Archive | July 2016

Seasonal Cinema: Summer- Stand By Me

Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is a perfect song. It’s one of my desert island songs. On its surface it’s a simple appeal of love. But between Ben E. King’s aching vocals and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s spare, gorgeous production, it always feels so grand to me. It feels like the end of something. Like someone deeply frightened calling out for help. It’s the one song that captures the feeling of total trust and love of someone else.

It’s the perfect choice for the title of this film.

Stand By Me might be Rob Reiner’s best film. He had a hell of a run in the 1980s. From 1984 though 1989, he made This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally. While the last film on that list hasn’t aged well for me (its view on friendships  between men and woman is one of the worst bits of pop philosophy to go mainstream), the first three all have something rare and wonderful in common. They are all great films that also seem to stand alone and, when you watch them, feel nostalgic and yet completely original. This is Spinal Tap was a breakthrough in the mockumentary genre, in being both hysterically funny and yet completely convincing. The Princess Bride is an ode to children’s fantasy and a devilish subversion. It mines the genre for jokes so well that it might be the most quotable film every made, and yet its heart is completely earnest. And Stand By Me is a coming-of-age film that feels like no other. Its characters are not the film’s attempt to encapsulate the adolescent experience. They aren’t metaphors. They are simply four kids trying to find a dead body.

Rob Reiner is a sentimental director, but he has a knack for dramatic pacing and timing. He can make the most of a good script, identifying and amplifying its strengths. The script Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon wrote for Stand By Me is often perfect. Their ear for dialogue, for the sort of competitive vulgarity that 12-year-olds can speak in, is spot on. The performances by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell never falter. The story told here is not a universal one; most people watching it today did not grow up in small-town Oregon in the 1950s. But the feeling of summer ending, of clinging to moments before they get away and you’ll never get them back? That is something anyone who has been 12 in the summer can relate to. It’s a deeply confusing age. The characters in Stand By Me grapple with issues that overwhelm them. Gordie (Wheaton) lost his older brother. Chris (Phoenix) is poor and his family is scorned by the neighbors. Teddy (Feldman) was horrifically abused by his father, who is now in a mental hospital. Verne (O’Connell), bless him, seems to have the most stable family life, but he did lose his jar of pennies.

Reiner, Evans, and Gideon resist the urge to be on the nose about the growing up these characters will do in this movie. They hear that a boy’s dead body is somewhere, a day’s hike away. They want to find the body and be heroes. That contrast between grave seriousness and childlike zeal continually comes up throughout the movie. At one point Chris and Teddy nearly fight after Chris stops Teddy from a dangerous, almost suicidal stunt. Both are grappling with powerful emotions that they can’t easily express, even if they wanted to. Then Chris calls a truce: a low-five. A child’s ritual ends the conflict. For now, at least.

The contrast between childish ritual and the looming feelings of adolescence is a far more elegant way of telling this story than filling it to the brim with metaphor. These characters are still children. Children who are aware that growing up is impending, but they aren’t there yet. They aren’t going to suddenly be “men” by the end of the movie. They’re still going to be children. Watching the film again for the first time since I was a teenager, I was struck by how worried I was about them seeing the dead body. It’s not a coming-of-age moment, but a collective loss of innocence.

I was also more aware of the film’s concessions to commercial expectations. Richard Dreyfuss’s narration is so distracting that at times I wished I could turn it off. The occasional comic insight is dwarfed by how often the narration intrudes on a quiet moment, telling us things we already know, or ruining moments of lovely ambiguity with on the nose nudging.

The gang of teenagers led by Kiefer Sutherland are also unnecessary. They are so comically one-dimensional that their artifice becomes apparent: they exist solely to create a tense standoff at the end, a scene that is completely at odds with the quiet soulfulness of the rest of the movie.

But those are quibbles. Stand By Me is one of those films that expresses a seemingly ineffable feeling; the of desperation of the last few weeks of summer, and the intense loneliness of feeling things without knowing how to talk about them. It’s about the steadfast bonds of young friendship, and all the rituals and rules and confidences that make friendships during childhood take on an importance that is almost inevitably lost with maturity. Bonds are stronger when you are staring into a vast unknown together, and there are few times with more unknowns that your last summer before you’re a teenager.

