There are few directors who can properly contextualize and bridle the crazy-eyed horse that is Nicolas Cage. Enter David Lynch. Adapted from a 1989 novel by Lynch himself, Wild at Heart follows deeply in-love Sailor (Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) who go on the run to escape Lula’s domineering mother.
To say they get into wacky hijinks along the way would be an understatement of Lynch’s knack for peculiar and outlandish plotlines. But in its own sweet and unusual kind of way, Lynch manages to make his own brand of romantic comedy, complete with Wizard of Oz allusions, speed metal, and Cage performing not one but two musical numbers in a snakeskin jacket.
Seriously, I mean just watch this clip:
In 1999, Lynch was approached about producing a new television show after the success of Twin Peaks. When the two hour pilot was rejected by television executives, Lynch took what he had an made it into a feature film: Mulholland Drive.
When a woman (Laura Elena Harring) suffers a head wound as she narrowly escapes an assassination attempt, she stumbles from the wreck to lower Los Angeles. She makes her way to an apartment where Betty (Naomi Watts) is staying. Together, the two women venture further down the rabbit hole to discover who each of them really is.
For any other director the open-ended aspect of a pilot might’ve made for a confusing film. And while the same could be said about Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the dreamlike and twisty neo-noir gives the unorthodox feature an aesthetic to savour. It’s an absorbing journey that’s far less about the answers than it is about asking the questions.
It’s been a rough year for Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine). A local pastor, volunteer firefighter, high school wrestling coach, garage door repairman, and all around Steve Rogers of his community is busy recovering from his own health issues when Colton (Connor Corum), his son, suffers a ruptured appendix. Todd and his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Flight) quickly call their friends to prayer as it looks like Colton won’t make it through surgery.
Colton pulls through, but the real complications start as Colton’s insistence that he journeyed to heaven during his operation challenges the faith of his father, his church, and his community.
“Heaven is for Real” is based off the New York Times bestseller of the same name written by real-life Todd Burpo about the near-death experience of his 4-year-old son. “Heaven is For Real” — opening with a title card saying it’s “based on a true story” — might have a hard time establishing a typical, mainstream audience, but it doesn’t seem too concerned with that.
It’s not geared toward hard-boiled city-types who aren’t interested in dabbling with heaven and the G-man. It’s centered on a devoutly Christian family and community, and will likely speak best to those who identify as such.
In terms of small-town Americana blurring the line between the known and unknown, the movie’s style falls somewhere between “Field of Dreams” and “The Sixth Sense.” For those who have had a crisis of their faith — or maybe even just a sense of faith at all — the movie will come off as an earnest and profound discussion of the afterlife. “Heaven is for Real” is at its best when it sensitively examines a devout community struggling to grapple with the unknowable.
But for those who don’t partake in Bible teachings, it may come off as a preachy, oddly-paced memoir adaptation. It’s not marketed toward those who are devout in their nonbelief. Sections of Burpo’s life that may play well in a novel end up muddling the overall arc of the plot, which is steadfastly set in establishing heaven as a real place — spoiler alert, although it is in the title. From an outsider’s perspective there’s something to be said for the tale of a family in the heart of a storm of conviction — it is at its core an exercise in validating religious belief.
While there isn’t much to be said for creativity on behalf of the filmmakers, there are plenty of nice establishing shots of Nebraska that paint the picture of rural life. But the divine scenery is only almost enough to offset the moralistic climax and doesn’t quite make up for the journey to get there.
The verdict:Will play well with those who have an interest in Sunday school teachings, otherwise go see a different Captain America movie.
Ah, first love. It’s spurred many a story, song, poem, and battle axe to life. It can be as complex as years of muted banter or as simple as a chance passing in the street.
Such is how it happened for young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a French high-school student, who’s exploring young love and sexuality when she walked past Emma (Léa Seydoux), catching her eye in the street. When Emma and Adèle serendipitously meet in a bar later on, they become friends and soon, much more.
The story follows them through the years and mounting intensity of their relationship. It’s a pretty massive tour de force of both of the ups and downs of love, particularly that in the LGBT communities.
The film has been surrounded by plenty of controversy, focused on the explicit sex scenes that litter the midpoint of the movie. The first one is six straight minutes of intense love-making, and even my leniency regarding sex scenes was pushed past the edge (the interviews the actresses have given about the director’s intense style didn’t help anything).
Based on a graphic novel written by Julie Maroh, the film is a bit more shadowy about what it shows. It could be argued director Abdel Kechiche attempts a hands off approach, letting the actors’ natural chemistry speak for itself, but sometimes the film is pulled too far back, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks.
While in the comic it’s firmly established that Adele’s family and friends are conservative, it’s not quite communicated in the film why they (seemingly) suddenly drop out of her life, leaving her with only Emma.
