On Whiplash

Now that I’ve seen Whiplash, even if it is two months into the new year, I feel like I’ve finally seen 2014’s best film. It wasn’t always easy or enjoyable to watch the expectedly intense and surprisingly bloody film, but the performances and concluding fifteen minutes made the whole gory experience worth it.

The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a jazz drumming prodigy of sorts in his first year at the Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious New York City academy that Neiman repeatedly refers to as the country’s best music school. He is recruited for the studio band as an alternate by conductor Terence Fletcher, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons. The film profiles Neiman’s masochistic attempts to earn a core spot on the drums in Fletcher’s band, aiming to achieve his exacting conductor’s unrealistic expectations of musical perfection. But Fletcher is a difficult conductor to work with to say the least. His unwavering desire for excellence is equal only to his willingness to utilize any means, however dehumanizing or humiliating or dangerous, of procuring it. Fletcher rains verbal storms of homophobic abuse on his students, hurls chairs at Neiman’s head when he’s the slightest bit off tempo, and kicks musicians out of his band for being unable to determine if they are out of tune.

Through a serendipitous turn of fate, Neiman is promoted after accidentally losing the core drummer’s sheet music just minutes prior to the start of a jazz competition. Having memorized the piece from which the movie takes its title, “Whiplash,” Neiman is able to perform in the competition without the aid of sheet music, unlike the previous core drummer. But in Fletcher’s band, promotions are tenuous at best. Prior to the band’s next competition, Neiman finds himself fighting again for the coveted drummer position against two other hopefuls. After the three musicians cycle through the seat behind the drum kit over the course of nearly 12 hours, each in turn trying to match Fletcher’s desired tempo, the conductor finally grants the position to Neiman.

As unreasonable as Fletcher’s expectations are, however, Neiman’s desire to fulfill them proves equally irrational. This next anecdote from the film is a bit of a spoiler, but I found it one of the most telling scenes of the film. When his bus breaks down en route to the competition which he worked so tirelessly to perform in, Neiman rents a car to drive the rest of the way. Arriving only a few minutes after call time, Neiman realizes his drum sticks are sitting on a chair in the rental office. Racing back to perform after picking up his sticks, Neiman gets into a horrific accident, slammed on the driver’s side by an eighteen-wheeler. Neiman crawls out of his overturned, crushed car, blood dripping from his head, and runs the rest of the way to the auditorium. He gets to his seat behind the drums in the nick of time, and Fletcher allows his to stay.

The horror of Fletcher’s leadership methods is not lost on Shaffer Conservatory, but his means are almost justified to viewers in light of a parable Fletcher repeatedly shares about Charlie Parker. As the story goes, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at the young Charlie Parker after the latter musician made a mistake while the two were playing together. Rather than discouraging Parker, Jones’ violent response encouraged Parker to practice all the harder, leading him to become one of the music world’s greats. As Fletcher sees it, legendary players only realize their greatness under duress. If he doesn’t push students to their limits with such exacting force, they could miss out on becoming the next Charlie Parker. Neiman wants so badly to achieve the label of musical genius that he withstands Fletcher’s abuses, using them as fuel to practice obsessively, even breaking up with his girlfriend prematurely because he knows he will be too consumed with drumming to be a suitable partner. The whole film becomes an exploration of the Jones-Parker metaphor, raising questions about the morality of this story, causing viewers to equivocate on whether Fletcher’s methods are right or wrong.

Though the film is tense, at times painful, and shows little redemption to any of its cast, the ending is immensely satisfying without being either cheesy or too neat. Just when we viewers think maybe Fletcher has learned the errors of his ways, we find that he is exactly as unrelenting and resistant to change as we feared. And after we think all hope is lost for Neiman, he proves himself capable of breaking free from the shackles of his victimhood. The film culminates in a final musical sequence that is powerfully acted, brilliantly shot, and exceptionally emotional. It’s a rewarding payoff that makes all the pain and suffering along the way, for both Neiman and viewers, worthwhile.

But the performances themselves make even the most difficult scenes in Whiplash all the more tolerable. In lesser hands, the character of Terence Fletcher would have been played as a caricature, a drill sergeant-like conductor whose madness alienated audiences and whose essential humanity was impossible to discern. Simmons brings all the delicacy he can muster to his portrayal of a man defined by his intensity and violent force. When Fletcher fully explores the Charlie Parker metaphor in conversation with Neiman three quarters of the way into the film, we are finally able to understand him, to relate to him, to even forgive him for all the havoc he’s wreaked in the past hour and a half because we receive a glimpse of the logical, human side. Fletcher’s unconventional conducting methods are revealed as conscious choices made in service of the music, the ideal of perfection, and the possibility of molding just one young person into the next great legendary player. I can’t imagine anyone but J.K. Simmons pulling this feat off without making a mockery of Fletcher or playing the character to such an extreme that the film is completely unbearable. Simmons fully deserves every last accolade this film brought his way.

Miles Teller is also pretty remarkable, both for his performance as an actor and as a drummer. Apparently Teller played the drums prior to securing this role, but the degree of musical talent and training required to perform at the level required for this film would be hard for anyone to achieve, let alone a person who spent the majority of their life focused on becoming a career drummer. Beyond his musical performance, Teller plays Neiman, a character that is neither a conventionally likable protagonist nor a hero, in a arduously compelling way. In a rare scene away from the conservatory, Neiman is having dinner with his father (winningly portrayed by Paul Reiser) and some family friends. As his peers are esteemed for their mediocre academic and athletic achievements, Neiman fights to get recognition for earning a core spot in Fletcher’s band. When a disagreement ensues over whether music can be deemed subjectively perfect, your heart goes out to Teller as you realize that his only true place of belonging is under the tutelage of a cruel and exacting conductor.

Neiman is certainly misunderstood, and Teller strikes a delicate balance with his portrayal of both the relatable aspects of Neiman’s character and the exceptional. While we all can recognize the satisfaction of putting in hours of work to accomplish a specific aim, I doubt that many viewers fully identify with Neiman’s level of talent or singularity of focus, nor the drastic sacrifices he makes in service of them. When he breaks up with his new girlfriend to prevent the future heartbreak he foresees when drumming inevitably comes between them, you can’t help but feel a little respect for the guy. Neiman is wrong on so many levels; his delivery in this decision is abrupt and totally lacking in subtly, his reasoning is premature and extreme, his inability to concede his faults is frustrating. But Neiman also displays a commendable level of dedication to his goal, putting aside the typical concerns of a young adult male in service of a larger end. This scene typifies how Teller is so winning; the audience will forgive his irrational logic, even support it, as long as we ultimately get to see him succeed. I had my doubts about this guy after seeing his revolting performance in the unremarkable film The Spectacular Now, but Teller quickly proved his worth to me in the time it took to finish Whiplash.

The film is available now on Amazon, iTunes, and all those good other digital outlets.

