On Captain Fantastic

I’m usually one to let a movie simmer in my mind for at least a few hours before delivering an assessment of it. I like to hear others’ opinions and to have a few discussions about a film first, and only then do I decide upon its merits. But when my husband leaned over to ask what I thought as the credits rolled for Captain Fantastic, I was able to deliver the simple, precise review that I loved it. Captain Fantastic is, quite simply, one of the most satisfying dramas I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time.

My interest was initially piqued by a trailer showcasing the pristine wooded setting, an Oregon forest where Viggo Mortenson’s character Ben raises his six children completely off the grid, providing them with rigorous mental and physical “training.” Ben’s comprehensive version of unofficial homeschooling involves things as varied as Buddhist meditation, daily runs through the woods, a close reading of all the literary classics, hunting skills, a strong yoga practice, knowledge of how to set a broken bone, and the ability to carry on philosophical debate, just to name a few. The result is a vibrant, close-knit family unit, one whose members are highly educated critical thinkers, shunners of the capitalism and consumerism that define the mainstream culture they despise, and self-reliant outdoorsmen. The children not only subscribe to Ben’s way of raising them, they thrive under it, demonstrating mastery of high intellectual concepts and enviable physical prowess.

Writer-director Matt Ross introduces audiences to his characters with countless scenes of Ben and his children going through their typical daily routine. In fact, he devotes a large portion of the first act of the film to simply showcasing the utterly unconventional lifestyle of this family. But Ross’ arduous efforts never grow tiresome or boring. We see the children run through gorgeous, untouched forests; we bear witness to Bo, the oldest of Ben’s kids, kill his first deer, which his younger siblings then proceed to dismember; we watch as the children eagerly read classic novels and philosophical texts, delivering thoughtful opinions on them to their father; we view scenes of meditation circles, dinners made over a campfire, and jam sessions in which every family member fully contributes to the musical cacophony they collectively create. These scenes of family life feel absolutely idyllic, set against the background of the pristine Pacific Northwest wilderness and colored by the delightfully mismatched patchwork clothing worn by the family. It’s hard to resist the pull of the life that Ben has so carefully constructed for his children.

But at times, it almost feels as though Ross is trying to convince his audience that Ben has made a good choice in raising his children this way. The ideology which motivated Ben to forge such a path with his kids is made evidently clear from the way he constantly talks about modern society, government, and the like, to the way in which his children speak of various economic, religious, and political systems. And Ross takes advantage of every opportunity in which the plot allows Ben’s children to show off their smarts. Undoubtedly, the children’s degree of knowledge and intelligence surpasses that of most other children their age educated in traditional school settings, as well as that of many adults viewing the film too. While I certainly didn’t mind getting so many glimpses of this strange and wonderful world, Ross really didn’t have to try so hard to get me on his protagonist’s side; I was hooked on this lifestyle from pretty early on in the film. But once Ben’s parenting decisions are thrown into question, it becomes clear why Ross found it necessary to push them so heavily on us at the outset.

The real crux of the plot is centered around events related to the children’s mother Leslie which force them out of their woodland home. We understand that she was fully on board with the way that Ben is currently raising their children. And early on in the film, her absence is explained in a conversation that alludes to her residing in some sort of medical institution. In time, audiences come to find that her parents, particularly her father (winningly portrayed by Frank Langella), denied her agency in deciding to raise their grandchildren as she and her husband did. These frictions within the family, as well as those with the children’s aunt (played by Kathryn Hahn), uncle (portrayed by Steve Zahn), and cousins, are both opportunities to showcase the humorous way that living apart from society can lead to mishaps in social interaction and circumstances when big questions about how to balance one’s ideals with the demands of society, about how best to raise a child, and about what types of experiences are the most important ones to provide children are raised – and never clearly answered. It is when Ben is forced to take his family out of their paradisal home and into the wider world that these questions come to the forefront, leaving me with the type of ambivalence and uncertainty that only great stories can evoke.

