Monday, November 25, 2013

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey Question: Culturally Savvt Gifts


Q: Hannukah starts on Wednesday and Black Friday follows soon after. What are you buying your culturally savvy loved ones this year?

Um, nothing? In all honesty my family and I (and this goes for my wife’s family as well) are so different when it comes to what we love culturally that I tend to stay far away from those sorts of presents for them – sticking to old standbys like soap and alcohol. Every washes, everyone drinks, so we’re good, right? One brother stopped taking my movie advice after I told him to see About Schmidt in 2002 and he hated it. The other, I’m not sure has seen a movie in the theater since Inception. My sister-in-law did recently mention her interest in Devil’s Knot, so perhaps a gift basket that includes the excellent book by Mara Leveritt, all three Paradise Lost films and West of Memphis and a note telling her to stay far away from Atom Egoyan’s horrible version coming out next year? Perhaps the best thing to get them “culturally” would simply be movie passes or gift certificates. That way, they can see whatever the hell they want – and if they waste them on crap, oh well. At least they’re going to the movie, which they don’t often do.

Now, what would I like this Christmas? Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection for starters. The Crtierion Shoah for another (I may find it impossible to not watch it for another year if it stared at me all the time). Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep – which I’ll remain too cheap to buy until it comes out on paperback otherwise.

Movie Review: Nebraska

Nebraska
Directed by: Alexander Payne.
Written by: Bob Nelson.
Starring: Bruce Dern (Woody Grant), Will Forte (David Grant), June Squibb (Kate Grant), Bob Odenkirk (Ross Grant), Stacy Keach (Ed Pegram), Mary Louise Wilson (Aunt Martha), Rance Howard (Uncle Ray), Tim Driscoll (Bart), Devin Ratray (Cole), Angela McEwan (Peg Nagy), Gelndora Stitt (Aunt Betty), Elizabeth Moore (Aunt Flo), Kevin Kunkel (Cousin Randy), Dennis McCoig (Uncle Verne), Ronald Vosta (Uncle Albert), Missy Doty (Nöel), John Reynolds (Bernie Bowen).

Nebraska is a homecoming of sorts of Alexander Payne. He was born and raised in the state, and his first three films – Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999) and About Schmidt (2002) were all set there. While all three of those films were critically acclaimed (especially the latter two), there was also concern among some critics that Payne – like the shot often leveled at the Coen brothers – was mocking his characters, that he felt superior to them, and was looking down at them. I don’t remember too many people leveling that criticism at Payne’s last two films – Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), neither of which were set in his home state, but rather in California and Hawaii, but the criticism has returned with this latest film. It has never been a criticism I have fully understood – especially since it so rarely happens from a critic who is actually from the Midwest. Like the Coens, Payne specializes in characters who start off looking like caricatures, but gradually reveal hidden depths to them, becoming far more than what we first expect them to be. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nebraska – if you do not come away from Nebraska thinking Payne did nothing but mock his characters, I wonder if you were paying attention to the whole movie.

The film stars the great Bruce Dern as Woody Grant – a retired mechanic who lives in Billings, Montana with his profane, nagging wife Kate (June Squibb). The pair have two sons – Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who has made a success of himself as a local TV reporter, who may just get his shot at anchoring the local news – and is also married with a couple of kids, and David (Will Forte) who works in one of those big box stores trying to sell stereo equipment and whose girlfriend left him because she was tired of waiting to be proposed to.

Woody is old and stubborn – and possibly going a little senile. His sons have never really gotten along with Woody – he always kept his feelings to himself, drank too much and could be brutally honest – which is another way of saying he could be mean. When he gets a letter in the mail telling him he has won a million dollars and all he has to do is return this letter to Lincoln, Nebraska – with a list of the magazines he would like to subscribe to – he is determined to go there and collect his money. Everyone tells Woody it’s nothing but a scam, but he is convinced that he is a millionaire. He can longer drive, and Kate refuses to indulge his fantasy. Ross, who is fed up with the old man, agrees with her. But David thinks there is no harm in indulging the old man for a few days. He is determined to get to Nebraska by any means necessary – he keeps getting picked up on the side the road walking there – even though it’s hundreds of miles away. So David decides to take the old man to Lincoln, so he can see for himself there is no money. Through a series of unforeseen events, they cannot make to Lincoln by Friday, so they have to take a detour to Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne – where David spent his childhood, but neither of them have been in years. Woody doesn’t want to go, but they don’t have much choice. There they meet their extended family – and an old “friend” Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) – and Woody becomes the talk of the town when he tells everyone he’s going to collect a million dollars. Of course, everyone believes they are entitled to share in Woody’s windfall.

This is the first film that Payne has directed that he has not also written – and yet the screenplay by Bob Nelson fits Payne just about perfectly – so perfectly in fact, that if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn Payne had written it. The film is clever and funny – yet it never veers into over the top comedy. The humor comes from its characters, and feels natural all the way through. As always, Payne gets excellent performances from his actors – even those in the smallest of roles. Woody’s large collection of brothers for example really do seem like they could be related to each other. Like Woody, these men don’t say a lot, and when they do talk, much of it is meaningless. One pair of twin cousins – are also just about perfect – natural with each other, and their banter is pitch perfect. There are other actors with just one or two scenes – an old man who comes to greet Woody on a bench, the old woman who runs the local paper, an older couple the family inadvertently comes across, who couldn’t fit in better with the rest of the movie. I’ve mentioned the Coens before in this review, and it’s natural to bring them up again here, because like them, Payne populates even these tiny roles with memorable faces and voices – these small roles have a way of sticking in your head when the movie is over. These are scenes – in particular an extended shot of all the brothers watching football – that have led some to think Payne is mocking his characters. While that scene is played for humor, there is an underlying truth to it (I may not be from the Midwest, but I certainly have been to a gathering not all that different from that one).

These small roles help to set the atmosphere that the principal cast fits into perfectly as well. I haven’t seen Stacy Keach in a film in a while (although I hear his wonderful voice every time I watch American Greed), and he makes Ed Pegram into one of the film’s most memorable characters – a man with such a sweet voice, who seems like the nicest guy in the world, until he lowers his voice just a touch and becomes menacing. Bob Odenkirk makes the most of his role as Ross – the brother who “made it”, who is sick of his old man – and bitter about past slights – but not enough to abandon him. June Squibb – who Payne memorably cast in a very small role in About Schmidt as Jack Nicholson’s wife (all these years later, I still have the image of her walking to her car, holding her keys in my head) – is a comedic firecracker as Kate. She is the broadest of the characters in the movie, and yet Squibb never goes too far. She may be a nag, but with a husband like Woody, can you really blame her? This is the type of role an older character actress never gets – Squibb knows this, and makes the most of it.

