Film Threat Review: Hit and Run

2012
Rated R
100 minutes

***

I’m not what you would call a Dax Shepard fan. His perpetual monotone tends to grate. But I adore Kristen Bell. She was captivating on “Veronica Mars.” In interviews, she seems smart, genuine and good-humored. She can sing and dances like a hellcat. She also loves Dax Shepard. Incidentally, he wrote and co-directed a movie for the two of them to star in. It’s called “Hit and Run” and it’s a Tarantino-esque romantic comedy in which the romance is as much about the car as it is about the girl. I was curious to try and find out what Kristen Bell sees in Dax Shepard. And I think I sort of did.

Shepard and Bell’s fantasy counterparts are Annie and Charlie Bronson, a young couple living in a one-horse California town where Annie teaches at the local college. Charlie’s income source remains a mystery. When Annie’s portfolio review turns into a potential dream job offer, she faces the classic dilemma of a girl having to choose between her career and her man. This time, the hitch is that her boyfriend is in the witness protection program and her job is in Los Angeles, the very city he had to leave in order to keep on living.

Still, Charlie loves Annie so much that he decides to risk his life in order to stay with her. He rationalizes his decision with the fact that L.A. is “a pretty big city” and that perhaps enough time has passed the threat has blown over. This might have even worked if Annie hadn’t accidentally tipped off her jealous ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum) about her plans. Claiming that he fears for her safety, her ex sets in motion a series of events, which culminates in a little bit of ultraviolence and Shepard’s version of the Mexican standoff – a multi-participant car chase at an air field. Among the many parties on their tail is Randy, the bumbling U.S. Marshall assigned to Bronson’s case, played with utmost idiocy by Tom Arnold. There’s no other way to put it; “Hit and Run” lost coolness points by casting Arnold and really for even creating this character in the first place. During these moments, the film resembles the sillier parts of the “Dukes of Hazzard.”

Another weak link is Kristin Chenowith, not for her performance – she merely did what was asked of her – but for the incredibly tired character of the brassy, diminutive substance abuser of a boss who shows up only to say the word “Xanax” a whole bunch of times and try to make the audience blush. In fact, Annie is the only female character to whom Shepard gave a unique personality.

But some of Shepard’s familiar characters are quite likable. Especially Bradley Cooper as Bronson’s former colleague who wants his revenge. Cooper plays Alex like Drexel’s (from “True Romance”) younger, gentler dreadlocked thug brother. He also has some of the funnier lines and a few sympathetic moments. Alex is a dog lover, for instance. Ryan Hanson (“Veronica Mars”) has a small but memorable role as Alex’s suited henchman. David Koechner is appropriately menacing as a lascivious hillbilly who gums up the already gummy works real good.

I should also mention the car. It’s a tricked-out 1967 Lincoln Continental that Charlie custom built with his now estranged father. The car is the first of many things from his past that Charlie neglected to mention to Annie. He also left out his knack for stunt driving; a skill that gives their getaway from the bad guys a fair chance of success.

Kristen Bell has the ability to be adorable in everything she does, and Annie is no different. Annie could have easily come off as nagging and uptight, but most of the time, you’re on her side. Unfortunately, even she can’t sell the inconsistencies in her character and the massive conflict between her and Shepard that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Well, maybe not, “nowhere.” It’s at the traditional point in the third act in which the girlfriend has had enough and storms off, deciding that despite her intense love for her fuckup of a man, she can’t be with him anymore. Shepard clearly took such pains to avoid clichés but a couple of them snuck by him anyway.

Charlie Bronson is Dax Shepard’s Tyler Durden. Shepard has taken Tarantino’s fan boy fervor that much further, making a film that is a love letter to both his hobbies and his lady. It’s so goddamned earnest that even when it’s lame, it’s still a little bit cute. Dax Shepard doesn’t care if you get his references. He just wants the chance to make them.

