CHEMICAL HEARTS (2020)

August 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the mid-1960’s Cat Stevens wrote the song “The First Cut is the Deepest.” It’s a beautiful and poignant song that has been a hit single for many artists, including Rod Stewart (1977) and Sheryl Crow (2003). Although the song is not associated with this film from writer-director Richard Tanne, I couldn’t stop thinking of it as the story unfolded – unsure if any teen romance has ever captured the sentiment with more emotional depth. The film is based on the 2016 novel, “Our Chemical Hearts”, by Krystal Sutherland.

Henry Page (Austin Abrams, PAPER TOWNS) is a high school senior, who proclaims as our narrator, “You are never more alive than when you are a teenager.” Henry also laments that “nothing remarkable” has happened in his life yet. That changes quickly the day the teacher-sponsor of the school newspaper calls Henry and new student Grace Town (Lili Reinhart, CW series “Riverdale”) into the office to inform them they will be co-Editors this year. However, the remarkable part for Henry isn’t achieving his goal of being Editor, rather it’s meeting Grace.

Grace is not nearly as excited as Henry for the assignment, but agrees to edit the paper as long as she doesn’t have to write. It turns out Grace is beyond damaged, she’s a shattered soul. A recent car crash took the life of her true love boyfriend, and left her leg severely damaged, instantly ending her track career. In contrast, Henry’s hobby is Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese tradition of re-assembling broken pottery. Yep, Henry is a fixer, albeit a sensitive one, and Grace is broken. Despite Henry’s best intentions, we see where this is headed.

Henry falls quickly and hard for Grace, though she’s much slower to come around. She’s grieving and filled with guilt, and Henry is simply too young to understand what she’s going through – although he gives all he can. Every teenager believes they have the strangest home life on the planet, but Grace may very well take the prize. Hormones, drama, romance, New Jersey, and Neruda’s “100 Love Sonnets” all play a role here, and mostly we are mesmerized by two outstanding young actors. Ms. Reinhart brings exceptional depth to a difficult role, and she and Mr. Abrams are terrific together. I watched this film back-to-back with another teen-drama-romance new release entitled WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS, and it’s extremely rare to find two such thought-provoking films centered on a pair of high school students … but quite a treat (although I believe all 4 actors are long past high school age).

Opens August 21, 2020 on Amazon Prime

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BRAD’S STATUS (2017)

September 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Mid-life crisis has long been a popular movie topic. A list of the best would include: Fellini’s 8 ½, Blake Edwards’ 10, AMERICAN BEAUTY, CRAZY STUPID LOVE, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, and THELMA & LOUISE. Some of these are outright comedies, while others are turbulent dramas. With the label ‘white male privilege’ being applied so broadly these days, it’s impressive how writer/director Mike White (THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK, creator of TV’s “Enlightened”) so expertly and gracefully takes on the familiar topic.

Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a married man raising a teenage son and running a Non-Profit Organization in middle-class Sacramento. As Brad and his son Troy (Austin Abrams, PAPER TOWNS) embark on an elite northeast college visitation trip, we get the sense that Brad is only now waking up to his son’s rapid approach to adulthood and remarkable talent as a student and musical prodigy. This happens congruently to Brad’s mid-life realization that his own college buddies are richer and more famous than he. Self-loathing, insecurities and concern over the jealousy he feels towards his own son are the focus of Brad’s inner thoughts, which we hear courtesy of his narration.

Brad’s college friends who are unknowingly driving his defeatist attitude include: Jemaine Clement as Billy Wearsiter who retired in Hawaii at age 40 after selling his tech company; Mike White (the film’s director) as successful movie director Nick Pascale whose house is featured in Architecture Digest; Luke Wilson as hedge fund manager Jason Hatfield who married into money; and Michael Sheen as Craig Fisher, a best -selling author and frequently seen on TV political commentator. In comparison, and by today’s societal levels of achievement, Brad views himself as a failure – a man whose early idealism didn’t change the world, and instead prevented him from reaching the capitalistic heights of his friends.

