Monthly Archives: January 2012
The Grey (2012)
I’ve always been fascinated with survival thriller/horror, where we think step-by-step with the characters through an unlikely scenario. I greatly enjoyed Frozen, a horror movie about three teens stranded on a ski lift, and Buried was in my top ten list for 2010. I enjoy the thought exercise and find the scenarios easily empathetic as long as people don’t make boneheaded decisions. Director Joe Carnahan has been paying his bills as of late with stylized, overdone, and generally overblown action movies like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. I would not have expected Carnahan to deliver anything that could be described as nuanced or meditative, but lo and behold The Grey is a survival thriller that’s as thoughtful and emotional as it is viscerally exhilarating. The Grey is the first great movie of 2012 and I’m astounded that it was released in January, the dumping ground for cinematic dreck.
We follow a group of grunts working on an oil pipeline way out in the northern Alaskan territory. They’re heading south for some R&R when their plane crashes due to electrical issues. Ottway (Liam Neeson) and seven other men are the lone survivors. While checking for supplies, they discover a pack of wolves feasting on some of the choicer corpses. Ottway is a wolf expert, hired by the oil company to patrol the grounds and hunt antagonistic wolves. He explains that wolves have a hunting radius of 300 miles and a kill radius of 30 within the den. It is uncertain where these men find themselves, so they bundle up and head south, hoping to escape the predators, find food and water, and discover a way to help.
The Grey is a harrowing, haunting, and intense thriller, masterfully played by Carnahan. The threat is real and brutal, enough that it convinces the men to leave the safety of the plane wreckage to possibly escape the wolf kill radius. We’re told that wolves are the only animal that will kill out of vengeance (look out Sarah Palin). The attacks are vicious and the violence is bloody and occasionally shocking, though it never seems gratuitous. The special effects and canine animatronics are seamlessly integrated. The sound design for this movie is exceptional, probably the best use of sound to fashion anxiety since 2007’s No Country for Old Men or even Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The sounds of the wolf pack echo around the theater, completely keeping you off guard, disorienting the audience. Carnahan creates such a vivid picture of dread that we’re convinced that the wolves could sic at any moment. And when they do the editing becomes chaotic, mimicking the ferocity of the animals and depicting the frenzied fear of the attacked.
I was a terrible bundle of nerves throughout most of this movie. The plane crash is an exemplary sequence of terror, capturing the terrifying moments from Ottway’s limited point of view. The rest of the movie doesn’t get any less tense just because they’re on stable footing. There’s one scene where the wolves attack a guy who has fallen back from the group. Carnahan brilliantly captures the helpless reality by showing the men trying to race back in knee-high snow. They can only stomp so far while the man is ripped apart in the background. The action sequences, though to be fair they’re really more suspense pieces, are the most nerve-wracking I’ve endured since the brilliant Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. Of course these being life and death stakes, there is plenty of death, as the men are generally picked off one by one, though not all by the pack of wolves. The frigid elements are just as dangerous as the killer wolves. The men could just as easily freeze to death. The need for shelter and food is dire (the men even joke about the famous cannibalism from Alive). One of them is suffering just from his brain being unable to acclimate to the elevated attitude. That’s almost enviable considering the doom that constantly hangs over the other survivors.
Naturally there’s some friction between the survivors as far as the best course of action. Ottway has assumed Alpha dog status thanks to his expertise on wolves and the Arctic climate, but that does not mean that the rest of the men follow lockstep. Give the alarming situation, it will be in these men’s best interest to work together for survival. Some of the men chafe at being what to do but the movie doesn’t drags out this conflict, thankfully, because jockeying for power positions seems like an absurd waste of time. There are heavier issues at play. The impact of the movie would be blunted if the characters came across as one-dimensional; then we wouldn’t care about their fate. Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker,” find creative ways to enrich and reveal the character of these lone men. They feel believable and their reactions to the implausible dangers seem plausible, keeping us invested. Ottway keeps flashing back to an image of his wife (Anne Openshaw) for strength, this angelic brunette telling him not to worry. It’s what he has to hold onto, though when we learn more about the context of this image it becomes even more meaningful. One character has had enough struggling and has no will power to continue. He argues that whatever life he may return to is no reward.
The thrills and scares are what are to be expected, but The Grey is also a much more thoughtful and intellectually stimulating picture than you may have hoped. Carnahan’s script covers a wide array of survival tactics without breaking from the reality of its premise. It’s just interesting to watch a group of men use their wits to make best use of their dwindling supplies and dire situation. It becomes a game that the audience plays, systematically judging every choice and assessing if we would follow suit. Beforehand, the men engage in a theological discussion regarding the existence of God, faith, the belief that there is a divine plan. The men are fighting for their survival but having an existential crisis all the same, trying to supply meaning to the horrific, find reasons to keep fighting. “We crashed going 400 miles per hour and we survived. That has to mean something,” one of them reasons. Or it all could just be very bad luck. Ottway at one point, an admitted non-believer in a higher power, bellows to the sky for something, anything. His desperation is effective and turns what could have been trite into a nice character moment. One of the men shares a memory of his daughter, who would wake him up by gently dangling her hair in his face. It’s a touching moment and when that same character meets an untimely end and is helped to the other side by a vision of that same daughter, it becomes profoundly moving (the quick snap to reality is a jarring point for grisly comparison). The Grey has plenty more on its mind than making an audience jump. It also wants to make the audience think and, in the end, feel genuine emotion.
The ending may rankle some who felt, especially with the advertising, that the film was going to be a two-hour Neeson ass-kicking vehicle, but for me it was fitting and the only way this story could have ended. Though let me advise all potential ticket-buyers to stay during the end credits for a small bit that offers a tad more resolution, though still leaves as much to be determined by the viewer. It’s not exactly ambiguous considering how things are left.
Neeson (Unknown, Clash of the Titans) has settled nicely into his newest incarnation as middle-aged ass-kicker, such an odd path for the man who famously portrayed Oskar Schindler. At some level, it’s below an actor of Neeson’s standards to be running through such genre frills, but it’s also a joy to see someone who can really, truly act give gravitas to his men of action. After he delivered his warning in Taken, I was completely on board and ready to watch this man bust some skulls. Beyond the physical challenges, the role really puts Neeson through an emotional wringer and the man gives a strong, stirring performance. You’d be glad to have this man in any predicament. The rest of the cast fill out their parts well, with Dermot Mulroney (The Family Stone) making the best use of his time onscreen to create a character.
The Grey is a startling movie; horrific, jolting, thrilling, moving, beautiful, philosophical, and extremely captivating. Carnahan has crafted an exciting movie that transcends genre. There were moments so tense that I was chewing on my knuckles. There were moments so intense I felt like I had to look away. And there were moments so poignant that tears welled up in my eyes. I look forward to watching this movie again and finding even more at work. No grey area here, this is one truly excellent movie.
