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The Spectacular Now (2013)
Unapologetically romantic and refreshingly discerning
You may not know it yet, but this is the romantic film you've been waiting to see.
The Spectacular Now does cover old ground - bad boy meets good girl. But don't be fooled into thinking this film is straightforward. They may be in high school, but our heroes Sutter and Aimee have experienced enough to know that life isn't always easy. They're intelligent. Cynical, even. Below his joviality and her quiet pragmatism, these high school sweethearts know that there's nothing simple about growing up.
Think Freaks and Geeks meets Say Anything , but with less plaid and more drinking.
The film's screenplay was included in 2009's Black List (a list of the most popular unproduced scripts circulating Hollywood, compiled each year and voted on by industry professionals). The pace is gentle, the characters are closely drawn, and the dialogue is sharp and funny. The film's melancholy charm is heightened by its beautiful cinematography, which was designed by the same woman responsible for the dreamy aesthetic of films like Son of Rambow and Brideshead Revisited.
The excellent script is also bought to life by a top-rate cast. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have graced just about every "30 under 30" list this side of 2013, and both have gone on to dominate the young Hollywood scene. So, too, have supporting cast members Brie Larson (Short Term 12, Scott Pilgrim) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (A.C.O.D, Scott Pilgrim). With a cast like that, it's hard to go wrong.
Written by the team behind 500 Days of Summer, this film is unapologetically romantic and refreshingly discerning. Perfect for rainy day viewing.
On the Road (2012)
Miscast, poorly scripted - disappointing adaptation
It's the late 1940s, and young writer Sal Paradise's father has just died. He hangs out with friends in bars and struggles with writers' block. But when he meets charismatic Dean, Sal decides to follow his new friend's lead and take to the road on a cross-country trip across America.
Let's start with the good, shall we? The supporting cast are excellent, and special mention should be given to Tom Sturridge. He plays Carlo (Allen Ginsberg's alter ego), who spends much of the film intensely brooding over his broken heart, his writing, his wild ambitions. A quiet scene in which he tries to articulate his feelings towards Dean is one of my favourite in the whole film. Elisabeth Moss and Amy Adams also have blink-and-you-miss-it supporting roles, and they both easily outshine their higher-billed co-stars.
Unfortunately, that's about all the praise I can muster.
We are informed, time and time again, that Dean is charismatic, charming, infectiously reckless and dangerous and sexy. Sal, Carlo and Marylou can't get enough of him. He makes their lives better, more complete, more exciting. And yet Hedlund, for whatever reason, completely fails to shine on the screen. Good looking, yes, but charming he is not.
Reading the film's trivia page, previous attempted adaptations of Kerouac's book had the likes of Marlon Brando and Brad Pitt in mind to play the role of Dean. It makes me disappointed, embarrassed and slightly angry that the film's producers, in their search for our generation's equivalent to Brando and Pitt, settled on Garrett Hedlund. Was there really no one else available? What about Aaron Taylor-Johnson? Or Sam Claflin? Or Miles Teller, maybe? Or anyone who actually manages to make beautiful lines of prose sound more exciting than the phonebook? Objections have also been raised about some of the other main cast members, but although none of them - with the exception of Sturridge - lit the screen alight, none of them ruined the film either.
But of course, this film was always going to disappoint. It was always going to disappoint because it was built on a shaky foundation. The film's underlying problem, the problem that was always going to be a problem even if everything else was perfect, was what the script isn't good enough.
Any film worth watching tells you what its characters want. It's a character's pursuit of his/her personal goal that drives the whole plot. There was no sense here that the characters wanted anything in particular. There was talk of writing, but only in passing, as a way to spark a conversation in between drags of a joint. The characters talked, and laughed, and drank, and danced and travelled. But none of it really mattered because, in the end, none of them really changed.
I'm aware, of course, that Kerouac's book is a much-loved piece of literature, which leads me to conclude that it must be much, much better than this film. If that's the case, then fine. Read the book. Love the book. But it's not enough to trust that an audience's love for a story told in one medium will necessarily transfer into a love for the story in a different medium. The film feels like it relies too heavily on people knowing - and liking - the characters of the book, and in doing so fails to deliver an adaptation worthy of its source material.
Forget Me Not (2010)
Potential for so much more
This film has a lot of potential. The cast, particularly the two leads, are great. The premise - two strangers meet and spend one long night falling in love - is perhaps a little predictable, but still holds charm. The setting - London city at night - is picturesque. However, the script fails to deliver and our two star-crossed lovers spend far too much of the film skimming the surface of well-worn conversation topics, trapped in cliché scenarios.
Lingering looks? Check. Conversations about God and the meaning of life? Check. Rain-soaked embraces? Check. Guy giving up his jacket? You bet. Bittersweet ending? Of course. Piano playing, swapping of embarrassing childhood stories, walks along rivers, revelations of painful pasts, spontaneous musical interludes - this film has it all.
That's not to say the film doesn't have its charms. There are some interesting twists in the conversation, and there are moments towards the end where the characters manage to break free, however temporarily, from their cookie-cut roles of Tortured Artist and Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The problem is that the formula has been done so often, and so much better. See: Before Sunrise (1995), Once (2006), Breakfast Club (1985). This film is by no means terrible, but with so many other good films available to watch, why waste your time?
In a World... (2013)
Lake Bell's first film isn't perfect, but it's charming and enjoyable
When voice coach Carol enters the competitive world of voice-overs, she finds herself grappling with industry heavyweights to get her voice - literally - heard. The plot is pleasingly simple and moves at a comfortable pace, but the real strength of this film is the script. The dialogue is smart and funny, and the film addresses everything from gender inequality and dysfunctional family relationships to awkward interactions with the hot neighbour.
The comedy credentials are evident in the film's cast. Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed the film, is supported by Ken Marino (Party Down) and Fred Melamded (A Serious Man), who play her competitors and rivals in the voice-over world. Marino is suitably smug in his role as up-coming voice over artist Gustav, and the scenes in which he recounts his seduction of a one-night stand are hilariously, embarrassingly graphic. Likewise, Melamded's turn as the pompous, veteran artist Sam is spot on. Both characters take themselves excruciatingly seriously, and the humour in their interactions comes naturally without feeling forced.
Despite the sharp comedy and stable performances, there are moments in the film that don't ring quite true. Carol spends much of the film being told by her father, coworkers and other characters just how competitive and cut-throat the voice-over world is. Not to mention the fact that she's a woman, which makes the whole thing almost an impossibility. And yet, within what seems like a week of providing a demo for a trailer, Carol has landed herself three more jobs. Unfortunately, the film doesn't show this; the information comes in the form of an announcement. Which raises questions: if it really was so hard to get the work, why don't we see this struggle? How has Carol managed to shoehorn her way in so quickly? It all seems a little false, and too easy - for a film all about the struggle of a woman in a man's world.
My second gripe is how underused some of the cast members are. Demitri Martin, known for his quirky sense of timing and tightly written stand-up comedy, plays the likable but rather bland love interest. Likewise, Michaela Watkins (Saturday Night Live, Enough Said) and Rob Chorddry (Community, The Way Way Back) spend most of the film nursing their relationship back to health, while the great Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) does little but provide feeder lines for Carol to punch into jokes. Bell's cast is rich in potential, but somehow her funny, cynical script failed to capitalise on this.
Overall, however, the film was smart and funny, and highly enjoyable. Lake Bell is charismatic as the main character, and the rest of the cast - underused or not - are intensely watchable. Critics and audiences alike are raving about the film, and with good reason. It's hard to dislike a film as charming as this.