Only the Young

A coming of age film about Christian youth trying to rebel? I’ll admit, this is one indie film concept I didn’t see coming. I’m intrigued, but really, how original is a story about little hipster Christian kids trying to find themselves while realizing there’s more out there than just God’s word (which will no doubt keep being rammed down their throat until they fall in line)? Even if they don’t rebel in their youth (or ever), they’re going to become hypocrites one day regardless. All brainwashed, non-thinkers do.

The Descendants

If The Descendants was set in any other state than Hawaii, it would have been a completely different (probably worse) film. What a difference a location makes. Think of how many movies you see on a regular basis where the location is basically interchangeable or even unremarkable. Not in this case. It’s a mean trick because not only is it a gorgeously eye-melting location, the film uses the location to also support a meaningful environmental and societal cause for the local Hawaiian communities.

Clooney’s critically applauded little film is almost a companion piece to Up in the Air, the last smart, memorable little indie drama he did. I never would have thought to compare the styles of director Alexander Payne (The Descendants) and Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), but if you watched them back-to-back you’d almost guess they were the same director.

Payne’s style in Descendants is a little less heavy on the schlubby man spectacle than his previous efforts, Sideways and About Schmidt, but nonetheless utterly depressing. This is well-traversed and familiar territory for Payne, and he handles the material well, but it’s the addition of the young daughters to the story that really bring out the best in the film. Their interaction with Clooney as the disaffected father whose just coming to his senses thanks to a jarring turn of events, is typical, but welcomed.

Like most movies in this vein the children seem to be more observant and in touch with reality than the adults – isn’t that always the case? Maybe they see life from a narrower focus, preventing them from having to deal with the added pressures of literally everything else in the world… or, maybe, it’s actually the other way around. Either way, the film deserves all the credit it’s received; superb, engaging acting and an enthralling – albeit soap-operatic script hold up the simple, straightforward visuals (and really how can you make a film in Hawaii without an audience being enamored?). The fact is though, you probably won’t ever have the urge to revisit the movie in the future, it’s just not that kind of movie.

The Freebie

If The Freebie wasn’t about sex I think I would have liked it a more. Substitute the free-pass to an adulterous one-night stand with a free-pass to say, trying crystal meth, and this film would have probably been at turns hilarious and dramatic. Instead it’s just a film that supposes it’s for modern-day male and female hipsters, made by hipsters; yet nothing about this is anything close to hip. It’s almost a slap in the face to anyone at that hip twenty-to-thirtysomething age that seems to assume and stereotype them into also being generally without direction and terminally noncommittal.

The main couple is played by Dax Shepard and Kate Aselton who, uninspired and unexcited by their marriage anymore, yet too weak to just fucking divorce, decide to give each other “a freebie” with someone else. Onscreen this couple is so bored and lifeless in their relationship that besides the obvious intention of depicting how unconnected they are, it just serves to alienate the audience to the point of nausea. The fact that they even still remain together is just a nail in their coffin. The storyline is acted out like the self-indulgent drivel that the writing unfortunately is. To think this was a Sundance Writer’s Workshop script is disappointing. What other aspiring filmmaker was bumped of the opportunity to work on his/her script at Sundance so shit this could be made?

I see a lot of films and regardless of The Freebie being almost 2-years old, many of the films hitting the circuit right now are easily falling into this (attemptedly) hip, (attemptedly) irreverent, romantic comedy/drama for the twenty-to-thirtysomething set, and it’s really just the latest indie film-fad. Just like the edgier zombie films and environmental docu-dramas of recent years, films like these will always have a self-life and how they keep showing up in brand name festivals is beyond me, and how they ultimately find distribution is every more bewildering.

No Vacancy

As indie comedies go, No Vacancy, the 1999 sort-of-ensemble indie comedy tries desperately to be off the wall and kooky, but just falls flat and limp all over. It’s really a shame too, because it’s got some great character actors that I’d follow any cinematic route they go. Joaquim de Almeida is one of my personal faves. If you haven’t already, check out one of his best portrayals in The Burning Plain (which I reviewed previously, here). It’s also starring Christina Ricci, and I’m thinking in 1999 she was the primary reason for this movie ever being made or shed any light upon.

