Friday, October 22, 2010

"Nowhere Boy" is the place to be

Generally I don’t care for biopics. I’m reasonably certain they’ve not much in the way of ‘bio’ in them, and a great deal of fabrication, for how else can a real human being’s life be consistently interesting?

Luckily, “Nowhere Boy” does not try to cover the entire life of John Lennon, with all its stories about the Beatles and conflicts and life after the break up. This charming film about young John Lennon is a story of a lad that may offer insight into the music John created in the late 1950s, the world-changing 1960s, and into the 1970s that still resonates with us today. John and the lads are in Hamburg at the film’s end, so still not the John we all remember -- relatively safe territory, the film is based on a memoir by John’s half sister, Julia Baird, transformed into a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh.

We meet John living with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George, his mother an unknown entity since John was five. We occasionally see her as he remembers her, through a frosted window in a door slammed by Mimi. He appears to be a perfectly ordinary teenaged boy who doesn’t wish to wear his glasses, does look at girlie magazines, gets into scuffles at school and the bus stop, gets suspended from school – the usual stuff. The unusual bit is what’s hiding inside him waiting to come out.

John is very well played by Aaron Johnson, who resembles John, though the actor is nicer looking. Johnson gives us John’s expressions, the mile-a-minute patter with many voices we first heard in “A Hard Day’s Night.” Johnson has that all down pat, and does an excellent job showing us John’s frustration, pain, and possibilities as he grows in those critical teenage years.

Mimi is played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas. She is strict by today’s standards, chilly, with a brittle smile hiding a volcano inside. While John, in typical teenage fashion, doesn’t see how much she cares, we do.

Uncle George is a grown up boy, making John giggle with delight, and promising mouth organ lessons. David Threlfall’s George is as warm as his wife is cool, but he is a man who knows when he’s loved – unlike John. We lose George early in the film, a tragic loss that unites John with his mother Julia for the first time in a decade.

Julia is first seen at the edge of the graveyard, her exile from her family so complete that she may not come to George’s funeral. John’s cousin, however, knows how to find the missing Julia, and on a day when Mimi is told they’re going to Blackpool, the two boys walk across a park to another part of the same town, and knock on John’s mum’s door.

The glorious, fragile, brilliant, slightly off Julia is played by Anne-Marie Duff. She wants John, but has accepted her sister’s unofficial adoption and her own exile – until John makes the choice to reconnect. Julia has two young daughters by her present husband, Bobby, played by a quiet and wary David Morrissey. Bobby is understandably reluctant to have the volatile teenage boy take his wife’s attention away from their young daughters, but he is kind and solicitous of Julia. It’s as if Bobby knows every blow up that will happen long before it does – if only because he knows the truth about Julia and her first husband Alf, and remembers being a teenaged boy himself. Bobby’s disapproval is protective. No one, in fact, in this film, is cast as a ‘bad’ guy. Everyone is imperfect, everyone has foibles, everyone is lovable one moment and despised the next as happens between friends and family. Everyone is quite real.

Julia is talented and teaches John to play the banjo. Julia also dances, Julia sings, Julia is the life of the party, Julia is a flirt. She flirts with men on their excursion to Blackpool, she flirts with John’s friends, she flirts with John. John is discomfited by this; the stark contrast to her sister Mimi is unstated, but clear. Mimi always made responsible choices; Julia did not. The reactions to choices and behaviors are of their time, while quite understandable in our own.

The story is filmed in muted tones, giving its postwar England setting reality with some distance. Dialogue and scenes of the film evoke songs that we’ve known for years; words and phrases here and there will grow up to be lyrics. It’s a pleasure to watch the creation of our John, the beginning of his relationship with Paul -- who assures John that the poems John writes will become songs when they’re set to music. Mimi and Julia differently and vitally contribute to the making of John the musician/poet.

John forms the Quarrymen, his mother always a bouncing fan looking at the enthusiastic young girls with something resembling jealousy. A girlish-looking boy smirks in the audience one night, and he is introduced as George, who, says Paul, “should be in the band.” And so we at last have three of the Fab Four playing together.

