Frank (2014): “Everyone in this movie is a rock star.”

tumblr_n7j9rrsTYu1r6ivyno1_1280Overall Rating: B-

There is a subgenre of films that are especially interesting to me. Well, more than a subgenre, this thematic foundation is present in small patches of every genre. I’m talking about films about the production of other art, artistic creations about artistic creation in general. Some are about movie-making, some feature writers, and “Frank” follows a rock band and it’s titular enigmatic leader Frank.

I find these interesting for their reflective nature. The filmmakers — the screenwriter, director and performer particularly — have exercised their creative process to make a movie in which the characters display their creative processes, thereby giving the audience the a view of a distant, ineffable act from an insider’s perspective. “Frank” may be the most interesting movie that is unapologetically a tribute to the creative process. It opens as Jon, played by the always quirky Domhnall Gleason, wanders in mind and body, trying his very hardest to write a song. He seeks inspiration everywhere, and we hear his thoughts as he tries out countless pathetic lyrics to build on. He sits down to record a voice memo of one, and admits that even he knows how bad they all are.

Later, this idea is parodied in a way that accomplishes all of the following: demonstrates Frank’s genius, mocks Jon’s incompetence and is flat out silly. Frank writes one of the best songs in the film after being inspired by a loose tuft in a rug. He then says he thinks he could make a whole album with the sound of a door clicking shut. Jon looks on in astonishment. Why can’t he be like that?

Maybe it has something to do with the head, though probably not, given that plenty of morons could probably be found wearing equally idiotic masks. The head is the principle interest in the film, and is worn by Frank at all times, including the shower and dating back and unstated number of years. But hey, as another (clearly far from sane) character in the film notes, Frank is “the most 100 percent sanest cat.”

It is obviously inspired by the comic routine of Frank Sidebottom, which featured a very similar papier-mache head. Under the head in “Frank” is actor Michael Fassbender, but by having him adjust his voice for the role and being completely covered we lose the star, and his performance as Frank, which interesting, seems like it could have been done by anyone. This is until the final act in which the head comes off and Frank’s charisma under the head is replaced by naked self-loathing, and Fassbender miraculously links the two otherwise independent character with his incredible gift for non-vocal display of emotion.

At the beginning, “Frank” is funny, but it becomes an increasingly dark character study that suffers from simplicity and predictability, though the points it makes are well received and noteworthy.  Frank’s lack of touch with reality — visually established by the fact he looks different and sounds different with his prop than any other people — is made clear though his childish excitement over a YouTube clip and his foolish misunderstanding of what makes “likable” pop music.

What is in the story supposed to be commentary on psychosis becomes mere self satire, and that isn’t just regarding Frank. Maggie Gyllenhaal acts as another member of band and she is as physical and dark as ever, but in a way that dampens and distracts from the more interesting developments. The other two members of the band speak about a total of a dozen English words, which is a shame because I think something very interesting could have been done with actress Carla Azar, real life drummer for Jack White.

Creative in it’s analysis of the mind of the great artist as well as some visual elements — namely the on-screen twitter pop-ups, as filmmakers must deal with something that simply wasn’t part of stories a decade ago — “Frank” bores for its high implications but lack of effort to get there. It is as if someone wrote a list of what makes dramatic movies interesting, checked them off one-by-one on the screenplay (suicide, check; outdoor sex, check; bushy beard, check), without putting thought into connecting with viewers.

What If (2014): … A Formulaic Film Were Still an Entertaining Film?

what_if_movie_posterOverall Rating: B+

“A good romantic comedy is a good film,” quoth the ever insightful Daniel Radcliffe, and wouldn’t you know, he’s right. Often looked down upon as the cheaper to make equivalent of super hero movies — that is to say, formulaic and unimaginative, but certain to find an audience — rom-com deserves more respect. For every “New Year’s Eve” that makes me think that a fiery death would be better than sitting through another date movie, there is a work of brilliance like “Sleepless in Seattle,” or “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” or “There’s Something About Mary” (man, a lot of great rom-coms came out of the 1990s).

In fact the conventions of the genre go back further than many people give it credit for with classics like “Bringing Up Baby,” “Charade” and “All About Eve” as canonical works of the studio era. But soon it was those very conventions that made people scoff at it, revering only films that were romantic and comedic but otherwise abandoned norms of romantic comedy. Think “Annie Hall” and “Harold and Maude,” some of the most important and admired creations of New Hollywood, and, like it or not, cut from the same cloth as “All About Steve.”

Why is this brief defense of select romantic comedy relevant before presenting my opinion of “What If,” you ask. It is because “What If” is unapologetically a rom-com, meeting all of the expectations of the genre. But, it is a good one, and before saying that, I had to make you admit that there are some good ones.

“What If” is a genre film, a date movie, but it’s writing is such that it does not matter. It’s not a movie about finding out whether out characters survive or any other thrilling arch. It is about these two people and the life they have together. First as strangers, then as friends, then as a self-confused mess of 20-something emotions. Critics have attacked “What If” for its predictability, but I say, So you’ve seen movies before and found this one cliche, who cares, enjoy the ride.

