November Criminals (2017)

November Criminals

I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be okay. High school student Addison Schach (Ansel Elgort) is the only guy in class trusted by his friend Phoebe Zeleny (Chloë Grace Moretz) to take her virginity before they leave high school. While they’re engaging in sex for the first time classmate Kevin Broadus (Jared Kemp) is shot dead in the bakery where they’ve just left him.  Addison is still dealing with the trauma of his mother’s sudden death six months earlier but his father Theo (David Strathairn) doesn’t grasp the extent of his emotional problems. When the police treat the boy’s death as part of gang activity Addison can’t accept it and undertakes his own investigation with Phoebe reluctantly tagging along, knowing that her well-connected mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is already wary of the association with Addison. They soon discover that there is more to the case than meets the eye…  I don’t want you to get involved with something that will most definitely hurt you. Adapted by Steven Knight and director Sacha Gervasi from the novel by Sam Munson this is a strangely restrained piece of work, clearly bursting with a fast-extinguished passion that doesn’t actually go anywhere, rather like the thwarted protagonist. Elgort and Moretz are sympathetic and engaging (and were previously paired in the remake of Carrie) but are not given enough with the script which already has a short running time at 85 minutes. It’s a combination of family drama and crime thriller but its generic ambitions don’t fully mesh in a story which is essentially about a naive approach to bereavement:  this boy is no private eye. There are nice scenes with the respective parents, Strathairn and Keener, and the lo-fi approach to technology (pagers, colour VHS recording) makes a nice alternative to the social media used in most contemporary teen movies, but it’s an unfulfilled premise. That’s how life is: it provides these accidental answers. Or it seems to. You have to judge by results

3 Generations (2017)

Three Generations

I’m a boy with tits. I can appropriate whatever I want. Hoping to get support from his single artist mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and Lesbian jazz club proprietor grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon) (and her live-in girlfriend Frances, played by Linda Emond), 16-year old Ray born Ramona (Elle Fanning) prepares to transition from female to male. When Maggie dithers over signing her permission due to Ray’s age, she then finds out that Ray’s father Craig’s (Tate Donovan) signature is also required but he hasn’t been in the picture for a very long time. An encounter between the teen’s parents turns into a confrontation with Ray finally taking matters into her own hands …  Just because you’re the parent doesn’t mean you get to decide when we talk about this.  In an era characterised by intense identity politics perhaps there is none so troubling a topic as the idea that children can choose their own gender despite their given genitalia. This lays out the argument inside this unusual family setup – cool Lesbian grandmother plus her girlfriend, an unmarried mother, an androgynous daughter living as a boy. Then it takes a melodramatic skew that leads one to the unexpected conclusion that this situation is the result of precisely this boho unconventionality – who’s the daddy? A narrative turn that seems to upend the entire raison d’être avoiding the very premise it proposes to address. However it’s well played – very well, particularly by Sarandon who gets the lion’s share of biting dialogue; and Fanning in a very difficult and paradoxically limited role – by a seasoned cast grappling with a very millennial issue. Ultimately a film that suggests that in a world of parents who cannot make up their minds, tell the truth or act responsibly, it falls upon the unfortunate confused kids to make adult decisions, promising a reckoning in the years to come following this contemporary experiment in biology. Written by Nikole Beckwith with director Gaby Dellal. I get to stop feeling like someone else

Les enfants terribles (1950)

Les enfants terribles

Aka The Strange Ones. Beauty enjoys immense privileges, even from those unaware of it. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and her brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe) live isolated from much of the world after Paul is injured in a snowball fight at school. As a coping mechanism, the two conjure up a hermetically sealed dream of their own making filled with fetish objects and strange obsessions. Their relationship, however, isn’t exactly wholesome and when their ailing mother (Karin Lannby) dies the wider world intrudes and they are taken on holiday to the seaside to try to readjust. Back home their friend Gérard (Jacques Bernard) moves in and jealousy and a malevolent undercurrent intrude on their fantasy life:  he secretly likes her but she proves difficult to know.  Elisabeth starts modelling for Gerard’s uncle’s (Roger Gaillard) company and invites the strange girl from work Agathe (Renée Cosima) to stay with them – and Paul is immediately attracted to her:  she resembles all the images of the people – male and female – he hero-worships, as well as his nemesis, Dargelos. Elisabeth marries Michael (Melvyn Martin) a rich Jewish American man but he is killed immediately after their wedding and she inherits a large apartment. There, Paul tries to replicate the bedroom he shared with Elisabeth and reveals his love of Agathe to the shock of his sister  … Elisabeth never thanked anyone. She was used to miracles, also they came as no surprise. She expected them, and they never failed to happen. Jean Cocteau’s poetic 1929 novel translates to the screen as a mesmerising study in adolescence, obsession and solitude, testing the limits of imagination, impossible wish-fulfillment and the consequences. Director Jean-Pierre Melville directs Stéphane to the height of controlled hysteria and betrayal with the insinuations of many sexual inclinations subtly inflected in the text. The dream sequences are perfectly announced in the use of Vivaldi – such a startling and memorable combination in a narrative told by Cocteau himself. She married him for his death

