Inner Dialogue: Outside the Box

Check out last week’s introduction to Inner Dialogue for an explanation of this new feature here at The Best Films of Our Lives!

Lefty: Hello and welcome again to another edition of Inner Dialogue. Before you get your hopes up that this will be a weekly feature –

Righty: Consistent posting? On this web site? Psssh.

Lefty: – we’ll remind you that, for one thing, our author is starting grad school in about a week, so logic demands that a lot more of his time will be taken up with schoolwork.

Righty: To be clear, the free time that remains will probably be spent catching up on Buffy reruns rather than updating this blog.

Lefty: And for another, today’s topic very much seemed to be a companion piece to last week’s discussion of the Hollywood studio system. Namely, this summer’s particularly strong indie slate and the possible advantages of counter-programming. Even as the year’s blockbuster offerings have been met with both popular and critical indifference, films produced by non-major-studios (or indie branches like Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, etc.) are booming – at least by critical metrics. Just in the past few months, here at the Best Films of Our Lives, we’ve handed out 3 1/2 to 4 star reviews to “Stories We Tell,” “Before Midnight,” “The Bling Ring” and “Frances Ha – ” and expect another one for “Blue Jasmine” any day now. Add on “The Spectacular Now” (something we weren’t as enthused about as most critics) and “The Way, Way Back,” besides all the films we haven’t caught up to yet – “Fruitvale Station,” “In a World,” “The East,” “A Hijacking,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Prince Avalanche,” “Short Term 12,” “The Act of Killing,” “Computer Chess,” “This Is Martin Bonner” – and that’s a pretty fantastic season according to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.

Righty: Yes, because those sites are soooo reliable.

Lefty: I mean, any attempt to put an objective score on subjective opinions is going to be flawed, of course, but looking at a Metacritic score can at least give us a pretty accurate impression of the overall reaction to a film.

Righty: Accurate, shmaccurate. I don’t need an aggregate site to tell me that people are responding to “The Butler” and can’t care less about “Jobs.” Both, by the way, “indie” films having completely opposite levels of success at the moment. Having a host of Sundance favorites at your disposal might be nice, but who cares if the studios and distributors can’t even get them to an audience?

Lefty: But “The Butler” is, by all accounts, a better film than “Jobs,” and is therefore making money hand over fist! Isn’t that the kind of direct correlation we like to see in the film industry? The better films being sought out and rewarded? “Fruitvale Station” has made about $15 million so far, a great number for a sober art-house drama; “The Way, Way Back” is creeping towards $20 million, a benchmark that “Mud” and “The Place Beyond The Pines,” two daring, ambitious indie films, already crossed earlier this year. Isn’t that encouraging?

Righty: And meanwhile “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s biggest critical smash in decades, is starting to stall at $11 million despite a big expansion this past weekend, and is going to be lucky to get to even half of what “Midnight in Paris” did. You’re throwing around numbers that don’t actually reflect at all what the general public is responding to – which, in overwhelming numbers, is still the bland studio stuff we were talking about last week.

Lefty: Well back to “The Butler” then. It’s about to top the box office for the second week in a row – a Weinstein Company film that needed FORTY ONE producers and executive producers just to get a $30 million budget!

Righty: If they told me Robin Williams was going to play Eisenhower, I probably wouldn’t cough up more than a million either.

Lefty: But seriously though.

Righty: But seriously, Oprah.

Lefty: Well, that was almost certainly a significant factor. But I think that part of the success of “The Butler” can be chalked up to effective counter-programming: right at the end of another bloated, explosion-laden summer, someone had the smarts to drop a prestige title with a ton of recognizable names attached to it. And despite our mutual dislike for the sweeping inspirational historical drama, it’s a genre that’s been a favorite with audiences in the past – see Gump, Forrest. That’s the kind of film that, in the past, a major studio would’ve made and released themselves – so why didn’t any of them make “The Butler?”

Righty: Remember “Bobby?”

Lefty: No.

Righty: Neither do I.

Lefty: …I see what you did there.

Righty: No, really, I don’t remember that movie. What is this “Parkland” thing that everyone’s going on about all of a sudden?

Lefty: Look, no, there’s another example! An ensemble drama about the Kennedy assassination? A young, sort-of marketable star surrounded by great character actors? Tom Hanks producing? Why wasn’t that a major studio pickup at the screenplay phase? What is it doing playing at Venice and Toronto and getting distributed by Open Road rather than Fox??

