Tag Archives: actors turned directors

Booksmart

It’s the last day of school, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are ready to bid high school goodbye. They’ve been serious students, buttoned down and focused, and their hard work has paid off: they’re off to Yale and Columbia respectively. But their pride is tamped down a little when they learn that that many of their classmates are also headed for the Ivies – this despite the fact that they rarely seemed studious, and made lots of time for parties and fun. “I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs,” says one.

Molly is particularly devastated; sure she’s the valedictorian, but did she sacrifice fun for nothing? She doesn’t want to show up at college in the fall a party virgin. Her whole worldview is sliding down a crap chute, and her instinct is to dive in after it. Luckily, they have one last night before graduation, and Amy’s departure for a summer of volunteering in Botswana. One night to make up for 4 years of skipping parties and feeling left out of the in-crowd. They set their sights on Nick’s party – the most effortlessly popular kid in school (played by Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr).

The ladies do not get from point A to point B without boatloads (and sometimes they are literal boatloads) of shenanigans. This is Superbad, only because it’s girls, it’s much smarter. And it seems like this one night of trying to party teaches them more about themselves than the previous four years of high school. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

The movie gets so much right even as we learn how much the girls have gotten wrong. Molly always assumed she was purposely excluded, but it turns out these kids are all too happy to greet her socially; her exile was self-imposed. How maddening, isn’t it, to discover that too late – and a good reminder for us all to check in with ourselves. How often do we impose our own limitations? Amy tackles her fears while Molly checks her ego, and her assumptions. The two women in the lead have amazing chemistry and it’s a lot of fun to witness the particular dynamic of their friendship. You and I know that college will test the bonds of their friendship, and inevitably change it if not crush it outright. They’re starting to have inklings that this might be so. So this last night out has some tangible pressure to it. Beanie Feldstein is a cinematic lantern, lighting up every screen she’s on, and lighting the way for others. Kaitlyn Dever is an excelling pairing for her, able to play off her energy in a more conservative and subdued way, while still holding her own.

Olivia Wilde tries out the director’s chair and seems to find it a pretty comfortable fit. She’s got an eye for letting actors do their thing; so much of the best bits feel spontaneous and are the best kind of weird. She’s also got an amazing feel for music – she introduces characters and themes with pop songs, and it really took me back. I bet most of us can come up with a soundtrack of our own high school experience. Music is such an important part of that time in our lives. I still surround myself by music constantly, but I will never again spend the day on my bedroom floor inhaling lyric booklets, or spend hours recording stuff off MTV like I did then. I know which songs I kissed to, slow-danced to, had sex to. Which ones we played on repeat as we drove recklessly and restlessly around parking lots doing donuts, which ones played at the diner as we split an order of fries, which ones we cried to when boys were mean to us, which ones accompanies us down the aisle at our own graduations and commencements. Wilde seems to have an intuitive sense of that, and I caught it.

There’s a theme in Booksmart that is hinted at but never spoken of: class. As in economic and social class. Molly points out the school’s 1% (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, whom Sean finds uproariously funny), but it’s clear that the Los Angeles high school as affluent as heck. Everyone, it seems, except for Molly. Not a single thing is ever said about it, but we see that she lives in an apartment building while everyone else has a McMansion, and her parents are absent from the film. So when Molly discovers that all her other classmates also got into good schools, she berates herself for having skipped the fun when she didn’t have to. But you and I know that she probably did: that kids like Molly have to earn their way in, but kids from rich families do not. They have legacy status, they know alumni who can pull strings. Their families donate money to schools. And, as we’ve seen in the news recently, they pay money to fake their way in on a little-used athletic scholarship or some other fraudulent means. College admissions are not the meritocracy we want to believe they are. There are very valid reasons why Molly worked so hard and others did not, even if the film never states them. So maybe Molly’s takeaway was to loosen up a bit, and experience life, which are not bad lessons. But for us, it’s a little bit more than that.

Even with these subtle layers, Booksmart never stops being fun. The cast is lively and diverse, the tropes are thankfully on the unexpected side, and the movie has a great pace. Plus it has an exception friendship at its centre. Just when you think we’ve said all there is to say about high school, Boomsmart is a charming, genuine and clever addition to the field.

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Mid90s

Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a 13 year old kid living with his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). It’s the 90s, so we don’t have helicopter parents yet, no crazy attachment hyper-parenting bullshit. Just kids roaming the streets until it’s dark, which they more or less survived.