On Labor Day

Image retrieved from http://www.bookfinds.com

I was initially drawn to previews for the film Labor Day because of the story alone: a single mother living takes in an escaped convict and the two fall in love. The tragedy of the conflict and the romance that must exist for a woman to so blindly endanger herself and her son sound like the stuff of a great story. When I realized it was all based on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name, I did what I usually do in such situations: requested the book from the library as soon as possible and avoided clips, trailers, and reviews of the film as much as possible in an effort to preserve the wonder of reading a story with no preconceptions or spoilers.

Maynard crafts a compelling plot in Labor Day, a narrative that is uniquely told from the perspective of Henry, the thirteen year old son of Adele. A recluse after a series of harrowing miscarriages and a divorce from Henry’s father, Adele interacts with few people other than her son. Her efforts to avoid the outside world go so far that Adele and Henry only make trips to the grocery store once every two month, subsisting upon frozen dinners and canned soup between each stop in town. But over the Labor Day weekend before Henry is to enter the seventh-grade, he convinces his mother to make a trip to the local Pricemart for additional provisions. With a kind face, a gentle demeanor, and clothing that makes it appear he is an employee of the store, a stranger named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a ride. Already having identified Adele as Henry’s mother from across the store, he pleads with the boy to convince his mom to exercise some kindness towards this man. While readers may never fully understand what it is that causes Adele to so uncharacteristically agree, especially in light of the fact that minor but noticeable traces of blood pour onto Frank’s shoe and below the brim of his hat, she does and Frank makes his way home with mother and son.

The escaped convict is quite open with Adele and Henry about his situation. In need of an appendectomy, Frank was transferred to a hospital from the state penitentiary and following his surgery, jumped from the hospital’s second floor window. Maynard’s characterization of Frank is so endearing, engaging and kind-hearted that you know his crime, the nature of which the author withholds for some time, is most likely fraught with misunderstanding, maybe an accident for which this otherwise decent man has taken the blame. And so it isn’t at all hard to believe that Adele and Frank could fall as deeply in love as they do over the long weekend.

Initially enamored with Frank himself, Henry learns many things from the man that is more of a father figure to the young boy that his own dad Richard. They play baseball, make a perfect pie crust in stifling near-100 degree heat, dream of escaping to northern Canada, and have conversations with Henry that make him feel a part of the relationship developing between his mother and this man. But readers cannot forget that Henry is also at a tender age in the throes of a tough adolescence, a young boy as lonely as his mother, partially on account of her strange behavior.

During a trip to the library, Henry meets Eleanor, a tortured girl one year his senior who has a history of divorced parents and an eating disorder. Desperate to be liked by someone his own age and to explore his burgeoning sexual feelings with someone of the opposite sex, Henry soaks in Eleanor’s knack for victimization. He shares with his new love interest the fact that his single parent mother recently started dating a new man. The young girl quickly twists the situation in such a way as to make Henry feel the outsider, as though his mother would abandon her only son to be with Frank. Once this cruelly misguided idea is planted in his mind, Henry begins to question Frank’s motives, as well as his mother’s, and resent their lovemaking each night, their shared looks and plans of escaping to start a new life where the authorities are not on Frank’s path. Eleanor’s suggestions also make clear to Henry just how much power he holds over the new couple. With a simple call to the police, Henry could not only claim a $10,000 reward, he could send Frank back to the penitentiary and prevent the loss of his mother’s love and attention, things he has never had to share before.

Henry’s moral dilemma and the resultant string of events following his meeting with Eleanor are not as well executed as the earlier portions of the novel, but things occur in such a way as readers expect that they must. I was completely engrossed by the beginnings of the novel, largely until Eleanor enters the picture. By that point, I was so enamored with the pseudo-family forged between Henry, Adele, and Frank, that I was rooting against the odds for nothing to interfere with the life they erected over this Labor Day weekend. The way things unfurl in Maynard’s version is just one of a few predictable and realistic potential outcomes, but the execution proves a bit rocky in action. The conclusion felt rushed in comparison to the slow pace at which Maynard allowed the weekend to so pleasantly unfold elsewhere in the novel. But maybe this is just my aversion to Eleanor speaking or my dissatisfaction with the fact that everyone didn’t ride off happily into the Canadian sunset as neatly as readers hope they will.

The world of Adele and Frank is completely developed through Henry’s eyes, a narrative choice that I initially thought was pretty bold but, in time, proved wise and effortlessly smooth. Because Henry is not party to the throes of affection, readers can better retain a more realistic perspective on the Adele-Frank relationship. Our narrator’s naivete allows us to hold out hope that love and familial happiness will prove triumphant, while his jealousy tempers this nearly impossible wish and evokes a very visceral conflict in the character and readers alike. While we may recognize Henry’s concerns as mildly selfish and largely misguided, his ability to voice them in the narrative puts readers at enough of a remove from the love story that Maynard can create a larger family drama out of the plot, rather than simply romance. It was a surprisingly but ultimately rewarding choice on Maynard’s part to have her youngest, most adolescently-unstable, inside-observer character serve as the narrative voice.

After finishing up Labor Day, I dug into the special post-conclusion section published in my copy which included an interview with the author. It turns out that Maynard actually had a written correspondence with a convict that seems to have partially inspired this story. Someone to whom she refers as Lucky wrote her a letter after reading a series of newspaper columns she had published. This Lucky figure was someone Maynard responded to and, in time, began to feel rather close with. I hate to give away the ending of this story, so skip the remainder of this paragraph and the entirety of the next one if you want to read Maynard’s telling for yourself via her website. But I think the true life conclusion highlights some important truths about the novel’s conclusion and the ideas explored by the author therein. Maynard felt it would be a breach of trust to ask Lucky why he was imprisoned, so she refrained from doing so for the entirety of their correspondence. But when he told her that he was about to be released from jail and planned to visit Maynard and her three children, fear got the better of her. When Maynard contacted the prison to inquire, she was told that Lucky had horrifically murdered his parents and would essentially never be released from jail given the number of years for which he was sentenced. She immediately cut off all correspondence with Lucky.

Though it was disheartening to discover that Lucky was not who Maynard believed him to be, the very fact that she went on to compose a novel dealing with a character not so unlike her imprisoned pen pal signifies the depth of his impact on the author, even though their relationship was entirely based upon written word (although she is a writer, so that may have something to do with how powerfully connected they were through mere letters). Learning about Maynard’s relationship with Lucky elucidates the myriad ways we humans are inclined to make excuses, compose arguments, or erect blinders in an effort to confirm our perceptions with the anticipated or actual truth. In the case of Frank, readers are immediately smitten and recognize the goodness of his character despite whatever faults or flaws may have landed him in the state penitentiary. Readers do not essentialize Frank as a criminal, and for this reason they will seek any evidence available to point to his innate goodness. We are rewarded for our faith in Frank by discovering that his crime was largely accidental, the result of a gross misunderstanding, rather than a reflection of a truly cruel and perverse nature. Likewise, Maynard did not allow herself to question what type of behavior Lucky could have engaged in to end up where he did, because doing so could interfere with her conception of Lucky as a generous, kind, thoughtful, and loving person. The morality of how we exercise these judgments upon others based on their actions, in isolation from the other traits they embody, is a moral dilemma we each need to wrestle with on our own. But the very fact that we do this in a routine way is something Maynard cunningly uses to her advantage in Labor Day to indulge readers and fuel the plot. I can’t speak to the merits of the film, but at least give the novel version a shot first, for it is completely engrossing and serves as a sharp observation on human nature.

On Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis finally hit theaters in Baltimore, and though it isn’t the most uplifting film of the season, it certainly was worth the wait.

Set in the New York folk scene of 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a glimpse into the life of a struggling folk singer at the dawn of an era when folk music hit its peak. Having recently read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a memoir written by folksinger Dave Van Ronk on whom the Llewyn Davis character is based, I found myself trying to place events from the film within the larger scope of Davis’ life. The film captures but a small moment in the lives of one the most enduring fixtures of New York City’s folk scene. So to me, there was something a bit awkward about the telling of the story; the movie jumps right into Davis’ exhausting efforts to make ends meet as a performer, but doesn’t provide much of a narrative arc nor conclude with a real resolution for the down on his luck protagonist.

The real grit of the movie comes from a series of events, vignettes almost, in which Davis tries to further his career, or at least earn some much-needed income. And these acts provide enough interest to sustain the film despite the otherwise stark plot. A beautiful soundtrack and many pops of humor also provide necessary support to keep viewers engaged despite the meagerness of Davis’ reality.

Ultimately the vast majority of credit for this film’s success is owed to Oscar Isaac. His performance as Llewyn Davis is endearing, earnest, and made even more remarkable given that he performed all the music himself. Viewers constantly sympathize with the Davis character, a hardworking and patently talented folksinger waiting to get his due. Homeless, he sleeps on the couches of his more generous friends while hopping from gig to gig in search of a paycheck. Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake portray Jean and Jim, a musician couple whose kindnesses Davis has thoroughly exhausted, especially once Jean learns she is pregnant with a child that just may belong to her struggling homeless friend. There isn’t much to like about Mulligan’s character in the film, as she constantly gripes about the sorry state of Davis’ life and her pregnant situation without once conceding her own role in the matter. But her performance is fine, and Timberlake is surprisingly satisfying as well. In the role of a folksinger, Timberlake has an opportunity to exercise his vocal talents in a genre new to most of his fans, while also representing a burgeoning folk style against which Davis’ more traditional sound is highly disadvantaged. John Goodman also passes through Davis’ life as Roland Turner, a man with whom Davis catches a ride while traveling to Chicago in search of musical success. His attitude toward Davis’ choice of music is indicative of the mainstream American attitude to folk music of the day and his performance is winning and hilarious as always.

Though there is no clear cut conclusion to the film and its ending is certainly far from happy, I found myself still deeply satisfied by the movie. It is a character study in passion, struggle, and strife. During his real life, Dave Van Ronk never earned the credit he was due, falling under the shadow of larger names like Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Janis Joplin. His role in the folk scene was instrumental and his struggle epitomizes that of so many other performers of the time. The Coen brothers spotlight one sliver of this struggle in a beautifully shot film set to a soundtrack that would make any traditional folk fan or modern day hipster swoon. Surprisingly funny and enhanced by a star-making performance from Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis beats the odds and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable movie-going experience.

 

On About Time

I’m a sucker for a good romantic comedy but I was starting to think they were a thing of the past. Those kind of love stories where a bumbling Hugh Grant character sweeps a devastatingly gorgeous woman off her feet and to a happy ending aren’t just a guilty pleasure, they are simply a requirement for many ladies from time to time. Although Rachel McAdams missed the boat with her first time travel romance, her most recent effort included the lovable Bill Nighy and was directed by Grant’s buddy Richard Curtis, so I had to give it a try. The result was wildly delightful.

About Time may be marketing itself as a film about time travel, however the lead character’s mystical ability to skip back in time plays a refreshingly small role in the plot of this satisfying romantic comedy. As the title suggests, the film centers on time but the focus is upon how even the most ordinary among us should use and cherish our precious time, rather than the protagonist’s unlikely gift for manipulating it.

When Tim turns 21 years old, his father reveals the unbelievable fact that all men in the family are blessed with the remarkable ability to time travel. Though the young Tim immediately tests out his father’s revelation by going back in time to rectify a potentially romantic moment gone awry, his father strictly recommends that time travel only be used in circumstances of the utmost importance and after very careful consideration. Shortly thereafter, Tim moves to London to pursue a career in law and to find love. Time travel becomes more of a useful tool in the big city, but he quickly learns its limitations.

Tim uses his time traveling skills to assist his insufferable playwright roommate Harry, by rectifying a horrible episode of on-stage amnesia during opening night of Harry’s most promising work. The night of the play’s debut, however, happens to be the very same evening when Tim meets the lovely Mary. By going back in time to set things right for Harry, Tim rewrites the history of his own night, erasing his introduction to Mary, her phone number from his phone, and all her memories of him.

Luckily Tim is able to track Mary down and replay their next meeting until he gets it perfectly right. Certain scenes are repeated for humor as Tim attempts to steer events from the past to better outcomes, but refreshingly enough, the time travel trope never becomes a crutch to the plot. As Tim and Mary’s relationship evolves, the whole time travel element actually takes a backseat to the stories of love and family which comprise the bulk of the film. There were few if any great shocks in the movie, though I was constantly guessing incorrectly what would happen next. About Time was certainly more subtle than any edge-of-your-seat action movie, but Curtis deftly drew on the opportunities for unpredictability offered by a time traveling protagonist.

Anachronistic plotlines and time travel can get quite messy on screen, leaving viewers with unanswered questions and a degree of confusion that distracts from the meat of a story. A few of the restrictions that defined Tim’s time travel were unveiled in seemingly irreversible events that he was somehow able to make right again. I was mildly confused by these scenes (which I don’t want to describe in great detail for fear of revealing too much), though in the grand scheme of things, this flaw failed to detract from my overall viewing experience. Soon enough, something just-so sentimental brought a tear to my eye or Nighy made me laugh, and I forgot about the time travel confusion from a few moments prior.

Domhnall Gleeson plays a winning and appealing Tim, while Rachel McAdams is lovely as ever in her portrayal of Mary. You can’t lose with Bill Nighy, who brings the perfect blend of humor and heart to the role of Tim’s father (and I can’t say I expected anything less). The role of Tim’s sister Kit Kat, filled by Lydia Wilson, is hard to master, a brilliantly strange and fun-loving person who is also absolutely adored by her brother. But Wilson strikes a delicate balance between wacky and endearing. In the hands of director Richard Curtis, this talented crew of actors pulled off a perfectly balanced story that could have easily become over-the-top and outlandish. Instead, About Time satisfied my craving for a decent rom-com like no trip to the movies has in years.

