Catching Up With: The Perks of Being a Wallflower – 2012

It’s amazing what a change of medium can do to a story, especially in the case of the film adaptation of”The Perks of Being a Wallfower,” which amazingly was written and directed by the man who wrote the acclaimed 1999 novel, Steven Chbosky. The novel, which I finally read a few weeks ago after years of being urged by everyone I knew at college to read it, told the story of a troubled teen named Charlie who learns to deal with his demons thanks to the profound bond he forms with a small group of friends at his Pittsburgh high school in the early ’90s. The book had a profound emotional core that was occasionally undone by some really stiff writing and a clumsy framing device (I still read the whole thing in under 2 hours though). But Chbosky, in his directing debut, has brought his own story to life. “Perks” is a funny, tragic and profoundly moving film, one that can speak volumes not just for current teenagers but for anyone who felt trapped on their own island in high school.

Charlie (an excellent Logan Lerman) is a freshman, and to say he’s nervous about starting high school is an understatement. He’s gone through horrible trauma in his life, specifically the suicide of his best friend and the tragic death of his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey, seen briefly in flashbacks) weigh heavily on him, which makes him a prime target for bullying. He counts down the days to graduation like a prisoner waiting for parole, and the only friend he makes on his first day is the cool English teacher Mr. Anderson (a perfectly cast Paul Rudd). Charlie’s only refuges are the books he reads for extra credit and the mixtapes his older sister Candace (Nina Sobrev) casts off to him. His favorite song is “Awake” by The Smiths, because Morrisey’s unmistakable wail makes him sound like the only person on Earth more alone than Charlie.

Things turn around for Charlie when he meets Sam, (Emma Watson, miles away from Hogwarts and all the better for it) the gorgeous senior girl who immediately steals his heart and her gay, free-spirited stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller, in a lively, hilarious turn). These two immediately take Charlie under their wing, encouraging him to live life to the fullest, and provide him with the first real remnants of friendship he’s seen in a while.

The film is narrated by Charlie through letters he is writing to an unknown recipient, and he is the guide through a tumultuous year where he experiences joy, confusion, heartbreak and all the other obligatory feelings a naive freshman must feel. “Perks” is a great modern story of youthful friendship, showing how important the bonds we make with others can be, while also showing how devastating it can be when those bonds are tested. Charlie’s shyness is slowly broken down by the exuberance Patrick and Sam show. They speed through tunnels in Patrick’s truck, standing up in their seats as the rush of the lights and the stirring anthem of hope and possibility in the wake of despair that is David Bowie’s “Heroes” blasts out of the speakers, and participate in performances of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” At first Patrick and Sam pity Charlie because of the sadness that clouds his life, but they toast him for being a “wallflower,” a keen observer and listener. The relationships between these three deepen and change over the course of the movie in a natural way that Chbosky, proving that he’s a much better screenwriter than he is a novelist, fills with a confidence behind the camera and a keen eye for detail in the killer soundtrack (Sonic Youth, Pavement and countless others = music heaven) and in the gallery of fantastic performances from the three leads.

Lerman turns Charlie into a three-dimensional protagonist, not wallowing in despair but being strengthened by it. Even though Charlie’s sense of self improves dramatically thanks to Sam and Patrick, he is still painfully naive about some things, like we all are at 15. He is easily duped into doing drugs. He ignores Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), the girl who genuinely has a crush on him. Instead he falls head-over-heels for Sam (Watson has never been more effortless on-screen, nailing the American accent and the tinges of darkness underneath her beguiling nature), but he doesn’t realize that she doesn’t feel the same way. She’s into pretentious college guys, and has a troubling history of settling for less when it comes to men. Sam isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl under the surface, she’s not a savior. Even the friends we think are perfect have their own problems. Patrick, played by Miller in a brilliant performance that establishes him as an incredibly versatile talent (he was all terror and menace in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) has a secret relationship with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons) that ends in heartbreak; he’s frustrated that the rest of the world isn’t as free as he is. The imperfections of this trio strengthen their bond, but they also provide opportunity for disconnect that can have tragic consequences.

