A Quiet Place(4/19/2018)


You never really know that a movie is worth seeing until the reviews start streaming in but that’s especially true with mainstream horror movies.  With prestige dramas you can at least anticipate things based on who’s directing and with tentpole action movies you at least get a pretty good idea of what you’re getting from the trailers and with comedies you sort of know what to expect based on who’s in the cast, but with horror movies things get pretty fuzzy.  Modern horror trailers are pretty formulaic and even when unique and interesting horror movies get made their advertising still makes them look like standard Paranormal Activity ripoff, which is why you hear stories of confused audiences walking into movies like  mother! expecting them to play like Insidious movies.  The new horror thriller A Quiet Place is a good example of how hard it is to tell the promising studio horror films from the not so promising ones.  The film’s trailers made it look like just another standard jump scare movie but with a new gimmick, and it had a pretty questionable pedigree as well.  The movie stars and was directed by John “Jim from The Office” Krasinski, who does not strike me as a very scary person, and it was produced by Michael Bay’s horror shingle Platinum Dunes which is like and even less ambitious iteration of the Blumhouse studio.  So the movie didn’t look too promising, but low and behold, once it was actually screened for critics it suddenly shot up into the high 90s on Rotten Tomatoes and instantly became a must see.

The film is set in something of a post-apocalyptic near-future.   Earth’s population has apparently been ravaged when non-sentient alien monsters brought by a falling meteor killed a massive number of people.  The thing about these aliens though is that they’re blind, so there are ways to escape them, but if you make any sort of loud sound they spring up and kill you and you never really know where they’re hidden so you have to be quiet all the time.  That is where the family of survivors we follow in the movie come in.  The family primarily consists of a father named Lee (John Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), a deaf teenage daughter named Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and a younger son named Marcus (Noah Jupe).  For much of the film we watch them as they live on a remote farm they’ve moved to in order to escape as much of the destruction as possible.  There is however trouble on the horizon as Evelyn is pregnant with another child and it isn’t entirely clear how they are going to keep a screaming baby safe in a world where making the slightest sound can get you killed.  With the family also increasingly falling apart over other existing tensions they could be facing quite the test going forward.

The general “quiet” of The Quiet Place is one of the things that makes it stand out the most.  In general horror movies have less volume than most mainstream movies (aside from the occasional “jump” moments when it is very much not quiet) but this one takes it to a new extreme as the characters do everything in their power to keep from attracting the creatures.  In fact American Sign Language could almost be said to be the film’s main language rather than spoken English.  There are actually a lot of neat little world building things in the movie about how these people manage to make lives for themselves without sound.  They walk everywhere barefoot for example and we see them spreading paths of sand everywhere in order to accommodate this.  In this sense the movie actually reminded me a lot of the 2007 film I Am Legend, which was also at its best when it was showing how isolated characters can build a life for themselves during a post-apocalypse with a little ingenuity.  Also like that movie I found myself being a lot more interested by the post-apocalyptic world building than I was by the attacking CGI monsters in the third act.

Ultimately the film doesn’t fall apart quite as hard as that aforementioned Will Smith movie, in part because we’ve progressed to the point where even third rate CGI doesn’t look that bad.  Really the problem probably has less to do with the special effects and more to do with the fact that these aliens lack a certain primal fear factor.  They look less like the things of nightmares and more like the kind of enemies I’d blast with a BFG in “Doom.”  That kind of approach works better when you go all in and just show the snarling monsters in all their disgusting glory ala The Thing but this movie uses them more to be sort of quasi-ghosts who haunt our protagonists.  But at the end of the day that’s not really what’s most important as the threat of the monsters is clearly more of the focus here.  Still, I think there was a better version of this movie, in fact I’m sure there is because it was called It Comes at Night and it came out last year to a great deal of public apathy.  That was a movie with a similar interest in post-apocalyptic survival and family dynamics but was less interested in adding in jump scares and it was more interested in preserving certain mysteries than laying out clear answers.  In many ways this just kind of feels like a watered down and admittedly more audience-pleasing version of that movie and it’s always going to seem a bit second rate to me because of that.  Still, it’s a cool little horror movie and certainly better than I would have thought from a first impression.

