I’ve been selling Nebraska to people as “a charming version of Fargo without the violence”. That gets attention fairly quickly.
Alexander Payne’s drama, however, is more quaint than quirky. Nebraska’s prominent road trip involving a distracted father Woody (played by Bruce Dern) and his patiently courteous son David (played by Will Forte) coasts along flat landscapes. The two converse about the past and the exciting current possibilities of million dollar winnings Woody received in the mail. The relationship between Dern and Forte is just one of the many likeable building blocks to this heavenly appealing film.
Practically everyone doubts Woody’s grand prize, saying that it’s a sham. Woody’s wife Kate (played by June Squibb) is also part of the crowd, often reminding her dullard husband of his unhelpful, checked-out personality.
David has a feeling that Woody’s prize is bologna too, but he can’t help but go along with his father’s happiness. David doesn’t hope to see his Dad fail. He’s going along for the ride because he shares the same sort of dream chasing. He even tells his mother he just wants to give his old man hope.
Payne shows his audience how far different types of hereditary characteristics can travel. We meet the men of the Grant family throughout the movie. The clan can be often seen together moderately stimulated by television while hesitantly trying to make small talk. During these moments, we observe that David – while taking on his father’s traits – can see the pattern.
Nebraska is wise, but also very funny. Screenwriter Bob Nelson understands the nature of telling dry readings, and Payne knows perfectly well how to direct his actors in accordance to the script.
Once Dern and Forte are set in scenarios that cause them to put their mission on hold, the movie turns into a collection of vignetted character driven pieces. We visit a cemetery where Kate calls out the dead. She remembers the flaws over strengths, but never with cynicism. Another scene has David and brother Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk) retrieving “stolen” equipment and leaving their worried parents to cover for them. Actually, this sneaky sequence plays out as a cuter version of Sideways’ unforgettable wallet sting – also directed by Payne.
Nebraska doesn’t feel like a movie that pretentiously puts its story aside, but rather understands that development – not comedy – is the main priority. We see Forte and Dern go through extensive characterizations. Like Forte’s David, Nelson and Payne are patient with how the pieces play out, making each step convincing. This is what separates the drama from other family adventures that follow a routine of “drive, stop, make the audience laugh, drive again”.
The cinematography is also a stand out. It’s beautifully shot in black-and-white giving the composed film an antiqued look. The shooting style adds to the film’s plainness without making the movie appear drab itself.
You often hear people describing a filmmaker’s movie as “a film with a warm heart and a kind soul”, and it couldn’t be more true with Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s film had me smiling throughout and I was quite swept up by how honest the film was being with its bare portrayal of a family tree rooted in the outskirts of Americana. It’s touching and delightful. I dare you not to be grinning by the final frames.
The Spectacular Now is the movie about high school I wish I had growing up. It’s easily identifiable and relatable to anyone who felt growing pains or knew someone having a wobbly time through secondary education.
James Ponsoldt’s coming-of-age dramedy features two exceptional performances from up-and-comers Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, who play unexpected friends who eventually become smitten with each other. Though, Teller’s motormouth Sutter Keely won’t directly admit it since he has a difficult time thinking about the future with anyone.
Keely deals with a personal alcohol addiction, although he dodges any truth and believes the binging is all part of “living in the now”. His snappy personality is appreciated amongst his school and he looks as if he could clean up if he participated in any sports. However, he’s just as easily left out in the cold when he’s dumped by his girlfriend, which causes him to have trouble fitting into any sort of determined clique or self aspiration.
Woodley’s Aimee silently enters his life after she catches his eye and is feeling very vulnerable. She’s a sweet girl and Ponsoldt has gone out of his way to make her homely – including stripping the actress away from make-up or hairstyling and having most of her performance layered by a coy shellac. The director could’ve eased up a little on making Aimee a meek outsider, but he nor Woodley never overplay the character’s shy innocence.
Teller and Woodley make a good couple and have no problem creating a relationship that takes off at first glance. They follow a certain template that now feels necessary in teen movies, but The Spectacular Now doesn’t belong in that vast wash of young adult escapism.
