F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 23, 2016)

23 06 2016

Charlie BartlettFor no apparent reason save their rapid appearance on Netflix, I’ve been devouring large quantities of turn of the millennium teen movies. While many have charmed and entertained me, most tend to fall in line and preach the same kind of message. Popularity is a sham, inner beauty is what matters, yada yada…

Then, after the tragic accident that claimed the life of Anton Yelchin, I took a detour to the mid-2000s for “Charlie Bartlett.” It was one of the actor’s first of far too few star turns, and despite my professed fandom for Yelchin, it remained a blind spot for me. That all changed within hours of learning he was no longer with us.

And wow, what a refreshing break this was – heck, is – from most high school movies. “Charlie Bartlett” tackles a key aspect of today’s youth culture that has been elided or entirely omitted from movies to date: overprescription. Though I thankfully never needed drugs to help with my mood or focus, I know plenty of people who struggled to find the right balance of medication. I also know a fair share who used those same pills for less than noble purposes. This important corrective to a whitewashed narrative makes for an ideal “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Yelchin’s titular character possesses a lethal combination of access to such stimulants and the brazen gall to resell them to students at his new high school. Thanks to his wealthy and largely absent mother, Charlie essentially has a family pharmacist to prescribe anything he wants. Armed with an outsized self-confidence, he settles into his role as the benevolent campus drug dealer with ease after getting largely rejected upon first foray into his latest private school.

Charlie could easily have devolved into a snarky, sniveling jerk or just become insufferable to watch as he goes more Walter White on us. But that’s not the case at all; in fact, quite the opposite occurs. Yelchin makes Charlie more humane with each passing scene as he becomes increasingly aware of the deeper psychological needs of the student body. He is always present in a scene – listening, responding and playing off the other actors. Yelchin clearly did not just memorize lines to be shot in close-up. He was there to make the other actors, and the film itself by extension, the best they could be. Here, he succeeded wildly.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 14, 2013)

14 06 2013

Looking for the ultimate counter-programming this summer?  Heaven knows Hollywood is giving us plenty of comic book films this summer, be it a new Iron Man or a rebooted Superman.  But while those films may feature a man of steel, they certainly don’t feature a man who’s real in the same way that comic book film “American Splendor” does.

Imagine a comic book adaptation where a Woody Allen type (only with even more self-loathing) was the superhero.  Well, Paul Giamatti’s Harvey Pekar is hardly super … or a hero.  He’s just a protagonist, the main character of his life trying to live to fight another day.  Writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini find the herculean struggle in these everyday battles and draw them out in appropriately stylized ways.

Why “American Splendor” is my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” however, is not necessarily because it’s an alternative/indie comic book movie.  Make no mistake about it, this is no “Kick-Ass.”  Berman and Pulcini are incredibly dexterous filmmakers who find clever ways to blur conventional lines in cinema.  Their film is both documentary and narrative, both animated and live-action.

That’s right, the film toggles between different modes of storytelling.  If it sounds weird, it looks and feels just right.  In fact, I think it’s the only way “American Splendor” could have been adapted.  Conventional technique could never pin down such an unconventional person and character like Harvey Pekar.  The multi-pronged approach works on so many levels, all of which I won’t attempt to pin down in a brief review.

But while it experiments with the form in exciting ways, it never forgets what Harvey Pekar said so brilliantly through his “American Splendor” comics for years.  At the end of the day, it’s all about the story of life.  We all have to live it, and everyone has issues that make them want to scream.  “American Splendor,” with emotional potency to spare, makes Harvey’s journey a vivid and infinitely relatable one.  He’s the comic book protagonist we need (but probably don’t deserve).

F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 9, 2010)

9 04 2010

Those of you who read this blog in December and January know that I’m kind of obsessed with the work of director Jason Reitman.  While doing some research on him, I came across some of his cinematic influences.  One of the filmmakers he lists is Alexander Payne.  I had seen one of Payne’s movies, “Election,” but I decided that I needed to further explore.  “Sideways” was good, but it’s not something people my age are supposed to get.  The movie that really struck me was “About Schmidt,” so much in fact that I even decided to call it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (And just for the sake of the occasional refresher, the acronym stands for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.)

The titular character, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), is at an end-of-life crisis.  After retiring, he enters the twilight years with cynicism and boredom.  His wife is aging quickly, and Schmidt often wonders where the woman that he married has gone.  His daughter (Hope Davis) is marrying a dimwitted guy who sports a mullet (Dermot Mulroney).  Despite his best attempts, he can’t get her to reconsider.  In all aspects of life, Schmidt feels useless.

But soon Schmidt is left alone, and he decides to recapture control of his life by driving a Winnebago to see sights from his childhood en route to the wedding.  Even after logging all these miles, he still can’t escape the feeling that his life is inconsequential.

“About Schmidt” is at its best whenever it shows Schmidt trying to make a difference in someone’s life.  After seeing an ad on TV, he decides to sponsor a child in Tanzania named Ndugu.  He can’t pronounce the name, but Schmidt earnestly wants to help this child.  He goes further beyond providing monetary support and makes contact with Ndugu, writing him many revealing letters about his own life.  It’s somewhat pathetic to think that Schmidt can only tell these things to Ndugu, but it further reveals how lost this man is.

It’s easy to see how movies like this have influenced Jason Reitman (for example, the wedding scenes in this and “Up in the Air”) and other directors, and “About Schmidt” is a movie that deserves to be imitated.  Jack Nicholson gives no doubt as to why he is one of the best – if not the best – actors of our time.  The supporting performances are great as well, particularly Kathy Bates as Schmidt’s overbearing future in-law.  The Golden Globes classify this as a drama, and in large part, that’s what it is.  But “About Schmidt” has enough laughs to satisfy any moviewatching mood you could possibly be in.