*** out of Five

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The Post(1/15/2018)

It used to be that Steven Spielberg was pretty much exclusively “the blockbuster guy” and when he made a relatively small movie (emphasis on “relatively”) like The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun that was considered to be something of a novelty.  For the first thirty years of his career that was pretty much the case and he’s make one “movie for grownups” for every three crowd pleasing blockbusters.  But then something seemed to change about ten years ago.  He was still making blockbusters, or at least attempted blockbusters, but somewhere along the way the “small” movies started to become more successful than the big ones.  In fact it could be argued that, if you count Lincoln and Munich in with the “small” Spielberg movies, he actually hasn’t made a well-liked and fondly remembered blockbuster since 2005’s War of the Worlds.  That isn’t to say he’s fallen on his face when he has tried to work on a bigger canvas: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull certainly made money even if it was only through name recognition, The Adventures of Tintin has its fans even though there’s a good chance you forgot it existed until I just mentioned it, and War Horse was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite seemingly no one caring about it.  Then last year he made a truly dismal attempt at speaking to the youth of America with The BFG, an oddity which to me is plainly the worst movie he’s ever made and which was rightfully ignored at the box office.  Meanwhile his smaller movies like Bridge of Spies and the aforementioned Lincoln were quietly triumphant little movies than one could hardly level a single complaint towards despite not necessarily setting the world on fire.  His latest film, The Post certainly seems to be sitting in that category and sure enough it seems a lot more on target than his attempts at popcorn cinema.

The Post tells the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers from the very specific perspective of the Washington Post newsroom.  After a short prolog where we witness Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) becoming increasingly disillusioned with American progress in Vietnam before deciding to break into the RAND corporation’s locked files and making photocopies of Robert McNamara’s controversial secret study of the war. From there we cut to Washington where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the heir to the Washington Post Company, is planning to take the newspaper public in order to give it a more prominent place in American news culture.  That is of course informed by the way the Post is something of a second fiddle publication compared to The New York Times and their competitiveness with that esteemed “paper of record” increases when it’s learned that they’ve obtained Ellsberg’s leaked documents and are beginning to publish them.  Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sends his people out to compete, including Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who manages to track Ellsberg down and obtain a copy of the Pentagon Papers, but when the courts rule against the Times the prospect of publishing their own stories based on the papers launches a lot of existential questions for everyone at the paper about what duty the press has to stand up to government that’s attempting to cover up its own mistakes.

The main talking point about The Post is how topical it is.  The screenplay was most likely written with connections to Edward Snowden in mind but it was purchased by Sony in the October of 2016 and production didn’t start on it until late May of 2017 after some re-writes in the ten preceding weeks.  As such this is in many ways the first truly post-Trump film to be made by a major filmmaker and everyone involved clearly knew this and leaned into it while still keeping things pretty strictly allegorical.  Specifically the film seems to be a rebuke of Donald Trump’s insistence on discarding any criticism against him as “fake news” and his rather Nixonian interest in obstructing the investigations into his dealings through firing people.  These connections to today are real and they’re probably intentional, but given the anger that the Trump presidency has engendered I’m not sure that its stance is going to be strong enough to really impress #TheResistance.  The film also ties into the debates about gender that have been going on through the Meryl Streep character, who is a woman of a fairly pre-Feminist mentality at the film’s beginning who finds her voice and steps up over the course of the film.  Again, that’s a neat little message but compared to the current discourse it isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation.

Ultimately The Post probably works best if you set the modern politics aside and just look at it as a sort of morality thriller.  Throughout the movie the characters are scrambling to both get their hands on the Pentagon Papers and determine what to do with them once they have them.  Spielberg does a pretty solid job of presenting all the parties involved through his all-star cast and explaining their relevance.  And when the characters do start debating the ethics of using the papers and the risks it poses to the paper it does become pretty thrilling and Spielberg does a good job of juggling these weighty discussions with the excitement of the journalists sorting through the papers and putting a story together.  Occasionally these discussions dip into being a bit on the nose, but not too far as to be a huge problem.  Really it’s a pretty hard movie to have many major complaints about but it’s also not necessarily something that knocks your socks off. That’s especially true within the high standard set by Steven Spielberg’s body of work.  Even when compared to his recent dramas I certainly wasn’t as impressed by it as I was with Lincoln and I’m not sure I’d even say I liked it as much as Bridge of Spies, which increasingly stands out as a pretty strong piece of work despite having the same “good but not novel” problem that The Post suffers from… but then again maybe this is only unexciting because Spielberg makes it look too easy.  I wouldn’t dissuade anyone who’s interested in this movie from seeing it, it delivers what it promises quite well, but I will say that there are other movies out right now that aim higher.