Righty: Perhaps someone was scared Warner Bros. would sue and we’d end up having to refer to “Oliver Stone’s JFK” and “Peter Landesman’s Parkland.”


Righty: But seriously you need to chill out and not expect that indie films are magically going to start making bank just because Superman is back and he’s British! I’ll give you the fact that counter-programming has worked well for “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler,” but have you thought about another reason why those films might be having “outside the box” success?

Lefty: I don’t follow.

Righty: Who are you, Stephen Colbert?

Lefty: Oh. OH. Well that is a point, Hollywood in general still seems incapable of realizing that black people exist in America and might be willing to pay for portrayals of themselves on film.

Righty: Despite Tyler Perry’s career dancing pant-less in front of them like Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.”

Lefty: But that’s really still just feeding into what I mean by counter-programming: it’s about giving people something other than the status quo, not just in terms of budget but subject matter, themes, stars, stories. Hollywood’s two most bankable black stars – Will Smith and Denzel Washington – both had big action films this summer in “After Earth” and “2 Guns,” but both underperformed.

Righty: Because they were the SAME THING as every other sci-fi apocalypse survival/buddy-cop action movie out there – you could’ve swapped them out for generic white actors and who would know? Also, M. Night Shyamalan.

Lefty: So is it really just as simple as, show the people something they haven’t seen before?

Righty: Hell no. Haven’t you heard about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter? Or were you alive and on the Internet when Arrested Development Season 4 came out? Or did you watch the reaction to Avengers: Age of Ultron at Comic-Con? People act all shocked that Hollywood can’t come up with original ideas, but given the choice, the collective majority of people will just ask for more of what they know. Plus, you pointed out, “The Butler” isn’t so different from “Forrest Gump” or “Driving Miss Daisy” or a bunch of other pop-culture clichés. What’s so stunningly new about that, even if it at least decides to let black people be at the center of attention for a change?

Lefty: You’ve somehow turned what seemed like a positive year for indie film into something depressing.

Righty: Just trying to keep things in perspective. Yeah, there’s been a lot of great movies this summer, if you know where to look. But that’s always true. I’m just saying here, boring blockbusters don’t lead to popular indies. That’s wishful thinking. And besides, what would all the hipsters do? Start putting up Michael Bay posters in their Williamsburg studios?

Lefty: Perish the thought. I guess if anything I’m just trying… as always… to bring attention to things going on in the film world just outside the mainstream eye. If you’re tired of superheroes and robots, you can still find comedies (that aren’t about guys smoking pot), romances (that don’t have Katherine Heigl in them), and Emma Watson (not in a Harry Potter movie). Think outside the multiplex, I guess? n other words, if you’re interested in any of those movies we mentioned earlier – please ask and we’ll tell more about them.

Righty: Because I’m betting, even despite this blog’s efforts, that most of you have no damn clue what “Short Term 12” and “Computer Chess” are. We can’t catch EVERYTHING in the Trailers of the Week posts, you know.

Lefty: What’s your verdict on the summer’s indie offerings? Anything to get really excited about, or is under-appreciated, above-average cinema just business as usual? And will someone please tell us if we actually have to go see “The Butler” or not? Let us know, and join us next time on Inner Dialogue.

Review: The Spectacular Now

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller lift an otherwise disappointingly familiar coming-of-age tale in James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now.”

“The Spectacular Now” is a horrible title. Can we just get that out of the way first? I don’t like criticism that just goes for the snarky cheap shots, but seriously. I work at a movie theater and judging by the business we’re getting, “The Spectacular Now” has fantastic word-of-mouth, but not a single person has said that title correctly to me.

Sorry. Objective criticism hat on now. Despite its overly twee name, “The Spectacular Now” carves itself out a pleasant, authentic niche in the adolescent coming-of-age genre – at least until it caves into a series of plot development worthy of a Lifetime movie. Generally I’m a sucker for high school romances, but something about this year’s efforts – “The Way, Way Back” and now “The Spectacular Now” (a summer for redundancy, apparently) – has left me cold. It’s a shame, especially considering I want to support Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the screenwriters of “500 Days of Summer” and “Spectacular Now,” in their almost single-handed campaign to revive the romantic comedy. But the light, charming love story of “The Spectacular Now” quickly collapses into an obvious social problem film, leaving the Sundance favorite, like “The Way, Way Back,” as primarily an actor’s showcase rather than a fully-formed gem.

