If I Stay

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by R. J. Cutler.  Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, and Joshua Leonard.

Opening voiceover (paraphrased from memory): “Life is funny sometimes. We can make our plans for what we will do, but then life comes along with others. Take my pal Beethoven; he was all set to be a famous pianist, but life had other plans for him. At twenty-six he went deaf and could no longer perform. So he turned to composition, and his new gig fit him perfectly.” (Wrong — Beethoven began suffering from tinnitus at twenty-six, his hearing became severe a few years later, and he did not go completely deaf until several years after that. He also was an established composer well before his hearing loss began.)

Evan: “Oh, boy. This is not going to be good. Maybe I should leave now and get my money back.”

Unfortunately, I did not leave, and If I Stay was a constant downhill from there. The movie was horrifically and fundamentally misconceived on almost every possible level. Just about nothing worked. The “tragic scenes” were so contrived as to be laughable; the “humor” is so forced and awkward that I cannot imagine anyone laughing at it – her parents are hippie rockers trying to force her to have fun, but she’s a prim and proper classical cellist who’s uncomfortable with partying and underage drinking (apparently the filmmakers never met a classically trained musician); the dialogue was awful – having a teenage girl say, “I hate you (or it)” every time she’s mildly upset is incredibly annoying.

The entire conflict between Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her boyfriend was based on a nonsensical plot point: she’s a super talented cellist who wants to go off to college with her boyfriend in Oregon, but she also wants to pursue her cello studies, which means she has to go to Juilliard. Why does she have to go to Juilliard to study cello? Because the movie needs a stupid unbelievable conflict, and because a “feel good” movie like this needs to have its protagonist get into (or at least audition for) the BEST MUSIC SCHOOL EVER!!!

What? There are phenomenal music schools other than Juilliard, some of which are on the West Coast? You wouldn’t know that from the film, especially since Mia only applies to one college (Juilliard). And when she auditions she selects the most clichéd, well known audition pieces possible that display almost no variety whatsoever, something no serious musician would do, unless she was in a stupid film that wanted soundtrack pieces its audience might know.

On the day that Mia is anxiously awaiting to hear back from Juilliard, and also stewing over a recent fight with her boyfriend, she and her family are in a tragic collision in which her parents and brother die and she is sent into a coma. At that point, she has an out of body experience and narrates the rest of the film wondering what will happen to her life. Will she wake up? If she does, will she and her boyfriend reconcile? And will she be accepted at Juilliard? To quote Roger Ebert, “Anyone who doesn’t immediately know the answers to these questions either lives in a cave or wrote this screenplay.”

How painfully ignorant is If I Stay? Here’s an example: at one point Mia says she used to always think of the cello as a solo instrument but eventually learned that it can be a good ensemble instrument as well. What!? Apparently she has never heard a symphony or a string quartet, the two genres which her idol Beethoven is arguably best known for.

Thankfully, this atrocity is already fading from my memory.

 

Content Advisory: An implied sexual encounter between teens, occasional profanity, and a possibly disturbing tragedy.                                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: D

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Boyhood

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Richard Linklater.  Starring Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Libby Villari.

It is inevitable for any critic that a highly acclaimed film will come along, and that critic will be surprised to discover how much he does not care for the film in question, and he will also be surprised others are so enthusiastic about said film. For me, one of those films is Boyhood. I liked parts of it – mostly the parts when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) was a child; but as a whole the film failed to engage me, and I never cared about any of the characters.

Naturally, I am surprised at my lack of enthusiasm for Boyhood, partially because many of my friends and the critics with whom I normally agree all loved it, but also because I normally like films that are quiet snapshots in time. I suppose there are two disclaimers I should make: 1) I have never liked a Linklater film other than the Celine/Jesse Before trilogy, and 2) with a few exceptions I’m generally not a fan of coming of age stories. I was really hoping this film would break both those trends, but unfortunately it did not.