Nate’s Grade: A
Final Destination 5 (2011)
If there was any cosmic justice the Final Destination franchise would have been KO’d by death a long time ago. The initial interest of bizarre, fiendishly clever deaths and the constant macabre misdirection was fun, but now, after five movies, feels creatively exhausted. Once again a group of unremarkable characters survive a remarkable disaster, this time a collapsing bridge. And once again we have to follow them figuring out the rules of the movie series and that they’re all marked for death. The in-between stuff is some of the worst drama ever captured on screen. It makes you impatient for death to get off its duff and kill more teenagers so I don’t have to listen to their whiny, unrealistic problems. Coming off a limp fourth installment that was the highest-grossing one yet, the filmmakers once again turn to 3-D as their savior, which does not play well at all on your TV (a sailboat mast becoming an instrument for impaling?). It’s more annoying than anything. But the real draw of this movie is the gruesomely elaborate deaths, and they’re probably the weakest of the series (a gymnast’s body practically exploding once she hit a padded mat seems absurd even for this movie). There is one sequence that freaked me out but that’s because I’m quite squeamish when it comes to eye trauma. What ends up slightly redeeming Final Destination 5, as far as cheap horror movies go, is a surprising third act that breaks from the doldrums of the franchise formula. For once, the people decide to take life to save themselves when death comes calling, and they set their sights on each other, resentful that one of their own survived in the premonition staple. I think this horror franchise took a turn for the worst when it gave into its target audience’s cynical bloodlust, and I doubt there’s anything “final” about this series. At least the Saw franchise had the merit to die.
Nate’s Grade: C
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
In 1957, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) was the biggest star in the world but she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) was an award-winning thespian considered to be acting royalty, but he was looking to siphon some of Monroe’s fame and vigor. Monroe flew over to England to shoot the light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by and starring Olivier, and it was here that she changed the life of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark was an ambitious young chap who served as the third assistant director and Oliver’s personal assistant as well. He was mainly a glorified go-fer but the position allowed him to glimpse the world of Marilyn Monroe and her various handlers, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) and Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper). Monroe’s flighty behavior and struggles with acting drive the more professional Oliver stark raving mad. Monroe’s rocky marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is causing her fits of depression. Who better to cheer her up than young Colin Clark? Over the course of nine days, the two become inseparable and Clark falls head over heels for the world’s most glamorous woman.
The character of Colin Clark seems to be stripped of all defining personality traits. He’s this bland kid caught in continual awe. He just seems to be smiling and twinkling those big, compassionate eyes of his, typifying the earnestness of young love. I think he’s been rendered into a cipher for the audience to put themselves in his shoes, becoming star struck with Monroe’s attention. The screenplay takes far too much time on showing Clark coming to the repetitive rescue. His romance with a costume girl (Emma Watson) is a nonstarter and the movie doesn’t even try and hide the fact. She’s the backup romantic option, so the fact that he goes back to her after being spurned by Monroe and we’re supposed to feel that this is growth seems disingenuous and a bit caddish. Perhaps she didn’t take it too hard; if you’re going to be dumped for anyone else, there’s no shame if it’s Marilyn Monroe. Judging by the movie’s depiction, Clark is a rather boring young man, and I didn’t buy for a second that Monroe would cling to him as her hero.
My Week with Marilyn is really focused on the titular star. Clark is just out path to the real star. I doubt there’s anything particularly revelatory about Monroe here. She was plagued with insecurities, a need to be loved, and the fatigue of “playing” herself all the time, all hips swivels and winks. At one point Clark and Monroe are taking a walk and met with a group of fans. “Shall I be her?” she coyly asks Clark and then turns into the vampy goddess the public loved, striking poses and smiling wide. By the very constricted nature of the timeline, we’re not going to learn too much about the famous beauty. She flubbed her lines, she and Olivier didn’t get along, and a mini-entourage of sycophants who were meant to be a surrogate family for the troubled gal surrounded her. Was she a lonely gal crushed by the weight of stardom or a manipulative lady who knew how to get what she wanted? The movie doesn’t take a side, instead serving up all sides of Marilyn Monroe, including a few in the buff. The film has some enjoyable juicy bits, particularly the friction between Monroe and Olivier, but the movie ultimately becomes another fawning admirer of its star. There are a couple musical numbers with Monroe that feel clumsily reproduced and the tone seems too light too often for the dramatic moments to have any real bearing. It becomes another fan that celebrating her image and sponging off her fame and legacy.
While the film may not be revelatory, Williams (Blue Valentine) herself is the revelation. She’s not exactly a dead ringer for the curvaceous, buxom blonde beauty, but she inhabits the spirit of the woman rather than sticking to a breathy imitation. She doesn’t capture the baby-doll voice but the demeanor she has down pat; when she turns it on you can feel the screen light up with the luminescence of star power. There’s quite a difference between the sad, depressed, codependent Marilyn and the sexy pinup fantasy. It’s an incredible performance in an otherwise so-so movie, though I wish the screenplay had given her more complexity to work with. Branagh (Valkyrie) is great fun as the stuffy, overbearing Olivier who gets plenty of snappy lines to vent his frustration over Monroe’s antics (“Teaching Marilyn how to act is as useful as teaching Urdu to a badger!”). Both actors are so good, and so good together, that I wish we could just remove the “my week with” from the title and focus on the relationship between Monroe and Olivier.
Allow me to question the voracity of Clark’s account. He waited until 1995 to publish his film set diaries, and then after his first memoir of his time with Monroe sold well he published another one in 2000, this one filling in a nine-day gap he says was that fateful week with the sex icon of the twentieth century (eat it, Clara Bow!). The second memoir was written fifty years after the fact and from the nostalgic perspective of an old man looking back to his youth. I feel that the particulars have been smoothed over and romanticized. The fact that surviving actors from The Prince and the Showgirl cannot verify any sort of relationship, and that several sources say that Monroe and her new husband Miller were inseparable at the time, cause me to doubt the validity of this personal account. In his first memoir, Clark even criticizes Monroe’s physical appearance (“Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye. No wonder she is so insecure.“). Yet in the second book he becomes her defender. So which is it? Who wouldn’t, with sixty years of hindsight and a best-selling first memoir, embellish their one-time dalliance with a star like Monroe? The most desired woman in the world and he, a 23-year-old nobody, was the one to become her confidant? Aren’t we full of ourselves? And he crawled into her bedroom and was asked to stay the night and didn’t consummate that relationship? In the book she offers and he declines. Talk about the biggest mistake of your life.
