‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall is a mystery that will indeed make you scratch your head: Why make this film? Why tell this story? What were the members of such a talented cast thinking when each received this script?

The titular absconder, Sidney Hall (Logan Lerman), is a writer of such remarkable talent he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, A Suburban Tragedy, which he began writing when he was still in high school. The film toggles back and forth between different periods in Sidney’s life: as a high-schooler experiencing the moments that would inform his opus; as a literary “it boy” with a crumbling marriage; and as a Unabomber-looking vagrant traveling cross-country. Perhaps the strongest element of the film is director and co-writer Shawn Christensen’s ability to switch between these time periods without, for the most part, losing or confusing us as to which Sidney and at what age we are watching. Actually, hair department head Andrea Grande-Capone should be acknowledged. Sidney’s changing locks provide us with the best visual cues.

In the present action, the vagrant Sidney is pursued by a mysterious Researcher (Kyle Chandler). Through flashbacks, we come to understand how and why Sidney “vanished,” before moving forward with the Researcher and his desire to find the missing author.

There certainly is enough in the way of plot to keep the viewer engaged with the story, not because the story is engaging, but because the human urge to solve a riddle once proposed is very real. For a mystery and for a narrative that steams by on plot alone, The Vanishing of Sidney Hall is well, even expertly, paced.

But beneath the surface of the plot there is hardly a thing—an idea, an emotion, to say nothing of a person—there. The characters are as stock as they come: the self-involved writer, the waifish love interest (Elle Fanning), the formerly knocked-up prom queen gone to seed (Michelle Monaghan, as Sidney’s mother), and the jerky jock who is only a jerk because he has issues (Blake Jenner). There is much that can be done with stock types, much that can be subverted or illuminated or deepened. But this is not the case with Sidney Hall, which does not bother to take time away from its plot to find, plumb or faintly gesture towards contradictions in, or multiple facets to, its characters. With the exception of the Researcher, the only one whose identity interests (and around whom the film should have been built), they begin and they remain clichéd.

As does a good deal of the dialogue, which is at bizarre odds with its considerable talk about the “truth,” “honesty” and “rawness” in Sidney’s work. But all of this, the cardboard characters, the exceedingly broad language, is of little consequence when compared with the distasteful turn the film takes towards its conclusion. We come at last to understand the tragedy that informed Sidney’s novel, and it’s a doozy, a traumatic trump card flung out of left field. We are given no prior indications or clues concerning its distressing nature. And then we see what happened with Sidney’s marriage. Both of these instances are deeply traumatic, the latter—which smacks of soap opera—more so than the former, but an emotional understanding of both we do not get, we are not allowed to get, because the “mystery” plot must chug forward. It is simply bad melodrama. There is a sense of insouciant superficiality to the endeavor that makes one want to grab for a bar of soap with which to scrub away its residue.

At the end of it all, all mysteries have been resolved, but to what end? What have we learned, and what have we been made to feel? Most important of all: What were we supposed to have learned or felt? Beyond stoking the interest that a mystery elicits for its own sake, what was the point? This is not a popcorn flick that seeks only to entertain. It takes itself far too seriously for such fun.

I could see how a script with its page-turning storyline might appeal. Especially if it’s well-formatted, hits its plot points, is easy to visualize, doesn’t look too expensive. I truly do not know what the creative impetus behind the film may have been, but I would rather a messy, formless thing that attempts an emotional understanding, even if it fails, than this sleek and hollow vehicle for story alone.

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‘Half Magic’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

In her writing and directorial debut, actress Heather Graham has tackled women’s issues head-on—and squarely on-the-nose. Her Half Magic stars a host of wonderful comedians, including Angela Kinsey from “The Office,” Thomas Lennon from “Reno 911” and, all too briefly, Rhea Pearlman and Molly Shannon. (I do not know why Shannon continues to make short-lived appearances in movies that do not do her justice. I also do not know if Hollywood’s failure to give her a starring vehicle is a woman’s issue, an ageist issue or an issue of taste, but it is an issue.) Without saying much that is new or insightful about female friendship or insecurity, Half Magic is a perfectly nice, simplistic movie, perhaps best viewed with cocktails or after a breakup, and one that, in our current #MeToo climate, will ruffle no one’s feathers.