Nowhere Boy” is a sweet story well told, deftly directed by Sam Taylor-Wood. Period costumes, mores and music color in the story of another time, in which no houses are locked, everyone smokes an enormous amount, cursing was an aberration instead of the norm, and everything was possible. Fans of the Beatles, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Anne-Marie Duff (I am now!) will enjoy “Nowhere Boy.” Other noteworthy performances came from Thomas Brodie Sangster as Paul and Josh Bolt as John’s buddy Pete. But then, all of the performances were excellent.

All in all I had a wonderful time and went home to play all my old Beatles records. You will too.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to dance to the music of the Beatles.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"The Social Network" is not very sociable

The Social Network” was not on my list of must-sees. I enjoy the addictive Facebook, but I don’t really care enough to see a movie about its creation/creator(s). Nevertheless, a script by Aaron Sorkin lured me in. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, Benjamin Button), has taken some good actors who, for the most part, I didn’t recognize, directed them briskly, and told a story that held my attention. It’s about people, not Facebook. Difficult people, privileged people, smart people, ordinary people.

"The Social Network" is well crafted, tells a story we didn’t know we wanted to hear, and I for one have no idea what parts of it – if any – are true. Does it matter? At least half the people in the audience will assume that the movie wouldn’t be allowed to use real people and numbers if the story was totally fictitious. “Does it matter” may be a subject for a different blog.

Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, while it may be right on the mark for all I know, makes the character quite unlikeable. I find this unfortunate because I admire Mr. Zuckerberg’s achievement and sympathize with his unpleasant position at However, Mr. Eisenberg’s characterization makes it almost impossible to empathize with Zuckerberg’s ultimate actions. I expect someone will posit that Mr. Zuckerberg had some psychological defect that made him helpless against his inability to be decent, civil, polite, kind, or loyal. It’s probably defined in DSM, and I won’t care. It is only in the last ten minutes of the film that Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg appeared to have any social or moral compass. Was that due to Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Eisenberg, Mr. Fincher, or Mr. Sorkin?

This, to me, pivotal flaw in the film led to an interesting article in the New York Times about audience reaction to the film: Members of the “older” generation (apparently that’s me) consider Zuckerberg’s actions to be betrayals of trust, of his friends, and show him morally bankrupt despite his probable genius. The “younger” generation (I used to be one of those) apparently think his enterprise and brilliance are more important than any social niceties. At least according to the Times.

Just about everything that happened at Harvard was offensive to me – really, did you see those initiation rites -- but Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg still couldn’t make me sympathetic to his behavior. One would wish a film’s protagonist to be a smidgen likeable, and he wasn’t.

Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake is sleazy as entrepreneur Sean Parker. He is relaxed and real before the camera. I don’t know how much depth Mr. Timberlake has, but it’s not needed here. As Zuckerberg’s original partner Eduardo Saverin, Andrew Garfield, the new Spiderman, is fine, but not extraordinary – not as mesmerizing as the unpleasant Mr. Eisenberg. Nothing about Mr. Garfield makes me believe he can carry the lead in a comic book franchise.

There’s a lot of sleaze in this film, some of which comes from the lawyers, but really most of it’s at Harvard. With the exception of Mara Rooney’s Erica Albright, the young women in this film make me despair of feminism. From the Harvard -- or perhaps B.U., who knows which -- girls to the ditzbrains in California, the females are by and large idiots trading on their good looks (easy at their age) for – what? Drugs, disrespect, future rich-and-powerful husbands? Did Harvard kill feminism? I fear these young women have not been misrepresented by Mr. Sorkin or Mr. Fincher.

Visually the film is striking in certain scenes (rowing scenes look gorgeous, and not just because of the nicely muscled young men) and obdurately realistic in others. Sorkin’s intelligent and tense script and Fincher’s tight direction give us a fascinating log of the social network and the early 21st century, and the actors are all more than capable of handling Mr. Sorkin’s complex and rhythmic language. “The Social Network” is a much better movie than the sequel to “Wall Street” – which, by the way, should absolutely not be a contender for best picture.