Ricci is okay, nothing spectacular for her oeuvre or anything, but the best thing about her performance is how she’s inter-cut throughout the film. There’s a nice editing pace to the whole feature, but in simple afterthought, much of this film is superfluous and could be cut. It’s one of those rom-com’s where pretty much every character ends up finding the person they’re meant to be with by the end of the movie. Now, yes, I may be a cynic, but I’m all for happy ending love stories in the cinema. I just don’t like the ones that waste my time up until the two people get together. Honestly, this would have probably been much better as a short. The characters are so easily pigeonholed, no back story is even necessary to involve the audience right from the first scenes.

Timothy Olyphant is Ricci’s “true” love interest, a refrigerator repairman who lives in Tarzana, just outside of Los Angeles. The story uses him as a sort of pivot point, like a compass, he guides the story where it wants to go next for the most part. The crazy cast of characters are all Hollywood rejects and oddballs who live together (and/or are just passing through) in a neon-lit side-of-the-road motel in the middle of Dead-ville.

In room #1 we have the virtuoso violinist who no one “gets” because, you know, he’s a genius, and no one ever “gets” geniuses in movies. Next door to him are two doped up losers who’ve had a long night of partying with some escorts above their budget. Then there’s the new age-y woman, played annoyingly by Lolita Davidovich. She makes people drink beet juice, wears weirdly colorful bile-based exfoliating masks and doesn’t know when to stop.

Anyway, you get the point, right? It’s your standard cast of lovable idiots, they’ll all eventually meet, the obvious conflicts will ensue and be handled, and once you see it, you’ll wish you could get your 80+ minutes back. Oh, and as a sort of coda, the filmmakers thought it would be funny to show a cat electrocuted in a pool! Just in case you didn’t like the movie up until that point, you know.

Down To The Bone

Vera Farmiga gives an amazing performance as Irene in this nail-you-to-the-ground gritty drama from director Debra Granik. It’s hard to move away from the screen when Irene is faced with making her next decision to move the story forward. As an actress she’s clearly losing herself in the role and it’s a fantastic performance. You almost feel bad for her when she gets the nose ring at the tattoo/piercing parlor and it’s clearly a fake costume prop. Irene wouldn’t let that go.

It all begins in the greyness of upstate New York where Irene finds herself efficiently killing time until the next hit of coke by running groceries (that she herself can’t even afford) across the price scanner at her cashier day job. Like many alcoholics are fully functioning, she’s a fully functioning cokehead, raising two little boys and holding down some semblance of a marriage and normal life. But it’s the normal life that appears to be getting to her, and so she finds herself stealing away moments at home with her children to snort a line of coke.

What’s even more interesting of a plot twist is when Irene makes the seemingly good decision of checking herself into a rehab center after an all too Hollywood like encounter with a patriotic and caring drug dealer. Yeah. And while that moment in the script had me having my doubts about the film, it’s once Irene hits rehab on her own that things really begin to happen. Making progress, she begins to fall for a male nurse named Bob who seems to be able to help her stay off the junk. As scriptwriters would have it though, it doesn’t take long before they both begin to bring each other down.

While Irene is finally able to cope with her life now that she has Bob in it, Bob, on the other hand, is not able to cope anymore. After five years of sobriety he falls off the wagon during one of their rendezvous’s in the city. It’s clear that Bob is not completely happy with Irene, as she is happy with him, and so their downward spiral begins. Her love for him provides her the ability to trust him, and that trust is quickly betrayed. At this point in the film, Farmiga has built up a character so rich and complex in her simplicity for life, that it’s hard to leave her story behind as a viewer.

Granik at times almost seems to want to trick us into thinking Irene’s life (and the children’s even) would be better served by a mother with coke available for daily use, but that’s obviously just not so, and in reality it’s that we’ve begun to care so much for Irene, that we almost are willing to sacrifice all we know is right just to see this film end happy. That’s why Granik’s ending is perfect. The final moments in the film give rise to a point in Irene’s life that she may have never been able to reach at the beginning of the story, but finally she can. Like the title pre-supposes, Irene throughout the film will be stripped down to the bone, and able to finally see what, if anything, there is in her life that she cares about. While she may be the only drug-addled mother in America who finds hope in her children instead of resentment and annoyance, she’s an inspiration to be a better mother for anyone who faces the same trajectory in their life.

