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Colossal (2017)

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has a monster of a problem. She’s lost her job, her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), and is forced to move back home to her parents’ empty house. She gets a job at her childhood friend Oscar’s (Jason Sudeikis) bar. Then one night the news is filled with a 100-foot tall lizard monster magically appearing in Seoul, South Korea. This lizard only seems to appear at a certain hour, and Gloria realizes that she is somehow connected to this giant beast and responsible for its movements. What’s a working girl to do?

Colossal is a different kind of monster movie, that’s for certain. It’s got a dynamite premise that allows for plenty of different tones. There’s an inherent wackiness in a party girl discovering that her actions have a very extreme set of consequences. For a while it’s a slice-of-life picture about coming home and readjusting to the rigors of adult life, something Gloria has been putting on hold while soaking up the pleasures of New York City and the patience of her live-in boyfriend. She’s picking up the pieces of her life and sometimes an acquisition of furniture like a futon can feel like a small triumph. There’s a simple rhythm to these early scenes and writer/director Nacho Vigilondo (Time Crimes) slowly reveals more and more about character histories and relationships, remarkably free of ungainly exposition. There is a remarkably accomplished and sly sense of discovery with the movie, first with the implications and abilities of Gloria’s monster avatar and with the movie itself. There’s a cheeky sense of fun watching Gloria discover her connections to the monster and the special effects are pretty good for such an odd indie film. What are the monster’s intentions? Where does it come from? Why is this patch of land and Gloria so special? Fortunately Vigilondo doesn’t stop there. From a rules standpoint, there’s only so much to learn through trial and error, but it gets even more complicated when Gloria decides to tell her buddies the news. Now it’s about keeping her secret and making sure these often drunk, often-misbehaving guys don’t cause an international incident.

Hathaway (The Intern) is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking and she completely owns the movie, which she filmed while in her second trimester of pregnancy (explains the omnipresence of heavy coats). She has to play a woman who has self-absorbed and self-destructive qualities while not shutting out audience empathy. Hathaway brings out multiple dimensions in her flawed character. She can be cowed easily through guilt and intimidation, failing to meet up to her own standards she holds for herself, but she can also derive a quiet strength that pushes her to take a stand and make a change. Hathaway is apt at the blending of comedy and drama and she’s a star with genuine acting chops. Despite her struggles and setbacks, we want her to succeed and she feels all too human.

It’s midway through where Colossal makes a sharp turn into territory I didn’t see coming and reveals its true intentions, which are much darker and uncomfortable. Fair warning to readers, I’m going to try and avoid specific spoilers but even talking about the second half of the film serves as a spoiler in itself, so keep reading if you so choose. Beforehand, the movie has presented itself as a fun, slightly whimsical take on a down-on-her-luck party girl discovering a weird power. The monster serves as metaphor and I thought it was going to be a relatively obvious metaphor for alcoholism, something she had to work through and get her life back together, putting away childish things and integrating back to the world of responsible adults she’s been avoiding. Then the turn happens and you realize that the monster isn’t a metaphor for alcoholism but for abusive relationships. As you can imagine, this is more or less when the comedy slowly comes to a halt.

It backdoors you into reconsidering everything that’s come before and ingeniously plays the charms of its actors against your preconceived notions. It’s a movie about abuse and manipulation and the capitulation to that abuse. Whether the source of that abuse is derived from alcoholism is up for debate, but I insist it’s a complicated mixture of substance abuse, unchecked entitlement, and toxic masculinity. Oscar becomes our villain, and it may feel like a sudden shift to many viewers, especially those who were expecting him and Gloria to end up romantically linked by film’s end. Colossal can be seen following a more familiar rom-com formula of the girl who goes home, reconnects with old friends, and becomes romantically linked, and the movie uses your expectations against you. Because of that, you may excuse Oscar’s behavior, downplay it, and rationalize that he, like Gloria, is trying to gather his bearings and grow up. That’s not the case. That’s not the case at all, and the movie explores this notion by giving a serial abuser new unfettered power to endanger a multitude of human lives, people who are invisible to his angry outbursts and thus made even more expendable in his mind.

This tonal turn dominates the second half and I can imagine many people will be put off and disappointed by how heavy and uncomfortable a giant monster movie has become. An emotionally abusive person will stop at any manipulation to keep people within his or her orbit so they constantly have targets for abuse. We get several scenes that examine this dynamic as Oscar tears apart his friends one veiled menacing monologue after another, pushing their insecurities and influencing control over them. He’s the “nice guy” who thinks the world owes him more than he’s ever gotten, but a choice reoccurring flashback reveals he’s always been this way. Oscar didn’t turn into a jerk, he was this way from the start, and he’s just gotten better at hiding his darker intentions, and he’ll likely always be this way without redemption. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) digs into his character’s misanthropy without going overboard, which makes him a far more realistic depiction of an abuser taking advantage of other people’s good graces and chances.

Colossal transformed into one of the more unexpected and surprisingly emotionally involving stories I’ve seen recently. I was set to enjoy the silly monster movie shenanigans being turned on their head with oblivious Americans unknowingly wrecking havoc on the Eastern world. Instead of global consumer commentary I got something much more personal and unexpected. I never knew where the movie was going to go next and found myself more and more intrigued by every scene. If the filmmakers could upend my expectations and keep me on the edge of my seat, then they did their jobs. The finale is magnificently executed as it employs just about all the rules we’ve learned concerning the monsters, space-time, and the sour relationship between Oscar and Gloria. It feels like a true culmination of events that is dramatically and emotionally cathartic.

