Archive for April, 2018

I am trying to build a narrative here, so if you’re waiting for my take on Trainwreck or Kong: Skull Island or something a little more mainstream, don’t worry. We’ll get there. If you really don’t care, then this is the column for you.

In 2015, Jake Johnson cashed in on his newfound “New Girl” fame and made Digging for Fire with Joe Swanberg, best known for… nothing. No, I’m kidding. Apparently, he’s known for little indie movies with a lot of improvisation, which includes this one. I assume that because no studio would make this movie. That does not necessarily mean it’s bad, and it does have a lot of famous people in it (including Larson, Anna Kendrick, and Sam Rockwell), but it’s just not something that a studio would care to make. And who could blame them?

Digging for Fire, as I wrote in my previous post last year, is about, “young parents Johnson and Rosemarie Dewitt who are hitting all kinds of ruts, financially, romantically and just in general feeling old and grumpy as they house-sit for a much-richer couple. She and their young son go to spend a weekend with her mother so they can have some Me time.” Yes, I quoted myself, because you probably didn’t click the link, right? Before I begin my rant, let it be known that the New York Post called it a “hilarious, existential treasure.”  You believe them, right?

Anyway, on to the Me-Time weekend; Johnson spends his partying and getting high with his buddies, while she spends it getting seduced by Orlando Bloom. There’s also a storyline that Johnson found an old gun and a human bone buried in the greenery on the property, and becomes convinced that there’s a whole body there somewhere. So he digs and digs (hence the title), which is the actual impetus for his wife to spend the weekend elsewhere. He also blows off his taxes to dig for a body that’s probably not there, which I guess is supposed to tell us something about obsession or whatever. All it really tells me is that Hollywood filmmakers don’t know much about how real people live. (More on that later.)

MV5BOTdkMGMwYzktOTFkOC00MThiLWE5OTAtNDc0YWUzODcyMzE3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjIxNDE0OTE@._V1_

Since this is supposed to be about Brie Larson, I should tell you that she plays “Max,” one of the young co-eds that Johnson’s Moloid friends invited over to trash this rich couple’s house. Since most of these guys are old college buddies but are older and married now, there are levels of partyers there, from the stereotypical jerk who never really stopped partying, to the other jerk who is a total stick-in-the-mud. Johnson is somewhere in-between, but his digging obsession kind of takes up most of his limited brainpower, anyway. Larson is the only one who sees the lure of finding a real, live dead body, and that draws them together a little. To the filmmaker’s credit, there is a story here. Apparently, because they are men, they had written in the story outline that Larson’s character flirts with Johnson and there’s a bit of intrigue regarding whether or not they will have sex with each other. Larson rightly pointed out to them that, according to a Vulture article, by way of this dude’s blog, “‘I would not be sexually attracted to a married man with a 5-year-old who’s digging in his backyard.’” But the mystery and sense of adventure bring her back the next day. She ends up going to dinner with Johnson, and they share some moments, which mostly consist of him complaining about how his life as a high school gym teacher wasn’t really what he had in mind when he was growing up (No duh!).  I think we’re also supposed to see that her young, fancy-free lifestyle is alluring to him because he’s so old and passed his prime, because he’s 37. I’m really giving this story too much credit by delving into it that deep, though. Basically, he whines and she listens, which is pretty much all he wants because his wife has probably heard it all already, and she’s got problems of her own.

Ah, yes, the wife. Sadly, since this was written by men, she sort of gets relegated to the B-storyline. While visiting her family, DeWitt (who played Midge Daniels on Mad Men, if you need a reference. I know I did.) decides to head out to a nice bar and enjoy some time by herself. Of course, she is accosted by a belligerent drunk, and rescued by a handsome stranger played by Orlando Bloom, because of course, right? A guy who looks like Orlando Bloom is a single man living in L.A. in 2015. And not a douche. Orlando gets punched for his troubles, and he and DeWitt end up hanging out some more because she feels bad for causing his handsome face to get pounded. They, in fact, share a very intimate walk on the beach, which I again covered last year in my previous post, and said, after that “even I wanted to jump him.”