If you’re going to embellish, then you might as well get some action out of it. Then again, maybe in the books Clark says that Monroe gave him a pity handjob and the filmmakers deleted this (I can hear him screaming from beyond the grave, “You fools! The handjob was a metaphor. The whole tale falls apart without it!”). If I ever had even a fighting chance of getting lucky with Marilyn Monroe, you’d best believe I would be telling that story so often that my grandkids would roll their eyes in disgust (“Geez, we get it grandpa. Marilyn gave you a handy once.”). The post-script tells us that after The Prince and the Showgirl, Monroe went on to Some Like it Hot and Olivier went back to the theater for some of his best-reviewed runs of his career. So clearly, these two stars owe all their good success to the heroics of Colin Clark, who nudged them from greatness to legendary. We have only Clark’s take since Monroe cannot dispute Clark’s claims so I feel like the memoir, and the film adaptation, is an exercise in serving Clark’s ego.
My Week with Marilyn is a light, weightless movie that retells the shooting of a light, weightless movie. Well done, everyone. The emphasis on this bland kid and his fairly unbelievable whirlwind romance of the twentieth century’s most iconic sex symbol makes the movie feel self-serving. Does anyone honestly believe the events of this story? Whatever the validity of the events, a movie should be entertaining on its own rights. My Week with Marilyn has its bouncier moments and is saved by stellar acting from Branagh and the radiant Williams. But even the best acting in the world can’t save a movie that feels like it’s completely some old man’s exaggerated, embellished, and somewhat boring fantasy. If this is the relaxed standard for getting a movie made, then I look forward to the eventual film adaptation of my soon-to-be-released novel titled, My 28 Hours of Incredible Sex with Angelina Jolie.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Red Tails (2012)
You’d think a big name like George Lucas would not have a problem getting a movie made. Lucas has been trying to get a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen made since the 1980s, but he says no studio would bite, concerned that American audiences would not be interested in a movie with an all-black cast. So Lucas just paid for the movie himself, forking over $50 million of his own money a.k.a. July’s paycheck from Star Wars toys, a.k.a. what Lucas just had in his pockets at the time. Even though only credited as an executive producer, it’s hard not to feel the Lucas imprint all over Red Tails. The emphasis is on the high-flying aerial combat, ladled heavily with CGI special effects work, rather than on a credible story and characters that we care about. Simply out, the Tuskegee Airmen deserve a better movie than this.
In 1944, the Tuskegee Airmen have been kept on the ground for most of the war. However, the bomber pilots need more protection. It seems that white pilots meant to provide protection of the bombers will easily get distracted, chasing after German fighter planes for a taste of glory. Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) have been notified that their unit of black pilots will finally get their shot. Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) leads the squad, followed by Joe “Lightening” Little (David Oyelowo) and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds). They are to escort the bombers and stick to the bombers; the mission is paramount. The unit paints the tails of their planes a bright crimson to stand out from the pack. The Tuskegee Airmen keep to their creed, ensuring the bombers carry out their missions, and proving themselves every bit as courageous as capable as white servicemen.
It’s like somebody transplanted a 1950s war film to present day but left every single hoary cliché imaginable. Just because African-American actors get to play the clichés doesn’t mean we’ve made progress. The Tuskegee Airmen are a historical account with enough real-life intrigue; Lucas and company didn’t need to create a fictional tale to illustrate their heroic deeds. The characters are all resoundingly one-note; the troubled leader with a drinking problem, the hotshot who doesn’t follow orders, the wisecracking pilot with a firm religious belief in “black Jesus,” the young guy trying to prove himself, and the guy who gets married and just wants to get back to his girl (guess what happens to him?). Let’s stop and analyze that plot point. Lightening first discovers his Italian beauty (NCIS: LA’s Daniela Ruah) waving while he’s zooming by in an airplane. Naturally he can find her home. After a series of strolls, Lightening asks her to be his wife, and eventually she accepts after some deliberation. Neither of them seems to find this interracial marriage concept a big deal, but in the 1940s, when the Army was still segregated and miscegenation was still illegal in certain states until 1967, you better believe it would be a big deal. Italy was no prejudice-free haven of tolerance, especially under Mussolini’s rule. And by the way, the portrayal of Italy in this movie looks like the war hasn’t even touched the land, physically and mentally. All those happy Italians just walking around smiling. And then there’s the white officers club where one of the black pilots visits and punches a guy after he calls him the N-word. In reality, this guy would have been beaten to an inch of his life. It’s even more bizarre then that, just after a month of flying missions, this say officer’s club greets the black pilots with open arms, fighting to by the guys rounds of drinks. Red Tails, at times, seems to exist in a different universe.
This has got to be the most boring part of a story you could tell about the Tuskegee Airmen. We watch the pilots escort the bombers and stick with the mission. While an interesting historical footnote, that’s about it. The story before the missions and after the missions is infinitely more interesting. I’d much rather see these brave heroes have to go back to a bitterly racist country, be declared honored men of valor by the government and then told they don’t deserve equal rights in the same breath. There’s so much more inherent drama in the conflict of going home to a segregationist country. Likewise, the Army was only integrated late into the war, meaning that African-American soldiers could not enter combat until 1944. Surely the journey these men took to enter the armed services is more compelling, and their experiences must have been even harder, battling the prejudices of their fellow brothers in arms. The early scenes in the film where Col. Bullard is fighting for respect and to get his men an actual mission, butting heads with brass who feel African-American soldiers are inferior, is far more gripping than anything that goes on in the air. The actual war part of this story is the least interesting part. If Lucas and company were so hell-bent on framing their story this way, they should have taken a cue from 1990’s Memphis Belle and stuck to a single mission being the majority of the plot. That would have kept the realism of the situation, ratcheted up suspense, and been a more natural way to get to know our characters.
While only thoroughly mediocre, Red Tails can have some pretty awful moments. The white bomber pilots provide, for lack of a better phrase, color commentary on the plot. Their dialogue is so on-the-nose and transparent, meant to lead an audience into some stilted realization that African-Americans are, gosh, not that different. The dialogue starts off with stuff like, “What? A colored man?! We’re done for,” then goes to, “Hey, these boys might actually be okay. I hope them Red Tails fly with us next time,” and then the movie might as well end on, “Wow, my altogether uninformed prejudices have been completely upended. I’m sorry I ever relied on such outdated notions of race that were completely ignorant. My paradigm has shifted and I’m going to look at people not as black or white anymore, but as people.” It’s so annoying and artificial. The dialogue is mostly cornball but the line that takes the cornball cake is after Lightening attacks a German munitions train, he shouts, “How you like that, Mr. Hitler?!” Really? “Mr. Hitler?” You’d think two African-American screenwriters (John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder) would have eschewed any phrases that could be racially loaded. Speaking of Germans, the movie has one German ace that keep reappearing again and again. Just so we understand that all those cockpit shots of ONE GERMAN are the same guy, the movie gives him a hideous scar along the side of his face. Being a scary scarred German fighter isn’t enough to convince us this man is a villain, so the movie also has him spout some pretty ludicrous racist dialogue, even for someone who may have believed wholeheartedly in the principles of an Aryan race. “Die you foolish, African,” he shouts at one point. Maybe he’s still steamed over that whole Jesse Owens thing.
