Mean Girls

Writer’s Shock: Struck by Lightning

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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.

Watch and See – My Favorite 101 Films: Part 3

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Welcome back, to my continuing series of my top 101 films! In case you missed it, here’s part 2!

Welcome back to my continuing series of my favorite 101 films of all time, where you’ll encounter: wood chippers, tanks, “Nazi Julie Andrews”, Beauty and the Beast, something precious, whiskey, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whistled, Nabokov smiling, something too gay to function, the end of the world, memory problems, a smile, and two tragic heroines, who happen to be hookers.

41.          Fargo (1996) Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’ve observed, tend to be neo-noirs disguised under some other sort of other genre clichés. However, their dark classic Fargo is just a straight up noir, studying the lives of criminals, a police officer, a mild mannered guy with a lot of debt, and the small town residents of North Dakota with their funny accents. The Coens described where they grew up as “Siberia with family themed restaurants”, and that description seems to be a good metaphor for the perfect blend of comedy and suspense. The film is dark and cold, but also completely hilarious. Fargo is perfect, dontcha know?

42.          GoldenEye (1995) | Directed by Martin Campbell

I have always asserted that the best James Bond films are simply the best espionage films. It works outside of the series and can stand on its own. This is just as true as Martin Campbell’s first Bond effort, GoldenEye, which ushered in Pierce Brosnan as Double O Seven for the first time. Bridging the gap between the hokey escapism of the previous14 films and the gritty realism of the Craig era, GoldenEye works well because aside from a couple key scenes and the fact that, as per usual, Bond recites his name, it doesn’t feel like a Bond film, therefore not weighted by certain expectations. Even if the expectations were there, it would surpass them, and rightly so. GoldenEye was a fantastic way for Bond to enter the ‘90s.

43.          In the Loop (2009) | Directed by Armando Iannucci

In the Loop is the Dr. Strangelove for the 21st century. The terrific film delves into the world of British politics and profanely satirizes everything. If it weren’t so gut bustingly funny, it would be deeply depressing to realize how incompetent some of these people are. The screenplay is incredible, its language so vulgar and funny that it shed new light on certain topics. And added some insults to my lexicon. (“Nazi Julie Andrews!”) Based loosely on the BBC show The Thick of It, In the Loop spectacularly mocks the fog of war.

44.          Kill Bill (2003/2004) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Kill Bill was Tarantino’s pop art collage. Stealing (or borrowing, whatever you prefer) everything under the sun to create a fast paced, frenetic film, it’s a playscape for the senses. The visceral thrills are second to none, as Tarantino shows off how much he knows about film, provides a badass female lead fantastically played by Uma Thurman, and seems to have an incredibly fun time.

45.          King Kong (2005) | Directed by Peter Jackson

If there has ever been a contemporary remake that’s been done right, it is this one. Peter Jackson’s gorgeously realized film is a stunner in every way. The level of detail, the characterizations, and the look of the film. The best thing about it is, though, the Beauty, Ann Darrow (a charming Naomi Watts) and the Beast, Kong (Andy Serkis is a genius, did you know that?). The love that Kong feels for Ann is so beautiful and so real that the ending breaks my heart every time. Animated with integrity, Kong’s fall from grace is painful and beautiful all at once. No one brings me to tears more often than the utterance of “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”

46.          Kuroneko (1968) | Directed by Kaneto Shindo

This Japanese horror film with a feminist twist features some of the most stunning cinematography in a horror film. Deriving much of the action and movement from traditional Noh Theater, the stage is lit for ghostly shimmers, as a vengeful woman and her mother, who sometimes appear as cats, rip the throats out from samurais. Its plot is fine, but it is undoubtedly a showcase for the presentation, from the beautiful costumes and sets to the dreamlike cinematography. Spectacularly creepy, it’s like dancing with the demons in the pale moonlight.

47.          The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This seems to be Hitchcock at his jauntiest. He may have made other light dark comedies, and even one deliberate comedy, but The Lady Vanishes is his frothiest film yet. Some of the techniques that would become Hitch’s trademark are featured in the film, but whatever the sense of foreboding; it is driven away by how amusing and funny it is. Its romance and the “opposites attract” would actually leave a little bit of a legacy, with Carrie Fisher quoting the film in When Harry Met Sally… (“You’re the most contemptible man I’ve ever met!”) Hitch keeps the audience entertained by both the comedy and the mystery, but even noted film historians have started watching the film with the intent to analyze it heavily and given up, lying back, and relaxing their ride on Hitch’s train.

48.          Lady Vengeance (2005) | Directed by Park Chan-wook

I always go back and forth between this and Oldboy as to which is better. Both are part of a thematic trilogy from Chan-wook, and on days when the Lady takes the cake, she really takes it. The emotional resonance in this film is extraordinary. A beautiful study of revenge and redemption, Lady Vengeance sticks out for its lush colors (or not, if you watch the excellent Fade to White version, in which scene by scene, the film desaturates) and its very Murder on the Orient Express-like conclusion. The treatment revenge has in this film is, in a way, less harsh than in Oldboy. Out protagonist comes to realize what she’s doing and how revenge itself is changing her far more quickly and halfway through the film, her motivations change slightly. It remains one of the most beautiful thrillers of the last decade.

49.          The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (2001 – 2003) | Directed by Peter Jackson

There is not very much to say about Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy that hasn’t been said before. Though the pacing is at times problematic (how would you deal with the material?), it’s extravagant and amazingly huge in scope. If anyone could ever tackle these tomes and bring them to life, it was Jackson.