Picnic (1955)

Picnic

Why should anyone be interested in him? Former college football star and failed Hollywood actor Hal Carter (William Holden) is drifting through Kansas and stops in Neewollah where his old fraternity buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) is dating beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak) whom Hal meets when he’s doing chores for her elderly neighbour Mrs Potts (Verna Felton) who immediately sees he’s hungry and has fallen on hard times. Alan’s father owns the grain elevators in the town and Alan promises Hal a job but it’s Labor Day and Alan says his date at the town picnic can be Madge’s little sister Millie (Susan Strasberg). The Owens’ boarder, unmarried teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) gets drunk on the whisky that store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O’Connell) brings and her violent jealousy of Madge and Hal’s obvious romantic attraction causes a commotion and disrupts Alan and Madge’s relationship to Mrs Owens’ (Betty Field) horror, who wants Madge to marry well, unlike her …  I liked you from the first time I saw you. This lushly romantic if rather heavy-handed adaptation of William Inge’s play by Daniel Taradash retains its power principally through the expressive masculinity of Holden as the overgrown hunk and the several phases of womanhood represented by the female cast. Russell is shocking as the put-out spinster and O’Connell impresses as her trapped bird of a suitor. Strasberg is fantastic as beautiful Madge’s pigtailed little sister. Novak is Novak – a smalltown girl with a future due to her exquisite looks. What is stunning still is the big scene between Novak and Holden – that dance, to Moonglow, one of the most sensual ever captured on film. It’s simply breathtaking. What a perfect mid-century moment in a film of such feeling, capturing the difference between night and day like few other movies. Directed by Josh Logan, scored by George Duning with Robertson in his debut. You love me. You love me!

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade

The topic of today’s video is being yourself. With weeks left before entering high school, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) realises the upbeat motivational videos she is posting online do not reflect who she truly is – an insecure 14-year old daughter of an overly concerned divorced father Mark (Josh Hamilton) who has to be invited to the cool kids’ parties by their parents. She falls head over heels for Aiden (Luke Prael) but gets turned off by his desire for a blow job and freaks out when high schooler Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) offers to give her some real life sexual experience.  She settles for friendship with nerdy Gabe (Jake Ryan) … The topic of today’s video which is supercool is how to be confident. Yet another film that proves the hoary old adage that only occurs to you when this period of your life is past:  youth is entirely wasted on the young. Writer/director Bo Burnham mines the dreadful narcissism (medicalised as ‘anxiety’) that plagues a generation seemingly terminally unable to function without nailing the most fleeting of silly thoughts to the interweb where their shadow haunts them to the death. If I had a social media channel I’d use it to advise this kid, See an orthodontist.  And, as she figures out, Fake it till you make it, which is the ironic lesson here but it doesn’t come from the wussy dad (I mean…). There is a fantastic film about a girl adopting a contrary personality and sex history to suit the gossip mongers winging her way through the peer pressure Hell that is school and it’s not this humourless navel-gaze of misery, it’s Easy A, a hilarious satirical exercise that also critiques Hawthorne with an upturned finger. Watch that instead. What is it, when society has come to this? Goodness only knows. Millennials suck. Whatever happened to homework? Exams? Like. Etc. Growing up is really scary and weird

Personal Affair (1953)

Personal Affair

You see sex in everything! 17-year old Barbara Vining (Glynis Johns) is infatuated with her Latin teacher Stephen Barlow (Leo Genn) who’s married to lonely and insecure American woman Kay (Gene Tierney). When Barbara disappears after a private tutoring session with Stephen and Kay notices the girl’s crush on her husband, rumours swirl and he has to defend himself from the suspicion that he may have  raped and murdered her … I don’t think we are really ourselves in school hours. Lesley Storm adapted her stage play A Day’s Mischief;  she had form in that regard, having written the original play The Great Day, also adapted for cinema. She was an established screenwriter, contributing additional scenes and dialogue for Graham Greene’s The Fallen Idol and Adam and Evelyne and writing several other screenplays, with another Greene adaptation, The Heart of the Matter, released the same year as this, 1953. This mines a rich seam of prurient gossip and innuendo in a small community and with a great supporting cast including Megs Jenkins and Walter Fitzgerald as Barbara’s parents, Pamela Brown as her aunt who had a permanent disappointment in love at a similar age that has poisoned her outlook on relationships, Thora Hird as the Barlows’ housekeeper and Michael Hordern as the headmaster, and a raft of young (if not yet familiar) faces like Shirley Eaton and Nanette Newman (in her first role) playing her school chums. William Alwyn’s exacting score underlines the melodramatic urgency of the story which paradoxically takes place mostly in conversation between the adults who admit their misunderstanding of human behaviour and the subtlety of instinct while three women at different stages of life enact their experience of love and potentially its loss.  Directed by Anthony Pelissier. I’m no good without you

 

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Instant Family (2018)

Instant Family.jpg

Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight

Little Women (2019)

Little Women.jpg

If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for