Underseen Movie: The One I Love with Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass

The One I Love” is one of the harder movies to review because it really helps to go into it with an open mind. The less you know about what happens in it, the better the experience will be. Ever since its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, its most fervent admirers have been praising it and guarding its secrets as if they have the secret formula for Coca-Cola. What I can tell you is that it is an insanely clever romantic comedy, and it belongs to a genre I typically live to avoid.

Things start off with the married couple of Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) going through troubles which usually tear a couple apart permanently. They try to recreate their romantic spark by revisiting the house they snuck into when they first met and jump in the pool, but the magic isn’t there. In the process of visiting their therapist (played by Ted Danson), he suggests they spend the weekend in this cottage he knows about so they can work on their marriage. When they get there, they find the cottage is in a beautiful location I would personally love to visit sometime, and it proves to be a very relaxing place for a vacation. But when they start to explore the other parts of the house, things quickly get very trippy.

So that’s it. This is all I am going to tell you about the plot of “The One I Love.” It is very nice we have a movie like this one where film buffs are not investigating every little detail like they do with “Star Wars” or “The Matrix.” With big blockbusters, everyone is analyzing every single moment of the movie trailers, following news updates of who is being cast, and it gets to where they have a vision of what it is going to be like inside their heads. The problem is, going into anything with such lofty expectations will usually have you living very disappointed, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. It helps that “The One I Love” is a low budget feature which is coming in under the radar because people aren’t busy overanalyzing like this one.

It should also be noted how director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader created this movie out of a 50-page document which contained the scene beats and the locations of the entire movie. The only thing this document did not contain was the dialogue, and the actors ended up improvising it themselves. Even though the actors were given ideas to work with, they pretty much drive this movie more than anyone else, and I applaud the challenges they face here and the risks they took with what they were given.

“The One I Love” serves as a terrific acting showcase for its stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, both of whom get to explore different levels of their characters throughout the movie’s running time. Mark is, of course, well known for making and producing many offbeat films with his brother Jay Duplass like “Cyrus,” “Baghead” and “The Puffy Chair” among others. As an actor, he is perfectly cast in the role of an everyman husband who finds himself threatened with the various events he is forced to endure while staying at the cottage. As Ethan, we sense his desperation to save his marriage, and we also sense his desperation to not be second best at anything.

Moss has had quite the ride in recent years with her work on “Mad Men,” “Top of the Lake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and she is currently experiencing great success on the silver screen in “The Invisible Man.” She once again proves just how wide her acting range is as Sophie. Like the movie, she is full of surprises and such a lovely presence to watch, and she renders every emotion you see Sophie going through as being totally genuine. Considering what the role has her doing, it is really quite a feat when you realize what Moss has accomplished here.

“The One I Love” is one of the few movies I have seen in recent years which takes turns I did not see coming, and I honestly have not been this riveted by a romantic comedy since “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Seriously, you really need to check your expectations at the door when you go and see it because there will be no easy way to prepare you for what will unfold. I am always waiting to see a movie which constantly surprises me throughout, and this is one of them.

If there were any expectations I had with “The One I Lovie,” it was that I was to hear Stephen Still’s song “Love the One You’re With” play over the end credits. Once you watch this movie, you will understand why this would have been the perfect piece of music to end things on. After all, “The Simpsons” made great use of it on one of their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Skeleton Twins’ Has ‘SNL’ Stars Doing Drama as Well as They Do Comedy

The Skeleton Twins movie poster

Okay, I think we are way past the point where we should not be the least bit surprised when comedic actors succeed in giving strong dramatic performances. Many are stunned when funny people like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler give strong and deeply felt performances in “The Truman Show” and “Punch Drunk Love,” and it feels like these same people are saying they were fully prepared for them to really suck because they were working outside of the genre they have gained the most recognition for. After all these years, the majority of audiences still believe drama is far more challenging to pull off than comedy, but it has always been the other way around. Making people cry is easy, but making them laugh is much harder. Frankly I am far more stunned when serious dramatic actors give terrific comedic performances because lord knows they take themselves way too seriously.