Much more than advertised, Colossal is an exciting movie for how different it ends up becoming, and yet it’s still everything as advertised. Hathaway is highly enjoyable during her character’s various highs and lows trying to make sense of her life. Vigilondo shapes an unpredictable narrative that subverts and overcomes formula expectations and audience sympathies. It’s an involving and personal tale given an expansive scope and feel. Monster as metaphor is not a new concept. It’s an externalization of our fears and labors and an expression of their cataclysmic destructive power. It also provides a focal point for a hero to overcome, and Colossal feels like somebody took a slice-of-life indie mumblecore observational character piece and gave it a dash of fantastical genre elements. I want to watch it again to see if I can catch nuances I missed, especially relating to characterization and performance. If you can hang on after the movie makes its midway shift, I think Colossal is a unique filmgoing experience that sees its vision to the end.

Nate’s Grade: B+

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

oj_made_in_america_xlgSpellbinding during every one of its mammoth 467 minutes, Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary is the definitive journalistic examination on the nexus of sports, media, race, privilege and celebrity that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. It’s also one of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen. This is a monumental artistic achievement that seamlessly blends many different story threads to present a psychological, relevant, and compelling case as to how this notable flashpoint in race relations was inevitable. Consider the eight hours a searing and engrossing psychological study of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous cultural icons. The first part introduces us to O.J. the sports hero and you too may be surprised just how charming the man is, which along with his naked ambition allowed him to crossover into a primarily white business world. It’s important to know the full picture of O.J., the natural star, the narcissistic showman, the jealous and cruel monster trading on his sense of entitlement and the adoration of others. Part two follows O.J.’s grievous relationship with Nicole Brown and includes haunting audio clips of her frantic domestic abuse 911 calls, which were often downplayed by an appeasing and star-struck police force. As O.J.’s career soars he shuns larger responsibility to the black community, which is routinely rattled by shocking police brutality and a sense of institutional injustice, best typified with the controversial Rodney King acquittals. Part three begins with the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, goes into the Bronco chase, and then O.J.’s assembly of his Dream Team of lawyers. Part four is devoted entirely to the criminal trial and part five the aftermath, including O.J.’s arrogant attempts to live business as usual after becoming a pariah to millions. Edelman assembles an impressive coalition of interview subjects with startling personal revelations and sometimes shocking admissions. They all masterfully come together along with the narrative threads of the systemic history of Los Angeles police corruption and abuses, the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity and its shamefully easy tendency to forgive the famous and horrible, and racial identity to form a complex, interwoven, and mesmerizing larger picture that feels like its own multi-media academic textbook with full annotations. It feels like a five course meal. This is the kind of powerful and ruminating documentary filmmaking that illuminates our understanding of the past and our greater connections to the wider world. O.J.: Made in America flies by effortlessly, packed with rich detail and archival footage, and serves as a terrific compliment to the brilliantly entertaining FX miniseries. This is a towering achievement in documentary film and rightfully earns the title of best movie of 2016.

Nate’s Grade: A

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

nocturnal_animalsFashion designer Tom Ford made a big splash with his debut film, 2009’s A Single Man. It was a gentle and introspective character study of a middle-aged gay professor determined to end his own life. It was lush, full of feeling, and anchored by a deeply humane performance from Colin Firth. In short, it is everything that his follow-up Nocturnal Animals is not. This is a movie overflowing with vacant artifice that is mistaken for profundity.

Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner and living a posh life with her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She gets an unexpected present in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s sent her his newest manuscript, a departure from his usual works. It’s dedicated to Susan. With Hutton away on business, and philandering with a mistress, she dives into the story. It tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) traveling through west Texas. They run afoul of some contemptuous locals lead by the sadistic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter. Left for dead, Tony teams up with a terminally ill police officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down Ray and make him suffer for his crimes. As Susan continues reading, she goes through a mixture of emotions trying to determine what her ex-husband is trying to communicate to her within the subtext and metaphor of his sordid story.

maxresdefaultI grew increasingly restless with Nocturnal Animals because it failed to justify its excessive dawdling and vapid artistic pretensions. This is a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be so it dabbles in many different genres, none of them fully convincing or worth the effort. It’s a high-gloss erotic thriller, it’s a gritty exploitation film, it’s a morally compromised revenge thriller, and it’s a subtle relationship drama amidst the upper crust of the L.A. art scene. It’s none of these. It’s two primary stories, neither of which justifies the amount of time spent on what amounts to so little. The worst offender is the frame story with Susan, which amounts to watching Amy Adams read for two hours. She takes a lot of baths and showers in response (symbolism!) but most of the cutaways and time spent with Adams is to merely watch her react. It’s like she’s a nascent studio audience handcuffed to tell us how to feel with her reactions. Would you have known that you should feel bad during onscreen death if we didn’t cut back to Susan also feeling bad and concerned? It amounts to emotional handholding and it’s grating, also because Susan is an terrible character. She’s conceited and thinks she is owed better, which is why her mother successfully pressured her to dump Edward, a man well below her self-styled station in life. Her second marriage is crumbling apart and part of her sees Edward’s out-of-the-blue note as a potential romantic rekindling. That’s right, this is a person who reads a revenge opus that may be all about seeking cosmic vengeance against her, and she thinks to herself, “Ooo, I think he like likes me after all.” Her self-involvement is rewarded in the end but the ambiguous ending is more just missing in action. Ford’s film just peters out and leaves you hanging, just like its heroine.

