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Tuesday, December 12

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Column Fri Dec 09 2011

Young Adult, The Sitter, New Year's Eve, Young Goethe In Love & Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone

Young Adult

For many, Young Adult is going to be an exercise in defying expectations. You'd be surprised how many people like or dislike a film based on their preconceived ideas of what it is they're walking into, based on such things as trailers, word of mouth, reviews, etc. If a movie isn't "what they expected," they somehow think that's the basis for judging its worth. And often they punish a film in their minds because it didn't live up to some internal standard that has little to do with its actual entertainment value. Here's an idea: walk into a movie with zero expectations; walk in open minded, able to let the film wash over you and, dare I say, surprise you in the process. It's a great thing, trust me.

Case in point, we have Young Adult, which has a pedigree that would make it very easy to have certain expectations about the kind of film it is. It comes from the writer (the Oscar-winning Diablo Cody) and director (Jason Reitman) of Juno, so you might expect a light-hearted comedy with snappy dialogue and a few moments of seriousness to drive home its deeper messages. Not only would you be 1000 percent wrong, but you'd be selling Young Adult seriously short on just about every level. Anchored by a pair of performances that are among the year's best, surprisingly sophisticated dialogue, and a subject matter that is unsettling, with touches of humor, this movie achieves moments and takes us on such a nakedly personal journey that it feels almost death defying for its characters.

Perhaps to directly address the idea of a female writer who seems slightly fixated on the lives of teenagers, Cody forgoes dialogue that sounds like her attempting to invent catch phrases and makes her lead character Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) a writer of fiction for young adults, living in the big city (well, Minneapolis). But her publisher has decided that the successful series she's been working on for years should come to an end and has charged Mavis with writing her final installment. Somehow, this triggers her desire to return to her hometown in northern Minnesota and try to recapture a time in her life when she believes she was at her best--her high school years when she was dating a handsome young man named Buddy Slade.

If memory serves, our first image of Mavis is lying face down in bed in her small, messy apartment. It's almost impossible to imagine Theron as unattractive (but if you've seen Monster, you know she can walk that line when she wants to), but seeing her wake up after a night of hard drinking is not a pretty sight. What's fascinating is watching her get ready for a night out and going on a date she couldn't give two shits about. The hair, makeup and clothes belong to a woman who has grown up being the prettiest, most desired girl most of her life, and she's clearly grown bored of how easy men are to figure out and impress. Theron gets to be more showy later in the film, but in these early scenes, we begin to realize that she's about to unveil a character the likes of which she has never played, and that opens up a world of possibilities.

Her trip to her hometown is actually triggered by a mass email from Buddy announcing the birth of his new child. She interprets the email as a cry for help aimed directly at her. We know early on that Mavis is a bit delusional, but that doesn't stop her from throwing clothes in a suitcase and heading home for the first time since high school. When in town, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who went to high school with Mavis, but she doesn't really remember him until she recalls that he was the victim of a misdirected hate crime (jocks beat him up because they thought he was gay and permanently damaged his leg so that he walks with a cane).

Because the characters is played by Oswalt, we presume he'll be the film's comic relief, and he certainly does provide some insight into Mavis' plan to seduce Buddy away from his wife. But what Oswalt accomplishes here as an actor has only been tapped on rare occasions in the past, in particular his revelatory work in Big Fan two years ago. But as the film goes on, the depth to which that beating changed the course of Matt's life is revealed and provides some of the film's most devastating scenes. I'm not big on talking about awards in my reviews, but I would love to see Oswalt get an Oscar nomination for this role. Late in the film when Theron is questioning whether there is anything about her to love, Oswalt delivers a line that just crushed me. But credit also goes to Cody, who perfectly captures in a single sentence the curious relationship between the pretty, popular girls and the boys who will forever admire them but never attempt to win their hearts.

