Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Make the Movie You Want to Star In: Small Engine Repair and Language Lessons

It seems like we used to see a lot more movies like these two on the festival circuit and in theaters afterward, with actors writing and directing the parts they want to play, writer/directors acting in their films because there's just not enough money in independent film to hire a full cast, and folks trading work on each other's films to get things made. Even considering that the last couple years have messed everything up, the landscape seems to have changed enough that it doesn't seem to happen as much. I'm not sure how I can blame Netflix and Amazon for this - something about how there's an easy market for anything the least bit commercial but with disc and VOD dead, nothing below that - but for all that I rolled some eyes at mumblecore back in the day, the do-it-yourself nature of it seems a bit rarer.

And yet, we wound up with two movies like that this weekend; Small Engine Repair has a writer/director/star adapting his own play, while Language Lessons feels like a return to when producer/co-writer/co-star Mark Duplass and his brother Jay seemed ubiquitous on the independent film festival circuit. They haven't really gone away so much as they got cast in bigger things and moved into television (where I suspect it's easier to keep busy to keep oneself afloat in some ways) and Netflix (where you just don't get talked about if you're not the one thing out of then they're choosing to push in a given month), but there haven't really seemed to be any new folks sliding into the same niche.

I wound up not really loving Small Engine Repair, even if it's not something where I really see a whole lot of crippling issues. It's just twist-centric enough that the story seems like it should snap together in tighter fashion, and the somewhat-bigger-named supporting cast clicks in a way that makes one wonder why their deal isn't the center of the movie, so even when the last scene John Pollono is building to works, the circuitous route getting there isn't quite forgotten. It's confident but not assured, right from the opening where they define "Manch Vegas" on screen out of fear that people won't get a little bit of local color later. I also readily admit that it's not the sort of film I identify with well, and this one has just enough inspiration in playing one of its working-class characters who spend a bunch of time drinking at the bar and using some form of the word "fuck" twice a sentence against type that the rest seem even more like stock characters.

(That guy's played by Shea Whigham, who I submit as maybe the best "That Guy" working today. He looks too rough around the edges to be a leading man and maybe fits better in period pieces, but he seldom plays boring goons. He's a memorable character actor in the middle of standardized would-be stars.)

I found myself smiling stupidly fairly quickly during Language Lessons, though, in large part because I've liked both of its stars in different things - though I readily admit that I don't know if I've actually seen Morales in much since The Middleman - and it's cool to see them in a project that fits them like a glove even if it's a pandemic picture. It's got to be weird to sit down and plan something like this, though - it rests so much on tailoring characters to your strengths and being sure that the audience will like you that it almost seems like a sort of arrogance to build it around that. I suppose that you can't write/produce/direct/act in movies as a profession without that level of confidence, but it seems like a heck of a thing to bet on.

It's a bet that they win this time at least, and even if they had only done about as well as Pollono did, I'm at least glad to see there's some room for people who figured out parts they wanted to play and stories they wanted to tell to actually get those stories in front of people in theaters. Maybe not quite so much as there was ten years ago, but enough.

Small Engine Repair

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2021 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Buried at the very end of the credits of this film is that it was adapted from writer/director/star John Pollono's play of the same name, and though it doesn't appear to have been a one-act play, it's got the feel of something where he started from a well-constructed second half and worked backward. He does it well enough that he's not just killing time and padding the movie, but there's certainly something more potent to be distilled from this fairly decent movie.

It spends a fair amount of time letting the audience get to know its characters - Frank Romanowski (Pollono), who owns the repair shop of the title, and has done a fair job of pulling himself together and raising his daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo), what with her mother Karen (Jordana Spiro) being a frequently-absent hot mess. He's been best friends with Patrick "Packie" Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) and Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) as long as they can remember, at least until things blew up three months ago in a blast of rage and alcohol. Now he's reaching out to reconnect, with MDMA supplied by Chad (Spencer House), a Boston College student he met playing pickup basketball, but it turns out that they've all been invited to the shop under false pretenses.

By the time Pollono puts his cards on the table, it's clear what he's holding, but he's done a fair job putting things into place without making it too obvious that this is what he's doing. It's kind of a thin story that spends a bit of time running in place than it needs to, using the openings stretches to establish the characters' personalities and get them to the spot where they haven't talked for a while even though the audience would probably be just fine starting with Frank texting Packie and Swaino to meet him at the shop. The simplicity of the story also has Pollono throwing in a fake "here's the plan" digression, right before coming up with a smart reason not to proceed and a kind of rushed follow-up that even the characters point out as being not cool.

All of the male characters get a flashback that was probably just a speech on stage but which kind of plays out strangely on screen. The most successful is probably Swaino's, which does a nice job of using the objective version of events to undercut his macho bluster, although it's not like Jon Bernthal hasn't been making it fairly clear that the guy is full of it all along. There's something kind of interesting going on with Packie's, which goes back to the friends' childhood but still has Shea Wigham playing him with child actors as the other two, as if to suggest he was always both child-like and middle-aged, but it also breaks up how his speech is this long response to something that Chad said and circles around to a punchline. Pollono holds back a bit with Frank and Chad, because at that point showing too much might tip his hand.

