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 Obvious Child

Given that I’m married to a comedian, films about the art of stand up are more likely to cross my path than some other topics. But even movie-lovers completely unconnected to any of those masochistic souls that dream of earning a living by making others laugh will surely be fond of Jenny Slate’s endearing portrayal of amateur stand up Donna Stern in Obvious Child.

Hyped as “the abortion romantic-comedy,” I was initially surprised by how little I felt the movie actually dealt with abortion (my husband Mike, however, said the exact opposite). Protagonist Donna Stern is a struggling stand up comedian based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She works at a bookstore by day and spends most nights performing at a local bar. The film opens when Donna is brutally dumped in the grungy bathroom of said local bar by a guy who turns out to have been sleeping with her friend. Donna’s ego is badly damaged so she takes to drinking excessively as a means of coping.

One drunken night lays the plot-line for the remainder of the film. Donna meets Max, a nice, non-hipster guy who is clearly out of place at her regular Williamsburg haunt. The night ends in a one-night stand that also, incidentally enough, leaves Donna pregnant, and she decides unequivocally to have an abortion. It was refreshing to watch a film where the conflict was not whether to have an abortion, but rather, whether and how to break the news about it to Max (and I think this is why it didn’t feel as abortion-heavy as I expected – I imagined the central dilemma to revolve around her equivocating on the abortion thing).

Although abortion completely factors into the film, I found that this movie was more about the awkward, bumbling romance between two people from entirely different crowds. As Donna says on stage, she is the spitting image of Anne Frank. In private to her gay best friend, she describes Max as a Christmas tree because he is so obviously a good Christian boy. Her jokes at Max’s expense place him as a well-bred frat boy, a sharp contrast to her decidedly unladylike choice of language and penchant for fart jokes. Nevertheless viewers understand that Donna is attracted to Max in spite of their obvious surface-level differences.

Even more complicating is the fact that Donna plans to abort Max’s baby. She tries to avoid engaging in anything more than a one-night stand with Max because of this fact, only to have her plans foiled by circumstance and plain, old-fashioned attraction. This in itself is a great moral dilemma and a good conversation starter (for people with like-political-minds of course). Should she tell Max about the pregnancy? What about the abortion? How should she tell him? How much say should he have in the matter of getting an abortion? This highly entertaining film tricks you into thinking about some of these heavy issues while simultaneously making you both laugh and cringe at Donna’s social skills or complete lack thereof.

Jenny Slate is captivating in her portrayal of Donna. I find that sometimes the female comedian character is way overdrawn to the point of irritation. Thankfully Slate stops short of grating on your nerves. She portrays Donna as perky, complex, and quirky, but her performance is never dull, hackneyed, or annoying. Donna is flawed and she knows it, she’s a bit aimless and is okay with it, she’s hilarious even if in an unconventional way, and her stand up doesn’t fall on the standard tropes to which female comedy can frequently be prone. Sometimes you want to hold her back from embarking on a mistake, sometimes you want to give her a pep talk about doing the right thing, but mostly you just want to see how it all works out because you know she will land on her feet. Luckily, she has great friends and family, portrayed by Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, and Polly Draper, to help her with the first two.

Jake Lacy plays Max, the all-American, Christian boy. While it’s obvious from the start that he would not typically fit into Donna’s world, audiences can’t help rooting for him nonetheless. He tries to understand Donna but never attempts to change himself in an effort to align with a superficial characterization of Donna’s supposed “type.” Max proves to be a genuinely sweet character and I find Lacy an appealing fit for that role.

Certainly prepare yourself for some gross humor, R-rated language, and lots of skinny jeans before watching this one. It’s not exactly friendly for all types of families, but I watched this one with my parents and sister with little of the discomfort that often accompanies family viewings of movies intended for the same target audience. All in all, Obvious Child will leave you with the type of feel-good vibes people are in search of whenever they watch romantic comedies.

On Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Apart from the horrible (and hard to remember) title, I found little to dislike in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a newish release starring Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Rooney Mara. Released in theaters and featured in film festivals during 2013, the movie was only recently released on DVD.

Set in Texas during an indeterminate year in the 1960’s or 70’s, the movie begins with Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) engaged in an undisclosed crime. Amid a shoot out with the local police force, an officer is wounded and though Guthrie fired the shot, Muldoon takes the blame. Bob is sent to prison while Ruth remains in town and soon gives birth to the couple’s baby girl named Sylvia. Years later, Muldoon escapes from prison in an effort to be reunited with Ruth and the daughter he has never met. Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), the officer whose injury sent Muldoon to prison, takes an interest in Ruth and her daughter while tracking down Muldoon’s whereabouts post-prison break.

The film primarily captures Bob Muldoon’s attempts to evade the law and return to his family, but it’s also a wildly romantic and poetic drama given the way in which his love for Ruth overwhelmingly motivates everything Bob does. Past crimes and relationships with other community members are alluded to without receiving much back story. These minor plot points only serve to move the film forward so we really don’t learn much about Bob and Ruth as characters apart from their devotion to one another. But it’s the austerity of the film that I truly appreciated, a stark simplicity reflected not only in the plot and character development (which might sound like a bad thing but actually worked well in this case) but also in an artistic sense too.

It was a gorgeous film on so many levels, from the fantastic score to the uniquely dark cinematography. I was completely smitten by the score, a beautiful mix of strings and percussive sounds that invoked suspense but felt very natural given the film’s austere Texan setting. The look of the film was equally suspenseful, as many scenes were cast in a reddish light or otherwise haloed in near-total darkness. But this wasn’t the sort of crime drama that exercises tension in an eerie or creepy way. If anything, there was a sense of uncertainty and expectancy throughout the entire movie.

I was initially drawn to the movie because of its cast, being a fan of Affleck and Foster. This was the first film in which I saw Mara and though all the performances were remarkable, I found her performance to be especially impressive. For any Breaking Bad fans, Charles Parker, who plays Skinny Pete on the AMC show, also has a small part in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which was a pleasant surprise. In the hands of lesser actors, the movie might have felt redundant or dull. These three were expertly cast, creating a rather compelling drama that is deserving of much more attention than it ever received. If you can get your hands on a copy of it, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a remarkably well-acted treat to the senses for film lovers.

On The Wolf of Wall Street

Who knew Leonardo DiCaprio could do physical comedy? I guess Martin Scorsese had a hunch since he brilliantly case DiCaprio in the stitches-in-your-side hilarious role of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. I don’t know that I have had so much fun at the movies since I saw This is The End. Though the two are largely incomparable, the number of laughs in Scorsese’s latest release rivals that of straightforward comedy films.

Based on true events, The Wolf of Wall Street chronicles Jordan Belfort’s rise from impressionable young Wall Street broker to multimillionaire owner of the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm. During his first day on Wall Street, Belfort shares lunch with his boss Mark Hanna (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) who reveals an extremely lackadaisical attitude towards sex and drugs in the workplace. Hanna’s firm suffers on Black Monday, pushing Belfort back into the job market. Once he discovers the world of penny stocks in a Long Island strip mall, Jordan recognizes a vast opportunity for enterprise. Alongside his new friend Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) and inspired by his tutelage under Hanna, Belfort quickly trains a cohort of pot hustlers to become stockbrokers, founding the Stratton Oakmont firm. Unlike any workplace I’ve ever seen, the firm is home to recreational drug use, prostitution, and lavish parties. Stratton Oakmont in time comes under FBI suspicion, meanwhile growing to a multibillion dollar enterprise as its owners resort to increasingly questionable money laundering schemes.