Edward’s manuscript is easily the best story and even that is only by default. It’s an easier story to get involved with because of the simple story elements that naturally draw an audience in, namely a revenge fable. The initial altercation with the family and Ray’s crew lasts almost a half hour. Specifically the roadside confrontation itself is a solid ten minutes and it just goes round and round, repeating its overdone sense of menace. I wasn’t dreading the horror to come but more so getting impatient for it to be over. Without depth to the characters or escalating stakes and complications, it all just amounts to a Texas hillbilly repeatedly threatening a cowering family for ten solid minutes. The vengeance in the second half of the movie is just as predictable and too drawn out. Edward schemes with Bobby Andes to take justice into his own hands, but the movie takes far too long to reach its predictable conclusion, which still manages to be so drawn out that I was screaming at the screen for the inevitable to finally happen. When the movie ended I felt a rush of relief to go along with my general sense of perplexity.

Nocturnal Animals has the illusion of highbrow art mixing with lowbrow thrillers but it lacks the substance of the former and the courage of its convictions for the latter. Ford’s mercurial taste in costuming and set design shows in every moment with Susan, as the sets feel exquisitely designed and the cinematography designed to encapsulate this. It’s a good-looking movie but there’s not enough under the surface. It’s all empty window dressing to disguise the vapid whole at its center. Let’s tackle the opening credits, which will most certainly capture your undivided attention. It’s a foursome of overweight women dancing naked and in slow motion, their large bodies bouncing and jiggling to the self-serious musical score. Eventually it’s revealed that these women are part of an installation exhibit in Susan’s art gallery, and that’s when you get a tip-off just how hollow and attention seeking the movie will be. The gallery consists of overweight women lying face down on raised platforms. That’s it. No wonder her gallery isn’t doing that well (note: not a fat-shaming comment but more a comment on the lazy application of its sense of “art”). You get a sense that Ford comes most alive in the scenes where he can arrange figures and images, not so much the demands of storytelling.

nocturnal-animals-1I can already hear supporters saying I just don’t get it; no, I got it because there’s very little to understand with Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story-within-a-story so we’re already training our brains to look for parallels but they aren’t obvious so they’ll be more metaphorical. I kept waiting for it all to tie together in a substantial way by film’s end, and sorry but it just doesn’t (spoilers ahead). Edward has a whammy of a day when he discovers 1) his wife is pregnant, 2) she’s aborted his child, and 3) she’s in the arms of her new boyfriend, and he discovers all of this standing in the rain for further symbolism. He has a grievance against Susan, though we’ve been suspecting it for some time. His manuscript is a revenge thriller about a family murdered and how a weak man finds the strength to seek justice and retribution. The parallels are fairly obvious there, and the fact that there are only so many characters in the story-within-a-story means there are few options to play the analogue guessing game. I’ll just claim that Ray is meant to represent Susan since he/she is the murderer of Tony/Edward’s family. There’s a reason that Tony’s family all share Susan’s red hair. He dedicated the book to her, after all, and said she was who made it all possible. From there you could argue whether Tony represents Edward’s real past, weak and remorseful, whereas Bobby Andes is meant to represent how he wishes he could be, decisive and strong (end spoilers). That’s about all the parallels you’re going to find because the story-within-a-story only involves a very tiny number of characters. There just isn’t much to go on here and yet Ford’s movie stretches and drags and just keeps going until it reaches its predictable destination. There isn’t any more depth here than straightforward avatars and even those are lean.

I was debating a question with my friend Ben Bailey while we watched this movie, and that’s whether the stakes are removed somewhat when you know that a storyline within a movie is fictitious. Knowing that Tony is a pretend person, does that eliminate some of the tension and investment in his storyline? I recognize this is a distinctly meta question considering that a majority of film characters are fictitious by nature, but I do think there’s a different set of standards for the people of the story-within-a-story. I don’t remember feeling less for the characters in A Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, or Adaptation. My only conclusion is that I just did not care a lick for any of the characters in Nocturnal Animals, whether they were fictional or twice fictional. They didn’t deserve my attention just because pretty people were playing them. They didn’t deserve my attention because Big Bad Things caused them to experience Big Emotions. Combined with the ponderous plot and the emaciated substance, the dull characters and the overwrought acting they inspire are a recipe for audience detachment. I can’t help but shake my head as other critics trip over themselves to shower this film with overly enthusiastic plaudits. Nocturnal Animals is a tiresome exercise in lazy symbolism, patience-demolishing pretension, and emptiness masquerading as contemplation.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Anomalisa (2015)

anomalisa-posterIt’s been seven long years since the last Charlie Kaufman movie graced our screens. Cinema needs a voice as wonderfully strange and intelligent as Kaufman’s, and if it wasn’t for a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, we might have had to wait even longer. The stop-motion animated film Anomalisa is one of Kaufman’s most accessible movies and it involves felt puppets. Think about that for a second.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful motivational speaker traveling to Cincinnati for a brief conference. He’s supposed to give a keynote speech on the importance of treating the customer like they are special; however, Michael is trapped in a purgatory of redundancy. Every other human being looks the same and sounds the same (all voiced by Tom Noonan), even Michael’s wife and young son. Then he hears a voice that breaks from the conformity of Noonan’s vocal chords. The voice belongs to Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason-Leigh), an unassuming and unabashed fan of Stone. She’s bright and lively but guarded due to a facial burn that hampers her self-esteem. She’s eager to spend time with Michael and confused when he insists on spending more time with her. Men usually gravitate to Lisa’s more carefree and forward friend. Not her. Over the course of that night, Michael and Lisa navigate one another. He’s fascinated to hear a new voice and wants to know all he can about her. She’s flattered with the sincere consideration. Michael only wants to be with Lisa from now on, but this decision will have consequences and it feels like there is an invisible force fighting against their union.

