Charlie (Aaron Paul) and Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) share a rare happy moment in “Smashed.”  Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

November is apparently the month of the alcoholism message movie, and between last week’s harrowing “Flight” and Sony Pictures Classics’ unsettling “Smashed,” the topic has been getting a lot of play on the big screen lately. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two films, but “Smashed” is an entirely different animal, a much more simplistic but emotional portrayal of a marriage collapsing under the harsh light of sobriety.

Alcohol has always been a factor in the relationship between Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), and the two are already deep in a mutually propulsive spiral when the film begins. After Kate, a first grade teacher, vomits in front of her class, she begins to realize she may have a problem. With the help of co-worker Dave (Nick Offerman), Kate begins to take steps toward recovery, something that pushes her apart from her husband even as it helps her gain control of her life.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a consistently unpredictable screen presence, and it’s never certain if she will be the dull, pretty face of “Death Proof” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” or the interesting performer from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Fortunately, “Smashed” may be her best showcase yet, a role without any room for vanity or self-awareness, and Winstead throws herself into it admirably. The film essentially asks her to play two different people, and the animalistic depravity of Kate in the film’s opening is a marked difference from the clarity and focus she has once she starts attending AA meetings. Winstead is powerful and understated here, and she shows off a surprisingly effective dramatic skill set.

Unfortunately, “Smashed” spends the majority of its runtime focused almost exclusively on Winstead, and that small scope ends up drastically hurting the film. At only 75 minutes without credits, it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated having plunked down the money for a full ticket only to get about two-thirds of a movie. The film’s central tension focuses on Kate and Charlie’s marriage, but we never really get a sense of Charlie as a character. As good as Paul is, Charlie never ascends beyond a paper-thin enabler, the soft-voiced devil on Kate’s shoulder. There’s no reason for the audience to invest in their marriage, and the film’s climax jumps to a foregone conclusion without giving us any reason to care about it one way or another.

Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote “Smashed”’s script with Susan Burke, displays a stronger sense of his story and characters behind the camera. The film’s look is notable, especially for the stark visual contrasts Ponsoldt brings to Kate’s levels of sobriety. When she’s drunk, the camera takes an impressionable lilt, becoming more and more erratic the more Kate imbibes, and her sober scenes are met with steadiness and a more restrained aesthetic. It is an interesting, creative way to approach Kate’s struggle and a subtle visual signature for Ponsoldt.

Although “Smashed” suffers from its slightness, it’s still a well written and directed film that never veers into sentimentality. There’s no sugar-coating of alcoholism here, and although many of the film’s supporting characters could have used some fleshing out, actors like Offerman, Paul and Octavia Spencer still impress. Even though there’s a lot to like about the film, there’s so little to it that it’s hard to recommend a pricey theater viewing. However, its scale is so small and its struggles so quiet that it could make for an even more effective experience on video, and it’s certainly worth what little of your time for which it asks.

Printed on Friday, November 9, 2012 as: 'Smashed' avoids mush, probes into alcoholism 

Dancers of Ballet Austin rehearse a scene from The Taming of the Shrew Monday afternoon. Ballet Austin’s version of the Shakespeare story derives influence from Broadway’s “Kiss me Kate” and vaudville style humour typical of the Three Stooges.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

“The Taming of the Shrew” is not a show a ballet company would typically produce — for one, there are no princes turning into enormous nutcrackers or maidens turning into swans. Although “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” are classics, they are well worn, overdone and slightly yawn-inducing in their predictability. Ballet Austin’s “Taming of the Shrew” is innovative and a bona fide laugh factory in comparison to the overly dramatic tales usually performed by ballet companies. Comedy permeates throughout this ballet from the whimsical movements and blatant expressions of the dancers to the humor initially woven into Shakespeare’s tale.

Showing Oct. 5 to 7 at the Long Center, Ballet Austin’s “The Taming of the Shrew” stays true to Shakespeare’s original plotline. Three suitors want to marry the lovely Bianca, but her father will only allow her to marry if her hellion of an older sister, Kate, the shrew, does so first.

“I was not actually interested in making ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’” choreographer Stephen Mills said to the audience at the Studio Spotlight on Sept. 27. “It is a really misogynistic story which is not easy to tell through ballet.”

As ballet is typically performed by female dancers for a largely female audience, Mills was concerned that a story in which a strong-willed woman is married off to a callous man in order to subdue her to societal standards might not be received well.

However, Mills was originally commissioned to choreograph the ballet for the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and, as Mills explained, when the Kennedy Center calls, you don’t say no. So Mills took an alternative approach to telling Shakespeare’s play while still staying true to the plot.

