flipped“Flipped is as phony as a poodle-skirted waitress at a mall diner, yet it’s as sweet as a malt. A vanilla one.” — Joe Williams, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The children theme continues with Rob Reiner’s 2010 movie Flipped. Julia’s choice. 55% on Rotten Tomatoes sounds about right.

To its credit, it’s rated PG and probably most appealing to homeschooled kids and old people who grew up with Leave it to Beaver. It was just too saccharine and formulaic for me. It’s the 1950s. Girl likes boy. Boy doesn’t like girl. Then boy likes girl. Girl doesn’t like boy. Boy makes sweet and cheesy gesture and boy and girl like each other.

At times it felt like the Wonder Years, but somehow it lacked the true heart and depth of that show.

It wasn’t a total swing and a miss, but a swing and a… I don’t know, I’m not good with sports analogies. It was a swing and a foul or something. It’s nothing I’ll remember in a year. Or month, really.

The one bright spot this movie had going for it, for me, at least, was the interesting storytelling device and alternating perspectives of the same scenarios between the boy and the girl, hence the name “Flipped.” In one chapter we’d watch the plot unfold from the boy’s perspective, and then we’d get the same or similar plot details from the girl’s perspective. That was effective and satisfying. Even if the movie was a little too Wonder bread, at least it did keep you curious about how the main characters’ perspectives would differ. So, there’s that.

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boyhood2Boyhood was released in 2014, but it has the unique distinction of being a film in progress over 12 years in the making, spanning from when lead character Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) is about 8 to about 18. We literally watch him grow up before our eyes, and, more depressingly for me, his parents age. It truly gives new meaning to the saying, “It goes by fast.” In one late scene right before sending her son off for college, Mason’s mother played by Patricia Arquette laments the quick reel of milestone after milestone flashing before her, saying, “I thought there’d be more.”

I was eager to see this film, being both an enthusiastic fan of writer/director Richard Linklater and longsighted and ambitious family projects. At 165 minutes, it’s a bit of a commitment, and it took a little while for me to ease into it. I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped in the first hour. But as we see Mason grow up, the film seems to get a bit more assured along with him, it discovers itself too. So that by the end it was the Linklater I’d expected. It had moments of real brilliance – particularly that final scene.

Here we are, with Mason, having one of those glorious and exhilarating afternoons of young adulthood and new freedom, and it feels like we know exactly who he is and what led him there in a way that’s very abnormal to feel for a character in a film.

I thought Ellar was wonderful as the young man Mason, and I wonder how much that’s a credit to Linklater’s prescient casting and how much is luck. He was sensitive yet brooding, smart and insightful yet still maturing, closed-off yet curious. He hit the very right notes and took me straight back to that time of life – when there’s so much optimism but also so much self-doubt. For me, this wasn’t a perfect film, but it had moments of true perfection.

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The 400 Blows

the400blowsThe theme of children continues with Francois Truffaut’s 1959 French new wave classic The 400 Blows. It tells the story of an incorrigible adolescent skipping school and getting into trouble on the streets of 1950s Paris. It’s interesting reading the lofty praise excerpted at Rotten Tomatoes – I wonder to what extent the credit this film receives has to do with time and place. But that’s not to say I didn’t like the film.

It was the ending that did it the most for me. A perfect finale to the constant need to break free from the strict confines of adolescence. And that look he gives us, telling each one of us of his struggle. I also liked how the film vacillated between brief tastes of joy (the carnival ride and the happy trip to the movies with his normally stressed out and worn down parents) and the pressure and drag of being a kid (the oppressive classroom and a mostly unhappy home life). Finally, that long and simple take of the 1950s children of Parisian as they watched a riveting (to a child) puppet show was everything that I love about movies. It captured pure truth for a brief moment in time. Beautiful.


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Salaam Bombay

salaam bombayAs part of this month’s theme of children, I watched David’s recommendation: the 1988 debut feature from Indian director Mira Nair. It tells the mostly sad story of street children in Bombay. A boy is intentionally abandoned while working for a circus, and spends the rest of the film getting caught up in Bombay street life while trying to save money to return home.

There were moments of redemption for both the film and the characters, but mostly I found it a grueling viewing experience. The pain and suffering wasn’t gratuitous, nor were the shots of Bombay street life. But, it was still a bit hard to watch, and oddly, not as moving as I’d expected. It just felt a little flat throughout, to me.