But in his own way, Kechiche has created one of the most visceral and truthful portrayals of relationships in its own messy way. It creates an emotional roller coaster around the ups and downs of young love that’s more often than most. It’s not particularly hopeful, profound, or speaking to an overall trend in love. It simply is.
It resembles a romantic T.S. Elliot epic: that the substance is secondary to the overall moods and ambiance conveyed. The films serves to immerse its audience in the throes of first love in a pop fueled sensory bath of emotions. We are transported to a time of intense feelings, turbulent innocence, and romantic idealism: where even a color becomes the synonym for love.
In the age of the Buzzfeed quiz (as it’s seeming more and more likely archeologists will refer to now) it seems serendipitous that Divergent would be released. The premise lies in a future, dystopian Chicago, where survivors live behind a wall, and are divided into five factions to “prevent further fighting” based on their strengths and values.
When you turn 16, you are tested and then choose between Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite for the intelligent. When Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) goes to take her test, she’s shocked to learn she’s one of the few that’s coded as “divergent:” she could test successfully into three of the five factions.
She opts to leave her Abnegation home for Dauntless, which are like the police force, if the police force was an action hero raised as a lost boy from Hook. As she struggles to make the cut in Dauntless, Tris (as she comes to be known) uncovers a conspiracy, and gets close to the hulky and aloof Four (Theo James).
If the book wasn’t so young-adult-novel about its message, it would be more interesting. It spends so much time talking about the dangers of conformity that ultimately its a pretty nondescript dystopian imagining. Divergents won’t or don’t have to conform to the structure of the government’s thinking, but it’s never quite clear what that means, or to what extent they are “free.”
It’s indicative of a problem the film has overall: basing itself on the pacing of the young-adult series of the same name, it settles itself in all the wrong places. Hoping to keep a PG-13 rating the atrocities are minimized, end game downplayed to almost nothing, and the endless training montages of the Dauntless camp seem to drag on. Divergent really lets you feel the full weight of the 139 minutes.
I’m told that the long run time (and seemingly random plot pockets) is a symptom of its strict loyalty to the book, which may please the fans who are able to follow the inner-workings of Tris and her society that don’t make it into the dialogue.
Woodley, a talented standout in films like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, does what she can with the character of Tris, but she ends up doing a lot of the screenwriters work for them. It’s a sort of Jon Snow principle: the inner-thoughts on page that make the character dynamic and a viable conduit for the reader. Those of us who favor big screen adaptations are left filling in the blanks.
Divergent won’t be the worst movie of the year, by a long shot. But the little it has going for it is ultimately squashed under the weight of scene upon scene of training. Which in the end yield a whole lot of message for very little pay off in the end. So when it comes to dystopian action you’ll find me browsing a different category, because it’s not nearly as different or dangerous as it asks its characters to be.
Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, Frozen, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) returns to Neptune, when old flame Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring TV’s Moonlight, Ringer) is accused of murder (again, for the marshmallows out there). She’s on the precipice of graduating law school and joining a big-time, successful law firm in New York City to the joy of her father (the invaluable Enrico Colantoni, Galaxy Quest, TV’s Just Shoot Me!), but quickly finds herself being pulled back into the PI life she left behind.
It’s designed to be palatable for all audiences, giving a brief run through Veronica’s history and relationships in the opening credits, but given the way it got funded and the line I waited in to get into the theater it’ll land closer to home for the fans.
I can’t speak for those who didn’t hop on the Veronica Mars bandwagon. Perhaps to them it’s a sharp-enough, character-driven thriller with a complicated past. Perhaps the ample backstory, cheesy love triangle, and Krysten Ritter without bangs will count them out.
There’s plenty of criticism that could be slung at the movie itself. It’s far from a perfect film: it’s got a lot of ground and characters to account for (Wallace, Weevil, Mac; you are not forgotten). But as a fan of the show, I can say that I found it to be a damn good mix of honest, character moments and natural fan-service that comes with the territory.
The natural bluesy rhythm of Veronica Mars are well suited to the big screen, and if the plot seems stretched a bit thin across its two hour run time (though it could be argued they’re used to working with much more time) the punch and wit of the Neptune cast (plus James Franco cameo) carries it through. Thanks, largely, to Bell, who slips fluidly back into Veronica’s leather jackets, and serves as the strong, smart, and funny female protagonist we always wished we could be. She should always dress like that.
The Veronica Mars movie blends the nostalgia for a fabulous show long gone into an old formula that still makes for a thrilling addition to the canon. It’s a mixture of closure and openendedness for Veronica and the town of Neptune managing to wrap things up neatly in a pleasing manner for the fans. Will the MARShmallows want s’more? I know I do. But for now I’m just happy to see my favorite gumshoe back on the trail, for however briefly.
