Sunday, August 17, 2014

MIFF: That's a wrap

The Melbourne International Film Festival doesn't actually end until this evening, but last night was officially Closing Night. That means that four screens at the Melbourne Central Hoyts were showing Felony, starring Joel Edgerton and Tom Wilkinson, and directed by my friend Matthew Saville, the husband of one of my wife's oldest friends. This was followed by a gala drinks at which, I understand, Matthew was grinning ear-to-ear. If you were the director of a film chosen to close one of the world's oldest film festivals, you'd grin too.

Being a bit of a mucky muck in the Melbourne film industry herself these days, my wife was sitting in one of those four audiences. The tickets were something ridiculous like $50, though she went for free as part of her job. I'll wait and see Felony in the theater in a couple weeks, when it will be "only" $19. (And yes, I'll try to go to a full-price screening, to do my own share to contribute to the film's box office.)

I did have the final movie on my own agenda across town at the Capitol Theatre, the same location as my previous two -- a 9 p.m. screening of Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins. I was close to not having it, as only on Friday did my wife realize that the Felony screening was Saturday rather than Sunday. Fortunately, her sister stepped in like a hero to babysit, so we could both take in our final movies of the festival.

And what a way to end things.

I've noticed something happening recently during movies I love, which has surely happened before, but I've only just put my finger on it in 2014. It's the chills. Or maybe it's goosebumps -- hard to tell in a darkened theater. But I first consciously recognized this involuntary physical reaction in Edge of Tomorrow, and then made note of it happening again in Snowpiercer. The Skeleton Twins made it 3-for-3 as I sat in a kind of fugue of cinematic rapture. When I wasn't laughing hysterically, that is.

The Skeleton Twins starts with one of those potentially worrisome setups for an independent movie, which immediately puts you on guard about content that may both be self-important and eccentric. A depressed gay man (Bill Hader), with a bottle in one hand and a picture of himself with an ex-boyfriend in the other, decides to do something about his distressed emotional state -- he gets into a warm bath and opens his wrists, but not before first jacking up his stereo to its highest volume. On the other side of the country, a woman (Kristen Wiig) has a palm full of pills in one hand and her cell phone in the other, when the cell phone rings to tell her that her brother has been admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt (his neighbors complained about the loud music and got the building manager). It turns out they are twins, and in one of those moments of parallel twindom, they were both about to end their miserable existences at the same moment -- despite not having spoken for ten years.

Leave your skepticism at the door, my friends, because this is one of the most moving portraits of siblings -- and really, just of people trying to make the best of disappointing lives -- that I've seen in a long time.

Milo (Hader) agrees to go move in with Maggie (Wiig) to try to get his life back on track -- not knowing that she herself was on the precipice. He had moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, but has predictably been waiting tables instead. Meanwhile, Maggie still lives in their home town of Nyack, New York, and has married an enthusiastic and earnest but comparatively simple guy named Lance (Luke Wilson), who calls people "bro" and "amigo" and is nothing like the acerbic and funny Milo -- who gradually brings the acerbic and funny version of Maggie back out as they become reacquainted. Being back home also brings Milo back in contact with a past love interest, Rich (Ty Burrell), about whom there was a scandal that contributed to the splintering of Milo and Maggie's relationship. As they are contending with the long shadow thrown by their father's suicide when they were teens, an absent mother, and possible complications in Maggie's marriage, these two broken siblings have a lot on their collective plate.

I suppose there's not a lot in terms of subject matter that differentiates The Skeleton Twins from any number of other independent dramas that also have a knack for the funny. The difference comes in the casting of almost entirely comedic actors, who show us -- in some cases for the first time -- how nimble they can be with drama. First and foremost on that list is Hader, whose run on Saturday Night Live coincided with Wiig's, which undeniably contributes to their priceless chemistry. We've seen Wiig pull off affecting moments of drama in small doses in movies like Bridesmaids, but Hader's dramatic chops are almost entirely unexpected, making them all the more disarming. Simply put, he is fantastic, and I just hope that this is the type of film that could actually earn him Oscar attention this year. Wiig is (nearly) his equal, and what both actors do so well in this film is communicate so much with just small adjustments of their expressions. They both get plenty of big moments, but it's what they do in the small ones that make these acting tour-de-forces.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that these are just dramatic performances, though. If that were the case, there probably wouldn't have been a compelling reason to choose these two particular actors. They share at least two big comedy set pieces -- one involving hijinx with nitrous at a dentist's office, another featuring an epic lip sync of a 1980s song -- that are some of the most gut-busting scenes I've experienced at the movies in a couple years. And perhaps that's an indication of just what director Craig Johnson is pulling off here. He's made both one of the funniest and one of the most moving films of 2014, and perhaps of the past couple years as well.

While I'm telling you how stunned I was by the acting, I shouldn't neglect a supporting turn from Modern Family's Ty Burrell, whose role is strictly dramatic and is quite impressive given what we've seen of him on screen as well.

The Skeleton Twins may have a couple convenient moments, but everything that happens feels life-sized and truthful. Some characters may be designed to serve a particular plot function only, but that doesn't mean they get the short shrift in terms of depth or nuance. This movie never "cheats." It delivers us unfiltered pain but also unmitigated joy, and I am sure it will end up being one of my very favorite films of 2014.

I suppose one of the reasons it struck me as much as it did is that it's one of the rare movies that speaks to my own particular brand of siblinghood. I feel like we see a lot of movies about the bonds between brothers and the bonds between sisters, but it's less frequent that we see a brother and a sister taking on the world through their own unique sibling bond. Sure, my sister is not a twin and we did not have anything to deal with so heavy as a father who killed himself, but that's the thing about great movies -- their specifics make us think of our own, even if they are unrelated. Great movies tap into things that are universal, and this one made me miss my sister indeed.

In the closing credits I was delighted, though not totally surprised, to see the names of Mark and Jay Duplass as producers. Mark was the star of the movie my wife saw on Friday night, Creep, which she also raved about. It is becoming clearer and clearer that everything the Duplass brothers touch turns to gold, and The Skeleton Twins is gold indeed. In fact, this movie cast me into such a lovely contemplative mood that I was fused to my seat until the end of the credits, and didn't even listen to my iPod on the tram ride home.

On that exceptional closing note, I really look forward to MIFF 2015.

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