Not Another Teen Movie

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

When I first saw the trailer for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl…I thought, “Great…another cloying oh-so-insightful movie about teen angst…with cancer!”  But then the reviews started coming in and I heard how it was an audience favorite at Sundance, and I thought, “Hmmm, okay, maybe this will be more like The Perks of Being a Wallflower which also had a cliché-ridden trailer but turned out to be a surprisingly good movie.”  Both films take place in Pittsburgh oddly enough (an unlikely city that plays nicely on film) and both are based on well-regarded young adult novels.

Now having seen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I’m here to report it’s actually more like The Savages, you know, that under-appreciated gem of a character drama starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as estranged siblings dealing with their father’s descent into dementia (and eventual death).  Both films are about the living learning how to live while watching the dying die.

And it’s okay to spend half of my review talking about and comparing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to other films because it’s a film for film buffs.  Continue reading

This War Has Put an End to Decent Things

Hope and Glory Title Photo

For many, childhood is a war: a battle of wills with adults, a rage against growing up, a fight against awakening into the violent world of adulthood.  It’s not surprising then that many of the greatest films about childhood and coming of age take place against the backdrop of actual wars.  Three of the top five films in my list of the 41 greatest films about childhood involve war and how children and adults learn to deal with it in different ways.  Many of the films on this list (including the film at number one) are no doubt sentimental favorites (arguments could easily be made there are grander artistic achievements further down the list).  It should come as no surprise that these sentimental favorites were first seen in childhood and that many of the films come from directors delving deep into the wellspring of nostalgia and semi-autobiography; those indelible moments from our shared childhoods crystalized onto the silver screen.

I was about the same age as the protagonist, Billy Rohan, when I first saw John Boorman’s Hope and Glory.  I loved every bit of it, and even at that young age I knew there was something unique about its point of view.  It painted war as how I imagined I (as a child at the time) would’ve reacted to it: a blast of excitement in an otherwise mundane suburban life previously populated by games and make-believe.  Here my soldiers and toys had come to life, dirigibles suspended in air over my streets, German bombers flying overhead, danger and adventure lying in the rubble of my neighbors demolished homes.  The juxtaposition of adult horrors and children’s games (a juxtaposition dealt with far more seriously and catastrophically in films like Forbidden Games and Come and See) resulted in a picture of scrappy, working-glass survivors striving for a sense of normalcy and return to innocence in a world gone stark raving mad.  Continue reading

That’ll Do, Max, That’ll Do

Mad Max 2

Big budget studio movies like Mad Max: Fury Road don’t come along very often.  I can only think of two others that rose to the same echelon and were made in my lifetime:  Raiders of the Lost Ark and Inception.  Like those films, Mad Max: Fury Road begins in the midst of action, slows down to let the viewer get acclimated to the world that has been created, and then once it reaches a certain point propels its audience full throttle ahead through amazing set piece after amazing set piece and explodes in a dynamite denouement.   All three of these films are masterpieces of pacing and editing.

All of the hyperbole swirling around Mad Max: Fury Road is not hyperbole.  Those who have heralded it as the best action movie ever made are saying that because it is.  The reviewer who said it will melt your face off was almost right…for the record, it will rip your face off, not melt it.  Even if you’ve seen the original Mad Max films, you’ve still never seen anything like this.  And if you haven’t seen the previous films, it doesn’t matter one lick.

In a post-apocalyptic hellscape where water and gasoline are the holy grails and people pray to a god called V8 (one is to assume named after the engine and not the drink) while spraying their mouths with chrome before dare-devil-ing to spectacular martyr deaths in defense of their tyrannical warlord Immorten Joe (Hugh Keayes-Byrne), a woman haunted by the distant memories of a “green-land” named Imperator Furiosa (an indomitable Charlize Theron) teams up with a man left for dead and haunted by the ghost of his dead child he failed to save and protect (a perfectly cast Tom Hardy, madly stoic) to transport by oil tanker-turned-war caravan the prized breeders/wives of Immorten Joe to a new-found freedom. Continue reading

A Shark Tank of Suitors are Far From the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd Carey Mulligan

The heroine of Thomas Vinterberg’s intoxicating adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s literary classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene (an effervescent and headstrong Carey Mulligan) reminded me of one of those cocksure entrepreneurs on Shark Tank who comes in, lights the sharks on fire, instantly gets an amazing offer from one of them, but then hesitates to close the deal because they want to hear all of the offers from the other sharks.

