“Twenty Feet from Stardom” Sizzles, While “The Heat” Is Just Lukewarm

I’m trying my hand at short reviews today, just for a change. The first is under 200 words, while the second is under 350. Enjoy!

Twenty Feet from Stardom

Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013)

Twenty Feet from Stardom, which opens today at the Charles Theatre, in Baltimore, is one of the best films I have seen this year, so far. A documentary, it tells the story of the backup singers – primarily African-American women – who have lent their tremendous vocal talents to the work of better-known rock and pop artists since the 1960s. We meet Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and relative newcomer Judith Hill, among others. Each of them has a tale both unique and universal to tell. We cry with them, we laugh with them, we sit in awe of their voices. Most of all, though, we marvel at having known so little about the supporting performers of groups like The Rolling Stones and The Talking Heads, or solo performers like Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Michael Jackson. After all, it is Merry Clayton’s gut-wrenching belting of “It’s just a shot away” on “Gimme Shelter” that really makes that song rock. Well, now we know. And we get this information in a terrific movie, to boot.

Go see it.

The Heat

The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013)

The Heat – from scribe Katie Dippold (“MADtv,””Parks and Recreation“) and helmer Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) – will probably please fans of Melissa McCarthy and/or Sandra Bullock, as this is very much a vehicle for the both of them. And, as one of the few – if not the only – blockbuster releases this summer to feature women in primary roles, it’s almost a must-see for that reason, alone. I just wish it were a better and funnier film.

To be fair, this is no worse than many a male-centered buddy movie. However, too many of the jokes rely on the audience finding it funny to watch McCarthy be vulgar and physically gross – that’s old hat now, and I’d like to see her do something new – or to watch Bullock be uptight and in need of loosening up – also routine for her. As I noted in my review of This Is the End, I’m always disappointed when the point of the joke is the crudeness of it, without any additional wit. That said, I did laugh a few times, and chuckled a few more. If you’ve seen the trailer, then you know the plot, and can make your own decision as to whether or not you’ll like this. I went in with low expectations, and came out mildly amused. If you do the same, you may have at least half a good time.

One final note – for some strange reason, Ms. Dippold and Mr. Feig have decided to include many crude and rude references to people with albinism, which neither help the film nor advance the plot. Given how much fans of Melissa McCarthy were up in arms over film critic Rex Reed’s derogatory remarks about the star’s weight and vulgarity (which, other than his unfortunate and vicious wording, weren’t all that off the mark in terms of the substance of her appeal, or lack thereof), I’m surprised at the hypocrisy of including such an unnecessary bit of stereotyping in this film. Oh, well – will wonders never cease.

“The Bling Ring” Needs More Bling

Bling Ring

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013)

The most horrifying aspect of writer/director Sofia Coppola’s new film, for me, is not the celebrity-obsessed nature of the crimes being perpetrated by young and vacuous denizens of “The Valley,” nor the very extreme nature of that vacuity, but rather the fact that three of the girls in the media-dubbed “Bling Ring” (this is based on a true story) are being homeschooled by their mother, played by Leslie Mann, and that her lessons for them, from what we see in a few key scenes, consist of vapid posterized bowdlerizations of the already two-dimensional platitudes of The Secret. Is this part of the movie also based on actual events? If so, that scares me more than anything I’ve seen on screen in a good while. Are there really children out there being taught from the textbook of Rhonda Byrne’s self-help manual, rather than from some kind of official curriculum? Good luck, America!

This movie, given that rotten core at the center of its story, could have been such a wonderful indictment of materialism and superficiality run wild. Instead, it’s just kind of dull. Coppola never quite finds her stride nor the right tone with which to handle her material. Just when we should be reveling in the grotesque glory of the lifestyle of the rich, stupid and still-wanting-more, we’re watching slow-motion shots of blank faces. I can see what she’s trying to do with that (there’s nothing going on behind those eyes), but compelling cinema it does not make. Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was a mess, but it had pizzazz and flair, and that’s what’s missing here. The Bling Ring needs more bling.

The film tells the story of Rebecca, Mark, Chloe, Nicki, Sam and Emily (those last three are the home-schooled ones), played by Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien, Emma Watson (i.e., Hermione Granger), Taissa Farmiga (younger sister of Vera), and Georgia Rock. They are all high school students in the Valley, from wealthy and inattentive families. One day, Rebecca convinces her new best pal, Mark, to go with her to Paris Hilton’s house (the address of which they find easily on the web) while the star is away (a fact which they discover through another quick internet search). Once there, they find her key under the front door mat, no alarm (we learn in this film that celebrities are terrible at home security), and proceed to go through her stuff, play with her dog, try on her clothes (Mark likes women’s outfits, especially shoes, as well), before grabbing as much as they can carry and then leaving the same way they can. Soon, their friends are joining them on these nighttime escapades, as they ransack the homes of Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson and Audrina Patridge, among others. Eventually – because even though the celebrities they rob have no alarm systems, they do have security cameras – they are caught, tried and sentenced. The end.

