Young and Restless: Young Adult

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In high school, you have your usual archetypes that have been forever parodied in movies on TV and in John Hughes films. Everyone hopes, however, that by the time you get to college and then get out of college, everyone else will have outgrown those labels and grown up, become their own person, live in the present, and make something of themselves. For some people, growing out of the adolescent state of mind and high school mentality is not as easy as it looks. And it is not nearly as funny as it seems to be when slackers are seen on TV. Encountering the person who still lives in the past and has never grown up is actually kind of dark and depressing. Such an encounter has been dramatized brilliantly by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman in the film Young Adult. Enter woman-child Mavis Gary, played with pathos by Charlize Theron, a woman who is damaged, living in the past, and so fascinatingly layered, she becomes one of the most cleverly created characters of 2011 and one of the best performances of last year.

Mavis was the most popular girl in her school, epitomizing that horribly affecting high school archetype. She knows the lifestyle so well; she is able to manifest it through the characters she writes in the young adult book series she ghostwrites. At one point in this story, she probably was at the peak of success, with a husband and a good job, retaining her good looks, and on a sad note, still retaining the persona of her high school self. Now, she is divorced, her series is ending, and she gets notification that her high school sweet heart just had a baby. Unsatisfied with the one night stands, the constant drinking, and the state of her life in general, she heads back to her old stomping grounds to win her boyfriend back. Yeah, even though he is happily married with a newborn. On the way, she picks up a strange partner, though in comparison the voice of reason. Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the victim of a high school hate crime, seems to be just as lost in the past as she is, but at least he is, to an extent more logical. Nevertheless, the two make an interesting team, as he tries to stop her from sabotaging her ex-boyfriend’s marriage.

The success of the film is reliant on three factors: the screenwriting, the directing, and the performances. Diablo Cody owns this film as much as Charlize Theron does, if not more so. Here, Cody has developed fully fleshed out characters and dark, snarky dialogue. Dropping the jargon from Juno, she goes for “just as lyrical” without all the slang. If anything, it proves to be biting and stinging at every syllable. Her humor walks the line of cringe-worthy awkward and flat out hysterical, always balancing the two in the appropriate scenes, without needing to feel desperate. The darkness of the film is accentuated by the dialogue, especially for that of Mavis, whose every line is incredibly narcissistic and immature.

Charlize Theron takes the role and makes it one of the most memorable dark-comedic performances, or just performances, in recent memory. The woman spits fire. Theron is able to completely embody the character that Cody has created and not make forceful changes to it. She is able to make it her own, but not too much, not to the extent where it does not feel like Cody’s character anymore. It is, in essence, a beautiful collaboration. Theron imbues her character with extreme narcissism and un-likability, almost a complete level of insufferableness. But I say that as a compliment. Mavis is barely a sympathetic character in any way at all, as every action she takes is in her own interest. She sees no one else as really worthy of thought, the two exceptions being Matt and her ex, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). It is a testament to both Theron and Cody that they make the protagonist someone whom you do not actually root for or are sympathetic towards, but still make the character fascinating and the film engrossing. Cody writes the character of an emotionally stunted individual, and Theron brings it to life effortlessly. There seems to be a complete emotional change in Theron to channel this kind of wicked character. With that, Theron rings great comedic timing and a sarcastic sensibility to Mavis. Otherwise, Mavis would just be the cold hearted bitch she was in high school. Theron does not try to make the character too fragile, otherwise that would be too predictable. Instead, with she presents Mavis as the hard, superficial shell she always has been. And Theron plays this role damn well, without hesitance or second-thoughts.

That Mavis still lives in her high school years makes the fact that she manifests the life she wish she were still living through the characters in her steadily failing young adult book series. Unable to attain the man she wants, the friends she wished she had, and the popularity that once surrounded her, writing those things is easy (even if it means she has adhere to a “character bible”).  The horrible irony that surrounds Mavis’ life is only ironic to us because it is what she wished she had. In reality, this fate in not entirely surprising. The way she approaches it, with complete insanity and apparently without much thought, is what moves the story and adds to the dark humor of the film. Without this irony, the film would fall flat and be just another story about just another ne’er-do-well chasing after nostalgia.

Patton Oswalt demonstrates some dramatic range here, something that seemed hard to do on his recurring role on the television sitcom The King of Queens. Having nearly given up on life, he seems to be in limbo: wallowing in the self-pity he felt when being assaulted in high school and yet realizing that he is a failure when he should be out in the real world. The jarring mentality is refreshing from a character standpoint, something one does not see that often in film. He would want nothing more than to be on his own, but disabled by the attack, he is reliant on others and still has yet to leave the hobunk town that Mavis wanted so much to escape from. It may also be the first time I have seen a “man-child” character (who is almost as emotionally stunted as Mavis herself) who is not a horrible pig that makes the popular crass jokes that infect much of the comedies of the last decade. The thing is, Matt is worse off than Mavis. While Mavis’ life is sad, it still seems to be better than most of those in her small town, although she lacks the “happiness factor”. Matt is physically stunted, as well as emotionally, and slumped in a deep depression that makes it so when he is alone, he regresses into the same deluded and immature state as Mavis. However, like Mavis, the film does not make you sympathize them or even pity them. Observing them seems to be fine for the filmmakers. (I admit fully and completely that Cody, Oswalt, and Theron were robbed of Oscar nods this year.)

