Rocket Science (2007)
Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick. Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz.
“It’s one of those two, love or revenge,” says ninth-grader Hal Hefner in explaining his motivation. It’s the kind of rationale that can turn a nice, lightly absurd teen comedy into something dark or cynical, but Rocket Science tiptoes on the tipping point, does a couple of those oh-no-I’m-losing-my-balance arm-waving things, then floats gently back to earth, its parasol of earnestness setting it down right where it should, in the land of hope and optimism.
Hal is a stammerer. It’s not fair: his mother, father, and brother have all kinds of problems, but their problems don’t cause them ridicule or loneliness. Hal can’t speak up in class even when he’s the only one who knows the answer his teacher is trying incompetently to wring out of her students. His counselor doesn’t know what to do with him, saying, “It’s really a shame you’re not hyperactive, because that I know well.” When he’s presented in the lunch line with the choice of pizza or fish, he can’t spit the word “pizza” out, and is stuck with an unidentifiable piece of fish.
But then Ginny Ryerson recruits him for the debate team. She’s won every award in high-school policy debate except the state championship, and she wants him to be her partner in her final chance at that last trophy. She’s a senior, and she’s smart and pretty, and she convinces him that his brains and insight are exactly what she needs in a debate partner. That stammering stuff will work itself out.
That’s a heck of a premise. Add excellent acting, smart direction, a silly but realistic presentation of high-school campus life, and a script that remembers how bizarre any fifteen-year-old’s existence feels to the fifteen-year-old and to everyone around him, and you get a pretty good teen movie. If you can look at this film and feel the slightest compassion for its characters – all of them – you can understand why I loved teaching ninth-graders for sixteen years. Director Jeffrey Blitz also directed one of my top-five documentary films of all time, Spellbound, about the National Spelling Bee, and it’s clear he gets this weird place young people occupy, crammed somewhere between their upbringings, their environments, and their emerging, independently thinking selves. Figuring out where their places are and finding their voices shouldn’t be rocket science, Hal suggests, but Hal doesn’t know yet that rocket science is a piece of cake compared to “all this, you know? Everything.”
The Lobster (2015)
Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.
The world can be unkind to romantically unattached singles, many of whom spend their whole lives searching for someone who will connect with them in some deeply meaningful way. Or, barring that, someone who will at least agree that life spent with just about anyone at all is better than spending it with nobody. This is not a new theme in film or in any other realm exploring the miserable stuff of life.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster takes our preoccupation with love (or at least couplehood) to absurd extremes in a way that’s supposed to be funny but leans so far over into terrible that I found it difficult to laugh even when I knew I was supposed to, although most of the time I wasn’t sure whether scenes were meant to make me laugh, cry, or recoil in utter horror, which I suppose is the point. Characters go to ridiculous lengths to establish connections with potential lovers, one of them arriving at the baffling conclusion that it’s easier to act like you don’t care about someone who doesn’t like you than it is to act like you do care about someone who does like you.
Considering what’s at stake, it’s difficult exactly to judge any of them, for in this dystopian Ireland, newly single people check into hotels and are given forty-five days to find new partners. If they don’t, they are turned into the animals of their choice. When David, the film’s main character, is abandoned by his wife, he brings his dog to the hotel, because the dog is his brother. The hotel has strict rules, all of them designed to encourage partnering up before the grace period is over, and although everyone is there for the same reason as David, connecting with someone just isn’t easy. That woman is very pretty, and this woman is sweet and friendly, and that sexually uninhibited one over there keeps inviting you to her room, but…but…but…
Lanthimos does interesting work in framing the love-obsessed world, but then he rotates the image, skewering and condemning unapologetic singles who pass judgment on couples. This next-leveling turns what would have been a creative but rather shallow black comedy into something much more interesting in a kind of not-so-fast-you-in-the-condescension-corner-yeah-I’m-talking-to-you way. If I like this movie at all, it’s because I found myself tsk-tsking in the first half and dodging the finger of accusation in the second. What a neat, amusing, and embarrassing experience.
Everything about this film is cold. The lighting is cold. The acting is cold. The dialogue is cold. Even the score, mostly chamber-type classical music, is cold. It’s tempting to call the acting flat and inhibited, but there’s something stirring down there, beneath the surfaces of these characters who seem so insipidly conceived. They don’t have names, and only one or two have backstories. I don’t know what the rationale was here, but this approach makes the film more challenging than seems necessary. Still, flashes of warmth and realness by Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, and a few of the others give the impression that there’s some real acting going on, and I may need another viewing to get a better idea of what the actors are doing.
The Lobster is easily a movie about love, but I wonder if it’s not also about faith, or politics, or education, or anything else with a dominant culture, a defiant counterculture, and people who can’t seem to find their place in the tiny space between. Either way, I find it an inspiring film despite this weird feeling that I’m not supposed to be inspired by it.
Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Sicario is technically a well put-together movie, with lighting, sound, and camera work providing enough imagery to show what’s going on while they build suspense in a convincing, real-life way. When FBI agents burst into the safe house of a Mexican a drug cartel, we get the tension of not knowing what’s down a dark hallway, who’s going to be cooperative when a rifle is pointed at his face, or what’s behind a closed bedroom door. And when the agents gradually realize the horrible stuff they’re dealing with, we’re carried along like reporters embedded with the team—not directly involved, but present enough not to be objective.
Too many thrillers force suspense upon us, with unrealistic sounds (such as knives that make metallic sounds just by being brandished in the air) or things that pop out of nowhere just to be startling. I don’t know what it’s actually like to be in a drug cartel’s safe house, but this film makes me believe in the reality of the situation, which is more than tense enough, just given the details as they exist.
Despite its technical excellence and fine acting, Sicario tells an intriguing but unsatisfying story. It defines Emily Blunt’s character as the protagonist, gives us something to admire about her, and never really gives her any agency. As the FBI’s Kate Macer, she’s focused, dedicated, and tough, but this film isn’t really telling her story; she’s being brought along in service to a larger plot that has no protagonist. It works on the micro level: we get to feel as confused by strange developments as our supposed heroine, but on the macro level, when it’s all over, we’re left feeling kind of empty.
Much of the buzz around this movie had to do with Blunt’s emergence as a new action star, with Entertainment Weekly including her on its shortlist for possible Daniel Craig replacements as James Bond (tangent: I still think Jack Black should be given a shot). I don’t have any doubt she would be excellent in that role, but my confidence in her is not based at all on this film. Her performance is solid, but her character is never given the chance to carry her own movie.
To call it a dark film is probably understating things, and while I do like darkness in my cinema, I want it to emerge from characters we root for, so my own tortured soul has something to relate to. Sicario’s darkness is all in its story. That can work. Yet without a main character to take us through it, it works only as a downer, and this is a downer as a movie and as a filmgoing experience.
Café Lumière (2003)
Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Ho. Japanese with English subtitles.
When the credits rolled at the conclusion of Café Lumière, I wasn’t sure what I’d been watching for an hour and forty-three minutes, but I knew I liked it. Most of the film is absent any music; its soundtrack is the ambient sounds of Tokyo’s trains, train stations, street traffic, and background conversation. Interior scenes are in small spaces where camera angles seem not to be chosen for the way they frame the characters, but for available space the camera operator can squeeze into, and if that means seeing the backs of everyone’s heads and no faces, that’s okay. Exterior shots follow Yoko through streets and across train platforms, but from a distance, allowing passing traffic to obscure our view for half a minute in some places. There are very few jump-cuts within scenes, there is very little camera movement, and there are no point-of-view shots. Film-making the way our prehistoric forebears did it while living in caves.
There’s kind of a plot, and there are themes, but director Hsiao-Hsien Ho does his best to lead you to them gently, without exposition or voiceover. It’s a film that encourages repeat viewings, and your takeaway could be different the first couple of times you watch it. I saw it on a DVD whose special features included interviews with Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, and Tadanobu Asano, a notable Japanese action movie star who plays that Asian-looking, butt-kicking warrior in the Thor films. They are asked to share their favorite scene from the film, and they both say their favorite scenes never made the final cut. One gets the feeling that if a scene was too memorable, it was left out for fear of taking over the film’s overall impression. What we’re left with are quiet scenes of characters in small spaces where it seems impossible for characters not to connect, and large spaces where there is always something physical separating them.
