Short Term 12(09/14/2013)

I’ve talked from time to time about my general discontentment with the Sundance Film Festival and its breed of repetitive regional cinema, but however annoyed I can get at that festival its nothing compared to my absolute disdain for the South by Southwest Film Festival.  While Sundance certainly has its share of movies about white people with First World problems, they do at least try to bring in regional films about people who actually live somewhat dramatic lives, and often these are the films that end up leaving Park City with the most buzz (for more on this phenomenon refer to my review of Fruitvale Station).   SXSW, on the other hand, is a festival that has doubled down on movies about boring hipsters who don’t deserve to have movies made about them.  This trend reached its nadir when SXSW unleashed the “mumblecore” scene upon the world which combined the “whiney young people bitch about their relationship problems” formula with an amateurish aesthetic that only proves that the people making the film you’re watching are not only boring but also unambitious and lazy.  And unlike Sundance, SXSW has almost no real track record of ushering in crossover success stories in spite of its ever-growing coverage by critics and in trade publications.  There have been almost no breakout SXSW films, hell, most of the stuff that premieres there is lucky to get theatrical distribution instead of a VOD release.  Still, every dog has its day, and odds are good that any festival that premieres as many films as SXSW does is bound to stumble upon something worth talking about every once in a while, and this year that film seems to be a small but ambitious film called Short Term 12.

The film begins with a man named Nate (Rami Malek) arriving at the Short Term 12 group home for his first day of work.  He’s inexperienced, a bit naïve, and certainly an audience surrogate.  The shitty version of this movie would have been all about Nate as he comes to realize that it’s not the kids who are being changed by this experience but himself… plus some sub-plot about his troubles with some insensitive girlfriend who “just doesn’t understand” what he’s going through.  However, this is not that shitty version of the movie that we’re watching and this Nate guy actually turns out to be something of a periphery character.  The real protagonist of this story is his boss, a woman named Grace (Brie Larson) who is an experienced worker at this facility in spite of her relatively young age.  Her live-in boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) also works at Short Term 12, and the two of them have both developed a strong rapport with the troubled teenagers they work with.  Neither Grace nor Mason are naïve people of privilege, they’ve both had troubled upbringings that are not dissimilar to the troubles of the young people they work with, and this troubled past resurfaces in the mind of Grace when a young girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at Short Term 12 who’s experiences and demeanor seem particularly similar to Grace’s own.

The first thing that jumps out at you about Short Term 12 is its feel of authenticity.  You can tell that writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton has had some experience working at a facility like this because the film has a very firm grasp on type of kids who show up at places like that and what can and does occur regularly to them while they’re there.  It helps that this is an environment which, for whatever reason, hasn’t really become a cinematic cliché.  We’ve seen movies set in mental hospitals and orphanages, but to my knowledge we’ve never really seen a movie about modern group homes.  The kids in the home are well varied and don’t feel like stereotypes and the two main counselors in particular seem like well-rounded and three dimensional characters.  It’s also aided by a number of strong performances, both from the unknown young people playing the troubled teens and from the up-and-coming young stars playing the counselors.  The highlights are definitely Brie Larson as the outwardly tough but privately vulnerable main character and Kaitlyn Dever as the rebellious young girl who sets a lot of the former character’s arc into motion.

There’s really not a whole lot to say about Short Term 12.  It feels very real, it builds really believable characters, and it manages to avoid a whole host of mistakes that it easily could have made.  It does not, however, leave me convinced that Destin Daniel Cretton is the future of cinema.  He was obviously the right person to make this film, but I’m not sure that it really establishes a unique and promising directorial style.  That’s the thing about SXSW movies and the modern indie scene in general, it doesn’t really exist to establish a new breed of auteurs so much as its meant to usher along individual projects that highlight certain aspect of the modern human condition, and Short Term 12 is one of the most successful examples of this machine at work.