anomalisa_new_1050_591_81_s_c1I still can’t shake the fact that there seems little reason for this movie to be animated. Perhaps it’s the fact that it started as an oral play, but the use of the animation medium and everything it can provide so rarely feels utilized. The repeated faces of all the other humdrum human beings in the world, that wider-eyed gnome-like face, is a fine touch but the same could be accomplished through rudimentary computer effects now. Hell, Kaufman’s own Being John Malkovich achieved this in a memorable scene and that was over 16 years ago. I won’t pretend to know the economics of the animation industry but I just assume anything as time-consuming and precise is going to be pricey (reportedly the budget was $8 million). I thought of money during the first thirty minutes. It’s almost like a bet, as if Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson (TV’s Frankenhole, Community) were trying to animate the banality of a business trip just because nobody has ever done it before. Here are a short list of other things, I assume, have escaped being replicated in animated form: waiting in line at the DMV, looking for a lost TV remote, cleaning one’s ears, watching the Republican presidential debates, changing the toilet paper roll, and filling out the iTunes user agreement. Would any of these banal acts deserve to be animated? Probably not, but I’m sure that’s the point for Kaufman and Johnson. For the longest time we’re meant to live the empty existence of Michael Stone and so we spend thirty minutes making pained small talk, checking into a sterile hotel room, calling loved ones, reconnecting with an ex, and visiting a sex shop in a drunken haze. My friend Ben Bailey asked the same question at five-minute junctions: “Is anything going to happen?”

Once Lisa is introduced, the movie finds its footing and purpose and it is a relief. Maybe that was Kaufman and Johnson’s design so that we, the audience, would also feel the same elation. The rest of the movie is watching a love affair, two people coming into one another’s orbit. The dialogue exchanges are very natural and slowly reveal different layers of the characters, mostly Lisa. Michael is intoxicated and demurs often, instead only wanting to hear the sweet sound of her voice. There’s a delicious irony to Michael working in customer service, an industry that is often listening to people’s angry voices over phone lines, and his inability to distinguish speech. Instantly we get a strong understanding of just how desperate Michael is to form a real connection. It’s his fawning attention that allows Lisa to allow herself to be vulnerable and assertive. In one of the most realistic sex scenes ever captured in movies, Lisa communicates what she wants and what provides her satisfaction, and Michael dutifully abides, determined to hear the sounds of her wonderful voice reach climactic degrees of pleasure. The love scene has garnered plenty of press just for the fact that it’s an animated film and our two characters are fully rendered, though this goes beyond just having recognizable parts. The way the bodies move, the way the lines and creases fold, the way people react to the inherent awkwardness of sexual congress, it’s all faithfully recreated and done so without a hint of comedy. This is by no means the raucous copulation from Team America. It’s a surprisingly touching moment as these two characters simply connect on a few levels.

It’s after the sex scene that everything changes. I’ll forego spoilers and say that there’s a certain buyer’s remorse when it comes to impulsive love affairs, and trying to maintain that same feeling of ecstasy can be like chasing a drug that requires more and more of oneself. There’s a very interesting transition that brilliantly illustrates Michael’s anguish. The conclusion is at once inevitable, hopeful, and also despairing. That’s because it opens up the world in a new way and provides further examination on Michael and the consequences of his crushing depression. The core of the movie is about the need for human connection. I wouldn’t cite Kaufman as a romantic but he does prioritize human connection and believes in the power of those fleeting moments. Aren’t we all looking for our own anomaly, someone whose voice slices through the din? Once those moments run their course, some of us grieve and some of us ascend, made stronger and more complete from the sum total of those magical experiences. The ending provides a new lens to interpret the movie, though most viewers will have already suspected given the mundane prison of the world onscreen. It’s not exactly a twist ending but more a confirmation that Michael Stone is personalizing his misery and unable to escape it. All he can look forward to are those fleeting moments of human connection and hope.

anomalisa.png-largeThe stop-motion animation is impressive though it seems intentional to elicit a certain strangeness. Stop-motion used to have that certain stutter-stop movement that made it wonderfully alien. With advances in technology, stop-motion can now look as seamlessly animated as other forms of the medium, as evidenced by the wonderful Laika releases like The Box Trolls and ParaNorman. Johnson and Kaufman decided to use felt dolls which allows the characters to have a certain glow to them, as if they’re emanating some internal lightness of being (apologies to Kundera). The illusion is getting easier to hide. Johnson makes the decision to show the seams of his universe. The facial marks that indicate the interchangeable partitions remain visible, making the Noonan-voiced characters look like they’re all wearing glasses. It’s an animated movie that wants to remind you it’s animated but tell a story that doesn’t need the assistance of animation. That’s one unconventional goal. I’ll admit that it did tickle me to watch the ongoing troubles of getting a room key card to work. Johnson also makes use of long takes to better communicate the reality of this world, from the mundane to the ecstasy. There’s one dream sequence that dips into more identifiable and surreal Kaufman territory, but excluding this moment the movie is mostly the ordinary fixtures of ordinary hotel rooms.

Following the uniqueness of its idiosyncratic creator, Anomalisa is unlike anything else out there and an animated film that is nakedly personable and desperate to grasp for something richer and more meaningful. I can’t say that this was a story that demanded to be told through this style or animation or if it even benefits from this approach, but Kaufman’s ear for human relationships is still sharp and refined. It’s like watching a stage play that just happens to be made with felt puppets that oddly feel very real. It’s a movie that has different layers of what constitutes reality, given an extra sheen of artifice. It’s a movie that conveys the hopes and disappointments of human connection from the awkward to the mundane to the revelatory. The film does an excellent job of communicating the all-encompassing heaviness of depression, how the ordinary can be just as soul crushing and harmful. And yet the film ends not on Michael but on Lisa and on a degree of hope, that the chance encounters that mark our lives are not without consequence and benefits, aiding people to take needed steps outward. It’s a movie about the significance of human connection; something that Michael desperately spends years looking for again, to feel fully human once more, to ignite the synapses. Anomalisa is a thoughtful and touching story. I don’t know if it’s an excellent movie or an unnecessary adaptation of an innately affecting stage play, but it’s Kaufman as romantic and cynic. Who knew puppets could get so deep?

