Paper Towns


Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

(2015) Drama (20th Century Fox) Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono, Josiah Cerio, Hannah Allgood, Meg Crosbie, Griffin Freeman, Caitlin Carver, RJ Shearer, Susan Macke Miller, Tom Hillmann, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Jay Duplass, Kendall McIntyre, Emma O’Laughlin, Yossie Mulyadi. Directed by Jake Schreier

Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. Some of us learn early on and either go through a life of self-hatred or one of self-satisfaction, or at least self-acceptance. For others, we search and search, grabbing at maddening clues that seem to lead us somewhere but ultimately lead us back to ourselves. For some of us, the search is what makes us who we are.

Quentin (Wolff) is a senior in high school. He is one of those guys who everyone knows but nobody particularly cares one way or the other about him other than his two best friends, Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams). Quentin has his whole life planned out; he’s been accepted at Duke, intends to go to their prestigious medical school, become a doctor of oncology and meet someone special and have lots of babies and have a great life. The end.

Except he’s already met someone special, as far as he’s concerned. Her name is Margo Roth-Spiegelman (Delevingne) and she lives right across the street. She’s lived there ever since they were children and Quentin has had a crush on her from the first day he saw her. They couldn’t be more opposites; Quentin has a plan, tends to play things safe and wants his life on the straight and narrow. She, on the other hand, is adventurous, loves a good mystery and isn’t afraid to live her life outside the box.

That’s why they inevitably drift apart during high school. Oddly, she becomes part of the in crowd, the girlfriend of Jase (Freeman), a jock who has been cheating on her with her best friend Becca (Carver). Disillusioned, she shows up at Quentin’s window one night, needing a getaway driver. That’s because she wants to get revenge on those who betrayed her as well as those who knew about the betrayal and didn’t tell her, which would include her other best friend Lacey (Sage) and Lacey’s boyfriend (and Jase’s best friend) Chuck (Shearer).

The vengeance is complicated and bittersweet. Quentin is at first a reluctant participant, not wanting to get caught and have his carefully laid plans ruined, but as the night goes on he finds himself feeling alive like he never has before. He feels that old connection with Margo and it seems as if that feeling is reciprocated as she wonders in a sort of melancholy way how things might have turned out if she hadn’t abandoned him for the in crowd and stayed with him.

The next day, Margo doesn’t show up for school. Nor the next and the next. The police become involved but Margo’s mom (Miller) throws up her hands in disgust. This isn’t the first time Margo has run away from home and she’ll come back when she gets bored or runs out of money. She declines to file a missing persons report, earning her a parent of the year award from an incredulous Quentin.

He resolves to find her himself and of course his trusted friends are all in. Ben, in particular wants the opportunity to hang out with Lacey, who it turns out didn’t know what Jase was up to and is as concerned as to her whereabouts as Quentin is.

Margo has always been wont to leaving clues and this is no exception. Bribing her little sister Ruthie (Crosbie) to let her examine Margo’s room, Quentin discovers a volume of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which seems to indicate her state of mine. He also finds a scrap of paper with an address of what turns out to be an abandoned tourist memorabilia shop in a dicey part of town, which will lead him and his friends on the adventure of a lifetime.

This is based on the young adult book of the same name by John Green (who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars) which should have given it a built-in audience but the early box office returns have been less spectacular than the other film. Not bad, but not spectacular. The movie will make a tidy profit, but not nine figures like the first film did.

Part of the issue with the movie is that the leads are really not easy. Quentin is as white bread as they come, a little bit boring even. His obsession with Margo flies in the face of his carefully prepared life, and of logic – admittedly however teen hormones trump logic every time. Margo on the other hand is as self-centered a lead as you’ll see in the movies. Everything she does is about her and about her needs, and as it turns out, nobody really notices except for the astute Ben who tells Lacey “She doesn’t deserve a friend like you” and he’s right. She’s the sort that an adult can see right through, from the pretentious use of capital letters and her aphorisms which sound a lot wiser than they are. If Quentin is the average high school student, Margo is the high school student that doesn’t exist except in the mind of John Green. Which of course means she probably does.

The writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have an ear for dialogue, even more so than Diablo Cody and Kevin Smith who both write excellent dialogue but in a more clever vein. These kids talk the way kids really speak and that genuineness is part of the movie’s highlights. For me – and I admit this is strictly my own viewpoint – I found it refreshing that this movie, set in my home town of Orlando, portrays Orlando as a city where people actually live, even though Margo despises it so. She probably never hung out at the Enzian Theater. She’d have had a different opinion.

I would go so far as to say that this captures the bittersweet elements of one’s senior year in high school. It is a time of transition without those who are living it knowing it. Only towards the last weeks we realize that we are hanging out at the burger place for the last time, eating pancakes at our best friend’s house for the last time, going to science lab for the last time. Suddenly we realize we are being pushed out into adulthood and as eager as we are to grow up, a part of us is kicking and screaming.

The best part of the movie is the relationship between Quentin, Radar and Ben which is surprising since the movie is ostensibly about Quentin and Margo, but the bonds between the three boys becoming men are so genuine and so real; to their credit, the filmmakers realize that (and I think Green probably does as well) and at the end of the day, when Quentin is given a choice, he chooses to return home to his friends, even though after the summer they’ll all go their separate ways. It is a bittersweet ending, but the right one.

I have always thought that people latch onto a movie because they see a little bit of themselves in the characters, but I no longer believe that is true. I think we latch onto a movie because we see ourselves the way we want to be in the characters, and surprisingly, the character I saw myself wanting to be the most was Radar, whose loyalty to his girlfriend Angela (Sinclair) is sweet and admirable in many ways; I wish I had that kind of commitment when I was his age. I like to think I would have. In any case, while this movie isn’t going to set teen hearts aflutter, it might appeal to jaded adults like myself more than you might expect. Who would have thought that.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the bittersweet senior year nicely. The bonds between the guys are genuine.
REASONS TO STAY: A mite too pretentious for its own good. Margo is a little too self-centered to identify with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, teen drinking and partying, partial nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ansel Elgort makes a cameo as a gas station convenience store clerk.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Crude

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Hulk


Hulk

./ I left...my Hulllllllllllk....in San Franciscooooooooo...! ./

(2003) Superhero (Universal) Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Celia Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Kevin Rankin, Todd Tesen, Mike Erwin, Lou Ferrigno, Stan Lee, Regi Davis. Directed by Ang Lee

 

As the great existentialist philosopher Kermit the Frog (think about it) once said, “It’s not easy being green” and Hulk is a movie which brings that concept to life.

Based on the Marvel comic book much more than the television series that it spawned (more on that in a minute), Eric Bana. in his first international role outside his native Australia, is Bruce Banner, a geneticist working with gamma radiation in order to improve the human condition. His girlfriend, Betty Ross (Connelly) works alongside him in a Bay Area-based lab.

Things go awry when in a lab accident, Bruce is exposed to a lethal dose of gamma radiation. To everyone’s surprise, he doesn’t die. In fact, he seems to be healthier than ever. This, of course, catches the notice of the U.S. Military, in the form of General Thunderbolt Ross (Elliott), who is, in fact, Betty’s estranged father.

Bruce has an estranged father, too…emphasis on the “strange.” Nick Nolte, who apparently thinks the hairstyle in his notorious mugshot photo is the height of modern follicle fancy, plays David Banner (in a nod to the TV show, which changed the name of the Hulk’s alter ego to David) whom Bruce had thought dead. David was not dead, but just a little — How do we say it? — whacko.

Turns out David was a scientist in his own right, and in the tradition of over-the-top scientists, performed an experiment on himself, which was genetically passed on to his son. Later, as David gets more and more eccentric, the military (which employs him) becomes more and more concerned and eventually shuts down his microbiological research.

David loses it, and this leads to a traumatic incident which causes David to leave, and for Bruce to be scarred for life, although the exact nature of what happens isn’t revealed until late in the movie.

Bruce returns home, thinking everything is fine, but after being put under emotional stress, changes into a green-skinned behemoth, fiendishly strong and nearly invulnerable, able to leap enormous distances in single bounds. This, of course, really catches the military’s interest, and soon Bruce is under wraps in a secret desert facility. Ironically the same one at which his father worked, 20 years earlier.

