Monthly Archives: June 2014

“Obvious Child,” Reviewed: The Choice is Hers.


Obvious Child (R), the debut feature from writer/director Gillian Robespierre, is a romcom in which the lead character gets an abortion. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, I’ll understand if you want to stop reading here. But you don’t have to be pro-choice to acknowledge that abortions happen in real life; and once that’s acknowledged, it’s hardly unreasonable to consider the rare film willing to tackle this issue in such a candid – and fearless – manner.

Jenny Slate, a stand-up comic and onetime Saturday Night Live cast member, plays 27-year-old Donna, a Brooklyn comedian who hasn’t yet cracked the code of actual adulthood: She can’t move past the lone club that will give her stage time, still cleaves to her divorced parents (Polly Draper and Richard Kind) and doesn’t know how to cope when she’s dumped by her boyfriend (Paul Briganti).

Things are looking up when she meets Max (Jake Lacy of The Office) one night at the club, but their odd-couple chemistry – he’s the kind but buttoned-down Felix to her emotionally rumpled Oscar – seems a little more legitimately off-putting than we’re used to seeing in a conventional romcom. Do these two nice but mismatched individuals really belong together? Maybe or maybe not, but that doesn’t stop them from indulging in a one-night stand with a sense of clumsy exploration – of each other, and of themselves. That leads to a pregnancy, and to Donna’s dilemma.

In interviews Robespierre has confirmed that, by the time she began adapting her screenplay for Obvious Child from a short film she made in 2009, she had met Jenny Slate and was writing Donna’s part with the actress firmly in mind. It shows. Slate’s self-deprecating mannerisms and spot-on comic delivery are no doubt her own, but her portrayal of Donna is so true, so real, that I wondered at times if I were watching an autobiography. This fusion of actor and screenplay is ironclad – it’s got to be the year’s strongest breakthrough performance.

Of course, the actress’ connection with her role only ups the uncomfortable factor as the plot puts Donna through her paces – fending off awkward advances from a comedian pal (David Cross), trying and failing and trying again to reconnect with Max (without telling him about the baby), and ultimately preparing for her abortion, which the gods of scheduling irony have decided should occur on Valentine’s Day.

By the time that Hallmark Holiday finally arrives it’s not hard to see that Donna isn’t ready to be a mom, but the film doesn’t pretend that makes her choice any easier. (In fact, this could be a cinematic case study of the distinction between being pro-choice and pro-abortion.) Suspending this subplot in the frothy aether of an urban indie romcom is a smart way to remind us that all aspects of human experience are worth exploring, not just the telegenic ones. And for managing to keep us laughing along the way, Obvious Child pulls off a pretty extraordinary feat: It’s a true comedy, and a true drama. Just like life.

(IMAGE: Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in Obvious Child. Photo courtesy of A24 Films.)

All You Need is a Dollar and a Kid Who Loves Movies. (Maybe a Couple of Dollars.)


Depending on how far you’re willing to drive, Regal Henrietta’s summertime deal may be too good to pass up: Every Tuesday and Wednesday between next week and the end of August the theater will present 10am screenings of a wide assortment of recent kid-friendly movies for a $1 admission fee. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Will Rogers Institute – though how much can they afford to donate, really, given that they’re only charging a buck?

The lineup will include selections ranging from quite wonderful (The LEGO Movie, Arthur Christmas) to the not-so-great (Turbo, Madagascar 3). But it’s a safe bet that the special young people in your life won’t be picky. A movie theater in the morning? Please, mom, please?

The Men With No … thing to Prove.

Have you ever read an article that compared Clint Eastwood and Steve Martin before? No? Well, me neither. There’s a first time for everything.

I got to thinking about Martin and Eastwood this week for different, yet strangely connected reasons. First and perhaps more important (for me, at least), I have tickets to see Martin perform tomorrow night at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. I saw him play banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the 2012 Jazz Fest, more out of a lifelong enthusiasm for the man’s work than for a deep abiding passion for bluegrass music; but I loved the show, as I guess I figured I would, and I jumped at the chance to see him again this year.

