(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) One of the things I like best about cinema is its ability to make us sympathize with the oddballs who don’t quite fit in their surroundings. This goes double for teenage coming-of-age dramas such as Lady Bird, a film that strongly revolves (to the point of not even resolving the dramatic arcs of supporting character) around the self-consciously quirky Lady Bird, a teenager about to escape her Sacramento high school for the call of bigger-city higher education. It’s her last year in a town too small for her, but her cultivated eccentricity doesn’t mean that she’s a saint—her propensity for self-harm is spectacular, and much of the film’s plot is about her learning to like the people (mostly family) that she has pushed away. It’s frustrating, endearing and occasionally very funny (except when it isn’t). The protagonist herself is a good representation of the lengths through which teenagers will go to in order to establish themselves as distinct, much to their own expense. It’s a familiar film genre, but actress-turned-director Greta Gerwig manages to make it all seem fresh and interesting all over again, with substantial contributions from Saoirse Ronan (playing much younger than usual) and Laurie Metcalf in a complex role as a mom who can be her daughter’s worst enemy and best friend. I wasn’t expecting to like Lady Bird very much—and for much of the film, the vast gulf between the protagonist’s modest skills and her opinion of herself exasperated me to no end—but it eventually won me over. Even the affectionate portrayal of Sacramento is charming. While I’m not planning on re-watching Lady Bird any time soon, I think that a second viewing may be funnier knowing that everything will be all right in the end.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Alas, Violet & Daisy has more potential than actual success. Taking place in a world with a clearly-defined criminal ecosystem that includes rates assassins, this is a film about two bubble-gum-popping teenagers working as killers, making money to splurge on the latest celebrity fashion. Their lives, however, are put in question when they take on a contract on a man (James Gandolfini, sympathetic enough in one of his last roles) who seems curiously amenable to their deadly plans, going as far as making things as easy and comfortable for them as possible. Writer/director/producer Geoffrey S. Fletcher clearly has quirkiness in mind in executing his film, but the result seems curiously tame and unbelievable at the same time, not taking enough chances to be interesting. (Comparisons with John Wick, which also indulged in a comic-book universe of codified contract killers, are instructive.) It speaks volumes that, mere weeks after seeing the film, I can’t remember much of the conclusion or even anything beyond the first thirty minutes: It doesn’t help that after a machine-gun opening, the film settles down in an apartment and that even the subsequent gunfights can’t do much to go beyond the talky theater piece that the film becomes. Reflecting the hit-and-miss script, Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel don’t get to show much depth as the talkative teenagers seemingly wrestling with questions of morality and life goals. While Violet & Daisy is amiable enough to be worth an unassuming look, there’s a tangible feeling that something is missing from the result –more exploitation, more depth, more craziness or more realism, but definitely something to take it out of its untenable middle-ground.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I read Stephenie Meyer’s The Host shortly after publication five years ago, but while I recall buying, reading and eventually giving away the book, I recall almost nothing from the novel beyond “romantic twaddle featuring parasite aliens and teenage love triangles”. As it turns out, this also describes the film pretty well: While The Host features body-riding aliens having taken over Earth in a fit of benevolent eradication, there’s no real science-fiction to be found here: no extrapolation beyond base sentimental melodrama, no extrapolative surprises, no real world-building. It’s not really surprising to see Meyer stick close to what made Twilight such a runaway young-adult success; it’s what she presumably knows and does best –but the real bitter disappointment here is seeing writer/director Andrew Niccol waste his time and energy by slumming in a framework so far away from his cerebral track record: The Host needs a lot of sloppy romanticism to work, but Niccol seems to have far more sympathy for the gleaming-chrome cleanliness of the aliens than for the messy humans in the story. That’s fine (I liked the aliens better than the human as well), but when it’s played straight it means an interminable and somewhat silly film. Saoirse Ronan does as well as she can with the material she has (and it’s a measure of her potential that her reputation as a fine actress will survive this film intact), but The Host is a clear example of how some aspects of a novel don’t survive the literalisation process of the movie medium: Having a protagonist engage in internal dialogue works fine on the page, but just sounds silly on-screen. Saying that the film is aimed at teenage girls sort of misses the point given how many car crashes are crammed in a story that didn’t even have any on the page. Some of the details are mildly entertaining (the cars, the ultra-generic “store”, the mirror-powered cavern fields) but there’s little else to lift the film above its basic problems: The dialogue is bland (try reading the IMDB quotes page and try not to fall asleep), most of the young men of the cast can’t be told apart, the story doesn’t go anywhere interesting once it becomes obvious that Meyer’s intent is far too nice (“You’ve been doing it all wrong!” our protagonist says of the alien-removing effort, “You need to do it with love!”). Give me a year, and I’m pretty sure I will remember nothing more from The Host as a film than I do from the novel.