Film Review: After (dir by Jenny Gage)


After, which was released back in April, tells the story of the world’s most boring college romance.

Tessa (Josephine Langford) is a beautiful, intelligent, but shy good girl who has just stared college and who is struggling to fit in with her fellow students.  Her new roommate has tattoos and a nose ring and Tessa’s just not sure if she can keep up with a group of campus rebels who drink, vape, and play extremely anodyne games of truth or dare.  Tessa’s roommate demands to know why Tessa has so many old books.  It’s because Tessa loves to read but we soon discover that her literary tastes seem to be dominated by her old high school reading list.  In her lit class, she says that Pride and Prejudice is a “revolutionary feminist novel,” in a tone of voice that indicates that she googled “revolutionary feminism” for the first time the previous night.

Hardin (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin) is a bad boy because he has tattoos and he tends to smirk before leaving a room.  Hardin seems like he’s …. well, I guess he’s supposed to be dangerous.  He’s cynical and he says there’s no such thing as love but actually, he just needs someone to help tend to his emotional wounds.  We know that he’s not really a bad dude because he likes Jane Austen and he has a copy of Wuthering Heights in his room, one that’s full of book marks, indicating that he is an actual serious student of literature.  He also says that The Great Gatsby was all a dream.  (Seriously, you know he’s serious about literature when he owns copies of both Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby.  I imagine if the movie had lasted a few minutes longer, he would have said, “Hemingway was the poor man’s Hemingway,” and everyone’s mind would have been totally blown.)

Anyway, from the minute that a towel-clad Tessa returns to her dorm room from taking a shower and discovers Hardin sitting in the corner (and reading, of course!), it’s pretty obvious that they’re destined to fall in love.  (Of course, considering that Hardin refused to leave the room so Tessa could get dressed, it was perhaps just as likely that she would end up filing a harassment complaint.)  Of course, the path to true love never runs smoothly.  Tessa has a sweet boyfriend that she’ll need to dump.  Hardin has all sorts of emotional baggage that he needs someone to unpack for him.  Still, while Hardin and Tessa are swimming in the nearby lake, Hardin says, “We could never be just friends….”

If this all sounds like bad fanfic, that’s because it is.  After is based on a novel by Anna Todd.  The novel started out as fan fiction and Hardin was originally named Harry Styles.  Anyway, the novel sold a lot of copies and developed a reputation for being an innocent version of Fifty Shades of Grey so I guess it’s inevitable that it would later be adapted into an amazingly bad movie.  I mean, the sex was the only good thing about Fifty Shades so I’m not sure why someone would say, “Let’s make a chaste version of this book!”

The main problem with After is that both Tessa and Hardin are such inherently boring characters and all the soft-focus shots in the world can’t make them interesting.  It doesn’t matter how much time they spend interlocking their fingers, they never seem like people who you’d want to get stuck in a conversation with.  Tessa may claim to be into “revolutionary feminism” but she only exists to find a man.  She’s defined by how she feels about Hardin and Hardin seems to be the only thing she’s interested in.  Meanwhile, Hardin is the worst type of phony intellectual, the self-centered rich boy who has a convenient tragedy for every occasion.  Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin are both attractive in a “I just shot a pilot for the CW” sort of way but neither has much screen presence and, together, they generate so little chemistry that they might as well be two wax figures staring into each other’s glass eyes.

“I’m a mess,” Hardin says and Tessa agrees, “I think we’re both a mess,” and everyone who is a real mess replies, ‘Oh, fuck off, you two.”

 

 

Sundance Film Review: sex, lies, and videotape (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, which won both the Audience Award at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and the Palme d’Or at Cannes!

The directorial debut of Steven Soderbergh, sex, lies, and videotape is considered by many to be one of the most important independent American films ever made.  Not only was it a  success at the box office and nominated for an Oscar but it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  According to Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, the success of sex, lies, and videotape is what convinced Hollywood that independent films could be big business.  The marketing of the film would set the template for almost every independent release that followed.

(One person who was definitely not a fan of sex, lies, and videotape was director Spike Lee.  When Lee’s Do The Right Thing lost the Palme to Soderbergh’s film, Lee was informed that the Canne jury felt Lee’s film wasn’t “socially responsible.”  “What’s so socially responsible about a pervert filming women!?” Lee reportedly responded.)

sex, lies, and videotape tells the story of four people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Ann (Andie MacDowell) has a nice house, a successful husband, and an absolutely miserable marriage.  When the film opens, she’s having a session with her therapist (Ron Vawter) and talking about how unfulfilled she feels.  When the therapist asks her questions about her sex life, Ann laughs nervously.  She says that she likes sex but she doesn’t like to think about it.  She says she doesn’t see what the big deal is.  Later, she reveals that she’s never had an orgasm.