In my family, we have writers, animators, lawyers, and women. Plenty of women. Binders full of women, if you will. And I don’t mean to boast, but the women of my family are strong. They’re independent, they get stuff done, and they’re not about to take any of your shit.
Given all that, it may seem odd that we still make a habit of seeing animated movies—specifically of the princess variety—together (or, maybe not, given the animator in the family). And although they’re typically the only way a woman gets to be a protagonist, there’s certainly something to be said for not continuing the princess culture in Disney movies.
And from the outside it seems Frozen is more of the same: Bouncy and optimist Princess Anna (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) sets off into the mountains of Arendelle (and acquires a crew of sidekicks along the way) to find her older sister, Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel, Rent, Enchanted, Glee), whose icy powers have set the kingdom in an eternal winter.
I’m sure you can guess what happens along the way: true love, sing-song, comic relief, yada yada yada.
But it’s two weeks after I saw Frozen (yes, quite late to this party) and I can’t get it out of my mind.*
For starters, we have a movie with two prominent, dynamic, and intricate protagonists who are women. Already we’re off to a good start, and it only gets better! Because it turns out that the movie’s main plot line is focused on the relationship between the two sisters. Sure, there’s boys along the way, but whatever: Anna makes the conscious decision to prioritize Elsa over not only herself but her true love too.
Anna’s plot line cuts through the one-true-love bullshit that seems to be omnipresent in most every movie geared towards young women. And if that wasn’t enough to get me all excited in my social justice Wario parts, when she finally does pick a guy he practices full consent. I could barely control myself.
Some have argued that the films musical magnum opus “Let It Go” still sends the wrong message about makeovers for little girls, but I’m happy to see Elsa not only give young women like my younger sister(s) a healthy portrayal of mental isolation and its repercussions, but the beauty in expressing yourself and reaching out to others.
It’s Disney, so obviously there are plenty of improvements to make in the future: more varied body types, side plot lines that are only tangentially related brought in to perform another song and dance number and especially more people of color (especially where their culture should be/is already being represented). These are legitimate criticisms to be made of the princess culture developed at Disney, and should continue to be pushed towards.
But for today, I’m just happy that there’s a princess movie I can show my six-year-old sister that will promote a life goal aside from Prince Charming. And every time she throws on her cape and traipses around the house creating ice castles and swirling fractals warms my heart.
It’s always the ones you never expect. Doug Varney (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back,Seven Psychopaths) is a small town pharmacist who seems to be a bit of a doormat. There’s no freedom in sight until, one night, he meets unhappy trophy wife Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde, Deadfall, Tron: Legacy, Her) who inspires him to cut loose, live free, and dip into his own pharmaceutical supply for a little fun.
It’s another stab at the standard story of learning how to grow up and solve problems, but instead of an anxious adolescence it’s an anxious mid-life crisis.
There’s not much to say for innovation plot-wise, and the execution of the movie doesn’t go above and beyond either. “Better Living Through Chemistry” largely stays light and quirky, though not to a degree to truly set itself apart from the pack. The movie is at its best when the actors are able to shine through the average dialogue.
Varney’s character is so vanilla it’s tough to watch an actor as fun as Rockwell stay caged up inside his shy and nerdy mannerisms. And it’s a move made all the more tough by the sheer pile of sad sack they bury him under. Kara (Michelle Monaghan), his domineering wife, doesn’t see eye-to-eye on how to raise their troubled son, and his overbearing father-in-law (Ken Howard) refuses to let him fully take the reins in the family pharmacy.
It’s no coincidence that the movie picks up once Rockwell gets a little wild as Varney channels his inner Walter White. It’s a breath of fresh air, and the chemistry between Wilde and Rockwell becomes a lot more electric.
The actors actually manage to do a pretty good job working with characters who are mostly two-dimensional. Wilde and Rockwell get the most screen time and do what they can to ground their characters in reality for the second half.
“Better Living Through Chemistry” suffers from switching gears to establish a lasting atmosphere for the narrative. Scenes seem to be strung together only in the sense that they needed to happen. It doesn’t help that the filmmakers’ attempt to tie the whole movie together with a self-aware narration by Jane Fonda becomes a bit more cloying than cutesy by the end.
The film does a reasonable enough job balancing what darker and more real moments it has with the overall chipper, wish-fulfillment side of its romantic comedy plot. By the end of the movie — while it may feel a bit stilted — it is clear that Varney has upgraded his blah exterior for a backbone and is a legitimately stronger character. And while it’s cool to watch a character actually achieve an honestly better living, it seems like there should’ve been a bit more tweaking to the formula.
He’s the buttoned-down stick-in-the mud who hasn’t ridden a bicycle. She’s the free spirit who’s never let rules stop her from having fun. When they meet on a college tour, at first they can’t seem to get along. But before too long they can’t pull themselves apart. A timeless premise, now with a twist: they’re not students, but parents of students on the tour.