The film centers though on Bruce Dern’s Woody and Will Forte’s Dave. I wouldn’t necessarily say the pair bond over the course of the movie – that would be too sentimental for a Alexander Payne movie, but David does grow to understand his father more through the course of the trip – even if much of that understanding remains unspoken. I have no idea what made Payne think of Forte – best known for his often brilliant, but always broad, characters on Saturday Night Live – but it works wonderfully in the film. Forte underplays his role, even as he drives much of the plot (the aforementioned scene of the men watching TV together gets funnier as it goes along, if you concentrate on Forte, who never says a word). As for Dern, this may be the best performance of his long career. He has always been a great actor – but one Hollywood was never quite sure what to do with. He was at his best in the 1970s, playing slightly (or not so slightly) unhinged characters in films like Bob Rafelson’s underrated The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) or Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978). In Woody Grant, he plays a character whose life hasn’t always been great – it has been filled with disappointment and missed opportunities – and he has drank a lot to try to get over those problems. Even now, with the end near, he doesn’t bitch and complain about his life – he just wants to do what he wants. This is a role that could easily have been nothing but caricature – the old, profane coot, who ends up being lovable, but Dern - and the screenplay – make it more complicated than that. Dern refuses to sand off the rough edges of Woody – he is the same man at the end of the movie, as he was at the beginning. Yet, as we get to know him through the course of the movie, we do start to love Woody Grant – asshole that he can be. That’s a testament to Dern, who delivers one of the very best performances of the year.
 
The film was shot in black and white – or more accurately, grey – and that’s fitting to the rest of the movie. This is a movie about life’s disappointments, and tiny triumphs. There is no doubt that Payne isn’t romanticizing life in his home state of Nebraska – the lives of the people in his film can be dull and grey. But he isn’t mocking them either. As with all of Payne’s best films, this is one that sneaks up on you. You may well be surprised by just how moved you are by the end of this film. I was.

Movie Review: Dear Mr. Watterson

Dear Mr. Watterson
Directed by: Joel Allen Schroeder.

I was probably the perfect age to fall in love with Calvin & Hobbes – which remains my favorite comic strip. Bill Watterson created them in 1985 – and I would have been four at that time, and ended their run in 1995, when I would have been 14. I cannot quite remember when during that time I “discovered” Calvin & Hobbes, but I did, and read them every day in our local paper – and had quite a few of their books as well. The new documentary Dear Mr. Watterson was made by Joel Allen Schroeder – who is roughly my age – and the purpose of the documentary is to examine what made Calvin & Hobbes so special – and why nearly 20 years after it stopped running new strips, it is still one of the most beloved comics of all time. The film doesn’t have an interview with Watterson himself – he’s almost like the JD Salinger of comics, in that he never gives interviews, he values his privacy, and refused to license the rights of his creation – which cost him tens of millions of dollars – and he seems just fine with that. Just think of the TV specials, plush toys and fast good giveaways over the years that the characters from Peanuts or Garfield have appeared in, and you’ll get the idea of just what Watterson could have done with his creation if he wanted to. But he didn’t. For him, Calvin & Hobbes is precisely what he always intended it to be – a comic strip, and nothing else.

Calvin & Hobbes has endured for several reasons – some related to Watterson, and some not. It has endured in part because it did have a limited run – most successful comics run for far longer than 10 years, but because Watterson cut it off when he did, the comic itself never grew stale – never repeated itself too much. It was still at the top of its game when it ended. His decision not to license it also helped – we never grew tired of his characters from seeing them in countless TV specials or trying to sell us insurance, and having their face plastered on every piece of merchandise conceivable. But Watterson’s comic strip also came along at precisely the right time, and ended at the right time as well. As many of the comic strip artists in the film point out, the medium – like everything else in traditional media – has changed drastically in recent years. More and more people do not get a daily paper any more – they get their news online. So people do not discover comics in the same way  – you actually have to go out and find them yourself, which means fewer and fewer people actually do.

Calvin & Hobbes has also survived because it is, quite simply, a brilliant comic strip. Teachers and parents recommend it to their kids – who love it just as much as those teachers and parents did when they were kids. There is a timeless quality to Calvin & Hobbes, and it is instantly relatable to any kid out there. It means something more to them that just making them laugh – which it still does. The strip, perhaps more than anything other piece of art in any medium I can think of, captures precisely what it is like to be a kid – that fantasy world they go off into, that confuses adults, but seems perfectly normal to children.

The film Dear Mr. Watterson is an average documentary. Schroeder admits he doesn’t really have any expertise when it comes to comics strips – he’s just a fan of Calvin and Hobbes and wanted to explore what it meant to people, and why it has had the impact it did. It doesn’t really matter that he doesn’t have expertise – many of the people he interviews does. You can hear it in the way almost everyone speaks about Calvin & Hobbes and Bill Watterson – a mixture of awe, envy, jealously, and even a little bitterness. His fellow artist all admit that they loved Calvin & Hobbes – they also wish they could do something like as good as it was. They can also be defensive about their own decision to license their characters. One artist makes the point – a valid one, I think – that it wasn’t just artistic purity that drove Watterson to not license his characters- but stubbornness, and control issues. As soon as you let other people into our creation – to make toys or TV shows or whatever else, you give up a certain amount of control. It’s now not just you deciding things – but a whole group of people. People who are drawn to this sort of work are not the most naturally social people in the world – they spend all day at a desk by themselves, drawing and writing their strips. They have complete freedom and control. As soon as you license it, you lose that complete control.

No matter the reason why Calvin & Hobbes has endured, it has endured – and it deserves to. The film is like many recent documentaries – a film made by a fan, for other fans. Perhaps a deeper film could be made about Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes – but you would almost certainly need his participation to make that film, and I don’t see that happening any time too soon. Perhaps the best reason to see the film is remind you why you loved Calvin & Hobbes so much in the first place. Since watching the film, I’ve gone back through the one collection of it that I still own (the one that survived) – and when that wasn’t enough, I went to the library and checked out a few more. The library books have taken a beating – they are dog eared, have rips and have been taped back together. They have been well loved by many – which is fitting. If for no other reason, I’m happy I saw Dear Mr. Watterson because it has inspired me to spend a few more hours with my old friends Calvin & Hobbes.

Movie Review: Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer
Directed by: Zachary Heinzerling.

Cutie and Boxer belongs in a category with many recent documentaries about artists – like Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry or Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (among many others) in that it offers an insight into the work of an important contemporary artist. But Cutie and the Boxer is also somewhat different as well. Because while Ushio Shinohara is acknowledged as important by many in the art world – he has no trouble getting numerous gallery shows, and even has the Guggeinheim interested in purchasing his work – simply being acknowledged as important has not translated into many recent sales. He and his wife Noriko can barely pay their rent. And Noriko herself makes the documentary different as well – she’s an artist in her own right, but a much less celebrated one. She has been working on the story of her life with Ushio through art – which is not an overly flattering picture of Ushio – but fewer people seem to care. Ushio himself refers to her as “just his assistant” when it comes to her art – and says “the average one has to help the genius”. When he says that, you understand why her art doesn’t paint an overly flattering picture of him. Cutie and the Boxer ends up being a rare artist centric documentary – one that isn’t just in awe of the artist at its center. It is also a portrait of real working artists – the ones who live for months on not very much money, and have to sell what they produce.

Watching the movie I came to understand two things about Ushio Shinohara’s art – one the reason why it is considered important, and two, why it doesn’t really sell that well. He seems to specialize in two different kinds of art. He “paints” with boxing gloves, which he dips into paint, and then punches his wall sized canvases, moving from right to left. There is an undeniable energy to the art – and yet, it is also impossible to deny that all the painting look pretty much the same – the only variation being the colors. He has been at this for 50 years. The paintings are striking – and yet I also understand why no one would buy them. Would you want a wall sized canvas with a punch of boxing glove sized punches in paint on them? Where would you hang such a painting? And is it something you would want to look at every day? His other art are sculptures, of all sizes ranging from huge to quite small – almost all of which seem to be of demented motorcycles. The same question remains about them – would you want one of these in your house? What the hell would you do with it? It’s admirable that Shinohara has stuck with his art for so long. He almost certainly could produce more commercial art – but he has his vision, and he’s sticking to it, consequences be damned.