Honey (Graham) is an aspiring screenwriter dating the a-hole a-list actor for whom she helps develop projects. Hoping to reclaim a measure of her long-lost self-esteem, she attends a women’s empowerment meeting, in which participants decked out in pink are told to say things to one another like “My bodacious ta-tas honor me, and they honor you.” Here she meets the famous fashion designer Eva St. Claire (Kinsey) and a free-spirited “witch” of sorts, Candy (Stephanie Beatriz, eminently watchable and the most entertaining of the trio). The women bond with remarkable rapidity. Soon they’re lighting candles at the shop where Candy works, attempting to cast spells that will help them with their woe-begotten love lives. Honey hopes to have great sex with someone who is nice to her, Eva wants to get back with her ex-husband, and Candy is desperate to be monogamous with her tech-bro lover.

Whether or not the candles are to blame, or the girls’ desire to believe in them, things do begin to change. Of course, not everything they thought they wanted turns out to be what is best for them. And, of course, the greatest love of all is inside of me, and all we need to get by is a little help from our friends.

In a publicity note, Graham says, “I want to empower women to feel good about themselves and make better choices. I want to celebrate women enjoying their sexuality and finding their pleasure. I want to celebrate how strong we are and how we can create anything we want.” These are admirable ideas, but they suffer in Half Magic from being stated outright, rather than left for the story to dramatize through its comedy. (The best comedy contains an element of pathos, which is missing here.) In several scenes, Honey & Co. tell each other how to live their lives: When someone gives you a compliment, say, “Thank you, I know.” Date “good guys only.” Be confident. Love yourself. Is this good advice? Sure. But have we come to the film in expectation of a seminar, and one that is composed of platitudes, however well intentioned, at that? Much of the movie’s “empowering” talk sounds so simplistic it borders on didacticism. At times its liberal, moralizing tone makes the film feel as if it were intended for a younger, adolescent audience in search of a moral, though the explicit sex talk and sex and masturbating scenes make that unlikely.

Half Magic has its moments (the druggie artist named “Freedom” whom Honey dates is not only warmly funny, the music that accompanies his scenes is the best of the film) and, given Graham’s firsthand knowledge of the biz, one wonders just how close to her experiences some of the industry satire is. It is certainly a nice movie, in the sense that it is trying very hard to say something nice. Only, because its ideas are stated over and over again, we can only acknowledge rather than feel empowered by them.

‘Every Day’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

This YA novel adaptation has a premise that may induce groans in some older, hardened members of the viewing public: A young girl falls in love with someone who wakes up in the body of a different teen every day. “A,” as this—spirit? persona? bodyless being?—calls itself, always inhabits the body of someone its own age, although that someone could be either a boy or a girl, and always near the last body it borrowed. “A” is a cheerful soul who has never had much reason to lament its itinerant existence—until it inhabits the body of Justin (“The Get Down”’s Justice Smith, a star on the rise), who is boyfriend to the beautiful and sensitive Rhiannon (Angourie Rice from The Beguiled).

After spending a day as Justin skipping class with his girlfriend, “A” falls for Rhi. At first, Rhi doesn’t know what to think, as different, strange girls and boys keep giving her a special “look” and using the same affectionate gesture to tuck the hair behind her ear. But soon “A” convinces Rhi of the bizarre truth, and she finds herself falling right back, crushing on and sometimes kissing “A,” regardless of whether “A” is black or white or an Asian boy or girl.

Could there be a more modern love story for liberal America, one more suited to our diversity-inclusion, gender-fluid age? And yet the nice thing about Every Day is that despite its obvious topicality, its politics remain, however apparent, low-key. The closest the film comes to stating its implied thesis may be when “A” gently reminds Rhiannon of something “A” assumes Rhi already knows: “Not everyone’s body aligns with their mind.” Rhi accepts this remark and their conversation continues in a manner particular to their characters and the immediacy of their personal relationship. The story takes the fact that Rhi is falling in love with a personality and not in lust with a body for its fulcrum, but the film and the writing are canny enough not to blow foghorns over it or draw red arrows toward it or have their characters muse about it, and for that restraint alone, whatever you may think of the high-concept premise, Every Day should be acknowledged.

This narrative prudence must be due in large part to the novelistic instincts of screenwriter Jesse Andrews, who adapted the David Levithan (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) novel on which the film is based. Andrews previously wrote the novel and the adapted screenplay for 2015’s Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (which starred Thoroughbreds’ standout Olivia Cooke). He knows his way around both a character and a plot point, and his sensibility matched with the trim style of The Vow and Grey Gardensdirector Michael Sucsy, who smartly keeps the film down to an hour-and-a-half, makes for a chiefly successful combination.

