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Lady Bird (2017)

Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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The Florida Project (2017)

Director Sean Baker has become one of indie cinema’s most probing, humanist voices for the outliers of our society. His previous films looked at aspiring adult film industry performers, transsexual prostitutes, and now with The Florida Project, an assortment of low-income and homeless families. The film has been buzzed about by critics for months and has started to pick up some serious awards traction. The film does an admirable job of illuminating a childhood on the fringes of society. I just wish it had done more.

Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) is a young child living in a rundown motel miles from Disney World. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), relies chiefly upon hustling Disney tourists to make money. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the motel. He’s sympathetic to the families turning their stays into homeless residency, but he also needs rules to be abided and rent money paid. He’s concerned about Halley’s choices and how they are impacting, and will impact, the life of her daughter. Over the course of a few weeks during the hot summer, Moonee’s life will never be the same.

The Florida Project is a slice-of-life drama from the perspective of a young child, and to that end it’s quite immersive and empathetic. Little Moonee and her group of friends feel extensively real, so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if director/co-writer Baker just turned on his camera and simply said, “Go,” and sat back. Much of the movie, and perhaps even half, is watching Moonee and friends play, explore, and interact with a larger world that they don’t fully understand. There are heavier realities kept at the peripheral. Moonee doesn’t know that she and her friends are living in poverty. She doesn’t know that her fun mom is actually an irresponsible parent. She doesn’t know that the weird guy watching them play that Bobby forcefully removes is very likely a pedophile. She doesn’t know the illegal activities of her mother to make ends meet. This limited perspective is also the same given to the audience. A mother/daughter photo session that seems innocuous and a little sweet is later revealed to have seedier ulterior motives. We follow Moonee on her jaunts to investigate the rundown neighborhood, and somehow in that missing time Halley has gained money for rent. It’s not quite a whimsical, romanticized version of life in poverty like the misguided yet critically beloved Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead, it’s more a selective perspective that focuses on the innocence and imagination of children but without romanticizing the reality of poverty. It’s like a different coming-of-age film where future versions of characters would look back and think about all the things they didn’t know when they were just kids.

Baker and his production do an excellent job of making you feel the day-to-day reality of modern poverty and the struggles of people to simply exist and without condemnation. Halley would be charitably described as a bad mom, and yet she finds ways to provide for her child even if they jeopardize her custody. Halley is far too immature to be responsible for another human being, but not all of the other women are that way. Other women in the purple motel find legal means to provide and they take a concerted interest in the well being of their children. Halley’s adult friend is able to hold down a stable waitress job. Halley is too unruly, immature, and careless to do the same. Halley’s last job was working as a stripper, though she never tries getting a job at what I have to assume are a plethora of competing strip clubs adjacent to the commercial Disney tourist empire. This is very much a visual document of systemic poverty that illuminates the hardscrabble lives of people on the fringes of society trying to stay afloat. It’s rich in details like the knowing swapping of residents between local motels for one day a month to skip past residency declaration laws. It’s an interesting hidden world that feels rarely given this kind of caring close-up.

Baker has a great talent at finding non-actors who have great acting potential to essentially play versions of themselves. From Starlet, Tangerine, and now Florida Project, Baker has a tremendous gift for discovering people. There is an absence of mannered performance tics; the characters feel real because the actors are acting very naturally. These unsupervised kids are behaving like bratty kids. Brooklyn Prince is phenomenal as Moonee and a born performer. She has an innate charm that left me laughing often. Her improvisation is terrific although some of her lines definitely out themselves as being the written ones (“I can always tell when adults are about to cry”). Vinaite (Harmony Korine’s upcoming Beach Bum) is aggravating and yet you still wish that at some point she would turn it around or come to some latent epiphany. Halley feels, infuriatingly, very authentic in every one of her moments. She is dooming her child to a comparable trapped life of limited appeal and escape, but she can’t help herself and only focuses on the immediacy of life when life is so transitory and pessimistic. Dafoe (Murder on the Orient Express) is the moral center of the film and you feel his genuine unease in every pained glance. He has to hold his authority but he’s still very sympathetic for the motel’s collection of people that modern society has easily forgotten about.

With that being said, I understood what Baker and The Florida Project was going for and I found it to be underwhelming because there wasn’t much more than an established world. This is a movie with a very loose definition of plotting. After a while, without a better sense of plot momentum, it all starts to blend together into redundancy. It doesn’t help when many of the scenes can be less than ten seconds long. Here’s Moonee and her pal eating ice cream. Here’s Moonee and her friend running in the rain. Here’s Moonee and her friend hugging. Here’s Moonee in the bathtub. It becomes a lower class triptych of establishing its world and mood, but a little goes a long way. All of that could have been established and sustained in the first act, and then the story could have launched into a greater sense of change. I may lose some hipster critic cred points but as it continued I was partly wishing that the movie had been more conventional. Perhaps Bobby becomes more involved in the life of Moonee, taking custody of her while her mother was missing or going through social services review. He’s already a quasi-surrogate father figure so why not better explore that dynamic? The characters lack a depth to them, partially because we’re following children just being children, partially because we have characters drifting through life. It’s still lacking.

This was another example of an indie film sacrificing character and story to the altar of realism. I wrote a similar complaint in my 2012 pan of Beasts: “But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story.”

Immersive and genuine, The Florida Project is awash in details for a way of life rarely given this much attention and empathy. The acting is very natural and the young children especially behave recognizably like young children. Keeping the perspective of the film attached to the child is an interesting gamut as it keeps some of the harsher aspects of this world and the people from the same kind of direct exposure. It allows the film to have a degree of innocence without romanticizing poverty as some kind of fairy tale. It was a perfectly fine movie that I just happened to want more from, in particular a non-redundant story with more significant plot events and characters that felt multi-dimensional and developed over the engagement. I kept waiting for more and was simply left waiting. Even the symbolism of being on the outskirts of Disney World, the materialistic “happiest place on Earth,” felt barely toyed with. The Florida Project is a good start to a good movie but it needed continued refinement and attention to be something more than an inquisitive magazine article brought to careful cinematic life.

Nate’s Grade: B-

mother! (2017)

Now I know why there weren’t any promotional screenings for mother! in the lead-up to its national release. Director Darren Aronofsky’s highly secretive movie starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem was marketed as a horror thriller, a claim that is generous at best and dishonest at worst. This is not Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot. It’s a highly personal, livid, and visually audacious think piece on mankind, so it’s no surprise that general audiences have hated it and graded it with the rare F rating on Cinemascore (a shaky artistic metric, granted, but still a dubious honor). Aronofsky is a polarizing filmmaker who routinely makes polarizing works of art, so the stupefied outrage is not surprising. mother! is a challenging film that demands your attention and deconstruction afterwards. It’s not a passive movie going experience. I’m still turning things over in my brain, finding new links and symbols. mother! isn’t for everyone or even many. It requires you to give into it and accept it on its own terms. If you can achieve that, I think there is enough to be gained through the overall experience.