The primary actor in question is Miles Teller, whose previous work in drunken “Superbad” ripoffs like “Project X” and “21 & Over” couldn’t possibly have prepared us for the magnetism and presence he provides here. His lead character, Sutter, is the kind of guy everyone knows from high school but is remarkably scarce on the screen: the popular guy who is NOT a jock. Sutter is outgoing, winning, affable, observant – capable of making friends with anyone and everyone around him. At the beginning of the film, he’s enjoying the secondary school high life with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), at least until she unceremoniously dumps him, ostensibly for cheating on her but really because of Sutter’s persistent drinking problem. Sutter’s addiction is treated at first with remarkable subtlety: no one ever even speaks the work “alcoholic,” and we get all the information we need from the boy’s suspicious habit of constantly carrying around a Big Gulp.

The morning after the breakup, Sutter is woken up, lying in the front yard of a complete stranger. Standing over him is Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a girl from his class at school. Aimee is a phenomenal character: a teenage girl who is neither a geek, a slut or a rebel. She’s not the most popular girl around, but hardly a social outcast – she’s just a normal person, a bit shy, who’s too busy running her mother’s paper route at 6 am in the morning to worry too much about showing herself off socially. Woodley, who made the most out of an underserved role as George Clooney’s eldest daughter in “The Descendants,” shows considerable range with Aimee: without any big speeches or pandering Oscar moments, she gives this level-headed, sweet girl life.

Teller and Woodley have a terrific, natural chemistry, and the film’s second half, dealing with Sutter and Aimee’s budding romance, is a delight. Their flirtation is unforced – much to the surprise of their classmates (and any audience accustomed to more rote, obligatory wooing), the two simply find that they enjoy talking to each other, and things develop quite naturally from there. Although Sutter secretly harbors hopes of getting back together with Cassidy, even he would have to admit that he pines after his ex more out of a need to follow the approved high school script than anything else. Aimee may not be the golden girl, but she’s the right one. She’s more adventurous than her introverted exterior might suggest, and Sutter introduces her to the carnal pleasures of whiskey…among other things.

But “The Spectacular Now” nearly veers off the rails when it decides to essentially stop developing Aimee and focus on solving Sutter’s muddled mindset. His carpe diem lifestyle may have made him the most popular man at school, but Sutter’s insistence on living in the eponymous “now” is probably preventing him from going to college or having much of a future at all. This doesn’t seem to bother the young man too much until he tracks down his deadbeat father (Kyle Chandler), a drunken layabout that not even Coach can lift beyond Driver’s Ed video territory. It’s obvious that alcoholism is a major personal issue for director James Ponsoldt, who also directed last year’s indie darling “Smashed.” But Sutter’s father brings the film’s real heart, that is the Sutter-Aimee romance, to a screeching halt in favor of a PSA.

From there the emotional revelations and twists come fast but not too furious. After building up Sutter for most of the film as a flawed but ultimately well-meaning and likable guy, the sudden need to scold him for his adolescent uncertainty and mistakes feels more compulsory than heartfelt. And after creating such a balanced, fetching couple with Sutter and Aimee, it’s a shame that once again, the emotional arc of the film has to be left entirely on the shoulders of the quirky, troubled guy.

Yet, despite the flaws in its screenplay, “The Spectacular Now” is lifted by a universally strong ensemble. Teller and Woodley are rightly given the bulk of the screen time, but a small host of great character actors do a great job playing variations on the concerned mentor. Jennifer Jason Leigh is appropriately weary as Sutter’s beleaguered mother, while Bob Odenkirk makes an oddly touching, unexpectedly unfunny turn as the boy’s boss at a local haberdashery. Andre Royo and Mary Elizabeth Winstead make strong impressions as well, in brief turns as Sutter’s teacher and sister, respectively.

Like “500 Days of Summer,” Neustadter and Weber’s latest effort is about one act short of a classic. A palpable sense of honesty and authenticity gives way to contrivance. It’s almost as disappointing as that title.

Now playing in indie theaters.

Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars