Tag: nat wolff

Home Again

Home Again (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Take a living situation inspired by a bad sitcom destined to be cancelled within five episodes and couple it with a whiff of Hollywood nepotism—what results is “Home Again,” a painfully generic would-be comedy written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Although it is supposed to appeal to women, specifically those who are divorced or raising children on their own, because messages of single female empowerment are sprinkled throughout, observant viewers will not be fooled: the film has little to no understanding when it comes to the type of audience it hopes to connect with. Great romantic comedies offer insights on relationships while providing entertainment. This project, however, cannot even execute one scene effectively.

There is a drought of jokes that lead up to big laughs. Nearly everything comes across as inauthentic, from the smart-talking child characters—awkward to watch because they have clearly memorized the lines on the script but do not achieve convincing delivery—to the mother, Alice (Reese Witherspoon), who makes the decision to allow three strangers (Pico Alexander, Jon Rudnitsky, Nat Wolff) to stay in her guesthouse. The screenplay never ceases to amaze how often it ends up focusing on the wrong things.

For example, the three men in their twenties have dreams of making it in Hollywood. But instead of focusing on the hard work and sacrifices necessary to even get the chance to speak with an influential industry person, we get one montage after another of them playing with Alice’s children, cooking for them, and doling out advice about life. While it is necessary to show them interacting with the family, the film gives the impression that becoming successful filmmakers just happens if one simply knew the right people. Perhaps this is a reflection of the writer-director’s personal experience, which is great for her, but this does not translate well to viewers who are highly likely working middle-class. The picture stinks of privilege at times and I was bored by it.

As for its treatment of the main character, I found it ugly, distasteful, and uninteresting. Notice how Alice never seeks to actively solve her problems. Events simply happen around her; luck just waves its wand when the plot requires and everyone is happy again. When the character is at fault, others who revolve around Planet Alice find themselves apologizing to her when the problem is equally her expectations of others. It is a shame our supposed heroine is written in such an uninspired and one-dimensional way because Witherspoon is a wonderful performer. In her previous works, it is apparent that she has the ability to make the audience empathize with her characters despite the fact that they may be unlikable.

For a romantic comedy, it curious that the romantic aspect is often pushed to the side. Perhaps because it is embarrassed to tackle the subject head-on: a possible relationship between a forty-year-old woman with kids and a twenty-seven-year-old man whose life is focused on quick sensations. A couple with an age gap could have been funny had the material been brave enough to be honest with its audience. The subject does not need to be awkward, unless, of course, the writer-director is self-conscious about whether mainstream audience would find the relationship to be acceptable.

Death Note

Death Note (2017)
★ / ★★★★

For a story that is supposed to highlight the power of imagination, “Death Note,” based on the screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slate, is malnourished of this very element, from the way the characters are written to the manner in which events unfold surrounding a teenager named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who comes across a mysterious notebook imbued with the power to kill any individual whose name is written inside its pages. It is a challenge to sit through material with potential to genuinely engage and impress but proves incapable of doing so with every passing scene.

Due to the writing’s lack of depth, we never believe the fantastic reality the protagonist finds himself embroiled in. While the dialogue acknowledges that Light is supposed to be smart for his age, his decisions prove otherwise—he is unable to think three to five steps ahead of whatever he is up against, whether it be his girlfriend (Margaret Qualley), his father (Shea Whigham), who also happens to be the chief of police, an enigmatic detective from the FBI (Lakeith Stanfield), or Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the demon god of death that enacts the killings specified by the owner of the notebook. That is, until the moment when the plot requires that he be intelligent enough to pull off a surprising final act. Since it is all too convenient, we feel cheated of our time.

The plot requires an exploration of moral gray. Essentially, it brings up that question that if you had the power to kill anybody at a drop of a hat, would you do it? But the material is not at all interested in depth or philosophical musings. Rather, it is interested in pushing the pacing in such a way that the story creates a semblance of the story moving forward—even if it is inappropriate at times. In actuality, ironically, mindful viewers will recognize that the story is stuck in one position. Sure, events occur and unfold, but, for instance, do we actually learn about the subtleties implied within the numerous rules surrounding the curious notebook? An important sequence involves a ferris wheel. This ride works as a metaphor for, and critique of, this picture.

While the deaths are visually impressive, reminiscent of “Final Destination” horror films when we can actually see them transpire rather than being manically edited, less striking is the look of Ryuk. While appropriate that it hides in the shadows, when it is shown under some shade of light, the substandard CGI takes away from the already low-level tension of the film. Although Dafoe taps into some interesting notes when it comes to his voice acting, it is disappointing that the character itself never does nor says anything particularly revealing or surprising.