That being said, the film does take up a good deal of time and dialogue explaining the way “A”’s life of amiable body-snatching works. It’s (mostly) important information that’s relayed as Rhi asks “A” question after question, but the fact that there is more than one scene that features Rhi asking “A” question after question is too bad, as they detract from the film’s forward motion. The ending, too, and the way in which Rhi’s romantic dilemma is resolved are a bit perplexing, given the movie’s emphasis on the importance of personality over body. At the beginning of the film, Rhi admits she has a type: a tall, slim guy with good shoulders. As the story progresses, we see she’s capable of caring for someone who does not meet her physical criteria. And yet, when her “perfect” match is found at last… Actually, it’s interesting to note the ending to the film makes more sense for our protagonist, Rhi, than it does for the story’s underlying politics. That may not be such a bad thing, after all.

A message film that doesn’t use a bullhorn, Every Day is, among other things, an exercise in not judging a YA-book adaptation by its trailer.

‘The Boy Downstairs’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Writer-director Sophie Brooks says in her director’s statement, “The stories I most like to tell are personal and simple ones that look at how we get in our own way and can often self-sabotage.” Fair enough. This is precisely the sort of story she has told in her feature debut, The Boy Downstairs, and so if we are to consider the film in the light of the filmmaker’s intentions, it is successful. And yet it begs the questions: Just how simple is too simple? At what point does the personal transgress into myopia?

Diana (Zosia Mamet) is an aspiring writer who has just returned to New York after a two-year stint in London. She finds a sunny apartment in a brownstone whose landlady is a wise, aging actress (Deirdre O’Connell, one of the best parts of the movie), though in order to pay the rent, she must work at a bridal shop where the clientele is expectably heinous. It isn’t her ideal situation, but life is about to get far more complicated: Turns out, Diana’s ex-boyfriend and first love, Ben (Matthew Shear), lives in the apartment below hers. What are the odds? Not that astronomical, actually, when you consider Diana’s realtor is also Ben’s new girlfriend. Complicated. Diana has convinced herself she only wants to be Ben’s friend, but we know how that goes. Vacillating between moments of crazy ex-girlfriendom and pathos, all while trying to write a novel, Diana must figure out what she wants and, yes, how to get out of her own way to attain it.

Structurally, the film works well. We open with a flashback of Diana and Ben just before Diana left for London. Diana’s present-action troubles are periodically interrupted by other flashbacks that chart the course of their relationship. By the time Diana figures things out, her realization feels earned, in the sense that we have arrived there neither too quickly nor too slowly. A bit predictably, maybe, a touch paint-by-the-numbers, but effectively.

The dialogue is polarizing. Brooks goes in hard for verisimilitude, either writing or encouraging in her actors all the “umms,” awkward pauses, and terrifically empty statements that too often pass for flirting in conversations among young, modern neurotics. (The question, “How many ‘As’ are there in ‘banana?’” is cause for much hilarity between Diana and Ben. I hope you’re happy, Jerry Seinfeld. These are your progeny.) Does it sound true-to-life? Yes. Does it grate? God, yes. Even Millennials say something sometimes, and not only when we’re giving heartfelt speeches. Perhaps if the film were trying to parody the way we speak, its dialogue might be more tolerable, but its overall air is far too earnest to support that idea.

The film never strays far from its emphasis on Diana’s personal troubles as she struggles to grow up, and this can make for some sincere and relatable moments (like when Diana confesses to her landlady she has no idea what she’s doing, and this frightens her), as well as some obnoxious ones. Diana’s privilege, to go in for modern talk, is everywhere apparent. We know that she is a picky eater, but when she tosses into a Washington Square Park garbage can an entire bowl stuffed to the gills with food, just because she doesn’t like the taste (her friend likes it well enough—give it to her for leftovers!), one can’t help but cringe. Certainly, the moment reveals character, but if she were really a struggling writer, she would most certainly not have thrown away so much food; in fact, she would most certainly not have spent the $15 it likely cost to buy such a large bowl of food for lunch to begin with. Though again, certainly, it reveals character.