Stand By Me is one of the finest coming-of-age films, because it never seems to be about growing up. It understands that there is no narrative of growing up when you’re 12. Life comes fast at all times when you’re 12. But damn if it doesn’t happen faster in the summer.

 

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Stranger Things is a spooky summer delight

At first my biggest complaint about Stranger Things is that I almost wish it had come out closer to Halloween. Three years ago Over the Garden Wall came out in September and the timing, coupled with that show’s sense of nostalgia, made it feel like I was watching something that was already an Autumn tradition.

But I think Summer was right for this show. There is something about summer that has a spooky vibe all its own. Perhaps its the coupling of freedom from school and lazy days with nothing to do but dream whatever one is compelled to dream that makes trees seem more sinister and full moons like beacons for things unthinkable.

Reviews of Stranger Things tend to talk about its nostalgia for the 1980s up front, so I’m going to veer away from that; my frame of reference is a bit too late to appreciate all the homages and nods, though there are undoubtedly many (enough for me to pick up on quite a few). Besides, nostalgia alone has never once been the difference between a good and a bad show, and Stranger Things is a very good one.

Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer are deft storytellers. They begin with a story that could be a one-shot fable: a young boy named Will goes missing in the woods in his small hometown in Indiana. From there, they mix in elements both familiar and fresh, creating a cocktail of plotlines that feels like it truly ought to be muddled. A monosyllabic girl with a buzzcut and the number 11 tattooed to her forearm appears out of nowhere. A government agent with white hair pursues her, flanked by a neverending stream of lackeys. A strange creature keeps popping up in shadows and on the edges of photographs. There’s even a John Hughes nod with a romantic triangle involving three teenagers. That plot is pretty disposable, though I credit the Duffers for resolving it in a way that is as surprising as it is entertaining.

Much credit goes to the cast. Every major character is splendidly cast. Good chemistry can bring perfunctory scenes to life. Consider the opening of the show, when we see a group of four boys, all about 11 or 12, playing Dungeons and Dragons. This is an establishing scene, yes, but the dialogue sounds perfectly authentic and the young actors bring these characters to life. Right away we get a sense of their personalities, the emotional weights and balances in this group. A scene that was likely purely expository in the script becomes a window into the bond these characters have; a bond that is crucial for the show to make the leap from silly entertainment into realm of pop delight that it reaches. It’s not enough to simply get to know these characters. We need to feel like they know each other.

This group of friends who form the show’s heart. Will (Noah Schnapp) is quiet and kind-hearted. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the Elliot to the show’s E.T., his reserved nerdiness masking a deep well of resolve. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlan) is righteous to a fault, but the sort of person who you know from the start will rise to the occasion when needed. Dustin (Gaten Mararazzo) is the jolliest, most unabashedly nerdy of the group. Like any good summer tale, all of them will get a turn in the sun. Dustin’s moment to shine was the most entertaining for me, as he talks a science teacher and mentor into helping MacGyver a sensory deprivation tank when they need one (and yes, they very need one, very badly).

After that first scene, Will goes missing in the woods. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, God it’s good to see her again) becomes convinced that his disappearance is not as simple as it seems. However, the town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is refreshingly aware of his surroundings. Far from a stock bureaucrat, Hopper searches relentlessly for answers until he finds them, no matter where that search takes him. He begins to see the shape of the patterns that Joyce insists are there. Part of that pattern is the emergence of a monosyllabic girl (Millie Brown) with a buzzcut and a trail of bodies in her wake. The girl, nicknamed Eleven because the number is tattooed on her arm, eventually runs into Mike, Lucas, and Dustin as they launch their own search for Will.

Ryder has always been a whirlwind of an actress, balancing between scenery chewing and a sort of heightened brilliance. She gets to play a very short role here, and at times I think she was the only actress alive who could pull this material off. Joyce is a difficult character. We need to believe in her completely while understanding why everyone else thinks she’s losing her mind.