But the dumbest moment in a movie that will tax a minimal amount of brain cells is what happens to Junior after his plane goes down. He’s caught behind enemy lines and is thrown into a prisoner of war camp. But what luck, because it just so happens that these prisoners are planning an escape that very night (“At least they won’t see you at night,” one of the guys tells Junior). They’ve dug a tunnel beneath their barracks and Junior agrees to go first to be the lookout. He climbs out of the exit hole right in front of a forest clearing. When the next one in line pops out, however, a German guard has spotted them and turned his weapon on the American. Junior hops from behind a tree, waves his arms wildly to distract, and then runs off into the woods. Inexplicably, this is where the storyline concludes. You’re telling me that a German soldier with a gun isn’t going to give chase into the woods? These guys have the upper hand, plenty of armed men and dogs to track escaped prisoners. The rest of the American prisoners make it out to alive miraculously and one of the guys gives Junior’s dog tags to his unit. How did these prisoners, all escaping after the jig was up, get past everyone? And yet Junior does indeed live too and shows up just in time, in literally the last thirty seconds of the movie, to cut short everyone feeling sad about fallen soldiers. It’s like an angel just dropped him out of the sky. Junior’s escape and perilous journey back to American forces seems like a pretty good story worth telling. It has to be fraught with danger and thrills, but to just hastily end his storyline and magically zap him back to base isn’t just criminally lazy, it’s insulting.
The saving grace of Red Tails is its coterie of talented actors, doing the best they can with the wobbly material. This is a movie designed for the most mainstream of audiences, not for anybody who knows a whiff of history. The characters are one-note, the story is driven by every cliché imaginable, and the reality of the time period feels oddly glossed over at too many points, settling for safe rah-rah movie heroics. The aerial combat sequences can be exciting but they come across as weightless, with all the emotional investment of watching a video game. Credit Lucas giving this movie a decent-sized budget to pull off the special effects and involved combat sequences, but that money would have been better spent on a good script, not one just dusted off from the World War II era and the race of the characters altered. I find this kind of pandering mush to be insulting, especially the fact that the audience is supposed to feel grateful that black soldiers are finally getting the spotlight no matter the quality of film. The choice of “pandering mush” or nothing is a false choice. If giving black characters the chance to run through all the tired, hoary war clichés that went out of style decades ago is progress, then I shed a tear for this country.
Nate’s Grade: C
January at the movies has long been a time for two kinds of releases: 1) award-worthy films expanding into wider release, and, 2) crap. That’s about it. I’ll let you figure out which category the action thriller Contraband belongs in.
Paul (Mark Wahlberg) was once the best smuggler in the business. He’s since gone legit, starting a family and his own private security business. His brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets into trouble with some bad men. He tosses a load of smuggled drugs to elude Customs ships, but now Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) wants the value of the drugs or else. Paul knows he has no choice but to put together one last job to save Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale) brother. Paul leaves his family in the hands of Sebastian (Ben Foster), a trusted accomplish on many missions. John puts together a team and plans to board a ship headed for Panama City. While there, the team will load large sums of confederate money. The sale of the fake currency should square things between John and Briggs. However, little goes according to plan.
Contraband is a lousy heist picture that feels like it’s making it up as it goes. First off, the premise of John having to go back into his art of smuggling to settle a debt has been overdone, and the fact that John’s idiotic brother-in-law is as fault makes it hard to care that something might happen to the idiot. But why God do they bring this screw-up, the brother-in-law, along with them? He’s already proven to be a poor decision maker and a moron, and, surprise surprise, when in Panama the guy gets them into more danger. So irritating is this character, always foolishly making things worse for John, that you wish they had thrown this dolt overboard. This is a movie structured with a small beginning, a small end, and a great big fat middle, and it’s that middle that involves our destination to Panama. With heist movies, as well as most thrillers, we don’t want things to go according to plan. We want to see organic complications and watch our team of characters adjust. With Contraband, the complications don’t feel natural so much as like careening plot elements from other movies. John’s quick visit goes out of control, with the team losing their payment money for the confederate loot (guess who’s responsible for that? Guess?), and they have to go find a budding crime lord, Gonzalo (Milk’s Diego Luna), and then this crime lord just happens to be plotting a heist at THAT EXACT MOMENT and John and his team should come along and then the heist goes bad, as always, and the team ahs to get away, but Gonzalo demands to be taken to a hospital by gunpoint, and then the cargo ship is going to leave port, and, and, and, and, etc. There are so many breakneck plot turns thrown in that it feels like a broken blender spewing half-formed plot residue everywhere. It’s the film equivalent of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie story (“If you give a smuggler a deadline, he’ll need a contact. If you give him a contact, he’ll need to do the contact a favor. If he does the contact a favor, he’ll have to do this one job for him. If he does this one job for him, he’ll need a crew. If he needs a crew, he’ll need… etc.).
Let’s take a moment to analyze the peculiar masks Gonzalo and his team choose to utilize. They literally wrap duct tape around their faces. That’s got to be the dumbest mask in the history of cinema, and there have been some stinkers. They couldn’t afford pantyhose? Anything? They had to use tape? First off, you can’t conceal key features, like your eyes and mouth, and lastly, isn’t it going to be something of a bitch to rip those things off? The only person who could properly wear a duct tape mask would be someone suffering from alopecia (condition that leaves a person hairless). Otherwise you’re sacrificing your eyebrows. Maybe this is just how things are done in Panama.