There are a couple of elements that allow the film to work. First, Ben Stiller softens his usual snark, making him more relatable than his usual woe-is-me character. Next, the film isn’t as harsh on the white man as we’ve come to expect. There is no feeling sorry for Brad, but there is at least compassion … space for him to explore what he’s feeling and take stock in his life. The difference maker is Mr. White’s script. The underside of human nature is explored with a deft comedic touch and incisive societal observations.

Stiller’s tightly wound Brad contrasts with Troy’s easy-confidence leading to some unusual father-son scenes. When Troy questions whether his dad is having a breakdown, we understand that the existential crisis is actually fairly common. We certainly enjoy watching as Troy’s Harvard friend, and fellow musician Ananya (Shazi Raja) listens patiently before slapping Brad with the dose of reality he so desperately needs. Ananya’s beyond-her-years wisdom leads Brad to a moment of self-awakening during her concert of Dvorak’s “Humoresque”. Ms. Raja’s role is given much more weight than that of Jenna Fischer as Brad’s wife/Troy’s mother, who inexplicably only appears about every 20 minutes as a check-in during the boys’ trip.

Keeping up with the Jones is a no-win approach to life, and if a Hollywood film can help a few more people understand this, then it’s a beneficial way to spend a couple of hours. The Mark Mothersbaugh score has a sharpness to it that mirrors Brad’s tarnished idealism and search for self. We are reminded that normal insecurities can blow up if we focus too much on what others have, and not enough on what we do.

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PAPER TOWNS (2015)

July 23, 2015

paper towns Greetings again from the darkness. If you have ever watched Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, imagine what the characters of Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels would have been like in high school. That gives you some idea of Margo and Quentin in this latest screen adaptation of a John Green novel (he also wrote “The Fault in Our Stars”).

Margo (Cara Delevingne) is the “live life to the fullest” youngster, while Quentin (Nat Wolff) is the “college-career-family” type who has his life timeline fully planned. As kids in the same neighborhood, they hang out together, but the inherent personality differences lead to polar opposite paths in high school. Margo is the exciting girl that everyone aspires to, while Quentin and his band of geeky friends never skip class, turn in all assignments and are elite college bound. Everything changes one night when Margo climbs through Quentin’s window and enlists his help in an evening of revenge shenanigans. He falls hard for her, and then … POOF … she’s gone.

It’s at this point that the film bogs down a bit. See, Margo loves a mystery and Quentin must decipher her many clues, as he is convinced she wants him to find her so they can be soul mates forever. Fortunately, the inevitable road trip provides some fun banter for Quentin and his brood, and it’s here where the true life lessons occur … friendship and finding happiness with one’s self.

Amiable is the best word to describe most of the characters in this film from director Jake Schreir (Robot & Frank). These are good kids and each very likeable … not the rebellious teens that usually get movies made about them. But they are so amiable, that there is a glaring lack of conflict in the vast majority of scenes. It’s as if the darkness and hard edge were purposefully sucked out of the Green novel. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, the formulaic approach is quite surprising. These are the writers behind (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars … three scripts that pulled few punches. On the bright side, the film is brave enough to include a Confederate flag joke, and what may be the best ever on screen tuba joke, and the all-too-rare multiple Black Santa Claus gags.

Newcomer Cara Delevingne looks like Mariel Hemingway but has the attitude of a young Linda Fiorentino. It will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. Nat Wolff was a secondary character in The Fault in Our Stars, but his natural ease on screen allows for a quick transition to leading actor. Support work comes from Justice Smith as Radar, Jaz Sinclair as his girlfriend, Halston Sage as pretty girl Lacey, and Austin Abrams as the comedy-relief buddy. Since it’s 2015, you know there must be a Duplass Brothers connection, and this time it’s Jay appearing as an English teacher. For those fans of The Fault in Our Stars, yes, Ansel Elgort has a cameo.

The film version is definitely for romantics, and not for those looking for hard-edged life journey. It’s actually a welcome change to have nice kids share the screen and have conversations without gratuitous violence, profanity or nudity. Because of this, it’s pleasant enough to watch, but probably won’t stick with you like the others mentioned here.

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