In the end, DeWitt resists Bloom, and Johnson had no shot with Larson, anyway, and they return to each other with a renewed understanding of their relationship, and hopefully an interest in doing their taxes. Do I have to write any further about the on-the-nose casting of this movie? Brie Larson as the young girl that Johnson clearly wants to have sex with, Orlando Bloom as the handsome and extremely gentlemanly gent that DeWitt probably should have sex with, and Sam Rockwell as the obnoxious friend. I guess they wanted to show how strong-willed our protagonists were to be able to resist temptation, but let’s face it, who would have faulted DeWitt for cheating on her idiot husband with this beautiful man?

orlando-bloom-is-digging-for-fire

Casting aside, I feel like this is the screenplay version of motel room art. It’s technically good, and the structure is fine, and if a lot of the dialogue was indeed improvised, good on them because that is pretty hard, but they should have just let Brie Larson handle the whole thing after her suggestion. It was good that they listened, but there’s still a little too much “man” stuff going on for it to work. I do get that married people, especially young parents, probably do face periods where things get rocky. And yes, no one wants to be a gym teacher. And yes, people do get tempted to take a walk on the wild side. All of that happens in here, and it’s very realistic. And yet, somehow I still don’t buy it.

One more quote from myself (You really might as well have just clicked the link): “because filmmakers are really doughy-eyed, Johnson and Dewitt resist all urges and realize that all they really want is each other, and to raise their child as they see fit and to Hell with the pressures of the world (Yay!)” It’s not that I didn’t buy that they were able to resist cheating and resist the lure of digging or whatever Johnson was doing, but I just really didn’t care all that much, and I almost wished they did cheat, just to give the story a little more teeth. Instead, we got this very happy little Raymond Carver story that wraps up all nice at the end.  I mean, they never even found a body buried in the ground. Nothing dramatic really happened, at all. I feel like if I had submitted this in some screenwriting workshop, that’s the feedback I would have gotten. And hopefully, that’s what they did get, because this totally seems like the kind of screenplay that someone would write for one of those horrible workshops.

This is what I was getting at earlier about filmmakers in Hollywood not knowing how real people live. Yes, all the things that happened in this movie can and do happen to people, but how the characters reacted wasn’t very believable, or even interesting. I’m not asking for a movie to reinvent the wheel, but I am looking for some reason to make the 90 minutes I just spent watching your movie seem worthwhile. Passion projects are great, and everyone should definitely get to see their dream movie get made, and that’s what most indie movies are. But if your dream movie doesn’t really have a lot to say other than, “Sometimes, love wins,” then maybe just jazz it up a bit to make it worth it.

So, unless you’re endeavoring to watch all of Brie Larson’s movies, you can definitely skip this one. But this same year would see the release of both Trainwreck and Room, so things were looking up for her, and those who follow her.

 

Yeah, I went there. Just so people know that I am not just gushing about every Brie Larson movie with the project, I am writing about the Miles Teller-Shailene Woodley high school drama-fest The Spectacular Now, which for some reason took Sundance by storm a couple years ago. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.12009008_1050x1400

Of course I understand that a 40-something male is not the target audience for this movie, but I will get into my real problems with it in a moment. First off, why did a 40-something male even watch it? Well, I’ll tell you that much now. As stated many times before, in 2017, I endeavored to watch as many movies as possible to see, well, something, and I ended up watching a couple Brie Larson movies in a row at one point, totally by accident. So, to just continue the trend, I figured I’d watch a few more and give it the fancy name of The Brie Larson Experiment, because it had a better ring to it than “A Year of Movies.” But while writing about it, I didn’t always actually cover her movies (In fact, I rarely did.) So, that’s where we are now. And since I had to sit through this one, I might as well get a post out of it.