Noriko’s story is even more fascinating than her husband’s. She is 20 years younger than he is, and when she moved to New York, from Japan, as an impressionable 19 year old woman she was immediately drawn to Ushio and his art – was flattered by the attention, and quickly fell in love with him. Now, 40 years later, you can tell she still loves Ushio – but that love has been tempered a little bit. He was a drunk for most of his life – was not a very good provider or father to their son, who seems to be struggling with the same issues his father did in what little time we see him. Her own art is very different from her husbands – and could make a beautiful graphic novel if that’s the direction she wanted to go with it. Even if Ushio seems to be dismissive of her work, he doesn’t seem to mind that she portrays him as a drunken brute in it. He knows who he was.

Ultimately what emerges is a portrait of a complex marriage – one in which both partners love each other, support each other, are competitive with each other, and even at times are jealous of each other. Their marriage has not been one long, happy run – but it has survived. It reminded me of a way of the answer George Harrison’s widow gives in the Martin Scorsese documentary on the former Beatle: When asked what the secret of a long marriage is, she answered simply: “Not getting divorced”. It was true in that documentary, and it’s true here as well. It has not been an easy life or marriage for either Ushio or Noriko – but they haven’t gotten divorced yet.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Movie Review: We're the Millers

We’re the Millers
Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Written by: Bob Fisher & Steve Faber and Sean Anders & John Morris.
Starring: Jennifer Aniston (Rose O'Reilly), Jason Sudeikis (David Clark), Emma Roberts (Casey Mathis), Will Poulter (Kenny Rossmore), Ed Helms (Brad Gurdlinger), Nick Offerman (Don Fitzgerald), Kathryn Hahn (Edie Fitzgerald), Molly C. Quinn (Melissa Fitzgerald), Tomer Sisley (Pablo Chacon), Matthew Willig (One-Eye), Luis Guzmán (Mexican Cop), Thomas Lennon (Rick Nathanson), Mark L. Young (Scottie P.).

There’s nothing particularly bad about We’re the Millers. Yes, it’s a fairly lazy, uninspired comedy, but it’s agreeable enough. It takes a group of talented, mainly TV actors, and puts them in a sitcom situation and let’s that play out precisely the way the audience expects it to. It’s not painful to sit through We’re the Millers, yet I can’t say there’s any particular reason that you should. It is a film almost completely devoid of ambition other to be precisely what it is – a big screen network sitcom. Films like this become a hit when there’s not a whole lot else to see at the multiplex, which is what happened here. It came out at just the right time – the other summer comedies had pretty much run their course, and there was nothing else to see - if you wanted to see a comedy in the late summer of 2013, you didn’t really have another option. I suspect most audiences were mildly amused for two hours, and then stumbled out into the parking lot, never to think of the film again.

The film stars Jason Sudeikis as David – another overgrown man child at the center of a Hollywood comedy. Although in his late 30s, he’s still dealing weed and he lacks the ambition to even move up in that profession – still slinging dime bags to whoever wants them (but not kids – he has morals you see). David gets himself into a tight situation when he’s robbed of his money – including his payment to his boss Brad (Ed Helms). But Brad gives him an out – if he’ll go down to Mexico and bring back a shipment of weed, the debt is forgiven, and Dave will even make a big score. Dave doesn’t want to do this, but doesn’t really have a choice. But he comes up with a plan – a single guy driving across the border sends up a red flag – but a family in a RV wouldn’t. So he recruits his stripper neighbor Rose (Jennifer Aniston) to pose as his wife, the lonely loser kid Kenny (Will Poulter) in his building and homeless teenage girl Casey (Emma Roberts) to pose as his family.

The movie plays out precisely how you would expect it to. Along the way, they meet another family (with parents played by the talented Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn), who seem to be precisely the type of family they are pretending to be. And, of course, Brad didn’t quite tell Dave the truth about the drug shipment – so they also have a Mexican drug cartel on their heels - these guys aren’t quite as heartless as the ones in The Counselor – they’re more bumbling idiots than anything else.

Aniston has an easy, relaxed charm about her – which is precisely why she became a star in the first place. I never quite bought her as a stripper – but she’s good when she’s pretending to be a perfect mother. Sudeikis is already missed on Saturday Night Live, and he as well, has an unforced charm about him – again, I’m not sure I buy him as a drug dealer, but for most of the movie he’s just got to be a self-centered asshole, which he can do. Emma Roberts and Will Poulter are fine as their pretend kids, and Offerman, Hahn and Helms provide precisely the type of support you expect from all three of them.

The movie doesn’t have very many laugh-out-loud moments, but has a few that made me chuckle. I was never really involved in the movie in anyway, but it certainly wasn’t painful to watch it. The film is lazy and uninspired; it takes the path of least resistance and ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. I find it hard to express any passion about this film in anyway – it certainly isn’t a good movie, but it isn’t terrible either. It’s just kind of there. It’s mildly pleasant when you’re watching it, and then instantly forgettable once it’s done.

Movie Review: Informant

Informant
Directed by: Jamie Meltzer.
Written by: Jamie Meltzer.  

Every person interviewed in Jamie Meltzer’s excellent documentary Informant has  very strong feelings about Brandon Darby. Here is a man who started off a grass roots political activist on the left – who helped out in New Orleans after Katrina, when the government response was woefully slow – and stayed on there for years, as a co-founder of Common Ground, an organization meant to help the mostly poor, mostly black residents rebuild their communities – and protect themselves. The police didn’t like him – they thought he was dangerous – and many of the people who worked with him at Common Ground found him to be egomaniacal – and a little too extreme in his beliefs, and his seeming hunger for “Revolution”. So, of course, it comes to a surprise to all of them – even those who didn’t like him, that Darby ended up becoming an FBI Informant – first turning in someone he believed to have ties with overseas terrorism, and then turning in a group of screwed-up, incompetent kids who built Molotov cocktails (out of stuff they bought at Wal-Mart), to use at the Republican National Convention. Strangely, Darby is now a popular speaker to the Tea Party movement, and is hated by those on the left.

No matter what you think of Darby – that’s a hero or a traitor or anything in between – it’s pretty much impossible to deny he’s got a huge ego – something the numerous interviews he gives in the movie makes fairly clear – as does the fact that he goes along with Meltzer in “re-enactments” of everything he does. No matter what Darby does – whether it’s working with Common Ground or the FBI – it seems like his top priority is always himself. He is fully invested in seeing himself as a hero, and sees nothing inconsistent with anything he has done.

The truth is though, that Darby is a mess of contradictions, and so it’s appropriate that movie is as well. While for much of the running time, you would be forgiven in thinking that the film agrees with much of what his former colleagues – who view him as a traitor to the cause – think of him, Meltzer also gets some rather telling admissions for them in the film’s late stages – admitting they don’t think blowing up property is a violent crime, and sometimes it’s wholly justified. And you can blame Darby for turning on the undeniably young, stupid, naïve protesters if you want to – but they did in fact build Molotov cocktails, and did have an ill-thought out plan to deploy them. They claim they weren’t actually going to use them – and that may well be true – but they did build them, and did get caught with them, and wouldn’t someone who was planning on using them still deny they were after they were arrested? Darby may have manipulated them, and made them do things they may otherwise not have done, but we’ll never really know for sure.