The Puffy Chair

Director Jay Duplass uses the natural intimacy with his brother to great effect in The Puffy Chair, an indie rom-com that borders on the bane of the 2000s’ cinema fad: mumblecore. Thankfully, the Duplasses know how to pull just the best traits of the mumblecore movement out and employ them for their own work. Actors are everyday people is the main m-core method here, and actually, the acting is rather superb. It’s effortless and unnoticeable to the audience. The home movie camera work is the other side of that coin though, with hundreds of zooms and way too much reliance on the auto focus feature, the Duplasses film has the feeling of any minute the characters turning to look in the lens and say “Hi, Mom!”

The best part of The Puffy Chair is the final scenes. It’s meaningful and the characters are actually incredibly likable in spite of their individual issues and selfishness. Watching the film is like sitting through a therapy session and reflecting on all the traits you don’t like about yourself and/or how badly you handle relationships because of aforementioned issues and selfishness. The movie could be considered a lot of things: a road movie is one of them. Again, the filmmakers know how to utilize the critical moments from such a genre and manipulate them into their own.

The main characters are Josh (Mark Duplass) and Emily (played wonderfully by Kathryn Aselton whom you may recognize from other, less interesting indie rom-coms like The Freebie). Emily is supposed to appear pretty high maintenance, but in reality it feels more like she is just not a person who is happy with her life. She is trying to convince herself she is happy with Josh, but his lack of romanticism and general depiction of unconcern for others is preventing her from getting closer. At one point in their trip we’re introduced to his brother, a wannabe free spirit (and unconvincing, at that), who videotapes chameleons in the yard. It’s interesting because Emily finds herself fascinated with the videotape of the lizard all the while never realizing that her boyfriend is exactly that: a chameleon. Josh is a manipulator and the image of whatever you want him to be, and Emily is just starting to see this. Even his motives are not unique to him; when Emily walks out one night, he shows up the next morning holding a radio up over his head outside his window in his best Say Anything impression.

By the end of their road trip and the end of the film, there are a number ways the story could go, and the story takes the most appropriate one for the characters. While you can’t really watch this film and say it’s perfect or flawless, you can say it’s important, relevant and humble. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it humblecore.

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona is an unhopeful romantic comedy that brilliantly sums up relationship neuroses. It employs the ever-useful “triangle” that many of the best films in the romance genre rely upon. There’s nothing really new here, but the insight into these characters is maddening. It’s the reason to keep coming back to Allen’s films. It’s truly the gift that he is able to bring to nearly all of his work: comical, cognitive, self-psychosis.

Allen unfolds his movie as though we were reading it from a book. There are three characters:

  • Vicky,
  • Christina, and
  • Barcelona/Juan Antonio.

It’s immediately made apparent that Vicky and Christina are opposites romantically. They do have one thing in common: they love Barcelona (Juan Antonio, too). Vicky loves by using her head, primarily; Christina loves by using her heart. This becomes problematic when each woman eventually finds herself unhappy.

A woman who is more rigid, structured and thoughtful (Vicky), will begin turning to her heart and giving in to her emotions when she grows unhappy. She will wonder why she has spent all her life thinking everything through, choosing the safest bets and residing in the shadows of her other half, until finally she realizes that shutting off her emotions may be more practical, but less fulfilling.

A woman who is loose with her heart, follows her feelings as they occur and cares less about the practicality of it all (Christina), will begin turning to her conscience when she grows unhappy. She will wonder why she has spent all of her life following her heart, when her heart only lets her down. When quick, intense bursts of passion, love or feeling occur in her life, she’ll feel satisfied, but as it won’t be sustainable for her, she’ll soon turn to resigning herself to an emotionless existence.

To be able to find the delicate balance between both these women is virtually impossible I would imagine. Vicky and Christina are doppelgangers; they are both types of a woman, who if melded into one would maybe be truly happy in their life. Allen, smartly, deals with only the basest of human emotions in these characters; they’re pretty easy to read. Certainly no trouble for Juan Antonio.

Juan Antonio (played superbly by Javier Bardem) is a self-esteem-less artist who hides in Spain and uses its beauty and culture to attract Christina and Vicky, respectively. Christina likes his flamboyance, gall and all-around avant-garde-ness. Vicky succumbs to his sensitivity and ability to not be crushed by her, while still allowing her power over him.

The set up is simple: When Juan sees them both together, he wants them both. He is very forthcoming about this. We learn that he has a violently passionate past with another woman (and artist), María (played by Penélope Cruz). When she comes back into his life we discover just how crazy she is, and crazy about him. Juan starts up an affair with Christina who he devotes a substantial amount of time to, and eventually she moves in with him.

