Columbus (2017)


Art and architecture don’t always mix necessarily.

(2017) Drama (Superlative) John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Rosalyn R. Ross, Erin Allegretti, Jim Dougherty, Lindsey Shope, Shani Salyers Stiles, William Willet, Reen Vogel, Wynn Reichert, Alphaeus Green Jr., Caitlin Ewald. Directed by Kogonada

 

There are times in our lives when we are in a place that we don’t want to be; we are there because we are obligated to be there. Upon reflection however it generally turns out that where we are is exactly where we are supposed to be. Realizing it at the time is pretty much always another matter.

Jin (Cho) finds himself in Columbus, Indiana. Not because he has any great desire to be there but because his father, a scholar on architecture, was to deliver a lecture there but collapsed and went into a coma. Jin and his father have barely spoken for a long time but Jin is the only blood relative his father has, so he goes at the behest of his dad’s protégé Eleanor (Posey) whom not uncoincidentally he had a crush on as a teen.

Casey (Richardson) has lived in Columbus all her life. She’s whip-smart and has a passion for architecture, so living in Columbus is a great thing for her – the town is known for its striking modernist architecture designed by some of the greatest architects in history – I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and John Carl Warnecke among them – and while volunteering at the local library also gives tours of the city’s landmarks. She has had offers to go to college (she just graduated high school) but has quietly turned them down, preferring to stay at home and take care of her recovering drug addict mother (Forbes) who is in a fragile emotional state and probably wouldn’t be able to care for herself without Casey.

Jin and Casey meet and one would think initially that they wouldn’t hit it off much; Jin doesn’t care much for architecture, a field which essentially took his workaholic father away from him and Casey is nuts about it but hit it off they do. At first Casey seems content to give her tour guide opinions of the buildings that catch Jin’s eye but as Jin gently digs she begins to open up to him. Pretty sure, he’s opening up to her right back.

That’s really all the plot there is to this movie. Normally I don’t mind a movie that is all middle without a beginning or an end; I love movies that grasp the ebb and flow of life. That’s not really the case here. First time director Kogonada has a brilliant visual sense and a real eye for shot composition, but utilizes it to excess here. I do appreciate his use of water and rain as a motif and his use of geometric shapes amid natural environments but after awhile one becomes dulled to the images. We are made aware at nearly every moment that each scene is an artificial setting, not an organic function of the scene. For example, there’s a scene in a hotel room where Jin and Eleanor are talking about his feelings for her growing up; the entire scene is shot viewing the reflection of two mirrors which act almost as television screens. Don’t get me wrong – It’s a clever shot – but in a highly charged emotional scene we don’t get to see the emotions of the actors. This is the very epitome of a director’s creativity undermining his own film.

And that really is one of the major faults of the film – we never get connected to the characters because we’re constantly aware of the director behind them. He frames them in corridors in which, we can’t fail to notice, the columns on one side are square and on the other side round. We see oblique shots in which forced perspective puts two characters sitting on the steps close together but we also notice that the dialogue is done with one character’s back to the other the entire time. That’s not a natural conversation; people tend to want to turn and face their partner when they are conversing.

One of the other fundamental flaws is that we never really care about any of the characters. Kogonada seems to keep them at arm’s length and even though they are talking about some fairly in depth background, it is all couched in self-absorbed and pretentious terms and after awhile we begin to tune out.

Maybe if the dialogue were scintillating enough I might forgive the film a bit more but it’s comparable to a couple of self-absorbed college students who are a lot less insightful than they think they are having a conversation about something esoteric without really understanding the subject completely. I get that Casey is a college-age character who fits that description (as is the Rory Culkin character whom I’ll get to in a moment) but there are also older characters who have more maturity at least but they still sound like 19-year-olds. Not that there’s anything wrong with 19-year-olds nor is it impossible for a college student to show insight but it is also possible for college students to be arrogant and condescending as well, and one feels talked down to throughout.