50.          Lost in Translation (2003) | Directed by Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola is an expert at capturing the meandering reality of loneliness. She did it, probably in a flashier way, with The Virgin Diaries, she did it with more focus on the costumes than on the plot in Marie Antoinette, but she explored the topic perfectly in Lost in Translation, which won her an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Two lonely people in a place where there is a significant language barrier meet and… do not sleep together. Instead, they find in each other kindred souls and a kind of intimacy that is unmatched with merely sex. The exploration of strangers in a lonely place offering solace to one another is pitch perfect in every scene. It turns out that existential ennui translates perfectly for the screen.

51.          M (1931) | Directed by Fritz Lang

Having seen this film several times, there is no way that I will not think of Lang’s noir-ish crime thriller M when I hear the foreboding notes of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Whistled faux-innocently by the ever creepy Peter Lorre is the first sign that nothing good is to come of this. Almost a critique of the police procedural as we know it, the deliberate pacing, sparsely framed shots, and beautiful chiaroscuro all add up to what is an indelible experience. (And, yes, I do consider it a part of German Expressionism).

52.          Manhattan* (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen

I’ve gone back and forth between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan for what feels like ages, but I decided the latter would be in my top ten. More the comedic drama than Annie Hall’s dramatic comedy, the bittersweet tale of unrequited love and intellectuals in New York is a masterpiece. The film’s one liners are perfect, but underneath is the pathos and feeling of desire that everyone feels in the film. The Gershwin filled score adds to these tender moments of drama and romance, aiding the tone perfectly. And, of course, the film features some of the best black and white cinematography ever on screen by the Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis. While some may love New York, I, myself, love Manhattan.

53.          The Manchurian Candidate (2004) | Directed by Jonathan Demme

Here’s another remake that was very successful in terms of quality. Though, re-adaptation seems a little more appropriate. Demme re-appropriates the themes of the original film, which circled around Communism, and used them in a contemporary context. Taking place after Desert Storm, the film gears in on various medical testing and the state of terrorism in the real world. It makes for an effective and taut thriller. Live Schreiber and Meryl Streep are incredible in the film.

54.          Mean Girls (2004) | Directed by Mark Waters

You may think it odd for me to have this film on my Top 101, but I truly adore it. Tina Fey’s acute study of the teenage girl in high school and the desire for popularity is one of the smartest teen films to ever be made. Endlessly quotable, its astute observations (as I mentioned in my lengthy review) are more than true. Even at the small school I go to, there are things that have happened that have reminded me of Mean Girls. Part of this realism is that the film is based on a nonfiction book, the other part being just good writing. Mean Girls is supported by outstanding performances from its cast, including Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Caplan, and Rachel McAdams. Yes, I’m going to say it: This movie is so fetch!

55.          Melancholia* (2011) | Directed by Lars von Trier

It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.

56.          Memento (2000) | Directed by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough art house film is an incredible exploration into memory, denial, and crime. A gloriously fantastic neo-noir with a tight script, amongst the things that make this film extraordinary is the nonlinear narrative. Yes, my friend, linearity goes out the window, as it is played backwards. If I didn’t love this film, I wouldn’t have written my extended essay on it. Guy Pearce plays a damaged man searching for his wife’s killer, but as we go further back into his mind and into the past, the things that are revealed are chilling yet incredibly human. Nolan starts playing his games for the big time in Memento. Stunning in every frame, Memento is one of the greatest film noirs ever made.

57.          Midnight in Paris (2011) | Directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.

58.          Modern Times (1936) | Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin avoided sound for as long as he could, and nearly a decade after The Jazz Singer had premiered with its revolutionary synchronized soundtrack, Chaplin was still holding tight keeping his Little Tramp’s lips sealed. The film is not completely silent. Modern Times incorporates some sound effects and probably half a dozen lines spoken by minor characters. And while Modern Times is undeniably hysterical, heartwarming, and as good of a showcase of Chaplin’s pantomime abilities as any of his films from a great filmography, Modern Times provides some interesting social commentary about consumerism, labor workers, and the industrialization of America. The film also ushered in the classic jazz standard “Smile”, which would be famously sung by Nat King Cole. With its ambiguous, but happy ending, Chaplin would move forward with technology and social awareness in his films.

59.          Moon (2009) | Directed by Duncan Jones

Duncan Jones’ debut feature is a about a man on the moon, who mines, and feels lonely. Yes, the existential crisis of loneliness in space. It sounds rather trite, but with sharp visuals, a gorgeous and atmospheric score by Clint Mansell, and absolutely stunning performance from Sam Rockwell, Moon is a star amongst emotional dramas. Sam Rockwell’s performance of Sam Bell is the “every man”, a man who has been working and mining for the last three years on the moon. When his time on the moon is about to close and he gears up to head back home, he realizes that he has become so attached to solitude, he does not understand how he will cope with the change in environment. It’s a beautiful, subtle, and at times fantastically suspenseful film.

60.          Nights of Cabiria/Vivre sa Vie* (1957/1962) | Directed by Federico Fellini/Jean-Luc Godard

The prostitution of society, religion, magic, celebrity, emotion, and money are the subjects of two of the greatest films ever made. I see Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Godard’s Vivre sa Vie as companion pieces, both dealing with similar subjects, both dealing with similar tragic protagonists, and both ending in similar ways. In Fellini’s film, Giulietta Messina inhabits the outspoken, down on her luck prostitute Cabiria. She aspires to be something bigger, but men constantly, habitually take advantage of her. In Godard’s film, framed around twelve tableaus, Anna Karina plays Nana, a Parisian girl who aspires to be an actress, but soon is relegated to being a prostitute. Both films take place in beautiful places in the world, and show the decrepit nature beneath the façade. Both films are directed with integrity and mastery of the medium. And both films are heartbreaking and tragic. If you don’t cry, or at least shed a tear, at the end of the films, you are a robot or a sociopath. Containing two of the greatest performances by women in cinematic history, both films, exploring complex characters, are the best the world of cinema has to offer.