Phantom Thread(1/13/2018)

Paul Thomas Anderson is in an elite group of directors right now, the league of directors whose every movie seems like it will be a potential classic long before we’ve so much as seen a trailer for it.  The qualifications for this tier of excellence are nebulous, almost based more on mystique than anything.  It isn’t necessarily a matter of having a perfect track record, Anderson himself is actually coming off of something of a failure given that his last movie Inherent Vice proved to be more of a curiosity than a classic.  It also doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quantity of great movies you have to your name.  The Coen Brothers, for instance, have made more than enough amazing cinema to seemingly be in this club and yet I doubt even the most optimistic of Coen brothers fans to have been expecting Hail Caesar to have been any sort of classic for the ages.  Really being in this tier is mostly a matter of seeming like the kind of filmmaker who does not mess around, someone who seems like he is swinging for the fences every time and who also has the stats to back up such cockiness.  Mike Leigh, for example, has hardly made a single bad movie and yet I wouldn’t necessarily put him in this company for the simple fact that his movies are sneaky in their quality and aren’t necessarily the kinds of things you anticipate months ahead of time despite his track record.  Scorsese is probably in this club, so is Tarantino, Malick was in the club before his quality control went out the window with his last couple of projects, Christopher Nolan is probably in this club despite sort of operating in more of a populist lane than some of these guys, Alfonso Cuaron probably would be in the club if he worked a bit more often.  Of course being in this club has its downsides as it can create some very specific expectations that not every movie is designed to live up to and there are certainly high expectations for the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread.

The film focuses in on Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world renowned dressmaker in London’s haute couture scene during the 1950s.  The House of Woodcock is already at the height of its success as the film begins but Woodcock is aimless in his personal life and has just let an assistant go and is soon on the prowl for a new muse.  Eventually he finds himself in a country diner and spots a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and seems immediately smitten, but it’s not exactly clear what he wants from her.  Soon she’s in his employ as a personal assistant and as a model for his dresses, but she’s also living in his house and is soon acting as his lover and muse.  From here the movie largely becomes a mystery of sorts as to what exactly this mysterious man wants from Alma.  This guy is a fashion designer and at one point uses the phrase “confirmed bachelor,” so the possibility that he may be a closeted homosexual is certainly going to be in the back of most audience members’ minds but the truth of what makes this guy tick is a lot more complicated than that.

The filmic reference point for Phantom Thread seems to be, of all things, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca.  That movie is generally not considered one of Hitchcock’s major efforts, in part because the Daphne du Maurier novel it’s based on is a bit higher brow than his usual fare and that sometimes overpowers his interest in suspense.  At its heart Rebecca is something of a mystery, but it’s not a mystery about “whodunit” but more of a mystery as to what the intentions of its male lead’s intentions are.  Like Rebecca this is a movie about a young woman of modest origins who suddenly finds herself courted by a much older and richer man who is sort of mysterious and aloof and it’s not clear if this is a true romance or if this is merely an older man trying to control and possess a younger woman.  There are also shades of Mrs. Danvers in Leslie Manville’s role of Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who acts as something of a business partner and at times seems to have a bit more of an objective eye on Alma.  There are, however clear differences between the two movies and the comparison between the two only really goes so far.  Unlike the narrator in Rebecca Alma is never really seems to be living as much in the shadow of a former lover.  There’s an element of mourning in Woodcock’s life but it isn’t as pervasive.  The big twist from Rebecca also isn’t really here at all and the second half of the movie isn’t really all that analogous to Rebecca at all, so this is less an adaptation and more of a jumping off point that Anderson seems to have used to conceive of the movie.

That this movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis is of course itself an event, like Anderson he is someone who does not mess around.  Day-Lewis’ work here is a bit more subdued than what we’ve come to expect from him recently as he is not doing a major physical transformation like he is in a movie like Lincoln and he isn’t going into the kind of grand theatrics we saw him doing in There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York.  Instead here he’s characterized by a generally gentle demeanor that often belies his more ruthless actions and his generally controlling personality.  In some ways it almost feels like he’s holding himself back to leave some room for his co-stars, especially Vicky Krieps who is something of a revelation here.  Krieps has been seen in small roles in movies like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man and has apparently starred in a variety of not overly notable European films but this is clearly her most prominent performance to date and she manages to be effectively mysterious throughout.

