Tag Archives: B-

BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON

Producer: Matthew Plouffe, Tobey Maguire and Margot Hand
Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Writer: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Stars: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Kate Arrington, Mickey Day, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Juri Hanley-Cohn, Adam Sietz and Patch Darragh
Studio: Amazon Studios

B-

Marathons have certain prescribed routes, and so do movies like playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo’s debut, a likable but largely predictable dramedy about a woman who changes her life by staking out a challenging goal and working to achieve it despite pitfalls along the way. Based on the experience of Brittany O’Neill, a friend of Colaizzo’s, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a decent enough crowd-pleaser, but hardly a groundbreaking one.

Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell) is introduced as an overweight twenty-something barely making ends meet working as an usher at an off-Broadway theatre and partying all night with her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee), who is trying for social-media stardom with her boyfriend. Brittany acts happy and fancy-free, but insecurities fester beneath the surface, and when she visits a doctor to get some pills to keep her going, his advice that she undertake to lose some pounds and get her blood pressure under control comes as a wakeup call.

Brittany decides to begin exercising, but gym rates are beyond her, so she decides to take up jogging instead. That throws her together with a neighbor, thin, apparently self-confident Catherine (Michaela Watkins), whom she’s previously dismissed as an uptight bore but who now proves surprisingly sympathetic even as self-absorbed Gretchen doesn’t. Catherine is a member of a running club, and eventually Brittany joins it too, and they become a duo—or more accurately a trio, since another runner, gay Seth (Micah Stock), befriends them as a partner in pain. Eventually the three will work toward running in real races, finally agreeing to attempt what seems a total impossibility—tackling the New York City marathon, a twenty-six mile endurance contest.

Romance also enters the picture as Brittany takers a new job house-sitting for people who don’t want to leave their pets in kennels while they’re away. Her first gig brings her into contact with her employers’ “night guy,” Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a likably irresponsible slacker who’s turned the place into his permanent residence in their absence and suggests she do the same. As implausible as it seems at first, the two hit it off and get close over time.

One of the strengths of Colaizzo’s script is that Brittany isn’t portrayed as all sugar and spice. Even in the early going, she can have a sharp tongue and a readiness to use it. But her aptitude for self-loathing, and a predilection to turn it against others, comes to the fore when her constant training leads to an injury, and the return of her employers causes her loss of a place to stay. She moves in with her supportive sister (Kate Arrington) and brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery), but her unhappiness is obvious, and it bubbles over in a cruel drunken tirade she directs against one of their guests, a woman heavier than she ever was, who nonetheless seems content with the way she looks.

It goes without saying that Brittany recovers from her funk, issues the appropriate apologies, resumes her training after her injury has healed, and eventually runs the marathon, a year later than she’d originally hoped. The toughness of the event is made palpable, but her friends and family are on hand to cheer her one. The only thing missing from the scene is Rob Schneider yelling, as he used to do in all those early Adam Sandler movies about underdogs triumphing in the end, “You can do it!”

Actually, that would have proven a clever way of pulling the movie back from its last-act earnestness to the quirky appeal of the earlier reels. As it is, we have to be satisfied with a “Marathon” that starts out as an intriguing sprint but loses steam in the later laps.

Even there, however, Bell delivers a strong performance, capturing both the comedic and dramatic aspects of the character—and going through the actual weight-loss process that O’Neill did (though perhaps with some help from the makeup artists). Her gradual slimming down is more impressive than a lot of the computer-generated effects one sees in big Hollywood blockbusters.

Bell’s efforts are seconded by the supporting cast. Watkins is especially convincing, especially when Catherine’s self-doubts come into play (she’s going through a messy divorce and has custody issues to sort through); and while Ambudker, Howery, Stock and Lee tend to italicize things and come on a mite too strong, that could be the result of the uncertain control of a first time-director. Technically, the picture will win no awards, but it’s entirely adequate, with Casey Brooks’s editing maintaining a nice pace.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” might not take the prize, but it crosses the finish line winded but game.

