Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Breaking the Mold
by Mark Dispenza

The Spectacular Now reinvents the teen coming-of-age film with a harder look at the challenges faced by today's youth.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is the class clown who perpetually lives in the moment. His actions are dictated entirely by what feels good to him at the time, without thought of possible consequences further down the road. He thinks he has it all, until his beautiful girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him because she sees that he has no future. She trades him in for the class president and star athlete. Getting dumped is a shock to Sutter. After all, he's a funny party guy who loves everybody, and everybody is supposed to love him back. It doesn't help that he's also an alcoholic.

Miles Teller

Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is the good girl who does think about her future, but she feels trapped by her mother, who has been emotionally despondent and helpless since her father died several years back. In direct contrast to Miles, who eschews any responsibility, Aimee has more than her fair share.

After Sutter is dumped he goes on a drinking binge and passes out on a lawn, where Aimee finds him while delivering newspapers on the route her mother is supposed to be covering. The unlikely pair begin to see more of each other, and because each has what the other needs, a close bond develops, much to everyone else's surprise.

Shailene Woodley

Sutter's relationship with Aimee also awakens in him a desire to discover who he really is, and that involves tracking down the father who deserted his family and hasn't contacted them since. Sutter's mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has always avoided talking about her ex-husband and won't tell Sutter how to find him. When Sutter does find him, he'll discover it's like looking in a mirror, and he'll be terrified by what he sees.

The screenplay written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, from the novel by Tim Tharp, is a brilliant exploration of how parents influence us, even in their absence. It's also a young man's cathartic journey to discover the past that molded him and face the choice to make himself a better and more responsible human being.

Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) gets a lot of the credit for creating the canvas that allows two fine young actors to excel in their roles. Teller and Woodley are called upon to portray a wide range of emotion, often expressing state of mind with little more than facial expression. It is a near-certainty that both will come off of this film with considerabe acclaim, much as already happened with Woodley following her turn in The Descendants.

It's little wonder that The Spectacular Now has generated such positive buzz among critics and was an audience favorite at its Sundance Film Festival debut.



Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine

The Harder They Fall                        
by Mark Dispenza

Woody Allen's latest film is short on laughs and long on social commentary. A departure from Allen's usual shtick, Blue Jasmine is a well-constructed character study of a socialite's fall from grace.  

I haven't heard it yet, but I won't be surprised if Cate Blanchett's performance as Jasmine generates an Academy Award nomination.  Perhaps this late summer release date was targeted to bolster her chances.  It it comes to pass, it will be an honor she richly deserves.

Jasmine is a Hamptons housewife-type whose life has been shattered by the arrest, conviction and suicide of her once super-wealthy husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin).  The problem was that Hal's wealth was built upon a giant ponzi scheme that netted many victims over the years he kept it afloat with creative financial and legal maneuverings.

Among the victims were Jasmine's sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).  Ginger  did not share her sister's financial good fortune in marriage.  She barely gets by as a checker in a neighborhood grocery store.  Augie is a small contractor who came into good luck after he acquired a winning lottery ticket.  Unfortunately Jasmine and Ginger talked him into investing the money with Hal, rather than pursuing his dream of starting his own business.  

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay

After years of avoiding contact with her working class sister, Jasmine, now financially destitute and recently released from a psychiatric hospital, is forced to seek her assistance to survive.  But Jasmine can't accept her new poverty, and she spends much of her energy seeking out creative ways to restore her life of privilege, whether through her own entrepreneurial efforts or by marrying back into it.

As the story unfolds both in real-time and in flashback, it becomes apparent that Jasmine is an expert at looking the other way.  Although she professes to be yet another victim of her husband's deception, she is not the air-headed socialite she affects.  It was her choice to turn a blind eye as evidence mounted of Hal's financial machinations and his serial betrayal of their marriage.  

Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin

Intentional or not, Allen has created a powerful parable of how the blind pursuit of wealth for its own sake corrupts the soul and destroys all it touches.  Although in many ways, Allen's script comes across as a European intellectual's smug parable about the demise of American privilege in the world, and good riddance to its exploitative origins and corrupting influence, it would be a mistake to dismiss the film so readily.

This is easily Allen's smartest and most serious work to-date.  Whether or not you agree with the film's pessimistic tone, it is an insightful view into the nature of the wealth-obsessed.  Despite Hal and Jasmine's generous support of charities, nothing they do will make up for the evil upon which they built their ultimately fragile opulence.

Jasmine is toxic to everyone she comes in contact with.  Despite Ginger's humble life she is happy and fulfilled.  That changes every time Jasmine attempts to remake her in her own image.  The scorecard for Jasmine's interference is a failed marriage, a lost nest egg and the disruption of Ginger's new relationship with grease monkey, Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale in one of the film's most entertaining performances.

Self-deception is Jasmine's greatest forte.  The illusions upon which she based her life are fracturing, and so is Jasmine's mind.  She dulls the pain with alcohol, but there will never be enough booze or money to repair what is broken inside of her.  

Cate Blanchett

Blanchett's performance is a key component of what makes the film work.  Although it's easy to loathe her superficial values and condescending dismissal of working class people, Blanchett somehow manages to convey the psychological underpinnings of fear and vulnerability that drive Jasmine.  In spite of everything she's done, it's hard not to feel sorry for her and hope that somehow she gets her values straight and her life back in order.

Allen doesn't hold much hope for that.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Give It a Year

Sometimes It's Better to Wait             
by Mark Dispenza

I Give It a Year is a romantic comedy that breaks the mold.  We've all seen it in real life.  A close friend or family member falls madly in love with a partner who is obviously - to everyone else - ill-suited.