“To me [‘The Taming of the Shrew’] is a story about two people who are very similar to each other,” Mills said, referring to the stubborn Kate and her equally obstinate husband Petruchio. He concentrated on that aspect of the story rather than telling the tale of a man needing to “tame” a woman. Mills also made a ballet version of the Broadway show “Kiss me Kate,” based on “The Taming of the Shrew.” 

The influence of “Kiss me Kate” and inspiration from Commedia dell’arte, the original style in which “The Taming of the Shrew” was told, resulted in a ballet that is sassy, comical and not at all a typical stuffy ballet production. Mills acknowledged that he grew up watching Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges and said shows like these, with a great amount of physical comedy, probably influenced how he choreographs.

“Comedy is a great fit for dance or dance is a great fit for comedy because comedy is so physical,” Michelle Martin, associate artistic director for Ballet Austin, said.  

At the Studio Spotlight showing, the dancers performed a scene after Kate and Petruchio are wed and the reception feast begins. Petruchio’s servants offer Kate copious amounts of rich, indulgent foods, all of which Kate refuses. Then, when Kate decides she will eat, Petruchio sends the food away. The rage that Aara Krumpe, one of the ballerinas playing Kate, is able to display through quick, harsh, yet fluid motion and the uncontainable fury that races across her face is remarkable. The swiveling hips of the male dancers who taunt her with food convey the comical nature of “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The score also plays perfectly into a comedic telling of the tale. The obscure music from the Italian Baroque era is synchronized to a tee with the emotions being portrayed through the choreography. Mike LeBurkien, who attended the Studio Spotlight showing of “The Taming of the Shrew,” said that watching this performance is similar to watching a silent film from the early days of film — the expression, the movement and the music convey the story rather than words.

With inspiration that ranges from “The Three Stooges” to “Kiss me Kate”, Ballet Austin’s performance of “The Taming of the Shrew” proves that ballet is not always pompous and prissy but can be teasing, funny and a far cry from the overworked dramatics of the average ballet.

Printed on Tuesday, October 2, 2012 as: Local dancers redefine art of ballet through laughter


In "I Don't Know How She Does It," Sarah Jessica Parker plays a woman trying to juggle a busy job and a family.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

There is something inherently disingenuous about Douglas McGrath’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” This is not, as much as the marketing for the film would have it, a spiritual sister to “Sex and the City” — even though it does steal its star, Sarah Jessica Parker and her plinking, sugary narration. Rather, this film makes the brave assertion that working women need not apologize for feeling fulfilled by their professional successes and then betrays that conceit for gooey sentimentality.

Parker plays Kate, a finance executive at a Boston investment firm. After impressing her boss (played by Pierce Brosnan, who looks completely out of place in this movie’s soft color palate) with a new account, she takes on a major, potentially career-making project that keeps her away from home. This movie’s thin plotting is more intentional than you would think.

Whether Kate and her boss pull off their big presentation to the bigwigs at their firm is beside the point — this is about seeing just how Kate pulls off her feats of working mother-wife magic.

Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna does well reining in Kate’s nearly spastic madness to comic episodes of upending sanity.

Part of this is Parker, who after years of traipsing New York in designer heels, lets rise to the surface the game, physical comedienne she can also be. An early scene of Kate contemplating the thought of head lice burrowing around her head is hysterical; Parker fully commits to looking foolish, something not all actresses are willing to do.

McKenna has been carving out a place for herself as the premier auteur of career-driven female comedies — you’ll recognize Kate’s unyielding determination in McKenna’s previous work, which includes “The Devil Wears Prada” and last year’s “Morning Glory.” She has a great talent for writing well-regarded, furrow-browed workaholics that manage to never grate; if anything, you become envious of their drive.

But here, her worst tendencies are given too much breathing room. The film is inundated with a veritable surplus of modern movie gimmickry: onscreen, animated text, elaborate daydreams and worst of all, an inexplicable faux-documentary setup where characters speak directly into the camera. Those secondary characters are pitiable outlines of real people, including the salty enough best friend (Christina Hendricks), the loathsome office weasel (Seth Meyers) and the out-of-touch, robotic co-worker (Olivia Munn).

In the film’s final act, she makes a screeching, nearly condescending reversal. McKenna builds a solid, breezy story of women, who by working hard, really do get to have it all — the career and the family. And then, just as she hinted at before in “Prada” and “Glory,” and outwardly does here, she turns the other cheek and into Greg Kinnear’s arms. In “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” a woman can have it all, but only if she wants her man just a little bit more.