So much of this movie feels like it’s on autopilot, just drifting like that cargo ship. At this point, I don’t even think Wahlberg is trying to hide his indifference to the material. He’s a man with a shady past who went legit and has a family now, but in order to protect that family he is drawn back to his shady past. How many times has this plot device just been used in the last few years? The rest of the characters fill out the crime thriller cheat sheet: young screw-up who serves as plot catalyst, parent in prison to provide cautionary tale, best trusted pal that ultimately proves to be untrustworthy, and the harried, often victimized wife. Poor Beckinsale (Underworld) who gets beaten, threatened with a gun in her face, and victimized to a degree that it feels like exploitation. This woman can never catch a break. She gets few moments in the film where she is free from being terrorized with violence. I have no idea what would attract an actress like Beckinsale to this part other than the allure of a paycheck. Contraband stalls when it comes to thrills, and part of this is because the villains seem so lame. Briggs just comes across as an inept criminal, like somebody’s own screw-up brother-in-law that tagged along to play with the big boys. He’s routinely beaten and bossed around. It’s hard to take his threats seriously, so the movie cuts its losses and just has him threaten Kate some more. It becomes old quick. The only thing that keeps Contraband going is the great distance between Paula and his family, a divide that keeps Paul vulnerable. Too bad that the movie can’t think of anything thrilling to do with this scenario and settles, all too frequently, on scaring the wife. Wouldn’t the film have been more engrossing if Paul’s wife had been kidnapped this whole time? Would that not cause a better sense of urgency than the vague threat that a character we don’t care about might get offed for being stupid?
From an action standpoint, the thrills rarely materialize, relying on a contingent of blunders and coincidences to provide the thrills. There wasn’t a moment where I worried for a character on screen. This may be because I didn’t care for a person on screen, thanks to workmanlike characterization, but it’s also got to fall on the feet of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (who starred in Wahlberg’s role in the original Icleandic version of this flick) and his nascent camerawork. There will be moments where his camera does stutter-step zooms, mimicking the docu-drama camerawork that’s been en vogue with action cinema. And then he’ll never repeat it. There’s a shot of Gonzalo blowing the armored car up and it’s filmed in a high-speed, stylized shot to distill the strange beauty of the force, and then this never happens again. It’s like Kormakur is sampling all 31 flavors of action movie styles and can’t decide on a visual tone. The action is too dependent on arbitrary coincidences for it to be satisfying of thrilling; we’re just waiting for the next out-of-nowhere plot turn to move things along. The ending attempts to tie up things nicely but feels asinine and laughable in how John can take out three villains in one well-orchestrated, tidy swoop. Don’t even get me started on the impracticalities of John hearing a lone cell phone ringing to be able to trace his wife in an entire construction site. The resolution feels ludicrous and a stroke of dumb luck.
Contraband is a convoluted, knuckleheaded thriller that drags because of arbitrary maneuverings, poor characterization, a fat middle section plot-wise, and pedestrian action. The movie feels like it’s being made up on the spot. As a result of all this tiresome lateral plotting, Contraband feels like it’s going nowhere and spinning into oblivion. I found myself nodding off at various points, my brain bored by all the generic goings-on. The constant victimization of Paul’s wife is a rather ugly development for a movie that confuses salty language and furrowed brows for toughness. The movie is devoid of any sense of fun. It just becomes an empty enterprise of actors going through the motions to work of genre pap. Even by the dirt-low standards of January cinematic offerings, Contraband isn’t worth a cent of your hard-earned money.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Melancholia opens with a bang. Literally. Lars von Trier, film’s most polarizing and famous sadist, begins his movie with the ultimate spoiler alert, destroying the entire planet. Lars von Trier’s grandiose exploration of annihilation, both personal and species-level, can be maddening in how tedious the whole affair can become for long stretches. What’s even more maddening is that the movie flirts with being magnificent for other, regrettably smaller, stretches.
We open with the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard). Hours late, the couple arrives at their reception at the palatial estate that belongs to her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, amateur astronomer John (Kiefer Sutherland). Over the course of one very late night, Justine will quit her job, sleep with a random wedding guest, alienate her family, and end her brief marriage, putting Kim Kardashian to shame. Several months later, Justine has been released from a hospital for clinical depression and is now living with Claire and John’s along with their young son, Leo. A tiny star in the sky has gotten larger over the ensuing months, and scientists have determined that this new planet is heading straight for Earth. Named Melancholia, this rogue space rock is predicted to pass by, but the calculations are getting closer and closer. Eventually, the truth is evident and Melancholia is on a cataclysmic collision course with Earth.
From a plot standpoint, the movie is completely lopsided. Melancholia opens with beautiful images that…. just…. keep…. going…. on…. and… on… set to thunderous Wagnerian overtures. It lets us know right away that von Trier is performing at an operatic level of melodrama. After this spoiler sequence, we jump back to the last months of Earth. The first hour of this movie is a boring wedding sequence that just seems to stretch for an eternity. You may wish that the rogue planet would show up and smash everyone to bits so we could get on with it. Justine and her groom are already several hours late because of the precarious route their limo had to take, so the fact that Justine takes frequent breaks and needs to be constantly retrieved can be draining. The hour of wedding blahs would be better time spent if I felt von Trier was laying the groundwork for characters. Little of the first hour seems to matter at all or has any lingering ramifications, which is bizarre considering the amount of personal nosedives Justine takes. It’s plain to see that Justine is unhappy and going through the motions, pretending to be happy for everyone’s benefit and maybe, just maybe, she can trick herself. What’s not plain to see is why we have to spend so much time on a room full of characters that will never be seen again. We learn so little about the characters, their relationships, and why any of this matters. The first half of this movie could have easily been condensed to 20 minutes. If the point was to test the audience’s patience, much like Justine does to her family, then bravo.
It’s that second hour where Melancholia flirts with the profound. The second half only concerns four principal characters. Unlike the first monotonous hour, there are events that actually matter and have substance to them, namely the encroaching obliteration of Earth. Having seen the pre-credit preview, we already know every life on the planet is doomed, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling the same pangs of anxiety as Claire discovers what we already know. Depression may be an elusive personal experience that not everybody can empathize with, especially when the depressed individual becomes overly taxing, but coming to terms with the end, not just your own, but of all of human history? That’s something every person can identify with. This confrontation of the inevitable can lead to some thoughtful soul-searching. This is an extinction event. There is no escape, unless you’re an astronaut (it’s now or never, lunar colonists).
Like most of us would be, Claire is terrified to die, to have all her loved ones die, but Justine is eerily placid. She feels that the Earth is evil and that “nobody will miss it.” To further drive von Trier’s bleak pessimism, Justine says there is no other life elsewhere in the universe. This is it, and it’ll all be over soon. “I just know,” she adds, unhelpfully. We watch Claire go through different stages of grief, fighting for some sense of closure, but von Trier will not allow any comforts. Gainsbourg was put through Trier’s typical emotional wringer in 2009’s unpleasant Antichrist, and here she’s really the entry point for the audience, and as such we sympathize the most with her since her reactions are so believable. It’s hard to feel like there’s any bond between these two sisters, which limits the impact of the end. Still, the end is fittingly devastating and makes me wish I had seen the beautiful destruction on the big screen, bathing in its apocalyptic splendor.
