Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ordinary People (1980)

"Ordinary People" is the second film I showed to my film class this week.  It was adapted from the book by Judith Guest and was Robert Redford's debut as a film director. It beat out Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" that year as Best Picture at the Oscars.  "Raging Bull" is arguably more stylish but not as well written.

We were talking about narrative in film class and the difference between "plot" (how events are shown in a movie) and "story" (the events in chronological order including backstory and events not shown).  "Ordinary People" has a lot of cool flashbacks that are well placed throughout the film and that slowly reveal what happened to this outwardly "perfect" family.


Beth, Conrad, and Calvin

Flashbacks include Conrad, the son, seeing rows and rows of headstones as he's stopped at a railroad crossing in a car full of boys heading to school that is very curious and disturbing.  Then there is Calvin, the dad, remembering dancing with a younger Beth in some disco bar.  There are the memories Calvin has of banging on Conrad's door and then a shot of a red siren flashing that is very powerful. And the nightmares Conrad has about some boat in a storm at night.

I hadn't seen this film in awhile, but I remembered loving it.  It holds up well after 30+ years.  I still think it's one of the best movies on depression.  It shows how some people don't want to deal with it, some people are ashamed of it, and some people ask stupid questions about it.

I also adore Donald Sutherland in this movie and in "Klute."  Timothy Hutton too is perfect in this role as a twitchy guy who has pretty large mood swings, one scene breaking down or hiding in his room, and one hilarious scene where he is so happy he sings "Hallelujah" at the top of his lungs all the way home from school.

Judd Hirsch (I love how his tie is all askew here.)

Judd Hirsch plays Conrad's therapist, Dr. Berger, and though he says "kiddo" too many times in my opinion, he is a therapist we'd all like to have.  Therapists don't answer phones in the middle of the night to my knowledge anyway.  The therapy scenes are extremely funny too as Dr. Berger encourages Conrad to get angry and Conrad gets to talk about masturbation.


Elizabeth McGovern

Elizabeth McGovern plays a girl from choir whom Conrad is interested in.  She's really cute in this movie.  I told my students about three different times, "She's the mother in 'Downton Abbey' now," but I don't think they were excited about this as I was.

The last scene of the film is overly sappy--dad and son hugging and crying, so much so I was embarrassed showing that part to my students.  Why am I so uncomfortable when men are over-emotional?  Maybe that's bad conditioning on my part.  Maybe they could just have Calvin say to his son, "We're going to be okay."

Another aspect that makes me uncomfortable about this movie is that the mom, Beth, is such a nightmare.  The student beside me said about five times out loud, "She is so scary."  Beth is almost as evil as Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."  Both roles are scary to me because I think roles like these can make people seriously hate women, but hopefully that is just me being paranoid.

Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplay for this movie and his name and this movie comes up a lot in books on screenwriting I read. I took a screenwriting course last summer and the scene where the grandparents are taking photos of the family and Beth doesn't want to take a photo alone with Conrad was shown as one of the best examples of subtext.

I've also read that a film like "Ordinary People" would never get greenlit in today's Hollywood.  If this is true, I hope this changes because this movie is the type of movie I really enjoy seeing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007)

"In Search of a Midnight Kiss." Crazy. A date that leads up to midnight New Year's Eve. Homemade camera feel (low-budget).

Warning: All characters have potty mouths.


She's CRAZY.  He's looking for crazy.  (Vivian and Wilson). Some surprises happen along the way.

He's definitely down and out, and I was definitely rooting for him.  Who doesn't want a sensitive guy in a dark pea coat following you around, willing to empty his bank account for you? 

She seems to cry and get mad for no good reason. I did want to like her.  She has a great sense of style and she is spirited.  In the end she takes something from his bathroom that I thought was a nice moment.

There is a great scene where his roommates dress him up for his date in hip hop gear and he feels a little awkward.  There is another great scene that comes to mind when they save her (plush) bunny.

Why are all the images of this movie on the web in black and white?  This is not a black and white movie on my DVD. (I think some version released was.)



I like this film because it is experimental and it shows off L.A. (places like the Orpheum theater) and because the plot goes to some interesting places.

It won an Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award in 2008! However, I'm rather surprised it got such good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and reception other places because it is so raw and the characters and situations are so over the top.

But if you throw reality out the window, you will have fun watching this movie.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tonight You're Mine (2011)

"Tonight You're Mine" is a movie I can watch a million times because it's a rock n' roll love story and the rock n' roll is very good.


I would never have found out about this movie if it had not been a preview on the DVD of "The Artist" that I watched recently and I'm glad I did.

It is quite a cinematic feat because the whole movie takes place at a real rock festival, T in the Park (in Scotland), with hordes of people, so how many retakes could they have really done?


The premise is a lot of fun: Two musicians, Adam and Morello, who are right away at each other's throats are handcuffed together by a security guard who walks off with the key and they are stuck together for the rest of the night.

