Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

Dreams of Self-Discovery                     
by Zac Ryan

A luckless stand-up comic finds success after he confronts his inner demons in the entertaining Sleepwalk with Me.

Aspiring stand-up comic, Matt Pandamiglio (Mike Birbiglia), is at a crossroads in his life.  Instead of  landing the prime slots at the local comedy club, he watches from afar as he serves beverages to the paying crowd and unappreciative comedians after their set.  He recently moved into an apartment with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), his girlfriend of eight years to whom he's yet to pop the question.  It isn't that he's afraid of commitment, but that he's waiting for the moment "when nothing else good can happen in his life."  As pressure comes from all sides to settle down, Mike's rare REM Behavior Disorder rears its ugly head.

When he's not sleepwalking through his ho-hum life, he's running from jackals and any other creatures that decide to chase him in his sleep.  While most humans will lay quietly in their bed, Matt reacts physically in the real world to the dream he's having.  So to take care of the jackal problem, he kicks a garbage can in the corner into submission, not realizing the real life implications of his actions.  Thankfully something of this sort isn't so dangerous, but as Matt ventures out on the road and the pressure mounts, the serious nature and consequences of his dreams builds to life-threatening levels.  

Lauren Ambrose and Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia's script (co-written with Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia and Seth Barrish) is adapted from his successful off-Broadway one-man show and book of the same title.  When Mike made an appearance on NPR's This American Life, his tale of sleepwalking quickly became one of the show's top episodes.  It isn't that the story is particularly funny, but how Birbigilia comes across as a likable everyman.  And for the most part, as his character Matt, he comes across likable on screen.  Even when he speaks directly into the camera and forewarns the audience, "Remember, you're supposed to be on my side," before delving into one of his darker character moments.

But most of all it works. Even when he is manipulative and hiding the truth, you want to sit back and root for him to succeed.  You were privy to his early beginnings as a stand-up-slash-bartender, where the limited amount of stage time led to long bouts of uncomfortable silence, not only from the crowd on screen, but the audience in the theater.  It is Matt's passion to succeed, to show his girlfriend and his over-bearing parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn ) that he has the chops to make it.  Once he lucks out with an agent (Sondra James), not necessarily because he's funny, but because he has a car and willing to take under-paying gigs, he hits the road to get to that next step of fame.

Mike Birbiglia

While the money isn't great, the hotels aren't five-star worthy, and he's bombing every night, Matt is happy, or at least he appears to be on the outside.  One night after a horrific set, he confides in fellow comic Marc Maron about his relationship, his unhappiness, and finally, the true comedic side comes out.   Marc tells him that the honesty of his life is better than any of the other hack material in his stage act. So Matt runs with it.  As he gets more comfortable on stage, the laughs come fast and furious, but so do the dreams.  

Co-directed with Seth Barrish, the dreams sequences and pace continue building until the final big dream sends all Matt's worked for into flux.  The constant rising action of the dreams, Matt's career and home life come crashing down in a jaw-dropping third act change that hopefully hasn't been ruined by other viewers or the NPR episode.  When it happens there was an audible gasp in the theater, but knowing what was done and the man who wrote the script is on the screen in front of you, there is no doubt that he will survive.  But he comes out of the situation a changed man.  He's grown thanks to his dreams, his aspirations and finally free to be himself.  

While some of the early stand-up can be cringe-worthy, the film is chock full of laughs up until the third act.  The film is sure to be an instant crowd-pleaser, and hopefully turn many fans onto the hilarious stand-up of Mike Birbiglia.   

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Intouchables

Bridging Worlds                                  
by Mark Dispenza

In a world bombarded with news of ethnic hatred and violence, The Intouchables is a welcome respite that offers hope.

Based on a true story from which the French writer-director team of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have taken some obvious liberties, The Intouchables is nonetheless a crowd-pleaser that is guaranteed to warm the hearts of all but the most cynical.

Philippe, played by Francois Cluzet, has been rendered a quadriplegic following a hang gliding accident.  While he has begun to come to terms with and accept his condition, he is less than pleased with a succession of caregivers who insist on treating him like a helpless child.  Philippe may be paralyzed, but he's not done living yet.

Enter Driss, played flamboyantly by Omar Sy, an African immigrant.  The only reason Driss shows up to apply for the job is to get turned down yet again, so he can continue to qualify for public assistance.  He has failed so many times in winning over potential employers that now he assumes the task is impossible.  Play the system and survive another day.  That's his mantra.  Driss no longer goes to employment interviews on his best behavior.  He behaves as outlandishly as possible, so he can get turned down quickly and be on his way.