For one, it’s R-rated and never exploits its free range. It’s not interested in a gratuitous outlook during the final years of high school, but it also doesn’t peter away from what makes young adulthood a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It’s also notable to add that even though we all knew – or still know – people like Sutter and Aimee, the film doesn’t depend on its relatable factors. Ponsoldt is given plenty of opportunities to cop out, but his screenplay (written by Scott Neustadter and Michaek H, Weber adapting from Tim Tharp’s novel) along with his strong ingenuity and faithfulness as a filmmaker pull through and reject any instance to settle for mediocrity.
As many enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, that same crowd will eat up The Spectacular Now with a big smile on their face. It’s in the same coming-of-age vein, but what makes The Spectacular Now especially unique is how Ponsoldt has used his leads to help each other out through thick and thin of their personal issues along with family matters. They both develop together and their companionship is just as important as any individual character. Ponsoldt, however, still conveys immature unknowingness. For instance, Aimee may be helping Sutter reconnect with his absent father, but she’s unbeknownst to how serious Sutter’s drinking problem really is.
I still prefer The Perks of Being a Wallflower over Ponsoldt’s candid endeavor because it offered more with its presentation, but The Spectacular Now will please those who are looking for a film that tells the truth without being soft. That, along with how well polished it is, earns the flick a classic status.
The Spectacular Now is that indie hidden gem that audiences seek throughout a year of big budget blockbusters. It’s an apt effort that will undoubtably propel Teller and Woodley forward in their budding careers along with the movie’s marvellous filmmaker.
The Lifeguard deals with the discouraging feeling of going nowhere and the urge to flee home for comfort. It’s a circumstance that some of us may be all too familiar with; especially those who are fresh out of their post-secondary education. Liz W. Garcia’s film, however, gets very little right about events that take place after the retreat to a personal turf.
Garcia is able to capture that initial awkwardness that ensues when returning home after being away for so long. Kristen Bell plays troubled Leigh – admirably taking a riskier role than usual – and sinks into a position that calls on her to be a 29-year-old journalist who likes the idea of reliving carefree days. The “real world” is not appreciating her, and she captures that essence of defeated strandedness well.
Another quality Bell and Garcia succeed with is during those first meet ups with old friends. Todd (played by Martin Starr) is comfortably coasting by and Mel (played by Mamie Gummer) is a high school vice principal. An introduction to Mel at her school is used to smoothly transition into an adult after school social. Garcia has a cast who convincingly click with each other. It’s very easy to believe this friendly gang has a history.
I got a lot of vibes from The Lifeguard that I did when I watched Jason Reitman’s Young Adult. The only difference is that Garcia’s study on people who won’t allow the past to rest didn’t make my ears steam out of anger as I did during Reitman’s absolutely unlikeable, misguided dark comedy. The Lifeguard did make me cross though. It put a bad taste in my mouth as I waited for ages for any of the allegedly levelheaded characters to speak up.
The problem is that Garcia lets Leigh’s bad decisions go on for too long. Outside of catching up, one of Mel’s 16-year-old students (Jason played by David Lambert) catches Leigh’s eye. As she finds herself recollecting her years as a teenager, Mel and Jason spend lots of time with each other and soon form a relationship that becomes less hidden as more friends witness the attachment.
All signs of a character study or of a coming-of-age film are thrown out as the scenarios prolong and stay pedophilic, making any sympathy towards Bell’s character evaporate.
There are two voices of reason: Mel and Mel’s husband, John. When Mel sees the sketchiness while smoking pot, she mentions it to Leigh and warns her of what she would have to act upon as a vice-principal. Leigh tells her she’s stoned, and Mel shrugs and forgets she brought it up.
How about John? Can he talk any reason into anyone? Perhaps, but Joshua Harto has been directed to play John as an irritating bellowing hothead and Mel keeps insisting he needs to chill out – he does while scoffing.
Can I, the aggravated viewer, talk sense into anyone? I tried, but the movie couldn’t hear me through the screen.
The Lifeguard is the type of movie where every character will make you want to shake them while telling them to smarten up. Around these moments where no one brings up the obvious, Garcia stretches scenes out of rambling lollygagging that’s supposed to add realism to hanging out. It only made me impatient.
The film also does that thing run-of-the-mill independent movies do which is play hazy indie music over cutaways of these people being free spirited and happy to persuade movie goers into thinking what they’re watching is of substance or depth. A few of these are fine. They stabilize just how unknowing these people really are and how they live in the moment. The Lifeguard has too many of these to suit a film that was doing everything it could to bring me out of a filthy funk.
