pop culture · reviews

Movie Review: Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)


Dee Dee Blanchard and her chronically ill daughter Gypsy Rose moved to Springfield, MO after Hurricane Katrina, and it was there that Gypsy Rose became something of an internet celebrity. Charming, adorable, and certainly someone who had overcome a life full of pain and suffering, she was a perfect candidate for inspiration porn. Her ailments included leukemia, muscular dystrophy, and delayed brain development.  In June of 2015, Dee Dee was found murdered in their home and Gypsy Rose was gone. A short while later, Gypsy Rose posted on Facebook “That Bitch is Dead,” and then the most shocking reveal of all: Gypsy Rose wasn’t sick at all. A victim of Munchausen by Proxy syndrome, Gypsy Rose had suffered for over 20 years at the hands of her mother.

This smart, accessible documentary by Erin Lee Carr examines the life of Gypsy Rose, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for orchestrating the murder of her mother. The documentary answers questions almost as fast as viewers can formulate them in their brains: when did Gypsy Rose know that she wasn’t really sick? Why did this escape the notice of so many doctors for so many years? What about Gypsy Rose’s absent father? And on and on. The film doesn’t shy away from examining these questions, and because they provide so much insight from the family as well as medical professionals, the result is very successful.

Of course, the subject itself is compelling all on its own. Even though it’s clear that Gypsy Rose was the mastermind behind the murder, she didn’t actually carry it out. She left that to her online boyfriend, a man named Nick. Also, since Gypsy Rose had lived her whole life being told she was sick when she was not, how can she even distinguish between what is real and what is not? These questions don’t have such clear-cut answers, but the ride is worth it anyway.

Coming in at a slim 82 minutes, this film is worth watching for any true crime fan, whether they be an obsessive consumer of the macabre or a more casual viewer.  It’s gripping stuff, excellently done, and it stays with you long after the movie has finished. There’s also this excellent piece by Michelle Dean about the mother-daughter duo, and it helps shed even more insight into the whole bizarre event.

pop culture · reviews

Movie Review: What If (2013)

what if

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is stuck in his life when he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party.  The two bond over a fridge full of magnetic poetry and immediately hit it off.  But Chantry has a boyfriend and asks if the two can still be friends.  Despite being in love with her, Wallace agrees, wondering if he can set aside his feelings for her and actually be her friend.  Originally titled The F Word and adapted from a play called Toothpaste and Cigars, the film was directed by Michael Dowse.

It’s important to know right off the bat that this might be the best romantic comedy in the past decade.  Hailed as some as the millennial version of When Harry Met Sally, it’s impossible not to see the connections between the films.  Both feature a set of opposite sex friends who dance around their feelings for one another, and both do it well, with plenty of witty banter and fully-realized characters.  The shame here is that this film isn’t better known, because it’s so much damn fun.

The film is adorable (and it knows it), and while that might be off-putting to some viewers, the two leads help temper the whimsy and cutesy aspects of the movie very well.  Both Radcliffe and Kazan are excellent here.  Radcliffe’s nervous energy and wry delivery of his lines makes for a man who is both appealing and very realistic.  Kazan’s huge doe-eyed illustrator could easily fall into the manic-pixie trap but doesn’t.  Chantry’s a fully-realized woman who struggles with her feelings and her fears and is given ample time in the script to do so.  The two leads are charming and witty and absolutely ooze chemistry.

The movie is predictable, sure: it’s a romantic comedy, after all.  But what the film succeeds so well on is taking an existing formula and allowing its actors to take it in a new direction.  The story is grounded in realistic characters and realistic, relatable situations.  The result is a satisfying, heart-warming romance.  This film is so much fun that it’s impossible not to root for the two leads, even as they struggle with their feelings about one another.

Highly, highly recommended. I loved this one.


pop culture · reviews

Movie Review: Drinking Buddies (2013)

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are co-workers at a Chicago microbrewery, and they’re also great friends.  It’s clear that the two like each other a great deal, and their sexual tension simmers just below the surface, but neither one of them acts on it.  And why would they?  They’re both dating other people.  Kate’s time is spent with a wealthy older man named Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke has been with his sweet girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) for a very, very long time.  But over the course of several weeks, the dynamic between these four changes.  Along the way, they consume a lot of beer.

The first thing you should know is that this film, written and directed by Joe Swanberg, didn’t have a written script.  Almost entirely improvised from a detailed, original outline by Swanberg, the film succeeds largely because of the crazy, insane chemistry of the cast.  Seriously, the four actors that make up the majority of this movie share some of the best onscreen chemistry you’ll see this year, if not ever.  Their ability to work off of one another and improvise without over-thinking their characters’ motivations make this movie completely riveting, and completely genuine.