A great deal of the mid-section of Young Adult focuses on Mavis' embarrassing attempt to win back Buddy, played as an adult by Patrick Wilson (Little Children, Watchmen). Twilight's Elizabeth Reaser is Buddy's wife, Beth, who seems to almost take pity on Mavis' plight, while her friends (many of which were also high school acquaintances) are the ones who are especially nasty to Mavis for what she's trying to do. During this entire period, Mavis is furiously plugging away at her book, which seems to incorporate into its plot a lot of what is happening to her right now. Cody cleverly turns these events into a messy high school reunion, which in turn fuels Mavis' creative juices, and makes it clear that the reason Mavis is so good at writing for teens is that she never really stopped being one.

What strikes you about Theron's portrayal of Mavis is that she manages to make us care and root for a character who is more often than not a deplorable human being. Without giving too much away, what's even more shocking about Young Adult is that when the film is done, we're pretty much convinced that Mavis has not experienced a big, life-altering change. She certainly more aware of her shortcomings, but hasn't really made any progress toward being a better person. That's a gutsy move, but not that unlike the ending of Reitman's last film, Up In the Air, with George Clooney staring at that departure/arrival board with a clearer understanding of why he will never form any meaningful relationships, but still ready to continue the life that got him there.

I haven't talked much about Reitman's work, and that's because his greatest achievement on Young Adult is letting the strength of the material and his actors to the work for him. I'm sure upon watching the film a couple more times that I'll see more of his imprint on the work, but upon first viewing, it seems he's taking a minimalist approach to his visual style and concentrating more on extracting the best performances possible from his cast. Sometimes, that's all it takes, and I applaud his restraint.

The real surprise about Young Adult is that it's not actually a movie about an unhinged woman trying to win back her ex-boyfriend (well, that's not ALL it's about). It's primarily a strange little love story about a one-time class beauty and a quiet little man who assembles action figures and lives with his sister (a scene stealing Collette Wolfe). But the real eye-opening thing about this movie how determined it is not to be any one thing or fit neatly into a genre; I find that ferociously refreshing.

And back to my original point, I love that nothing that Reitman, Cody, Theron, or Oswalt has done to this point has quite prepared us for what they accomplish with Young Adult, a deftly smart and sometimes unnerving work that takes us down unpredictable roads and thrives in its dark corners. It simultaneously reminds us of the best and worst parts of the human soul, and shows us that a lot of people use both in order to get through the day. This is a great movie that doesn't use the usual tricks to show us how great it is.

To read my exclusive interview with Young Adult star Patton Oswalt, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Sitter

I have to admit, up until a couple of days before I saw the new Jonah Hill comedy, The Sitter, I had no idea this was also the latest comedy from director David Gordon Green, whose record with comedy is mixed. His Pineapple Express is a modern stoner masterpiece in my estimation, while my memory of seeing his last film, Your Highness, cannot fade fast enough. Of course, Green also directed many episodes of HBO's "Eastbound and Down," so I guess he still wins (as do we all). But Green built his reputation on such beautifully meditative films as George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Snow Angels, and sometimes I miss that guy (although apparently his next film will be more in that wheelhouse).

So what about The Sitter? Thankfully it had far more hits than misses, thanks in large part of Jonah Hill throwing every caution to the wind and just flat out losing his shit in this story of Noah Griffith, a 20-something slacker whose mom hooks him up with a last-minute babysitting job with a rich neighbor. Noah thinks the gig is going to be all about sitting on the couch watching TV while the kids entertain themselves, but it becomes apparent that these high-maintenance kids aren't going to let him off that easy.

Things probably would have stayed manageable for Noah if his sort-of girlfriend (Ari Graynor) didn't call him up to offer him full-on sex for the first time in exchange for him picking up some cocaine from her dealer (a spazzy but hilarious Sam Rockwell). This leads to an evening of driving around with the kids in their family mini-van through the underworld of New York trying to score coke and avoid death. Not being a parent myself, I can still laugh at just about any "kids in danger" scenario, but this film pushes that about as far as a comedy can.

