Jeff Garlin deals with idiots on and off the baseball diamond in his second effort as a writer/director.
Dealin' With Idiots
Jeff Garlin's directorial debut I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With was a pleasant surprise: a scruffy, funny riff on the Oscar-winning 1955 classic Marty, which cast the Curb Your Enthusiasm ensemble player as a love-challenged sad-sack in present-day Chicago, the writer/director/star's hometown. Filmed on location in the Windy City and populated by Garlin's pals from the comedy world -- among them Bonnie Hunt, Amy Sedaris, Richard Kind and Sarah Silverman, who revealed a dramatic side that she later mined effectively in Take This Waltz -- Cheese's strident low-keyness helped it avoid becoming a vanity project. It's small and self-contained, but also honest and amusing in its depiction of romantic yearning. Garlin's follow-up, Dealin' With Idiots, is equally minor, but -- I'm sorry to say -- far less enjoyable.
Trading Chicago for Los Angeles, the movie stars Garlin as comedian Max Morris, who has signed his pre-teen son up for that beloved (by grown-ups anyway) childhood pastime, Little League. Max himself has fond memories of playing baseball as a kid, but his own child seems to lack the same level of enthusiasm. That might have something to do with the fact that his team's coaches (Bob Odenkirk and J.B. Smoove) are idiots, as are the parents of the other young players. After observing these nincompoops in their natural habitat, Max comes to think there may just be a movie to be made out of his experience as a Little League parent, so he goes about the process of interviewing his fellow adults, among them ultra-weird oddball Harold (Richard Kind, again), lesbian moms Sophie and Caitlin (Gina Gershon and Kerri Kenney-Silver) and money-challenged moocher Marty (Fred Willard). In between these conversations and observing his son flailing on the field, Max has fantasy interludes where he's reunited Field of Dreams-style with his own father (Timothy Olyphant, a terrific bit of casting largely because there's no way he and Garlin could ever be related) and comes to understand the kind of dad he wants to be.
And make no mistake, fatherhood is ultimately the main subject of Dealin' With Idiots, even if the movie approaches it in a roundabout way. Besides serving as extended comic sketches for Garlin and his various pals to riff off each other, the interview sequences are all designed to expose Max to different, dubious parenting styles or, as in the case of the two childless coaches, acting as an authority figure to kids. The final scene, in which Max and his kid finally have the kind of bonding-over-baseball moment he's hoped for all along, provides a sweetly amusing payoff, but getting there is slow-going and, worse still, not especially funny. Compared to the far more focused Cheese (not to mention any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm), Idiots meanders all over the place without a strong narrative throughline holding it all together. And while there's some minor pleasures to be had in the interactions between Garlin and the ensemble (the always-reliable Smoove is a particularly good foil), overall the comic chemistry is surprisingly weak for such an experienced team of comedians. Dealin' With Idiots just goes to show that, much like baseball players, it's all too easy for filmmakers to go through a slump now and then.
(Dealin' With Idiots is currently available via IFC on Demand.)
Just Like a Woman
Take the pioneering women-on-the-lam road movie Thelma & Louise and strip out the murder, the potent feminist rage and the propulsive, intensely dramatic narrative and you've got Just Like a Woman, a rambling trip to nowhere particularly interesting. Replacing Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis behind the wheel are Sienna Miller and Golshifth Farahani, who play a pair of working-class Chicago women from very different backgrounds (Miller's a receptionist who dreams of a career as a belly dancer, Farahani's a bodega employee from North Africa brought to America for an arranged marriage) but the same desire to abandon their going-nowhere lives (and useless husbands) for the chance to start over. Hearing about an opening at a belly dancing troupe based out of Santa Fe, Miller's Marilyn gets in her car and starts on the long trek south by southwest, picking up Farahani's Mona -- fleeing her home after a medication mix-up resulted in the accidental death of her hated mother-in-law -- along the way. While on their cross-country odyssey, the women bond, belly dance and brave various slings and arrows, from slimy restaurant owners to racist trailer trash. The American debut of French director Rachid Bouchareb (whose excellent 2006 war film Days of Glory scored a Best Foreign Language nomination), Just Like a Woman features some stunning backdrops of the rugged southwestern landscape, but doesn't place anything especially compelling in the foreground. We'd still pick Thelma and Louise's Thunderbird for our ride-along, thanks.
(Just Like a Woman is currently available via most On Demand services.)
I Declare War
One of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories is "The Playground," the eerie tale of a father who is so eager to protect his own son from the perils of being young -- perils that are represented by the neighborhood play area, where the kids bearing bruises, scars and the other red badges of childhood courage push and shove each other like wild animals -- that he eventually swaps bodies with the boy and takes all that playground punishment on his behalf. I thought about "The Playground" -- as well as, obviously, the William Golding classic "Lord of the Flies" -- a lot while watching I Declare War, a depiction of a simple childhood game of war that takes a very serious, very adult turn. The two pint-sized armies clashing here are led by very different personalities; on one side stands PK (Gage Munroe), a master tactician who applies some of the lessons he's gleaned from his favorite movie, Patton, to his own forest campaigns. Opposing him is Skinner (Michael Friend), a ticking time bomb of rage who doesn't mind playing fast and loose with the rules -- like taking PK's sidekick Kown (Siam Yu) hostage and treating him fairly brutally in the process -- if it will allow him to take out his enemy, with whom he has a somewhat tortured personal history. Also in the mix is the lone girl soldier (Mackenzie Munro) amidst an army of li'l dudes and Quinn, the guy she kinda likes and who kinda likes her back -- proof that love can blossom in the midst of war. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson admirably stand by their combat movie conceit, never allowing the cameras to leave the battlefield or permitting the intrusion of any grown-ups on this childhood squabble. And while no actual bullets are fired, the fight does get plenty pretend-bloody, with paint-filled balloons flying through the air upping the (pretend) body count. On the downside, I'm not sure that a feature runtime fits this slender scenario; the middle section of the film drags quite a bit as the theme of "kids can be monsters, too" is hit on the nose a little too hard, and not all of the young actors successfully acquit themselves to the unstudied naturalism the directors are chasing after. Like "The Playground," I Declare War might have been more potent, more memorable as a short story than a full-length novel.