Although the general premise of the film is one we have seen before, it’s been a while since it was approached with such nuance.  The fact that both of the stars are in happy relationships adds an interesting paradox to what is transpiring onscreen.  The heat between Kate and Luke is safe as long as they are paired off with other people.  When Kate finds herself alone, though, Luke has to start to question whether or not he wants to be with the woman he loves or the woman that he could, maybe, love.

This is not a plot-driven movie.  It’s not even really all that driven by its characters, so if you’re looking for a fast-paced comedy or a raucous romp with these incredibly talented actors, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  What this movie really does is fully examine a single scenario, and the result is so real and so fascinating that it’s impossible to look away. So much of that credit has to be given to the actors, who really shine in their roles.

Johnson is the standout here, as he proves yet again that he’s a great, versatile actor.  He does a lot of the heavy lifting, but he’s helped out by his castmates.  Wilde is absolutely luminous in her most accessible role to date, as an assertive and strong female unafraid to instigate trouble and knock back more than a few craft beers.  Kendrick is also notable for a much more subdued role than is her normal fare, and Livingston is too damn good for you to dislike him.

It’s a few days later, and I’m still thinking about this one.  I’m still thinking about the characters, and the powerful performances of the cast.  This is one that will stay with me, and it’s one I plan on revisiting–soon.

Drinking Buddies is out now on iTunes, Amazon, and other VOD services.  It will be released theatrically in late August.

pop culture · reviews

Movie Review: Hello I Must Be Going (2012)

Amy Minsky (Melanie Lysnkey) is in her thirties and fresh out of a marriage she didn’t want out of.  She’s back home with her image-conscious parents in their Connecticut home, and she’s a total mess.  When she meets Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), the 19-year-old son of one of her dad’s prospective clients, the two begin a steamy, secret affair and end up discovering themselves in the process.

This quiet, contemplative indie debuted at Sundance last year, and yet it manages to circumvent a lot of the quirky indie tropes that plague so many movies similar to this one.  Through it’s stellar cast performances and quiet, wry script, the movie ends up being a surprising little gem that you’ve never heard of.  This is definitely a title to seek out–it’s well worth your time.

For once, Melanie Lynskey gets to break out of her traditionally character-bit-part roles and shine as the film’s star.  She’s luminous onscreen, and watching her slowly peel away the layers of her depression and start to realize her own worth is amazing.  It’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen.  You can’t help but root for her, and hope that she’ll find her way–and herself–eventually.

She’s matched in talent and intensity by Abbott, who manages to create a 19-year-old boy who is searching for something just as much as Lynskey’s character.  Instead of going full-on brooding, though, Abbott creates a quiet intensity in his character that makes him all the more sympathetic.  It doesn’t hurt that the two of them have excellent chemistry, either.

The supporting cast is good and the movie doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.  Viewers should pretty  much know what they’re in for once the movie starts, but that doesn’t make it a less enjoyable experience.  Lynskey and Abbott are so good, and the movie’s rising action so satisfying, that this is one it would be hard not to enjoy.



pop culture · reviews

Movie Review: Children of a Lesser God (1986)

James Leeds (William Hurt) is an unconventional speech teacher who arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine to teach at a deaf school.  There he meets a beautiful but stubborn janitor named Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), whose refusal to speak or learn to read lips baffles him. As the two embark on a romance, they must learn to speak the other’s language or face the fact that they’ll never be able to truly communicate.

Adapted from Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning play of the same name, Children of a Lesser God is an uneven movie that showed a great deal of promise before ultimately falling into some well-trodden cliches.  A stellar cast and fascinating look into Deaf culture can’t save the movie from being problematic, dated, and more than a little trite.  However, there’s a lot to examine within the film’s content.

The movie is essentially about tension between two people who speak different languages: James lives in the world of the hearing, and Sarah lives in a world of silence.  At times, the two seem to be at war with one another: James wants Sarah to learn to read lips and to speak, and Sarah is adamant that James enter and accept her world of silence.  This war doesn’t go very far, though, because the movie is only showing one side: James’s.

So, yes, the movie chooses to live in the world of the hearing, and it does so with an interesting strategy: subtitles are never used in the film.  Instead of ever allowing viewers to experience what Sarah experiences, the film has James translate everything that she signs, narrating her experience with his own voice.  At one point, he states, “I like to hear my own voice,” and it’s the line that helps pull off the premise.  And at the same time, it makes the film about him, because it only features his point of view.  Because of this, Sarah becomes the woman who is simply a stubborn object that must be conquered.  She is the problem that must be fixed.  And that might be the most frustrating thing about this movie, because it’s trying so hard to convince viewers that the opposite is happening.

There are some good things here.  Both Hurt and Matlin are excellent in their roles.  Matlin was only 21 when she made the film (it was her first) and more than holds her own against Hurt, who is convincing and powerful as the impassioned (if misguided) speech teacher.  A supporting performance by Piper Laurie as Sarah’s mother is also very good (although it’s somewhat of a thankless role).