After waiting and waiting, consequences are finally welcomed in. That said, these bits of redemption happen within the last 15 minutes of the movie. They occur way too late to turn anyone’s negative perceptions around.
Liz W. Garcia’s The Lifeguard does so much wrong that otherwise smother the snippets of truth in the silver lining of the movie. It’s a major misfortune in something that could’ve been effortlessly relatable.
Everyone has their own type of vice. Helene’s is her camera. Although she’s able to enthral people with her stunning photography, it’s an interest of hers that she chooses to take up a large portion of her life. The high she gets off of the perfect picture is that of a drug.
Like a drug would do, Helene’s talent keeps her in her own world while others are kept out. Her daughter, Anna, has always recognized that she’s not a high priority in her Mother’s life. She watches Helene sleep her days away after late-night parties and exhibitions, and feels cross but frustratingly numb to it all.
With Anna’s case in Looking is the Original Sin, after trying every trick in the book to coordinate her way into her Mother’s life, she takes deliberate steps to walk in Helene’s shoes in order to establish some sort of connection.
Partly inspired by the life of artist Diane Arbus, Maria Del Mar (who plays Helene) and Katie Boland (who plays Anna) take a challenging dynamic written and directed by Gail Harvey and create outstanding results. Both actresses are able to stand their own ground and take movie goers through their own emotional journey.
Both characters have their own discrepancies – to which are easy to believe – and the struggle between who’s the parent in a situation always makes for compelling role reversals.
Harvey and Del Mar’s representation of a dedicated yet troubled artist is also handled very well and giving viewers the freedom to think what they want. A black-and-white video diary recording Helene is spread throughout the film, offering her personal thoughts. It’s vulnerable, and we see inside Helene’s soul, but Harvey doesn’t leave any hints of semi-pretentious behaviour out of the picture. These characteristics are very apparent during Helene’s self-reflection getaway.
Helene is very protective of the world she has built around her art, and other supporting characters see this as well. Kent Staines plays Brent, a close friend of Helene’s who extends his hand out only to be turned down frequently. Staines brings an energy to the film that’s comforting. It’s fun to watch him interact with other people in the film.
However, remembering the character of Brent starts to bring back the main qualm I have about Looking is the Original Sin’s screenplay.
It feels as if a lot of key motivations jump the gun and the outcomes are a bit too pat. They aren’t fully fleshed out before the character carries through with their choices. They’re rushed for the sake of moving the story forward.
With Brent, he may bring his own life to the movie, but his intentions are fuzzy at best. His need to keep Anna away from Helene could exist because he’s trying to protect Helene’s artistic integrity, but that teeters between being coherent information and a big “what if?”.
With that, even some of Anna’s motivations during the latter part of Looking is the Original Sin are a bit flimsy. A scene between her and one of her Mom’s old flings feels oddly out of character for Anna and overall preposterous when compared to everything Harvey is getting right.
Looking is the Original Sin, however, is fascinating. Even during its missteps, Harvey’s film is very interesting. It’s a notable indie where everything leads up to one heck of an ending that seriously moved me.
What do I say about The Dirties? A film that shook me up and has hung around with me days after I’ve seen it.
Matt Johnson’s courageous and ambitious feature film debut is a tough film to recommend to a wide audience because of its timely, controversial material handled with a sense of humour. You definitely have to be in a specific mood for its darker approach to school shootings and the troubled youth who are pushed to their limits. But while it wears a straight face during these more disturbed moments, it’s also very personable, emotional, and very funny.
Johnson’s film was developed from a concept thought up by Josh Boles and Johnson and Evan Morgan worked with it. The film was then shot without a standard script, but with ideas in tow. It’s a free form that works wonders for The Dirties since a lot of it feels very spontaneous. It guarantees authentic reactions and readings from people who had a cohesive but limited idea to what Matt Johnson’s vision was for this chilling movie.
The film follows two high school film buffs who are consistently bullied and laughed at publicly. They are perfectly content staying within the confines of their friendship, but are targeted day-by-day by broader students who think their excitement is weird or pathetic.
