Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)


I wager there are not too many people who would raise their hands to go back in time to high school.  College?  Yes.  But high school, you would have to be out of your mind to go back to the cliques, emotional turmoil, bullies, and hormones, unless you were a football player of course.  The high school in The Perks of Being a Wallflower looks like any other, complete with the jocks, the freaks, and the cafeteria lunch tables whose seating arrangements are more stringent than the United Nations.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a brand new freshman and he is wise enough to know he has a long way to go in high school to emerge on the other side of graduation.  He also brings baggage with him which does his reputation no favors at all.  There are rumors he was in sort sort of clinic last year but information about that is few and far between.  Charlie eats alone at lunch, gets called a homosexual slur for his out of fashion trapper keeper, and the only person he identifies with is his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who recognizes a possible writer in his troubled student.

In freshman wood shop, Charlie notices Patrick (Ezra Miller).  Patrick is a senior and you can figure out his academic interests do not align with woodworking since he is in a class with a bunch of underclassmen.  Charlie notices Patrick is different though.  He seems…nice; a quality which is quite rare in cut throat high school.  Patrick's best friend and step-sister is Sam (Emma Watson).  The duo discover Charlie may be a kindred spirit.  He is able to talk deftly about a subject near and dear to every high schoolers heart, music.  Charlie answers correctly when saying his favorite band is The Smiths.  The idea of a group of seniors willingly hanging out with a freshman who cannot drive and has no experience with drinking or the opposite sex is odd, but hey, if he is into the same music as you, it may be possible.

Guessing what year The Perks of Being a Wallflower is set in is tricky but It is definitely in the latter half of the '80s.  There are cassettes and the idea that the labored over mix tape can win the affection of a girl.  Notable discussion topics include The Smiths, Dexy's Midnight Runners, and David Bowie, but every now and then I would get confused because a more recent song would pop up and Charlie holds up a CD once which must have been quite cutting edge.  With his new and noticeably more mature friends, Charlie is exposed to the sorts of activities usually denied to the typical freshman nobody.  There is casual drug use, parties, and adventures, and just like any other high school film, each character has their specific issue which defines them and which they must confront or overcome by the end.

Patrick is gay and that was not something you wanted to be in a 1980s high school.  Sam has been around the block, well, it sounds like she has been around the entire city and now she is dating a college guy who says profound sentences such as this gem, "I don't write poetry, poetry writes me."  Charlie has emotional issues which appear to stem from a couple of deaths to people close to him.  One of them was his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) who died on Charlie's birthday, Christmas Eve.  Dylan McDermott and Joan Cusack also pop up in very minor roles - I assume they enjoyed the novel.

Writer and director Stephen Chbosky wrote both the novel and the screenplay for this story.  The script has the feeling like it was adapted from a novel because of the narrative.  There is Charlie's voiceover to guide the audience through his thoughts and feelings about himself and his friends and those segments feel like they were lifted straight out of a novel.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a cut above your average high school movie.  It is more thought provoking and displays real emotion rather than stock reactions.  Yes, each character has their personal defining issue, but when woven together, this is a group of kids you most likely would have wanted to be friends with during the dreaded high school years. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Looper (2012)


Time travel is confusing.  Once you think you may have a grasp on it and have ironed out the 'what-ifs', a new paradox will pop up and collapse your argument which was a house of cards anyways.  There are too many holes, and especially plot holes, when you try to rationally reason through what it means to travel through time and change the past.  Once time travel is invented, hasn't it always been invented then?  If you go back in time and change something, will you just disappear because your specific future no longer exists?

Looper sidesteps this whole enigma by having old Joe (Bruce Willis) tell his younger self that there is no use trying to figure it all out; it will just confuse you.  This one statement immediately smooths out the conversation he is having with young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the audience's mental gymnastics, and while still leaving them right there in front of you, chooses to ignore the Grand Canyon sized plot holes.  If you spend enough time with a pen and a sheet of paper, you will most likely identify a dozen or so glaring issues with jumping back through time, but where is the fun in that?  With Looper, it is enough to recognize you have a creative story to watch and gifted actors to watch carry it out.

The year is 2044, not so far in the future to imagine teleportation and interstellar flight, but far enough to dream up new technology, weapons, and illicit drugs.  2044 is quite similar to today's reality, but its every day norms and today's extreme edges magnified by 1000.  There are hover motorcycles, currency is literally based on gold and silver, and the drug all the kids are using is administered through eyedrops and appears to have the effects as cocaine.  There is also some glaring income inequality, you either have money or you do not; there is no middle class.  The city landscape shows thousands of people living on the sidewalks and sometimes in the middle of the street.  If someone steals from you, it looks like you are allowed to pull out your personal shotgun and teach them a severe lesson. 