Informant is no less fascinating because it doesn’t ever express a final opinion on Darby – in fact it’s perhaps more interesting because of it. The movie implies that perhaps no final opinion can be formed about him, because he is impossible to pin down. He has an ego, he looks out for himself, and always feels he’s in the right. He also has a tendency to wildly swing from one direction to another, embracing extremes on both sides. I’m not sure even Darby knows who he really is.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ranking Spike Lee

Spike Lee has had an interesting career to say the least. He is, to me undeniably, the best African American filmmaker in history – but more than that, he’s a great filmmaker by any measure. But he has a tumultuous, uneven filmography. Having said that, while he has certainly bad some bad movies, he has never made an uninteresting one – even his “failures” have something of interest in them. Like with Scorsese last year, I decided not to rank Lee’s many documentaries among his features – and I include the wonderful “concert” film Passing Strange among those. They are a different animal, and perhaps worthy of their own post – but I haven’t seen them all, so I won’t do one at this time. So on the eve of Oldboy being released, this is a look back at his 18 feature films. I have high hopes for Oldboy – as it’s based on a great Korean movie, has a wonderful cast, and a great trailer. Back in 2006, when Lee made Inside Man, I thought perhaps he had found a secret to making great movies in this new age – a genre film, that is still undeniably the auteur’s film. It hasn’t quite worked out that way since – but maybe Oldboy will get him back on track.

18. Girl 6 (1996)
The biggest knock on Spike Lee is that his female characters are never as interesting as their male counterparts. So perhaps it’s inevitable that one of the few movies in his filmography centered on a female character is his worst – even if it is written by a woman. The film is basically a male fantasy disguised as a female empowerment movie. The main character is played by Theresa Randle, as an aspiring actress who works for a phone sex line to pay the bills – and finds she prefers the fantasy world of the calls, to real men. This is, of course, the opposite of what we would normally think – the men are paying for the fantasy of talking dirty to the women, who provide the service for a fee. That the movie is rather aimless in terms of its plot doesn’t help, but the biggest problem is that you never believe the central concept – or the main character. The rest of the film doesn’t stand a chance.

17. Red Hook Summer (2012)
Lee’s latest film is perhaps the messiest one he has ever made. It tells the story of a young teenager dropped off in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook by his mother to spend the summer with the grandfather he doesn’t know. The best thing about the movie is Clarke Peters amazing performance as the grandfather – a Baptist preacher idolized by his very small congregation. He keeps the movie as grounded as possible, as Lee moves through his overstuffed and meandering plot, that has one twist too many at the end. That final plot twist derails the movie, but it had problems well before then – specifically that other than Peters, none of the performances are very good. This is Lee at his rawest – it actually feels like a film by a promising young director, rather than an established master. There are things in Red Hook Summer to admire, but basically, the film is a mess.

16. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
I am more than willing to concede that in 1986, a film like She’s Gotta Have It must have seem almost revolutionary to many. This was an indie film, by a black filmmaker, about black characters, that wasn’t about crime and poverty – but instead was about sexuality. It marked Lee as a filmmaker to watch – and he’s more than fulfilled the promise that She’s Gotta Have It shows. Yet like Girl 6, She’s Gotta Have It really doesn’t seem to understand it’s central character, and really seems to be more of a male fantasy than what it purports to be – an exploration of female sexuality. The central character is played by Tracy Camilla Johns, playing a promiscuous young artist, juggling three very different men – and then, for some reason, there’s also a lesbian thrown in as well, although her portrayal is positively cringe worthy nearly 30 years later. She’s Gotta Have It certainly has a place in American Indie movie history – and among Lee’s filmography. But it’s a film that is far more interesting in terms of what it shows was possible to do with no budget, and what Lee would later do, than it is on its own terms.

15. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Mo’ Better Blues is a solid, respectable film that is certainly less flawed than some of the movies that I rank higher, but also a little less interesting. It plays very much like a standard issue musical biopic (although Lee does upend some clichés of the genre) except, of course, it’s not really a biopic as there was never a musician named Bleek played by Denzel Washington in his first pairing with Lee. Lee obviously knows the world of New York Jazz clubs – being the son of a jazz musician himself – and the look and feel of the movie is just about right, and the performances – by Washington, who is almost willfully self-destructive, Wesley Snipes as a member of his band who wants the spotlight, Cynda Williams and Joie Lee as the opposite women in Bleek’s life, and Lee himself as his gambling addicted manager – are all excellent as well. There is not much to complain about in Mo’ Better Blues – except I feel like I’ve seen this film before, and done better – and I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it.

14. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Out of all Spike Lee’s films, Miracle at St. Anna is perhaps the most frustrating – because there are scenes of greatness in the movie, scenes that are different from practically any other WWII movie I have seen, but they are marred by a lot of scenes that really don’t belong in the film. The film tells the story of four Americans caught behind enemy lines in Italy in WWII – three black men and a Puerto Rican. They are angry about their treatment in America – where during basic training, they are treated worse than Nazi prisoners of War, and suffer racism at the hands of their superior officers. This is an important story – because it’s not the way things are usually presented in WWII movies (which far too often, ignore African Americans soldiers completely). And there is also a wonderful battle sequence in the movie that really should be more widely seen. But there are too many subplots – anything in modern day could be jettisoned without losing anything, and the story of the bond between the gentle giant soldier and a young Italian boy doesn’t fit). There is so much to like in Miracle at St. Anna – and it’s far better than the reviews suggest it was – but there are so many flaws in the movie as well.

13. She Hate Me (2004)
I have a feeling most lists of Lee’s films would probably have She Hate Me as his worst. I cannot really argue with the points that many critics have used to beat the movie to death. There is no doubt that movie is offensive and ridiculous. It is about a man (Anthony Mackie) who loses his high paying job when he becomes a whistleblower, and in order to make ends meet, starts impregnating lesbians for $10,000 each. Oh, and not only that, he usually impregnates them the first time, and the sex is not just by the book, standard issue baby making sex, but earth shattering sex – for both him and the lesbians. And then Lee throws in a bunch of other stuff as well. So no, you can’t really believe any of She Hate Me. But this is a movie that is so brazen and in your face, and so gleefully over the top and politically incorrect, you have to kind of admire it. I’m not quite sure I agree with Roger Ebert that Lee is in on the joke, and instead of making a movie that condemns what the film seems to celebrate, he decided to take the opposite tact, and celebrate it, so the audience draws the same conclusions that they would have had he condemned it – but then would have felt preached at. But maybe Lee did. He’s not an idiot after all. But whatever the intentions of She Hate Me, it is an unforgettable mess of a movie – that I would gladly watch again.