***1/2 out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Harry Potter: The Dawning of the Age of Yates

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

The last round of Harry Potter films really through me for a loop.  I thought for sure that the Alfonso Cuarón helmed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban would be the more impressive accomplishment than the Mike Newell directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but it turned out that the opposite was the case.  I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why this was and I’ve come to something of a conclusion: the Harry Potter series isn’t really a film series, it’s a television series.  A very well made and very expensive television series, but at its heart a television series.  Obviously I don’t mean this literally; the films came out in theaters and were projected on celluloid, but in many ways they are created the way that one would create a TV show.

In television the director takes a much more secondary role than they do in film.  TV directors are solid but anonymous craftsmen who put together solid episodes using an already established formula and the quality of any given episode they make is in many ways at the mercy of the particular script they’re given that week.  Similarly, I’m beginning to think that this series may be more the work of producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and of J. K. Rowling than of any of the given director.  Taking this analogy further, one can perhaps dismiss the first two Harry Potter films as a bad pilot that isn’t indicative of the series as a whole, while Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is like one of those late first season runs that right the wrongs of a given show’s early missteps.  By extension, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is like that awesome second season in which a show really finds its voice and manages to be confident and strong right out the gate.

Interestingly enough, the man who would direct all four of the Harry Potter films to come was himself a TV director for the most part.  Aside from one obscure independent movie called The Tichborne Claimant, all of director David Yates’ experience prior to his work in the Harry Potter franchise had been in British television.  This background is sort of indicative of his work as well, the rule of the day under David Yates seemed to be “don’t rock the boat.”  It was also a period when the rest of the world seemed a little apathetic about the whole series.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t popular, it most certainly was, but its fanbase had been firmly established and they sort of gave up trying to bring in outsiders like me at this point.  The fanbase was so established that every movie between Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows- Part 1 would make between 290 and 300 million, no more and no less.

For me personally, this was the era where my disinterest in the franchise was less of a protest against family entertainment and more of a complete apathy.  Every two years one of the things would come out, critics would respect it but not get too excited, it would quietly make a ton of money, and everyone would move on.  Before seeing them, I had a pretty good idea of who directed the first four Harry Potter movies and could probably recite a very basic description of what they were about, I knew next to nothing about these next two except that one had Imelda Staunton in it and that Dumbledore died in one of them.  In fact I had to look up which one was the fifth installment and which one was the sixth.  Still, given that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was so good, I was excited to see these next two in a way that I wasn’t when first going into the first four films.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Bad news first: Harry’s fucking aunt and uncle are in the opening of this film, and so is his equally ridiculous cousin, who starts the film by mocking harry for being an orphan.  I don’t for the life of me know what harry did to turn these assholes against him, but turn against him they did and in cartoon fashion.  The good news is that they’re only in the film for a couple minutes and that, taken as a whole, this might be the least offensive opening to a Harry Potter film to date.  In particular I liked the idea of harry being put in front of a wizard trial for having used a spell in front of a human.  It seems like a rather odd charge considering that he inflated a “muggle” woman and watched her float away two movies ago.  I guess that inconsistency can be explained away by the fact that Harry is being watched more closely by the authorities at this point than he was before, but I still can’t help but wonder why his wizard accusers seem to think it’s appropriate to summon him via a magical floating letter which is plainly seen by the very same “muggle” he who wasn’t supposed to be exposed to magic before.

Whatever the charge, I like the idea of seeing a wizard trial in action.  For that matter I like the idea of seeing more of the politics of the wizard world, and we get a lot more of that in this film than we have before.  In doing so we realize that there’s more of a difference between a wizard and a Jedi than I initially believed.  These people aren’t a brotherhood of wise monk-like paragons; they’re a bunch of weak and petty fools trying to save their own asses.  We still only really see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the politics of Wizard Land (seriously is there a real term for the world of wizardry that I’m supposed to know?), which is a byproduct of the story being told from the perspective of children, but I did like the glimpse that we did get.

It’s this pettiness that necessitates much of the story of this fifth installment of the series.  After the events to the last movie I figured that the forces of good would have finally started their fight against the resurrected Voldemort, but no, most wizards are in denial about what happened at the Goblet of Fire tournament and they’re still playing that stupid “he who shall not be named” game.  This movie is all about the fight to get the rest of the wizards on board with the fight, and as such it sometimes feels like something of a giant set-up for the later films.  In particular, it sets up a core group of good wizards at Hogwarts who will presumably be some of the major players in future installments and it also serves to introduce us to Voldemort’s various henchmen like Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange and that dude who could turn himself into tornadoes.