Young Joe is a looper.  At a specific time and always in the same place, the edge of a corn field, a hooded person will appear out of nowhere and all Joe has to do is immediately pull the trigger on his weapon and get rid of the body.  These unfortunate souls are being sent back through time from 30 years in the future where time travel is illegal; therefore, it has morphed into a black market time travel system run by the mob.  Young Joe is paid handsomely to do these simple tasks and spends the rest of his day and most of the night going to a club to drink, dance, take drugs, and spend time with Suzie (Piper Perabo), his favorite lady of the evening.  

There are rules to follow though.  Since the system is run by the mob, breaking the rules is frowned upon.  I will not go into the rules because young Joe does a good job explaining to you what they are.  In his film noir, gravelly voice, which is trying to match a young Bruce Willis in style, Joe opens the movie and brings you up to speed on what has been happening with the time travel business and his specific spot on the food chain.  He has looper friends with Seth (Paul Dano) as his closest one and he gets called in to see the boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), from time to time.  Other than that, young Joe is really running his own loop with his day job and his nightly activities.

Old Joe effectively ends that routine as soon as he pops into the corn field out of thin air.  One would think that young Joe would have some questions or would want to cut his older self some slack, but no such luck.  Young Joe enjoys his current situation and is in no frame of mind to have it messed with, even if it is a version of him doing the interrupting.  Old Joe is on a quest to change the past and does not seem too pleased to run into his former self either.  These two are the same man, but they certainly are different people.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really the leading man here because Willis is in more of a supporting role and has noticeably less screen time; however, Bruce still gets top billing on the poster and in the credits.  I wonder if that chafes Gordon-Levitt?     

Both Gordon-Levitt and Willis are very good here.  On one hand, they are playing the same person and must try and match each other's facial ticks and mannerisms, but on the other hand, Gordon-Levitt is playing a kid against Willis's older and yes, wiser, character.  Another supporting character is Sara (Emily Blunt) but I leave it to you to discover her role.  Sara is saddled with most of the slower scenes in the middle which drag on a bit, but it's good to take a break from Joe, both young and old, after awhile.  Looper was written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) who should be commended for sitting down and puzzling through what must have been a very arduous screenplay.  

You will not understand the physics of how everything works in Looper (probably because the physics actually don't work), but you don't have to.  Let young and old Joe worry about that.  You just get the pleasure of sitting back and enjoying an original, thought-provoking, and well made sci-fi, action thriller.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me (2012)


Two people in a long-term relationship can know practically everything about the other person but still be in the dark about some of the most major issues.  Matt and Abby have been together for eight years, ever since their second year of college.  They live together, they share their daily routines, their friends, and their private jokes together.  Abby (Lauren Ambrose) notices she is falling behind her peer group.  Everyone else is getting married and popping out offspring, but she and Matt are in stasis.

Matt (Mike Birbiglia) knows he wants more out of life, but he has the self-confidence of a nervous gnat.  He's a bartender at a local comedy club and every now and then gets up on the stage to deliver a five minute set of severely mumbled, dated, and twitchy jokes.  Matt also seems terrified of marriage.  The couples goes to his sister's wedding and must endure the inevitable, "You're next!" and "So, when are you finally going to pop the question?"  It doesn't help Matt's sense of doom that while flipping through the DVR, he sees Abby has recorded hours of wedding and baby reality shows.

While screwing up his nerve to sentence himself to a life of marriage and domestic boredom, Matt also stumbles his way across an agent who starts setting him up with a few extremely low-paying comedy gigs across the northeast.  Taking off in his dad's hand-me-down Volvo station wagon, Matt discovers he is not half bad at this comedy thing and is surprised to find a whole wide world of struggling comics just like him. 

Why is his routine getting better?  He learns the best jokes are autobiographical.  He starts telling jokes and stories about his marriage phobia and that gets understanding crowds rolling in the aisles.  The joke which turns it all around for him is, "I'll get married when I am absolutely sure that nothing else good will happen in my life."  Matt really believes this.  He also tells jokes about a crazy sleep condition he has recently developed.  In the middle of the night, Matt starts to act out his dreams.  He climbs on top of furniture, gets in the shower, runs into things in his apartment, and that isn't even close to what eventually happens.  

Stubborn Matt will not go see a doctor though.  He is having the time of his life on the road learning how to be a stand-up comic.  However, wonderful Abby is back at home.  Matt knows Abby is way too good for him but he doesn't want to hurt her by filling her in on the truths about marriage he is discovering.  Mike Birbiglia wrote this script and it follows his real life pretty close.  He has this extreme form of sleepwalking and there was a girl in his life like Abby.  Throughout the film, Mike faces the camera and speaks directly to the audience in first-person telling us the story of his life.  During the rough patches, he must remind us that we are supposed to be on his side since he is one telling the story.

