Hateship Loveship (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
After the older woman she worked for has died, Johanna (Kristen Wiig) is employed by Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) to help take care of his granddaughter. Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) does not live with her father (Guy Pearce) because he had been imprisoned and is currently struggling with drug addiction. Her mother, on the other hand, passed away due to an accident. Johanna and Sabitha do not see eye to eye, the former for her lack of social skills and the latter for feeling threatened by the new presence in the house.
Directed by Liza Johnson, the goal of “Hateship Loveship” is to tell a small but specific story about a woman who is so used to things just happening to her that we come to wonder if she has experienced how it is like to truly live. Although the screenplay by Mark Poirier attains that target occasionally, the emotional power of the film depends on how consistent it hits the mark exactly. By the end, one gets the impression that the film has good intentions but it is a misfire.
Part of the problem is Johanna teetering on bland, colorless, on paper. Wiig plays her just right—unfashionable, soft-spoken, always looking down—but the writer does not give her very much to do or say. Wiig single-handedly makes the quieter moments work—such as one involving a trip to a clothing store—because she has the talent for looking sad without being pathetic. We root for her to achieve some sort of happiness.
Still, for such a quiet person, we almost expect Johanna to offer profound insight when she does choose to speak. We know that the character is really at good cleaning, almost on an obsessive level, cooking, and is sensitive to others’ needs. We also know that she is so yearning to have romantic love that she becomes prey for a cruel joke.
There is a lack of fluidity in the storytelling. By dividing the picture into two major parts, the first half consisting of Johanna’s every day life with Sabitha and Mr. McCauley and the latter half Johanna spending time with Johanna’s father, it feels like two movies awkwardly conjoined. The final scenes have no sense of time passing by. Major events are thrown at us but they bear little impact because they are not yet earned.
Worse, there is a late subplot involving the grandfather finding a special woman. It has nothing at all to do with the larger themes of the movie so discerning viewers must wonder if such scenes had been added for the sake of having “feel-good” moments. I questioned if the writer did not have the confidence in the effectiveness of the dramatic material that he felt compelled to introduce a light distraction.
“Hateship Loveship” might have worked if it had been reread and rewritten several more times—to get rid of unnecessary details that contribute nothing to the overall arc and to focus on the protagonist’s struggles to find the love that she has longed for. At least it is refreshing to see Wiig in a dramatic role that she embodies so fully, there are moments when I forgot that she has made a career out of making people laugh.
Ten Thousand Saints (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Based on the screenplay and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “Ten Thousand Saints” is an ambitious drama about youth, friendship, family, New York City on the verge of change, and sacrifices that adults (and soon-to-be-adults) are willing to make for their children, but it is not a successful film because it fails to focus on and explore any one of the subjects it attempts to tackle. What results is a formless picture, bereft of compelling elements that are specific to the characters involved.
After a New Year’s Eve party in Vermont, Jude (Asa Butterfield) suggests that he and his best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia), get high on freon—the former unaware that the latter had taken some cocaine at the party just a few minutes prior. They lose consciousness amidst the snow and the next morning, both of the boys’ bodies are found—Jude still alive but unable to move, Teddy dead for several hours. Jude’s father, Les (Ethan Hawke), who grows cannabis in NYC as a source of income, invites his son to live with him in the city for a chance to make a change, if Jude wanted, in his life. Soon enough, the surviving teenager meets up with Johnny (Emile Hirsch), Teddy’s elder brother, who lives his life as a Straight Edge—one who makes an active choice in avoiding all drugs, sex, and eating meat.
The picture is shot quite beautifully, highly convincing in showing us different lifestyles of people who do not have much money but are getting by. The interior of homes are so detailed, it is like visiting a real house with many years of memories. This is especially critical when people get into a disagreement or when secrets are revealed. The walls and decorations exude the feeling of becoming more alive over time—that the more experience family and friends go through together, the picture frames, furnitures, figurines, and other knickknacks become all the more embedded in the place of living’s DNA.
