REBEL IN THE RYE (2017)

September 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Holden Caulfield is dead.” So states Jerry’s letter to his mentor. You likely know Jerry better as J.D. Salinger, and he wrote that while hospitalized with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after WWII. Of course, we know this proclamation is premature, as Holden Caulfield is the main character from Mr. Salinger’s famous (and only) novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” … a high school literature staple for decades.

Imagine your dream is to become a great writer, but your own father continually reminds you that “meat and cheese distribution has been good for this family.” Your restlessness often works against you, and though you are hesitant to admit it, a mentor for writing and life direction is desperately needed if you are to avoid the family business. Enter Columbia professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).

This is Danny Strong’s first feature film as a director, though you would surely recognize his face from his frequent acting appearances – often as a weasly character. He is also the creator of TV’s “Empire” and wrote the screenplays for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY (Parts I and II) and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. Strong does an admirable job in showing the commitment required to hone one’s writing skills and proving “the difference in wanting to be a writer and actually being one.”

Jerome David Salinger is played well by Nicholas Hoult. His scenes with Spacey’s professor are the film’s best, and Hoult also shoulders the responsibility of Salinger’s writing frustrations, personal life challenges, military service, and finally, his decision to become the most famous and long-lasting recluse (by comparison, Howard Hughes was an amateur).

We learn that Burnett was instrumental in getting Salinger’s first short story published, which finally gave Jerry the answer needed for a writer’s most dreaded question, “Have you been published?” Quite a bit of time is devoted to his odd romantic relationship with Oona O’Neill (Eugene’s daughter and the future, long-time wife to Charlie Chaplin). Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) plays Oona as an enigmatic lover attracted to Salinger’s genius, but incapable of being patient for his career that might happen (and might not). She opts for the sure bet.

Salinger’s military service included Utah Beach on D-Day, and nearly as remarkably, his toting the tattered manuscript ‘Catcher’ pages throughout his tour. He returned home in 1946, and in 1951 “The Catcher in the Rye” was published. It’s been referred to as the Great American novel and a rite of passage, while also being banned and derided for its whiny Holden.

Director Strong emphasizes Salinger’s turn to Zen Buddhism and his sessions with Swami Nikhilanda, as well as his evolving distrust of stalking fans and two-faced media. Support work is provided by Sarah Paulson as Salinger’s salty agent, Lucy Boynton as his wife, Victor Garber as his father, and Hope Davis as his supportive mother. Just as in real life, we get nothing of Salinger’s later years of solitude and isolation in New Hampshire, where he died at age 91.

The book has sold more than 65 million copies, and continues to sell well today. In a shift from the recent documentary SALINGER by Shane Salerno, and the book “J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High” by Kenneth Slawenski, this dramatization doesn’t dig too deep, but it does allow a new generation to personify the legend. Perhaps it even paints a picture of a better/nicer man than what his real life actions showed. Regardless, the older Salinger certainly seemed to embrace the cause of “write and get nothing in return”.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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DIFF 2017: Day Nine

April 10, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival ran March 31 – April 9

 The penultimate day of the festival has arrived. It’s second Saturday and the end is in sight. Today also means the category winners have been announced and most will receive another screening during one of the TBA slots from the original programming schedule. This gives festival attendees a chance to catch up on any must-see films they might have missed during the week. Below is a recap of the two films I watched on Saturday April 8, 2017:

BEFORE I FALL

A middle-aged man is probably not the best choice to comment on the film version of a popular YA novel. In fact, there may be no more tortuous sound to male ears than the first 10 to 15 minutes of incessant teen girl jabbering served up here during the carpool ride to school. Lauren Oliver’s novel is adapted by Maria Maggenti, and Ry Russo-Young directs this mash-up of Groundhog Day, Mean Girls and Heathers. Even though not much new ground is covered with this one, it’s handled in a way that the message isn’t lost, and even comes across as quite sincere.

Zoey Deutch delivers a strong and forthright lead performance as Samantha, and it’s on her shoulders which the success of most scenes rest. Ms. Deutch is the daughter of actress Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and director Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink), and appeared recently in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some! She is a star in the making and has the ability to come across as likeable, even when playing a character who isn’t.

Samantha is part of a four girl squad perched atop the social pyramid at their “Pacific northwest” high school. Filling out the royal panel are Cynthy Wu as Ally, Medalion Rahimi as Elody, and Halston Sage (Paper Towns) as Lindsay the evil Queen of the full-of-themselves quadrangle. These girls spend most of each day congratulating each other on their perfections and scalding other high schoolers who they view as less-worthy. Elena Kampouris, as Juliet the “psycho”, endures especially harsh comments and treatment … finally peaking at a keg party where she ends up in a scene reminiscent of Carrie, only with Solo cup booze in place of pig blood.

Of course, if this were a full movie about how poorly teenage girls treat each other, there would be no need for cameras to roll. The hook is that after that keg party, Samantha is killed in a car crash. But rather than go sadly and quietly into the grave, she ends up re-living the day over and over until she completes her self-analysis personality adjustment.

Supporting actors include Jennifer Beals as Samantha’s mother, Erica Tremblay (her brother Jacob starred in Room) as Samantha’s little sister, Logan Miller and Kian Lawley as the secret admirer and jerky boyfriend, Liv Hewson with nice boots and a key bathroom scene, and Diego Boneta (Rock of Ages) as the teacher whose Sisyphus lesson provides the obvious literary reference for Samantha’s again and again week.