There is also a lot of material here that is unnecessary, brief throwaway moments that add nothing to the story or to your understanding of the characters – Casey has a conversation with her mother about not having eggs and needing to go to the grocery store to get some, for example. A good storyteller will use that as a springboard to get Casey to the grocery store so that something germane could occur but she never goes to the store nor is the egg shortage anything more than throwaway conversation – and the movie is full of these sorts of moments. I mentioned Rory Culkin’s character a moment ago and you might notice that he doesn’t appear in the plot synopsis. That’s because he doesn’t need to. His character is completely unnecessary and were his scenes to end up on the cutting room floor it wouldn’t affect the movie in any significant way. Much of this movie appears to be about how much our lives are consumed with things that don’t matter in the long run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is completely devoid of merit – although Da Queen might argue that point. Afterwards she told me she would rather have sucked her own eyeballs out with a straw than watch this movie again. I can understand that – the movie commits the cardinal sin of being boring, although those who love shot composition will look at this movie and be fascinated, but a movie is more than a series of shots or at least it should be. A movie needs momentum, a sense of movement from one place or tone to another and this movie has all the inertia of Mount Rushmore. Columbus requires a great deal of patience to appreciate and these days that’s in very short supply. It’s a movie that I would actually encourage viewers to text and talk during which is completely anathema to the movie experience I expect but then again this isn’t a movie that maybe a traditional environment isn’t suitable for.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the shots here are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a movie that is self-absorbed and pretentious. None of the characters are worth caring about. There’s too much extraneous business and too many unnecessary characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vice-President Mike Pence grew up in Columbus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Literally, Right Before Aaron

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

The Book Thief


Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetezer to rehearse their lines with her but he's too tired.

Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetzer to rehearse their lines with her but he’s too tired.

(2013) Drama (20th Century Fox) Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watkins, Roger Allam (voice), Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Carina Wiese, Rainier Bock, Barbara Auer, Kirsten Block, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann, Hildegard Schroedter, Levin Liam, Sandra Nedeleff, Carl Heinz Choynski, Sebastian Hulk, Beata Lehmann. Directed by Brian Percival

The power of words can be transformative. The description of the day can bring someone trapped indoors into the world even for just a few moments. They can transport us to faraway places, transfer us into heroic beings and leave us like we can do anything.

In 1938 Germany, young Liesel (Nelisse) is being taken by train to meet her new foster parents by her mother (Makatsch) who is no longer able to keep her. Unfortunately before they can get there, her younger brother (Lehmann) dies suddenly and is buried by the tracks. At the graveside Liesel finds a book and even though she can neither read nor write, she impulsively takes it with her.

She is brought to a small German town where her new parents are waiting for her – kindly Hans (Rush), an out of work housepainter whose business has suffered because he hasn’t joined the Nazi party, and his harpy-esque wife Rosa (Watkins). She attracts the attention of Rudy Steiner (Liersch), the blonde young boy next door who happens to be the fastest runner in the neighborhood and who idolized Jesse Owens although that’s not exactly looked upon with favor by the Nazi regime.

Liesel’s illiteracy has caught the attention of the kids in school, particularly school bully Franz (Liam). Hans determines to teach Liesel how to read and write and turns their basement into a kind of living dictionary where Liesel writes new words she learns from various books she picks up.

Rosa takes in laundry to help make ends meet and one of her clients is the Buergmeister Hermann (Bock) and his wife Ilsa (Auer). At a book burning, Ilsa had noticed Liesel picking up a slightly charred copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man but tells no-one about it. Instead, she introduces Liesel to her library, a kind of homage to her son who had been killed. Laundry day becomes reading day for Ilsa and Liesel until the Buergmeister discovers what’s going on and puts a stop to it – and Rosa’s laundry.

In the meantime, following the infamous Kristallnacht of November 10, 1938 a young Jew named Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) shows up at Hans and Rosa’s door, needing to be hidden. Max’s father had saved Hans’ life during the First World War at the cost of his own so Hans feels honor-bound to save his son. For two years, Max lives in their basement and becomes fast friends with Liesel.

However as World War II begins and things start to go badly in Germany, things go from bad to worse for Liesel’s new family. While Liesel defiantly “borrows” books from Ilsa’s library, the war begins to turn against the Nazi’s and Hans’ refusal to join the party begins to get him viewed with further suspicion. What can good people do to survive such evil and such horror in their midst?

Based on the award winning bestseller by Marcus Zusak, this is brilliantly realized by Percival, best known for his work on Downton Abbey so he is at least experienced with the period. The German village (filmed in picturesque Gorlitz in Saxony) is bucolic and lovely but the ugliness hidden within is at times shocking. Not everyone in the village is a Nazi nor are most of them heroes; they are simply trying to live their lives as peacefully as possible and turn away when things get ugly, hoping that the ugliness won’t touch them directly. This is human nature, like it or not.

Nelisse, who was impressive in Monsieur Lazhar last year positively shines here. It is not an easy thing for an actress her age to carry a motion picture but Nelisse manages without being overly cute while being completely believable. It doesn’t hurt that she has actors the caliber of Rush and Watson to play off of. Rush, who won an Oscar for Shine may actually be more memorable here. He brings incredible humanity to the role of Hans without making him too good to be true. Hans simply put has a warm heart and a poet’s soul. Watson has a more difficult role with the prickly Rosa and manages to keep Rosa’s heart well buried beneath her gruff exterior. I think she has a good shot at a Best Supporting Actress nomination when the Oscars come around.