Another villain of sorts is Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge, which was one of the few elements of the film that I remember getting much attention from critics back when the film was released. I can see why.  This character is a dead on variation of the kind of infuriating alpha-bitch that seems to dominate every PTA, HOA, and book club you’ve ever seen.  The kind of lady who’s all smiles on the outside but who clearly wants to use whatever status she has in order to control everyone around them and mold their surroundings to a very specific vision and will tear down anyone who gets in their way.   It’s her domineering that really brings Dumbledore out of his shell and turns him into a character I could actually see myself giving a shit about.  Before he was facing off against Dolores Umbridge he just seemed like a pretty generic Merlin/Gandalf wannabe, but when compared to Umbridge he comes off as a much stronger and wiser character… gee, I hope nothing bad ever happens to him (har har har).

The fight against Umbridge also brings out the best in Harry Potter himself, who’s at his angstiest, but also his most active here.  He shows real initiative by forming “Dumbledore’s Army” and while I’m not exactly sure how he’s educating his fellow students in spells that he himself presumably wasn’t privy to, it shows real leadership and character just the same.  This is so much Harry’s own movie that his usual sidekicks are really pushed to the background.  Instead this weird girl named Luna is given a pretty large amount of screentime and we also delve into Harry’s rather undeveloped and not overly rewarding relationship with Cho Chang, which quite frankly feels like it was just added to this series in order to appease certain fans who would insist that there be a love-interest added to the mix.

Of course the series does really need to prioritize its storylines at this point.  As a book, this installment was even longer than the last one, and yet at 138 minutes this is actually the shortest film of the series (except of course for the individual installments of the bisected final film).  In my analysis of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I suspected that the act of making shortish movies out of long-ass books would be beneficial because it would give the producers a reason to cut out some of the books’ dumber moments, but here things really do just seem extremely rushed.  The filmmakers need to resort to montages and newspaper collages in order to steamroll their way across some fairly important moments like Umbridge’s ascent to the head of Hogwarts.  To their credit though, this was relatively free of dumb “funny” moments.  I mean there was maybe an off note here or there but for the most part this was pretty dignified.  The only really cringe inducing element was the existence of Grawpy, Hagrid’s half-brother who’s chained up in the forest.  The character is both a terrible idea and also an atrocious special effect.

I suppose I can forgive the film for one terrible effect since they were clearly dumping most of their budget into the film’s climactic action scene.  The effects there are awesome, but I have mixed feelings about the scene as a whole.  For one thing Sirius Black goes out like a punk bitch.  Why in the world would you spend the better part of three movies developing a character like that only to have him get hit by some vague spell and then disappear into some kind of portal thingy.  Lame.  But the bigger problem is that it really diminishes Voldemort as a threat.  I always assumed this guy was going to be some vague and rarely seen threat like Sauron, but if he’s just going to attack Harry with a scheme in every movie only to be defeated each time and run off saying “I’ll get you next time, Potter” it makes him stop looking like a serious threat and starts making him look like some cartoon villain like Mumm-Ra or Gargamel or something.  Still, I can see why they’d want to give the film a climactic action scene and for the most part the set-piece does deliver.

So, yeah, I guess my feelings about this one are pretty mixed.  I mean, it’s not a bad movie, in fact of all the Potter movies that had been made to this point this is firmly the second best but I also think that it’s vastly inferior to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  I don’t know, there just seems to be something very perfunctory about this whole production, as if everyone involved is just trying to get this one out of the way so they can get into the series’ final act.  If everything that’s set up here does indeed pay off then it will have all been worth it, if not… well that would speak ill of the whole series but especially this one.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

As usual, I should start with a report on what the filmmakers have done with the opening sequence this time around and for the first time yet I have pretty much nothing but good news.  Harry’s aunt and uncle are nowhere to be seen, there’s no slapstick to speak of, no confusing tangent, no shrunken rasta head…. ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a Harry Potter movie that works from the get go.  In fact, the opening here actually seems downright important as it establishes the film’s three main plot threads: Harry’s relationship with Dumbledore, his relationship with a potions professor named Horace Slughorn, and his conflict with Draco.  The relationship with Dumbledore is perhaps the most important because, frankly, they need to make up for a whole lot of lost time.  In my analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix I mentioned that Dumbledore was finally starting to seem like more than just an aloof Merlin-clone, and here he finally starts to feel like an actual character… and not a moment too soon because as everyone knows this is the movie where he finally kicks the bucket.

That Snape would eventually kill Dumbledore is something I’ve known from the very beginning thanks in part to that viral video of the guy spoiling the twist for a bunch of people lined up to buy  the book on its release day.  Oddly enough, the movie seems assume that everyone else had already been spoiled as well, because there’s an early scene in the film that just goes ahead and reveals Snape’s true allegiance in the most anti-climactic way imaginable.  Did I miss something?  Was this already revealed earlier or something?  I feel like there were quite a few more dramatic ways that this reveal could have been handled, I’m not exactly sure what they were thinking there.  If I hadn’t already been spoiled I would have been more than a little pissed.

However, it isn’t too hard to look past that, because for the most part this is one of the most solid Harry Potter movies yet and tonally it’s a complete 180 from everything that made me a little uneasy about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  This film slows down the pace substantially and puts much more of an emphasis on character than on plot.  In some sense it feels closer to the pre-Goblet of Fire films in that things seem to be back to relative normalcy at Hogwarts and Potter and co. are back to participating in classes and whatnot.  In fact the accelerator may have even been pulled up a bit too abruptly.  I mean, the last movie ended with a full-on battle scene between two groups of wizards and culminated with a duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort.  It kind of seems a little odd that the series could go right from that to this relative calm in such a short period of time.

Maybe I should take a step back and look at each major storyline, starting with the Horace Slughorn thread.  On his surface Slughorn is easily the most boring professor to come through Hogwarts.  He’s got no makeup gimmick and his personality doesn’t skew too far from the typical tweed jacket teacher type.  However, I really liked the backstory that they gave Slughorn and I was generally impressed that they brought back the whole Tom Riddle/Voldemort backstory that was introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Harry’s little mission to get the truth out of Slughorn was consistently interesting and I also quite enjoyed Harry’s encounter with the “half-blood prince’s” textbook, even if it maybe stretches credulity that he never reports this thing to his teachers.

Less successful is the sub-plot about Draco Malfoy deciding whether he’ll join with Voldemort and Snape in… doing whatever evil thing that they’re planning to do.  It could have been worse though.  The character is adjusted just enough from the cartoon character we’ve seen thus-far to keep this plot from being overtly annoying.  Still, there was an opportunity here to fully redeem the character which was just left on the table.  For the most part this sub-plot just doesn’t really go anywhere and just sort of gets lost in the shuffle.  Still, it’s remarkable that the movie even makes a Draco storyline moderately watchable, and that’s in line with a general absence of WTF stupidity throughout the film.  I’m sure that if I looked back at the film there were probably one or two off moments, but they were so infrequent that they are not worth noting.  The film also makes a lot more time for Ron and Hermione, which is nice even if their time is mostly spent engaging in petty high school love triangles.

And that brings me back to the Dumbledore material.  I said earlier that the film was making up time for how long Dumbledore was sort of a non-character, and that does help a little, but I can’t exactly say I found his death to be a devastating occurrence.  At the end of the day he’s just a very derivative and not overly interesting character, and he also proved himself to not even be overly competent at his job.  There’s a line mid-way through the film where a character says something along the lines of: “It comes down to whether you trust Dumbledore’s judgment, [and] Dumbledore trusts Snape” which is an odd thing to say considering that throughout the series Dumbledore’s judgment in regards to who he trusts has been laughable.  This is the same guy who employed Quirinus Quirrell (the dude with the Voldemort head), Gilderoy Lockhart (a full on con artist), Remus Lupin (a fucking werewolf), an evil Alastor Moody doppelganger, and Dolores Umbridge.  Admittedly he was kind of forced into that last one, but still, the point is he’s hired an evil teacher in every single one of these movies.  His inability to do simple background checks has been an Achilles Heel of his from the beginning, and it’s that character flaw which ultimately killed him.