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

DIARY-OF-A-TEENAGE-GIRL-posterIn 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is trying to navigate the world of boys and her teenage feelings. She’s 15 years old and wants to be an artist. She lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), and her little sister. Minnie has always exhibited a desire to be touched, and the accidental touches of Monroe are exciting her mind. One night, their sense of play crosses a line and the two kiss, and from there Minnie and Monroe carry on a secret tryst.

Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The movie is frank and honest and allows its characters to make mistakes but also learn from them, and the kind of activities others might deem as mistakes or pitfalls might not be deemed as such by our characters, at least at their current point in time. Minnie is such a starkly interesting character, cheerfully independent and naively romantic. Her very first words in the film are, “I just had sex today.” Minnie is a character that enjoys sex and the movie does not punish her for her hormonal impulses. It’s encouraging to see a portrait of a woman who takes agency over her own sexuality. Once she’s discovered sex, it’s like a new world for Minnie. She feels like she’s discovered the secret handshake to being an adult. The world looks different to her. There’s a funny scene where she’s in a record shop and eyeing some of the varying male patrons, imagining what their respective penises might look like, which are depicted with colorful onscreen animation. It’s a nice change of pace to have a movie adopt a female point of view and the Female Gaze, if you will. We see the world as Minnie does, bursting with possibility, pleasure, and excitement. And yet, at the corners, we can sense the contours of doubt, the life lessons that will eventually present themselves to our restless heroine (the audio diary of her sexual escapades with Monroe is a time bomb waiting to happen). These lessons are not one of punishment but one of experience and understanding reminiscent of 2009’s An Education.

diary-of-a-teenage-girlIts bracing sense of honesty and its finely attuned perspective also help elevate the film. Minnie’s voice is all over this movie, and not simply because she provides narration. She’s not over precocious or hyper literate; she speaks like an average teenager bursting with feelings and ideas that she has trouble putting into words. There is a sprightly sense of humor that runs throughout, a sense of comedy that get can get naughty while still feeling wonderfully immature. Minnie’s point of view and the way she processes the world, aided with often-animated fantasy and dream sequences, provides plenty of entertainment. Some of the humor is derived from her naiveté and how brashly straightforward she can be about her wishes, but even these moments are free of judgment. Minnie is allowed to be the funny, flawed, and complex creature she is.

Teenage Girl is also a remarkable spotlight for two artists, Powley and debut director Marielle Heller (wife to Lonely Island Boy Jorma Taccone). Powley is a terrific lead and gives Minnie an appealing mixture of curiosity, angst, attitude, and humor. She’s thrown into a different world and trying to adjust as she goes, which leads to plenty of vulnerability and honest reflection. She’s looking for more than sex but doesn’t quite know how to find the companion she desires yet in a culture that values her most as a figure of desire. Powley, it should also be noted, is British (though you’d never know) and 22 at the time of filming. There are several sex scenes and nude sequences for Minnie that can be uncomfortable to watch given the age of the character. I never felt the movie was being exploitative with its lead actress and character. There’s a moment when Minnie stands naked before a mirror, touching her body, and openly hoping for someone who will love her as a whole. These moments are meant to be awkward and raw and they achieve that power without feeling exploitative. Powley’s performance is such a natural and cutting teenage performance with touches of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her voice. This is the kind of character that a young actress desperately hopes for and luckily Powley was gifted the right director.

15263-1-1100Heller, who also adapted the script based upon the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has a definite feel for the material and keeps the tone controlled. It would be very easy for this story to veer into tawdry with its sensationalist elements, and yet it feels far more grounded in the reality of a teenage girl discovering how to interact with men and the power she has within her. There are some cringe-worthy moments between Minnie and Monroe but the movie doesn’t tell us how to feel and instead challenges the audience. Monroe isn’t presented as some leering and lascivious pederast. He is presented as yet another flawed individual who is wrestling with conflicted feelings; he knows what he’s doing with Minnie is wrong but he can’t quite quit her. There’s a level of sympathy toward his character that doesn’t excuse his actions and weaknesses. Charlotte, in contrast, is a character that speaks the language of the 1970s enlightened feminist but has shackled her subconsciously, setting up reoccurring failures for herself because she has difficulty taking responsibility for herself. When she gets a big check from her concerned ex-boyfriend (Christopher Meloni), she frivolously spends it on drugs. By the end of the movie, Minnie acknowledges that her mother will always think she needs a man, a provider, to simply get by in this life. Heller’s feel for these characters is sharp and the ambiguity she affixes is appreciated.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (man do my fingers really confuse this title with the name of that cheesy ABC Family TV show starring a young Shailene Woodley) is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Last Five Years (2015)