12. School Daze (1988)
Lee’s second film, School Daze, was a major step forward for Lee – and already showed his willingness to tackle taboo subject matter within the African American community. It takes place at an all-black university that seems deeply divided. There are those, like Laurence Fishburne, who reject the conservative administration and Greek frats, and those, like Giancarlo Esposito, who embrace it. There is an even a musical number between two sets of black women – the lighter skinned ones with straight hair, and the dark skins ones with short hair and afros, that expresses their differences better than any dialogue would. And then there is a painful scene where Esposito talks his girlfriend into deflowering a frat pledge – played by Lee himself – and then condemns her for it. In a way, School Daze may well be the best film Lee has ever made about African American women. The movie is still flawed – it tries to cram too much in, like many of Lee’s films, and its ragged around the edges. But it goes for broke like no one except Lee would ever attempt to do.

11. Get on the Bus (1996)
Get on the Bus was made by Lee quickly and cheaply when he got funding for a group of black celebrities. It is about a group of men travelling from L.A. to Washington D.C. on a bus for the Million Man March. The men are wildly different – from their reasonable leader, to the old man who remembers more clearly the abuses of the past, to a father and son who have to be chained together, to a cop, to a former gang banger who now does social work, to a gay couple who still finds prejudice on the bus from one of the other passengers, to a silent member of the Nation of Islam. Like some of the film I already listed, Get on the Bus feels at times to be largely improvised – like Lee is making it up as he goes along. And yet, unlike many of those films, he sustains that tone for the whole movie. This isn’t Lee’s most ambitious film, nor his best, but in its own quiet way, it’s profound – and it’s hard to find anything wrong with the film.

10. Crooklyn (1994)
Crooklyn is Lee’s most nostalgic film – and in some ways, his most innocent. It is not an autobiography of his life growing up, but it was inspired by it (and co-written his brother and sister). It is about a large family in Brooklyn in the early 1970s, and perhaps Lee’s greatest accomplishment is that they actually do feel like a family – the kids needle each other in just the way only brothers and sisters can do, the parents love each other, but are stressed, and at times don’t really like each other. The movie looks back at a more innocent time – before crime ruined Lee’s neighborhood. In many ways, it’s a laid back film, which Lee hasn’t often made – but a funny, perceptive and emotional one.

9. Summer of Sam (1999)
Summer of Sam takes place in New York in the sweltering heat of the 1977, when David Berkowitz was out shooting couples in their cars. Berkowitz is a minor character in the film – a pathetic man, who spends most of his time freaking out in his small apartment, yelling at his neighbor’s dog. But most of the movie is about two couples – a hairdresser (John Leguizamo) who cheats on his wife (Mira Sorvino), and the local kid (Adrien Brody) who has become a “punk rocker”, donned a British accent and works at a gay strip club, although he also has a girlfriend (Jennifer Esposito). As in many of Lee’s films, the film is really about this insular neighborhood – where everyone knows everyone else and as the paranoia about the Son of Sam serial killer reaches a fever pitch – they need to find someone to blame. One of Lee’s only films not to have a major black character, yet still undeniably his film, Summer of Sam is one of Lee’s more underrated films.

8. Jungle Fever (1991)
Jungle Fever is a fascinating movie about a black man (Wesley Snipes) and a white woman (Annabella Sciorra) who are attracted to each other for the wrong reasons. They throw their family lives into tumult, and all because of lust, not genuine affection or love. Lest you think Lee is suggesting blacks and whites shouldn’t date, in a subplot he offers another potential interracial couple – as John Turturro, the rejected fiancé of the Sciorra character, is drawn to a black woman – but not out of lust, but because he genuinely likes her, and she him. There is a lot of great things in Jungle Fever – not least of which is Samuel L. Jackson’s star making performance as Gator, Snipes’ drug addicted brother, but most of them are outside the two main characters, who are not quite as interesting together, as they are apart – with their families, and the reactions that they bring up. I do, however, think that is by design – after all, the whole point of the movie is that these two people have nothing in common, and shouldn’t be together anyway. Lee approaches interracial relationships in his own way – no one else could have made Jungle Fever the same way, so while there are flaws here, it remains one of his best films.

7. He Got Game (1998)
He Got Game is a basketball movie, that really isn’t about basketball. It’s about a lot of things. Denzel Washington gives one of his best performances as a man who is in jail for killing his wife – somewhat by accident – who is given a chance to get out of prison for a while to try and convince his son, the best high school basketball player in the country (real life NBA star Ray Allen) to attend the Governor’s Alma  Mater, he’ll reduce his sentence. That may not be believable, but the way the father and son act around each other is – Allen doesn’t want to see Washington and still blames him for what happened to his mother – not unreasonably. That is the heart of the movie, and that part is great. What is also great is how clear eyed Lee is in viewing the sport that he loves – and how it’s all business. Everyone is out to make money, everyone is looking out for themselves, and they will use and abuse these athletes if they don’t learn to look out for themselves as well. There is cynicism in He Got Game, but there is also heart. It’s combining these two elements that makes it one of Lee’s best.

6. Inside Man (2006)
Inside Man is Spike Lee’s biggest commercial hit – and I still think one of his most underrated films. On the surface, the film looks like a typical heist movie combined with a hostage drama. A group of bank robbers, led by Clive Owen, go to rob a bank, but then the police are called, and a hostage situation begins. The NYPD assign Denzel Washington to be their lead negotiator, because they have no one else, even though he’s currently being investigated for corruption. Then there’s Jodie Foster, a corporate fixer, who works for the bank’s President (Christopher Plummer) who has information in his safety deposit box he doesn’t want the world to know. Yes, Inside Man is a great genre film – and if you want to take it as just a genre film, that it works just fine. But there’s more to it than that – Lee adds in, around the edges, his views on institutional racism, black-on-black crime, rap music and corporate greed. I can almost guarantee that one day more people with agree with me that this is one of Lee’s very best films.

5. Clockers (1995)
On the surface, Clockers is a murder mystery and police procedural. A black man, who angered the local drug kingpin, is murdered in the projects and the logical suspect is a young, street level drug dealer. Harvey Keitel is the cop investigating the murder – and while he’s not as casually racist as some of the other cops, he doesn’t much care about another life lost in the projects – he sees it every day, and caring too much will take a toll on him. But he’s intrigued by this case – especially his prime suspect (Mekhi Pfeiffer), that low level drug dealer, who wants to move up in his organization, so at least he’s not on the streets. Then there’s his brother, Isaiah Washington, a good, hardworking man who works two jobs to support his family, is burnt out, and resentful that his lazy, drug dealing brother makes more money than he does. Yes, Clockers is a murder mystery, but it’s much more than that. It is about a culture of black-on-black crime that continues with no end in sight. That’s the real crime here.

4. Bamboozled (2000)
Not many people have seen Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, which was barely released and inspired a hugely divided critical response to say the least. That’s a shame, because it is one of Lee’s very best films. It stars Damon Wayans as a TV writer, criticized by his boss (Michael Rappaport) for creating shows that are “too white”. Trying to get fired, he comes up with an idea for a TV show called “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show”, which will feature black actors, in black face, tap dancing and doing the same type of routines that were popular in the early 1900s, when they were performed by white actors, mocking African Americans. Oh, and the show is set on a Southern Plantation. In a watermelon patch. To his surprise, his boss loves the idea – and the show becomes a critical and commercial hit. Bamboozled is a bold satire, that rubs our face in the racism that is still around us every day – although it is harder on the black characters, who after all are doing it to themselves, than the white ones (Rappaport’s character is portrayed as an idiot more than anything else). I don’t agree with every point Lee makes in the film – and can pretty much guarantee that whatever race you are, you will be offended by something in the movie – but I don’t have to agree with everything, and I think Lee’s point is to offend. Lee made one of the bravest satires to hit American screen in years. It’s too bad so few people noticed.