OK, not quite. It’s a little more interesting than that. First of all, Rebecca and Mark slowly build up to their Paris Hilton visitation by starting with breaking into cars and then robbing the home of a friend of Mark’s. Secondly, once they start gathering all of their “bling,” they can’t keep themselves from flaunting it, posting photo after photo after photo on social media, and telling all of their other friends about their exploits. For they crave a share of the celebrity on which they prey, as well. In fact, Nicki (Emma Watson) is an aspiring model, and when we see her at the end of the movie, post-jail, she is on TV, using her “alleged crime” (in spite of time served, she refuses to admit her culpability) to promote herself.

But otherwise the filmmaking gets in the way. I would have preferred that Coppola shoot this as a reality TV show, with all of the annoying bells and whistles that go along with that, much as Oliver Stone did with the first 15 minutes (the most interesting part) of his Natural Born Killers, when he used the trappings of sitcoms as the backdrop for the start of Woody Harrelson’s killing spree. Coppola does intersperse a few confessional interviews (which, in turns out, are from the research that a Vanity Fair reporter is doing for the article this movie is based on) here and there, but she does it halfheartedly. There’s no commitment to that style (because there is no consistent style). It’s too bad. Coppola has made two films that did show great consistency – as well as mastery – of tone: The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. So she’s capable of great work. This film isn’t it, however.

The young actors, as well as Leslie Mann, are all pretty solid, and between this, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and This Is the End, it has been fun to watch Ms. Watson move beyond her Harry Potter roles (she does have a problem not letting her English accent slip in, however). The movie is not an absolute loss. It’s just way too much Muk Luk and not nearly enough Louboutin.

“Much Ado” About Something

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012)

Joss Whedon, the film director (SerenityThe Avengers) and creator of many television shows (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Angel“), has talked at length about why he needed to shoot Much Ado About Nothing between the wrapping of principal photography on The Avengers and the start of its post-production. That film’s scale was so overwhelming that he felt compelled to ground himself in a very different kind of creative process before proceeding with the editing. For a long time, Whedon, a self-proclaimed workaholic, had been in the habit of gathering, at his home, actors from his TV shows to rehearse and stage Shakespeare plays. He felt it relaxed him. And so, trying to relax after the madness of The Avengers shoot, he gathered most of his usual core group of Shakespeare performers for a two-week production of Much Ado About Nothing at his home in Los Angeles. The result? The movie I just watched last night. Is it a great film? No. Is it something fun and worth watching? Absolutely.

The only other version of the play I had ever seen was Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version, which I found delightful. Both Branagh and Emma Thompson are masterful performers of Shakespeare, and are always able to take the Elizabethan verse and make the meaning in it clear. It sounds like speech (beautiful speech), emerging from their extremely capable and trained mouths and throats, rather than like memorized lines of a barely understood 16th/17th century poetic dialect. Not all modern actors pull this off. They either go too far in the direction of reverence to the text (see Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet), or end up completely out of their depth, clearly lost in the language (see Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet). Not so Branagh and the actors with whom he works. They make Shakespeare live (see also his own 1996 Hamlet, as well as his debut feature, Henry V). All of this is to say that, for me, Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is a tough act to follow.

To Whedon’s credit, I don’t think he cares. He’s following no one’s act but his own. He made this film to recharge his creative batteries, then set some clear limitations on his project and worked within them. The movie is all in modern dress (though still in verse), and, as previously mentioned, was filmed in his actual house. No one speaks in a British accent, but though the setting is clearly 21st-century America (iPhones, stereos, cars, etc.), the characters remain titled Italian and Spanish nobility. So right away we are asked to suspend our disbelief and just get on board for the ride. Since the play itself is so much fun, and everyone seems to be having so much fun making it, the viewers who are willing to take that ride will have a terrific time. To those who either like their Shakespeare more pure – who object to alterations by claiming, as Claudio might, “O, what men dare do! what men may do! what men daily do, not knowing what they do!” – or, alternately, who don’t like hearing people speak in iambic pentameter – who, like Benedick, might say, “I was not born under a rhyming planet” – the film may be challenging. To which one can only reply, as does a messenger to Beatrice, “The gentleman [Whedon] is not in your books.”

There are two basic story lines in Much Ado About Nothing. First we have the young lovers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). Hero is the daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg), a local official. Claudio is a favored young officer of a prince, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). The older folk are in favor of the love match, and a wedding is arranged. The second – and more interesting – story concerns Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), two sharp-witted romantic adversaries who have some history together, yet now claim to hate each other. Except to each other, Benedick and Beatrice are pleasant to all, and much loved by all. Their friends hatch a plot to bring these two together, with a plan to have them wed on the same day as Claudio and Hero. Much fun is had at their expense, as a result. As Whedon has claimed, Much Ado About Nothing is the original template for all romantic comedies to come.

