Young Adult


Young Adult

Mavis prepares for battle.

(2011) Black Comedy (Paramount) Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolf, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, Mary Beth Hurt, Kate Nowlin, Jenny Dare Paulin, Rebecca Hart, Louisa Krause, Elizabeth Ward Land, John Forest. Directed by Jason Reitman

 

We are all of us a product of our upbringing, for better or for worse. We are shaped in ways that aren’t just shaped by our parents and our homes but also our peers, our schools, our experiences. The people we are can be traced in a direct line to the people we used to be in high school, sometimes for the better but not always. Sometimes we’re exactly the same.

Mavis Gary (Theron) is a writer of young adult fiction. To be more accurate, she’s a ghost writer of young adult fiction. She has taken over an immensely popular series of books set in an exclusive prep school and has presided over a successful run which is now coming to an end. In fact, she’s in the midst of writing the final book in the series.

Mavis lives in the big city – Minneapolis, not New York – but originally hails from a small town in Minnesota called Mercury. She fled the small town environs the first chance she got and she has no real desire to return – in fact, she hasn’t been home in years.

However all that changes when she gets a notice that her ex in Mercury – Buddy Slade (Wilson) – has just become a daddy. He has married Beth (Reaser), a classmate of theirs while Mavis has been married and divorced and now goes on a series of dates that end up in unfulfilling sex after a fair amount of liquid courage has been consumed. She gets it in her head that Buddy is trapped in a marriage that is sapping his soul and that she needs to go to Mercury and rescue him.

With her poor neglected dog in tow, she drives to the despised Mercury. While there she runs into Matt Freehauf (Oswalt) whose locker used to adjoin hers. She doesn’t really remember him until he brings out that he was the victim of a hate crime – a group of jocks who believed he was gay brutally beat him, shattering his leg and mangling his penis. It was big news…up until the moment the media found out that he wasn’t gay and so they lost interest. Apparently nobody cared that a short fat kid got the crap kicked out of him.

Matt and Mavis seem to be kindred spirits in  a way; although Mavis treats Matt like a toad, she respects that he tells her what he thinks and doesn’t kiss butt. For his part he figures out he has no shot with her anyway so he can afford to be direct.

He pleads with her that Buddy is happily married and in love with being a dad but Mavis is having none of it. She blows into town with all the finesse of cancer and inspiring twice the joy at her arrival. Most of the townspeople look a bit askance at her; she was the beautiful girl who left for the big city and made good – why the hell would she come back and ruin everything? But come back she does and ruin everything she tries to do.

Theron gives a terrific performance here. Mavis is distinctly unlikable and possibly even a little psychotic. She is self-obsessed to the point of mania and really doesn’t have a lot of empathy which you can read as “any.” Still, she manages to create a character that you can follow without liking, which is a neat trick that you can thank not only Theron but Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the latter two who previously teamed on Juno.

Her chemistry with Oswalt is surprising. They are perhaps the ultimate of odd couples, but they do have a bond – the misfit who has been literally battered by life and the prom queen whose life has passed her by and whom, she suspects, happiness has also passed her by. Matt is positive that happiness has passed him by and he fills his hours with creating his own mash-up action figures and distilling his own bourbon, a hobby that meets with Mavis’ approval.

The problem here is that it’s sold as something of a black comedy but the awkward moments outnumber the funny ones. I guess my comedic sense is a bit too stone age for modern comedy but just creating a painfully awkward moment isn’t really enough to get me chuckling. Theron does a great job as Mavis but there are times you really want to punch her in the face.

I like that the ending didn’t take the easy way out with a typical Hollywood comeuppance. I also like that the movie is intelligently written, which is a certain box office kiss of death. Still in all, I can recommend the movie not without reservations but nonetheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Theron and Oswalt do stellar work. Nifty ending that isn’t too cliché.

REASONS TO STAY: As comedies go, not really funny. Mavis is a bit too unlikable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mavis drives a Mini-Cooper in the movie. Theron also drove a Mini-Cooper in the movies once before, for The Italian Job.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d guess this works just as well at home as it does at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

The Dead Girl


The Dead Girl

The late Brittany Murphy is about to become The Dead Girl.

(2006) Mystery (First Look) Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Toni Collette, Bruce Davison, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Searcy, Mary Steenburgen, Kerry Washington. Directed by Karen Moncrieff

Every so often we experience something profound; it changes our point of view and might well change our lives completely. Not all of these experiences are pleasant. Some, in fact can be grisly and ugly. That is simply the nature of life; not all of it is pretty.

Arden (Collette) discovers a badly beaten and mutilated body of a young woman while out jogging. She calls the police and becomes a bit of a local celebrity which gets the notice of Rudy (Ribisi), a bagboy at her local grocery who asks her out. Arden lives with her mom (Laurie) who is a bit of a sadistic monster, forcing her daughter to wait on her hand and foot and generally degrading and belittling her.

Leah (Byrne), a graduate forensics student, finds out about the body on the news and thinks it might be her long-missing sister. Her mother (Steenburgen) urges Leah to let go and move on but Leah is convinced it’s the missing girl. However, after a close medical examination it turns out that Leah is mistaken.

In the meantime Ruth (Hurt), a devout Christian, suspects that her husband Carl (Searcy) is sleeping with another woman. She sets about finding proof of his infidelity and discovers instead evidence that her husband might be a serial rapist and murderer. She is torn between her loyalty to her husband and telling the police what she’s found.

The dead girl is identified as Krista Kutcher (Murphy) and her devastated mom (Harden), from whom Krista had run away from years back, tries to pick up the pieces, visiting her roommate (Washington) to find out more about the daughter she never knew – and to meet the granddaughter she never knew she had.

