As I am, frustratingly, only a part-time critic, there are a lot of movies I’m forced to miss due to other practical work and real-life obstacles. Every once in a while I make a point to catch up with some of them. They’re probably not actually showing anywhere, but these are certainly worth tracking down on DVD or on other streaming venues.
Goodbye First Love (Un Amour De Jeunesse) (France, 2011) is Mia Hansen-Løve’s third feature; it was widely praised, and rightfully so. Any time a French film concerns itself with bildungsroman character study through the prism of amorous relationships, they’re reflexively compared to François Truffaut, who was superb at this sort of thing. But instead of Antoine Doinel, here we view things through the smart, sensitive, estrogen-driven eyes of young Camille (Lola Créton, quite wonderful here). The love of her life seems to be Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), an honest charmer, to whom she’s immoderately, perhaps self-destructively, devoted. Sullivan loves her dearly as well, but takes a longer view concerning the shape of his life. He’s decided to take a year to travel South America with a few like-minded friends – his impending absence is emotional panic-time for Camille, and she’s at a loss. Sullivan stays in touch pretty faithfully for a while, but how you gonna keep ‘em down in Paree after they’ve seen the farm the rest of the world? Despite her insecurities and resentments, Camille soldiers on, and creates a pretty rewarding life for herself as an architect’s assistant, which leads to a pretty rewarding marriage to a talented and loving older man. But, a few years later, Sullivan reappears, and the memories and second-thoughts arise again. Hansen-Løve shares Truffaut’s talent for finding hundreds of little informative and emotional details that don’t seem like much when they occur individually, but that create an enormous cumulative foundation under the characters’ lives. They also both know to let their good actors stretch out according to their own rhythms, and to trust the script (written, reportedly somewhat autobiographically, by Hansen-Løve as well). This is an extraordinarily intelligent, gracefully emotional film that I loved and enthusiastically recommend.
Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (USA, 2012) is a steamy, lurid slice of pulp that features an interesting mix of performers (Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Zac Efron and Macy Gray, among others…) executing Pete Dexter’s own adaptation of his novel. It’s very dark and gleefully mean-spirited, a glary, sunlit noir that could be favorably compared to similar works by James Lee Burke, or even James M. Cain. It’s Tarentino territory, but with none of Quentin’s sense of sociocultural continuity – we suppose people like this act like this, but the film provides a stylized safe distance from their curdled carnality, cold opportunism and thoughtless nihilism. The art direction and some featured performances almost distract us from the fact that Lee Daniels has no blessed idea what to do with the camera (cinematographer Roberto Schaefer’s photography is superb, but he seems to have thrown up his hands on creating an honestly consistent mise-en-scène or ongoing visual narrative). McConaughey is Ward Jansen, a small-time crusading reporter who has returned to his swampy hometown to research the impending execution of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a white-trash ‘alleged’ cop-killer who makes Byron De La Beckwith look like Alan Alda. Eager to assist Ward in his investigations is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who has become engaged to Van Wetter through being his conjugal pen-pal. And Ward has enlisted his beefcake layabout younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) to act as his driver and legman. McConaughey is his usual reliable self, and Kidman and Cusack stretch their talents considerably. Kidman is over-the-top tawdry, trashy and unapologetically carnal – it’s her best performance in years, perhaps because it’s the exact opposite of who she is in real life – converts make the best zealots. It’s less a craft-constructed character than primal therapy freak-out, and she gleefully races to the bottom, leaving Sharon Stone choking on her dust. I found it oddly admirable. Cusack, as well, takes his against-type casting out for a sweaty, sordid, almost nauseating ride. The highest praise I can manage here is that I flat-out forgot I was watching John Cusack. Others fare less well – Zac Efron is well-cast here, but he’s WAY out of his league, and his presence becomes increasingly negligible as the engine of the rest of the story hums along. Macy Gray is likable because it’s Macy Gray, God bless ‘er – again, well-cast, but there’s absolutely nothing resembling Acting going on with her. Daniel’s film will drop your jaw more than a few times, but it’s Dexter’s script and the adventurous actors who hold this sordid burlesque together. It’s a pretty involving provocation, and following the snail-trails of these invariably nasty characters is good prurient fun. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a remotely good movie, but it’s never boring, and as an adult-themed carnival ride, those with a high tolerance for trash will be indulgently rewarded.
Will Gluck’s Easy A (USA, 2010) doesn’t quite attain the popular mainstream heights of such American teen epics like Clueless, Risky Business, Heathers or the landmark status of the works of Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl, Real Genius) or John Hughes (…your favorite here…). It’s more in that second-tier occupied by the likes of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Pump Up The Volume, Mean Girls or Juno, which isn’t a bad place to be. Bert V. Royal’s script is a little too self-congratulatory about its own cleverness, most evident in his woefully underdeveloped grown-ups. Thomas Hayden Church, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson and Lisa Kudrow do their professionally appealing damndest to create real people here, but Royal leaves them short of meaningful ammunition. The real reason to see this film, and it’s a glorious one, is to watch Emma Stone gleefully chew up this script and spit it out in an astonishingly confident star-making turn as Olive Prenderghast, who plays the malleable extremes of high-school (and popular-culture) morality like Rosalind Russell ‘s Hildy Johnson played the politics and politicians of 1930s Chicago. Yeah, you heard me. She’s that good here. I’ll say no more. Watch this movie and have a great time.