Throughout awards season I’ve been a little confused as to why Phantom Thread seems to get so many awards despite receiving such positive reviews.  Now that I’ve seen it I kind of get what was going on.  Phantom Thread is a movie that demands respect but repels simple acceptance.  It’s a movie about the lives of two really messed up people and it’s not always easy to relate to either of them or really get a grip on their behavior.  This is very much a film for the arthouse crowd and for people willing to take a deep dive into the weird dynamics of this strange relationship.  There is certainly some interest in the procedural elements of watching this fashion house work but outside of that I don’t think this will have much appeal for the mainstream viewer.  Even for the arthouse crowd the film may seem elusive.  It’s a movie that intrigues you and leaves you looking for answers to questions the movie never really even asks.   Honestly, I think I’m going to need to see this thing a few more times before I’m really going to be in a position to talk about it intelligently, but I certainly liked what I saw.

Personal Shopper(3/26/2017)

3-26-2017PersonalShopper

Throughout film history there are all sorts of movie that come to be seen as “companion films” whether the director intended them to be or not.  To cite a recent example, I have trouble thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan without relating it to his previous movie about performance based obsession The Wrestler.  That linkage was probably intention, but take another recent example in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  Both are violent crime movies seemingly removed from the director’s horror roots and both star Viggo Mortenson, but are they really all that deeply linked beneath the surface?  Often these thematic companion films end up being parts of thematic trilogies like Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy or Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Antonioni’s famed Alienation trilogy so it’s sometimes hard to tell if we simply need to wait and see what happens next when two films come back to back in a director’s filmography and seem like they’re each responses to the other.  I bring this up because the new film from Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper, seems to share an awful lot with his last film Clouds of Sils Maria and yet there are also a lot of differences too.

The film follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American living alone in Paris where she acts as a personal shopper for celebrities.  For those not in the know, a personal shopper is someone who goes out to boutique stores on the behalf of the rich and/or famous and finds garments they believe would be to their client’s tastes and buy them on their behalf.  As the film begins Maureen is in mourning, she recently lost a twin brother who had a heart attack as a result of a rare heart condition, a condition that she also has.  She’s been told that it’s entirely possible to live to a ripe old age despite this condition but you can tell it’s still a specter that weighs on her. What also weighs on her is that she shared a very close bond with her brother to the point where she almost felt like she had a sixth sense about him and believes that if he wants to he can reach out to her from “beyond” and give her some sign.  That sign seems to come to her one day when she receives a text message on her phone from an unknown number and comes to believe that she is indeed communicating with someone from beyond the grave.

The film’s common bonds with Clouds of Sils Maria are pretty readily apparent.  Both films are predominantly English language (albeit decidedly European) productions starring Kristen Stewart as an American who’s in France to perform as a servant of sorts for a famous person.  Both films also employ some similar tricks in terms of film grammar as well but there are also very clear differences between the two films as well.  Clouds of Sils Maria had two main characters and was just as much Juliette Binoche’s film as it was Kristen Stewart’s.  Also Kristen Stewart’s character here is quite different from the one she played in the earlier film.  Both characters could be said to be “punks” of some variety but the attitude is very different.  In the earlier film she maybe had some sadness beneath the surface but was otherwise a pretty confident and talkative character but here she’s kind of an emotional mess and has a deep melancholic streak.  Also, while there was a certain magical realism at play in Clouds of Sils Maria (if that’s even an accurate term for it) there’s an overtly supernatural element to Personal Shopper.  The film should not be mistake for a true horror movie by any means but from the very beginning of the film it’s made pretty clear that there is a ghost in it and much of the film is all about how much Stewart wants to believe in this ghost and how she interprets it.

I don’t think I liked Personal Shopper as much as I liked Clouds of Sils Maria but it does have a lot going for it.  Stewart is quite good in the film even if the role seems like less of a stretch for her than her previous role in an Assayas film.  The film also manages to find some excitement in some interesting ways.  Like, an awful lot of this movie actually involves watching someone type and receive text messages, which would seem to be a difficult thing to make cinematic but Assayas does somehow manage to pull it off.   The movie certainly establishes a palpable mood of melancholia but beyond that I’m not sure I ever really truly connected with the character at its center and found its occasional jaunts into the overtly supernatural to be a bit clumsy.  Clouds of Sils Maria was a movie I’d probably recommend to pretty much any cinema literate person but this one is a little bit iffier.  I’d probably still recommend it but I’d recommend Clouds of Sils Maria first and if that leaves you wanting more than definitely give Personal Shopper a shot too, but there’s a reason why I’ve hardly been able to write a sentence about the movie without mentioning the previous movie.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Phoenix(9/13/2015)