Mr. Anderson says to Charlie early in “Perks” that we “accept the love we think we deserve.” That’s a message that runs through the film, and adds to its power. This film is about the beginning of the journey to happiness, not the end. A devastating secret threatens to undo Charlie permanently, showing he still has a long way to go to fully heal. But friendship is the key to his salvation.  I think “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” will endure because that core lesson applies to everyone; it more than transcends its high school setting. When Bowie sings “we can be heroes, just for one day” through that Pittsburgh tunnel, it carries with it all the hope that Charlie and co. strive for. With the strengthening of an already powerful story, Steven Chbosky has created something truly rare: a movie that deserves to be as beloved as the book it is based on.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Seven Psychopaths – 2012

You would think that writer’s block would not be fertile ground for a compelling story in the movies, but that keeps getting proven wrong. The writing process can be a bleak, hellish thing to document (depending on which writer you ask, probably) and someone with a creative perspective when it comes to genres and basic structure can come up with something interesting about the inability to write anything interesting at all.

Such is the conundrum that Marty, an Irish screenwriter played by Colin Farrell, faces in “Seven Psychopaths,” the second feature film (the first being “In Bruges”, also starring Farrell) from acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. The film’s title is also the only thing Marty has come up with on his own screenplay. The haze of alcohol is doing little to inspire him to come up with the seven lunatics he wants to fill his story with, even though he is surrounded by plenty of crazy, embodied by his actor roommate Billy (a delightfully batshit Sam Rockwell), who along with the religious, enigmatic Hans (a return to form for Christopher Walken), is running a scam where they steal dogs from the park, and then return them to collect the reward money. But one day they steal a shih tzu belonging to the crazed mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson, always a welcome lunatic), who will move heaven and earth to get his beloved dog back.

That’s an awful lot of setup, but “Seven Psychopaths” primary interest isn’t plot. McDonagh instead delivers a wild journey into the storytelling process that plays like the unholy mashup of Quentin Tarantino’s “True Romance” with some dashes of Charlie Kaufmann’s “Adaptation” and the Coens’ “Barton Fink.” The results, when this movie’s crazed spirit is working, are wildly entertaining and even approach levels of genius, even if self-indulgence occasionally dulls the proceedings a bit.

What makes this movie stand out is that it isn’t interested in how stories play out, the real intrigue comes from how they are created, more specifically how writers use stories and ideas from their surroundings, in this cased the dried-out wasteland of Los Angeles, and people they know more often than truly organic ideas. The first psychopath is introduced in the opening scene, when a masked killer makes quick work of two hitmen (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt, both from TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”). The rest of this legion of crazy is introduced in both the reality of the film and anecdotes from Marty and Billy, the two forms bleeding into each other to add to McDonagh’s meditations on the origins of inspiration (the best one features Harry Dean Stanton as a vengeful Amish priest) This may sound like inside baseball for those who aren’t hardcore movie junkies or Hollywood screenwriters and it does occasionally dip into that water, but McDonagh’s own storytelling brio makes it all sail. His skills as a playwright bleed through all the narrative gymnastics, with the film’s highlights being the colorful, even frighteningly tense conversations.

All of the actors, from the drunken frazzled-ness that Farrell gives Marty, the strange dignity Walken gives Hans and the surprisingly restrained menace that masks some tenderness that is in Harrelson’s portrayal of Charlie, are more than willing to tear into McDonagh’s dialogue. But the best in show are definitely Tom Waits as Zachariah, a man who responds to an ad Billy places looking for psychopaths to inspire Marty’s story. With a fondness for white rabbits, Waits regails a hilarious, deeply strange story of how he and his girlfriend went on a rampage murdering serial killers, with tragic consequences (also providing one of the best end-credits bonus scenes in recent memory). But he’s got nothing on Rockwell as Billy. In a spectacularly batshit performance, Rockwell goes full Gonzo as an actor who is so full-on Method that it’s like a corrosive addiction for him. It feels like he’s constantly performing; he repeats things like he’s trying to figure out how he wants to say each line. Rockwell is one of the most versatile (and best) actors in America, and this easily some of his best work.

