Tag Archives: Judy Greer

Manor Manners

Lady of the Manor

by Hope Madden

Flatulence, Judy Greer and historical reenactments? I don’t think we see enough of these in independent film.

Neither do brothers Justin and Christian Long, presumably, because they have written and directed Lady of the Manor to encourage us to spend some time with all three. And since the flatulence is cinematic rather than aromatic, what’s the harm?

There is none. The film is, in a word, harmless.

Greer plays Civil War-era Lady Wadsworth. As the film opens, we see her behaving properly, sporting proper posture and manners, quarreling politely with her husband, and tumbling fatally down a flight of stairs.

The Longs intercut this scene with the audio from a true-crime program being viewed by modern-day ne’er-do-well Hannah (Melanie Lynskey). After a series of drug and alcohol-related shenanigans, the down-on-her-luck Hannah accepts a position as tour guide of Wadsworth Manor.

Hannah’s clear, almost criminal weaknesses in the areas of ladylikeness bring the ghost of Lady Wadsworth back to the manor to teach Hannah some etiquette. Or is there another reason for her spectral return?

The Longs plump up their very slight script with plenty of silliness. Justin portrays Hannah’s bashful history professor suitor Max, while Ryan Phillippe lampoons his early career roles with a funny entitled douchebag performance as Wadsworth heir, Tanner.

There’s also a fun Luis Guzmán cameo and a rare Patrick Duffy sighting.

But the film is at its best when Lynskey and Greer turn My Fair Lady into The Odd Couple. These veteran character actors riff off each other like old vaudeville partners, bringing joy to even the most superficial scenes.

There are plenty of those. Lady of the Manor often plays like an extended episode of Drunk History, only maybe not quite as funny. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, no one is challenged by the material, and an entirely pleasant if fairly predictable and only modestly funny time is had by all, viewers included.

Frankly, My Dear

Uncle Frank

by George Wolf

Dropping right at the start of the season normally filled with relative reunions, Uncle Frank digs into the scars of family strife for an effective drama full of understated grace and stellar performances.

Writer/director Alan Bell frames his narrative through the eyes (and scattershot narration) of Betty (Sophia Lillis), a curious teenager in the summer of 1969.

Mainly, she’s curious about life beyond tiny Creekville, South Carolina, which is a big reason Betty is always happy to visit with her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany).

He got out of Dodge years ago, settled in New York City and now sweetly encourages Betty to look outside her backwater hometown for any kind of future she desires. A new name? Of course. Betty likes “Beth,” and Frank agrees, so that’s that.

Fast forward four years, and Beth is a freshman at NYU, where Frank teaches. Dropping by Frank’s apartment unexpectedly one night, Beth meets Wally (Peter Macdissi, terrific), and quickly finds out why Frank has long felt like an outsider in his own family.

An unexpected death in that family means Frank and Beth must travel back home for the funeral, with Wally hatching a pretty funny plan to tag along.

This time on the road becomes the bridge that connects Frank’s coming out and Beth’s coming-of-age. Ball (writer of American Beauty, creator of True Blood) isn’t blazing any trails here, but his outstanding ensemble consistently elevates even the most well-traveled terrain.

Bettany has never been better, covering Frank with a mask of easy charm that can never quite hide his self-loathing. He finds a touching chemistry with the wonderful Lillis, who brings a warm authenticity to Beth’s wide-eyed awakenings.

And check out who’s waiting at home in Creekville: Stephen Root, Margo Martindale, Judy Greer, and Steve Zahn, all seasoned talents able to keep their characters above the hicktown cliches that tempt the script.

There’s pain here, for sure, but there’s also humor and a comforting sense of hope. Uncle Frank may not be the first film to remind us how heavy family baggage can feel, but this has the cast and commitment to make you glad you unpacked for a spell.

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





Uninspired Technophobia

Men, Women & Children

by Hope Madden

Nobody panic. Jason Reitman has just hit a slump, that’s all. Remain calm.

Sure, the writer/director made his feature film debut with Thank You for Smoking (thank you for making that movie!), and only went upward from there (Juno, Up in the Air, and the underappreciated masterpiece Young Adult). He was bound to waffle a little. Scorsese followed Taxi Driver with New York, New York, for Lord’s sake. It happens.

I’ll admit, I was hoping he was done with this misstepping with the laborious romantic bludgeoning Labor Day, but it appears he has one more overwrought drama in him in Men, Women & Children.

This is basically the same film Henry Alex Rubin made two years ago called Disconnect, which followed teens and parents making terrible decisions and living online instead of off.

MW&C is not the exact same movie, but close enough. Reitman, with co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), reworks Chad Kultgen’s novel about teens and parents and their collective obsession with the wired world.

In many ways, the themes plumbed here are universal to the coming of age film, only in the world inside this film, every anxiety is heightened by the disconnect between reality and our virtual worlds. What the film explores in dozens of ways is our ever-growing loss of intimacy.

It’s not an uninteresting point, just a belabored one. Some individual storylines grow so hyperbolic that even this talented cast cannot rein it in. (We are expected to believe that online porn has so warped one 15-year-old boy that he can no longer get an erection naturally. Even with a flesh and blood girl present. Monkeys immediately fly from butts.)

Judy Greer gives a characteristically unusual and nuanced performance, as do many of her cast mates. Plenty of folks will bristle at the idea of Adam Sandler in an ensemble drama, but in fact, Sandler is only worth watching in independent ensemble dramas. (Please see Punch Drunk Love. Seriously, please see it.)

Greer and Sandler are not alone. The cast – teen and adult – is quite solid, but by the second trip to the hospital I had to just give up on the film. The youngsters are either sociopathic loners or suicidal, and if their parents aren’t cartoonishly unaware, they’re tracking them like criminals or pimping their underwear-clad asses online. Can things really be this dire?

Back to business now, Jason. Come on. Something good this time.

Verdict-2-5-Stars