As a friend Pat MacEnulty reminded me, the two leads in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps are also handcuffed together by another person (a cop). The woman thinks the man is a scoundrel and they have to spend the night together on the run so it could be a slight tribute to that.

 The 39 Steps

For hours everyone in both bands: the Make (the boy band) and the Dirty Pinks ("why don't you just call yourselves the Vaginas?") are looking for "bonecutters" to break the chain.



The two chained musicians both have other significant others.  Adam is dating Lake, a model, and Morello is dating Mark the banker --though the way that "banker" is said in the movie, it sounds like "wanker."

One of my favorite moments occurs when Adam and Morello and Lake are sitting in a backstage tent and they are comparing how many Twitter followers they have--hilarious!  Of course, Lake has the most.

There is also such a standout performance by Mathew Baynton, who plays Adam's bandmate, Tyko.  I could have sworn the whole movie that his name was "Psycho."  Wouldn't that have been a great name for a stage persona?  He has some great one-liners and some wicked dance moves.  I love how Adam and Tyko look at each other and scream their heads off before they perform.

Tyko

At dawn, Tyco walks out onto the festival grounds full of rubbish from the previous night's festivities and stumbles upon a bra which he slowly picks up in the same manner as a floor-sweeper does in the first scene in the original 1932 version of "Scarface."  Another tribute? Who knows?  It's cool how I saw those two movies close together though and was able to pick that similarity out.

In a quieter moment, late in the night in a backstage tent, Adam and Marello play an improvised blues acoustic number (E-A-E-A-B---you can watch her shape the chords! as he strums!) based on Marello calling Adam a "womanizer" that is pure guitar heaven for me.



It all leads up to a really hot shower scene...  And an onstage reunion helped out by fans, a scenario I've read in many young adult books.  But if you like this sort of thing, it's loads of fun with standout performances, great music, and beautiful shots!


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Artist (2011)

"The Artist" is the first film I'm showing my film class tomorrow.  It's a great film and a good one to start with because it is a silent film that celebrates old Hollywood when the sign on the hill said "Hollywoodland."  Students will get to see a story told just in pictures--what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as "pure cinema."


This film got great reviews, five stars on Rotten Tomatoes, New York Times Critics Pick... It was nominated for ten academy awards and won five including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Costume Design and Best Original score.

The movie takes place in 1927, when silent films were golden, through 1929 with the coming of sound and the stock market crash, and all the way up until 1932.  A silent film star, George Valentin, (surely a play on the silent film actor name Randolph "Valentino") gives a new star, Peppy Miller, her start and then their roles reverse and George is floundering in a world of "talkies" while Peppy flourishes.  In this way it reminded me of the films "A Star is Born" (all three versions: Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand) though with a much happier ending.

Great supporting roles include a jack russell terrier, John Goodman as a studio boss, Penelope Ann Miller as George's first wife, Malcolm McDowell as the butler, and James Cromwell as George's chauffeur.

There are moments in the film that are so beautiful.  One of them for me occurs when Peppy shows up at George's doorstep in the pouring rain apologizing for her film doing well and not his.

Hopefully my students won't find the range of emotions too melodramatic and hopefully they will enjoy the dance numbers that are Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers-quality.  The best part of the film, for me, is how it portrays the ability of one person to bring another back from the brink of despair.



Saturday, January 5, 2013

Not Fade Away (2012)

"Not Fade Away" is a Buddy Holly tune that the Stones also made a hit out of.  It's also now the name of a great movie about a New Jersey kid forming a band after seeing the Stones play on tv in 1964.




I love the Rolling Stones and have since I was 14 and bought their album "Hot Rocks" on my own at the mall, so that alone was enough to get me excited about seeing this movie. Another draw was that "Rolling Stone" magazine called it "a love story to rock and roll."

The movie has a very limited release so I had to drive to Southpoint Mall in Durham to see it.  It reminds me of the time when "Somewhere" by Sophia Coppola came out and it just never came to North Carolina at all and it seemed like torture. I really didn't want that to happen again and so... road trip!



It was worth the drive.  I honestly don't know if everyone would like it.  Some might say it is "slow" but that's what I like about it.  The first scene is a black and white reenactment of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meeting for the first time on a train and talking about American blues records!  It's great stuff for a Stones fan.

The movie has a great soundtrack that Steven Van Zandt from the E Street Band/ The Sopranos/ The Underground Garage put together.  Strangely, it doesn't include the song "Not Fade Away" though. Some of my favorite scenes are just seeing the band play a song from beginning to end which happens at a practice, at a house party, at an audition.

David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," directed.  This movie is his first feature film. He is 68.

The main character Douglas, played by John Magaro, is amazing to watch. It couldn't be just cuz he captures "Bob Dylan" hair perfectly which he does.  He had a smaller part in the indie film "Liberal Arts" as a depressed student who reads "Infinite Jest" in coffee shops.  He played a character you definitely root for, and in my case, even more so than the principal characters.