The film easily slides into the Me and Earl and the Dying Girl sub-genre, and we should all be in complete support of any project that encourages teenagers to re-evaluate their daily choices and make the changes necessary to become a better person. The message to “be nice” is something worth rooting for.

 

I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY (Wo bu shi Pan Jim Liam)

Have you ever watched a movie through a telescope? How about a porthole? Such is the effect of the highly unusual circular aspect utilized by Director Xiaogang Feng and cinematographer Pan Luo. Most of the movie is delivered through a round view using maybe one-third of the screen, and is meant to position us with the same restricted view of the world as the small town villagers. The exceptions are a couple of larger square/rectangle scenes in Beijing and the widescreen wrap-up at the end.

Bingbing Fan stars as Lian, and we follow her quest for what she views as justice in her decade-long battle with Chinese bureaucracy. Here is my attempt at explaining the set-up: She and her husband agreed to get a “fake” divorce so that they could obtain a better apartment through public housing distribution. During this time, her husband met and married another woman, and now she wants the original divorce overturned so that they can get a “real” divorce. It’s a matter of principle and justice. Her 10 year legal positioning leaves a wake of mayors, politicians, judges, and officials.

While Lian’s pursuit of justice may seem a bit confusing and not the least bit humorous, the reactions of the bureaucrats provide many comical exchanges as it becomes quite clear that self-preservation and saving their own jobs and positions are what matters most. Over the years, many take their best shot at reasoning, tricking and even threatening Lian in an effort to get her to give up the cause. She remains resolute. An example of the humor includes the snowball effect where one of the Chinese officials asks if “you have ever wondered how a sesame seed becomes a watermelon”. Whether this is brilliant philosophy or poorly translated subtitles matters little – the meaning is clear and fitting.

Writer Zhenyun Liu makes a risky choice in holding back the true motivation of Lian’s battle until near the end. Knowing this earlier likely would have made us more supportive of Lian, but instead the decision leaves us as confused as the bureaucrats … the likely reason for this decision. The score features terrific use of drums and percussion, and the film provides the best yet description of marriage: tolerate until it hurts. The widescreen epilogue reminds us that even the most painful parts of the past may fade … but not without a good fight!

 


EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (2016)

April 10, 2016

Everybody wants some Greetings again from the darkness. Richard Linklater’s now twenty-five plus years of filmmaking are loosely tied together with his constant desire to explore and observe how, within the confines of society, people connect with each other (or don’t). In what he has termed a “spiritual sequel” to his cult classic Dazed and Confused, the filmmaker takes us down memory lane to a college campus as the 1970’s devolved into the 1980’s.

Many of these characters and moments are undoubtedly snatched from Linklater’s own experiences as a college baseball player at Sam Houston State (after graduating from Bellaire High School). Linklater knows these guys. Heck, he WAS one of these guys! The cinematic kinship goes beyond Dazed and Confused, and influence can be seen as the follow-up to his Boyhood film, with some flavor from Animal House and a dose of Bull Durham.

The film opens with Jake (Blake Jenner) driving his 442 muscle car up to the baseball house while “My Sharona” from The Knack blasts from his car stereo. What follows is a look at the behind the scenes tribal nature of a sports team, and how that blends with the predictable manner in which 18-21 year old boys handle a sudden shot of freedom. Conversation and activities center on three things: baseball, girls, and beer … with priorities shifting given the circumstances of the moment. What’s never missing is the ultra-competitiveness of these individuals raised to be the best. Whether it’s nerf basketball in the living room, foosball at the bar, or flicking knuckles, the goal of that point in time is to be better than the other guy … even a friendly game of ping pong turns hyper-tense as it nears game point.

Linklater has assembled a terrific cast that not only succeeds in capturing the time period, but also the essence of the age group. Some of the faces will be familiar, and each character fits nicely into the profile. Tyler Hoechlin (Tom Hanks’ son in Road To Perdition) is team captain McReynolds, Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt and Goldie) plays elder statesman and team spiritualist Willoughby, Juston Street (former Longhorn player) plays the jacked-up overly intense freshman pitcher, J Quinton Johnson is the sometimes rational second baseman, and Glen Powell is a real standout as the smooth-talking and philosophical Finnegan … also a master of pranks. Despite the ever-present quest for girls, Zoey Deutch’s Beverly is the only female character with much screen time, and she makes the best of it as a smart, ambitious love interest for young Jake.

I’ve always believed that the music of our youth goes a long way in defining each generation. Linklater seems to agree (the soundtrack is spot on) as this group is bounced between the fading days of disco, the sterile and soulless transition to Urban Cowboy Country music, and the desperate pleas of new edge Punk Rock. Within the 3 days we are with the guys, they take their athlete swagger to each venue type, and even mix in a party thrown by Beverly’s “artsy-fartsy” group. Figuring out where one fits is a rite of passage not to be missed.

Linklater ensures that our tight knit teammates fill our ears with an endless stream of quips, wise-cracks and put-downs, each designed to register dominance – if only for the briefest moment. We even get a sequence featuring the ballplayers actually playing ball, and though their tone shits once on the field, the personalities remain evident. In addition to adding “f***withery” to our vocabulary, the production design is brilliant and captivating all by itself. The album and book covers, cars (a Gremlin sighting), stereo equipment and costumes all provide the throwback feel necessary for the film. Though it lacks any real plot, and feels meandering (just like its characters), Linklater provides the best insight yet into the driving forces of young male primates of 1980. It’s not always pretty or something of which to be proud, but … that’s what I’m talking about!

watch the trailer: