Tag Archives: Mark Duplass

Two Men and a Fishy


by George Wolf

As the pandemic raged a few years back, all of us had to adapt. For filmmakers, that meant getting creative to remain creative: small casts, limited settings and remote locations.

One of the better films to meet these challenges was Language Lessons, a two-hander co-written by Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales that also served as one of Morales’s first projects as a feature director.

Biosphere follows a similar blueprint, but with a much higher concept that ultimately hampers its chance at real poignancy.

This time out, Duplass co-writes with first-time feature director Mel Eslyn, and also co-stars as Billy, one of the two men left on Earth. The other survivor is Billy’s old friend Ray (Sterling K. Brown), and the pair spends the days inside a self-sustaining biosphere of Ray’s design.

The two actors share a wonderful and warm rapport, and through their conversations we learn that Billy was President and Ray his lead advisor when the unthinkable went down.

Was Billy to blame? Well, Ray has superior intellect and Billy’s middle initial might as well be “dubya,” so maybe. But that was then and this is now, and now “Diane,” the last female fish in their pond is dead, leaving “Sam” and “Woody” behind.

Ray knows that could mean the end of the “self-sustaining” part of their setup, so the conversations start to get a lot heavier.

To say any more would be saying too much, but the “once upon a time…” message that opens the film readies us for the attempted parable on hope and human evolution.

And this is an extremely talky parable. That might be hard to avoid in a two-character, one-room setting, but the hour and forty-five minute run time becomes excessive despite the mixing of wry humor with Duplass and Brown’s commitment to the exercise.

The bigger problem is that once the film goes where it goes, it feels like the end of a great short film that never was. The main point then becomes the pitch, and not so much about where it ends up. Give Duplass and Eslyn credit for the ambition, and Eslyn some props for making the treatment more cinema than sit-com, but the end is satisfying only if the mean was to be a conversation-starter.

And Biosphere should indeed start some, just not about the big issues it has in mind. Those end up getting caught in a narrative corner that’s covered in too much paint.

Come On and Zoom!

Language Lessons

by George Wolf

Yes, Language Lessons is a “Zoom call” movie. But don’t let that keep you from dialing in, or you’ll miss a completely charming two-hander that has plenty to say, with and without subtitles.

Natalie Morales directs from a script she co-wrote with Mark Duplass, one that finds Adam (Duplass) waking up to an unexpected gift: Spanish lessons with an online tutor named Cariño (Morales).

Adam, who’s living a privileged life in Oakland with husband Will (Desean Terry), is already pretty good at Spanish, but revisiting the language reminds him of his days before wealth, which helps to ease his liberal guilt.

Cuban native Cariño came to the U.S. as a child, but now lives a less than privileged life teaching Spanish from her home in Costa Rica.

The duo’s script upends us by dropping a major bomb in the first act, and then settles in to a sweetly touching rumination on the need for cultivating human connections – regardless of the obstacles.

Morales, a veteran actress who only expands on the directing promise she showed with the wonderfully smart teen sex romp Plan B earlier this year, divides the film via classroom appropriate headers ranging from “Immersion” to “Context,” and “Extra Credit” to “Fluency.”

And, of course, these titles also apply to the budding friendship of Adam and Cariño. They laugh, and cry, make assumptions and then push each other away, and the improvisational nature of the two terrific performances is consistently anchored with personality and authenticity. As these two grow to care deeply about each other, it becomes nearly effortless to care about them.

Adam’s sexual identity takes the rom out of this com early, and the film is better for it. The fact that he’s extremely wealthy is all the flirting we need with narrative convenience, leaving Morales and Duplass more room to expand on what the film is really getting at.

Because while we’ve come to associate Zoom meetings with lockdown, the film itself steers clear of it.

And though Language Lessons may have all the markings of a pandemic production, it’s not a “pandemic” film. These two souls are worlds apart due to circumstance rather than quarantine. But they crave to enrich their own lives through sharing them with someone else, and end up giving us a poignant reminder to make more friends and fewer excuses.

Just be sure to take yourself off mute.

Hey Lady, You Lady


by George Wolf

The character Tully doesn’t show up ’til nearly 40 minutes in, but by then the film Tully has its anchor: a sensational Charlize Theron.

The Oscar-winner excels as Marlo, an exhausted, frazzled mom in dire need of a break. Marlo and her inattentive husband Drew (Ron Livingston) already have a young daughter, a younger son with some behavior issues, and now (surprise!) a brand new baby girl.

Lucky for Marlo, she’s also got a rich brother (Mark Duplass) whose baby gift is a “night nanny” named Tully (Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis – a keeper). Once Tully shows up, Marlo can get what every new parent craves…sleep.

After two winners together in Juno and the criminally ignored Young Adult, writer Diablo Cody  and director Jason Reitman make their third collaboration a wonderfully natural extension of the first two.

Cody is a gifted writer, her dialogue often insightful without preaching and timely without pandering. Here she creates two characters whose unlikely friendship speaks to the changing roles women will play throughout their lives, and the heartache those changes can sometimes bring.

That being said, it’s hard to imagine the film working as well as it does without Theron. She makes Marlo’s every emotion feel real, and the character absolutely human even when Cody’s script takes some chances not all will appreciate.

Reitman, back in form after the dreadful Men, Women & Children, also helps in that department, keeping the film grounded in a world many will recognize. This isn’t the heartwarming comedy the TV ads want you to think it is, nor is it the casual dismissal of postpartum depression that others have charged.