I bring this up because I just saw “The Skeleton Twins” which stars two of “Saturday Night Live’s” best alumni, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader. It won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and it is not hard to see why. They play twins who were as close as a brother and sister could be until events like the unexpected death of their father tore them apart. The two bring their comedic talents to this sad tale, but they also dig deep into their roles to show us sides of themselves we have not seen, or never took the time to see previously.

When the movie starts, these characters have reached an emotional bottom they cannot seem to dig themselves out of. Milo (Hader) lives in Los Angeles where he is just another out of work actor, and he is inconsolable after his latest relationship falls apart. As a result, he sinks into his bathtub and tries to commit suicide. Meanwhile in New York, Maggie (Wiig) is about to take her own life when she is interrupted by a phone call informing her Milo has beat her to it, except of course for the fact he was saved from death just in the nick of time.

Maggie visits Milo in the hospital, and it marks the first time they have talked to one another face to face in a decade. It is an awkward reunion as neither is sure what to say to the other, and one of them has to spoil the ending of “Marley & Me” in the process. The wounds from childhood are still fresh in their minds, and their mother (played by Joanna Gleason) is no help as she has since become a new-age practitioner who refuses to recognize or even consider the pain her children have been enduring. But soon Milo and Maggie realize in order to fix their lives and let go of the past, they need to repair their relationship with one another first.

Now regardless of the above description, “The Skeleton Twins” is indeed a comedy, or perhaps a dramedy is a better way to describe it. In a lot of ways, it has to be a comedy because Milo and Maggie need to laugh about something or else everything will become far too painful to bear. But even though they look to be on the road to recovery, Milo and Maggie still have some severe road bumps to travel over which will test them and their broken faith in one another.

We learn Milo’s first love was his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), and it should go without saying it was a forbidden love which should never have taken place. Nevertheless, Milo still has deep feelings for Rich and has never gotten past what they shared. He tries to reconnect with Rich by pretending to be a successful actor, but Rich initially resents Milo’s reappearance in his life as he now lives with his girlfriend and son. But this does not deter Milo as he continues to pursue Rich for a relationship which is not the least bit realistic for either of them.

As for Maggie, she at first appears to be happily married to a Lance (Luke Wilson), and they tell everyone they are more than ready to start a family. Maggie, however, is secretly taking birth control pills behind Lance’s back and has developed a crush on her flirtatious scuba diving instructor, Billy (Boyd Holbrook), who is quite the Australian hunk (is there any other kind?). As well intentioned as she and Milo are, both are indulging in self-destructive behavior and do not fully realize the consequences of what they are doing until the damage has already been done.

Like other movies I really admire, the characters in “The Skeleton Twins” are refreshingly down to earth and relatable to where they are not much different from those we know in our own lives. Regardless of whether or not we ever had an affair with our high school English teacher or our scuba diving instructor, we have all been at that point where we feel infinitely lost to where we are unsure of how to make our lives better. Furthermore, none of these characters are painted in broad strokes. They all have various layers to their personalities, and there are no clear cut good or bad guys to be found here.

Wiig has long since proven to be a wonderful actress in “Bridesmaids” and “All Good Things,” and her work in “The Skeleton Twins” is the latest example. As Maggie, she uses her brilliant comedic skills to great effect, but she also inhabits her character more than she plays her to where we get caught up in the infinite sadness Maggie is trying to outrun on a daily basis. This is especially the case when Maggie is forced to face up to what she has done wrong, and this not easy for anyone.

But the most revelatory performance in “The Skeleton Twins” comes from Hader as Milo. Honestly, I am not surprised he is as good as he is here, but it feels like this is the first time we have seen him in this kind of role. Milo is gay, and this may lead some to believe Hader is simply resurrecting his Stefon character from “SNL” to where we will watch him go to Trash, the meatpacking hot spot where you can meet the Muslim Elvis impersonator Pierre, but he is a lot smarter than that. Hader gives a very nuanced performance throughout, and his story about peaking in high school really choked me up. No one wants to believe high school is the best time in their lives, but it may be the place where you end up doing your most memorable work.

