Lady Bird (2017)

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Greta Gerwig has a deep connection with Sacramento that I failed to appreciate when I first saw her in Frances Ha (2012). In that film, she’s making a life for herself in New York but stops off in Paris and returns home to the west coast. Now with Gerwig directing in lieu of Noah Baumbach, we have the inverse and the affection on display is indisputable.

A young woman resides in Sacramento with dreams of the culture of the east coast, namely New York. It’s the old story. We rarely appreciate where we come from or who we have in our lives until we have to leave and say goodbye. There’s no place like home.

Although I lived in California most of my life, it’s a big place and I do not know Sacramento intimately and yet I can deeply admire someone who does and takes care in portraying it on screen. It’s hardly a touch-up job but Lady Bird exudes an agreeable rose-colored nostalgia.

We are reminded that this is the post 9/11 generation which barely had cell phones and was still listening to “Crash Into Me” and Justin Timberlake. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I certainly recall the aftermath which will never be wiped from my memory. However, I increasingly realize fewer of my generation remember this era and so for me it’s a type of period piece that I can appreciate first hand.

There’s something about the story that evokes Anne of Green Gables for me. It is a mother-daughter movie. Our heroine Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has a gripping personality and like her predecessor desires a name change, in this case, Lady Bird. It leads to heated conflict with her mother and yet there’s a father too who has an affable spirit to play peacekeeper. We grow to appreciate them all.

The opening conversation between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is so very honest in capturing how as human beings we are so quick to cycle through emotions – bonding, loving, then arguing and instantly annoyed. I heard talk in an interview Gerwig gave about her writing process. It wasn’t so much about hitting all the right beats at first. She wrote so many pages and lived with the characters and let them take her where they would. In this regard, there’s a three-dimensional even lived in quality to each individual that cannot be fabricated. Far from being types, they overlap and interact in ways that feel refreshing and authentic.

The parents actually have an integral place in the lives of their children. They are not relegated to being killjoys or caricatures. There’s hard and fast truth to both Metcalf and Tracy Letts as they exquisitely inhabit their roles. There’s none of that leaving out a parent conveniently to make it easier to write for. Lady Bird pays respect to all of its characters much as it does its setting.

The best friend is another well-trod trope and you wonder if there’s any way to create something that has not already been done. Lady Bird and Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) relationship sums it up precisely. As they quarrel, get involved in theater, and dance and daydream about all the things you’re supposed to. Eating unconsecrated communion wafers, feet in the air, backs on the floor chatting. It’s endearing and what we all craved in high school, whether we had that person or not.

Then, of course, there has to be the love interest. And yet again Lady Bird does something far more realistic. There’s not just one boy but two. The theatrical one, Danny (Lucas Hedges), from a big Irish family and then the hipster nonconformist one, Kyle (Timothy Chalamet), who can be found playing bass, smoking, and reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at a cafe. And even by the end, we never know which one was better for her. That’s not the point.

They were all part of her discovering more of herself. You even have the cool girl who everyone tries to suck up to. She’s entitled and has a hunk boyfriend and her parents don’t care what she does but even she has some humanity and a moral code. She’s not the devil’s incarnate. None of these characters are. As one who has dabbled in writing coming-of-age fiction with varying degrees of success, I recognize the ability of someone who is able to balance the economy of the genre with something that feels so resonant. It captures that expanse of time that is high school colorfully and with a degree of variedness. There is little chaff.

Like some of its immersive and empathetic brethren — The 400 Blows (1959), American Graffiti (1973), and Boyhood (2014) spring to mind — Lady Bird is not simply a coming-of-age story from the female perspective but an eloquent articulation of the human experience.

It’s also a film of benevolent spirituality. It’s set at a Catholic high school with some of the hallmarks we might recognize — uniforms, mass, communion. But it never feels like a mere punchline and those in positions of authority are generally warm and understanding.

The bright-eyed sister (a venerable Lois Smith) shares her love of Aquinas, Augustine, and Kierkegaard. Later she’s the victim of Lady Bird’s practical joke to try to gain a new friend. She plasters a sign on the sister’s car reading “Just Married to Jesus.” At a later date, it gets brought up matter-of-factly, the sister smiling at the joke but noting it’s been at least 40 years.

She is the perfect embodiment of a spiritual leader, leading by example and a heavy dose of compassion. She nudges her students but there’s also enough sense to realize ultimately they will have to figure it out. I did have a momentary flash of how perfect it would have been to cast Dolores Hart in the role but that’s hardly a complaint mind you. I also felt compelled to quote Kierkegaard’s journalings right about now and so I will. He penned the following:

“Of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points–if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life… I certainly do not deny that I still accept the imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.”

I’m not sure if I have anything to add to his words but they just feel applicable to all of us. And Christine gets somewhere in her personal journey. In one moment, she’s finally made the move to New York and like all good insecure college students, she’s having a drunken conversation with a dude about God. He asserts that he doesn’t believe that there is one. Then she mumbles to herself how people don’t think there’s a God and yet they so readily take on the arbitrary names their parents choose for them.

Eventually, she wanders by a church on a Sunday morning after a short stint in the hospital (nothing too serious) and stays to enjoy the choir. But in a moment of realization, she walks out and calls up her mom to reconcile because she recognizes how important that relationship is to her life. She’s willing to acknowledge her affection for her mom which is a step toward greater understanding and love.

