Monthly Archives: September 2013

‘Short Term 12’ is a perfect 10

Short Term 12 is a perfect case of something I always say: as a public, we need to pay more attention to documentaries. Director Destin Cretton spent a day in 2008 with a group of kids and their guardians at a facility called ‘Short Term 12’ and turned it into a short-subject doc. Now, he has adapted his experience into a narrative feature that is as sensitive to its real-life subjects as it is imaginative and free-flowing.

Brie Larson gives a monumental performance as Grace, a full-time counselor at said facility, where preteens and teens with troubled pasts basically wait for state employees to evaluate whether they’re ready to go back to their parents or if they’re better off under better care, waiting for adulthood. 17-year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield, who was featured in Cretton’s documentary) clearly needs to wait. He’s got a lot of emotional issues that impede his ability to connect to anyone in a peaceful manner. Stanfield gives a scary good performance, clearly balancing his real experiences with what’s required for his character. There’s a great scene where we see an unedited original rap song that Stanfield wrote, with Mason (Grace’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, played by John Gallagher, Jr.) playing the bongos for his beat. The song helps us learn about Marcus and it also helps put us on the ground level with Grace and Mason, so that when we’re introduced to Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a young punk princess with a history of parental abuse similar to Grace’s, we understand the struggle that all parties involved – adults and kids – go through in this movie. They all struggle with parental relationships, whether they be adopted, as in Mason’s case (we see a whole tree of adopted children in Mason’s family), or abusive, as in Grace’s. Parents become the main stumbling block in Grace and Mason’s relationship, which becomes the driving force of the film. Larson and Gallagher, Jr. have terrific chemistry and it’s almost unbearable to watch them go through these emotional hardships because we know they would make great parents.

Cretton does a fantastic job of putting us in this world and pulling a genuine emotional reaction from his audience. The technique here deserves some praise – his ’08 doc was the research needed to make a narrative film that is lasting, powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly respectful of its subjects.

-George Napper

Lowery’s ‘Saints’ plays like a timeless bluegrass ballad

I remember David Lowery from the 2009 St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). He gave a Q&A after screening his first full-length feature, St. Nick. Since then, he has edited two of my favorite films from this year (Upstream Color and Sun Don’t Shine). Now, he has also directed one of my favorite films this year: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Lowery has clearly learned a lot since St. Nick, probably thanks in no small part to his experience working with Shane Carruth on Upstream Color. Saints feels more structured, but at the same time, more inquisitive than his first film. It begins with a robbery by lovers Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) that ends up botched in an abandoned barn. We later discover how important this barn is to Bob when he’s busted out of jail and begins to return to Ruth, who was acquitted. He’s desperate to see his three-year-old daughter for the first time and he’s obviously mad about Ruth. He’s hidden his thousands on the same plot of land where the barn stands. He thinks he can set up his idea of heaven: Bob and Ruth, without a criminal record, somewhere free, forever. Lowery wisely doesn’t telegraph anything about whether or not Bob will achieve his goal, so as an audience member, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop for most of the film. That’s not to say that the middle of the film is laborious or navel-gazing; far from it. We’re drawn into the film’s world as we meet policeman Patrick (Ben Foster), the man assigned to protect Ruth and her daughter. He takes a liking to them right off the bat, and one of the best scenes in the movie is when he admits his feelings for Ruth. We also meet Skerritt (Keith Carradine), somewhat of a local vigilante who we learn has practically raised Ruth and Bob. When Bob returns to him and tells him of his plans, Skerritt more than firmly requests he stay away from Ruth. Bob is determined, though. He dodges the law (including Patrick in a very tense scene) on multiple occasions in his quest.

It’s a delicate line this film has to walk, which it ultimately succeeds in walking. Either you’ll root for Bob, or you’ll root for the men Skerritt’s hired to go after him because if they succeed, Bob can’t cause Ruth any trouble. But by picking the latter, you’re giving a thumbs-down to a character that is eminently likeable. Affleck is dazzling here, giving Bob just the right amount of naïveté and just the right amount of panache. He’s almost like a disaffected 1930s gangster who’s still got that one job left.

