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Palo Alto

Honest and moving story on the painful teen years
Gia Coppola's first film is a winner. I'll admit I made the mistake of reading a few reviews before heading to the theater, all rather shallow and seeming to miss what was important, but they influenced me to the point that I planned to switch films after an hour. But when that hour came, I couldn't leave. I was thoroughly engrossed and invested in the characters. I wanted to know how things worked out for them, and I wasn't disappointed.

Several reviewers have said that it's a good first effort, but it meanders. That it doesn't have much substance. That it has no plot. All wrong, in my opinion. I haven't read James Franco's short stories, upon which this film is based, but I can say that Ms. Coppola has done an excellent job of writing a cohesive screenplay with a good story arc and enough plotting to clearly show that 3 of the main characters -- April, Teddy, and Emily -- learn something important enough from their experiences to change for the better by the end of the film. And the 4th, Fred, is heading for an epiphany, if he can survive long enough to have it. What many have missed is that Ms. Coppola has gotten to the truth here.

Palo Alto accurately captures the teen angst, how hard it is to figure things out, how adults can disappoint/mislead/manipulate us, how we make bad choices, but always with the feeling that we're propelled to do exactly that thing at that moment. High school is not fun. It's something we endure. And it can be an achievement just to get out alive and be heading in a better direction.

It's been ages since I was in high school, and even though this generation is very different than mine, human nature hasn't changed, and the problems haven't changed. I recognized every character, every situation, every bad choice, every consequence. I especially related to "not knowing what to say, so saying nothing." But most important, and I credit Ms. Coppola for this, I really cared about these characters. I even had empathy for one unlikeable character.

That's good writing (credit Franco and Coppola). And it's very good directing, considering the main characters played by Emma Roberts (a standout), Jack Kilmer, Zoe Levin, and Nat Wolff don't have a lot of experience. I like to follow directors whose works say something meaningful about life and honestly earn our emotions. I'll be following Ms. Gia Coppola's work. This is a fine film.

Take Shelter

A perfect metaphor for our anxious times
This is the most powerful of several family dramas this year (2011), and the best husband-wife drama in many years. It's a film of uncommon power and insight, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who shows us the anxiety so many Americans are feeling in the wake of the financial crisis and recession. Michael Shannon, an actor of extraordinary skill, plays Curtis LaForche, an Ohio family man who's managed to hang on to a construction job with decent health care insurance. He's married to a good woman, Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain, who's dressed down here as a small-town wife and mother. The pair have a modest home that they share with their young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart) and dog, Red. Hanna is deaf, needs an expensive operation, and fortunately Curtis's health insurance will pay for it. This is a true picture of American family life – a good marriage, a good home, a good job with insurance, all made possible by hard work and the values Americans have long held dear. Still, money is tight: much is expected of Curtis at work, and Samantha sells her hand-sewn crafts at the local swap meet to make ends meet.

Curtis is content with the life he's built. And his best friend at work, Duart (Shia Whigham), tells him with envy: "You've got a good life, Curtis." We agree, until Curtis starts having a series of bad dreams that threaten everything he has. In the first of many dreams, or visions of impending doom as he thinks they are, a bad storm scares the family dog into viciously biting him. The next day, the pain is so real he builds an outdoor pen for him. This mystifies Samantha and Hanna because Red has always lived indoors and is quite docile. Curtis offers no explanation. He continues to dream of horrific storms, preceded by giant swarms of ominous blackbirds and sinister greasy rain. At first, he tries to hide this from everyone, including Samantha, because he suspects the onset of mental illness. He's just turned 35, the same age his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, from which she never recovered. He reads books on mental illness and seeks counseling at a community health center. He's entirely rational about taking steps to correct his problem, believing it's his duty as a husband and father. Still, he can't shake the feeling that a doomsday storm is coming, and he may not be mentally ill at all, but just prescient. If he's right, he must protect his family. Nothing is more important, and thus he embarks on enlarging a backyard storm shelter. But improving the shelter requires a bank loan he can ill afford, as well borrowing heavy construction equipment from work, which is prohibited. Curtis presses ahead, anyway, because he's convinced the apocalypse is coming. Curtis and Samantha live in a small town, and soon everyone is abuzz with gossip: what's wrong with Curtis? Samantha can't fathom it, but her love for her husband comes first. Chastain's performance here may seem small and subtle at first, but soon we see she's a partner of extraordinary emotional strength, and every thing she says and does rings true.