Lady Bird paints in warmth and laughter, anger and tears, that all have deep abiding roots in the love of family and friends. That’s how a film about a red-haired teenager in Sacramento could manage to be for all of us. I want to see it again already as I know my esteem for it will only rise.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

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Kyrie Eleison along the road that I must travel…” ~ Mr. Mister

Liam James is undoubtedly a kindred spirit to many young men because he’s the epitome of awkward. His posture is terminally awful. He has no confidence, no presence, his hair could use a trim, and he’s pale and unassertive. He doesn’t even have a go-to dance move, heaven forbid. He’s the kind of kid who wears jeans to the beach in the throes of summer.

But that’s what we have at face value. The problem is he plays into the narrative that others have written for him and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take Trent (Steve Carell), the man Duncan’s mother (Toni Colette) is seeing. He calls the boy out on his apparent lack of social skills and criticizes him for being a 3 on a scale from 1 to 10.

That’s what Ducan has to go up against as his makeshift family travels to the beachfront for summer vacation. It looks like a dead end, several months that Duncan will simply have to survive tagging along awkwardly with Trent’s self-absorbed teenage daughter or getting systematically belittled by Trent in small ways.

And yet this same summer that looks like a veritable disaster ends up becoming the most formative time in Duncan’s life because in the thick of all the bad stacked up against him he is introduced to a world of so much good. It’s one of those moments of sheer happenstance. He begins riding a pink bicycle around town to get away from the suffocation at home and finds himself crossing paths with everyone’s new favorite friend Owen (Sam Rockwell).

They meet over a Pac-Man game and it’s awkward. Because every conversation Duncan has is awkward (ie. He talks to his pretty next-door neighbor Susannah about the weather). But not about to give up on a kid in need of some camaraderie, Owen lets the lad into his life and offers him something remarkable: A job helping him at the water park Wizz World.

In itself cleaning up vomit and stacking chairs isn’t the image of a perfect summer. But by reaching out and giving Duncan something, Owen impacts someone else more than he will ever know. Because that park represents so much for Duncan. It’s the family he’s struggling to find. It’s his fountain of confidence. It provides him a much-needed platform where even he can be cool and be known by others. That’s what we all want, to be known and appreciated.

That’s why he returns again and again. In fact, it’s so apparent how often he rides off that Susannah (AnnaSophia Robb) follows him one day and the rest is history. This girl who is different than her peers begins to take an interest in his paradise because she sees a confidence and enthusiasm in him that never existed before and she too seeks an escape.

Meanwhile, Duncan’s home life is still a shambles. Things are shot to hell as Trent is cheating on his mother and their vacation gets quickly terminated. He’s unhappy with it all and there’s very little his mother can do about the situation. Forced to say goodbye to the best family he ever had, there’s still some satisfaction in one last trip to the water park.

He emblazons his name forever in the lore of Wizz World and he gets the joy of Owen facing down Trent. Perhaps most importantly, the ride in the way-back of the station wagon is a little less lonely on the return trip. His mother has made the concerted effort to be by his side which is a statement of her new resolve to hold their family unit together.

This film is a dream. No one would go so far as to say that this is the dream summer or the dream job but it is a bit of a fantasy and we wish it could be true. Because Wizz World much like Adventureland (2009) before it is an oasis from the worries and distractions of the world at large. It’s one of those places frozen in time year in and year out, in this case, stuck permanently in the 1980s. But this Neverland, far from stunting your growth, helps one teenager discover more of his confidence than he ever thought possible.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell is a cinematic creation, the voice we always wish we had, the cool guy we wish we had in our corner, the jokester who helps us become a better version of ourselves by bringing us out of our shells. In some ways, he’s Peter Pan. Because if he existed in reality, it would only be depressing, but here there’s a special aura about him that instantly makes him our favorite character.

Meanwhile, Steve Carell much to his credit shows another side of himself and even greater range as an actor as Trent, a man who can best be described as a Grade-A jerk. Still, there’s something tragic in the characterization. Everyone else from Maya Rudolph a fellow Wizz World manager, Allison Janney the uninhibited mom-next-door living life buzzed, or even writer/director partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, all utilize their various quirks and qualities to stand out. Even Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet while playing a pair of obnoxious friends manage to leave their marks on those roles that feel surprisingly believable.

Faxon and Rash’s previous effort The Descendants (2011) is the kind of film that got award buzz and it’s a searing drama that’s almost brutal in impact. Whereas The Way Way Back is made for summer. It’s light, funny, full of life while still managing to be poignant. Coming-of-age nostalgia pieces are a personal weakness — a guilty pleasure even — and this film hits that sweet spot. Are there flaws? Yes, but why focus on those when there’s so much that’s refreshing like a summer vacation of old that you took with your family or ventures to the water park with your best friends? Sometimes we need films like this.

4/5 Stars

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

The_Edge_of_Seventeen_2016_film_poster.jpgThere’s a moment in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen where Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) suffers the ultimate humiliation third wheeling with her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and her (former) best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Needless to say, the evening is less than stellar but it gets worse after Nadine feels like she’s been totally betrayed. She’s been hating her brother recently and her best friend is dead to her now. The fact that she sets up an ultimatum doesn’t make things any better.