(I Declare War will be available via most On Demand services starting July 26.)
The Time Being
Wes Bentley (remember him?) scores his first star vehicle in some time, playing a struggling painter who accepts a series of odd assignments from a wealthy recluse (Frank Langella) in order to earn the dough to support his wife and son. These assignments generally involve him filming people and places, like a seascape, a playground and, eventually, an art gallery where there's a woman (Sarah Paulson) who his employer wants him to pay particularly close attention to. (I won't give away the reason why here, but it's fairly easy to figure out.) Behind the camera, first-time director Nenad Cicin-Sain strives to treat the film frame like a painter's canvas, composing precise, balanced images and moving the camera -- when it moves at all -- with slow, steady grace. The style of the film helps compensate to a certain extent for its less-than-enthralling substance, which eventually reveals itself to be a dour, dispassionate mediation on absent fathers. And while Langella is an unfailingly focused and intense performer, Bentley mostly confuses glowering for acting. As a result, there's a big blank spot at the center of this particular cinematic painting.
Relegated to the B and C-movie margins ever since Battlefield Earth (itself a Z-grade movie with an A-grade budget) tanked over a decade ago, director Roger Christian revisits the sci-fi realm with this low-budget chamber thriller that basically transfers the premise of John Carpenter's seminal remake of The Thing to the Moon. After their lunar base is battered in a meteor storm, four moon-mining scientists (led by Christian Slater) are trapped inside, and the stress of the situation starts to affect their damn fool minds. Not helping matters is the fact that a sample collected from a meteorite contains some kind of alien substance that can clone things in comes in contact with, starting with a human baby and graduating to a human adult. Before you can say "R.J. MacReady," the quartet turns on each other, assuming (correctly) that one of them is no longer who he or she appears to be. To say that Stranded lacks the artistry of Carpenter's Thing would be putting it mildly. Instead of finding innovative ways to use his limited budget and contained setting, Christian shoots the film in the most generic way possible, practically emphasizing its bargain-basement roots. (Next to Stranded, Syfy's equally cheap Sharknado looks like it cost a hundred million dollars.) The acting isn't much better, with Slater barely even trying to replicate Kurt Russell's charisma and the rest of the ensemble leaving no discernable impression. If this was intended to be Christian's bid for a comeback, it's more likely to keep him stranded in the direct-to-video realm.
The Cheshire Muders
First Comes Love
HBO's annual summer documentary series keeps rolling along with two new and very different non-fiction features. Let's start with the true-crime doc The Cheshire Murders, which recounts the notorious 2007 home invasion in the picturesque small town of Cheshire, Connecticut that claimed the lives of three members of the Petit family, mother Jennifer and daughters Michaela and Hayley. (Only patriarch William Petit was left alive.) Trapped in their home by troubled ex-cons Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, the Petit family was subjected to physical abuse before the invaders set the house ablaze and were subsequently arrested by the police, who had -- according to some of the talking heads interviewed in the documentary -- been present on the scene for at least a half-hour while the invasion was still in progress. Both men were subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to death, although Connecticut's repealing of the death penalty suggests those executions will likely never happen. Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner secured the cooperation of William Petit and his extended family, who sit down for new interviews that are all the more wrenching for the subjects' carefully measured tone. (Neither of the invaders, nor representatives of local law enforcement -- who fall under some withering criticism for their handling of the situation -- participate, though.) As a film, The Cheshire Murders tries to do too much, cramming a profile of the criminals, a detailed account of the crime itself and, in its final act, a courtroom procedural that tiptoes around the subject of the death penalty, which Petit himself comes out in full-throated favor of and the filmmakers allow him the final say. Moving from true crime to true confessionals, Nina Davenport's First Comes Love is a home movie account of her deciding to become a single mom via artificial insemination, over the objections of her more traditionally-minded father, but the encouragement of her friends. Shot over a period of several years, the film begins with her initial decision and then goes on to capture the subsequent pregnancy, birth and life as a mom to an energetic toddler, while also touching on her desire to find a committed relationship. A disciple of pioneering cinematic essayist Ross McElwee, Davenport appears to move through life narrating her experiences in voiceover with a camera permanently attached to her hip, forcing those around her to interact with her through its lens. (They all seem used to it by now, but you can still catch the occasional looks of annoyance when Davenport badgers them with questions.) At times, that's as aggravatingly naval-gazing as it sounds, but the director's "Film everything!" approach also captures some lovely, intimate moments, particularly once her little bundle of joy is born. First Comes Love, much like parenthood, isn't for everybody, but if you're a member of the club, you'll relate to some of the things that Davenport experiences.
(The Cheshire Murders and First Comes Love will be available on HBO On Demand following their TV premieres on July 22nd and July 29th respectively.)
Also on VOD:
The outer space adventure Europa Report, starring District 9's Sharlto Copley is viewable ahead of its theatrical release date via Magnolia on Demand; Michael Cera ventures to Chile and meets Gaby Hoffman in the drug-tinged comedy Crystal Fairy, currently playing on IFC on Demand; and the unlikely duo of Robert De Niro and John Travolta square off in the action movie, Killing Season, available via most On Demand platforms.
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