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) The Way Back is inspired by a story that may or may not be true (check Wikipedia for the controversy), but the premise is the stuff of epic adventure as a few prisoners escape from a Russian Gulag and make their way, on foot, to India –crossing Siberian forests, enormous caverns, the shores of Lake Baikal, vast plains, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas along the way. By the time the film ends, it feels like an odyssey, and not solely in the best sense: This is a long, sometimes tedious film. The characters suffer, the attempted realism of the presentation offers very little levity, and the script doesn’t trouble itself with compelling dialogue. As a result, The Way Back feels longer than it should, and ends up shortchanging viewers on the “viewing pleasure” aspect. Still, there’s a lot to like and admire: The scenery is often breathtaking, the actors (including Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan) do a fine job in rough circumstances, the story kills off a number of characters you wouldn’t expect, and the feeling of a difficult odyssey certainly comes across on-screen. A bit of plot-tightening, more compelling character work (enough so that we can distinguish between the minor players) and some punched-up dialogue may have helped The Way Back rise above the good and become great.
(In theaters, April 2011) Strange things happen when dramatic directors take on genre filmmaking, not the least being unique takes on genre conventions. Joe Wright is best known for Oscar-baiting dramas such as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, so to see him take on the tale of a teenage assassin facing down rogue CIA operatives is a bit of a stretch. The end result is definitely unconventional, as Wright tries to reconcile mainstream dramatic techniques with the demands of a genre thriller. Some of the result works well: Wright wisely eschews frantic editing, and one of the film’s highlight is a continuous shot that brilliantly depicts a fight between a character and four antagonists. The film makes effective use of a creepy abandoned park for its climax, and Saoirse Ronan is very good in the title role. Unfortunately, viewers will have to be patient in-between the film’s rewards: Hanna’s pacing is lethargic, deadened by failed attempts at comic relief (never mind Hanna’s “fish out of water” subplot: I kept hoping for the irritating family of tourists to be terminated with extreme prejudice) and sunk by its own self-importance: The plot is slight, simple and inconsequential enough to be silly, except that Wright seems convinced that he’s telling An Important Story. The film splats when it should zip along, and seems to call attention to its own cleverness: not bad as an experiment, but not much of a success as a stand-alone thriller. Much like The Chemical Brother’s unusual score, Hanna is different and sometimes intriguing for what it brings to the standard thriller formula, but it never feels as compelling as straight-up genre entertainment.
(In theatres, January 2010) For viewers unfamiliar with Alice Sebold’s novel, Peter Jackson’s take on Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones has two major problems: First; its determination to beef up an elegiac tone about the aftermath of a brutal murder with suspense sequences that aren’t just jarring, but drawn-out to an extent that they become more ridiculous than gripping. Second; its utter refusal to provide conventional closure on both the thriller as the dramatic elements of the picture. There are several small flaws (such as Mark Wahlberg’s unremarkable “say hi to your mother” performance, the difficulty of literalizing heavenly metaphors, or Stanley Tucci’s over-the-top performance as a character who screams serial-killer), but those two stick out badly. The second is actually a feature, especially for those who have read the book: The point of The Lovely Bones is not vengeance from beyond the grave (even though the narrator is the murder victim speaking from heaven) nor police procedural success despite the fixation on tracking down the serial killer. It’s reaching that final Kubler-Rossian step of acceptance, letting go of horrible things and accepting with serenity the idea that some things are never avenged, explained or satisfied. Still, this leaves us with the troubling tonal problems in transforming a dramatic novel that uses genre elements into a genre picture that seems stuck in inconclusive drama. The differences between book and movie are both profound and trivial: the chronology is compressed, one dramatic climax is toned down to a simple kiss, various lines of the novel are rearranged wildly. Some of this is due to the demands of presenting material on-screen, while others are simple prudishness. Still, Jackson does make a few sequences last twice, maybe three times as long as they needed to be, and that simply reinforces the sense that his approach to the material is fundamentally flawed. The best thing about the film, in fact, may be that those who go read the book afterwards will enjoy hearing Saoirse Ronan’s voice as the narrator.