‘Duck Butter’ Examines the Joys and Perils of Intimacy

Duck Butter movie poster

When it comes to the films released under the banner of Duplass Brothers Productions, I have found many of them to be fearless in the way they deal with intimacy and vulnerability. We come into this world feeling free and uninhibited, and then we get our hearts broken in a way which leaves a scar that never disappears. From there, we build up our defenses to keep strangers from getting too close because we don’t want our feelings getting gutted, and the thought of being vulnerable with another person can seem terrifying sometimes. Movies like “The Skeleton Twins,” “Tangerine” “The One I Love” and “Blue Jay” have dealt with these themes effectively, and they are presented in a very intimate fashion to where you don’t feel like you are watching a movie, but instead real life unfolding before you. It serves as a reminder of how much we want intimacy and of the euphoric highs and terrifying lows which come with it.

The latest Duplass produced movie to deal with this is “Duck Butter,” and if you want to know what its title means, you have to watch it to find out for yourself. Alia Shawkat stars as Naima, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles who has just snagged her biggest role in a movie written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. But while Naima may find a certain freedom in acting, we see she is a bit repressed emotionally and has developed a bleak worldview as the daily news is filled with nothing but bad stuff like the inability of humanity to control global warming which, by the way folks, is very real. For those who do not believe me, please check out Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World.”

At night, Naima goes to a club where she meets Sergio (Laia Costa), an aspiring singer who is everything she isn’t: a free spirit who is open to taking risks the average person would be quick to avoid. Sergio asks Naima to dance with her, and it gets off to an awkward start to where Sergio has to shake Naima’s arms in order to get her to loosen up. I remember a female friend having to do this with me, and it did work in releasing the stiffness which has enveloped certain parts of my body. It certainly works between these two women to where they just fall into each other’s arms in a way which spells out how they have found a strong connection not easily discovered.

From there, Naima spends the evening at Sergio’s house with friends of hers, all of whom encourage Naima to come out of her protective shell and express herself freely. After that, the two of them are left alone with each other and make love in a way which feels not the least bit choreographed and totally authentic. Both discuss the dissatisfaction they have had in dating and romantic relationships which came to be destroyed by dishonesty. So caught up they are in their truly intense chemistry, they decide to spend the next 24 hours together, having sex every hour on the hour in the belief they can transcend the deceit which usually plays a part in most relationships.

Van Halen, when Sammy Hagar was their lead singer, once sang, “How do I know when it’s love?” Watching Shawkat and Costa here is to know, or so it seems at first. Their intense connection is intoxicating to witness, and I hope to discover it in my own life sooner rather than later. These actresses make their attraction seem not only real, but exhilarating. As a result, I really got caught up in their relationship to where I didn’t want to see it fail. But as “Duck Butter” moves on to its second and third act, you can sense things will fall apart to where you wonder if things can ever be made right again.

Like many Duplass Brothers Productions, “Duck Butter” was made on a very low budget and with a shooting schedule which never seems long enough. Movies can suffer as a result from these factors, but this one benefits from them as the two main characters are confined to whatever locations they end up at to where we feel completely stuck with them. Intimacy can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be seriously scary when things fall out of our control and understanding.

“Duck Butter” was directed by Miguel Arteta who cowrote the screenplay with Shawkat. He is best known for directing “Star Maps,” “Chuck & Buck,” “Youth in Revolt” and “Cedar Rapids.” Each of his films deals with the insecure relationships people have, and this one is no exception. I reveled in the connection Naima and Sergio have with one another to where I wanted nothing to come between them. But as the story rolled along, I sensed something would, and it made me both nervous and resigned to an inevitable fate the even the writers could not avoid.

Shawkat is best known for her work on the television shows “Arrested Development” and “Search Party,” and we are long past the point where we have to realize what a talented actress she is. Watching her take Naima from being a repressed individual to one eager to embrace the love she has found is entrancing. From start to finish, she makes Naima an individual desperate for a connection she feels has been denied to her, but she also makes us see a character who eventually comes to see how her own needs are equally as important as her partner’s.