Lawrence and Bardem are husband and wife living out in the country. He’s a poet going through serious writer’s block and she’s remodeling the house in anticipation of a future family. One day a stranger (Ed Harris) comes by looking for a place to stay, and Bardem invites him into his home. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, looking for her husband. These uninvited guests awkwardly make themselves at home, testing Lawrence’s politeness and the bonds of her marriage. More and more strangers follow, flocking to Bardem and the home, and their unpleasantness only grows, pushing Lawrence into further states of agitation, desperation, and shock.

The first thing you need to know before sitting down to watch mother! is that it is one hundred percent metaphorical. Nothing on screen has a sole literal intention. The movie is clearly Aronofsky’s statement about mankind’s harmful tendencies, as well as a larger potential indictment, but this is a movie that exclusively traffics in metaphor. Accepting that early will make for a much better viewing experience. It took a solid thirty minutes for me to key into the central allegory, and once I understood that lens the movie became much more interesting (this was also the time that more unexpected visitors began complicating matters). I was taking every new piece of information from the mundane to the bizarre and looking to see how it fit into the larger picture. I would genuinely recommend understanding what the central allegory may be before watching the film. Looking back, I can appreciate the slower buildup that, at the time, felt a bit like an aimless slog awaiting some sense of momentum. Even the significant age difference between Bardem and Lawrence is addressed and has a purpose. mother! is the kind of movie that gets tarred with the title of “pretentious,” and yeah, it is, because if you’re devoting an entire two-hour movie to metaphor, then you’re going to have to be a little pretentious. Terrence Malick movies feel like obtuse, pedantic navel-gazing, whereas mother! felt like a startling artistic statement that had a legitimate point and was barreling toward it with ferocity. It invited me to decode it while in action, keeping me actively alert.

When dealing in the realm of metaphor, much is dependent upon the execution of the filmmaker, and Aronofsky is one of the best at executing a very specific vision. Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are both excellent examples of Aronofsky putting the viewer in the distressed mental space of the characters, utilizing every component of filmmaking to better communicate the interior downward spiral. With mother!, Aronofsky attaches his camera to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire movie; we are always circling her or facing her in close-ups, always in her orbit. She is our tether. When she walks out of a room, we follow, trying to listen to the conversations going on without us. When the revelers and mourners show up, we experience the same confusion and irritation as her. The film builds in intensity as it careens toward its hallucinatory final act. It’s here where Aronofsky unleashes his targeted condemnation with extreme vigor. It’s one confusing moment cascading upon another, strange images that ripple like a nightmare. There are some pretty upsetting and offensive acts meant to provoke outrage, and Lawrence is always the recipient of much of that cruelty. Like a Lars von Trier film, Lawrence plays a heroine whose suffering serves as the film’s thematic underpinning. Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is complete. He doesn’t leave anything behind.

Existing as a highly metaphorical work of art, there are numerous personal interpretations that can be had from mother! although, even with that said, one interpretation seems very obvious (spoilers to follow). This is first and foremost a Biblical allegory with Bardem portraying God and with Lawrence as Mother Earth. They live by themselves in tranquility but God is bored and unable to find solace. That’s when Ed Harris (Adam) and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) show up, and all of God’s attention is soaked up with these new people, who bring their warring sons (Cain and Abel) and then more and more strangers. The people won’t listen to Mother Earth’s requests and warnings, and after trashing her home and breaking a sink that causes an explosion of water (Aronofsky Noah meta reference?), she and God kick them all out. She says afterwards, “I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” It’s Aronofsky’s retelling of humanity’s existence from a Biblical perspective up until the fiery, vengeful end. From here there are all sorts of other symbols, from Jesus and the Last Supper, to the spread of the Gospels, and the corruption of God’s Word and the subsequent cruelty of humanity. These newcomers are selfish, self-destructive, ignorant, and pervert the poet’s message in different ways, caging women into sex slavery, brutally executing divided factions, all while God cannot help but soak up their fawning adulation. God finally admits that Mother Earth just wasn’t enough for him, like a spouse coming to terms with her husband’s philandering. He’s an artist that needs an audience of needy worshipers to feel personally fulfilled. Ultimately it all ends in fire and ash and a circular return to the dawn of creation. For viewers not casually versed in Biblical stories, the film will seem like an unchecked, unholy mess.

This is going to be a very divisive movie that will enrage likely far more viewers than entice, and this result is baked into Aronofsky’s approach from the start. Working in the realm of allegory doesn’t mean the surface-level story has to be bereft of depth (Animal Farm, The Crucible, and Life of Pi are proof of that). However, Aronofsky’s story just feels pretty uninviting on the surface, lacking stronger characterization because they are chiefly symbols rather than people. There are recognizable human behaviors and emotions but these are not intended to be recognizable people. This limits the creative heights of the film because the surface isn’t given the same consideration as the metaphor. If you don’t connect with the larger metaphor and its commentary, then you’re going to be bored silly or overpowered by artistic indulgences. Everything is, ironically, a bit too literal-minded with its use of metaphor. The movie’s cosmic perspective is, to put it mildly, very bleak. It can be very grueling to watch abuse after abuse hurled upon Lawrence, so it doesn’t make for the most traditionally fun watch.

mother! is a movie that is impossible to have a lukewarm reaction to. This is a shock to the system. Aronofsky’s wild cry into the dark is a scorching cultural critique, a condemnation on the perils of celebrity and mob mentality, and a clear religious allegory that posits mankind as a swarm of self-destructive looters that are as ruinous as any swarm of Old Testament locusts. It’s an ecological wake up call and a feminist horror story. It’s an artistic cleave to the system that’s meant to disrupt and inspire debate and discussion. This is going to be a movie that affects a multitude of people in different ways, but I feel confident in saying that fewer will connect with it and its dire message. Motherhood is viewed as martyrdom, and Pfeiffer’s character sums it up best: “You give and you give and you give, and it’s just never enough.” It’s about dealing with one-sided, usury relationships, surrendering to the insatiable hunger of others who are without appreciation or introspection. It’s not a horror movie like It about scary clowns. It’s a horror movie about how we treat one another and the planet. Aronofsky can confound just as easily as he can exhilarate. mother! is a provocative, invigorating, enraging, stimulating, and layered film that demands to be experienced and thoroughly digested.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Miracles from Heaven (2016)

Miracles_from_Heaven_posterWhen it comes to Christian-aimed movies finding release in the mainstream multiplex, I’ll admit that my expectations are pitifully low, and sometimes even those are unmet. It’s not that I object to the message on spiritual grounds, though sometimes it can be objectionable in how it’s applied like with the hateful yet popular God’s Not Dead; my problem is that the message is the sole purpose of the movie, not the storytelling, and so everything seems to be slapdash and inconsequential. They’re not interested in telling good stories with Christian main characters; it’s about selling good Christian messages and the movies are simply a delivery system to reconfirm the faith or at times the special elevated stature (see: God’s Not Dead) of the ticket-buyers. Every now and then one of these movies seems to slip through the cracks, so to speak, and surprise me with a genuine story and a deeper exploration of its characters and their dilemmas. I was hoping that Miracles from Heaven could be something like 2014’s Heaven is For Real, a well-meaning and consciously inclusive movie. Miracles from Heaven was my own 105-minutes of hell as I endured the barest of attempt to service a feature-length story.