It only gets worse when a fellow partygoer notes Nadine’s sibling relationship reminds her a little bit of the movie Twins — if Nadine was Danny Devito and Darian was Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a perfect illustration of how she feels.

Growing up is never easy for anyone and it’s little different for Nadine. Mean girls at school. No friends. Until the fateful day when she got one but by the time high school hits everyone’s doomed. Hailee Steinfeld manages the tall order of portraying this maladjusted, histrionic, neurotic teen with a pitch-perfect pout.

She’s simultaneously our Lloyd Dobler and our Molly Ringwald in any of the John Hughes vehicles and yet none of those things because she’s come out of a different millennium. She must put voice to every thought and emotion that comes ricocheting through her head as much as she constantly yearns for the not so pretty boy on campus to notice her existence.

Her family life is little better. The death of her father still lingers with hurt. Her brother is the devil’s incarnate (at least to her) and her mom (Kyra Sedgwick) is a little ridiculous–not to be taken seriously in the least. Did we mention that her best friend is hooking up with her brother?

What the film grasps so impeccably is that the teenage years are often defined by one word: Awkwardness. This film is the creme de la creme of awkward and for a coming-of-age film that’s very much a compliment.

There so many awkward conversations to be had. Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson share some of the best because she comes like a hurricane of emotion and he gives her nothing — only the driest retorts as her smart-aleck history teacher. Equally enjoyable is the budding friendship between Nadine and fellow classmate Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) who makes no attempt to hide his crush on her.

It’s easy to quickly assume Erwin is in the tradition of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles but a particular Ferris Wheel conversation throws all those conventions out the window for good with a few self-aware lines of dialogue. It’s a pleasant surprise that this relationship is rife with laughs but not at the expense of the characters. Only in the sense that we have the age-old conundrum of the friend zone, still fretted about by teens to this day.

She thinks he’s nice but isn’t attracted. He thinks she’s the greatest girl in the world and dreams of making it into something. He takes all her signals to heart. She doesn’t. The Edge of Seventeen feels very genuine in these respects and the beauty of these themes are their universal quality. This isn’t just about a girl and a guy–one Caucasian the other Asian–they are two people just like us. It’s the universal unifier. We’re all human.

That’s one of the relationships modeled by Nadine in the film. But there’s another one that is far more unpleasant. The one involving her own crush on Nick a seemingly unextraordinary teen male that Nadine for some inexplicable reasons seems batty over. So much so she wants to get with him and sends him the longest, most explicit, and regrettable text message of her life. Still, it gets her some results–a ride in his car with some extra-curricular activities. Whether it’s exactly what she wanted is another thing entirely.

It’s sad really. Our culture is so saturated by sexual images teenagers think there is a need to play into those expectations, to use those same methods to get others to like them and be with them. When, in reality, that’s not right at all and the funny thing is that isn’t even what we want. It’s fairly clear Nadine finds this out firsthand. She doesn’t want just the sex in the first five minutes. She wants more. Conversation. Relationship. Intimacy. To be known. Anything would be nice. And that’s what we all want to some degree but we have an inherent ability to chase after the imposters and the imitations. They seem so nice and yet leave us with nothing.

We’ve been taught we need to lead with what’s on the outside — it’s our body that matters — as our hearts slowly die on the insides because we feel like no one understands us. Our family is made up of psychos and we have no friends. That’s part of what makes this film so revealing. But also the very fact Nadine, despite all her teenage drama, certainly has her moments.

Speaking into her mom’s life with certain candor at least on one occasion and actually opening up to Darian in a way she’s never been willing to do before. It’s the fact that she and Mr. Bruner can joust and yet by the film’s end you know full well they genuinely enjoy each other. It’s true that the acrimonious relationships with teachers somehow are the ones we remember and ultimately invest in most deeply. It’s those interactions that redeem Nadine and help her figure her life out, even if it’s only a little bit.

My only reservation is that although we greatly enjoy their characters, because of their economical amounts of screen time, it feels a little bit like Nadine’s dad and her best friend were used solely for the sake of the plot.

Still, the film’s ending makes no attempt to suddenly discover the meaning of life in some lightning rod of an epiphany. Instead, it contents itself in concluding its story not so much with endings but with the hint of new beginnings and that is oftentimes so much more rewarding. Can I simply end by saying Erwin’s quite the filmmaker?

4/5 Stars

20th Century Women (2016)

20th_Century_Women.pngIn his noted Crisis of Confidence Speech, incumbent president Jimmy Carter urged America that they were at a turning point in history: The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.

This also serves as a viable entry point into Mike Mills’ intimate, pensive eulogy, 20th Century Women. This is a film on the verge of so many things. It frames its story in the context of the time and the people that existed in one particular moment. Mills floods his canvas with natural light but also paints it with bold colors and plants us in this world that’s somehow tangible and present while still only being a memory to look back on.

It’s 1979. Nixon is slowly fading. Reagan is coming with his conservative boon. You have the Talking Heads. You have hardcore punk. Feminist novels and the woman’s movement. Skateboarding down the empty Santa Barbara roadways. It feels less like a time of change and more of a moment on the brink of something new.