And just as they proved over the years on “SNL,” Wiig and Hader are quite the team when you put them together. They play off each other brilliantly during the scene in the dentist’s office where they discover the benefits of nitrous oxide which allows their characters to open up in a way they haven’t in years. But that almost doesn’t compare to the movie’s penultimate scene where they lip sync “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship (or Jefferson Starship or Jefferson Airplane or whatever the hell you want to call that band) which proves to be hilariously moving. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, but this movie has me seeing it in a whole new light.

While I am at it, I do have to give credit to the supporting actors who take roles which could have been stock characters and render them as truly memorable. Luke Wilson is a delight throughout as Lance, the endlessly cheerful husband. Lance could have been completely indifferent to what his wife is going through or just a flat-out jerk, but Wilson humanizes this character to where we see he is truly a good-hearted man who wants to be there for his wife even when he does not know how to help her. Special mention also goes out to Ty Burrell who plays a character who, in real life, we would despise with an intense passion, and he makes Rich an empathetic character who is in his own way just as lost and self-destructive as Milo and Maggie are.

“The Skeleton Twins” does end on a rather abrupt note and leaves a couple of plot threads dangling in an unsatisfying manner. Regardless, it is one of those movies which had quite the emotional impact on me. It always feels like a gift when you watch a movie with characters you can relate to, and director Craig Johnson has given us just that.

Seriously, there can be no more talk of how amazing it is when comedy actors can do drama. Of course they can, and this should go without saying. Do not tell Hader and Wiig to stick with comedy because this movie shows they can do anything and everything at this point. No pun intended, but nothing is going to stop them now.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

If You Liked ‘Captain Phillips,’ Then Check Out ‘Fishing Without Nets’

Fishing Without Nets movie poster

Fishing Without Nets” is the third movie in recent years to deal with Somali Pirates hijacking a ship at sea, and it comes on the heels of “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking.” The scenario may be the same, but the perspective is different this time around. While “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking” observed the pirates from a certain distance, “Fishing Without Nets” is told from their point of view. While no one is in a position to condone their actions, director Cutter Hodierne gives us an empathetic view of their struggles which have led them to take such drastic actions to ensure their own survival.

The movie opens on Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a Somali fisherman, loving husband and father, walking through the village he lives in. The place is an utter mess and you get the sense it has been a mess for quite some time to where it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of opportunities. Abdi has no interest in joining the pirates on their hijacking missions as he prefers to make an honest living through fishing, but he becomes increasingly desperate as his last few times out at sea resulted in no fish being caught. In the process of trying to get his wife and son out of Somalia to a better place, he discovers he needs a whole lot more money to make that happen, so he relents and joins the pirates on their latest hijacking mission with the promise of a huge reward. But once the pirates take over an oil tanker, Abdi finds himself wanting to escape the situation even before it descends into paranoia and chaos.

Watching “Fishing Without Nets” reminded me of movies like “Frozen River,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “Alive” which feature characters resorting to life-threatening methods as the bottom constantly threatens to fall out from beneath them. “Frozen River” in particular was about a mother (played by Melissa Leo) whose husband ran out on her with their life savings, and she is barely making ends meet at a minimum wage job. As a result, she resorts to smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the United States which nets her enough money to keep her big screen TV from getting repossessed as well as for the down payment on her family’s new home. In any other instance she would not resort to this law-breaking activity, but when a mother’s livelihood and her family’s are at stake, you know she will do anything to keep them safe.

This is certainly the case for Abdi when he resorts to piracy to keep his family safe, and he even says at one point, “a man is not a man until he can feed his family.” When it comes down to it, “Fishing Without Nets” is about the will to survive, and this remains a universal story all around the world. When pushed to extremes, you can bet no one is going to just lie down, give up and die. No, they are going to fight for their loved ones even if it means breaking the law, so you cannot help but be empathetic to Abdi’s choices even as they put his life in serious danger.