The main character is Yoko Inoue, a young writer researching a 1930s Taiwanese composer who worked most of his life in Japan and married a Japanese woman. She lives in a tiny apartment some distance from her parents, and spends a lot of her time on trains. Whether trains are merely a mode of transportation or something else isn’t clear, but trains are a dominant motif throughout the film. A young man who may be merely a friend or possibly a romantic interest works in a used bookstore, spending his free time recording ambient train station sounds on his mini-disc player.
The film is probably best left for each viewer to examine for him- or herself, so I’ll leave it there, with the advice to see it more than once, and to look at the supplemental material if you have access to it. And then message me so we can talk about it, because I’d love to know what others think.
While it has certain sensibilities in common with American mumblecore films, Café Lumière lacks the low-fi approach those movies embrace—there is nothing low-fi or DIY about the deliberate way it is put together. It’s a quiet film that takes its time and refuses to hammer its ideas into your skull, and it’s rather a terrific movie.
Craft Beer in Japan (2016)
Directed by Maarten Roos and John Lobreglio.
Craft Beer in Japan is a 28-minute, made-for-TV documentary exploring the niche market in Japan for craft beer. In the United States, craft beers have a twelve percent share of the beer market; in Japan, they claim only one percent, which our host sees as a possible opportunity for craft brewers. He interviews brewmasters, cultural historians, and beer lovers as they break down Japan’s turning beer into its own thing, no longer merely a borrowed beverage from other cultures. Craft brewers are exploring bonita flakes, yuzu, and shiso leaves; brew pubs are pairing beers with specific Japanese dishes; fans are learning to appreciate beer the way they’ve always appreciated sake.
It’s a pretty good skim, but I would have appreciated another 28 minutes to get a little deeper and to spend more time hearing about the beer itself. As it is, it’s an interesting, thirst-inspiring look.
Fantastic Four (2015)
Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Josh Trank.
The 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four was presumably supposed to rejuvenate the franchise. It seems instead to have used the 2005 film as the baseline for finding new ways to be bad. While some aspects are certainly better—Miles Teller as Reed Richards the most striking—this new attempt is good where the first film was bad, and bad where the first film was good. It’s not a winning approach.
Reed Richards, a high-school student who’s been working for years with his friend Ben Grimm on a teleporter, enters his project in the school science fair. Although the exhibition is a failure, he’s worked out one detail that’s been evading Franklin Storm and his teenaged science prodigies at the government-sponsored Baxter Foundation. Dr. Storm and his daughter Sue somehow happen to be at the science fair, and seeing that Richards’s machine brings things back from wherever they’re teleported, offer him a scholarship.
The Baxter Foundation is what Richards has always yearned for: not only access to expensive equipment and time to work with it, but a social admiration for the talents that have always alienated him. We’ve seen this same setup before, with Harry Potter and Ender Wiggin (for example), so there’s good dramatic gold to be mined here, but the film instead hurries through a rivalry with Victor Von Doom and a romantic interest in Sue Storm to get the bodies into the transporter and the mutations into the bodies. We get cursory character development (although Sue’s proclivity for recognizing patterns is an intriguing idea that could have worked) and absolutely no meaningful sense of place or wonder. Nor do we get any real emotional buildup for Richards.
What we get instead are ridiculous visual effects, a dumb story, and worst of all, no relationship development with the heroes. The one visual effect that’s cooler than in 2005 is the rendering of the Human Torch, which looks pretty much just like the comic book character.
The acting is somewhat better, but the actors aren’t given enough to work with. Miles Teller is a Reed Richards I could have believed in, if only the film had made an effort to let Teller do what he does, which is relate. There is nothing between Sue and Reed except a vaguely defined intellectual admiration that never turns into a spark, which is another waste, because although Kate Mara is no Jessica Alba, she could have been sexy in a completely different way for the likes of Richards. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm is fine. Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell as Ben Grimm and Victor Von Doom are completely forgettable.