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

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

Richard Linklater’s Ordinary Boyhood

Boyhood

There have been those who have proclaimed Boyhood the greatest film of the 21st century.  And there’s a huge faction that believe it’s Richard Linklater’s magnum opus.  Though surely a 2014 Top Ten contender, I’m not even sure it’s the best film of the year thus far, and the Before- trilogy is still Linklater’s crowning achievement in my mind.   I suspect there’s been a bit of the old Group Think at work in delivering this hyperbolic praise.

But Boyhood is still a uniquely constructed film full of winning moments, performances…and flaws.

Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same four leads (two adults – Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and two children – Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) meeting with the writer/director to riff for a few weeks at a time in his sprawling Texas homeland, Boyhood is wholly original in its depiction of the passage of time and aging in the context of a singular work of cinema.

The early years of Mason’s life are depicted with an easy flow and are full of humor and charm.  The kids are naturally cute and precocious, and the director obviously had a blast letting his own daughter cut loose, gifting her classic sassy little girl lines and mannerisms that seemed organic.  I’ve heard him joke in interviews that Lorelei cast herself as soon as she found out her dad had written the role, and based on what is seen on screen in these early scenes, I reckon it’s a true story.  Meanwhile, Mom and Dad aren’t together from the onset, and while they have their own sets of problems, both Hawke and Arquette are so effortlessly likable, you instantly root for them to get their shit together…not so much for the kids’ sake, but for their own.

As the film moves into middle childhood and the teen years, it starts to plod a bit, and some of the clichéd and overwrought plot mechanics Linklater uses (Doh! Mom marries not one, but two alcoholics!) take away from the film’s realism.  It seems to get stuck there in middle school, but before we know it, Mason is a moody, mumbling high schooler…until he starts to drink and try soft drugs where Linklater attempts to recapture some of the old rambling magic that made the aimless philosophy of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life so enjoyable.  There are times, though, Mason comes across as so lackadaisical you want to shake him to wake him up.  He never really stands up for anything, though he does lash out eventually at stepdad number two to get off his back, and he does take a shining to the art of photography.  Linklater comically channels this feeling of wanting to shake (perhaps shape?) his protagonist through pep talks from his photography teacher and first boss (at least the kid gets a job much like I did at that age as a busboy/dishwasher with fry-cook aspirations). Continue reading

I Can’t Live in a World of Dressed Up Dogs

The Dance of Reality

“I can’t live in a world of dressed up dogs!  It makes me sick!”

Famous last words.  A would-be assassin somehow ends up at a dog costume contest where his “kangaroo dog” wins worst costume.  It gives him the opportunity to be on stage as his target…the tyrannical Chilean president…makes an appearance at the canine debacle.  He pulls a gun on the man, gets wrestled to the ground by a competing would-be assassin and then turns the gun on himself when he realizes the absurdity of it all.

This is just one of many moments of hilarious lucidity amidst emotionally bombastic absurdity in Alejandro J0dorowsky’s carnivalesque nostalgic coming-of-age crackpot epic, The Dance of Reality.  It’s one of my favorite moments – the others being the comically melodramatic demise of a beloved horse scene and the signing in the church full of freshly sanded chairs sequence – and these moments prove the old adage that you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water, even if that bath water is filthy and the baby is deformed.  Jodorowsky is in a bit of renaissance period as this first feature film in over twenty years comes on the heals of the documentary detailing his failed attempt at a Dune film back in the 1970’s.  I’ve never seen a film of his all the way through before this (I’ve sampled bits of El Topo and have been too scared to taste Santa Sangre), though he’s the stuff of midnight movie legend and I’ve read plenty about him.  I’ve always howled out loud at one of his more infamous quotes – “Most directors make films with their eyes.  I make films with my balls.”  Well, okay then.  He proves that again here.

Clearly sampling from his own childhood growing up in Tocopilla, Chile, the near ancient Jodorowsky has turned his Oedipal issues and desire for his Communist father’s approval and warped it into a psychedelic freakscape with a paradoxical sweet undercurrent amidst reverent, uplifting music and bright colors.  It’s a minor miracle that once you get through the weird circus-centric opening moments, the weirdness just is and the episodic narrative following the boy (as he struggles with his fears) and then later his father (on some kind of botched assassination turned vision quest to get back home) is shockingly coherent in the way “that really crazy dream I had last night” is.  Continue reading

Joe Knows Nothing New

Joe Nicolas Cage Tye Sheridan

Well, son, I reckon we oughta look for a better film.

A welcome return of Nicolas Cage Actor (as opposed to Nicolas Cage Lunatic Who Will Do Anything for a Paycheck) and another solid performance from Tye Sheridan (quick, get this kid in the Star Wars sequels…or something…so he can become the male Jennifer Lawrence and not keep getting typecast in Southern Fried Gothic Dramas) unfortunately don’t add up to much in David Gordon Green’s grim piece of poverty porn, Joe.  Cage plays a partially reformed loner who takes a shining to Sheridan’s hard-working drifter kid with an abusive alcoholic father – but both characters struggle to put their pasts (and tempers) behind them leading to inevitable anti-hero tragedy.

