Indie Snapshot: Friends With Kids and More

by Ethan Alter March 9, 2012 5:58 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Friends With Kids</i> and More

Not interested in fighting aliens alongside John Carter or freaking out at Silent House? We've got an indie movie to fit your particular state of mind.

For Parents In Need of a Good Date Movie: Friends With Kids
Boasting an ensemble of talented comic actors that includes Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Adam Scott, Kristen Wiig and Chris O'Dowd, writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt's new romantic comedy Friends with Kids sounds like the pilot episode for the fall's most promising new TV series. The premise certainly seems tailor made for a 10 PM network dramedy or limited-run cable show. After their married friends make the leap to parenthood, platonic BFFs Jason (Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt) make the impetuous decision to have a kid together without the hassle of getting hitched or even living under the same roof. Instead, they'll share custody of their son and evenly divide all the parenting duties, while still searching for their respective Mrs. and Mr. Rights. It's a crazy arrangement, but it seems to be working; whenever he's not being a dad, commitment-phobic playboy Jason is free to pursue a super-hot, super-limber Broadway dancer (Megan Fox), while Julie meets a handsome single dad (Edward Burns) who seems to be the pinnacle of masculine perfection. (Although, to be honest, Burns would be one of the last men we'd bestow that honor upon -- clearly, neither Tom Hardy or Hugh Jackman were available.) Meanwhile, the more traditional couples (Hamm is paired with Wiig and O'Dowd with Rudolph) start to question the state of their own marriages in light of what their pals are pulling off.

Although Friends with Kids is Westfeldt's directorial debut, she previously penned a pair of well-liked comedies that also revolved around issues of love and/or marriage, 2001's Kissing Jessica Stein and 2006's Ira & Abby. All three films are distinguished by a mature sense of humor, a perceptive depiction of male/female dynamics and a strong showcase for their respective casts. Fans of Parks and Recreation and Party Down will particularly enjoy watching Scott build on his comic persona from those two shows; he's still adorably quirky, but with a newly mature edge. The Bridesmaids crew (i.e. Wiig, Rudolph, O'Dowd and Hamm) don't have quite as much to do, but they're invaluable supporting players. Interestingly, the weak link in the ensemble isn't Fox -- who is gorgeous and snippy, which is all the script really requires of her -- but Westfeldt, whose performance comes across as mannered and artificial in a way the other actors are not. It doesn't help that her script loses its edge about halfway through, falling back on more predictable rom-com patterns and definitions of what makes a successful family unit. It's a shame that a movie that sets out seemingly wanting to challenge the status quo a little bit ultimately settles for being so... well, so ordinary. In fact, parents of small kids might think twice about wanting to make Friends with Kids the "movie" portion of their dinner-and-a-movie date night. After all, why pay money for an experience they can get at home for free?

Click here to read our Q&A with Adam Scott

For Book Clubs Looking for a Page-to-Screen Translation To Discuss At the Next Meeting: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I haven't read Paul Torday's 2006 novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, so for his sake, I can only hope that the book is less repulsively cutesy-poo than the movie version that director Lasse Hallström and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (the Oscar-winning writer of Slumdog Millionaire) have come up with. Yet another tale of awkward, love-starved white people who are brought together with the help of a wise, kindly Magical Minority stereotype (a role filled by a Magical Arab here, as opposed to the Magical Negro figure Hollywood generally relies upon) Salmon Fishing casts Ewan McGregor as a gawky fisheries expert and Emily Blunt as the forthright UK representative of a wealthy Yemeni sheikh. Her client would like to construct an artificial salmon run in his native country and -- thanks to the $50 million the Sheikh is looking to spend and the need for a positive story about English/Middle Eastern relations -- the British government is entirely on board with this unlikely idea. McGregor thinks the whole thing is a boondoggle, but changes his tune when he meets his new employer and bonds over their shared love of all things fish-related. He's also attracted to Blunt, who, unfortunately for him, loves another -- a British soldier who reports for duty in Afghanistan in the first ten minutes of the film and then conveniently goes MIA, plunging his girl back home into a depression that only salmon and the affection of a good-hearted fish nerd can cure. Once you accept that the movie takes place in a fanciful version of reality that's utterly disconnected from our own, there are a few moments of charm and comedy to be found, most of which come from Kristen Scott Thomas, playing a fast-talking government press secretary who seems to have stepped out of In the Loop. But the central romance is so flat and the movie's tone is so aggressively (and obnoxiously) precious, the whole thing feels like a particularly dull fishing trip that just won't end.

