Category Archives: Revisited Movies

Take This Waltz: A “Show Don’t Tell” Gem

Grade: A

Take this Waltz, an indie from the brain of writer/director Sarah Polley that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 and now streams on Netflix, is a stylized, pure, simple romantic-comedy. Michelle Williams plays Margot—a seemingly happily-married woman who falls for the mysterious artist (Luke Kirby) who lives across the street.  take-this-waltz-still2On the surface, the premise seems like nothing we haven’t heard before, just another struggling marriage dipping into the fetid waters of infidelity, but I was thrilled to discover that the film is decidedly unique in its storytelling. Most specifically, in it’s use of visual comparison.

There is very little talking in this film. When the characters do talk, it’s important and you notice it, when they don’t talk, you ask yourself why. And in a story where the lead character, Margot, is choosing between two paths—staying married to her loving best friend of a husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), of five years, or moving on to the shiny-and-new neighbor, Daniel, who is full of all the passion and mystery that her current relationship lacks, the constant comparison of how she is and how she talks to Lou alongside her interactions with Daniel is one of the major indicators of where her head is at.

Perhaps lacking the fire it assuredly did in its early days, Margot’s relationship with her husband is still full of recurring sweet and silly games that only they understand, ritualistic contentedness, and lots of his cooking (he’s writing a cookbook on chicken, and as a result, all they eat is chicken.) On the other hand, Margot’s relationship with Daniel is intriguing and new and sexy even though all they do is talk about what they might someday do. Both men are likeable, both have admirable qualities, and for the most part they’re on the same level but just on different pages with Margot. Still, the story is Margot’s. She’s the dynamic character, she’s the one who is restless, she’s the one on the verge of a major change.

“Show don’t tell.” They drill it into you in film classes, English classes, and really any “storytelling” class—make your audience understand without a long drawn out soliloquy of exposition.  If they gave out Oscars for the best use of “show don’t tell,” Sarah Polley would surely be a contender. Her skill comes into play in countless places throughout the film, but nowhere else is it as captivating as it is just before the end of the film, in a lengthy tracking shot sequence circling around Margot and Daniel and their new life together after she leaves her husband.

The sequence had me scooting to the edge of my seat waiting to see what the next 360 would reveal. There is no talking, just a tracking shot circling the couple as months pass between them, and the 2-3 minute shot describes their entire life together without having to say a word. The sequence starts with an empty, beautifully spacious loft. Light beams through half-circle windows as Daniel kisses Margot for the first time on-screen in deep silhouette.

And then the camera starts moving.

It circles them once and the couple transitions to sex on the bare floor, it circles them again and now a mattress is added. With another 360, the sexcapades grow—adding another woman to the mix, adding another man, but with another turn it’s just Daniel and Margot again but with more furniture. Each time more furniture, until the end when Margo and Daniel sit side-by-side on a living room couch watching the news. They are hardly touching. They are fully clothed. Their faces are expressionless to both the program they’re watching and each other.  They are content, sure, but bored. There’s a Christmas tree in the room and we see how far they’ve come. Margot breaks the silence to say, “I wuv you” in the way she once bantered with her husband. Daniel doesn’t hear or understand and she says, “I said, ‘I wuv you.’” Whereas before, Lou would mimic her tone and silliness as he said it back, making a game of it, Daniel simply whispers it in her ear so quietly we can hardly hear.

The sequence says it all; it sums up the entire movie. Margot married too young and although her marriage was comfortable and there was a common ease between them, she longed for the desire and intrigue that her current relationship lacked. But when she sought it out with Daniel, she had that passion for only a blip before the same lukewarm contentedness settled in.TakeThisWaltz-Still5 As Margot’s sister-in-law quipped earlier in the film, “Even the new things get old” and that’s what Margot found out the hard way. Yes, she’s happy with Daniel, but she was also happy with Lou.

In another telling scene, Margot and Daniel are brushing their teeth in the bathroom when Margot sits down on the toilet to pee. As soon as she does, Daniel leaves the room. Before, in Margot’s other life, Lou would walk in and strike up a conversation with her as she peed, completely unaffected by the private act. Margot and Lou where closer and warmer, and sure, who’s to say that Daniel and Margot won’t reach that same level of comfort in a few years, but we can’t help but see Margot question her choice. Did she give up a good thing and hurt someone deeply in exchange for the same good thing with a little less ease?

Margot longs for her old life.

She misses the chicken.

And the best part about Sarah Polley’s film is that we understand that all without Margot ever uttering a word on the subject.