On Christina and Vicky’s first night with Juan Antonio, he tries to get them both to spend the night with him. Vicky is appalled and declines, protesting how she has a husband whom she loves dearly. Christina accepts the invitation. In a stroke of fate, however, she gets sick right as they kiss, an (in)convenient result of her ulcer. Is the carefree love life she leads stressing her out? At any rate, she’s laid up for the next couple of days, and this leaves Vicky to the devices of Juan Antonio. He takes her to meet his father; gets to know her personally; and, by the end of the night, despite her protests it’s evident where her heart lies.

Juan Antonio (rather manipulatively) assumes it’s a one night stand with Vicky, and instead becomes easily enamored by Christina. Soon Christina and Juan are living together, Vicky is married, and Juan Antonio moves María back in to his house after an ill-fated suicide attempt. María soon, depravedly, forces the love affair between Juan and Christina into a threesome and for a while its fun for Christina, but she quickly tires and moves on.

From here we see Vicky find her way back into Juan Antonio’s life (as she appears restless in her marriage) and so on and so forth. It’s a convoluted love story that when seen close up appears incredibly disturbed and immature, but if you take a step back, it actually all makes sense and will no doubt have you in heated debate with your loved one thereafter.

What We Do Is Secret

The L.A. punk rock scene in the late ’70s produced a lot of noteworthy bands and even more one-hit wonders. None was so “one-hit” though as The Germs. Punk, as a subculture, is no stranger to violence and self-destruction, but L.A. punk was more clean-cut in its appeal than East Coast punk. More… glamorous. If there’s one area in which this cult classic-aspiring film What We Do Is Secret does excel, it’s depicting the systematic destruction of a punk icon by his need to maintain image.

Let’s break it down. First there’s the blue circle: perfection; a branding; lead singer Darby Crash (played by Shane West) always wears it. But the idea of punk rock is to not subscribe to a branding or perfection, so it seems in direct opposition to any punk band’s way of life. I think that’s what bothers me most about The Germs and singer Darby Crash in general. What’s more, this (in places) badly acted biopic of the rise and fall of the band hints at this same concern of mine (whether or not they intended too).

The Germs basically are started in a fit of milquetoast boredom. They don’t know how to play any of their instruments, the singing is less than spectacular, but the lyrics of Crash are decent and youthfully powerful. On their first gig, Crash feels compelled to slash himself across the chest with a shard of broken glass, in maybe in an effort to appear violent or menacing, but all he ends up looking is disillusioned. At any rate, the crowds in the punk scene are looking for anything that involves cutting or bashing or breaking or beating, so Crash finds himself causing disarray and horror at many of their following gigs. Once they get a bad name for themselves (with club owners), they basically can’t play anymore in L.A.

Do they every consider going anywhere else? No. Or, at least not Darby. But just when you think punks don’t travel, he heads off to London in a vain attempt to forget the capitalist suckling he’s been doing on both his mother-figure of a groupie/manager and the whatever little reward came of The Germs’ debut album getting a release. He comes back from London (where he was impressed by music that would not appear to be his style, e.g. The Go-Go’s, Adam and the Ants) with a mohawk and plays one final show in L.A. (the only one that will book him). When no one at the L.A. gig gets the new image (which you’d think the idea of being different was part of a punk rocker’s joie de vivre) the next time we see him he’s changed his hairstyle.

This film doesn’t do anyone justice and certainly doesn’t make any great, defining points. The Germs were always overshadowed by their own scene, always concerned with their own appearance and style and many of the members (who stayed on the longest) wanted to do something more with the band. The film also lightly infers Crash was homosexual, but then suddenly seems to drop it. At the end we see where apparently Crash died on the same night as John Lennon, so of course he was overshadowed by that too. Oh well.

Shane West apparently garnered some appreciation somewhere in his role as lead singer of The Germs, as the band reunited and have been touring with him since. Too bad I’ll never see them.

Permanent Vacation

Jim Jarmusch’s first full length film feels like his most ominous as well. Of all his work, it may be my least favorite – story wise – and my most favorite, cinematically. It’s really an effort in capturing tones, in capturing existing.

