Tag Archives: Jason Segel

Our Portable Realities of Grief — “The Sky is Everywhere”

I hated “The Sky is Everywhere” until I loved it. I wanted to turn it off 20 minutes in because it was overwritten. In turn, that asks a degree of overacting to deliver it correctly. There’s so little grounding in the moment-to-moment of its opening act. What changed? Me. Stay with the film and begin to match its rhythm and pace, and it’s immensely rewarding.

I’ll give you one very early example to show what I mean: Lennie has lost her sister Bailey very suddenly. It’s her first day back at school in two months. She’s challenged for first chair clarinet. The music teacher says it’s inappropriate given the circumstances, but Lennie accepts. Setting aside that her challenger is played like a cartoon villain all but twirling a mustache, let’s just go with it.

The challenge is blind – the two girls play from behind a curtain. The challenger plays…all right, it’s not great, and the class waits for Lennie to play. When the curtain drops, it’s revealed she’s run out of the room and into the woods. The music teacher awards first chair to the challenger as a forfeit, instead of – I don’t know, saying that it’s clearly not the right time and they can run a challenge at a later date. At this point, the film is less about Lennie and more about what teacher in their right mind would go through with this.

The solution is, of course, to send another student running out of school into the woods – and not to bring her back to school, but to play guitar for her in the woods, and at this point I’m less concerned with Lennie’s grief than I am with when this dude is getting fired because he has no business being a teacher, let alone one who apparently has multiple students trying out for Juilliard because I guess the school is that good at music despite stuffing its 20-piece ensemble into a room that barely fits it.

What happens plotwise in this sequence is easy to understand, and yet nothing in it makes the slightest amount of practical sense. That’d be fine if it was the flight of symbolism “The Sky is Everywhere” makes its bread and butter. I love its departures into dance, set deconstruction, and touches of animation, but this is the plot part that’s supposed to sustain those flights. We’re made to understand that these events happen – perhaps with some added flair and style – but that they essentially happen as we’re shown.

At this point, I felt like the movie was forcing its premise to be secondary to its quirky affectations, rather than letting anything evolve naturally. And yet…. “The Sky is Everywhere” isn’t just overwritten and (perhaps) overacted, it’s also overdirected, and when something has gone that far over in so many ways, sometimes you wonder why the hell you haven’t, too.

“The Sky is Everywhere” is overdirected by Josephine Decker in the way that Michel Gondry, Julie Taymor, Baz Luhrmann, or Jean-Pierre Jeunet overdirect, which is to say that it’s directed exactly the way it needs to be, and if anyone else had directed it any other way, it would be woefully underdirected.

The film mentions “Wuthering Heights” every other scene for its first half, which quickly had me thinking, “I get it already”. It’s all Lennie reads because in mourning her sister she identifies with the characters and their obsession with misery. I was sick of the movie reminding me how much Lennie loves “Wuthering Heights” when I was also reminded five and 10 and 20 minutes ago.

But here’s the key point: I was being an idiot. Imagine watching Baz Lurhmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and thinking it’s odd everyone’s talking like Shakespeare wrote them. Of course he wrote them, it’s “Romeo + Juliet”. Yet “Wuthering Heights” isn’t as immediately recognizable a cultural touchstone as Shakespeare is, my last Bronte kick was years ago, and “The Sky is Everywhere” is influenced by it rather than being a straight adaptation. Where Lurhmann doesn’t really need to remind anyone, “Hey, watch this like you’re watching Shakespeare” even once, “The Sky is Everywhere” apparently really did need to remind me five or six times, “Hey, watch this like you’re reading Emily Bronte”.

When I started reading the film as “Wuthering Heights”, or at least from the emotional standpoint of a gothic romance, it was like a key opening a lock. I really did need the film to remind me several times before it dawned on me to listen.

Once you turn that key and the lock falls open, an entire emotional reality comes pouring out of “The Sky is Everywhere”. It’s filled with beautiful sequences that bring emotion alive through fantastical production, choreographed dance, and a host of scenes that exist as metaphors. That incredibly self-focused, overwhelmingly internal, streaming monologue that had struck me as overwritten is the foundation for gothic romance. When I started viewing the film with that in mind, I recognized that what I had viewed as shoving the foundation aside actually was the foundation.

