CHARACTER CHIAROSCURO: Little Accidents, Appropriate Behavior and Son of a Gun


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Warning: SPOILERS
Three movies have opened recently that are driven by characters studies, even in the case of the one that is also driven by a prison break and robbery of a gold refinery. It’s not a bad way to start the new year, even if one of them, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t work on any level.
little accidentsLittle Accidents takes place in a small town that depends on coal mining for its existence. When a cave in leaves a sole survivor, he gets caught between two factions: the miners who want him to blame the company so they can be sued for compensation, and the miners who want him to say it was an accident because if the mine owners are held at fault, the mine will close and there’ll be no more work.
Meanwhile, the teenage son of the mine manager continually bullies the son of a miner who has died. When a fight ensues, the miner’s son accidentally kills the manager’s son and hides the body, causing a city wide search.
Finally, the wife of the manager, upset over the disappearance of her son and her suspicion that her husband was responsible in some way for the cave in, finds her life slipping away from her.
The three characters, Amos, the survivor; Owen, the miner’s son; and Diane, the manager’s wife, slowly find their lives intersecting as they become involved in some way with each other: Amos and Diane have an affair while Owen does yard work for Diane while Diane begins to treat him as a surrogate son and Amos becomes a kind of father figure to Owen.
Little Accidents is written and directed by Sara Colangelo and is one of those small movies that are rich in depth of characterization. The people are leading lives of quiet desperation, but Colangelo shows them such understanding and sympathy that you can’t help but be deeply moved in how they work through the difficulties that have suddenly shown up in their lives.

 

The movie moves at its own pace, and has a certain leisureliness to it all. The structure feels episodic at times, even ad-libbed, yet everything fits together as if carefully planned. And the whole film has one of those overcast visual looks to it as if the sun barely ever shines on the town.

 

Yet, because the characters are so well played and drawn and because the situations are so heart moving, the story is riveting from beginning to end.

 

Diane is played by Elisabeth Banks at a far cry from both the Hunger Games and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (she has a marvelous moment when she finds out what happened to her son); Amos is played Boyd Holbrook, late of Gone Girl; and Owen is played Jacob Lofland of Justified.

 

All three give solid, rich and empathetic performances.

 

With Josh Lucas as Diane’s husband and Chloȅ Sevigny as Owen’s mother. The whole supporting cast was clearly handled by a casting director who knew what they were doing. Everyone looks as if they’ve lived in this small town for generations.

 

Little Accidents is one of those movies that people constantly say aren’t being made anymore, small films on medium budgets that appeal to adult audiences, yet constantly show up at movie theaters on a regular basis, but because they don’t have the stars or the media budget behind them are easy to miss.

 

So if you want more movies like this to be made, these are the sorts of movies you need to start attending.

 

appropriate behaviorAppropriate Behavior is a comedy that is also driven by a character study, but with very different results from Little Accidents.

 

It’s one of the latest products arising out of the New York new wave of filmmakers that has given us such rising stars as Lena Dunham and Adam Driver. It’s a minimalist zeitgeist of a film movement that focuses on the 20 somethings that are coming of age in an era of diminishing returns and feels like an offshoot of the mumblecore movement.

 

This movement has resulted in some successes (Girls and such oddities as Codependent Lesbian Alien seeks same). And it’s always good to have a burgeoning hive of artists.

 

At the same time, the results are also at times too insular, have little to say that is that original or insightful, and more often than is good for them, revolve around people who are self-absorbed and who think they are interesting when they are not.

 

Appropriate Behavior, written by Cecilia Frugiuele and Desiree Akhavan and directed by and starring Akhavan, falls into the latter category unfortunately.

 

 

The story revolves around Shirin, a young woman living in Brooklyn who is bisexual, of Persian background and closeted to her parents. The plot leaps off Shirin and her girlfriend Maxine breaking up and Shirin moving out of their apartment.

 

How you feel about the movie will probably depend on how you feel about Shirin, which is, I suppose, fitting for a movie that is mainly a character study.

 

Based on critical reception, most people seem to “get” her and find her and her story quite interesting.

 

But I’m sorry, I really am, but I find that I am of the minority opinion here.

 

I find Shirin to be someone who is narcissistic and self-absorbed, doesn’t understand why she isn’t the center of the universe, lacks self-awareness (or she’d know why she isn’t said center), mean spirited, has no filter, often obnoxious and the last person I would ever want to run into at a party, though for some odd reason she seems to be quite popular at them.

 

All of which would be fine if she was somehow interesting, but I found her extremely not.

 

Shirin is someone whose only goal in life is to get her girlfriend back. That’s it, really. There’s not much else to her. Outside of that one goal, she has no ambitions, is not searching for her bliss or a career, has no hobbies or interests, has nothing really driving her.