I am not familiar with Costa’s work, but she did win the Lola, the biggest award one can get from the German Academy of Cinema, for her performance in the critically acclaimed “Victoria.” Costa makes Sergio into the free spirit many of us wish we could be, and she makes the character into a romantic force to be reckoned with as she tests Naima to come out of her protective shell more than she has already. Costa appears like such a free spirit to where I wanted to be swept up in her orbit, and this is even though speed bumps in this relationship felt inevitable.

What I admired most about “Duck Butter” was how emotionally naked these two actresses were. Whatever you think about the art of acting, this is not as easy as many think it is. Both Shawkat and Costa have to break down their own defenses to make the plights of their characters all the more real, and you have to admire what they pull off here as their emotions infect us in a way we are not typically prepared for. We revel in the chemistry these two have, but we also fear their intimacy will lead them down a path which will destroy it irrevocably.

Many may see “Duck Butter” as a gay relationship movie or a part of queer cinema, but we are now in a time where putting things into one particular category only speaks of a person’s limited worldview. The screenplay originally had a heterosexual couple instead of a homosexual one at its center, but the trials and tribulations of love are the same no matter what side of the sexual spectrum you reside on. This movie shows how love can be exhilarating and damaging all at the same time, and I was captivated by it from start to finish.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

“Duck Butter” opens in Los Angeles and New York on April 27, and it will premiere on digital formats starting May 1.

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Exclusive Interview with Lake Bell and Ed Helms about ‘I Do… Until I Don’t’

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Lake Bell made a name for herself as an actress in television on “Boston Legal” as well as in movies like “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached.” In 2013, she made her feature film directorial debut with “In a World…” and it showed her to be as talented behind the camera as she is in front on it. She now returns to the director’s chair with the comedy “I Do… Until I Don’t” which she also wrote and stars in as Alice. The story revolves around three couples who are at various points in their relationships, and they end up becoming subjects for a documentary directed by the highly regarded, yet hopelessly pretentious, filmmaker Vivian (played by Dolly Wells). What follows is a well-acted, written and directed movie which looks at marriage and asks if it is an institution worth preserving or instead worthy of a reboot.

Bell was joined by actor Ed Helms at the “I Do… Until I Don’t” press day held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California. Helms plays Alice’s husband, Noah. As the movie opens, the two of them have been married for 10 years, and they begin to wonder if boredom has become an overriding factor in their relationship as they discuss the possibility of having children. Just when you think you know where their relationship is heading, things end up taking an unpredictable turn.

I spoke with Bell about how the screenplay seemed to come together organically and how it evolved from when she started writing it to where she finished it. With Helms, we discussed how wonderfully he and the other actors worked with one another as their chemistry onscreen is never in doubt.

Check out the interview below, and be sure to check out “I Do… Until I Don’t” when it arrives in theaters on September 1, 2017.

‘Beginners’ is a Warm-Hearted Look at the Evolution of Relationships

Beginners movie poster

Mike Mills’ “Beginners” looked like the kind of movie I live to avoid. The son caring for his father who has a terminal disease, them making amends with each other before time runs out the relationship his son is currently involved in, etc. This has been the formula for an endless number of manipulative movies which bring out the cynical bastard in all of us. But there was something about this movie’s trailer that made it look like something more unique and heartfelt, and I’m not just talking about that Jack Russell terrier speaking in subtitles (thank god this is not another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel!).

Listening to Mike Mills’ interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross informed me that “Beginners” is largely autobiographical; although I’m sure the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The story centers on Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist with many failed relationships behind him. Upon the passing of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces to him that he’s gay, and soon discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. In the meantime, Oliver gets involved with the very free-spirited Anna (Melanie Laurent) and finds himself exhilarated by her, but frightened at the things that could easily tear their relationship apart.

“Beginners” is told in a non-linear format with the story jumping back and forth between Oliver’s time with his dad, and the time he spends with Anna. Many people find this filmmaking technique annoying and too artsy-fartsy, but it serves this movie well and was never jarring. It moves from one part of the story to another effortlessly, and Mills never condescends to his audience in filming this way. Besides, when it comes to memories like these, we don’t remember everything that happened in the order it took place.

I was actually surprised at how emotional “Beginners” was. From the trailer, it kind of looks like a light comedy bordering on becoming a dramedy. But there is a deep sadness at its core as the revelations brought about mean different things for each character. For Oliver, it makes him look back at the time he spent with mom and wonder if she was always the unhappy wife to his father. For Hal, it is a bittersweet journey embracing his true sexuality while wishing he had more time on earth to enjoy it.