The cast can’t make up for the film’s overall predictability, though.  The love story plays out exactly as viewers will expect it to, and although the chemistry between Matlin and Hurt is great (the two were involved in real life for a long time and had a very tumultuous relationship), they can’t save the movie from falling into every romantic drama trope there is.

Still worth a watch, if only for being one of the first movies to feature a deaf actress in a lead role.  The movie’s available on Netflix Instant for a few more days and can be found on DVD.


Movie Review: Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been friends since high school and are the perfect married couple.  They have the same sense of humor, love to hang out with each other, and understand one another perfectly.  All of this is why their friends can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that the two are separated–and have been for several months.  When Jesse decides to actually start to move on with his life, Celeste finds that it’s much harder than she anticipated to let go.

Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormick (and based on their own short-lived relationship), Celeste and Jesse Forever aims to be a romantic comedy-dramedy that subverts the traditional movies of the genre.  The problem is that the film can’t quite decide what it is.  This is a movie that doesn’t rock the boat of the genre so much as tap at the side of it ineffectually.  What results is an uneven, largely disappointing movie that leaves viewers wanting more depth.

It isn’t that the film doesn’t get anything right, because it certainly does.  Perhaps the film’s strongest moments are between Jesse and Celeste themselves, played convincingly by Jones and Samberg (who surprises here with more appeal than anything viewers have ever seen him do on SNL or in an Adam Sandler movie).  The two share the same sense of humor which is more awkward than actually funny, but that’s kind of the point: both are stunted by their shared intimacy.

Much of the credit should be given to director Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind), who manages to coax a great deal of warmth from many of the characters.  Krieger helps both Celeste and Jesse become appealing characters while allowing the audience to see their flaws.  The supporting characters, including McCormick as a very funny drug dealer and Emma Watson as a spoiled pop star, are allowed to be fleshed out enough that viewers care about them—at least a little.

More problematic, however, is Toland’s propensity to rely on handheld camera work and extreme close-ups to convey intimacy.  It weakens the film as a whole, and helps to further illuminate the fact that the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.  Too often, a beautiful shot (like one of Jones standing outside a wedding tent, smoking and drinking against a gorgeous night sky) is undercut by sophomoric gags (bong hits, anyone?).

However, the movie’s weakest point is the fact that too much of it feels like cliché, contrived situations. Virtually every event and reaction feels inauthentic.  After a while, it begins to seem as though everything that is happening in the film is happening not because of real moments but because these moments are going to bring about another situation.  That, perhaps, is the most disappointing part of this entire endeavor: it comes close to getting it right but always falls short.

Still, the film leaves itself open to some good discussions.  My viewing partner quipped afterward, “That was a really good iPhone commercial,” and while he was right, I’m convinced there are some things present in the movie worth talking about.  I’d rent this one, though, and not spend the money to see it in the theater.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is out now.


Movie Review: Take This Waltz (2011)

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen, playing against type) have been married for five years and are fairly pleasantly ensconced in a slightly-Bohemian domestic life in Toronto.  When Margot goes on a work trip and gets seated next to an attractive and charming man named Daniel (Luke Kirby), the two flirt rather innocently and then decide to share a cab.  Things become more complicated when Margot and Daniel discover that they live across the street from one another.  Thus begins Margot’s dilemma about her feelings for both Lou and Daniel.  While she doesn’t want to hurt her husband, she can’t deny that she has feelings for Daniel.

Sarah Polley wrote and directed this quiet little independent movie, and it’s by far her strongest film yet.  Rich in characters and emotionally generous, this film is one to see if you like contemplative character studies that offer emotionally raw situations with no easy answers.  By far one of my favorite films of 2012, this is one worth seeing.

Ambivalence dominates the movie, and viewers will have to work to figure out who the characters are and what they want.  Margot is indecisive and confused about what she wants, but she is never passive about it.  As she continues to flirt with Daniel, she clearly worries about how it will impact her mostly happy marriage to the sweet, clueless Lou.  She’s split down the middle with desire for the man she knows and loves and the stranger she can’t stop thinking about.  That’s part of what makes this movie so effective: her desire is palpable and her confusion is real.

All of the characters in Polley’s movie are remarkably well-done.  No one is any one thing, and that helps create the feeling of total uncertainty that dominates the movie.  Viewers are given some information but are not privy to what goes on inside each of the character’s heads.  As a result, the viewers sit in a state of suspense about what will happen for much of the movie.  It’s intense and riveting.

The movie never crosses over into melodrama and is never overly melancholic.  Instead, it presents the story and allows the viewer to create their own conclusions.  Although this reviewer’s reading of the film was ultimately fairly depressing, not every viewer will walk away with that feeling.  Polley injects the film with warmth and color and music, and the strong performances linger long after the film has finished.

Seriously, seriously worth seeing.  Highly recommended.

Take this Waltz was originally released in September of 2011 (but didn’t show up here in the Twin Cities until last month).  You might still be able to catch it in theaters or On Demand, but the DVD is due in October.