The Lobster

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos envisions a dystopian future in a satire about modern romance.

TheLobsterPosterIf you could be transformed into any animal, which would it be? It sounds like a bad question on a dating website, and yet we’ve become more reliant on such quirks in defining relationships and romance. Colin Farrell chooses to be the title animal in “The Lobster,” an absurdist satire that uses a hilariously bizarre, futuristic premise to lampoon the idea of modern love.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director behind “Dogtooth” now working in the English language, imagines a future in which it’s a law to have a romantic partner. Those without one, like David (Farrell) after recently becoming a widower, are sent to an upscale resort hotel and given 45 days to find a match or be transformed into an animal of their choice.

Lanthimos has some fun in subtly revealing the details of this premise, and the film’s deadpan style slowly works its way from raised-eyebrow peculiarities to laugh-out-loud moments of uneasy humor. For instance, David casually drops the detail that his dog is actually his brother who didn’t “make it.” When he arrives at the hotel, his choice to become a lobster has more to do with survival than preference. He envisions a long life span, an ability to swim and an easier chance at mating, and we wonder if David’s not actually trying to make it as a human any longer but simply waiting out the clock.

The details get stranger. Periodically the hotel guests are required to participate in a hunt for “loners,” single people who have rejected the rules of society and now live in the forest. Bagging one nabs you an extra day, and some hotel guests have spent years here as a result. Lanthimos stages these hunts like graceful slow-motion sequences in a Michael Mann film, stylized, operatic and wholly absurd. Guests are also tethered through their belt loops and restricted from masturbating; one who breaks the rule (John C. Reilly) gets his hand shoved in a toaster during breakfast. And only those who share similar characteristics to each other can become couples. One young girl (Jessica Barden) touts that she gets sporadic nosebleeds. David might be interested, but his trait is that he’s shortsighted, so no match.

“The Lobster” works great as a dystopian comedy (without explanation, random elephants or flamingos can be spotted in the background), but it helps that these oddities have parallels to dating in 2016. We give too much weight to superficial character traits, we go to great lengths to remain in love, we assign unnecessary rules and norms on society, and we shun those who can’t find a significant other. Lanthimos approaches these themes with ironic levity, like when the hotel’s manager informs an aspiring couple, “If you cannot solve any problems yourselves, you will be assigned children,” or with shocking poignancy, like the line, “A relationship can’t be built on a lie,” after it’s revealed one member of a couple faked a similar character trait.

Of course we know love is never defined by strict rules. Lanthimos’s deadpan tone, with every character delivering their lines in matter-of-fact, staccato notes (not to mention a score that’s equally terse and arresting), underscores the need to dismantle what he sees as ludicrous institutions.

Love however is something of an act of survival. For as comically bleak as “The Lobster” can be, the romance formed between Farrell and another loner played by Rachel Weisz reaches touching heights. Lanthimos asks if it’s harder to pretend you have feelings or that you don’t, and there’s a push-and-pull between this film’s harder exterior and softer inside. It’s a perfect match.

4 stars

Tale of Tales

Three fairy tales adapted from Giambattista Basile are interpreted with bloody, satirical results.

Tale-of-Tales-posterNear the beginning of “Tale of Tales” a slender, cloaked old man slinks his way into the palace of the King and Queen of Longtrellis (John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek) to bestow upon them a prophecy. The Queen is desperate to have a child, and she agrees to the specter’s challenge: “Hunt a sea monster, cut out its heart, have the heart cooked by a virgin, she must be alone, then eat the heart, and you will become pregnant.”

The man’s instructions are so oddly specific and strange as to produce a chuckle, but the prophecy is told with the gravest of importance. Such is the tone in Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales,” a contender for one of the more bizarre movies of the year, if not the decade, but also a satirical edge to dull the gravity of its bloody and strange fantasy. The Italian director’s English language film adapts fairy tales by Giambattista Basile to weave together three stories of attachments, vices, and the harsh lessons learned by those corrupted by power.

The first story involves Hayek’s queen, who after gnawing away at a gory hunk of a sea monster’s heart, becomes pregnant and gives birth to an albino son who resembles the sea monster that killed the King. But born on the same day to the virgin cook is an identical twin. As teenagers, the boys form an inseparable, brotherly bond. The Queen hopes to separate her son from this peasant and ends up driving her son’s twin away.

In the second, a womanizing, sexual demon of a king (Vincent Cassel) hears a woman singing in town and pursues her, unaware that the voice belongs to one of two decrepit old hags (Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson under pounds of makeup) hoping to deceive him. Finally, a third king (Toby Jones) begins raising a flea until it is the size of a small elephant. His attachment to his pet distracts him from the needs of his maturing daughter the Princess (Bebe Cave).

From the flea with bulging, alien eyes to the wrinkled old ladies to the underwater sea monster, everything within “Tale of Tales” has an artificial quality. One shot has Cassel stepping over a grotto full of lounging nudes, as though we’ve walked into a Renaissance painting and can now witness the seams up close. And yet the film is alive with colors and rich, painterly landscapes; note the incredibly detailed and craggily blue mountain range surrounding the sea monster’s lair, the overhead shot of a hedge maze or the blooming greens surrounding the red hair of a forest nymph.

