Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Keeping "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" from being just another coming-of-age tale is the breadth of tough issues this sweet surprise of an adaptation touches on along with top-notch performances from a trio of young actors. This is Stephen Chbosky's second feature having written the screenplay for 2005's "Rent," and now he's adapted for the screen and directed his own best-selling young adult novel, which focuses on a group of Pittsburgh misfit teenagers navigating high school circa 1991. Chbosky's handling can be a little uneven at times, but whatever he may lack in finessed skill he more than makes up for it in sheer passion and intimacy, which makes "Perks" so honest and endearing about the struggles and joys of adolescence.

We're introduced to Charlie (Logan Lerman) just as he's about to enter his freshman year of high school. The poor kid is constantly trapped in his own mind with recurring thoughts about his best friend who committed suicide and a traumatic experience with his late Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). On his first day and the days to follow, Charlie sits alone at lunch where residual friends from middle school won't even acknowledge him. His sister, too, is too preoccupied with her pony-tailed boyfriend to help him find friends. He's in over his head with waves of teenage angst crashing all around him. The first friend he does make is Mr. Anderson (a wonderfully understated Paul Rudd), his advanced English teacher who watches Charlie's growth potential with a watchful eye and kindly lends him his favorite classic books.

Mr. Anderson tells Charlie that he should speak up and participate in class. This in-class lesson translates to Charlie's predicament in the real world, as well; that is, in order for him to be happy, he must no longer be a passive observer but participate in his own life experiences. Otherwise he gets wrapped up in his own doom and gloom.

Enter Patrick (Ezra Miller), a sardonic senior who makes a name for himself by openly mocking the teacher in shop class. He also serves as Charlie's gateway into real friendship. Mustering up the courage to sit next to him at a football game, Charlie also meets Patrick's best friend and half-sister, Sam (Emma Watson). They let him into their group because of a commonality they perhaps don't even realize exists yet. Each of them have some pain and anger pent up. Patrick's frustration stems from dating a closeted football jock, and Sam is tired of falling for guys who don't treat her right.

Though she appeared in last year's British drama "My Week with Marilyn," this marks Emma Watson's first foray into American filmmaking -- and her first use of an American accent. She nails the role of the beautiful and down-to-earth Sam whose demons lurk just beneath her porcelain skin. As good as she is, it's a testament to Ezra Miller's talent that even up against a post-Hermoine Watson he manages to become the real scene stealer. The theatrical fun-loving nature of Patrick is a thin veil covering his inner battle of not being able to openly express his sexuality the way he wants to, and Miller's performance captures this. Even more astonishing is the young actor's range considering he's otherwise known for playing the deeply disturbed son of Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is both painful and uplifting about Charlie's freshman year experience which translates to not only universal themes about attending high school but about life relationships in general. This wider scope comes from not watering down the material to pander to a specific teenaged viewership, even in spite of a PG-13 rating. It's also a movie that knows and understands the unique bond friends have when it comes to the special hangout spot or that perfect song that comes on the radio at just the right moment. For this outcast trio, it's what they simply refer to as the "tunnel song." In this iconic scene, Charlie feels infinite, which is empowering for him because his new friends are only ephemeral, moving on with their lives going away to college. Charlie's freshman year was but a fleeting moment where he, for once in his life, felt like he belonged.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Instead of the belching fire, raging fury of blood and thunder and a climax ending with the phrase "I'm finished" in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," here's the latest from the acclaimed writer-director, "The Master," which is no less intense but a more quiet, intimate and ultimately maddening picture. A lot of the hype surrounding this film suggests it will be a true-to-life tale of the founding of Scientology and an exposé on L. Ron Hubbard. Those looking for something along those lines, turn back now. Hubbard's rise is merely the foundation upon which Anderson has constructed a towering, twisted metaphor for American life, power and history, much in the way he used Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" as the jumping point for 2008's "Blood." Unlike that film, however, this is a more cerebral, speculative and confounding experience with a narrative trajectory that gets further deconstructed as it moves forward.

