The Films of 2020: All The Bright Places (dir by Brett Haley)


All The Bright Places tells the story of two teenagers in Indiana.

Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) is pretty, popular, and secretly very depressed.  She’s still recovering from the death of her sister and her friends aren’t being particularly helpful.  (At one point, her boyfriend asks how much longer she’s going to be depressed because she’s “been this way for a really long time.”)  Violet lives in a nice, comfortable home and probably has a bright future ahead of her but she can’t communicate how she’s feeling to her parents (Luke Wilson and Kelli O’Hara), who are dealing with their grief in their own ways.

Finch (Justice Smith) is a student who is viewed, by his classmates, as being something of a freak.  Unlike Violet, who holds back her emotions, Finch doesn’t hold back his feelings and, as a result, it’s gotten him in trouble.  If not for a somewhat sympathetic principal (Keegan-Michael Key), Finch probably would have been expelled a while ago.  As it is, he’s on probation and he’s running the risk of not graduating.  Finch lives with his sister (Alexandra Shipp).  Their parents are pretty much not in the picture.

One night, Finch happens to see Violet standing on a bridge and thinking about jumping.  From that moment, an unexpected relationship begins.  Though Violet is, at first, hesitant to open up to Finch (or anyone else, for that matter), Finch continues to try to talk to her.  Eventually, for a class, they’re assigned to do a report on the wonders of Indiana.  Soon, they’re going from location to location and Violet is slowly starting to enjoy life again while Finch encourage her to open up about her feelings and to once again start writing….

And, at this point, you’re probably thinking that this just a typical YA film, one that’s only distinguished by the fact that, instead of having a manic pixie dream girl, it has a manic pixie dream guy.  That was certainly how I felt during the first third of this film.  However, All The Bright Places is too smart of a film to settle for telling such a simple story and Finch is too complex of a character to be dismissed as a trope.  Even as Violet gets better, Finch’s own behavior grows more erratic.  (In fact, it could be argued that this film’s greatest contribution to the cultural discussion is its attempt to seriously explore what would cause someone to become a manic pixie dream person in the first place.)  When events conspire to cause Violet and Finch to be separated, it leads to tragedy.

It’s a sweet-natured and poignant film, one that sensitively explores depression and mental illness.  It’s also a film that understands how, when you’re a certain age and even if you’re not also having to deal with burdens of depression and anxiety, almost anything can seem like the end of the world.  It takes its character’s seriously and it doesn’t pander to its audience with any shallow promises about how things are magically going to get better once they graduate high school and head off to college.  At the same time, it’s also a very life-affirming film, one that encourages us to celebrate life and experience it while we can.

Elle Faning and especially Justice Smith give two achingly sincere and touching performances.  I was especially impressed with the work of Smith.  Smith plays up Finch’s intelligence and his curiosity about the world while, at the same time, also showing why Finch’s attention might occasionally be a bit overwhelming.  I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.

An Olympic Film Review: Blades of Glory (dir by Josh Gordon and Will Speck)


All good things must come to an end and the Winter Olympics have done just that.  Tonight, here in the States, NBC will wrap up their coverage of the Games and they’ll broadcast the Closing Ceremonies.  As NBC tends to do, they’ll pretend that they’re broadcasting live but the truth of the matter is that the Winter Games are over and now we’ll have to wait two years for the far-less exciting Summer Games.

I enjoyed the Winter Olympics this year.  I was one of those obsessive people who would watch all of the recaps at one in the morning.  Medal-wise, Norway dominated with a total of 39 medals.  The United States came in fourth with only 23 medals but that’s still 22 more medals than Latvia got!  (Just kidding, we love you, Latvia!)  Overall, though, it was a pretty good Olympics.

That said, there were a few things missing.

For instance, no one attempted to recreate JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe on ice.  I thought that was definitely a missed opportunity.

There weren’t any frantic chase scenes.  No mascots were injured over the course of the Olympics.  I guess we should be happy about that, all things considered.  Still, it’s hard not to feel that this break with Olympic tradition left something lacking in the games.

Finally, none of the skating routines featured the risk of decapitation.  Again, I guess this is a good thing.  I mean, we really don’t want to see anyone lose their head, especially not when the games are being broadcast across the world.  But again, it was hard not to feel that lack of the Iron Lotus was unfortunate.

In short, the Winter Olympics may have been good but they were nothing like the 2007 film, Blades of Glory. 

Blades of Glory tells the story of two very different ice skaters.  Jon Heder is Jimmy McElroy, who was adopted by a hyper-competitive, kinda creepy millionaire (William Fichtner) and practically raised to become a gold medalist.  Will Ferrell is Chazz Michael Michaels, who is a hard-drinking, hard-living, sex addict.  Jimmy is all about technical perfection.  He’s a non-threatening, almost child-like celebrity, the type who has earned himself his own obsessive stalker (Nick Swardson).  Chazz is, on the other hand, is a self-styled rock star, as well as being something of an idiot.  In 2002, when they both tie for the gold, they get into an argument that 1) leads to a mascot getting set on fire, 2) brings shame upon the “World Winter Games,” and 3) leads to them getting banned from men’s single competition.

But, as Jimmy’s stalker figures out, that doesn’t mean that they can’t compete in pair skating!  The former rivals may loathe each other but it’s either that or a future of skating in cheap ice shows and working in retail!  Under the guidance of their burned-out coach (Craig T. Nelson), Jimmy and Chazz learn to work together.  And what better way to win the gold than to do an extremely dangerous maneuver that could potentially lead to one of them losing his head?