The film’s look is instrumental in allowing Garrone to wink at the camera and provide a sense of self-aware goofiness and outrageousness running through these dour fables. In each he proves that taking these stories literally produces garish, outlandish results and horrifying consequences to the characters at the center. And the film’s cartoonishly bloody nature makes for a film that’s equal parts hilarious and mysterious.

Films as weird as “Tale of Tales” only come around once in a blue moon, and Garrone’s satirical handling of the film’s visual splendor helps make the fairy tale indelible. There’s just no happily ever after here.

4 stars


When Alan Cowan’s cell phone vibrates, everything stops, or at least on the surface. Eyes still twitch and appendages fidget, and Alan doesn’t forget whose company he’s in. We wouldn’t want to be rude.

Yet the never ending, subtle anxieties nagging us in social situations, like wanting to drop Alan’s cell phone in a flower pot, make Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” so devilishly enticing. “Carnage” makes the compulsion to be rude immensely enjoyable.

Polanski’s 79-minute nugget of a film is based on Yasmina Reza’s play (she co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski) “Le Dieu du carnage.” It was “God of Carnage” on Broadway while I was in New York, and it starred James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. I didn’t get to see that version, so I was thrilled when I heard it was being made into a movie with a cast I admire even more.

Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play two married couples discussing what to do following Winslet and Waltz’s son attacking Foster and Reilly’s son with a stick. It’s a dark and dryly funny character study of society, civility and judgmental human nature in Western culture.

The families are on edge from the beginning, choosing their words carefully but making their honesty heard.

Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) are parents who know best; they have a belief for everything and a blind right to exact justice and understanding for their children. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Waltz and Winslet) are wealthy, busy and intelligent; they disagree but hold their tongues and condescend in private.

This is true at least for awhile, and although there’s a clear sense of how compelling this one-room drama could be on stage, Polanski’s camera show us the finer nuances in these characters’ social awkwardness. He carefully frames each at a variety of lengths and paired with a different partner, so what remains interesting is all that is not being said, the wonderful acting being done when they are not the center of attention and how the screenplay remains nimble and complex to allow changing allegiances.

If in its brief running time “Carnage” devolves to childish bickering too quickly, it’s a forgivable sin because of its naturalism. Perhaps unlike “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, to which it is often compared, “Carnage” is never strictly goofy or morose and never heavy or frivolous. It doesn’t monologue profound social philosophies and it doesn’t take sides.

“Carnage” is a balanced and delicate character drama that never stops spinning its tiny gears, even if a phone call interrupts it.

3 ½ stars

Cedar Rapids

“Cedar Rapids” is not your standard fish-out-of-water comedy because its hero is only breaking out of a very small bubble into a slightly larger bubble.

For Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), Cedar Rapids, MI may as well be the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, but we know better. That’s what makes this very familiar story interesting, clever and good-hearted, but also ultimately tepid.

Lippe is travelling to Cedar Rapids for an insurance convention, and he’s determined to come back to his small hometown in Wisconsin with the coveted Two Diamonds prize.

Having never left his hometown, Lippe is scared witless by these people with so much “worldly experience,” namely Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). The Deansie may be a womanizing, drunkard buffoon typical to these comedies, but he’s only crazy and outrageous on Midwestern insurance salesman standards.

Putting these characters on such a small scale is precisely what makes them endearing, and forcing them into a truly outrageous and raunchy scenario would be a betrayal.

But when a lot is made of this Two Diamonds prize, it serves as a notorious MacGuffin. The specific plot points already matter little in a movie like this, but when their dramatic conflicts are intentionally placed on a lower pedestal, the emotional payoff is nada.

And yet there are still charming moments of comedy throughout a very funny cast. Helms plays the dope amongst dopes so well that when he’s forced to sing in front of a crowd, we forget as an actor he does it all the time on “The Office.” Reilly is having a terrific year, and The Deansie is a memorable character just because of the way Reilly controls his body as a performer. Even Anne Heche as the love interest Joan is a congenial tomcat good for a few grins and laughs.

It’s a shame the rest of the movie feels so slight and insignificant around them.

2 ½ stars

Review: Terri


I knew kids in junior high and high school who would say weird stuff just to get a rise out of me. They would talk dirty, and it wasn’t insulting to me personally, but they could sense I was naïve, and they enjoyed it. They were just as insecure, but they didn’t carry themselves that way. They were unnecessarily ruthless for the sake of being so.

That’s the problem for Terri (first time screen actor Jacob Wysocki). He’s a big kid for 15, large and fat beyond his age. Kids whisper stuff to him about vaginas and squeeze his man breasts. Is that particularly insulting? It’s certainly annoying. And it doesn’t help that he has to put up with this junk when he’s living alone with an uncle developing Alzheimer’s and walking to school everyday through the woods.

The title character in “Terri” is in a tailspin, developing as an adult and now conflicting with whether he’s weird or normal, smart or mentally challenged, and even good or bad. I liked getting to know Terri and observing how he grows in these few weeks of high school. I would’ve liked to know him as a kid before life seemed so confusing, but the film’s third act leaves its character wandering in uncertainty. Continue reading “Review: Terri”