I was especially impressed with the kid performers, including Max Records as the neurotic, probably gay Slater. I haven't seen Records in film since Where the Wild Things Are as a bundle of nervous energy and burgeoning urges. Landry Bender play Blithe, the little girl who worships celebrities and is constantly wanting to hit the latest clubs; she's about eight years old. Finally, there's Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), the adopted kid who is more feral than human and is a walking impulse-control emergency.

Hill isn't necessarily giving us anything new here, but he's delivering lines in The Sitter than are so smart and funny that suddenly "new" seems overrated. As the trailers might lead you to figure out, Hill's scenes in a black club trying to retrieve the mini-van are such a perfect example of what Hill does best as an improvisational wizard is magical. The fact that he is capable of this level of comedic work, while still exploring new acting avenues like Cyrus and Moneyball, make it difficult not to be impressed. And The Sitter has yet another thing going for it. It doesn't wear out its welcome with a whole lot of fat. Coming in at about 80 minutes, there isn't a whole lot of excess material we get from even the best Judd Apatow-produced works.

The Sitter is a fine example of a depraved, inappropriate comedy that still manages to show a great deal of heart, while placing young children in close proximity to guns and narcotics. In other words, it's the perfect family film for the holidays.

New Year's Eve

I can hear the pitch meeting now. Since director Gary Marshall's last film, the ensemble piece Valentine's Day did decent business, let's follow it up with an even bigger cast in a film that captures the hilarity and insanity and inherent romance of Times Square on New Year's Eve. We'll call it New Year's Eve, and we'll release it at the end of the year. The Hollywood braintrust never stops turning. I'm not going to waste your time detailing any of the stories happening in this vapid, soulless work, but please, please heed my warning, and don't let anyone drag you to this dull, meaningless, worse-than-pointless movie.

Rather than going into plot, I'll just list some names of actors who worked for about a week each (I'm guessing for scale)--in many cases, it reads like a who's who of shit romantic comedies, so imagine all of these forces together in one awful movie. Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Jon Bon Jovi, Abigail Breslin, Josh Duhamel, Zac Efron, Katherine Heigl, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hilary Swank, and Sofia Vergara, who continues to be completely incapable of being funny in movies while being so damn good on "Modern Family." But then we also have folks like Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Carla Gugino, and Seth Meyers, among others, who have actually been known to be good and/or funny in other films.

Yes, the stories twist and turn through each other providing ample opportunities for coincidence after god-awful coincidence to occur, and unlikely couplings to happen (Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron? Really?) Then there's the tonally awful moments. Did I mention that De Niro spends the entire movie dying in a hospital room alone? How fun.

Director Marshall and his Valentine's Day writer Katherine Fugate (one of the creators of "Army Wives") have managed to take the debauchery and chaos of New Year's Eve in Times Square and make it seem pleasant, uncrowded, and not in any way gross. They also make it seem like the kind of place where two people can say, "Meet me in Times Square," and it just happens. I literally can't talk about this movie any longer. If I do, I might stab the first person I see on the street with a smile on their face. In my rage-filled mind, they will have just come from seeing New Year's Eve and liked it, and someone like that must die. So ask yourself this: Do want to risk dying at my hands just to see this movie? If your answer is yes, get your affairs in order before you walk into the theater, and consider yourself warned.

Young Goethe In Love

If the new film from North Face director Philipp Stölzl's latest teaches us anything, it's that even the most conventional tale of lovers kept apart can go on to launch a literary movement. The writer at the center of Young Goethe In Love is the founder of Romanticism, Johann Goethe (played with right blending of bravado and foolishness by Alexander Fehling of Inglourious Basterds), who was on track in the early part of the 1870s to became a lawyer, and from all accounts a pretty good one as well. But when his youthful indiscretions lead to him failing his law exams, his strict father punishes him by exiling him to a quiet countryside town where he becomes a clerk for Judge Kestner (Moritz Bleitreu), who early on recognizes Goethe's legal genius and his ease around women.

