We seem to be in the middle of a run of good but not totally great films that succeed despite assorted minor flaws. Bear in mind that due to screening conflicts I haven’t been able to review “Looper” yet, but here’s a roundup of seven films that opened either today or last week in Sacramento.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Written & Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Probably the best of the current bunch is “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which has been adapted and directed by Stephen Chobsky, based on his own novel. Logan Lerman plays Charlie, a high school freshman with a (very) troubled past who is friendless and a loner at school until he’s virtually adopted by an odd pair of senior year step-siblings played by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller. Both the awkwardness and the wonder as Charlie stumbles through life and assorted first experiences is palpable and all of the central characters are assorted outcasts. Patrick (Miller) is the obviously and openly gay student of the group and Sam (Watson) is the only partially recovered girl who made every bad choice available when she herself was a freshman.
If there’s a problem here it’s related to the strength of the project. Lerman, Watson and Miller each seem perfect for their respective characters – and Lerman is far better here, playing the downtrodden kid, than in recent projects where he’s had to carry a more outsized role (as a Musketeer or as the heroic Percy Jackson, for example). Watson is also holding her own in a post-Hermione Granger period, with only the mildest of accent slips, and Miller inhabits Patrick. But they’re also slightly off in terms of their respective ages. Watson and Miller don’t seem four year older than Lerman – which isn’t surprising as they’re not (Lerman is actually older than Miller). It isn’t a fatal flaw and Logan carries the innocence well – but the adaptation combined with this particular cast might have worked slightly better if Charlie was, for example, a junior entering that school for the first time for some reason.
Aside from that, and I’m willing to bet it won’t bother most people, it’s well done and emotionally involving. And even for those who haven’t read the book (which includes me) there’s that sense the source material is being understood and respected that you get when the original writer brings his own work to the screen. None of the characters’ personal dramas here are sensationalized and the topics of bullying and being ostracized are both timely and timeless. Watching “Perks” is a perk of its own.
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky
In the animated “Hotel Transylvania,” Count Dracula has built a castle fortress that serves as a refuge from the horrific and torch-wielding humans for monsters of all kinds (and they’re all on the guest list). Much of this is driven by his desire to safeguard his daughter after his wife has been killed in an assault on the prior family home by angry villagers. Skip ahead 118 years, and the hotel is full on his daughter’s birthday and she is anxious to finally leave the safety of the castle to explore the world.
Dracula is voiced by Adam Sandler and a young human who stumbles into the party weekend is voiced by Andy Samberg. But “Hotel Transylvania” is worlds apart from “That’s My Boy,” their last collaboration, which was an ugly mess. Here we have a cute, light story about family and friendship, with underlying themes of judging people as individuals rather than as members of a group. There are the typical jokes that rely on bodily functions and lowbrow comedy, but it’s upbeat and well intentioned, with a strong cast and neat artwork. And while there’s no secret surprise scene at the end, the closing credits display some of what I’m assuming were the original design concepts for the castle and characters and are worth sticking around for. If Sandler made more movies like this, I’d look forward to them more.
Directed by Jason Moore
Sacramento is one of the chosen cities for an early release of “Pitch Perfect,” a somewhat Glee-like movie about college (rather than high school) level groups on the a cappella singing circuit. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is a new student at Barden University despite wanting to move to LA to try her hand at music production. Her father teaches at the school and has pressured her to attend, eventually making the bargain that if she finds a club to join and hates her first year, he’ll support her other plans even if it means dropping out. And, hence, she finds herself in the ill-fated, all-female Barden Belles a cappela group.
Following a bad experience in competition the prior year, the Belles have had a hard time recruiting and so end up with the typical ragtag bunch of members, including the large “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) who calls herself that rather than being called it behind her back, and an Asian student played primarily around the running gag that she’s in a singing group despite having a voice that’s so soft one can’t even hear her speak.
Overall, the film is fun and pleasant enough but it suffers to an extent by trying to be too many things at once in service to too many presumed audience demographics. It’s a little like a “Bridesmaids”-light in that sense, with moments of being a touching father-daughter story, along with a light romantic comedy, but also a comedy of projectile vomiting and politically incorrect punchlines – all of which work independently of each other but make for an inconsistent whole. One other small aspect that bothered me mildly was the apparent ease with which the father strolls in and out of the daughter’s dorm room, as though it’s a bedroom in a family house, and despite the presence of a roommate.
That said, it’s funny – not all the time but on balance. And it’s the kind of project that makes you want to seek out outtakes online, and which surprises by not including them at the end. Also noteworthy is the funny performance by Elizabeth Banks who, along with John Michael Higgins, plays an exceptionally inappropriate competition commentator. She seemed like an odd choice at first until I realized that she had produced the film and this is her project and, even if she cast herself, she chose well in the process. It may not be absolutely pitch perfect, but it can certainly carry a tune pretty well.