For Wanna-be Cowboys Who Miss the Old West and/or Deadwood: Good For Nothing
Shot on location amidst the grassy plains, rugged mountains and dry desert landscapes of New Zealand, the small-scale Western Good for Nothing is as picturesque as any old-school American oater. Too bad that the background scenery is frequently more interesting than what's going on in the foreground. Freshly deposited on the wild frontier, prim-and-proper Englishwoman Isabella (Inge Redemeyer) immediately finds herself caught in the middle of one of those bloody saloon shoot-outs that were always going down in the Old West. The instigator of this particular shoot-out is a rough-and-tumble outlaw (Cohen Halloway) who is so hardcore, he doesn't even seem to have a name. After killing everyone inside, the silent shooter takes Isabella for his prize, fully intending to plow her proverbial fields. But when the time comes, the dude experiences a failure to launch, so to speak. Confused, he straps the girl to his horse and sets off into the wild, searching for some kind of magic cure that will restore his virility. Maybe it's just a case of Stockholm syndrome, but in the course of their journey, Isabella actually starts to feel stirrings of friendship for her captor, who returns them in kind. Meanwhile, they're pursued by another band of bad guys eager to finish off their rival and the presumed-to-be whore who's traveling with him. Both Redemeyer and Halloway are appealing performers, but the writer/director Mike Wallis struggles to make the evolution of their relationship from victim and victimizer to friends and potential lovers believable. Despite its Western trappings, this is really just another clichéd romance where the good girl falls for the bad boy because underneath that tough exterior he's, like, so sensitive and stuff. Al Swearengen would have just shot both of these yahoos and been done with it.

For truTV Obsessives Eager for More True Crime Tales: The Snowtown Murders
A ripped-from-the-Aussie-headlines true crime story, The Snowtown Murders dramatizes a decade-old killing spree that took place in the titular Australian town where, in 1999, police discovered eight bodies stashed in acid-filled barrels. Four local men, including ringleader John Bunting (played here by Daniel Henshall) and his girlfriend's teenage son Jamie (Lucas Pittway) were eventually caught, tried and convicted of the murders. Relying on journalistic accounts of the crimes and the involvement of the local community (the movie wasn't shot in Snowtown proper, but in and around the same general area) director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant chronicle the incidents that set John and his accomplices down their murderous path, starting with Jamie's uncomfortable encounter with his mother's pedophilic previous boyfriend, who took compromising pictures of the boy and his two brothers. Enter her new beau John, who takes it upon himself as a concerned Snowtown citizen to drive the guy out of town through acts of vandalism amongst other manner of threats. Praised by his neighbors, John starts to boast about all the things he'd do to take care of other potential criminals in their midst. It's not long before his words give way to action and the easily persuadable Jamie is one of the people he enlists in his gang of vigilantes, who ensure that their victims pay the ultimate price for their real (or imagined) crimes. In both real life and onscreen, this is a grim, unpleasant story that depicts man's capacity for inhumanity against his fellow man. And while Kurzel and Grant wisely avoid taking dramatic license to force any false sentiment or hope onto the facts of the case, observing the character's regular and repeated acts of cruelty becomes numbing after awhile, particularly as the movie stretches on for some 120 minutes before arriving at a resolution that's deliberately unsatisfying. That's a lot of pain to endure for not much gain.

For Theater Nerds Who Have Regular Reunions with their High School Drama Clubs: Shakespeare High
Just as the recent documentary Most Valuable Players celebrated the joys of real life high school musical, so too does Shakespeare High affirm the importance of student theater, this time in the more high-minded realm of Shakespeare. Every year, drama nerds from a host of Southern California schools brush up on their iambic pentameter to participate in the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Competition. It's an event that has been going on for decades and past alumni have included such now-famous faces as Kevin Spacey, Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer, all of whom are interviewed for this film. (Spacey also served as an executive producer, which may explain why it occasionally feels like an extended advertisement for the DTASC.) It's entirely possible that the kids glimpsed in Shakespeare High could become big-name stars themselves down the line, but for now they're just ordinary teens who are just thrilled to have this opportunity to practice and improve their craft. Director Alex Rotaru is careful to assemble a cross-section of student subjects who hail from all walks of life, from former gangbangers, to athletes, to members of low-income families. What unites them is their passion for acting out centuries-old texts. While we're understandably not treated to clips of their full competition performances, the snippets we do see indicate a strong level of talent, if a too-pronounced obsession with making Shakespeare "relevant" to modern audiences by framing their scenes as reality-show spoofs or other things that kids today are into. (Some of the competition judges themselves correctly bemoan this kind of approach.) Rotaru doesn't seem particularly interested in the competition aspect of this... well, competition, which means that Shakespeare High lacks the element of tension that makes a documentary like Spellbound or Most Valuable Players more immediately involving. Still, it never hurts to be reminded how fun and important the theater arts are to a young person's education.

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