On The Way Way Back

As we left the theater after seeing The Way Way Back, my husband Mike said that this particular movie made up for the string of disappointing summer films we’d wasted our hard-earned money on so far this year (ie. Man of Steel and Now You See Me). And I wholeheartedly agree – The Way Way Back was easily one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen in some time and it helped me to forget about a succession of recent less than satisfying movie experiences.

The story centers around 14 year old Duncan, forced to vacation with his mother at her boyfriend’s beach house. Already lacking in self-confidence, Duncan is highly introverted and completely misunderstood by his constantly-derisive potential stepfather Trent, played by Steve Carrell. On a side note, it’s a minor miracle as well as an indicator of this film’s quality that the directors were able to make Carrell, one of today’s most affable working actors, into a villain of sorts. Duncan’s mother Pam, portrayed by Toni Collette, is not so different from her shy son, a pushover who never seems quite comfortable in her own skin, someone who has trouble standing up for herself, let alone her only son. Add in Trent’s catty teenage daughter Steph, a drunken divorcee neighbor named Betty (comically played by the talented Allison Janney), and Kip and Joan, Trent’s wild vacation friends, and Duncan’s vacation is off to a horrible start from the very first day.

What does it take to break an awkward teenage boy, a child of divorce, a kid with no sense of self worth into someone confident, calm, even happy? How can his shell be cracked, his lonely life be made more full? What can possibly overcome the negative reinforcement he finds in his daily life? The Way Way Back’s answer to these problems and many more is Sam Rockwell.

In an effort to escape the people surrounding him in his temporary home, Duncan sneaks off by bike each day and in so doing discovers the local water park, Water Wizz. After catching the eye of Owen, the free spirited and alarmingly lax owner of the park, Duncan gets a job at Water Wizz, a place which soon becomes his daily refuge. In the hands of Sam Rockwell, the character of Owen absolutely comes to life and defines this movie. Though his management style is certainly a cause for concern, Owen is a hilarious and compassionate mentor to Duncan, making jokes that fall far above most of his young customers’ heads but are sure to get laughs from viewers. And never once does Owen demonstrate anything less than great kindness toward his newest employee. Based on what I saw from the trailer, I wasn’t sure how Rockwell’s character would be pulled off – I’m supposed to believe that a decent-looking guy in his mid-thirties randomly takes endless pity on an awkward teenager in town for vacation? The unconventional friendship between the two, however, was flawlessly developed; their meeting seemed not the least bit forced, for it was completely in keeping with Owen’s relentless kindness and sense of fun. Owen’s simple but genuine caring for Duncan does wonders for the uncertain adolescent, instilling in him a sense of place, belonging, and self-assuredness that his meager family life could never have hoped to afford. It was Rockwell’s portrayal of Owen that really won me over with this film – and did so within the first five minutes that he appeared on screen. Owen plays a pivotal role in Duncan’s coming-of-age story, replete with young love, the gaining of confidence (as well as a sense of humor), and family drama.

What I seem to hear again and again from the few people I know that saw this film is how remarkably honest it is. The first twenty minutes are almost painful to watch because Duncan’s reclusive nature is both so authentically portrayed and so desperately sad. But instead of feeling highly contrived, the story unfolds quite effortlessly. Things could not possibly get lower for Duncan, so it’s not stretch for the film to end on its subtle but satisfying climax. The movie leaves viewers with a sense of contentment, but The Way Way Back is more than just a shallow or superficial feel good film.

Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (contributors to The Descendants screenplay) both play delightful supporting roles in the movie, alongside Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Liam James demonstrate true acting prowess as the young Duncan and AnnaSophia Robb is wonderfully poised as Susanna, Duncan’s love interest/neighbor.

Well-acted, satisfying, comedic, and warm and fuzzy without being overly so – not much more I could have asked out of a summer movie. The Way Way Back was a welcome relief from this year’s wannabe blockbusters and poorly executed indies.

On Before Midnight

Much as I had always wanted to watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’m ultimately glad that I waited to see each of these films until the past two weeks. Doing so saved me a few years of anxiously awaiting the third act of this set, Before Midnight. The series centers around two people, Jesse, portrayed by Ethan Hawke, and Celine, played by Julie Delpy, who meet on a train in Venice and spend the night together (Before Sunrise). They plan to meet again in six months time, but as viewers, we don’t know if that meeting ever happens until part two, Before Sunset. The sequel takes place nine years after the original when Jesse and Celine have another chance meeting. Though we learn that their planned meeting never took place eight years and six months ago, the two reconnect and regret that they failed to do so sooner. Though the ending of Before Sunset is ambiguous, it is extremely easy for viewers to assume the two end up together following this film.

My husband Mike regards certain of his favorite films as perfect movies. For me, the idea of a perfect movie was always hard to fathom. My concept of perfection is too mathematical – I consider things to be flawless in their simplicity, their adherence to an ideal form, the way in which they achieve a final solution without any remainders or untied strings. Even my favorite movies were far from perfect in my mind, given their nuances and complexity. The term “perfect” simply did not fit. But when I saw Before Sunset, I finally recognized the ability of a film to achieve perfection. It wasn’t so much that I absolutely adored the film and was sad to see it end after a mere 80 minutes. It had more to do with the film achieved so flawlessly in that limited span of time. There were spot-on performances, not-overly-contrived romance, realistic dialogue, appealing and well-developed characters, inspiring conversations touching upon thought-provoking themes, and an idyllic Parisian setting. Before Sunrise marked the realization of the previously-unattainable perfect form in film for me; it was exactly the movie I would have made given the premise provided. And so it was that I eagerly waited one week to view the next installment, Before Midnight, when it finally came to Baltimore.

I won’t say I was disappointed by Before Midnight – I knew it would be a much more realistic film than the other two and I had come to terms with the fact that the romance between Jesse and Celine could only go so far, eighteen years after the original. The movie is much more ground in reality than the previous too, both of which were delightfully romantic and idealistic. Now that Jesse and Celine are together, they have to deal with the struggles of working, parenting, long-distance parenting (Jesse has a child who lives in Chicago while he and Celine live in Paris), and trying to connect in spite of it all.

Like it’s forebears, Before Midnight was a film structured around dialogue and conversation, rather than action. The movie attempts to capture a relationship between two people through their interactions on a single day while on vacation. Starting when Jesse drops his son off at the airport, the couple then drives back to the house where they’ve been staying, their fifteen minute conversation on the drive captured in a single cut. They enjoy dinner with their hosts, then wander to a hotel where their friends have generously given them a free night’s stay. As always, the setting was beautiful, the acting impeccable, and the story gave me more than enough food for thought.

