Tuesday 29 May 2012


(Wes Anderson, 2012)

With his seventh film, Wes Anderson finds the perfect story and setting for his singular style and sensibility.
The result is a magical comic fairytale, shot through with his familiar deadpan melancholy and ably performed by a game, starry cast.
The two leads, however, are young unknowns. They are Sam Shakusky (Jared Gillman), a young orphan who falls in love with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) while based with his Khaki Scout troop on the Island of New Penzance, off the coast of New England in Summer 1965. Names - the names of characters, places, even labels and brands - are crucial in the symphony Wes Anderson creates in each of his films, adding detail and a precise texture to his world which feels quite unlike any other.
Here that world is largely seen through the prism of typically intense Anderson children. Both principals are outsiders, both serious, both sad. They become penpals and resolve to run away from unhappy family lives together, and what follows is a lovely natural idyll, with shades of Badlands in it's scenes of a young couple creating their own little world in a natural setting.
The adult world our couple are fleeing is represented in the form of Suzy's attorney parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) whose marriage is falling apart, partly due to her affair with the Island Sheriff (Bruce Willis). Then there is Sam's Scout Master (Edward Norton), struggling to control his troupe. This side of the story is suffused in sadness, which comes in scenes where their complex adult problems are revealed in their faces and conversations. These are lonely people, their exchanges and small, everyday agonies contrasted with those of Sam and Suzy. They too will probably end up as sorrowful as their elders, Anderson seems to say, if they are denied the understanding and love they have found with one another.
That much might be enough - this may be the directors most moving, emotional film, the aching nostalgia and feeling for childhood's end adding to that - but there are also a few dozen great comic ideas here typical of Anderson. The scout troupe, run like an army, offers great dry comedy and a series of lovely visual gags. Bob Balaban pops up as a narrator offering context and portentousness, Tilda Swinton steps straight out of a Powell & Pressburger film as the blue-clad "Social Services", and Anderon's use of music (largely Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten here) is as superb as ever.
Best of all, much of the film is shot on location, meaning that it's somewhat looser than Anderson's usual approach allows; Mother Nature resists the control evident in his miss en scene. Instead there are lovely landscapes and shots which make the most of the possibilities of the forest and the ocean.
It all hangs together with impeccable style and no little emotional weight, suggesting, for all that his detractors insist that Anderson has to grow up, that he is at his finest and most natural when he is addressing childhood, as he does here.

Tuesday 22 May 2012


(Gareth Evans, 2011)

Gunfire is a tricky thing to get right. Not many movies do.
The more weaponry and gunshots in a movie, the less likely any of it is to have an impact. That applies in Gareth Evans' The Raid just as much as it does in any John Woo or Hollywood action movie, where gunfights often devolve into a loud aural and visual backdrop to the primary action. But a gun - and the lethal threat it implies - should be a big, terrifying presence in any action movie, much as it would be in real life. The difference between action and violence is something fudged by many action movies. The Raid is very much an action movie, but it dabbles in actual violence - let's define that as a violent act which is shown to have realistic consequences as opposed to action, which is a violent act with more cartoonish or heightened consequences.
The now-legendary gun battle in Michael Mann's Heat is terrifying from the first shots because Mann is intent on the exact damage all that lead does when it fills the air. Car doors jump and shudder under the impact of rounds, windows explode, human flesh is pulped. People die, obviously. The noise rends the air.
The early - and massive - gun battle in The Raid is deafening, and claims perhaps a dozen lives. But it has none of that weight. It has more in common with the 1980s tv show The A-Team, where violence never had any consequences besides bruises.
This seems problematic in a movie which is, to some extent, about violence. Evans later shows an almost schizophrenic attitude to onscreen violence; his action scenes are typical martial arts sequences in many respects, with combatants taking massive batterings with little damage. But then occasionally he includes a moment of shocking (and almost giddily hilarious) gore: a man's neck impaled on the broken surface of a door, a man falling onto a metal stair-rail.
There are other problems. The lack of a plot or characters, for starters. The premise is streamlined and simple: a team of armed Indonesian police invade a tower-block owned by a Gang Boss. Their aim is to clean it out and arrest him. But once the alarm is raised they find themselves trapped halfway up, without hope of reinforcements and with dwindling numbers, surrounded by criminal residents charged with eliminating them.
At that point the film begins to resemble a video game as our hero (Iko Uwais) has to fight innumerable opponents in the corridors. Evans stages and choreographs the martial arts scenes brilliantly and Uwais is nimbly magnetic as a physical performer, fighting with knives, nightsticks, machetes and fists and feet. Unlike many modern films, these scenes are spacially coherent, clear and classically shot. They are also generally witty and viscerally thrilling, and climax in a relentless, exhausting fight with the villain's henchman Mad Dog, which is a satisfying conclusion to so much mayhem.
Perhaps more successful than the carnage, however, are the few scenes of suspense as the remaining cops hide and the gangsters hunt them. These scenes are familiar and devastatingly effective: men concealed within a partition wall while a hunter stabs it with a machete, for instance. The action, when it comes, serves as a nice release after so much tension.
But the scenes of exposition and character development are filled with cliches and bad dialogue - our hero has a pregnant wife at home, Mad Dog lives for the thrill of killing with his hands, a corrupt cop is a craven coward etc - which are only barely balanced out by the quality of the inventive action scenes.
Evans directs it all slickly with a good eye on pacing, but its generally an ugly little b-movie, elevated in places by a clear-eyed, exciting approach to action with little else to recommend it.