And so the two stories move forward pleasantly, until Don Pedro’s out-of-favor brother, Don John (Sean Maher), decides to interfere to break the alliance between the camps. He has one of his minions be seen engaging in sexual activity with Hero’s chambermaid (who has been convinced to wear one of her mistress’s outfits), and the resultant scandal makes Claudio cancel the wedding and Hero fall into a near-fatal swoon. The rest of the play/film revolves around the discovery of the nefarious Don John’s plot and the rehabilitation of Hero’s character. At the end – sorry, *plot spoiler”, in case you really had no idea how this would go – all is back on track, and the two weddings do, as planned, take place.

The movie was filmed to be projected in black & white (since it was shot digitally, I don’t write that it was “shot in black & white,” since it wasn’t), and that contributes to a simplicity of aesthetic that serves the story well. In addition, since Whedon’s house is in a suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, the grayscale shading helps to mask what would otherwise be a distracting array of modern colors. The actors are all quite fine – especially Denisof and Acker – with the notable exception of Riki Lindhome, as Conrade, one of Don John’s minions (his lover, actually). She was almost bad enough to kick me out of the movie.

A good time is had by all, but there is one aspect of this modern-dress version of the play that bothers me. Whedon has made adjustments to the text, and has consciously set the story in our contemporary world. Why, then, does he keep the element of Hero’s virginity/lack thereof as a central plot point? As much as I thought Claudio was a heel for throwing Hero away – and she a fool for eventually taking him back – when I saw him in a period-appropriate production, in Whedon’s movie the obsession with Hero’s behavior doesn’t quite work. And what really doesn’t work is the idea that she would want to have anything to do with Claudio once her reputation is restored. Indeed, at that moment, for me, “”The gentleman [Whedon] is not in [my] books.”

That aside, I can recommend the film. “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.”

“Fill the Void” Is Full of Life and Devoid of Cliché

Fill the Void

Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein, 2012)

A fascinating look at love and marriage politics within the Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, Fill the Void, by first-time director Rama Burshtein, is a solid and assured bit of filmmaking, with universally fine performances from all of its actors. What starts in tragedy ends joyfully, sort of, and it is that very ambivalence towards the conventions of cinematic happy ends that lifts this story above the usual family drama/romantic dramedy fare. And while at first it might be tempting to see the movie, if one is not of the community which it portrays, as a bit of ethnographic filmmaking tacked on top of a story we have seen many times before – that of the rebellious young soul trapped in a strict traditional society – it is ultimately so much more than that. It is a tale of both great specificity and overarching universality. My friend Hollis calls it “Orthodox Gothic,” and I think that sums it up nicely.

We meet Shira – the unmarried 18-year-old younger daughter of an orthodox rabbi – as she and her mother are searching for her matched husband in a local supermarket, so that Shira can decide what she thinks. They see him, Shira likes what she sees, and we next find Shira greeting her very pregnant older sister on the street, happily confiding to her that she has found “the one.” With impressive economy, Burshtein, herself a member of the Hasidim, shows us how the loving members of the family interact with each other, setting the stage for their resilience and adaptation to the tragedy that will soon strike, as a sudden and completely unexpected death upends their world.

How Shira, relative newcomer Hadas Yaron, handles the new circumstances is the focus of the movie. And Yaron is more than up to shouldering this narrative burden. We believe that she is a naïve and scared teenager, but also that she has the wherewithal to understand what her best options may be. As that boy glimpsed in the supermarket disappears from her prospects, she finds herself adrift in a way never anticipated, yet does not completely collapse. She emerges wiser, if not much older, still scared, yet (probably) better off than she would have been. I love the last scene of the film, where she and her new husband find themselves alone, post-wedding, not sure what to do. Are they happy? Maybe. Is it good that they are together? Probably. Have they served their community? Most definitely. And so life goes on.

There were a few choices on the director’s part that annoyed me. She is enamored of shots where two people are in the frame (a “Two shot,” it’s called), yet only one is in focus. She never racks (or resolves) the focus on to the other person in the shot, as one would normally expect. The result is to keep our attention on the one subject in focus, and I understand why she would want to do this, but I found it so distracting that I was unable to pay attention to the conversation on the screen. Perhaps if Burshtein had used this device more sparingly, or for shorter durations, she could have achieved the same effect without the attendant distraction. I also didn’t like some of her musical choices. During the funeral/circumcision/bris montage, for example, I found the soundtrack a little overwhelming and unnecessary. But these are mere quibbles, as the film is overall quite beautiful and masterfully made.

There was an interesting brief interview with Burshtein this past week in Baltimore’s City Paper, which I recommend. I would read it after seeing the film, as there are a few plot spoilers in it. Enjoy the movie!

