Monday, August 9, 2010

Being sentimental about 'North'

Elijah Wood is the outstanding, but neglected child in North. Photo courtesy of an Elijah Wood fan site.

When I was younger, my mom told me this great bedtime story. It was about a bunny whose mother made her a homemade backpack for her to bring to the first day of school. But when the bunny saw some other animal's backpack (they're all anthropomorphic animals, I guess), the two traded backpacks. And the bunny keeps trading backpacks and she's still unsatisfied. She goes to a wise, old anthropomorphic animal and he helps her to get her original backpack that her mom made for her back.

Okay, the story was better coming from my mom. And I was five, so I wasn't too difficult to impress.

Anyway, I've always loved that story because I love the fact that the bunny was able to get her original backpack back in the end. Regrets can be reversed. I wished the real world was like that.

So even though my mom told me bedtime stories (I think that is the only one she's ever told me) and I lived in the suburbs (could've been worse, right?), I eventually had this phase where I wanted different parents. Now, I understand that most children don't really want different parents; they just want their original parents to be different, like, you know, not as annoying and demanding. You know, the usual. But I was 10. I didn't know the difference. I just wanted my parents to be different--different attitudes, different personalities, different jobs, different people, if that's what it takes.

It's a selfish, horrible thought, but a thought indeed.

Which brings me to Rob Reiner's 1994 family film, North. A critical and financial failure, the film tells the story of a young boy, North (Elijah Wood) who wants to emancipate ("divorce") himself from his parents (Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus--OMG I KNOW GEORGE AND ELAINE) who just don't appreciate him like everyone else does. He's an excellent student, athlete, and actor--so why can't his parents just stop screaming at each other at the dinner table and pay some attention to him?

After North is emancipated, he goes on a worldwide, two-month search for new parents. He goes to Texas, Hawaii, Alaska, an Amish community, China, Africa, France, and New York. Let the ethnic stereotypes, celebrity cameos (Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, Dan Aykroyd, John Ritter, Faith Ford, etc.), random Bruce Willis appearances (as some sort of mentor who dresses for the occasion), nervous laughter, and "what the f---"s run loose!

Back at home, his parents are comatose and are displayed at the Smithsonian. Children across America are threatening their parents: if the parents don't fulfill their wishes (one kid commands him mom to clean his room for him), they will, like North, emancipate themselves.

This revolution is led by North's journalist friend, Winchell (Matthew McCurley), who is like 10 or something and he's this expert stalker (it's his job!) who gives these Hitler-esque speeches on podiums across the nation. I wonder what his parents think about that? Anyway, Winchell works with North's lawyer (Jon Lovitz) so they can take over America. Or something like that.

When North begins to have second thoughts (I don't want to actually spoil anything), Winchell tries to murder North because North getting new parents is the key of Winchell's success. The kids are listening to Winchell, and in turn, their parents (who are being threatened) are listening to the kids. Winchell even hires a hitman. Yeah, that's right, KIDS STUFF. I DON'T EVEN KNOW ANYMORE.

And why is North named North? Because that's a really, really strange name.

It's probably cliched if I wrote about all the problems with this movie and how horrible it is. So I won't do that. Mainly because I don't hate this movie and I don't even think it's horrible? The reason I wanted to see this movie for the longest time was because of Roger Ebert's infamous review. I bought the VHS from Amazon for $3 plus shipping. But good thing I ended up liking it, right? Sorry, Roger Ebert!

Honestly, I would be lying if I said I didn't like it. I actually think it's a very funny, sweet, touching movie, minus the jokes about the dead fat kid, dying old people, ancient Chinese hairstyles, barren wombs, Jerry Lewis dominating French television, the Amish, and topless African women. There are also weird sex jokes and unnecessary shots of prostitutes? I DON'T KNOW. The ethnic jokes are often awful and awkward, yet pretty harmless. However, I totally understand why many people would find the jokes offensive.

But I connect with the movie's message, which is pretty much that you don't appreciate what you have until you lose it. And that message is very personal to me. I guess I'm just being sentimental, but who said criticism was objective?

