Book Review: The Boy on the Bridge by Natalie Standiford

When Laura goes to Leningrad for a semester abroad during the height of the Cold War in 1982, she doesn’t expect to meet–and fall in love with–a young Russian man named Alyosha.  With him as her guide, Laura begins to experience the real Russia and all it entails: black-market books and music, smuggled goods, and dissident ideas.  The two keep their relationship a secret because it is dangerous for Alyosha to fraternize with Americans and because her school forbids students from dating Russian citizens.  But as Laura’s departure nears, she starts to face some real problems and questions.  Does Alyosha really love her?  Is he just using her for a way into America?  How can she leave him behind even though she knows she can’t stay?

Readers looking for an interesting cross-cultural story set in a unique time period won’t be disappointed by this one. Standiford crafts a stand-out historical fiction romance that doesn’t offer easy answers to its readers nor its characters.  Memorable, haunting, and absolutely fascinating, this is one that’s not to be missed.

Standiford herself studied abroad in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this novel is at least partially autobiographical.  She nails the details about Russia during the time period and paints a picture that is at times stark and bleak and yet beautiful and full of life.  It is particularly fascinating to watch Laura’s view of the city of Leningrad–and of Russia in general–change as she experiences the city through the eyes of one of its citizens.  These details make the setting a character of its own.

More cynical readers might think they have the plot figured out from the get-go, but Standiford doesn’t offer her readers any pat answers.  The characters in this novel feel achingly authentic, and their motivations are as murky as any real human’s.  The question of what Alyosha really wants hangs onto Laura and the readers up until the very end.  This is definitely not a novel that looks to make sure everyone gets a happy ending.

Recommended.

The Boy on the Bridge by Natalie Standiford. Scholastic: 2013. Library copy.

Movie Review: Drinking Buddies (2013)

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are co-workers at a Chicago microbrewery, and they’re also great friends.  It’s clear that the two like each other a great deal, and their sexual tension simmers just below the surface, but neither one of them acts on it.  And why would they?  They’re both dating other people.  Kate’s time is spent with a wealthy older man named Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke has been with his sweet girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) for a very, very long time.  But over the course of several weeks, the dynamic between these four changes.  Along the way, they consume a lot of beer.

The first thing you should know is that this film, written and directed by Joe Swanberg, didn’t have a written script.  Almost entirely improvised from a detailed, original outline by Swanberg, the film succeeds largely because of the crazy, insane chemistry of the cast.  Seriously, the four actors that make up the majority of this movie share some of the best onscreen chemistry you’ll see this year, if not ever.  Their ability to work off of one another and improvise without over-thinking their characters’ motivations make this movie completely riveting, and completely genuine.

Although the general premise of the film is one we have seen before, it’s been a while since it was approached with such nuance.  The fact that both of the stars are in happy relationships adds an interesting paradox to what is transpiring onscreen.  The heat between Kate and Luke is safe as long as they are paired off with other people.  When Kate finds herself alone, though, Luke has to start to question whether or not he wants to be with the woman he loves or the woman that he could, maybe, love.

This is not a plot-driven movie.  It’s not even really all that driven by its characters, so if you’re looking for a fast-paced comedy or a raucous romp with these incredibly talented actors, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  What this movie really does is fully examine a single scenario, and the result is so real and so fascinating that it’s impossible to look away. So much of that credit has to be given to the actors, who really shine in their roles.

Johnson is the standout here, as he proves yet again that he’s a great, versatile actor.  He does a lot of the heavy lifting, but he’s helped out by his castmates.  Wilde is absolutely luminous in her most accessible role to date, as an assertive and strong female unafraid to instigate trouble and knock back more than a few craft beers.  Kendrick is also notable for a much more subdued role than is her normal fare, and Livingston is too damn good for you to dislike him.

It’s a few days later, and I’m still thinking about this one.  I’m still thinking about the characters, and the powerful performances of the cast.  This is one that will stay with me, and it’s one I plan on revisiting–soon.

Drinking Buddies is out now on iTunes, Amazon, and other VOD services.  It will be released theatrically in late August.

Movie Review: Hello I Must Be Going (2012)

Amy Minsky (Melanie Lysnkey) is in her thirties and fresh out of a marriage she didn’t want out of.  She’s back home with her image-conscious parents in their Connecticut home, and she’s a total mess.  When she meets Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), the 19-year-old son of one of her dad’s prospective clients, the two begin a steamy, secret affair and end up discovering themselves in the process.