Things grow more troublesome when inadvertent moments of entitlement are used to bring our lovers together. At one point Diana and Ben are eating at an Italian restaurant. Diana asks the waiter for a slice of lemon for her water. She is told they have no lemons. But lemon risotto is on the menu, she insists. She is told they have no lemons for the drinks. Strange? Sure. Kind of funny? A bit. But the “Oook…” and indignation with which Diana greets this information is not so funny, and the bit does not become any funnier when Diana and Ben joke about the lack of lemons between themselves. Earlier in the film Diana was forced to deal with a bridezilla who made an unreasonable request, and the parallels between that scene and this are striking, only here it is Diana for whom we’re meant to root and not an unequivocally nasty client who is acting the brat and seemingly unaware of the fact. I believe the “joke” about the lemons is supposed to make us feel the warmth that still exists between Diana and Ben, but it exudes a palpable sense of entitled ickiness that gets in the way.

If you disliked the HBO show for which Mamet is best known, “Girls,” you will not like The Boy Downstairs, which is preoccupied with many of the same themes, though it lacks the television series’ sharp wit and daring. If Diana is sometimes off-putting, it isn’t because the filmmakers are trying to send her up to make a point, as was the case with just about everyone on “Girls”; just the opposite, in fact. She is taken very seriously. The film is laudable as the expression of a specific and consistent point of view. Whether or not the view is worth a look is another question.

‘Peter Rabbit’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

It is an unequivocally bad sign when, a half-hour into a movie made for children, a child can be heard to say, “I don’t like this movie.” No amount of shushing from his mother could erase the echo of these words. A grownup critic feeling particularly curmudgeonly is one thing—but when the intended audience voices its displeasure, you know there is a problem.

The titular hero of Peter Rabbit is an animated bunny based on the popular children’s-book character from Beatrix Potter. He is, as the film’s marketing loudly proclaims, “a rebel.” He likes to dash into the garden of mean old Mr. McGregor, even though—or perhaps because—his father met his end at McGregor’s hands, which then swiftly gave him over to Mrs. McGregor, who baked the patriarch into a pie. Peter’s mother has also passed away, but Peter, his three sisters and his cousin, Benjamin, have found a substitute mother figure in the kindly human Bea (Rose Byrne).

Things are looking particularly sunny when old Mr. McGregor suffers a heart attack and is carted away in “an ice-cream truck with lights,” but soon McGregor’s persnickety great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson, who, like Byrne, is really too good for this) arrives. Thomas is not only intent on keeping the rabbits from his garden, but, even more galling, on wooing Bea. Fight between rabbit and redhead ensues.

It isn’t that Peter Rabbit, from Easy A director Will Gluck and his co-writer Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), is poorly made. It is sleek and swift and has a partying vibe due in large part to a soundtrack of ultra-contemporary pop songs, the majority of which I’m not sure we will still be listening to a decade hence. The animation is excellent: You can see the individual bristles of the rabbits’ fur, and their running is wonderfully uncanny. Both the voice work and live-action talent are top-notch: In addition to Gleeson and Byrne, we have Gleeson’s Goodbye Christopher Robin co-star Margot Robbie as the narrator and the voice of the bunny Flopsy, as well as Daisy Ridley as the voice of Cotton-Tail, Elizabeth Debicki as the voice of Mopsy, “Broadchurch”’s Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Thomas’ former boss, and James Corden as the voice of Peter. The story gets going directly from the opening sequence. No scenes are wasted; nothing drags the tale down.

The trouble is the tone of the film. Between the narration (“In a story like this…”) and the jocular, winking dialogue of the rabbits (“That’s my character flaw!”), there are enough meta-asides to border on cynicism. Peter is very loud and very brash and all-around exhausting. He, like the movie, does have a heart, and the film tries to espouse a moral, showing how both Peter’s and Thomas’ revenge ploys lead to unhappiness. But the balance seems to be off. There is too much wham-bam shtick and far too much winking to the audience. It is exceedingly loud, exceedingly fast, so that the impression of noise is great…of substance, in comparison, small. We are taken out of the story too many times to enjoy it. What worked 17 years ago when Shrek was released no longer charms, or else the meta-comedy fails in Peter Rabbit because the movie takes this approach to such an extreme. What sincerity there is simply cannot compete with the cacophony of wrecking-ball action sequences and fourth-wall destruction that surrounds it.

Which is too bad, because the Beatrix Potter books are terrific, and you just know that somewhere in the world there is an unsolicited screenplay that does her characters justice. For this Peter Rabbit, character is regrettably beside the point.