Ideally, that gives one the chance to look at the characters a little more, steep the audience in the sort of toxic, crass environment that leaves them sort of stunted and quick to violence. Pollono likely created Frank for himself but he still has the least to do as an actor at times; the rage erupts out of him on a hair trigger but he doesn't exactly show Frank holding it back or galvanized in such a way that he's actually planning his violence, only occasionally finding the spots in between the loving dad trying his best and the guy who loses control. Ciara Bravo does well as a teenager who kind of reflects the men who raised her (though I wonder if Crystal was actually in the play or off-screen from how she's used), and Spencer House does the puffed-up frat guy well enough. Karen's not exactly a fresh character and is in a number of scenes without a lot to do, but Jordana Spiro puts energy into making her the woman that Crystal loves but doesn't want to be when she grows up.

It's not surprising that Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham are the guys listed first in the credits despite being supporting characters, even beyond being the actors filmgoers are most likely to recognize. Swaino is enough of a jerk that one almost sees this as a waste of such a charismatic actor, but it's a good performance; Bernthal takes this guy who grew up the only brother of three older sisters and has him kind of internalize the overcompensation. He's a macho jackass that one nevertheless instinctively believes changed diapers for his sisters' kids or was the one 4-year-old Crystal wouldn't let go of in a flashback. Whigham, meanwhile, makes Packie that character one would like to see dug into and unpacked the most, fragile enough to be bullied and often framed as the arrested-development eccentric such that every moment when he clearly knows what he's talking about better than anyone else comes as a delightful surprise; Whigham takes scenes that contrast Packie's reactions against the expected casual sexism and homophobia of the working class and makes them funny but also makes the point that blue-collar guys don't have to be that way. You can almost believe that the weird flashback comes from just not finding a 9-year-old who can do what Whigham is doing as the younger Packie.

It's all a bit of a mess with a fair amount of making sure we know folks aren't sophisticated guys who went to college by having them use "fuck" twice a sentence, and the audience can see that, but when it gets to an emotional last scene and line, that same audience buys it. Not having seen the play, I can't tell whether there were bumps going from stage to screen or if some of the issues are just part of the movie, but it works more than it doesn't when all is said and done.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Language Lessons

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2021 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, DCP)

I did not realize, going in, that Language Lessons was a movie that plays out on the characters' computer screens, and while there will probably a few more of those than usual coming out over the coming months,this one seems like it might wind up more than just a time capsule of the present moment. Even when the credits are rolling, it's not obvious whether this was specifically created to be a quarantine movie or not; odds are it's an influence, but it's good enough to stick even for those who don't want any reminders of what life is like now.

It starts with a gift to Adam (Mark Duplass) from his husband Will (Desean Terry) - 100 Spanish lessons online with Cariño (Natalie Morales). Adam learned the language as a child, but hasn't had much opportunity to speak it of late, so this is mostly immersion and confidence-building. Adam is late to call in for a subsequent lesson because he's still in shock from what happened to Will the night before, leaving Cariño in the awkward position of helping the panicked Adam cope. She checks in on him virtually over the next few weeks (he's in Oakland while she's in Costa Rica), and when they resume lessons, they're probably as much friends as teacher and student, which becomes awkward when it turns out Cariño has her own issues she's dealing with.

The film is almost entirely built out of conversations between Adam and Cariño or messages from one to another, and it's easy for a movie like this one, where the two lead actors are also writers, producers, and (in Natalie Morales's case) director, to meander as they give themselves room to try things and figure out the best way to put it together later. This film turns out to be impressively tight, though - they get to the thing driving the film quickly rather than spending a lot of time on a different setup so that the audience will feel an absence, and they don't mess around with a terribly protracted ending. Some scenes and sequences will play out at a relaxed pace, but it's a rare one that's just there for one thing, and it lets them build a story around the premise that lets them switch things up with hard turns just as the viewer is getting comfortable.

They can do that in part because Morales and her co-star/co-writer Mark Duplass are well aware of their particular strengths and charismas - she's smart and energetic, he's dry and laid-back - and how well they can play off each other without being in competition. Morales especially is terrific for how she is never blank while Duplass is letting everything spill out, giving the audience enough to speculate about her life outside of these conversations until it's time for her challenges to come closer to the fore. That's the trick of the movie: It initially seems built around what happens to Adam, only to dive into how nobody is just someone else's supporting character. Morales grabs the movie even as the focus tends to stay on Adam's point of view, and the pair do a nice job of keeping the characters on equal footing even though their interactions are never balanced in the way one might want them to be for storytelling symmetry.

It's a bit of an odd movie to watch in theaters, given how consciously Morales uses bandwidth issues and the like for verisimilitude, although she thankfully doesn't feel the need to show the UI or the like in the way that many making this sort of film do. It brings to mind how odd the editing of these movies can be, because Morales and editor Aleshka Ferrero seem kind of boxed in without many options beyond switching from who has the main screen and who has the inset, and there are moments when the film kind of stumbles trying to give the two equal weight in a scene. Morales deals with the seemingly-limited options well, though - you notice the medium, but mostly it reinforces rather than distracts.

More than anything, it's fun to see Duplass and Morales doing something like this: They're an eminently likable pair who are both comfortable at this scale, so it's a pleasure to be in their company and watch their characters work through things, and they're clever in how they find a way to talk about sudden loss and mostly connecting electronically without being overtly reminding the audience of current events. It's an impressive little movie that threads a needle that plenty of others with more to work with haven't managed.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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