It does help that the supporting roles eventually get more time to develop past their heavily quirk-forward introductions. Cherry Jones, Jason Segel, Jacques Colimon, Pico Alexander, Ji-young Yoo, and Havana Rose Liu are all very good, once they’re given space to flesh out their characters.

Through it all, Grace Kaufman gives a superb performance as Lennie. This is the second time in recent weeks a Gen Z actress has delivered a rangy, realistic portrayal of grief. While Jenna Ortega in “The Fallout” concerns very different subject matter, there is something that’s resonant and modern in both their portrayals of grief that we typically haven’t seen before.

I’d suggest the reason for this is casting teenagers as teenagers, instead of casting people in their late-20s. Different generations process grief differently, especially as that processing is shaped by a world that introduces new grief on a daily basis, but also seems able to connect and communicate grief more openly than before. This allows a more accurate and relatable portrayal of grief that’s fit for the 2020s instead of the 2000s. Because of their subject matter, these two films take very different conclusions from grief, but they’re both real, accessible, timely, and they help create films that will still be relevant and speak to us a decade from now.

There’s another work that “The Sky is Everywhere” brings to mind, and this may be more personal. “What Remains of Edith Finch” is a video game that’s similarly almost overbearingly quirk-forward. Once you’re able to crest that, it uses its design and a very particular literary tone to reel you in. Because you’re expecting metaphor to come alive, you also expect a contrast that highlights it. When that contrasting foundation itself is so stylized and metaphorical, you can feel unmoored – as if the film or game can’t decide on its own tone. Yet the more you watch or play, the more you sync up to that tone and understand the movable foundation it uses – a kind of emotional reality as foundation rather than a plot-centered one.

That difference is huge because one of those foundations is inherently shifting and subjective, while the other is concrete and, from a story’s perspective, not just objective but omniscient. The former enables those stylistic, metaphorical flights to go even further, but because you’re being asked to see an entire world subjectively through a character’s eyes – instead of seeing that character in a steady world through omniscient eyes – there’s a much higher suspension of disbelief when it comes to plot and world detail.

That asks a greater level of trust be given over to a director, without knowing whether they’ll come through on it. Like “What Remains of Edith Finch”, that unmoored foundation means you have to sync up well enough with “The Sky is Everywhere” to be swept off at the same pace. If you can, it really does deliver and it does things a more tethered movie never could. At the same time, some viewers may not be able to or may not be interested in doing that.

I compare “The Sky is Everywhere” to “What Remains of Edith Finch” because they both ask you to inhabit emotional realities that shape the world around you, that shape other people’s stories. They don’t just present a situation or character going through grief, they ask you to be a part of coping with that grief and see the world from the perspective of the grief-stricken. Reality isn’t reality. Every emotion is supersaturated, idealized and romanticized until it’s rejected, the world takes the shape of your perception. It’s not so much that “The Sky is Everywhere” can’t find it’s tone or sense of reality initially, it’s that the concrete foundation we’re so used to stories providing us isn’t there from the start. Most films about grief give us that anchor, but like “What Remains of Edith Finch”, “The Sky is Everywhere” doesn’t want us to have it. To embody grief, we cannot have it, or else we would have an out from that embodiment.

We start from a place where reality is already gone, suffused in this case with gothic romance and monologues that are overwritten until you start feeling them instead of analyzing them. It’s beautiful once you can get close enough to where it’s coming from, but trekking that far out is difficult and not what everyone wants out of a film like this.

Even loving it, I still have criticisms of “The Sky is Everywhere”. The characters are initially defined by such an overwhelming level of quirk that it’s hard to read any of their relationships beyond this. Without enough of anything else, they can come off as creepy in place of caring from time to time. This means getting to know them later places them at a deficit that doesn’t feel intended.

Dialogue scenes where the characters struggle to put shape to their grief are brilliantly done, but it takes about 25 minutes to get to a single one of them. Plot aspects like whether Lennie will get into Juilliard, which are so central in the film’s opening act, become somewhat forgotten later. Of course, this becomes less important to Lennie, but I do think the film focuses a bit too much on some practical initial stakes to get you invested when it’s not really about those stakes. The opening act gives us those stakes and descriptions of grief, but it fails to let us see a character interacting at length with the film’s focus on grief until it’s shifting us into that second act. It’s important we know these details, but they shouldn’t dominate the film’s opening to the exclusion of everything else.

