Saturday, October 11, 2014

About Alex

One day I'll get around to writing a long essay about my ongoing love/hate relationship with The Big Chill, but for now, I'll encapsulate it like so: I keep wanting it to tell me something, I keep wanting it to reveal something, I have this sense that it should and it just never does.  So, when I heard that About Alex was being billed as essentially a rethinking of The Big Chill for my own generation, I was on board.  I'm drawn to a zeitgeisty ensemble movies, even thought they're nearly all doomed to fail miserably.  They try to capture so much, to speak to so many, and as a result: they're prematurely afflicted with this bloated sense of self-importance and responsibility. About Alex is a movie truly of that ilk. It has one foot in mid-eighties nostalgia and another firmly in the present moment, and because of that it becomes a sort of hipster paradox: it gets nothing right even as it gets absolutely everything right.

This is writer/director Jesse Zwick's debut, and as such, it's an ambitious endeavor. Zwick has gathered a host of familiar primetime faces for his quarter-life crisis.  Notably, Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation") and Max Greenfield ("New Girl") step up as the most embittered within a group of estranged college friends forced back together after the attempted suicide of one of their own.  Alex's (Jason Ritter) attempt is clearly a cry for help, and as he enthusiastically invites his cohort into his mess of a home, forgotten joys and past skeletons surface with predictable regularity.
There's nothing especially new about About Alex.  Many of its most dramatic turns feel ripped from an undergraduate creative writing course and forced to hold more weight than they deserve.  Though the contrivances keep coming, the ensemble cast holds it together and their moments are dispersed with some degree of deftness. This, perhaps, combined with the current landscape's lack of small, quiet, conversational dramedies, allows the film to read as somehow refreshing even when it's a bit shallow.  Of course, the film's relative shallowness is ultimately one of the ways in which it gets things exactly right.  These are characters that speak to a type of privilege that they don't seem to recognize, and which is endemic (if we're being honest) to my generation.  Even when they have things good, they can't recognize it and don't seem to understand the ways their personal failures are not new, are just repeated. What's unclear?  Whether the film is actually aware of that as a theme. 

The Trip to Italy

When the world embarked on the first round of The Trip, Love & Squalor covered it in a rare moment of collaborative exercise.  Now absent co-founder M. and I found we couldn't write a straight critical appraisal of the film, we had to toss it back and forth and converse (in the form of the film) about the ways it spoke to something personal.  In that case, it was a way of seeing our own friendship in the dynamic between the metafictional versions of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.  We were them, in a way.  We are them, maybe.  Beyond that, though, I still have a sense of how abnormal that film watching experience felt for me.  Though it was dressed up in the trappings of one, there was a sense that The Trip wasn't a movie in the traditional sense of the word.  It became this thing, this collection of moments that felt weirdly personal and which I found myself loving in a way somehow different from the  way I love my favorite films.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

What If

Can you handle seeing Daniel Radcliffe play a romantic lead without thinking of Harry Potter?  Did you feel like (500) Days of Summer was lacking in real connection?  Are you intimately familiar with the "friend-zone"?  Do you have a grasp on what it feels like when you have an unreciprocated 'crush'? If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, then there's a solid chance that What If will work a sly bit of magic on you.  The film is essentially a rehashing of territory made familiar by When Harry Met Sally, exploring the question so many romantic comedies rely on: can men and women really be just friends?  Whatever your actual opinion on this may be (I vote yes), in the world of the Hollywood ending the answer is almost always no. It's a convention of the genre, and the success of the film stems from its ability to play with our expectations, make us question what it is we're asking for, and to make us love (and perhaps, see ourselves in) the characters.  In that, What If succeeds where so many have failed.  Though flawed, it's smarter than the average, willing to explore uncomfortable complications, and aware of the damage the viewer's wish-fulfillment brings.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

There are some movies that you expect to be so god awful that when you actually see them, anything remotely palatable comes as a pleasant shock.  We know this.  We have all experienced the phenomenon of our lowest expectations reversing halfway in the wake of something awful, but, well, not entirely.  I'm not saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those occasions - it doesn't carry nearly the 'dread'-weight of something like, say, Transformers - but I am owning up to a possible blast of overcompensating happy-chemicals triggered by my enjoyment of it.  I kinda liked the latest Turtles reboot, guys.  I kinda liked it. Sure, in some sense I'm part of a built-in target market.  TMNT is riding high on a wave of 90s nostalgia, and I'm a kid who grew up proudly wearing my turtle-printed t-shirts to preschool and treasuring the trading cards.  For those of us who loved the friendlier, softer lines of those TV turtles, though, the franchise has been dead for ages.  We've suffered the leaner, meaner animated reboots, the evil-eye redesign, and the bastardization of our beloved mutants.  Our childhoods have been destroyed time and again, so by the time a Michael Bay-produced resurrection rolled around? Let's face it: there was little anyone could do to make things worse.       
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