As Curtis's symptoms (or prescient visions) worsen, he's focused only on completing the storm shelter, but Samantha insists they have a normal family outing and attend a community barbecue. He doesn't want to go, but does so to please her. Circumstances are stacked against him, however, due to a misunderstanding with Duart, and he's pushed into a violent exchange that ends in him screaming at all in attendance that they have no idea what's coming. Samantha is heartbroken, not only because of this outburst but because she realizes her husband is in great pain. And then to our surprise, the tornado comes, and it's so big it could wipe the town off the map. Unlike many others, Curtis is prepared, and he takes his family into his well-built shelter that now has electricity, ventilation, food, cots, and plumbing. What transpires inside during the storm is frightening. The dramatics between husband and wife reach a near unbearable intensity. And this is where Shannon and Chastain shine, delivering performances that match the best couples in film history. Shannon, in particular, proves he should have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance (note how perfectly he handles the nuance and cadence of the most difficult scenes). This is the electrifying climax, but not the end. And when the end comes a few minutes later, it will stun you. It's the best ending of any film this year, and it's not a gimmick or a cop-out, as some mistakenly believe.

I was fortunate to attend a screening that included a Q&A with Michael Shannon. One audience member asked the question you will surely ask, and that audiences everywhere debated: "Is Curtis this, or is he that?" But avoid the trap of a literal interpretation because the meaning is not in that answer, which Shannon confirmed at the Q&A. Pay close attention to the subtle communication between Hanna, Curtis and Samantha in the final breathtaking scene that will put a chill on your spine. The meaning is in what they are experiencing, together, as a family, and it's an affirmation that they will survive. This film, along with Margin Call, are the two best movies of the year. And both go together, hand and glove, as cause and effect. The two films give us the big picture of America today: the history of the last 4 years, the events that dramatically changed our lives, and the stakes we now face. In one heartbreaking scene when Curtis finally confides to Samantha about his dreams, he tells her, "It's not just a dream, it's a feeling, that something is coming, something that's not right." This is a perfect metaphor for our anxious times.

Higher Ground

Great film about one woman's spiritual journey and struggle with faith
Higher ground is one the finest films on its subject ever made, as well as one of the best films this year. Surprisingly, it's the directorial debut of one of our finest actors, Vera Farmiga. She's been very good in every film in which she's played any role, but is probably best known for her Oscar nominated turn in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, opposite George Clooney. But for her own film, Farmiga has chosen a very difficult subject – one woman's struggle with her faith; her tenuous relationship with her husband inside a strictly defined religious community; and most important, her personal relationship with God.

The story covers the three-decade spiritual journey (late '50s through '70s) of Corinne, played as a little girl by McKensie Turner, as a teenager by Farmiga's younger sister, Taissa, and as a grown woman by Farmiga herself, in a performance that is brave, nuanced, and emotionally powerful. Hollywood films on this subject can either preach to the choir or have a contemptuous agenda, but Farmiga's film isn't about whether this or that religion is good or bad. It's about faith, and doubt, and finding one's way in life. In fact, this is the best work on the subject since Meryl Streep dazzled us in "Doubt." Here's how it goes: As a little girl, Corinne's pastor shows her how to invite Jesus into her heart, an idea that appeals to her since her home life is marred by a drunken father (John Hawkes) and a mother who has eyes for other men (Donna Murphy). But Corinne doesn't quite know what she's supposed to feel. She does like animals, and she also gives an accordion a try, when a door-to-door salesman pitches one to the family. Corinne's mother says, "She's not musical," to which the salesman quickly replies, "Maybe she hasn't found her instrument yet." This foreshadows Corrine's struggle to find her path to God.