The ride here with Wallace and Chantry, the adorably compatible team of Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, is all the laughs you could hope for. Their story doesn’t sit around and make you wait, it doesn’t litter itself with unnecessary build up. The first time Wallace meets Chantry, it is also our first time as the audience. Within another 10 minutes, they’ve exhanged numbers and agreed to be friends. The screenplay wastes no time at all. This is even true of it’s allusions to landmarks of the genre, two of which it leans upon heavily. The first series of shots, a lightly scored montage of images from the Toronto skyline, evokes memories of “Manhattan,” another film which discusses ethics in contemporary romance.

The second such landmark is the more apparent, and it seems that “What If” really is the ideological offspring of the masterpiece “When Harry Met Sally…” Both are films that pit a man and a woman together who the audience knows are perfect for each other, but who stay friends and become a case study as to whether or not that notion is even possible. Oddly enough, both say it’s not. But that is not where the parallels end, both reunite their drifting leads at a party, and both contain a bevy of pseudo-intellectual conversations about the notion of cross-gender palling out.

All of that said, “What If” somehow manages not to lazily copy, but to adopt and alter. Though the plot is similar to prior movies, the characters are unique, though the conclusion is foreseeable, the specifics and reveal are completely one of a kind. It’s not driven by the prearranged plot points, it is driven by wit and the performances of its leads. Those are of course Daniel Radcliffe, not sporting a waistcoat for the first time, and rom-com veteran Kazan who are perfect together, but also the three primary supporting players. If you’ve read my writing in the past, you know what I think of Adam Driver’s young career as an actor who, while always retaining a part of himself, seems fit for a variety of roles. Here he is an utterly hilarious line-deliverer who makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Perfectly beefed up to play the jerky doofus of early episodes who evolves until we’re only a little surprised to be at his wedding, Driver has an incredible career ahead of him (which will begin at “Star Wars VII”). His partner in crime in “What If” is played by the equally electric Mackenzie Davis, and together they brought out the best in one another’s comic abilities. Megan Park is also fantastic as Chantry’s vulnerable sister, and the two had such a great sisterly connection that it made me realize just for the first time how poorly siblings are sometimes related on screen.

Maybe a large part of my admiration for the characters and their dialog is how easily I can relate to Wallace, a young man burdened with a complicated mix of optimism and hesitation. His storyline goes awry, boldly taking flight to fight for the woman he loves, but all in all he is as ordinary as as at the whim of luck as anyone else.

This movie is a fine mixture of quirky, including creative presentations on screen, and utterly humanistic when its routinely simple and realistic dialog masks the been-there Hollywood-style plot. It is also worth noting that this is a young person’s movie. Just as something like “It Happened One Night” — which director Michael Dowse instructed Radcliffe to watch before shooting — is firmly rooted in its interwar setting, where the Depression is on everyone’s mind and men Clark Gable’s age were eager for the unified direction their fathers had had; “What If” is a nod to we millennials, and a note to stay optimistic. By far the youngest person at the press screening I saw the movie at, I was also laughing by far the most.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014): So Much More Than Meets the Eye

edge_of_tomorrow_ver4_xlgOverall Rating: A

I didn’t realize exactly why I was loving Edge of Tomorrow, the latest Tom Cruise-starring fantasy action flick, until an obscure moment rather late in the film. Without giving anything important away, Cruise’s character, Cage is his name, has a seriously wounded leg. Nothing special happened, just an impalement right on the quadriceps muscle and a couple sizable falls. After one such fall, he visibly stumbles and has a difficult time bearing weight on that leg, but after a few strides, he buries the pain and keeps on running – not smoothly, mind you, because it obviously still hurts, but running nonetheless.

For those who don’t know, Edge of Tomorrow is a high concept science fiction film about a Major in the United States Army public relations wing who, by what can only be described as a series of unfortunate events, winds up among the privates preparing to join the front line in a crucial battle against alien invaders. When he gets killed, he wakes up at the base again.  And again, and again. So, to my point about him managing to run through the pain, it was not on the first try. In his first trip to battle I was afraid he was going to wet himself. He kept crying out for help and that he wasn’t a soldier. There is no way he had a formidable tolerance for pain. But by the end, after countless days of training – not his body, which always returned to the same status when he woke up, but his mind and mind alone – his will can triumph over the pain.

In this light, Edge of Tomorrow is a nuanced epic about the human spirit. Rich not only with creatively depicted action and moral ambiguities, in addition to the most ‘Tom Cruise’ performance Tom Cruise hath performed, it is as illuminating and inspiring as anything in years.  The American Everyman who took his obvious talents for media relations to the military for its job security and benefits after his own business went under saves the day by refusing to accept fate and by trying to learn, to grow and to develop everyday until he has to capacity to win. That might have been stretching the plot a little bit, and it certainly isn’t the main point of the movie (Aliens!), but if it doesn’t get you deep down, nothing will.

Ben Cage (is that the closest name to “Tom Cruise” they could think of or a too-obvious metaphor for the fact that he is trapped, I can’t decide) is the out-of-luck officer upon whom this blessing/curse bestows itself. He is first seen a few minutes into the movie in a flash as part of a really confusing montage of news clips. What are all of these disjointed, disembodied voices and archival footage of Hilary Clinton and animated maps trying to tell me? And that mess of an introduction only devolves into the equally confusing, unexplained run-in that leaves Cage with a demotion for the record books.