Meet Edith (Vera Farmiga) and George (Andy Garcia), on a tour of Middelton College with their respective children: Audrey (Taissa Farmiga, playing her sister’s daughter in the film) and Conrad (Spencer Lofranco). When Edith and George desert the campus tour, all four learn a bit more about who they are and what they want.
“At Middleton” is clearly trying to be a love story for an older generation, emulating the “Before Sunrise” movies (which follow a couple of strangers as they meet, explore the world, and find solace in each other). And, perhaps with a bit more perseverance, this movie could be strong enough to be an insightful romantic comedy in the way that the “Before” trilogy is: observant and astoundingly human. But, alas, it’s not.
Between the adult’s love story and the teen’s coming-of-age, there’s a lot going on. The movie focuses mostly on the parents, who essentially spend their time abandoning their kids and reverting back into eager 18-year-olds in first love, and the children’s secondary plotline ultimately starts to feel like a completely different movie. If the resolution of their plotline has almost no impact on their parents’ love story, why is it examined so thoroughly?
Between the kids and the parents there’s certainly some comic relief along the way, and the movie’s not slow enough that you forget to laugh. But everything in “At Middleton” seems half-baked: The writing is stuck somewhere between simple and lighthearted and complex and practical. There are allusions to backstory and resentment which are never fully discussed again, which ends up painting the characters as stereotypes of involved, well-meaning parents helping their ungrateful and undeveloped teens.
The warmth in this movie lies in the chemistry between Garcia and Vera Farmiga. As the dialogue and plot lines slowly grow more infuriating than cutesy — basically acting the way only people in rom-coms can — their spark mostly manages to hold its own. By the end the audience might be concerned for their parenting skills, but it’s hard to deny their acting charisma.
Ultimately, “At Middleton” finds itself reconciling its desire to be all that and more, but the film can’t realistically wrap up all its plotlines in a satisfying way. The movie very much wants to be a deep and perceptive look into aging and relationships, but when it’s over the audience was wondering why they were ever supposed to care.
The verdict: A cute but forgettable love story that doesn’t really make the cut.
As you may or may not have noticed, Pulp Diction has experienced a drought over the last couple months. It wasn’t a lack of movies to review, but a lack of time on our part; we were busy defending the world from Godzilla and his minion of butterflies. Many thanks for sticking with us, or at least not unfollowing us! We’ll be providing new (and back) content for you really soon.
P.s. If you want to specially follow or block the back posts, use the tag “Arrested Diction”
The Saudi Arabian film industry is still in it’s infancy, having only really started to take off in 2006. However, even in it’s infancy, there are compelling styles and narratives being told through the medium and if Haifaa al-Monsour’s Wadjda is any indication of the future, we can surely expect more cinematic richness to come.
Wadjda is the simple tale of a young girl wishing to own a green bicycle. However, the titular Wadjda is full of spunk and wit; qualities that hardly align with the ideals of the crushing patriarchy of Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Wadjda remains undeterred in her quest, fueled by unshakable determination and optimism.
Not only is this the first film to be film entirely in Saudi Arabia, it is also the made by Saudi Arabia’s first female director. Though al-Monsour has worked on short films in the past, Wadjda marks her first full length picture. However al-Monsour shows no greenness behind the camera and infact her control and precision rivals that of any seasoned veteran. Her style is incredibly economical, carefully constructing frames that contribute to a tightly wound narrative and emotionally intimate tale.
Also acting as the screenwriter, al-Monsour’s writing is an extraordinary example of observational realism. The film is told through Wadjda’s perspective, and even as an 11-year-old, she sees the injustices in the gender roles of her home. As she observes how her mother, classmates, and teachers all respond societal expectation, she mimics none of these women, rather forges her own path and self identity in a male dominated world. Such scenes can often be plagued by tropes and appear quite staged but al-Monsour’s handles the script with such subtlety and tact that our only impression is honest and true.
Just because the film is told through the realist patina, doesn’t mean the film in bogged down with an austere ambiance. The overall tone of the film is quite whimsical, reflecting it’s adventurous and innocent lead. It’s this playfulness that provides the film with full bodied characters and allows the film to deal with these pressing issues through both a palatable yet firm pathway.
The film documents the gross oppression of women, and at times feels both suffocating and inescapable. But the true brilliance of Wadjda is that despite the bleakness of the circumstance, there is still hope. Throughout the film, Wadjda always stays true to herself and her identity, refusing the any person or system to write her off. In many ways, Wadjda is a reflection of al-Monsour herself. Despite living in a male dominated country and working in a male dominated field, al-Monsour creates art that reflects her own values and beliefs. Wadjda and al-Monsour demonstrate no amount of systematic oppression can contain their steadfast resolve, devotion to self identity, and courage to achieve their goals. It’s this very attitude that proves change is possible; as long as we keep on pedaling.