Corinne is intellectually curious and has a talent for writing, and when a young guitarist asks her to write a song with him, she finds herself doing what so many teenagers have done before, and then pregnancy and a wedding follow. Corinne must then put her dreams of a writing career on hold, as she cares for the baby while her husband plays in a rock band. But a near tragic experience convinces them they need to give up this reckless life and join an evangelical Christian church. Corinne wants very badly to feel the Spirit, and to be happy with her husband in this religious community, but she doesn't feel what her pastor preaches, nor what she sees other members feeling. This is both a puzzlement and a torment to her, especially when she makes a good friend, Annika, played wonderfully by Dagmara Dominczyk, to whom loving and feeling God come easily.

This particular Christian community will be one many people recognize; they adhere to the bible's word and are happy to follow a strict patriarchal discipline. As a director, Farmiga does not judge, but those who do not subscribe to this type of religious practice may, and that would be a mistake. These are not bad people, they have chosen a life that works for them; it just may not be a good fit for Corinne. She's smart, studies the bible along with many other books, and she feels she has something valuable to share with the congregation. But when she speaks up, she's admonished by the pastor's wife for "coming very close to preaching and attempting to teach the men." She chafes under this restraint, which seems unreasonable to her. And then a second, very real, tragedy strikes, turning her struggle into a spiritual crisis. I think many people will recognize precisely this experience from their own lives: it is very real.

Farmiga's film does not hurry, the story unfolds slowly, and it also contains a fair amount of humor. I could've died laughing during a scene in which Corinne's marriage counselor tells her about "a dire MacMuffin moment," but it was no laughing matter. There are also many small everyday family scenes that may not seem of much consequence, but every piece of the story is important, so watch and listen carefully, as everything builds to one of the most emotionally powerful endings of any film this year. At the climax, Corinne speaks to the congregation, from her heart, a heart that perhaps gives too much, and also with a mind trying very hard to make sense of what it means to walk "The Higher Ground." In the end, we get a sense that Corinne will find her instrument, and that she will go on to make music with God.

Higher Ground is an excellent film and a brilliant directorial debut by Vera Farmiga, from whom I think we can expect great things in the future. I highly recommend it to all who appreciate literary quality stories that deal honestly with human feelings and relationships.

Blue Valentine

Disappointing -- great actors can't save a weak script.
When I heard Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams were to be in a film called Blue Valentine, and it was about a marriage going bad, I was excited. I was hoping to see something as intriguing as Revolutionary Road, in which Leo Dicaprio, Kate Winslet, and director Sam Mendes do a fine job working with a Richard Yates novel.

Nothing of the sort exists here. Overall the film is dull and somewhat painful to watch. Not because of difficult emotional material, but rather because we just don't care about the characters. I don't fault Gosling and Williams. I think they did a fine -- perhaps even heroic -- job, but the film is a big disappointment because of weak writing and direction.

From what I understand Blue Valentine was delayed for years and when writer/director Derek Cianfrance finally got around to shooting, he told his actors he was sick of the script and that they'd better come up with something to surprise him. Purportedly, Williams was disappointed at this because she loved the script, but Gosling didn't mind because he wasn't good at remembering lines anyway. The film does have an improvised feel and the direction seems unfocused. I never got a sense of where Cianfrance wanted to take us with his story, if you can call it a story.

Cianfrance said he wanted to explore the idea of falling in and out of love, and just what causes that feeling of love to go away. I'm not sure that's a good enough premise for a film, especially if on the first day of shooting you're throwing out the script and asking your actors to improvise. Some reviewers here have said you won't see better acting this year. Yes, it's good, but it doesn't rise to greatness because the actors don't have great material to work with. Compare to Rabbit Hole, in which Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, and Miles Teller move us to the depths of our souls -- mostly with what they say!