3. 25th Hour (2002)
Lee’s 25th Hour is a film about a man who has wasted his life, and now it’s too late to do anything about it, and he knows it. It is about the last day Edward Norton’s drug dealer has before he is set to report to prison for an 8 year jail term. He spends his time with his two old school friends – a teacher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and a Wall Street type played by Barry Pepper, and his girl – Rosario Dawson, who has a secret, and his father, Brian Cox, stricken with guilt as he blames himself for the situation his son is in. Norton goes through his day with sad resignation – he has no out, nothing left to do, and knows prison will forever change him. In the film’s most memorable scene, he goes on a profanity and racism laced rant into a mirror, blaming everyone for what has happened to him, but ends up back at himself – because he knows that is who is really responsible. The film is a master class in acting – from Norton to Hoffman to Pepper to Cox to Dawson, and even small roles, like Anna Paquin’s, every performance hits its mark. Made just a year after 9/11, the film specifically evokes that day, but not in a cheap, tawdry way just to milk our emotions. 25th Hour was lost amidst the Oscar contenders at the end of 2002, but its reputation has grown in the past decade – and deservedly so – it’s one of Lee’s very best films.

2. Malcolm X (1992)
Lee’s Malcolm X is one of the great biopics of all time. Yes, it is a standard issue biopic – tracing its subject from their early days until their death – but a few things make Lee’s film stand out. For one, Malcolm X was a fascinating person – and it’s interesting to see his progression from a street thug, into a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam who got in trouble for being too militant, to his final days, when he softened his position. His story is an important one, and deserved to be told – and Lee doesn’t shy away from his flaws. For another, Lee’s film is extremely well made – with great attention to period detail. And finally, there is Denzel Washington’s towering performance as Malcolm X – Washington looks and sounds enough like the man to pass for him in the movie, because his performance goes well beyond impersonation (watch the famous speeches Malcolm made, and compare it to how Denzel delivers the same speeches – he makes them his own). This truly is one of the great screen performances of all time, and helps to make Lee’s film one of the best, and most important, of the 1990s.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
24 years later, and Lee’s Do the Right Thing remains perhaps the best film ever made about race relations in America. It’s remarkable how much has changed in the intervening almost quarter century, and yet how vibrant and relevant Lee’s film remains. The film takes place over one day in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn that have seen a lot of changes over the years. Sal (Danny Aiello) has run the pizza place for years – even back to when the neighborhood was filled with Italians, instead of African Americans. He believes that the people in the neighborhood love him, but over the course of one very long, hot day, racial tensions starting bubbling, first beneath the surface, and then finally explodes after a series of incidents led to a riot. Lee’s films was controversial at the time – some thinking it might inspire young black men to riot, but that was always a ridiculous claim – Lee’s film is fair to everyone involved, and any reasonable viewer will walk away feeling for all the film’s characters. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” here (ok, the cops are bad), but a deeply felt film about race relations in America. We like to think that we live in a post-racial world, but that’s simply not true. And that is why, all these years later, Do the Right Thing remains Lee’s best film, and a masterpiece of American filmmaking.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Movie Review: About Time

About Time
Directed by:  Richard Curtis.
Written by: Richard Curtis.
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson (Tim), Rachel McAdams (Mary), Bill Nighy (Dad), Lydia Wilson (Kit Kat), Lindsay Duncan (Mum), Richard Cordery (Uncle D), Joshua McGuire (Rory), Tom Hollander (Harry), Margot Robbie (Charlotte), Will Merrick (Jay), Vanessa Kirby (Joanna), Tom Hughes (Jimmy Kincade).

Like pretty much every movie about time travel (with Chris Marker’s La Jettee perhaps being the exception that proves the rule), it’s best not to examine the mechanics of how it works in About Time. Richard Curtis’ latest film is about Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) who is told by his father when he turns 21 that all the men in his family have the ability to travel in time – but only to their own past. His Dad (the wonderful Bill Nighy) has no idea why or how – he just knows that all he has to do is go into a dark room, clench his fists and think of where he wants to go, and poof, he’s there. He tells his son to use the power wisely – not to get hung up on things like money or power (that has not worked out well for generations past) – but that he has to decide what important in his life and use his gift to make those things better. You could probably make a list of all the things that don’t make sense about the time travel in About Time – or all the ways that things could have screwed up the space time continuum or whatever, but as older Joe told younger Joe in last year’s Looper “I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” That’s good advice when dealing with any time travel movie – and particularly good advice in dealing with About Time. Curtis doesn’t really care how it works; he is using it merely as a means to make his romantic comedy. On that level, the movie works. Its gets quite disturbing when you stop and think about it – but we’ll get to that later.

When the film opens, Tim is a happy young man in all ways but one – he wants a girlfriend. He is shy and awkward, and messes things up with women more often than not. He has a perfect family, but he wants something more. When he finds out on New Year’s Day he can now travel in time, he uses his power the first time to go back to the previous night – where instead of kissing the girl when the clock struck midnight, he gave her an awkward handshake – and correct his mistake. Later he’ll use it to correct his errors in his ill-fated attempt to seduce Charlotte (Margot Robbie), his sister’s friend, but figures out that even with his power he cannot get everything he wants. Then he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and falls immediately in love with her – and she seems to like him as well. And then he screws it up by going too far back in time, and has to conspire to meet her all over again. This begins the love affair at the center of the film.

On the surface, About Time is a charming romantic comedy, with a science fiction twist. Unlike most time travel movies, About Time doesn’t really focus on the big questions – there is no going back to try and save someone’s life or prevent disaster, etc. – but on the small, day-to-day life things – those little moments you want to relive, or wish you could do again, just slightly better this time around. Gleeson is charming and funny – an unlikely leading man perhaps, but a good one, and he shares an undeniable chemistry with McAdams, who has always been good in romantic movies – a naturally lovable actress, and no less so here. And Nighy is even better – an unrealistically great father to be sure, but one I think most people would love to have. His scenes with Gleeson are the best in the film – and I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up a few times near the end.

So I enjoyed About Time on its surface level. As a romantic fantasy, it works very well, and as a father-son story, it also works very well. Yes, pretty much everyone in the movie is unrealistically perfect and nice – I don’t recall any real arguments in the films at all. Yet, I also have to admit that while I was watching About Time I also could help but think about the ways in which this comic fantasy were actually quite disturbing – yes, it has to do with the time travel elements, but not in their mechanics, but on what Tim does with them.

The question the movie never thinks to ask is whether everything Tim – and his father – do in the film is fair to Mary – or Tim’s mother. There is no doubt that Tim uses his gifts to manipulate Mary into falling in love with him – whether it’s using the information he gets from her in the present when he travels to the past to get her to open up and talk to her, or using the opportunity to go back in time to make their first sexual encounter better. At what point does Tim cross the line between going back and making things better and going back to rob Mary of her free will? The movie uses the Charlotte storyline early in the film to teach Tim the lesson that, in his words, “You cannot use time travel to make people fall in love with you” – which I think may have been Curtis’ way of addressing the issue of Tim’s manipulation of Mary through a different way. And it’s also true that when Tim goes back in time to prevent Mary from meeting her boyfriend, it’s only far enough back so he can meet her before then, which he already had done without time travel, but screwed it up because of time travel. But does that really matter? For her part, Mary is clearly in love and happy with Tim – but how much of that happiness is based on a lie? While watching About Time, I have to admit at times an alternate movie was running through my head – a darker movie. I also couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor KitKat – Tim’s sister, who because she’s a girl, doesn’t get the gift of time travel. Stupid, sexist genes.