There is certainly something painfully realistic about the film, giving me pause as to how I will weather all of the struggles and pains of middle age with my own husband. But I was also extremely aggravated by Celine, whose neuroses grew tremendously, who stubbornly turned every discussion into a fight, who failed to give in to Jesse’s relentless attempts at appeasing and romancing her. Before Midnight could have easily been a film about two people trying to reconnect in spite of their busy lives – and I would have been quite pleased. That is, after all, what I expected. But the actual product went one step further. It felt like a film about two people whose relationship is completely falling apart in such a way that one person it clearly to blame for their failure. The character Celine truly alienated herself from Jesse and viewers. While I appreciate the film’s attempt at accurately reflecting reality, I’d like to believe that people want to make their relationships work in a way Celine did not. I go to the movies for an escape from reality and Before Midnight harped a little too much on fears of what I may become as a working mother twenty years down the road.

I don’t regret watching Before Midnight by any means. It was still a thought-provoking romance, as the previous two were also. And I have every intention of watching the next installment as I believe they’ve decided to continue making these films indefinitely every nine or so years. I simply wish it had been more satisfying, with less knock-down-drag-out fighting, more of a resolution, and a taste of the Celine that we all adored years ago. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are movies for romantics, and Before Midnight is designed for the realists among us. I happily consider myself to belong to the former camp – so at least I’ll always have the first two movies of this set.

On I Am Not A Hipster

I was initially drawn to I Am Not a Hipster purely because the title piqued my curiosity. Scrolling through the OnDemand offerings in search of Seven Psychopaths, I noticed this film’s name, imagining it was some farcical story of trendy young people. The brief synopsis of the film indicated some hipster-elements, but conveyed the sense of this film as more of a drama than an ironic comedy. Though the movie’s title does little to convey the gravity and subtly of the movie – in fact, I’d argue it is completely at odds with the tone of the film – it certainly caught my attention and helped me discover this gem in the first place.

I Am Not A Hipster centers around Brook, an Ohio-born singer songwriter transplanted to San Diego. Though he achieved great indie success with his first album released one year ago, the brooding musician is questioning the whole notion of creating art while tangible needs are not being met elsewhere in the world. Brook is tied to a video clip of a tsunami effortlessly sweeping away houses and destroying lives. This simple cinematic device conveys the intensity with which Brook experiences the suffering of others.

Brook’s three sisters and father come to visit him in San Diego, the hometown of their late mother. The trip is a happy reunion for the four siblings, but also an opportunity for the grieving family to spread the ashes of their beloved wife and mother in the place where she was born. When Brook’s at times obnoxious but ultimately endearing sisters take over his life for a week, he becomes visibly more comfortable and at peace. The pain in their goodbye is subtle but visceral, as Brook obviously struggles with his decision to desert his family and their mid-Western home after his mother’s death.

I’m a fan of simple movies, of films that are rather austere in their plot lines but still resonant. There’s an art to simplicity, a beauty in the economy of words (something I obviously have yet to master), a talent to creating that which is boiled down to its essence. While movies in this vein can feel slow and are often downright arduous to watch (like Sofia Coppola’s 2010 movie Somewhere was for me), certain films of this sect shine by virtue of their simplicity. Once, Spooner, and I Am Not A Hipster all fit this mold, for there is enough authenticity to ensure that viewers care about the characters in these films, but not too much complexity as to sacrifice the universality of their stories. Brook’s relationship with his father is one such element to which anyone could relate, an example of family tensions simultaneously strained and strengthened by family tragedy.

I actually anticipated that I Am Not A Hipster would a Southern California take on the movie Once since the trailer focused more heavily upon Brook’s musical career. But what starts out as a film about one member of the San Diego music scene instead becomes an earnest exploration of creativity and family. Although Brook is never the most likable character to follow, we are still drawn to him by virtue of raw musical talent, his self-righteous doubts about creating art, and the plain love that emerges when he is surrounded by family.

The mystery remains as to the meaning behind this movie’s very forward title. I imagine that it stems from some of Brook’s contentions about art – as he questions the meaning of creativity, he also denies the importance of image that so many trends bank on. It remains hard for me to agree with the film’s title given the abundance of hipster-elements peppered throughout, from incredible underground bands you’ve never heard of to fixed gear bikes, from the way people talk and dress and to the art shows and concerts they attend, the look and feel of this movie screams hipster. But in a satisfyingly good way.

 

On Django Unchained

Image retrieved from http://www.wikipedia.org

There is not a single thing that could have improved Django Unchained for me. Despite it’s two hour and forty five minute running time, I was riveted and entertained for the entire duration of the film and fully satisfied by its ending.

I was a little fuzzy on the film’s storyline before heading into the theater, but the list of people involved in Django Unchained offered me more than enough reason to see it. Though by no means a Tarantino connoisseur, I have mountains of respect for the director’s genius and am willing to give any of his films a try. The cast couldn’t have been more compelling – Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz are easily two of my favorite working actors and having names like Jamie Foxx, Jonah Hill, and Samuel L. Jackson on the bill doesn’t hurt either. Even Don Johnson had a small role in Django – the fact that he’s found relevant acting work in the year 2012 is a minor  miracle in itself.

With so much to recommend Django Unchained, my expectations were high and obviously so were those of many other American film-lovers; it was nearly impossible to find a pair of seats although my husband and I bought tickets for a Saturday morning showing a few weeks after the movie’s initial release. And Django certainly delivered.

En route to the new plantation by which he has been purchased, Django amidst a group of other in-transit slaves is intercepted by Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter fronting as a dentist portrayed by the inimitable Christoph Waltz. Dr. Schultz buys Django’s freedom so that the former slave can identify three plantation workers with sizable bounties on their heads that recently left Django’s old plantation. The freed slave quickly becomes an apprentice to Dr. Schultz, who capitalizes upon rewards offered for the South’s most wanted men with the utmost precision and charm. As the two grow increasingly close via their business operation together, Django reveals to the doctor that he was once married to Broomhilda, a slave woman whose first owners were of German descent. Their exploits as bounty hunters quickly turn into a quest to reunite Django with his wife. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Calvin Candie, the remorseless owner of the Candyland plantation, known and feared by slaves for its size and severity and current home to Broomhilda.

Django’s newfound freedom provides plenty of opportunities for situational humor which Tarantino exploits to great satisfaction but without being overly obvious or cheesy. Because of the time and distance from slavery afforded modern day Django-viewers, the ridiculousness of the Ku Klu Klan and the absurdity of slave ownership are capitalized upon to great comic effect as well. There is definitely an expectedly gruesome and bloody side to the film, owing to its setting in the times of slavery and the director’s notorious appetite for violence.

But what really makes this movie so satisfying and widely appealing, despite these potentially polarizing elements, are the core motifs of Django’s story – freedom and love. Tarantino’s brilliant storytelling ensures that the search for Django’s wife, which lies at the heart of this film, is never cheesy or forced. And a cast of immensely talented actors only heightens the sense of satisfaction a film like Django Unchained provides.