‘Forever My Girl’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

It must be said at the outset: Forever My Girl is not a good movie. The premise is clichéd, the characters are as cookie-cutter as they come, and the message is so simplistic it is frequently imprinted on mass-produced pillows (“Home Is Where the Heart Is”). You’ve seen it before and you’ve seen it done in far cleverer fashion, in far greater earnest and with far greater soap-operatic relish.

And yet there is something damnably comforting about its familiar formula. In our opening scene, hometown Louisiana boy Liam Page (British eye-candy Alex Roe) ditches at the altar his wholesomely pretty, 19-year-old fiancée Josie (Jessica Rothe, or the girl in Emma Stone’s posse who wears the yellow dress during the “Someone In the Crowd” number in La La Land). Flash forward eight years later: Liam is now a mega-successful country star who shares a manager with Blake Shelton. His life is also emptier than a shotgunned Bud Light. He’s creatively blocked and unable to write the new batch of songs that his label is demanding. When Liam learns his former best friend has died, he makes an impromptu decision to return home for the first time since he split. Needless to say, Josie is less than pleased to see him, but that little seven-year-old girl with the same name as Liam’s dead mother and who calls Josie “Mom” further complicates matters between the exes. In spending time with the woman he still loves and the daughter he didn’t know he had, Liam realizes all that has been missing from his vapid life.

The questions are, of course: Will Liam really stick around? Will his self-loathing move him to hurt again and hurt worse the people he loves most? Will the hair stylist to Ms. Rothe ever post a YouTube tutorial? Inquiring minds.

Based on the young-adult romance novel by Heidi McLaughlin, Forever My Girl is a guilty pleasure, no doubt about it. It has the of-the-moment fashions, simplicity of narrative intent and execution, and conservative morals of a Hallmark movie. And therein lies its appeal. If you’re up on the latest network news, you’ll know that over the past year or so Hallmark has been killing it. According to The Washington Post, Hallmark was “the only non-news channel in the top 15 to see substantial viewership growth” in 2016. Numbers only increased for 2017.

Here’s WaPo journalist Heather Long on the network’s movies: “The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out. The guy and girl, whatever their age or grumpiness level at the start, always end up together.”

And there you have Forever My Girl. With the added note that not only the protagonists but nearly everyone in the cast (with the single exception of a heartless publicist from the big city; but she’s not family, nor, tellingly, is she shown to have a family of her own) is just so darn decent. Even Liam’s antagonist of sorts, Josie’s brother, who resents Liam for the heartache he’s caused his sister, is only a jerk because he loves his family so darn much. It’s discomfiting to consider that the bitterness of our daily news cycle has so affected our palates that mawkishness has come to seem like a welcome respite. Heaven forefend, but when Liam sings a duet with his daughter to a stadium full of people cheering their hearts out, don’t be surprised if yours skips a beat, too.

Is that such a bad thing? Forever My Girl is not a good movie, because whatever emotions it stirs are not the result of insights hard-won. It’s only trying to entertain, sure, but there’s something both compelling and icky about the way it so prettily reaffirms a belief in the primacy of the traditional. Or an idealized view of the traditional: families that are so loving, hurts are easily forgiven without lingering resentments; and neighbors who are so loyal not one—not one—will give up to the press a single photo or anecdote about their internationally famous hometown boy.

Far be it for me to (totally) knock something that reminds people of how nice it is to be tethered by responsibility. Traditional values are not synonymous with regressiveness. But when views of the world are too easy, like they are here, instead of providing a balm for the world’s hurts, they risk making reality feel that much more painful for emphasizing its distance from the fantasy. Baldly escapist movies like Forever My Girlshould come with a warning, especially for the younger YA audience: Viewer, be wary of the comfort provided here.

‘Paddington 2’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

What a delightful way to spend an hour and 45 minutes is watching Paddington 2.Precisely because it doesn’t play to the grownups with meta asides and pop-cultural winking (all right, there might be one or two instances of those), this children’s movie will appeal to anyone who has a heart for whimsy, no matter her age.

