Tag Archives: Gillian Jacobs

Gun for Hire

The Contractor

by Hope Madden

Chris Pine is Hollywood’s unsung Chris, isn’t he? Under-sung, anyway. Just because he’s not an Avenger. He is a dependable, charismatic presence in any film, though, which is why each of his efforts deserves a little optimism. Even one as seemingly unremarkable as The Contractor.

Pine plays James Harper, a Navy Seal with 5 tours under his belt. One shredded knee, one worthless lung and a host of other physical consequences from his time under fire mean that Harper is no longer of use to the US military. Debts at home have him entertaining offers he probably shouldn’t.

After too lengthy an Act I, The Contractor pivots to tight action thriller. Pine delivers vulnerability and honor as the damaged service vet, and director Tarik Saleh surrounds him with able support.

The great Ben Foster arrives about 20 minutes into the feature, and that’s never a bad sign. The film’s biggest draw is the chance to see Pine and his Hell or High Water co-star reunite. Foster is among the most effortlessly authentic actors working, every character’s backstory hanging on his face and haunting his eyes.

He and Pine have a lived-in camaraderie that goes a long way toward deepening the emotional underpinning of what is otherwise a blandly repetitive, unimaginative military action flick.

The real surprise is that Saleh — who began his career with the bizarre and amazing dystopian fantasy Metropia — couldn’t produce something a little more intriguing. The by-the-numbers script from J.P. Davis doesn’t help, but aside from a handful of decent fisticuff sequences, Selah does not prove himself as an action director.

Gillian Jacobs, Fares Fares, Eddie Marsan and Kiefer Sutherland — all underused — do what they can to bring nuance to underwritten characters, but it’s not enough to salvage the film.

Rather than elevate a bland picture, the performances feel wasted in this derivative and formulaic thriller.

Waiting On a Friend

Come Play

by George Wolf

In a vacuum, Come Play is a fairly smart and mildly jump-scary slice of PG-13 horror for your Halloween weekend. It even finds an unexpected and satisfying way out of the monstrous concept that it fosters.

But the feature debut for writer/director Jacob Chase has trouble escaping the shadow of two other films. One is Larry, Chase’s own short from 2017, and the other is the modern horror classic that clearly inspired him.

Larry is the star of Misunderstood Monsters, a story app that Oliver, a non-verbal autistic boy (Azhy Robertson from Marriage Story), has stumbled onto. Larry says he just wants a friend, but he’s too scary, and Oliver resists.

But Larry just won’t be denied. And it isn’t long before Oliver’s estranged parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher, Jr.) have to admit they really are being terrorized by an entity let in through the screens on their many devices.

A monster from a troubled child’s story manifests itself in a home unsettled by emotional turmoil. Though the metaphors in Come Play are geared more toward multiplex than art house, the blueprint is plenty familiar.

Chase does prove himself to be an able technician, exhibiting some nifty camerawork and a fine sense of visual creepiness. But the road to his effective finale drags from a lack of solid scares and the feeling of filler that can plague a short film stepping up in class.

There are some valid ideas at work here. They’re not terribly urgent or original, but Come Play isn’t pretending they are. It’s a film with little interest in overthinking, for horror fans not interested in films that do.

Class Dismissed

I Used To Go Here

by George Wolf

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever wandered past their old college apartment and thought about knocking, right? And then you realize how little the kids inside will care about your nostalgia (or worse, how adorable they’ll think your old ass is), and you just keep on wandering.

But what if you were invited in? And what if you stayed awhile? With I Used To Go Here, writer/director Kris Rey has a full semester of fun exploring that very idea.

30-something Kate (Community‘s Gillian Jacobs, fantastic) is bumming over a breakup and the cancellation of the promo tour for her very first book. A phone call from her old professor David (Jemaine Clement) perks Kate right up.

Would she come back to Illinois U. as a “Distinguished Alumni” and do a reading from her novel? She would.