All that said, if you can ride out that opening act and get that key to click for you in terms of its gothic romantic storytelling, “The Sky is Everywhere” is a gorgeous, beautifully designed, well-conceived film with a strong central performance. If it never clicks for you, that’s understandable – its storytelling approach will lack enough of an anchor for many. If it drives enough curiosity to see what it wants to show you next, “The Sky is Everywhere” can ultimately be extremely rewarding.

It’s a challenging film, perhaps even off-putting, but if you can sync up with its sense of metaphors springing off the back of a metaphorical reality, it has a lot to say that’s worth hearing.

You can watch “The Sky is Everywhere” on Apple TV.

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“Muppets Most Wanted” — Comedic Success and Missed Opportunity

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Muppets Most Wanted is a comedy in which the main characters are three-foot puppets, a la Sesame Street. The most famous is Kermit the Frog, who leads his eclectic band of performers to put on shows that are part variety act, part rock concert, and part circus. Most of the humor isn’t designed to make you laugh uncontrollably as much as to make you smile broadly. It’s written for adults as much as it is for children, but because its biggest charm is its good intent, it needs to be funny to adults without falling back on suggestive jokes.

This is a tall order for a movie. It was pulled off in 2011 when the dormant franchise got rebooted in The Muppets, but that film rested its narrative on the journey and love story of two non-muppet humans played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams. The muppets themselves were only half the story.

In Muppets Most Wanted, the muppets are now on their own. There are supporting human players – British comedian Ricky Gervais returns, now playing Muppets manager Dominic Badguy. He replaces Kermit with lookalike frog Constantine (“the most dangerous frog in the world”) in order to use the Muppets’ world tour as a front for robbing museums and banks across Europe. Kermit himself is snatched by police after a case of mistaken identity, and sent to complete Constantine’s prison sentence in a Siberian Gulag.

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Ty Burrell (Modern Family) plays French investigator Jean Pierre, who is more often on-break than he is on-the-case. Tina Fey (30 Rock) is Nadya, the strict officer in charge of the Gulag. She steals the show pretty regularly. The whole concoction makes for a great family movie. There’s slapstick humor for the kids, the musical numbers are clever and varied, and the film is rife with sight gags and celebrity cameos for the adults. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ray Liotta (GoodFellas) and Danny Trejo (Machete) auditioning their song-and-dance routine for the Gulag’s all-prisoner variety show. The film fires gags so fast that if one misses the mark, you don’t have time to think about it before the next one hits.

I can’t help but feel that Muppets Most Wanted misses an opportunity, however. Writer-director James Bobin is so intent on communicating the many needless details of what’s really a very simple plot that he forgets to create many sketches – nearly all of the jokes are one-offs.

This is a genre of comedy that’s strongest when it blends together the entire history of cinema. There are clever visual gags that reference everything from M to Lawrence of Arabia to Silence of the Lambs, but they’re gone as quickly as they’re delivered. The only time Muppets Most Wanted even hints at a full sketch is in its songs, particularly when Jean Pierre and his muppet CIA partner, Sam Eagle, question various muppets about the international heists. These situational sketches are potential goldmines for comedy, but they’re constantly passed over. It makes you feel like the best bits might be happening in between the scenes you get to see.

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Muppets Most Wanted is pleasing. You’ll want to see what visual gag or surprise cameo is around the corner. There just isn’t as much to invest in this time around. The Muppets had some surprisingly moving moments, such as the song “Man or Muppet,” in which two brothers – one man, one muppet – both faced taking a step into the unknown and away from each other. It hearkened back to the moment Kermit sat on a rock with his banjo and lamented “It’s not easy bein’ green,” a song that in 1970 sparked families to discuss diversity and intolerance with their children, topics that were being asked about by youth, but that were being shied away from in popular culture.

“Man or Muppet” is a song that made my niece – five at the time – ask me about taking chances in life, about the hopes and fears you can have even in an average schoolday. Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t have any such moments. It’s cute and funny. It will definitely make you smile. It just lacks that little bit of emotional resonance that earned its predecessor a spot in so many hearts. Muppets Most Wanted is rated PG for action.

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