Some critics have groused over the narration which is done by Death himself, in the guise of Roger Allam. The book was also so narrated and part of the book’s message requires Death to be involved because Death is a part of life. We are reminded of our mortality in the movie early and often and we are also reminded how precious life is and how easily we can lose it. Those who are complaining about Death’s narration may well have missed the point.

The movie is extremely moving and while there are elements of fantasy involved – not just Death’s narration but a scene in which the bodies of unfortunates caught in a bombing are lined up next to each other, beautifully untouched and looking mostly asleep (whereas if they had been in a bombing raid of the sort depicted they would have been charred and battered beyond recognition) – that’s fantasy. That’s death through a child’s eye (and perhaps through Death’s eye as well) in which death is a peaceful naptime, a transition from wakefulness to slumber.

Chances are the Academy is going to ignore this one – it simply hasn’t generated the buzz that American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave both have (haven’t seen the former and the latter is certainly justified). That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. While this is based on a young adult novel, the subject matter may be a little too much for smaller kids. Do exercise parental caution is determining whether or not your kids are ready to see this. However if you feel they can handle it, it is well worth a family movie outing and is definitely one of the best movies this year.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and occasionally beautiful. Fine performances by Nelisse, Rush and Watson.

REASONS TO STAY: Blend of fantasy and reality doesn’t always work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes that may be too intense for the very impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer of the book this is based on, Marcus Zusak, is actually Australian.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Nebraska

Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

Beautiful Creatures


Now THAT'S a bad case of dandruff!

Now THAT’S a bad case of dandruff!

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

There is a special magic in the South. The mist that gathers on warm summer nights, the cicadas whispering their lovely song, the kudzu climbing up the crumbling antebellum facades of mansions of faded glory, the ghosts that live there dancing in musty ballrooms to forgotten tunes.

Gatlin, South Carolina, dwells in that magic. Located conveniently close to a Civil War battlefield whose glories get re-enacted every 21st of December, Gatlin is in many ways a town that time forgot. Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) would very much like to forget Gatlin and put it in his rearview mirror. His mother died in a car accident not that long ago and his father never leaves his bedroom. Town librarian Amma (Davis) who was also his mom’s best friend looks after him mostly.

As the school year begins, Ethan – a popular athlete who also has a pretty good mind, preferring to read books by Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut rather than play videogames and surf the Internet as most boys his age are prone to doing, finds that his girlfriend Emily (Deutch) – who gave him the summer to grieve for his mom – is no longer as interesting and attractive to him, despite her obvious physical charms. Like Gatlin itself, her mind is small and narrow.

The new girl, however, is a different story. Lena Duchannes (Englert) is the niece of town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons) whose family founded Gatlin. Macon has little to do with the good people of Gatlin and the good people of Gatlin kind of prefer it that way since as the whispers go, the Ravenwood family are a bunch of Satan worshippers and being smack dab in the Bible belt, the citizens of Gatlin are God-fearin’ Christian sorts.

Despite the scorn heaped Lena’s way, Ethan finds her irresistible; she reads the poetry of Charles Bukowski, has a quick wit and a keen intellect and seems uninterested in being popular. Despite her initial resistance, Ethan’s charms and earnest affections begin to break down her misgivings.

But those misgivings are well-placed. Lena really is different. You see she’s a witch – pardon me, they prefer the term casters, as in spell-casters. As her 16th birthday approaches, her soul will be claimed by the dark side or the light. Unlike male casters who choose which team they’re going to play on, female casters have no choice. They’re either a good witch or a bad witch…..er, caster. Glinda the Good in other words couldn’t have been bad if she wanted to.

Macon is anxious for Lena to join Team Goodness. Coaching the other side is Macon’s sister Sarafine (Thompson) who like many dark casters no longer has a corporeal body of her own; she inhabits the body of a Bible thumping church lady who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s best friend Link (Mann). Sarafine also calls upon Lena’s cousin and former best friend Ridley (Rossum) to help sway her to the dark side of the Force….er, casting.

But Sarafine has a secret weapon which she doesn’t even have to threaten with. There’s a curse on the loose invoked 150 years previously during a civil war battle that will tip the scales on the side of the dark no matter what. Lena, with the assistance of Ethan and Amma, must find a way to break the curse or on December 21st – Lena’s birthday coincidentally enough – the world as we know it may very well come to an end. But when they do find a way, it may be more than Lena can bear.