He also wanted to make a little bit of car porn. Right before Charlie Bronson shows Annie what he can do behind the wheel, he straps her in with a hilariously large restraint belt and purrs, “It’s about to get pretty radical.” And then it actually does! But Shepard doesn’t overdo it. He spends as much time making fun of the vehicular fetishizing as it does reveling in it. Annie notes that the car is an asshole magnet, which seems to attract those she can only describe as “rapists.”

The film isn’t all flash. It has an emotional center that explores being able to forgive and forget and keep the past in the past. It hypothesizes that change is possible. Shepard reportedly has a history of drug abuse, but now he’s on a TV show about having kids and gets his kicks by renting sloths for his fiancé. There are always exceptions but, for the most part, people are known to grow up eventually. Perhaps it’s not out of the realm of possibility that “Hit and Run” is a window into the Bell/Shepard relationship. If it is, they seem like a sweet couple.

Overall, I can’t say I’m a Dax Shepard convert. I’m not going to scour the back catalog. But I will probably watch whatever his brain comes up with next. He’s piqued my interest with this one. There is room for improvement, but he might win me over yet. Really, I’m just happy if Kristen’s happy.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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Film Threat Review: Old Goats

2012
Unrated
101 minutes

****

Getting older is something that tends to sneak up on people. Though the pages of the calendar fall away, they’re still carrying around the same brain they’ve always had. They’ve doubtless grown from their experiences, but their essence, if you will, is ageless. And yet, they are expected to adhere to the paradigm of certain age benchmarks, even if they feel nowhere near ready to be there in their mind.

At 18, they must move out of their childhood home and begin life as an adult. At 30, they should be well on their way to settling down and starting a family. At 40, they are “over the hill” so they may as well start practicing their Viagra jokes and listening to soft rock. At 65, they’d best be ready to quit their job and take up bingo. There’s an often-used phrase associated with stories about people who aren’t adhering to societal standards of what they should be like at their age: “Coming of Age.”

If you think about it, it’s kind of an insulting term because it implies that you need to change your life in order to become what people expect of you. The goats in “Old Goats” are three men who are surprised to find that they have become part of a senior subculture. Taylor Guterson’s debut film is a unique depiction of the how these men come to terms with their elderly identities.

“Old Goats” follows Dave, Bob and Britt, three Seattle-area men in the twilight of their years. Dave, our sometime narrator, is fresh from forced retirement and still feeling the sting. He keeps himself busy with activities and relishes the time he spends with his friends, as it keeps his mind off his somewhat tense marriage and lack of purpose. Bob, an impulsive opportunist, plunges himself into writing his memoirs and, as he reflects on his past, starts to wonder if he was actually a dick in his youth. Britt lives in squalor on a boat that’s not really meant to be a house and isn’t really used as a boat. He’s lived this way for thirty years, and when the time comes for him to act on his long-touted maiden voyage to Hawaii, he chickens out.

All of these men still have something to learn about themselves. They each want to turn their retirement into a new beginning, but, ironically, fears of wasting their time keep them from acting on their grand plans. Dave and his wife had, at one time, planned to split their retirement years between Seattle and Tahoe, but Dave is now dragging his feet, not feeling ready to leave his friends and his familiar environment and relegate himself to bona fide retired life. Britt has been in a state of perpetual bachelorhood for his entire adult life, but it’s not the glamorous, Bruce Wayne sort. Instead, he’s practically a hobo, eating terrible packaged food and reading by lamplight in his moldy old boat, removed from any sort of technology, including a phone. After Britt bails on his trip, Dave and Bob make it their mission to reinvigorate Britt and introduce him to modern life. In the interest of meeting a lady, Britt begrudgingly agrees to get a cell phone and a computer. But he’s terrified of human interaction and is quick to retreat to his floating turtle shell whenever something goes wrong.

Bob is the only one who doesn’t dwell on his failures, continuing to live life to the fullest. He’s constantly throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. He’s not worried about the future as much as he is about his past. He knows it’s too late to do anything about it, but he still hopes that his presence on Earth has been a positive experience for everyone with whom he interacted.