At the end of the day, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince probably has the same basic problem as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: it mainly exists to set up future Harry Potter movies.  To some extent it feels like the series is treading water and padding itself out in order to sell more tickets/books than the story perhaps warrants, but it’s not too egregious about this.  The filmmaking is also generally improved this time around, which is good though I wish that Yates had shown the same control in the last film.  Overall though, I can’t say too many negative things about this one at all.  It’s not perfect, but in many ways it’s the Harry Potter movie I’ve been asking for the whole time.

In Conclusion

I started this installment assuming that David Yates would even things out and make the films a lot more consistent in tone.  Instead I’ve found myself analyzing two movies that, within the context of a series, couldn’t be more different.  One is way too fast paced, the other feels way too relaxed.  One is way too plot heavy, the other is too character oriented.  One is filled with special effects and action, the other is only moderately filled with special effects and action.  There’s merit to both approaches, but I can’t help wondering why these films needed to be so bipolar.  Couldn’t they have found the right balance for both films instead of going all-in in two different directions in each?  I don’t know.  Both of the movies do work well enough and I’ll take either of them over the first three Potter movies, but they leave me feeling like a Goldilocks who’s desperately trying to find a Harry Potter movie that works “just right.” Next Month: The time has come to finally tackle the studio I’ve been dreading the most: Dreamworks.  I’ll be looking at two of their least disreputable efforts: Kung-Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.

The World’s End(8/24/2013)

I remember that when I first heard the title “Shaun of the Dead” I rolled my eyes in disgust.  “What is that” I thought “some sort of zombie focused entry in the Scary Movie franchise?”  The fact that it was a British film didn’t sway my opinion either, in fact it made me all the more skeptical about a lot of the film’s early positive buzz; all too often I find that British stuff gets an easy pass by anglophile critics who associate that particular accent with sophistication (Guy Richie, I’m looking at you).  I still think that “Shaun of the Dead” is a horrible title, but when I finally did see the movie I was fairly impressed.  It’s not a perfect film or a particularly hilarious one, but it’s an excellent example of how you can make a comedy that’s funny while still being a quality film with characters you care about and a story that’s actually interesting.  The next Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg collaboration, Hot Fuzz, was bigger and more confident but decidedly weaker overall.  I wasn’t really impressed at all by Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, which was Edgar Wright’s first high profile project without Simon Pegg, and Pegg in turn has only had success as a supporting player without the assistance of Edgar Wright.  As such, I’m left with the feeling that these two are better when they’re together than when they’re apart.  And that puts all the more pressure on their first collaboration in over five years: the last film in their so-called “Cornetto trilogy,” The World’s End.

The World’s End concerns five men in their early forties who were best of friends when they were growing up in a smallish (fictional) town in the English countryside called Newton Haven.  On their last day of school as young men these five friends went on a famous pub crawl through Newton Haven called “The Golden Mile.”  Even though the group never made it all the way to the crawl’s final stop (a Pub called “The World’s End), the evening still left a big impression on the self-styled leader of this little clique, a man named Gary King (Simon Pegg) who apparently grew up to be something of an irresponsible jackass.  As the story begins, King is attempting to round up his old friends Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Andy (Nick Frost), so that “the gang” can get back together and try once again to finish “The Golden Mile.”  They reluctantly agree to this even though all of them have drifted apart and become productive citizens, but soon after they reconvene and begin the crawl they soon start to suspect that something is amiss in Newton Haven.

Those who’ve seen the trailer for the film will know (and Spoilers going forward for anyone that doesn’t know this little twist) that the secret of Newton Haven is that it’s been taken over by robots who look, sound, and behave just like the town’s former inhabitants.  As such, this is a bit of a riff on science fiction stories like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, but it isn’t the all-encompassing genre spoof that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were.  And this is for the best.  The less like actual spoof movies these films are, the better they tend to be, which is a big part of why Hot Fuzz is so much weaker than Shaun of the Dead.