Based on a true story, Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) is a loving and doting mom who checks in on each of her three daughters (Abbie, Anna, Adelynn) during their nightly prayers. Her world is turned upside down when young Anna (the heavy-lidded Kylie Rogers) has intense stomach pains and intense vomiting. She can’t keep anything down for weeks and the doctors are unhelpful until she’s finally properly diagnosed. Anna has a twisted intestine, which makes her unable to digest food, and this illness has no cure and often dooms its afflicted cases to short lives. Christy and her husband Kevin (Martin Henderson) have their hopes pinned on getting admitted to Dr. Nurko’s (Eugenio Derbez) treatment, a specialist in Boston. Even after enrolling, the long weeks apart from family, and the mounting bills, leave little hope for Anna and the Beam family. It’s the perfect conditions for a miracle of some sort to take form, wouldn’t you say?

family-111115If you’re looking for a feel-good affirmation you might be barking up the wrong tree because Miracles from Heaven was, for me, an interminable experience of unyielding and tactless sadness pornography. Allow me to unpack my choice terminology. Any movie that features a young child stricken with a very deadly and incurable illness is going to fall upon the sadder side of human drama, but what sets this movie apart is that this emotional landing spot is the only territory it mines. Its scenes exist just to remind you how sad these characters are about their sad experiences with their sad daughter while she sadly suffers and will likely never sadly recover. The specialist in Boston only gets new patients when the old are cured or die, and they don’t get cured. I’m by no means saying that storytelling dealing with overpowering sadness is not worth exploring. I enjoy a sad movie as much as somebody who enjoys sad movies can because I want art to move me, to make me feel genuine emotions in response to the human condition. However, Miracles from Heaven failed to move me because every one of its scenes feels so carefully calculated to make its audience reach for tissues. Manipulation is also not an unforgivable sin when it comes to storytelling, but what makes this movie’s crime egregious is that it doesn’t provide any depth to justify those shed tears. You’re crying not because you feel for the characters of Anna, Christy, or the entire Beam brood, it’s because Christy is Suffering Mom dealing with Suffering Child. There is no characterization involved in this movie and instead it relies upon its simplistic setup to provide all the empathy. Why do they need to build characters when a few shots of a sick child or Garner with tears dribbling down her face will suffice? It’s lousy screenwriting and it honestly made me upset as scene after scene reconfirmed this emotional stupor.

Having some understanding that this movie wouldn’t exist if Anna didn’t miraculously heal by the end, we’re left with an enormous amount of time to fill. They don’t make miracles until the third act, folks, and this one is a tad peculiar but effective. The time between the diagnosis and the miracle would be a fine opportunity to flesh out the Beam family and learn more about them and how this illness is affecting each of them. The only thing we learn is that the oldest daughter misses her soccer tryouts. This is the only onscreen ramification of Anna’s constant medical attention affecting somebody. Everyone is suffering with dignity and poise, and even the oldest daughter isn’t that upset after the briefest of angry outbursts. These people are just not interesting screen characters. They are one hundred percent defined as Family to Sick Kid. That’s it. After forty minutes with this clan, I was overcome with a powerful malaise. I just wanted the movie to end and was mentally counting down this miracle, which always felt so infinitely far away in my theater chair. There’s no momentum in this movie. It’s about getting Anna to that specialist, then it’s about treating her, and then it’s about making her comfortable when she goes home, presumably to die. The movie lacks basic reflection and introspection, highlighted by a laugh-out-loud moment when a group of inhospitable church members ask Christy what kind of sin she, or even Anna herself, must have committed to bring upon this illness. I wanted to yell at the screen at this moment.

I genuinely felt sorry for Jennifer Garner in this movie; not her character but the actress herself. I’ve been a fan of Garner since her star-making turn in J.J. Abrams’ TV series Alias (those first two seasons are some of TV’s greatest). I enjoy her kicking bad guys in the face, I enjoy her making me feel a plethora of emotions, and I thought she could have reasonably been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for one very affecting glance she delivers with perfection in Juno. I am a J. Gar fan, but my God did I want to save her from this horrible movie and what it was forcing her to do. It felt like Garner was held hostage and crying out for sanctuary. I can practically count on one lone hand the number of scenes that did not involve Garner crying. Every scene calls for her to be at a constant state of weeping, from angry crying to confused crying and finally hopeful weeping. She has a few angry mother monologues putting skeptical doctors in their places, but this is a performance almost entirely predicated upon crying. The emotional stakes are kept as such a fever pitch for so long that Miracles from Heaven crosses over into unintentional parody, feeling like a melodramatic Christian telenovela. I was envisioning a team with cattle prods to constantly keep Garner in a state of distress.

rs_1024x565-151111100350-1024-jennifer-garner-miracles-from-heaven-movie-111115The rest of the actors barely register, and there are some good people here. What is Queen Latifah doing in this to play a Boston waitress who becomes an unofficial tour guide for Christy and Anna? She has maybe three scenes and all of them are introduced and handled so awkwardly that it feels like the movie declaring, “And now, Christy’s Special Black Friend.” Derbez (Instructions Not Included) looks like he was given the directing note of performing like a slightly less inebriated Patch Adams. There’s John Carrol Lynch (TV’s American Horror Story, Zodiac) as the kindly preacher, but his words of wisdom are often rote and lack great insight. That’s because none of these people feel like they’re characters. They’re all placeholders in service of waiting for the film’s miracle and thus its faith-affirming message to “hang in there, kitty.”

I fully accept that I’m not going to be the target audience for Miracles from Heaven, and that’s perfectly fine. Filmmakers are allowed to make stories targeted at a niche audience, though I would hope they would include enough satisfactory and developed elements for a film to transcend its niche. What bothers me is that Miracles from Heaven takes its audience for granted repeatedly. They don’t bother with characterization and the examination of insurmountable grief and parental terror because instead they’ll just boil everything to its core element of Grieving Parent cries over Sick Child. It’s the same scene, over and over, bludgeoning the audience with sadness and suffering until it taps out, cries mercy, and is overjoyed for the titular miracle to chase away this dirge. Miracles from Heaven feels more like an anecdote than a film. It’s stretched far too thin. It doesn’t respect its audience enough to even bother forming characters or present a story that explores the realities of an incurable illness and the stress this unleashes on all parties. Movies have provided great empathetic exercises where we watch human beings suffer and then triumph, moved by their plight and uplifted by their spirit, perseverance, or perhaps even the frail realatability they exhibit as they tackle their oppression. The Oscar-winning film Room is an excellent example of this and a movie I highly encourage all readers to seek out and give a chance, subject matter notwithstanding. Room is a movie that celebrates the human experience but acknowledges the pain of it too. Miracles from Heaven, in sharp contrast, is a movie that barely acknowledges the need for basic storytelling and is nothing more than insulting high-gloss sadness pornography. You deserve better, America, and so does Jennifer Garner.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Room (2015)

MV5BMjE4NzgzNzEwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTMzMDE0NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_It’s hard to think of a more emotionally grueling and uplifting movie this year than Room. It drops you right into a scary world and, thanks to its carefully balanced tone, the film eschews sensationalism and gets at the beating heart of its survival story, namely the love and protection of a mother for her son. It is an emotionally powerful story that hits the big moments, the small moments, and everything in between. It left me analyzing it and rethinking it for hours, the repercussions still reverberating through me.

