David’s Movie Journal 3/8/12
Boy, I’ve really fallen behind on these, haven’t I? I’m afraid I’ll have forgotten the movie before I get around to adding it to the journal. So I better hurry up and get to them.
Young Adult is a notable step forward for director Jason Reitman and a major leap forward for screenwriter Diablo Cody. Though I enjoyed Reitman’s last effort, Up in the Air (in some part more than others, though), I believe this marks the first truly good film for either of its creators.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a successful ghost writer for a series of books aimed at teenage girls. The discovery that her high school boyfriend is not only married but now has a newborn spurs her to go back to her hometown and win his heart back, thereby confirming the former popular mean girl’s worldview that the way things were twenty years ago is the one right and true way.
What sets this film apart from the previous works of Reitman and Cody (both in tandem and solo) is that it is concerned firstly with the meat of its characters and story and not the garnishes. To use another food-centric metaphor, they are selling the steak and not the sizzle here. Reitman achieves this by simply getting out of his own way, avoiding the overly clever and ostentatious tricks he’s relied on in the past (think of the repeated airport security sequences in Up in the Air or the mob of reporters descending on the limousine in slow motion in Thank You for Smoking). But Cody is the one who deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Instead of inventing hermetic environments that define themselves by their differences from reality instead of their similarities, she has studied herself and come up with a voice that is unique in its honesty and individuality, not in its idiosyncrasy. Using a small town Minnesota setting, Young Adult provides a refreshingly uncommon point of view on the Midwest. It is knowingly incisive about the region’s shortcomings but never condescending. More importantly, it is most insightful in its exploration of a person who wants to think she’s too good for her hometown but will never be without its influence and pull.
I can’t say that Young Adult undid all my trepidation and past annoyance with Diablo Cody to the point where I’m actually looking forward to her directorial debut but I do now know better than to ever write her off. If she’s got one of these in her, she could and hopefully will have many more.
My inexcusable lack of familiarity with the works of Aki Kaurismäki makes me a very bad film buff. Le Havre is a beautiful enough film to make me want to correct my inexperience but it also contains elements that make me wonder if I’ll ever embrace him the way some have.
Le Havre is the story of an old street musician in the titular Normandy city. Around the same time his beatific and loving wife goes into the hospital for a long stay from which she may or may not return, he meets a fugitive African boy, an illegal immigrant. Perhaps to fill the void of another person in his home or perhaps to prepare himself for the possibility of a future of self-reliance, he takes the boy in and cares for him.
Kaurismäki’s painterly eye for composition and color allow his deceptively simple-looking frames to be both as charming as a community theater production and as complex and deep as the greatest works of art. He uses seemingly esoteric methods to commune with the pedestrian, finding transcendent joy in banal pub rock or petty squabbles among neighbors. The most common and fitting word for this sort of approach is “humanism.” He undoubtedly displays that but, as with another recent work from longtime humanists the Dardenne brothers, The Kid with a Bike, I found it teetering into cheap sentimentality by the end.
Perhaps Le Havre fits better into Kaurismäki’s overall career picture. I look forward to finding out.
This one got an undeserved bad rap. First off, when people complain about bad old age make-up, it sounds the same as someone complaining about how long they have to wait to have their car valet parked for free. Don’t these people watch movie that are older or have lower budgets? All a make-up team has to do for me is go far enough to suggest what they want to convey. I’m happy to do the rest of the work myself. People who complain about this sort of thing seem to be displaying no imagination or at least no willingness to use theirs. Then again, maybe it’s just me.
Dustin Lance Black, who wrote a wonderful screenplay for 2008’s Milk, turns in a less conventional work here. Instead of following a standard three act structure, he tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover’s life and work in episodic form, but one in which each episode builds on the next in terms of emotional stakes, if not plot ones. Yet, at the same time, the film meanders. The transitions from the latter day Hoover dictating his memoirs to the recreations of the stories he’s telling aren’t always clearly defined. Far from being a fault, though, it’s one of the major strengths of the piece. Director Clint Eastwood manages to convey the hazy feel of a man remembering his life the way he wants to and perhaps even knowingly making some things up along the way.
There are some rough patches that keep this from being in the upper echelon of Eastwood’s work, though. The director never quite gets the hang of presenting a scene in which the things Hoover has hidden about himself come to the light. He had a lot of secrets and that’s the main reason his life makes for a good movie. But when these secrets are made plain, those scenes are overly literalized. The boiling over of romantic tension between Hoover and his longtime close friend, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), is shrill and less than nuanced. The most offensively unsubtle scene, though, is one where Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) tells him a story about a boy he grew up that ends with her saying, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.” I’ve since read that the story she tells him is a true on. Even if it is, it’s far too on the nose to include in a film and that last line is a real groaner.
So J. Edgar is not a great film. But it is, for the most part, a much better one than its 44% Rotten Tomatoes rating would suggest.