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Beatty is Back/A New High School Classic/The Best Film of the Year?

Rules Don’t Apply – Writer/Director/Actor/Legend Warren Beatty has emerged back into Hollywood with a long awaited passion project about a young actress, a young driver, and their eccentric boss, Howard Hughes. It’s easy to draw connections between Hughes, the king of Hollywood, and Beatty, a man who has his own legend of reclusiveness and a place in Hollywood royalty. The first time we see Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes he’s cloaked in shadow and slowly enters into dim light, unsure of how he’ll be received. Interestingly, his performance seems to be more Beatty than Hughes. The star’s larger than life presence as the eclectic figure looms over the film, but it’s the two young stars who have the spotlight and make the film shine. Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey, a hopeful actress under contract at RKO studios, is a delight, while Alden Ehrenreich plays Frank Forbes, a driver for the studio, with the boyish charm and charisma of a young Leonardo Dicaprio.

Beatty fittingly breaks rules here with a frankenstein patch job of amusing tones that jump from earnest romance to screwball comedy to satire to bittersweet drama. The editing is particularly odd—cutting off scenes abruptly, unexpected music cues, slicing together scenes with opposing tones—making the film frustrating and refreshing; sometimes even in the same scene!

He’s assembled a gallery of Hollywood veterans for his cast. Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Matthew Broderick, and Steve Coogan all show up to give even the small roles a fun Hollywood spirit. Its surface appears to be a light romp and homage to old Hollywood, but underneath is a personal letter from Beatty that needs a key to be unlocked. Marla and Frank’s old school romance is the heart of the film that’s never lost amidst Beatty’s experimentation. His long awaited passion project, and potential swan song, ends on a bittersweet note of poignancy that only someone of Beatty’s talent could land.

Grade: B+

 

The Edge of Seventeen – The “i want to die” teenage aesthetic has been brought to life. First time director Kelly Fremon Craig has made the heir to Terry Zwigoff’s masterful Ghost World, the king of angsty/youth sucks cinema. Hollywood has had no problem putting teenagers and their #problems on screen, but rarely is the wasteland of youth done with such truth. Everyone’s youth has similar issues—lost friendships, new romances, nagging parents, tough life lessons, a general feeling that life sucks. Craig’s modern suburban diary entry doesn’t reinvent the teen film but it navigates familiar issues without becoming cliche.

It’s about 17 year old Nadine (a magnificent Hailee Steinfeld), an outcast and hormonal, wisecracking time bomb who is certain that the world is out to get her. Craig doesn’t shy away from making Nadine unlikable because what teenager is always likable? None. Steinfeld/Craig are able to craft a character whose frustrating and sweet, sarcastic and earnest, smart but makes dumb decisions, mean and nice to her family/friends. The Edge of Seventeen uses these rainbow of traits to go down familiar avenues with fresh eyes.

Craig doesn’t explicitly define any of the characters as a specific group in high school e.g. jocks or nerds. Nadine’s older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is more socially gifted than her, and when he begins to date Nadine’s best friend, Krista, a whirlwind of teenage emotion sets sail. There are similarities to Fast Times at Ridgemont High with a female lead whose brother has a crush on her friend and a sense of familiar location, i.e., a diner, the school, or Nadine’s house. Sadly, there is no young Sean Penn.

Nadine’s various emotions are visualized through color and framing. She’s seen isolated in her room and in a crappy bathroom while feeling lonely. When she first talks to her crush she’s surrounded by colorful aquariums. The camera pulls back and the neon light surrounds her. The comedy is also impressively directed with perfectly timed cuts that add an exclamation point to the already well performed comedy. Nadine’s teacher and mentor (the always great Woody Harrelson) trades witty lines while also casually spouting sage wisdom.

Other American high school films post American Pie (1999) revel in the raunchiness of high school. The Edge of Seventeen‘s humor is entirely owed to Nadine’s world-view. Craig (forgive me for this) takes a selfie/snapchats/vines the 2010s as definitively as John Hughes captured the 80s. Craig sees through all the cliches that plague the genre to not just give us a teen film, but an insightful movie about a teen who is also a complex human being. It’s rare that teen emotions are taken seriously. Last decade Ghost World (2001), Mean Girls (2004) and Superbad (2007) cemented themselves as high school classics (note that HS is a sub genre of the “coming of age” genre). The Edge of Seventeen joins The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) as an American high school classic of the 2010s.

Grade: B+

 

Manchester By the Sea – There are a few contenders for the best film of the year and more contenders are imminent. I have one that I consider my favorite and a few are vying for the silver medal, but there’s not been a film as grand and intimate as Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea. Casey Affleck gives what might be the best male performance of the year as Lee, a Boston janitor who gets a phone call telling him that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died. Lee returns home to Manchester, a fishing town in Massachusetts, to set up the funeral and figure out what to do with Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a teen who used to be close with Lee.

In Lee’s return to Manchester it becomes clear that something tragic happened to him here. People in the town whisper about him and Lee keeps his head down and barely speaks so he doesn’t have to confront the past. I can think of few other films that so potently capture the feeling of grief. It doesn’t go for the typical DRAMATIC EMOTIONAL SCENE to tell us about how awful his grief is. The approach here cuts deeper. Lonergan goes beyond everyday grief to focus on the grueling tediousness of the micro, e.g., Lee dealing with ungrateful people, shoveling the sidewalk, driving in traffic, finding a parked car, awkward small talk. The use of a classical score gives these seemingly minor moments a graceful melancholy and sense of importance. All of this sneakily adds up to create an EPIC depiction of grief that’s manifested itself into every crevice of this man’s life. By the end I realized there was a giant lump in my throat. But this wasn’t just because grief is the content of the film. Lonergan attempts to formally capture grief.

Typically flashbacks are fleeting, and almost ghostly, but Lonergan’s solipsistic flashbacks, which have the answer to Lee’s mysterious tragedy, are more lively than the present. The quickest, and most hyperbolic, comparison for this type of flashback is The Godfather Part II. They’re filled with characters, mini stories, and completely inform the present timeline but when it cuts back you’ve almost forgotten about the main plot because the flashbacks are so rich. It’s in a way reversed from the usual form of flashbacks, and instead makes the *present* feel ghostly, sad, and fleeting.

It’s a remarkable formal technique that Lonergan explored to greater effect in Margaret (his 2011 masterpiece), where he let scenes breathe and diverge into something you wouldn’t expect. It gave that film and now this film, a real sense of place where anything could happen. This manufactures Manchester’s endless crashing waves and snow as a living landscape, and with Lee at the chaotic center, the location becomes an emotional component that’s in a word: operatic. The technique playing with length/expectation of scenes melded with Lee’s flashbacks forces the viewer to tune in, or lean into the story. We don’t just crave or need the information of the flashbacks; it’s emotionally vital to experiencing Lee’s story.

As devastating as its depiction of grief is, it’s also a very funny film. Lee and Patrick’s banter is hilarious. There’s a ton of detours in dialogue where character’s discuss stuff like Star Trek, furniture, boat motors, or the logistics of bringing a girl home. All around this is a “full package.” It’s too organized and streamlined with familiar content for “M” word praise, but it knocks on the door of potentially becoming a classic American drama with stuff like The Deer Hunter and Ordinary People which similarly explore pain and grief to make the micro moments in life feel epic, poetic, universal, and worth pushing through.

Grade: A- Years best film? As valid as any film so far!

 

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