The dog-napping plot is one giant McGuffin, and McDonagh’s real goal is to examine writer’s block and how screenwriters utilize ideas. Writing is a collaborative effort, something Marty (it’s not a coincidence that the director and protagonist share the same name and vocation) stubbornly ignores. Billy constantly gives him ideas and tells him stories about psychopaths, which populate Marty’s life more than he realizes, and Marty is eager for any inspiration. A lot of this stuff was done in a more cerebral fashion in the Spike Jonze-directed “Adaptation,” but for someone like me who has tried screenwriting and is interested in how writing goes from the brain to the page, this stuff is always fascinating. The film skates over its shortcomings; the poor treatment of female characters (Abby Cornish and Olga Kurylenko have about 5 lines between them) and the conventional shootout at the end are both commented on as the weaknesses and expectations that comes with writing movies. The insanity the surrounds these characters and this movie are in the gray area that comes between inspiration and theft, between art and commerce. In “Seven Psychopaths,” writer’s block is always a bitch, even if you aren’t involved in dognapping schemes.

Grade: B+

Catching Up With: Beasts of the Southern Wild – 2012

Film has always been a great medium for sociological inquiry. And not just documentaries either. Digging into a culture or setting that may seem foreign to most of us, even if it’s an American one, always has a chance to be compelling. The Bathtub, the local name of a small island off the coast of Louisiana in the Mississippi Delta, is the setting of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the Best Picture-nominated debut film from director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin. The film, which tells the story of Hushpuppy (Oscar-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis , a five-year-old girl with a vivid imagination who lives in this hard-scrabble, heavily isolated community with her hot-tempered and sickly father, Wink (Dwight Henry, more on him later), tries to dig into the lives of these characters, but the film quickly devolves into an uneven mishmash of Maurice Sendak-inspired fantasy and stark realism, with some deeply troublesome elements concerning the portrayal of the lives these characters lead.

There are some things this movie does quite well. Hushpuppy, with is an ideal conduit into this world. “Beasts” take place around the time Katrina decimated nearby New Orleans, and the muddy, broken-down world Hushpuppy is conveyed quite well by Zeitlin’s constantly roving camera. You sometimes forget that the Bathtub is part of America, with it being so thoroughly cut off from the rest of civilization. The childlike wonder that defines Hushpuppy’s worldview is fascinating, to a point. Her imagination goes into overdrive when her teacher tells her that the polar ice caps may melt, and mystical beasts that once roamed the land will be free once again. Hushpuppy becomes obsessed with making her mark on the world, and sets out to learn more about herself, specifically the mother she never knew.

The film is quite beautiful to look at, capturing the crude beauty of the Bathtub, and Hushpuppy, wonderfully portrayed by Wallis, is one of the most engaging and natural child protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. But unfortunately, the filter by which “Beasts” presents her world and tells her story only goes so far; specifically for two reasons. The film does become quite repetitive, with Hushpuppy’s voiceover narration (shades of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”), providing abstract musings on the state of the world and expressing her desire to be remembered by everyone long after she is gone. A film doesn’t need a plot to be compelling (ex. “Lost in Translation,” Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”) but it does need to provide some variation on its core themes. “Beasts” doesn’t do nearly enough of that, and the film turns into a somewhat empty excercise in admittedly impressive cinematic style.

The other thing that crippled the film for me, is how it doesn’t address the problems that come with living in the Bathtub. These people refuse basic health care, refuse to leave their homes after a destructive storm hits, and are proud of living in thoroughly dilapidated homes. I tried like hell to ignore any and all sociopolitical reactions to this movie, but I just couldn’t do it. By using Hushpuppy as the conduit for the story, it allows some of the more disparaging aspects of this world to get off Scot-free. In a post-“Wire” world, TV and film can’t afford to ignore these kinds of problems anymore. Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” did a great job in bridging the fantasy world with the horrors of the real world without compromising the vividness or integrity of either of them.

But it’s the character of Wink, Hushpuppy’s father, that pushed “Beasts” past the point of no return. Wink is almost always drunk, he forces Hushpuppy to live in another house and is reluctant to let her stay with him when she burns her house down, and he constantly hits and berates her. There could’ve been an opportunity for nuance and grace notes to help us understand why Wink is the way he is, but newcomer Dwight Henry gives a performance that is so forced and overbearing that it’s actually difficult to watch him onscreen. We are forced to watch this man abuse his child, thus making the emotional epiphany between him and Hushpuppy that comes at the end of the film ring so hollow that you can hear it echo.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” does announce Benh Zeitlin as a filmmaker to watch, but this movie is to much of a mixed bag to embrace. It wants  to show how a child copes with their rural surroundings, but as the falsely triumphant ending that does a disservice to the reality of this universe proves, it’s not just Hushpuppy who sees her world as a giant fairy tale.

Grade: C