Poor Joe, it had a lot going for it.  Based on a fairly well-regarded novel of the same name by Larry Brown, it was to be a return to form for David Gordon Green – the former indie darling who had a nice (albeit unspectacular) streak going with George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow before selling out with mainstream stoner comedies.  Green recaptures some of that old magic in certain scenes (the film’s opening is especially effective, as are many of the Cage – Sheridan interactions) while populating the film with Malickian cinematography of some nameless (and tirelessly decrepit) Southern town and non-actors in supporting roles riffing in aimless scenes that lead nowhere.  There’s a fitting music score but also some poorly written and confusing voice-overs.  There’s chilling layered irony (the man who played Sheridan’s revolting father, Gary Poulter, was a homeless man who died shortly after filming from drowning in shallow waters while drunk) juxtaposed with senseless wallowing in the muck (did we really need to see that Lee Daniels-esque and dimwitted scene in the brothel that ended with a dog eating another dog?)  For all the naturalism Green tries to create, everything ends up feeling oddly forced and off-putting, even the “killing and planting trees as a metaphor for life” bit.  The characters remain undercooked in their overripe setting, and many of the interactions and subplots make little sense and only seem to exist to set-up the violence of the final act. Continue reading

His Name is Mud and it’s a Helluva Thing

Mud - in the trees

Look up there…it’s a helluva thing.

Mud, despite its name, is anything but muddy. It’s a finely tuned man’s-man tearjerker about boys coming-of-age, fathers realizing what’s important, the women they love and the trouble we’re all capable of making for ourselves and others. Writer director Jeff Nichols (who previously haunted us with another fine piece of blistering Americana in Take Shelter) crafts the film like an adaptation of a long-lost great American novel, framing it with a strong plot and filling it to the brim with fulfilling character arcs, character foils, and visual motifs of migrating birds, slippery snakes, open windows and the great wide flowing waters of the Mississippi.

Mud sure is a tale, but it’s also a man – a man called Mud, played with crafted precision by good ol’boy Matthew McConaughey, who in the past few years with roles in films like Bernie, Killer Joe and now Mud, has eradicated the stank left on him from years of bad rom-coms and “sexiest man alive” shenanigans to emerge as a truly great (dare I say method) actor. Here he’s a man in hiding on an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River running through Arkansas. He’s discovered by a pair of young teenage boys: good-hearted, sensitive and eager-to-throw-a-punch Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who previously only got to cry and play in The Tree of Life, but here emerges as an appealing young actor worth watching for in the future) and shit-talkin’ smart-as-a-whip Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who ventured out to the island on the promise of finding a cool-ass boat lodged in a treetop (“A helluva thing,” says Mud). Turns out Mud’s been living in that helluva thing, and boy, does he have some stories for them boys. Continue reading

Growing Pains: Ted vs Moonrise Kingdom

A teddy bear and his hookers.

In this corner – the weekend’s number one film at the box office and Seth “Family Guy” MacFarlane’s first foray into film – Ted.

A director and his children.

In the other corner – the critically acclaimed sleeper hit for the hipster arthouse set, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

The first film I wanted to like a lot…but didn’t…while the second film I wanted to dislike a lot…but didn’t. Strangely they suffer from the same troubling underlying theme (the old more of the same bit), though one film is clearly better at overcoming that flaw than the other.

First up – Ted. It’s a simple sellable concept – boy wishes teddy bear could talk, wish comes true, teddy grows up into foul-mouthed pervert, hilarity ensues…right? Hilarity should be ensuing. Waiting….waiting…. Oh, wait, a fart joke! The movie starts out charmingly sarcastic enough, a kind of riff on those magical wish-fulfillment kids’ flicks from the 1980’s (that I hated) complete with Patrick Stewart narration. After the credits finally roll (featuring a pretty funny montage), MacFarlane attempts to translate all of his patented animated schtick to live-action complete with 1950’s-style music.

Continue reading

Memories, Incidents and The Cat’s Table of Tall Tales

My favorite piece of short fiction to appear in The New Yorker last year was hands-down Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – a poignant and evocative piece about an eleven year-old Sri Lankan boy’s coming of age on the high seas while sailing on a rowdy cruise ship (The Oronsay) to boarding school in England. 

I was overjoyed to discover it was part of a larger novel released in October of last year.  I was puzzled to find the story that appeared in The New Yorker was not a straight excerpt and had instead been parsed and elaborated on in long form during the first half of the novel of the same name.  In this extended tale, the full twenty-one days of the early 1950’s voyage are realized and a parade of new characters traverses the decks. 

The Cat’s Table refers to the not-so-enviable table in the back of the dining room where the young boy (Michael) sat along with two other boys (the wild Cassius and the sickly Ramadhin) and a rag-tag team of adults including a jazzy wisdom-spewing washed-up musician (Mr. Mazappa) and a mysteriously quiet English bird-lady (Miss Lasqueti).  The unsupervised trio of rascals have the run of the ship, exploring every nook and cranny and soaking up every story and incident from the revolving door of worldly adults in the their midst.  Mystery and adventure, but also misfortune and melancholy soak the ship as it heads half-way across the globe touching on Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Continue reading

Shooting Circles Around the Heart of Joe Wright’s Hanna

"So this one time, there was this girl named Hanna, and she was like a super freak, but still totally cool, even though she killed people and stuff."

Hmmm…who knew?  That Joe Wright is quite mad, isn’t he?

In his fourth film, Hanna, director Joe Wright shatters all sensible expectations.  It’s almost as if this (and not the regally refined Pride & Prejudice) was his first film.  Or could this be the first Joe Wright film?  Maybe the rest were compromises, and it is here where he throws everything and the kitchen sink at us and begs, “How do you like me now?”

The art-house action film is a rare breed indeed.  Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional and Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run are probably the most well-regarded.  Hanna, about a teenage girl/uber-assassin out for revenge, will likely join the ranks of those two and in some ways surpasses them.

So in this demented girl-power, Euro-trash, Clockwork Orange-esque, quasi-futuristic, 80’s-retro-ish, techno-club music, beat-boxing kaleidoscope of a film, what does Joe Wright throw at us?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Here’s the laundry list of treats (potential spoilers ahead) in store for audiences who take on Hanna: Continue reading