Along the way, Belfort loses his first wife and marries the woman with whom he was having an affair. He certainly isn’t faithful to her either, although they do have a child together. Hardly the model father, Belfort’s vices include but are hardly limited to quaaludes, extramarital sex, and money. Remarkably enough, he shows no concern for his behavior, how it damages his family or himself. There really isn’t much to like about Belfort, a materialistic, money-hungry, cheater who goes to absurd lengths in pursuit of pleasure and wealth. But in the hands of DiCaprio, Belfort’s character is intriguing enough to keep audiences hooked, despite our better judgment about this guy. The fascination lies in watching such a self-destructive human being make it out alive. And with a running time nearing three hours, it’s quite a challenge to keep audiences engaged with such a despicable protagonist. Miraculously enough, Scorsese pulls it off flawlessly. The movie never dragged, it didn’t feel long at all, and much as I hoped things would not work out for Belfort, I still wanted to know how he managed to come out on top (or at the very least, alive).

How does comedy factor into all of this? The drug scenes are certainly a source of laughs, particularly one in which DiCaprio finds a way to crawl from the payphone inside a country club back to his car, a route which includes a flight of stairs. There are more than a few great lines courtesy of Jonah Hill, which was to be expected, but DiCaprio’s comedy holds up against his costar’s. McConaughey’s portrayal of Mark Hanna sets the tone for the film; he introduces Belfort to the revelry of Wall Street at a level where the stakes are lower, allowing us as audience members to easily laugh it off. Then we find it more natural to find the humor when Belfort is on his own and the stakes are raised. For a movie so saturated with topics that typically lend heaviness to a film, comedy lightens this story and keeps it fun and entertaining.

There are plenty of those classic Scorsese elements (soundtrack and storytelling decisions in particular) that contribute to the overall quality of the film, but The Wolf of Wall Street is largely devoid of any obviously weak links. You would be hard-pressed to find a better cast, let alone an actor that could do what DiCaprio has done with the Belfort character. Making the story so ridiculous as to cull humor from it is a remarkable feat that feels effortless in the hands of Scorsese. While it is easy to critique a film like The Wolf of Wall Street for its moral depravity, its focus on such a disreputable figure, and the like, this is the kind of movie that I use my husband Mike’s litmus test on; the only real question should be did this movie entertain me? And the answer is a resounding yes.

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 Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks is one of those romantic comedies that really hits the spot – a satisfying, fun, and engrossing love story that does not rely upon unnecessary drama, overly contrived situations, cheesy romance, or any of the other devices commonly used to appeal to the masses of mainstream film-goers.

Paul Dano is perfect as Calvin, a prodigy of a novelist who published his masterpiece before the age of 20. Struggling to overcome depression and writer’s block, Calvin takes the advice of his therapist to complete a writing exercise about someone who likes his dog. He creates Ruby, a tiny redhead with lots of personality, in his fictional piece, only to find that one day she shows up in his apartment in the flesh (and very well played by Zoe Kazan at that). What further complicates things, beyond the fact that Ruby’s existence itself is questionable, is Calvin’s hold on her – by writing it, he can make her do, say, think, and feel whatsoever he pleases. All in combination with his anxiety and lack of healthy relationship experience.

Chris Messina portrays Calvin’s brother Harry, the only person who really knows how Ruby came into his brother’s life, while Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas fill out the roles of Calvin’s mother and stepfather. The talented cast really shines in this sweet and engaging story. Obviously you need to suspend disbelief to get into this one, but it isn’t very difficult to do so. Calvin’s total transformation after meeting Ruby keeps you rooting for the couple throughout. And Ruby herself is a delightful, compelling female lead even if she does get relegated to the “manic pixie dream girl” category by many reviewers of the film. 

Zoe Kazan not only shines as the title character in the movie, she also wrote the screenplay. Kazan demonstrates a talent for screenwriting that I still find impressive, regardless of the fact that both of her parents are screenwriters (Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord). There is a remarkable clarity to the story of Ruby Sparks, the very concept of which could easily drift into complicated and/or hysterical territory. But she gets the balance just right and makes sure her viewers care about her characters throughout – enough so that you want to watch this one again and again. There’s really nothing more to ask for out of an independent romantic comedy.