Once on campus, Kate pauses to take a selfie outside her old place, and one of the students inside takes notice. Oh, you’re a writer? We’re writers, too. Hey, we’re having a party tonight, you should come.

Yes, some sit-com worthy situations ensue, but the point quickly becomes how well Rey wields them all to unleash a series of hilarious punctures into the illusion of aging while hip.

And while the big picture is endlessly charming, the little details aren’t forgotten. From the obligatory Che Guevara poster to Kate donning an orientation t-shirt, from the painful college prose to the serious battle brewing between Kate and her b-n-b host, Rey displays a keen sense for weaving humanity into hijinks.

She has a wonderful vessel in Jacobs, who channels many of Rey’s usual sensibilities with an endearing and warmly funny performance. Kate’s life may be an intermittent mess, but she’s always easy to root for, and Jacobs – with help from a stellar ensemble – confidently navigates the uneven ground between Kate’s ambition, her reality, and her attempt to find out if one of her new young college friend’s girlfriend is cheating on him!

Even at its nuttiest, I Used To Go Here is a deceptively smart look at the complexities of accepting adulthood. It’s Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young with a lighter touch, a film that might make the “your future starts now” message on the back on Kate’s t-shirt ring true for both filmmaker and star.

A for Effort

Life of the Party

by Matt Weiner

One of these days we’ll finally get a Melissa McCarthy movie that deserves her talents and doesn’t just desperately depend on them. Even though Life of the Party is written by McCarthy along with husband and frequent collaborator Ben Falcone… well, the wait isn’t over quite yet.

McCarthy stars as Deanna Miles, a woman whose life is upended by a sudden divorce with her husband Dan (Matt Walsh). Realizing that she spent her adult life meekly going along with other people’s wishes, Deanna decides to finish her abandoned senior year of college. It’s a positive message, as far as mid-life crises go.

This brings her into embarrassingly close contact with her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), who is also finishing her senior year at school, as well as Maddie’s sorority sisters. (All standard “not actually that weird” movie misfits, except for Gillian Jacobs, who injects some actual off-kilter menace as Helen.)

The idea of a former student getting into classes immediately (apparently without the need to re-take additional core requirements), and paying to live on campus despite living 20 minutes away raises some logistical questions. But McCarthy’s comedic gifts have saved staler setups. She turns Deanna into a woman to root for, not pity, as she completes her degree, relives her youth and gets over her spineless ex-husband.

Not that the film’s cringe comedy with a heart comes without a cost: the gentle nudges toward empowerment and inclusivity make for a welcoming message. But the steady laughs are all a bit defanged, especially for a setup about a woman whose husband has just divorced her after decades of building a life together (and who apparently still controls their finances in a way that makes her life materially difficult).

Given how much the story invests in the contrived college setup, the real missed opportunity feels like the uninhibited adult comedy nipping at the outer edges of what ended up on screen. Maya Rudolph is wickedly good as Christine, the best friend living vicariously through Deanna. And Walsh can tease out more notes than should be possible when given the room to work his sad sack variations.

It doesn’t really seem like the film is trying to connect with a younger audience anyway. The film is more homage to the triumphant ‘80s teen movies that McCarthy and Falcone would have eaten up as teens, with a “Save Deanna” finale and all.

This is a good thing when it comes to the sexual politics. (Have you re-watched Revenge of the Nerds lately?) But the predictable setup makes Life of the Party diverting yet wholly forgettable.

It’s a passing grade, but just barely.

 

 





Tart

Lemon

by Hope Madden

Lemon announces itself immediately.

As a documentary on the horrors of war plays on a TV, the camera pans a drab living room, finding a man asleep upright on a sofa. He wakes to realize he’s wet himself.

He is Isaac. Isaac is a lemon.

The documentary Isaac had slept and peed through provides the context for a story in which one man can so obliviously wallow in self-inflicted misery.

In quick succession, Isaac will dismiss what his (randomly blind) girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer) has to say before publically humiliating a female student (Gillian Jacobs). Both are too focused on themselves.

Why aren’t they focused on him?