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Revisted: Attempting Innovation – A Short Review of "My Best Friend’s Wedding"

My Best Friends Wedding 1997

Grade: B-

Director P.J. Hogan and writer Ronald Bass were probably the pre-adolescent boys who slaved over an elaborate sand castle just for the joy of later pummeling it to pieces. As grown men, they do just that with My Best Friend’s Wedding, building a romantic comedy exactly the way you’d expect, complete with last minute chases, unexpressed love, and a desperate “choose me” scene muddied in lies, betrayal, and ubiquitous pop music. Julia Roberts plays the ruthless Julianne who conspires to make her best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), realize she’s the one for him before his “I do’s”. Immediately, once Hogan and Bass have adequately shoved your face in this rom-com premise, they begin fracturing conventions, mistakenly expecting shock and awe to come from their demolition. Sure, they break our expectations—Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) the stereotypically perfect, pastel-wearing fiancée interestingly becomes more wounded puppy than villain.  Similarly, Julianne plays both hero and foe as we simultaneously want to root for her and shake our heads at her behavior. Secrets aren’t held as long as we’d expect, the “chase” scene has us questioning who’s chasing who, and our happy-ending becomes more and more uncertain, but the film never attempts to make up for the emotion it’s losing in its attempt to be innovative, but simply relies on the fact that it’s doing something “fresh.” Take away the happy-ending, the likable protagonist, the hated villain, and you’re left with a film devoid of feeling. Breaking the mold should be refreshing, instead the audience yearns for the old conventions the filmmakers worked so hard to break just to feel something at the end.

2010 Flashback:: Stone’s a Star – A Review of "Easy A"

Grade: B+

Sixteen Candles, Clueless, and Mean Girls came before Easy A with witty dialogue, smart characters, and cynical sarcasm faithful to the high school experience. And where Molly Ringwald, Alicia Silverstone, and Lindsay Lohan punctuated each film with the face of a star in the making, Emma Stone (when the film premiered in 2010) did the same for Easy A. Without her, the film would fall flat. Her impeccable comic timing, unusual good-looks, and the acting chops that would intimidate any wannabe Hollywood starlet set her apart. Plus, she has the un-teachable ability to contort her bambi-eyes and animated lips into an endless number of telling facial expressions which only add to her comic prowess. But what makes her a perfect fit for this film is the way that she makes her character’s intelligence believable. She plays Olive, a teenager in the 21st century who is well read in classic literature, an avid John Hughes fan, and far more self Easy-A-All-Eyes-on-Me-16-9-10-kcaware than few high schoolers ever are, but the way she makes lines that no sixteen-year-old would actually utter come off as if she came from the womb sputtering one-liners and describing things as “incorrigible” makes the audience laugh with her rather than shake their heads at the absurdity of what they’re watching. Emma Stone is a star, and if the audience didn’t already know that from her past work in Zombieland and Superbad, and her recent-work in The Help, they’ll know soon.

Olive is a wise beyond her years, high school girl who isn’t quite a social outcast but would appreciate a little more recognition from her peers. She spends weekends in her room bonding with her dog while belting out the lyrics to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” which she both calls the “worst song ever” and makes her ringtone. To get out of a camping trip with her best friend Rhiannon’s (Aly Michalka) hippy parents, she lies that she has a date with a college freshman and when Rhiannon insinuates that Olive came away from the date deflowered, Olive goes along with the lie. Faster than mono spreads in a game of spin the bottle, the entire school is quickly aware of Olive’s promiscuity. At first she appreciates the newfound attention and finds the farce a bit comical, but things get complicated when she helps her bullied gay friend strengthen his manly reputation by agreeing to let him tell the school that she had sex with him. What results is a complicated social web of rumors and lies that are meant to reference Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Scarlet Letter—which Olive is reading in her English class—from the ultra-religious “Jesus Freak” attackers, to the scarlet “A” she sews onto her clothes.

Director Will Gluck’s Easy A is a good film. Or, at least the first half is. At a time when teen comedies are often full of stereotypes, excessive parties, sex, and rampant clichés, Easy A is refreshing. The screenwriter, Bert V. Royal, has a strong concept, one that allows for insightful comments onemma-stone-easy-a-pic high school girls’ struggle with their sexuality and the double-standards they face, and one that isn’t strictly about high school cliques or climbing from the shadows up the social ladder. It talks about sex without flaunting it or preaching against it, and the movie walks a blurry line between being strictly teen-entertainment and being controversy. Interestingly, the film straddles this line without ever falling into either category. Still, the movie is flawed, its major problem being that it aims for too much. Like crushing a pill and hiding it in ice cream, the script relies on Olive’s webcast narration to force the audience to swallow the coincidences it depends on. By having Olive acknowledge the absurdity of reading a book in class that of course mirrors her life, the audience can accept it. In the same way, Olive expresses her love for John Hughes movies and other cheesy romantic comedies of the past so that when a boy holds speakers outside her bedroom window blasting 80s pop music à la “Say Anything,” it’s justified. Olive’s narration is a crutch and a way to masquerade as a movie that’s defying romantic-comedy conventions when it’s really just clearing the path for them. There is nothing wrong with the conventions, the same conventions made John Hughes’ career, but the fact that the film parades around as if it’s either defying them or playing homage to the classics if off-putting because it does neither.