When our story opens, Paddington, the young bear who makes friends as easily as he inadvertently finds himself in trouble (there could be no better voice for him than the soft-spoken Ben Whishaw), is living in the bosom of the Brown family in London. Thanks to his polite manners and humanist belief in the existence of good in everyone he meets, he is the most popular creature in the neighborhood. His Aunt Lucy’s (the voice of Imelda Staunton) 100th birthday is fast approaching and Paddington wants to send her a special sort of present. It’s in a shop of antique curios run by a Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent) that he finds a book with pop-up pictures of London. That’s it! Aunt Lucy has always wanted to visit London, but she has never had the chance. Unfortunately, Aunt Lucy’s perfect present is unusually expensive. In order to afford the book, Paddington works a number of odd jobs, and to such visually comic effect that if any older members of the audience are taken out of the story for a moment, it’s only to admire the handiwork of the film’s animators. Paddington’s stints at a barbershop and as a window cleaner who doesn’t quite understand how to balance his weight and that of a water bucket as he hoists himself and the object aloft delight with their sight gags. There’s lots of visual fun to be had, but these are some of the sweetest and the silliest, and are greatly aided by an enchanting score from Dario Marianelli (who won an Oscar for Atonement).

But the narrative really gets underway just before Paddington has reached his goal. There’s something special about that pop-up book indeed, so much so that someone is moved to steal it from Mr. Gruber’s. Paddington is blamed for the crime and is sent to prison, leaving it to the Brown family to uncover the mysterious thief.

The cast is spectacular. If some of us had overlooked the fact before, over the past year Sally Hawkins has proven she can do no wrong. Paddington 2 might not be the prestige vehicle of a Maudie or a critically acclaimed The Shape of Water, but Hawkins brings no less impish warmth to Mrs. Brown than she has to her other, grownup roles. Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Brown knows how to play the stuffy patriarch, but here he is allowed to have some fun with the type, just as Hugh Grant, as a pompous actor of the the-a-tre whose star has fallen so low he has been reduced to acting in dog-food commercials, gets to dress up, speak in funny voices and generally act the stuck-up goof.

But if anyone is truly a match for the star power of the bear (and his wonderfully expressive eyes), it’s Brendan Gleeson as a fearsome prison cook named Knuckles McGinty (or “Mr. McGinty,” if you’re polite-as-pie Paddington). Gleeson grimaces and skulks about like a pirate who was raised in the back alleys of a Dickens novel, but he plays it all straight, without hamming or cheesing. He’s the mean hard nut Paddington must crack with his kindness, which—spoiler here—he does, but thankfully not too easily.

Which is why Paddington 2 is such a lovely good time. Its note of sweetness is nicely tuned, with hardly a false note of saccharinity. Of course, this is a children’s movie, so situations and types are broad, but when it comes to its earnestness, nothing seems overblown. There’s no air of reaching, perhaps because the filmmakers seem to sincerely like their characters. (The end credits include a dedication to the Paddington Bearchildren’s books’ author Michael Bond, who passed away in June.)

The film does have a shaky moment that threatens derailment when it goes in for an extended action sequence at the climax. “Action hero” isn’t a suit that fits the civil Paddington very well. Up to this point the movie has succeeded just fine without whiz-bang fireworks: That’s a different kind of movie entertainment, and not one this tale of light visual touches needs. Would that a resolution a trifle more in keeping with the protagonist had been staged—maybe something that featured the reappearance of a whimsical hot-air balloon made of prison uniforms.

Ultimately, however, the film’s message, that nice guys who remain polite finish first, is timeless and fitting. Its gentle exhortation to “be yourself” doesn’t imply, as some other contemporary messages of personal empowerment have done, that you act at the expense of, or with disregard for others. It isn’t always easy for Paddington to act like himself, but when at last he comes through, the conclusion to his story is so just-right, you may leave the theatre feeling as if the world has some order to it after all. This winter you can keep your Oscar fare: I’m with the bear.

‘In Between’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Girls just wanna have the freedom to have fun in this electric debut from Arab-Israeli filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud. Her In Between is a political film, critical of Arab culture and Arab-Israeli relations, but thanks to the strength of its characterizations it is never a didactic film. Hamoud proves once again the potency of a tried-and-true formula: Elucidate the macro through the personal.

Three Palestinian twenty-something women are sharing an apartment together in Tel Aviv. There’s Lalia (Mouna Hawa), the gorgeous-and-she-knows-it criminal lawyer who plays just as hard as she works, which is to an extreme. She is a thick-skinned, cosmopolitan woman who has yet to abandon her belief in romance and who is capable of great tenderness. Lalia has been roommates for some time with Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a DJ who is cool to the point of sullenness, who comes from a Christian family in Galilee, and who is beginning to explore her feelings for another woman. At the beginning of the film, they’re joined by a devout Muslim student named Nur (Shaden Kanboura), who rents their third bedroom so she can be closer to her university. Nur wears a hijab and doesn’t know what raves are; her fiancée, a man so unctuously pious one suspects he doth pray too much, doesn’t like the drinking, smoking, fornicating ways of her new roommates. But after a rocky start, Nur bonds with Lalia and Salma. She resists her fiancée’s attempts to convince her to move elsewhere. We know this cannot end easily.