These heavy questions, however, are tempered with brilliant moments of levity, many of them unexpected. It is this balance that makes the movie so compelling. Once the first third of the film documenting the daily life of Ben and company in the woods is through, the movie grows more dramatic and a bit darker. But the change in tone never feels jarring as Ross undercuts difficult scenes by following them up with hilarious moments ranging from a teenage son not understanding social conventions and references after receiving his first kiss to children breaking out into song as though they were traveling Christian evangelists to throw others off their scent. I found the humor in the movie surprising but well-placed, unusual but satisfying. Much of this is owed to Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben. Never one to take himself too seriously, nor afraid to show his true nature in front of his children, Ben often reacts to distressing situations with grace and a light temperament, endearing himself to audiences as a principled and loving, if unconventional, father. The film provides a portrait of parenthood that is ultimately appealing and enviable, despite Ben’s missteps and socially unacceptable decisions. Again, it’s all about balance, and Mortenson is able to find the sweet spot that makes his complicated character work.

While Mortenson’s performance supports the film immeasurably, I would be remiss not to give due credit to the young actors for their brilliant portrayals of his children. It’s pretty remarkable to see such strong performances across the board in a film with six young actors playing characters aged six to eighteen years old. Writer-director Ross also deserves a nod here too; in the space of 119 minutes, all six of the children were considerably well-developed characters, each with their own singular personalities, aptitudes, obstacles, and interests. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could easily develop a particular feel for each child’s storyline in under two hours of running time. The eldest son Bo, portrayed by George MacKay (who was also excellent in The Boys Are Back), struggles with relating to others outside his family unit, particularly females, and with deciding upon whether and where to attend college. Meanwhile the youngest daughter Zaja has many unanswered questions about sex that her father is not afraid to answer frankly, to Zaja’s horror and revulsion. Rellian, the second oldest son, has the most difficulty accepting his father’s decisions and, as a young adolescent, has just as much trouble figuring out how to channel that rage and confusion. Each child feels nuanced and real, a true feat given the size of this cast.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a real treat of a film, a continually surprising and constantly thought-provoking drama about family life unlike much of anything I’ve ever seen before. You’ll find yourself drawn into a remarkably enticing world, lured by compelling performances all around, only to later question all that you thought you believed. Ross’s ability to effortlessly twist the story, and viewers’ answers to the questions it raises, is a feat the likes of which I haven’t experienced in the theater for some time. I’m fascinated by every element of this film, from the actors’ performances to the writing and dialogue, from the gorgeous setting to the way Ross had me laughing and thinking hard and crying in such quick succession. This movie stands as a great example of independent filmmaking at its very best.

 

Advertisements

On To The Wonder

A beautifully shot film can hide a wide host of cinematic flaws; poor storytelling, under-developed characters, crushingly unsatisfactory conclusions are much more easily forgiven when a movie is breathtaking to behold. That’s why I found myself enjoying To The Wonder in spite of its weaknesses, from a stark lack of dialogue to a tenuous story line.

The general gist of the film isn’t easy to miss, but the subtleties of its characters’ lives deserved more exploration. Opening on the streets of Paris, the alluring Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully gallivants around the city of romance with her lover Neil (Ben Affleck) and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chilene). They move to Oklahoma, when Marina and her daughter quickly grow unhappy. When the two predictably return to France, leaving Neil in the states by himself, he encounters an old love in Jane (Rachel McAdams). The tug of these two women in Neil’s life is explored through director Terrence Malick’s film that relies far more upon striking visuals and poetic voice-overs than standard dialogue. Javier Bardem, so skilled in physically transforming himself with such effortlessness, also stars as an Oklahoman preacher whose story feels out of place, skimpy, and poorly integrated with the rest of the film.

I adore Rachel McAdams but frankly I found the Kuryleno story line much more interesting. Even so, the grit of both relationships remains largely undeveloped. Marina and Neil are remarkably affectionate in the opening Parisian sequence and their passionate bond grows more tortured with time. But all throughout, we have little understanding as to what draws the two together in a specific way. When Neil and Jane reconnect, we similarly grasp very few reasons as to why they ever were or ever should be a couple, apart from the wonderfully orchestrated scenes of the two spending time together in the Oklahoma countryside. It is plain to see that Tatiana desperately misses home upon locating to Oklahoma, her ten-year-old motivations luckily much more accessible than those of the adults in the film.