There Be Monsters out There: “World War Z,” “Monsters University,” and Their Differing Pleasures

O Lucky Viewer! O Lucky Monster Fan! Today you get to choose from two new films – or see them both – that each tackle a different side of the monster equation. You get scary, and you get funny. And while neither film is a masterpiece, both deliver on their respective promises: the one pumps up your adrenaline, while the other pumps your belly full of laughs. Guess which one’s which . . . ? And, since the one is PG-13 (amazing!) and the other G, you could go to both with most of your family. Enjoy whichever one you choose – or both – on this happy blockbuster weekend.

World War Z

World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)

There’s a lot to fault in this new zombie film from Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding NeverlandStranger Than FictionQuantum of Solace), adapted from the book (which I haven’t read) by Max Brooks (son of Mel). While the set-up is strong, with minimal (yet intelligent) exposition before the action gets rolling, the family dynamic that we spend the first 30 minutes investing in is summarily discarded in the second and third acts of the story, and the final five minutes of ending are among the lamest in recent memory and feel like something created by a group of people who had simply run out of ideas. Additionally, a very fine actress, Mireille Enos (The Killing“) ends up spending much of the film reduced to a typical secondary-character wife role, which is inexcusable.

That’s the bad.

The good is plenty, however. First of all, Brad Pitt – very much at the peak of his game these days (see Moneyball, if you haven’t already) – delivers an intense performance that anchors the film, even when it occasionally falters. He is entirely believable as a former United Nations investigator who has both the intelligence and experience to figure out how to defeat the zombies. Secondly, all of the action sequences are brilliantly rendered, leaving the viewer (well, this viewer, in any case), exhausted from the sheer tension of it all. And remember, it’s a PG-13 film, so this is tension of the Hitchcockian variety rather than of the splatter-fest kind. You won’t be grossed out, but you will be terrified. In fact, I was so tense at one point (during the final laboratory sequence) that I actually started laughing. Finally, the supporting actors are all excellent, including Fana Mokoena as Pitt’s former UN boss, David Morse as a rogue CIA agent, Ludi Boeken as a mysterious Israeli Mossad agent, Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli commando, and Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, and Moritz Bleibtreu (whom you may remember as the boyfriend in Run Lola Run) as scared-out-of-their-minds-yet-very-brave World Health Organization doctors.

Notice how two of the characters I mention are Israeli? That brings me back to one other bad thing about the film. At one point, it seems headed for a sort of weird Protocols of the Elders of Zion view of Israel’s role in the zombie outbreak, which seemed more than a tad unnecessary. It didn’t quite go there, and Daniella Kertesz more than makes up for that strange detour. And to be honest, no country ends up being all good or all bad in this film.

Which brings me back to one of the great things about the film. It had a truly global cast, with skin tones, ethnicities and accents from all over the place. Even more than that, those ethnicities and accents had no bearing on whether people lived or died, or on whether they did good or bad things. Yes, Brad Pitt is at the center of the movie, but this was no “White Man’s Burden.” It should be noted that Pitt’s character is a former UN employee (something the David Morse CIA character mocks), and not a former US employee. We are all one race, the film reminds us, and we must all – together – defeat the zombies.

So what’s the movie about? You really need to know? OK, here goes: the zombie apocalypse. Now go get your thrill on and see it.

Monsters University

Monsters University (Don Scanlon, 2013)

I love Billy Crystal. I first noticed him during his stint on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-1980s. I loved him even more after his appearance as “Miracle Max” in The Princess Bride. What really sealed the deal, however – as it did for many, I am sure – was When Harry Met Sally. I can watch that film all day, every day, and still laugh at Crystal’s jokes. Hell, I even loved Crystal’s return to Oscar-hosting duties in 2012, in spite of what some mean-spirited reviewers thought (fortunately, others liked that performance).

I also love Pixar, with the exception of Cars and Cars 2. When Pixar and Crystal teamed up in Monsters, Inc., the result was one of the strongest entries in the Pixar canon. The addition of John Goodman – another actor I admire – did not hurt. The ending of that film, when Sully finds Boo again, left me teary-eyed and incredibly moved.

So I was disappointed when I saw the trailers for Monsters University, since they did little to promise anything of consequence. It looked like Cars 2 all over again. But then I remembered how much I hated the (to my mind) unnecessary crudeness of some of the jokes in This Is The End (a film I otherwise enjoyed), and thought I would check out a film aimed at a different target audience, just to clear the mind.

