Once upon a time during the best summer I’ve had to date, not only was I fortunate enough to live with my Snippets co-blogger, but I also had the great pleasure of being chosen amongst over one-hundred applicants to represent Providence College as a “Summer Student Admissions Worker”. For me, it felt like I had somehow been randomly selected to hang out with eleven of PC’s most charismatic, funny, ridiculously good-looking, and all-around best students. How in the hell did I fit in, then? Well, a bit like this:
(I’m the one being mounted) The dozen of us spent the summer giving tours and selling the school to prospective students, along with giving them the scoop on what it takes to become a Friar. Working closely with the Admissions Counselors, we got an in-depth look at the selection process and how to analyze applications. While I was far from a counselor myself, my experiences grant me a certain perspective that make me self-righteously critical of a film like “Admission”.
Recently released, “Admission” details the misadventures of Portia (Tina Fey), a Princeton Admissions Counselor who thrives in a simple and neatly arranged life of reading college applications and coexisting with her condescending English-professor boyfriend of ten years in a childless adult relationship that “doesn’t believe in marriage”. She even has an overly manicured bonsai tree to demonstrate her controlled, contained life. When Princeton drops to #2 on the national rankings, losing the top spot to an unnamed but presumably Ivy League competitor, Portia’s boss announced his retirement.
That’s when her neat world gets shaken up: Portia’s competition to become the future Dean of Admission is her passive aggressive and uber-efficient frenemy Corinne. In a display of one-upmanship, she goes out of her way to visit an alternative school in Vermont while on her annual recruiting trip. There, she sparks a charming relationship with John (Paul Rudd), the school’s director and world traveler who’s out to save everyone. He’s taken an awkward high school student under his wing who may or may not be Portia’s long-lost biological son that she gave up for adoption. Surprise!
If you’re a bit overwhelmed and/or confused by the plot, then you’re already familiar with the most glaringly apparent aspect that held this movie back from being really good. I didn’t even tell you how Portia’s scene stealer boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves Portia because he gets a crazy Virginia Woolf scholar pregnant with twins, leaving her to flounder and struggle in a mountain of applications and stress. And Paul Rudd’s character has an adopted Ugandan son who’s entire family died in a gruesome car crash years ago. Oh, and Portia’s mother is a feminist scholar who lives alone in a remote house with her starving greyhounds, bicycle workshop, and double-barreled shotgun. Whew! Got it all.
While these many plot lines and details aren’t always the most logical and make the movie into a cluster of confusion at times, “Admission” is still able to work some charm. Every character outside of academia is incredibly pleasant to watch on camera, especially Paul Rudd’s depiction of a smirking good samaritan. Then, strangely enough, every Admissions officer or college professor that we meet winds up being a caricature of reality and an over-exaggeration of stereotypes that we’ve seen countless times before in college movies.
When “Admission” deals directly with College Admissions as an industry, it seems to miss the mark just a bit. The Princeton Admissions office buzzes with energy and finesse akin to Sterling Cooper (re: the Mad Men office). It feels like a stale but efficient machine, whereas in my experiences college admissions is about love of a school and even more so, a community. In the Princeton office, it’s about being the best and being on top and everything selfishly elitist with a hint of self-preservation. Even the Committee process, where the whole admissions staff locks themselves in a conference room to duke it out for who makes the cut in the incoming freshman class is far too clean and neat. Where are the sweat pants? Where are the 1:00 AM deliveries? I’ve only heard legends about the harrowing experiences of Committee, but when we see it at Princeton it feels unbelievably tame. Yet again, higher education is portrayed with stereotypes without any depth or personality.
The montage of Portia on her recruitment trip early in the movie is yet another great example of this. She goes to high school after high school - most of them private and seemingly Catholic - to tantalize students with that one tip that will help them get in. Children are on the edge of their seats while Portia delivers her perfectly rehearsed spiel about the hard work, passion, and individuality that is necessary to become a part of the Princeton elite, as if every child in America should aspire to this unachievable dream.
But then she shows up at The New Quest School and meets John (Paul Rudd). And he’s like, “heyyy!”
The hyper-liberal, new age student body tears apart the pompous and elitist institution that she represents. The students raise a lot of direct and blatant criticisms from virtually every liberal standpoint, questioning the traditional college experience altogether in favor of the new-age entrepreneurial spirit that has been gaining more and more popularity in recent years. Portia shoots right back with the rebuttal that if they want to change the world, then in most cases they need a college degree to do it. Doctors need PhD’s. Lawyers need to go to Law School. Altogether, the scene is a bit heavy-handed but neatly displays both sides of the argument. In their respective roles, Portia and John also come to represent both sides of the spectrum.