About halfway through the film, the plot gets too complicated. Without giving away the twist, I’ll just say they lost me at Chlamydia and those who’ve seen it will understand what I mean. The twists are too extreme, are layered too heavily to be taken as plausible and seem to be conflict for conflict’s sake. But, just before the ending, Gluck and Royal—with the help of the goofily sweet and charming Todd (Penn Badgley) who wears the laid-back, boy-next-door shoes perfectly—reel you back in. Mostly this is due to the lack of romance, or at least it is a somewhat realistic romance. Attraction isn’t enveloped in corny lines, longing stares, and grand declarations of love. The romance in the movie is sweet, simple, and it takes the back burner to the rest of the story which makes it plausible. The plot is a roller coaster, not necessarily in a good way, but not entirely bad either. It falls apart in sections, reels you back in, and leaves you crimped from the twisting.

One of the film’s strong points, though, is its casting of Olive’s unconventional but completely endearing parents. Played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, their characters provide unique humor and warmth to the movie, making you feel like if given the opportunity you would gladly wish to be adopted into the family. In one hilarious scene they chant “tee, teee, tee” over and over as they try to guess what “t”-word Olive received detention for saying before finally giving up and demanding, “Spell it with your peas!”

Emma Stone is the real star, but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson provide an excellent backdrop for her impeccable comic delivery. The laughs throughout are consistent (although many of them involve repeating a phrase or a word over and over to the point of irritation like “Olive has a boy in her room” and something about Rhiannon’s boobs) and despite the ambitious plot that gets tangled in conflict, the knots untie with little damage. The movie is smart, the acting is solid, and the film has a message which, for a teen comedy, is pretty good. Easy A isn’t perfect, but it’s an entertaining and nostalgic jaunt back to high school, with an outstanding cast and many quotable one-liners that will take fans a few views to master but they will master nonetheless.

Revisited:: Sidney Lumet Gem – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Grade: A

Just imagine if M. Night Shyamalan sat in the front row of every theater The Sixth Sense was shown in, pointed towards the screen at Bruce Willis and said, “Oh, by the way, this guy’s really dead” in the first ten minutes. He wouldn’t ever think of doing such a thing because that shocker is the most compelling part of his story. Leave that sort of revelation to Sidney Lumet. As if telling a gripping story with style and innovation for a solid 117 minutes isn’t enough for him, Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead achieves mastery by giving the plot twists away before they happen. Sure these twists aren’t on the Shyamalan-twist-level, but for a heist-film, dependent on the successful planning and executing of a crime where the twists often harbor most of the intrigue and suspense, the fact that Lumet foularge_20071207-before-the-devil-knows-youre-deadnd a linear narrative unnecessary simply shows the strength of Kelly Masterson’s genius characters made richer and more complex by the performances the actors bring to the roles.

The film’s premise seems simple enough—two brothers, strapped for cash, decide to rob a familiar jewelry store and things go drastically wrong. And while this is the concept established in the beginning, with each jarring jolt through Lumet’s nonlinear narrative, the premise becomes further complicated and manipulated. By the end of the film, this simplified plot description seems condescending as the story is complicated by familial grapples, brotherly resentment, rage, grief, guilt, and desperation that are each given careful consideration and screen time. Not only does the plot morph with each time jump, but the characters do too. In the beginning, as with the initial premise, the characters are also simplified and fit stereotypical roles. Andy, the older brother played by the always-crafty Philip Seymour Hoffman, seems to be the brother who has all his ducks in a row. We may sense some sinister secret lurking, but he is the prodigal son with the fancy office, pretty wife (Marisa Tomei), and the added privilege of being able to ask his little brother, Hank, if he needs money. He’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Similarly, Hank, played by Ethan Hawke, is the black-sheep, the screw-up of the family, with the angry ex-wife and the inability to pay for his daughter’s child support. We don’t even know until after we’re shown Hank’s involvement in the robbery that the two are brothers, or that Andy was the instigator of the crime or even involved with it at all. Lumet lets us perceive the characters a certain way so that when he shifts (and at times completely flips) those perceptions later, the audience is all the more invested because of the realization that there is still more to the plot, and more to the characters, waiting to be uncovered. The result is an extremely satisfying film experience from the late veteran director who still had a plethora of innovation up his sleeve when he made this movie.