First and foremost, this is a movie about old friends reuniting, and most of the comedy is derived from the fact that Gary King is still a fuck-up while all his friends have grown up.  The role of Gary King is bit of a departure for Simon Pegg, who has mostly built his career by playing lovable nerds in films like Shaun of the Dead and in series like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.  King is someone who thinks he’s a cool alpha-male, but who’s really just kind of a loser who’s been trying to recapture his youth.  His friends are sort of the straight-men to his antics, especially Nick Frost’s character who has become straight-laced to the point where he seems to be compensating for past mistakes.  The rest of the cast is perhaps a bit over-qualified given that their roles are mostly secondary, but they do well with the material given to them.

I can’t really help but to compare The World’s End to 2013’s other apocalyptic themed comedy, This is the EndThis is the End was film that was extremely rough around the edges: it had some bad special effects in it, it went on meaningless tangents, there were bits in it that fell flat, but despite all that it was a film that I really enjoyed simply because it had me in stitches pretty much front to back.  By contrast, The World’s End was a much better made film with a much more honed screenplay and much more solid craftsmanship all around, but I can’t say I laughed nearly as hard while watching it.  The World’s End, like the other films in Edgar Wright’s Corenetto Trilogy, is simply one of those comedies that is designed to make you smile and chuckle rather than to make you laugh uproariously.  There’s nothing wrong with that of course, entertainment is entertainment after all, and the film’s story probably wouldn’t have been as good if it was constantly pausing in order to allow the performers to improvise some joke or other.      Overall, I was definitely entertained by The World’s End.  In fact it might just be my favorite Edgar Wright film to date, though it should be noted that I never put his other three films on all that high of a pedestal.

***1/2 out of Four

Crash Course: The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

One of my all time favorite films is François Truffaut’s 1959 classic The 400 Blows, and I’m not alone in my assessment.  The 400 Blows is a Revival House classic, a major entrant into the French New Wave, and one of the foundations of modern world cinema.  What’s a little less known is that Truffaut actually made four semi-sequels to The 400 Blows, each starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and each depicting a different stage in the life of the Antoine Doinel character.  It’s not the first series to do something like this (it was preceaded by the Apu Trilogy for example), but it’s still a likely influence on other life-spanning sagas like the “Up” series of documentaries and Richard Linklater’s “Before” series.  I’ve always wanted to check out Criterion’s boxed set of the series, but it’s always been a bit tricky getting a hold of the copy of The 400 Blows that comes with the Antoine and Colette short without buying the whole box, but luckily TCM ended up airing all four films in the series recently as part of their Truffaut retrospective and I leaped at the opportunity.

Antoine and Colette

The first of the Antoine Doinel “sequels” is Antoine and Colette, a thirty minute short which was part of a mostly forgotten anthology film called Love at Twenty.  I should probably try to track down that anthology some day; it apparently also featured shorts on the subject of young love from a number of well regarded directors from all over the world including Andrzej Wajda so there must be something to it.  Of all the films here this one is probably the most stylistically similar to The 400 Blows in that it was also filmed in black and white and in the scope aspect ratio.  I guess that makes sense as this is the only of the four “sequels” where Doinel is still a minor, although he’s now well into his teen years and he’s left his delinquent ways in the past.  He now works for a vinyl record factory and lives pretty modestly.

As the title implies, the film is mostly an account of Doinel’s rather confused relationship with a girl named Colette, who sends him a lot of mixed signals about whether or not she wants to be his lover or just a friend: realistic awkwardness ensues.  This was all auto-biographical on Truffaut’s part and Colette was apparently inspired by a real woman named Lilliane Latvin.    Truffaut had apparently expressed some regret for having never expanded it into a feature, and I also sort of wish we’d gotten a wider look at Doinel’s life at this stage, though I’m not sure that I necessarily would have liked to see more of this awkward relationship than we already do.  This could almost be seen as a precursor to a lot of the “auto-biographical coming of age” films we’ve been seeing a lot of these days, and Colette could have easily turned into a proto-manic Pixie Dream Girl had we gotten more of her and had the relationship sprouted a little more successfully.