This quiet, contemplative indie debuted at Sundance last year, and yet it manages to circumvent a lot of the quirky indie tropes that plague so many movies similar to this one.  Through it’s stellar cast performances and quiet, wry script, the movie ends up being a surprising little gem that you’ve never heard of.  This is definitely a title to seek out–it’s well worth your time.

For once, Melanie Lynskey gets to break out of her traditionally character-bit-part roles and shine as the film’s star.  She’s luminous onscreen, and watching her slowly peel away the layers of her depression and start to realize her own worth is amazing.  It’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen.  You can’t help but root for her, and hope that she’ll find her way–and herself–eventually.

She’s matched in talent and intensity by Abbott, who manages to create a 19-year-old boy who is searching for something just as much as Lynskey’s character.  Instead of going full-on brooding, though, Abbott creates a quiet intensity in his character that makes him all the more sympathetic.  It doesn’t hurt that the two of them have excellent chemistry, either.

The supporting cast is good and the movie doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.  Viewers should pretty  much know what they’re in for once the movie starts, but that doesn’t make it a less enjoyable experience.  Lynskey and Abbott are so good, and the movie’s rising action so satisfying, that this is one it would be hard not to enjoy.

Recommended.

 

Movie Review: Children of a Lesser God (1986)

James Leeds (William Hurt) is an unconventional speech teacher who arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine to teach at a deaf school.  There he meets a beautiful but stubborn janitor named Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), whose refusal to speak or learn to read lips baffles him. As the two embark on a romance, they must learn to speak the other’s language or face the fact that they’ll never be able to truly communicate.

Adapted from Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning play of the same name, Children of a Lesser God is an uneven movie that showed a great deal of promise before ultimately falling into some well-trodden cliches.  A stellar cast and fascinating look into Deaf culture can’t save the movie from being problematic, dated, and more than a little trite.  However, there’s a lot to examine within the film’s content.

The movie is essentially about tension between two people who speak different languages: James lives in the world of the hearing, and Sarah lives in a world of silence.  At times, the two seem to be at war with one another: James wants Sarah to learn to read lips and to speak, and Sarah is adamant that James enter and accept her world of silence.  This war doesn’t go very far, though, because the movie is only showing one side: James’s.

So, yes, the movie chooses to live in the world of the hearing, and it does so with an interesting strategy: subtitles are never used in the film.  Instead of ever allowing viewers to experience what Sarah experiences, the film has James translate everything that she signs, narrating her experience with his own voice.  At one point, he states, “I like to hear my own voice,” and it’s the line that helps pull off the premise.  And at the same time, it makes the film about him, because it only features his point of view.  Because of this, Sarah becomes the woman who is simply a stubborn object that must be conquered.  She is the problem that must be fixed.  And that might be the most frustrating thing about this movie, because it’s trying so hard to convince viewers that the opposite is happening.

There are some good things here.  Both Hurt and Matlin are excellent in their roles.  Matlin was only 21 when she made the film (it was her first) and more than holds her own against Hurt, who is convincing and powerful as the impassioned (if misguided) speech teacher.  A supporting performance by Piper Laurie as Sarah’s mother is also very good (although it’s somewhat of a thankless role).

The cast can’t make up for the film’s overall predictability, though.  The love story plays out exactly as viewers will expect it to, and although the chemistry between Matlin and Hurt is great (the two were involved in real life for a long time and had a very tumultuous relationship), they can’t save the movie from falling into every romantic drama trope there is.

Still worth a watch, if only for being one of the first movies to feature a deaf actress in a lead role.  The movie’s available on Netflix Instant for a few more days and can be found on DVD.

Movie Review: Take This Waltz (2011)

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen, playing against type) have been married for five years and are fairly pleasantly ensconced in a slightly-Bohemian domestic life in Toronto.  When Margot goes on a work trip and gets seated next to an attractive and charming man named Daniel (Luke Kirby), the two flirt rather innocently and then decide to share a cab.  Things become more complicated when Margot and Daniel discover that they live across the street from one another.  Thus begins Margot’s dilemma about her feelings for both Lou and Daniel.  While she doesn’t want to hurt her husband, she can’t deny that she has feelings for Daniel.

