from McConaughey (who does the best work of his career), but delivers a film that is completely unpredictable, surprising, and leaves you hanging on tenterhooks wanting more. Brilliant!
Chris is a 22 year old screw-up. Essentially estranged from his family, but for showing up at his dad’s trailer to flop when he has no money and nowhere to stay (or needs to hide), he is in debt up to his eyeballs with the local drug kingpin. But Chris has a plan - kill his mother for her $50,000 life insurance policy. Conning his dad into the plan, it’s clear a professional is needed for the job and thanks to a local barfly, Chris gets turned onto “Killer” Joe Cooper, a Dallas cop who moonlights on the side as a contract killer. One problem though. Joe gets paid. Up front. And Chris has no cash. But Joe is willing to accept another form of payment, Chris’ sister Dottie.
As the plan takes shape, the relationship between Joe and Dottie intensifies, turning into what one might call a twisted-Cinderella story, concentrating on the moral duality of Joe. But as with most children who rant and rave and storm about yelling about wanting their parents dead, Chris starts to get cold feet; sadly, it’s not in time to stop the hit. As the family, including Ansel’s money-grubbing second wife Sharla, try to lay claim to the insurance money, truths and allegiances spill out leading to a “killer” climax.
This is Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar moment. The controlling pathos that he brings to Joe is mesmerizing. You can't help but be spellbound by not only the calculating methodical nature of Joe, but also hypnotized by the slow, rhythmic Southern drawl of McConaughey's voice as he "wills" Dottie to strip, dress, participate. But that gentlemanly polite control is then shockingly upended by an emotional explosion of violence; an interesting paradox to not only the controlled calm of his persona, but the controlled calm in which he kills. One is breathless from the rage, the fury and the insanity that takes hold in Act 3.
Thomas Haden Church is an absolute scene stealer. The naivete and backwoods stupidity-with-blinders-on that he brings to Ansel is raw, organic and very funny. And from where did Gina Gershon pull this performance? Throughout the body of her work, never did I see her capable of this. Nothing surprising about her as Sharla in Acts 1 and 2, but get to that 20 minute climactic finale and she is just raw emotion. Caught in a lie, Sharla has more than met her match with Joe, and Gershon just gives it her all.
And then there's Juno Temple. Falling in love with her acting in “Dirty Girl” where she was finally given a chance to soar and now, she delivers an even deeper, more textured and nuanced performance as Dottie. Her chemistry with McConaughey is spellbinding from the get-go. As I say above, McConaughey is hypnotic and nevermoreso than in his dinner date scene with Dottie. The timing and physical nuance that Temple brings to the table, laced with innocent naivete in that scene is breathtaking. And then in the film’s climactic moments, WOW! With an almost subconscious decisiveness, Temple flourishes in the chaos. And much of that WOW goes to Friedkin, and of course, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and editor Darrin Navarro.
I hate to say it, but the one annoyance I have with the film is Emile Hirsch. As Chris, his frenetic, coked-out haphazardness often jolts one out of the moment - and not in a good way. He's just too over-the-top. Granted, it further defines the differences between Joe and Chris and Chris and everyone else, but Hirsch is just too much. Less is more in his case.
Leave it to screenwriter Tracy Letts to create a world with characters both this enigmatic and charismatic. Rapier sharp timing and creation of specific character traits propel the film ever forward, "sucking" the audience ever deeper into this riveting tale. Making the experience even sweeter is that this is believable; I can easily see running into these characters on the street. You know they exist. And with Joe himself, Letts brings to life what many people often posit about law enforcement - they make the best criminals. The emotional wasteland of the characters as a whole and their yearning for acceptance, comfort, love and family explodes through their individual traits, characteristics and mannerisms. Joe, a loner with impeccable manners, and the way he just moves in with Dottie, Ansel and Sharla, tacitly screams for his desire to be part of a family with stability and companionship; McConaughey's performance goes so far as to even cause one to wonder if he thought that being well mannered and polite would make people like and respect him, that that's what it takes to be part of a family. He seemed influenced by Norman Rockwell paintings. Ansel goes through life as if a boxer punched in the head so many times so as to be numb to the world around him, never reaching for the brass ring or having any aspiration too. And Dottie is wise beyond her years. She has a third eye with which she see outside the box; sees people for who they are; sees a future beyond life in the double wide trailer; sees life without a clingy, useless brother; and feels with her heart.
