It’s rarely a good idea to walk into a film with preconceived notions, but it’s rarely something a person can help unless they’re able to go completely blind. But, unless you’re at a festival, it’s hard to do that these days given the advertising saturation film culture. Even if you’re not intentionally surrounding yourself with it, chances are, it’ll still be in the background. So, that being said, I walked into If I Stay, a YA weepy movie based on a YA weepy novel by Gayle Forman, with average to low expectations. I thought, At worst, it’ll be forgettable. And somehow, I was so, so wrong.
In a feeble effort to make this the one stop place for my writing, I’ve come here to update you on some of my stuffs.
Firstly, I’ve been writing a lot about my new favorite filmmaker Xavier Dolan of late.
Over at IndieWire’s /Bent Blog, I wrote about the roles of mothers in his films.
The pet preoccupation of young Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan is not, at first glance, particularly interesting. Mothers. Alright, someone says, he has mommy issues. But the issue runs far deeper than writing it off so dismissively. For Dolan, as a queer filmmaker, uses his experience, position, and talent to explore mothers with atypical approaches. The divide between a mother and their queer child is also nothing particularly new, but, for at least I Killed My Mother and Laurence Anyways, his maternal characters transcend the roles given to them to become much more.
Over at Movie Mezzanine, I examine obsessive love in Dolan’s Heartbeats via Dalida’s “Bang Bang” and The Knife’s “Pass This On”.
It’s intoxicating. It has the power to the make someone do things out of the ordinary. It augments and manipulates the experience of living. Deep infatuation. Few films are able to pin that experience so accurately as Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats, a hyper stylistic, elegant piece of filmmaking about two friends who fall in “love” with the same guy. Dolan is able to articulate the spellbinding effect that infatuation has on the two characters through the use of two songs, “Bang Bang”, describing the competition between Francis and Marie, and “Pass This On”, depicting the obsessive nature of their infatuation. Carefully utilized in the film and played nearly consecutively, Dolan nails what it’s like to be obsessively enamored.
And recently, I just had the fortune to see Dolan’s fourth film, Tom at the Farm. And I’m seeing it again this week, because that’s how I roll. And he’ll be there in person. (Yes, I realize I’m linking to a post that was already on this blog, but, I thought it made sense regardless.)
It’s hard to describe 25 year old Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner Xavier Dolan as anything but a wunderkind, even if you dislike his work. The rate of output, for one, is impressive, but the products themselves are astonishing. But what happens when an art house enfant terrible steps away from his comfort zone to deliver a straight (or, rather, queer) psychological thriller? Certainly one of the most outstanding, heart racing experiences I’ve had at the theater in ages.
I’ve also been doing other work, such as…
At IndieWire’s /Bent Blog, I watched queer romcoms and came up with the best and the worst.
Queer films often get ghettoized to a point where if you aren’t actively looking for them, you probably won’t see them in the spotlight, not unlike looking for an original cast recording of Company. You have your once in a while bursts of recognition, like Brokeback Mountain or Milk, but queer romantic comedies specifically almost never see the light of day outside of either your indie theater, your LGBT film festival, the Gay and Lesbian section on Netflix, or that unfortunate friend who actively decided to buy Were the World Mine on DVD. But why is it that way, beyond the obvious reasons of heteronormativity in mainstream media? So, I took it upon myself to plop onto my bed with my tub of ice cream, my stone cold bitch face, and my Netflix account to explore all that could technically qualify as a queer romantic comedy on Netflix, coming up with a personal 5 best, and a personal five worst.
Will be back later to add more stuff I’ve written lately.
I watched Ryan Murphy’s Glee for too long. Realistically, it was probably for about three and a half seasons. One of their most problematic characters was their most charismatic: Kurt Hummel, the all caps GAY character in the ensemble was played with snark and what could only be some autobiographical pain by Chris Colfer. (He sadly is, was, and always will be a lousy stereotype incapable of carrying a dramatic story line that doesn’t have to do with him being gay.) Colfer has, in recent “years”, added writer and screenwriter to his resume, with the release of a children’s fantasy book and the release of the film Struck by Lightning. What could Colfer possibly add to the “angsty, sarcastic, alienated teens desperate to get out of high school” sub-genre? Not much, really.
Struck by Lightning concerns the life of Clover, California resident (against his will, no doubt) Carson Phillips as he blackmails his way into being admitted to Northwestern University, by way of the creation of a school literary magazine. Meanwhile, his mother (Alison Janney) is falling apart, his grandmother is suffering from dementia, and the father who abandoned him (Dermot Mulroney) is about to get married to a lovely young pharmacist (January Jones). And no one really wants to be a part of his club anyways.
A lot of it feels very autobiographical, in a slightly Woody Allen-esque sense (and Allen would be quick to deny any of his work is based on his life). Colfer grew up in a small town, Clovis, California; he was president of the Writing Club, which no one went to (much like in the film); and he was basically an outsider. If he was bullied in high school, he clearly has some words to say to them, manifested in the form of bitter, sardonic, slightly pious, acerbic Carson.
In essence, the story is fairly conventional. But I suppose you can say that Colfer’s voice is kind of unique. The biting one liners are often clever, but there’s so much resentment underneath the sarcasm that it does a mediocre job walking the fine line between clever and just mean spirited. Years ago, an acquaintance of mine had an AOL scree name “ClevernessofMe”, and if Carson were to have a Twitter handle, it would probably be that. So much of the humor in the film is funny, and Colfer’s delivery is spot on, but it doesn’t translate as well as it should on screen. When insulting the low-IQ peers around him, it sounds like that these zingers would be better fit to an essay or even a blog. It’s no wonder why people dislike him or are totally apathetic about his club or literary magazine.
For, you see, it’s hard to gain sympathy from the audience when you are so judgment and self-righteous. Yes, there is some mild character development in the film, but very little of it concerns Carson’s own issues of his holier than thou attitude. Occasionally the jokes strain very hard to footing, which feels jarring. Perfectly enjoyable one liners, but at times, they seem like filler or that you can tell Colfer is trying very hard to be sardonic. Most of the time it works, but it also often works in a very self-aware way, which becomes an issue. It becomes irritating after a while and it ends up making his character hard to root for because he spends so much time zinging and not feeling.
That isn’t to say there isn’t emotion in the film. There is. And it is here where the film falls into the more conventional areas. Carson has dreams of becoming the editor of the New Yorker and contributing to a plethora of various reputable periodicals. That drive and desire to attain his dreams, and to get out of the small town that he wants nothing to do with, pretty much makes up the plot of a majority of teen films. The journalistic aspirations don’t make Caron or his story different, nor does the smarminess. We’ve seen that in anything from Easy A to Mean Girls, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to any number of John Hughes films. It would not be an issue if the film did not bother to try to excavate new ground or tread the old ground like it was new, but it does, and does so without attempting to seem different. It just files along with the tropes of every other high school movie without bothering to standout.
Alison Janney is winning, though, as Caron’s mother. Her performance is, at least. The characterization, however, is problematic. As problematic as her son’s. Janney has always been solid in terms of her comic timing. She’s a sharp, smart actress, and she inhabits the world weary mother role extremely well, so no points off for her. Colfer’s characterization of her is odd though, and as a family unit, they’re not so much dysfunctional as they are a terrible example of a family unit in film. Colfer tries to balance the damaged and hurt Sheryl with the smart, “I know about this world” Sheryl, but it makes for an uneven characterization. It is hinted at that she might be an alcoholic with depression and anxiety issues. We get a couple glimpses at these manifestations, but they are, for the most part, played for laughs. Yet, Colfer feels the need to make her character as self-righteous as her son. Both of them butt heads continually throughout the film (as any mother/son pairing in real life), but we only see Carson being a smartass without seeing how “terrible” his mother is. We are never really given a reason why Caron is as cynical as he is in terms of his relationship with his mother. At the same time, Colfer tries to humanize her not by showing her actual struggles but through exposition as she talks with a doctor about abandonment and her various prescriptions. Instead of giving more insight into that, she’s seen warning her son and the young pharmacist about the disappointments in life. She knows better, just like her son.
Putting the two together is, thus, very strange and unsatisfying. What Colfer has written is two characters that are at once broken and self-loathing, but deeply narcissistic (especially in Carson’s case). It is probably their dignity that they don’t want to lose, but that nevertheless makes for bad writing. It makes it so that there’s lack of emotional closure at the end of the film for Sheryl’s arc, and that makes the ending particularly painful.
But what Colfer does get right is the writing process. I can identify with Carson’s attitude, but more than that, I can identify with how Colfer describes writing. Somewhat sappily, it’s described as being “struck by lightning”; that satisfaction and rapid fire ability to produce something that’s in your head and put it on the page (or screen). Colfer is actually able to make that feel as real as anything in the film. For a character whose agenda is ostensibly to piss everyone else with his own humor, he does a magnificent job in inspiring everyone. But, before too long, it becomes overly sentimental. But those few, brief moments of legitimate greatness in the film, when he talks about writing, those are the best Colfer might ever produce.