He wakes up on a base near London, is handed a pair of boots and a notice that he is wanted for impersonating an officer. How or why this took place is never solved, a gaping hole in our understanding of the situation at hand. In an intergalactic war for survival (the Independence Day comparisons are inescapable, but at least the film doesn’t try to escape), one would think that sending an untrained pretty boy to the front line would be counter-intuitive. From this point he is introduced to the squad with which he will serve, and the excessive military satire, a cousin to both Full Metal Jacket and Starship Troopers (but on different sides), these scenes prove over-the-top and they drag on. These few bits of sci-fi silliness, as well as another tiny plot gap later on, are the major flaws in an otherwise pretty and powerful picture. That isn’t to say that having a jumbled opening, a crucial part of a concept film, is supposed to be forgiven either.

All in all, the point I’m getting at is that Edge of Tomorrow could have been an excellent feature about a man growing as if years pass in one day, because for him this day is truly an infinite amount of days. But it got caught trying to sell tickets with a sweaty heroine and loud explosions. It’s characters are excellent. Cage, a two-dimensional poster of exactly what you’d expect a professional modern propagandist gains complexity throughout the run time. He is at first confident, then utterly confused, then fearful, then repeat until he has undergone enough suffering to evolve to determined. The other significant player is Rita, played by the incomparably versatile Emily Blunt. As the most decorated hero in the army, Cage seeks her help in saving his butt during their invasion, only to find out that she is the only one who knows what is going on with him. Everyday from then on, Cage escapes from his commanders in the same way and finds Rita at the same place and explains why he is there. See, no one else remembers what goes on except him. One other character – the obligatory mad scientist archetype of sci-fi movies – asks him how many fingers are behind his back. When Cage can’t guess he says, “So this is the first time we’re having this conversation.” You can guess what happened in all successive days.

Over the countless days he spends in this loop, Cage remembers everything, which is a crucial to his gradually devising a way to win the battle, but is also an impossible cross to bear. He sees the horrors of war countless times, and while everyone around him has only known him for a few hours, his memory of them last infinitely longer. When he breaks from a plan and suggests they just lay low and cherish time, we find out that it is because he cannot stand to go through watching someone he is so close to die again in the same way she has before. He has slowly been falling in love with Rita, and who can blame him – she oozes confidence and drive, and is not exactly harmful to the eyes – and all the while she only has the emotional connection to him as someone she met this morning.

The supporting players are a motley set of misfits who hardly belong in the army. They include a man who prefers to go into battle in his weapon suit and nothing else, a girl who is never one to back away from a chance at a bitchy comment, and a fierce young man who is revealed to have Don Draper-ed himself (assumed the identity of a fallen comrade, hopefully the first use of “Don Draper” as a verb).

It also includes the bad guys. While they do look fake, because they are, when you get a good look at them, the Oscar-winning director of photography of Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago saves that from holding the picture back. The camera is always moving, and not in the annoying-shaky way that thrillers are trending towards, in the good way.  The movie turns into a thrill ride, constantly panning but revealing exactly what you need to see. The first time Cage deploys from his transport, he falls to the earth in a beautifully planned sequence of shots that feel like the viewer is dancing in mid-flight with its frightened hero. The monsters this quick camera action captures throughout the movie are, in a word, terrifying. They are fast like nothing of this earth – on land and in water – and their lightning movements obscure their reaching, spider-like forms. And of course they are really difficult to kill.

Video game players will recognize the freedom as well as frustration of Edge of Tomorrow. Cage is not afraid of death or other sorts of failure. He knows that he will simply respawn at what amounts to the beginning of the level. But oh, he has to start all over, do the tricks he knows by heart. In one day, very far into his experience, he is followed by a couple tough guys. “Can we not do this today?,” he says as if there were a way to avoid it.

In the mix of genres – distaster, coming-of-age, science fiction, military – embodied by Edge of Tomorrow, it reminds its audience that there is one central tenant in story. No amount of well designs monsters, well-performed lady-sidekicks or crafty camera moves can save a movie that lacks humanity. As a leading man, Tom Cruise is like no other and has been unjustly, harshly judged ever since the advent of internet entertainment coverage dragged him out of his comfort zone. When it came out, Mission Impossible was like nothing we had seen before, so the ambition is there. His Maverick of the exquisite Top Gun is one of cinema’s most unforgettable characters, so the charisma is there. And no one can question his ability in dramatic roles, putting aside guns and jets. The way he depicts Cage’s personal growth, his responses to newfound intelligence and emotions, and his coping with the moral ambiguities of his situation mark Cruise as capable as ever of providing a backbone to an otherwise shallow blockbuster.

Land Ho! (2014): A Test of Your Patience

LandHo-PosterFinal-v2a-140108-webnewOverall Rating: D

This movie is bad. It just is, and I don’t recommend anyone go see it. About an hour in, I scribbled in my notebook, “This movie blows. I want to go home.” What the filmmakers were going for, and arguably achieved in all of its boring glory, was a film about friendship and escape. What they got was a piece about tolerating your poorly behaved family and the fact that humor declines linearly with age.

At the beginning, a man, probably about 70 years old, is vacuuming his house. And believe it or not, it all goes downhill from there. Alright that was a joke, I’ll be nice. His cleaning adventure is interrupted by a knock on the window and a heartfelt greeting. These two – Mitch and Colin – are both recently divorced ex-brothers-in-law who were, we imagine, the best of friends before Mitch and his wife separated. Now, in their age and lonliness, they are reuniting for the first time in many years. The first fundamental issue with the movie is represented right here in the first few scenes which take place in Kentucky. The screenplay by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens lacks for proper development. Before we know anything of Mitch, his visitor Colin shows up. Who are these men? Why do we care about their reunion? Because nothing happens to let us know we should care, we just don’t.