I can’t fault the actors, but there is something to be desired in the way Malick explores the adult intimacies in To The Wonder. Still, he is able to pull it off because each relationship is unveiled with the same simplicity; neither love story feels underdeveloped in comparison to the other. This stylistic choice provides viewers with a minimal understanding so that we can follow the universal love triangle plot, endearing us to each character primarily through movement, composition, and imagery rather than more traditional means such as dialogue, action, and character development. But as an examination of love, maybe a film doesn’t necessarily require too much of the later.

The visuals are plain stunning and for this, Malick’s film is worth two hours of your time. From the romantically rain-drenched Parisian streets to a rainbow of North American sunsets, endless miles of vibrant red Oklahoma prairie, and brilliantly captured moments of intimacy between lovers, Terrence Malick creates a compelling dichotomy between style and subject. Gorgeous if not standardly idyllic photographic images from each setting are captured by sweeping cameras that just can’t seem to sit still. It is plainly obvious that Malick’s vision is well, if not perfectly, executed in To The Wonder, a fact which merits admiration and respect, independent of whether a filmmaker’s vision is one to which I am personally drawn.

Among fans of Terrence Malick, To The Wonder will easily win favor. Though I’m still undecided as to where I fall on the Malick fandom scale, this movie captured me with its visuals, the stunning imagery allowing me to excuse some of the film’s weaker points as intriguing artistic choices.

On The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

It has been a struggle to write about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty because I found it so simply and purely enjoyable. This isn’t a film that requires much analysis as it connects with audience members very directly and, I believe, to great satisfaction. Epic, adventurous, heartfelt, happily-ending – it was all those things that going to the movies should be.

Ben Stiller both directed and starred in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, portraying the title character who spends his days in the dark depths of Life magazine’s photography department as a negative assets manager. A nervous and quiet man by nature, Mitty is prone to grand daydreams of adventures that vastly outpace his mundane existence. This “zoning out” as his mother (Shirley MacLain) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) call it, is beautifully executed in the first quarter of the film (although there was one daydream sequence with Stiller and Adam Scott that felt too much like a campy superhero movie for my taste), so much so that I initially worried the entire film would be an insubstantial series of imagination sequences cut straight from the trailer. These first scenes, however, set the tone for and create an interesting parallel to the real world journeys that Mitty soon embarks on.

With Life magazine slated to become an online-only publication (side note: some critics, ahem Leonard Maltin, have criticized this plot point as anachronistic which I completely disagree with, as the end of print still feels entirely relevant to me in 2013/2014), Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott with an awful beard) comes in to handle the transition and pull off the publication of Life’s final print issue. Famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends in a roll of film containing an image, negative 25, that is to be the cover of the last-ever issue of the magazine. Somehow Walter, who has never lost a photograph in his entire 16-year tenure with Life, cannot find the single most important negative of his career. A recent hire to the magazine and Mitty’s love interest, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) encourages Walter to track down the notoriously elusive photographer in an effort to find O’Connell’s image which he purports is representative of the “quintessence” of Life magazine.

And so the real life adventure portion of our film begins. The subtle unfolding of the mysterious location of the negative takes Mitty through breathtaking country in Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas. These scenes retain the beauty and incredibility of his daydreams but feel much more authentic than his earlier imaginings, which were too fantastic and over the top to sustain the film on their own. Mitty catches a shipping vessel by helicopter in Greenland, longboards through the rolling hills of Iceland, makes friends with warlords of Afghanistan, backpacks in the Himalayas, is detained at LAX upon his return home. Those these adventures require us as audience members to stretch our imaginations, thankfully the movie never crosses the line into fantasy.

I will give a small spoiler but it isn’t hard to see this one coming: Mitty does find the negative and it happens to have been in a fairly obvious location all along. But nonetheless, I was so pleasantly surprised that the audience does ultimately see this quintessential Life image, rather than watching a movie structured around something so built up that it cannot possibly be revealed without disappointment. And the negative, once revealed, certainly does not disappoint.