John (Peter Gallagher) is Ann’s husband.  He’s a lawyer.  He’s also a materialistic jerk and … well, that’s pretty much the sum total of John’s entire personality.

Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) is John’s mistress.  She’s a bartender at a rather sleazy little establishment, where she apparently spends all of her time listening to a local drunk (Steven Brill) do a Marlon Brando impersonation.  She is uninhibited and fiercely sexual.  She’s the opposite of Ann, which is why John likes her.  Of course, she’s also Ann’s sister.  Cynthia and Ann have a strained relationship.  Ann describes Cynthia as being “loud.”  Cynthia views Anne as being judgmental.  Secretly, both wish that they could be more like the other.

And then there’s Graham (James Spader).  Graham was John’s friend in college, though it’s difficult to understand why.  Graham has recently returned to Baton Rouge and John, without talking to Ann, has invited Graham to visit them.  Graham is apparently a drifter.  (Ann describes him as being “arty.”)  While Ann is helping him find an apartment, Graham informs her that he’s impotent.  He can’t get an erection if anyone else in the room.

Ann subsequently discovers that Graham deals with his impotence by videotaping women discussing their sex lives.  The video camera allows Graham to keep his distance and not get emotionally involved.  (Of course, it also serves as a metaphor for directing a movie.)  Ann is freaked out by all of Graham’s tapes.  Cynthia is intrigued.  And John … well, John’s just a jerk.

sex, lies, and videotape is a film that’s largely saved by its cast.  Graham is a role that literally only James Spader could make intriguing.  Meanwhile, Peter Gallagher actually manages to bring some charm to John, who is the least developed character and who gets all of the script’s worst lines.  That said, the film really belongs to MacDowell and San Giacomo, who are totally believable as sisters and who, again, bring some needed depth to characters that, as written, could have been reduced to being mere clichés.  (In the scenes between MacDowell and San Giacomo, it was less about what they said than how they said it.)

As I already stated, this was Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut.  Soderbergh was 26 years old when he made this.  Seen today, it’s an uneven but ultimately intriguing film.  There are a few scenes where Soderbergh’s inexperience as a filmmaker comes through.  For instance, John is written as being such a complete heel (and, in his final scene, he wears a ludicrous bow tie that practically screams, “EVIL,”) that it occasionally throws the film off-balance.  You never believe that Graham would have been his friend, nor do you believe that Ann would have spent years putting up with his crap.  The film’s final scene between Cynthia and Ann also feels a bit rushed and perfunctory.  That said, this film shows that, from the start, Soderbergh was good with actors.  Visually, Soderbergh takes a low-key approach and allows the cast to be the center of attention.  It’s an actor’s film and Soderbergh wisely gets out of their way.  In particular, Spader and San Giacomo have a way of making the most heavy-handed dialogue sound totally and completely natural.

It’s hard to imagine Soderbergh directing something like sex, lies, and videotape today.  If the film were made today, Soderbergh wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to use overexposed film stock and to give cameos to George Clooney as Ann’s therapist and Matt Damon as the drunk.  sex, lies, and videotape is a film that Soderbergh could only have made when he was young and still struggling to make his voice heard.  It’s a flawed by intriguing film.  If just for its historical significance, it’s a film that every lover of independent cinema should see at least once.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice
  6. The Big Sick
  7. Alpha Dog
  8. Stranger Than Paradise

A Movie A Day #298: Watch It (1993, directed by Tom Flynn)


In Chicago, three men all live in the same house and try to avoid growing up.  Rick (John C. McGinley) and Mike (Jon C. Tenney) are old friends while Danny (Tom Sizemore) works on stolen cars.  When Mike’s estranged cousin, John (Peter Gallagher), moves in with them, John is drawn into a steadily escalating game of pranks.  The game is called “Watch It” and the rules are simple.  No one can take anything personally and each prank must be followed by another, bigger prank.  While the four men takes turns trying to one up each other, they also deal with women who wish that they would all just grow up.  When John starts to date Mike’s ex-girlfriend, Anne (Suzy Amis), the men are forced to come to terms with their extended adolescence.