But it's that very irreverence that attracts Philippe, and against the better judgement of his household staff, he makes the unlikely hire.  Philippe comes from a world of wealth and privilege.  Driss comes from poverty and struggle.  As the story unfolds each learns about the world of the other, and a lasting bond of friendship develops beyond the employer-employee dynamic.

Anne Le Ny, Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy

The story is in many ways predictable and sometimes a bit over the top, but it's hard not to get caught up in the film's feel-good aura.  In a time when the headlines around the world make it seem that tolerance and understanding are a lost art, The Intouchables gives us a small, human-scale relationship that is not without conflict, but ultimately surmounts all obstacles and thrives.

Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet

There's not a lot to say about the story, as it's simple and has obvious mass appeal, especially judging from its worldwide box office so far.  The reason the film works so well despite it's predictability is that it is very well made.  The cinematography is beautiful, the acting is first-rate and the directors' story-telling choices are good ones.  There is a rumor that it will be remade in the US.  I'm not surprised.

The Intouchables is currently in release in the US - in French with English subtitles.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


The Power of Authority                                
by Zac Sanford

Compliance is a terrifying tale, although not a horror film, that delves deep into the human psyche and how far someone will go when provoked by authority figures.  Not all too dissimilar from the Milgram Experiment of the 1960's, the film is based on actual events that took place at a McDonalds in Kentucky that pushed events so far down the rabbit hole that one victim was humiliated and sexually assaulted.  The power to please authority figures and the hierarchy of power is explored in great detail.

In the quiet suburban town in which the film is set, with the names and locations changed, Chick-Wich manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is already starting her day off on the wrong foot.  The night before an employee left a freezer open, spoiling $12,000 in goods.  On top of it all, someone from corporate may be swinging by later to do a store inspection on what is usually one of the busiest days.  In the morning staff meeting, accusations are made and the idea of the pending visit sets forth the power struggle that is prevalent through the film.

Dreama Walker

During the early morning rush, Sandra is pulled away to take a phone call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy).  He states that he has a woman with him that claims one of the employees stole something from her purse, so he needs Sandra to pull the offending employee aside.  He doesn't throw a name, but she quickly throws the younger, and troublesome Becky (Dreama Walker) under the bus by name, giving the officer all the ammo he needs to pull his sham.  And what unfolds is truly disturbing, disgusting, and will leave many viewers questioning Sandra's actions and compliance to the officer on the phone. 

Healy is pulling a prank, claiming to be an officer of the law, to see how far he can push Sandra.  Sandra complies and pulls Becky into the stock room in the back.  Locked away from the customers and the other employees, Daniels claims he has her supervisor on the other line, and with the crime caught and seen on the security cameras, she follows his every command.  She digs through Becky's belongings, and when the loot isn't uncovered, she is told to strip search Becky.  This would be a red-flag to most people that things are going too far, and the start of the unraveling.  Sandra believes the authority, and Daniels always has an answer any time she questions him.

Ann Dowd

When Sandra feels things are going a little further than she feels comfortable with, considering there's a naked subordinate under her control, Daniels has her pull in other employees, hoping to push the crime even further.  The minimum wage employee that she pulls back is one of the few that questions the actions and authority, but for some reason he doesn't act on it, pulling Sandra back into the situation.  Sandra doesn't have time for this, considering it is the busiest time in the restaurant, so Daniels asks if there's anyone else who can watch over Becky.  Sandra calls in her fiance, who takes the situation to such extreme levels that it will make viewers squirm in their seat and want to yell at the screen.

But the officer always has an answer for those who question his authority.  Why isn't he there?  How much longer will it be?  How much further will they have to go in this ordeal?  In the Milgram Experiment, the test subjects were forced to shock someone on the other side of the wall whenever they answered a question incorrectly.  The subjects would hear pain and suffering on the other side, but they still would comply with the authority figure.  What is within the human mind that allows someone to suffer the power of authority?  That experiment and this movie don't really answer the question.  Instead we are shown their pain and anguish as they see (or hear) obvious human suffering.  Most would rather someone else suffer than have the strong-arm of the law come crashing down on them.

Craig Zobel's script plays out in a taut 90 minutes, with constant escalating events and depravity.  Some may call this torture porn, not in the physical sense (even if it does go there in some ways), but more on the emotional level.  His camera is in close, capturing the excruciating pain as characters must choose between being compliant and questioning their own morality.  Dowd plays the perfect manager, caught in the middle of what's right and wrong, constantly searching her own emotions and doing what may or may not be right.  Dreama Walker, most recently known for her light-hearted turn in the TV series,The B---- in Apartment 23, plays the opposite spectrum of her television character.  She's naked, or barely covered in an apron for a good part of the movie, and emotionally raw, as she has no way to counteract her superiors.