Stiller plays an extremely endearing Mitty as audiences root for him to live life outside the wild imaginings of his mind. Scott was perfectly cast as the “villain,” threatening our protagonist’s career while ruthlessly mocking him and heartlessly tearing down the magazine that Mitty and his coworkers so passionately worked on. I’m not normally a Kristen Wiig fan, but I was completely sold on her as love interest. The audience is able to see in her what Walter sees: a sense of humor, honesty, value for adventure, and kindness. Patton Oswald is a great running gag throughout. In the opening scene, Mitty calls eHarmony regarding his difficulties with the online dating service and reaches cheery customer service rep Todd (Oswald). Because Mitty’s profile is so lackluster, Todd makes it his project to beef up Walter’s page on the eHarmony site, routinely calling him to check in as though the two were old friends. It adds to the humor of the film but also pays off in the end (I won’t give any spoilers on this one). And I don’t think there could have been a better Sean O’Connell than Sean Penn. A slightly pretentious guy completely devoted to his craft, Sean O’Connell is Sean Penn, and the fact that he plays such a central role in the movie but receives so little screen time further enhances that fact.

My main complaints are small in size and number. I’m not a huge fan of the musician Jose Gonzalez (to put it lightly) and his involvement with the film’s score meant that his music kept popping up in the film to my great dismay. The soundtrack was otherwise great, if not at times perfect. Take Arcade Fire’s epic song “Wake Up” – what better song to highlight the beginning of Mitty’s great adventure, when he embarks on a journey unparalleled in his lifetime and musters up every ounce of bravery from his deepest reserves to do so? There were some parts of the trip that, plot-wise, felt rushed. A lot of attention is paid to the progression of his travels at the outset, but then Mitty all of a sudden finds himself back in New York without much explanation only to quickly be off again to Afghanistan. As intelligent audience members, we understand what is going on. We just would hope to see as much attention paid to the entire journey as was devoted to its first leg.

Because of the movie’s PG rating, all the previews before the film were geared toward an audience who has yet to reach high school. Needless to say, I was worried from the opening credits that this movie had been marketed to the wrong audience and I was a member of those misguided folks. My worries were eased pretty much instantly after the opening credits. Far from a kid’s film, there is a striking maturity to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty despite its fantastical elements. Without being cheesy or hokey, Stiller as director was able to strike the perfect balance between imagination and reality, making this movie age appropriate for anyone and utilizing the universality of its central themes.

I’m not sure why critics and audiences have been so divided on Walter Mitty, a movie that provided me and my husband with a purely delightful film-going experience. All I can guess is that cynics were not impressed with a movie that felt neat and tidy with its happy ending, family friendly with its PG rating, or idealistic with its belief in our human capability for love and adventure. Maybe others are griping about the way the movie was adapted. Admittedly, I have not read the short story so I cannot speak to how the character has been translated to film again or if the plot was poorly transformed. In this case, I have to take the film on its own merits as a distinct piece of art.

Much as I can appreciate and enjoy artistic, well-acted or challenging films, there is something indescribable about seeing a movie that simply makes you feel good and begs to be watched again and again. Those kind of movies rise to the top in my book, and that’s why The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just might be my favorite movie of 2013 (seeing it on New Year’s Eve, I got in just under the wire on that one). I left the theater after Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street having really enjoyed myself, but it was a different experience entirely to enjoy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which is, by the way, a movie probably most enjoyed for the first time on the big screen of a theater) and immediately anticipate watching it again in the future. Well done Ben Stiller!

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 Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey is quickly working his way to the top of my favorite actors list. During my formative years, he starred in a number of less-reputable films that I loved (How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days and The Wedding Planner, anyone?) although with age, I came to realize how frivolous and silly those movies were. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy indulging in them from time to time, but it certainly lowered my estimation of Mr. McConaughey.

Enter the year 2013 and Matthew McConaughey blew me away in Mud, playing the title character, an outlaw who befriends two young boys in an effort to outrun the authorities with the love of his life in tow. Following on the heels of that Oscar-worthy performance is another McConaughey movie with lots of Oscar buzz: Dallas Buyers Club. And I’m back on team McConaughey again.

Once again McConaughey takes the lead, this time portraying Ron Woodroof, Texas rodeo junkie, open homophobe, and drug-addict who discovers he has contracted HIV and is given a mere 30 days to live. But this isn’t the world of today, when public knowledge of HIV and AIDS is widespread, when people understand how the virus is spread. This is 1985, the year when Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis is revealed, when the disease is grossly misunderstood by the public and even the medical community, when the term “HIV” is equated with homosexual behavior in everyone’s minds.