None of this ruined About Time for me, but did make me think that perhaps the film could have been better had Curtis addressed some of these issues and dealt with them. As it stands, About Time is a comic fantasy – and a good one if taken on its surface level. The more you think about it, the darker it all seems however, no matter if the movie chooses to address those matters or not.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Movie Review: Short Term 12

Short Term 12
Directed by: Destin Cretton.
Written by: Destin Cretton.
Starring: Brie Larson (Grace), John Gallagher Jr. (Mason), Kaitlyn Dever (Jayden), Stephanie Beatriz (Jessica), Rami Malek (Nate), Alex Calloway (Sammy), Kevin Hernandez (Luis), Lydia Du Veaux (Kendra), Keith Stanfield (Marcus), Frantz Turner (Jack).

There are few movie characters that wormed their way into my heart as fully and completely as Grace does in Short Term 12. Like most movie characters that end up doing so, Grace is not a character who begs for attention or love. From the beginning of the film, Grace seems like a person who has everything together – but you can tell she is, in part, putting up a façade and that she is truly hurting inside. Many movies make the mistake of thinking that characters that filmmakers want us to love need to act like hyperactive puppy dogs, begging for affection. Grace – and for that matter the rest of the characters in Short Term 12 – never do that. And that made me love them even more.

The movie takes place at a group home for teenagers. They’re only supposed to be there for a year or less, but many have no place to go and end up spending longer than that there – only being released when they’re 18, and therefore no longer the state’s problem. They have doctors and therapists and administrators – the people who are supposed to monitor the kids and look out for them – but the day-to-day responsibilities fall mainly to the young floor staff. They are the ones who spend hours with the kids every day – and whose basic job description is to keep them busy, out of trouble and on the grounds. If they’re on the grounds, the staff can control them – tackle them and hold them if need be – but if anyone is able to break free to the street, then the staff cannot touch them.

Grace (Brie Larson) is one of the floor staff. We see her in the film’s first scene listening to her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), another staff member, tell a story she has heard many, many times before – about the day he had follow one of their charges all around town after he broke free, which would be bad enough by itself, but is made much worse by the fact that Mason has diarrhea that day. The story is for the benefit of Nate (Rami Malek), a new staff member, as a way to break the ice, and get him laughing, before they have to deal with the kids at hand – one of whom comes storming out as if on cue, and the staff have to tackle him. Just another day at the office.

Throughout the course of the film, we’ll get to know some of the kids at the home – including smartass Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and the sad, quiet Sammy (Alex Calloway), whose life revolves around the dolls he has to replace his sister (where she is, we never find out). Two eventually come into better focus – Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is on the verge of 18 and so will soon have to leave, who is quiet and brooding – but in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, delivers a rap that lets you know just how deep his pain is, and how he ended up at the home in the first place. The second is a new arrival – Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) – a 16 year old girl, whose mother died a few years ago, and has been giving her dad a hard time ever since. Unlike the rest of the kids, her dad is still in her life – but cannot deal with his daughter full time anymore. Jayden is angry at the world and isn’t shy about letting everyone know it. She also drags up the past for Grace – already reeling when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Short Term 12 doesn’t have much of a plot – or at least not one you really notice while you’re watching it. Looking back over the film now, it becomes clear just how structured the film is, but while I was watching the film, I was caught up in the day-to-day lives of these characters – the acting being a big reason why. Larson has been an emerging actress for a while now – she was one of my favorite parts of last year’s 21 Jump Street, and had great supporting roles in two other indies this year – as Miles Teller’s girlfriend who dumps him in The Spectacular Now and as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s all but silent sister in Don Jon – three films where she took what could have been nothing roles, and left an impression (particularly in The Spectacular Now, where her character is much deeper than she first appears). But her performance here takes her to another level. It is a natural performance, where she plays a character worried about being hurt, so she plays her cards close to her vest. She doesn’t let anyone in, because she’s scared of being hurt again. Many movies have their characters keep secrets from those around them – and the audience – for no reason other than it’s convenient for the plot, but in Short Term 12, Grace’s reluctance to talk feels natural and real. It is a brilliant performance – one of the best of the year – and anchors the movie.

The rest of the performances are quite good as well – in particular those by Stanfield as Marcus and Dever as Jayden, who play damaged kids who we still cannot help but root for. Gallagher is perhaps a little too perfect as Mason – he doesn’t seem to have any flaws at all – and yet it didn’t bother me very much (in part, I think, because more often than not, it’s a flawed, complicated male lead, with a seemingly perfect girlfriend who helps them through, so the role reversal felt refreshing, rather than clichéd).

Written and directed by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 is one of the best Indies of the year – a film that goes deeper than most Indies, which concentrate on teenagers with overbearing parents and the malaise of suburbia. The characters in Short Term 12 wish they had those problems.

Movie Review: How I Live Now

How I Live Now
Directed by:  Kevin Macdonald.
Written by: Jeremy Brock &  Tony Grisoni & Penelope Skinner based on the novel by Meg Rosoff.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Daisy), Tom Holland (Isaac), George MacKay (Eddie), Harley Bird (Piper), Danny McEvoy (Joe), Anna Chancellor (Aunt Penn), Stella Gonet (Mrs. McEvoy), Des McAleer (Major McEvoy).

One of the major trends in Young Adult novels right now is dystopias – from The Hunger Games to Divergent and countless others, for some reason, teens seem to like to read about a society that has gone into the crapper – especially if there is a plucky heroine there to pull everyone out of it. The interesting thing about How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff’s book and now Kevin Macdonald’s film version is that it is not about a dystopian society, but perhaps shows the beginnings of one. Also, while there is a heroine in the movie, I’m not sure she’s all the plucky – or even likable for much of the movie.

The movie stars the immensely talented Saorise Ronan as Daisy – an American teenager who has been sent by her father and wicked stepmother across the pond to stay with her British relations for the summer – at precisely the wrong time. She’s never met her cousins before – or her Aunt, her long dead mother’s sister – and she doesn’t much want to either. She’s an emo kid, miserable at being sent away, and wants nothing to do with anyone or anything- even the fact that her new home is in the idyllic British countryside cannot break her out of her funk. When Daisy steps off the plane, she sees many people gathered around TVs in the airport – there has been a terrorist attack in Paris – but even that seems like less of an injustice than being sent to live with British people to Daisy. Her Aunt is some sort of important diplomat, and she’s never around – and takes off to Geneva only a few days after Daisy arrives to deal with the looming crisis – leaving Daisy and her own kids – Eddie (George McKay) – around 16, Issac (Tom Holland), 14, and Piper (Harley Bird) – around 8 – all by themselves with Daisy. And then London is hit with a nuclear bomb – and everything falls into chaos.

