Management (2009)

'Management' Photo: Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston

RB score:  9/10

“Management” is a very interesting detour in the film career of Jennifer Aniston.   Years of playing Rachel on “Friends” allowed her to perfect her sense of comic timing, which translated very well to the big screen as she graduated to become an A-list rom com actress.  Without knowing anything about “Management” I picked up the DVD thinking it had to be a lighthearted comedy with Aniston perhaps playing an office manager.  That is not what this movie is about!  It’s actually better and more original than most romcoms today.  The only reason a single point is detracted from the RB score is simply the complete improbability of the characters.  It is nevertheless hugely enjoyable.

With limited theatrical release you have to wonder what attracted Aniston to the movie.  Although she played the female lead opposite Steve Zahn,  I do believe he had a lot more screen time than she did.  I surmise that Aniston found the project interesting and as in all her movies, seems very grounded and more supportive of the project as a whole instead of vying for attention.

So the plot utilizes Aniston playing a traveling businesswoman (Sue) and Zahn the night manager of a motel (Mike) owned and operated by his aging parents.   The relationship between the two does not play out among the typical formulaic paths.   I can’t think of another movie in which the pick up line had to do with a “butt touch” and it’s even more impressive that it works. In fact, with Mike pursuing Sue cross country, the challenge for Zahn was how to play this character without him being a creepy stalker.  The answer was to play Mike with an innocent sweetness that stopped just brilliantly short of having his mental capacity called into question, and to his credit, Zahn pulls it off and lands on the side of sweet, yet not sweetly stupid.  The result is a likeable character that does not actually exist in the real world but which makes the entire movie work from beginning to end.   Aniston’s Sue is a corporate drone with a secret soft exterior, which also does not really exist outside of film.  How then does this movie work, you wonder?  Good performances and an intelligent, if offbeat, script.  One critic had stated something to the effect that Management did not aspire to be art house material.  Not sure what he meant by that but it is definitely artistic as well as entertaining.  It’s a three act play with cinematography and judicious use of a well suited musical score.

The second act is where a lot of character development comes in.  You have the strange ex-boyfriend played to perfection by Woody Harrelson, the instant best friend Al (James Liao) Mike meets while trying to find Sue, and Mike’s  sick mother (Margo Martindale) and morose father (Fred Ward), all of whom are on a journey of their own.  The supporting players are more than adept; they play up the movie’s strengths.   Incidentally, the friendship between Mike and Al is also sweet and not believable.   Another critic mentioned that for a romantic comedy, there are not a lot of belly laughs in this movie.  That is correct, there are not, although there are comedic moments.  This is where we get to the heart of what makes this movie exceptional.  It isn’t really a romantic comedy, although it is indeed romantic.  That’s why critics looking only at the romcom aspect think the movie falls short.  So what’s left?  A moving study of not romantic relationships nor friendships but that of life’s most basic relationship, parent/child.  This exploration is delivered with subtlety at times, humor at times, and touching impact at others.  But make no mistake, that is what the movie is about.

Don’t believe me?  The movie opens and ends on that note.

The Late Quartet (2012)

A-Late-Quartet_02

Score: 1/10.  The “1” instead of zero is due to the presence of Christopher Walken.  What is it about this guy?  One of my favorite actors and I have sat through so many awful films because of him.  Ah well.  The three words for this movie are: Avoid, avoid, avoid.