Remarkably enough, Woodroof outlives those 30 days after self-medicating with non-FDA-approved pills. A longtime illicit drug user, Woodroof has no qualms about obtaining illegal substances through criminal means. When he discovers that AZT, the highly coveted drug in the preliminary stages of human testing in the US, is toxic to the human body, he turns to other medications popular among HIV patients outside the states. Connecting with a network of patients through Rayon, an HIV-positive transvestite Ron meets in the hospital, the formerly homophobic man capitalizes upon his discovery and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, an outlet for the alternative HIV/AIDS treatments Woodroof has smuggled into the states. Instead of illegally selling medication directly to the people, the club’s clientele purchases a monthly membership with which they are granted unlimited access to Woodroof’s drugs. This enterprising plan entangles Woodroof with the FDA but also provides an audience and a platform for his campaign to end AZT drug trials at the local hospital.

The change in Woodroof’s attitude toward gay people is subtle and well played; he certainly capitalizes upon the sheer volume of homosexuals infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, but his motive with the buyers club is not financial success, it is to help improve and prolong the lives of others suffering from the disease. One of the most notable scenes in the film comes when Woodroof is at the height of his reign with the club. While grocery shopping with Rayon, Ron runs into TJ, a homophobic friend from his Rodeo days. TJ refuses to shake Rayon’s hand after the two are introduced. Quickly confining TJ in a headlock, Woodroof forces his old buddy to shake hands with his new transvestite friend. Throughout the entire scene, it’s clear that TJ thinks his initial suspicion that Ron was a closeted gay man are confirmed, for here he is with a cross-dressing man in public. But with a beautiful selflessness and confidence, Woodroof coolly avoids clarifying the nature of his relationship with Rayon to TJ. It’s as though Ron wouldn’t dare deign to correct his old friend’s false assumption because Ron himself is so far past that form of bigotry and hate. His only concern is that Rayon be treated with the basic decency any human being deserves. It was the kind of scene that really stuck with me, and I imagine it will be the one that defines this film whenever I think of it in the future.

Did I mention that the whole movie is based on a true story? It’s a pretty remarkable story at that, but the fact that this film recounts a series of historical events is what leads to its most glaring (but still, not very glaring at all) flaw: the ending of the movie left something to be desired. Obviously this isn’t a film deserving of a neat and tidy happy ending, given the content. Things are a little jumpy as the film nears its conclusion and viewers don’t get a clear view of what happens to the Dallas Buyers Club itself or how Woodroof’s fight against the FDA contributes to eventual changes in HIV treatment. The trouble is that the story of the fight against HIV/AIDS is so much bigger than Ron Woodroof, but his relatively small vignette is so interesting as to be film-worthy. A valiant effort is made to provide a satisfying ending when the story turns to questions of how to live the one life we’re each given. Under the auspices of the movie’s tagline “dare to live,” Woodroof talks with his doctor regarding his doubts about the way he lived his life. The content of this conversation comes back into play during the final scenes of the movie, an attempt at providing audiences with a satisfactorily happy ending to Woodroof’s difficult story.

McConaughey’s performance in this film is fantastic, quite separate from the dramatic physical transformation he went through to look the role of an HIV patient. Casting Jared Leto as Rayon was a bold and brilliant move. It took me some time to recognize Leto as Rayon because his performance completely lacked the self-consciousness I would have expected from a straight male playing a transvestite. Jennifer Garner is Dr. Eve Saks, one of the physicians overseeing the AZT trials who grows close to her patients and finds herself morally confused regarding the apparent results of the trial. Steve Zahn is notable as Tucker, a local cop who knows Woodroof and pops up from time to time when he comes into trouble with the law. There are plenty of other familiar faces throughout the movie, but McConaughey and Leto truly take the cake on this one. I’m not sure how often I’ll be overcome with a desire to re-watch this film, but I certainly would have regretted missing this one with such remarkable performances of a complicated but artfully-told story.

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 Silver Linings Playbook

Image retrieved from imdb.com

If you haven’t had an opportunity to jump on the Silver Linings Playbook bandwagon yet, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a viewing of this film, released on DVD today. I was fortunate enough to hear about the movie well before its release from a friend who was actually an extra in a few scenes. But all that Marc, my burgeoning actor friend, really told me about the movie was that it would probably be up for Oscar contention, it dealt with mental illness, and it was based on a novel. (He also mentioned that Bradley Cooper was an extremely generous and down to earth person, at least as could be gauged from their few brief exchanges.) I knew back then that I’d see Silver Linings in the theater, if only because that’s one of me and my husband’s favorite activities and also because I personally knew someone whose face I could spot on the big screen.