Interestingly enough, it’s their inevitable union that shows us the err of both extremes. Sometimes it’s better to stay in one place and settle down rather than wander the world building irrigation systems. And sometimes it’s better to be more adventurous rather than spend too much time with the soul-crushing boredom that overly regimented lifestyles offer. Portia’s job and outlook on life is jeopardized by meeting her would-be son and trying to help his incredibly awkward and brilliant but woefully unqualified self get into his dream school: Princeton (of course). And in much the same way, John’s wanderlust is tamed by the companionship he finds with Portia.
Parenthood is another of the themes that is toyed with but never fully fleshed out in “Admission”. You have John who adopted a Ugandan orphan and also mentors who may or may not be Portia’s biological son that she basically gave up so that she wouldn’t make the same single mother mistakes that her own mother made. How much responsibility do these various kinds of parents have to take to do the right thing? And why is it that we all try so hard to be the opposite kinds of parents that our parents were, only to realize that the extreme backlash is always too much? It’s another interesting question that gets raised amongst many that is never solved during a movie that is at once both thematically overambitious and scripturally far too simple to make it work.
All in all, “Admission” is an enjoyable and pleasantly amusing flick, but the typically stellar comedic lead roles of Fey and Rudd seem a bit wasted on a confusing plot with a script that can’t handle itself seriously enough. The laughs aren’t loud enough, but there are still a fair share of chuckles to be had here. Provocative questions are hinted towards but never really explored with the eventual take-home message being shrouded in a veneer that is definitely pleasant enough to get you to watch it.
A quiet, awkward teenager is the last student in the classroom. His favorite teacher is seated behind his desk. The man smiles and says a quick goodbye as the boy walks past. The boy stops, hesitating near the door with his mouth half open. It takes a bit of courage for him, but he manages to speak up.
"Mr. Anderson? Can I ask you a question?" he says quietly.
"Why do people always wind up loving people that are bad for them?"
The teacher looks away for a moment, still seated. There’s a pause, but he manages to speak with almost no hesitation whatsoever.
"We accept the love that we think we deserve."
The boy nods solemnly and turns to go. But then he turns back again.
"Can we make them realize that they deserve better?"
Again, with a meaningful pause but no hesitation, he speaks:
"We can try."
And with an encouraging smile that might rival Gatsby’s, Mr. Anderson says goodbye again.
Just look at that face. Is it possible to dislike Paul Rudd? How can somebody manage to perform outstandingly well both in hysterically raunchy movies and serious heartfelt films? He’s just so dang likable wherever he pops up, and while he was one of the minor parts of Perks of Being a Wallflower, he snuck in as one of its strongest features.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here out of shear enthusiasm for Perks of Being a Wallflower, which you might know is based on a book by Stephen Chbosky of the same title. Our protagonist is Charlie, a freshman-year wallflower who struggles to find the perks (yes, I went there) of a stressed, contemplative existence that for a long time is very lonely. Much of the plot is spent with Charlie dealing with some serious emotional trauma while finally experiencing the joy of new friendship and love from the people that he meets. The two most important people are Sam and Patrick, step-siblings that Charlie falls in line with. They take him under their wing and Sam even becomes Charlie’s love interest.
At a certain point in the movie, Charlie fills the seemingly trite shoes of the young, awkward boy in love. Sam is a senior and dating a guy in college, who Charlie despises on principle, even though he wouldn’t need a reason to hate the guy, who is easily describable as some kind of pompous pedant. It’s at this point when Charlie approaches his favorite teacher for some wisdom in the scene I transcribed above. Like just about everything in this story, this scene could have been executed in an extremely cliche and boring way; it’s got the typical high-schooly problems and accompanying advice from a wise mentor. Typical Cory Matthews and Mr. Feeny stuff when you look at it superficially. It’s for that reason that I almost expected the movie to “try too hard” and “not be believable” by seeming like some lost relic from the ’90s.