Early in 2010 I saw Rob Reiner's lovely film, Flipped, at which he was available afterward for a Q&A. One audience member asked, "What makes for a good movie?" Reiner didn't hesitate, saying, "If you start with a good script and you cast it right, you're 90% there." I liked that answer. And now I'm wondering "what percentage there" are we with Blue Valentine, if the casting is right but the script is thrown out in favor of a scene list? Let me venture a guess -- 30%?

Cianfrance doesn't add much that I can see because he uses a hand-held camera with too many close shots that makes it more difficult to engage with the actors and action. A documentary style is no substitute for good writing. What's more, much was made about the NC-17 rating this film originally received (appealed and later revised to R) because of the oral sex scene. But frankly, that scene, and most of the sex scenes, just made me angry because I couldn't help thinking that Cianfrance should have spent a lot less time on the sex scenes and lot more time writing a good script. Maybe then, he'd have a good picture. But he didn't and he doesn't.

Cianfrance opens the film with a married couple that we can see is unhappy, and then he flashes back to romantic times early in their relationship. The back and forth repeats throughout. Maybe because of this structure, I never really bought the romance. To me, it felt like two "not very bright people" got married for the wrong reasons, and then later found out about it. No big surprise there. Compare again to Rabbit Hole, which also opens with an unhappy married couple, but soon enough we learn that they have very good reasons to be unhappy and are struggling mightily to hang on to their love and make sense of their marriage after a devastating loss. It's great writing that lets them deliver great performances so that we truly care about them.

After the picture, my wife was disappointed, and upon learning of my disappointment, she couldn't understand why I didn't suggest leaving. I told her I had high expectations, and out of respect for Gosling and Williams I stuck with it, hoping it would get better. Well, it didn't and I'm blaming Cianfrance for wasting a lot of talent, effort, and money on something not worth shooting.

Never Let Me Go

Beautiful, profound, moving
Just ahead, I'll tell you how to know if you'll love or hate this movie (very few will be in between). But first, I'm always surprised to see people reading the novel, rushing to the movie, and then expressing disappointment with remarks such as, "there are gaping holes." A 2-hour movie is a 110-page screenplay, which means a 300-page novel becomes a 6-hour miniseries. Get Martin Scorcese, hire "Never Let Me Go" novelist Kazuo Ishiguro to write the screenplay, and cast it right, and you'll have a shot at making a miniseries that CAN be compared to the novel; otherwise, let's understand the limitation and let the film stand on its own. I didn't read Ishiguro's novel, and I found Mark Romanek's film (screenplay by Alex Garland) to be a beautiful, profound and complete meditation on life. It demonstrates the best and worst of human behavior, the beauty of undying love, and the heroism of accepting responsibility (or fate in this case). To me, the story is uplifting and memorable, in spite of its overall sad and melancholy tone. What's more, it's seamless, from the superb performances by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, to the near perfect direction by Romanek, to its gorgeous cinematography with muted color palette, to its precise wabi-sabi production design (the beauty of worn and broken things). But how can you know if you'll like this film or not?

Forget the Sci-Fi angle; it's insignificant except as a stepping-off point for a story that reveals great truths: That life is short, your choices have consequences, and at the end none of us may feel we've had enough time to love, or just get things right. But I can safely say... If you interpret your movies literally, you will not like this film. If you need action, a fast pace, explosions and special effects, you will not like this film. If your idea of a great movie is Inception, forget it.

On the other hand, if you can appreciate a fine story by Henry James, Edith Wharton, or Katherine Anne Porter, this film is made for you. If you enjoyed Todd Haynes' lovely melodrama, Far from Heaven, or Oren Moverman's powerful movie, The Messenger, or Tom Ford's poignant film, A Single Man, you'll love this picture. The story addresses themes of love, longing, jealousy, betrayal, courage, atonement, and perhaps most important "acceptance." The film also asks us to consider the "morality of science," and some might find this aspect chilling, but to me the larger human themes overwhelm this one.