James Gandolfini as his dad has this line he keeps telling his son: "If you don't.....we're going to tangle, my friend," which I loved.  The father-son relationship is probably the most touching of all which goes beyond the father's disapproval and tough exterior.



Bella Heathcote as the love interest, Grace, is beautiful and very much looks like a sixties' model like Jean Shrimpton or Twiggy with the long thin hair and bangs and kohl eyes.  Since the movie is from Douglas's point of view, we don't really know what's in her heart and the director keeps it ambiguous.  She gives this great line to Douglas before they get together, a Stones reference, "Time is on your side."



A side story occurs with Grace's sister.  It adds some "color" to the story and that's sort of a pun because she is a painter.  It adds some pain.  I'm not sure it's really needed except it brings Grace and Douglas back together after a fight and it shows the dark side of the sixties a bit.

I'm not too crazy about the other band members.  Maybe you aren't supposed to like them because you're rooting for the main character.  But I liked the band members in say "Almost Famous" a lot more.  This movie is different than "Almost Famous" (another nostalgic rock film) which comes at rock from a journalist's perspective following a successful band whereas the main character here is in a garage-type band and has to write songs and is a bit older.



The ending is ambiguous, apparently much like the ending of "The Sopranos," and it is a bit artsy weird but I like it.  It's strange that Douglas's younger sister narrates/ bookends the movie but is not really in the embedded story very much.  It makes what happens more of a legend/myth because she idolizes Douglas a bit.

So Douglas may not make it as big as the Stones, but he keeps the rock n' roll dream alive and this movie celebrates that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" -- "Ordinary People" meets "Rocky Horror Picture Show?"



What's interesting here is the novelist of the book got to direct the movie adaptation.  Fun!

I read the book a long time ago and really didn't remember much so as things developed it was all surprising, one surprise after another.

Some questions that came up for me included:
Why is the main character Charlie blacking out?  (payoff is big here in the third act)
Why did his only friend die a year ago?  (never answered)
How did his aunt die?  (this is eventually explained)
Is he going to accidentally out his gay friend while he is stoned for the first time at a party? (this actually made me really nervous but this is not where the movie goes)




The three main actors: Logan Lerman (Charlie), Emma Watson (Sam), and Ezra  Miller (Patrick) I had never seen before, no not even Emma Watson in the Harry Potter movies. (I can feel hundreds of mental darts being thrown at me for that.) She was okay (to me).  Again I  can feel the mental darts of others because all the critics I read thought she was fabulous.  She was sweet.  Logan was "doe" eyed innocent just fine but nothing like Timothy Hutton who was much more jittery and real in "Ordinary People."  Ezra Miller who played the "Frankenfurter" of the group was my favorite.  He gets to be funny though and sad and angry and confused and generous.  It's a good part.  See him above in the photo as the one in the tuxedo.

Mae Whitman (from tv show "Parenthood") was great as the Buddha/punk intense girlfriend.  Nina Dobrev (from the tv show "The Vampire Diaries") played Charlie's sister.  She was pretty bland but I think it was just the part, not her acting.  She's just fine on "The Vampire Diaries."

Paul Rudd got to play Charlie's English teacher asking the class if they knew which writer came up with the term "cliffhanger"?  This movie taught me the answer to that.

Joan Cusack as the serious psychiatrist was weird for me because she's just always so funny.  And I know actors don't want to be typecast but still, weird....This would probably be not true if she had a larger role here where she helped Charlie's soul in some way like the therapist does in "Ordinary People" but that is not the case.

Melanie Lywinskey played Aunt Helen and she was ephemeral in ghost-like flashbacks.

The parents Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh are very peripheral so I don't have much to say about them.... 

One of my favorite scenes occurs when the parents are huddled over Charlie after Charlie's night out and Charlie is lying through his teeth about it.  It's a relief to me that he isn't just yelled out about it.

The time period of the movie is never stated but there are no cell phones or Facebook and the characters give each other mixed tapes so I'm guessing the nineties (though the music seemed more 80s at times and the costumes more 50s).

There is a really really long list of great quotes from this movie on IMDB--which reinforces that yes, this script was really well written and is available to read here.

Here is just one of the many gems:
Charlie: Dad, can I have 30 dollars?
Father: 20 dollars? What do you need 10 dollars for?

I agree with Charlie in the movie that "Heroes" by David Bowie (the tunnel song) is a really really good song.


Postscript: I've read the book again and it is very similar to the movie.  The whole book is a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown friend so it's like Charlie writing letters to the reader.  The sister has a larger role here as she has some drama of her own.  Charlie gets to go to the teacher's house for lunch one time.  The tunnel song is different.  They visit family in Ohio.  Otherwise, very much the same plot-wise and a very good read.