Sarah Polley wrote and directed this quiet little independent movie, and it’s by far her strongest film yet.  Rich in characters and emotionally generous, this film is one to see if you like contemplative character studies that offer emotionally raw situations with no easy answers.  By far one of my favorite films of 2012, this is one worth seeing.

Ambivalence dominates the movie, and viewers will have to work to figure out who the characters are and what they want.  Margot is indecisive and confused about what she wants, but she is never passive about it.  As she continues to flirt with Daniel, she clearly worries about how it will impact her mostly happy marriage to the sweet, clueless Lou.  She’s split down the middle with desire for the man she knows and loves and the stranger she can’t stop thinking about.  That’s part of what makes this movie so effective: her desire is palpable and her confusion is real.

All of the characters in Polley’s movie are remarkably well-done.  No one is any one thing, and that helps create the feeling of total uncertainty that dominates the movie.  Viewers are given some information but are not privy to what goes on inside each of the character’s heads.  As a result, the viewers sit in a state of suspense about what will happen for much of the movie.  It’s intense and riveting.

The movie never crosses over into melodrama and is never overly melancholic.  Instead, it presents the story and allows the viewer to create their own conclusions.  Although this reviewer’s reading of the film was ultimately fairly depressing, not every viewer will walk away with that feeling.  Polley injects the film with warmth and color and music, and the strong performances linger long after the film has finished.

Seriously, seriously worth seeing.  Highly recommended.

Take this Waltz was originally released in September of 2011 (but didn’t show up here in the Twin Cities until last month).  You might still be able to catch it in theaters or On Demand, but the DVD is due in October.

Movie Review: Magic Mike (2012)

When young, lost Adam (Alex Pettyfer) ends up meeting a charismatic guy named Mike (Channing Tatum), he inadvertently changes the course of his future.  Mike introduces Adam “The Kid” into the world of male stripping, and the two share in the exploits and adventures that result from that lifestyle.  All of this is much of the dismay of Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who disapproves of her brother’s choices but can’t help but be drawn to Mike’s charm.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh with a script by Reid Carolin (part of Tatum’s production team), this movie elevates itself way, way above what the trailers would have viewers believe and ends up being a smart, exceedingly well-cast movie that is both comedy and drama.  This is an exceptional film, worthy of viewers’s time and money.  Everything about this movie works on every level.  It’s one of the best films of 2012.

Much has been made of the fact that this movie is based on Tatum’s own experiences working as a stripper when he was 18 or 19.  Even though (the sometimes wooden) Pettyfer is playing the role of a similar young man, this is still Tatum’s movie.  If this isn’t a star-making role for Tatum, nothing will ever be.  Tatum is absolutely riveting as the charismatic, funny Mike, and his dance moves have never been more fun to watch.  There’s no denying that this is an actor with actual talent, and viewers will find themselves surprised by Tatum’s range and ability to embody the character of Mike–it is impossible not to root for this guy who has genuine ambition but is more than a little lost.

The rest of the cast is also very good.  Despite Pettyfer’s tendency to be a little stiff (much of what might come from his attempt to put on an American accent), he’s a natural on the stage, and watching his transformation from virginal, hesitant teenager to an egomaniacal professional stripper is fairly gripping, too.  Matthew McConaughey is at his greasy best as the club’s owner and MC.  The rest of the stripper bunch–including Joe Magniaello and Matt Bomer–are good in the scenes they’re given.  But like I said, this is Tatum’s movie, and viewers won’t be able to look away.

Adding to the film’s depth is a tentative, budding relationship with Adam’s sister.  Horn plays the character of Brooke with a natural easiness.  She serves as the movie’s own skeptic, watching what’s happening from an outsider’s perspective.  The chemistry she has with Tatum is palpable, but Soderbergh is careful to never let this aspect of the story overtake the rest of the film.

It’s exceptionally smart and frequently funny, but the movie doesn’t shy away from darker subject material.  As Adam becomes more enmeshed in the seedy parts of the business, the film allows viewers to experience it with him, but the tone is never moralistic or judgmental.  This is part of what makes the movie so great, but it’s the performances that elevate it to another level.

Highly, highly recommended.  One of my favorites of the year.  Magic Mike is out in theaters now.

 

Terrible Movie Review: The Princess and the Marine (2001)

Some time ago, I got it into my head that doing a Terrible Movie Review feature would be fun for the blog.  I like bad movies–and I watch them fairly frequently.  I’ve even reviewed a few of them here before.  The first Terrible Movie Review I (officially) reviewed was the Selena Gomez schmaltzfest Monte Carlo.  Then…nothing.  Well, I’m here to tell you that you need not wait any longer, Gentle Readers!  TMR has returned–with a vengeance!