Mara, whom I’ve gushed about on several occasions, gives just as amazing a performance as we’ve come to expect from her. She’s asked to do less here than in Dragon Tattoo or Side Effects, but her performance fits those parameters. She’s disaffected too, but you’re never quite sure of her true feelings about the Bob question. That’s the other bit of tension that bubbles to the surface in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. If you’re an active viewer, your question to Ruth through most of the film should be ‘do you still love him?’ That’s what’s so brilliant about this movie. It takes the lovers-on-the-lam formula and turns it on its head in subtle ways, fitting the formula into a more realistic mold, asking searing questions that may or may not have easy answers.

This is one of the best westerns to hit screens since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I am in awe of how much David Lowery has grown as a director and writer since I saw him last.

(P.S. The original score by Daniel Hart is magnificent.)

-George Napper

The older Woody gets, the more surprising he becomes

You’ve heard of Woody Allen, right? Of course you have. The guy who directed Cassandra’s Dream, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, and To Rome with Love. Wait – you don’t remember those? What about Bananas, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Interiors, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris? The point I’m trying to make is that no matter how many unmemorable or just plain bad Woody Allen films you can name, there’s at least three great ones for each stinker. That’s why the man’s been working as long as he has. He manages to make a movie that taps into the subconscious of a nation every once in a while. While it remains to be seen whether Blue Jasmine will stand the test of time and become part of the official Allen cannon, for the time being, I’m going to let it have its place in the sun, because just like Midnight in Paris, it’s a surprising work from a legendary director who could have easily become complacent at this point in his prolific career.

The incredible Cate Blanchett plays the title character. Jasmine is a fragile and fractured socialite whose life has been mainly bought for her by ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). In a humorously tragic opening scene, Jasmine relays her entire life story to a woman next to her on a plane. When the nameless woman gets her bags and finds her husband, she tells him she never said a word to Jasmine. This gets a big laugh, as it should, but it also helps us define Jasmine. She’s a special case. When she arrives in San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), she immediately believes that she can start changing Ginger’s life for the better; she basically kicks Ginger’s beau (Bobby Cannavale) to the curb, and she tells her nephews things she probably shouldn’t about her life. Over the course of the film, Jasmine learns that even if she could, she can’t control Ginger until she can learn to control her fractured mind and heart.

Jasmine’s double-sidedness is also reflected in the film’s editing – something someone says will leap in Jasmine’s mind and recall for her a simpler time before she got herself caught up in Hal’s financial scheming. All of these parts of the film lead up to a great reveal which helps explain why Jasmine is frazzled to the degree that she is.

Overall, I think this is the best film Allen’s made since Mighty Aphrodite. It’s a perfect example of a great character study – low-key, minimalist, but with just the right amount of cinematic pizazz and great writing to make something lasting and special. Cate Blanchett is a lock for the Oscar, by the way.

-George Napper

‘Mud’ proves Jeff Nichols’ status as an auteur

Director Jeff Nichols captured my attention with 2011’s Take Shelter. With Mud, he has captured my heart. In what is remarkably just his third film, he provides a career lynchpin for Matthew McConaughey, a big debut for young Tye Sheridan, and a tense grown-up Huckleberry Finn.

The story begins with Ellis (Sheridan) sneaking out of his riverside home and cruising to an island with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). They park their boat in the sand so Neckbone can show Ellis another boat, this one stuck high in the trees due to a flood. It’s an almost-mythical image, and it adds to the mystique of Mud (McConaughey), who the boys discover sleeping in ‘their’ boat. He makes them a deal: if they can help him get the boat in the water, they can have his gun. Sounds like a simple tradeoff, right? Wrong. As Ellis becomes more and more curious about Mud’s past, the darker and murkier the film gets. Ellis gets entangled in the web of corrupt law enforcement and forbidden love that Mud’s life has become. A group of crooked cops want to kill Mud for a past transgression, and Mud wants to protect his ‘girlfriend,’ the lost and flirtatious Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