I always smile when Lauren Ambrose pops up in a movie or on TV.  I remember her from Can't Hardly Wait so many years ago and her role in the outstanding series Six Feet Under.  Lauren does not disappoint here; I found myself wishing she would go ahead and end their relationship so she could go out and find a guy looking to settle down.  If you're familiar with comics, you'll probably spot a few you know when they pop on screen in a cameo.  I saw Marc Maron, Kristen Schall, Wyatt Cenac, and Amy Schumer; I have no doubt there are probably four more I didn't even notice.  

Mike Birbiglia does a good job with the story of his life.  The script is funny where it needs to be, serious where it needs to be, and the first-person speeches to the camera (which he seems to have stolen from Woody Allen) work very well.  His bumbling manner and slurred words annoyed me a little bit after awhile, but once he gets his self-confidence up, the movie perks up too.  It will be interesting to see if Mike makes another film in the future with original material or if he stops here because his autobiographic stories are what he is most comfortable with.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Robot & Frank (2012)


The near future doesn't look too bad.  Phones are translucent and are just a sliver in thickness, you video chat through your TV by voice command, cars are getting greener and smaller, and your local library will no longer maintain hardcopy volumes for you to check out.  The domestic robot market is also taking off.  Don't think of Rosie from The Jetsons, the automatons in Robot & Frank are about the size of a pre-teen and stick to the basic chores of cooking, cleaning, and health monitoring.

Frank (Frank Langella) does not care very much for the new order of things.  He lives alone, but his home care habits have degenerated into those of a lazy undergrad.  His only interaction with the outside world are his walks into town to refresh his library books, marvel at some new technological nonsense, and shoplift a fancy soap from the store which took the place of his old bar.  Stealing is a major facet in Frank's life.  He has pulled numerous stints in prison which severely hampered his paternal responsibilities and now that he is well into his twilight years, his petty thefts are more out of nostalgia and instinct than any desire to strike it rich.

Frank's kids keep an eye on him though.  Madison (Liv Tyler) is a world traveler working for various non-profits to make the world a better place and Hunter (James Marsden) drives to upstate New York to visit his dad a few times a month.  Hunter notices Frank's increasing memory lapses and declining ability to take care of himself so he brings his dad a present one day - a robot.  Frank immediately hates the robot and genuinely fears it will murder him in his sleep.  However, the robot has been specifically programmed to interact with the elderly and encourage trust.

The robot cooks healthy meals, does the dishes, starts a garden, and keeps Frank on a specific routine to encourage his mental faculties.  Frank's mental well-being is more than just stimulated though, he is inspired by his new robot friend.  The thievery bug never left Frank and now that he has a robot who can pick locks and spin a combination lock through all of the conceivable combinations, they are going to become fast friends.  The mark?  Easy.  Frank despises Jake (Jeremy Strong) who is removing all of the library's books to transform it into a museum to show the community just what a library was like back in the day.  Jake is condescending, smarmy, and worst of all, he talks down to Frank's librarian crush Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).

Robot & Frank is the creation of first time feature film director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford.  The idea of a geriatric pensioner pulling off heists with his health care robot is a an amusing and creative idea, but the filmmakers do not take advantage of its possibilities and never reach its higher potential.  The latter half of the film is a drag with the introduction of the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto) and the script stuck to the regular motions; nothing very original or unexpected found its way onto the screen.  Also, Liv Tyler is usually a delight to watch in a movie but she is a distracting interloper here with a very high-pitched and whiny voice to match.  Something about her character does not mesh too well with this film.

The perfect place to show Robot & Frank would be in an old folk's home or on your TV if your grandparents are in town for a visit.  It's safe and predictable, but if you're looking for the slightest hint of a challenge or a new look at something, Robot & Frank is not it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Haywire (2012)