Before I sink my teeth into this movie, and bite its head off, I will say that there’s nothing really wrong with Ms. Larson’s performance in it, and out of all the characters, hers is probably the most believable. But that’s only because the other characters are so cookie-cutter that they come off as silly. If you haven’t seen it, there are literal spoilers ahead and by that, I don’t mean I will spoil the movie by giving away the plot, but I will spoil it for you because I will explain why it’s not good.)

The ridiculously named Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a hard-drinking, hard-partying, directionless high school senior with no plans for the future, which is apparently where they derived the title from, but I just got that now. IMDB’s description describes as “a budding alcoholic,” but I’m pretty sure he’s all the way there. He is pretty much always drinking out of a booze-ified Big Gulp. Now, far be it from me to judge someone’s drinking, but after a couple scenes, it just gets gross. So much so that even his girlfriend, Cassidy (Larson), who is the portrayed as the school’s “hot girl.,” thinks that he’s a bum. Here’s one of their brilliant exchanges:

Cassidy : But you can’t go around having fun all the time. You have to be serious.
Sutter : I am serious. I’m one hundred percent serious!
Cassidy : About what?
Sutter : About… *not* being serious!

According to the dialogue, though, he *really* liked her:

 tumblr_mxyg3qzuLE1rlb6iho2_400

Despite all of this, Cassidy dumps him, which sends him on a bender (surprise!), after which he wakes up on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Woodley), who is apparently “different,” because she’s nice. Even though they are classmates, and he doesn’t even know her name, she agrees to tutor him in Geometry, because he’s failing. As he begins to learn more about her, like that she’s actually funny, and nerdy, he decides to invite her to a party, where he is spurned by Cassidy again. He takes a walk with Aimee, and they get drunk from his flask, and more corruption ensues, as we find out that she’s never been drunk, or had any fun, in her life. He wakes up the next day with a hangover, and realizes he asked her to the prom. It’s basically a less-funny episode of Three’s Company. Even better than that, when they do end up going to the prom, he buys her a flask. I thought most guys just bought flowers, but maybe I’m old-school.

Nice Aimee and Drunk Sutter begin hooking up, and he starts to finally understand how stupid he is. They then make goofy teenage pacts to stand up to their horrible mothers. She goes with him to meet his also-drunk father. When that goes awry, they get into a fight on the drive home when she tells him that she loves him and he tells her that he’s an angry teenager whose parents don’t love him (Well, not literally, but close enough.) He tells her to get out of the car because he doesn’t deserve her, and she gets HIT BY A CAR! Damned if he wasn’t right on that one. Turns out she just broke her arm, but because their love is so transcendent, like all teenage flings, she forgives him.

After graduation, it all hits the fan for Sutter, as Aimee is going to school in Philadelphia, Cassidy is going to California with her new man, and Sutter is… going to a bar. That’s not even me being snarky. He actually goes to a bar, after driving passed poor Aimee, who was waiting at the bus stop for him so they could go to Philly together. He leaves the bar drunk, totals a mailbox, gets into a fight with his mother, who tells him that he’s a good boy. Which was apparently all he needed because he then decides to complete his months-late college essay, just for kicks, and drive to Philadelphia to be reunited with his love. What the Hell? It worked for Will Hunting. Although I’m sure she dumped him after a few months when she realized what a depressed, backwoods hayseed he really was.

So, there are obviously a lot of themes at play here; alcoholism, family issues, teen love/sex, car accidents. Typical of most teenage dramas, really, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just like all action movies have a hero and a villain and explosions, most high school romances have some unrequited love and a whole lot of “Come away with me to some paradise where I’m going to college.” This movie isn’t bad because it’s typical. It’s bad because it goes way over-the-top with the drama, and doesn’t spend any time with the details, like actual reality.

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I know that teenagers have their ways of procuring booze, and maybe I’m nitpicking a little, but seriously, this kid drinks a lot of booze. Like, a lot. Where does he get it, and where does he even get the money to buy it? He’s a senior in high school, for God’s sake. I guess we can assume he has a fake ID or whatever, but for someone with such a baby face to be able to acquire that much alcohol, and not just from a store but for him to be allowed into bars and served, is just preposterous. If everyone in this town was that lax about the rules, the entire high school would be dead from alcohol poisoning. Except for Aimee, I guess. Which is a whole other issue I had. Why would I root for this dickhead who corrupted and de-virginized this innocent girl, caused her to almost die twice, and then it’s all good because he finally followed her to college? When he was driving drunk near the end, I was actually hoping he would get into an accident and die. At least then he would be able to corrupt anyone else.