SteveMartin muppetsThe life road that brings Martin to Rochester is an unusual one, even by his standards. Forty years ago the guy had a banjo on stage with him, along with an arrow-through-the-head prop, as one of the biggest stand-up comedians in show business. But that wasn’t enough to fulfill him forever, and so he moved to clever-goofball movies (The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains), then just plain clever movies (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), then clever-sentimental movies (Roxanne, L.A. Story), and then just sentimental movies, beginning with Father of the Bride (1991).

To me, the cinematic resume he started building at that point was not equal to what Martin had been doing previously. (I’m being kind: I hate that period in his film career.) But that was about the time he seemed to become particularly interesting in his offscreen work: writing plays, novels, and some killer-comedy New Yorker articles; staging an exhibition of his private art collection at the Bellagio in Las Vegas; and yes, playing the banjo – for real this time. Call it a midlife crisis, call it a genuinely creative spirit, but it’s hard not to admire Martin for having the courage to venture into completely different artistic arenas, over and over – and finding success each time.

By comparison, Eastwood’s career path has been a lot more conventional – but no less true to a singular vision. His is probably the longest-lived Hollywood career currently in existence – can you name another movie legend who’s worked steadily since the mid-1950s? – and for the last 20 years he’s been using that success to try things we wouldn’t expect from him.


By the time he deconstructed his own iconic screen image in Unforgiven (1992) Eastwood was already considered a director of some talent, but from then on he started concentrating more on his behind-the-camera work, giving us films that could be exceptional (A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby) or pedestrian (Blood Work, True Crime). More recently he’s taken on even more unusual projects – downright experimental, by his standards – including a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, a two-part story of World War II soldiers, a misguided movie about clairvoyants and, now, the adaptation of the Tony-winning Jersey Boys. I think we can all safely say Jersey Boys is a truly out-of-left-field choice for Eastwood.

Through it all, though, there’s been a consistent offscreen passion in his life – music in general, and jazz in particular. I was reminded of Eastwood this week twice: First in writing a brief preview of Jersey Boys for my weekly column, and then when his name kept coming up in my film retrospective of jazz in the movies. He’s in love with that musical form – often composing melancholy jazz pieces for his films – and if he ever wanted to come to Rochester I’m sure the Jazz Fest would love to book him to play some piano.

This week I also read that Steve Martin has been approached about making a third Father of the Bride movie, which doesn’t thrill me. (UPDATE: He now denies involvement.) But when someone reaches a point in his career where he can do anything he wants, it’s probably fair to assume there’s something in the project that really appeals to him. Similarly, Jersey Boys isn’t exactly racking up boffo early reviews – I haven’t seen it yet – and it’s not expected to pull in big money at the box office. Yet I doubt that will bother its director too much; by now, Eastwood has graduated from being The Man With No Name to the man who, like Martin, has nothing to prove.

The “Game of Thrones” Non-Scandal, and Why Copying Is No Fun.

gameofthrones14_159I don’t watch HBO’s Game of Thrones, although representatives of the generations before and after me have told me I should. And I’m sure it’s a great show – a chronicle of the lives of people with long hair and swords, all of whom, if their oddly spelled names are indication, are originally from Wales.

But as I was surfing the internets this morning, I picked up on a frisson of discontent from the legions of GoT fans concerning last night’s season finale. It seems that in the midst of all the probably very cool sword-related action, a character failed to make an appearance, and this rubbed a lot of Thronesians the wrong way.

Read that again: They were cranky because a character who had never been on the show before … continued to not be on the show. Here I grew up thinking all those rumors about not being able to prove a negative were true, and then this happens. Or rather, doesn’t happen. Has the Twitterverse ever before thrown such a tizzy over something not happening?

OK, OK, there’s more to the story. See, it turns out GoT is based on a very popular series of novels, and at the point in the books corresponding to last night’s episode, a certain character made her debut appearance. Not so in the TV version – and boy, are the book-lovers very, very, very angry about that.