We open at the conclusion of World War II. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) served in the Navy, and after some post-war psychoanalysis is certifiably a mess. When shown Rorschach ink blotches, he only sees genitalia and mumbles answers about his mother's presence in a psych ward somewhere. And while he finds work as a portrait photographer in a department store and later as a worker in a cabbage field, his only real ability and interest is making potent yet dangerous cocktails out of paint thinner, dark room materials and household cleaners. This drifter walks along a pier one night and like a twinkling alluring light in the distance, there is a party boat docked with an amiable crowd aboard, and Freddie doesn't think twice about sneaking inside. He awakes the next morning after drunkenly passing out to meet Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a resolute man of clear thought and diction. Dodd sees an interest in Freddie and speaks to him as a father figure. "You will be my protege and my guinea pig," Dodd tells him.

So begins the fascinating and complex character study of contrast on Lancaster Dodd and Freddie the drifter. Their dynamic is introduced in Dodd's first "processing" session with Freddie, a sort of mental time travel, a hypnosis and search for past trauma that could trace back even millions -- or trillions -- of years. This "process" is the basis of Dodd's pseudo-religious, therapeutic cult known as the Cause. From here, Freddie's relationship with Dodd goes from pining son to devout follower to bitter cynic all with psycho-sexual undercurrents that are hard to read and uneasy to digest.

The performances that craft these characters from Hoffman and Phoenix are nothing short of brilliant. Phoenix gives Freddie a feral, hunched over demeanor with a crazed manic energy that, after Phoenix's public breakdown and bizarre quasi-documentary "I'm Still Here," feels only fitting for the actor and gives him career-best work. A scene in which a locked-up and hand-cuffed Freddie kicks and shatters a jail cell toilet right off the wall marks a shocking ferocity, a lucid contrast to Hoffman's Dodd who only shows flashes of his inner rage against doubters of the Cause. This includes his own son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who's convinced his father is making his religion up as he goes along. The opposite of this is Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who's pregnant and displays a motherly, wholesome feminine quality to perfectly accent Dodd's Cause. What the public doesn't see is a headstrong woman clawing at perfection. Even the masters have their masters, and Adams -- in a performance which will be recognized come award time -- shows Peggy's terrifying will in a private moment with her husband.

What's impossible to ignore about "The Master" is Paul Thomas Anderson's absolute command of the cinematic form. It's enough to keep any movie connoisseur completely enthralled with impeccable direction, mesmerizing and gorgeous 65mm (projected 70mm in select theaters) cinematography from Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (a Frances Ford Coppola favorite), which marks the first time cinematographer Roger Elswit hasn't worked on an Anderson film, and another unnerving and mind-bending score from Jonny Greenwood. It's all very much what we've come to expect from a masterful filmmaker, but then something happens that we don't expect.

As the film's narrative begins delving into dream states and Freddie's memories, the third act begins to strangely misshapen. A curious lack of development without a truly dramatic turn is what keeps Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film from reaching the greatness of his previous work. While perhaps eliciting a tinge of disappointment, this is in no way a misstep for the writer-director. I admire its contentious themes and lauded aesthetic elements, but an absence of riveting storytelling kept me from falling in love.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

THE END Review

Cam McHarg's short film "The End" is about as pitch black as a black comedy can get. The humor is bleak, dark and dry as we watch Barry (Cris D'Annunzio) having the worst day of his life -- literally. Barry's car won't start, so he abandons it throwing the keys to a hobo only to then see the hobo happily drive away. As Barry checks into a dingy hotel room, there's no toilet paper, nothing good on TV, and his attempts at suicide are failing miserably. Now, obviously the reason he's attempting to kill himself isn't over the lack in amenities at this hotel. McHarg introduces us to this man at the end of what must've been a long, depressing trajectory, which opens up this ambitious ten-minute feature to some freedom for the viewer in imaging what must've gone so wrong.

The opening of "The End" is a visual splendor showing us a beautiful universe. Unfortunately for Barry this universe is conspiring against him at every turn. With high production value, a solid performance from D'Annunzio, an interesting and disturbing premise and a sucker punch of an ending, McHarg's "The End" is worth checking out. You can watch his full film here.