The opening scene conveys a sense of wonder that I haven't seen in recent children's films. Elijah Wood is particularly wonderful as North; he's just so natural, authentic, and convincing. Matthew McCurley is entirely too convincing as the full-blown evil mastermind in a child's body, but he manages to be very funny. And this movie is basically non-stop entertainment; even when there's a terrible joke being uttered, there is still something going on in the movie (the terrible joke being uttered). It's never boring.

So I like North. I also like Batman and Robin and Gigli. Oops? JUST BEING HONEST.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How I wanted to care

A few months ago, writer/director Joe Leonard sent me a screener for his film, How I Got Lost. (Thanks! Free movie!) Yesterday afternoon, when I was sitting around doing nothing, I thought, well, why not watch it?

Here is another film pondering the meaning of life and what it's all about. Why is it that the filmmakers of my generation and the generation before mine so obsessed with that topic? And why haven't any of those filmmakers been able to provide an original, thoughtful answer?

It's all about going wild! Getting out of your comfort zones! Doing something different! Be spontaneous! Be what you really want to be! Be yourself!

Before we get too excited about all this, let me introduce you to Jake and Andrew, denizens of a post-9/11 New York.

Jake (Aaron Stanford) is an aspiring novelist, which is the best profession when you're pondering the meaning of life. It's always nice to ponder the meaning of life with a typewriter too, even though it's 2002 and everyone else uses a computer. I realize this is an artistic choice, but seriously though!

However, he has an unsatisfying job as a sports writer who covers women's basketball. To add insult to injury, his girlfriend just broke up with him. So not only does he have a job that he absolutely hates, he is suffering from heartbreak and has yet to discover that computers are much more useful than typewriters.

But images of his break-up continue to haunt him. With sappy music and cheesy dialogue.

Andrew (Jacob Fishel) works at Wall Street with a bunch of phonies. He just recently got out of a brief stint in jail and is Contemplating Life Through Alcohol.

The two frequent local bars and after one too many drinks, Jake and Andrew decide to embark on a road trip. First, via taxi. The New York cab driver gives them a free cab ride to Philadelphia if Jake just gives him his shoes. Lucky them. Second, Andrew goes to his mother's house to pick up a car so they can drive to the funeral of Andrew's father in Ohio.

During the "road trip" part of the film, we get more insights about how Jake and Andrew view their empty, disillusioned lives. Andrew hates sucking up to the big guys on Wall Street. He just wants to be the kind of person he wants to be, man!

There is a gas station scene where we are all supposed to believe that a young girl would be left alone at a gas station and give a ride to two grown men back to the middle of nowhere where their car is located. I think it's supposed to be comedic relief, but I'm not really buying it.

When Jake and Andrew finally arrive in small-town Ohio, they attend the memorial. Andrew finally cracks and throws a tantrum in front of his father's friends. The next day, Andrew is ready to leave, but Jake decides to stay in the town to plan Andrew's father's funeral. Wait, doesn't Jake have to work? And seriously now, what kind of person arrives at a memorial, humiliates his dead father, and leaves all the details of his deceased father's funeral arrangements to his friend?

No matter. Jake soon meets a waitress, Leslie (Rosemarie Dewitt), and they share an instant connection. Maybe offering to help Andrew's father's funeral arrangement was a good choice after all! But still!

How I Got Lost is ultimately a story about dealing with grief and friendship. It's about trying to find what's important and what's not underneath the phony exterior of everyday situations. It's about confronting reality and moving forward. It's the kind of film that has been made and made again. The message is getting old, cliched, and predictable. You have to be quite a brilliant mind to be able to make an excellent film about "finding yourself" because it's been done to death. It's almost Mission Impossible.