This style of revealing the character’s trait by trait, of having them grow in complexity not only as the story evolves and unfolds before us, but as Lumet picks and chooses what he wants us to know, is effective because it still allows the viewer to be active in the uncovering of information. Lumet cleverly walks the boundary between leading us on the journey where he literally manipulates the order in which we’re given information and allowing the audience to navigate the plot for themselves. He may withhold Hank’s motivation and back story until the very end, he may choose to hide major facets of the plot or even major characters until well into the movie, but he allows the viewer to do some of the digging without holding their hand and guiding them through his broken narrative. For example, following the film’s first jarring sex scene between hoffhawkdevilHank and his wife that sets up this in-your-face, take-what-you-get-one-scene-at-a-time storytelling comes our first view of the robbery. Our introduction to Hank shows him reacting in a fit of violent sobs and panic as his partner-in-crime plunges through the store’s glass window after being shot by, and shooting in return, the little old lady who opened the store. The only clue we have that something bigger lurks behind this story comes from the acting—another strength of the film—and Hawke’s capture of a man so twisted and internally damaged by this singular moment that the audience is convinced there’s more to the story than just any ol’ robbery gone south. The film is as dependent on the acting as it is the plot, because so many of the thoughts and assumptions about the characters come from how intensely the characters break and what event causes their emotional demise. What makes the film effective in its storytelling is the way that all the elements—acting, dialogue, editing, camera—are dependent on each other to achieve meaning. If any element was missing, or its quality was lessened, Lumet’s vision wouldn’t have been achieved. Luckily for Lumet, the high-quality work is consistent throughout, and a large part of that quality is due to the acting chops of its decorated cast.

But Lumet doesn’t solely rely on acting to convey character traits not explicitly stated, but he uses the camera as well. In the scene following our first look at the robbery where Lumet drops a bomb that changes the tenor of all the scenes we’ve seen previously, he reveals the information in such an unexpected, casual way that he calls attention to it. The scene involves Hank and his family praising his daughter for her performance in the school play. What’s interesting is Lumet’s camera. As it nonchalantly displays the family during their exchange, it focuses on no one in particular, but allows us to catch a glimpse of the same little old lady who was robbed at gunpoint standing next to her sweet granddaughter. This detail creates a gasp in the audience that could’ve easily been overlooked. Suddenly, by this casual reveal, we understand the woman’s connection is much closer to Hank than we initially thought. Where a different director may opt for the dramatics and choose to cut to a close-up of the happy grandparents, or have them utter some now ominous line about the importance of family support as a “dum, dum, dum” theme pounds through the speakers, Lumet barely calls attention to the parents at all, giving them as little consideration as we now know Hank and Andy do. These reveals are more gratifying because not only is the information shocking, but the way we receive the information is shocking as well. Lumet respects the viewer’s intelligence and ability to reach this conclusion without his help.

The plot of Before the Devil  Knows You’re Dead is a constant layering of blocks. You start with general ideas and general clichéd characters and with each scene and reveal, or even the same scene shown in a new light, more blocks are added. The plot is like a game of Jenga, you know from the very beginning, without a doubt, that the tower will fall, but the layers and layers of character development and expertly tiered exposition make the character’s demise all the more interesting. At any moment, one block removal could send the tower crumbling. The viewer sees multiple ways the story could reach its tragic ruin, but the intrigue comes from which block causes the final breakdown. The time lapses could easily grow monotonous, or make us cringe when we go back to the same spot we’ve been at three times before, but it doesn’t. This is because we weren’t given enough information the first time, we’re begging for more. The film doesn’t make us reach for the closest object to launch at the screen in frustration that time jumped once again, but compels us to sit back and absorb another element that will further complicate the characters and the plot.

What is truly marveling about the film is how it speaks to the ways in which we become invested in a story and in individual characters. Lumet’s character development is inside out. In the beginning Hoffman’s Andy is unlikable and hardly sympathetic. We may feel bad about the precarious state of his marriage, but he is presented as a desperate amoral criminal despite his supposed “moral” crime. And once the crime becomes anything but as “simple as a pimple” as it’s initially described, Andy becomes less and less sympathetic and we don’t fully understand his motivations until the end when Hoffman crafts his brilliant emotional and psychological fall in two subsequent tantrums. Whereas most films set up a sympathetic character to justify his later actions, in this film we don’t feel sympathy054624H4 until after we’ve seen what he’s done and begin to understand why. When his problems are tied so tightly that there’s no way out, and he’s financially and emotionally broken, we don’t sympathize with his position but his desire to still please his wife—who’s leaving him—by giving her the last money he has while mumbling the words, “I’ll go to the bank later” as if that’s a real possibility. It’s in this humanist exchange that he becomes sympathetic for the first time, and it doesn’t come until the final act.

The film manages to become a realistic character study despite the unrealistic way in which it’s told. In real life, time is linear, we don’t gain access to people and events out of order, but Lumet achieves a sense of reality with a style entirely outside the realm of possibility and he does so in an innovative way that makes us grapple with the ways we typically receive information. The form of the story is, in some ways, more important than the story itself which makes for a captivating, interactive film experience and another solid directorial win for Sidney Lumet.