It is one woman’s story, with moments of humor, absurdity and truth, a bit of cliche and even some fairy tale optimism. And with all of that, there’s enough brash boundary pushing to make Tully feel like a film we haven’t seen before, and one we’re glad that’s here.


Table of Misfit Toys

Table 19

by Matt Weiner

If you sit a group of strangers together at a wedding reception, you’ll find out that each one of them is a brain… a basket case… a criminal… and of course a perky princess to propel the story forward.

Yes, the romantic comedy Table 19 gets its something (heavily) borrowed from John Hughes, especially The Breakfast Club. After an unceremonious breakup with the bride’s brother, now ex-maid of honor Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick) gets banished to the table of rejects and outcasts at the reception.

Eloise, still pining for her Teddy (Wyatt Russell), is unsympathetic to the quirks and sad stories that bind their table together. But as backstories get revealed, the tablemates quickly learn they are united in their profound misery.

If this sounds a little bleak for a brisk (like, 87 minutes brisk) romcom, just wait until the themes take a sharp turn from cake-related slapstick to everyone’s favorite comedy subjects like unplanned pregnancy, infidelity and death.

The story, written by director Jeffrey Blitz with indie darlings Jay and Mark Duplass, gets into dark territory, in particular the cautionary tale of Bina and Jerry Kepp (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson). The married couple don’t even care enough to hate each other anymore, and their apathy is like a jarring memento mori for a lighthearted wedding romp.

So many of the casual asides and throwaway lines are streaked with this sort of misanthropy, and it’s a shame that the movie lacks the audacity to see it through to the finish. It doesn’t help that the comedy part of the romantic comedy is light on laughs—with the exception of Stephen Merchant, who commits above and beyond to finding both humor and pathos in his thinly sketched character, cousin Walter.

Instead, we’re left with lessons learned and lukewarm nostalgia, complete with 80s covers from the wedding band. Sure, you could just stick with the original article and fire up a John Hughes marathon. But if your tolerance for formula is already that high, and you like watching a great cast make the most of an inconsistent premise—and you have 80-odd minutes to spare—you could slog through a lot worse. Like an actual wedding.


Lazy Lazarus

The Lazarus Effect

by Hope Madden

Four years ago filmmaker David Gelb directed the lovely, layered, joyous documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This weekend we see his newest effort, The Lazarus Effect. What the hell happened?

Gelb abandons novelty and nuance for a by-the-numbers Frankenstein horror. Medical researchers work on a cure for death. Big Pharm is looking to steal their ideas for nefarious gain. Think Splice.

The scientists test their process on animal subjects, but make the leap to human trials a tad prematurely when one of the team-Zoe (Olivia Wilde) – is electrocuted. Things do not go well. Think Pet Sematary.

The serum super-powers Zoe’s brain. Think Lucy.

But Zoe may have been brought back from hell, and may have brought some of hell back with her. Think Event Horizon. Or Flatliners.

It appears screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater have seen enough movies to be able to cobble together plenty of stale ideas to fill 83 minutes, although you will swear the film runs two full hours.

Part of the problem is the blandness of the set. For most of the running time we’re trapped in the hospital’s sub-basement with the doomed scientists. This should create anxiety, develop claustrophobic dread, but the dull set and uninspired direction do little but breed tedium.

Gelb can generate tension now and again, but he doesn’t know how to deliver the payoff. The film is so paint-by-numbers – from the greedy chemical company to the dream sequence, from the dog to the unrequited love to the twist ending – there’s nary a surprise to be found.

Wilde and cast (Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger and Donald Glover) can’t bring depth to their characters, though Wilde does give it a shot. There’s more to Zoe than what’s on the page, but not nearly enough to keep the film interesting.

There are plenty of awful horror movies, and The Lazarus Effect is not one of them. It’s succinct, tidy, offers a jolt or two, and it’s held together workmanlike-fashion with enough logic and borrowed ideas to remain lucid for as long as it needs to. But horror also has some great films to offer, and this is certainly not one of those. It’s a disposable February flick and a genuine disappointment from Gelb.


For Your Queue: Mumblecore Madness

If you’re a fan of the “mumblecore” then A) we’ll just call you “Mumble Cory” and B) a film you might have missed in its limited run is now on DVD, and we’ll pair it with one of the best of the mumblecore genre.

The Comedy is a character study about a character you will instantly hate. Swanson (terrifically played by Tim & Eric’s Tim Heidecker) is a trust-fund brat who spends his days drinking, boating, and embracing every chance to be offensive. Make it past the halfway point, and the ironically-titled film becomes strangely hypnotic.

Director/co-writer Rick Alverson is after a sort of subversive honesty, perhaps even grasping for answers to the types of questions raised whenever another white male goes on a shooting spree.

Hanging out with a guy like Swanson for 90 minutes isn’t easy, but you might be glad you made the effort.

If you’re looking for something slightly more accessible, Cyrus (2010) might the film for you. Still clearly a mumblecore flick (written and directed by the auteurs of the style, Mark and Jay Duplass), the film still follows a relatively well-established story arc and stars actors who actually act. John C. Reilly wants to date Marisa Tomei (who doesn’t?), but her relationship with her adult son (Jonah Hill, in a triumphant performance) is beyond complicated. One profoundly uncomfortable comedy follows.