The most refreshing thing about “Old Goats” is that it treats old people like people. They aren’t magical sages, imparting their wisdom on the young. They aren’t delightfully irreverent, busting a rhyme at a wedding reception and matter-of-factly spewing vulgarities to the shock of their juniors. They are real goddamned men with desires both recreational and romantic. They know they’re old because their environment won’t let them forget it. But they are still the same people they always were.

They are what everyone eventually becomes: older versions of themselves. The only difference is that their every move is tainted by the idea that their days are numbered. Being fulfilled has become a lot more important. Now is the time to write that memoir or go on that blind date. Now is the time to get in a round of golf and put off going to Tahoe with your wife to hang out with your dear friends whom you may never see again.

The film does meander a bit, and has trouble settling on a narrative style. But once it hits its stride, it remains compelling to the very end. Guterson’s film pays homage to the gritty verity of Mike Leigh (“Naked”, “Happy Go Lucky”). He also employs Leigh’s dry, morbid and sometimes unnerving sense of humor. It probably doesn’t hurt that Seattle and London have comparable weather. An overcast sky goes a long way toward conveying melancholy.

Credit is also due to the non-actors who are playing scripted versions of themselves. They clearly understand their characters’ motivations and have no trouble at all dispatching them to the audience. Amateur performers can sometimes take you out of a film. But the real Dave, Bob and Britt just make you want to join them for a beer.

Rather than making their age the punch line to the younger audience, Guterson chose to let these old goats serve as a window into the future. When the elderly are hidden from view in their group homes, they are but an abstract idea, removed from the radar of the callow. But Britt, Bob and Dave represent three possible futures. They are a reminder that people don’t become irrelevant just because they’ve left the work force and are (maybe) collecting Social Security. In some ways, life is just as long as it is short.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: Take This Waltz

2012
Rated R
116 minutes

*****

Is emotional infidelity as hurtful as physical infidelity? “Take This Waltz,” Sarah Polley’s striking sophomore film, explores this and many other themes concerning the marriage of a young, Torontonian hipster couple and the provocative rickshaw driver who comes between them. Michelle Williams builds the case that she’s one of the greatest actresses of our time, with a remarkably nuanced performance as the dissatisfied wife. Seth Rogen nails his turn as the oblivious would-be cuckold. Though there are a handful of missteps dispersed throughout, and marital strife in film is generally well-worn territory, Polley’s intimate and complex story often feels like a cinematic revelation.

Freelance writer Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a return flight from a business trip and they are immediately drawn to one another. Though Margot is off the market, she allows herself to flirt with this attractive stranger all the way home. After all, she expects that she’ll never see him again. But when Margot learns that Daniel is her neighbor, she is forced to explore why it is that she is so taken by this man who is not her husband. Daniel likewise finds himself smitten and, as such, refuses to disappear from her periphery. Little by little, she lets him in until she is focused on him completely and her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), replaces Daniel on the sidelines.

Though Margot is the one who considers straying, it is not a black and white case of betrayal. Polley’s script efficiently outlines what’s been eating Margot and Lou’s relationship via a series of failed seduction attempts by Margot. The more tempted she is by Daniel, the harder she tries to re-connect with Lou to give her a reason to stop the madness. But Lou is absorbed in his work writing an all-chicken cookbook. “I’m making chicken,” he explains, during one of his many brush-offs. “You’re always making chicken!” she explodes. She is pleading for him to give her a reason to stay, but she cannot divert his attention from the stove. Lou doesn’t understand how dire the situation is and he chalks it up to momentary insanity on her part. When he attempts intimacy with her, it takes the form of baby talk and the bandying of mutilation fantasies. Margot plays along, but becomes increasingly frustrated as it fails to lead anywhere physical. Though this may have been enough for both of them at one time, Margot now desires a more mature sexual relationship than the one Lou is (or isn’t) providing.