Significantly less convincing is the love shared between Jude and Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of the woman (Emily Mortimer) that Les is currently dating. Although the screenplay touches upon the different types of love between them, Jude’s feelings for her are never given a chance to come into focus. As a result, the protagonist is paper thin as a character but has a memorable physicality: bright blue eyes and a lanky frame. He is a quiet young man, but what does he stand for? Why is this specific story worth telling through his eyes? There is a lack of a defined perspective and insight here.
Another lost opportunity comes in the form of failing to delve into teen drug abuse. Although the material addresses the topic quite heavily during the first third, it is almost completely dropped about halfway through. Instead, we get to hear Jude tell another person he longer is into smoking marijuana—and that’s about it. This is inappropriate because he still feels guilty for being an instrument toward his friend’s untimely death. By sweeping the drug angle under the rug as if it were unimportant, the film loses about half of its staying power. The second half drags like nails along a chalkboard.
Based on the novel by Eleanor Henderson, “10,000 Saints” is also about rebellion, whether be in a suburb or a city, but there is a lack of convincing passion amongst its main players. What the film needs is rage and a punk-rock attitude to match its soundtrack in order to ignite the fire underneath the more melodramatic elements. Because it is missing this critical ingredient, the characters are unforgivingly dull, one-dimensional, and forgettable.
Edge of Seventeen, The (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is a profound sadness in the heroine of “The Edge of Seventeen,” sharply written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, which is only one of the many reasons why its story is worth telling. The film is head and shoulders above similar coming-of-age stories about socially awkward high school students because there is an authenticity in both script and performances. And while the target audience is likely to be smart and self-aware teenagers, twenty-somethings and above who remember those turbulent years will probably be able to relate to every character here since we have already gone through the seemingly interminable trials that come with being a young adult.
Hailee Steinfeld plays the central character named Nadine with electric energy and alluring vibrancy. Most interesting is that although Nadine is indeed our protagonist, there are numerous times when she comes across unlikable. I found the material to be honest in its portrayal of teenagers in that sometimes they mistake honesty for being purposefully hurtful. Steinfeld fits the role like a glove because she is able to communicate a number of thoughts and emotions all at once without ever losing the viewers’ empathy. She commands the role especially because she has the ability to evoke both nuances and broad strokes often within one scene. Steinfeld should aspire to take on more roles with this level of complexity since she is clearly more than capable. I am convinced we will see her on screen for a long time.
The picture is exciting due to its ability to surprise. Although most unsurprising is the trigger that sends Nadine over the edge—her best friend friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and her brother (Blake Jenner) sleeping together—what’s refreshing is in how the characters are painted after the fact. No one is a villain, only flawed people responding to their mistakes. As Nadine is forced to make connections when the bond between her and Krista is severed, sooner or later we realize that every person she comes across are worth exploring further. Lesser comedy-dramas tend use supporting characters as crutches or punchlines. Not here.
Particularly interesting are the history teacher and a classmate in history class. Woody Harrelson plays Mr. Bruner, a teacher who appears to be apathetic about his job, his students, and perhaps even his life. Although there is a lot of great humor in the exchanges between Mr. Bruner and Nadine, the dramatic payoff between the teacher and student later on is equally great—if not more—despite the former offering no words of wisdom about high school or life. They do not even share a hug or a look of approval.
I am particularly difficult to please when it comes to romantic interests in movies. A second fascinating supporting character is played by Hayden Szeto, a classmate who has a lot of talent and heart. Despite the fact that early on it becomes all too clear to us that Erwin and Nadine are a good fit for one another—whether it be through friendship or something more—the way their relationship as two teenagers simply trying to figure things out is a breath of fresh air. The high level of writing and performances overcomes the expected cutesy-ness.
High on emotional intelligence, pointed sense of humor, and entertainment value, “The Edge of Seventeen” belongs on the shelf among superior modern coming-of-age films such as Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” and Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Aspiring coming-of-age pictures about smart teenagers should look up to it as an example.
Begin Again (2014)
★ / ★★★★
John Carney’s “Begin Again” needs to go back to basics and simply tell its story straight without the unnecessary gimmicks such as flashbacks that comprise of about fifty percent of the first half and showcasing overproduced songs that are supposedly performed live. I found it exhausting because it tries so hard to be authentic but it comes across very superficial and often in the doldrums with respect to pacing and overall mood.