Sunday 20 May 2012


(Larry Charles, 2012)

A strong narrative is not really an important factor in the success of Sacha Baron Cohen's first two successful vehicles. Both Borat and Bruno - each directed, like The Dictator, by Larry Charles - Work best when they adopt the device Baron Cohen perfected in his tv work, whereby he provokes outraged and outrageous responses from unsuspecting "normal" people with the behaviour of his comically exaggerated character.
There are other funny scenes and skits, and some good ideas, in each of those films, but their stories are relatively unimportant. The problem with The Dictator, then, is that in abandoning his most successful device, Baron Cohen places himself at the mercy of story to a much greater extent. But he doesn't have a much greater story to tell.
He plays Admiral General Aladeen, Ruler of oil-rich North African state Wadiya, who finds himself alone and anonymously beardless in New York City after his bitter, greedy Uncle (Ben Kingsley) seeks to dispose of him during a trip to address the UN. He is rescued by Zoe (Anna Faris), a passionate Political protestor and the Manager of a Collective Grocery in Brooklyn. Aladeen takes a position there while he plots to return to his old life, ruining his Uncles attempt to bring democracy to Wadiya in the process.
That plot may sound silly, but it plays out in a halting, arrhythmic, poorly edited fashion. None of that prevents The Dictator from being at times wildly funny. Baron Cohen's gift for making the offensive spectacularly, accessibly funny is as sharp as ever here. His character is a racist, sexist boor without any social graces, meaning that he says brilliantly inappropriate things in every situation, spraying insults around in all directions, some of them extremely amusing.
Then there are the broad situations engineered by the script - Aladeen delivering a baby, complete with shots from inside the womb, Aladeen and friend terrifying Americans with their conversations about Bin Laden and fireworks while taking a helicopter trip over Manhattan, Aladeen discovering masturbation ("What sorcery is this?") - which, while often crude, are again generally very funny. As are the scenes which poke fun at comedic conventions - montages Of Aladeen, first adapting to American life, then running the Grocery like a dictatorship - and the few, heavy-handed attempts at satire on show. Even the details are tellingly funny; the soundtrack here is filled with what sounds like Arabic version of classic pop.
For Baron Cohen's greatest strength is his devotion to making an audience laugh. For that he is willing to abandon a coherent narrative, tonal consistency, and any ideological or satirical intent; he simply wants us to laugh. Luckily, he is a very funny man.