Co-writer Brett Gelman plays Isaac, a send-up of sorts of the self-pitying hero of so many indies.

Director/co-writer Janicza Bravo borrows and rebrands independent film stylizing – from Wes Anderson to Jared Hess to Todd Solondz – to deliver a wry satire of the quirky worlds they create. Her framing, color palette, set design and timing offer spot-on re-renderings of the atmospheres created in a generation of arthouse movies that follow the unraveling lives of misunderstood, entitled outcasts.

Bravo peppers the film with a handful of perfectly discordant scenes: Isaac running up a road with a stroke-impaired old woman in a wheelchair; Isaac awkwardly threatening and then kissing Michael Cera; Isaac and his profoundly dysfunctional family participating merrily in a rendition of the song A Million Matzoh Balls.

Individually, these scenes are amazing. Truly. But they don’t string together to form a cohesive image or a compelling narrative.

Gelman’s intentionally weird and flat performance engages, in a trainwreck sort of way that suits the effort. You believe him. And many – most – of the performances around him are clever, individual and memorable. Their interactions and the story, slight as it is, strain the imagination, though.

Nia Long’s Cleo, for instance, seems included solely to allow for a new series of awkward moments. Long’s performance rings true, from her friendly introduction through her polite if wearied response to Isaac’s racist flirtation.

Her actions, however, defy logic in a way that exposes a narrative weakness you’re less likely to find in the films of Anderson, Hess or Solondz.

Todd Solondz knows what to do with an unlikeable protagonist. You won’t enjoy it, but he will not pull any punches and you will have closure. This is the problem with subverting the work of superior filmmakers – your film invariably suffers by comparison.

Which is not to say that Lemon has nothing to offer. It offers a pantload of intriguing character work and suggests the vision of a worthy director. The script just needed another draft.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Yes, and…

Don’t Think Twice

by Cat McAlpine

The three rules of improv are as follows:

1. Say yes
2. It’s all about the group
3. Don’t think

The six members of improv troupe The Commune live, bend, and break these rules on stage and in the green room in Don’t Think Twice. The ensemble dramedy pits the dreams of your 20s against the hard realities of your 30s and asks: When is it okay to be about me?

With the self-awareness of an improv performance, Don’t Think Twice keeps it real and stays grounded. The most recognizable face in the cast, Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele), plays Jack, the guy with a real shot at stardom. Samantha (Community’s Gillian Jacobs), has the skill but not the desire while Miles (Mike Birbiglia, who also wrote and directed) refuses to accept that he just doesn’t have what it takes.

Don’t Think Twice is intentional in its choices that way, inviting the audience to arrive with whatever context they can. Birbiglia never lets the drama spiral too low, either, immediately scooping you up again with jokes and laughter. The Commune develops several inside jokes throughout the course of the film, meaning you’re not only in on it, you understand how this sort of family keeps laughing even when life stops being funny.

At the beginning of each Commune show, Samantha asks “Did anyone have a particularly difficult day?” The ironic part, as most actors and improvisers will tell you, is that the best place to work through your own intimate problems is on stage in front of an audience.

We see this mechanism in action quite beautifully throughout this film, as Birbiglia uses the show-inside-a-show format to explore many themes.

His most powerful visual element, for instance, is the staging of chairs. Before each performance starts, the cast chairs are arranged onstage. In prepping for the performance, all the chairs are lined up neatly in a row, and if a performer is missing their chair is removed. The improvisers drag these chairs across the stage as needed throughout their performance, with the point being there is a chair for each of them. This literal setting of the stage underscores the narrative’s emotional current, and becomes a strong indicator of mood. “Hey, we’re about to work through some shit, and here’s exactly what we’re working with.”

Don’t Think Twice is a film that takes an honest look at “making it” from all sides. It challenges the notions of success and fame, and suggests that it’s okay to love doing something even if you never want to be famous for it.

If you’re invited to go see Don’t Think Twice this weekend, reply “Yes, and…”

Verdict-3-5-Stars