Ma (Brie Larson) has been held in a single soundproof room for seven years, the captive of an older man who is termed “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). Complicating matters is that Ma has a five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) born into this captivity. It is the only world he’s known. To spare him the full horror of their circumstances, Ma has created an elaborate world for him that only exists in Room. After his fifth birthday, Ma tries speaking honestly to her son, lifting the veil of kind fabrications. Together they will scheme to escape their one-room world, but it comes with tremendous cost.

It would be easy to fall onto the more unseemly elements of this harrowing story and linger on just how bad things are and the horrifying lengths that Ma has to go through to survive. Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) doesn’t have to wallow in depravity to get its point across. There’s a sensitivity that manages to temper some of the abuse in a manner that won’t make you run out of the room screaming. When Old Nick enters the room for his special time with Ma, we don’t need explicit detail to understand what is happening and what Ma is shielding Jack from by demanding he stay in the closet. The reality of their captivity is enough without underlining the worst of the worst for the lowest common denominator. The emotional weight of everything is clear without having to be bludgeoned. The implications are always just peaking around the corners from the safer version of reality Ma has proposed to protect her child. As the audience, we can see the cracks, we can see her front, and we can see the effort and the toll it’s taking on Ma. The stakes are clear as well, and so when Ma is instructing Jack and preparing him on their joint escape plan, you’ll start to feel waves of anxiety travel through your body. I was shaking with suspense that something could go wrong but also because Ma and Jack are such vulnerable characters that rely upon one another completely. I knew what was going to happen in broad strokes but I was still on the edge of my seat and that’s because the movie made me deeply care about the characters and their plight. The escape scene was on par with some of the better suspense sequences in the equally brilliant Sicario.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that Ma and Jack do get out of their one-room prison because the second half of the film deals with the ongoing consequences and challenges of adjustment. We’d like to think that we can be plugged into our old lives after spending time away, but that’s just not how things work, let alone for people who have experienced substantial psychological and physical trauma. Ma is struggling to readjust to her old life under the care of her mother, Nancy (Joan Allen). She looks through old high school pictures and you can tell she laments “what could have been” and even bears some resentment for her old friends who got to live the lives she should have had. Just because she’s free doesn’t mean she’s better. Her father Robert (William H. Macy), since divorced from Ma’s mother, can’t even look at Jack because of the pain it causes; Jack is a child of rape, but Ma demands he be acknowledged as her flesh-and-blood, and even that can be too much too soon for Robert. He’s more about seeking justice through the courts and as a result stays on the peripheral of the story for most of the movie. There is no exact time table for PTSD and Ma goes through highs and lows, none lower than when pressed with the question of why she held onto Jack after he was born. Would he not have had a better life in someone else’s care, assuming Old Nick would have abandoned him rather than kill his own blood? It’s a hard question and it stings.

For an obviously punishing story about the worst of humanity, I am not kidding when I say Room is an uplifting film. The darkness is easy to identify and Old Nick is a fearsome and all too real antagonist, one who could roam our very streets in anonymity. However, what stays with me several days after watching Room is not the suffering but the resiliency of spirit, the knack human beings have to persevere amid the worst. Ma’s recovery is rockier but more understandable for us to trace and relate with. Hers is an experience where she can finally begin to focus on something other than her child’s safety and deliverance, namely her own well-being. For Jack, there is no playbook. He’s spent his entire life inside a small room and never seen the outside world. His sense of understanding has been extremely limited and yet his sense of exploration is alive. Jack slowly and surely builds trusting relationships with Ma’s relatives, engaging in other activities, and acclimating to his new surroundings, reforming his sense of the world. It’s ultimately Jack who is able to make the greatest breakthrough to his mother, and it’s this moment of sacrifice and love that unleashed the last torrent of my tears. Previously I had cried two times over the horrors and Ma’s love as her strength, and it was this final moment, this sharing of his “Strong,” that let loose the happy tears.

It should go without saying but Larson gives an exceptionally powerful performance. After 2013’s stupendous Short Term 12, I knew this actress was destined for great things, especially the way she can zero in on a character and inhabit them fully. With Ma (she’s never given any other name) Larson is able to convey a multitude of emotions, many of which she has to hide from her son out of loving deference. He can’t know just how scared and exhausted she is, though these emotions do take over at time. Larson is tremendous as she exhumes maternal might as she does everything in her power to save the two of them. Early on, she’s the character we empathize with the most because she’s had her world taken from her and hoping to return. She’s so resourceful, from the way she’s able to answer her son’s questions about the world, to the way she’s able to practice and drill their escape plan to a child with no concept of “outside,” this is a powerful woman driven by the instinct to endure. When Larson’s façade breaks down with Jack, that’s when the movie started stabbing me like daggers. In the second half, her character has a long road to go to recovery, if that’s even an appropriate word, and Larson gives sensitive and empathetic consideration to every exhausted development. She is easily going to be the one to beat this year for the Best Actress Oscar.

brie-larson-room-01-600x350Paired with Larson is the remarkably natural child actor Jacob Tremblay, and his performance is worthy of awards consideration itself. At first his worldview is precocious because of how unique it is, which makes him more a figure of fascination than tragedy. He’s bright and active with the world around him, turning household items into useful toys and emotional attachments. The film uses parts of his narration to give better insight into just how he’s processing the world he knows versus the world as it exists. These bouts of narration never come across as cloying. As the movie continues, he learns more about how his preconceptions of the world are wrong, but he’s more intrigued than frightened. During the escape plan, when Jack gets to see the outside world for the first time, it’s a transcendent emotional moment. His guarded behavior around others is necessary as Jack builds positive associations with men who are not Old Nick. Tremblay is utterly magnificent; there is no hint of artifice to his performance, which is especially rewarding considering his is a role that could have been suffocated with eccentricities and tics. You feel like you’re watching a child grow before you through supportive nurturing.

Within the first twenty minutes of watching Room I already knew this was one of the best films of 2015. It just connects so vividly and succinctly, effortlessly powerful and yet skillfully avoiding sensationalism and exploitation while telling an entertaining survival story that still resonates with emotional truth. The performances from mother and son are outstanding and Larson and Tremblay form a heroic duo that take hold of your heart. It doesn’t mitigate the darkness or the cruel realities of its premise but Room also doesn’t dwell in the darkness, castigating its characters as hapless victims forever broken from their incalculable suffering. They are resourceful and resilient and while their trauma will not be forgotten it is not the one defining moment of their burgeoning lives. It may sound maudlin but it is the power of love that resonates the longest with Room. That love at first is about protecting the innocent, and then it transforms into healing and acceptance. I hope everybody gets a chance to see Room, a remarkable film with two remarkable performances and plenty to say about the humanizing benefit of love.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012)

1823My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey had warned me about The Odd Life of Timothy Green and he quite eloquently voiced his dumbfounded musings, which I will try my best not to knowingly replicate though I’m sure there will be some carryover. But whatever he wrote could not prepare me for what I ultimately got with The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Ladies and gentlemen, I think this movie broke my brain.

Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) are having trouble conceiving a child. One night they write a list of their hopes for a future child, place them in a box, and bury this chest of hopes in their garden. The next day they are shocked to discover a child covered in dirt claiming to be their son, Timothy (CJ Adams). He is the physical manifestation of all those buried hopes and wishes with some leaves attached to his ankles. The Greens take their magical parenthood in stride, trying their best to impart wisdom to their new son. They teach the kid how to play soccer, stand up to bullies, and interact with other human beings. Timothy has a secret he can’t bring himself to tell his new mom and dad, but if you have a hard time figuring out what his leaves falling off means, then there’s nothing I can do for you.

I feel like I just watched a movie where every person on Earth is depicted as being insane. Not goofy, not eccentric, not a little funny, no, we’re talking get the butterfly nets and padded cells. I feel partially insane just having watched the film, obviously still suffering from a contact buzz of insanity. I accept suspension of disbelief and that fantasy-based family films are going to have a whimsical nature to them. We cannot apply every rule of reality and logic to them, and I accept this. But The Odd Life of Timothy Green seems to exist in a fractured, cracked version of our own world, where the most bizarre and fantastical elements are just given a halfhearted shoulder shrug. People react to otherworldly events as if they were doing laundry. Where’s the awe? Or, more so, where is the skepticism? Seriously, if anybody told you they grew a child from a garden, would you accept this notion at face value? Their great piece of proof is that the kid has leaves attached to his ankles. Don’t you think, I don’t know, the parents could have taped those on? Beyond one guy, no one investigates this strange botanical phenomenon or even has the slightest inclination to. Where’s the intellectual curiosity, people? It’s like everyone in town has a lobotomy. Is there not one person in this small town that will dare stand and say, “You know, I think I’m going to require more empirical evidence to buy the story that this kid was formerly plant food.” And then they ran that one man out of town on a rail and salted his land.

80170_galTimothy Green tries to gather a slew of messages and feel-good moments; it’s just that none of them feel coherent or truly earned. The parents don’t feel like responsible or even interesting adults. I understand we’re not going to dwell too much on the disappointments of a couple unsuccessful in conceiving a child (this is becoming an odd trend for Garner), but I expected more than one good cry and a bottle of wine. I want to empathize with these people but the movie makes it impossible time and again with their nonsensical behavior; it’s like they’re adults as envisioned by a child. On that note, I think the movie probably makes more sense from a fantasy point of view to flip the participants. It seems more likely that a child would try and grow new, ideal parents only to learn a lesson about the duds they’re stuck with. The Green family members all work one note, whether it’s the snide sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), the slaphappy grandpappy (M. Emmet Walsh), or the emotionally distant dad (David Morse), it’s all a tiny nub of characterization that gets whittled down to nothing. And then Timothy just seems to step into everyone’s lives and change them forever with little effort. He gets an older girl to fall in love with him, his father to stand up for himself and his family, and all the not nice people in town to be somewhat less not nice. He gets his mom to speak her mind to her bitchy boss (Dianne Wiest), which ends up getting her fired, so it’s a mixed message.

You want a prime example of this film’s collective shared insanity? Take this line from one of the board members from the town pencil factory: “If this boy can have leaves on his ankles, then we can make a pencil out of leaves.” What exactly does one have to do with the other, you may ask? I suppose it’s some claptrap about what is truly possible or whatever. My apologies to Ben Bailey for treading ground he has examined closely, but this cautionary line of dialogue glows with the intensity of 100 neon signs. It’s everything that is wrong and crazy about this movie, and the fact that it is spoken without a hint of irony or humor is all the more galling.

Here’s my problem with Timothy the life-changer: the kid is a dullard. He has no personality, he has no real insights or perceptions into life, he’s not funny, he’s not that interesting, and he eerily stays in the same modulated emotional presence. I found this kid far more unintentionally creepy than endearing. On paper, Timothy Green sounds like it should be a horror film and not the saccharine family slop that it is. Timothy just comes across like a rather bland kid with some weird tendencies, like his repeated inclination to soak up any sunny opportunity to photosynthesize (he gives Scott Stapp a run for his arms-wide-open pose throne). If a character is going to touch people’s lives and change their perspectives on life, then at least make that person fitting of praise. This kid just seems like a hazy mystic that’s playing it as he goes. Come to think of it, did anyone see him do anything superhuman? Cindy and Jim didn’t even find him in the garden, only inside their home covered in dirt. Who’s to say that young Timothy Green wasn’t a con artist this whole time?

80173_galThen, likely as a defensive means to soothe my ailing brain, I started coming up with my own version of where Timothy Green should have gone. The ability to write down a bunch of general attributes and then grow a child seems too good to pass up. I desire more of this unique child cultivation process. For instance, Cindy and Jim want their kid to rock out as a musician, but they simply write “rocks” on their slip of paper before burying it. How is the magical entity that raises mutant plant kids going to be able to understand what the family intends with this vague entry? What if Timothy Green was born with rocks in his head? I wanted the film to simply turn into a comical version of The Monkey’s Paw, where every new version of Timothy Green would go horribly wrong. The first was born and then immediately suffocated because Cindy and Jim forgot to write “working lungs.” Then there would be the Timothy born with a “hunger for life” and become a cannibalistic plant zombie. Or the Timothy born with “his mother’s heart” and then upon his birth Cindy’s heart would go missing. What I wanted was a macabre trial and error game where the would-be parents had to refine exactly what they were asking for with the nondescript magical being in charge of answering hopeful parents. I want The Odd Lives and Deaths of Timothy Green and I want Cindy and Jim to have to bury all the malfunctioning prototypes in the same garden. Then, when they do perfect their perfect kid, the police find a yard littered with the corpses of children and haul them away.

The movie is told through the framing device of the Greens telling their story to the adoption agency, and why this adoption agency continues to listen after, “We grew a boy in our yard,” is beyond my guess. In a film breaking every boundary of believability known to mankind, this aspect to me seems the most incredulous. This is an adoption agency with standards and rules to follow, and to think they would allow a couple to drone on and on about their magical child that grew from a garden and changed people’s lives, instead of calling security and having them escorted from the premises, followed home, and then have their home exhumed for human remains of this child, is beyond me. And then, spoiler alert, they get a kid in the end. What adoption agency could reasonably and responsibly allow these two people, with no physical shred of evidence about their magical child other than some leaves and testimonies, to care for another human being?

Allow me to also question the sincerity of these two damaged people especially concerning their desire for a child. It sure seems like Cindy and Jim are planning on using their present and/or future child as means of settling some longstanding scores between relatives. When it looks like Timothy is finally going to do well in soccer, that’s when they pounce, airing out their resentments. Cindy brattily unloads against her sister: “I’ve had to listen to your perfect kids, well look at my kid! That’s my kid!” And then Jim finally let’s his distant father have a piece of his mind: “I could have been a good player too, dad. I had skills. If only you would have been more supportive.” Am I supposed to find any of this funny, because it comes across as far more sad. I feel like the reason that Cindy and Jim want a child is to desperately prove to their family that they are superior parents. It feels like one very crazy way of proving a point and one where the child will suffer, especially if he or she cannot live to a degree of excellence to provide mom and dad filial ammunition. Another example: both Cindy and Jim are oddly very jealous over the relationship their pseudo son forms with the slightly older gal, Joni (Odeya Rush). They try and talk him out of spending time with her, arguing there are so many fish in the sea for him to pay attention to. Are you really laying the argument that a 10-year-old should be playing the field? It also seems weirdly petty and controlling for two supposed adults to be jealous that their son chooses to spend part of his waking hours with another human being. So, does that sound like a loving and healthy family?