Even more inappropriately soon, the story having only just told us what these men’s relationship is, Mitch makes a proposal. More like a reveal, really, for he insists that Colin has no say and that this is just the way it is. They are going on a vacation together. Mitch, a recently cast-aside surgeon, has purchased first-class tickets for him and his ex-brother-in-law to go to Iceland together to get their grooves back. Colin is obviously taken with surprise, and so is the audience. As far as we know, these guys are long-lost acquaintances who never had a groove to begin with. This is a lesson in the fact that even a lovely idea for a movie requires a well-crafted screenplay. The idea is lovely. Two men setting off in their old age to experience something new and get an escape from their troubles (Mitch’s losing his job, Colin’s recent divorce from his second wife). They arrive in Iceland, and then the character building finally begins and the arc of their journey plateaus.

Mitch is unflinchingly unaware of his age. Colin just wants to relax. The likability of Colin, played by the unquestionably talented Paul Eerhoorn, keeps the tandem’s private moments above water while Mitch’s obnoxious, barbaric banter tries to drown them with penis jokes. Actually, it seems that these jokes are the primary subject of the film. Beginning as blunt language from Mitch and evolving into strategic placement of erect lighthouses and climactic geysers, Land Ho! even gets the casual audience member to ride this wit to the finish. Everything in Iceland, it turns out, it phallic. Stephens’s location scout vacation that inspired the film seems rather focused on that.

In addition to crude humor that I sincerely hope my generation grows out of by the time we are their age, Mitch’s refusal to grow up is apparent in equally upsetting ways. He smokes pot constantly and, like a helpless child, cannot seem to go a night without waking up Colin. Why Colin still puts up with him is beyond me. He insists on going to clubs and going exploring in the dead of night. He even plans on trying to seduce his second cousin or her friend, both about a third of his age, after bragging about how attractive they are (they’re not bad, but he still needs his eyes checked). It seems that after a full life packed with the lessons of fatherhood, marriage, friendship and an important job, Mitch has opted to ignore everything thrown at him. Perhaps that’s why he wound up distanced from his children, divorced and forced into retirement, and why he seems to think that taking these girls out and forcing them to take his money to buy new clothes is a smooth way to operate. Land Ho! would probably better have fit as a sitcom about two men and their episodic escapades in Iceland I think, but then I remember that a sitcom can only work if the characters are at least relate-able, if not expressly likable.

Eerhoorn was capable of making Colin an empathetic, honest figure; and Earl Lynn Nelson cannot be blamed for Mitch’s shortcomings as a human being. The dialogue by this writing team is too childish – not in the sense that its senior protagonists seem like children, but in the sense that it feels like children wrote the movie. I know what you’re thinking: “But the story is lovely, but Mitch is funny, but they evolve so much.” Wrong. The story is ordinary, Mitch is a deviant and they finish in exactly the same pathetic place they started. While the Icelandic scenes are awe-inspiring and the country is certainly shown is a great light, it is often put to waste by the photography which is not only shaky but abuses close-up, shallow focus shots, which can be used to great effect but in this case are used too much and obscure the beautiful sets.

It isn’t all bad I guess. There is one (the first of two) sequence of the two just having a ball, dancing on the beach that is a bit of fun. The landscapes are gorgeous and the work of selecting locations was inspired. The problem is that the story does not tailor to them. It seems far less like a movie was created and then a site was needed for each scene, and more like Stephens found an array of cool looking locations and just mixed-and-matched writing to fill them. Even when Land Ho! tries to create something greater – a metaphor about friendship and aging through a description of Jewish Mysticism, for example – the surrounding elements (often this is Mitch) ruin it.

Colin loves movies. He mentions a slew of them and lists his favorite actors. He likes playing a game where you name a group of actors and the other person has to say what movie they were all in. The audience, full of cinefiles because no wide audience could bare this film, plays along in their heads. He has a wide range of tastes, enjoying everything from westerns to sex comedies. I doubt he would like Land Ho!.

Obvious Child (2014): From Fart Jokes to ‘Gone with the Wind’ with Jenny Slate

Obvious Child, Sundance Film Festival 2014Overall Grade: B+

Writing for The New Yorker  in 2007, film critic and cultural commentator David Denby outlined the protagonists in what he described as slacker-striver comedy (think: Knocked UpFever Pitch) as follows:

“His beard is haphazard and unintentional, and he dresses in sweats, or in shorts and a T-shirt, or with his shirt hanging out like the tongue of a Labrador retriever. He’s about thirty, though he may be younger, and he spends a lot of time with friends who are like him, only more so … Like his ancestors in the sixties, he’s anti-corporate, but he’s not bohemian … He may run a used-record store, or conduct sightseeing tours with a non-stop line of patter, or feed animals who then high-five him with their flippers, or teach in a school where he can be friends with all the kids, or design an Internet site that no one needs. Whatever he does, he hardly breaks a sweat, and sometimes he does nothing at all.