last5bigIt’s a musical about the beginning and end of a five-year relationship, and each partner is starting at a different point and meeting in the middle. If that sounds confusing, The Last Five Years will do little to better orient you, the audience, on its criss-crossing narrative-leaping timeline. Anna Kendrick is Cathy, who is traveling from the breakup of her marriage to the moment she met her eventual husband. Jeremy Jordan is Jamie, who is traveling the more linear path of infatuation to marriage to his divorce from Cathy. Neither character is particularly that involving though their eventual conflicts that lead to their parting of ways are more relatable than I was expecting since Jamie becomes a publishing phenom. I was looking for parallels with the song pairings, since we switch from a Cathy song to Jamie song, but the more I listened the more the narrative structure felt like an unjustified gimmick. Director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures) feels like he was rushed to complete this film because much of the camerawork feels lacking, losing track of the characters in their long takes. Could he afford to do more than one take? There isn’t so much a sense of style or expanding into the medium of film. It feels like LaGravense was grabbing what he could. But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that for an entirely sung musical (there may be like two lines of spoken dialogue) none of the songs are particularly memorable. Even minutes after finishing the film, I could not for the life of me hum one tune. To be fair the music isn’t offensive to the ears, but it falls within this vanilla middle ground that plays like it should be background noise rather than featured music. Kendrick and Jordan do a serviceable job singing these bland songs, but when your movie is wall-to-wall with music that doesn’t engage or register, it’s the equivalent of a comedy being unfunny. The Last Five Years is a movie musical that is decidedly pleasant and deadly bland.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Into the Woods (2014)

ITW_1-Sht_v18_Lg-560x829Theater fans, take this review with a Broadway-sized grain of salt because I’m going to admit I’ve never seen Into the Woods prior to its film release. I consider myself a Stephen Sondheim fan, especially with Sweeney Todd. Now with all that established, I found Into the Woods to be a thoroughly uninvolving and middling musical without any memorable tunes and a series of annoying characters that just kept running in comic redundancies. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance to the original 1987 theater production, considering subversive and edgy and not the most natural fit for the Disney brand. Perhaps I’m just not hip enough to Sondheim’s academic use of melody. Or perhaps others out there will share my opinion that Into the Woods is a tuneless bore.

In a fantasy kingdom, a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are trying to conceive a child but having difficulty. A witch (Meryl Streep) reveals that the only way to undo the infertility curse is to gather a series of magical items. The baker ventures into the aforementioned woods, desperate to find these items, often running into the likes of other fairy tale icons like Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Prince Charming (Chris Pine), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk, and the entrapped Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).

INTO THE WOODSIt must have been more relevant back in 1987, but today we are awash in the darker side of fairy tales. Analyzing the implications of “happily ever after” in a more adult and pessimistic way is nothing new. We’re saturated with TV shows and movies that have explored these issues before, revealing the darker truths to some of our favorite fairy tale characters, so it’s hard for a Woods novice to approach the show without a sense of ”been there, done that.” It’s unfair for Sondheim but that’s the reality that greets an adaptation of a musical that’s almost thirty years old. Because of this context, the insights and subversions with the fairy tale characters never feel somewhat pat. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood might be featuring a sexual awakening related to the dangerous Big Bad Wolf is the only striking one that adds dimension to her character. Other “twists” given to the characters are either predictable or just underwhelming. Oh, Prince Charming isn’t so nice and marrying into royalty isn’t the fantasy it’s made out to be? Then there are character betrayals that come out of nowhere, without any proper setup, that feel like the musical is just flailing around in transparent shock value. Just because someone suddenly does something out of character does not mean it was a good plot choice. The guilty party even sings, “I’m in the wrong story,” admitting the identity crises. I wouldn’t have a problem with these wrinkles if they felt better setup or there was more commentary attached. Instead, as delivered in the film, it feels rushed and unearned.

Music is inherently subjective (then again so is film, I mean…), so I’m sure others will vociferously disagree with my stance that Into the Woods is mediocre. True to Sondheim’s works, he establishes character-based melodies that fold and cascade atop one another, weaving in and out. The problem is when none of those melodies captures your attention. These are not humable tunes. To my ears, the songs just collided into one another forming one long string of tonal mélange. The singing is more than adequate by the performers (though Pine’s crooning is a bit subpar) but the songs just flatline. I just took a break from writing and listened through Amazon.com’s soundtrack for the show, sampling every song one again, and they all just blend together. There isn’t one song that burrows its way inside your brain, taking residence beyond the immediate. Then again, if you’re one of the fans of the show who loves these songs then having a fresh coat of Hollywood production will make them sound even better for you, especially with Corden and Blunt and Streep as the top performers.

Another hindrance for me was that I found many of these characters to be insufferably annoying. I found Red Riding Hood and Jack to be irksome and thieves, and so I didn’t feel much sympathy when Jack’s breaking and entering and giant manslaughter lead to dire consequences in the last act. Does not the lady giant deserve her vengeance? Her home was broken into, pilfered for its valuables, a small portion of which would have been sufficient but Jack cannot help his felonious ways, and then the boy killed her husband in a hasty escape attempt. If anything, I would have preferred the lady giant picking her teeth with the plucky lad. I also wanted Little Red to remain in the belly of the wolf (spoiler alert?). Cinderella lost my interest with her wishy-washy behavior. I believe it’s meant to be funny that she keeps returning and running off for three days in a row of princely balls. Another way of looking at that behavior is frustration. The only characters I actively cared about were the Baker and his wife, and the calamitous plotting of the musical’s second half tested even those allegiances.

into-the-woods-07The story gets to be rather redundant as well once the main characters are established and their plight is set in motion. I suppose I can now understand why Into the Woods is one of the most popular stage productions to perform at high schools and colleges: the scarcity of scene changes. Much like other aspects of the film, the setting just blends together and becomes tiresome. My pal Eric Muller remarked, “It’s called Into the Woods and not Into Multiple Sets.” I got sick of the woods. The plotting requires the various characters to keep running into one another again and again. It’s amusing at first but once it keeps going, and going, and going, the repetition loses its charm. You start to feel like the show is as lost as the characters and just going in circles to bide its time.