Dr. Schultz is one of the most compelling and heroic characters in the movie, although not overly so. I’m still cheering Christoph Waltz’s smooth performance, for the audience is consistently impressed with and protective of Dr. Schultz despite his ruthless, murderous day job. Django’s initial taciturnity gives way to an endearingly willful though stoic side of his personality as he becomes accustomed to his freedom and bounty hunting. The development of this character is wisely written and Jamie Foxx does as expertly job of giving life to the film’s namesake. Samuel L Jackson is quite hilarious as the aged Stephen, a head house slave at Candyland with such an unwavering allegiance to Calvin Candie that it seems as though Stephen has forgotten he is black like Django himself. And Leonardo DiCaprio is as excellent as ever, perfectly cast as the powerful Francophile Calvin Candie.

After watching a few other Tarantino films and allowing Django to sink in, I’m fairly confident that its my favorite film from the director’s cannon and it has quite effortlessly slipped into my top favorite films of the year 2012. While I credit much of my ardent appreciation for Django Unchained to Tarantino’s talent, I would be completely remiss not to, once again, acknowledge just how perfect Christoph Waltz’s performance was in this film. I certainly would have enjoyed Django no matter who filled Dr. Schultz’s shoes, but I can’t guarantee it would have been such a flawless film without Waltz’s award-winning talent.

On The Boys Are Back

The Boys Are Back was the kind of movie that snuck up on me and completely sucked me in. With it’s gorgeous Australian setting and delightful Sigur Ros soundtrack, I was visually and melodically reeled into this tragic but touching story.

Clive Owen plays Joe Warr, a recent widower whose late wife Katy abruptly succumbed to cancer. Warr is a top Australian sportswriter and, while Katy was alive, Joe’s work often took him away from his beloved wife and son Artie. Following Katy’s death, Joe is ill-prepared to be thrown into single parenthood and is forced to strengthen his relationship with young Artie.

The movie follows Joe’s negotiations of fatherhood which are further complicated when his son from a prior marriage, Harry, comes to visit. Living with his mother in England whenever he’s not away at boarding school, Harry has been virtually absent from Joe’s life until his Australian vacation. During this time, Artie and Harry become quite fond of one another, while Joe tries to become the father he never was for either of his sons prior to Katy’s death.

Though the premise of the film isn’t entirely unheard of, The Boys Are Back is an original take on a familiar story. In fact, the movie is actually based on true events captured in Simon Carr’s book about his struggles with fatherhood following his wife’s death. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until my second watching of the film just a few days ago so I have yet to read the book.

The movie takes a look at single parenting and widowhood in a touching, honest and refreshingly unaffected way. Joe experiences visions of his late wife but these momentary bouts of grief and denial are not in any ways overly done. Rather Katy’s few posthumous appearances serve as an indication of both Joe’s anguish as well as the strength of his love for Katy. In relying upon his wife’s wisdom and love, Joe learns to be a better parent, imagining the advice she would dispense and the support she would staunchly provide.

There are definitely instances when his parental judgment falters, though Joe’s intentions are always true.

His parenting mantra becomes “just say yes” rather than constantly denying things to Artie and Harry for little to no apparent reason. Although this practice ultimately backfires a bit, it also allows for a unique experience of family among these three. His sons learn just as much from Joe’s mistakes as he does himself. Ultimately, The Boys Are Back is about how learning to be a family, from the struggles to get it right to carefree moments of pure childlike fun. Joe’s situation is further complicated by a tenuous-at-best relationship with his mother-in-law, the demands of a travel-heavy job, and ambiguous affections toward fellow single parent Laura.

While watching The Boys Are Back, I can’t help feeling at least a little bit concerned about the trials of parenthood I have to look forward to in the (far) future. But the movie also highlights the accompanying rewards that can come after, if not directly as a result of, those very struggles. Out of a tragic loss, Joe finds both hope and joy in his sons, things that he may have missed out on entirely if not for Katy’s devastating end.

Though it may seem as though I’ve offered more of the plot than would be prudent, there is so much more to the movie than what I’ve described thus far. Interwoven throughouot the underlying storyline are so many beautiful moments to which I could do little justice describing in a mere blog post. And the very look of the movie is extremely compelling in itself. The Carr house settled in the Australian countryside is as idyllic as could be while the clean feel of the whole film will have you longing for a world as cozy and comforting as that which these boys forge. The music of Sigur Ros only adds to the overall tone of the film, delightfully highlighting those euphoric moments with joyous sounds and lending a shadow of beauty to scenes marked by grief and sorrow.

The only flaws I could possibly find in the film are a few not-so-firmly-established details. I’m pretty sure the film is Australian but, through my first watching, it wasn’t entirely clear where things were taking place. Joe is British and Katy was Australian, but it wasn’t until later in the film that we understood how they came to live in Australia. Part of my density may have also been attributed to talking to Mike while watching the movie the first time through – our little side conversations could have easily distracted me from some establishing factors. There were a few details that didn’t make complete sense at first, but by the end of the film it all came together.

There’s also a scene Mike and I reference a little too much when Joe is playing hide and seek at Artie’s birthday party. As the kids are all hiding outside in the dark, Joe holds a flashlight under his chin and, in a decidedly creepy voices, sings out “I like to play with little children.” Though he’s obviously emulating a character to add drama to the game, it rings with a little too much pedophilia, which fellow single parent Laura doesn’t hesitate to remark on.

Despite being a female, 22-year-old, suburban-dwelling, childless blogger, I shared in all of Joe’s experience. I laughed, I cried, I even had a little trouble following some of the nuances of the storyline, but still I absolutely fell in love with this movie and the way of life that shaped this small family unit. With great performances from Owen and the two child actors, George MacKay as Harry and Nicholas McAnulty as Artie, dazzling scenery, a heartfelt script, and beautiful imagery to boot, The Boys Are Back is not to be missed.

On Once

Once is the sort of movie that will never ever leave me. Within the first five minutes of viewing the film in the theater, I knew that I would be irrevocably affected by what was playing out on the screen before me. That may seem a bit dramatic and even presumptuous to say, but I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe how it feels to think back to the very first time I watched Once.

If you haven’t a clue what movie I’m talking about, skip ahead to the trailer at the end of this post. Basically it’s an independent boy-meets-girl film with a musical spin. Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Irish band the Frames, plays the unnamed male lead while Czechoslovakian newcomer Market Irglova portrayed the girl. While Hansard spends his days performing popular covers on his battered old guitar in the middle of the busy town square, Irglova sells novelty items to tourists in the same commercial section of Ireland. Irglova finally approaches the talented music man late at night after hearing him play one of his most beautiful originals “Say It To Me Now.” Her perfunctory line of questioning and abrupt manner of conversation are initially a turn-off to Hansard. But their subsequent interactions turn him further and further on to this magnetic girl’s charms, especially once he discovers her musical prowess on piano.