Hodierne went out of his way to cast non-actors for this movie instead of putting known names in it, and this helps to give “Fishing Without Nets” a truly authentic feel which puts you right into the action. While some of the situations are familiar from “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking,” he makes this film stand out with its unique point of view, and he generates some serious tension when infighting breaks out among the pirates. Scenes where a gun is pointed at a character’s head are a dime a dozen in movies, but here those same scenes have an intensity which really shakes you up.

Also, Hodierne and his director of photography, Alex Disenhof, capture some amazingly beautiful shots on the ocean which help illustrate just how isolated all these characters are out there. The last shot pulls away from a boat drifting in the ocean, and it’s truly one of the most memorable moments of any film I saw in 2014. Considering how small of a budget Hodierne had to work with, this makes what he accomplished all the more impressive.

“Fishing Without Nets” may not be on the same level as “Captain Phillips” or “A Hijacking,” but it is an action packed and intense movie which would make for a perfect triple feature with those two. After it was over, I could see why the Sundance Film Festival decided to give Hodierne a directing award because it is a truly impressive debut which invites you into a world that is not the least bit safe to be in. Furthermore, it also allows us to understand why Somalis have been resorting to such methods in order to survive, but then again, anyone else might be forced to do the same when it comes to surviving in an endlessly harsh and cruel world. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s a truth which hopefully none of us will ever have to face like these men do.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Cutter Hodierne about ‘Fishing Without Nets’

Cutter Hodierne photo

2013 brought us two movies about Somali pirates hijacking ships at sea: “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking.” Both were more focused on the hostages and their ordeal while the pirates themselves were observed from a relative distance. Then in 2014, we got Cutter Hodierne’s “Fishing Without Nets” which is another movie about Somali pirates, but this one is told from their point of view. It follows fisherman and father Abdi (Abdikani Muktar) who, in desperation and for his family’s safety, joins up with a group of pirates to hijack an oil tanker with the promise of a lot of money. But as soon as the hijacking begins, Abdi tries to remove himself from the situation as it descends into increasing chaos and paranoia.

I got to speak with Cutter about “Fishing Without Nets” which originally started out as a short film which received the Grand Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. This led to Vice Films financing the feature length version which picked up the Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance. The movie takes place in Somalia but was shot in Kenya, and Cutter discussed the challenges he faced as well as the discoveries he made during its filming.

Fishing Without Nets movie poster

Ben Kenber: “Fishing Without Nets” started out as a short film. How would you say it evolved from a short to a feature length movie?

Cutter Hodierne: Well, the hope always was to make a feature, and so the short was kind of made in support of that idea. So we wanted to make the short as a way of sort of researching and developing a concept for a feature, and in the process of making a short film we always hope to use it as a tool to raise the money to make a feature film.

BK: That seems to be more of the case these days. You and the makers of “Whiplash” really had a lot of success with that.

CH: Yeah, I think it’s a really natural model if you can end up pulling off the short film because you kind of work out a lot of things with your concept early on that you test things out, and then if you do a good job you can also have a really powerful tool to get the attention to make a feature as well. I think it’s good in every direction.

BK: I have always heard that filming on water is always very challenging. What were the biggest challenges that you had in filming this movie on the ocean?

CH: Shooting on the ocean is a really, really difficult thing. The ground that you’re walking on, it’s not ground but the surface underneath you is undulating all the time, and for the weather to just kind of change out of nowhere suddenly… You’re kind of at the mercy of all those things. It’s really difficult, and if you get seasick at all that kind of gets in the way. The ocean would just turn in a moment and you would have to cancel the entire day’s shoot. It’s really tricky. It’s kind of like outer space. The ocean is not so far from the idea of being in space. You’re way out in the middle of nowhere and it’s endless in every direction and it’s really tricky.

BK: You also went out of your way to use non-actors for this movie. What made you decide to go in that direction?

CH: I think that it was just kind of the only way. The way to do this movie in an authentic way involved non-actors. It was probably also our only option when we were making a short film. I don’t think this movie, our version of it, would have made sense with anybody really recognizable because it would take something away from the story, and I think you get such a great sense of reality from having people you are not accustomed to seeing and who also just inhabit the role in a really natural way. I don’t think there’s any other way to go about it.