However, not everyone is happy to see Chazz and Jimmy return to competition.  The reigning champions — Straz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, who were still married when they played creepy siblings in this film) — have no intention of allowing themselves to be upstaged.  And if that means using their younger sister (Jenna Fischer) to try to drive a wedge between Chazz and Jimmy, so be it…

So, obviously, Blades of Glory is not a serious look at the world of ice skating.  The plot is really just an excuse to highlight the absurdity of putting people who clearly don’t belong there on the ice.  This is another Will Ferrell comedy where the majority of the laughs come from the absolute dedication that Ferrell brings to playing an almost absurdly stupid human being.  Ferrell has the ability to deliver even the most nonsensical of dialogue with total sincerity and conviction.  In Blades of Glory, he’s well-matched by Jon Heder, who brings his own odd style to the role of Jimmy.  If Ferrell is all about aggressive stupidity, Jon Heder is all about impish stupidity and it becomes surprisingly compelling to see whose stupidity will ultimately win it.

While it never quite reaches the highs of Anchorman, Blades of Glory is still a funny movie.  It made me laugh and that’s always a good thing.

Back to School #54: Rushmore (dir by Wes Anderson)


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It’s an understatement to say that Wes Anderson’s films tend to divide viewers.  It seems like critics either love his excessively stylized and quirky vision or else they dismiss him as being a pretentious, overrated, and overly concerned with the problems of the rich and the suburban.  Even among the writers here at the Shattered Lens, there are conflicting opinions.  Leon the Duke gave Moonrise Kingdom a rave review.  On the other hand, I know that Ryan The Trashfilm Guru is not particularly a fan of Anderson’s films.

Myself, I always find it usually takes me a while to warm up to an Anderson film.  With the exception of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I always seem to find myself somehow both impressed and slightly disappointed after seeing an Anderson film for the first time.  Perhaps it’s because Anderson is such a highly praised director with such a recognizable style that I always tend to go into his film with my expectations set way too high.  And so, I often times end up watching the latest Anderson film and thinking about how much I loved the film’s production design and some of the performances but often times feeling that, narratively, there was something missing.  On first viewing, Anderson’s trademark quirkiness can be overwhelming.  Usually it’s not until a second or third viewing that I really start to appreciate an Anderson film for something more than just the way it looks.  Eventually, I came to love Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel but it took me a while.

However, there is an exception to every rule.  And, as far as my reaction to Wes Anderson’s films are concerned, 1998’s Rushmore is that exception.  Rushmore is a film that I have unquestionably loved since the very first time I saw it.  Maybe it’s because, while Rushmore is undeniably quirky, that quirkiness doesn’t overwhelm the human aspect of the film’s story.  Maybe it’s because Rushmore — along with Bottle Rocket — is the most identifiably Texan of all of Anderson’s films.  Or maybe it’s just because Bill Murray gives such a great performance.

Seriously, Bill Murray makes any movie better.

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Rushmore is named after Rushmore Academy, a private school in Houston.  (Rushmore is quite obviously based on St. Mark’s, which is perhaps the most exclusive private school down here in Dallas.  Owen Wilson, who collaborated on Rushmore‘s script with Anderson, was expelled from St. Mark’s in the 10th Grade.)  15 year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, who gives a sympathetic performance as a potentially off-putting character) loves attending Rushmore.  He’s involved in a countless number of extracurricular activities and has written and directed several plays, the majority of which are based on films from the 70s.  (We see his stage version of Serpico and it’s hilarious.)

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Unfortunately, Max has a few problems.  For one thing, unlike most of his peers, he’s not rich.  He tells everyone that his father (Seymour Cassel) is a neurosurgeon but actually, he’s a barber.  Even more seriously, Max spends so much of his time starting clubs and writing plays that he doesn’t ever bother to study.  Max is on the verge of flunking out and, despite numerous warnings from Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox), he refuses to do anything to improve his grades.

Instead, Max is more interested in pursuing a crush he has on an older teacher, the widowed Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).  What Max doesn’t realize is that his mentor, industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray), also has a crush on Ms. Cross.

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While Max may be the film’s main character, Herman Blume is, without a doubt, the film’s heart.  Blume is a Viet Nam vet (“You were in the shit?” Max asks.  “Yes, I was in the shit,” Blume replies) who has literally gone from rags to riches.  And now that he is rich, he finds himself living an empty life with a wife who doesn’t respect him and two sons who are total idiots.  When Blume starts to mentor Max and pursue Ms. Cross, he starts to care about living once again.

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Meanwhile, Max attempts to impress Ms. Cross by building an aquarium on the school’s baseball field.  This leads to Max getting expelled and having to enroll in a public school.  (Max continues to wear a suit and tie, even after being expelled.)  However, Max then discovers that Blume has been seeing Ms. Cross and soon, the mentor and the student become rivals…

And a lot of other stuff happens but you know what?  I’m not going to tell you what because if you haven’t seen Rushmore, you need to see it and discover all of this for yourself.  You won’t be sorry!

It may be named after the school but Rushmore is ultimately about how love and our dreams make life worth living.  For Max, Rushmore is his fantasy ideal, a world that he loves because it provides him a sanctuary from the harshness of the real world.  When Mr. Blume says, about Ms. Cross, “She’s my Rushmore,” we understand exactly what he means.  But, and this is what distinguishes Rushmore from so many other films about quirky love triangles, is that Ms. Cross is just as independent and important a character as Max and Mr. Blume.  Blessed with excellent performances from Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox, Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, and especially Bill Murray, Rushmore is one of Wes Anderson’s best films.

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