U.S. Marine Jason Johnson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is stationed in Bahrain in 1999.  It is there that he meets Meriam Al-Khalifa (Marisol Nichols), a  young Bahraini woman who also happens to be Bahraini royalty.  Despite the fact that Meriam is Muslim and Jason is Mormon, the two fall in love.  When news of their romance reaches her family, she is forbidden to see Jason.  Jason devises a plan to sneak Meriam out of the country using forged papers and a New York Yankees hat.  Of course, once she’s stateside, she’s taken into U.S. custody and attempts to apply for asylum, claiming that if she’s forced to go back to Bahrain there’s a good chance she’ll be killed.  In the meantime, she and Jason get married (he was 23 and she was 19).  Is there love for real or just infatuation amped up by their circumstances?

I was sixteen when the movie premiered on NBC.  Readers, no matter how jaded and cynical you are now, you have to admit that there’s something there, right?  A modern-day Romeo and Juliet?  Star-crossed lovers?  Two people who are completely different and defy the odds to be together?  Whatever the case may be, a movie like this plays into one of the ultimate fantasies (and is essentially the title of a romance novel).  At sixteen, this was the kind of movie that worked for me: I realized it wasn’t particularly well-made, but I loved it anyway.

Rewatching it in my late twenties, it’s been an entirely different experience.  The things I was willing to ignore–the cheap sets, the lack of any detail regarding the story, the fact that most of the acting is mediocre at best–are a lot harder to ignore now.  There’s no getting around this one: this made-for-TV movie is not very good.  It’s pretty terrible, actually.

I don’t mean to discredit it completely, though.  Both Gosselaar and Nichols are very sweet together and have a nice chemistry onscreen.  The two do the most they can with what they’re given to work with, but it’s not enough.  Not by far.

The fact is, the sets do little to try to convince viewers that they’re actually in Bahrain (it almost seems as though Bahrain the country is nothing more than Meriam’s palace and the local shopping mall).  Viewers are forced into Jason and Meriam’s romance without any real set-up for it, and from that moment forward, everything is rushed: their first kiss, their declaration of love, and their discovery.  There’s no time here to allow things to unfold, and the result is a total mess.

All the standard made-for-TV movie issues are present here.  The script is not particularly well-written, the story is dumbed down for the audience, there are moments edited with the intention of a commercial break, etc.  There’s also the issue of the dubious casting choices–Nichols is actually Hispanic, and most of the other Bahraini girls she associates with seem to be of Indian descent.  The bottom line is that when it comes down to it, the movie isn’t very memorable.

To add serious insult to injury, Johnson and Al-Khalifa aren’t even together any more.  The two divorced in 2004, after Johnson claimed that the Las Vegas lifestyle had been too appealing to Al-Khalifa.  This bums me out, not least of all because Johnson was discharged from the Marines after the smuggling stunt he pulled.  Talk about lose-lose.

Movie Review: Contagion (2011)

When a new deadly pathogen hops from Hong Kong to Chicago, scientists are flummoxed as to what it is and how to stop it.  As the virus spreads across the world and becomes a panic-inducing pandemic, the World Health Organization races to find a cure.  How much of the world’s population will be devastated before a cure can be found–if one even exists–remains largely unknown.

There are a number of things that work well in Steven Soderbergh’s smart, scary thriller.  Everything from the tight plotting and fast pacing to the largely talented cast makes this movie a standout and nearly perfect in its execution.  This is a thriller that shouldn’t be missed.  It is that good.

Directed by Soderbergh, who worked with his usual crew (including writer Scott Z. Burns), the movie is full of a visceral urgency that makes watching the film an intense experience.  This dystopian view of our present world is marked with paranoia, self-interest, obliviousness, and a complete denial of science–all things that the world struggles with.  The film wastes no time in setting up its premise, and while it is highly controlled in its precision, it’s also frightening and emotionally engrossing.

While the film could easily derail into a disaster flick (see: 1995′s Outbreak), the movie stays closer to an international thriller.  The result is, as I’ve already said, really great.  Part of what propels this greatness is the talented cast.  While Laurence Fishbourne is serviceable as a CDC bigwig, it is Kate Winslet as a CDC worker who really nails the role. She tightens her voice and her face and is almost pathological in her sense of duty.  Matt Damon is also great as the bewildered husband of patient zero Gwenyth Paltrow.