This film tells us that Mark Zuckerberg is a complex creature who created Facebook for the beauty of it, for the sheer joy of doing what no one else had done. This is a good trait. However, as portrayed in the film by Jesse Eisenberg, Mr. Zuckerberg is incapable of human interaction so all the cleverness in the world won’t make up for his isolation. Which makes a social network an odd choice for his enterprise.

You may be wondering after this rant if I recommend this film for your viewing pleasure. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but no. Despite its fine writing and direction, it provides little pleasure, it is unfulfilling. I understand Sorkin’s interest in the “Rashomon” aspect he sees in Mr. Zuckerberg’s story – were we to read every deposition in every suit involving Mr. Zuckerberg, I’m certain there’d be plenty of different stories and no real way of knowing which, if any, is wholly true. Aaron Sorkin’s writing is often political and controversial. But these people did not anger me so much as they annoyed me. The passion in the film is all Mark Zuckerberg’s, and since he’s not particularly likeable, the film misses its point.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Must check Facebook.....

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A few new notes make "Let Me In" succeed

Let Me In” was a surprise. Last year I saw the Swedish film (“Let the Right One In”) on which this one is based. I was therefore appalled at the thought of an American remake. How crass would it be? How obvious? And why?

Well, I was wrong. This new version by director Matt Reeves (who also co-wrote this screenplay with John Ajvide Lindqvist, the writer of the Swedish version as well as the novel of the same name) has moments that may have been in the original, and moments that were certainly not, and all of them work to tell a story clearly and simply. Some changes from the original to Reeves’ remake made this version a little sadder and a little scarier. The script is spare, as is the scenery and landscape -- no wintertime beauty here: Cold is just cold.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is Owen, fragile, friendless, a solitary boy from a broken home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the early 1980s. His mother is looking for solace from Jesus and wine, his father is absent but for a voice over the telephone. Owen is thin as a rail and bullied in school. The apartment complex where Owen lives with his mother (whose face we never see) is sad and asocial. People live next door to one another without knowing each other – nothing new there. Owen watches the adults in the complex with his telescope -- I thought momentarily of “Rear Window,” but this is the story of a boy on the outside looking in.

One night two new residents move into the next-door apartment that shares a wall with Owen’s bedroom -- a young girl around Owen’s age, Abby, and a man Owen assumes is her father. Chloe Moretz plays Abby as a lonely child in one moment and a sophisticate with too much knowledge behind those eyes in the next. Her glance is piercing and appraising, while Owen’s is wide-eyed and besotted. When they first meet in the snow-covered playground, Abby tells Owen that they cannot be friends. She is still and self contained, straightforward yet secretive, and, while trying to be aloof, yearning. The relationship between these two is sweet, endearing, and ultimately incredibly sad.

Dylan Minnette is fine and obnoxious as the school bully Kenny, the bane of Owen’s existence. The remade film retains a powerful moment of compassion for Kenny as we watch his victimization by his older brother. A short scene illustrating the making of a bully is as effective here as in the original Swedish.

There are several likeable adults in the film, none of whom are effectual in protecting children from each other or the world. Clearly, their imaginations are insufficient for the reality that blindsides them.

  • Richard Jenkins is caring and creepy as Abby’s … let’s call him her companion. I’d thought he was just a Renfield, committing acts far worse than Renfield ever did, but Reeves inserted a moment in this version that illuminated the relationship.
  • Elias Koteas is quietly fine as the policeman investigating odd killings in the area. One of his actions brought a moment of humor – after saying something like “open up, police,” he chose to kick in an apartment door, to which action a member of the audience said, “Oh really? With what cause?” Ah, New York. I’m sure it wasn’t funny at any other showings, yet I think the audience appreciated the break in the tension. Which picked itself right up again. Once beyond that door, Reeves presents a tense scene with fine work by Koteas, Moretz, and Smit-McPhee.
  • Ritchie Coster does nuanced work as the gym teacher who saw much but did too little.

While the film appears to follow the Swedish original closely, Reeves’ changes make for a deeper, sadder story. The relationships between Jenkins / Moretz, and Moretz / Smit-McPhee are not a little bit creepy and quite sorrowful; they make the film’s ending even better than that of the original film. And I never thought I’d say that!

This is a powerful film and stands quite well on its own.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, getting rid of the telescope.