I did appreciate the ending – loneliness in a sea of humanity. It felt like Krishna’s story, in a country of a billion, is nothing extraordinary. I found myself thinking coldly, God, India needs to get its shit together. I wondered if my lack of empathy was more an indictment of me, or was it that the film had missed opportunities to strike the right emotional notes.

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The Life of Oharu

thelifeofoharuDirector Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1952 film The Life of Oharu follows a woman’s life, as she finds herself in various of society’s roles – concubine, courtesan, wife, prostitute, nun – each shift greeting her with new tragedy. It examines the place and experience of women under feudal patriarchal rule, and finally questions the Buddhist doctrine of life as suffering. While Oharu is constantly punished at just about every turn for her very existence, Mizoguchi seems to be pointing the finger at society.

For me, there were two scenes that spoke to me. In only two instances does she have a chance to view the child she bore as a concubine to a wealthy lord, and in both cases she barely catches a glimpse. In fact, the audience too, only gets to see what she sees, which is hardly satisfying. In both shots, as is characteristic of the filmmaker, he takes a wide-angle and highly choreographed approach. This is not only interesting, but also includes all of Japan in the tragedy.

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This Boy’s Life

thisboyslifeThis Boy’s Life was Leonardo DiCaprio’s breakout role in 1993. I watched it as part of this month’s film club theme of children. It is the autobiographical coming-of-age story of writer Tobias Wolff, set in 1950s rural Washington. The story centers teen Jack (Tobias/DiCaprio), his single mom (Ellen Barkin) and her new husband (Robert DeNiro) who turns out to be a loose cannon.

I’m not sure if this film would have much of an impression on me if it weren’t for the compelling lead performances. There was all the promise you would expect to see in young DiCaprio, and DeNiro is skilled as a man who’s charming one moment and unhinged the next. He also takes on an odd, almost overdone Canadian redneck accent. The second reason this movie worked for me is that I saw it right after another coming-of-age-with-a-challenging-father-figure-set-in-the-1950s-film (Tree of Life). So, it was interesting to consider the role men played in households in the 1950s, and how women and children were in many ways powerless against it. (Thanks women’s lib!) I related to the closeness between mother and son, and also how the mother preferred to leave problems behind rather than solve them (I feel like permanently abandoning a broken car is something I would do). On the other hand, I didn’t relate to her never “refereeing” in the abuse between her husband and son, especially when she never loved her husband in the first place. I thought their first matrimonial sex scene said something pretty awful about the lot in life of many women at the time. Final takeaway was how terrible the effect adults can have on children – seems the problem is timeless.

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The Tree of Life

malickI took a small break from daily writing because of a busy work week and my mother visiting. During that week David and I finally did what we’d been talking about doing for years – had a first official “film club” gathering. At that gathering, we made a unique and inspiring new friend. He writes film reviews professionally, but even more impressive than that is that this practice started when, at 9 years old, while driving home from a movie with his dad and glowing about how much he loved it, his dad suggested he write down why. He’s written a film review of every single movie he’s watched since then.

Yesterday I revisited this new friend’s favorite film, Tree of Life. I have loved others of director Terrence Malick’s poetic, sweeping works, but don’t clearly remember my first impression of the film that many consider his masterpiece. Tree of Life came out in 2011 and Roger Ebert compares its “boldness of vision” to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I don’t want to go to far over my 10 minute writing rule, so I will keep my second impressions brief.

What a wonderful film to choose when dusting off a long-neglected film habit. No other film easily comes to mind that considers such huge themes – existence, life, love, grace, God/the immortal, childhood – in such a generous, beautiful, and simple way. It’s classic Malick – beautiful shots that seem almost effortless and meditative, much of nature. Sparse dialogue. Poetic snippets of narration. But the overall effect is extremely evocative to the patient and sensitive viewer.

What is our place in this vast universe? Why are we here? How should we live? The viewer has a beautiful backdrop to consider these questions, and they are answered only as satisfactorily as life answers them for any of us, through any of our lives.

The film feels like a gentle and considered autobiography, set in 1950s middle America. We catch glimpses of grown-up and societal strife as children do, crashing into moments with immediacy yet preserving their mystery. Mother and Father are two yin and yang forces of nature as real and true as the signature shots of nature Malick imbues all of his films with. And their qualities wrestle within their children in a way our parents wrestle within all of us.

Beautiful, powerful, poetic, sweep, deeply personal yet generous enough to be universal. The final scenes with the ethereal Jessica Chastain had me in tears, though it took a second viewing and open mind to appreciate the abstract final shots. Final personal takeaways: The way to happiness is love. And also the path to the eternal is through grace.

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