film

Review: Divergent

Divergent (2014)
Shailene Woodley, Maggie Q, Ashley Judd, Theo James, Kate Winslett. Directed by Neil Berger.

diverIn Divergent‘s post-apocalyptic Chicago, society is divided into five factions named Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Abnegation. Amity values happiness and peace; Candor values honesty and fairness, Dauntless values courage, Erudite values science and knowledge, and Abnegation values selflessness and service. Each faction operates a distinct part of life within the fenced-in city (the Amity, for example, growing the food for the whole city, but the Abnegation governing the food’s distribution), raising its children until they are old enough to be tested for competency and inclination.

The test results are recorded but kept secret, and when the young adults are faced with the Choosing ceremony, they may choose to stay with the faction they were raised by (the most common outcome), or they may choose any other faction, either in line with their test results or not, since the test results are known only to the chooser.

Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) has always felt out of place in Abnegation, something that fills her with guilt. Her parents are leaders in the Abnegation community, models of selfless thought in service to others. Her brother, too, seems effortlessly to place the needs of others above his own desires. Beatrice thinks she’s too selfish for her community, although she certainly values what it stands for, and longs to be more like her family. But something strange happens at her testing, and she learns something about herself that she cannot tell anyone without risking death.

gentThis truth about herself affects everything Beatrice does, and this first film in an anticipated four-movie series (based upon Veronica Roth’s trilogy) traces her experience as she carries her secret through her post-Choosing life. She forms precious new friendships, changes her name to Triss, gains a few enemies, and comes under fire for accusations aimed at her parents. Somehow, what really emerges is something of a survival tale with elements (too many for my tastes) of romance.

It’s pretty good. The cinematography is thoughtful and at times creative, the editing comfortable yet excellent at building tension. My lone complaint is that the supporting characters aren’t developed well, something that might have been sacrificed for better pacing (an understandable choice, if this is the case). Triss’s friendships are a critical element in the trilogy’s developing story, the kind of thing that makes us care as much about her as we should, and while it may have been impossible to flesh out all of the important relationships, some care should have been taken to define at least a few of them. This lack of connectedness serves to flatten the overall film, leaving the plot to do the driving.

The novels are wildly popular, and they’re at least interesting enough to keep me coming back for the next few films, but I suspect that if you don’t have that to motivate you, Divergent the film will only kind of make you want to see what happens next.

6/10
66/100

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Review: Don’t Know Yet

Don’t Know Yet (2013)
James Kyson, Lisa Goldstein Kirsch. Written and directed by James Linehan.

don'tA guy in a car pulls over where a hitchhiker is standing on the roadside.

“Where are you going?” asks the hitchhiker.

“Uh, where are YOU going?” ask the driver.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you?”

“Are there rules to hitchhiking?”

It turns out there are, but not very many, at least for this driver named Taylor (portrayed by James Kyson). Taylor doesn’t know it at this moment, but this hitchhiker is the first in a long series of people needing a lift somewhere, and he’s happy to take them as far as they need to go in a cross-country Forrest-Gump-like journey away from the house he once shared with his fiance.

When he runs low on money, Taylor gets a cheap lunch in a diner, where he meets a very friendly, very pretty manager who gives him a job and then takes him to her house. Taylor is exceedingly friendly to the strangers he picks up, and other strangers he meets along the way are exceedingly friendly to him in a world that seems absent any threat to safety or well-being.

know yetThe people Taylor gives rides to all have different stories, some of them on their way to something, others on their way away from something, and still others not really sure whether they’re coming or going. Taylor gives transportation and friendship to them all, and in return they seem to offer some kind of gradual healing of the ailment that keeps Taylor behind the wheel. In one excellently conceived montage, we see Taylor from in front of the vehicle, driving on long stretches of road, a different passenger riding shotgun in each clip, a different hand-lettered cardboard sign resting upon the dashboard and visible through the windshield. Beyond “Minneapolis or Bust!” sentiments, they seem to act almost as subtitles for the thoughts in Taylor’s head as he listens to each story, his foot always on the pedal.