The two make music together and adventures ensue. Both of their histories, romantic and otherwise, are slowly unveiled and the seemingly simple outcome of a typical boy-meets-girl scenario looks increasingly unlikely. But set to the entire story is an outstanding soundtrack of original music. It’s hard to classify the film as having either a soundtrack or a score – the songs contained therein are central to the story itself as in a musical but are more akin to tracks than a standard score. No matter how you look at it, the way in which music, in particular Hansard and Irglova’s songs, is woven into the film makes Once as stunning as it is. My major impressions upon leaving the theater were of incomprehensible beauty, songs so gorgeous that I wanted to cry, cheesy as that may sound. It is exceedingly difficult for me to accurately describe them because they are so wonderful, but that is why this is a must-watch film.

For about a year, Mike and I were without our DVD copy of Once. We generously donated one of our very favorite films to our close friend Evan. Being kind and forgiving people, we didn’t get upset with Evan for forgetting to return to us our most prized DVD on the innumerable occasions he had to do so. But when Once was finally returned to our hands, we both fell in love all over again and watched the movie at least three times in the span of a single week. We didn’t realize just how special the movie was to us both and how universally appealing a film it is. There isn’t a single person I’ve recommended Once to that has come back anything less than grateful, a raving fan, and ecstatic at having been introduced to Hansard and Irglova’s world. I hope that the trend of thoroughly satisfied viewers holds true for any readers out there who get their own hands on a copy of Once.

On One Week

While playing a rousing game of Scrabble this weekend, Mike and I stumbled upon a little gem of an indie flick called One Week. Starring Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek fame, this Sundance film was too riveting to watch while engaged in a board game, and we were quite pleasantly surprised by the overall effect of the film.

Narrated by Campbell Scott, the film follows Jackson’s character Ben Tyler as he embarks on a Canadian motorcycle trip after being diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer. The devastating prognosis shakes Ben to the core and wrecks havoc upon his relationship with his fiance, Samantha. Atop his newly purchased vintage motorcycle, Ben takes in the natural beauty and quirky landmarks of Canada.

In time, Ben finds the answer to the question “what would you do if you only had a week to live?” As he tells Samantha in the film (this is paraphrased from my somewhat full memory so bare with me) “I lived a new lifetime each day.” Though in print it sounds a bit tawdry, Jackson delivers this line with the same poignancy and grace that underscores the entire film.

Though the plot may be slightly formulaic, One Week provides a fresh, insightful, and more intelligent take on the typical “bucket list” film. Stunning scenery, interesting characters, a touch of irony, and invigorating road trip montages abound, without being overly cheesy. Backed by a solid soundtrack and a strong performance from Jackson, the relatively slow pace of this quiet movie doesn’t leave viewers feeling bored but rather more introspective and reflective. Well-acted, beautifully-shot, and deeply-felt, this film is an all-around success. The perfect movie to end a crisp fall day, there is no better way to describe how I felt when the credits began to roll than decidedly content.

On Spooner

During Oscar season, Mike and I always seem to have a long running list of movies we’re dying to see. Spooner was at the top of our cinematic to-see list a few years back but, unfortunately, no one seemed to want to support the film’s release so it never made it to theaters. In some cases, that’s a pretty good indication that a movie isn’t very good. But other times it simply means that the film is quirky and delightful but too off-beat for a mainstream audience. In this case, I’m happy to say Spooner fell into the latter category.

First of all, this film’s star is Matthew Lillard. I was pretty surprised to see him in a movie trailer, let alone one for an indie, Garden State-esque film. And he was also one of the film’s producers. I have a sneaking suspicion that Spooner was a passion project of sorts for the actor and that this film is much more closely aligned with Lillard’s real-life tastes than some of the work he’s more well known for, like Scooby Doo or She’s All That.

While the movie is a fairly typical boy meets girl, indie coming of age story, I found it’s simplicity and unassuming nature to be particularly unique among the increasingly popular genre. Herman Spooner, portrayed by Lillard, is on the cusp of turning 30 and still lives at home with his parents. He’s about to be evicted by the folks and hit the big 3-0 mark when he meets the girl of his dreams. Rose Conlin, portrayed by the lovely and adorable Nora Zehetner, is an ex-bartender on a mission to do something monumental with her life. Roses’s plans to change her life involve flying to the Philippines to become a teacher. But en route to her parent’s house for a going away party just days before her flight, Rose’s car breaks down in Spooner’s hometown. When Spooner offers some assistance, his good intentions override his social awkwardness as he tries to reign in this perfect girl.

It’s not like this story hasn’t been done before, complete with a soundtrack of yet-to-be-discoverd bands, artistic cinematography, and film festival recognitions to boot. But I find this film so unpretentious. The story is told very directly but also with extreme sweetness. Yes, you will find yourself questioning how someone like Spooner could possibly exist as he does, but you’ll also find yourself completely won over by his naivete, his innocence. Heart-warming and genuine, this is a movie about love in its simplest form without ever trying to over-complicate the issue.

The little bits of humor peppered throughout don’t hurt a bit either. I don’t often find myself laughing aloud while watching movies or TV but there were a considerable number of times when I did so with this movie. From Spooner’s social faux pas to his hilariously mismatched blind date with the drunken and promiscuous Linda, there is just as much to laugh about in this film as there is to warrant a little sigh of contentment.

The one problem with this movie is trying to get your hands on a copy. Mike serendipitously found it while browsing the new movies that were being offered On Demand and we paid a few bucks to watch it from the comfort of our own home. I’m pretty sure that it was never released in theaters and I don’t know much about a DVD release. All I know is that those of you with access to Comcast Cable On Demand can spare a few dollars to indulge in this sweet romantic comedy. And if you don’t fall into that category, I’ll simply suggest keeping your eyes and ears open for any word of this one!

On Away We Go

I know that this movie came out over three years ago – in fact, I saw it in theaters three times the summer it was released. But I have a very dear attachment to this film and I didn’t have a blog way back then. So I figured that it was about time I give this movie a little time in the spotlight.

One of the reviews I read for Away We Go (sorry, I can’t remember the source) described it as the kind of movie that sneaks up on you and catches you by surprise. Though I know all viewers and critics didn’t share in this feeling, I personally could not agree more. Away We Go came out at a time when there were plenty of other movies I was highly anticipating going to see – this was not necessarily one among them. I went in with little background beyond the fact that John Krasinski (better known as Jim from The Office) was in this film and that Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida were the writers behind the screenplay. I left the theatre feeling like this was just the movie I’d been waiting for without even realizing it.