The filmmakers want you to think modernly about Bathsheba, a woman ensconced in patriarchal 19th-century British countryside social mores but waaaaay ahead of her time in thoughts and actions, because otherwise this would be another run-of-the-mill period romance where a woman is swept off her feet.  Bathsheba is a truly independent woman (she’s inherited a farm from her uncle, runs it herself, and proudly has no need for a husband) and Mulligan plays her with equal parts girlish coyness and womanly confidence, all sly smiles and looks with a twinkle of her nose, her loose impetuous strands of hair filtering the drunken sunlight splashed across the gorgeous Dorset hills.  It’s no wonder every man wants her, and she could command any many she wants. Continue reading

Ex Machina

Ex Machina

Is Ex Machina yet another in a long line of Promethean caution tales?  Or is it a misogynistic nightmare about the evil extremes of genius?  Or wait…is it in actuality a crypto-feminist manifesto?  Or…is it like Dave Eggers The Circle or Spike Jonze’s Her a satire of a somewhat scary, occasionally lovely “watch out or we’ll be doomed in a split second if we aren’t careful” future just around the corner?  With its slick production values and blank slate aesthetic, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is all of these things and none of them.

When a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) working for a Google-gone-mad-like company gets chosen to spend a week at the founder’s (the ever chameleon-like and always engaging Oscar Isaac) hideaway estate to work on a secret project, and it turns out to be the testing of new AI (the weirdly alluring and borderline creepy Alicia Vikander), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is all going.  Continue reading

While We’re Young

While-We-re-Young_0

Was it really that smart of Noah Baumbach to open his latest “comedy” by making us read a scene of dialogue from a play?  Even if it is an Isben play…and even if it is pertinent to the film’s major theme…which is essentially beware of the young?  Hidden beyond this stroke of semi-alienating pretension is an almost accessible, quasi-mainstream comedy, Baumbach’s most enjoyable (though far from best) yet.

Well, at least it immediately lets you know you’re in Baumbach territory.  Our main characters are a documentarian/professor (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife (Naomi Watts).  Only in movies, especially movies made by people like Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach (just like in any Franzen-esque pseudo-literary novel where everyone is a writer) is everyone involved in movies or the arts.  This once seemingly hip middle-aged couple have lost their mojo, and they try to get it back by befriending a couple who came to one of his classes, an aspiring documentarian (Adam Driver) and his pretty, young artisanal ice-cream making wife (Amanda Seyfried).  I balked at what the film was trying to make me believe…that Adam Driver (one of the most unlikable actors gracing the horizon of stardom) was supposed to be this generous, non-ironic, admirable seeker of truth and drinker of life.  Ah, but alas…(spoiler alert!) things are not all what the seem…or in Driver’s case, turn out to be exactly what I suspected…this hipster douche acting like a hipster sage was in actuality…a hipster douche!

As is always the case, Baumbach peppers the film with sharp observational (sometimes judgmental) comedy and sound-bites amidst his odes-to-Woody conversational set pieces.  Continue reading

Is Serena the Worst Book to Film Adaptation in the History of Cinema?

Serena

I picture the caption for the screenshot above to be something along the lines of, “Jenny, baby, look, we’re in one of the worst films ever made!”

I couldn’t help, while watching the travesty that is Serena, of the infinite monkey theorem (and believe me, thinking about the infinite monkey theorem is a better way to spend two hours than watching Serena), which states that if you sit 100 monkeys at 100 typewriters for an infinite amount of time, eventually their random keystrokes while churn out the works of Shakespeare…or any given text, really.  Any given text.  Like Christopher Kyle’s feces covered script for Serena.  Had monkeys actually written the script for Serena, at least we could’ve said, “Hey, 100 monkeys at typewriters wrote that?  That’s not too bad considering it was monkeys…but let’s not try this again…like, ever.”

But it’s not just the script for Serena that is so bad.  It’s everything.  Every damn thing is awful.  Continue reading

Spotlight on The Independent Arts: The Better Angels

Better Angels 3

A. J. Edwards, a student and artistic son of Terrence Malick, opens his debut film with cold, haunting shots of the Lincoln Memorial.  A crackling Malickian voice-over of a backwoods fella talkin’ bout being Lincoln’s cousin and having lived with him for a spell when he was just a boy in Indiana begins to shape the story as the image moves to a rambling creak.  Water is transporting us back in time, back into a dream, and we’re suddenly there watching young Abe make his way in the world.  The film ends just a brief 90 minutes later with a chilling bookend…a nicely appointed cabin in Illinois (a clear step-up from the backwoods cabins of his father) where that same warbling cousin waxes about the moment Lincoln’s beloved stepmother (Diane Kruger) learns of his passing.  It’s the grand beautiful stuff of myth.