One day, a woman named Autumn (played by Lisa Goldstein Kirsch) slides into the passenger seat. She’s going to the East Coast, but she soon makes Taylor’s mission her own, the two of them stopping for hitchhikers, Autumn’s eventual destination apparently not pressing. They share a tent at night, stopping at campgrounds or wherever they find a good spot, and Taylor sees something inspiring in Autumn’s free spirit. They gaze at waterfalls together, watch in wonder as eagles circle high above them, make up songs as their campfires fling embers into the night.

There’s nothing new about the get-behind-the-wheel-and-just-go conceit Don’t Know Yet employs, but I’m willing to overlook what should be a tired device because I admit I still find the idea to be laced with romance. When you spend your whole life on an island, as I have, the very thought of driving in a straight line for more than an hour is simply mind-blowing. Where I come from, you can drive all day and all night if you want to, but you’ll find yourself right back where you began, a possibility that seems to defeat the purpose of soul-searching adventurers like Taylor and the many movie characters who’ve done it before him.

I’m less forgiving of the plot element that introduces a free-spirited, pretty woman (for she is always pretty in these things) who shows our protagonist a new way of looking at everything. While Taylor’s long, aimless drive seems to be a metaphor for something, Autumn’s very life seems to be the reality the metaphor suggests. It’s kind of a neat idea but you can’t help wishing Taylor could find some other way to climb out of the darkness and into something meaningful and new.

Before Taylor meets Autumn, most of the people he picks up are just normal people needing a lift, people you might meet in any town at any place you might be likely to hang out. I really like this approach, and wish the film’s writer-director James Linehan had stuck with it, but with Autumn riding along, the passengers become less ordinary, and for fifteen to twenty minutes, the movie takes on the tone of a Charles Kurault anthology, a decision that feels horribly misguided.

My feelings through the first two thirds of the film were mixed: while part of me kept saying, “not this again,” another part couldn’t help responding in a positive way to these characters. Taylor is brooding and mostly quiet, but he’s a nice, friendly guy, the kind of guy others seem to have an easy time getting along with. His utterances are short and direct, but never brusque or dismissive. He’s just a guy who says what he has to say without wasting words or time. And he has a way of bringing out the the good, honest stuff in others. And if Autumn were your friend, you’d probably find a lot of her hipster new-ageism annoying at times, but you’d happily put up with it because the person spouting it is just so darned nice.

But there is a moment that forces you to look at Taylor’s journey differently, to rethink the judgments you’ve made about his wandering and his interactions with others, and although the moment feels kind of unreal, it’s not difficult to find yourself rooting for Taylor and hoping things work out well.

For this reason, despite a cheap, easy, post-resolution fadeout that had me thinking of twenty other movies and begging for the rolling of the credits, I really do like Don’t Know Yet and recommend it for good acting, well-conceived characters, and some admirable technical ideas.

7/10 (for good acting, likeable characters, and neat editing)
73/100

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Review: A Letter to Momo

A Letter to Momo (Momo e no Tegami) (2011)

Japanese subtitled version: Karen Miyama, Yuka, Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Yamadera.
English dubbed version: Amanda Pace, Stephanie Sheh, Fred Tatasciore, Dana Snyder.
Directed and written by Hiroyuki Okiura.

a letterTwelve-year-old Momo has recently moved with her mother Ikuko from a condo in Tokyo to a tiny, rural island in Japan, where Ikuko grew up and where both try to deal with the recent death of Momo’s father.

They are grieving, each in her own, private way. Ikuko busies herself with trying to find a new job, leaving Momo to spend her days doing homework and making friends with other children on the island. In private moments, Ikuko kneels at the household shrine, looking through photo albums. Momo’s alone-time is often spent staring at a piece of paper, blank except for the words, “Dear Momo,” the beginning of a letter written by her father’s hand shortly before his death at sea.

to momoMomo doesn’t tell anyone, but her last words to her father were shouted in anger, a horrible expression of childish disappointment that she can never take back. As she tries somehow to manage the guilt, grief, loneliness, pain, and adjustment of this new life, mysterious things happen in her house and neighborhood. Small personal belongings disappear. Orchards are raided for their fruit before it is ready for harvest. Snacks disappear from the kitchen with only trash left in their place. Momo sees strange shapes and movements out of the corners of her eye as Ikuko leaves each morning, but nothing’s there when she turns her head to get a better look.

A Letter to Momo is directed by Hiroyuki Okiura (director of Jin-Roh and animator of Akira and Metropolis) who sticks mostly to light pastels and gauzy lighting in a way that both highlights the quietude of Momo’s farming community and hearkens to the illustrations in our favorite childhood storybooks. Yet while the I was reminded more than once of the gentle color tones in such stories as William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the detail and scope of Okiura’s animation can only be compared to the best of its Japanese tradition. I paused the film at least ten times just to absorb the beautiful framing and composition, which ultimately was more affecting than the story’s climax and resolution.

For while this movie is a visual experience I wanted to go through again, its pacing is at times maddening for a grown-up viewer like me. Certain plot revelations take forever to arrive, and most teenaged audiences will see them coming like a bullet train on Lipovitan. I will concede that certain sight gags and bodily stunts will probably amuse a less mature audience, and there are a couple of chase sequences that manage to find a good groove, but even they feel just a bit long despite some excellent timing.

It is unquestionably a movie for children, and older elementary-schoolers will probably enjoy it. While the parents who take them certainly won’t be bored, they will find a good portion of the film silly, and they should be advised that A Letter to Momo doesn’t shy away from the despair two young women confront as they stare down the reality of death. When one major character falls dangerously ill, Momo must deal with the possibility of yet another death, a weighty, sobering thought for viewers of any age, and I would caution parents to consider their children’s sensitivity to such themes before heading to the box office. Young people who can handle the serious issues could leave theaters with a new favorite.

Recommended for tweens and their grown-up, animation-loving adults. Cautiously recommended for children slightly younger.

7/10 (points taken away for excessive silliness but points given back for gorgeous animation)
70/100

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Review: A Picture of You

A Picture of You (2014)
Jo Mei, Andrew Pang, Teyonah Parris, Lucas Dixon, Jodi Long. Directed by J.P. Chan. Written by J.P. Chan and Jo Mei.

a pictureKyle and Jen have just lost their mother, and now they are in her rural Pennsylvania house to pack away her things. It says something that neither calls the other by name through the first half of the film, both opting for, “Hey,” which is also the extent of most of their early conversations. They clearly do not get along, and so the grieving process, stoked by the act of going through their mother’s belongings, is a lonely experience for both.

ofAdd to this the fact that one of the siblings took care of their ill mother in the time leading to her death, while the other stayed away out of fear, and the resentment and guilt Kyle and Jen must sift through are as layered as the belongings they pull out of drawers and off shelves.

It probably sounds like several films you’ve seen or novels you’ve read, especially when the siblings discover something surprising in their mother’s computer. But this isn’t a movie about uncovering the secrets of a family’s past, though the characters do find themselves chasing down information and details in an almost screwball sequence in the final act. What makes A Picture of You worth its eighty-two minutes is that it spends its time first keeping its characters kind of mysterious, and then slowly getting us to care about them and their relationship with each other. When two of Jen’s friends show up at the house to help with the cleanup, I expected them to be a distraction from the good Kyle-Jen stuff, but they actually help it along, bringing an element of humor that had mostly been absent.

youI laughed aloud multiple times, mostly at awkward interactions and silly-but-fitting conversations. There were a couple of moments where I thought, “Oh, no. Not this tired plot device,” but even this film’s direction down overly trodden movie territory is pretty enjoyable. I normally hate marijuana-as-bonding moments in movies, yet here I thought the scene was fun and effective.

The lighting in this film is noticeably well-done, and my appreciation for it is heightened by what feels like a conscious avoidance of soundtrack music (something I admit I am hypersensitive about). Moments are allowed to play out, quietly, paced by the thoughts of characters we are still getting to know, so we take time, while they think about what to say or do next, to notice the slant of sunlight dividing a room in half, or the pattern of shadows made by the forest canopy overhead. I was pleased to discover that the cinematographer is Andrew Reed, who did Quiet City and Cold Weather, two movies whose production I admire.