McConaughey keeps the real Mud far from the audience until all the threads in Nichols’ screenplay reveal themselves, and it speaks to Nichols’ talent with actors that McConaughey’s performance is mostly introspective until about the halfway point. As Ellis, the young and talented Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) perfectly portrays the confusion of a preteen – girls, violence, and the adult world are a mystery to him; he believes that all can be set right with just a word, and he really believes in Mud. Thankfully, Mud doesn’t let him down in the end, and that scene is one of the most emotionally resonant moments I’ve seen in film all year. Sam Shepard rounds out the cast along with Nichols alums Ray McKinnon and Michael Shannon, all three giving the world of Mud its full due.

Jeff Nichols is on a roll. With Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and now this third storytelling masterpiece under his belt, there’s no telling the heights he’ll hit next. I’m excited to see where he goes and the stories he tells when he gets there.

-George Napper

Sam Rockwell is a really special actor. His kooky comedic performances add jolts of life to the comedies he’s in, i.e. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Seven Psychopaths. He has also shown a tremendous amount of dramatic range in his career with his roles in films such as Moon and Conviction. His performance in The Way, Way Back feels like the boiling point of these two sides; the making of a true movie star. 

This movie is not specifically about Rockwell’s character, though. It follows Duncan (Liam James), a hyper-awkward teenager who is forced to go along with his divorced mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter Stephanie (Zoe Levin) for a summer vacation to Trent’s beach house. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’s social ineptitude on steroids’ might be an accurate way to describe Duncan’s personality. He’s quiet and shy to the point of being uncomfortable to watch at times. He’s easy to root for, though, because Trent and his daughter are the two of the most shallow and materialistic people you could imagine existing. The imminently likeable Carrell is totally the villain here, and he actually pulls it off. In the opening scene, Trent asks Duncan what he thinks he is on a scale of one-to-ten. Duncan says he’s a six. Trent fires back with ‘You’re a three.’ Those are the stakes. We immediately want to see Duncan either become more confident and stand up to Trent’s passive-aggression or find a way out of the situation altogether.

The one bright spot in Duncan’s summer is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the literal girl-next-door who’s way out of his league but who takes an interest in him as a friend. She’s Duncan’s only escape until he discovers Water Wizz, the waterpark far from the beach house that, according to Owen (Rockwell), has not been changed at all since the 1970s. The spirit of the place was definitely never altered. Owen, who works at the park, offers Duncan a job and from that point on, the coming-of-age story really kicks in. Owen takes Duncan under his wing and helps him understand that Trent’s smarminess means nothing about who Duncan is. Rockwell gives an outstanding performance in this film; one of the best of the year. He plays the type of person that you would have wanted to be your mentor in high school. He’s riotously funny at all the right (and sometimes wrong) times, but he’s also got a sensitive, understanding side to him.

When the conflict between Duncan and Trent comes to a head, The Way, Way Back really delivers, but it doesn’t hand you some unearned bravado, stand-up-and-cheer ending, either. It does, however, open up a nice window in which Toni Collette cements her place as the anchor of the film; we realize it’s really about Duncan and his mom learning to love and appreciate each other again.

Kudos to screenwriting/directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, because in a year where so many good coming-of-age films fail to cross over into ‘great’ territory, The Way, Way Back does cross that mark because it strikes a perfect balance between drama and comedy, and it also explores its main characters from all angles and gives a fair assessment. It feels like no important stone on this beach has been left unturned.