Meanwhile, Lalia and Salma wrestle with romantic entanglements of their own. The seemingly liberal Arab man for whom Lalia has fallen may not be as enlightened as he first appeared, while Salma must juggle the romantic freedom she enjoys while living on her own in Tel Aviv with the unyieldingly traditional viewpoints of her family. Again, no easy solutions are in sight.

Although the film is only an hour and 45 minutes long, it’s as if Hamoud took a cue from prestige TV in structuring her story. The narrative thread for each woman is distinct: We have the A, B and C stories that converge at important moments. Without resorting to cumbersome flashbacks or clunky exposition, we are given a clear understanding of the life of each protagonist as we follow her for a time solo. It is the time taken to explore these women individually that makes those occasions when they interact together so impactful. When a moment of shocking violence occurs, the emotionality of their reactions is deepened by this understanding of each in her turn, and continues to reverberate to the film’s conclusion. Even when heartbreaking, it’s cannily done.

The actress who plays Salma is a DJ in real life, as is Hamoud, and the film benefits from their expertise as it sounds a thumping score of underground music from Tel Aviv. There’s an anarchic, F-U vibe to much of the soundtrack. But the film’s greatest strength lies in its unwillingness to go for an easy sense of righteousness. Yes, these women are asserting themselves; yes, there are victories gained. But swimming against the tide and living “freely” is not easy. Even when it’s the comparatively better choice, it may not make you happy.

In Between ends on a note of ambiguity over which a less confident filmmaker may have glossed, or eschewed altogether. But Hamoud, who, thanks to In Between, has become the target of the first fatwa to be issued in Palestine since 1948, is nothing if not confident in her choices. This story of clashing values and women chafing and pretty young things in-and-out-of-love is not novel, however of-the-moment it may be politically. But when filtered through Hamoud’s sensibility, the result is distinctive, a mix of rock ’n’ roll and sorrow. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Isabelle Huppert chose the writer-director to receive the Women in Motion Young Talents Award. She is indeed one to watch.

‘Blame’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Writer, director, editor and star Quinn Shephard has made a taut film that wears its literary inspirations on its sleeve and that largely succeeds in demonstrating the enduring fruitfulness of classic plays The Glass Menagerie and The Crucible. Although at times Blame seems overacted, and our protagonist remains elusive, it’ll keep you going thanks to Shephard’s deft pacing. Of the many titles this talented 22-year-old can claim, editor should not be overlooked.

It’s the beginning of another school year and Abigail (Shephard) is reluctant to return to her suburban high school. Last year there was an incident in her psych class that led her, so the rumors whisper, to be packed away to a funny farm. Just what this incident was is never explained, although we do know that it earned Abigail the nickname of “Sybil,” as in the woman with multiple personalities from the 1973 nonfiction bestseller. And indeed there is something off about Abigail: She’s self-consciously quiet, wears dresses buttoned to the throat, and walks with a pronounced limp. “Just like Laura Wingfield,” the sexy and ferociously insecure Melissa (Nadia Alexander) says derisively, naming a character from The Glass Menagerie and, in the process, helpfully shedding some light on the film’s opening shot of a glass unicorn figurine in Abigail’s bedroom. (CliffsNotes might be helpful as supplementary reading material here.) It seems that Abigail gets so wrapped up in the books she reads, she begins to mimic their characters. So you can imagine the turn things start to take when an attractive new drama teacher (Chris Messina) shows up and assigns her the part of the villainous Abigail from The Crucible.

But Abigail is not the only girl thirsting for attention. Her antagonist Melissa, the “cool” girl with her hair dyed red at the tips, her skirt riding up to her pelvis, her bralette on full display, is jealous. She wanted the part, and the slight rankles her. While Melissa schemes, Abigail gets too-close-for-legal-comfort to the drama teacher. The two girls butt heads, leading, to Shephard’s credit, to a dramatic conclusion that is both unexpected and believable.