The reasons for Hal coming out now never feel contrived when he explains it to his son. He makes it clear he always loved his wife even when they both knew he was homosexual. Plus, he wanted the married life and the things which came with it: the house, the family, everything he couldn’t have had if people knew he was gay. Christopher Plummer delivers this speech simply and in a matter of fact way, never having to act it out for the benefit of the audience.

There’s no doubt this is a very personal film for Mills who previously made a movie I still need to see, “Thumbsucker.” While the end credits indicate the places and characters used are fictitious and any similarity to those living or dead is coincidental, it doesn’t change the fact Mills went through the same thing with his own dad. This is what makes “Beginners” such a good movie; it comes from an honest place and not one of simple manipulation. Its themes of love are universal and profound as relationships of all kinds need constant work to keep them strong.

This is one of the best roles Ewan McGregor has had in some time. As Oliver, he inhabits the character with a knowingness of what life has put him through, and the things he wants scare him the most. His eyes speak of a strong sadness he has trouble reconciling within himself, and you want to see him be a happier person. McGregor becomes the character right in front of us and gives a perfectly unforced performance which reminds us he’s still a terrific actor.

I really enjoyed watching Melanie Laurent here as Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, and this is the first movie I’ve seen her in since “Inglourious Basterds.” She portrays the kind of free spirit us guys would all love to fall in love with. The chemistry she shares with McGregor is very strong, and their interactions make for some of the film’s most gleeful moments. Her demeanor, though, hides a dark spot in her life which is hinted at but never fully explained.

As for Plummer, he is simply magnificent as Hal. Seeing him embrace his sexuality is great fun as he makes new discoveries about life and “house music” among other things. Plummer is also heartbreaking as we find him experiencing joy just as his life is on the verge of expiring. For the last decade or so, he has been playing detestable villains in movies, and it’s a favorite role of his. But seeing him portray Hal reminds us of what we already should know, he’s one of the best actors working today.

But to be honest, all these great actors get completely upstaged by Cosmo who plays the Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Whether he’s with Plummer or McGregor, he’s such an adorable presence and even his eyes seem to speak words no other dog can easily speak. This may be the best performance I’ve seen by a dog since Mike the dog tossed away his dog food in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Watching him makes you want to rush out to the nearest pet store and get your own Jack Russell terrier. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Well, I’m better off with stuffed animals anyway.

“Beginners” shows us no matter how much experience we’ve had with relationships, we are always starting over again when it comes to a new one. It doesn’t matter what our age or sexual orientation is, relationships are an ongoing process we need to work at. We need to be open to risks and letting ourselves be vulnerable to the people we care the most about. And when all is said and done, we need to live through pain in order to experience pleasure.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Forget ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and Check Out ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

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Looking at the trailer for “The Duke of Burgundy,” I couldn’t help but expect a sexploitation flick with lots of nudity and dozens of butterflies. But while the movie does deal with a sadomasochistic relationship between two women, it actually turns out to be a domestic drama about two people who love one another deeply. When the movie starts, however, it looks like this relationship is reaching its breaking point.

“The Duke of Burgundy” starts off with an innocent looking woman named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) cycling over to a grand mansion where she is greeted coldly by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who bluntly informs her she is late for work. From there it looks like Evelyn works as Cynthia’s maid and is rudely ordered around and made to do chores, each of which are increasingly demeaning. It’s a daily routine for these two, and the day ends with Cynthia punishing Evelyn behind a closed bathroom door. We have a good idea of what Cynthia’s doing to her, but director Peter Strickland is more content to let us visualize what’s happening instead of showing us everything.

At this point, I became very eager for Evelyn to smack Cynthia in the face, but as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. What’s actually happening is that these two are in a relationship where Evelyn is the submissive one and Cynthia is the dominant one. They are deep into role playing and enjoy each other’s company more than we could have realized. But as “The Duke of Burgundy” continues on, it becomes apparent that a compromise in this relationship is desperately needed. We see in Cynthia’s eyes a longing for a more normal relationship, but Evelyn has become hopelessly addicted to the submissive role she plays and wants her lover to punish her more aggressively than ever before. With any addiction, you eventually come to find too much is not enough.