Watch It is an awkward combination of two stories.  One half of the film deals with the pranks, which get so outlandish that it is impossible to believe that a group of blue collar roommates in Chicago could pull them off.  One of John’s pranks involves imitating a police detective on a local news broadcast and saying that Danny has had a warrant issues for his arrest.  Even if John could pull that off, it seems like he would get in so much trouble that it would not be worth the effort.  (Never mind that the city of Chicago now thinks that Danny is wanted by the police.)  At the same time, Watch It also wants to be a fairly realistic relationship dramedy, with Suzy Amis and Cynthia Stevenson trying to get Gallgher and McGinley to grow up.  Despite some very good performances, Watch It is too uneven to work.  The best thing about Watch It is that it offers a chance to see actors like McGinley, Tenney, Sizemore, and Gallagher all playing quasi-normal, relatable people for once.

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #38: Center Stage: On Pointe (dir by Director X)


(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June.  She’s trying to get it all done by the end of July 11th!  Will she make it!?  Keep visiting the site to find out!)

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The 38th film on my DVR was Center Stage: On Pointe, which premiered on Lifetime on June 25th.

Center Stage: On Pointe is the third film in the Center Stage series.  The first film, which was released in 2000, is one of those films that, at the time, you pretty much had to see if you were into ballet.  The second film, Center Stage: Turn It Up, aired on the Oxygen Network in 2008 and laid much of the groundwork for what happens in On Pointe.

At the start of On Pointe, Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), the head of the American Ballet Academy, has a problem.  The Academy is still doing great work but it’s not bringing in much money.  Unfortunately, the ABA has developed a reputation for being stodgy.  It needs to be shaken up.  It needs new dancers who are going to challenge the teachers even as the teachers challenge them.  Over the objections of just about everyone else at the ABA, Reeves decides that it’s time to bring modern dancers into the Academy.

Reeves and his choreographers (including Kenny Wormald’s Tommy Anderson, the male lead from Turn It Up) set out to recruit dancers to compete at a camp where the winners will be invited to join the Academy.  Among those dancers: Bella Parker (Nicole Munoz).  Bella is the younger sister of Kate Parker (Rachele Brooke Smith), whose story was previously told in Turn It Up.  Seeking to escape from her famous sister’s shadow, Bella auditions under a false name.  However, everyone immediately knows who she is.  It’s not easy being Kate Parker’s sister.

The camp turns out to be absolutely beautiful (even if it did remind me a bit of Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th) but the dance world is a competitive and often unforgiving one.  Not only is there tension between the ballet students and the modern dancers (and that tension is one of the most realistic aspects of the film) but one of the instructors appears to be obsessed with trying to destroy Bella.  Will Bella and her fellow dancers survive the grueling camp?  Will Bella ever escape her sister’s shadow?  And will the ABA manage to change with the times?

You already know the answers.  There’s not a surprising moment to be found in Center Stage: On Pointe but the film is well-shot, the music is great, and the dancing is amazing.  Yes, some of the performances could be better but when you’ve got dancers who can move as well as the ones in this cast, it really doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the greatest actors in the world.  This is a dance movie, after all.  The dance scenes are amazing and that’s what is important.

(By the way, fans of Dance Moms may be interested to know that Chloe Lukasiak has a small role in Center Stage: On Pointe.  And, though she may no longer be a member of ALDC, she’s still a great dancer.)

So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star: The Idolmaker, Breaking Glass, That’ll Be The Day, Stardust


So, you want to be a rock and roll star?  Then listen now to what I say: just get an electric guitar and take some time and learn how to play.  And when your hair’s combed right and your pants fit tight, it’s gonna be all right.

If you need any more help, try watching these four films:

Idolmaker

The Idolmaker (1980, directed by Taylor Hackford)

The Idolmaker is a movie that asks the question, “What does it take to be a star?  Who is more interesting, the Svengalis or the Trilbys?”  The year is 1959 and Vinny Vacari (Ray Sharkey, who won a Golden Globe for his performance but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing the movie) is a local kid from New Jersey who dreams of being a star.  He has got the talent.  He has got the ambition and he has got the media savvy.  He also has a receding hairline and a face like a porcupine.

Realizing that someone who looks like him is never going to make hundreds of teenage girls all scream at once, Vinny instead becomes a starmaker.  With the help of his girlfriend, teen mag editor Brenda (Tovah Feldshuh) and a little payola, he turns saxophone player Tomaso DeLorussa into teen idol Tommy Dee.  When Tommy Dee becomes a star and leaves his mentor, Vinny takes a shy waiter named Guido (Peter Gallagher) and turns him into a Neil Diamond-style crooner named Cesare.  Destined to always be  abandoned by the stars that he creates, Vinny continually ends up back in the same Jersey dive, performing his own songs with piano accompaniment.