The directing here is pleasantly restrained, as it was with Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. His second collaboration with Diablo Cody, Jason Reitman lets the screenplay tell the story, but still adds his flavor here and there. His visual style is evident through the bleak tone in color palette, but his directorial style takes a slight change in how he presents the characters on the screen. In his previous films, he has made seriously unlikable characters into likeable ones by the end of the film. While this is equally Cody’s doing, Reitman refuses to redeem these pathetic people and simply present them as they are, flaws and all. Kind of brave in an industry where there has to be some semblance of a happy ending or some redeemable factor. Reitman lets the characters continue their perpetual circle of unhappiness and immaturity.

There are some people who grow up, and then there are those who simply do not. You cannot help but pity them a little, but when you meet Mavis Gary, you will think for a moment, “No wonder why her life sucks.” Schadenfreude aside, Reitman, Cody, Theron, and Oswalt make a passed-out-from-intoxication black comedy into something that shines. Its characters are meticulously constructed by Cody, acutely performed by Theron and Oswalt, and scathing portrayed on the screen by Reitman. In the end, in a strange way, you can’t help but love to hate these people. So, they’re damaged. So, they’re emotionally stunted. Growing up is hard to do, especially for these two.

Grade: A

(Author’s Note: I almost called this review “Another Kind of Monster“, but I didn’t really think it was fair calling Mavis a monster. Just an emotionally stunted bitch.)

2012 in Film: #61 – 10 Things I Hate About You

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2012 in Film: #61

10 Things I Hate About You (1999) | Directed by Gil Junger

Grade: A

Thoughts: Oh, how I love a good teen comedy. From Mean Girls to Easy A and of course the John Hughes of the 1980’s, they just have a certain wit about that that reminds me, strangely, of screwball comedies. The fast paced dialogue and merciless repartee between characters in this film is perfectly reminiscent of Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story. But this, here, is an update of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are awesome, and it’s just a sheer delight to watch.

Seems Like Old Times: “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally…”

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Picture it: two adults, male and female, walking around in a book store discussing the importance of death and misery in life. They seem like smart, well-adjusted people. Now picture this: two adults, again male and female, driving from Chicago to New York and discussing whether men and women can just be friends. These two mildly philosophical conversations come from two very different films, despite the former often being cited as inspiration for the latter. The two films in question are Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, two films that both take place in New York and both explore the nuances within relationships.

As often as When Harry Met Sally is said to be a rather obvious homage to Woody Allen’s “first mature film”, and to some extent Annie Hall’s companion Manhattan, the two films seem too different to really be considered similar at all.

Annie Hall’s anxiety ridden relationship between comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and the tennis playing/amateur photographer/night club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) is far more realistic in the way it explores the trials and tribulations of dealing with an adult relationship. Allen seems to make it obvious that as good as Singer and Hall are together, they aren’t meant for each other. They’re both pretty emotionally stunted as people, neither of them having fully matured, as adults sometimes do (or don’t). It is an adult relationship, one that’s seen in a very non-linear fashion. Instead of seeing the direct development of the relationship, we get thrown into the middle of it, almost as if Allen expects us to know who these people are. This could be very risky, but instead it pays off. While we may not be as terribly cynical or anxious as the pair are, Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are us. It’s the kind of relationship any adult can identify with. Those same kinds of fights and arguments and wishes for perfection have all been brought up and dealt with, and Allen brings up these topics with knowledge and insight.

When Harry Met Sally…, which was written by Nora Ephron, portrays a different kind of relationship. We have the development from stranger to friend to best friends to lovers to strangers to people in love. It’s kind of a long cycle, and it remains relatively realistic…except when you get to the sex. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) isn’t as anxious as Singer, but he seems just as deadpan and pessimistic (just consider his thoughts on death), and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) is a different kind of high maintenance compared to Hall. Harry and Sally continually meet by chance and then, after several years, become best friends. Up to here, the relationship resembles many a male-female friendship you see. But when the tow have sex and they stop talking, it’s here that the relationship turns into the stuff of fiction. Yes, the sex and the following cold should is fine, but getting back together is not. While it’s an intricate and romantic portrait of a friendship, the ensuing relationship is not as realistically portrayed as in Annie Hall.