He may not have a girlfriend, but he certainly likes girls—he’s even, in some cases, a hetero blade, scoring with tourists or love-hungry single mothers. But if he does have a girlfriend she works hard. Usually, she’s the same age as he is but seems older, as if the disparity between boys and girls in ninth grade had been recapitulated fifteen years later. She dresses in Donna Karan or Ralph Lauren or the like; she’s a corporate executive, or a lawyer, or works in TV, public relations, or an art gallery. She’s good-tempered, honest, great-looking, and serious. She wants to ‘get to the next stage of life’—settle down, marry, maybe have children.”

Note that the slacker-striver tandem he describes is infallibly, unquestionably slacking dude and striving young woman. Now flip the script. Instead of a poorly shaven cool-guy teacher in tee shirts, and a pant-suit wearing and future-minded business woman; Obvious Child gives us Donna, a messy-haired night-club comic in sweatpants, and Max, a young MBA with a myriad of button-down shirts who obviously cares about his hair (We can forgive him for only owning one pair of shoes, he is just a guy after all).

Now, Obvious Child may not be exactly the sort of picture Denby would ascribe to his sub-genre per se, it is more about the potential dawn of a relationship than the arc of one, and it focuses too little on the dynamic between the two while focusing with tunnel-vision on Donna, the vulgar comic. Even when we learn more about the charmingly not-her-type Max, it is to see how Donna reads him, receives each new bit of information. And most of all, Obvious Child is not a romantic comedy – or so it insists.

Writer/director Gillian Robespierre employs a cool trick for telling her audience everything they need to know about without cheezey, trite scenes (two girls telling each other Everything in some coffee shop booth, or endless flashbacks for example), and even without having to use the sometimes effective but always fragile narration. Her protagonist Donna is a stand-up comedian who is “unapologetically herself up there, and that’s why people love her.” In her act, she spills her proverbial guts. Within only a few minutes of the start of the movie, we know intimate things about her relationship, her ethnic identity and her intestinal gases; oh, and that she is really, really funny. She is played by revelation Jenny Slate (the voice and co-creative behind Marcel the Shell). Prepare yourself, world, because Jenny Slate is the next big thing in comedy. Watching her is wildly entertaining. She has a raspy voice ala Ana Farris, and has the gifts of physical acting unlike any newcomers in decades. And she is really hot.

Her Donna rocks these attributes. She is, to the credit of both Robespierre’s unrestrained writing and Slate’s star-making performance, a perfect combination of proud adult and helpless infant. (Her father is a comic puppeteer, her mother is a business school professor, she is a little pinch of both.) She is obviously intelligent, in an unconventional way, even though she has no idea how to do her taxes; her comedy, drawn from her perceptions of the world, herself and her audience, is her intelligence. No one would question if I said that Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock is a genius, because they are. This may not have formulated itself into mathematical breakthrough or unparalleled business acumen, but it is there. Donna’s not a genius, but her natural grasp of an audience with such little material demonstrates more brain power that the other parts of her life might give her credit for.

Of course, she does have one wee lapse in judgement. In a rebound from being “dumped up with” by her cheating boyfriend, she “does sex” with Max and winds up pregnant. Here, Obvious Child seriously flirts with becoming just another chick flick. It even briefly crosses that line – as two female yet tomboyish roomates talk over their mutual troubles (sometimes with their obligatory gay best friend), I grew ready to regret having gone to this movie. But Obvious Child saves itself from being yet another female empowering pregnancy film, or, which is much worse, a preachy abortion comedy.

That isn’t to condemn abortion comedies as a whole. Juno has obvious merits once you get past the annoying issue of there being a baby. Perhaps Citizen Ruth is a more apt comparison. Alexander Payne’s bold debut is about a down-on-her-luck woman played by Laura Dern who wants yet another abortion, and becomes trapped by the sociopolitical debate over the ethical implications of planned parenthood, a symbol that both sides want representing them. Like Ruth, Donna knows right off the bat she wants to terminate the pregnancy, sparing us of a twisted game of will-she-won’t-she?, and putting to bed any risk of this becoming yet another bland pregnancy film. “Fuck,” she exclaims when her worst fears are confirmed. “I’ve heard it all before,” says the woman at the clinic. For some, hearing that a baby is on the way is the greatest moment of a lifetime; for others, hearing that you’ve been knocked up is the realization of a worst nightmare.

Now that the key plot points are laid in place, Robespierre’s wit can shine. Rife with innuendo that only Donna and the audience can get, the dialogue of Obvious Child is masterfully entertaining and true, if too unnecessarily vulgar for my tastes. It is awkward and very uncomfortable, but in the very best way. Donna is an awkward person whom many find uncomfortable to be around, so why shouldn’t the audience see that plainly? So often a movie fails because everything seems too premeditated. It is premeditated: the screenwriter has an idea, writes it and writes it and writes it, edits it and asks others to edit it, there are casting calls and then table reads and then more editing, there is scheduling and rehearsal and memorization. In Obvious Child, Robespierre’s talent as a young screenwriter shines in that it all seems to happen on the fly, and Slate handles Donna’s lines like not even she knows where each conversation might lead. It is, again, uncomfortable to watch, but only because it should be.

The emphasis on breaking genre norms and on embracing a sort or realism does not leave behind standard cinematic elements, for better or worse. Even though we all know that Donna and Max are made for anyone but each other, their belief in serendipity leaves them lying on a coach watching Gone With the Wind as the credits role, commenting that there are just too many romantic comedies (“I can’t relate with those at all,” Donna says, not at all noticing the irony). Donna makes Max laugh, and he is kind to her in a way few others are, and that is good enough for this fusion rom-com/chick flick/coming-of-age indie. Her divorced parents obviously play a huge role in her life, as she seems to have a great friendship with her father and a more distant but equally powerful respect for her mother – when she gets in trouble, it isn’t to fun dad, but to sensible mom, that she runs.

Taking place in New York, but refusing with earnest to accept cliches about the city playing a role in the story – other than repeated insults to Los Angeles – Obvious Child is about youth in transition (in today’s lexicon, Max doesn’t say they’ve slept together as Woody Allen’s characters might have in a similar movie 40 years ago, he says “we’ve hung out already”), alone in spirit but constantly surrounded by friends and family. It isn’t mushy or sentimental, but it pushes sentiment. Building on themes of the kindness of strangers and the bond between mother and daughter, Obvious Child risks convention but never goes in more than to its knees. It is important that protagonist Donna is a performer, a comedian. Denby’s archetype of the slacker has a job that is more like an organized version of play, and a comic fits the bill to a T. But more importantly, it gives Donna a microphone, and while she is always her goofy, expressive self, it is on stage that she is safest and most confident, which brews charisma. This charisma is what most audience members (read: women) will take away from Obvious Child. In spite of her troubles, she always – always – had time for a joke, and that in itself is empowering.

Begin Again (2014): An Independent Tribute to the Independent Spirit

22480870_PA_Begin AgainOverall Rating: B

Begin Again was directed by its writer John Carney, who has a proven track record of successful and emotional musical drama having also made Once. It was shot on an unannounced budget, giving off the impression that there hardly was one, on location in unique and romanticized spots throughout New York City. From rooftops, to alleyways, to subway platforms, to parks and parks and parks, Begin Again becomes a film on location, the urban, American version of the postcard picture, an angle that is often tedious and boring but has found a loving home here.

Let me explain. Begin Again was made by extremely talented people in a rather amateur style, short shooting schedule and all. It was made in the city streets, often with obvious authenticity (read: the background players didn’t come across as extras, because they probably were actual New Yorkers, walking their dogs, getting the groceries, at the end of their patience trying to catch a cab), and the naturalism of location shooting plays a huge role in building the atmosphere of the world these people – and the rest of us – inhabit.  It follows an out-of-luck former head of a record company; he began his label because he wanted to look at things differently, but lost patience with his partner’s professional inertia.  He meets a talented but unambitious songwriter, and together they fail to get signed to a record company, even the one Dan had founded. So, they decide to work on borrowed equipment with pro bono musicians and record an album on no budget on location. One song in an alley, with the children playing there recruited to sing backup; one song on rowboat in a Central Park pond, completed by the sound of oars hitting the water. If ever a film was a shameless tribute to itself – save perhaps Fellini’s masterful 8 1/2 – this is it. So if ever the cliched approach of the city playing a central role in the feel-good movie was actually a wise creative choice, this is also it.

Certainly out of sorts, we are introduced to the songwriter Gretta in the film’s opening scene at an East Village live music bar, when her friend makes her go on stage. She resists, obviously upset about something, but that emotion adds unexpected depth to her song. “This is for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city,” she says, before delving into a melodic and poetic love letter to everyday sadness. Appearing mid-song in the audience is an oddly enthused man, obviously drunk, who seems to hear more in the music than his fellow crowd members. This is Dan. And we come to find out he did in fact hear more, as his ear is as gifted as Gretta’s pencil.

The pair are played by Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, an oddly matched tandem that do accurately depict the perfect level of discomfort between the two that builds to sincere, close friendship. Knightley has directed her career toward this smaller, more character driven fare since getting her big break as the sexual, bold, proud Elizabeth Swan of Disney’s incredible Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, but Gretta is still a uniquely restrained role for her. Her most celebrated turn of late came in a perhaps more thoughtful period drama A Dangerous Method, in which she employs her natural eroticism and knack for volatile physicality as a patient and love interest to Carl Jung. But in Begin Again, her most precious moments come alone at a microphone, or quietly admiring a fellow performer. Ruffalo, rich with indie tradition in spite of his being Marvel’s newest Hulk, is very much himself again. Loose, disoriented and lost but in a sympathetic and funny way seems to be his specialty. Whether it’s struggling with losing grasp of his business, or struggling to define a relationship with his biological children (The Kids are Alright), or coping with the embarrassment of failing on the job because he can’t keep it in his pants (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) he is at home with inadequacy.

And it is their characters that make the movie work, and what allow it to celebrate its larger themes. Really, outside of the characters and the aforementioned subliminal implications, there is not a lot that makes Begin Again worth your time. The supporting characters are straight out of cliche and creative choices like the title type are weak and uninspired. The dialogue even, which is often truly excellent, has moments that read like nothing more than a string of tag lines passed back and forth. But the characters perfectly embody the spirit of the picture. They both, in spite of their reserved and hesitant projections show a physical reaction, a unique and contagious thrill for music. This is a credit to the leads. Even in her weakest moments, Knightley’s Gretta cannot help but let loose a momentary grin when she gets to play her song, and Ruffalo’s Dan is magetically drawn out of his chair, almost looking like it is against his will, by hearing it.