The dread of that final hour is extremely palpable, with the presence of Melancholia in the sky played almost like an art-house existential horror movie. At first we’re told by John that the scientists predict it will fly-by at roughly 60,000 miles per hour, but slowly the realization becomes clear that Melancholia is coming back with a vengeance. There’s a terrific plot point where John introduces a way to judge the planet’s movement. A wire circle is held out at arm’s reach, designed to trace around the perimeter of Melancholia. Then five minutes later the wire ring goes back up and, voila, the rogue planet has shrunken in size or gained. It’s a smart device that helps establish the momentum of doom, and it’s practical enough for the characters to perform. As Melancholia comes closer to collision, it gives off an unnerving blue glow. I started joking with my friend Alan that the movie was going to descend into a slasher-style stalker movie, with Melancholia chasing to get you like a spurned and dangerous lover (“We’ve traced the phone call. The planet is calling from inside the house!”). These attempts at levity are inevitable when the subject matter is so depressing and the nature of von Trier’s film lends itself to operatic pomposity.
von Trier’s film is quite a departure from the most disaster cinema, but sometimes its Big Statements can seem inartful and obvious. The very idea that the planet of doom in this dance of death is called Melancholia… come on. Maybe this whole thing would have been avoided had those egghead astronomers had given this rogue planet a happier name (My suggestion: “Doug.”). The metaphorical connection to Justine’s own melancholy is just inane. The planet is but a tiny speck in the sky at her wedding, and Justine is desperately trying to hold it together, and then in the second half the planet is much bigger and, surprise, so is Justine’s melancholy.
I found it hard to care about Justine and her personal demons. Depression and mental illness can be exasperating conditions, but that doesn’t mean I sympathized with her any more than the other seven billion souls destined to be incinerated. Her rejection of niceties can seem cold when all her sister wants to do is find some level of reassurance before the end is near. Dunst (Marie Antoinette) won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance, and it’s hard for me to see why. It’s a darker, somber, more serious role for the actress, but looking tired, sullen, and impassive doesn’t come across as a fully rendered performance, more of a bad mood swing. My feelings are likely tempered by the fact that I found her character to be unbearable and agonizingly opaque
Melancholia is half of a great movie, but only half. The movie can feel a little too isolated, a little too leisurely paced, a little too pretentious. The beginning wedding sequence is like a minor endurance test, but rewards await those who carry on to the bitter end. This uneven art-house disaster movie has stunning imagery, numbing dread, and an apocalyptic grandeur, the likes of which could only come from the perverse mind of Lars von Trier. It’s beautiful and lyrical in its best moments, a cold, surrealist nightmare. The boldness of von Trier’s vision is inescapable, but I only wished he had fashioned a better story and sharper characters for his experiment in nihilism. If we’re going to spend the last few hours on Earth, I’d rather it be with people I gave a damn about.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
Billed as one of the most dense films of the holiday season, I was startled to discover that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not nearly as puzzling as people have protested. The adaptation of John le Carre’s famous novel follows retired British spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) performing a clandestine investigation to flesh out a mole in the highest level of the agency. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), condensed form a 7-hour BBC miniseries, and stuffed with a wealth of terrific Brits, the movie is tricky, clever, and rather brainy, ultimately coming to the conclusion that these little communities of intelligence knew little. The movie has a rich array of characters and teases out back-story in flashbacks, meaning the film hops around time wise and will also take turns with different perspectives. It demands your attention but, honestly, I found it easy enough to follow. But in the end, what does all that narrative trickery and obfuscation get you? It’s a fairly dispassionate film about dispassionate people played out in a dispassionate manner. For some this will be hailed as a virtue, communicating the duty-first sacrifices and compartmentalization of these secret spies. For me, that just sounds like a cop out. Beyond the mystery, it’s hard to get involved in the movie. The reveal of the mole is anti-climactic, though the resolution, set to the tones of Julio Iglesias, is aces. The meticulous production design is stellar, including an agency meeting room that looks like it was wallpapered with checkerboards. The details of the ins and outs of the agency are absorbing. I’m debating whether I should watch the movie again, looking for nuance I must have missed. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an espionage thriller with a bit too many stiff upper lips.
Nate’s Grade: B
Submarine is the latest coming-of-age story, this time set in 1980s Wales, and while not breaking any new ground, it manages to be witty, stylish, and a completely winning portrait of a unique kid and his unique view of the world.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a 15-eyar-old kid with two life goals. He’s like to romance the rebellious loner Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and, if possible, lose his virginity in the process. Oliver is also on a mission to save his parent’ marriage. Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins) has been drifting from her husband, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a marine biologist who has been in a depressive funk for years. Jill’s old boyfriend, Graham (Paddy Considine), has moved in next-door and begun to insert himself back in her life.
Submarine is going to be something of an acquired taste. It’s almost drowning in whimsy, following the numerous affectations of its main character. Fans will say that the movie borrows liberally from Wes Anderson’s 1998 film, Rushmore; non-fans will just say the movie cops to outright theft. Like Rushmore, this movie follows the coming-of-age trials and tribulations of an intelligent but lonely outcast, a wiseacre beyond his years. What sets this movie apart is that we taken on the point of view of Oliver. He often refers to his life as if it were a movie, noting dramatic moments that would be accompanied by dramatic music, and a solemn moment that would feature a crane shot rising above the ground but if the budget were low he’d settle for a slow zoom out (the actual movie chooses the slow zoom). “I have turned these moments into the Super-8 footage of memory,” he remarks. Oliver is a student of pop-culture, an early Rob Gordon (High Fidelity), and as such blurs the line between reality and the movies. He will routinely point out film tropes ad then indulge in them. We are each the stars of our own stories. In this manner, Submarine separates itself from the idiosyncratic, miniaturized-doll house world of Anderson’s films or the fanciful magic realism of Jean Piere Jeunet (Amelie). For me, the multitude of quirks were appealing instead of insufferable because we were inside the mind of Oliver, seeing his world through his unique worldview. This brings rationale for the whimsy.