Acting-wise, I cannot fault the big-screen version. Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) has a great singing voice and has shown great range as an actress in 2014. Streep improves upon her shaky start to musical theater from Mamma Mia. She’s still the great Meryl and seems to be one of the few people having fun. She enlivens every scene she’s in. Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness) is enjoyably self-involved as his caddish prince. Depp (Transcendence) is suitably lascivious though he only has about five minutes on screen. Corden (soon to be the new host of CBS’ Late Late Show in 2015) is the real standout. The man has a self-effacing likeability to him that serves as an anchor for the show. He’s funny and tender but he’s the heart of the story, and the film is at its best with Corden as its center.

If you’re a fan of the original Into the Woods, chances are you’ll likely find enough in this adaptation to enjoy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and his crew re definitely fans and you can feel their appreciation for the source material. However, if this is your first exposure to the Broadway show, then you may too find the characters annoying, the commentary underdeveloped and dated, the songs tuneless and unmemorable, and the plotting to be redundant and tedious. The actors do what they can but it was ultimately a losing cause to my ears. I found the film more exhausting than transporting. I’m at a loss how people can work up such passions for a show that feels so thoroughly blah. I await the Sondheim crowd to tar and feather me as an ignorant heathen, but there you have it. Into the Woods is an underwhelming musical that made me want to turn on the radio.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Theory of Everything (2014)

TheTheoryOfEverythingPoster-01A biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant men in the world, stricken with ALS and given only two years to live, should be resolutely fascinating and inspirational. And it is at points, but there’s still a gnawing dissatisfaction with The Theory of Everything, a sense that there isn’t more to it, that it lacks a center, that, primarily, it should be better. The film follows Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a PhD student who immediately falls in love with Jane (Felicity Jones). Shortly after their courtship, he is diagnosed with ALS and rather than preparing for the end, he pushes forward to great intellectual discovery and achievement, though the hardships and care for his physical disability places tremendous strain on his marriage to Jane. The film does a nice job of examining how a relationship comes to an end and without having to cite one party or another as a villain. It’s so measured and understanding and empathetic, but it’s also somewhat docile and hesitant, keeping its distance when it could dive deeper into Hawking and his family. Theory is far too reliant upon the tropes of biopics, speeding through significant moments for Stephen and Jane with an almost comical degree (watch how quickly the kids multiply). The moments that stray from this formula are the ones that stick the most, like a shocking moment where Stephen exits his chair to pick up a fallen pencil, a striking and poignant moment so effectively communicating the desires of its character. The film needed more creative detours. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has a good command of his visuals but I was left wanting a more daring approach to a story of human endurance, like 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The real reason to watch the film is the amazing performance by Redmayne (Les Miserables). The physical control he’s able to have over his body in the latter stages is astounding, but his performance is much more than just a collection of tics. There’s a moment late in the film where, even in his limited facial configuration, he breaks your heart with the richness of his acting. It’s such a great performance that you just wish the rest of The Theory of Everything could measure up.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Third Person (2014)

imagesPaul Haggis is the Oscar-winning writer/director of Crash, so a man not known for subtlety. And that can be fine, but with his latest effort, Haggis wastes his time on a sluggish triptych that doesn’t come together in any satisfying or clever manner. Like Crash, we follow multiple storylines that we expect to intersect or crisscross. Liam Neeson plays an arrogant author checked into a French hotel trying to write his next novel. He engages in a series of cruel and flirty games with his mistress (Olivia Wilde). Adrien Brody plays a fashion spy in Italy who grows a conscience to help an immigrant regain her daughter. Mila Kunis is a New York actress struggling to get her life in order so she can regain some measure of custody for her son. Right away, the characters are rather bland and remote, refusing to provide much depth or development. Then there’s the fact that the plot requires so little of them, falling into a deadly lethargy that it can’t shake free from. You keep waiting for something more significant to take place but the characters just dawdle, spouting dialogue that never feels authentic. I kept waiting for the twist spoiled by the trailer for Third Person, and by the time two hours passed, I had to note that it was not a mid-movie twist spoiled by the trailer, it was the twist ending. Did the marketing department watch their own movie? I’ve never seen that before; late plot developments, yes, but never the twist ending. There is a reason why these characters are so poorly developed but it’s still not a satisfying reason to watch blasé people blunder around with little direction for over two hours, especially when they have no discernible connection to one another beyond heavy-handed linked themes. Hey, at least Third Person has a favorable amount of Olivia Wilde nudity to keep your interest, if you’re like me. After that’s done, though, you can check out just like this array of substandard and morose characters.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

fault-our-stars-movie-posterWith a premise involving two teenagers with terminal cancer, you’d be correct to assume that The Fault in Our Stars is a sad experience. It wants to be an unsentimental version of the Big Cancer Weepie, like a more hip version of Love Story. It wants to obliterate your tear ducts but in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes from an overdose of maudlin material. Based upon John Green’s international best-selling young adult novel, the doomed romance of the year has already devastated millions of moviegoers. Is it the feel-bad movie of the summer with a soundtrack Zach Braff would approve?

Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl dealing with lung cancer. She lugs around an oxygen canister to her group therapy sessions, really to everywhere she goes. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) try and give her enough space, try to make her feel like a normal teenager, but they all know what is coming. Then one day at group therapy she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a tall, handsome, effortlessly confident young man in remission himself (he had a leg amputated from cancer). Gus hones his sights on wooing Hazel, winning her over. She resist at first but then finds herself falling for the charming fella (“I fell for him like falling asleep; at first slowly, then all at once.”).