But this very self-awareness in the era is provided by the characters who live within that context because this is their life, these are their memories, and they connect them together delving into the past and soaring forward to all that is yet to come. They recount the world they know through matter-of-fact voice-over to match the images that undoubtedly play in their own heads. This is for them. Namely a son and his mom, Dorthea and Jamie. There’s is a generational difference but not so much a divide.

Dorthea (Annette Bening) is an eccentric, dynamic, empathetic woman who cares deeply about life and others. She believes in each individual person’s rights and volition–you might even say she’s progressive in some ways. But she’s also a mom and a woman bred in a different age. Her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) makes a point of the fact that she’s from the Depression.

Giveaways include her chain smoking habit, a penchant for Bogart, and a predilection for show tunes. She was an aviator and draftswoman in a male-dominated world. But She came out of a time where the community was expected to look after everyone and she searches out the same framework for her son because he’s of a certain age.

If you were pressed to pick out the story’s inciting incident it might be the moment where Dorothea gathers the instrumental women in Jamie’s life around her kitchen table to enlist their help. Because the men around him either don’t resonate (Billy Crudup as William) or they only make their presence known on birthdays (namely Jamie’s father).

She takes a near death experience to mean he’s going through his adolescent phase and she doesn’t believe she can be all things for him anymore. As she notes later, they are better suited for the role because they get to see him in the world as a person. She will never get that. Oh, the heartaches of parenthood–being so invested–while simultaneously trying to be hands-off.

And so in some sense, her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and their teenage neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) make a concerted effort to press into his life. Julie is the one who sneaks up through his window sometimes, not to sleep with him, though they often share the same bed, for mere companionship, someone to feel safe around and to talk to. Because he’s someone she knows can be trusted amid the fray of highschoolers.

In one particular sequence, Elle sits on the bed her eyes looking sullenly at Jamie as she tries to talk through their relationship. She concludes, “I think I’m too close to you to have sex with you.” In one sense, it’s touching because it shows that their connection goes beyond this physical act that all the kids are doing, she holds too much respect for him, but it also points to the sorry state of affairs when something like sex is seen as dirty and degraded. That’s part of what she is wrestling with. That and the fact that her therapist mother tries to conveniently label her every action.

Elle Fanning leaves a startling impression casting herself in this film in a light that in one sense is the prototypical edgy, angsty teenager but there is also an undeniable vulnerability and genuine caring quality there that steeps her in unknown depth. That top layer is nothing new but that latter aspect is a testament to Mills’ characters.

Meanwhile, Gerwig provides her exorbitant supply of charismatic energy and panache that allows her to hold some of the most memorable scenes in the film in comedic terms and yet she also proves that there still is a certain tenderness in the red-haired, photography-loving, punk listening, new age modern woman, Abbie.

At the behest of Dorthea she tries to invest some of her artistic spirit into Jamie’s life, showing off the punk scene, introducing him to seminal feminist texts, and helping him to be comfortable around women but, of course, he’s more comfortable than most which is a sign of a certain amount of maturity. In fact, he impacts these women as much as they speak to him and that’s a testament to everyone involved, all flaws aside.

Even if Jamie is, in truth, our main character, perhaps a stand- in for Mills or for us, this film succeeds in crafting stalwart female characters with actual contours that are worth dissecting and with inherent worth denoted by their actions and what they care about.

I don’t know a great deal about Mike Mills but watching a film like 20th Century Women I feel like I know him better–not all of him certainly–but there are pieces here that are no doubt personal and give us a slight view into his experiences.

It’s intimate and there’s an unquestionable amount of vulnerability in his story that must be admired for its sheer honesty. It comes off as purely genuine and real. Because the bottom line is the fact that it never runs on agenda. It never tries to overtly get us to think something or feel something else. If it comes to any overarching conclusions at all it’s that life can be hard and confusing and the same goes for people.

Each one of us can come off as a complex enigma. Even the ones we know and love. It’s possible that we will never know and love them as much as we wish we could. It’s possible we cannot help them or guide them as much as we would like. Still, that’s okay.

For some, this will be a maddening, rudderless picture but to each his own. However, if I may be so bold, 20th Century Women is the kind of film I would want to make–a film wrapped up in its cultural moment in a way that feels so authentic–where the events playing out even if they’ve been made cinematic have real resonance for me as a human being.

Yes, it’s the kind of effort that won’t be received by everyone but a film so very personal rarely is. A film like this you don’t necessarily make for other people anyway. You make it for yourself and the ones you love and leave it at that. This is a love letter.

3.5/5 Stars

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

220px-Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterThis was yet another pleasant surprise. Just when I think I’ve finally washed by hands of superhero movies the cineplexes are blessed by two pictures like Wonder Woman and then Spiderman: Homecoming. And they couldn’t be more different. Still, as much as Wonder Woman was invested in its heroine, you get the sense that the crew behind this film care some about Peter Parker too.

Peter (Tom Holland) is living the dream. He got to do battle with the Avengers and Tony Stark has taken him under his wing and he has video proof of it all. He’s expecting great things. He’s expecting to leave the drudgery of high school classes, band, and academic decathlon behind.

