REVIEW: Grandma

6 09 2015

GrandmaPaul Weitz’s “Grandma” gets underway once teenaged Sage (Julia Garner) shows up to humbly solicit funds for an abortion from Lily Tomlin’s Elle Reid, her estranged grandmother.  While Sage might be necessary to kickstart the story, there is no doubt the titular character really drives the engine of this compact road trip.  The journey is for Sage, but it is about Elle.

Weitz wrote the role of Elle for Tomlin, and the part fits like a glove.  Among the many traits of this multifaceted character, Tomlin gets to play up two qualities present in her most memorable performances: intelligence and idiosyncrasy.  Elle is a poet who peaked professionally in the ’60s and never quite found her footing again, scrapping together income to stay afloat from teaching and lecturing.

Now, widowed and still grieving the loss of her beloved partner Violet, the kooky Elle is even more stuck in the past than ever before.  She cuts up her credit cards for fun and tosses around the phrase “pod person” as if “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were as recognizable a cultural touchstone as “X-Men.”  Sage needs the most immediate help to procure her procedure, to be sure, but Elle also requires an attitude adjustment of her own.

As she drives her vintage car around town to solicit funds – and giving Sage a boot camp in Second Wave feminism in the process – Elle has to confront the pains of her past and decide the face of her future.  Decades-old layers of resentment frequently lead to some acerbic interactions, especially with her own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden).  But the brilliance of Tomlin’s performance is that she never loses track of Elle’s raw emotion or her beating heart; she and Weitz nail the balance between sardonic and sincere.  The voyage with Elle proves all too short (only 79 minutes?!), though each moment along the way feels poignant and completely fulfilling.  B+3stars

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REVIEW: Palo Alto

26 08 2014

Palo AltoAt a high school party indistinguishable from any other, Emma Roberts’ April has a conversation of unusual candor with Jack Kilmer’s Teddy.  Though she acts confidently in front of others, putting on airs to impress her peers and returning volleys from flirtatious soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco), she’s sheepish and restless.  He, on the other hand, is a misunderstood rebel drifting from disaster to disaster but somehow retains an impeccable sense of self-worth.

All the stars appear to be aligning for them to take their connection to the next level; however, a communication breakdown as well as a few stray glances lead to misinterpreted gestures.  This party at the beginning of “Palo Alto” sets April and Teddy on separate courses, each taking them increasingly further away from converting the potential energy from that evening into a kinetic spark.

They wander aimlessly towards dissatisfaction and frustration, but they do so with an eerie sense of knowledge that each further step is to their deteriment.  April and Teddy are not quite sure what they seek, though it seems impossible to attain.  This indescribable yet palpable disparity between reach and grasp that makes “Palo Alto” such a searing film about being lost in the mess that is high school.

Though it’s tempting to write off these feelings as “teen angst,” first-time director Gia Coppola treats April and Teddy’s self-estrangement as a very adult matter.  With such a seriousness, “Palo Alto” comes off as a film more in the mold of domestic drama “Little Children” than YA weepie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”  Coppola treats the longing glances of high school students with empathetic solidarity, not with derision or patronization.

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REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars

5 06 2014

Quite often nowadays, I carry a small notepad with me when I go to see movies.  Unfortunately, I often find myself writing my review mentally as I watch the film, and I hate letting the perfect phrase slip out of my mind to never be recovered again.  I usually jot down enough phrases to fill a small page and can usually tease out the basic structure of my review.

With “The Fault in Our Stars,” however, I found that I had only written one small observation.  It was not some particularly insightful comment but merely a note of a particularly well-employed song by M83  (click to listen, but I won’t spoil the name for those yet to see the film) with the word “YES” written in all caps next to it.  I could say the same word, more or less, for the whole movie.

Those who found themselves moved by John Green’s poignant novel about a romance between two teenagers that want to be identified by something other than their cancer diagnoses will be pleased by this adaptation.  The script, nimbly adapted by the writers behind “(500) Days of Summer,” keeps the feel of the story and characters carefully in tact while also streamlining them to better suit the medium of film.  In some ways, the movie is actually an improved narrative as it excises any moment that doesn’t directly advance the relationship between the two main characters.

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