When it comes to our leading-lady characters, there is no contest: Melissa with her brashness and fear is far and away more interesting than dreamy and manipulative Abigail. Neither actress, however, hits the mark quite roundly: Though Alexander won the Jury Award for Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, she has a tendency to exaggerate, to roll her eyes and sneer and prance like someone playing bitchy. It’s possible that her labored affect is part of her character, who is deeply insecure, but the fact that it’s not always apparent just who is overacting, the character or the actress, is a problem. That being said, the Tribeca audience may have been moved to celebrate Alexander for her part in the film’s climax, in which she does convince. With Abigail, Shephard has written herself a cipher. What motivates her is unclear, unless she is indeed as crazy as the mean girls snarl. A flash of deceitfulness hints at interesting depths that are never plumbed. It doesn’t help that when she speaks, Shephard doesn’t always fully enunciate and shuffles her words, sounding not unlike Minka Kelly.

But in the main, Blame succeeds thanks to its thriller-like pacing that makes for a slow burn, and to the filmmaker’s evident control of her material. While helping her drama teacher choose which scenes their class should perform for its showcase, Abigail suggests they pick only those that “tell the story.” This is precisely what Shephard has done. It’s true that her film doesn’t use the themes of the plays that inspired it in particularly surprising ways—this is not an against-the-grain-read—but that’s quibbling, for it does fit them comprehensibly into the world of a 21st-century high school. If there is little that can match the power of a work by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, Blame is nevertheless a strong debut.

‘Pitch Perfect 3’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

This third and seemingly final (you never can tell) installment in the saga of the Barton Bellas a cappella group is the flashiest of the franchise. There are offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, explosions onboard yachts and—most shocking of all—instruments on stage. Bigger is rarely better, of course, and Pitch Perfect 3 falls short in charm and narrative coherence of 2012’s Pitch Perfect. Still, writers Kay Cannon and Mike White are masters of the one-liner and they do their darndest to ensure you know they know that we all know this is the silliest of stuff. Once again, contemporary pop songs and jokes about social awkwardness prove an undoubtedly entertaining combination.

Save for Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), all of the Bellas whom we have grown to love over the past five years have graduated from Barton and are struggling to find their places in the real world. Just about all of them hate their jobs and would do anything to relive their college glory days and perform as an a cappella group once again. Beca (Anna Kendrick) in particular is disillusioned by what should have been her dream job as a music producer.

Luckily, Aubrey’s (Anna Camp) military father, whose harsh words of advice are a staple of his daughter’s conversation and neuroses, can secure the former Bellas a spot on an international USO tour to entertain the troops. This wouldn’t be a Pitch Perfect without a competition, however, as the characters themselves point out in one of many meta-reflections. As it turns out, the Bellas will be touring with real-life hip-hop impresario DJ Khaled and three other bands. At the end of the tour, Khaled will choose one group to open for him. Almost immediately the Bellas are intimidated by the competition, an all-girl collective named Evermoist (fronted by Ruby Rose) especially. When the dodgy father (played by John Lithgow) of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) shows up, things really start to get complicated. Filming it all for a doc-a-mentary are our faithful announcers John (John Michael Higgins) and Gail (Elizabeth Banks). They don’t film much and only pop in every now and again, but they’re as much a part of the story as Becca and Fat Amy, plus they’re funny, so, whatever.

That’s a thought that may occur frequently while watching PP3Well, whatever. It would be easy to quibble the film to death. Many new characters are introduced only to hang about half-formed, including a hunky soldier who acts as the girls’ escort, the sexy-sneering ladies of Evermoist, a strange rapper who flirts with the strangely near-silent Bella, and an attractive music exec on Khaled’s team who has a thing for Beca. Evermoist in particular is framed as a major antagonist only to fall by the wayside as other, bigger, kookier concerns take over. Any one of these threads could have made for a strong subplot in its own right, but all together they prove a mishmash of bits and gags. But because this is a comedy, the film gets away with its scattered elements, though only just. In the end, it is the Bellas’ story and everyone who is not in the gang is something of a prop to be used by it.

Smartly, the story has aged with its characters. The streak of earnestness that runs through all the films and which was done best in the first movie with the Benji (Ben Platt of “Dear Evan Hansen”) and Jesse (Skylar Astin) characters, both absent here and sorely missed, focuses on the girls’ bumpy transition into adulthood. This tale of Millennials being forced to face adulthood is as timely as the movie’s soundtrack and its emphasis on sisterhood.  But after turning Fat Amy into an action hero, there aren’t many more places for the franchise to go. Heaven forfend a Bad Moms angle should be taken for any Pitch Perfect 4. Let this be indeed their final song.