Gretta (Keira Knightley) is approached by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former head of a record company, after singing in front of an audience whose reaction is lukewarm at best. Dan sees potential in her; he thinks she just needs to change her image a bit so people will find it easier to relate to her and her music. But Gretta is not interested in being signed because she wishes to be recognized for her talent, not the image she is selling. Eventually, however, the two find a common ground and decide to make a record.
Knightley and Ruffalo share absolutely no chemistry. Over the course of the two characters working together, there is supposed to be a whiff of friendship and possible romance blossoming between them, but neither connect in such a way that we feel, deep down, they are kindred spirits. The scenes that do work somewhat are short exchanges where Gretta and Dan disagree and create friction. However, these are supposed to be “mature” people and so an argument ends just before the scene ends.
A subplot involving Dan’s wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) is a minefield of boredom. Keener’s character is written to be as dull as possible. Meanwhile, Steinfeld’s character is not given anything to do other than to look sort of moody and hormonal—a stereotypical movie teenager—while wearing skimpy clothing. Surely Keener could have signed up for a project that is equal to her talent. I was more disappointed, however, that Steinfeld chose this role because she is usually pretty good at selecting characters with substance to them.
I will not even begin to describe the contrivance of Adam Levine’s character who starts off as a humble artist and becomes a complete jerk—all within a span of a month. As with Ruffalo, Knightley shares no genuine connection with Levine and so when their characters are supposed to be bonding, sharing things with one another, or having fun, it appears completely disingenuous. To me, their relationship is one that exists only in the movies.
I did not enjoy the songs—with the exception of “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” the first track featured in the film. The rest of the soundtrack is nothing special, most of them sound exactly like other female singer-songwriters on MySpace trying to break into the music industry. Because of this, we are never on board that Gretta is truly an undiscovered diamond who should become the next big thing.
“Begin Again” is largely unfocused and quite depressing in spots—not because of the content but because the work should have been more alive, executed with a sense of urgency, capturing that excitement of introducing an artist that the world should know about. Instead, what we are given is sub-mediocrity packaged in a dull box with the writer-director’s name written on the tag.
True Grit (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a plucky fourteen-year-old girl, was adamant about finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s cold-blooded killer, and getting even. She left her grieving mother and siblings at home while she went to town to hire a competent bounty hunter. She crossed paths with an alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who was first reluctant to tackle the task. Mattie desperately wanted him because she claimed he had “true grit” or the right spirit she was searching for. Mattie and Cogburn were accompanied by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also wanted to bring the criminal to justice. The western genre is normally not my cup of tea, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this film. Steinfeld’s energetic performance as a headstrong girl who wanted vengeance instantly caught my interest especially the very amusing scene when she tried to sell back the horses her late father bought. In just one simple scene, Steinfeld established that Mattie was intelligent, resourceful, and unafraid to bluff when the occassion called for it. She saw adults as untrustworthy so she had to be self-reliant and use fear to motivate others. Adults saw her as a child who didn’t know any better. On the positive side, she could get away with certain things that older folks simply would not. Much of the picture’s humor was embedded in the scenes where Cogburn and LaBoeuf tried to ascertain which one of them was the more effective lawman. Cogburn, aging and a drunkard, just didn’t know when to quit while he was ahead and LaBoeuf was difficult to take seriously because he walked around as if he already deserved to be respected. Bridges was successful in delivering the softer side of a man who wanted minimal contact with the world. Meanwhile, Damon complemented Bridges’ character by wanting to be seen, heard and admired. It was obvious that both were having great fun with their roles. As opposite as Cogburn and LaBoeuf were, the two could make a great duo when the situation turned grim. I admired the look of the film because I felt transported to that era. The contrasting images of the blistering hot desert and the bone-chilling snowy nights not only were great visually but they reflected what the characters felt, especially Mattie since we saw the story from her perspective, during their arduous journey. I just wished we had a chance to get to know Chaney a bit more in order to make room for another layer of complexity. Based on Charles Portis’ novel and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “True Grit” was a straightforward and character-driven revenge story. Simple is not something I’m used to when watching Coen brothers picture. Maybe that’s the irony.