Except for most of the film, he is relegated to thwarting small-time crime and he never gets to fight extra-terrestrials or other unearthly beings from outer space. It’s precisely this point that suggests there’s something profound about this character without any of that added white noise.

It’s the very fact that Peter is struggling with his own identity, how to be Spiderman and keep it a secret while simultaneously trying to realize the full extent of his abilities. He’s walking a tightrope because he wants to tell his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and he wants Mr. Stark’s right-hand man Happy (Jon Favreau) to call him up for his next assignment so he can prove himself. And yet nothing happens like he wants. No one takes him quite as seriously as he wants. After all, he is a teenager. As some famous philosopher once noted, “with great power, comes greater responsibility.”

But Tom Holland imbues Peter with a genuine likability that lights up his performance from end to end. This guy isn’t a jerk or a moody loser. He falls somewhere in the middle, making idiotic decisions but always because he believes them to be right in that wayward teenage brain of his; he only gets distraught because in his world Spiderman is all he has. Without it he is nothing. That’s his own insecurity speaking.

In one scene that’s undoubtedly meant to be impactful and which subsequently gets referenced later, Tony Stark takes away Peter’s suit after a debacle with an ocean liner and in so many words he says that if Peter needs his suit to be someone then he doesn’t deserve it. Maybe this and the related scenes are needlessly overt in reflecting our hero’s fall and redemption but if nothing else they cast our protagonist in a positive light. He is one of us.

Another thing that constantly reminds us of this fact, has to do with the world and characters he is surrounded by. First of all, the writers do something fairly refreshing and they give him the honor of fighting a villain who is grounded on earth — a man (Michael Keaton) just trying to provide for his family. He is vengeful when the government (Tyne Daly) cancels his contract in favor of the affluent private corporation of Stark Industries. It’s a very real issue wrapped in a superhero film similar to Civil War’s antagonistic dilemma, part of what made that previous film and this one compelling.

But whereas that was a battle among friends, this picture is understandably a high school story. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing the John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldenstein writing credit not to mention the inclusion of a certain decathlon advisor (Martin Starr) making it hard not to draw up a minor Freaks & Geeks connection.

Honestly, it’s hard to put Spiderman on that level but it does begin to tease out the high school experience as Peter is forced to live a double life while chasing after Adrian Toomes and his clandestine arms operation all across town. Because just as important are his friendship with his Star Wars-loving best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon), teenage crushes, parties, National Decathlon Championships, and, of course, Homecoming.

That’s the beauty of this story. It never tries to take on some epic agenda but far from settling it finds the importance in both the hero’s journey and the growth of someone in the throes of their adolescence. Peter knows that his nighttime activities are hurting his relationship with his aunt and hindering anything that could be between him and his amiable dream girl Liz (Laura Harrier).

The film’s greatest twist (which I’ll consequently omit)  is a beautiful bit of storytelling because it links together Peter’s two worlds so openly. Before they were two entities crisscrossed and tied together like chords of his spider webbing. But there comes a point where they are so closely connected he can no longer keep them separate. He must face it all even if it can’t be resolved as he would like.

So as the Marvel Universe rolls ever onward this picture turns out to be a rewarding entry because in some respects it chooses to tell a smaller story. Still, that story has some lovely touches and a rich cast that more than carry our attention.

The fact that the school outcast (Zendaya) wears a Sylvia Plath t-shirt cracked me up as did a bit of shameless Star Wars product placement, not to mention Captain America fitness videos. But there’s also some sentimental nods as well, namely to Ferris Bueller and the war memorabilia in the Principal’s office honoring his relative who fought alongside Cap during WWII (played by Kenneth Choi in both films).

Michael Keaton turns in a surprisingly sympathetic performance as a “villain” and everybody from Marisa Tomei to Donald Glover are enjoyable in their admittedly small parts. Of course, we have the laundry list of cameos from Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Gweneth Paltrow, and Stan Lee too as expected.

I won’t harp on this topic too much but it’s obvious that Spiderman is making a concerted effort to be ethnically diverse with its cast which is awesome and refreshing on so many levels. Whether they’re trying too hard with this perfect spectrum of ethnicity is not something to criticize at this point in time. Still, it does suggest that surrounding your typical characters with a lot of diverse individuals in cameos and supporting roles is good enough. Rather than forcing these smaller roles to meet public outcry, there’s a necessity for a better solution.

If the recent Hawaii Five-O pay equality news is any indication, the current state of affairs often has more to do with how the parts were initially created whether in Spiderman or Hawaii Five-O and not how they are interpreted. What might be more radical still is creating these same types of stories and standalone parts for actors who have normally been relegated. I would love to see a Donald Glover movie (on top of Community of course), a Kenneth Choi movie, or even a Jacob Batalon movie. But while we wait, go enjoy Jon Watt’s film for all it’s worth without an ounce of reluctance.

4/5 Stars

Mouchette (1967)

mouchette 1Robert Bresson’s film is an extraordinary, melancholy tale of adolescence and as is his customs he tells his story with an assured, no-frills approach that is nevertheless deeply impactful.

There is one moment early on that sets the tone for the entire story to follow. Mouchette stands in her class as the line of young girls around her sing a song in harmony with one another. She is the only one not involved, standing sullenly as her headmistress passes behind her.