A Fault In Our StarsWith constant life and death stakes and the certainty of a young life, it would be easy for the film to go overboard with its emotional histrionics, and yet the real grace of the film is its more realistic approach to portraying this life. It just doesn’t seem fair for someone so young to be stricken with a deadly disease that will pluck him or her from the Earth before settling into adulthood, but these things happen. Hazel and Gus are characters that aren’t begging for sympathy or even special treatment; they’re tired of being treated like lab specimens too fragile to be left on their own. It’s easy to lose the person when the outside world completely identifies them as afflicted. The skill of this movie is that it’s heavy with drama and sadness but it doesn’t quite overwhelm, at least until the last act. Until then, much like the characters, the movie finds the moments of happiness, connection, and tenderness with human contact. You feel the bursts of nerves and excitement over the flirty connection between Gus and Hazel. You’ll enjoy the couple-y moments they share, finding their own identity as a pair, like claiming “okay” as their own secret coded language. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy over that first kiss. It’s a winning pairing that produces a steady stream of sweet exchanges and discoveries. This is something of a silver lining movie that can make you ruefully smile through your tears.

But as a Big Cancer Weepie, and with two suffering lovers, there is a definite cloud that hangs over the entire movie. You’re nervously waiting for some sort of turn for the worse. From a storytelling standpoint, I think every ticket-buyer knows with two cancer-stricken leads that at least one of them will be dead before the end credits. And so we wait for the bad news, wait for that other shoe to drop, and this unsettling dread permeates the first half of the movie, tainting all those happy couple moments. Gus and Hazel have several cute moments, but I found myself holding back, waiting for the proverbial hammer to drop on their small shared happiness, and sure enough it will come. The entire third act is dominated by one character’s descent into terminal. For the sake of spoilers I won’t say which, though readers with keen analytical skills can likely guess which of the pair is more expendable from a plot standpoint. It’s at this point when the movie transitions from sad to full-blown weepie, looking to draw out every last tear. With the diagnosis set, our couple heads toward that date with oblivion, and we get all sorts of weight heart-to-hearts, teens grappling with their own legacy, and even a practice funeral for friends to say exactly how much the soon-to-be-departed loved one mattered. Every step is wrung out, even to the point of one last letter/message before death that serves as the closing, considerate voice over. It’s hard to resist the cumulative effect of all these big dramatic plays at your emotions (I got teary at several points but held my ground).

The question arises at what point is this blatant emotional manipulation? The first half of The Fault in Our Stars finds a balance between the heaviness and the levity of first love, grounding its characters and their emotional highs. However, with that aforementioned turn of sullen events, the plot then becomes one long series of Sad Ruminations. What will the friends do without their pal? What will the family do? What does this harsh realization do to other terminal characters and their own family relationships? What about coming to grips with certain death? And then there’s the practice funeral. For a movie and a set of characters that refused to dwell in a pit of sadness, that’s all that the second half of the movie feels like. It also feels like the two-hour-plus plot is overextended to squeeze in one sad ruminating scene after another. In a way, it reminded me of the onslaught of emotional punishment that was the last act of Marley & Me, an otherwise enjoyable movie that devastated every dog owner by its conclusion. It feels a bit much.

fault-in-our-stars-movie-trailer-twitter-reactions-mainAnd this leads me to another issue with the adaptation process, namely that Gus is actually a character with little depth to him. He’s a smiling, immensely likeable figure who doggedly pursues Hazel and falls for her hard. But what is he as a person? He’s overly confident, compassionate to others, witty, charming, but these are more superficial descriptions than deeper analysis. I suppose one could argue he’s just decided to embrace life smiling, but for the most part Gus comes across as a prime figure of squishy wish fulfillment. He’s too good to be true, and with a lack of stronger characterization, that’s the way he plays. Now, I certainly liked the character and found Elgort (Divergent) to be a charming lad, but when the film transitioned to sadder territory, my feelings felt blunted. I would have felt more for this couple had Gus felt more like a real person.

It’s a good thing then that Hazel is the protagonist and main point of view, especially when Shailene Woodley as lead actress. I’ve raved about Woodley before, particularly last year’s underrated Spectacular Now, but every new leading performance is further proof that she is one of her generation’s best young actresses. There is no artificiality in this woman’s body. Her performances are master classes in exuding naturalism, blending into the character, finding subtle ways to express a wide range of emotions; seriously, this woman can express so much just with a tilt of her head and the right kind of smile. Woodley is terrific once again, instantly locking in your sympathy. Her trial of love and suffering run the danger of being heavy-handed but Woodley seamlessly anchors the movie, guiding the audience back to her sphere whenever things get too overwrought. When she tears up, I teared up. When she unleashes a howl of grief, I had to fight every impulse in my body to join her. Her chemistry with Elgort is suitable if unspectacular, but Woodley sells every emotion and without a hint of artifice. If she were in a Big Cancer Weepie, you’d never know it given the skill of her performance.

I can’t imagine there will be much surprise for anyone who watches The Fault in Our Stars. Two young lovers with terminal cancer have a way of writing itself. What separates this story from other sappy tearjerkers is its presentation and perspective. This is a movie that flirts between jaded and maudlin, scoffing at the overt sentimentality of grief culture yet finding a middle ground that feels humane and honest and earned. Woodley’s strong, emotive performance helps ground the film even when the long string of manipulation begins. I wish Gus was a stronger character rather than a charming romantic compliment, a dream boyfriend who indeed comes across as too good to be true. I wish the movie also would not get swallowed up by the heavier elements it found balance with before. With all that being said, this is an engaging drama first and an amiable romance second. You may see the end coming from the start, but the same can be said about all of us. We all know how our own story is going to end. The only difference is the people we touch in between the start and the stop. That is our lasting legacy. The Fault in Our Stars is more a journey than a destination, and it does enough right with enough sincerity and intelligence to endure the pain.

Nate’s Grade: B

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