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.

 

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 The Dhamma Brothers

I’ve long been a sucker for a great before and after story. The transformation archetype comes in so many appealing packages; as a hilarious episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy profiling the transformation of an unkempt young man into a self-caring, well-groomed, more considerate gentleman; as the written memoirs of a life changing journey along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; or even as the stunning visual transformation of a slovenly room turned into a magazine-worthy high style space. And when the sure to please before and after story tackles issues of social relevance, such as the American prison system, with meditation as the transformative catalyst, I am completely on board.

Following a selection of inmates at an Alabama maximum security prison during their foray into a meditation program, The Dhamma Brothers speaks to the common humanity we share with people whose existences are relegated to the confines of a jail cell, the weaknesses of our current criminal justice system, the powers of the practice of meditation. The vipassana meditation program instituted at Alabama’s Donaldson Correctional Facility requires inmates to engage in an intensive ten days of meditation, nine of which they must remain completely silent. Forcing people who have committed crimes that landed them in jail for years, if not for the rest of their lives, to identify emotions from a place of observation and nonreaction is no small feat. And it certainly makes for a compelling story.

The documentary film profiles four of the inmates participating in the meditation program, highlighting their early histories, the situations in which their crimes were committed, the resulting sentences, and often their remorse as well. Nearly all of the inmates we meet are charged with murder or homicide, but The Dhamma Brothers makes more human the people who committed these most inhuman of crimes. Putting a face, a voice, a story, a struggle to these men’s experiences serves as one of the foundations from which viewers can evaluate for themselves the prison industrial complex, a very well executed move by the film’s directors Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura, and Anne Marie Stein.

The audience is also privy to the prison administration’s skepticism prior to and even upon the completion of the program. For obvious reasons, executing a Buddhist meditation program to criminals imprisoned in a Bible belt state is bound to be rife with obstacles, misunderstanding, and judgment. Then there are also the vipassana leaders themselves, anxious and uncertain as they prepare to guide inmates through one of the most intense personal challenges anyway could chose to embark upon, and the psychologists and social scientists who share their primarily confident views on the power of meditation.  The directors capture the various moving parts involved in pulling off a program such as this, replete with the stigmas, doubts, and opinions of all parties.

But the vast majority of the film profiles the inmates’ journeys, identifying how strongly these men were transformed by the experience of vipassana. Family members, correctional officers, vipassana teachers, and of course the inmates themselves all provide moving testimonies upon their completion of the initial ten day meditation retreat. Maybe even more profound, however, is the way in which the new meditators struggle when they are no longer able to practice or find themselves without a community of like-minded practitioners. The men try to sustain their practice by holding daily sessions following the first ten day retreat. Soon enough the prison officially bars all group meditation on account of its Buddhist roots (in opposition to the largely Christian culture of the facility). Nearly all of the inmates seek other ways to meditate, so desperately do they require a regular practice in order to be their best selves. One of the inmates is transferred to a lower security prison, but speaks of the difficulty he encountered in adjusting to the culture. Without a community of meditators, in the absense of other inmates that endured the vipassana experience that so deeply changed himself, he finds it difficulty to sustain this now-essential practice.

The film’s impact on viewers slyly parallels that of meditation on the inmates. A gut-wrenching example of love and acceptance, one inmate cites vipassana as the reason he feels love for the man who murdered the inmate’s daughter. Recognizing that her murderer is still a human being, there is no room for hatred in his heart, even for a person who so irrevocably and brutally ended his daughter’s life. Likewise I doubt many audiences can come away from The Dhamma Brothers without an expanded sense of love and acceptance for these men, despite their horrific crimes and dark pasts, their unspeakable sins and irreversible mistakes, for they are still human just like us. The documentary’s directors ensure that audiences are unable to deny this most universal sense of common humanity we share with the folks captured on screen.

Part of what I found so moving about the film was simply seeing the inside of a penitentiary, not the set of a TV show cell or the all too familiar visitation rooms complete with thick glass dividers and old fashioned phones. A uniformity of beige cinderblock, solitary confinement rooms, padlocked doors, correctional officers on patrol, a sea of white-clothed men with hanging heads and handcuffs, patchy grass in the prison yard surrounded by chain link fencing and barbed wire. These rather mild images made all too real to me the sense of despair, depression, remorse, and hopelessness that an inmate must feel. To imagine that these are the only sights a person can hope to lay eyes on for the duration of his or her life. To be housed in such a “correctional” facility without receiving any rehabilitative services to provide even the smallest glimmer of hope that life after serving a sentence could be better enough to guarantee freedom. The images of prison life captured in The Dhamma Brothers alone unearthed these thoughts in my head, leaving me with a sense of deep sadness. Add to that sorrow the profound remorse and enlightenment these men found after meditating, and it was hard to feel anything but despondency that people are relegated to such heartrendingly bleak, monotonous, dead-end existences. I’ve always felt that our prison system is vastly under-rehabilitative and aggressively punitive, offering no form of practical guidance and displaying not a trace of Christian forgiveness. Encouraging them to confront their deepest faults and mistakes through a meditative practice is a incredible opportunity, but a tiny step in the grand scheme of things. 

One of the qualms I sometimes experience as a practitioner of meditation myself is how self-involved a concept it can be. The idea of utilizing this method to achieve enlightenment or to commune with the divine or to wrestle one’s personal demons are all veritable but ultimately selfish goals. The Dhamma Brothers, however, highlights some of the ways in which meditation serves a greater purpose than the one it most obviously serves to the person in meditation. As an inmate states in the film, if everyone in the prison had been practicing vipassana before they committed the crimes which landed them in jail, maybe they never would have seen the inside of the facility at all. The repercussions of their practice ripple continually outward to their community of inmates, to family and friends, to viewers of the film and even theirs feelings for total strangers. The Dhamma Brothers serves as a stark reminder of how meditation is not solely an individual transformation story. Simply witnessing the ways in which the practice impacted this group of Alabama prison inmates can be a true transformation experience for a casual viewer.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.