I was very pleasantly surprised. Though not nearly as witty and inventive as Monsters, Inc., this new film – a prequel to the previous one – is still quite good. We meet Mike Wazowski (Crystal) and Sully (Goodman) as they matriculate at Monsters University, each with a dream to be the next great scarer of human children, and see how their initial introduction the one to the other leads to hate at first sight. Huh? Weren’t they best friends in Monsters, Inc.? Yes, they were. And part of the joy of Monsters University is seeing how they get from the A of competitive rivalry to the B of everlasting brotherhood. Ah, yes, brotherhood. It might have been nice to have a strong female character in the new mix (something that could be said about a lot of films, although we do have The Heat opening next week, right?), but at least we get Helen Mirren in the role of the strict Dean of the school. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay a lot to be browbeaten by that silky voice . . .

Another joy of the film is watching how Randy (Steve Buscemi), the bad guy from the first film, goes from being Mike’s best friend and roommate to his (and Sully’s) eventual enemy. We also get a delightful cast of new characters in the fraternity – Oozma Kappa – that Mike and Sully pledge. The scenes between the frat brothers (and one mother) are among the funniest in the movie.

Not all of the jokes work, and some of the reconciliation moments feel a little saccharine, but otherwise this is a very successful bit of storytelling that should work even for those who haven’t seen the first film.

So get your laugh on. It’s worth it.

Midday on Blazing Blockbusters: June 28, 1-2pm

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]

Blazing Blockbusters

On Friday, June 28, I, Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – will do my second show of the month on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm. The topic? The summer 2013 films (the ones I will have seen up to that point), as well as the life and work of Mel Brooks, who turns 87 that day. Sadly, we will be without my colleague, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – as she will be away. Fear not, however, as she will be back later this summer, while I am away, so all of you will have the benefit of her unadulterated wisdom before too long.

Have you seen any of the big blockbuster films of the current season yet? Have you seen any of the smaller ones? Do you have a favorite Mel Brooks film? Tune in and hear Dan and I discuss Mel and company, including Man of SteelWorld War ZMonsters University and The Heat.  If you can’t listen live, or locally, on the day of, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page: http://wypr.org/programs/midday-dan-rodricks

Enjoy the show!

Page to Screen: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

Perks of Being a Wallflower

This past Sunday, I presented the soon-to-be-released film The Spectacular Now – adapted from Tim Tharp’s 2008 book of the same title – at Baltimore’s Cinema Sundays at the Charles. Although I prepared for the screening by watching director James Ponsoldt’s two previous features, and read the book, the distributor did not make a screening copy of the movie available to me beforehand. Frustrated, I decided to watch another recent film about troubled teens, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Before watching that film, however, I felt compelled to read the book that it was based on, Stephen Chbosky’s original 1999 novel. I am so glad that I did. I enjoyed Tim Tharp’s book – and found its cinematic adaptation very interesting – but the best thing that happened to me, by far, in the past two weeks of prepping was my encounter with The Perks of Being a Wallflower book.

Why? I found the main character, Charlie, extremely compelling. He narrates his own story through a series of letters written to an unknown friend. This epistolary device allows us to encounter his voice in a first-person style that feels even more naturally confessional than would a diary. Charlie emerges from these pages as a very bright and sensitive boy struggling to overcome past trauma and become a young adult. For those of us who had  awkward and reflective childhoods and, especially, early teen years, Chbosky speaks to us directly, evoking our own fears, challenges, and triumphs. Not since I read The Catcher in the Rye have I experienced such a sense of identification with the protagonist of a young adult novel. When Charlie tells his new friends, Sam and Patrick, as they drive down the road listening to a song, that he “feels infinite,” I knew exactly what he was talking about.

The novel follows Charlie during his first year of high school, which he begins shortly after losing his best friend from middle school to suicide. We quickly infer that Charlie is suffering from depression, that may only partially be due to this event. Still, he has a loving family, with two older siblings and a mother and father who may not entirely know how to speak to him, but who are not completely distant or incompetent, either. We learn that there was a beloved aunt – his mother’s sister – as well, now deceased.

For a few weeks, Charlie has no friends, except for his English teacher, who takes a shine to him and gives him extra reading (including The Catcher in the Rye). But then he meets two Seniors, Samantha and Patrick, who also take a shine to him (he is apparently very appealing to other sensitive and intelligent folk), and the novel really takes off. It’s fun and moving to watch Charlie grow as a person and emerge from his depressive shell.

The film adaptation was a very worthy attempt to bring the story to cinematic life. Interestingly, it was written and directed by the author, Stephen Chbosky, himself. I am actually quite impressed at the significant changes Chbosky made to his story. He is a very self-aware and un-self-indulgent writer, able to step back and consider the issues of what would work best on screen vs. on the page. He simplified a lot of the story and many of the adult characters, and devised creative visual ways to film the narrative. He’s certainly not the first author to adapt his own work, but an author who directs the adaptation of his novel or play is a lot less common, though people like Clive Barker (Hellraiser) and John Patrick Shanley (Doubt) have done it, as well. And it is to his credit that his movie works so well as a movie, while both respecting the source text and leaving much of it behind.