How I Live Now is a movie that sneaks up on you. At first the film appears like it’s going to be a film about a troubled teenage girl, angry at the world, who we expect will learn a lesson about not being quite so angry – and learning to love life again. To a certain extent, that’s still true – but you wouldn’t expect the film to take the twists it does – first when Eddie and Daisy fall in love, despite the fact that they are cousins (you would think someone would be creeped out by this, but apparently not) – and then as the war breaks out, and the family is split apart – and Daisy discovers she’s a lot stronger than she thinks she is. The whole movie is told from her point of view – we hear her interior monologue of constant self-doubt before we see anything in the film, but this gradually fades away. When the war breaks out – and the girls and boys are split up, all of a sudden all the petty stuff she was concerned about falls away – and she focuses on survival, and protecting her young cousin, and little else. She can still be sullen and morose – and at times cruel to Piper – but she does grow as the story progresses and by the end, she isn’t quite as self-involved.

Ronan is very good in the lead role – it’s somewhat a departure for her, as normally she specializes in playing young women who are smarter than most girls their age (or in the case of Atonement, at least thinks she is). Here, she plays a more typical sullen, teenager role – and she’s very good at the flat monotone that somehow still conveys remarkable levels of hatred and disgust that only teenage girls can deliver. As good as she is here though, I hope this is more of a one off for her – Ronan is getting older (she’s 20 now), and has uncommon skill for an actress her age – she doesn’t need to play sullen teenagers anymore. As good as Ronan is here, and she’s very good, this is the type of role many young actresses could play – something I don’t think I could say about Ronan’s work in Atonement, The Lovely Bones or Hanna

The movie gets darker as it goes along – much darker than one would expect for a movie aimed at teenagers (but rated R because of the violence – some of it disturbing, although none of it gratuitous or overly graphic). Like in his best movies, Macdonald succeeds in placing the audience in the thick of action, and slowly building the tension to a boil.

I’m not sure I was overly satisfied with the way the movie ended. After all the darkness the movie contains, it seems like the ending wanted to put a happy ending on a movie that doesn’t need one – and when you think about, the ending isn’t happy at all, despite how the Macdonald and company portray it. I wish the filmmakers had pushed things farther than they do – and ended on a more ambiguous or even downbeat note. That would have been more in line with everything that had come before. As it stands, the movie works – but had they push things further, it could have been much better.

Movie Review: The Institute

The Institute
Directed by: Spencer McCall.

The Institute is a documentary about something called an “Alternate Reality Game”. Players saw flyers hung up on telephone poles around San Francisco (and already you know the type of people the game attracted – people who actually read the flyers put on telephone poles), and then call the number on them. They are given an address of the Jejune Institute in the financial district. When they go to the building, they are directed to a room – the room has TV that gives them instructions, one of them being not to open the drawer in the desk, which obviously means everyone opens the drawer in the desk, which gives them an induction card, and a set of instructions on how to get out of the building and what to do next. Eventually, they will be directed to listen to a radio station, which gives other strange instructions. Players will be sent on a wild goose chase – sometimes through sewers with other gamers they meet. Sometimes, they have to make phone calls from a payphone, and the person on the other end of the line will tell them to dance – at which point, a musician shows up and starts playing music, and eventually, the player will be given something by a man dressed as a Sasquatch, who danced right along with them.

What is the purpose of the game? Even after watching the movie, I couldn’t begin to tell you. The intricate plot of the game involves a feud between the Jeujune Institute and another organization – led by a guru with the improbable name of Octavio Coleman, Esquire. Or maybe, Octavio Coleman was the head of the Jeujune Institute, and the other organization was the evil one. I don’t quite remember – the whole thing gets confusing, with so much new age psychobabble going on – and talk of inventions suppressed, and geniuses in need to rescue. Most of the participants seem to be in on the joke from the beginning – they know it’s all just an elaborate game, and they enjoy playing it. It adds some needed surrealism into their regular lives. Some take it far too seriously, and may even think it’s real. When the game ends, the reaction of the gamers is mixed, with those who are let down by the “secrets”, those who simply shrug their shoulders and move on, and those who view it as a life changing experience.

The movie will probably play better to the type of people who would sign up to play the game in the first place. There is something refreshingly strange about the whole thing, and the film at its best has some wonderfully surreal moments (I imagine David Lynch watching the movie, and swearing at himself for not including dancing sasquatches in Inland Empire). But ultimately, I found watching The Institute an extremely frustrating experience. Director Spencer McCall really wants to string the audience along for the entire running time, just like the creators of the “game” in question did to its participants, albeit for a much shorter time (the game went on for months). If you like being jerked around by a movie like this, or the game sounds like something you would enjoy, than perhaps you’ll like The Institute more than I did. For me though, I would have preferred a more critical look into the game itself – which apparently is part of a larger movement that some have embraced, and some see as dangerous. During the runtime of the game in the movie, some think it all just may be a front for a cult.

When The Institute was over, I didn’t feel like I knew much more about its subject than when the film began – which seeing as I knew nothing about it when the movie began, was problematic for me. You probably could make a good documentary about this strange, strange “game” – but it would require a director with more probing questions and critical insight and less of a need to string the audience along on a quest that ultimately leads nowhere.

My Answer to the Latest Criticwire Survey: Most Used Simpsons Quote

Q: What's your go-to quote from The Simpsons -- not your favorite necessarily, but the one you're most likely to use on a daily basis?

I can only choose one? If I had to narrow it down to just one, then I’ll go with Super Nintendo (I mean Superintendent) Chalmers line after temporary Principal Ned thanks the lord over the P.A. system “That sounded like a prayer. A prayer in a public school. God has no place within these walls, just like facts have no place within organized religion”. Makes me laugh every time, and being an atheist married to a Catholic School Teacher (who teaches religion, naturally) just makes it all the better.

What else? “Dental Plan”. “Lisa needs braces” “Lousy Smarch weather”, “Barney’s movie had heart, but Football in the groin had a football in the groin”, “I was saying Boo-urns”, “Five days? But I’m angry now”, “Everything’s coming up Millhouse!”, “My eyes – the goggles do nothing!”, “I eated the purple berries. They tasted like burning”, “I’m cold and there are wolves after me”, “Me Fail English? That’s unpossible”, “I bent my wookie”, “Worst. Episode. Ever.” “It’s a perfectly cromulent word”, “Alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”, “You're a liar, honey, A dirty rotten liar.”, “I’m kind of like Jesus, but not in a sacrilegious way”, “Let the bears pay the bear tax, I pay the Homer tax”, “Tramamampoline!”, “It was a pornography store. I was buying pornography”, “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”, “Up and at them!”, “You’ve crossed the line from regular villainy into cartoonish super-villainy.”, “Dig up, stupid”, “I noticed that he was wearing sneakers. For… sneaking.” “The doll is trying to kill me, and the toaster’s been laughing at me”.

Yeah, so basically, I quote The Simpsons a lot.

EDIT: After speaking to my wife after posting this, she pointed out one I completely forgot about, for some reason, even though it is a running joke between the two of us as we often ask each other about the "pretzel monies". Here is the full quote from Fat Tony: "I'm afraid I must insist. You see, my wife, she has been most vocal on the subject of the pretzel monies. "Where's the money? "When are you going to get the money?" "Why aren't you getting the money now?" And so on."