The acting is at times clunky and at times just right. Andrew Pang as Kyle does a good job of keeping us from seeing, for the first half of the movie, anything to connect with, and sometimes it works well and sometimes it feels like his character’s gestures and mannerisms are from some place far away and long ago. Jo Mei plays Jen as sulky, grouchy, and demanding. When she’s with just Kyle, it’s tough to like her, but in the company of friends or while jogging along around the lake, she seems much more like good people, adding an endearing, bossy physicality that gives the group of characters its center. Teyonah Parris and Lucas Dixon as Jen’s friends bring life to the grouchy siblings, reminding me of a young Rosario Dawson and younger Seth Rogen. Jodi Long, seen only in flashback as the deceased mother, is just beautiful, and viewers familiar only with her role on Sullivan & Son will be in for a little surprise.

I have a friend who has seen so many indie movies that it’s nearly impossible to please him when the indie aesthetic is applied. There are shaky handheld camera moments here that don’t seem to serve any meaningful purpose except to remind you that you’re seeing an indie picture, for example, and I can see how many of lighting decisions might be seen similarly. Such viewers may find not much to love in A Picture of You, but those who appreciate film characters behaving like real people will likely be impressed. Count me among the latter.

8/10
82/100

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Review: About Time

About Time (2013)
Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy. Written and Directed by Richard Curtis.

aboutTim Lake is just out of college and set to begin a career as a lawyer, moving to London from his family’s seaside home in Cornwall. His father has recently told him that the men in the family have the ability to travel in time, but only to places and times they’ve already been. An inordinately happy and peaceful man, Tim’s father strongly advises against using this ability to pursue money or fame. When Tim meets Mary at one of those dining-in-complete-darkness establishments, he falls in love and uses his skill to make things work (eventually) in his favor.

This is not at all the movie you think it is, with lots of traveling back and forth in time to make things work out okay–there is a kind of Butterfly Effect consideration, but that’s not where the real story lives. Instead, it imagines what you might use this skill for if things were already pretty much okay, or if the ability to move back in time weren’t enough to change some of the things you really want to change. Tim learns early that traveling in time won’t give him everything he wants, and ultimately certain people he cares about are saved by the love that motivates the main character. There is never really a cliffhanger moment of climax here; what we get instead is a nice, sweet movie about a man with a talent, and how the person wielding the talent is the critical element, not the talent itself. The greatest power of the atomic bomb was in its ability to convince us never to use it again. Tim’s time-travel isn’t exactly like that, for in his hands it is not at all a destructive force, but it makes you consider how good life is without it.

timeDomnhall Gleeson plays Tim, and you’ve seen him as Bill Weasley in the final two Harry Potter movies. He and Rachel McAdams as Mary are wonderfully cast, playing young twenty-somethings with energy and sweetness, with wit and flirtiness and all the things that make you root for a young couple. They slide nicely into what must be their early thirties as the film moves along, and they are as likeable a pair as I’ve seen in a while. If you, like I, have been somewhat put off by McAdams’s recent efforts, here is a movie for you. And if you don’t love Bill Nighy, who plays Tim’s father, by the time this film is over, there’s just no hope for you. Nighy is almost always the best thing about any movie he is in, and this film continues the streak. If you’ve been missing the character he plays in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, grab this movie because here he mostly is again.

There are some films that seem to evade major mainstream success, and then to find their audiences slowly, over several years, as people who need to see them stumble upon them somewhere, and as word spreads gradually by people who’ve been touched by them. I can see all kinds of people whose tastes normally line up close to mine not enjoying this movie as much as I do, at least for the moment. But with absolutely nothing to support my suspicion, I have a feeling About Time is one of those movies. I found myself making all kinds of resolutions about my life, and how I’m going to change the way I think about the daily experiences of my existence, every time I saw this, and I’ve now seen it three times. It is objectively quite a good film. However, I’m throwing objectivity out the window and saying that I just love this movie, and I think there’s a fair chance anyone reading this (with the exception of one friend who I think will merely find it unobjectionable) will love it too. This movie makes me want to believe all the things my mildly cynical heart has slowly begun to crystalize against; it loosens up all the scar tissue, all the adhesions where I’ve Scotch-taped some of the wounds together so they won’t let anything in or out, and makes me think this second half of my life might possibly be better than the first.