That said, I missed the beauty of Charlie’s voice in the film. We get some of the letters, but much of the awkward sweetness and sensitivity is gone. I understand why. There is a certain passivity to Charlie in the novel – which he outgrows – that would most likely not work as well on-screen. Maybe it’s the casting, too: Logan Lerman is a fine young actor, but not quite believable as a wallflower. The same goes for Emma Watson as Sam. Though very solid, she’s almost too lovely and preppy-looking to work as such a supposed misfit. The most welcome surprise in the film is Ezra Miller, whom I last saw in a film I loathed: We Need to Talk About Kevin. For me, he was clearly not well served by the material or the director in that previous film, because here he shines and sparkles as Patrick, and is the charismatic core of the story.

Perhaps there is no way that such an introspective novel could be adapted into a film and not lose much of the voice of the narrator. At least, not in a popular and commercial format. One of my favorite introspective films is Alain Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour, but that movie, though brilliant, was not designed to tell a clear three-act narrative, or to reach a mass popular audience. So I’ll take Chbosky’s adaptation for what is, and keep the book nearby when I next want to revisit Charlie and friends.

“Before Midnight” – A Welcome Reunion with Beloved Old Friends

Beloved Midnight

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)

I was 26 when I saw Before Sunrise, in 1995, just a few years older than the characters in the film. I had also just spent the previous summer traveling through Europe on a Eurail Youth Pass (25 was the cutoff). So when I saw that film, I related – intensely – to the two protagonists, incarnated by Ethan Hawke, as Jesse, and Julie Delpy, as Céline. At the start of the film, they meet cute on a train as it pulls into Vienna, get off together on a whim, and spend the night walking around the city, talking and falling in love. Their dialogue is a little pretentious, as one would expect that of 20-something intellectuals to be (and I was no exception to that rule), but what is pretension but a striving to find meaning in the world, through ideas. Shouldn’t we all try – especially when we’re young – to figure out where we stand on the meaning of life? I mean, we all know that it’s 42, but still . . .

At the end of Before Sunrise, after sleeping together in a park, Jesse and Céline make a pact to meet a year from then, in Vienna. 

In addition to the feeling that the film was about me (we all have films like that), what impressed me the most about Richard Linklater’s direction was the way in which he made exposition and dialogue feel incredibly dynamic. He kept the camera and characters moving, and even when the action stopped, found life in the vibrant performances of his two leads. It was a touchstone movie.

And then, in 2004, came Before Sunset, the sequel. In that film, we meet Jesse and Céline again, 9 years later, only to find out that they never met up a year after their tryst in Vienna. As the story starts, Céline goes to a book reading at the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, where Jesse, a published author now, is scheduled to appear, promoting the book he has written about his night with Céline. They meet cute again, and spend the day walking through Paris, renewing the connection and spark that they had felt in Vienna. We discover that Jesse had gone to their rendezvous, but that Céline had not, since her grandmother had died. With no way to contact Jesse (they had purposefully not exchanged addresses), she had simply missed the meeting, though she had been unhappy about doing so. We also discover that Jesse is married – with a son – but unhappily so, and Céline has a boyfriend, though she is also not happy in her relationship. As they walk and talk – and it is interesting to hear how their conversation (co-written this time by Hawke and Delpy), though still vibrant and full of ideas, has matured – they begin to fall in love again. The film ends with Jesse in Céline’s apartment, considering whether or not to miss his plane home.

Even more than in the first film, Linklater managed to really make the many walking and talking scenes extremely cinematic. His Director of Photography on both films, Lee Daniel, is to be commended for his efforts in shooting Paris in a way that paid homage to the city without obtrusively reminding us where we were. We felt the presence of its beauty, but were never overpowered by it.

And now, in 2013, we have Before Midnight, a brilliant continuation of this Gen X romantic saga. Here we meet Jesse and Céline again, and discover that they have stayed together this time (though unmarried), and have twin daughters. The film begins with Jesse walking Hank, his 14-year-old son from his first marriage, to the security line at an airport somewhere on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece. Hank has been staying with Jesse, Céline and their daughters, as part of his summer vacation. We discover in this scene that, though Hank and Jesse are close, Jesse’s relationship with his ex-wife – who has primary custody – is extremely strained. The fact that Jesse lives in Paris and Hank lives in Chicago has begun to weigh ever more heavily on both.

I love this opening, because it shows the very real consequences of the result we had all been hoping for at the end of the previous film. Yes, Jesse and Céline are a couple now, but their union has come at a price. This set of given circumstances helps set the stage for the tension to come.