*** out of Four

Stolen Kisses

Made about eight years after Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses is the second feature length film in this “series” and in some ways the first of a trilogy of films that will close out the story.  Things have certainly changed aesthetically in that this installment is in color and not in widescreen.  I would say that this was some kind of statement distancing this installment from what came before, but really, it’s pretty much in line with an evolution that had been going on throughout François Truffaut’s work in this era.  The Antoine Doinel here is older, but he hasn’t really changed a whole lot, he’s still a fairly awkward young man who’s having trouble understanding the minds of the various women in his life.  He also gets a job as a private investigator for a little while, which is fun, and the film introduces the woman who will be his wife in the rest of the series named Christine Darbon.

This film comes at something of a slow and somewhat aimless point in Doinel’s life, and the film’s pacing sort of matches this because it doesn’t really have the sort of strong propulsive narrative that you usually expect from a film.  One could even call it meandering.  Still, I can see the influence that this may have had on future filmmakers, especially the lighthearted indie-comedy guys like Wes Anderson.  This iteration of Doinel reminded me a lot of Jason Schwartzman’s shtick, especially when he was in his private investigator mode which had to have had some influence over that “Bored to Death” show.  The film was actually a pretty big hit for Truffaut and is considered by many critics to be one of his best films of the 70s, but I can’t exactly see why it caught on in such a big way.

*** out of Four

Bed and Board

The French title for Bed & Board is “Domicile Conjugal,” which makes sense because this film is all about conjugal domesticity.  Not much time has passed since the last Antoine Doinel film, but in the time we were away he’s gotten married to Christine and they’re expecting their first child.  Early in the film Doinel even manages to find a pretty decent job, and from pretty much every vantage point he would seem to be set for life as a happy citizen, and yet something nags at him.  From here we’re basically watch the good and bad sides of Doinel’s marriage and watch as it starts to crumble after Doinel meets a striking young Japanese woman and begins an affair.

Bed & Board is perhaps the most focused of the five films, and certainly more serious than the quirky fun of Stolen Kisses, in part because Doinel is firmly entrenched in the adult world at this point and his decisions have more consequences.  Still, the Antoine Doinel we see here reminds me more of the young Doinel from The 400 Blows than the Doinel in Stolen Kisses did.  After all, that film was all about a boy who was unsatisfied with the status quo and ended with him running away toward an uncertain future, and this adult Doinel is similarly unwilling to simple “go with the flow.”  It should also probably be mentioned that these films do continue to be autobiographical, and this whole scenario is meant to be based on Truffaut’s own infidelities.  Most people making a film like this based on personal experiences would probably emphasize the pain of the situation, but Truffaut seemed to have a sense of humor about his personal problems, and he brings a lot of wit to the table here rather than angst.

***1/2 out of Four

 Love on the Run

Though Stolen Kisses and Bead and Board were made in quick succession, Truffaut waited almost a decade to make the fifth and final film in the Antoine Doinel saga: Love on the Run.  This installment is unique among series entries in that it’s mostly set in a short span of a day or two, and in that short time Doinel finally divorces Christine, spends a little quality time with his son, tries to juggle his new mistress, reunites with Colette, and even meets his mother’s former side-lover for the first time in years.  As you can tell, this is a denser and faster paced film than the previous installments and is also more story driven.  Because the time is more compressed, the film is forced to rely on coincidence in order to make everything happen, but the time span also brings the film a lot of energy so I think it’s worth it.  The film also benefits greatly from the return of Colette, in part because Marie-France Pisier had grown into a fine actress and is extremely charming in this film.

 One aspect of the film that will be off-putting to some is that it utilizes footage from previous installments of the franchise for an handful of flashback sequences, almost like a T.V. “clip show.”  When watching these sequences its important to remember that this was made before the era of home video, and its likely that the audiences of the time would have been watching these movies over the course of twenty years, so the material likely would not have been fresh in the minds of the original audience.  It never feels like this footage is just being inserted in order to fill time, rather, I think it gives the film a better sense of finality and helps to bring closure to the series.  I’ve heard that when all was said and done Truffaut was not happy with the way that Love on the Run brought an end to the Antoine Doinel saga, but I for one think he was being way too hard on himself.  This is a fine coda to put at the end of the series and is in itself a very fun movie to watch.