The Idolmaker is a nostalgic look at rock and roll in the years between Elvis’s induction into the Army and the British invasion.  The Idolmaker has some slow spots but Ray Sharkey is great in the role of Vinny and the film’s look at what goes on behind the scenes of stardom is always interesting.  In the movie’s best scene, Tommy performs in front of an audience of screaming teenagers while Vinny mimics his exact moments backstage.

Vinny was based on real-life rock promoter and manager, Bob Marcucci.  Marcucci was responsible for launching the careers of both Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte.  Marcucci served as an executive producer on The Idolmaker, which probably explains why this is the rare rock film in which the manager is more sympathetic than the musicians.

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Breaking Glass (1980, directed by Brian Gibson)

At the same time that The Idolmaker was providing American audiences with a look at life behind-the-scenes of music stardom, Breaking Glass was doing the same thing for British audiences.

In Breaking Glass, the idolmaker is Danny (Phil Daniels, who also starred in Quadrophenia) and his star is an angry New Wave singer named Kate (Hazel O’Connor).  Danny first spots Kate while she is putting up flyers promoting herself and her band and talks her into allowing him to mange her.  At first, Kate refuses to compromise either her beliefs or her lyrics but that is before she starts to get famous.  The bigger a star she becomes, the more distant she becomes from Danny and her old life and the less control she has over what her music says.  While her new fans scare her by all trying to dress and look like her, Kate’s old fans accuse her of selling out.

As a performer, Hazel O’Connor can be an acquired taste and how you feel about Breaking Glass will depend on how much tolerance you have for her and her music.  (She wrote and composed all of the songs here.)  Breaking Glass does provide an interesting look at post-punk London and Jonathan Pryce gives a good performance as a sax player with a heroin addiction.

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That’ll Be The Day (1973, directed by Claude Whatham)

Real-life teen idol David Essex plays Jim MacClaine, a teenager in 1958 who blows off his university exams and runs away to the Isle of Wright.  He goes from renting deckchairs at a resort to being a barman to working as a carny.  He lives in squalor, has lots of sex, and constantly listens to rock and roll.  Eventually, when he has no other choice, he does return home and works in his mother’s shop.  He gets married and has a son but still finds himself tempted to abandon his family (just as his father previously abandoned him) and pursue his dreams of stardom.

David Essex and Ringo Starr

Based loosely on the early life of John Lennon, the tough and gritty That’ll Be The Day is more of a British kitchen sink character study than a traditional rock and roll film but rock fans will still find the film interesting because of its great soundtrack of late 50s rock and roll and a cast that is full of musical luminaries who actually lived through and survived the era.  Billy Fury and the Who’s Keith Moon both appear in small roles.  Mike, Jim’s mentor and best friend, is played by Ringo Starr who, of all the Beatles, was always the best actor.

That’ll Be The Day ends on a downbeat note but it does leave the story open for a sequel.

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Stardust (1974, directed by Michael Apted)

Stardust continues the story of Jim MacClaine.  Jim hires his old friend Mike (Adam Faith, replacing Ringo Starr) to manage a band that he is in, The Straycats (which includes Keith Moon, playing a far more prominent role here than in That’ll Be the Day).  With the help of Mike’s business savvy, The Stray Cats find early success and are signed to a record deal by eccentric Texas millionaire, Porter Lee Austin (Larry Hagman, playing an early version of J.R. Ewing).

When he becomes the breakout star of the group, Jim starts to overindulge in drugs, groupies, and everything that goes with being a superstar.  Having alienated both Mike and the rest of the group, Jim ends up as a recluse living in a Spanish castle.  Even worse, he gives into his own ego and writes a rock opera, Dea Sancta, which is reminiscent of the absolute worst of progressive rock.  Watching Jim perform Dea Sancta, you understand why, just a few years later, Johnny Rotten would be wearing a homemade “Pink Floyd Sucks” t-shirt.

Stardust works best as a sad-eyed look back at the lost promise of the 1960s and its music.  Watch the movie and then ask yourself, “So, do you really want to be a rock and roll star?”

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #98: American Beauty (dir by Sam Mendes)


American_Beauty_posterWhat crap!

I know, I know.  “American Beauty is an incisive satire that looks at the stifling conformity of American suburbia with Kevin Spacey giving the definitive portrait of the male midlife crisis and blah blah blah blah blah blah.”  Listen, American Beauty is a terrible film.  I don’t care if it won a lot of Oscars, including the 1999 award for best picture.  American Beauty is a shallow film that, at its worst, is deeply misogynistic.

American Beauty tells the story of two people.  They’re married.  They live in the suburbs.  They have a teenage daughter who is a cheerleader.  They pretend to have the perfect life but actually, everyone’s extremely unhappy.