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 The Perks of Being a Wallflower (The Film)

Image retrieved from imdb.com

It’s a rare treat to watch a film based on a book whose director and author are one and the same. In fact, it’s something I never thought I’d be able to witness until the opening credits of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I first heard of  the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in my early high school years. I was lucky enough to sit next to one of the most undeniably cool girls in my class during freshman English. For some mysterious reason she took a bit of a liking to me, at least enough to chat with me while waiting for class to start. One day she offhandedly mentioned the book as one of her favorites, so of course I immediately rushed out to find a copy for myself.

Nearly a decade later, I learned that the novel was making its move to the big screen. I rarely have high hopes for books translated to film. Such conversions eradicate the world I created in my own head while reading and replace it with a new one, complete with perfectly primped actors and detailed sets and polished production. My expectations regarding The Perks of Being a Wallflower were no different – until I rented it from the Redbox and saw that Steven Chbosky, author of the novel, was credited as screenwriter, director, and producer of the film. I’ve long hoped to see a novelist take his or her story to the screen. I guess I imagined it would be a study in writerly talent and style, not to mention my own skills as a close reader. To see how my understanding of the world created by a writer compares with his or her own visual representation of it sounded like a fascinating opportunity. If nothing else, the author’s film version of a novel will undoubtedly be the most authentic cinematic execution of his or her work of fiction. And I was lucky enough to enjoy such an unexpected opportunity with this film.

Unfortunately I hadn’t touched the book for some eight or nine years, so my memory of the novel was cloudy and limited to one trademark line: “In that moment, I swear we were infinite.” Nonetheless, I was pleased with Chbosky’s recreation of the Perks story on film, though it took a bit for the movie to really grow on me. (And I must admit, I was surprised at the way in which the book’s most quotable line was delivered – the scene felt so far from how I remembered imagining it.) In the first half hour, the dialogue felt a bit forced, the set up of the relationship between the three main characters awkward in its very structure. I was hesitant to give myself over the actors and their manor of speaking – I couldn’t decide if some of the lines were just poorly delivered or poorly written by someone trying to sound young and hip. But soon after I was about to give up on The Perks of Being a Wallflower and halfheartedly finish it while looking up recipes for dinner, I started to find my attention unconsciously drifting wholly to the movie. After a watching the film a second time, I can certainly identify a few elements, including portions of the storytelling, the acting, and the writing, that are notably weaker than others. But my ultimate sense of the film remains firmly positive and I can’t exactly put my finger upon the source of this fondness.

Though the cast features a few big names with supporting roles, including Paul Rudd and Joan Cusack, the main player in this film has little name recognition. Logan Lerman portrays wallflower protagonist Charlie, an incoming high school freshman at the beginning of the film who makes brief reference to the “bad time” he experienced last year. Though we don’t know much about Charlie’s past troubles, we can surmise that they are psychological in nature, that he has few if any friends, and that he isn’t so good at making new ones. Ezra Miller is perfectly cast as Patrick, an outwardly gay senior at Charlie’s school. The only upperclassman in Charlie’s freshman shop class, Patrick generously invites Charlie to sit with him during a football game. Patrick introduces Charlie to his step-sister Sam, played by Emma Watson, and thus into their wider but tightly knit social circle of daring, Morrissey-loving, Rocky Horror Picture Show-devotee friends. Charlie’s troubles take a backseat to his new place amidst Patrick and Sam’s circle, especially as he grows closer to Sam, the object of his burgeoning affection. Though Charlie’s new friends appreciate his wallflower ways, their mere presence in his life can’t keep Charlie’s deeper problems at bay forever.