Oliver is both an unreliable narrator and a flawed protagonist, a fantastic development. So often coming-of-age tales are mainly autobiographical (this one is based off a book by Joe Dunthorne), and as such the authors usually portray themselves as individuals whose chief fault is that they are naïve. Some life experience will shatter their innocence, usually a girl, and thus they will grow and learn. With Submarine, Oliver gains our sympathy by being clever but then he tests it with the compromises he makes to fit in. He engages in some very mean bullying all to win over Jordana. He’s trying to seem so mature, using advanced vocabulary to provide the illusion of adulthood, but really Oliver can’t comprehend the subtleties of social cues. Just when Jordana appears to be opening up and looking to him for need, that’s when he botches it, acts kind of awful, and then justifies it in his head, like so many of us will do with our mistakes. Still, I never stopped rooting for this kid. I was rooting for him and Jordana to work out. So hard was I yearning for these two loner oddballs to have their happy ending, I think I pulled something (my dignity?). We can see Jordana through Oliver’s infatuated eyes, but then we can also see deeper, see the vulnerability that comes forward that Oliver might be blithe to. Paige (The Sarah Jane Adventures) is a true breakout star and it’s easy to see why Oliver is so infatuated with the charming lass. She’s bruised but approachable, risky but relatable. We can see the connection building between these two, and we want it to continue (maybe that’s my own high school experience speaking out). The youthful romance is sweet and unconventional without seeming like a coming-of-age folly, something that Oliver is supposed to learn some gallant life lesson.
The other plot development, the rocky relationship between Oliver’s parents, is less resonant but it does provide for some fine moments of humor. The new neighbor, Graham, who practices martial arts and believes himself to be a New Age mystic, healing people by sensing their aura colors, just feels like a leftover Napoleon Dynamite. It provides Considine (In America) a springboard to act goofy, which he’s quite good at. The goofiness of the character, however, cuts into the credibility of being a threat to steal away Jill. She may be caught up in this guy’s tiny bubble of fame, but there’s no way she would leave her husband for this doofus, even if her husband has been suffering from depression for years. Oliver’s attempts to reignite his parents’ marriage are plenty hilarious, but they’re also informed with a sweet, if misguided, earnestness. He loves his parents and wants them to stay together. He doesn’t want a ninja mystic for his new dad. Fortunately, Oliver’s attempts to sabotage Graham are kept to a minimum and restrained enough not to resort to cheap slapstick or gross-out humiliation. Maybe it’s the distinctive point of view steering the narrative, but the potential doom of the marriage never feels as portentous and heartbreaking as Oliver’s hope at wooing Jordana.
Debut director Richard Ayoade, who also adapted the screenplay, utilizes every visual trick in the book to tell this story. If the main character weren’t so amusing, and his plight so interesting, all the visual artifice might be exhausting. Instead it keeps the movie lively, crafty, and constantly wonderful to observe. Ayoade’s also quite a talent when it comes to screenwriting. He smoothly captures the very mannered speaking style of Oliver. Then there are just lines that make you laugh out loud from the sheer absurdity of misplaced teenager awe: “He wasn’t even considered hard until the Watkin twins famously stabbed him in the back with compasses. He said nothing; showed no discomfort as his shirt blossomed with blood poppies. His stoicism reminded me of the brave men who died in the First World War.” Ayoade, best known for his starring role on The IT Crowd, will probably soon have a lot more offers to direct features once people get a gander at Submarine. The man’s a natural storyteller and will be snapped up by Hollywood in no time flat.
Finally, the movie’s lead actor needs to be good, better than good, if this movie is going to rise above the din of precocious, coming-of-age cinema. Roberts (Jane Eyre), hollow eyed and just a little “off” looking, handles the material with ease, never letting his performance transform into a series of tics strewn together. Oliver is straight-laced throughout, letting the peculiarities of his imagination and worldview seem ordinary. Roberts doesn’t get overwhelmed by the material and makes a strong impression as a more literate, less rebellious, more anxious, less despondent Welsh version of Holden Caulfield (okay, so maybe that allusion doesn’t hold).
Submarine is an unfailingly entertaining vehicle full of quirk and humor and surprising heart. Oliver’s relationship with Jordana is sweet and mildly touching. I was surprised at how emotionally invested I was in their romance. The movie is also refreshingly low in angst, resorting more to Oliver’s comic anxieties and insecurities. It certainly owes a debt to Anderson’s Rushmore, but Submarine is so good, so thrilling in its creative voice, that it can stand outside the mighty shadow of Anderson and his indomitable influence.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Love, Wedding, Marriage (2011)
I keep wanting to mistakenly refer to this movie as Love, Marriage, Divorce since that seems like a more prevailing plot element in this abysmal rom-com. Mandy Moore plays a couples counselor who’s a newlywed herself, having just gotten hitched with Charlie (the Twilight Saga’s Kellan Lutz). Her life is great, that is, until she learns her parents (James Brolin, Jane Seymour) are splitting up. Their pain will soon be felt by every person watching this wretched movie. Incompetently directed by actor Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding), the movie’s tone approaches something like spastic cartoon. Mulroney frames everything in uncomfortable close-ups, which magnifies the exaggerated gyrations and facial expressions of his cast. It looks like every person onscreen is suffering a stroke at one point. The acting is so shockingly terrible. It’s like the actors have been replaced with the amateur dinner theater versions of themselves. Moore’s character is too shrewish and self-involved to be compelling, and Lutz, whose name rhymes with putz, is so wooden you’d swear they carved him out of a chunk of balsa right before cameras rolled. The sitcom plot suffers from every cliché imaginable in the rom-com genre. This is the worst case of bad drunk acting since 2006’s The Black Dahlia, where actors over-do just about every action. The funny part is that it’s only a slight difference from the way the characters are behaving sober. Criminally unfunny, I have only one theory how Mulroney was able to get this movie made because clearly the screenplay wasn’t reeling investors in. In the end credits are many producers and executive producers, several of them with Slavic surnames. There’s also a Slavic model with in a key role. Mulroney turned to the only people who would finance Love, Wedding, Marriage – the Russian mafia. If you see Mulroney in a wheelchair from an “accident” in the near future, you heard the truth here first.
Nate’s Grade: D-
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011)
The curiously titled Myth of the American Sleepover owes as much to American Graffiti as it does to the works of John Hughes. This sprawling teenage opus by debut writer/director David Robert Mitchell resonates with all the beautiful aches and joys of adolescence, wonderfully understated but brilliantly realized. I fell in love with this movie.
Set over the course of one night in suburban Michigan, a slew of teenagers try and make the waning summer days worth remembering. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) is the new girl in school and invited to the cool gal’s (Shayla Curran) slumber party. She learns her boyfriend slept with the cool gal and plots a little boyfriend stealing of her own. Rob (Marlon Morton) is obsessed with a pretty blonde girl he once shared a look with in a supermarket. He is scouring the neighborhood, going from party to party, looking for her so he can reveal his true feelings. Scott (Brett Jacobson) is unsure of whether he wants to finish his final year of college, now the site of a painful breakup from his longtime girlfriend. One day while walking the halls of his former high school, he comes across a picture of him with twin sisters, Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna Abbey (Jade Ramsey). He heads out to the University of Michigan, where the twins are enrolled, convinced he could win one, or both, of them over. Maggie (Claire Sloma) is navigating between the middle school sleepovers of her peers and the world of the cooler upperclassmen. She’s been nursing a crush on an older boy (Douglas Diedrich) who worked at the community pool all summer, and will find the courage to make a move.