But when we saw the very first trailer for the movie, my husband Mike rolled his eyes and said he had very low expectations of and little interest in the movie. After all, the preview we watched featured lots of dancing and gave little else away regarding the plot of the film. I really couldn’t blame Mike for his harsh opinion, but luckily he changed his tune when the next trailer was released. I’m not sure they ever really figured out how to market Silver Linings Playbook – it’s not quite a romantic comedy, not purely a drama, and could appeal to  multiple audiences despite (or maybe by virtue of) the fact that bi-polar disorder, football, and ballroom dancing all feature prominently in the film. By the time the second theatrical trailer came out, Silver Linings looked far more palatable than before and we eagerly awaited its release.

Based in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Silver Linings Playbook begins at the mental institution in Baltimore where Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, has been court ordered to spend the prior few months. With approval from the courts, his mother, portrayed by Jacki Weaver, unexpectedly removes Pat from the institution early and brings him home to live with her and his father Pat Sr., played by Robert De Niro. Despite Pat Jr.’s many flaws and mistakes, including a violent episode which resulted in his institutionalization, his long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and his laughably poor social skills in general, Cooper is a surprisingly likable protagonist, a fact made even more remarkable given how honest and raw his portrayal of bipolar disorder is. Part of the audience’s fondness for Pat stems from that honesty but also from a sense of sympathy – his violent outburst was triggered by the discovery of his wife with her lover. Though few people would react to the same violent extent as Pat, many could certainly relate to the depth with which he felt his wife’s betrayal.

Upon returning to Philly, Pat draws upon many of the teachings he picked up in the hospital, working on his physical health and harnessing positivity whenever possible in order to get better. Pat’s firm belief that achieving health and happiness will win his wife back is obviously misguided (especially since she still has a restraining order against him), but the long term goal of repairing his marriage is the ultimate motivation for him. His struggle to get well sets up situations both comedic and uncomfortable, laughable in their outrageousness while painful for those involved.

As he travels the path to wellness, Pat meets Tiffany, a young widower who knows Pat’s ex-wife. The two bond over their broken marriages, psychiatric cocktails, and general inability to fit within the confines of the outside world’s expectations. Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence, sets up a bargain with Pat which brings the whole dancing storyline into play – she promises to deliver letters to his ex-wife if he will compete in a dancing competition with her for which she has no viable partner. Their relationship appears volatile on the surface, but Tiffany and Pat understand one another far better than anyone else in the film and inadvertently help each other to heal.

Also volatile is the relationship between Pat Junior and Senior. Pat Sr is a bookie with an indisputable bout of untreated OCD. He staunchly believes that his son’s presence will assure the victory of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles on game day. Though the elder Pat hates to admit it, his mental health is not as stable as he thinks – in fact, it is probably less so than that of his son. The course of the film sees them figure out how alike they really are and how to exist together in peace.

I recently watched the film for a second go round and appreciated it even more so than my initial viewing. The characters in this film are, on paper, people with whom most of us would not want to surround ourselves. But in the hands of this talented cast, we recognize their humanness, their similarities to ourselves as viewers. I initially was surprised that De Niro received an Academy Award nomination for his performance and that Jennifer Lawrence snagged an Oscar for her portrayal of Tiffany. It was certainly a phenomenal movie but Bradley Cooper’s performance was the one that most stuck with me after I first saw Silver Linings. Upon watching it again, I have a much greater appreciation for the entirety of the cast. Silver Linings’ characters are highly nuanced and difficult to make appealing, but I’d argue that they are portrayed without a hitch. I’m sure that much of that success can also be attributed to director and screenwriter David O. Russell whose ability to execute such a difficult movie is certainly commendable.

Watching these at-times troubled people learn to exist with one another is a purely pleasurable experience. Though most movies on mental illness probably wouldn’t seem so, this is one film on the subject that is an undeniable feel-gooder. Though I’m not sure if they were playing Pat Jr.’s social ineptness for laughs, Mike and I certainly chuckled aloud at his faux-paus and the awkwardness of his exchanges with others. Silver Linings Playbook addresses the discomfort of bipolar disorder and the difficulty experienced by those who suffer from it and by their friends and family as well. But it also acknowledges that people with mental illness can find silver linings in all that difficulty, that they are capable of developing strategies and relationships which enable them to lead happy and fulfilling lives.