Friday 18 May 2012



(Jack Cardiff, 1968)

There are a handful of "Mission Movies" from the 1960s which have defined that sub-genre and cemented themselves in popular culture. The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and Kellys Heroes all feature big movie stars, attractive location shooting, massive action sequences and war as a backdrop. However, they are all escapist films; war is first and foremost an exciting spectacle in the mission movie. Enemies are cut down and blown up in their dozens, and there is little consideration of the meaning or morality of this. Chiefly, it's just exhilarating. Perhaps the reason that a few other impressive mission movies from the same era didn't have a similar impact is that they are darker and more ambiguous in their treatment of violence and conflict. I'm thinking of Andre DeToth's superb Play Dirty, alongside Jack Cardiff's Dark of the Sun.
Cardiff's film follows two mercenaries, Curry (Rod Taylor) and Roffo (Jim Brown) on a mission for the Congolese Government. They are charged with travelling 300 miles into rebel territory aboard a train, rescuing 100 civilians stranded in a mining town and the $50 million in diamonds there, and returning, all within three days. As well as the rebel army they have to contend with the racist Captain (Peter Carsten) and alcoholic doctor (Kenneth More) accompanying them.
The film never skimps on action or spectacle, but it never shies away from considering the morality of its characters either, and the fact that the heroes are mercenaries gives it a get-go ambiguity absent from many of the manichean treatments of War common in post-WW2 entertainment.
The villains here, aside from Carsten's Swastika-sporting Captain Henlein, are virtually anonymous, a mass of rebels without any individual personalities, who function as a rolling plot device, forcing our heroes actions by dint of their mere presence.
But the heroes are more interestingly shaded. Brown plays Roffo in noble matinee idol mode, cool, calm, and unruffled by all the danger and death he sees. And yet he has some righteous qualities; he is there because this is his homeland, and he wants to help establish it as a stable Nation. His cause keeps him centred, he explains to his friend Curry. Taylor's Curry is more of a type; loud and brash, his chief conflict is internal, though it is articulated in a couple of conversations with Roffo; is he working purely for the money, or does he care about the causes and people he encounters?
The film, to its credit, never really answers this question, instead suggesting that perhaps people aren't quite as simple as that. Carsten's and More's characters complicate this scheme; while both are resolutely the types that always show up in this genre (nasty racist, drunken quack), here they are well-written and strongly played. More in particular has one fine scene of sacrifice and self-discovery which seems almost out of place with the rest of the film. The films ending is especially dark, undercutting it's plotted note of triumph with a moral question.
Both Taylor and Brown are convincing as tough guys, giving the action scenes a sweaty physicality in keeping with the vividly rendered African locations. Cardiff's direction may not be especially distinctive, but he is a strong storyteller and his visuals are impressive. The action scenes are muscular and convincing - particularly a fistfight that evolves to include a chainsaw - with a clear-eyed view of violence uncommon in mission movies, and the African backdrop is beautifully athmospheric from the first scenes in the City.
It is perhaps a little stiff in places and Mimieux's character is frighteningly token, but generally this is a rollicking, sensitively toned entertainment which deserves a place in the pantheon of mission movies.
Perhaps its most unquestionable feature is a beautiful score by Jacques Loussier, nicely used in tribute by Quentin Tarantino in his own mission movie, Inglourious Basterds.

Tuesday 15 May 2012



(Adrian Grunberg, 2012)

Just when it seemed as if Mel Gibson had forgotten the secret of his own appeal as a movie star, he co-writes and finances a vehicle for himself that demonstrates that he knows exactly what once made him so watchable onscreen. As a director, his best characteristic is the tremendously strong visual storytelling evident in both Braveheart and Apocalypto. That is a feature of this film too, directed as it is by Gibson's protege Adrian Grunberg, presumably with Gibson in close attendance.
He plays the nameless Gringo, imprisoned in a hellish, massive Mexican prison having stolen $2 Million from a Californian crime boss. Inside, he has to learn the ropes and figure out how to survive and retrieve his money, currently in the hands of the Mexican cops who caught him.
Gibson's character has a little of Richard Stark's Parker to him, tough and smart and ruthless as he is, and Gibson plays him with much of his old wit and twinkly charisma. Even more vivid is the setting; this prison is a world unto itself, with shops and families and a rigid class system, and the film is at its colourful best detailing its quirks.
There are a couple of nice action scenes, a few good gags, a cast full of great Mexican faces, and it is a solid slice of b-movie pulp, tailor-made for it's star.