WOW!  OH MY GOD!  PEOPLE ARE SECRETLY UNHAPPY IN THE SUBURBS!?  MY MIND IS BLOWN!  WOW, NO ONE’S EVER HAD THAT THOUGHT BEFORE!  OH.  MY.  GOD!

Anyway, the husband is named Lester (Kevin Spacey).  Lester’s a loser.  He narrates the film and he’s played by Kevin Spacey so you’re supposed to think that he’s really this great guy who deserves better but honestly, Lester’s a whiny little jerk.  He’s upset because, now that he’s an adult, he misses being a teenager.  Life hasn’t turned out the way that he wanted it to.  Boo hoo.  As I said, Lester is kind of whiny but the film treats him like he’s an enlightened truth seeker.  In order to keep the audience from realizing that Lester is a loser, the film surrounds him with one-dimensional stereotypes.

And really, Lester is the ultimate male fantasy.  Everything that he says and thinks is wise.  His every thought and feeling matters.  To its discredit, the world has failed to recognize that Lester’s vapid thoughts are worthwhile.  Lester quits his job and finds employment working in fast food.  Lester fantasizes about fucking his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari).  Lester starts to smoke weed with his teenage neighbor (Wes Bentley).  In real life, Lester would just be another pathetic guy having a midlife crisis but, in the world of American Beauty, he’s a seeker of truth,

Anyway, eventually, Lester gets shot in the back of the head and dies but that doesn’t keep him from still narrating the film.  You just can’t shut him up.

Meanwhile, Lester’s wife is Carolyn (Annette Bening) and wow, is she evil!  Get this — she actually tries to keep the house clean, is obsessive about her job, and wants her family to eat dinner together.  Oh my God, so evil!  She ends up having an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and, when they have sex, we’re supposed to laugh at them because they’re so cartoonishly loud.  And when Lester catches them, the audience is expected to applaud and say, “Way to go, Lester!”  The film ridicules Carolyn’s affair but it idealizes Lester’s sexual fantasies.  Lester’s determination to be independent and do what he wants is presented as being heroic.  Carolyn’s determination to have a life that does not revolve around her pathetic husband is presented as being villainous.

And why is that?

Basically, it comes down to the fact that Lester has a penis whereas Carolyn has a vagina.

American Beauty is probably one of the most misogynistic films that I have ever seen, one in which men are exclusively victims of all those unreasonable and untrustworthy women.  Whiny loser Lester is presented as being a hero.  Ricky, the next door neighbor played by Wes Bentley, spends his time going on and on about the beauty of an empty bag and we’re supposed to see some sort of higher truth in his pretentious blathering.  Meanwhile, Carolyn is portrayed as being a shrew.  Lester’s teenager daughter (Thora Birch) is a spoiled brat.  Lester’s sexual obsession, the cheerleader played by Mena Suvari, is presented as being a suburban seductress but, in the film’s eyes, she’s partially redeemed when she suddenly admits to being a virgin.

(The film seems to think that the revelation that teenagers lie about sex is truly shocking.  This is one of those films that makes you wonder if the filmmakers have ever hung out with anyone outside of their own small circle of friends.)

One huge subplot deals with Ricky’s father, a military guy played by Chris Cooper, mistakenly believing that Lester is gay.  And, honestly, American Beauty would have been a better film if Lester had been a gay man and if, instead of buying a new car and getting a crappy job, Lester had dealt with his identity crisis by coming out of the closet.  Certainly, a lot of Lester’s anger would have made a lot more sense if he was a man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality as opposed to being a man who just doesn’t like his job and is upset that his wife no longer has the body of a 17 year-old.

(We are, of course, supposed to be shocked when Cooper suddenly reveals that he himself is gay.  But, honestly, the film’s plans for Cooper are obvious from the minute he first appears on-screen and dramatically squints his eyes in disgust at the sight of two men jogging together.  Cooper is a good actor but he’s terrible in American Beauty.)

It would have taken guts to make Lester gay and, at heart, American Beauty is a very cowardly film.  It attacks easy targets and it resolutely refuses to play fair.  So desperate is it to make Lester into a conventional hero that it refuses to let anyone around him be human.  As a result, a talented cast is stuck playing a collection of one-note stereotypes.  No wonder a lot of people love this film — it makes you feel smart without requiring that you actually think.

American Beauty was written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes.  Both Ball and Mendes have subsequently done far better work, which is good because American Beauty is a terrible movie.  The script is a pretentious mess and Mendes never seems to be quite sure what exactly he’s trying to say from scene-to-scene.

American Beauty did win best picture but who cares?

It’s a crappy film.