Johnson and Owen Williams – who play fictitious characters but keep their real names – humour the idea of making an updated version of their movie in-the-making. This revamped cut would have Johnson and Williams getting revenge and actually shooting the “bad guys” dead. Johnson grows more serious about the plan and Williams comes to realize how determined his friend actually is.
Johnson’s feature plays out like a slapdash collection of scenes, but this is a film that’s far from being just “thrown together”. This smart, well crafted film handles the tonal shifts with ease – which says a lot because of the spur-of-the-moment nature of Johnson’s filmmaking.
It’s also quite brave tackling such subject matter with an innocent and amusing voice. Johnson isn’t afraid to crack wise while discussing a murderous plot. The dark comedy never feels out of place or disrespectful. It expertly walks a fine line between understanding the brutality of a school shooting and not having a clue.
The Dirties also offers a very thoughtful view on how a built-up adolescent stylized imagination can play out in real life. Everything from catch phrases to signature moves that Matt Johnson hypes up in his own head are shown how low-key they are in a reality outside of violent movies.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in The Dirties though regarding if the audience is watching a mockumentary shot by other students, a camera crew filming the new version of Johnson and Williams’ project, or just providing a fly on the wall perspective of someone who talks to himself.
During a Q&A after its Toronto premiere at Toronto After Dark, Matt Johnson addressed the issue. He told the audience that these unclear moments are left to the audience to interpret and perceive in their own way; opening the film up to many theories.
It didn’t sound like a cop out and upon thinking about it more and how we see Johnson’s character obsess, it’s a filmmaking choice that usually works in the context of those scenes in question. But to the average movie goer who hasn’t heard Johnson explain his methods, it’s a directorial decision that is going to have a hard time transferring to a wide audience. Especially when characters start breaking “the fourth wall”.
The Dirties is a special film, however. It crucially addresses the bullying issue plaguing schools without beating its audience over the head with a message. Even the bad decisions Johnson’s character makes in the movie are not followed up by abundant chastising. This director trusts his mature audience will see what is right and what is wrong. That’s a quality that is so rare amongst young filmmakers.
Matt Johnson and company reached for the impossible and ended up making a very moving, visceral, and touching indie. We should all be glad a movie like The Dirties exists.
Well, now that TIFF has come to an end, let’s take a trip back to August.
If you can believe it, August was busier than my experience with the Toronto International Film Festival. At Film Army, I was checking out different programmes hosted by Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, watching smaller independent fare, as well as getting ready for TIFF while setting up IFFFT coverage – the International Fetish Film Festival Toronto.
It’s great to cover all sorts of bases with my writing. It truly feels like I get a taste of everything.
The programmes at the Lightbox introduced me to more eclectic foreign movies. These being the films of Leos Carax and other assorted works brought to audiences by Turkish filmmakers.
It was great to finally see what all the hubbub was about with Carax’s Holy Motors, and it was neat uncovering obscure bizarre oddities from Turkey. Even if the films weren’t necessarily winners, I could appreciate the fly-on-the-wall takes these projects offered.
A highlight for me was watching Pavan Moondi’s Everyday Is Like Sunday, a little-known mumblecore flick that ran at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema during a fleeting theatrical run. Moondi’s film had technical flaws as well as running into a couple of unavoidable low-budget hurdles.
But, what really impressed me about Everyday Is Like Sunday is how often I laughed and how frequently I felt for the characters. There’s a very laid back approach to the free-form story in Moondi’s film, and it helps greatly. He’s able to grab honest observations and reactions without having to drill his actors for the right touch. To those who caught this film during it’s blink-or-you’ll-miss-it limited engagement: you witnessed an underdog worth rooting for.
And, then the festival coverage. When I attended TIFF’s press conference revealing Canadian content featured at this year’s event, it was a fairly exciting experience. It also helped that the venue was well run and informative to boot.
But, I was equally eager – and nervous – to watch some films at the International Fetish Film Festival. With these smaller types of festivals, the line separating good taste and inappropriate counterpoints tends to get blurred. Festivals with this sort of rebellious attitude makes my defense grow, but I always like to be proven wrong.