In front of the whole class, her face is dragged down to the piano keys and she is forced to sing aloud, her pitch nowhere near the mark. She goes back in line with tears in her eyes as the girls around laugh at her sheer pitifulness. But as an audience, it makes our hearts twinge with pain.

She is the girl who looks out of place at a carnival, her clothes frayed and clogs constantly clomping. She is the girl who doesn’t have enough money to pay for a ride apart from charity. She is the girl who gets hit by bumpers cars. She is the girl looking for a friend, but none can be found — the school girls having nothing to do with her and her father scolding her if she ever made eyes at a boy.

She is forced to be mother, housekeeper, and caretaker as her mother lies in bed deathly ill and her swaddled baby brother cries helplessly night and day. When her father comes home he’s of no use and when he’s out he’s quick to drink.

So in many ways, Mouchette understandably finds life unbearable. She never says that outrightly. In fact, I doubt a character in a Bresson film would say something like that because it wouldn’t feel real. It wouldn’t fit his MO. Still, every moment her head is tilted morosely or she trudges down a street corner dejectedly nothing else must be said. That’s why she slinks off into the surrounding forest and countryside to get away from all that weighs on her.

And even there she cannot find complete relief. One such night during an escapade she witnesses what looks to be a fight between two men from town who have feelings for the same woman. As they are drunk in the rocky depths of a stream, such a confrontation does not bode well. When both men go tumbling down and only one gets up, Mouchette believes she is privy to a murder. The perpetrator Arsene sees her and coalesces her to keep a lie for him, making sure she doesn’t say anything. But she’s also not safe in his presence and so she eventually flees into the night.

In the waning moments of the film, what we expected from the outset comes to fruition and Mouchette loses her mother, the only person who seemed to deeply care for her with reciprocated love. And as she wanders through town to retrieve milk for her brother, she turns off anyone and everyone who makes any pretense to help her. Of course, their help is always a backhanded or pious type of charity and in the same breath, Mouchette is not about to be thankful for them. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of sorts. All parties are to blame.

In the end, she seems to be at her happiest rolling down the grassy hills away from any sort of human sorrow or interaction. It’s a sorry existence highlighted by very few silver linings. Bresson’s film hits deep with numerous bitter notes, offering up a life that is wounded and broken. Mouchette’s tragedy is great but perhaps the most important question to ask is where does her solace come from?

It’s interesting how Bresson often focuses on bodies in action, at times it almost feels like the characters are faceless. We know them, we see them but what they do and how they move speaks volumes about who they are. Posture, actions, desires, these are the things that define characters far more than even the words that cross their lips.

4/5 Stars

Mustang (2015)

Mustang_posterThere’s something inherently striking about the title Mustang. It signifies something about the title girls, their free-spirits, billowing brown locks, continually running in a type of a herd, constantly full of life, movement, and motion. But with a mustang and any other creature full of life and vitality, there’s always an opposite force looking to impede, tame, and prod the spirit into some sort of submission. Because being free, being wild is constantly challenged in the world that we live in and this story is a prime example.

The film opens when what can be called little else except for a “tribe of girls” leave their school to go traipsing along the beach with a group of boys. In these moments we begin to understand quite well since frolicking, laughing and playing chicken are the same in every culture. But that’s not how their elders see this seemingly innocent act. Instead, it’s full of passion, lust and moral depravity.

In many ways, although it’s set in Turkey, Mustang plays with some of the same themes of Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides but it is a film that surges with vim and vigor rather than wistful detachment. And even though it has those aloof moments at times, they feel more personal because most of the time instead of being on the outside looking in, we’re constantly being shown the perspective of these girls, a far more frightening point of view.

Furthermore, this isn’t simply about one fundamentalist family that’s the outlier but an entire culture that holds women in a certain regard. There’s obviously something amiss in cultures that lack social mores and a sense of reality, but there’s something equally frightening in those cultures that are utterly repressed. Life is literally driven by fear and shame. Bringing dishonor and gaining the respect of your neighbors. A life like that can be nothing aside from taxing because you can never possibly measure up to the societal standards.

The television, the media, and everything else seems to reinforce exactly these points. Meanwhile, the girls go sneaking out to a football match only to miss the bus, only to hitch a ride with an unfortunate bystander who gets them there in time for the excitement.The images at the football match carry an almost infectious backbeat, hyperactive and frenetic with hair flying, hands flailing and bodies going every which way, but still, every action has a consequence. Every moment of freedom is met with an equal event of restraining power.

In this case, the girls are prepped and prepared for marriage, arranged between families like a shrewd business deal to save face. Their fearful grandmother and domineering uncle think it’s the best for everyone and the girls have little say in their fate.

The youngest girl, Lale, is a tomboy, a perpetual climber but she like the others feels trapped. And they are, as first one sister than another are hitched up in a marriage. But it’s when marriage no longer becomes a joyful union but a suffocating prison of unhappiness, something that it was never meant to be at all. True, one girl gets a bit lucky, the other is utterly unhappy. Still, two down and three to go. That’s the way grandmother thinks of it.