9-13-2015Phoenix

If there’s one thing I don’t miss about school it’s that queasy feeling you get when you come to class without having done the required reading.  Even worse is when you try to do the reading by skimming the chapter at the last minute, possibly on the bus ride on your way, and kind of hope that you can fake it.  The only thing that gives me that feeling today is when a seemingly important movie opens up and I don’t feel prepared to address it because I slept on the director’s previous work.  That recently happened to me when director Christian Petzold’s Phoenix opened up and I immediately regretted that weekend in early 2013 when I decided to blow off the chance I had to see his international breakthrough Barbara as well as the many chances I to watch it on Netflix in the two ensuing years.  So, I ended up literally watching Barbra the day before I saw Phoenix, which wouldn’t be a problem for a normal person, but I generally try to space out my viewing of movies that have common link to let them stew in my head.  It was kind of weird seeing the two movies back to back and I want to say from the outset that I really liked Barbra and that Phoenix might have suffered a little bit in comparison.

The film is set in Berlin during the immediate aftermath of World War II and concerns itself with a Jewish woman named Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) who was a somewhat prominent nightclub singer before the war but was eventually sent to the concentration camps.  She survived the Holocaust, but her face was disfigured over the course of her time there.  She’s smuggled back into Berlin by her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) and gets a cosmetic surgery in an attempt to look as much like her old self as possible but her psychological scars run deeper.  She wants to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) but doesn’t know where to look and Lena strongly suggests that she doesn’t even try given that Johnny is something of a rake and he may even have played some role in the Nazi’s discovering her location.  She is persistent though and eventually finds Johnny, but he still believes she’s dead and assumes that this woman (who looks just a little different because of the surgery) is simply someone who looks a lot like her and Nelly opts not to come out with the truth right away.  Soon Johnny enlists Nelly to “pretend” to be his wife so that he can retrieve her money (which would otherwise be inaccessible to him).

Petzold’s last film, Barbara, was a quietly tense movie about a doctor attempting to defect from East Germany to West Germany in the early 1980s and the various quiet indignities involved in life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.  I found that film’s ending to be a bit underwhelming, but otherwise it was a very strong piece of realist cinema with a strong minimalist style.  The main connection I see between that film and this new one is that both films are trying to take a slightly unconventional approach into recent German history.  This particular film is of course all about national guilt related to the Nazi era but also about how Germany should be viewed from the Jewish perspective in the wake of the Holocaust.  One can perhaps view Nelly as a stand-in for all German Jews and Johnny as a stand-in of sorts for the Germans.  Johnny liked Nelly during good times and benefited from her skills as a singer and then betrayed her in bad times, much as Germany benefited from Jews during boom times only to turn on them.  The question then is how Nelly should respond to that.  In essence she is like an abuse victim, one who still frustratingly pines for her abuser even when everyone around her (in this case Lena) says he’s no good for her.  So is the movie suggesting that Jews should never forgive Germany?  I don’t know about that.  That nihilism would seem to clash with what we know about the actual post-war Germany, which as far as I can tell is about as contrite as any nation could possibly be.  What’s more, the movie doesn’t seem to view Lena’s brand of unforgiving tough love as being any more healthy for anyone involved than Nelly’s rush to reunite with her traitorous husband.

So there are definitely some interesting thematic things going on in the film but I do think it falters a bit on certain levels of execution that preclude it from greatness.  For one, and I know this is shallow, but the movie’s production values seemed a bit lacking to me.  I realize that there’s only ever going to be so much money involved in German movies about national guilt, but it’s still a problem that the locales here didn’t really seem appropriately bombed out and you could definitely see where certain compromises were made to accommodate budget limitations.  More importantly I kind of feel like Petzold’s realist style clashed a bit with the film’s trappings.  Movies about German cabaret lounge singers almost invite a certain tragic romanticism, especially when they contain certain melodramatic elements like the Vertigo invoking high concept here and Petzold never quite knows whether to indulge in this or fight it.  I’m also going to say that Nina Hoss’ performance never quite seemed to work for me.  She comes of more confused than tortured and just never quite connected.