Much of my ultimate adoration for the film I attribute to Ezra Miller’s portrayal of Patrick. Miller gave a refreshingly honest and endearing performance as a high school-aged homosexual male, unabashedly himself and heartwarmingly sincere. He is just the kind of friend I wish I’d had in high school – someone who would never dare to conform, who deeply loves his friends with an unquestionable loyalty, who takes notice of others despite his seemingly-self-centered efforts to attract attention, and who is able to make even the most run of the mill days feel singular and epic.

A prime reason for the hesitancy with which I came around to this movie was the beauty of its ending – it both made up for and explained some of the elements that previously seemed poorly executed. The film’s conclusion reveals an important detail of Charlie’s past which is hinted at throughout the movie in a gracefully misleading manner. This revelation has great explanatory power regarding the protagonist’s disposition such that some of the previously awkward-seeming components are made much less so. In adding to the gravity of the story, the ending was also an opportunity for Lerman to really demonstrate the depth of his acting ability. And fortunately for me, I completely forgot this twist of sorts from back when I read the book, allowing me to savor the reveal like a first-timer to the story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower made me yearn for my youth like few movies can. It portrays adolescence in such a heartbreakingly honest but romantic and whimsical way that I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for my high school days and what else that time could have held for me. Though the movie as a whole may not be an extremely accurate depiction of the typical high school experience, the feelings evoked by The Perks of Being a Wallflower are certainly ones I vividly remember having or wanting to have. The movie is a pleasantly surprising ode to youth but also an exploration of its more troubling aspects, of the highs and lows that come with adolescence, first love, and moments of feeling inexplicably indestructible and infinite.

On Your Sister’s Sister

Your Sister’s Sister tells the story of a particularly twisted love triangle. Written and directed by Lynn Sheldon, this independent dramedy is well acted with Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie Dewitt at the forefront. And though this tale is one of complicated romantic relationships, the story is well told, appropriately paced and never succumbs to the extraneous complications and forced situational humor that a more mainstreaming telling of the story might have entailed.

Jack, portrayed by Duplass, and Iris, played by Blunt, are best friends of the opposite sex, a pair whose platonic relationship is simultaneously confused and shored by the fact that Iris dated Jack’s brother who died just a year prior. Jack is in dire need of a change of scenery, given the toll that his brother’s death and other circumstances in his life have taken. When Iris offers her father’s empty lakeside vacation house, nestled in the dense Pacific Northwest forest free of neighbors, Jack takes up the invitation for solitude and relaxation. When he arrives, however, Iris’s sister Hannah, portrayed by Dewitt, has already taken up residence in the no longer isolated house.

Once Jack and Hannah come to terms with the fact that their respective plans for isolation have been foiled, they nearly finish a bottle of tequila together while sharing the woes which have led them to their current state of affairs. The effect of the tequila is not unfelt by Jack or Hannah, and they spend the rest of the night together. They are party to an alarming wake up call the following morning when Iris turns up unannounced, having made the trip in an effort to cheer up Jack. Iris is surprised and delighted to find her sister there as well as her best friend, though she is not immediately privy to the fact that Hannah and Jack came to know one another in remarkably intimate ways the night before. While Hannah and Jack dance around the mistake they made on their first night at the house, Iris confesses her feelings for Jack to her sister, only further complicating the whole twisted plot.

Sure, it sounds a bit confusing and maybe the plot of Your Sister’s Sister sounds a little forced. But unlike more typical films of tangled love triangles, the motivations of each character in this movie are clearly drawn, though maybe not at first apparent. In the hands of a lesser director, this story could have easily become hysterical and ridiculous, the situations overly contrived for comedy and drama. But Sheldon explores the more subtle and human, though still entertaining, sides of this story.

Your Sister’s Sister isn’t a tale of two sisters competing for the love of one man at all, but rather the story of how we let fear and emotion dictate our lives. An exploration of love, motivation, and healing, Your Sister’s Sister is a film that I find myself increasingly appreciative of as I think back on it more and more. Viewers are rewarded for sticking out all 80-some minutes of this film because it is so well crafted and thoughtfully constructed which any movie lover can surely appreciate.

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.