SKIN

Producer: Jaime Ray Newman, Guy Nattiv, Oren Moverman, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler and Dillon D. Jordan
Director: Guy Nattiv
Writer: Guy Nattiv
Stars: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Camp, Valerie Farmiga, Louisa Krause, Zoe Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett, Mike Colter, Mary Stuart Masterson and Russell Posner
Studio: A24 Films

B-

Israeli-born writer-director Guy Nattiv and his wife and producing partner, actress Jaime Ray Newman, won the live-action short film Oscar earlier this year for “Skin,” a racially-based revenge story about a white nationalist whose young son reacts rather badly when his father returns home with his skin colored black by friends of a man he had brutalized. It was praised, one supposes, for its message about the insidious effects of racism, rather than for its coarse narrative and crude production.

This feature-length film by Nattiv is not an expansion of the earlier work, for which one can be grateful—though uneven and somewhat ragged technically, it represents a significant improvement on the short. To be sure it too deals with a bigoted skinhead, but it is based on the life of an actual person, Bryon Widner, who was a member of a Midwestern white supremacist group for years until he renounced their ideology—and suffered the consequences of his perceived betrayal. His story was previously told in Bill Brummell’s 2011 documentary “Erasing Hate.”

That title here refers to Widner’s decision to have his racist facial tattoos removed as a sign of his total rejection of his past—a long and terribly painful process that becomes a motif here, scenes of the operations intersecting with sequences dramatizing Widner’s development from hatred to love, and thus a symbol of the difficulty of his redemption.

There are two people integral to the change in Widner’s attitude. One is Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a single mother who, like Widner, is part of the so-called Vinlanders Social Club, a group of skinhead thugs run by Bill “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) and his wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga). Widner grows protective of her and her three daughters Desiree (Zoe Colletti), Sierra (Kyle Rogers) and Iggy (Colbi Gannett), and when she draws away from the group, he is moved to follow. The other is Daryl Jenkins (Mick Colter), a black activist who detects the sliver of doubt about the Kramers in Widner and makes it his goal to help the man extricate himself from the group’s malignant influence.

Precisely how Widner got involved with the Vinlanders in the first place is not covered here; when we are introduced to him, in the person of Jamie Bell, he is already a full, very active follower, ferociously brutalizing those identified by Kramer as enemies. Nattiv gives us a glimpse of how he would have been recruited by showing Bill and Shareen picking up a homeless teen named Gavin (Russell Posner) and indoctrinating him—a reflection, one presumes, of their usual practice.

But “Skin” is not about how Widner joined the Vinlanders, but how he left it—and the ramifications when Krager’s thugs come after him. The plot turns quite melodramatic in the latter stages, and one might wonder whether the actual events have been embellished to some degree, but Mary Lena Colston’s gritty production design and the frantic hand-held camerawork by Arnaud Potier go far to keep it grounded in reality, or at least a convincing approximation of it.

The other element of the film that does so is the acting. Pride of place has to go to Bell, who is fast becoming one of the screen’s most reliable actors. His turn here is about as far a cry from sweet Billy Elliot as one can imagine, a startlingly intense portrait of a man desperate to redeem himself for his brutal past.

It’s difficult to imagine “Skin” without Bell, but Macdonald’s contribution is no less remarkable. Julie is no more conventionally heroic a character than Bryon, but like him she showed extraordinary courage in disengaging from the Vinlanders, and Macdonald conveys that. Camp and Farmiga make a deeply unsettling pair, though they remain relatively undefined; she adds some sexual underpinnings to her relationship with their younger followers that make Shareen even creepier. Widner himself appears briefly in the closing credits, emphasizing the story’s real-life basis. That was perhaps an unwise choice, as it adds a documentary touch that deflates the dramatic impact of what’s preceded it.

Like Tony Kaye’s 1998 “American History X,” “Skin” tells a bracing story about one man’s struggle to free himself from the poison of racist ideology, anchored by an utterly committed lead performance. And, of course, the present direction of the nation’s politics makes the tale even timelier today.