Finally, we see the last day of Krista, her relationship with her pimp boyfriend (Brolin) and the love she has for her daughter and the determination that she doesn’t repeat her past mistakes. We also discover what led her to the fateful encounter with the man who would leave her in that field for Arden to discover.

The story is told in a series of five vignettes, each concerned with a specific woman and how she is affected by the discovery of the dead body, even indirectly (as with Ruth). Moncrieff who attracted some critic love with her feature debut Blue Car resists the temptation to interweave the vignettes and instead tells them consecutively, back to back to back to back to back, letting each story play out to its conclusion and leaving us to wonder about the dead girl until the final tale.

She cast some very strong actresses here starting with the late Murphy, who would die tragically young only three years after making this. She makes Krista a strong woman but one who has allowed her emotions to override her sense time after time. She’s a little unstable and that has led to her girl being raised by others. Although we know in advance what fate is to befall her, she is not portrayed so much as a victim here as much as someone who refuses to be one any longer.

Harden also gets kudos as the mom who alienated her daughter to the point where she ran away, now realizing too late she can never make things right between them. It’s a powerful portrayal and while there is much pathos to it, Harden is never manipulative in the role, preferring to make her character try to understand her daughter rather than grieve nonstop over her.

Some of the vignettes work better than others (the first two are less effective than the last three) but all of them work as a whole. There is a certain squalor here – this isn’t a pretty picture as mentioned earlier – and a dark undertone that is relentless throughout. This isn’t a happy tale, although there are moments where characters experience some kind of enlightenment.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch. It hits hard on an emotional level, aided and abetted by strong performances throughout (including the ones highlighted). It is definitely a woman’s movie, about how women are affected by the death of a sister, a daughter, a stranger. It also illustrates how vulnerable women are in a world where men will absolutely take what they want regardless of consequence, both to themselves and to the woman involved.

WHY RENT THIS: Very well-acted and the stories resolve together nicely. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like all of these sorts of anthology films, not every vignette works.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language, some nudity and sexuality and some images that are a bit grisly and disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Dead Girl’s last name is Kutcher. Actress Brittany Murphy dated Ashton Kutcher for a time after both starred in the movie Just Married.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $905,291 on an unreported production budget; it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the movie lost money during its brief theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Hatchet II

Bringing Out the Dead


Bringing Out the Dead

Nicolas Cage performs triage on his career.

(1999) Drama (Paramount) Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony, Mary Beth Hurt, Cliff Curtis, Nestor Serrano, Aida Turturro, Sonja Sohn, Cynthia Roman, Afemo Omilami. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. OK, that’s true for a lot of people – Scorsese is quite frankly one of the most accomplished directors ever. He knows the streets of New York City like nobody else. Whereas Woody Allen is uptown Manhattan, Scorsese is the lower Bronx. He can take murderers and junkies and make them compelling.

Bringing Out the Dead is about a burned-out New York EMS technician named Frank (Cage), who during the course of a hot, humid weekend, hopes to save a life and somehow find redemption from the ghosts that haunt him, particularly one named Rose, a street urchin who died while under his care.

During the first night, he and his larger-than-life partner (Goodman) haul in a coronary patient barely clinging to life. Frank finds himself drawn to the estranged daughter (Arquette) of the dying man, an oddly vulnerable woman with many complex layers. As the weekend progresses, Frank encounters junkies, drunks, gang bangers, victims, drug dealers, predators and criminals of all sorts.

Frank longs to be put out of his misery and tries his very best to get fired, turning to alcohol as the only way to ease his pain. Over the course of the weekend, he rides with a variety of partners, including the Bible-thumping lady-killer Marcus (Rhames) and on the final night, his psychotic ex-partner (Sizemore). He drifts through the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, struggling to avoid drowning himself.

Scorsese’s visual style carries the movie, using light and shadow to delineate Frank’s fall from grace and his attempt to rise above. Nobody uses motion and color like Scorsese, and he uses it well here.

Unfortunately, Paul Schrader’s script (Schrader and Scorsese previously collaborated on Taxi Driver) is scattershot, ill-plotted and occasionally pointless. I suppose the story is meant to reflect the pointlessness of life in the underbelly of a city where death and despair are constant companions. However, exorcising our demons is not just a matter of forgiveness; it requires faith and good timing too. When Frank encounters Rose for the last time, I found myself screaming at the screen “I get it, I get it already!!!!!!”

Cage was at a point in his career when he made this where he was still respected as an actor although he seems to be the butt of many late night talk show host jokes these days. His eyes here are sad, world-weary and expressive; it wasn’t his best performance ever but it might well make his all-time top ten. He gets to work off of a variety of foils for whom Sizemore and Goodman seem to be the most memorable. Arquette is luminous as Cage’s love interest.

Frank looks at the world through desperate eyes, seeking some kind of miracle in the muck. That he finds saintliness amid the squalor is a testament to his faith. That I watched the movie to its conclusion is a testament of my faith in Scorsese. Sadly, my faith was unrewarded, and I have to tell you that if you need a fix of Scorsese, go rent Casino, Goodfellas or The Departed instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Martin Scorsese – that should be enough. One of Cage’s best all-time performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unsatisfying and often meandering plot line serves to emphasize the story’s points a little too much.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, enough bad language to make anybody blush and a goodly amout of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There are two dispatchers heard in the movie, one male and one female. The male dispatcher’s voice is Scorsese; the female’s is rapper Queen Latifah, who would later go on to fame as an actress in her own right. This is also the last movie to be released on laserdisc.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.8M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a commercial flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Creature