But it's also film with its heart in the right place. The performances are quite good--Stanford and Dewitt are lovely. But it's Fishel that manages to be warm, funny, tortured and interesting. But the film has serious pace issues--it's much too slow, drags too much, and doesn't seem to have any sort of end-point. It's a character piece, for sure, but the characters' motivations are so thin and incoherent that it's impossible to know where they're going. Yes, we want them to be happy again, but how? I wish I knew them better. C-

Souls on a verge of a romantic breakdown

MacNicol, Streep, and Kline sitting carelessly on a Brooklyn roof. Being romantic and stuff.

Meryl Streep. Sophie's Choice. Keep freaking out about that performance but...

Sophie's Choice is an extraordinarily uneven film about the lives of three extraordinarily uneven characters.

Stingo (Peter MacNicol) is a naive young man from the south with dreams of becoming a writer. He arrives in Brooklyn, New York in 1940s to fulfill that romantic dream.

At his boarding house, he meets Nathan (Kevin Kline) and Sophie (Meryl Streep), a couple who is complex and fun-loving, volatile and exciting, chaotic and romantic. Nathan and Sophie are unlike anything Stingo has ever seen. They dress up on Sundays, have spontaneous trips to Coney Island, and impromptu celebrations in their room. The film, for that brief period, very much become the American version of Jules and Jim.

Stingo worships Nathan, a man who claims to be a biologist on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. But at the same time, Stingo falls for Sophie, a Polish Holocaust survivor who is more than meets the eye. Nathan, who suffers from periods of paranoia, begins to suspect an affair brewing between Stingo and Sophie.

When Nathan becomes completely unreasonable, Sophie still stands by him. He saved her life upon her arrival to the U.S. He was there for her. She loves him and she knows that, deep down, he loves her, despite his angry accusations.

More is revealed about Sophie's past in the flashback scenes--stories Sophie narrates to a curious Stingo. She was in a Nazi concentration camp and suffered extreme heartbreak. Memories that she could never, ever let go. Memories that made her who she is today.

Except that the Sophie in the war and post-war scenes do not quite connect. Sophie makes similar decisions, thematically, and clings desperately to hope, but she is not a character who rapidly evolves. She, like all the dreamers of 1940s Brooklyn, is a hopeless romantic and has probably always been one. Yes, she suffered many unimaginable hardships, but there is little to indicate that she has changed into a stronger person who can and will stand on her own.

Streep's performance in this film has become legendary. And yes, she is, indeed, very good, but not exactly "the best performance of all-time" material. She takes on a Polish accent, yes, but I have no idea whether or not it is authentic. But Sophie is not a passionate or admirable character. In fact, Sophie is surprisingly passive, dependent, and, in a way, a weak character who hopes for the best, but takes no action to assure the desired outcome. I understand there are many people like that, but here is a woman who has gone through so much and seem to have learned so little.

The harrowing scene near the conclusion is also legendary. But that scene, while wonderfully directed, heartbreaking, and features a spectacular performance by the child actress (Jennifer Lawn) who portrays Sophie's daughter, comes much too out-of-blue to be considered a strong scene in the context of the film.

Kline is full of enthusiasm and bursting with energy. His Nathan boasts of this primitive, romantic nature of a classic bohemian lifestyle. Nathan is an interesting character, but sometimes, it feels like the film just only scratched the surface of his poor, artistic soul. There is more about Nathan than meets the eye, and thanks to Kline, a glimmer of that is revealed.

MacNicol's Stingo, the bland Nick to Nathan's adventurous Gatsby, is passive, boring, and the very last person I would like to hear this story from. Stingo wants to experience life, but he is so two-dimensional and blandly eager, that he comes off as childish and self-pitying. He writes a story about his mother's death and by Nathan's reaction in a moment of insanity, he seems to feel more sorrow for himself than his dead mother. That is Stingo in a neat little nutshell.

The film, weakly woven together by director Alan J. Pakula, yet beautifully shot by Nesto Almendors and features a glorious score by Marvin Hamlisch, is a mixed bag of sorts. There are times where the film almost achieves what it hopes to achieve, which is a expose about the hopelessly romantic and their tortured lives, but the result is a barely beating heart of three hopeless, unfortunate souls who sought solace in the most questionable places. C