Saturday, May 4, 2013

Short Takes: Perks, Frankenweenie, and More

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Every couple of years, there's a coming-of-age film that's destined to become a classic, speaking to a new generation of teenagers and telling them, "yeah, the world is bullshit, but that doesn't mean it isn't intolerable." Perks is one of those films. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the screenplay and directed), the film follows Charlie (Logan Lerman) as he navigates his first year of high school, making a new friend in Patrick (Ezra Miller), falling for Pat's sister Sam (Emma Watson), and struggling with depression after a trauma in his past. It could be very melodramatic, but Chbosky never lets the film lose it's joie de vie, namely with the help of the excellent cast. Miller, in particular, is a firecracker; hopefully we'll see more of him in the future. B+

Frankenweenie (2012)

You can go to just about any film blog and see pieces about how Tim Burton's films have been mostly lackluster in the past decade (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd excepted, in my mind), and how Frankenweenie is his freshest film in ages. But what about it makes it a better film? Part of it comes from Burton revisiting his early animated short of the same name, part of it comes from paying tribute to the Vincent Price horror films and creature features he grew up on, and part of it surely comes from the fact that neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter are involved (note to Burton: do that more often). Instead, this stop-motion animated feature follows a basic Frankenstein tale: Victor (voiced by ) reanimates his dog, Sparky, after a tragic accident. He then tries to keep it a secret, but once the truth is revealed, mayhem ensues. What really makes it so delightful is how simple it is: Burton's returned to his "outsiders/weirdos save the day" motif from the early days, and it reminds us of what a singular talent he is when he tries. B+

Pootie Tang (2001)

At the time of it's original release, this film was a major flop. Conceived as an extension of the character from The Chris Rock Show, the film follows indecipherable crime fighter Pootie Tang (Lance Crouther), who tries to foil a plot to make kids smoke, drink, and eat nothing but fast food. Featuring a cast of terrific comedians - including Rock, Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smooth, and Dave Attell, as well as spots from Jennifer Coolidge and Robert Vaughn, the film wants to be a parody of blaxsploitation films filtered through the alt-comedy lens of writer/credited-director Louis C.K. (the film reportedly was re-edited by Ali LeRoi), and in that regard mostly succeeds. In our post-Adult Swim world, where anti-comedy is more accepted, the film has gained more of a cult following. It's an enjoyable, puzzling, bizarre piece of major-studio cinema, and a peak at what C.K. would become a decade later. B

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

Give director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance credit: he's chosen an ambitious tale to follow up his intimate 2010 breakthrough Blue Valentine. The film traces the lives of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcycle rider who discovers he has a son, and Avery (Bradley Cooper), a small-town New York cop, and the ways their lives intersect. The film really breaks down into three smaller, interconnected vignettes: the first, focusing on Luke's efforts to take care of the son he never knew he had with the woman (Eva Mendes) who wants nothing to do with the ne'er-do-well, is the best, thanks to Gosling's steely magnetism (no doubt Luke is a long-lost relative of the Driver from Drive). The other two segments, one in which Avery struggles with police corruption, the other centering on Luke and Avery's sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively), don't fare as well, with the lattermost suffering from contrived storytelling. Still, the actors shine, elevating a messy script into a interesting (but still messy) film. B-

Double Indemnity (1944)

Noirs don't get much better than this: Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance man lured into a nefarious scheme by Phyllis Dietrechson (Barbara Stanwyck), who wants to kill her husband via unusual circumstances so she can claim the double indemnity clause in his accident insurance policy. Needless to say, there is no such thing as a perfect murder, but Stanwyck delivers a flawless performance in a career full of them. As directed by Billy Wilder - who's career is also an embarrassment of riches - the film is gorgeously shot and staged, making full use of shadow and light. It's a marvel all-around. A- (Best Shot post here)

Summertime (1955)

Katharine Hepburn shines in this breezy romance from David Lean, who would later be known for sprawling epics such as Lawrence of Arabia. Hepburn stars as Jane Hudson, a lonely American on vacation in Venice when she falls in love with Renato (Rossano Brazzi), a shopkeeper who also happens to be married. The film is carried by Hepburn's magnificent performance, showcasing Jane's loneliness in a city where she barely knows anyone - aside from a few other (quintessentially) American tourists - as well as her conflicting desire to experience the thrill of passion with Renato. Heightening that desire are cinematographer Jack Hildyard's gorgeous shots of Venice, as the entire film was shot on location. It may not be among Lean's or Hepburn's most famous films, but it definitely deserves a look. B+

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