This is based on a young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and there’s no doubt Warners  is hoping to establish a franchise to fill the void left by the departure of the Twilight series to whose army of pre-teen and teenage girls this seems to be aimed squarely at. While the roles are reversed (the male is the human and the female is the one with the powers), the star-crossed quality of the romance will reverberate with those young girls.

Ehrenreich seems a likable enough sort but he’s no Robert Pattinson nor is he a Taylor Lautner. While he’s a handsome young dude, he doesn’t have that brooding wounded quality that young girls flock to and he has a natural advantage – the grief over his mom’s passing would be like catnip to most women who’d be moved to mother him but for some odd reason they really push that aspect of his personality into the background.

My problem is that they choose to make Ethan kind of a stereotype, a cross between Rhett Butler and Larry the Cable Guy. Ethan is far too aww shucks and not enough oh wow. He’s polite and courtly but with a big hunk of redneck served in. The down home country aphorisms don’t really jive with the intellectual posturing; he reads a lot of books but doesn’t seem to be changed by them. Ehrenreich seems a likable actor but this is a part that I’m not sure any actor could salvage.

And that’s a shame because Lena is a lovely role and Englert does a nice job with her. All the brooding that Ethan lacks Lena has in droves. Like most teens, she is aware of changes in her body and she knows those changes are inevitable and irrevocable. What she doesn’t know is how those changes will change her and the thought terrifies her. Englert does a nice job of capturing all those conflicting emotions – her love for Ethan, her fear of hurting him, her terror that she may not be the person she thinks herself to be or the person she wants to be. With a more worthy male role, this would have been a superb film.

Supporting them, Irons and Thompson particularly chew scenery with great gusto. Thompson channels Agnes Moorhead from the old Bewitched television show and is gleeful in her wickedness, although she considers herself honest about who she is. Irons lends gravitas and a bit of jolly good bonhomie in bringing the reclusive but effusive Macon to life.

Viola Davis is a brilliant actress who in the last five years has been as good as any actress in Hollywood, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep. While she gives Amma a maternal quality that blends nicely with her spirited willingness to stand up to Macon and to other casters in the community, Davis adds a dignity that makes the part a bit more memorable than it might have been in lesser hands. Even so, one gets the sense that Davis was hoping for a steady paycheck out of this more than a career enhancer.

LaGravenese chose to go with practical effects more than CGI (although there is some of that here) and while some of the spellcasting resembles films like Dark Shadows and Beetle Juice in tone, there are some pretty nifty moments in terms of the effects.

I can respect a film that wants to appeal to a specific audience and I have no problem with films being aimed at preteen and teenage girls (as well as their moms). I personally have no problem with the Twilight franchise other than I thought that the movies could have been better. In fact this movie is better but will probably not get embraced by that same audience in quite the same way. The rainy splendor of the Pacific Northwest is a lot hipper than the Tennessee Williams-esque gothic forests of the South.

One thing that the Twilight series is more adept at than this film is capturing the high school experience. At least there you get a sense of real kids in school; not so much here. However, I also must admit I like the caster mythology a bit better than that of vampires and werewolves established by Stephenie Meyer.

The box office for this film is unlikely to set studio execs rubberstamping a green light for the sequel, but there may yet be a future for the franchise. The numbers are pretty anemic right now however and unlikely to get any better unless it strikes a chord on the global market. That’s a shame because with the lovely cinematography, some fine performances and a genuinely fine Southern Gothic feel, this has a lot going for it.

REASONS TO GO: Nice Southern Gothic feel. Irons, Thompson and Davis are tremendous.

REASONS TO STAY: A very strange chemistry between the leads doesn’t always work. Turns Gatlin into a Southern-fried Pleasantville.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images for the younger kids, a bit of supernatural violence and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan fumbles while reciting Charles Bukowski’s poetry to Lena was actually actor Alden Ehrenreich flubbing his lines to Alice Englert’s amusement. Director LaGravenese found the scene to be charming and natural and liked the idea of a Romeo getting the lines of poetry wrong for his Juliet so the goofed up scene was left in although in every other take Ehrenreich got his lines right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are truly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: A Good Day to Die Hard

A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material

Footnote (Hearat Shulayim)


Footnote

Like father like son?