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 Sleepwalk With Me

I first learned about Mike Birbiglia when my aspiring-comedian husband Mike encouraged me to listen to Birbiglia’s one man show entitled Sleepwalk with Me. I was not familiar with the one man show concept at the time, but instantly took a liking to the extended narrative style of this brand of comedy/monologue (although the show isn’t always strictly comedic). I listened to Sleepwalk with Me on my commute to and from work and was quoting Birbiglia by day’s end.

Throughout the course of Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia relates stories from his first few years as a road comic when he also began to sleepwalk. Interwoven with this quirky tale of disordered sleep and painful-to-remember comedy gigs are anecdotes taken from Birbiglia’s family life and his relationship with college sweetheart Abby. Among my favorite bits are the portrait of Birbiglia’s father, a neurosurgeon who experienced random outbursts about snack foods; Mike’s gig hosting a college’s lip syncing contest; Birbiglia’s interpretation of the TLC show “A Wedding Story,” in particular an episode featuring a Jersey Shore-esque couple with alliterative names; and his dream of placing in the dust buster Olympics, which in reality, coincided with catapulting off a bookshelf and onto a TiVo. Birbiglia seamlessly moves from past to present as he relates a series of unbelievable incidents from his waking and dreaming life into a brilliantly absurd story. So when I learned that Birbiglia was taking the Sleepwalk with Me story (which was already available as a book) to the big screen, I was excited to see how the stories would translate to film.

With plenty of promotion in conjunction with This American Life’s Ira Glass, Sleepwalk with Me the movie has done quite well for itself, even winning a prize or two at Sundance. The film version of Birbiglia’s story does stay true to much of what he relates during his one man show, although I’m still a bit puzzled as to why he changed the protagonist’s name to Matt Pandamiglio. Mike as Matt narrates directly to the camera in a conversational style that works quite flawlessly throughout the movie. Though plenty of the anecdotal incidents that make Birbiglia’s one man show so memorable are referenced, this is ultimately a film about a struggling stand up comedian attempting to find balance in his career, his health and his relationship with girlfriend Abby (portrayed by Lauren Ambrose who, after watching the movie, I think was perfectly cast).

Mike/Matt tries to find his footing in the world of comedy, working as bartender at a club and filling in on stage whenever he gets a chance. He gets an in with an agent who sends him to gigs all over the eastern seaboard. Under the stress of traveling and trying to win over new audiences, Mike/Matt’s relationship with Abby predictably suffers. The strain of it all leads to the emergence of Mike/Matt’s strange and dangerous sleepwalking habit. It all comes to a head when Mike/Matt jumps out the window of his second floor room at a La Quinta Inn mid-dream, an experience that plays rather funny on screen.

There is something very honest and relatable about Sleepwalk with Me (although I may partially feel that way because I’m married to an amateur comic myself), much of which I would attribute to the way Mike as Matt narrates. Birbiglia/Pandamiglio’s world is easy to slip into and audience members are openly invited to act as voyeurs on a lot of pretty personal stuff. But Sleepwalk with Me strikes the perfect balance, handling some at-times serious content with the perfect touch of levity. The audience roots for Mike/Matt throughout, in spite of the obvious mistakes he makes, largely because it feels like he’s a friend telling us a great story – and he constantly keeps his audience laughing. From classic situational humor to Mike/Matt’s funny interpretations as narrator, Sleepwalk with Me is freshly and consistently hilarious. It doesn’t hurt that the film is also well-written, well-acted, and well-edited and includes a few great comedy cameos.

Though I have yet to read Sleepwalk with Me in book form, I think it a worthwhile decision for everyone to partake in Birbiglia’s story through their medium of choice. Though the main elements of the storyline remain the same across the different forms, there is something new to gain in each telling of the story. I found the film (especially the unexpected Backstreet Boys montage) deeply satisfying in spite of having listened to the one man show CD multiple times. Birbiglia’s story isn’t just one for the comics – there is a universality to this film that gives me hope that it will continue to do well.

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.