It can be summed up pretty easily: the intellectual, cynical, snobby, pessimistic, embittered singleton in me loves Annie Hall. But the hopeless romantic, the one who loves everything sweet and sappy, adores When Harry Met Sally just as much. But the two films are too different two really compare to one another. Their formats, their view of love, and their general aesthetic. While When Harry Met Sally is punctuated by pretty scenes in Central Park, Annie Hall’s nicest moments, with cinematographer Gordon Willis, are intermittent, sometimes so spontaneously pretty and quick that you barely notice. The format of the films are different. Even though Annie Hall is told in a somewhat autobiographical way with Allen often breaking the fourth wall, When Harry Met Sally is told through various time intervals with intermittent interviews with older couples and their life stories. If anything, aside from its New York setting, the most blatant homage and only real similarity between the two films is the opening titles. Plain white font against a black background.

Both films most definitely have their merits. Annie Hall is more overtly cerebal and sarcastic in its humor, as Woody Allen’s humor tends to be. When Harry Met Sally however is more along the lines of the witty banter that seems to be a contemporary update of the back and forth lines that filled the films of Howard Hawks. Both, however, are excellent films, extremely funny, and utterly romantic. It had to be both of them.

Annie Hall: A

When Harry Met Sally: A

Game On: Review for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

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The introduction of the “videogame aesthetic” – hyper kinetic editing, ultra-somewhat cartoonish-violence, ear splitting use of sound effects – in mainstream films has been rightfully condemned by critics. Let’s face it; it’s a chore to watch those movies. As “exciting” and “adrenaline pumping” as they are, it’s actually hard to keep up. If I wanted to watch a video game, I’d go over my friend’s house and say “Oh, no, I don’t want to ruin your kill-death ratio” and just watch him play. Video game aesthetics, or what one person called “chaos cinema”, are endless hogwash of attempted excitement that are generally used to cover up and distract from the mediocrity that is everything else.

Allow me to sound somewhat like one of those guys on infomercials and say, “But what if I told you there was a movie that used ‘video game aesthetics’ to its advantage?” The difference being that the video game aesthetics that the film emulates are retro, so to speak, and resemble something more along the lines of arcade games than first person shooters. Nevertheless, you still get a similar kind of adrenaline thrill from this iteration of graphics and editing style that you may encounter elsewhere.

The film in question is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), which was adapted from a series of comic books. The fact that it is based on a comic book, one that also tries to emulate arcade style, is telling about the film’s visual style. Not only does it feature that amusing 8-bit sound occasionally (especially in for the Universal Studios beginning), but it feels like a comic book. Sometimes the camera pans from a panel to another, other times there are clear descriptors of characters or actions or cuts in the edit that feel like a comic book. The last time something vaguely similar was pulled off well was in 2005’s Sin City, which utilized the original Frank Miller graphic novels as the actual storyboards. Scott Pilgrim does just as well, creating that same kind of nerdy, almost hipster vibe, without alienating the viewer.

I’ve babbled on long enough about technical details. But what about the film itself? Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy, kind of awkward 22 year old Canadian kid (Michael Cera playing Michael Cera again) who falls for an aloof American girl named Ramona (Mary, Elizabeth Winstead). But before he can date her, he must battle her Seven Evil Exes. Which is exactly what it sounds like.

Melding varying genres generally found in comic books, while it’s not the most premise I’ve ever seen, it is pretty interesting considering. Not only does the aesthetic make this very niche-made film work, the performances and script add more power to the punch. The witty and fast talking screenplay was written by director Wright and Michael Bacall, a script that never lets up. It’s speedy and fun, and I’ll probably get some crap for this, but it’s reminiscent of the fast talking screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. Did I mention it’s hilarious and quotable?

Michael Cera…well, he plays Michael Cera again, which is fine. It works for the character, who is, as per usual, dorky and a little awkward. Scott Pilgrim isn’t actually as awkward as Cera’ characters tend to be. It’s a fine performance, but nothing to rave about. The film pretty much rests on his shoulders, and one does come out surprised that he could actually battle those Seven Evil Exes.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, however, is a revelation. Playing the slightly broken, rather impulsive Ramona, her character is definitely reminiscent of Kate Winslet’s broken, impulsive Clementine from Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The character could have been perceived as fairly one dimensional, but her comedic timing is great and she gives the character a tender fragility.

The supporting cast is also great. From Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, Audra Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as the sharp and foulmouthed Julie, and the Seven Evil Exes themselves, it ends up being a supporting cast that makes the film.

The thumping, probably hipster-esque music is a highlight of the film. Partly compiled and written by Beck, it thumps, throngs, and shakes with powerful bass and a dynamic sound that is, while completely self-referential, completely fantastic to listen to. It not only fits the generally hipster feel of the film, but also its Canadian locale.

Generally speaking, almost every element of the film is rendered perfectly. It does exactly what it is supposed to do and it’s a fast and fun film, a ride that is totally original and memorable. It’s the kind of film that, if it were a game, you would definitely be scrambling for more tokens so you could play it again.

Grade: A-