One other thought I had while watching the movie is that it is perhaps told from the wrong perspective.  Imagine another version of the movie that’s told instead from the perspective of the husband rather than the returning wife.  I feel like that set-up would have added a dimension of mystery that would have helped out this film’s tonal issues a lot even if it would have made the comparisons to Vertigo even more inevitable.  Of course the perspective they did choose probably played into the film’s themes a little better and also has the obvious benefit of not forcing the audience to empathize with an unrepentant asshole, so maybe they made the right choice there.  Either way something seems to be missing here.  Make no mistake, this is a really good film.  There are some really good ideas in it and some very effective scenes but it never quite manages to be that homerun it could have been.

***1/2 out of Four

Palo Alto(5/24/2014)

5-24-2014PaloAlto

Sometimes seeking out independent cinema feels like an exciting journey into the best work that cinema has to offer, but other times it almost kind of feels like you’re scouting the AAA minor leagues for a strong prospect.  That’s certainly how I felt when I walked into the film Palo Alto, which focuses on what is probably my least favorite subject in indie cinema: bored aimless suburban teenagers.  In fact, the coming of age genre itself has been something of a plague as of late, which is why I didn’t even bother to see such films as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Way Way Back, The Spectacular Now, and The Kings of Summer.  Still, I was interested in seeing Palo Alto in part because it didn’t look as navel-gazingly autobiographical as some of the above films, but mainly because I wanted to check out a promising young director: Gia Coppola.  Daughter of the late Gian-Carlo Coppola, niece of Sofia and Roman Coppola, and grand-daughter of the great Francis Ford Coppola, Gia is quite literally of a promising pedigree.  Of course I’m no believer in genetic predestination or nepotism, but you ignore the future of the Coppola clan at your own peril.

Based on a short story collection written by James Franco (yes, that James Franco), Palo Alto looks at a group of teenagers who are adrift in the titular San Francisco suburb.  The primary characters are probably April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer).  Teddy is, at his core, a fairly sensitive person with art skills but he also lacks a personal identity and often unthinkingly allows his obnoxious friend Fred (Nat Wolff) influence him to do stupid and self-destructive things.  April is also an inwardly smart and athletic young person, but not an overly adventurous person and she hasn’t necessarily formed an identity within her school.  This puts her in a somewhat vulnerable position when her soccer coach (James Franco) starts to make inappropriate advances towards her.

So, what we have here is a movie about peer pressure, inappropriate teacher-student relations, and generally about suburban malaise.  If these are new issues to you, you haven’t been paying much attention.  These were already clichés when they became mainstays on teen soap operas in the 90s and they were certainly clichés by the time they showed up in this movie.  As such the challenge anyone accepts when trying to make a movie about this kind of stuff is to find some kind of original take on it that makes their film stand out in some way shape or form.  Does Gia Coppola do this?  Not exactly.  She certainly handles the issues with more care and realism than, say, “Dawson’s Creek” but it’s hardly the first film to do this and it probably won’t be the last.  Still it does deserve some credit for navigating these waters rather deftly.  The depiction does seem to be pretty realistic and nuanced and the film does successfully avoid most of the dated “jocks vs. nerds” stereotypes that less carefully high school movies tend to fall prey to.

The film is also elevated somewhat by a number of strong performances by heretofore mostly unknown young actors.  The film is especially a good showcase for Emma Roberts (niece of Julia Roberts), who’s apparently been doing the child-actor thing for years but who’s just breaking into films this year.  She’s a little bit older than some of her co-stars, but you wouldn’t really know it from watching the film.  I was also impressed by Nat Wolff, who has to play a really unsympathetic asshole of a character and mostly manages to pull it off in a believable way that doesn’t go too far over the top.  I was a little less impressed with Jack Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer), who has something of a blank expression on his face for much of the film, but he has his moments and doesn’t detract too much from the film.

So, I guess that brings me back to the question that drew me into the movie in the first place: does Gia Coppola have the chops to carry on the family name?  The answer to that is… probably.  Her interests certainly seem to be much more in line with her aunt than with her grandfather, but she demonstrates a grasp of tone that in some ways seems a lot stronger to me than what I’ve seen out of Sofia.  She manages to give the whole film a very appropriate “morning after the party” tone, and she rarely makes any overly jarring mistakes.  She also probably deserves a decent amount of the credit for having gotten as many good performances out of young actors as she did.  So, yeah, I do want to see what she does in the future even if this particular movie isn’t really for me.  Hopefully with this under her belt she’ll find better uses for her talents than an adaptation of one of James Franco’s stupid vanity projects.

*** out of Four