Backed by the beautiful sounds of Alexi Murdoch, Away We Go documents a youngish couple who finds themselves pregnant. Burt Farlander, portrayed by Krasinski, and Verona DeTessant, played by Maya Rudolph, met in college and, post-grad, settled down in the same town as Burt’s parents. But when the Farlanders decide to move to Belgium just months before their grandbaby is due, Burt and Verona realize that all ties to the place they call home are gone. The two take off to search for the perfect place to settle down and start their family of three, visiting family and friends along the way.

Part of this film’s charm is the very relationship between Burt and Verona around which it is centered. Maybe it’s because I can relate to the dynamic between a goofy but lovable boyfriend paired with a more straight-laced girl. Or maybe it’s just because they’re a well-written on-screen couple. It could be that Krasinski and Rudolph just have great chemistry. More accurately it is probably a combination of all three. Their relationship achieves the perfect balance of fun, humor, sincerity, kindness, companionship, and love. Their characters are relatable but humorous, so it isn’t too long before they’ve won you over.

As Burt and Verona seek a potential home, they travel to locales far and wide and encounter a wide array of characters, portrayed by Jim Gaffigan, Allison Janney, and Maggie Gyllenhaal among others. Most of their connections to these new towns are tenuous at best, and nothing feels quite right. But don’t mistake this for a cheesy drama – though the couple learns about themselves through the course of their trip, the movie doesn’t play like a made-for-TV movie. Rather it is an alternative take on the coming of age story where our main focus is not on a single character but instead on a loving and stable couple.

Though I won’t give away the conclusion to the story, I do have to say that the ending of Away We Go is absolutely beautiful. There is something undeniably compelling about the soundtrack paired with the images on screen and the very feelings that the final 5 minutes of the film evoke. After having seen all sides of Burt and Verona, after having experienced the range of emotions that their trip elicits, I think it is only natural to feel as content and calmly satisfied as the characters on screen when the movie comes to an end.

On Being Flynn

Though I have yet to come across a Paul Dano film I didn’t enjoy, I sadly can’t say the same for Robert De Niro. The latter’s latest effort in Being Flynn, however, surely pleased (and hopefully signals more satisfying performances to come). The two acting powerhouses play opposite one another in Being Flynn, a recently-released indie film based on Nick Flynn’s memoir entitled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. I was intrigued enough by the book’s title when I came across it years ago to buy a copy for myself, but it was only recently that I actually sat down and read the thing. Though I enjoyed Flynn’s memoir, this was one of those very rare cases (if not the only case) in which I enjoyed the film version better than the book.

Dano as Nick Flynn and De Niro as Nick’s father Jonathan deliver performances that carry this movie along, as I imagine it would have dragged a bit if headed by less talented actors. The story is of a family far beyond dysfunctional, entering the territory of defunct. Though Jonathan was largely absent for the majority of his son’s life, Nick knew of his father’s delusions of being one of the nation’s most brilliant novelists from a very young age. With this knowledge in the back of his mind, Nick hesitantly followed is his father’s wayward footsteps, pursuing the craft of writing himself.

Though Nick’s path is not quite as turbulent and disarrayed as his father’s, the younger Flynn inherits plenty of baggage from his parents’ nonexistent relationship, being raised in a home headed by a single mother, and the constant rotation of father figures that entered and quickly exited his life. Nick stumbles upon work at a Boston homeless shelter while between jobs and soon finds himself stationed in gainful employment. When Jonathan shows up in line at the shelter one winter night, the small semblance of stability Nick has forged is quickly thrown off balance and his father’s delusions of literary grandeur become impossible to ignore.

I appreciated Flynn’s memoir for the story he had to tell; it was only his narrative style that left me less than satisfied. I entered the theater with less than high hopes for the film version, not sure how Nick’s complicated story would play out on screen. But I was very much pleased by the cinematic storytelling, the pacing of the movie, and the performances delivered. Though there is yet to be an exceedingly positive consensus from the critics (according to Rotten Tomatoes), I definitely think Being Flynn is worth a shot. I left the theatre feeling good, pleased by the $7.50 investment I made in the matinee showing. Despite my misgivings with the written version of Flynn’s story, the film portrayal was much more satisfying and capitalized on the potential provided by Flynn’s life story and excellent casting.

On Our Idiot Brother

As 2011 came to a close, my movie buff husband Mike asked me about my favorite films of the year. We saw plenty of good, even great, ones in the past 12 months and more than a handful of duds, but there were a select few that certainly stood out from the rest. 50/50, Super 8, and Win Win were films that I look forward to revisiting again and again in the years to come. But it was Our Idiot Brother that easily snuck into my top 5 and was, in fact, my favorite comedy of the year.

So many of the blockbuster comedies that come out these days just don’t appeal to my strange sense of humor I guess. The Hangover and Bridesmaids, for instance, were movies that plenty of people I knew (and thought I shared similar tastes with) recommended, but I didn’t find them extremely memorable or hilariously entertaining. Some of the popular comedies these days are just too outrageous for my taste, but Our Idiot Brother was just right. There were definitely wacky situations and over-the-top characters, but these rather unrealistic elements crafted for laughs never felt forced to me, largely because of the sincerity and authenticity of the movie as a whole.

Our Idiot Brother stars Paul Rudd as Ned, the unconditionally loving hippie brother of Miranda, Natalie, and Liz. Ned’s sisters are portrayed by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer while Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Kathryn Hahn, and T.J. Miller are also included in this winning cast.

Though Ned’s path in life is definitely unconventional, he is a sweet and endearing character who lives by a generous and loving set of ideals. After getting out of jail for selling marijuana to a police officer (a situation which is pretty indicative of his naive nature), Ned is forced to return to his mother’s house since his ex-girlfriend bars him from the organic farm where he lived, worked, and grew the pot that got him into trouble in the first place.

The only brother in a close family of four children, Ned tries to find support, as well as temporary housing and employment, from each of his sisters. Liz is married to a pretentious documentarian who forces his son to engage in an array of non-violent, multicultural hobbies in lieu of learning karate. Straight-laced Miranda is trying to move up in the world of journalism while Natalie lives with her long-term girlfriend and four other twenty-somethings while trying her hand at stand-up comedy. Each of the siblings have distinct personalities which are at odds with, if not mildly disdainful of, Ned’s happy-go-lucky nature and hippie sensibility. Ned’s reliance on his sisters proves burdensome and problematic for the girls in different ways. But to someone as unequivocally loyal as Ned, there is no question in his mind that he should be able to turn to his family in times of need.

The ensuing comedic drama is ultimately a heartwarming, grounded story despite Ned’s unbelievable idiocy, contrived for maximum humor and theatrics. Our Idiot Brother has all the requisite elements of a quality comedy without overdoing it. One-liners and short conversations provide humor as well as larger situations and plot features. But there are also lessons learned, messages about family, human nature, and kindness. And despite its rather small budget, this film is satisfying enough to please mainstream and more unconventional audiences alike. Paul Rudd is a pretty endearing guy in any role, but I’d say that his portrayal of Ned in Our Idiot Brother is one of his most delightful and winning characters.