Friday, September 27, 2013


Nicole Holofcener's most commercial film also happens to be her best. With "Enough Said," the writer and director has crafted a perfect comedy for adults, a romantic comedy that is smart, sophisticated and never less than pleasantly engaging. It's also arguably her funniest work to date largely thanks to the magnificent Julia Louis-Dreyfus who appears in and carries every single scene. And beside her is the late, great James Gandolfini, such an unconventional casting pair you would never think up, but after seeing the film, you can't picture anyone else in these roles.

Louis-Dreyfus (two-time Emmy winner for her hilariously biting turn in HBO's "Veep") brings her signature wit and wicked tongue here but with an ounce more compassion. Gandolfini doesn't try to keep up with her but instead runs at his own pace with comic timing that is slower and complementary to the actress' barbs. The opposite of every mobster (namely Tony Soprano) we've seen him play, he's gentle, a big sweetheart looking for love, and he's a marvel in the understated role. I certainly wouldn't mind a campaign pushing for the actor to get nominated for a posthumous Oscar.

The film's initial scenes are the first dates between Louis-Dreyfus' Eva and Gandolfini's Albert getting to know each other. They are so natural together, and it's a treat to watch them play off each other and spar romantically. Eva meets Albert at a party the same night she meets Marianne (Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener), a new client for Eva who conducts in-house massage sessions in breezy Santa Monica. Eva quickly discovers, however, that Marianne is Albert's ex-wife, and hearing her rants on Albert largely skewers Eva's otherwise clean perception of her new love interest. It's a fun, clever twist that always contributes to the movie's larger theme on trusting your instincts and having faith in love that never feels contrived or forced.

This is Holofcener's first time focusing on only two characters rather than a large ensemble, though she still enlists Toni Collette and Ben Falcone to play Eva's married friends Sarah and Will. Sarah is in a moral conundrum over firing the maid, which borders on the movie falling victim to upper-class white people problems, but the larger notion addressed lets that fall to the wayside. It's about characters fumbling their way to trying to do what's right. In the case of Eva, does continuing the friendship with Albert's ex-wife protect herself from hurt or act as self-sabotage? You be the judge. The screenplay also nicely navigates second-marriages, which are more and more becoming the norm, as well as the separation anxiety -- for adults -- that comes with sending kids off to college.

The way Holofcener crafts her films to let moral quandaries and questions of human nature unfold is uniquely her own, and it's nice to see her make something that may reach a wider audience in the process. The lead performances in "Enough Said" are certainly reason enough.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Remember "Insidious," that extremely clever (and truly terrifying) horror movie that came out of nowhere and gave audiences hope in the haunted house genre again? Well, also remember earlier this year when critics hailed that director James Wan (who's next signed on to direct "Fast & Furious 7") had delivered again with his "The Conjuring," which received rave reviews and dominated the box office?

Well, I've had the sad fate of seeing this director's other horror effort this year, shame on me. It's "Insidious: Chapter 2," everything the first chapter could've been and absolutely wasn't. This braindead, sorefully unscary follow-up is less a sequel than it is a perfect example of taking something good and dashing it to bits.

Things pick up exactly where the first one left off. Renai (Rose Byrne) and her husband, Josh (Patrick Wilson) have escaped their demon-ridled house and taken recluse at the no-less haunted estate of Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). They know it's not the house that's haunted but they flee nonetheless. Last time it was their son's out-of-body demon inflicting evil onto the Lambert family. Who is it this time, you ask? Well, the options are limited and recall for a moment who entered that undead-filled dark realm they like to refer to as The Further.

The story here, which woefully follows last outing's comic relief for the duration of the film undercutting any and all frights, is a mess from start to finish. It clings to horror movie tropes and doesn't twist them in any fun or interesting way. Although there's no denying the film is handsomely shot, the use of a shaky handheld camera exploring an old, creepy hospital is borrowing from "Paranormal Activity" more than probably intended. And then not to mention "The Shining" in the film's other key plot device.

As I mentioned earlier, Wan is hanging up his horror directorial cap to move on to an action blockbuster. Good for him to get out while he can and let somebody else take over for the inevitably clunky third installment that the ending of "Chapter 2" so unabashedly promises.

My review of "Insidious"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

SHORT TERM 12 Review

In a summer of massive studio flops, it's been an exceptionally great summer for individual voices behind some of the year's best independent films. Here is yet another superb entry, this one from writer/director Destin Cretton who has adapted his short film from 2008 into this year's Grand Jury and Audience Award winner at SXSW, "Short Term 12." It's a heartrending powerhouse, one of the most emotionally raw films you're likely to see this year and an affirmation of Brie Larson (of "The Spectacular Now" and the upcoming "Don Jon") as a great, young actress. Look out for her.

The gorgeous and elliptical film is a snapshot of a foster care center for youth at risk. Larson plays 20-something Grace who is among the supervising staff at the center. She is joined by her shaggy, caring boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of "The Newsroom") and newcomer to the center, Nate (Rami Malek), who's still learning the ropes. The film begins in their intimate circle, Mason telling a story, then stretches out into the lives of these staffers and the kids they look after, and then brings us right back to where we started with a much deeper and profound understanding.

The magic of Cretton's film is the way it works as a slow burn through mini-climaxes and revelations, weaving a larger tapestry of sadness, angst and the beauty of the human condition. Never sensationalized and always naturalistic, the way scenes unfold is delicate, taking time to settle into this environment and these characters. It unassumingly burrows into our minds and hearts, so that by the end we have complete empathy.

The film focuses mostly on two foster kids, Jayden and Marcus, played respectively by Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield in a duo of fantastic performances that bring their pained, conflicted characters to life. Grace ends up identifying closely with Jayden and getting almost too involved in her situation at home with her abusive father; she sees Jayden as a younger, more fragile version of herself. You see, Grace and her boyfriend Mason are grown-ups of foster care. She, especially, is afraid of her own demons to the point where, after discovering her pregnancy, she can't decide if she has the faith to keep the baby. Meanwhile, Mason is worried his love won't ever be enough to save Grace.

Destin Cretton's "Short Term 12" doesn't take the usual routes to get into the head and heart of its audience; instead it surprises us with unexpected moments of poignancy and, even in the darkest moments, bursts of humor. And not every loose end gets tied up, nor does it deserve to be. We are peering in on messy lives, and it isn't our job to watch them get cleaned up completely.