Sunday 13 May 2012


(Walter Hill, 1984)

The main problem with Streets of Fire is its leading man. Michael Paré may have briefly been the next big thing, may have been extremely handsome, and may have looked the part of the action hero matinee idol. But he couldn't act.
Not in the way many other action stars can't act; those sort of stars generally know their limitations and play themselves and variations thereof repeatedly. No; Paré just seems an empty vessel, posing his way through his scenes. He is almost expressionless, utterly devoid of charisma, and wooden in each of his line readings.
He plays Tom Cody, an ex-Army drifter summoned back to his big City hometown to rescue his old flame, the rock singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) after she is kidnapped, mid-song, by a Biker gang, the Bombers, led by Raven (Willem Defoe). Cody teams up with Aim's new boyfriend and manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) and the tomboyish fellow veteran McCoy (Amy Madigan) to bust into the Bombers hideout, then get Ellen back across the City.
The final part of that plot is familiar from Hill's other work - a group of disparate personalities fleeing together across a hostile landscape describes the plot of both The Warriors and Southern Comfort, but this is a very different piece of work to either of those spare, stylish action classics.
The opening subtitle describes it as a "Rock & Roll fable", and it seems to take simplicity as the defining quality of that particular form; stripping everything down to its most basic core. That means that the characters are mostly cliched types fulfilling generic roles. The setting is more interesting; Hill aims for a timeless comic book world, a mixture of 1950s and 1980s styles, neon-lit and rain-slicked. There are a mix of influences and references: the villains are a leather-clad Biker gang like something from a 60s movie, the hero brandishes a rifle one handed, Western fashion, and the music is utterly 80s, with songs written by Jim Steinman among others.
The plots simplicity works well; offering a satisfying, predictable three-act structure allowing for action, humour, romance and a big final showdown. But the dialogue is more problematic. Everybody talks in a hard-bitten tough guy manner, making bad jokes as they ceaselessly mock and chide one another; and it's a little tiring and extremely one-note.
Some of the cast handle it better than others; Madigan sounds natural whereas Moranis sounds forced. Paré, for his part, sounds like a small boy trying to sound tough.
Hill retains his skill with action - all of it exaggerated here with thunderous sound effects and visceral cutting - and his eye for the pop beauty in an urban setting, but this feels like a film thatbgot away from him to some extent. Its a little too big and wild, a little too odd and strange to ever really work. And having a leading man who cannot lead doesn't help at all..

Friday 11 May 2012



(Victor Erice, 1983)

El Sur may well be the single most beautiful Film of the 1980s. Erice's use of natural light and, more particularly, of darkness, is spectacular, and worthy of comparison with Caravaggio and Vermeer. The opening scene is a perfect example. The titles appear over a black screen, then lightness enters the frame almost imperceptibly, until we can make out a window in the corner. Slowly light illuminates a room; a bed, some ornately detailed wallpaper. Someone is sleeping in the bed, and as the scene progresses - the narrative handled almost entirely through offscreen dialogue, telling us that a man has gone missing, his wife frantically ringing around in search of him - we watch that someone wake and rise.
She is Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren), and she narrates the story as an older woman, reflecting on a pivotal part of her life, when she lived in Northern Spain with her parents, before her fathers suicide. The majority of the film involves her investigation of her memories of her father, and his mysterious past in pre-Civil War Southern Spain.
Erice has his favourite themes - childhood, myth, memory - and this story allows him to tackle all of them. But he tends towards the elliptical and enigmatic, necessitating some effort on the part of the audience. That effect is exaggerated here by the flashback structure, and only the voiceover narration clarifies some of the more obscure plot points. But the themes are always prominent as Estrella seeks to understand her own idea of her father as an almost mythic figure with magical abilities (he divines water and studies hypnosis) and the connection of that with her mythologisation of the South itself.
That makes El Sur sound dry, but it never is. Erice has far too poetic and nuanced a sensibility, and this film is far richer in humanity than The Spirit of the Beehive, his superb debut. Here Estrella's life is complicated by her family, her ruminations and fantasies lent an edge by the realities and implications of Spanish National (and her fathers) history. Scene by scene this is an extraordinary piece of cinema, beautifully shot and toned, and filled with lovely acting.
The circumstances of its production - only half of Erice's script was shot, after a producer pulled financing - suggest it should feel far less complete and coherent than it actually does, and though it ends without any real narrative closure, that ending is moving and in keeping with the lyrical mysteries characterising the rest of the film.
Not only the most beautiful film of the 80s, then, but one of the very best films from that decade.