The movie was originally titled “Can A Song Save Your Life?,” and it seeks to prove that the answer, at least for these two, is yes. After the lonely moment in the club, where a broken Gretta plays and a more-broken Dan listens, we dial back in time. The movie has a handful of these “how did we get here” sequences. In the first, Dan loses his job and a little dignity with it. Or a lot of dignity. When he arrives in the club that night and hears Gretta perform, he tells her that he had been standing on a subway platform thinking of killing himself, “and then I heard your song.” She won’t sign a label though, as she doesn’t think of herself as an actual musician. Besides, she’s returning to native England in the morning. No one would just up-and-leave New York without something terrible happening, and her flashback sequence begins. Her long time boyfriend, played by Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, has made it big and is leaving her behind – for more chart friendly songs, for more exotic women, for the rockstar life in general. When she was asked to play at the club, singing and songwriting was the furthest thing from what she wanted.

So yes, there is nothing terribly original about these backstories, but the thrill of the remainder of the plot makes up for it. In one of the film’s few simply bad moments in its storytelling, the two decide how to handle the rejection of the record plea by deciding they’ll record an album outside. This moment arrives way too fast for me, a judgement lapse in the story’s development. But it all leads to the movie hitting the gas pedal. After going through a pre-production process that every indie filmmaker, including Carney, might find painfully familiar, they step to, and their relationship develops.

That is not to say that Begin Again is a romance. It is a romance only in the sense that The Silence of the Lambs is a romance. In no way are Lecter and Clarice in love romantically, they both need one another. Beyond being a launching pad for his escape plans, Lecter needed Clarice for a conversation companion, a cure to his boredom, a friendly face for the first time in nearly a decade. Clarice used her relationship with the killer to advance her career, yes, but also found solace with the monster, an oral sparring partner because of whom she opens up about her buried past. Dan and Gretta too need one another, and not just for the purposes of making music. They spend a night going through Gretta’s music library, dancing through New York to a variety of tunes that include, of all things, “As Time Goes By,” from one of Gretta’s (and mine) “favorite films.”  They loose their emotions on one another, and lean on one another, looking eye-to-eye and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder as lovers might, but only because everybody needs somebody, and they are who they’ve got.

I would be amiss not to comment on the tunes in a film that places so much weight on music. Beginning with the pop music of Gretta’s star ex-boyfriend Dave Kohl (either a really unsubtle reference to Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, or a really weird coincidence), who climbs to the top at the sacrifice of his musical integrity. He records a song with Gretta in a flashback with only her voice, a piano and an acoustic guitar, shot on a camcorder. Now, full beard and all, his songs are being rearranged for the top-40 listener and he’s accepting phony awards on YouTube. They are well performed by the immensely talented Levine, because, well, they sound just like the recent work of Levine and Maroon 5. But Gretta’s music, the music of consequence in the film, struck and impressed me like few other original, diegetic soundtracks have. The music for the film was written by Gregg Alexander, who earned this name drop. The music is not just good. In fact, it isn’t actually that great. But it is right. Knightley too deserves credit for her performance in the musical scenes for not being too good (I’m sure she’s capable), but for dropping in a realistic amount of cracks and down beats. If Alexander’s music were not good, the film might be unbearable, but if it were too good, we wouldn’t be able to believe that she had been cast aside not once, but twice by labels. That’s the best word, the music is Right.

In the film’s most romantic and rewarding moment, the band plays on a Manhattan rooftop, the Empire State Building not far in the background. Dan and his daughter grab instruments and tag along, the sun sets over the course of the scene. It is the embodiment of the movie in only a handful of minutes. It is about the healing power of music, about family and, with the chiming in of a neighbor requesting they “quiet the fuck down,” it is unapologetically New York.

The penultimate song in the movie is called “Lost Stars.” While the characters note that music industry people – a rock journalist, a pop sensation – do not make good life partners, an obvious metaphor with the song’s title, I thought of something a little different, about the way the movie acts as a bit of a love letter to it’s host city. In New York, there are many things. Record companies, live-music venues, and much, much more. But in all of the bells and whistles, the bright lights and ticker-tape glamour, there are no stars. The simplest of nature’s gifts, the ability to tilt your head back and stare into the mysterious and awe-inspiring abyss broken by the distant glitter of stars, a great reminder that you are part of something more, is lost to the ever-lit city.

Palo Alto (2014): Tryin’ to Lose the Awkward Teenage Blues

palo_alto_ver2Overall Rating: A

“I was a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds. Tight pants points hardly renowned. She was a black haired beauty with big dark eyes.”

So opens Bob Seger’s nostalgic ballad of youthful misadventure, “Night Moves,” about two teenagers who over the course of a summer learn about love and lust and most importantly themselves, growing up in the process, whether they’ve been aware of it or not.

There is a moment in Palo Alto in which protagonist April is sitting, very much against her will, with a college counselor at her school. She is attacked with a slew of questions that everyone her age confronts, like it or not – what does she want to study, what type of college does she see herself at? Only a few moments after she cries it out in the girls room, an old, odd art instructor tells a story. He was driving a convertible, it goes, down a cold, mysterious tunnel when he says to himself, “Bob, this isn’t your convertible; you’re not even Bob.”

Palo Alto takes a uniquely generous look at a strange yet all too familiar arrangement of high schoolers, who during their junior year are forced – by adults, by each other, even by themselves – to find and settle on some sort of identity.  April, played by the beautiful Emma Roberts in a milestone performance, is at a cross roads. She’s not as grown up as she thinks, with perfectly written dialogue to define her age (“What does that even mean?”).  She feels the stresses of the ever-approaching deadline at which she should know who she is. Is she the sort of girl who responsibly babysits, or one who fraternizes with older men? Is she “raging or just chilling”?  Is she a virgin like her friends profess her to be?  Hey, she could even be Bob.

What all of this demand for forward-mindedness results in is what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice. When what is in front of you is so open-ended, so limitless, the strain of picking a direction leads people simply not to make any decision and to remain sedentary, stagnant, to embrace only what is readily in front of you. For the teens in Palo Alto, this means a perfectly disorganized agenda of soccer practice and drinking parties, volunteering and date rape.  One could say that this is a movie about addiction, about lust, about age discrimination, or any other slew of academic topics. Really, it is all of these, because it is about growing up, the angst of inevitably approaching the end of something. April feels it. So do her friends Fred and Teddy and her teammates. But I would still hardly call it a communal process, as the most important people in the lives of school age kids are adults.

Their parents, teachers, coaches lord over them, serving the dual roles of idol and tyrant. April’s mother is hopelessly incompetent and her step-father is that much worse, spending his days playing video games and proudly dedicating his time to high school history papers. Teddy’s father is as disrespectful as he is, but without the excuse of being an angst-laden teenager.  Fred’s father at the very least does illegal drugs, but also might be a promiscuous closeted homosexual. This forces the troubled kids, at the most emotionally demanding time in their lives, to seek someone else to look up to. Teddy, forced into community service builds relationships with the elderly people he helps care for in the hospital. This is a healthy choice, a wise fall back after rebelling from home. The fact that it is made because of a judge’s requirement for volunteer time is omnipresent, but in the shadows.  His best friend Fred and his romantic interest April do not do as well. Fred falls deeper and deeper into his habits of self-harm, developing alcohol and marijuana dependence as well as a sexual hunger that puts his relationships in jeopardy. April falls for an older man, the father of the boy she babysits and her soccer coach, played by James Franco – incidentally, the renaissance man wrote the book on which the film is based.

Palo Alto is directed by Gia Coppola (yes, of those Coppolas) in her feature directing debut, and it proves the immense talents of the rookie filmmaker. Each shot is placed meticulously, anticipating characters’ movement and quickly establishing a striking array of color pallets in different moments. The camera is a tool that aids the filmmaker in telling a story, in creating character, not only in capturing what it sees. Coppola uses it to great effect, capturing characters as individuals; even if there is a crowd of four girls as in an early sequence, they are cropped so only the speaker is on screen, making painfully aware the fact that these people are at a lonely, helpless time in their lives.

When Franco’s coach tells April he loves her, he says that she shouldn’t just be with “boys” her age because: “You’re better than that.” As an audience we acknowledge that this might be true; April has done a better job than most at avoiding the hedonistic traditions of one’s teens, so often given an affectionate angle as “rights of passage.” But we also know that she definitely deserves better than this man, who is essentially preying on a younger girl who gets giddy at hearing that she’s pretty. Just assuming that as the older, more mature individual he gets the moral high ground is one of the cultural criticisms that I hold dear and this film seeks to discuss. Agism, prejudices associated with age, are a problem. In Palo Alto the case isn’t made that young people can be equally mature, it is that nobody is completely mature. The parents are no different from their high school kids. The coach and these teenagers have the same, shameful desire to exploit silly girls. The senior citizens at the hospital seem just as aimless and helpless as they put glasses on to look at art, as a little boy putting on a tiger-mask to watch a movie.  Right after the first physical encounter between Franco’s and Roberts’s characters, her April is shown riding in a car, hand and hair out the window catching the breeze. Innocent enough, she is a kid coming into her own and this image represents her freedom. But notice that Coppola put her in the backseat of the car, being driven around like a child.

The film tensely winds down in a clever, deliberate bookend to the beginning. “I’d be the king,” says Teddy when asked what he’d do if he were in the middle ages in the first scene. In a final scene, he’s asked about being an ancient Egyptian, and says, “I’d be pharaoh.” In both cases, Fred is wreckless with the car and the relationship of this delightfully weird pair is in focus. They are Ernie and Bert. Fred is tall, charismatic, funny. Teddy, none of those things, but he seems more kind, more self-aware. Fred is played by Nat Wolff, a revelation in a star-making turn. He is the less featured and less layered character, but his explosively physical performance was a thrill to watch and more of a thrill to think what’s next. He flips from giddy, to violent, to goofy, to reckless all in the natural, bipolar flow of adolescence. Even as they note that they don’t do a whole lot, basically just hang out, they know that together everything is more exciting – for better or worse – than at home.

As is the thesis of Palo Alto. It focuses on demonstrating the life of the mundane. Coppola peppers in a montage of still clips of playground toys, unmoving relics of when these people were children.  The film makes reference to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then April flips the channel to some standard reality program. Palo Alto is neither a teen sex-comedy or a too true melodrama. It is a coming of age piece – in spite of leaving characters right where they started – about the ordinary, the march of time and its affect on people. There is another movie about to hit theaters, Boyhood, which follows a boy from first grade into college. Palo Alto is like a close reading of a small part of that evolution, where nothing momentous happens; but homework, sitting in a locker, jealous banter, bouncing on couches, drawing penises and endlessly flirting fill days and nights and as much as these kids want to rid themselves of it, they all certainly know they will miss it when it’s gone.

Ain’t it funny how the night moves?