So why is this movie so awful?  Because it is nothing more than a watered down version of Black Swan, which was nothing more than a combination porn/slasher flick using ballet as the backdrop.  I do believe that director/producer Silberman must see himself as the next Aronfsky with this effort, which, while not violent, uses string players instead of ballet dancers to disguise its sordid themes.   The Late Quartet could have been an intelligent, compelling drama.  Instead the production willingly descends into the gutter, including a truly disgusting storyline where the daughter of two members of the quartet, who are married and have their own midlife issues, embarks on an affair with her much older instructor, who happens to be the lead violinist in the quartet and thus professionally close to her parents.  Her father (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is the second violinist and cheats on his wife, (Catherine Keener) the violist.  The interaction between these two,  as with the mother/daughter conflict, instead of being portrayed with any subtlety or dignity whatsover, is comprised of pure soap opera drivel and cliches.  We get it, we get it, the second violin is tired of being “Second Fiddle.”  As with everything else in the movie, this theme is delivered with the artistry of a sledgehammer on concrete.  Walken plays the cellist who has to confront the realities of aging and disease, and turns in an artistic performance.  This together with a supporting role played by veteran character actor, Wallace Shawn is the film’s only redeeming aspect.    Some will disagree,  there is obviously an audience for this, and most movie critics don’t have the courage to state when the Emporer isn’t wearing any clothes but I consider that just as unfortunate as the movie itself.  All of the very capable actors in this movie cannot elevate it from the gutter.  Avoid!

The Words (2012)

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RB score: 10/10

This independent film, which obviously did not enjoy big box office, is nevertheless hugely satisfying and falls into the category of Movies Where the Critics Just Don’t Get It. It will not appeal to everyone, for example, it is not an action movie, not a thriller, not a comedy, and not porn. It is however, what a movie should be, a story that takes the viewer along on the journey. This is a truly fine production with excellent writing, editing, acting,directing, and cinematography.
Writers will be especially captivated as “The Words” speaks directly to them. Bradley Cooper, who I often find annoying and overrated, delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as the conflicted writer trying to make a living from his craft. Zoe Saldana plays his wife with a sort of low key chemistry and charm that is consistent with the overall tone of the film. Solid supporting performances by Dennis Quaid as the seasoned author and Jeremy Irons as the old man whose manuscript was lost as a young man, contribute to a finished product that has a coherent structure despite its somewhat complex framework.
With so many movies where the filmakers seem hell bent on hitting the audience over the head or between the eyes with the intended meaning, there is something almost miraculous about the occasional film that still depends on good writing and subtle performances to deliver the message. This is most definitely that movie. Like other good movies of this type, you are left pondering the questions instead of being spoon fed the answers.

Liberal Arts (2012)

<i>Liberal Arts</i>

RB score: 10/10.

“Liberal Arts” is like an oasis of charm in the desert of reality TV and movie trash. There are really no negatives and it earns a score of 10/10.

The movie opens slow with 30something admissions officer Jesse Fisher, facing the camera from behind his desk, meeting with a series of college applicants. The audience doesn’t see the hopeful applicants. Either the studio was trying to save money on bit parts or it was a deliberate filmmaking device. Regardless, it conveys a certain tone. Boredom is evident on his face while he goes through the motions. The one sided dialogue is strictly a set of cliches at this point, giving almost no clue to the richness of the material that awaits.

Then, after Jesse travels back to his college campus for his former professor’s retirement dinner, the audience is transported along with him to that place and time in life where “anything is possible.” That sense of excitement about life’s possibility is conveyed many times during the movie, both in subtle and unsubtle ways. For me the most enjoyable aspect was represented in the various supporting characters, the sort you can only encounter in contexts where people are free to be who they really are. Often this context will be a college campus but it doesn’t have to be.

The themes and personalities contained in this journey are admittedly not original. Yet, somehow, the treatment feels original, or at least, thoroughly captivating. The excellent supporting players and superb script deliver an exquisitely crafted ensemble view into the world of looking back while trying to move forward in life. And speaking of the script, what a work of art – intelligent, sensitive, and humorous without ever descending into the maudlin. The real genius of this movie is the writing of characters with humanity and real-world complexity. This movie aptly demonstrates that difficult issues don’t always have to be handled in a dark or depressing manner in order to avoid being trivialized.

Advertised as being a comedic treatment of the relationship between characters who are 35 and 19, there is an obvious ick factor that the movie has to address. To explain further would be a spoiler. Address it they did, and very skillfully. In fact, all the familiar themes of this movie are handled with similar skill, the result being a satisfying treatment that is dignified as opposed to sordid. While there are many humorous moments, “Liberal Arts” deserves to be categorized as something more than a mainstream romantic comedy. Probably because of the exemplary script that offers many quotable moments, I’d argue this movie deserves to become a classic.