But my highest praise goes to Millie Brown. Eleven could so easily have become a cross between a MacGuffin and a walking Deus Ex Machina. But time and time again Brown, often speaking only a handful of words at a time, makes her into the show’s most fascinating character. To watch her perform is to understand how much an actor is responsible for a character being “shrouded in mystery”. We don’t need her to talk much to see the confusion and horror and power and fleeting moments of joy and discovery in Eleven’s face throughout the show.

The Duffers never lose control of the story. The plot never feels bloated. One storyline might spin its wheels for an episode or two, but no plot is ignored or left to flounder entirely in cliche. Even the show’s most generally disposable plot- a love triangle involving Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and the town’s stock charming bad boy Steve (Joe Keery)- takes a turn right when I was ready to zip through it that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Much of Stranger Things alludes to its inspirations, but the Duffers are not here simply to praise their idols. This is their story and they tell it well. It is much more than a barrage of homages. Its roots are not just in movies and books, but in hot summer nights, when the shadows of trees are tall and the dark seems full of mystery and possibility.

 

 

 

 

Seasonal Cinema, Summer: Whisper of the Heart

I’ve been gone too long, readers. If you’ve read my blog at all in the last six months you’ll understand why. But I can’t let grief derail me. Not from movies, which have been so important to me for so long. My mom would want me to keep watching, keep writing, keep doing what I love. So I’m trying out a new feature to get the writing juices flowing again.

I’ve always felt a strong connection between certain movies and the seasons. I’ll step outside on a warm summer day and it will feel exactly how it feels when I watch Stand by Me or Floating Weeds. Winter can summon the warm nostalgia of Little Women or the ice-encased paranoia of The Thing. Certain movies encapsulate the seasons for me. As the seasons progress, I’m going to write reviews of movies that feel, well, how it feels at that moment.

I’m starting with my favorite summer film of all, Whisper of the Heart. Yes, I have written much about this movie. But it is comfort food, which is what I need right now to get back to writing.

It’s all in the opening. Whisper of the Heart kicks off with one of the warmest, and gentlest of opening sequences. A shot of the Tokyo skyline at night. A chorus of children singing John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads. A slow pan into one neighborhood, zeroing in on the film’s protagonist, 14-year old Shizuku, as she exits a store. Finally, following her home. It’s one of my favorite openings to any movie. I’ve talked before about the brilliance of this sequence. (As I said, I write about it a lot) This time, I just want to bask in its coziness.

It’s not just a cozy opening; it’s a welcoming, gentle, perfect one. We feel like we’re home within minutes. Whatever happens next in the film, we’re home.

Whisper of the Heart eschews most of the tropes of the “that one summer” genre that we expect. There’s romance, yes, but it’s not the center of the film’s plot. The center of the plot, really, is how  Shizuku realizes how quickly time moves when you get older. The movie’s sense of time closing, especially toward the end of summer vacation, is one of its canniest insights. Shizuku perpetually has something pressing on her mind, whether it’s cramming for exams, figuring out her blossoming romance with Seiji (the boy who shares her exact taste in books), or simply finding the time to enjoy the sunshine. As summer draws to a close, you always feel like you’ve been wasting it.

Yes, Whisper of the Heart transitions out of summer and into the school year, but this is always a summer movie for me. It’s gentle, always warm, almost always true. Every time I watch it, I am transported. Not because its events resemble much of anything in my life. But because that chill that runs down my spine is a time machine to how the end of summer felt when I was 14. It’s about warm sunbeams that feel like heaven and scorching hot days that feel like forever. It’s about a particular feeling that no other movie has captured: how summer really winds down for a teenager who is looking warily at the future for the first time. In reality, there is almost never That One Summer, the one with all the answers, adventures, and “coming of age”. There is, however, the anxiety of coming days that will come whether you’re ready or not. And there are warm nights that wrap you up and comfort you like a blanket, and views of the city that make you forget everything for a moment, and books that are the only thing that seem to freeze the inexorable march of time.

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