Touchy Feely (2013)

I gather from the internet that not everyone loves this film, which is both a shame, and understandable to an extent — it shares certain qualities with other low-budget improvised films (like Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas). You may know the kind of thing: that tentative awkwardness of the actors as they navigate conversations for the first time, not to mention some of the darker recesses of the characters’ emotions — the kinds of things that mainstream films tend to shy away from. For all that it’s clearly made as a labour of love, and it looks very polished, with a photographer’s eye for framing and cutting together. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the central character of Abby, a massage therapist who starts to become averse to skin, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) is an introverted and unsuccessful dentist who suddenly finds popularity due to his presumed healing powers, and caught between these two are Paul’s daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) and Abby’s boyfriend Jesse (Scott McNairy). It’s a film of people who have trouble relating to one another, and who exhibit all kinds of social anxieties that may explain a low-level attachment towards various alternative New Age-y therapies — things that wouldn’t usually make for gripping cinema, which is probably why it’s not going to be a big hit with everyone. However, it does so in an attentive low-key way that pays off dividends in Shelton’s more recent Laggies, which marries some of this psychological character work to a bigger budget and stars.

Touchy Feely film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Josh Pais, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 20 August 2015.

The Way, Way Back (2013)

Coming of age movies have never been my favourite. You’ll have gleaned that from my seriously underwhelmed review of Mud (2012), a film many others loved. A lot of the same kinds of elements are in place here, but within a comedic framework (rather than Southern gothic), and I have a lot of the same qualms.

If the central character’s arc is familiar — and Liam James plays the browbeaten and sullen teenager Duncan perfectly well — then it’s in the supporting performances where this film is made. Allison Janney is always a delight whenever she appears in any film or TV show, and she’s thankfully on screen for a reasonable amount of time. After a long, awkward opening scene in the car while driving to the beach, in which Steve Carell’s stepdad Trent (or rather, his eyes in a rearview mirror) belittle Duncan as the rest of the family sleeps, Janney’s Betty immediately enlivens things with her embarrassingly drunken mother in the neighbouring Cape Cod beach house.

The main plotline, though, is of Duncan slowly coming to feel comfortable with himself — and with Betty’s curious daughter Susanna (Annasophia Robb) — via a series of small family humiliations. He’s also aided by the discovery of a retro water-based themepark, which is presumably a nostalgic figment in the memories of director-writer team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the latter of whom grew up in a Massachusetts seaside community. The themepark becomes like a separate world away from his family and those he knows, where he can start to become the person he’s never been allowed to be under the eye of his hated stepfather. It also allows for the introduction of a range of more permissive and accepting characters, including Sam Rockwell (always a wonderfully enjoyable screen presence) as the overly relaxed park manager Owen, and his put-upon girlfriend Caitlyn (SNL alumna Maya Rudolph), not to mention the director-writer team in supporting roles.

It’s also the site of some of the more dubious elements of the film’s humour, for most of these characters are themselves in need of growing up, and try to inculcate in Duncan some of their borderline-creepy dudebro behaviour — not least in an unnecessary scene ogling attractive teenage girls on the waterslide. Maybe the nostalgic past is not always the safest place, after all.

Nevertheless, despite the sullen central character, the earnest sermonising of the denouement (an ever-present hazard of the genre) and the fetishising of the 80s and all its trappings, there are enough enjoyable central performances to make this film likeable and diverting. The relationship between Duncan and his mother Pam (Toni Collette, making a welcome reappearance after too long away from mainstream cinema) is understated and touching. There’s a lovely scene in which Duncan moodily stalks off from a gathering of adult friends while Pam, remaining, exhibits signs of similar social awkwardness, if expressed in a rather less adolescent way. It’s a little the way I feel around some of these characters, but in the dark of the cinema I at least don’t have to nod and smile when the film wavers. Luckily, for the most part, it remains sunny and likeable.

Directors/Writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Steve Carell; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 1 September 2013.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.

Unlike the previous films I’ve picked from a hat as part of my ‘Movie Lottery’ series, this is one I know pretty well, I think. I’ve watched it many times over the years, and have always enjoyed it, specifically for its likeable ensemble of young actors near the beginnings of their respective film careers. Thinking about it again with the aim of writing a review, I find myself perhaps a little more aware of where its strengths and weaknesses lie. The style, such as it is, leans heavily on the sounds and fashions of the 1990s, and in the end it really does depend on those acting performances, alongside the sparky script, which draws heavily from its trend-setting antecedent Clueless (1995), though here the teen translation is of Shakespeare (where that film took on Jane Austen).

The particular Shakespeare play in question, The Taming of the Shrew, is not one of his best and furnishes a rather silly plot, which the screenwriters have gamely followed through with. Newly arrived at Padua High School, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes infatuated with the coquettish Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but her father prevents her from dating unless her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does too. So in order to go out with Bianca, Cameron must hook up her sister, for which purpose the school bad boy Patrick Verona suits well (Heath Ledger). The premise doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but here it helps to be adapting one of the Bard’s lesser achievements, so comparisons don’t come off badly for the film.

As mentioned, though, it’s the acting of the ensemble cast that carries the day. Gordon-Levitt, coming from his breakthrough role on television’s Third Rock from the Sun, has an easygoing charm which is matched by a similarly young Heath Ledger (whose pretty face never quite carries off the dangerous reputation he is supposed to have, but then that’s in keeping with the brightly upbeat look of the piece). Oleynik as Bianca is appropriately vacuous and self-obsessed (though her character arc thankfully moves a little forward from this over the course of the film), while Stiles as the ‘shrew’ is here no doubt indebted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, being a late-90s vision of feminist empowerment (via a bit of shouty girl punk rock; there are on-trend namechecks given to Bikini Kill and the Raincoats, though the soundtrack is rather more fixated on power pop in that peculiarly ska-inspired niche of the era).

While these pretty young teen actors are fine at following through the central romantic plot, their stories are at heart a bit dull. Therefore an essential element of the film is the supporting cast, providing the comic relief, and poking fun at the silly romantic conceits of the central storyline. David Krumholtz is excellent as a geeky AV nerd, who at the outset gets to deliver the genre’s requisite scene where the high school’s various subcultures are pointed out. The other key figures bringing the kids’ highflown romantic ideas down to earth are all adults: Allison Janney as the school’s sarcastic guidance counsellor; Daryl Mitchell as the English teacher; and Larry Miller as Kat and Bianca’s controlling (but loving) dad. All three do an excellent job at invigorating the film.

The performances and those brightly-coloured 90s fashions aside, there’s some nice featuring of the Seattle locations, but otherwise the film’s style is fairly pedestrian. It’s an enjoyable confection of a film that puts itself above others in this crowded teen film genre by virtue of a sharp script, well-delivered by the youthful cast.

Director Gil Junger; Writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 6 June 1999 (and on DVD at home, London, on numerous occasions, most recently Sunday 9 June 2013).