I usually write about movies, not TV shows – and especially not shows featuring a bunch of Welsh characters – but there’s an issue here that comes up with film all the time. It’s fair to say that most movies adapted from popular books, plays, etc., would not have been made were it not for the popularity of the source material. In fact, it’s fair to say that studios are quite literally banking on that pre-existing popularity.

But the creators of a film (or an HBO series) are making an adaptation, not a carbon copy. They have every right – and in fact an artistic obligation – to cut, adjust, revise, and create from whole cloth. Stories on a printed page are told differently than those presented on a screen, and that difference opens the door to new challenges, new considerations – and yes, new points at which key characters do or don’t show up.

The first couple of Harry Potter films, for example, were joyless and inert precisely due to their slavish adherence to J.K. Rowling’s books. (In my 2001 review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I described this approach as “the cinematic equivalent of books on tape.”) As the series continued and director Chris Columbus blessedly moved on, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell and David Yates stepped in to pump some cinematic air into that underinflated balloon. They made choices, left some stuff out, rearranged some things. The result, ultimately, was a series worth celebrating – but if Columbus had stayed behind the camera, I’m honestly not sure we’d think of those films in the same way.

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, or a Hunger Games lover or a The Fault in Our Stars devotee, try cutting the creators of the small- and big-screen adaptations a little slack. They’re trying to make what amounts to recycled art, and put a fresh spin on something awfully familiar. It’s harder than it looks to do it well.

(IMAGE: Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of HBO.)

Father’s Day at the Movies: The Year Was 2002…

So I was working on a Father’s Day blog post of non-traditional father-and-son movies – by which I mean, those that deal with emotions a little more sophisticated than can be resolved with a game of catch – and I noticed some synergies in my list. Three of the five films I was writing about happened to star Tom Hanks, which is less surprising than the idea that three were released in the same year.That last point stuck with me, and so I’ve trimmed my typical “Take Five” down to a threesome. In honor of Father’s Day, here are three remarkable 2002 movies that explore the father-son paradigm a little differently:

catch me if you canCatch Me If You CanSteven Spielberg movies often deal with absent or distant fathers, but in this biopic about the life of master forger Frank Abegnale, it’s the son who takes a powder – as young Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) bounces around the world with assumed names and identities, returning home only occasionally to reconnect with his blindly loyal, ineffectual dad (an Oscar-nominated Christopher Walken). Their relationship is Frank’s only anchor in life, and his impulsive need to bring happiness to his father’s failed life adds pathos to a fascinating period chase movie.

Road to PerditionBased on a crime-fiction comic book by Max Allan Collins, Sam Mendes’ second feature (after American Beauty) used a gritty Depression-era setting to showcase the poignant mix of regret, pain, alienation and love between a professional hit man (Hanks) and his eldest son (Tyler Hoechlin). Alone and running for their lives from the consequences of the dad’s life choices, father and son both come to understand more about each other while facing hard truths about the inevitability of legacy. It’s a beautiful film (the last one shot by legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall), and a powerful ode to fatherly love.

about_a_boyAbout a Boy – These movies, like most in the so-called “Fathers” genre, actually tend to focus on the child; the dads are usually fully formed, for better or worse, leaving the narrative arc to rest on the shoulders of the son or daughter as they come to terms with their family ties. But in Chris and Paul Weitz’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, the newfound maturity radiates from Hugh Grant’s character, an independently wealthy bachelor who winds up an awkward father figure for a misfit 12-year-old (Nicholas Hoult). Grant’s Will Freeman is a terminal bachelor (“free man” – get it?) who has no interest in any long-term relationships, let alone even a surrogate son. Slowly but surely, though, the story runs Will through the ringer to have him emerge a reluctant believer in family values.

If anyone has a theory about why 2002 was such a banner year for father-and-son movies, let me know. In the meantime, I hope all you dads had a great day – and everyone who has a dad showed him a good time.