Once Hank is on his way back to the States, we follow Jesse and Céline as they drive back to their vacation villa, and we are off once more with their amazing conversations. This time, we have a new cinematographer – a Greek, Christos Voudouris – but the filming style is no less dynamic. In a series of long takes, Jesse and Céline talk in the car, talk while walking, and talk while sitting at lunch with friends, in a hotel room, or at a seaside café. The palpable romantic tension that was present in the first two films has lessened, since they have now been together for 9 years, but their intellectual rapport is no less vibrant. Hawke and Delpy are again listed as co-writers, along with Linklater, and in some recent interviews they have given about the film, they have been quite joyful in their discussions of how much the three of them enjoy working together. It shows. We believe that Jesse and Céline are a couple. We believe that, though they still love each other, they have grown weary of each other’s quirks and foibles. At times, they are each just one wrong comment away from hating the other. For the first time in the series, we get a real nasty argument between them. And it’s a painful one to watch. Yet very real. By the end, as we follow their ups and downs, we are relieved to see that, even after all they have been through, they still have a strong connection.

If you don’t like films where people talk for the sake of talking – and I often don’t – then you might not like this film. If you haven’t enjoyed the first two, then you won’t suddenly fall in love with Jesse and Céline now.

But if, like me, you have always felt close to these characters, and have grown older with them, then you will find this new film a worthy third entry in the series.

I know I can’t wait for the next one, 9 years from now!

The New “Man of Steel” Never Quite Takes Off

Man of Steel

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

The creators of the new Superman origin film, Man of Steel, managed to make one of the best trailers I have ever seen, and I am grateful to them for that. I just re-watched it (I really can’t get enough), and it’s a wonderful three-minute film. Unfortunately, add 140 minutes to that, and what you end up with is a rather unwieldy mess that never quite gets off the ground. Man of Steel does have significant strengths, which include the talented cast, but the frequently pedestrian script and the film’s relentless reliance on CGI mayhem weigh the entire enterprise down. Instead of floating like a Kryptonian in orbit around earth, it remains earthbound when it needs to fly, and then all too often careens out of control like a rudderless ballistic missile when it should be still.

For those of you who somehow don’t know the story of Superman, it goes like this. Many light years away from Earth, there exists an aging planet called Krypton, with an advanced humanoid civilization that has invented many wonders and mostly evolved beyond the kinds of war and violence that still plagues our own planet, yet is doomed to destruction because of willful neglect of some impending problems in its own solar system. Political conflict between the ruling party and the opposition – embodied by the renegade General Zod – creates an administrative paralysis that prevents Kryptonians from fleeing their home in time. Right before Krypton blows up (or collapses, as it does in this film), one of its great scientists, Jor-El, bundles his infant son into a specially designed spaceship – filled with devices that will later teach the boy, Kal-El, about his history – and sends him off to Earth. Since Earth is younger and smaller than Krypton, its yellow (vs. red) sun and lower gravitational pull guarantee that the refugee will grow into a being with awesome super powers (trust me – it’s totally legit science . . .). Discovered by a childless couple – the Kents – after his spaceship crash-lands on earth, Jor-El is renamed Clark, and is raised an all-American boy in Kansas. When he reaches maturity, he leaves on a “walkabout,” to find his true origins, and become the “superman” he was always meant to be.

First – the positives. Henry Cavill, in spite of (or maybe because of) his goofy grin, makes a fine Kal-El/Clark Kent. His impressive physique and gentle good looks make him a noble successor to the great Christopher Reeve, star of the 1978 Superman. Unfortunately, he is never given a chance to do much actual acting here. Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are quite good as Jor-El and Pa Kent, respectively, though there’s no way that Costner is only in his late 40s, as the film requires him to be. Ayelet Zurer and Diane Lane are also good as Superman’s Kryptonian and Earth mothers, though the former isn’t given nearly enough to do for an actress of her caliber. Amy Adams makes a solid Lois Lane – the adult Kal-El’s love interest – but she, too, is not given enough screen time. And then there’s Michael Shannon, as the bad guy, Zod, whom I cannot stand (and who is given far too much time on screen). But then, I never do like Michael Shannon. He’s never met a line that he won’t mangle through overacting. He is the human equivalent of the unnecessary digital effects that mar the rest of the film.

More positives. I loved what the script did once Kal-El arrives on earth. As the baby’s ship approaches our planet’s atmosphere, there is a sudden flash-forward cut, and we find ourselves on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean where the adult Kal-El/Clark is working one of many jobs he has taken on his “walkabout.” A nearby oil rig is on fire, and he feels the call to save the men aboard. For the next hour or so, as the story moves forwards, we cut back and forth between the present and Clark’s childhood in Kansas. I loved this flashback structure, and loved the Terrence Malick-inspired cinematography of the Kansas scenes. Unfortunately, as Kal-El/Clark approaches the ice-embedded Kryptonian ship in the North that will help him discover his roots, the storytelling becomes a little too elliptical, as if the filmmakers had ended up with an overlong rough cut that they were trying desperately to cut down. To which I say, get rid of many of the ridiculous battle scenes at the end of the film, and put the earlier story back in.