Unlike other coming-of-age entries, this is a movie that forgoes scatological comic setups and other Big Events meant to mark the passing into adulthood, like the loss of virginity, college admittance, or the prom; instead, Sleepover tackles a subject much more honestly and with tremendous naturalism. The level of detail is outstanding; set in what seems like the late 80s or early 90s, I was astounded at all the nostalgic artifacts of adolescence brought back to life. I kept going, “Oh yeah, I forgot about those,” or, “That’s totally something that me and my friends did.” I loved that the movie shows different social spheres and age ranges, so we go along with the late teen house party but we also get see a middle school/junior high sleepover that involves girls staying up late, talking about boys, and eating large bowls of chips. Obviously not everyone will have this reaction, but it just shows the commitment to recreating a very specific time, place, and sense of being. These feel entirely like real teenagers, and their troubles and desires are achingly articulated. You feel the powerful sense of yearning throughout, where the nudge of a knee, the closing distance between two hands that can cause your insides to fill up with a thousand butterflies. Sleepover is about teenagers grappling with emotional connection and personal identity, but it never drags out a soapbox or breaks from its verisimilitude. Every single character in this movie, even the ones meant to be seen in a questionable light, is deeply empathetic. Being an ensemble, you’ll gravitate to different characters and their pursuits, but the movie balances a nice mixture of storylines, cutting back and forth to build a graceful picture of the uncertainty of adolescence.
I found this movie to be so charming, so overwhelmingly affecting, and poignant without slipping into mock sentimentality, which would have been easy. It’s been a big year for nostalgia, but nostalgia is the “least authentic of all feelings,” according to Enrique de Heriz. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh I remember that too,” and feel the tingle of some wistful pull from the past, the yearning for a bygone time and place that has magically transformed in your mind into some idyllic spree. Does anyone remember those times, before there was an Internet, and cell phones, and social media, when you got together with your friends to witness the shared experience of a movie with female nudity (this might just be a guy thing), or when you didn’t know if you’d see your crush ever again? The Myth of the American Sleepover does, and so do I. In the words of Lou Reed: “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.”
Indeed, it seems like the film exists in a bit of a cultural time warp, where sleepovers were the social apex and holding hands and making out were considered victories worth celebrating. There are no computers or cell phones, thank God. If you excuse the casual and extensive teenage drinking, Sleepover is a rather wholesome film. I was wary that some storyline might take an unexpected dark turn, especially with all the alcohol and hormones, but the movie maintains its sweet appeal without fail. While ostensibly existing in a late 80s/early 90s, I believe this movie is timeless and can be felt effortlessly by people of any age. The pains of adolescence and the anxiety of growing up, not to mention the peculiarities of the other sex, are universal. There is a superb scene where Rob and the girl who secretly likes him pass each other accompanied by friends. We get both sides of the story cut together; he tells his bud that one night he kissed her and then they made out. “It was a pretty good day,” he admits. She says she spent all night trying to get him to hold her hand and then just gave up. We instantly know that her side of this tale is far more accurate, but then this small exchange tells us even more about Rob, his fumbling attempt to be seen as cool with girls. Later, this same girl gives Rob a pep talk about unrequited crushes; she wonders if a person thinks hard enough about an individual, if they’ll know. Like most men, Rob misses her real meaning, but I’m happy to say that this story is tied up in such a sweet manner that I got choked up. The emotions of Sleepover are genuine and genuinely felt, no big overtures or outbursts, but the quiet moments of realizing who you are, who you like, and what you are and aren’t willing to compromise. It all feels utterly real and relatable.
The one storyline that seems to stand out amongst the rest of the panoply of sleepovers is that of Scott. He’s a college junior and at least three years outside the social realms of the majority of the other characters. You can’t help but feel at the start that he doesn’t belong and his presence, in a movie primarily about 14-15-year-olds, might feel a tad icky. Scott’s misguided attempt to get over his ex-girlfriend seems like some strange leftover plot from a sitcom. The fact that he’s trying to drown his sorrows in twin sisters almost seems skeevy. However, he comes clean early and opens up to reveal startling vulnerability, thanking the twins for a memory that would be incidental to them but has meant so much to him. It is this memory that gave him hope. The twins reveal that one of them had a huge crush on Scott back in high school, wishing he would one day reciprocate. But they won’t tell him who. He has to guess. The fact that this setup is actually a push toward personal growth and maturation is a great revelation and a relief.
The cast of unknowns may be low when it comes to star-wattage but they lend the film another degree of authenticity. I wouldn’t say a single participant in this movie is a bad actor, though their characters are often understated, which under the wrong guidance can lead to blandness. None of these characters are exceptionally verbose or opinionated, which leaves the impression that they are thinly drawn. However, the characters coexist within the impressionistic nature of the film; it’s like a coming-of-age movie with the tone poem ambitions of Terrence Mallick. They are not as memorable or as sharp as the characters from Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti (Rob’s pursuit of his blonde dream girl, and his several near-misses, screams Graffiti homage), but the goal is a disarmingly sweet authenticity, allowing the viewer to discover relatable moments throughout the ensemble. I will say that Sloma imparts the biggest impression as the pieced, platinum pixie-gal feeling out the level of interest in her crush. I think we’ll be seeing more of Bauer and her cherubic, Scarlet Johansson-etched features as well.
The Myth of the American Sleepover is a sincere, observant, insightful, gentle, and overall wonderful little movie, brimming with life and the rocky experiences of growing up, but mostly it will make your heart sing. The details and small gestures feel completely believable; building an ode to youth that feels earnest without being sentimental and knowing without feeling like a know-it-all. There wasn’t a moment in this movie that didn’t leave me smiling, chuckling to myself, and feeling immersed in this innocent, heartfelt, exuberantly youthful world. The pleasures of Sleepover are small but numerous, and I don’t mind admitting to tearing up at several points, shaking in anticipation, and celebrating the personal triumphs of the cast of characters. The Myth of the American Sleepover made me feel like a teenager all over again, nervous, anxious, excited, and beguiled by the imprecise negotiations into adulthood. I’m sure some people will find this movie boring or too embryonic, a coming-of-age tale crystallized in dewy emo-earnestness. For me, I fell in love with this movie. It filled me with joy. I know it will do the same for others; Sleepover just needs a little tenderness and an open heart. The movie and its homespun magic will do the rest.
Nate’s Grade: A
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