9/10
93/100

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Review: Boyhood

Boyhood (2014)
Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelai Linklater, Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Richard Linklater.

boSomething I have never understood about parenting (I don’t have any children) is the way all of my friends who have kids wish time would slow down, as if to say they never want these current moments of childhood to go away. This has never made sense to me: I understand that the innocence of childhood is a beautiful thing, but it disappears pretty quickly, and once that’s gone, it seems to me that kids get better as they get older. They become self-aware, thinking, complicated human beings moving toward some kind of enlightenment and purpose, people who make the world better or worse based on the choices they make. Since I have yet to meet the parent who thinks his or her child is making society worse, it baffles me that these parents aren’t eager to see their kids experience all the great things the world has to offer. Sure, a baby is a sweet, safe, cuddly thing, but it has never tried osso bucco, or seen The Princess Bride, or listened to The Dark Side of the Moon with headphones. Who wants to spend extended amounts of time with someone who can’t recite the Battle of Wits scene with Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes?*

I think parents might really be made uncomfortable by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie filmed across twelve years with the same actors, including the director’s own daughter and a boy who grows up in front of our eyes in a space smaller than three hours. I’ve seen the film twice, with two different groups of people, and almost everyone commented that there were moments when they were unaware whether, from one scene to another, a few hours had passed or several months. If you paid attention to popular music in the years between 2000 and 2012, songs in the soundtrack were indicators, but if you, like most parents I know, stopped paying attention to new music when you became a parent, the songs are all going to sound new, which I imagine is the way a lot of things seem in the time between their kids’ sixth and eighteenth birthdays, just this blur of passing interests, hobbies, fads, and styles.

yhoThe nature of time’s passage is the theme of Boyhood, which stars Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Lorelai Linklater as his older sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as their mom, and Ethan Hawke as their dad. How does one mark the passage of time? How does one mark a human being’s growth? Seen one way, twelve years flies by, impossibly morphing children into adults and transforming young parents into empty-nesters. Seen another, it is a crawl, an inexorable process of trials and errors, of unseen, life-endangering near-catastrophes nobody thinks twice about, and of in-the-moment poor decisions that only with the perspective and distance of years can we look back upon as not that big a deal. Mason and his sister grow up before our very eyes, neither the same at the end of the film as at the beginning–in fact, neither young adult looks remotely like the children we meet in the movie’s first few minutes–and while we see the before and after and understand what has happened, we can’t definitely point to more than a few specific moments that contribute to their becoming the people they become. How does one character become kind of cynical and thoughtful, and how does another become responsible and level-headed, and why is yet another still kind of undefined as a person?

Yes, a lot of the mystery of how people become who they are in this film is the result of Linklater’s decisions about what to show us and what to leave out, but this is my point: the director has created a film that gives us the feeling, in three hours, of twelve years’ passing, and he’s left us with the same kind of baffled acceptance of how things are but only the haziest of ideas about how they got that way. He leaves in stuff we’d remember, but the stuff we remember is not necessarily the stuff that shapes us.

odI imagine there was really no way to tell what kind of actor Ellar Coltrane was someday going to become, but the early verdict points to some other career. He’s good enough for sure, and I imagine Linklater shaped the story in such a way as to put Coltrane’s personality, acting skills, and screen presence to best use. Lorelei Linklater is somewhat more talented, and a film career is certainly in the realm of possibility. Arquette and Hawke are really, really good, and Arquette is probably going to get some mentions when awards season rolls around.

There is a moment near the end of the film when Mason is leaving for college. He removes something from a box of belongings his mother has packed for him to take along. Mason doesn’t want it. It’s something he created when he was young, something that has no meaning for him today. It means something to his mother, though, and this disparity in the object’s significance upsets her. She has worked so hard, been through so much, and now at the precipice of new lives for them both, she has to accept that the things that mattered to her are not the things that mattered to him. Of course they aren’t. They are different people with different perspectives of these twelve years. In choosing the three hours’ worth of moments that lead to this one, whose perspective is Linklater offering? I don’t have an answer, but I suspect that a meaningful answer tells you what this film is really about. I’m okay with not knowing.

9/10
91/100

* I realize that not having children of my own disqualifies me in many people’s eyes from making a judgment about young men and women getting better (and more interesting) as they enter their teen years, but I taught teenagers for sixteen years, something many people (most of them parents!) have told me they could never do, and although I sent my students home at the end of every day, because of the nature of the teacher-student relationship, in many ways I have known them better than their parents have. So no, I do not have the perspective of a parent, but I have a different experience that lends my voice at least some creedence.

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