Which brings us to the negatives. Kal-El is not the only Kryptonian to have escaped the destruction of his own planet. Anyone who has seen Superman II remembers that General Zod and crew – imprisoned in a jail away from Krypton at the beginning of Superman – break free and make their way to Earth to exact revenge from the child of Jor-El, who was responsible for their capture. In this new film, the plots of both Superman and Superman II are combined, and so, just as we are getting to know Kal-El as he explores his origins and powers, Zod and company make a sudden arrival, and the movie falls apart. As much as I dislike Michael Shannon, however, it is not all his fault. Somehow, the director Zack Snyder and his collaborators – screenwriter David Goyer and producer/co-story creator Christopher Nolan – decided that what we really want to see in an origin story is 30+ minutes of incomprehensible digitally enhanced fight scenes where super beings crash into skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper . . . you get the point. We know they can’t be truly harmed by such mayhem – or by the bullets fired at them – because they’re “super,” so there is very little suspense. But there is a lot of boredom.

<Big sigh>

When I re-watched the trailer this morning, I saw, again, great restraint and calm. But when I watched Man of Steel, the feature, all I saw – at least in the second half – was excess and mayhem. Or, as one of my friends said to me on the way out of the screening, a “lot of debris.”

<Big sigh again>

One final note – the 3D adds nothing. Superman Returns, back in 2006, for all of its many imperfections – which included 3D scenes scattered intermittently throughout the film, with little green glasses that would pop up on the screen telling you when to put on and take off your own pair – used the 3D format in more innovative ways then this film does. The airplane disaster sequence in that earlier film remains an extremely fine bit of action, and the 3D helped make it so. In fact, now that we have Man of Steel upon us, Superman Returns – which disappointed its studio at the box office – now looks to have been the better re-boot.

At least we have the Man of Steel trailer to treasure, years hence.

Oh, What a Lovely Apocalypse! “This Is the End” is Brilliant, Except When It’s Not

This Is the End

This is the End (Evan Goldberg/Seth Rogen, 2013)

Oh, what fun I had for the first thirty minutes of this film! Co-written, co-directed, and starring Seth Rogen, This Is the End takes place in a hilarious sketch-comedy version of Hollywood, with all of the actors playing spoofs of themselves as the world around them burns to a hellish crisp. The Rapture is upon them, and man, what a bummer that is, since the party was like, on, man. Or, as Jonah Hill would say, it was tight.

The (very loose) story goes like this: Jay Baruchel (who? well, yeah – that’s kind of part of the joke) flies into L.A., where his best bud Seth Rogen picks him up at the airport. They go to Seth’s place, get high, then head on over to a party at James Franco’s place. Jay is really just Seth’s friend, and people like Franco, Jonah Hill and Craig Robinson – Seth’s L.A. posse – exist outside of Jay’s comfort zone. But, like I said, the party is on, and folks like Michael Cera, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Emma Watson, among others, are kicking it in Franco’s lavish palace. Cera’s really kicking it, actually, doing blow off of Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s mustache and getting himself blown in the bathroom. That’s right – it’s tight.

But then, suddenly, blue beams shoot down from the sky, yanking a select few up into the clouds, while the remaining evil souls (all of our cinematic friends) are left behind to battle earthquakes, sinkholes, fires, and demons. Soon, it’s just Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Hill, Robinson, and a late arrival, Danny McBride, left in the collapsing party palace, and their days are numbered. With food and drink limited, the world about to end, and all of them obviously condemned to eternal hellfire, they . . . riff. I mean, what would you expect them to do? These are, like, the kings of self-referential improvisatory gross-out humor . . . And so the movie goes. I won’t give all the gags away, except to drop a tantalizing hint that all of you Backstreet Boys fans have something to look forward to.

If you like these guys, and like male-centered comedy with many penis and ejaculation jokes, then this movie is for you, all the way through. If, like me, you occasionally like your humor to be about more than James Franco and Danny McBride yelling at each other about when and where it’s appropriate to spray one’s sperm, then you may begin to tire out about an hour in (strangely, A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote, of that scene, that it made him laugh “louder than just about anything since the naked wrestling match in ‘Borat'” – to each their own, I guess). Somewhere in the last ten years, I must have missed the memo that went out to my fellow citizens, explaining how constant uses of obscenities – for their own sake – and genitalia jokes – stale when I was 12 – are the new height of comedy writing. Or maybe I’m just an outlier.

Whatever the cause of my gross-out fatigue, I loved the opening and closing of this film – the premise of the narrative is really brilliant – and can still recommend it, with the caveat that if you’re like me, you will find yourself annoyed for a while. But if what I’ve described as a negative is your idea of heaven, then it’s blue beams for you (but please spare me the hellfire).