However, as a “coming-of-age” film, it doesn’t quite work. Self-realization comes at the end of the film, but at what expense. Carson does very little to truly develop beyond his own shortsighted sour attitude. Yes, he’s “learned” something, but the “lesson” feels both heavy handed and yet too insubstantial to warrant its heavy handedness. Even when he is given the chance to make the leap into becoming a person who can be both independent as well as aware of other people’s needs, Carson regresses into being tart and affecting. That Carson and the rest of his peers (who barely develop too) and his mother are left in a fairly stagnant state and, as aforementioned, without the needed emotional closure that this film would inherently need to end it.
At its best, Colfer channels his resentment into clever one liners, but at its worst, the film comes off as self-righteous, self-aware, mean spirited, depressing, and a little conventional. Colfer is funny, sometimes too funny for his own good, and a lot of it would probably make a better novella than a feature length film. Colfer’s problems are less narrative based and primarily character based, essentially robbing his two most important characters of the necessary nuance. But Colfer, good at dialogue, pinpoints the appeal of writing, and on that, he deserves some credit. It does very little to add to the teen genre, but perhaps Colfer might be back with something better in a couple years. Once all that bitterness and sanctimoniousness has subsided, we’ll be as struck with his work as he is.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teenager who is fairly introverted will go through a lengthy awkward phase when transitioning from middle school to high school, and thus must be in want of some friends. From personal experience, the transition is hardly easy, but for Charlie in the novel and film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was even worse. Written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999, I fell in love with the young adult novel, told in a delicate epistolary form, in my freshman year of high school and a friend told me the protagonist reminded her of me. Its author went on to write the screenplay and direct the feature film adaptation, and what he presents is a satisfying adaptation that is nuanced enough to make a difference in the plethora of teen films, changing the story a little bit. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a different teen film because of its refreshing approach to the pains of adolescence.
Perks tells the story of a young man who enters his freshman year of high school and has, well, a lot to deal with. Charlie (Logan Lerman) has spent some time in a mental institution after his best friend committed suicide, and his introverted nature makes the transition far harder. He stands by the side and observes. He “doesn’t think anybody noticed” him. The focus here is not finding him the perfect girlfriend, but finding him a perfect band of misfits; people who will be there for him. Because, unlike the myriad of films in the teen canon, high school is not all about finding the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend: it’s about finding the people who help you find who you are. Perks, as trite as it can be, presents this very aspect of learning well.
As someone who was deeply attached to the novel, I, of course, was hesitant as to the film adaptation’s treatment of the material, both from a standpoint in terms of accuracy as well as to framework and content. So, I was naturally surprised to learn that the man behind the novel wrote and directed the film. If he’s happy with this, then it will be his vision. But rather than spend my time comparing the book and the film constantly, I’ll only go over a few things and their translation onto the screen.
Part of the uniqueness of the book, I suppose, is its epistolary format, with Charlie writing to someone we never meet. This is retained to some extent as the initial framework, but, more importantly, the narration is not a constant. This gives the film a slightly more objective look than the book, but completely. Much of the film’s events and experiences are still presented subjectively, one particular scene almost reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
One of the highlights of the films is its occasional subtlety. Although the film may at times feel heavy handed, which may partly be responsible due to both the general “genre” the film falls in as well as the current atmosphere amongst teenagers. The novel handled certain questionable and dramatic subject matter and content very well, and its translation to the screen often thrives fluidly. The issues that Charlie has dealt with, as well as the subject of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his sexuality, are handled almost in an elegant manner. Charlie’s problems are never dressed so directly that they seem redundant, and Patrick is never overtly mentioned as gay. Both character are as they are.
That said, some of the subtlety, as brisk and well allocated as it may be, over compensates for itself in certain moments. Character development is sometimes sacrificed at trying to either be subtle or completely avoid subjects. Thus, for novel loyalists, certain scenes involving Charlie and Patrick are mentioned one moment, but never exactly elaborated upon. It is almost as if the thought was incomplete. These mistakes seem somewhat infantile, almost as much as some of the heavy handedness of certain scenes, but I suppose they are forgivable for a first time director.
The choices made, though, manage to be wise. The cinematography in the film, in particular, is one of the small beauties of the film. Soft focus and soft lighting make the film look almost misty and romantic, and fits at moments because the image will become as misty as your eyes. This small beauty of the film manages to accentuate much of the emotion in the film, perhaps setting it apart from many teen films. There is, therefore, equal balance and focus on the look of the film (which is distinctly 1990s) and the story of the film.