It reminds me in tone of my favorite anti-romantic comedy, 500 Days of Summer, although I believe the latter to be the better film.  The humor from writer-director, Dan Mazer (Borat, Bruno) is hit and miss, but when it hits it's both hysterical and original.

Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne

Nat (Rose Byrne) marries Josh (Rafe Spall) after a whirlwind 7-month courtship. None of their friends and family see the match and go as far as to predict the union won't last beyond one year.  As the marriage progresses, and attractive rivals both old and new come into the picture, it becomes harder and harder for the two to remain faithful.

Nat meets Guy (Simon Baker of the TV series, The Mentalist), a new client at her firm, and the attraction is immediately both mutual and powerful.  Much of the comedy from that point on revolves around Nat's weakening resistance to Guy's aggressive romantic overtures, one of which involves the release of white doves in a private dining room at a swanky hotel.  The presence of a ceiling fan leads to unanticipated complications.

Josh is tempted by the return of old girlfriend, Chloe, played by the delightful Anna Faris (the Scary Movie franchise, The House Bunny).  In a classic case of bad timing, the two are forced to confront the lack of closure in their previous relationship and face their unresolved feelings of love.

Simon Baker and Anna Faris

Although I enjoyed actors, Byrne, Baker and Faris in their respective roles, I felt that Spall was miscast.  He is much too handsome and earnest-looking to successfully pull off a character with an inner idiot dying to get out.  It's not that he's a bad actor, it's just that he stretched the suspension of disbelief too many times in that particular role.  The experience was akin to watching Prince William attempt an impression of Jim Carey.

All in all, it's not a bad way to spend an evening if you are a fan of romantic comedy and British humor, with a twist of social farce.  The film is scheduled for a limited theatrical release later this month, but you can download it and watch it now with iTunes.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Friendship and Sex                         
by Mark Dispenza

Drinking Buddies is a very different kind of buddy film.  A genre that goes back to the beginning of cinematic history, the buddy film has been done almost every imaginable way.

We've had buddy cop films and buddy comedies.  We've even had bromances.  Although most have been from the male perspective, recently we've seen women get their due in films like Bridesmaids and The Heat.  But rarely do the sexual lines cross, and when they do we get When Harry Met Sally, which fulfills the accepted wisdom of mainstream society.  Men and women can't really be just friends.

Drinking Buddies is scheduled for theatrical release on August 23 but is currently available for advance screening on VOD from iTunes.  It's a slow weekend for good indie films if you've already seen Fruitvale Station and The Way, Way Back, so I took the advice of an online reviewer and stayed home to download Drinking Buddies.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson

Set at a craft brewery in Chicago, the story follows Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), two coworkers who are inseparable, so close they can finish each other's sentences.  They eat lunch together; they tease each other relentlessly; they hang out with coworkers for a brew after work.

Kate is in a relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston). Luke is in the middle of a six-year relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), and the two are talking a lot more about marriage these days.  Although it's obvious that Kate and Luke care deeply about one another and are sensitive to the other's emotional states, they have never been intimate in the biblical sense of the term.

When Kate and Chris hit a relationship crisis, the sexual tension between Kate and Luke begins to heat up.  Her emotional state deteriorates, forcing a very concerned Luke to push the boundaries of intimacy to keep her from making stupid decisions, as she begins to take solace in drink and even casual sex with the boss.

Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston

Drinking Buddies is billed as a romantic comedy, although I found it to be light on comedy.  The title of the film suggests slapstick or even raunchy laughs, but you won't find either here.  This is a definitely a fresh take on the buddy film genre, and it explores a subject that hasn't been addressed much at the movies - the concept that men and women can develop close friendships that don't lead to marriage or sexual intimacy.

I found the film to be on the light side in terms of entertainment, with the twist on the genre as the primary reason to recommend it.  It's definitely an actors' film, giving its cast ample opportunity to engage conversationally and emotionally, without the need to play against a green screen.  I feel that the film would have been more enjoyable if the filmmaker, Joe Swanberg, had written more effective dialogue for the cast instead of relying entirely on improvisation.  The lack of subtext in the actors' lines becomes apparent as the story unfolds.  This results in conversation that are just a cut above the uninteresting reality of on-the-nose dialogue, but not interesting enough to challenge the audience.

Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick

Luke comes across as a man content with his life, and although he's certainly capable of making mistakes or letting his temper get the better of him, he's a level-headed sort who won't get into too much trouble.  On the other hand, it's clear from Kate's very first scene with boyfriend, Chris, that she hasn't found what she wants.  In fact she may be seeking escape from deep-seated emotional issues using alcohol and sex as enablers.  Her friendship with Luke may be the only thing keeping her grounded.

The accepted wisdom of society is that sex will always keep men and women from being true friends.  The apparent appeal of this film to younger reviewers may indicate that expectation is changing.  I've been fortunate to have very close female friends in my life, whom I love dearly and with whom I've never been sexually intimate.

I recognize that, like the friends of my own sex, there are mutual interests and viewpoints that connect us, but there are also differences that would lead to disaster if we crossed the line into the close quarters of day-to-day intimacy.  Sometimes addiction is the problem.  Sometimes we are temperamentally unsuited for prolonged regular contact, and sometimes we share a love of certain things but little interest or even patience with other interests.

The appeal of this film is a hopeful message that our capacity for love can grow to include a whole world beyond our own families and intimate partners.  In other words, love and friendship can be about more than just our own neediness and insecurity.