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Shlomo Bar Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Alisa Rosen, Alma Zak, Daniel Markowich, Micah Lewensohn, Yuval Scharf, Nevo Kimchi, Albert Iluz, Idit Teperson, Shmuel Shiloh, Michal Koresh, Daria Robichek, Dana Glozman, Jackey Levi. Directed by Joseph Cedar

 

Fathers and sons are often the most competitive of men. Sons spend their entire lives trying not just to live up to their fathers but to exceed them. Fathers are often wary of their sons attempts to do just that and can come to resent the success of their sons, particularly when it overshadows their own.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Bar Aba) is a Talmudic scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is well-known for his meticulous nature and his eye for detail. He spent decades examining various versions of the Talmud in order to explain their changes, coming to a radical solution. However, just before he was to publish his results, a rival academic stumbled onto the same conclusions – not by doing the same methodical research but by finding a note in a copy of a European Talmud from the 16th century that led him to the same place. The rival published first and all of Eliezer’s work went for naught.

His son Uriel (Ashkenazi) has also entered the family business, so to speak. Rather than being a plodder, like his father, Uriel is more of a modern academic, publishing best-selling books and being invited to join prestigious societies and boards, honors denied his father. At one such ceremony, the father watches his son’s big moment with a dour expression, his humiliation furthered by his son’s tribute to him that ends up being a pointed reminder of his failures.

So it is surprising when Eliezer gets a call from the Israeli Minister of Education congratulating him on the receipt of the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the Jewish academic world. This is a validation on Eliezer’s entire career and this belated recognition transforms the dour old man.

Except that it isn’t real. A hasty convening of the board of judges for the prize reveals to Uriel the truth – the wrong Professor Shkolnik got the call. It was not the meticulous old man whose greatest achievement to that point was to have been a footnote in a respected work on Talmudic research by Israel’s most beloved scholar who was to be honored, it was his superstar, best-selling son who was in reality the face of Israeli academia.

But what to do? Taking the prize away from his dad would be the ultimate slap in the face and as a son Uriel couldn’t bear to be the object of his father’s humiliation but to allow his father to receive an undeserved award would be not only an invalidation of the prestigious award itself but also a violation of the very Talmudic scripture that he had spent his life researching.

The heart of the movie is not the Talmud itself, although it figures in peripherally. No, the rivalry between father and son is what Cedar is interested in examining in this Oscar nominated (for Best Foreign Language Film) work. While father and son are cordial, the tension between them is palpable. Uriel considers his father a dinosaur, a man who has spent a lifetime researching the equivalent of finding the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. Eliezer sees his son as the embodiment of everything that has corrupted academics; desiring of fame, laziness in research and hasty in conclusion. His son is a rock star in academics, which the father agrees with and not in a good way.

Cedar enlisted two fine actors for the roles of father and son; although the physical resemblance is barely superficial at best, the two create a relationship that is highly believable. Bar Aba spends most of the movie with a disapproving glower, which any son will tell you is an expression they are used to from their fathers. Ashkenazi is a shaggy bear of a man, far more sociable and articulate than his father, able to take esoteric ideas and make them accessible, a gift that his father neither possesses nor wants. Uriel’s classes are well-attended and as a professor he is encouraging. Eliezer’s classes rarely have more than a handful of students and as a professor he is hyper-critical and demeaning. On the surface, the father seems to be a bitter curmudgeon, the son a nicer, sweeter man.

The genius of this film is that we get beneath the surface. We discover that Grossman (Lewensohn), the chairman of the Israel Prize committee, has a bitter rivalry with Eliezer and has been holding his career back at every turn. We also see that as the film goes on and Eliezer finally feels the vindication he has been seeking for so long that his son becomes bitter for reasons I won’t detail here as to not spoil the film.

The humor here is very low-key and well-choreographed, such as a meeting that takes place in a conference room far too small for the number of people inside it, with jockeying for position whenever someone needs to move. That scene, like most of the others in the movie, carries an innate quirkiness that one associates with academics to begin with; it is almost Wes Anderson-like in scope, with clever graphics and clever dialogue.

However keep in mind that like the subject itself, often the movie can get a little dry. Like Eliezer, the audience needs to have an eye (and ear) for detail and a bit of patience. Still, this is a film that has a fresh viewpoint on a subject as old as mankind itself (and I’m not talking about the Talmud) and gives some insight into the relationship between fathers and sons that perhaps most fathers and sons – not to mention wives and daughters – could benefit from.

REASONS TO GO: The highly competitive nature of the father-son dynamic is highlighted. Low-key hilarity.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of dry in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity and a bit of smoking. There are a few harsh words but mostly the thematic element might be a little bit over the head of most kids..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bar Aba is actually a stage comedian; this is his first film in 20 years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100. The film has been embraced by critics.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums

ACADEMIC LOVERS: Nearly every character in the film is involved with academic research in some way and the movie shows the lifestyle of a university academic from the houses full of books to the recesses of the university libraries to the social life of professors and students at the school.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Headhunters