Stevie has good reason to want to flee his home. His mother has apparently curb-tailed her wildest instincts, but still unburdens her romantic woes on her tween son. Ian poses the more straight-forward threat, frequently beating up his little brother for little or no reason. But Stevie may be his own worst enemy, self-harming in mv5boti5mjvjmjqtmzlkni00mdu1lwiwy2mtyje2mje1ymu5nzy2xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymta2odmzmdu@._v1_alarming ways. It’s not until he begins to ingratiate himself with a skate group that he comes out of his shell. Ray is the undisputed leader of the group. He’s effortlessly cool, and everyone looks up to him. Fuckshit skateboards equally well, but seems more interested in partying and getting fucked up. Reuben and Fourth Grade fill obligatory minion roles within the group, and Stevie, henceforth known as Sunburn, is the newest, youngest, and greenest of the bunch. And he’s just so happy to be there.

Mid90s does a very good job making a time capsule out of 90s-era L.A.  It gives us a gritty, accurate, insider look at skater culture, though it also feels quite sweet and quite intimate at times. We get a rare glimpse of masculine vulnerability, and the age-old attempt to swallow it up.

This is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, and he’s quite a confident director right out of the gates. He’s got a very laid-back, observational style that almost mimics skate movies that kids were putting together at the time, just footage of their buddies daring to do new tricks. Hill’s favourite trick, and perhaps his greatest asset, is the minimalism with which he shoots. I just wish the script didn’t follow the same route. The skateboard metaphor, along with the unsubtle tag line ‘Fall. Get back up.’ are pretty heavy-handed, but the rest is a little…not superficial exactly, but undercooked, in that we don’t really get underneath the feelings. Hill picks at some scabs but allows very little bloodshed. Mid90s feels a bit more like a character sketch than a whole movie, with subplots thin enough to necessitate questions of existence, but the parts that are on screen look cool and feel authentic, and it’s a promising new direction for Jonah Hill.

TIFF18: A Star Is Born (2018)

When Angelina Jolie directed herself in By The Sea, they called it a vanity project. When Barbra Streisand starred in a remake of A Star Is Born, they called that a vanity project too. Bradley Cooper directs himself in yet another remake of A Star Is Born, and: crickets. Nobody says toot about no vanity project. And it’s not that I begrudge him this project at all; we all choose to do things that will show us in the best light. We just need to be more careful about the language we use when women do the same thing that men have always done.

Have you seen any or all of the previous remakes? This one is really well-done in a lot of ways. Bradley Cooper plays Jack, the established rockstar who can’t get through a show, or life, sober. But one night, in search of his next gin & tonic, he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) perform in a drag show and he’s a goner. Ally’s been unable to break into the music business because of her “looks” (ugh) so he gives her her first big break…and then regrets it? Her star shoots up while his pummels down. His hearing loss and his drinking problem and his anger get in the way of his career, but he still finds time to be condescending about Ally’s career trajectory, which he deems less authentic than his own (ugh again). And well, if you haven’t see the previous remakes, I won’t spoil it for you (yet), but: ugh.

Bradley Cooper turns out to be an excellent director who’s hooked up with an excellent cinematographer, Matthew Libatique. And he’s terrific in this. I was particularly astonished in the earlier scenes in which he’s a charming, functional alcoholic. It’s very subtle what he does, and very right – nothing big and sloppy, but there are tell-tale tics suggesting a man who has spent decades drunk. It’s brilliant. And Sam Elliott is fantastic, truly, tearfully terrific. And Dave Chappelle is great for what little he’s in it. And Anthony Ramos manages to stand out amongst all these stars – his face, beaming with pride for his friend, feels so honest. And okay, yes, Lady Gaga is good. Not great, but she doesn’t flub anything up, she’s not wooden, and she’s not even a big distraction. And of course when she’s singing she’s on fire. It’s disingenuous to cast her of course – the biggest thing to happen to pop music since Elvis. It’s insulting to brunettes everywhere (anywhere from 75%-97% of the world’s population) that they just made her hair a little mousy and suddenly the woman whose music cannot be separated from her style, her beauty, her glamourous image, is playing a woman discriminated against on the basis of looks? Let’s take a moment just to remember but a few of the low-key looks she sported to this very movie’s premiere, and ask ourselves again if she was really the best choice for the role.

