A Trip To The Movies: Review – “The Gift” 8.29.15

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for The Gift

My friend and I happened to decide on this film, after we showed up at another, only to find out that it was sold out. Initially I was reluctant – as even despite of seeing its many fine cumulative scores on the movie websites I frequent, it just looked like something that all seemed just a little bit too familiar like something I’d seen before. That, and while I really like 2 out of its 3 main leads in both Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Town) and Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”, “Warrior”, “Zero Dark Thirty) who also wrote, starred in, who made his directorial debut with his film here. It’s also Edgerton’s second writing credit, as he also co-wrote 2014’s “The Rover” collaboratively with his “Animal Kingdom” director – David Michod. Though outside of this, and probably my major reason for my reluctance to wanting to see it, was the casting of Jason Bateman. An actor most known for his work in comedy (and mostly bad comedies might I add) and who I really couldn’t possibly envision playing a serious role such as the one it looked like he played in this. This idea of my not wanting to see a film because it has a specific actor or actors is somewhat of a new thing for me (at least in the past few years). Bateman is among that list of actors alongside Vince Vaughn (who in my humble opinion was terribly miscast in season 2 of this year’s “True Detective”).There are a slew of other actors like Bateman and Vaughn, who have made a string of so many bad films, that I develop what I call my own form of “blacklisting”, in that I don’t even have to hear anything about a certain film if I know it stars one of these actors of which I am referring to. That said, this looked to fit into a genre of which I personally can attest to really liking – the psychological, thriller, mystery one. And given Edgerton’s already proven gifts of being a proficient actor and writer. I was able to overlook the fact that it starred Bateman and walked into it with a clean slate, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Edgerton’s directorial debut and the 3 main leads who starred in it. That, and I read one blurb that described it as this year’s “Gone Girl” (2014) so I was intrigued.

“The Gift” centers around a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who at the start of the film, are relocating back to California from Illinois because of a huge promotion that Simon has received. This said town in California is also very close to where Simon grew up before him and his wife moved to Illinois several years back. After some setting up of the story, mainly the introduction of the married couple and their characters. Simon has a chance encounter with a former acquaintance from his former school days, the slightly off-kilter Gordo (played by Edgerton). Edgerton seems incredibly happy to reconnect with Simon and starts showing up unexpectedly, always bearing gifts. To Simon, he feels threatened by this. Whereas his wife, Robyn, while admitting it is slightly strange, likes to think a bit more highly in people and views Gordo’s gifts as just good faith gestures and simply nothing more than that. So when the gifts start piling in more and more and certain valuables of theirs go missing, Simon becomes more and more increasingly threatened. And somewhat to the dismay of his wife, let’s Gordo know explicitly that he is no longer welcome at their house. This sets off the wheels in motion for the rest of the film, as secrets are exposed and lies covered up, and as Simon and Robyn distance themselves further and further from one another as certain truths are brought into light. We as an audience learn that there are layers and layers of lies and deceit that unfold as we try to figure out who’s responsible for all of it.

The film wound up being a highly rewarding experience even given that my expectations of it were admittedly slightly below average going into it. It took me by quite a surprise in several different areas. It’s a fine example of a of the “stalker” family drama genre. Drawing comparisons, at least to me, to the 1990 film “Pacific Heights” that starred Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Matthew Modine. Another film about an unsuspecting couple who deals with a rather unruly tenant who is willing to go to any lengths or cost to expose the truth. Bateman does a serviceable enough job as the husband, and doesn’t necessarily add or detract (which I thought he would) from the film. As does Rebecca Hall as his wife, an actress who, at least in my opinion, always brings her A game to whatever project she involves herself in. But the real credit here is due to writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton, who in his directorial debut, handles a rather complex and intricate script with a deft hand and a sense of confidence in his cat and mouse setup. The thing I personally would like to highlight about the film, which I personally feel like only the best ones do, particularly of films of this genre, plays with audience expectations and keeps them second guessing throughout almost the entire duration of the film. Just when I thought I had the film figured out within its first act, the film defied everything I thought it was going to be about, and proves to be a smart and refreshing psychological suspense thriller, with a creepy and dark tone throughout like last year’s aforementioned “Gone Girl”. Where we as a viewer (and I will say we because the rest of the theater patrons seemed to have a similar response – at least from the vocalizations I could hear from those seated around me) are stretched out like a rubber band and left on the edge of our seats trying to figure out the many of its plots intricacies. Even given that it got a wide release (probably because of the casting of Bateman), it still felt entirely indie, and none of it (and I mean none) played to audience expectations like so many other films do. It takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to constantly disassemble and reassemble its many different changes and shifts in plot developments. Which I personally thought was its greatest strength. And despite it becoming slightly confounding towards the end, it’s something that I think I would and could recommend to just about anyone.