 

This might be okay if you don’t think Maxine has the patience of a Christian and probably waited far too long to toss Shirin out and that Shirin is skating too close to being a mental case in her attempts at stalking Maxine to get her back.

 

Shirin is also someone who manages to rent a bedroom in an apartment even though her only income is from a part time gig teaching kids roughly the age of first graders how to make films.

 

This will probably be okay for those of you who are fans of the TV series Friends.

 

She’s also someone who’s idea of a good time is to go on Tinder, pick up some guy, ask to meet for a drink, but that drink consists of buying a couple of bottles in paper sacks and hanging out behind some building.

 

This might be okay for those of you who do the same, but for me, if you want to pick up someone on line for sex, then have sex. This all seemed like a bit too elaborate a fetish to go through for an orgasm and didn’t seem to grow out of a sense of adventure (which I could easily grant someone), but out of desperation and an inner sadness.

 

She’s also someone who is rather cruel and mean, full of snarky comments, especially to her future sister-in-law who, for some odd reason, she really detests.

 

This might be okay if everyone around her reacted as they should and remove her from their phones, facebook and twitter accounts and any and all other social media upon coming into contact with her.

 

Hell, half the time, I kept thinking that she was showing little more maturity than a thirteen year old and should probably be sent to her room without supper.

 

And finally, she also hasn’t told her family she’s bisexual. This is perhaps her most forgivable trait because the film does justify it to some degree, since she comes from a Persian background and her family is still a bit too old country to accept this.

 

At the same time, this is such a been there, done that plot turn that it never remotely becomes interesting. Coming out stories have been around for years upon years now (I mean, it’s so 1990’s) and it’s almost impossible to bring something new and original to it. And just placing the story in a different ethnic background does not make the story any less overly familiar and clichéd.

 

The trajectory of the story is basically placing Shirin in a series of situations where she either humiliates someone or is humiliated herself. It’s like a bad reality show where no one really wants to understand the characters, but just look down on them in their stupidity and lack of insight.

 

There is one scene that shows what the movie might have been. One night at a bar she is picked up by a couple and goes home with them for a three-way. But something goes a little off at the apartment and, while the three started off in sync, they slowly lose their connection and Shirin has to leave.

 

But this scene isn’t directed, written or acted in a way to humiliate anyone. It’s an embarrassing situation, but instead of making fun of everyone, this time the characters are treated much more seriously and with more empathy.

 

In the end, it’s just a little hard to get behind Shirin and her journey. You don’t want her to get back with her –ex. I mean, you wouldn’t wish Shirin on your worst enemy (or maybe you would, it might be a sweet revenge), and it’s so obvious that the relationship was doomed almost before it began.

 

And her desire to win her –ex back is dramatized in such a disturbing way that you think that Shirin might be better off going to therapy, if her –ex doesn’t get a restraining order against her or Sharin doesn’t end up in jail first.

 

At the end, as in all movies like this (did I mention how familiar and conventional it really is at its core? Well, if I didn’t, I should have and it is), Shirin comes out the other end of the tunnel with a deeper understanding of herself (even if that understanding is barely skin deep) and with her taking baby steps toward being more self-sufficient and on a more steady road.

 

It’s all sort of symbolized by a movie within a movie. Sharin has to gain control of her classroom so her kids can actually make a movie with the end product to be shown at a school gathering of parents. She finally figures out how to corral her yard monkey set of curtain climbers into actually finishing a film by letting them make the movie that they want, not what she wants.

 

The teacher of the advanced class full of little girls the same age as Shirin’s boys (it’s sort of a running joke), a teacher who Sharin has a special reason for not being particularly partial to, creates a pastiche of bad indie art house clichés that seem influenced by Ingmar Bergman. It’s obviously more a movie the teacher made, than her kids.

 

Sharin’s students instead produce a short that revolves around zombies and fart jokes. It’s fresh, fun and obviously born out of the kids own ids.

 

But there’s a telling moment here as Sharin thinks that she’s failed, failed once more and yet once again, in everything she’s been trying to do, and doesn’t realize just how much the audience likes her film. It comes as a shock and is one of the few moments where I felt she achieved sincere insights.

 

Of course, this short film is more interesting than Appropriate Behavior itself, which also says a lot.

 

The supporting cast is made up of a solid roster of actors who all are more interesting than the central character, especially Scott Adsit as a pot smoking dad who keeps losing his son and Halley Feiffer as an extremely upbeat and cheerful BFF.   At the same time, I spent most of my time wondering why any of these people put up with this nutball.

 

Again, how you feel about the film will most probably depend on your reaction to Sharin. I just couldn’t find it in my heart to care what happens to her.