Most of the criticism I've read of "Bachelorette" is that none of the characters are likable. What people need to get over is the preconception that unlikable characters don't have anything to offer. Consider Lena Dunham's "Girls," the HBO series portraying a group of young women who aren't always making the best life decisions. Even "Bridesmaids," last year's female comedy sensation which launched Kristen Wiig to A-list status and reopened the conversation on women in comedy, has characters who aren't always likable. And yes, drawing parallels between this new female-centric comedy out of Sundance and "Bridesmaids" is unavoidable, much in the way the Judd Apatow-inspired male perspective comedies dominated the multiplex in the early to mid-2000s. This is simply the new wave of that, this time subverting our expectations on female behavior and relationships. "Bachelorette" is not so much "Bridesmaids 2" as it is the meaner, darker and more twisted stepsister of "Bridesmaids," very much its own independent and devilishly delicious creation from first-time writer/director Leslye Headland.

Coming off the coattails of her self-destructive dramatic performance in Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," Kirsten Dunst goes for a much different -- yet still self-destructive -- approach here playing Regan, the blonde ice queen in charge of her best friend's wedding. Regan is also the lead in her high school group of girlfriends, the Californian free spirit Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and the loose cannon retail girl, Katie (Isla Fisher), who serve as bridesmaids in the wedding. The friend getting married is Becky (Rebel Wilson), the fourth member of their high school group who was probably only unintentionally included as someone to mock. She's the fat girl among skinny, catty bitches who still bring up her high school nickname, Pigface. There are rampant 90s pop culture references perhaps to remind us what age these ladies are having graduated in '99 but still act like children.

Gena and Katie's plans to party like animals come to a screeching halt when Becky tells them they'll just be enjoying champagne and ice cream in the hotel room. That doesn't stop them from talking Regan into some partying of their own full of booze-drinking and cocaine-snorting. A surprising amount of cocaine-snorting. They bust out Becky's wedding dress only so Regan and Katie can shove themselves in it and tag Becky in a Facebook photo. The dress rips sending the completely trashed trio on a wild goose chase through middle-of-the-night Manhattan to try to fix their self-satisfying, bad karma-induced screw-up. By the end of the movie, the wedding dress receives more damage than any one should in a single lifetime.

This creative vehicle of needing to find an emergency dress replacement or repair allows freedom for Headland to create scenes of well-orchestrated that are chainsaw-sharp with acidic writing and humor. The girls get easily sidetracked and end up going to the groomsmen's bachelor party to a strip club, which results in possibly the most unflattering and unsexy strip club scene in recent memory. Among the men are Trevor (James Marsden) looking to tame Regan's ferocious energy; Clyde (Adam Scott), Gena's ex-boyfriend from high school who she has effectively avoided like the plague until now; and Joe (Kyle Bornheimer) who's the only one not OK with referring to Katie simply as getting with "that." With these men do come romantic possibilities, but it's the women who are crashing their party.

Isla Fisher is worth noticing as the perpetually wasted Katie who's a walking wreck in tight skirt and heels, a woman unrelenting in playing up her bimbo slut persona. Lizzy Caplan's Gena is introduced to us in a monologue on a plane about how she uses her oral sex skills to manipulate men. It's a scorcher, and Caplan owns the role giving us someone who hides her insecurities behind a veneer of hardened anger. And then there's Dunst who's portrayal of Regan is raw, real and nothing short of nightmarish. Her arrogance hits a high note when she utters this vapid complaint about her overpriviliged life: "I did everything right. I went to college. I exercise. I eat like a normal person. I've got a boyfriend in med school, and nothing is happening to me."

These girls are never likable, but their personalities soften and are given a humanity, and they're certainly not monsters. They do want to fix their friend's wedding dress. They're even, dare I say it, relatable, forcing us to hold a mirror up to our own imperfections. This is especially true in the film's closing motto from Regan, as she pronounces "fuck everyone" to muster up Becky's courage in forgetting what people think and to just walk down the aisle. Who hasn't felt that before?