Thursday 10 May 2012


(John Flynn, 1973)

Director Flynn made a series of spartan, taut little b-movie thrillers in the early to mid-1970s. The Outfit, the first, was soon followed by Rolling Thunder and Defiance. They're all naturally streamlined, narratively curt and focused on characters who are utterly defined by their actions. In the case of The Outfit, Flynn had the perfect style and sensibility for the source material, one of Richrd Stark's superb "Parker" series of novels.
His Parker is renamed Earl Macklin and played by Robert Duvall as a grimly focused professional who takes on the mob after they kill his brother in revenge for a robbery upon a mob-owned bank some years before. With his girl (Karen Black) and old partner, Cody (Joe Don Baker) in tow, Macklin sets about ruining the mob by attrition, robbing card games, bookmakers and counting rooms across the country and killing anyone who tries to stop him. This naturally gets the attention of big boss Robert Ryan.
Flynn's style is simple, utterly unadorned, and his storytelling is correspondingly strong. He often finds a good master-shot and lets a portion of the scene play out that way, his camera subtly tracking characters as they move around. Those master-shots are plain; there are never any fancy angles, overly clever framing or ostentatious movements in Flynn's work.
That means that sometimes - when he's not quite on his game - scenes can play like tv, despite the (occasionally inspired) Bruce Surtees photography, which is particularly good at finding the dingy beauty in the dull, underlit interiors of hotel corridors and galley kitchens. But other times there's a muscular, tight efficiency to his work.
That's there too in the acting; Duvall is stone-faced throughout, the mask only cracking a couple of times when he seems amused by what he is doing, or more commonly by one of Baker's country boy monologues.
Everyone is muted; Black has a couple of scenes of emotional upset, but Ryan was born for this sort of tersely masculine material, and his weary, lined face alone suggests the long life of death and violence his character has been responsible for.
There is much violence here too; Duvall and Baker pistol-whipping and blasting their way through a savage road movie underworld. Every situation turns on violence or sex - the hillbilly brothers they buy a car from turn violent when Baker refuses the advances of the wife of one, Ryan avoids violence on one occasion to protect his pretty young wife who, he insinuated "treats me well", and even a routine police traffic stop goes wrong. It all ends quite satisfyingly in a big showdown, as it must, and Flynn delivers.
He's helped immeasurably by a terrific Jerry Fielding score; by turns funky, sleazy and tense, it improves this gripping, pulpy b-movie the way all great soundtracks do.

Monday 7 May 2012


(Boaz Yakin, 2011)