Haywire has style, almost too much style.  Since it is a Steven Soderbergh film, a certain amount of gloss and creative camera shots are expected, but Haywire has more gloss and polish than average.  It also has in-your-face brutal violence.  There are relatively few firearms; the violence is one-on-one mortal combat to the death between somewhat evenly matched opponents, even though one of the fighters is a woman.  It’s The Limey with extended camera sequences and an absolutely gorgeous protagonist.
Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is a private contractor with a particular set of lethal skills.  You hire her to rescue hostages, take down gangs, etc…  Her boss and ex-boyfriend, always a good combination, is Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) who sets up her missions.  Their firm is hired by Alex Coblenz (Michael Douglas) who represents some nameless government agency and a State Department functionary with a very fuzzy role in all of this is Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas).
It does not really matter who works for who or exactly how each piece of the confusing plot puzzle is set up, the film focuses in close-up on Mallory and her quest to not only survive, but to achieve revenge.  Mallory is being set up for murder.  We do not know why but somebody wants her out of the picture.  Is it Kenneth, Rodrigo, or Alex?  Maybe it is even one of her co-workers, perhaps the physically capable but not so bright Aaron (Channing Tatum) or the suave Paul (Michael Fassbender).  Figuring out who the puppet master is behind the curtain is also a small sub-plot; let’s get back to Mallory.
Gina Carano shows zero emotion on her face, even after she head butts enemies, breaks vases on their heads, and chokes them out with her legs.  In real life, she was a professional Muay Thai fighter before switching to acting.  She was cast in the TV show American Gladiators, not the game show but the scripted one, which is where Soderbergh saw her.  Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who worked with Soderbergh previously on The Limey and Kafka, wrote the script specifically for Carano and I imagine the rest of the A-list cast raised their hands to join because they wanted to work with one of the best directors in the business.  Douglas is back again after starring in Soderbergh’s Traffic. 
Soderbergh made some very specific and very effective choices in his version of a straight up action thriller.  The shots are much longer than the standard blink and you miss a jump-cut editing style for fight scenes.  Mallory is shown in what seems like minute long takes walking down the street detecting surveillance on her or driving a vehicle in reverse very fast.  Audiences have been taught to expect quick second long edits during chase and fight scenes which make them appear faster and more hectic.  Not in Haywire.  The fight scenes are uninterrupted and gruesome slug-fests.  The characters actually bleed and stumble around as they would in a real fight. 
I also noticed the music and sound effects, or lack of them.  Regular actions films tend to pump up the volume during chases and flying fists.  Soderbergh turned the music off.  The audience only hears grunts, fists colliding with jaws, and painful groans when they connect.  When firearms go off, it actually sounds like a pistol shot instead of a tremendous explosion.  I found myself really enjoying this minimalist and reality-based version of action scenes.
Steven Soderbergh has crafted a very different action film than audiences are used to here.  This most likely hurt the box office in the end, but bravo to the man for attempting to show a truer, and more intense, version of what bodies go through during fights.  The plot is immediately forgetful and secondary to the thrill of watching an extremely dedicated and talented female action hero go after the bad guys.  Sit back and enjoy the ride.     

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)


From an outside observer's perspective, Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are the perfect married couple.  They have multiple inside jokes, sing along to the radio together, and have been together since high school.  However, Celeste and Jesse are separated and have been for the last six months.  Jesse, the less successful of the two professionally, moved out out their house but only to the guest house/studio in the back.  They still have dinner with their friends together and Celeste, perhaps without realizing it, still wears a heart-shaped necklace which says "C&J 4ever".

Celeste and Jesse Forever is a first time writing credit for Rashida Jones and Will McCormack who plays Skillz, the on/off again couple's marijuana supplier and sounding board.  For first time screenwriters, the screenplay is noticeably witty without tripping into slapstick or tried and true romantic comedy cliches.  There are a few problems though, Celeste is a successful trend forecaster (what?) and the line "Are we really doing this?" or "Is this happening right now?" pops up in almost every situation.  When Celeste calls out a coffee shop line cutter, the guys says, "Are we really going this right now?"  When yoga classmate a Paul (Chris Messina) tries to ask out Celeste, she naturally responds, "Are you really doing this right now?"  Yes, this is trivial, but if dialogue like this distracts the audience during the film, it is unnecessary.

Jesse wants to get back together with Celeste.  Yes, they fight and he mooches off of his wife because he is an unemployed artist, but they are so good together.  After getting his hopes dashed on too many times, Jesse finally screws up his nerve and moves out.  This knocks the wind out of Celeste.  For her, Jesse is as predictable as the morning commute.  When she doesn't feel like having his company, she just sends him back outside to the studio.  But now he's gone.  Does Celeste even know who she is sans Jesse?

At work, Celeste works comfortably for Scott (Elijah Wood), a homosexual who makes tacky gay jokes to try and seem more gay.  Aside from trend forecasting and promoting her new book 'Shitegeist' which is about the death of quality pop culture, their firm also markets and brands artists.  Their new client is Riley Banks (Emma Roberts) who is written as a completely vapid imitation, or actual representation, of Ke$ha.  Celeste and Riley have an uncomfortable relationship as Celeste looks down on Riley as all that is wrong with the world and Riley cannot stand Celeste's condescension.  It does not help that Riley's new music single is 'Do It On My Face'.

Perhaps Celeste finds it so hard to work with Riley and competently function in day-to-day life because she is having second thoughts and regrets.  Was Jesse really so bad?  Now that is he is out from under her shadow, what if Jesse straightens himself out, matures, but meets someone else?  These are weighty issues for a comedy which turns out to be deeper and incorporates more drama than the average rom com.  

Celeste and Jesse Forever is an admirable start for two new writers, a worthy relationship study, and I recommend it for any young couple on a Friday night.