While the festival did a good job keeping content generally tasteful (at least, judging by the films I saw), the selection wasn’t very good. I didn’t see anything worthwhile and the only positive point I made about anything I saw was that the music was catchy during one of the shorts. Uh oh…
All in all, I’m very glad to have tackled all that I snagged. Here are some links:
Also, when you have a moment, click here and vote for me. I’m in the running for “Digital Personality of the Year” in nextMEDIA’s Digi Awards and I’m slowly creeping up the chart. You can vote once a day and all it takes is clicking that link and clicking a cute, lil’ green button. It’s just that easy. Thanks in advance!
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Once upon a time in a high school drama master class, a group of friends and I were given a one-act play to perform for our final exam. The play was Anton Chekov’s The Proposal.
Myself and my other cast mates had no clue what to make of the exaggerated work or of our bumbling characters ; and, our director didn’t know any better. We agreed that the amount of time given to comprehend Chekov’s unique writing was unreasonable, but alas, we soldiered on and did our best.
The night of our performance was a disaster. Our motivations were still cloudy, lines were forgotten or stumbled over, and as a theatrical Hail Mary, the other guy in the company decided to soak myself (and the better half of the front row) with a bucket of water. The script only called for a slight splash. In hindsight, I suppose the drenching was ironic since we were all hanging out to dry.
There’s a lot of that disarray going on in Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. No one in front of the camera or behind it has any idea how to perform a script written by Bret Easton Ellis – not even the screenwriter, Bret Easton Ellis. Except the confusion in The Canyons seems worse since everyone is supposed to be a professional.
The main cast, like in Chekov’s The Proposal, consists of three main players. These hapless, disheveled actors are Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, and Nolan Funk. Like us in our hazy lil’ play, the main cast looks to be confused more than anything. It’s as if they were given the script to analyze with a limited amount of time and glazed over one-on-ones with their “trusty” director.
Lines are read with such cardboard delivery, it’s as if Lohan, Deen, and Funk are trying to figure out the ropes of Ellis’ writing as the film plods along. It’s the type of spacey, slow understanding that exists during monotonous sessions of learning long division.
I’m not comparing Bret Easton Ellis to Anton Chekov by any means – the writer belongs in a league of his own. I really like Ellis’ past work, like The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. When Ellis is in his element, I think the writer can be darkly funny with his representation and satire of snotty, self-entitled, terrible jerks.
With The Canyons, however, he’s spinning his wheels. He has a group of intentionally awful and vain characters who live in a wasteland of shallow seniority, but there’s nothing behind these characters that make them interesting. It’s as if he thinks the presence of familiar characters he’s written about before will seal the deal and garner an audience’s acceptance. That doesn’t work, Bret.
The writer even has a hard time creating a memorable sly villain. In The Canyons, movie goers are given Christian (played by Deen). Christian scowls and talks menacingly, so people will realize just how important and powerful he is. Ellis has written Christian as someone with an overwhelming abundance of arrogance developing him to become self-parodying instead of self-entitled. And because there’s no material to build upon, Deen is left brooding and wandering as his amateur stab at acting in more serious feature films turns into a performance that will have befuddled audiences snickering.
This is a far cry career move for everyone involved – even Lohan who chalks up another smudge in 2013 with Scary Movie 5 and InAPPropriate Comedy keeping misery company. But ultimately, it’s Schrader, who has a very impressive screenwriting résumé including Scorsese favourites Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and his confused direction that drives this ship into the cinematic Bermuda Triangle.
His direction is consistently absent as he searches for a meaning through all the shallow stereotypes. Since he’s too busy searching, he doesn’t give anyone else in his cast or crew a clue to go off on. Causing people like Lindsay Lohan – who is so, so lost – to have a hard enough time figuring out where they should stare during a scene.
The Canyons momentarily scratches the surface of what this film full of double crosses should’ve been. We see these slight glimmers during a table turning orgy and the film’s violent final act. But, then again, it doesn’t dig any deeper into what Ellis is trying to say during these scenes of betrayal. It’d be like someone reciting, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” and then considering themselves an expert in Shakespeare.
Like a chaotic and wet night of botched Chekhovian theatre, The Canyons doesn’t fare any better. Why no one raised a red flag at any point during pre, mid, or post-production will forever be a mystery. If only my drama class mate was there on set with a bucket of water to put Mr. Shrader and his cast out of their misery. Maybe then The Canyons would’ve been set on the right path. It’d be water-logged, but hey, being water-logged is better than being hollow.