***1/2 out of Four

Ultimately I think “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” is a good, but not necessarily great series.  Every installment of the series is good, but none of them hold a candle to The 400 Blows.  There’s a reason that that original film is a classic of world cinema and that its sequels are semi-obscure efforts that are probably best left for Truffaut-completists.  Part of me wants to argue that the story would have been better left on a freeze frame of a young Doinel looking towards the ocean.  That’s an image that left everyone wondering what would become of this child and to some extent knowing that the answer was “a bad marriage and a series of odd jobs” kind of diminishes that mystery.  However, leaving it at that would have robbed us of three and a half pretty solid little movies, so I don’t think that’s really a legitimate sticking point.

Blue Jasmine(8/17/2013)

For whatever reason, Woody Allen is a guy who gives critics short term memory loss.  Just about every movie he makes is either declared “average” or “the best movie he’s made in years.”  I suppose that both of these responses are usually true: many of his films are average and when he makes a really good film it usually will have literally been more than one year since his last triumph and hence “his best film in years.”  However, this assumption that every good movie he makes is his best film since the 80s rather than his best film since his last “best film in years” seems to be misguided.  The truth is, Woody Allen’s career has been consistently inconsistent, he does have a lot of “average” movies, but he rarely goes all that long without putting out something really solid.  In fact he probably does something really special every third film or so.  In the last ten years Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and Midnight in Paris have all fallen into the “best Woody Allen movie in years” camp, while the other seven films in the period have mostly fallen into the “average” camp and I’d argue that Whatever Works and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger were his only total whiffs of the period.  Anyway, his latest film is his best film in (five) years!

The film begins with a woman named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) flying first class on a plane from New York to San Francisco, a trip she’d rather not make but has too.  Eventually we’ll see through flashbacks that Jasmine had once been married to a Wall Street shark named Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin), but that all fell apart when Hal was caught in a Bernie Madoff style scam.  Left without a husband and with all her money gone, Jasmine has been forced to move in with her middle-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and quickly clashes with her fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale).

So, we’ve got a disgraced and formerly rich snob living with her sister but clashing with her sister’s fiery blue-collar male companion who has a predilection for wearing undershirts… sound familiar?  That’s right, this is a loose modern re-telling of Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”  Allen wisely chooses not to have the film wear this fact on its sleeve and never tries to reference Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation, and as such it sidesteps a lot of the baggage that would normally accompany an adaptation of an American classic.  More importantly it’s a well chosen source to modernize.  I’ve always had trouble getting into the original Streetcar, in part because I find the character of Blanche DuBois to be not only unlikable but also completely alien.  Her snobbery comes from such a strange and antiquated place that I have a lot of trouble making sense of it, but that isn’t really the case at all with the character of Jasmine.

Make no mistake, Jasmine is detestable.  She’s spoiled, ungrateful, rude, vain, and vain, but what keeps her from being completely unsympathetic is that she does seems to be legitimately going through a sort of mental breakdown for much of the movie.  She has these episodes where she mentally returns to her past and starts talking to herself and the fact that she self medicates with pills and alcohol aren’t helping.  The film uses humor to undercut some of the more theatrical elements of this, but it does take her state of mind seriously.  That isn’t to say that the film forgives her for her behavior or that it views her as some kind of victim of circumstances beyond her control, but the film’s script and Cate Blanchett’s performance refuse to turn Jasmine into some kind of stereotype to be dismissed.

When Woody Allen’s last major work, Midnight in Paris, came out it had already premiered to raves at Cannes and was hotly anticipated before it became a semi-surprise box office hit.  By contrast, Blue Jasmine kind of snuck into theaters unannounced this summer and I don’t expect it to have the same crossover appeal that Midnight in Paris had.  This one has humor in it, but it isn’t really a comedy at its core.  It has a dark streak to it, not as dark as what we saw in Match Point or Crimes and Misdemeanors in so much as no one here is getting murdered here, but it’s not a laugh riot with a fun high concept.  As such I don’t think this is going to be the talk of the town, but those who do see it will probably be pleasantly surprised at how well realized and interesting it is both as a character study and as an unconventional literary adaptation.

***1/2 out of Four