“Death Note” is directed by Adam Wingard, filmmaker of stylish pictures such as “The Guest,” “You’re Next,” and “A Horrible Way to Die.” But his sense of style comes with a load of painful mediocrity, leaving a bland taste in the mouth, content-wise, rather than a shock to the system. With the aforementioned works, at least it is apparent he intends to follow his own vision. Here, however, the material reeks of desperation to be liked, to be modern, to be mainstream to the point where his stamp is no longer visible. A bad movie with a specific vision (and execution) is always more tolerable than a bad movie that embraces any and all compromises.

Palo Alto

Palo Alto (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

“It’s because you’re young. You don’t know why you do things but there’s always a reason.” That quotes sums up the common thread of “Palo Alto,” based on James Franco’s collection of short stories, a film that is weak in plot and narrative drive but is saved—just barely—by the performances of its three leads: Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, and newcomer Jack Kilmer.

It does not break any new ground when it comes to exploring teen angst and ennui. We see familiar scenes of drinking, partying, hooking up, gossiping, as well as deeply self-destructive behaviors, but the impact is lessened because the material offers very little long-range consequences. One might argue that perhaps that is the point. These are characters who are afraid of the future and who they really are. Their thinking stretches only as far as the next few hours.

For instance, when April (Roberts) is confronted by her academic counselor of the reality that her record may not be good enough to be considered “competitive” in order to get into a good university, she breaks down and asks permission to go to the restroom. Are we supposed to feel bad for her situation? Perhaps not. But look closely. Although, like her peers, she comes from a fairly affluent family, she gets no support.

It is interesting that her mother (Jacqui Getty) is always on the phone and appears to mean well when her daughter returns home. But it is a lie. The mother does not care—at least not really. If she did, her interactions with her daughter would feel more substantial, warm, genuine. The mother always asks what she can do or make for her daughter. A real mother—one that really cares—would have picked up that her child is severely unhappy. Also, consider the mother’s appearance. She looks like a joke, trashy—like one of those bimbos in the “Housewife” reality shows.

Wolff’s character, Fred, does not come into focus—which is a shame because if he had been handled correctly, he would have been the most relevant. Although his self-hatred is communicated quite clearly during the final act, for the rest of the picture, he is written too broadly—the guy who attends a lot of parties but he does not actually have fun. Fred is the loudest of the three main characters and yet he is the most underdeveloped.

The cinematography captures the lived-in quality of Palo Alto. My family lives only a few minutes away from that area and I was impressed that the picture is able to capture that atmosphere of middle-class communities with teenagers who are bored and wanting to break out of the bubble—but unknowingly destroying their chances of doing so.

Directed and based on the screenplay by Gia Coppola, “Palo Alto” is elevated by its third lead performance: Jack Kilmer playing a troubled teen named Teddy who is a natural artist but having trouble communicating what’s in his mind and heart. Kilmer is the perfect anchor between Roberts’ silence and Wolff’s unruly spirit because he plays the middle of the two extremes—without being boring. Teddy’s future may not be bright but Kilmer’s may be worthy of a spotlight if he chooses to continue taking roles that take risks but retaining the ability to hone in on what makes his characters’ stories worth looking into.

Paper Towns

Paper Towns (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Although Margo (Cara Delevingne) and Quentin (Nat Wolff) were close as children, they’ve grown apart over the years. That is why Quentin is most surprised when Margo sneaks into his bedroom one night and asks if she could borrow his car. Over the next couple of hours, they pull various pranks—payback for Margo’s ex-boyfriend cheating on her and those who have been aware of the fact but kept it a secret. The next morning, Margo is nowhere to be found. Her parents believe she had simply ran away—yet again—but Quentin feels it in his gut that she wants to be found by him.

“Paper Towns,” directed by Jake Schreier, offers a handful of good moments, especially the interactions among Quentin and his two best friends (Austin Abrams, Justice Smith), but it feels as though there are many character and circumstantial details that are missing. As a result, although it has lessons to impart about the idea of romance and growing up, most of them are reduced to platitudes. Specific details make dramatic pictures interesting but this one is mired in generalities.

For example, not a lot of time is spent exploring why Quentin feels such a deep connection to Margo. He goes on a blind mission to look for clues she left prior to her disappearance but the question as to why is he so invested in finding her is not answered in a compelling way. Are we supposed to just believe that since they spent a couple of hours together, even though they never interacted in school, that it is enough for an intelligent, good-natured teenager with a bright future to risk so much for her? Perhaps. And if so, that makes him quite a one-dimensional protagonist.