BK: I also heard that you set up scenes for them but that you let them come up with their own dialogue. What discoveries did you make along the way with the process?

CH: Well, I discovered that Somalis talk a lot (laughs). You give a couple of these guys a license to talk and make their own lines, so they will go and talk and talk and talk and talk. So what I really learned was that the most important thing that they all needed to have, if they are going to give themselves their own lines, is knowing where the scene needs to end. They have their own lines but they have a very, very structured scene they were playing within. They knew kind of the beginning, middle and end of the scene and I think what we learned as we went along with the cast and myself and the translator was having an ending to the scene was really crucial. Having a defined place where the dialogue would end was really important. I wouldn’t understand the words but I would understand roughly kind of where we were in a scene even though I can understand the language. It’s amazing what you end up starting to recognize in that setting.

BK: You did a lot of research why you were in Kenya where the movie was shot. What surprised you most about your time over there?

CH: What surprised me most? Everything was always surprising (laughs), but I always felt like I was learning something new about how to operate over there. There’s something around the corner that I wasn’t going to be prepared for, and I think what surprised me the most was probably that I never really completely got the hang of it despite how much time I had spent there. You really feel foreign there even when you know your way around and you think you can talk the talk and this is that. Something will happen that will just remind you that you’re not completely at home no matter how immersed you feel. That was probably the most surprising thing. I was always learning something new.

BK: Other movies that have featured Somali pirates, we don’t always get to know them as individuals but in this movie, we do. Their mission in getting a hefty ransom is doomed once the infighting gets more heated, and at its heart this is a movie about survival. Was that what you were trying to get across as a director that people will do anything to survive?

CH: Yeah, absolutely. This is definitely a story of someone’s hope and quest for survival. Even with the new stuff I’m working on now I sort of realize that’s something I’m definitely interested in; how survival as a mentality informs so many other new things that we do in a more complex society today. Just the desire to survive is like a driving force in a lot of things we do, but in this case with Abdikani (Muktar, who plays Khadir) in the story, this was absolutely a show of when desperate times call for extremely desperate measures. The extreme that is piracy is a really clear show of how extreme the situation in Somalia is; that where you end up in desperation is with four or five guys in a speedboat in the middle of the ocean attempting to capture a ship that is 10 times as big or more, and everyone’s life is at risk trying to climb aboard the ship. The situation is so preposterous that to me the question always begged is, what is the preposterous situation that would lead somebody to that point? It’s a really extreme reaction so we wanted to tell the real extreme cause.

BK: One movie “Fishing Without Nets” reminded me of was “Frozen River” which starred Melissa Leo as a mother who resorts to smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the United States. She wouldn’t be doing this kind of work otherwise, but her main priority is her kids and that overrides everything else. Looking at that, the story of survival is a very universal one and not specific to one culture.

CH: Yeah, and I also wanted this movie to have a little bit of a feeling like you’re in an action adventure film that is just completely inverted. You’re not accustomed to seeing all these action adventure film elements playing out in a setting that you would normally not be in. I wanted to work in a specific genre, so I think that’s about as an exciting thing to do with it as well.

BK: The opening scenes of the movie show the characters living in this decimated area that doesn’t offer them a lot in the way of opportunities terms of making an honest living or raise a family in. Did you see a lot of that in Kenya?

CH: Yeah definitely, and even in Somalia it’s really much worse. I think everybody like walks through a slum for the first time in their life and are kind of like, “Holy shit this is real. This isn’t just something in pictures.” It’s pretty affecting. It’s hard not to be moved by something like that and I think we really wanted to show, what if you woke up and this is what it looked like every day and this is your situation every day? How far will you get pushed before this doesn’t seem like a good option to go out and try to get rich? Yeah it was definitely intentional to show where he (Abdi) lived and where he came from.

I want to thank Cutter Hodierne for taking the time to talk with me. “Fishing Without Nets” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.