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is certainly odd but probably not for the reasons that Disney or the filmmakers had in mind. It feels like it exists in an alternative universe where everyone lacks any common sense, curiosity, or relatable human emotions. Nobody acts like a recognizable human being in this film, not for a single second. These people are all zombies, cowed into the cult of Timothy, the magical and, ultimately, messianic figure. But allow me to declare the emperor has no clothes. This Timothy is not worthy of the adulation he receives. He walks around like an ecological Forrest Gump, spitting sappy platitudes and changing lives with the insipid nature of all these easy messages. I wish I could say there was one genuine moment in this movie, but I cannot. It takes a magical premise and suffocates it with unearned solemnity. Why can’t a movie about growing a kid in your garden try and be, you know, fun? Well, I suppose embarrassing music recitals and kids getting hit in the head could be mistaken for fun, but I prefer a well developed story, characters I care about, and a genuine sense of enchantment to go with the supernatural. If we can make a movie about a kid with leaves on his ankles, then we can turn any sort of half-formed maudlin pap into family entertainment. Kids deserve better than The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and, for the record, so do plants.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Guilt Trip (2012)

1901A funny thing happened after seeing The Guilt Trip. My father asked me what else Seth Rogen had been in that he had seen. And I was stumped (in retrospect, I could have said 50/50). I think that summarizes the mishmash of audiences for this mother/son road trip comedy. Rogen teams up with the ultimate Jewish mother, played by Barbara Streisand (Meet the Fockers), to travel the country. From that premise alone, it’s pretty much exactly everything you’d think it would be. The comedy is rather flat mostly because both characters feel mismatched from a comedy perspective; neither is given enough edge. I was surprised then when I found the warmhearted dramatic parts so much more skilled than the comedy (remember, sliding scale). The heart is better than the laughs. The deteriorating mother/son relationship is given some thoughtful consideration, and there are a few sweet emotional turns at the end to find a satisfying departure. It’s a rather nice movie, nothing too special or interesting, but nice can be perfectly fine under the right circumstances. I’m a Rogen fan and always enjoy his cocksure presence onscreen, and Streisand, at 70 years old, is still a natural movie star. The post-credits outtakes point to funnier material from their pairing, but director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) sticks to the well-worn path of the road trip movie. It’s fairly inoffensive and safe, but The Guilt Trip has some light-hearted pleasures to offer its older audience, especially middle-aged parents and grandparents. Simply put: if you have to see one older-appealing movie with your family this holiday season, Parental Guidance or The Guilt Trip, take the trip.

Nate’s Grade: B-

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

If you’re contemplating having children, then We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be the movie for you at this moment. It takes a stab at the nature/nurture debate and proposes that some children are just born broken and beyond the reach of even the most dedicated parent. It’s not exactly the cuddly message we get from most stories about the joys of parenting, but We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling, provocative, and powerful portrait of grief, aggravation, and slowly dawning horror. Can even a mother love her monster?

Motherhood has not been the rewarding venture as promised for Eva (Tilda Swinton). Kevin (Jasper Newell at a child; Ezra Miller as a teen) wails so incessantly as a baby that she seeks out the sweet sounds of a jackhammer to drown out her shrieking babe. Even as a toddler, she knows there’s something just not right about her sullen, uncommunicative son. He seems to deprive her of any affection or attention she might find gratifying. Truly it seems much of Kevin’s motivation in life is to humiliate and torment his mother. It starts with being deliberately unresponsive as a child, and turning on a dime when in the presence of his father, then to delayed toilet training because he seems to enjoy making his mother clean up his mess (metaphor?), to the unexplainable massacre at her son’s hands. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an immersive experience, occasionally piling on how irredeemable Kevin is as a character. It also speaks to the unreliable nature of our shell-shocked point of view. It’s a disquieting film to say the least but I found it riveting and compelling at every second, artfully exploring a form of grief and social isolation that few will ever be able to fully understand.

There’s tremendous psychological detail to this nightmarish parenting tale, and it’s those details that make the film feel eerily authentic and not exploitative. I found it fascinating to be drawn into this world, like I was watching an intimate, illustrated case study come alive. I found it very telling that after Eva accidentally injures her son in a fit of frustration, she apologizes but can only bring herself to do so under the shield of third person, saying, “Mommy shouldn’t have done that,” rather than, “I shouldn’t have done that.” And then when they get home, little Kevin unspools a perfectly believable story to cover-up what really happened. Even at six this kid is a shockingly adept liar, possibly because he’s a budding sociopath. Horror movies have been bringing us little pint-sized terrors for decades, from Bad Seed to the Village of the Damned, but those wicked kids seem like child’s play compared to Kevin, a startling, vacant child who is the scariest of the bunch exactly because he feels completely real. No Satanic imagery, glowing red eyes, or over-the-top associations needed; this is one messed up kid.

Watching this tumultuous and combative struggle for domination is equal turns compelling and terrifying. In many ways Eva adopts the role of Cassandra, the Greek figure cursed with visions of the future that nobody believed; Eva warns the people in her life that Kevin isn’t right, that he’s entirely capable of great evil, yet everyone ignores her dire warnings, and even Eva is culpable to some degree of enabling. Rather than discipline Kevin or stick to her principles, she passively accepts the situation and carries on with full knowledge that Kevin is going unchallenged. To everyone else he seems like a bright, helpful, normal teenage boy, which is why dear old dad (John C. Reilly) is so condescending and dismissive when Eva voices concern. Parenting is supposed to be instinctive, right? Eva feels like a failure, that this young soul has been steered to the dark side under her watch, and I think her hesitation to continue ringing alarm can be summed up by the fact that she’s just exhausted, tired of fighting a fight that everyone else ignores. I think she may also be desperately hopeful that she can ride this out, that it’s only a phase for her son, that somehow he’ll grow up to be a normal, loving child through some miracle, like a switch will be flipped. The only time Kevin ever shows his mother compassion is when she reads him a bedtime story involving archery, a hobby that would prove deadly.

The film is told non-linearly as we observe the fragmented memory of Eva. We have to pick up the pieces of life much like Eva recovering from her son’s destruction. It’s interesting to discover the symbolic connections between scenes, the connective tissue binding the memories together, and director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) does an exceptional job of filling in key details to enrich this woman’s horrid life. The scenes don’t seem to last long, but Ramsay and her team provide all the meaning and weight we need so that the scenes matter. There’s a heavy amount of dread suffused into every scene in this movie, as the totality of events starts to become clear. The metaphors aren’t subtle but they are effective. Prepare for a lot of red in the color palate: squashed tomatoes, strawberry jam, splattered paint across Eva’s front porch as an act of vandalism. She spends the rest of the movie trying to clean away the red stains on her home (see what I mean about subtlety?). The splintered narrative also serves as a statement on Eva’s frame of mind, trying to move forward but haunted by a tragedy that goes down to the marrow.

