Sleeping With Other People (F). Is there an actor or actress out there that you just instinctively like and root for and want to be in good movies? I have a few. Nicole Kidman, of course. Chris Pratt (not that he needs my help, with the roll that he’s on lately). Paul Rudd. And the female lead of this absolutely terrible movie, Alison Brie. I’ve liked her ever since I first saw her six or seven years ago on the sitcom Community. Maybe you know her as Trudy Campbell on Mad Men. She’s pretty, and she can be funny. But there’s nothing funny about this this misbegotten attempt at romantic comedy. It is relentlessly trashy and vulgar, but not in a genial Judd Apatow kind of way. Plus Brie is unlucky enough to be paired with Jason Sudeikis (We’re the Millers). Maybe Sudeikis is a lovely person in real life, but I found him insufferable both in this movie and in We’re the Millers—he excels at playing the smug, smarmy, superior, hyperarticulate jerk. (Adam Scott (Friends With Kids) is another actor I can’t watch without disliking, for much the same reason. And he happens to be in this movie too.) Anyway, Brie’s character is messed up and pathetic, and Sudeikis’s is, of course, an unlikeable jerk. And, as previously suggested, the movie is crass and icky throughout. Please do not waste your money or your time on this movie. But do give Community a try if you haven’t yet discovered its quirky charms. It’s now available on the internets, or so I am told.
Cooties (D-). Kids at an elementary school get a virus that turns them into horrible, flesh-eating zombies, forcing the teachers to fight for their very survival. Sounds like an awesome premise for a horror-comedy, right? Alas, the makers of Cooties botched it almost completely. The movie is simply not funny. I laughed harder at a preview of a Will Ferrell movie than I did at anything in Cooties. Will Ferrell!! I do remember chuckling when gonzo P.E. teacher Wade (Rainn Wilson, TV’s The Office) called diminutive Elijah Wood (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) a hobbit, but that was about it. There are buckets of fakey gore, but the only real gross part was the opening credits, which played over disgusting images from what may or may not have been an actual chicken-processing plant. (The zombie virus in this scenario came from tainted chicken nuggets.) Skip this movie at all costs.
The Gospel of the Family: Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate of Marriage, Civil Re-Marriage, and Communion in the Church, by Juan Jose Perez-Soba and Stephan Kampowski (Ignatius 2014). This is no secret: The Catholic Church is struggling to propose its teachings about sex and marriage in a way that the modern world can even comprehend, let alone appreciate. According to the authors of this book, German Cardinal Walter Kasper has proposed that the Church should modify its long-standing practice and allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion after a penitential period. Cardinal Kasper cites the modern practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church and certain very old Christian texts in support. The authors of this book argue that Cardinal Kasper does not treat the evidence of ancient Christian practice fairly, and that an objective reading of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the Church’s present and long-standing practice goes back to the beginning of Christianity. They also argue that the Catholic teaching of the indissolubility of marriage is firmly rooted in good Christian theology. Finally, they argue that the Church has been terribly slow to build on Pope St. John Paul II’s extensive writings on the family. The crisis of the family in the modern world, they argue, is much deeper and broader than the narrow problem of the divorced-and-remarried. In their view, the Church is failing in its mission to teach the truth about love and marriage, to prepare engaged couples adequately for marriage, and to help newly married couples negotiate the crucial first several years of their marriage. They offer this book in the hope of influencing the upcoming Synod on the Family that is coming up later this year—next month, in fact.
The End of the Tour (B-). If you’re looking for a movie that is basically two smart literary-type guys conversing with each other for an hour and a half, then this is the movie for you. It’s based on a true story: In or about 1996, David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, interviewed author David Foster Wallace. At that time, Wallace was achieving some celebrity with the successful publication of his immense novel Infinite Jest, and he agreed to let Lipsky interview him over the last few days of the book tour for that novel. Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) plays Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays Lipsky. Wallace suffered from depression much of his life, and he committed suicide in 2008, so that dark shadow hovers over the movie. In Segel’s portrayal, Wallace comes across as an odd character, but fundamentally decent and very serious about wanting to inspire his readers to be decent people too. Eisenberg turns in a good performance too, but his character (almost) never forgets he is there to do a job, not be a buddy, so it’s hard to like him. Joan Cusack (School of Rock) pops up as the chirpy Minnesotan who drives the Davids around Minneapolis for that part of the tour. I thought it was a pretty good movie, but I probably would have appreciated it more if I had ever read any of Wallace’s work.
Mistress America (A-). Well, here it is, my favorite movie of 2015 so far. It’s an independent comedy by director Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young). I must say, his movies have been growing on me. Like Baumbach’s 2012 effort Frances Ha, this movie stars Baumbach’s girlfriend Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress), and the two of them co-wrote it as well. Gerwig plays Brooke, a free-spirited New Yorker who has about a dozen irons in the fire but may have a little problem following through on things. Tracy (Lola Kirke, Gone Girl) is a lonely freshman at Barnard College, and she falls into Brooke’s orbit because they are about to become stepsisters. (Tracy’s mom is engaged to Brooke’s dad). The dialogue is very funny, but there is a serious undercurrent as Tracy begins to write a short story for a college magazine based on Brooke’s life—and then Tracy starts to realize that Brooke is not at all as put together as she pretends to be. The movie reminded me a little of Whit Stillman’s work, but more in the vein of a screwball comedy. I urge you to give it a try and see if it’s your cup of tea.
Digging for Fire (B-). I enjoyed director Joe Swanberg’s film Drinking Buddies, which was a low-key movie about a couple of nice single people who liked each other but couldn’t figure out how to, or whether they should, date. (It didn’t hurt that Olivia Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens) was one of the two stars.) Now Swanberg is back with another low-key movie, but this one is about a married couple negotiating their graduation into middle age, an event made manifest by their three-year-old son Jude. Tim (Jake Johnson, Jurassic World) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married) aren’t exactly unhappy, but their marriage is clearly a little frayed. While they are house-sitting for one of Lee’s (much wealthier) clients, Tim discovers a rusty old revolver and what might be a human bone on the property. Uninterested, Lee takes off to spend the weekend with her parents (Judith Light, TV’s Who’s the Boss, and Sam Elliott, The Hero), leaving Tim to do the couple’s taxes. Instead, he invites some of his drinking buddies over (such as Sam Rockwell, Moon, as the Really Loud, Obnoxious Friend) to help him dig in the dirt, and they in turn invite a couple of ladies over (Brie Larson, Trainwreck, and Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect). Off on her own adventure, whom should Lee encounter but a nice fellow named Ben who looks just like Orlando Bloom (The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies). It’s kind of a loose, shaggy movie, but obviously it has an impressive cast, and it did make me want to see what would happen and what the weekend’s repercussions would be for Tim and Lee and Jude.
The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth. This is a nostalgic novel about, of all things, the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, viewed through the prism of an ordinary family unexpectedly and fortuitously raised into the aristocracy back in the mid-1800s. An ordinary lieutenant happened to save the life of Emperor Franz Joseph while the emperor was visiting the front line in some war or other, and in an instant the simple peasant became Baron Joseph Trotta von Sipolje. But the novel focuses on his son, a government functionary who represses all his emotions beneath his devotion to the Empire, and his grandson, a mediocre soldier who dreams of emulating his grandfather but instead stumbles into one pathetic situation after another. All the while, the shadows of World War I are gathering. I really enjoyed it, but in a sad, wistful sort of way.