[strong B]

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Weekend Recap: 2 Trips To The Movies (One Current One Back) Reviews – “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” + Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) (6.27-6.28.15)

Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” came with much anticipation (as you may have read in my Top 10 Films of the Summer Movie Season section). I essentially knew little to next to nothing about it. And only very recently saw a trailer for it when I was seeing another film last weekend. What I did know is that for a movie to be bestowed the 2 above awards at such a prestigious festival such as Sundance (the last film to have pulled off both awards was the year prior with Damian Chazelle’s “Whiplash”). So really knowing next to nothing about it, other than what I could discern by the movie’s title and a trailer that surprisingly revealed very little. This looked like it could be one of those perfect indie sleeper hits if from the little bit that I had heard turned out to be true.

METDG involves 3 central characters, all of whom I had previously been unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film. There’s Greg, the self-absorbed, quick witted loser who lives with his two eccentric parents (Nick Offerman playing his dad is a total stand out), Rachel, an acquaintance of Greg’s who we learn very early on is diagnosed with leukemia, and Greg’s “business associate” Earl, which is really what they just call him because together they make their own self produced films, which are more or less updates of older films of movies they love. Greg is coerced by his mother to go visit Rachel which he is reluctant to do at first because he knows it will be out of pity. But then the two of them sort of “hit it off” so to speak, and Greg becomes an integral part in Rachel’s treatment of her leukemia along with his (again “business associate”) Earl. As the two of them bind together to make Rachel a film in case she winds up succumbing to her disease.

This movie exceeded my expectations and then some. There were so many different components that I liked about it that it’d be a rather difficult task to list them all here. So I will stick to just the essentials. First off, is the razor sharp, funny, and witty script co-penned by author Jesse Andrews, who wrote the book of which the film is based on. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much consistently throughout an entire film in as far back as I can remember. The directing by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was also another one of the film’s strong points, as the camera zips along at a rather fast pace which constantly demands the attention of the viewer. I also couldn’t get over the amount of winks and homages there were to so many great films that have come out through film history. Which any cinephile or film buff won’t be able to contain themselves to do nothing other than just smile each time a reference or nod is displayed on the screen. Then most importantly there’s the story itself – which does an outstanding job straddling the lines between drama and comedy. At times I found myself laughing hysterically out loud while at other I found myself holding back tears. Even more so it hit about every nerve on the human emotion spectrum possible which is uncommon and hard to do in this day and age of cinema. Lastly, was how invested I was in both the characters and story. I found myself thoroughly engrossed and immersed myself in both the story and the three central leads throughout the entire duration of the film. I’m already predicting this one, as early as it is in the year, to even quite possibly slip as a Best Picture sleeper hit come awards time at the end of the year. And as it should. METDG is one of those films that should undeniably be universally liked. And will please both independent film fans and fans of commercial audiences alike.[B+/A-]

Alfred Hithcock’s “Psycho” (1960) is probably one of my 10 all time favorite films of all time. To explain why you would really have to go into how I became a student of film as a teenager. With my film studies teacher at the time showing us this and I was pretty much blown away by it. Since then, I’ve done a presentation on it in a Psychology class as it’s considered the “first psychological” film of all time. A genre that would go and to be and still is my favorite. So for these couple and many other reasons I jumped at the opportunity to see it on the big screen. What’s so great about “Psycho” 55 years later after its release is how well it still stands up. Unlike other major motion pictures of that time, Hitchcock took a more unconventional and incredibly controversial film for its time, and made it into one of if not the greatest and most influential example of psychological horror in film history. Hitchcock clearly displays here why he was labeled “the master of suspense”. Viewing it even now 55 years later, he expertly and masterfully enters the audience’s psyche and creates a story filled with a constant sense of unease and extreme suspense and horror. It’s shot impeccably well, with various symbolic elements layered throughout (birds and taxidermy are a constant motif) and two stand out performances by Janet Leigh, who is billed as the main character but who dies halfway into the film in still one of the most impressively shot and undeniably murder sequences in the history of cinema – “the shower sequence”. Then there’s Norman Bates himself (played by Anthony Perkins) who plays the quirky motel manager to the utmost perfection. Then there’s the cat and mouse chase throughout, with Leigh’s character running off with a stack of money, only to disappear, and the number of people who follow Hitch’s trail of bread crumbs only to meet their inevitable demise. Then there’s the relationship with his mother, also expertly executed, where as a viewer, we’re never quite sure if she’s asking Norman to commit the heinous murders or if she just exists inside his head. There’s just so many remarkable aspects about the film that it’s hard to carve them all down to just a single review. Here’s what I will say, the film stands up and doesn’t seem in the slightest bit outdated 55 years after its release. And despite maybe being the most influential psychological horror film of all time, its also a great examination of mental illness and how inner conflict (Norman suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder) can lead to disastrous results. This was and still is a landmark achievement in film history. And one that still stands up as one of the most important and influential works of all time. [A+]

*Please Note Change In Movie/Time/Theater – This Sat 6/27 Me+Earl+The Dying Girl

Saturday, Jun 27, 2015, 4:45 PM

Regal Fox Tower 10
846 Sw Park Ave Portland, OR

5 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

“Me & Earl & The Dying Girl”(2015)(This Weekend’s Meetup-Saturday, 6/27)Another festival favorite that won both the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at Sundance. This looks like it could be this year’s sleeper hit that could wind up boding well with the Academy at year’s end. If early, positive praise from critics means anything.Please RSVP …

Check out this Meetup →