Saturday, May 14, 2016
Fresh out of film school, director Amy Heckerling hit the ground running in the early '80s. Her first feature, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, remains a classic for its delicate balance of absurdity and pathos and the way it treats its characters with bemused-older-sibling affection laced with comic incredulity. Her next few features were more uneven, the humor generally broader and the emotional stakes often less engaging, but they also had their moments, reflecting the director's quick wit and love of larger-than-life characters, and they never sold their female characters short. In 1996, Heckerling returned to form with Clueless, another brilliant high school comedy—this one written as well as directed by her—that deeply respects and understands its female characters at the same time that it laughs at their, well, cluelessness. This week, I had a chance to speak with Heckerling, who was promoting a retrospective of four of her films by the Metrograph theater in the Lower East Side. Quick to laugh, with a sense of mischief and a lack of interest in mincing words that may explain why she's so drawn to young characters, the filmmaker discussed gender inequality in Hollywood and what movies have in common with the economy.
Fast Times and Clueless are great in so many ways, but what I especially love about them is how well they get American teenage girls, and in such a fun away.
In a fun way is the different thing. There were so many movies about teenage girls. It's a scary, depressing time for a lot of people, and a lot of movies capture that brilliantly. But they may not be as happy. When we came out [with Clueless], there was this movie Kids...
The Larry Clark one?
Yeah. And people were saying, “Oh, you've captured American kids,” and I'm going, “Well, that one did too. It's just, I chose those kids.” [laughs] There are a million stories in the naked city, and I gravitated to the happiest one.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Perhaps the first, and still one of the best, of the now numerous movies to transpose the plot of a Jane Austen novel (in this case, Emma) to a modern context, writer-director Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is a fizzy SweeTart of a pop culture time capsule. It’s also a classic female coming-of-age story, echoing both Austen’s older-sister appreciation of her headstrong heroine’s good qualities and her bemused eye-rolling at her misplaced priorities and callow confidence. Young Emma’s early-19th-century version of entitlement and her appealing, if often delusional, self-confidence translates seamlessly to Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) brand of 1990s alpha-girl California high-school cool.
Monday, May 2, 2016
“I know what you're thinking. I do. Who is this kid with the silver spoon in his mouth and why does he keep cooking heroin in it?” says Charlie (Nick Robinson), doing stand-up at a halfway house's talent show. It's a good line, particularly because it's Being Charlie's first and only indication that its titular character, who's apparently spent most of the last couple years cycling in and out of pricey rehab facilities, has any awareness of how whiny and self-martyred he might appear to audiences.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople is told from the point of view of a chubby, self-confident orphan, Ricky (Julian Dennison), with a rich inner life who composes haikus for fun. As the film begins, he's delivered to the last foster home willing to take him in, a small farm carved out of the edge of New Zealand's bush country. Ricky has a bit of trouble in his past and fancies himself an outlaw, but he's really a goodhearted kid, as his enthusiastic and intuitive foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), sees from the start.
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
In Lorene Scafaria's The Meddler, the recently widowed and adrift Marnie (Susan Sarandon) tries to fill the hole in her life, first by launching an extreme invasion of her daughter's privacy, and then by offering random acts of generosity to near-strangers, who subsequently become her friends. Perhaps to embody Marnie's penchant for running from her own problems, Sarandon pumps the character full of raw, aimless energy, never walking when she can trot along briskly and talking fast in a broad, supposed-to-be-Brooklyn accent. The actress's frenetic need to keep busy betrays the loneliness and rootlessness underlying Marnie's impulsive acts, but even Sarandon's innate warmth and the sympathy she generates for her character can't make some of Marnie's stunts come across as anything other than unintentional cruelty.
Monday, April 18, 2016
Writer-director Mike Birbiglia condenses years of experience in live comedy into this smart, affectionate take on the rivalry, love, ambition, and creative juices that fuel the lives of professional comedians. When one of members of a New York City improv group called The Commune gets hired at Weekend Live, an SNL-like kahuna of a TV show that represents the ultimate in ticket-punching success for a professional comic, his coup sends most of the other members into a frenzy of self-doubt, frustration, or attempts to ride his coattails into the limelight.
But Don't Think Twice isn't about success or failure as much as it is about the creative life, as experienced by a group of youngish comedians who've achieved a certain level of success, but still need day jobs or indulgent parents to support their comedy habit. As thirtysomething Bill (Chris Gethard) puts it: “I feel like your 20s are all about hope, and then your 30s are all about leaning how dumb it was to hope.” And most of the group's members are in their 30s.
Read the rest on The House Next Door
Sunday, April 17, 2016
There are a lot of surface similarities between The Family Fang and Arrested Development, another tragicomedy about an extravagantly dysfunctional family in which Jason Bateman's character reacts against his parents' high-handed neglect by trying to become a model of emotional health and stability. But where Arrested Development used a light dusting of sorrow to add shading to a gleefully absurdist romp, The Family Fang is an earnest story of redemption with a wacky veneer that doesn't quite fit.