Won’t Back Down
Directed by Daniel Barnz
“Won’t Back Down” plays like a slow and steady narrative adaptation of “Waiting for Superman” – and it makes most of the same points. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a single mother who won’t accept the poor education that her young dyslexic daughter receives in the local public elementary school – not just any school, but a school that has been tagged as failing for 19 years. Viola Davis plays a teacher in the same school who has similar problems with her own son and who is recruited by Gyllenhaal’s character to lead a parent/teacher takeover.
Naturally we see much conflict here with the teachers’ union protecting both good teachers and bad teachers (sometimes really bad teachers), wildly varying school performance, parents and children taking part in a charter school admissions lottery (which, as in “Waiting for Superman,” makes you wonder if children should even be allowed in the room), and a deep sense of desperation on all sides.
The acting is solid, but there’s a lot of explanatory dialog that gets squeezed in along the way and the film suffers from the same problem of almost all narrative films that cover this topic – that you know exactly what’s going to happen before the film even starts. Films like this don’t tend to get made that are based on true stories about folks who failed to fix their problem school. But, again as with “Waiting for Superman,” we’re told that most experimental schools fail without being told much about those other examples. It tells an effective story but it doesn’t feel like anything we haven’t seen multiple times before.
This has been a good week for fans of police/crime dramas with three interesting and quite different films. None are especially safe picks for those with sensitive stomachs but, for the hardier viewer, they are solid entertainment.
Directed by Pete Travis
With a more substantial feel than many films in this genre, “Dredd” relies on less CGI and the outcome looks better as a result. It’s the familiar story of the cop/jury/judge public servants in a future society based in an overcrowded city state, with extremely violent and graphic imagery (of the stylized and slow motion splattered brains variety) as the Judges go up against a drug manufacturing gang. What is most noteworthy for folks who watch a lot of movies is how stunningly similar the structure is to the recent “The Raid: Redemption” – an Indonesian film that opened in this country earlier this year. Both involve raids on tall towers with open interior atriums that provide an opportunity for gun battles across the open interior space all the way up the building. The scale is far greater in “Dredd” but the setup is virtually identical with, perhaps, the scale working better in the earlier film as you get a better sense of the protagonists progress. Instead, in “Dredd,” with 200 floors to cover, we get action that jumps 100 floors at a time despite elevators and areas of the building supposedly being shut down. But that’s a quibble that doesn’t really detract from the nature of the action.
End of Watch
Written & Directed by David Ayer
This is another gritty film from the writer of “Training Day” and it’s both violent throughout, with some very disturbing scenes (more real and therefore more disturbing than “Dredd”) and emotionally devastating towards the end. It’s also a film that some may find difficult to watch due to it’s style and underlying premise. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an LAPD cop, partnered with Michael Peña, who’s taking a film class in college and filming everything he does on the job with both a handheld camera and smaller cameras clipped on both of their uniforms. So the footage the audience is watching much of the time is supposed to be from these small cameras and it’s jumpy and grainy. In the first few minutes I actually wondered if I would be able to put up with two hours of this, but it starts to feel less obvious after a while.
The two partners have a reputation on the street for making difficult arrests in a tough neighborhood and they find themselves encountering the same gang operations repeatedly, without knowing that they’re seeing the tip of the iceberg of cartel activity out of Mexico. And, not surprisingly, their activities are not held in high regard by the cartel, who have extremely little regard for human life, including the lives of two cops. The film also demonstrates the difficulties and emotional toil of being a family member of a police officer in a rough city. It’s a tough film but worth the time.
Directed by William Friedkin
Somewhat unusually, the most casually violent and twisted film, with the mainstream box office kiss of death NC-17 rating, is playing at the art house Crest Theatre in a continuing engagement. But it’s also the latest film from William Friedkin who, 40 years ago, made such incredible films as “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” – so there’s no reason to expect an upbeat love story. “Killer Joe” revolves around a Texas family of total reprobates and idiots (or both) who devise a plot to kill an ex-wife/mother who allegedly has a weighty life insurance that will benefit the schemers. In order to accomplish this, the motley family crew hires a detective who just happens to moonlight as a contract killer – and who is several rungs higher on the intellect ladder than his clients.
The strength here, aside from the story, is the cast which includes Matthew MacConaughey (as “Killer Joe”), Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Haden Church as the slowest of the group, but a man who recognizes his own limitations. It’s a low budget production with a simple, stark style that matches the content and which as well as keeping audiences on edge will make them thankful for all but the most screwed up of family situations at home.
Other film related news:
One of my favorite recent animated moves, “How to Train your Dragon,” has been turned into a “Live Spectacular” arena show that’s coming to Sacramento on January 3-6. The preview looks neat and more information, including ticket details and dates for other cities, can be found at www.dreamworksdragonslive.com