My biggest complaint was Mason; while he was empathetic as a kid, once he got older he turned into the dullest, most generic, unsympathetic protagonist I can think of. He makes no decisions, lets everything bounce off him as if he doesn’t care, never gets really angry, never is enthusiastic for anything. Every other character would have made a more interesting subject for a movie than Mason: his sometimes pesky sister (Lorelei Linklater), his irresponsible father (Ethan Hawke), his stressed single mother (Patricia Arquette), his abusive alcoholic stepfather, his supportive stepsiblings, his very religious gun-toting step-grandparents, etc. Somehow in the midst of all those scenarios, Mason manages not to care about anything or anyone, mopes around about nothing in particular, and for some reason we’re supposed to sympathize with him because he’s the main character and he suffers a lot of hardships, many of which are his own damn fault. When his second stepfather chewed him out without getting aggressive or violent concerning Mason’s irresponsible behavior, that perfectly summarized Mason’s problems as well as the film’s problems. As a teenager, Mason becomes so dull that he makes Michael Palin’s chartered accountant look riveting in comparison.

I understand that many people are loving Boyhood specifically for its temporal jumps and brief snippets over a period of time. I often love those types of films myself, but with Boyhood Mason’s passive, indecisive nature made the film meander for a really, really long time. Robert Bresson (a director whose films I love) often employs elliptical editing that meanders through a character’s life, but his protagonists are always fascinating characters who make choices that affect their lives. I’m trying to think of any film I like with a passive protagonist who cares about nothing. The best examples I can think of are The Man Who Wasn’t There and Inside Llewyn Davis, both of which I love, but even those films have protagonists who make decisions, albeit lousy ones. Hamlet is famously a tragedy of a character who refuses to make a decision, but the play is driven by his inner conflict and fear of making the wrong choice. Mason has no conflict whatsoever, and consequently there is nothing to drive the film.

Boyhood is certainly ambitious, landmark filmmaking, and it has a lot of interesting vignettes, but it doesn’t add up to anything particularly worthwhile, at least not for my tastes.

 

Content Advisory: Occasional rough language, domestic violence, an implied sexual encounter between teens, and depiction of substance abuse by teens.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: C

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Pieces of April

Year of Release: 2003     Directed by Peter Hedges.  Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., and Derek Luke.

Pieces of April is a delightful, funny, heart-wrenching, and ultimately uplifting film that is sadly not nearly as well known as it should be.

After living on her own for a year in a dumpy section of New York, April (Katie Holmes) has resolved that she is going to cook her first Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, with whom she has had a tempestuous relationship to put it mildly. Having ended her drug abuse and broken up with her dealer boyfriend, she now has her own apartment with a new boyfriend. Given her mom’s (Patricia Clarkson) cancer, April wants to mend those bonds as well.

However, as April’s younger sister Beth (Alison Pill) constantly reminds her family, April cannot cook. Since their mom is too sick to cook a big meal, Beth should be the one cooking, after all, she passed home economics, which April miserably failed.

Their mother reassures Beth and the rest of the family that driving to April’s apartment and letting her cook is the best option, because “This way, instead of April showing up with some new piercing or some ugly new tattoo and, God forbid, staying overnight, this way, we get to show up, experience the disaster that is her life, smile through it, and before you know it, we’re on our way back home.”

Now I called this film funny. So far, I do not think I’m making it sound funny. April’s good-hearted, but inexperienced attempts at cooking truly are hilarious, especially for anyone who’s ever botched a difficult recipe on a first attempt. Her most foolish culinary decisions simultaneously evoke laughter and sympathy. April’s desire to make a simple gift of a meal to her family is truly touching, but trying to mash raw potatoes, placing hot stuffing in a turkey with your bare hands, cramming uncut stalks of celery into the stuffing, and insisting that cranberry sauce out of a jar tastes just as good as homemade is genuinely funny.

April’s troubles do not end with her lack of cooking experience. Right as she is about to start cooking the turkey, she discovers her oven is not working, and she frantically asks her neighbors if she can use one of their ovens. During her search, she meets people even more selfish than anyone in her family, but she also encounters people who aid her with surprising acts of compassion and generosity. April’s interactions with her neighbors are made all the more tense due to the anxiety she feels over seeing her family for the first time in almost a year.