By this point, the three remaining girls are forced to find any little piece of rebellion they possibly can whether it be snickering at the dinner table or something altogether more audacious. Grandma and uncle are unrelenting in their matchmaking and finally, Lale and the only sister she has left are at a crossroads. They must take a plan of action or resign themselves to their impending fate. You can probably guess what their decision is but that doesn’t make executing it any easier.

Mustang is certainly a cultural commentary and you get the sense that it’s a very personal work by writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven. However, within its portrait of youth, womanhood, and marriage there are also some universal truths to be gleaned. There’s something to be said for freedom — in youth and adulthood. To take it lightly is to commit a grave error

4/5 Stars

Tu dors Nicole (2014)

Tu_dors_Nicole_POSTER“Nicole, you’re sleeping…”

I admire a film that is able to linger and I’ve read enough scripts to know that there is a difference between filling up scenes with mindless dialogue and slowing the action down in a way that’s inherently more lifelike. In fact, I now have an increased fascination with the films that don’t rely so much on plot points at all but characters and the everyday situations that they encounter. Because, if I’m honest, everyday situations often make up most of my life and they are most relatable to me. They’re the stories that feel the most genuine.

Just looking at Stephane Lafleur’s Canadian drama, Tu dors Nicole, a little bit of the mundane is evident. Sorting racks in a clothing store. Lazy afternoon bike rides. Lifeless neighborhood streets. Long summer days with the sound of crickets outside the window. Hot nights where you can hardly keep your eyes clamped shut due to the miserable heat that keeps you tossing and turning.  It might all seem of little consequence and in many ways it is. But in the modern arena where every film must be the next big thing, the greatest spectacle imaginable and so on, it’s actually quite refreshing when someone dares to tone it down a notch.

There are some oddly weird moments throughout the film. Namely, Martin, a boy who has the vocal range of a 30-year-old man. And the traces of harp music whenever something especially enchanting comes to the fore. Then, there are the closing images of water spouting off into the atmosphere.

However, what’s at the core of Nicole is a story of adolescence coming into adulthood. It’s not so much a coming of age narrative as emblematic of that period of transition. And if Nicole had the fragments of a prototypical plotline it would be this.

The eponymous young woman (Julianne Cote) has recently graduated college and is working a menial job. Her parents have gone away for a little vacation leaving her behind with a list of tasks to complete in their absence. She would have the house to herself if it wasn’t for her older brother who is always jamming away with his bandmates in the living room and all throughout their house. Their backbeat is constantly reverberating through Nicole’s life. She hardly gets any peace and quiet.

And yet even in the tranquil moments, our protagonist still seems a bit melancholy. Mini golf isn’t as fun as it used to be. A trip to Iceland is more fun to plan for than it is to actually go through with. Nicole gets in a row with her best friend. She loses her job after taking a few articles of clothing home with her. But life continues like it always has.

In this case, black and white is not simply an aesthetic choice but an appropriate palette to reflect the underlying tone of this film. There is a listlessness, an apathy to Nicole’s life at the moment.  The thing is it’s due to nothing in particular, at least nothing spoken aloud or seen overtly onscreen, but like life, it just is.

Our main hint comes from the title itself. Could it be that Nicole is asleep? She cannot sleep at night, because, perhaps she does her sleeping during the day–going through the motions without a great deal of purpose — without a goal to drive her. We’ve all been there. Maybe even a few moments ago. Growing up in this fashion is not always all it’s cracked up to be.

The question to ask at the end of this particular narrative is this: Have things changed? Not really. But so it is with the vicissitude of life. There will be highs and lows. Moments of vibrant colors and grayish doldrums. Quarter life crises and galvanizing flashbulb moments. Still, we keep on living, latching onto what gives our confusions and doubts even a shard of meaning. We aren’t meant to live life asleep.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

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“You can wake up now, the universe has ended.” – Jim Stark to Plato in Griffith Observatory

James Dean’s “The Rebel Without a Cause.” It’s his image as much as it is a film for many people. But if we actually take the time to examine him,  Dean subverts expectations. There’s this aura built around him as that iconic rebel–cigarette in hand–a glint in his eyes. However, the beauty of his performance as Jim Stark is how broken and even gentle it is. Certainly, we remember the moments where he screams at parents, bashes in desks and kicks paintings, but really most of his screen time is made of quiet nuances. He has no friends. He’s lonely and reserved. He just wants respect.

He wants someone to listen to him–someone to stand up for what’s right. And he feels like a pendulum swinging madly between his bickering parents, constantly making him go this way and that, moving from town to town, time and time again. It sickens him and he reacts in the only way he knows.

Rebel is just as much a subversive film, being so daring as to suggest that juvenile delinquency is a sort of created social construct. Kids do bad things, sure, teens are no good, but if you dig around a bit and look in the closets, the skeletons reveal themselves in due time. We now conveniently call them “family of origin issues,” but that puts everything in a nice box when the reality is actually very messy.

That’s why the crucial scene in Rebel is when our three solitary teens go to Plato’s (Sal Mineo) abandoned mansion getaway in the dead of night.  Alone it would be a house of horrors, but in community, they make it a pleasant affair–even playing a game of house complete with stuffy honeymooners, who don’t want kids unless they never have to see or talk to them again and a realtor who is is willing to give them the place for $3 million a month (Thankfully the newlyweds have a budget!). In essence, amidst their jests, they’ve become one happy family, finding a bit of solace from the asphyxiation of the world around them. The world accentuated by not only their parents but their peers too. However, it cannot last.