 

son of a gunSon of a Gun (perhaps the worst title of a film in recent years, I have absolutely no idea what it means or refers to, and just doesn’t seem quite suitable) is a crime film revolving around a prison break out and robbery of a gold refinery.

 

But overall it’s mainly driven by the relationship between JR, a young turk when it comes to being in prison, and Brendan, an old pro who takes him under his wing because he sees promise in the young lad, at least the kind of promise Brendan needs in order to change his circumstances.

 

Son of a Gun is one of the latest entries in the new movement in Australia of really gritty and edgy crime and action films of all sorts (Animal Kingdom, Snowtown, The Rover, The Proposition). It’s an exciting movement and often interesting even when it doesn’t work.

 

This one, for the most part, works rather well, thank you very much.

 

The movie, written by Julius Avery and John Collee (who also, of all things, co-wrote Happy Feet, a completely different kettle of fish to say the least) and directed by Avery, starts off a little wobbly.

 

JR is sent to a particularly rough prison where he soon finds himself next in line to become the new rape victim of a set of prisoners after their previous bottom boy, JR’s roommate, tries to kill himself. A chance encounter with Brendan over chess (JR is a natural at it, which metaphorically helps him later on) leads Brendan to intervene and put JR under his protection. But at a price: that JR become part of Brendan’s group when he gets out and does what Brendan wants him to.

 

The problem is that at this point, there is now no real future for JR. He is trapped and the rest of his life now determined, so what we seem to have here is a story with no potential for any sort of trajectory.

 

But somehow, the movie manages to sidestep this issue. When JR helps Brendan in a daring (and quite outrageously brilliant) prison break and then joins with him in a heist, the story just keeps growing in interest.

 

I mean, it really shouldn’t. The basic parameters of the plot are pretty familiar and includes such old tropes as JR falling for a Russian prostitute whom he wants to save and everyone becoming pretty much dog eat dog as it becomes clear there is no honor among thieves (it all starts out very Howard Hawksian, but ends up more 1970’s cynical).

 

But still, there’s just something about it all that keeps you going.

 

Of course, one of the central reasons has to be the characters. All are rich and three dimensional (even within their familiarity). But make no mistake, this is Ewan McGregor’s show in the role of Brendan. And McGregor makes the most of it, grabbing the whole thing by the throat like a vicious guard dog and refusing to let go.

 

In addition, the story has just enough twist, turns and action scenes to keep you wondering what’s going to happen next. In many ways, it’s a clever and solid screenplay that is highly entertaining and even manages to be moving at times.

 

It’s not a perfect movie. As was said, it’s fairly familiar. And it takes place in a world where the police seem to be either indifferent (no one really seems to be looking for these escaped convicts that seriously) or arrive too late to make a difference.

 

And it also revolves around the stealing of six gold bars that seem to vary in weight depending on who picks them up and when, and which also seem to be very easy to just carry on board a plane (X-rays machines and the massive amount of money it must have cost extra for luggage over the accepted weight be damned).

 

It should also be noted that some of the plot turns are only as believable as they are by skipping over minor details here and there. And the filmmakers involved are very vigilant not to have their characters lose sympathy by being extremely careful they never kill any police officers or innocent bystanders (it’s one of those movies that goes there, but doesn’t quite really in the end).

 

But still, it all finales very satisfactorily and even leaves an emotional residue in the throat.

 

Recommended.

 

With Brenton Thwaites of Maleficent and the very intriguing sci-fi movie The Signal as JR; Alicia Vikander who was Kitty in the recent Anna Karina as the prostitute Tasha; Matt Noble, with a great hang dog face, as Sterlo, one of Brendan’s gang who gets a modern day Viking’s funeral when his dead body is set on fire inside a car and pushed into a lake; and Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother and body double) as a getaway driver.

 

 

Little Accidents takes place in a small town that depends on coal mining for its existence. When a cave in leaves a sole survivor, he gets caught between two factions: the miners who want him to blame the company so they can be sued for compensation, and the miners who want him to say it was an accident because if the mine owners are held at fault, the mine will close and there’ll be no more work.

 

Meanwhile, the teenage son of the mine manager continually bullies the son of a miner who has died. When a fight ensues, the miner’s son accidentally kills the manager’s son and hides the body, causing a city wide search.

 

Finally, the wife of the manager, upset over the disappearance of her son and her suspicion that her husband was responsible in some way for the cave in, finds her life slipping away from her.

 

The three characters, Amos, the survivor; Owen, the miner’s son; and Diane, the manager’s wife, slowly find their lives intersecting as they become involved in some way with each other: Amos and Diane have an affair while Owen does yard work for Diane while Diane begins to treat him as a surrogate son and Amos becomes a kind of father figure to Owen.

 

 

 

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