“Allie” Parker is the focal point of the entire film, existing in nearly every shot after the opening. We see him exist and semi-interact with his girlfriend at their sparse apartment. We see him skulk around the dilapidated landscape of New York City. We see him visit his mother at the mental hospital. We see him come across a number of odd characters whose purpose seems little more than backdrop. Finally, we see him steal a convertible Mustang, which he then gets $800 for and promptly ditches town. As the film ends, Allie gets on a boat and the boat eventually pulls away leaving in it’s wake the late seventies New York City skyline. Allie has finally got out.

Jarmusch’s later films all touch on travel in some way or another, and there are a host of other elements in Permanent Vacation that a Jarmusch-ite will no doubt recognize. John Lurie pops up as a wandering saxophone player on the grimy city streets at night. I’m a sucker really for anything visually involving the decay of urban landscapes, and that is one area where this film doesn’t disappoint. Actually, it is a poignant first film for Jarmusch and one that perfectly begins his oeuvre. A film about wanting to escape the trappings of New York City, and even though Jarmusch will come back to NYC in later works, this one definitely seems the most personal.

I think the last line out of Allie as he’s about to leave NYC for good sort of sums up Jarmusch’s filmic persona, “I’m a certain kind of tourist. A tourist that’s on a permanent vacation.”

What to Hope for in 2008…

So, I know I’ve been slacking on the reviews lately here, but there’s been a lot going on (including finishing up production on my own latest film) and not much time to leave for watching/reviewing films. But, I thought I’d take a moment to spill some of this wonderful news to anyone who cares.

So here goes…

The Gospel According to Janis — Penelope Spheeris [Update: The film has been delayed till 2012]

More than anything, I’m just so excited that Zooey Deschanel is set to portray the inimitable Janis Joplin in her heyday. The film is supposedly set around the late singer’s peak as a musician and rockstar, and seems to be structured very similar to Almost Famous where a young Rolling Stone music writer gets the time of their life entering the world of a depraved, drug-addicted demi-God. I think only Penelope will be able to tell this story with just the right amount of meaningful sleaze.

Funny Games — Michael Haneke

It beats the hell out of me why Haneke would choose to remake his own (rather famous and even critically lauded) film about a family which gets pretty much tortured (sometimes more mentally than physically) by two sadistic men who’ve surprised them in their vacation home. I mean I guess what director wouldn’t love the opportunity to re-work a film for a larger audience? I just loved the original one, and maybe it’s because Hollywood is stuck on these “torror” films, (as I call them; “torror” standing for torture/horror), and this film fits that category to the fullest. I look forward to the torture of knowing the ending (or do I?), and I’ll definitely be awaiting this remake.

Jumper — Doug Liman

Even though Liman has recently gone from indie cool to Hollywood pimp, he still can make a quality film. He always tends to maintain a strong visual framework, and never holds back in good, palpable storytelling. But all his films are so straight forward, honest feeling renditions of his insights on relationships (and men and women in general), that it surprises me and excites me that his next feature is about a young man who can “teleport.” I had to look this word up to make sure I was delusional, since sci fi is not my strong suit in film and literature. Upon discovering that he has this supernatural (?) ability, he sets out find his estranged father employing his new powers.

Red State — Kevin Smith [Update: This film has been delayed. Latest release date is October 19, 2012]

A horror movie with politicians? In a film by Kevin Smith? Need I say more? I only can hope Buddy Jesus makes a cameo.

Mister Lonely — Harmony Korine

First of all, I never miss a Korine pic. But I also never miss movies by Werner Herzog, and never miss movies with Samantha Morton. So, a film with all three individuals involved?? Too good to be true. Plus, Korine as always, draws my attention with his oddball plots, like this one which I can only do justice by copying the synopsis from IMDB: “In Paris, a young American who works as a Michael Jackson lookalike meets Marilyn Monroe, who invites him to her commune in Scotland, where she lives with Charlie Chaplin and her daughter, Shirley Temple.”

The Countess — Julie Delpy

Believe it or not there once was a woman (from Hungary, of course) who believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would keep her beautiful forever. So, she killed as many as she could sometime in the 1700s. Or, at least, that’s what Julie Delpy wants us to think. Her film is not even shot yet, and I’m already excited! Now, I don’t always approve of these indie actor-turned-indie director type ventures, but with this premise and Vincent Gallo and Radha Mitchell, I’ll acquiesce.