It’s these moments that feel so light and carefree and that’s the key. Blink and you’ll miss them. Look away and the bubble is popped. Focus on the drama and you’ll get it all wrong. Because the moments of drama are exactly the moments that you expect to get some deeper understanding of their psyches. You look at Jim in the now iconic scene on the staircase, quarreling with his parents or Plato running off like a frightened rabbit packing a gun. We can shake our heads and ask “why,” but if we only sit back and listen, it becomes all too obvious.

If Mr. and Mrs. Stark just listened, if Judy’s parent’s paid heed to her, if Plato actually had parents present in his life, maybe they could see what was “tearing them apart.” The suffocating hopelessness of the world that seems magnified tenfold in your adolescent years, as things are changing so rapidly. You’re getting pressured beyond belief and to top it off, it seems like no one understands you — not in the least.

Thanks be to Nicholas Ray for bringing such an intimate study of youth to light, because it’s certainly melodrama, elevated by the unpredictable magic that is James Dean. That’s often the spotlight of this film and quite understandably so, given the lore around his legendary career and tragic death.

But cull its depths and there’s even more if we look at how everything is initially foreshadowed at the Observatory, where the man in a droll tone nonchalantly summarizes the insignificant end of earth–only an infinitesimal speck in the patchwork of the universe (In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence).

Buzz tells Jim before their “Chickie Run” that he actually kind of likes the guy now, but still, “You gotta do something. Don’t you?” It’s the despondency of their existence. Buzz soon dies and people hardly bat an eye.

Never before had I considered how this entire story unfolds in the course of one tragic day. It’s not realism by any means, but instead, it’s bursting with the passion and pain as reflected by Ray’s camera and impeccable use of color.  It’s as if the teenage experience is being wholly magnified and consolidated into a single moment. That’s what Rebel Without a Cause embodies.

5/5 Stars

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10_things_i_hate_about_you_filmThe opening notes of Joan Jett hollering “Bad Reputation” made me grow wistfully nostalgic for Freaks & Geeks reruns. The hope budded that maybe 10 Things I Hate About You would be the same tour de force narrative brimming with the same type of candor. It is not. Not at all. But that’s okay. It has its own amount of charms that forgive the obvious chinks in the armor of this very loose adaptation.

True, its story reads exactly like a book or rather a play, William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew to be exact, but 10 Things I Hate About You succeeds due to the chemistry and charisma of its players. There is a genuine concern on the part of the audience as we watch them go through the interludes and rhythms that we already foresee beforehand. This is not the reinvention of the wheel in terms of high school romance films — not by a long shot — but the script coauthored by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith is equal parts lithe and witty. There’s actually some life to it, even if the plot is an age-old rehash of the Bard. It makes knowing what will happen next of lesser importance and more crucial how the resulting events will affect our protagonists — how they will deal with the inevitable teen drama.

Because the set-up is simple. There are two sisters. For arbitrary reasons, one of the said sisters cannot go to a party unless her older sister is also present. That’s at the behest of their resident oddball father who’s also a bit of a worrywart. Important for this tale is that everyone in school seems to know the set-up too. The smart aleck cool kid Joey Donner is looking to bed the perky Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) for the very reason that she is untouchable. Meanwhile, the starry-eyed new kid Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls instantly in love with this blonde vision. He doesn’t realize he has competition.

However, it all seems for naught due to Bianca’s “shrewish” sister Katherine (Julie Stiles) whose acerbic outlook on life seems destined to lead to dismal isolation. It’s no wonder she curls up in her living room with Sylvia Plath. Still, not to be outdone Joey enlists the help of resident bad boy Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to win Kat over and get her on a date. So right there you have the basis for the entire film with our two sisters and two parallel love stories (or loathe stories) with the cool kid running interference while also putting Patrick on his payroll.

At this point, it’s not necessary to get into all the gory details because we’ve probably seen them all before. But for some strange unknowable reasons I accept its cliches and sappiness and that, once again, I credit to the cast. Ledger and Stiles work well together churning up the sparks, he by exemplifying an equal dose of good-natured charm and roguishness.  She is simultaneously able to balance the necessary contempt with genuine care. She cares for her sister, her father, and ultimately Patrick as well. Larisa Oleynik is a capable counterpoint to Stiles and although his role feels relatively minor, Levitt wins the sympathies of any person ever on the outside earnestly looking in.

A major highlight involves Ledger lip syncing to Frankie Valli with synchronized band accompaniment as he tries to win back Kat while concurrently evading campus security. It’s in such a devilishly charming (or dorky) moment where he seems to have won Kat over for good. Although that’s not quite the case, he has the audience on his side for a great deal of the time after that. It only takes the final act for Kat to get there too. It takes a literature assignment of gushy poetry about how much she hates him, for her to realize that she hates being without him even more. Is this destructive? Maybe, but this is a movie about teenagers and teenagers aren’t supposed to have everything figured out. That’s part of the reason why we still readily watch movies about them.

3.5/5 Stars