And of course all praise of the film needs to also be placed at he feet of versatile actress Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton). She’s not given many lines of dialogue but what she is able to do to make her character feel fully lived-in is astonishing. There are so many different points of her life to play, from young exuberance to growing disdain to zombie-like pariah, and Swinton doesn’t strike one false note. Even during her grief and guilt she doesn’t go into hysterics. This is a woman that simply wants to waste away and be forgotten. Even when it looks like she might find some small measure of satisfaction or affection from another person, the movie sucker punches you. You realize that her son may be in jail but she’s serving a sentence all her own. Swinton is heartbreaking and subtle and nuanced even when it appears she’s simply staring off into space. You don’t really want to be in this woman’s head, and yet Swinton’s performance puts us there, hence all of my analytical assessment above. She’s a mixture of self-loathing, denial, bitterness, and penitence, and Swinton gives us telling glimpses of the storm below the surface. Her guilt is eating her away from the inside out. I’ll go on record and say it’s a crime that Swinton wasn’t nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (I personally apologize for not nominating her for the PSP Silver Cines).

I feel the need to talk and talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin, to sing its despairing praises, to encourage lovers of challenging, complex, and emotionally devastating film to experience this exceptional movie. It’s psychologically rich, bold, and revealing with even the smallest details to round out this hellish family scenario. It’s not an easy two hours to sit through, not by a long shot, but there are certain rewards for those who choose to wade through the darkness, Swinton’s haunting performance among them. This is a difficult subject and it’s produced a difficult film, but sometimes we need to be put in uncomfortable circumstances to get at a greater truth. What is the greater truth of the film? Maybe that parenting is really, when it’s all said and done, a leap of faith, maybe that avoidance of hard decisions is no solution, and maybe that some people are just beyond redemption. A movie that makes you think? Somebody ought to talk about this one.

Nate’s Grade: A

Breaking Dawn: Part One (2011)

Taking a cue from the blockbuster film franchise of our age, the Harry Potter series, the producers and studio heads decided to split the final Twilight film into two separate movies. Yes, for you cheerless, unfortunate males dragged along to author Stefenie Meyer’s estrogen-drenched soap opera, hoping to be done with Bella Swan and her sparkly vampire boyfriend, well your pain soldiers onward another year. If Breaking Dawn: Part One is any indication, we’re all in for a world of hurt come November 2012.

Wedding bells are ringing for Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her undead boyfriend, noble vampire/undead heartthrob, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Bella’s persistent demand to be turned into a vampire is finely about to come true. She wants to stay human a bit longer, to savor her last days on Earth before sipping blood through a bendy straw. Her always-in-second best bud, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is worried for Bella’s well being. The wedding is like a fairy tale and Edward sweeps his new bride away to a tiny island off of Rio de Janeiro, where the housekeepers illogically speak Spanish. The couple makes the most of their time alone, and by this I mean they have sex (I refuse to believe this couple would play chess in their newlywed downtime). Edward withholds any second rounds of sex, fearing he’ll seriously harm his bride (he destroyed the bed in mid-copulation). No matter because Bella gets pregnant right out of the gate. We’re told this is impossible, yet her half-human/half-vampire fetus is rapidly growing inside momma’s belly. The baby is also destroying its host, eating away Bella’s body. Edward demands to kill the baby but Bella will have none of it. She’s going to deliver this baby even if it kills her. If it does kill her, then the truce between the werewolves and vampires will be broken, and Jacob’s feistier tribe mates will be knocking down the Cullen doors looking for some tasty vampires to chomp.

Director Bill Condon, he of Dreamgirls fame and an Oscar-winner for 1998’s Gods and Monsters, goes hog-wild with the emotions, fittingly reminiscent of the life-and-death swings of emotional polarity that orient a teenager’s life. Condon plays all of the ridiculous melodrama straight. It successfully channels the feelings of teenage angst and obsession, much like the first Twilight film. This Teutonic exhibit of buzzy hormones is like catnip to the Twilight faithful. Finally, they get what they’ve been waiting for, and Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg delay that gratification even longer. This is the longest wedding I’ve seen on screen since The Godfather. It takes up about 45 minutes of the movie. The protracted walk down the aisle literally takes longer than the rest of the ceremony combined. I can already envision thousands of young girls asking for the “Bella dress” when their time down the aisle comes. At no point does the movie address the fact that the “groom’s side” probably are all absent a heartbeat (“Hmm, extreme paleness? Are you with the bride or the groom? I’m at a loss.”). That’s a missed comedic opportunity. What’s with the wedding guests played by name actors like Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost, Taken)? Did they hire recognizable actors for one-line bit parts? They better have larger roles in the second feature. Under Condon’s direction, the film looks marvelous, and even the long-awaited love scene has some discernible heat to it that will give teen girls “funny” dreams for the next few months. Condon’s also helming the next and final film, so I can at least say it’ll look swell.

This last film was broken into two parts due to the mountains of money the studio would make. It surely wasn’t for some sort of artistic necessity. The plot of BD: Part One is stretched mighty thin. It’s no joke that the wedding and honeymoon takes up half the running time. The baby drama is handled so amateurishly, and the plot ramps up the incubation time so that everything happens too fast for the audience to adjust to how stupid everything truly is. The first half of the movie is free of meaningful conflict. It’s just concerned with payoffs. From everything I’ve read online, and from female friends who have partaken of the series, BD: Part One pretty much covers most of the plot of the 400-page book. What’s left? I would totally give the series a pass if the second movie started with Bella, hair a knotted mess, holding a shrieking baby. Edward sits at the table, drinking. “When are you gonna get a job?” she yells. “When are you gonna stop being a bitch?” he retorts, then gulps down a swig of booze. This domestic downer of an ending would almost make the whole series worth sitting through. Truthfully, as the teaser during the end credits advertises, if Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) has a larger part in BD: Part Two, it automatically becomes, sight unseen, the best movie of the series. Thus is the awe-inspiring power of Michael Sheen.

This has long been a silly franchise filled with poorly veiled messages that seem less empowering to teenage girls than reassuring to their parents. Long a heavy-handed message about abstinence, the characters finally get to have sex, after they’re properly married of course (does God really object more to vampire-human relations or when it occurs?). And you better believe the moment Edward and Bella eventually do the deed is a moment that teen girls, and their mothers, around the nation have been anticipating for three long, hard years. The buildup to the carnal climax is a rapturous release for the audience of Twi-hards; my theater felt like it exploded in pubescent hormones and giggling as soon as the proverbial train entered the station. Speaking of euphemisms, I find it telling that not a single character ever refers to sex as, well, “sex.” They keep dancing around the term, referring to it as indistinct pronouns like “this” or “that” or the slightly more specific “honeymoon activities.” It’s like the characters can’t talk about a mature topic without a case of the giggles. There’s even a scene where Jacob talks about Bella’s forthcoming tangle between the sheets, openly, and with alarm: “You’ll kill her,” he tells Edward. He doesn’t kill her but he does leave bruises all over her body. Bella assures her new husband that he’s not to blame, arguing, “You just couldn’t control yourself.” What kind of irresponsible message is that sending to teenage girls? But after enduring three movies of “save it until marriage,” the message is made even clearer when Bella, after one bout of sex, gets pregnant. Boom. Bella breaks the news by saying, “The wedding was 14 days ago, and my period’s late.” Edward stares dumbfounded and replies, “What does that mean?” Apparently, after graduating from high school 200 times just for kicks, Edward must have been absent every damn time for sexual education (“Condoms go OVER? Oh! This whole time I thought they went UNDER, you know, to hold everything in.”).