I wonder if I dislike this movie this much because it reminds me of something from my own life. Not the drinking, no, but the tone is eerily similar to a movie that I worked on back in 2001 in Huntington, IN, the birthplace of Dan Quayle. (Side note: if anyone I worked on that movie with happens to be reading this, I apologize if it offends you, but really, you should be apologizing to me.)

The story is back in the summer of 2001, my girlfriend was cast as the lead in a movie that was being directed by a friend of hers who had just directed her in a stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank. So, off to rural Indiana we went to do a little guerrilla filmmaking. Technically, I wasn’t really part of the crew, but my girlfriend wasn’t too keen on going alone, and I did have some filmmaking experience, not that it mattered to these people. Mostly, I just carried stuff.

My girlfriend played the Aimee role, Anna, and a guy named Matt (annoyingly) was the Sutter, or Elai in this case. In addition to starring in it, he also wrote it, which was also kind of annoying, because he didn’t even know his own lines. He wasn’t a heavy drinker, thankfully, although there was one bar scene. Like The Spectacular Now, this film, which was originally called A Universe Emerging, involved the brooding anti-hero and the nice girl falling in love. Unlike The Spectacular Now, the nice girl died of leukemia. Actually, it was leukemia in the original script, but in the end, I think they changed it to just some unnamed disease, probably because no one knew any of the actual symptoms of leukemia. It wasn’t the worst script in the world, although it could have used a polish, and after all was said and done, A Universe Emerging was probably at least as good as The Spectacular Now, But I never saw it, and I don’t know if anyone did, so I’ll never know.

But what really bothers me all these years later is not three weeks of sixteen-hour days in sweltering Indiana, or the fact that I never saw the fruits of my labor, but what bothers me was that Matt the Writer/Star turned out to be a colossal prick. Here was an entire crew of people, who had taken time out of their lives, some of whom were not getting paid (myself and my girlfriend included), to make this guy’s dream come true, and here he was acting exactly like the selfish asshole that he was portraying in the movie. And here I was, 16 years later, having to endure that same kind of selfish asshole. The kind of person who writes (and names) characters like Elai is probably the same type of person writes characters like Sutter. People who have been selfish assholes usually write themselves into their work, because that’s what they know. I’ll give them this; at least they’re self-aware.

original

Now, I’m sure that there are people much younger and less cynical than I who love this movie to death, and yes, there are people who have tattooed lines of dialogue on themselves:

BuH4VAWCYAEpfBn

I bear no ill will to these people. Hell, I still love The Breakfast Club, and that probably seemed pretty stupid to adults at the time. But I do caution them, because in a few years, they might realize it’s not as good as they thought (Like I did with this movie). When a movie has to try this hard to get you to feel something, it’s probably a sign that there’s something missing, and the writer needs to cover for it.

The only character to come out of it unscathed, and not alcoholic (that we can see), is Cassidy. She ends up with the handsome Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi, better known as Thresh in Hunger Games) and pulls a Springsteen by getting the Hell out of that place. Cassidy and Sutter do share one final, nice moment, however. When she informs him that she and Marcus are heading to California, he suggests that maybe he will come visit sometime. She rightly tells him that it would be a bad idea, but not to worry, “You’ll always be my favorite ex-boyfriend.” Which was the most he could have hoped for, under the circumstances.

giphy

 

Still, she followed this with another supporting role in Don Jon in 2013, and then starred in Short Term 12, which was the movie that got her noticed by a lot of people, and was at least a better story than, “‘Dis kid drinks a lot.” She worked pretty steadily through 2014 until the big break in Room in 2015, and the rest is history.