When I saw Never Let Me Go, the theater was about one-third full, but probably one-third of these folks walked out by the half-way point. And, surprisingly, the couple sitting behind me got up and walked out 10 minutes before the end, once they were convinced (revealed by their groans) that the story would not have a happy ending. Apparently, they were looking for the "feel good movie of the year." Sadly, they missed the most extraordinary and beautiful ending -- most of the emotional power comes in that last 10 minutes -- but then I suppose they wouldn't have understood it. But to me, Never Let Me Go is the "feel good movie of the year," precisely because it tells the truth: life is beautiful because there are hopes and dreams, love and loss, tears and tragedies.

One final note: Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are excellent in their roles, but Carey Mulligan is the standout -- she shows a wisdom and weariness far beyond her years, and handles difficult emotional material with a sublime restraint that makes the whole thing work. I feel we are witnessing the early work of the next Deborah Kerr, Sarah Miles, or Vanessa Redgrave.

This is an excellent film, one of the best of the year, and not to be missed by those who appreciate depth and literary quality.


More tedious than brilliant, more tiresome than cool
This is a tedious and boring movie that begs you to NOT suspend your disbelief and, instead, to wad up your popcorn bag and throw it at the screen. Okay, I exaggerate a little. But...

Read the insightful reviews dated 19 July: You Don't Get It. And 20 July: Boring, Too Long, Awful Dialogue. And 21 July: Not Bad But Definitely Not Genius. And 29 July: Dumb, Dumb, Dumb. And finally, for a little fun, 23 July: Blah.

Rather than rehash the insights of those helpful reviews, I'll try to add something useful...

Inside of 30 minutes I was squirming in my seat, tapping my fingers, and checking my watch. Why? No character development. No sense that a good story had been started. And thus no engagement. As time wore on I found I really didn't care about any of the characters, or their plights, or what they were trying to accomplish, other than thinking Ellen Page was kind of cute.

In an EW interview, Nolan says about his film, Memento, that he was "trying to transcend the tyranny of linear narrative." Really? A tyranny? We live in a linear narrative, Chris, but now that I know you feel that way about life, I'll remember not to pay to see your films. In the same interview, Nolan says that he was worried that his audience wouldn't be able to follow his brain-bending movie because of the complex dream-within-a-dream plot... until he lit upon (drum roll) the "heist-flick model," in which the hero-thieves explain their scheme. Yes, Chris, but that's not a very good model. And what's more, it only works if the "explaining is minimal" and the director is skilled enough to show and reveal more. It's a moving picture, remember?

Yes, the action here is pretty cool, better than the Dark Knight. The camera and stunt work are very good. The music is the same gloomy heavy-handed kind used in Dark Knight (same composer, Hans Zimmer). But the characters are essentially two-dimensional because everything is secondary to the plot, which in spite of its complexity you can understand well enough because it's all explained to you, endlessly. Even Dicaprio wasn't happy with his character and worked with Nolan for two months "adding layers" for more emotional depth (see the Rolling Stone interview). But apparently the complexity and ridiculousness of the plot buried that, or Nolan just didn't know how to deliver it (come to think of it, this may be a problem with all of his films). Plot over character. Cool factor over emotion.

You think of the great work DiCaprio did in The Aviator. And the brilliant work by Gordon-Levitt in The 500 Days of Summer. I wasn't much of a fan of Juno, but Ellen Page "made" that movie. And of course Michael Caine has made many great movies, including the recent Harry Brown. Also, Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai. And finally, let's not forget Marion Cotillard's stunning Oscar-winning performance in La Vie En Rose. But they're all struggling mightily here with Nolan's tedious script, and their immense talent is wasted.

But of course, I'm all wrong. The movie is a huge hit. It's sure to rack up $500 million or more in worldwide box office sales. Whew! That's good news. Because then Nolan can go on "transcending the tyranny."

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