Sunday, November 27, 2016

"The Edge of Seventeen" makes Teen Angst hip again

Movie “coming-of-age stories” are one of those tropes that many film fans just can’t seem to evolve beyond.  I admit I thought I had, but then I saw The Edge of Seventeen, and I have to admit that it seems the place in my heart John Hughes’ movies so effectively touched so many times is still there inside me.  The best of these flicks are capable of transporting we old farts back to a time of life that many of us now view through rose-colored glasses.  High school was never easy, with those four mid-teenage years representing a cauldron of raging hormones, exploding insecurity and academic pressure.  Not only has that not changed, I’m sure it’s even harder now than it was when I endured it.  It’s a wonder that anyone survives them.

With a smart, perceptive script from first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig and a wonderful lead perfor-mance by Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen re-minds us of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this life-phase through which we all must pass.  The movie gives Steinfeld a chance to equal her brilliant turn from 2010's True Grit, and she most certainly succeeds, portraying 17-year old Nadine, an 11th-grader who, in typical Molly Ringwald-fashion, can't seem to connect with people her own age.  To add insult to injury, she has only one best friend named Krista (played by Haley Lu Richardson), who through a late-teen version of a Series of Unfortunate Events, ends up falling for Nadine’s popular star-jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner).  Feeling a sense of betrayal only a teenaged girl could feel, and getting no sympathy from her seemingly bipolar mother (Kyra Sedgwick), she ends up going to one her teachers (Woody Harrelson), whose apparent lack of empathy is all the more hilarious because of its subtlety.

Oh, sure, there are other Sixteen Candles-ish tropes here, such as the borderline nerdy guy who in smitten by our heroine, but Nadine is so wrapped up in her own problems and superficial lust for another dreamboat that she can’t completely see it. Nadine’s actually kind of a brat (yep, that feels true to the age, too), but Steinfeld’s charisma and the script’s humor somehow make her misdirected rage and blundering attempts at independence endearing.  It reminds us of how the brave leaps and big stumbles every teen makes can sting, as she tries (we tried) to figure out how to be herself (ourselves).

The biggest key to the film’s success is that Fremon Craig’s script and direction don’t depend on slapstick to propel the story.  It also helps that the direction is conservative, not drowning the screenplay in references and teenage lingo (I’m looking at you, Juno).  Her script doesn’t adhere to the clichés, but softens them and makes them a bit more real and believable.  There’s a comfort in the familiarity on which a coming-of-age story such as this thrives, but that comfort is totally dependent on our being made to care for the characters, and I never got the impression that any of these kids were complete characitures, even when the story sort of demanded that they be one.

The ad campaign for the film touts it as the next The Breakfast Club or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and while those compari-sons certainly aren’t off base, I think any conver-sation about this movie should be more about Hailee Steinfeld and how marvelous she is in this role. Of course, the rest of the cast are also quite good (being the old fart I am, I had no clue Blake Jenner was anything other than a reality-show joke -- I was floored at how good he is in this film), but this film is fueled by the central performance.  As Nadine comes to grips with everyone else moving on, with the whole world not being about her, she moves on from being a little annoying to completely sympathetic. Steinfeld handles this transition wonderfully.

It’s a shame a film such as The Edge of Seventeen is slapped with an R-rating, the justification for this be-ing a few “F”-bombs and sexual innuendoes, most of which are seen in larger quantities in other far-less meaningful PG-13 teen comedies.  I would hope parents could (and would) see this film with their teenagers.  Maybe the old fogies could be re-minded how difficult this time in their children’s lives might be, and the teens might see that there is hope they’ll survive the Hell of Adolescence.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Arrival" Knows How to Make an Entrance

In the first season of HBO’s True Detective, Matthew McConaughey’s character groaned about how time was not a line we all travelled, but was a “flat circle,” without beginning or end.  In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Mr. Spock posited to Captain Kirk that, once we’re all through rowing the proverbial boat down the stream, life might actually be just a dream.  While I’m all but certain director Denis Villeneuve had neither of those instances in mind while making his latest film, Arrival, he presents us with something of a combination of those two concepts, asking his audience to wrap our heads around the almost-infinite meanings of the sentence, “there is no time."

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a professor who teaches the finer points of language.  When twelve alien spacecraft touch down at different points all over the world, it isn’t long before the U.S. military comes calling on her to help communicate with the visitors.  She insists on doing things on-site, but Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) isn’t going for it.  He eventually finds himself with no other option and brings Banks to the American site of the craft in Montana.  Joined by astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise jumps right in to meet with the creatures.  The process is slow, but increasingly effective, though the team find themselves up against a world-clock as other foreign leaders are growing more frustrated and impatient for results, leaning toward a much harsher course of action to learn the visitors’ purpose. 

Arrival is the most intimate of sci-fi films, with the emphasis on “sci-” rather than the “fi.”  While the semantics of the film aren’t completely original (there are pangs of Interstellar roaming around here), the execution is so sublime that you can’t help but fall into the intellectual puzzle the movie presents.  With Sicario, Villeneuve proved himself a master at building suspense and balancing audiences on a razor-thin edge, and those same sensibilities are applied to this quieter, more intimate story in a remarkably effective way.  Catching our first glimpse of the alien creatures or witnessing Louise and Ian's first successful attempt at communication are incredibly gripping moments, and we share every bit of their fear, anxiety, excitement and relief.

The film is strongest when offering parallel cutaways to Dr. Banks as a mother, which mixes nicely with ruminations of language, time and even déjà vu.  It may dwell too much on the drama of translation long after making its point, however, and is bound to test the patience of some. There’s even a needless subplot that detracts from Dr. Banks’ perspective, which Villeneuve makes great efforts to present, featuring a soldier watching too much crackpot propaganda on the internet.  If this dramatic device had not been an all-but exact copy of the plot twist used in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, Arrival might would take its place alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the few “Perfect” science fiction films of all time. 