But there’s something special that Perks of Being a Wallflower has, and it’s not just the emotionally heavy backstory that is slowly and cleverly revealed, or even the fluctuating madness that Charlie has to grapple with. Those factors add emotional gravity to what might otherwise be a simple story. The most important ingredient in Perks is simple:
Perks of Being a Wallflower winds up being so damned earnest that it might rekindle any waning romantic hearts out there. Heck, it might even inspire you to tears. Charlie isn’t just your average, awkward teenster. He has some serious issues, and he’s an interesting, poetic, downright funny kid who is too messed up to like himself for who he is. He’s confused, like all of us, and rather than sit around feeling sorry for himself for no good reason, he rails against profound questions in his life. Why is there so much suffering out there? Why do people hurt themselves willingly by pursuing what isn’t good for them? It has everything to do with this vicious cycle of self-loathing. We accept the love that we think we deserve, which is to say that we don’t think very much of ourselves. It sucks, doesn’t it? How can we make it better?
Let me tell you how: every now and then, we meet people that drag us out of the protective shells that we’ve built around ourselves. Barriers are broken down and we are able to feel joy in its purest form, because being with people that you connect with on such a deep level makes you feel alive. Who cares about feeling foolish or ridiculous? That’s half the fun! Spontaneity has a place in the heart of joy, when you stop thinking and start acting just enough to lose yourself in the moment. When you lose yourself to that moment, you might be fortunate enough to get one of those feelings where you are exactly where you are meant to be, like destiny has set you up alongside the infinite universe.
There’s another really great scene in Perks, which is probably the most quoted scene from both book and movie. Patrick and Sam show Charlie their special routine where they drive through a tunnel with one of them standing in the back of a pick-up truck listening to special songs. It reminds you of those times when you were too young to understand what it meant to feel sad and happy at the same time, how you can feel ecstatic about the reality of life while being forced to wallow in the pain that comes with it. ”In that moment, we felt infinite,” Charlie says. It’s one of those incommunicable feelings that you can’t ever really describe what it means to anyone else, but maybe, if we’re lucky, we can still somehow understand what they mean by feeling that overwhelming sense of wonder ourselves.
This is a really hard review to write. Maybe I’m out of practice, or maybe Perks of Being a Wallflower is just that good? It makes you feel like a kid again, looking back on all of the problems and joys that once meant everything but seem so juvenile now. Remember that one dance in high school where you just went crazy and had the time of your life? Remember that one night when you were with the right people and even though you did basically nothing, it felt like it meant everything? Remember the people who inspired you to become who you are today, to fully realize yourself as your are today? That’s what it’s like watching Perks. You’re made into a kid again so you can retrace the path that brought you to today.
Oh the nostalgia. Maybe that’s what Charlie means when he says he feels both sad and happy at the same time but doesn’t understand how that can be possible?
My immediate thought after seeing The Return of the King for the first time was something along the lines of, “wow”. That thought was quickly followed by, “When is The Hobbit going to be made?” It seemed the logical thing to do. After three successful film adaptations of Tolkien’s masterpiece trilogy, The Hobbit just had to be made. It took several years, but eventually rumors started to solidify into realities, and it looked like Guillermo Del Toro was going to take the helm with Peter Jackson, our original tour guide of Middle Earth, as producer. This wasn’t thrilling news. As imaginative a director Del Toro is, in my mind at least, he wasn’t the right fit for the slightly more fantastical and fun world of The Hobbit. The trilogy’s prequel is very much a children’s story, and far more light hearted than the events of the War of the Ring. Soon troubles came to the production. However they were a (in my opinion) a blessing in disguise as Del Toro felt he must leave the film and we were left wondering who would step up to the plate. Peter Jackson. Honestly, who better? It only made sense.
There was a game I played quite often as a child. I would don my very own cape and cowl and pull on a black shirt, emblazoned with a yellow oval surrounding the symbol of the bat. I would dash around the house, vanquishing invisible foes in a flurry of martial arts and imagined gadgets. Eventually one of these goons I was brawling with would turn their weapon on one of my family members in a desperate attempt to escape my fury. I would, of course, instantly throw myself in harm’s way and take the oncoming bullet to save the life of my loved one. I would fall to the ground motionless and in all likelihood: dead. Then someone, my father or my mother, would step over and peer down at my appearing lifeless body and exclaim “What? No blood?!” With that I would leap up to my feet and return to the skirmish with renewed vigor and I would deftly defeat the remaining lowlifes threatening my family.
I adored Woody Allen’s last film, “Midnight In Paris”. You can read me ranting and raving about it a year ago on this very blog. It was a film rooted in a warm, romantic feeling of nostalgia that was only lightly tainted by cynicism. There were laughs, there was love, and the characters were likable even when they were mere caricatures of twentieth century American literary giants. In “Paris” Gil Pender was just as much in love with the city as he was the enchanting Adriana; the setting for the film added more character than some of the actual characters. And it worked its charm oh so well.