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And to have her particular hang-up be her nose in this remake, the remake following Barbra Streisand‘s…it’s just rich. Barbra has her own kind of beauty of course, but a much less conventional one. It meant something. Putting Lady Gaga in this role almost makes me feel like they’re laughing at us. And every time they do their “cute” reference to her being ugly, my stomach turns. In fact, this whole idea that a big, rich star could fall for an ugly duckling, could see past her looks and discover talent…it’s quite patronizing. Meanwhile, if my eyes do not deceive me, this imperfect woman has glowing skin and luscious locks and a tight, size-0 figure. And yes he still deigns to look down on her when her career necessitates a makeover. But what does he know of such things? He gets to show up in the same sweat-stained hat every day. The privilege! The privilege to not even recognize that gender divide, to not even have it occur to you. But that brand of career has never been viable for a woman, not in 1937 with the first A Star Is Born, and not in 2018.

[Spoilers ahead]

This movie is ostensibly about how fame is a trap, how Hollywood can eat you up and spit you out, but in the end, it’s still portrayed as the only dream worth having. Ally accuses her father of being a star-fucker but their relationship spontaneously brightens as she gets famous, and she brings him to the Grammys as her date. This is the story Hollywood loves to tell about itself (obviously, they can’t stop remaking it). But the truth is, these ideas are toxic as hell.

Like in all the remakes, when she gets her makeover, her beau is quick to wipe her face clean. We’re so trained to think of this as somehow empowering or worse, romantic, that Bradley Cooper has even admitted to doing the same thing to Lady Gaga in real life. But there’s nothing empowering about a man deciding what your face should look like, and it’s never his place to wipe your face like a child. I was so upset when I heard him repeat this story in the press it made me not want to watch this movie. Lady Gaga’s makeup has never obscured her art – it is her art, or part of it.

I’m not sure how long Cooper and company kicked this movie around  before it eventually made it into production, but it feels like it’s about 20 years late to the conversation. If anything, it’s a death sentence for grizzled old guys like Jack; those who cannot change with the times will be left behind. Of course, I realized right from the opening credits that this movie was never going to get anything right about the music industry. I called it when I spotted the studio behind it: Live Nation Productions. You know, the people who merged with Ticketmaster and forever ruined your actual concert-going experiences? Their service and “convenience” fees add half as much again to ticket prices even though you do all the work yourself, online, and then print out the ticket at home, with your own ink. Since the merger ticket prices have risen 142%, and that’s just for the tickets that scalpers buy up in rigged advanced offerings. In 2018, there isn’t a single venue that Jack could play and not be selling out himself. But the movie of course looks the other way.

Meanwhile, Ally is no cowering Vicki Lester. When the label pushes her, she pushes back. Yes, sometimes she compromises, but she’s paying her dues, she’s happy to be there, and her career is a collaboration in which she has final say.

[Serious spoilers ahead]

Except even in 2018, the man is determined to take that choice away from her.

Ally is ready to sacrifice her career in order to stay home with him, stabilize him. When he realizes this, he kills himself rather than hold her back. Now think about your own loved one deciding that for you – deciding to commit suicide in order to preserve your job. In most fairy tales, we believe in love above all else, but not Hollywood. In Hollywood, fame may be cannibalizing, but career is king. It’s everything. Jack would rather end his own life and break his beloved’s heart rather than risk her tour in Europe. He believes he is saving her from herself. It’s so many flavours of fucked up it made me sick.

I think this movie tried to say something real. It knows that music legends like Jackson Maine are already a thing of the past (is there a single modern-day equivalent?) but even as it pokes holes in the cloudy mythology, it can’t help but place value in his “integrity.” But even as he positions his own career path as the only legitimate one, his jealousy and fear are activated. He, and this film, and the 3 before it, are fueled by the Hollywood fear that for every new star, an old one is pushed out. He rails against it, but his subconscious has a firm grip – “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die” – and Jackson dies along with them.

There are a lot of good elements to this movie and I get that many of you will enjoy it. I’m just finding that 2018 has left me angry, really angry, and I can’t watch movies without that filter of rage and indignation. Movies are the stories we tell of our time, and I don’t really like what this one is saying.

The Town

Ben Affleck branded Charlestown the “bank robbery capital” of America in his movie about the neighbourhood, The Town. Neither cops nor statistics actually bear that statement out, but he certainly painted a picture of a rough neighbourhood where its inhabitants (“townies”) scowl at outsiders and steal everything that’s not nailed down. Sean and I have been to Boston a few times so I can’t quite recall which time we ventured out to “the town” for some dinner but I do recall deliberating whether we should. Sure the internet was calling this Moroccan restaurant one of Boston’s best, but did we feel safe?

hero_EB20100915REVIEWS100919991ARClearly things have changed since Ben Affleck last spent the night in Charlestown. When we visited, it was gentrified as hell, Beamers parked up and down the street. It’s also been a while since we last watched the film, so without the benefit of bellydancers or couscous, we gave it a re-watch.

Ben Affleck came on board as director only after someone else bowed out. His original cut of the movie was 4 hours long, and if you’re interested, it’s available to watch on the Blu-Ray. The studio convinced him to cut it down to 2 hours, 8 minutes for our sake, still a lengthy movie, but one that just flies by. Affleck’s character assembles a team of ruffians who brazenly rob banks and armoured trucks. He’s wanting to get out of this life, but neither his friends nor his enemies are willing to let him go. So that’s a complication. Another little wrinkle: the woman he’s currently in a relationship with is a former hostage of his, only she doesn’t know it. So that’s awkward.

You can tell Affleck is an actor-director; the action scenes are electric but the editing slows way down during character-driven scenes. He lingers over them. And he knows a great performance when he sees one. In The Town, the scene stealer was Jeremy Renner, who Casey Affleck recommended when Ben couldn’t get Mark Walhberg. Affleck has since said that Renner’s performance was so strong that he could literally save a scene by cutting to Renner looking down at a napkin.

Anyway, whether or not The Town is an accurate portrayal of the people and criminals who live there, it’s an excellent film, slick and well-paced, and it definitely benefits from great on-location shooting. The Boston on screen no longer exists, if it ever did, but it’s a great cinematic accomplishment for a hometown boy.

Unbroken

I was cynical about this movie because critics told me to be. “It’s bad”, they wrote, “don’t bother.” But I watched it and thought: it’s not so bad. Good, even, in some parts. Basically redundant I suppose, but not bad. So why then was it panned? And why then did I feel much the same way upon viewing The Monuments Men, also derided by critics – maybe it wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t the disaster I’d been lead to believe.unbroken-movie-angelina-jolie

So now I’m worried that critics are taking pot-shots at “celebrity” directors. There’s almost nothing conventionally roastable about George Clooney, yet Tina Fey and Amy Pohler still found a way to mock him for making what I thought was a decent movie. He pretended to be a good sport about it, but they hit him where it hurts. If Kim Kardashian was standing behind the camera, fine, open season. But Angelina Jolie has paid her dues and proves it with a movie that is technically sound, and both made movies this year that contribute to a proud historical record for their country. Clint Eastwood, another actor-turned-director did the same with American Sniper, and though I’d say it’s the weakest of the three, it’s being hailed (although not uniformly) as the best.

UNBROKENUnbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a true tale that’s been simmering in different Hollywood pots for the past 70 years. He was an Olympic runner who competed in the Berlin Games and then joined the army just a few years later after the Pearl Harbour attack. As a bombardier in world war two, he and his fellow crewmates were sent out on a search and rescue mission on a plane that couldn’t hack it, and went down due to mechanical failure. One of only three survivors, he then spent more than 6 weeks at sea, barely surviving only to be washed onto Japanese soil where he brutally treated as a POW for the remainder of the war.

You can see why people thought this would make a good movie; it moves episodically from one unbrokenmoviehuge hurdle to the next, a great showcase for the human spirit (and for American spirit in particular). In fact, it’s a relic, the kind of war movie that casts the Japanese as “the enemy” pure and simple, and its indomitable American protagonist as the uncomplicated hero. But what should have been great turns out merely to be good. It’s beautifully shot but generic – we’ve seen the castaway thing a million times, and the POW thing a million more. Jolie adds nothing of her own to these events.

Jack O’Connell impresses again in a physically demanding role (he’s even better in Starred Up) and the cast is strong, but no one is given much more than the standard paces to work with, the unbrokenscript being surprisingly traditional after a Cohen brothers treatment. The movie opens with some nerve-wracking battle scenes in the sky, but from the moment the plane splashes down, we’re drowning in misery and degradation.

While Zamperini’s story is one of redemption and forgiveness, Unbroken shows only despair. Zamperini’s character is lost, a sense of triumph unearned, and the movie stirs emotion only by default.