-George Napper

Pegg and Frost lead stellar cast; Wright shows staying power in ‘World’s End’

Compared to the other films in director Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ – Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – its conclusion, The World’s End, is relatively unassuming at its outset. It begins with a high school flashback told through the eyes, or rather the beer goggles of Gary King (Simon Pegg). He gushes over the elevated emotions of a great night that he still feels was never quite right, when he and his friends attempted ‘The Golden Mile’ – twelve pubs, twelve pints. When the prologue concludes and the story of the film begins, all the boys are thirty-somethings – except for Gary. Although his papers might say different, Gary is an 18-year-old frat boy stuck in the body of an aging punk rocker. This provides tremendous comedic and dramatic fodder when he gets his band of brothers back together to attempt to finish what they started on that fateful night. When Andy (Nick Frost), whom Gary considered his best friend in high school, orders a glass of water instead of a pint, Gary is furious. But Andy and his other older-and-wiser friends (played by the terrific trio of Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) turn the tables on Gary so effectively that his role in all of this is reduced to basically a jester; the four only stick with him for the next few pubs out of some misguided sense of loyalty. But at about pub three or four, Gary takes a bathroom break that goes haywire and sets the sci-fi elements of the movie’s plot in motion.

The gang realizes that their old hometown has been taken over by an organization that wants all to conform to a few certain principles, and I love the way this ties in thematically to what’s going on in Gary’s relationship with his friends. To him, they’ve all given up. To them, he needs to shape up and join the real world. I really appreciate that Edgar Wright never drops this important dramatic through-line, even through all the chaos and the uproarious comedy in the film’s latter two-thirds. The climax of the film is a perfect blend of all the film’s best elements, from the intensely bromantic showdown between Pegg and Frost (who are both on their a-game in this movie, by the way), to the way Gary’s drunk logic helps defeat the villains of the film. It’s akin to what Wright did with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, even though that was adapted from a graphic novel series. The same way Scott has to tackle his inner demons to get to Ramona, Gary King wrestles with his own shortcomings in The World’s End and, in some ways, emerges victorious.

There has been some level of controversy over this film’s ending and whether or not it supports the piece as a whole. In a way, I think it does. Perhaps I don’t feel as strongly positive about the ending as some do, but all in all, this is another great amusement from a comedic mastermind and his loyal and very capable stable of actors.

(By the way, The World’s End got me REALLY excited to see Edgar Wright’s upcoming Marvel superhero film, Ant-Man.)  

-George Napper

‘Silence’ is anything but

Baran bo Odar’s new German crime thriller opens with a horrific incident that squeamish viewers should stay away from. But that’s not even the most chilling thing about The Silence. Right up until the very end, the film indulges in twists and turns that each reveal a new truth about the crime in question and the copycat killing that follows it 23 years later.

Katrin Sass plays Elena Lange, a middle-aged single woman whose previous life crumbled when her daughter was brutally murdered in a field and thrown into a nearby river. When the same crime takes another teenage girl 23 years later, she is thrown into psychological anguish because she’s being visited by law-enforcement workers who are trying hard to get information to the deceased girl’s parents. The Silence does a terrific job of exploring the mindset of detectives in distress. Sebastian Blomberg plays David Jahn, a detective who’s going through his own mental breakdown after the death of his wife. Oliver Stokowski plays Matthias Grimmer, a lead detective who takes issue with David’s inevitable emotionalism. Grimmer admits he’s not adept with emotions; even so, the dispute and rivalry between these two characters is so palpable and tense that you frequently forget about the crime that’s being solved and become invested in the drama of the police department. The lynchpin of all the dramatic work in the movie is Timo Friedrich (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a seemingly normal father who becomes public enemy number one after fumbling the ball on the process of dealing with his haunting past. Möhring delivers a strong performance, making Timo equal parts loveable and unsalvageable.

If I sound as though I’m being purposefully enigmatic in describing this movie’s plot, I am. When you watch The Silence, and you really should, the twists become the catalyst for the movie’s ultimate success or failure. From my perspective, the film is a HUGE success.