It’s here where the movie awkwardly shifts into a relentlessly pro-life message on legs. I’m not against movies presenting messages, but when a movie is as narratively empty and transparently padded as BD: Part 1, then the movie just gets swallowed up by the clumsy message. It doesn’t matter that Bella’s unborn hell spawn is literally killing her, sucking her dry from the inside out, she’s going to have this baby no matter what, even if she dies in the process. Okay, Meyer, we get it. Here’s a question for the world: can anyone really tell that much difference between emaciated Kristen Stewart and her normal self? She always appears a little sickly and hollow-eyed, but maybe that’s just me. The baby is basically the only conflict the movie presents and it happens so late in the film. Thanks to a fast gestation period, the demon fetus is determined not to wait until Part Two to make its grand entrance. Now that Bella is preggers, she’s become instant buddies with Rosalie (Nikki Reed, a long way from Thirteen), and the two of them begin a war against non-gender pronouns (its vs. he/her). The baby conflict would be more interesting if it was a tad more ambiguous, but the fact that it literally is killing Bella, not to mention its monstrous possibilities, and yet she persists to give birth is less characterization and more stubbornness. If Bella’s worried she’ll never have another chance to have a flesh-and-blood daughter, then explore this. Otherwise it makes Bella look blithely cavalier with her own life.

It’s here where Meyer and the Twilight franchise, already deliriously high on teen angst, goes off the charts into weirdo territory (some spoilers will follow). Never mind where the werewolf boys (and a girl) manage to find new clothes after they destroy them after each beastly transformation, we’ve got far weirder moments to process. There’s a vampire C-section via biting. There are giant wolves communicating via growling telepathy and bad CGI. There are Bella’s completely batshit names for her child; if it’s a boy she wants to combine Edward and Jacob’s names because that’s not awkward (“See, son, you’re named after the other guy I could have slept with but decided to just string along instead.”). And if it’s a girl she wants to combine her mother’s name and Edward’s mother’s name forming the atrocious “Reneesmee.” Excuse me? That makes “Apple” seem as traditional as apple pie. No one tells Bella these names are horrific because she’s pregnant, naturally. I imagine all the characters broke out into laughter as soon as Bella left the room to go puke into a bucket. Easily the weirdest and dumbest thing in the history of the Twilight franchise occurs as a contrived deus ex machina and a tidy solution to Jacob’s eternal, annoying pining. Jacob is determined to slay the monster he believes responsible for killing his unrequited love, Bella, but then he looks into those cute little baby eyes and… swears devotion to this newborn babe. He “imprints” on her, which means that they are meant to be together, and thus the werewolf/vampire truce holds. “Of course,” Edward intones, “Imprinting is their number one law. They cannot break it.” Of course! This reminded me of the scene at the end of the second Harry Potter movie where a phoenix comes from nowhere and cries into a wound (“Of course, phoenix tears can heal anything,” Harry informs while I was physically smacking myself in the head). Doesn’t anyone else find this whole plot development creepy? Jacob can’t have the mother, so he’s going to have the baby? And he’s got to wait 18 years if he wants their coupling to be legal on top of that. I think a messed up name is the least of this kid’s worries.

Does she look like a healthy person? This is pre-baby succubus.

It all comes down to the heroine of the franchise, Miss Bella Swan (sorry, Bella Cullen now). I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. To me, Bella isn’t worth the effort. She’s never really been anything close to a fully formed character. Bella Swan has always defined herself by having a boyfriend, and when he was gone it was about pushing her friends away and moping until she finally found a new guy. She has zero self-identity, no center, she is an empty shell, there is no there there. She’s a cipher, meant for the teenage readership to plug themselves into her place. I won’t restate my theory that the Twilight series is glossed-up pre-teen wish fulfillment, but there you have it. Yet there are sneaking moments where Bella seems almost shockingly… human. Her anxious montage of preparation before her first night of sex is relatable and sympathetic (what outfit to wear? Shave the legs? What kinds of makeup?). Too bad this relatable side of her character vanishes all too quickly. Before Bella defined herself by her boyfriend and now she defines herself by her baby. She’s still the same whiny, selfish, morose, and cruelly manipulative Bella, though. She can’t let Jacob alone; she has to continue stringing him along, bringing him into inappropriate personal matters. Jacob’s always been a bit of a control freak who seems to spout quasi-rapist dialogue (the classic “You love me, you just don’t know it yet.”), but the guy’s always gotten a raw deal as far as I’m concerned. Betrothed to a baby is not a worthwhile parting gift. I worry that young, impressionable girls are going to look at Bella as an influential figure. If these same gals want a literary heroine they could truly look up to, they should feast their eyes on Katniss Everdeen, proactive and laudable star of the Hunger Games and forthcoming movie of the same name.

The three actors have been playing the same character notes for so long that they could all just go on autopilot and collect their paychecks. Stewart (Adventureland) is less annoying than she has been in previous films. I’m trying not to take out my disdain of her character on the actress, who I’ve genuinely liked in pre-Twilight projects (even her Joan Jett performance was pretty decent). Pattinson (Water for Elephants) seems to shrink into the background for this movie. There are a lot of long, ponderous, somehow meaningful stares between the two, with the soundtrack trying to communicate emotions that the screenplay has failed to do (a little more variety on the soundtrack next time, fellas? I think I tuned out after the twelfth melancholy piano ballad). Luckily, Pattinson does have something of a screen presence to go with those abs. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Lauthner (Abduction). The young buck, formerly of Shardkboy fame, just cannot act. He has a nostril-heavy manner of expressing emotion that makes you wonder if he’s about to blow your house down. It’s telling that within mere seconds of the film beginning, the guy rips off his shirt, the peak of his acting abilities. I suspect it will not be long before Lautner and his six-pack and sitting at home, unemployed, and indulging in a different six-pack.

Breaking Dawn: Part One is certainly not intended for critics of the book and film series or really any audience member lacking ovaries. But I think that even the most ardent Twi-hards will walk away giggling at the silliness of the overripe melodrama. I try not to be out rightly dismissive of the whole series, but the bad characters, bad plotting, and questionable messages make it hard to continue bending over backwards to find slivers of quality to support. I get the appeal of the series, the fact that Bella Swan is a cipher to exercise frothing teenage wish fulfillment, but that doesn’t excuse the movies from being so bad. This isn’t the painful abomination that was 2009’s New Moon, but it’s come the closest. Only the promise of more Michael Sheen makes me hopeful that BD: Part Two will be better than its predecessors. When you’re talking about an obscenely popular moneymaker, quality becomes secondary to delivering a product that is recognizable to the demands of the screaming fans. BD: Part One is less a payoff than a warning. There is more to come, and if you thought Bella was intolerable before just wait until her vampire growing pains.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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