Deschanel’s lensing and framing is perfect, honing in on intimate pictures of a world hidden behind the door of the double wide trailer. There is nothing wide or expansive about the visuals of the film. everything is contained, confined, claustrophobic - mirroring the closeted emotions and lives of each of the characters. Framing in doorways and alleys, further compartmentalizes the fractured family and provides a tacit sense of confusion yet plenty of options as to what path to choose.
Friedkin kills it with KILLER JOE.
Who doesn’t need a laugh about now? I think we all do and thanks to award-winning and well known Danish comedians, Casper Christenson and Frank Hvam, America is about to see some of the best and funniest comedy since Lemmon and Matthau. Talk about a perfect blend of sweet, irreverent, crude, raunchy, laugh-out-loud, pee-in-your-pants funny! Klown Kills It With Komedy!
Casper Christenson and Frank Hvam truly are The Odd Couple (and yes, there are a few bars of Odd Couple theme music that tinkles before kicking into KLOWN's own score) and could so easily be the raunchier versions of Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau or Tony Randall-Jack Klugman. Frank also adds a level of bumbler-stumbler to his persona which is both charming and funny while Casper just has this look and devilish insincere smile that lets you know he's up to no good. Both are likeable, believable (and in person, sweet as can be). These two have an incredible chemistry with both not only gifted comedians, but excellent physical comedians.
And then we have the adorable Marcuz Jess Peterson. As Bo, Peterson’s performance belies this being his film debut. Not that he has that much to do, but being naive, innocent and shy is not such an easy thing to maintain and he does so beautifully, but also adding a touch of embarrassment at his own perceived shortcomings (like his "willie') not to mention that immature crude conduct of Casper and Frank. He is an absolute delight to watch - and his chemistry with Frank is magical, resonating organically.
Improvisational in format, the base story is charming with Frank trying to prove he's father material by taking his young nephew Bo with him on the “camping trip” he and Casper take each year. From the get-go, the possibilities for humorous situations is endless, but then we have the twist of raunchy randy Casper and his “Tour de P***y” which gets you thinking - how do you give Frank a "Father Knows Best" storyline while meshing it with Casper's "Love American, er Danish, style" mission. Director Mikkel Norgaard seamlessly blends the two worlds by capitalizing on well known and obvious camping trip exploits - canoes tipping over, smoking pot, sex, drinking, campfires, young girls, music around the campfire - but then twisting it into free-spirited sex romps. Tossing in social commentary with some humorous unspoken storylines, infidelity and man children who don't want to grow up (i.e ., Casper), plus poor Bo's "coming of age" and being led by Casper and Frank (child leading children) just goes beyond the bounds of outrageously abso***kinglutely hysterical comedy.
What really drives KLOWN home is that there is a core decency behind the European free-wheeling humor, with nothing done with mean-spirited intent to hurt anyone. And the ending - hysterical. Just when you think Frank can put his past behind him (you’ll see what that is), Casper's adventures pop up to haunt them both, setting the stage for another wild romp of rowdiness........i.e ., sequel!!!!
Neither the humor nor the story ever feels forced and the antics and free-flowing comedy are allowed to just "be" and are accepted. No positing or commentary after a joke or physical antic to tell the audience it's funny. The scenes just are funny and give the audience the benefit of the doubt that they will "get it" without coaching by dialogue. That's not something we often see in American films. American films spoon feed the audience with dialogue to lead them to a desired conclusion or response as opposed to letting the audience accept what they see on screen and respond in their own way.
Casper Christenson and Frank Hvam are brilliant comedians and once you see KLOWN, you will scour the internet to find episodes of the KLOWN tv series in Denmark. So funny, so raunchy and so wrong makes KLOWN so right! Being amoral never looked so awesome!
For full reviews to each of these films and more, as well as interviews with the filmmakers, go to www.moviesharkdeblore.com.