Those quibbles aside, Arrival continues to show us how far Amy Adams has grown from her teenage and princess roles.  As Banks, admittedly stuck in a man-driven operation, trying to urge the men to not nuke everything in sight, she is fiercely strong, and yet has sources of pain, solace and sadness.  Each component of her character is stirringly realised, and Adams is simply magnificent. Jeremy Renner as Donnelly gives an equally solid performance and matches her character with great chemistry, in a role that is so obviously a supporting one that I’m mildly surprised a star of his caliber would take it.  

Arrival is an extremely intelligent film, one that doesn’t feel the need to speak down to the audience about its subject, but engages you in such a way that you’re eager to join the conversation.  The great reveal at the end reflects back on all of what you have seen on a metaphysical level, transforming the personal misery of Dr. Banks into something beautifully hopeful.  Whether time is a flat circle, or if life is but a dream, a movie like this, one that offers us something hopeful, might be something we could all use these days. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Marvel's Mighty Magic continues with "Doctor Strange"

Fourteen films in, and nobody should get any notion that the Marvel Well of Source Material is in any danger of running dry. After all, they managed to turn the little-known Guardians of the Galaxy into a comic book classic and salvage Ant-Man after the abrupt departure of director Edgar Wright.  So if you think Doctor Strange might be one of the more obscure superheroes to get the feature film treatment, I tell you Past is Prelude, and based on this first feature film outing, this film won’t be the last we see of him.  

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumber-batch) is a wildly successful neurosurgeon — a handsome, arrogant, brilliant man whose skill in his profession is matched only by his seemingly-total disdain for others.  When his career seems to be brought to an end by an accident (brought about through his own folly, naturally) and traditional medicine fails him, he sets out in search of other ways of healing himself. Enter the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her band of sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong), all practitioners of mystic arts capable of healing the injured and keeping otherworldly evil at bay — and also currently occupied in a battle against a former acolyte (Mads Mikkelsen) who seems hell-bent on bringing about global destruction.

Okay, sure, it’s yet another origin story, and while many folk who imagine them-selves to be intellecutally superior nerds may gripe that the “origin story” has been done to death, I would tell them that it’s entirely appropriate here.  Some may complain of what they discern as a slow, method-ical build director Scott Derrickson implements in the first half of the film, but my answer to them would be that Christopher Nolan did very much the same thing in Batman Begins.  Doctor Strange doesn’t just rush through the hero-learning-how-to-fight-and-hone-his-skills cliche' before jumping into action sequences. No, with a character like this, a movie really needs that slow build to define how he takes on his ultimate persona.

I had my reservations about Cumberbatch’s casting when it was first announced, but I’m relieved to admit that Derrickson was on to something in choosing him. Cumber-batch is in almost every scene of the film, and he finds a nice balance playing Strange as a cocky surgeon who isn’t afraid to admit when he’s frustrated by the unknown.  He’s not necessarily a likable guy, but not so overconfident that we can’t relate to him (imagine a less-plucky Tony Stark).  The British actor also does a good job selling his American accent, never slipping up (that I could tell) and delivering an awkward sentence as many British performers sometimes do in movies like this.  

The supporting roles are filled out by a mixed bag of greatness. Chiwetel Ejiofor works well as Mordo, a character about whom we don't learn much until after the credits roll (DON'T EVER LEAVE A MARVEL MOVIE WHEN THE CREDITS ROLL!!!), but one that serves as a more grounded confidant for our Strange.  Despite ridiculous cries of “whitewashing,” Swinton is great as The Ancient One, showing a more bad-ass side to the respected actress, as well as an almost-otherworldly quality to her performance.  Benedict Wong is particularly fun as “Wong,” the guardian of The Ancient One’s spell books and library, and a man Strange wants so desperately to make laugh.  Mads Mikkelsen does a fine job as the menacing Kaecilius, a calmly evil nemesis that feels like a true threat, even if he’s working for a much bigger presence.
But hey, the biggest selling point for Doctor Strange has to be those magical action sequences, featuring build-ing-bending kaleidoscopic effects that must have resulted from consumption of massive quantities of mushrooms by somebody.  You may have instantly thought of Nolan's Inception when you saw the trailers for this movie, but Derrickson pulls this trick to levels of which Christopher Nolan probably never dreamed. Derrickson’s direction really, really impressed me with these sequences, as he provides a little ambiguity in them as to whether the normal folks in the scene are supposed to be seeing what we’re seeing. There’s more than a few moments that raise the computer-generated visual bar higher than ever, and with these superhero flicks being what they are these days, that’s an achievement.

Scott Derrickson has never really done anything besides horror (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), with the one exception being the God-awful remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. However, his passion for this project is evident through-out the movie. Given his track record, I expected this a tad darker than it turned out to be, but that might be a good thing.  I suppose those rewrites by TV's Community creator Dan Harmon explain the greater amounts of wisecracks than Derrickson’s original script probably contained. Yes, Marvel never truly manages to get a really dark bad guy, as the dark forces they always battle manage to have a slight comical element, and it does not differ here.  

Still, Doctor Strange is another Marvel success.  The House that Stan Lee Built has given us yet another pretty darn good (if not great) story, told in a visually fantastic manner, and there are many much worse ways to spend your hard-earned money and two hours of your time.

"Doctor Strange"

Directed By Scott Derrickson.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes

Distributed By: Walt Disney Pictures