George Napper

(The Silence is now available for rental and purchase on iTunes)

Sweet, funny and poignant, ‘The Spectacular Now’ is everything you always wanted from a high school relationship

At my screening of ‘The Spectacular Now,’ I heard numerous people around me commenting on the events of the film. Typically, I would have been annoyed by this. But in this case, the things that were being said were more illuminating about the film itself than the fact that they were being said. I heard genuine responses like, ‘she loves him’ and ‘he’s scared’ and ‘oh no!’ To me, this illustrated how much people who see this film will truly care about its two main characters. Miles Teller plays Sutter and Shailene Woodley plays Aimee, and they are quite an unlikely high school couple. With his ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter was the life of the party and almost the king of the student body. But he’s a bit too cocky; at times, too smarmy. Teller has mastered the cadence of Vince Vaughn – he’s a salesman of self-confidence when he really has none at all. He’s got no clue as to who his dad really is (he left when Sutter was very young), he’s not concerned at all with his life beyond high school, and he’s got a serious problem with alcohol (which I will address later). After leaving him because of the last two Sutter-descriptors I just listed, Cassidy starts dating a nice guy who’s obviously a rebound, and Sutter wakes up on Aimee’s lawn on a Saturday morning with a hangover. Sutter has never given Aimee the time of day, and just by sheer virtue of his own engrossing personality, he makes her fall in love with him. Sutter’s really only halfway to true love throughout most of the movie, and the beautiful thing about ‘The Spectacular Now’ is seeing him get past his father and his alcoholism to get to Aimee.

This movie is what most high school hipsters dream about. I think it’ll get serious props from late teenagers because of the seriousness with which it treats Sutter’s problems. It doesn’t wear kid gloves when it addresses his drinking. He thinks he’s an adult, but he’s not yet. And like I said, that’s what’s great about this movie. Watching him blossom.

In lieu of a more beautiful way to sum up my thoughts about ‘The Spectacular Now’ and as a tribute to the late great Roger Ebert, I’d like to leave you with this gorgeous excerpt from his review of the film – one of the last he ever wrote:

What an affecting film this is. It respects its characters and doesn’t use them for its own shabby purposes. How deeply we care about them. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are so there. Being young is a solemn business when you really care about someone. Teller has a touch of John Cusack in his “Say Anything” period. Woodley is beautiful in a real person sort if way, studying him with concern, and then that warm smile. We have gone through senior year with these two. We have known them. We have been them.

-George Napper (with an excerpt from Roger Ebert)

Roger Ebert’s review of ‘The Spectacular Now’

‘Trance’ is a twisted, towering, epic mind-bender from Danny Boyle

trance stills

There comes a point in ‘Trance’ where the film’s plot fully unravels, caterwalling down like the rungs of a Slinky toy. That’s not to say I thought the plot was bad or completely unbelievable; far from it. I truly admired this film because it did a
complete 180 successfully.

James McAvoy plays Simon, an art thief posing as a security guard and auctioneer at an art auction-house. When a heist goes incredibly wrong, ringleader Franck (Vincent Cassel) suggests hypnotherapy to help Simon remember where he put Goya’s ‘Witches in the Air.’ Simon chooses Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), whose commanding personality leads her to Franck’s inner circle. As the hypnosis work gets deeper and the game Elizabeth begins to play with all parties involved becomes more and more complex, bits and pieces of Simon’s true history are revealed, leading up to the aforementioned climax in which Simon – believably – becomes a person completely separate from who he is in the film’s opening act.

The trio of Dawson, McAvoy and Cassel is something you can’t tear yourself away from. Their dynamics change, devolve and grow over the course of the film’s rising and falling actions. Dawson is a knockout in this movie. She graces the screen with the type of confident character that’s sadly absent from most modern English-language filmmaking. McAvoy’s switch is well-played and well-disguised early on. Cassel is always great as a smooth criminal, and in ‘Trance,’ he’s called upon to go past this easily-stereotyped character type with a certain depth of emotion, and he more than succeeds.

‘Trance’ is not without Boyle’s signature kinetics and kaleidoscopic visuals, and those serve a hypnotic purpose, which is perfectly apropos for a movie that is as hypnotizing as it is immediate and visceral.