The investigation itself is not executed in an interesting way. We simply wait for the plot to make a turn so that the main character has something to go on and the story can move forward. In between are moments of humor shared by the three best friends, particularly the pressures of prom looming just ahead. They are awkward socially but we understand right away why they share a tangible camaraderie. One can make a case that this is the film’s strongest point.

But I argue that material’s final twenty minutes, aside from the final scene, is the standout. There is a practicality, realism, and honesty in the dialogue that many romantic movies targeted for teenagers—and adults—dare not be in the vicinity of, let alone touch. If the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber had been sharper by focusing more on providing specific details during the first half, the impact of the words and actions shared would have been devastating. Ultimately, the final product makes an impression but it offers nothing memorable.

Based on the novel by John Green, “Paper Towns” is a thoughtful teen movie about learning to move past one’s comfort zone. However, it is not a fully realized piece of work, especially in its dissection of ideation versus reality from a romantic point of view, because the execution from paper to action comes across as shallow and at times frivolous.


Admission (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Portia (Tina Fey) is an admissions officer in Princeton University. After having been invited by a high school teacher, John (Paul Rudd), to stop by and give some information about the university, possibly inspiring those who wish to apply during her talk, she is told by John that he has found her biological son, the child she gave up for adoption when she was an undergraduate in Dartmouth. His name is Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) and he happens to be interested in attending Princeton.

Here is a film that should have been approached with satirical edge. Instead, “Admission,” based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and adopted to the screen by Karen Croner, ends up as a would-be comedy-drama with scenes that move so slowly and almost devoid of humor. Its many subplots are not entertaining. They merely serve as padding for what should have been the focus of the picture: how it is like to be an admission officer in one of the most respected universities in America, an institution that receives over twenty-thousand applications annually and only accepts just about a thousand and two hundred.

Like a high school student that spreads himself too thin, the picture’s strategy involves giving us too many characters at once, introducing them and their problems superficially, and hoping that somehow parading them around will pass as character development. In one scene, Portia is having issues with her mother (Lily Tomlin) not putting in enough effort so they can both have a so-called healthier mother-daughter relationship. The next scene is about something else completely, with Portia competing against her co-worker (Gloria Reuben) for a promotion because the dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn) has announced his retirement. It is like cotton candy: it looks like a lot to bite into on the outside but when you get into it, there is not much there.

The attempt at romantic comedy is lifeless. Sure, Fey and Rudd are charming as usual. The sort-of date between Portia and John has a sweetness to it, but the performers are not given much to work with. Words are uttered but they are inconsequential. The date is tolerable only because of the awkward smiles and the twinkle in the eyes of the actors. At least they are getting paid to endure bad material. What about us?

In addition, the drama is not convincing. Would it have been too much for the writers to treat some of its characters seriously when something real is supposed to be on the line? I am tired of movies that portray intellectuals as emotionally crippled alien beings. Michael Sheen is completely wasted as Mark, Portia’s boyfriend of ten years. We spend one scene in their apartment and we can tell immediately that it is not going to work out. There has to be a reason why they have been together for a decade. It is as if the screenplay does not even bother to construct believable interior lives for its characters.

The best scenes pack wit and excitement but are short-lived. I enjoyed simple moments like Portia reading, in voiceover, college admission essays. It made me feel like it was only yesterday since I wrote one. I knew I was a good writer but I was so nervous; I remember sending my essay and not feeling very confident about it. The words being read are fun to listen to because the essays have character in them. I would have liked to have heard more. In addition, there are a few silly scenes like Portia grabbing someone’s else’s baby in an attempt to “help.” I laughed but there are not enough of them.

A potentially great scene involves the officers and the dean of admission assessing and voting as to which applicants deserve to receive an acceptance letter. However, the screenplay and direction seem timid to allow a scene to run longer than they should. As a result, the picture fails to engage us completely. After presenting numbers like grade point average, SAT scores, and the like, there is not enough silence to let the audience think about whether the applicant should get in based on those only. Instead, it rushes through the numbers, extracurricular activities, and other recognitions. In the end, it is all a jumble.

The problem with “Admission,” directed by Paul Weitz, is it does not care about the process. It has about five to six subplots but it does get into the nitty-gritty of what it is really like to be a woman who hopes to advance her career, a newly single person meeting a potential mate, a daughter who feels rejected by her own mother, and someone who thinks she is ready to be a parent. Since the process and details fall on the wayside, the film ends up being merely a trifle.