This movie surprised me throughout as it plays around with what you think you know about sadomasochism to where you’d expect Cynthia to come out dressed as a dominatrix and carrying a big whip. But if you strip away the strange and painful things they do to one another, you see their relationship is no different from any other, and like any relationship, there needs to be some compromise. The question is, who’s willing to compromise more?

Both D’Anna and Knudsen are perfectly cast, and they nail each of their characters’ complexities with a lot of depth. It’s fascinating to watch their relationship evolve to where the most dominant one is actually Evelyn as she continually begs Cynthia to feed her dark desires. Knudsen, in particular, has a great moment where she’s getting intimate with D’Anna, and you see this wounded look in her eyes which says without words how this relationship is becoming a lot less comfortable for her.

“The Duke of Burgundy” is also one of the most beautifully filmed movies I’ve seen in a while as it looks like it was shot on 16mm film to where you think you’re watching something from the 70’s. To my astonishment, I discovered it was shot digitally which completely blew my mind. Many congratulations go to cinematographer Nic Knowland who has been working in movies since the 60’s. The lush and hazy look he gives this movie feels magical and makes you realize what amazing things can be captured with digital cameras. It was also fascinating to learn many of the images were created in the camera and not in post-production.

The movie also features a very unique and original score by Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo made up of two musicians from entirely different disciplines. Their music adds immeasurably to the story which reaches a fever pitch towards the end when this relationship looks to be doomed. Like Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin,” I have a hard time comparing Cat’s Eyes score to others out there. Here’s hoping they compose more film scores in the future.

Strickland previously directed “Berberian Sound Studio” which brought him to the attention of many film critics who became immediately enthralled with his work. I regret to say I haven’t seen that movie yet, but watching “The Duke of Burgundy” does make me want to check it out sooner than later. Strickland shows a strong mastery of the filmmaking process, and he ends up taking us on a journey unlike few other have recently. He also tricks us into thinking we are watching one type of movie, and he ends up giving us something which is not only different but far deeper and more mesmerizing than we ever could have expected.

I also want to point out that there’s not a single male character to be found in this movie. That’s actually pretty amazing considering how hard it is to think of an American movie where this is the case. I’m sure there’s one like this one out there, but nothing comes to mind right away.

What bums me out is audiences will not be quick to come out in droves to see a movie like “The Duke of Burgundy.” Small and original movies like these tend to get swept under the rug far too quickly in this day and age of superhero franchises, and I hope those with a taste for challenging and unusual material will give it a shot. What Strickland has given us is an edgy fairy tale which could take place in any time period, and he sucks us into a story you cannot help but be enthralled by. With any luck, we’ll get more challenging movies like this one in the future. At the very least, it’s infinitely better than the awful monstrosity which is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals” is a movie which will stay with me long after I have seen it. Based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” it follows a non-linear path and combines stories which deal with the real world and a fictional one to where, after a while, it’s almost hard to tell the two apart. Either that or you will leave wondering which story is the most emotionally exhausting. Judging from the movie’s first images of an art exhibit created to challenge our perceptions of what is beautiful or acceptable, director Tom Ford is quick to take us on a cinematic ride, and the kind we are not often accustomed to taking.

We meet Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who appears to have it all: a handsome husband, a fabulous house and an income we would all envy. But we can tell from the start she is a lonely soul wandering through the superficial world she inhabits, and it doesn’t help that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been distant and may very well be cheating on her. Clearly, we are about to see why she is the damaged individual she is, and it will not be a pleasant trip whether it’s through reality or fiction.

One day, Susan receives a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) named “Nocturnal Animals,” a nickname he gave her upon realizing she stays up late at night because she has trouble sleeping. Edward has dedicated his novel to her, and it tells a very bleak tale of love and tragedy as we watch Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) suffer the utter humiliation of seeing his wife and daughter kidnapped by three troublemakers who later kill them. From there, Tony teams up with Texas Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring the three men to justice, but the justice these two seek may not be one which is altogether legal.

Ford has the movie weaving in and out of its real world and fictional storylines to where you can’t quite tell where things are heading, and he does it in a way which is quite inspired. A story like this can be tricky to pull off as you can jump from one storyline to another at the worst possible moment to where we are desperate to see the movie get back to where it once was. But Ford has managed to weave all these storylines seamlessly to where everything feels in balance and not out of place.