More than a cut above the average Jason Statham vehicle, Safe works in it's own right as a gritty, 1970s-style action thriller. That it makes such good use of Statham's particular brand of glowering machismo and brutal fighting style only makes it a more satisfying genre experience.
Statham plays Luke Wright, a cage fighter who incurs the wrath of the Russian Mob. As a result, his wife is murdered and he is left alive, but told that anyone he get close to will be executed, that he must wander alone. Over a year later, and by now virtually a bum and on the brink of suicide, Luke sees an 11-year Chinese girl pursued through the New York Subway by the same Russian mobsters responsible for his wife's death. She is a maths genius with some important numbers locked within her head, and by saving her, Luke involves himself in a gang war between the Russians, corrupt New York cops and Chinese. Only, of course, as Luke begins to pummel and blast his way through opponents, we learn that he is far more than just another cage fighter.
Writer-director Boaz Yakin has some form in genre cinema, having written The Rookie, The Punisher (1989) and Prince of Persia. His directorial debut, the outstanding Fresh, was an interesting, enthralling spin on the crime genre. Aside from that work, he has mostly made dramas, and I think that Safe really benefits from his flexibility and experience away from the narrow confines of generic expectation.
His approach to some genre tropes is often interesting, and suggests the work of a filmmaker who understands his genre but is seeking to push against it's stylistic boundaries. He handles the exposition of the first act, for instance, with a series of interlocking, often elliptical flashbacks, which establish characters and move the plot along nicely. Later he stages two action scenes from within cars, so that all we can see of the gunmen outside is snatched, chaotic reflections in the rearview mirror (scenes reminiscent of Miss Bala). The final one-on-one confrontation is played as a direct snub to the expectations of this sort of film.
But Yakin also understands the appeal of Statham and puts it to use. His early slow-burn scenes work brilliantly, because we know exactly what will happen later. Then when it does happen, Yakin finds a happy medium between the coherence and stability of classic fight cinema and the modern love of hyperactive fast-cutting. These scenes are always clear - you can see exactly what Statham is doing - but they have the bruising impact audiences have been taught to expect since the Bourne films revolutionised the way action is shot too. Statham's performance is solid. He never gives much away beyond anger and a certain cold-hearted kick-ass relish for the fight at hand, but he manages the few gags he gets easily.
And yet for all its few jokes, Safe has more of an emotional kick than his work usually manages, due mostly to his relationship with the girl, which is gently played on both sides.
The surprising intensity of that emotional content is matched by the grit of the portrayal of New York City, here shown in the sort of street-level crime story more common in the 1970s. There are car chases along its avenues, massive gun battles in its streets and hotels (a casino shootout recalls and perhaps betters Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon), and fistfights in its bars and subway cars. The City is a character here, refreshing in an era when Cleveland and Vancouver often stand in for Manhattan. Another slightly retro touch is Mark Mothersbaugh's terrific score, which apes and updates Lalo Schifrin's 1970s work to fabulous effect,
But really, this is a Statham vehicle, and as such it must work as a Statham vehicle; meaning that it should be ludicrous, over the top and full of fighting, explosions and general mayhem.
That it does all that and works on it's own terms too is a tribute to some fine work from writer-director Yakin. Lets hope it's not long before he decides to handle genre material again.

Sunday 6 May 2012


(Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011)

Camille (Lola Créton) is 15, and madly in love with her handsome, slightly older boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) in the way that only teenagers can really be. When he leaves for 10 months travelling in South America, and that becomes numberless years, she collapses emotionally. We next see her years later, studying architecture, and observe her begin a relationship with her middle-aged teacher (Magne Håvard Brekke) which lasts for a few seemingly content years. But then Sullivan re-enters her life and everything is thrown into question once more.
This is a simple old tale, this story of the first love which cuts deepest, and plainly autobiographical. It is perhaps strongest on the changes in the life of a young person. There are no political awakenings for Camille, just the realisation that architecture is her "vocation" and a new maturity about what she wants and what it means.
But the love story is problematic. Hansen-Løve shows us this couple kissing, arguing, hugging, weeping together. Their last holiday together is a familiarly idyllic rural break, and they are the kind of incredibly French characters who can leave no lake unswum, no horse unridden. Their passion is evident in the many bitter fights and recoveries they endure. We can see it, but crucially, we cannot feel it. There is an oddly cold distance here, between the heat of the emotions we witness and the measured recreation of those emotions by the filmmaker. It feels a little like being told by somebody about their great love affair. Interesting but not especially involving.
Camille's life away from Sullivan is always more compelling, and the film has an exciting sense of Paris as a living city, and a vivid way of expressing her growing feeling for architecture. The characters, particularly the pretentious, selfish, permanently scarfed Sullivan, flirt with being truly annoying, and are undeniably almost caricatures of the bourgeois cliches who have filled French cinema for decades; self-indulgent, solipsistic and whiny, only the warmth of the directors gaze and the charm of the actors redeem them.
The performances are always convincing, and Hansen-Løve is a good storyteller with a great sense of time and place and a feel for music, but you get the feeling that this film is just that bit too autobiographical for her. As Camille hears in class "Art is. Private matter for the Artist". Perhaps in this case, too private.

Saturday 5 May 2012


(Whit Stillman, 2011)

Whit Stillman has not directed a film in the fourteen years since The Last Days of Disco. And yet, so consistent with his earlier work and distinctive is Damsels In Distress that it feels almost as if he has not been away at all. Like his earlier work it focuses upon a small group of educated young people set apart in a world predicated on order. In this case that world is a New England College, and the people are a group of co-eds who fasten onto a new student and instruct her in their ways and beliefs. They try to help and improve their fellow students - particularly the males - led by their eccentric alpha female, the hyper-articulate Violet (Greta Gerwig). All the while, Stillman allows them romances and emotional crises, most of it wound around his trademark conversational style. His characters discuss ideas, always with wit, a self-conscious erudition and disarming earnestness. Indeed, a surfeit of ideas is a Stillman characteristic. Not many romantic comedies are so dense with interest in the most casual dialogue exchanges. But this is no ordinary romcom. As much a droll, wonky comedy of manners, it appears to somehow reflect Stillman's own time away from cinema in Violet's depressed escape from College, his return echoed by her own decision to embrace a joyous cultural phenomenon. It is dryly funny throughout and contains a few big belly laughs, and the cast catch Stillman's tone and handle his dense, literate dialogue beautifully. Gerwig and Brody are the biggest stars here, and both are wholly appealing, believable and even lovable whether they are discussing soap, the correct spelling of Zorro, the plural of doofus or sexual practices among Cathars. Stillman's elegant style is mostly invisible before it becomes most expressive for his climactic, joyous musical sequence. In short, Stillman remains Stillman, and cinema needs such unique talents.


(David Robert Mitchell, 2010)

I don't recognise much of my own teens in the majority of teen movies. I doubt many people do. The American teen genre, filled with glamorous, massive house parties and boldly archetypal characters (jock, nerd, prom queen etc) in an affluently suburban landscape, is far removed from my own experience, though it did twist my own expectations as a teen.
David Robert Mitchell's lovely indie is a far more recognisable proposition. Following a large cast of teens in a middle class Detroit suburb as they circle each other over the course of the last night of summer before they return to High School or leave for College, it is filled with authentic details that can only have come from memory.
There are four storylines running alongside one another and occasionally intersecting. Two of them focus on moony young men, one a romantic teen searching Gatsby-style for the beautiful blonde he saw in a supermarket, the other in town for summer and contemplating not returning to College for his final year after a traumatic breakup, also looking for a former crush.
Then there are the girls; a young cheerleader hoping for one last night of romance and excitement and a recent arrival in town who tries to steal another girls boyfriend after reading something about her own boyfriends past in the girls diary.
They are surrounded by a rich cast of friends, classmates and siblings, and the film is filled with secret crushes, casual telling conversations and loaded glances. Most of the cast are not professionals, and disregarding a couple of instances of wooden stiltedness, they give the film an appealingly unguarded energy and authenticity most teen movies never approach.
It is set at the precise moment in the teens when the last vestiges of childhood begin to dissolve and nostalgia for former innocence creeps into ones view of oneself. Mitchell's gaze is warm, humanist, and these characters are generally nice, articulate and thoughtful people.
Their conversations are full of empathy and insight, and they all seem in search of romance. The film is soulful rather than loquacious, attuned to the moment yet appreciative of the power of memory, and Mitchell's attention to texture and detail gives it all a sensual charge.
Here are teenage boys trying to project an image of jaded experience while longing for romance and the right moment with a pretty girl, and Mitchell's portrait of this one warm night, in all it's vital detail and many textures, gives it a very recognisable sense of nostalgia and longing which is quite moving.
Another factor in its universality is a certain timeless quality it possesses; the clothes and hairstyles suggest the present day, but there are no cultural references to date it, and no cellphones used at all, suggesting the 80s or 90s.
It may recall similar masterpieces of small-town teenage life and love Dazed & Confused and American Grafitti, but this film has it's own unique feel, quietly romantic and poetic, naturalistic and loose. It is beautifully shot and cut, and nicely uses some indie music by Beirut and The Magnetic Fields. But it is chiefly a fine, compulsive piece of storytelling with a nagging emotional charge from an interesting young American writer-director.