Even though April wants to see her family and please them with her cooking, she is still bitter towards them for their lack of support and afraid that she will never be good enough for them. As she makes place cards, she writes “Mom” on one, and then throws it away, replacing it with one that reads “Joy.” On the other hand, she exhibits the giddy nervousness of a child as she decorates her apartment hallways with balloons, streamers, and drawings.

In many ways, April is still a child, but she is a child whose foolish decisions and uncompassionate family forced her to grow up too quickly, losing important years with her family. The resulting tension and April’s desire for reconciliation is portrayed by masterful cutting between April preparing Thanksgiving dinner and her family driving to New York, dreading how awful this Thanksgiving is going to be. April’s father (Oliver Platt) is the only one who has any hope that his daughter might succeed, and even he is easily quieted as his wife and younger daughter remind him of all April’s failures, which obviously weaken his resolve.

The unease between April and her family is illustrated when her Asian neighbors ask her what Americans celebrate on Thanksgiving. She tries to tell the story of the first Thanksgiving three times. First, she describes the big harvest and celebration; then she mentions the Pilgrims getting as much food and knowledge from the Native Americans before stealing all their land. Finally, sensing the confusion of her neighbors, she simply concludes the holiday exists as a memorial to a time when everyone came together to celebrate, in recognition of how much they needed everyone else to survive.

The unique blend of humor and pathos pulled off a rare achievement by making me laugh and cry simultaneously. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

 

Content Advisory: An out of frame sex scene, drug use, some strong vulgar language, cohabitation, photos of medical nudity, and themes of intense family discord.                    MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Evan’s Writing Elsewhere

I’d like to thank Ken Morefield, the editor of  1More Film Blog, for giving me an outlet to write reviews for Clannad – The Motion Picture and The Maid’s RoomI will post links here for any future reviews I write for 1More Film Blog.

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Lucy

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Luc Besson.  Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, and Amr Waked.

We all know movie premises don’t have to make sense. A twenty-five foot great white shark stalking humans off the coast of Cape Cod isn’t exactly realistic. A composer plotting to murder a rival and steal his magnum opus is absurd, especially when those two composers only met a couple times in real life. Yet Jaws and Amadeus are both in my personal top fifty.

All that is to say, I was totally on board with Lucy‘s very silly premise that humans only use ten percent of their brains, and after being kidnapped and forced to transport a new drug, Lucy accidentally absorbs the drug which unlocks her brain’s full potential. I actually enjoyed the scenes in which the film set up that premise. When the film refused to follow it through with any consistency, I became increasingly irritated.

My biggest problem is that as Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) unlocks more of her brain’s potential, her decisions become increasingly stupid. For instance: why does she casually shoot and kill civilians and small time petty criminals, yet leave murderous drug lord and his hitmen alive so they can repeatedly chase after her and try to kill her? Or, when she’s about to conduct a massive experiment that will allow her to fully utilize her brain, why does she tell a small handful of police officers armed with pistols to secure the room against 25 thugs armed with machine guns, when she could easily disarm all the thugs and incapacitate them the exact same way she did in the previous scene? That way, the police could easily arrest them, and she could conduct her experiment in peace. I am aware Lucy is hard-pressed for time, but stopping the thugs would have taken her all of five seconds.

The conclusion of the film leaves open two distinct possibilities, which the film seems entirely unaware of. When Lucy’s brain reaches one-hundred percent capacity (that’s NOT a spoiler) she either becomes God and takes over control of the world, or there is a Doctor Who-esque twist in which she becomes able to manipulate time. Since the film does bring time travel into it, it raises the question of many time travel films: is time a continuous loop where our past actions affect our present lives, or has the loop been broken? There is no indication that the filmmakers gave this any thought at all.

Director Luc Besson maintains an intense pace and stages the action scenes with clarity, and I appreciated the inter-cutting of stock nature footage, which provided a refreshing change of scenery and helped make the premise conceivable. However, that hardly makes up for the utter inanity of the rest of the film.

 

Content Advisory: Much violence, some of it quite gory and disturbingly played for laughs; reckless disregard for human life, and a possible killing God theme (the film is too shallow for any theme to be definitive).                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: C-

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