At its heart, I think “Nocturnal Animals” is about the transformative power of art more than anything else. Whether it’s Susan’s art gallery or Edward’s novel, both of these characters use their individual artistry to channel emotions they couldn’t quite get to the surface in their relationship. The fact it takes Edwards years to reach this artistic jump in his writing abilities through his tragic novel shows how artists are not so much born as they are molded through years of life experiences.

Amy Adams gives her second great performance in 2016, her other being in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” She makes Susan a sympathetically tragic character as we watch her go from youthful promise to insomniac surrender as her life has become defined by isolation from everyone and anyone around her. Even when she has too much eyeliner makeup on, and her makeup is a distraction at times, Adams delves deep into her character’s complexity to deliver a performance of piercing sensitivity.

Gyllenhaal is riveting as both Edward and Tony, characters who suffer the indignities of life and love to where all that’s left is revenge. While the actor still seems a bit young to play the father of a teenage daughter, he is fearless in exploring a character who suffers a fate worse than death. Kudos also goes out to Isla Fisher who plays Tony’s wife, Laura, as she has to reach an emotional fever pitch and keep it high whenever she appears onscreen.

This movie is also proof of how there are no small roles, only small actors, and no actor here should be mistaken as small. Andrea Riseborough, completely unrecognizable here, steals some scenes as Alessia Holt, a person who has found happiness in a space filled with obliviousness and fake promises. Michael Sheen also shows up as Alessia’s husband, Carlos, who is actually gay, and she gives Susan some advice worth following. Ellie Bamber gives us a convincingly down to earth teenager in India Hastings who ends up coming face to face with her worse fears. Laura Linney has some strong moments as Susan’s mother, Anne, whose words hang over Susan throughout the rest of the movie. Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo portray two gang members whose intimidation knows no bounds, and even the audience has yet to see how far they will go. And it’s always great to see Jena Malone, and she gives a wonderfully quirky performance as art gallery worker and new mother Sage Ross.

But there are two performances in “Nocturnal Animals” which stood out to me in particular. The first is Michael Shannon’s as Bobby Andes, a man of the law who looks to play it by the book, but who is slowly losing his moral bearings along with his body to the cancer eating away at it. Shannon doesn’t act but instead inhabits his character to where we don’t see him performing but becoming this sheriff, and he becomes increasingly frightening to where the anticipation of him letting go of a bullet is almost too much to bear. Seeing him bear down on a suspect with his piercing eyes and gruff voice makes him even scarier, and you have to admire the person who doesn’t need to do much to instill dread into another with such relative ease.

Then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from his “Kick-Ass” days, as Ray Marcus, a lethal and disgusting bully of a character who revels in emasculating and humiliating Tony in front of his wife and daughter. Johnson’s performance reminds of you of those people in life who robbed you of your worth and self-respect and didn’t show the least bit of remorse about it. You want to smack Johnson in the face after watching him in “Nocturnal Animals,” and that is a compliment.

This is only Ford’s second movie as a director, his first being “A Single Man” with Colin Firth, a movie my parents are still begging me to watch. He is primarily known as a fashion designer whose clothes have made some of the most beautiful celebrities look even more beautiful. With “Nocturnal Animals,” he proves to be as gifted behind the camera as he is with clothes, and he gives this movie a striking look with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. This could have been a movie dominated by style more than anything else, but Ford gets terrific performances out of his infinitely talented cast, showing his attention is on the story and characters more than anything else.

It should also be noted how Ford has not put anything from his own clothing line on display here, so this movie should in no way be mistaken as a commercial for his fashions. He wisely removed this conflict of interest from “Nocturnal Animals,” so those hoping for a glimpse at his latest fashion line will have to look elsewhere.

“Nocturnal Animals” ends on an ambiguous note regarding Susan and Edward. This will probably annoy some viewers who demand concrete answers to their relationship or the state of their lives and where they will go from here. But Ford is wise to know this is a question he cannot answer himself as the fate of these characters has to be open up to interpretation. Some relationships are meant to be repaired, others are better left broken. When it comes to Susan and Edward, we can only wonder if they can or even should rediscover what made their love spark so passionately.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a movie meant to stay with you for a long time after the end credits have finished, and boy does it ever.

* * * * out of * * * *