We think we know where our moral limits lie, but sometimes those boundaries are tested. Margot is clearly depressed and, yes, a little immature, but she isn’t a bad person. She is very emotionally attached to Lou and never imagined that she could be lured away from him. But when physical needs aren’t being met, it’s not hard for the emotional connection to fray as well. She’s afraid of hurting him but he unknowingly continues to make her miserable on a daily basis. Margot convinces herself that so long as she’s not actually touching Daniel, she is remaining faithful. As their attraction deepens, she fantasizes about a time when she has “earned” the right to give in to temptation. She requests a date to kiss Daniel… after she has remained loyal to Lou for 30 years. It’s not until Daniel responds with a vividly sexual monologue about what he would “do” to her, and ends it with a declaration of love, that she starts to realize that what she’s doing might not be quite so innocuous after all.

Though she’s not all that unusual in the real world, in cinema, Margot is a singular character. She’s lonely and discontented but she has been able to ignore these things up until now thanks to complacency in her marriage and the lack of a social support group. Her only friend besides Lou is her sister-in-law, Gertrude (Sarah Silverman). She can’t very well discuss her affair with someone who will certainly side with Lou. To make that friendship even more strained, Gertrude is attempting to overcome her addiction to alcohol, one angry step at a time. Though she offers a few nuggets of abstract wisdom, Gertrude cannot be anyone’s shoulder to cry on. With no one to talk her out of her escalating flirtation with Daniel, Margot instead continues to talk herself into it.

For my money, Michelle Williams is the most fascinating actress working today. She knows how to convey a million emotions in one frown. She’s movie star cute, but she’s also capable of conveying a very relatable chasm of despair. In the scant moments when Polley’s script stumbles, Williams uses her delivery to deftly smooth it over. In their first conversation, Margot confesses to Daniel that she is “afraid of connections.” Before you have time to groan, she explains that she’s referring to airport layovers. She becomes overwhelmed with the stress of it all, “wondering if I’ll miss it. I don’t like being in between things,” she says. “I’m afraid of being afraid.” In the hands of another actress, these lines, which smack of character Cliff’s Notes, would sound painfully forced. But Williams imbues them with depth. Later, in Daniel’s apartment, her body language tells us what the dialogue does not. There is no question as to why Daniel can’t get her out of his head. She doesn’t know what she needs but he wants to be the one to give it to her when she figures it out.

While this is most certainly the Michelle Williams show, the supporting cast holds its own. Delightfully, Seth Rogen returns to his “Freaks and Geeks” roots, choosing a dramatic performance with comedic undertones over the comedic performance with dramatic undertones that made him a household name. Sarah Silverman delivers a refreshing take on the struggling alcoholic character. Instead of wallowing in her affliction, she rages. She’s pissed off about her lot and she’s not afraid to be brutally honest about it. Luke Kirby occasionally comes off as cheesy and, as such, makes Daniel seem slightly untrustworthy. It might have been more effective to believe the attraction with someone a little more Ryan Gosling and a little less Matt LeBlanc. For the most part, however, the audience can’t help but see Daniel through Margot’s eyes, and in those moments that he’s making her swoon, her reaction feels completely justified.

Polley compliments her elegant script with her remarkable eye for detail. She peppers her scenes with minutiae that lend a borderline subliminal authenticity to her characters. In most movies, it seems like the characters have a different outfit for every day and they are flawlessly put together as if they have a personal stylist doing their hair and makeup every morning. Though they are relatively fashionable people, Margot, Lou and Daniel repeat clothes. The straps on Margot’s tank top are often twisted. We see sweat beading on their foreheads and backs and it looks, well, sweaty. Here, nudity isn’t used to titillate but to show familiarity between characters. As much as “Take This Waltz” is a morbid fairy tale, it is very much set in the real world.

Shot in the middle of a hazy, sweltering Toronto summer, Luc Montpellier’s cinematography at times exudes a feverish quality. He frequently uses tracking shots lending many scenes a poetic fluidity. His camera isn’t afraid to get right up into the faces of the characters. After all, their faces are where the action is. By the film’s conclusion, the audience feels as intimately acquainted with the characters as they are to each other.

Polley’s tremendous talent shines brightly in her second feature. She is clearly capable of great work. I’ve always enjoyed her performances on screen, but it is behind the camera that she truly flourishes.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).