Watching The Better Angels and comparing it to the work of Malick is akin to comparing painters from the same family.  One can’t help but think of the generations of Wyeths or Renoirs.  Edwards does something Malick never did – he films in black and white – but the movements and framing and pacing and focus are eerily the same.  A low shot panning up to an open gate…or door…or window.  The actors and actresses moving about as if in interpretative dance.  Beautiful music.  Ethereal cinematography of nature.  There’s one shot of Lincoln’s mother (Brit Marling) on her death-bed where Edwards actually photographs her last breath…you see it hang in the air after her exhale, and its captured in a perfect light.  Dust and smoke and light…the black and white photography does wonders for all that Edwards and Malick love to capture.

Continue reading

The 87th Annual Academy Awards Predictions and Drinking Game

Oscars 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards aired Sunday Night, February 22nd, 2015.  Below were my predictions for the winners in the major categories.  The actual winners were filled in after the Oscars are announced.

PRE-SPIN:

For some reason last year I didn’t post my annual predictions and telecast commentary, nor do I even remember who hosted or much of the ceremony apart from the fact that 12 Years a Slave rightfully won Best Picture (a rare cosmic convergence of The Davies and Oscars).  I think I may have been flying up to Canada for work that Sunday night.

At any rate, after last year’s hiatus, The Spin on the Oscars is back!  Neil Patrick Harris is hosting, leaving me feeling uninspired for the ceremony to break from the norm.  Musical numbers.  A few gay jokes.  A few empty political references.

As far as the races, there’s actually a pretty good one for best picture – and if the Academy does their famous Picture/Director split, which way that goes (Boyhood or Birdman?) could also have downstream impact to Best Original Screenplay.

I might also try live Tweeting snarky or non-sensical remarks (most likely ten to fifteen minutes past relevance) during the telecast, so follow us on Twitter @schleicherspin or better yet follow @pattonoswalt as he’s way funnier than me at this stuff.

POST-SPIN:

  • Neil Patrick had a few good puns but was way too theater-ish for a dreadfully long broadcast begging for a comedian.
  • There were some genuine surprises amidst the predictable in major and minor categories (see below) but the Birdman flew highest showing yet again that the Academy loves to love themselves.
  • The funniest tweet of the night came from Patton Oswalt and wasn’t really about the Oscars at all but instead was a mind blowing suggestion that House of Cards might actually be Christopher Nolan’s version of Foghorn Leghorn – a thought I never dared to dream.  He later suggested that Matthew McConaughey had killed a railroad hobo for his hair (ha!)
  • I scored a subpar 15/24 in my family Oscar pool and lost out to my brother thanks to all the upsets.

And now check out The Spin on my Predictions and the Winners: Continue reading

There are a lot of Assholes at the Bottoms of Hills in Leviathan

Leviathan

A corrupt mayor of a remote Russian fishing town (Roman Madyanov) waxes bluntly that “there are a lot of assholes at the bottoms of hills” but if his character proves anything, there are even bigger assholes at the top.  He comes across like a Russian version of Toronto’s own Rob Ford – only without the charm.

Another character, the gruff fish-mongering wife of a cop (an excellent Anna Ukulova), muses on men while watching her rambunctious young son, “At first you’re pretty and then they kill you.”

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

Andrey Zyaginstev’s Jobian melodrama, Leviathan, is full of these Russian-isms.  Bookended by bleak but beautiful seaside photography from Mikhail Krichman shown in perfectly framed shots scored by Philip Glass’ tense minimalist music, the film tells the tale of Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov – who looks ripped from the stone-cold misery of a Ingmar Bergman film), a man who the mayor, the system, and the church demand be put in his place.  His ancestral home has been seized by the government at an unfair price.  His wife (a seductively sad and emotive Elena Lyadova) is sleeping with his lawyer and friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov ).  His teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev) is surly and depressed.

The characters in the film drink, eat, go shooting and screw each other in more ways than one. Continue reading