That said, the way the film portrays its story is, for the most part, successful. Aside from the strides of too much subtlety or too much heavy handedness (You have to admit that Chbosky’s dialogue hasn’t exactly aged well), the film nicely takes a different route regarding adolescent angst. There is far more reliance on Charlie being able to find a support system in the form of honest to God, true friends. His romantic fixation on Sam (Emma Watson) or with anyone else is not nearly as important as his ability to make friends with people.
The performances are one of the best things the film has to offer, with Lerman, Watson, and Miller giving extraordinary performances. Lerman presents himself as awkward and self-conscious without giving way to becoming Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg. There’s a beautiful vulnerability and lucidity that Lerman gives that makes him Charlie. More than I could have imagined (I was a skeptic early on), Lerman renders one of the best performances in this kind of film, looking like a more sympathetic Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. And in a lot of ways, the best parts of the film owe a lot to Francois Truffaut’s angsty masterpiece. It may be the 400 Blows for “my generation” (as much as I hate using that phrase). Emma Watson continues to expand her repertoire as Sam, also providing a lovely vulnerability. (A note on her accent: It’s convincing and merely sounds like she’s been living in the United States for a few years.) Everyone is lauding Miller for his role, and, sure, he was great. I was not as mesmerized as everyone else (I was more satisfied with Lerman’s performance), but Miller was undoubtedly good.
Stephen Chbosky’s successful young adult novel translates to the screen as a successful teen film. Its uniqueness in approach, concentrating on the protagonist’s issues with acquiring a support system, and does so well enough that it deserves to sit next to any John Hughes film on the teen canon. Its refined look and subtlety make it, in some respects, a Truffaut-esque film (perhaps similar to the also lovely, if underseen Submarine). What Perks does best is simply be itself, much like its characters. Subtle and sweeping, Perks observes the innocuous anomalies in teen life without to succumbing to too much trite material. To be completely reductive and a little corny, somewhat like the film, Perks works.
In all honesty, I Am Number Four should have been a made for television movie that would end up airing on the Disney channel. But, because Michael bay enjoys explosions and big budget effects, this one got sent to the theaters. This dry, forgettable, hopeless piece of nothingness is barely enough to stay in my memory only a day after having watched it. It was that unexciting.
As bad as that sounds, I Am Number Four isn’t abhorrent. It isn’t even disgustingly bad. It was just so unnoticeable and common and conventional, it’s not worth your time to hate it. Martian boy John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) must run from new place to new place much like someone in the Witness Protection Program. And, in alien terms, that’s exactly what he’s in. Part of a secret clan called “the Nine”; a gang of villains called the “Mogdaloriens” are hunting down the remaining aliens one by one, and in numerical order. And John Smith must go by wonderfully creative aliases to get by. Did I bore you yet?
Much of the problems that this movie presents is that, not only is it deathly conventional, but it takes itself way too seriously. Normally, coming from a formulaic Disney movie, we can count on it being so un-serious that it weighs the movie down. This works conversely here. Every line is strained and brainless and sounds so deeply obnoxious that one can’t help but cringe. And yet, everything seems halfhearted at the same time. It’s an overall maddening experience.
Pettyfer can’t act and his main purpose seems to be “just stand there and look pretty”, which he does excellently, as evidenced by his place on my man crush list, despite his inability to act. Dianna Agron is sweet and I suppose one of the few ultimately tolerable things about the movie. She plays Sarah, the troublemaking photographer of Paradise High. Her Glee goodie goodie preps her excellently for this role, and, in essence, she doesn’t really have to strain for much else in either situation. Teresa Palmer has a very underwritten role as Number 6, and her job is also “just stand there and look pretty”, or rather, “bad ass”. While she has some kick ass action sequences, she doesn’t get much else, except for scenes when she’s just brooding. Timothy Olyphant (FX’s Justified) is Henri, basically Number 4’s bodyguard, though he assumes the role of the father. He’s fine, but as with the rest of the cast, nothing to really write about. There is no urgency or emotion or believability in these role, and even when the actors strain to get emotion, they do so unsuccessfully.
Michael Bay, who seems to me to be evil incarnate, produced this lousy movie. So did, strangely enough, Steven Spielberg. One usually depends on names like Spielberg to bring them top notch movies, but in this case, this is a huge letdown. It’s so forgettable, I’m having trouble mustering enough disdain for it. It was just so unoriginal and so boring. There’s a line in Casablanca where Peter Lorre asks Humphrey Bogart, “You despise me, don’t you?” Bogart replies fittingly, “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.” The same goes for this movie; if I gave it any thought, I would probably despise it.