The old man surfaces as well, with an agenda of his own. To further complicate things, an old flame of Betty’s, Talbot (Lucas) steps back into the picture to not only try to win Betty back, but as the head of a biotech research company, to exploit Banner and his alter ego. Of course, this leads to a great deal of “Hulk smash.”

Many theatergoers who wanted to love this movie found that they couldn’t, partly because director Ang Lee has made what is in effect two movies. The first, a psychological drama that mainly takes up the first half of the movie, one true to Lee’s art-house roots. The second is an over-the-top, computer-generated-effects-laden action thriller.

The two, for much of the movie-going public, were irreconcilable. I, on the other hand, found the two movies working well together, bringing not only a sense of angst, but an emotional level that makes the Hulk and Bruce Banner figures of tragedy, rather than powerful demigods, as many superheroes become.

Part of the movie’s theatrical problems lay in its marketing; the computer-generated Hulk scenes that made the trailer look cheesier on the small screen than on the big one. As the opening of the movie approached back in the day I remember remarking to Da Queen how a movie which I had anticipated would be one of that summer’s biggest was becoming less and less of a must-see for me, although I wound up seeing it anyway — and I’m glad I did.

The reason is two-fold, which fits in with the movie’s themes nicely. First, the human side – the acting. Bana, who has to play a cold, emotionally distant man early in the movie, is forced to deal with his feelings as the movie progresses. It’s a powerful performance in more ways than one, and set up Bana to pursue the path to stardom taken by countrymen Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and  the late Heath Ledger. What is it with Australia producing such great leading men lately, anyway? There must be something in the water.)

Jennifer Connelly, who debuted as a lustrous ingénue in another comic book adaptation The Rocketeer showed that her Academy Award-winning turn with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind was no fluke. She played Ross not as a simpering victim as she eventually became in the comic book, but as a capable, independent-minded woman with a great deal of depth and a lot of emotional baggage, which is how the character began in the comic book. Connelly nails that side of her here.

The other reason Hulk is a winner is the title character himself – the technical side. Bana morphs into a fully CG creature, but like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hulk is a tragic sorrowful creature, one who displays a wide emotional range of expressions. You see pathos and fury at various times on the face of the creature which makes him more than a monster. Like the best movie monsters, you feel sympathy for his plight.

And that brings me to what I really loved about this movie; the fact that it is a tragedy, and the characters in it inspire sympathy. Even the nutty David Banner, whom Nolte plays with a certain scene-chewing zest – is not really fully a monster, although by the time the movie ends he has become one. When the Hulk causes Betty fear, he displays a brooding sorrow that really sent chills up my spine. Even today when I watch the movie again, it still does.

Unfortunately, Hulk received a chilly critical reception, as well as less-than-scintillating word-of-mouth on the Internet. I can understand some finding the dual-movies approach a bit off-putting. Quite frankly, people with a limited range of cinematic appreciation are going to have problems with Hulk.

However, I think that a much larger percentage of the movie-going population will find this a worthwhile investment of time. If you skipped this movie during its theatrical release because of the unfavorable notices, do yourself a favor and give it a chance on home video; see it on as big a TV screen as you can find. Make up your own mind on this one; you may be pleasantly surprised to find a movie that didn’t deserve the critical and fanboy whipping it took.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bana and Connelly. Hulk creature sympathetic and well-articulated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some over-the-top scene chewing. Dichotomy between superhero action and psychological drama too much for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence in a superhero/science fiction vein, a little bit of bad language, a few disturbing images and some partial nudity, albeit a brief view of nothing offensive.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The motion capture for the Hulk creature was performed by Ang Lee himself.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the evolution of the character from the comic books to the TV series to the first film (of course, the more recent Edward Norton version isn’t mentioned in the feature, having been made five years after this version. There is also a series of Sunny Delight ads (!) that tied in to the film on the Special Edition DVD (although thankfully missing from the Blu-Ray). There is also a close-up look at the dog fight scene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.4M on a $137M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Hunger Games