Definitely worth your two hours, Contagion is out on DVD now.  Don’t miss it.

Movie Review: Drive (2011)

A young man (Ryan Gosling) works as a stunt driver and a mechanic during the day and spends his nights as a getaway driver.  When he becomes entangled in the lives of his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, things get more complicated.  Add in some pissed off mob bosses (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman), and more than a spot of violence, and you have something approximating Nicolas Winding Refn’s weird, atmospheric Drive.

The formula in Winding Refn’s movie is simple, and at the beginning, it almost seems as though it will work.  Gosling’s character (always referred to as the Driver, or the Kid) has a quiet way about him, and as he expertly navigates his way out of a police chase, viewers are riveted.  The movie feels, in many ways, an homage to the highway movies of the 60s and 70s (and has a soundtrack straight out of the 80s).

The problem is that once the movie gets going, viewers realize that while it’s somber in tone and pretty slick in appearance, the movie itself is empty.  The characters have no depth despite the fact that they’re inhabited by a largely talented cast.  In addition to blank characters, the movie’s atmospheric masculine melancholy threatens to choke the film more than once.

In addition to being full of emptiness, the film struggles to figure out what it’s aiming for.  Is it a shallow action flick, or a weird pseudo-European art house film?  The reality is that it attempts both and only succeeds at being European-esque.  I had a long conversation with my viewing partner about whether or not the film itself is supposed to be a fable and whether or not the character of the kid is supposed to be a real person.  While he was adamant that the entire thing is a fable featuring a mythical person, I had to wonder how many viewers will actually get that.

At the end of the day, the movie doesn’t quite succeed.  The action thriller aspects of the movie aren’t quite right, and characters who lack depth or actual personality means that the movie doesn’t succeed there, either.  It is interesting to look at, though, and the soundtrack is worth checking out.

Drive was released in theaters on September 16, 2011.  It will be released on DVD in the United States on January 31, 2012.

Movie Review: One Day (2011)

Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dex (Jim Sturgess) meet on the night of graduation from Edinburgh University.  After going home together and having a “near miss,” the two form a friendship that spans 20 years.  Although the two are complete opposites–she’s a middle-class, steady, focused girl and he’s a wealthy, spoiled prat–they have a connection and a love for one another that sustains their relationship.  The film, directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), follows these two characters as their lives cross over these two decades, checking in on them on the same day each year: July 15th.

One Day is built upon a central gimmick, and while the results are mixed, it certainly is interesting.  By checking in with these characters on the same day each year, viewers miss most of what occurs in their lives.  Nearly all the action in their lives occurs off screen, meaning that the characters have to catch viewers up through some quick exposition as the years pass.  This makes it hard to judge the film as a whole, but it does make it easy to enjoy specific pieces of it.

There are things to enjoy here: both of the leads are strong actors (although the same can’t be said for Hathaway’s weird, disappearing accent), and they have good chemistry.  The film is also quite charming, observant, and touching at times.  Having a supporting cast boasting Patricia Clarkson doesn’t hurt, either.  There’s a certain freshness to the script, written by David Nicholls (who adapted the story from his eponymous novel), and there are moments of genuine witty banter between the characters.  So yes, there are things here worth seeing.

The problem arise when you pause to consider the film as a whole, though.  Like romantic comedies/dramedies before it, it examines the age-old film conceit that it takes the love of a good woman to make the man.  Dex is a pretty terrible human being, but Emma’s steadfast love and support of him eventually turn him around.  It takes several tragedies and some hard moral lessons for this to happen, though.  Like other films before it, the film also sends the message that a long-term platonic friendship between a man and a woman must always lead to romance, a statement I take issue with not only because my best friend is a man but because it’s total bullshit. (I blame When Harry Met Sally for establishing this as the norm.)

Of course, the film plods along well enough until the end, where it is guaranteed to split viewers.  I won’t spoil it, but my guess is that reactions will fall into several camps: you will see it coming and won’t be surprised (like me); you will find it moving and fitting; or you will cringe to see the film’s general wit crushed by maudlin sentimentality.  The ending will likely determine how you feel about the movie in general, which is too bad, because up until it, it’s not a bad film.

One Day is playing in theaters now.