Pat Healy

Healy perfectly pulls off the mastermind behind the operation.  He's not a witness to the crime taking place, instead he's at his own distance, garnering some sort of joy through the voices on the other end of the line.  He's not sexually aroused, or at least he's not playing it that way.  There's no heavy breathing or signs of satisfaction in his game.  He's calm, cool and collected. 

The film, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, was marred with claims of exploitation and has had several walk-outs in screenings across the country.  All one has to do is  to question authority and things would not go as far as they do, but no one does until the situation has hit its peak.  Why, as humans, are we such sheep.  While you might be sitting back in your chair questioning the actions unfolding on screen, would you do anything different in their situation playing out in real time?  There's no way to know

Just like Mark's review for Killer Joe, this is a film that will divide audiences.  Not in the same dark comedic sense, but mainly by those who feel they are smarter than those in this film.  The walk outs and the vocal response during screenings has been harsh and critical, but as the film claims over the closing credits, similar crimes have been committed over seventy times over the course of a decade.  It may make you weep for humanity, not just those who pull the sick prank, but those who comply.  In the end, just like with the Occupy movement, maybe Compliance will lead to a deeper discussion of the power of authority and how much control it should have.

The film is currently playing in limited release and available on VOD.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Robot & Frank

Small Time Crooks                         
by Zac Sanford

An award caliber performance by Frank Langella makes Robot & Frank one of the fall's first must-see films. His character choices as Frank are nuanced, sending him from on-set dementia to finding the passion he once had, leaving him little to play off against but the Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard).

Set in the not-so-distant future, Robot & Frank is more character-driven drama than Sci-Fi spectacle.  If it wasn't for the futuristic bits of technology smattered about, this film could have taken place in the present day.  Cell phones and home tech are more about the visual and less about the message.  The library is undergoing a renovation as the need for printed books is going the way of the compact disc and DVD.  Frank is an old man living in a new digital world.

Frank Langella

And within the world, Frank refuses to accept the changes around him.  Maybe he isn't adapting to change, but it is happening so rapidly around him that his fragile memory seems incapable of keeping up.  Frank wanders into shops and restaurants looking for what was once there.  Instead he's ushered out, but not before he can slip a keepsake within his bag.   You see, Frank was once a small-time crook, so maybe his mind isn't slipping as much as others believe.

His son, James Marsden, is tired of helping his father out of binds with the ever increasing memory lapses.  Like any good son he wants the best for his father in his old age, so he brings a Robot into his life.  Frank relents but refuses to to play along.  The Robot is there for his well being and will do anything to make sure Frank's life is a pleasant one to the end.  He cooks Frank a breakfast of organic foods to help with his health.  Plus he wants to keep Frank busy, taking him on walks as a "busy brain helps make a healthy mind."

Frank Langella and Liv Tyler

Once Frank realizes he is able to use the Robot's razor-thin programming to his advantage, he decides to get back into the game.  If he's going to be active, it won't be walking along the hills on the outskirts of town. Instead he will use the Robot as his eyes, ears and lock-picking cohort.  Together they will create the ultimate bond of friendship between man and machine.

But it isn't just all robberies and getting Frank back on the health-kick.  Frank is lonely, and he sees his one passion for books coming to an end.  At a party for the rich and snooty, Frank brings the Robot to the re-imagining of the library, where we see that even the Robot is an advanced line of technology, as the out-dated robot at the library is soon to be devoid of any use.  There's multiple layers at work in the script by Christopher D. Ford.  Besides the caper and the memory lapse, Frank's other child, played by Liv Tyler, is at the opposite spectrum to his son.  She's always off in some other country trying to bring forth a better society.  She's even against the Robot aid and will do anything to stop it.

Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella

But the scenes that shine through the most are those with Frank and the Robot playing off one another.  It's a buddy comedy set against the back drop of what could be a very bleak existence for Frank.  Frank won't go quietly, and his performance should easily shine through come award season if the film doesn't get lost in the shuffle of heavy hitters later in the year.

Robot & Frank, directed by first-timer Jake Schreier, is meticulously crafted, never devolving into the melodramatic.  He brings an interesting twist to a tired formula of a character slowly slipping into the mental void.  You can only hope that Frank succeeds against the wealthy, robbing from the rich, even if he doesn't give it to the poor.  There may not be many chances left for Langella to win the golden statue, but this may be his best yet.