Several characters make significant psychological progress in tonight's season finale of Girls, which begins and ends with Hannah (Lena Dunham) jogging. The first instance is played for laughs, as she plows doggedly up and down her block, in workout clothes that couldn't be less flattering, while her parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari), camped out on her stoop, try to get her to acknowledge them. The second is played straight, with a determined Hannah running toward the camera in the great outfit her mom bought for her reading at the Moth, a creative writing slam. But whether it's presented as comedy or drama, the jogging is another sign that Hannah is learning how to take care of herself.
The first half of Girls' two-part season finale includes several kinds of love: romantic, platonic, and that sparkly feeling somewhere in between that can spring up in the glow of a new friendship, like the one between Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her old classmate and nemesis, Tally (Jenny Slate). It's surprising to see Hannah connect so deeply with a new potential friend, especially someone whose success used to trigger such jealousy in her. Maybe it helps that Hannah hasn't been writing—or doing much else—for so long that she no longer feels as if she's in competition with Tally. As she says, when she accepts her offer to hang out: “I'm not really headed anywhere particular at the moment.”
Then again, maybe being open to Tally is another sign of the emotional maturity Hannah's fitfully tumbling toward. Or maybe she's just open to a new friendship because her old friends have been busy or evasive lately. Whatever the reason, Hannah and Tally do some serious bonding, confiding in one another, dancing to Beyoncé, and getting so high on falling-in-friendship endorphins that they briefly consider making love before dismissing it with a mutual “nah.”
Read the rest on The House Next Door
If it had bigger stars and a less quirk-dependent plot, Rachel Tunnard's Adult Life Skills would be right at home at the multiplex, probably starring someone like Kate Hudson. The romance here is relegated to comically awkward background, sparing us the trope of the hapless heroine whose messy life is all tidied up by the love of a good man, but the rest is dispiritingly predictable. Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is a kind of English Zoe Deschanel, a wide-eyed free spirit who doesn't realize how loveable she is. She lives in a shed in her mother's backyard, which she has crammed full of artsy detritus like pinwheels and homemade tinfoil rocket ships. When she's not working at a community center, she likes to draw a rudimentary face on each of her thumbs and then shoot video of them having a conversation.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Jenny Gage’s All This Panic is a somewhat meandering but engaging documentary about a handful of girls from a private high school in Brooklyn and a couple of their younger sisters. Talking about how girls her age are objectified, Sage says: “People want to see you, but they don’t want to hear what you have to say.” The film is a response to that insidious tendency. Gage and her husband and director of photography, Tom Betterton, appreciate the girls’ beauty, employing magic-hour lighting that bathes them in a soft glow, but the filmmakers are far more interested in the girls’ inner lives.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Made on the cheap by residents of the neighborhood it depicts, this shaggy pig story offers a lo-fi snapshot of Hyattsville, Maryland, a low-income, predominantly African-American town just outside D.C. As seen through the eyes of teenage friends Scooby (Seth Dubois) and Rico (Rico S.), it’s a lively yet mostly aimless place, peopled with loving parents, loyal friends, and local characters the rest of the community appreciates and supports—like Floyd (Floyd Rich), who’s trying to get his beloved Washington Redskins to make a mascot of his gigantic pet pig, Charlotte.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Hannah (Lena Dunham) finally breaks up with Fran (Jake Lacy) in tonight's episode of Girls, but it doesn't register as drama, let alone tragedy. Instead, it plays out as absurdist, almost slapstick comedy. Looking slightly ludicrous, as always, in PJs and cowboy boots, Hannah escapes the RV Fran rented for the summer, which she insists on calling a “house car,” and runs away from him at a rest stop—until she trips on a tree branch and lands ass up on the ground. It's a fitting end to a relationship that always felt fated to fail, his bland sweetness and respect for the status quo fatally out of balance with her sharp tongue and reflexive rebelliousness. Their breakup doesn't appear to be a particularly big deal even for Hannah, who tells a kind stranger who gives her a ride later that day that she's more upset about the fact that Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Adam (Adam Driver) are fucking.
Thursday, April 7, 2016
A third-generation filmmaker (his grandfather, Erik Løchen, was a well-known avant-garde director, and his parents both worked in film), Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier makes intelligently constructed movies, like Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, about the sometimes agonizing inner turmoil of characters whose lives seem deceptively calm on the surface. The plots of these films may sound uneventful, even banal, but Trier and his screenwriting partner Eskil Vogt's empathic understanding of their characters' emotions infuses his films with deep feeling. His latest, Louder Than Bombs, centers around a renowned war photographer, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who died before the film opens. Still recovering from the shock and grief of losing Isabelle, her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and sons, Conrad (Devin Druid) and Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), are intermittently trying, and mostly failing, to help one another as they stumble separately toward emotional equilibrium. Trier met with me in New York this week to talk about the film, what skateboarding taught him about filmmaking, and why he loves revenge movies.
Sunday, April 3, 2016
Because it's about the emotional lives of a group of young women, Lena Dunham's Girls is also very much about friendship—real friendship, not the wish-fulfillment kind you see on TV shows where a tight little group of besties go through life in lockstep, anatomizing every triumph or frustration over cocktails or coffee. So one of the most poignant motifs of the show's last couple of seasons is how Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna often grow slowly, almost imperceptibly apart as their interests change or they head out of town for a while—whether it's the Iowa Writer's Workshop or rehab or Tokyo.