Goethe meets the lovely local girl Lotte (Mimiam Stein) and their chemistry is palpable and breathtaking. And while the future writer begins performing grand gestures on behalf of his new love, he's also instructing his boss on how to be more at ease around women and eventually how to woo a woman he has his eye on. Meanwhile, Lotte's father, who has only an inkling of what's happening between his daughter and Goethe, begins the process of getting her married off to a much more suitable man.

Young Goethe In Love has two goals: to tell a beautifully shot, sweeping (and widescreen) costume drama/love story, and to set up a credible romance and subsequent heartbreak worthy of Goethe dropping out of the law and writing the revolutionary "The Sorrows of Young Werther," the novel that launched, among other things, movies like this one. I'd say it achieves both with a fair degree of authority. The love story may seem slightly conventional, and the obstructions that keep the young lovers apart are beyond familiar, but it's the aftermath of their affair that places the film in a context that helps raise it above other melodramatic, tragic period love stories. The love story is sweet and innocent, and there are no true villains in this piece to distract from the main themes and characters, and you'd be surprised what a difference that makes after week after week of trumped-up "bad guys" in Hollywood versions of romance. If for no other reason, Young Goethe in Love is worth seeing to prove that there is such a thing as a German love story. Who knew? The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone

In the very early '90s, I had a roommate who was obsessed with Fishbone, and by sheer osmosis I learned a lot about the southern California-based (South Central-born), all-black rock band whose brand of funk could not be categorized, a fact that made them a driving, influential force at the time and also likely lead to its premature demise (at least of its original lineup). Narrated by Laurence Fishburne (of course), Everyday Sunshine is a revealing, often bittersweet look at one of the most creative party bands I've ever heard or seen.

Everyday Sunshine repeatedly asks the question: Is it possible for a band to be too good, too original, too trend setting, too much fun? Of course it is; it happens all the time. But in the case of Fishbone, even the members of the band admit that they never really were capable of capturing what made them great on record. Fishbone was as vital a live act as has existed in the past 25 years, and to somehow commit the element that made every show unique and bombastic in a studio seemed (and ultimately was) impossible. Still, when vocalist, sax player, and resident lunatic Angelo Moore stomped around the stage next to drummer Phillip "Fish" Fisher, his bassist brother Norwood Fisher, guitarist Kendall Jones, "Dirty" Walter Kibby Jr. on the trumpet, and keyboard player Christopher Dowd (most of the band also sang as well), something special was happening.

The film features a parade of famous faces, including members of Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt, as well as Ice T, Les Claypool, Vernon Reid, and Perry Farrell, who brought Fishbone on an early incarnation of Lollapalooza, all speaking of the band in the proper glowing terms. But the film's best interviews belong to the band members, who speak eloquently about their mission and intent with Fishbone. Filmmakers Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler dig deep into personal lives and philosophies, and what emerges is not just a collection of great performance footage, but ideas about what music should be and could have been that ring true today.

It's tough at times to watch the Fisher brothers and Moore get frustrated with not really getting their due financially, despite their influence still fully on display today, but it's good to see that many of the members are still playing together and manage to draw sizable crowds in most parts of the world. Everyday Sunshine chronicles some truly crazy times in Fishbone's history--the attempt to snatch Jones from a religious cult and the resulting lawsuit is one of the most bizarre I've ever heard--and watching Moore forced to move back in with his elderly mother is downright depressing. But so much of the film is about capturing the joy it was to be a part of this inspirational, paradoxical unit that for a brief moment in time did an amazing job of freaking out the musical world.

The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. As an added must-see bonus, the band Fishbone will be present for audience discussion at the Saturday, December 10, 7pm screening. Directors Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler also will be present at the Friday (8pm), Saturday (7pm), and Sunday (5:30pm) screenings.

 
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