Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review: The Spectacular Now

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“The Spectacular Now” should be titled “The Awesome Now.” Its characters say the word “awesome” more than its protagonist drinks. But this isn’t meant to be a sarcastic jab, rather “The Spectacular Now” captures all of that arrogant (if somewhat naive) ebullience of what it’s like to be a teenager in love, without mocking it, but with total sincerity.

The initial premise of the film seems cliche and set up for disaster — bad boy Sutter (Miles Teller) falls for the nice girl next door Aimee (Shailene Woodley), and his life changes for the better. But just like Sutter is more than the high school slacker, “The Spectacular Now” is more than an overdone coming-of-age story. The simple structure allows director James Ponsoldt (who also directed “Smashed” with its similarly well worn territory of alcoholism) to build complex back stories for characters that are much more than their stereotype.

As with most class clowns, the charming Sutter has a dark reason for his sense of humor. He drinks just like his father, who abandoned his family. It could be easy to turn Sutter into an after school special or another Marissa Cooper-style teenager fulfilling every rebel cliche, but his story is nuanced. It’s clear that Ponsoldt actually respects his teenage characters instead of making them into examples. No melodrama is necessary because being a teenager is melodramatic enough. Teller, for his part, is reminiscent of a young John Cusack, cute in a slightly wonky way and disarmingly smooth and witty for someone so young, yet there is a hidden complexity and pain behind all that bravado.

This explains why someone as unflashy as Aimee, without a speck of makeup on her face but with an intrigue to her, could bring out the troubled side of Sutter. Woodley is such a natural at playing the  self-conscious teenager that it seems like she isn’t even acting — she’s one of the true talents of this acting generation. Similarly, the sex scene between Sutter and Aimee is one of the most authentic in a teenage movie ever. It’s awkward yet sweet and much more emotionally intimate than most American movies. Yet Aimee seems to flow into Sutter’s lifestyle too easily, taking on his drinking and issues like they are her own in a way that is underdeveloped at best and unbelievable at worst. Ponsoldt doesn’t give Aimee the same breadth and depth he gives Sutter, and the film ends rather abruptly.

If you were ever in high school, ever in love or want to see two of most promising young actors, see “The Spectacular Now.” It’s awesome.

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Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Oprah. Five presidents played by everyone from Severus Snape to Mrs. Doubtfire. Every major Civil Rights group in history. Terrence Howard trying to have an affair with Oprah. A 90-year time span. There’s so much going on in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” that it shouldn’t work, but to figure out why it does, look no further than its title.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is not just the film’s titular character but its heart. The son of a Georgia sharecropper, he eventually becomes a White House butler, serving for seven presidents (five of whom are depicted in the film) throughout one of the most cataclysmic periods in America. It could be easy for Cecil to be a symbol, but Whitaker ensures that despite the tumult of history Cecil is grounded in his humanity. The mere slackening of Whitaker’s shoulders or worry in his brow says so much more of Cecil’s internal struggle of working at a racist White House than a line could. The film is often contrived and heavy-handed, but Whitaker is always understated and therefore the most sympathetic and powerful character on screen.

However, Lee Daniels doesn’t miss any opportunity to discuss the Civil Rights movement in all of its fervor. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) is the poster boy for the movement by participating in almost every element of it: riding the bus with the Freedom Riders, hanging out with Martin Luther King, Jr., becoming a Black Panther and eventually a politician. This is the part of the film that gets weighed down by its own significance. Yet the juxtaposition of Louis’ active struggle for freedom with Cecil’s calm servitude is striking.

Despite the dramatic tone of the film, the presidents add some humor, whether intentional or not. John Cusack twitches like his prosthetic nose doesn’t fit him quite right and plays the smarmy, paranoid Nixon like a caricature. If possible, Liev Schreiber’s farcically crude LBJ is even worse. Schreiber’s accent flips between thick Texan drawl and his natural California clip, as if he thought his role was small enough he didn’t need to bother mastering it. Even though James Marsden and Alan Rickman make a fairly good Kennedy and Reagan respectively, they are overshadowed by others who took their cameo too literally.

Even with all of its flaws, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is grounded by its characters, who remind us that behind every institution and movement is a person just trying to get by. Oh, and Oprah was surprisingly great.