When I first saw the trailer for Allen’s next foray into European city-based flicks, I was ecstatic to see that he had chosen Rome, a city that I visited once on a week-long trip with a number of friends. I was nineteen years old and it was my first time in Europe. I dabbled in absinthe, loved the food, and even enjoyed my own sickeningly romantic, star-crossed tryst. It was everything I could have hoped for in a Roman holiday. Needless to say, I had high hopes that Allen could deliver another poetic tribute to the Eternal City along the same lines as what he did for the City of Light. And he didn’t. It was honestly a pretty huge letdown.
There is this dreamlike quality to the Parisian montage that opens “Midnight In Paris”. Cafes, monuments, Paris in the rain. I was hoping for another similar prologue featuring some Piazzas, the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain. But in “To Rome With Love”, we are granted a few parse shots before honing in on a simple traffic cop who is directing cars in a rotary/piazza. He gives us some generic narration in broken English about how great Rome is and how he sees it all as the lovers come and go. It’s boring and falls flat almost immediately, making me wonder if Allen was trying harder to embarrass Romans than glorify their city.
Rather than focus on one plotline, “To Rome With Love” wanders between somewhere around four stories that clumsily weave together. And rather than have independent vignettes one after another, these stories just sort of fall together. A middle-aged, middle-class man (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one day to randomly be a celebrity; a sell-out architect (Alec Baldwin) wanders back to the haunt from his youth and coaches a young man through romantic troubles; a young Italian couple on a honeymoon vacation gets separated; and a random man is an amazing opera singer but can only sing in the shower. Intermingled with this is another plot, in which the opera singer’s son is engaged to an American girl. Woody Allen himself plays the girl’s father, visiting to celebrate the engagement. And of course, his character is in the music business and coerces the shower-singer to perform naked on stage in a simulated shower. Then there’s also the complication that the Italian newlywed couple gets separated for a day to each eventually go on and have separate affairs. And the architect’s story has nothing to do with him; he instead stumbles upon a younger architect (Jesse Eisenberg) living with his girlfriend who winds up having an affair with her visiting friend (Ellen Page). It’s a complete and utter mess of people in failed or failing relationships who just do what they want without really wondering about how their actions will affect anyone else. By the end of the movie, we really aren’t sure if we should like anyone, with Alec Baldwin being the only possibility. And even then, we’re not even sure if he’s real! (but more on that later…)
For about half the film, the separated newlyweds are the most interesting part of the movie. The groom is paranoid about impressing his potential new employers and accidentally winds up having to spend the day pretending that a wizened prostitute (Penelope Cruz) is his wife. He’s nervous and she laughs it all off. The whole situation is really funny actually. The main reason for this ruse is because the bride leaves to get her hair done only to lose her way and then her cellphone. After the bride is gone for hours, the prostitute wanders into the wrong room and gets caught with the groom by some stiff-looking aunts and uncles. The groom (allegedly) has no choice but to pretend the strange woman is his wife! Meanwhile, Romans left and right give the bride ridiculous directions that not even they could possibly understand. For a time, this adorable Italian girl is positively enchanting in her sundress, all dewey-eyed and lost and pouting. But then out of nowhere she winds up fawning all over some pot-bellied movie star and she starts to lose likability.
Woody Allen seems to spend all his screen time basking in his own intelligence, reveling in his neuroses in a purely masturbatory, pseudo-comedic performance that comes off as more self-absorbed and annoying than anything else. He complains and says ridiculous things that only the oldest people in the movie theater would laugh at. He bullies a humble funeral director into singing and only complains more or blames other people when things go wrong, even shoving his own wife towards an incoming knife to protect himself at one point.
Of course, Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg play versions of Woody Allen at different stages of his life. Baldwin is hysterical as always, somehow making pompous be charming. Eisenberg is bumbling and jittery, afraid of his own shadow yet somehow able to be direct and passionate. When Eisenberg’s girlfriend’s friend visits, the new girl is annoying, hyper-sexual, pedantic, a pseudo-intellectual, and selfishly manipulative. She’s a temptress, having come a long way since getting knocked up by Paulie Bleaker, and does it all for the attention. Bizarrely enough, after a realistic few scenes in which Baldwin is invited in for a cup of coffee, his role inexplicably shifts from welcome guest to an omnipotent advisor that follows Eisenberg around warning him about the naivete of youth. For the most part, nobody else can see him. He just sort of sits on the sidelines like the angel on your shoulder or some kind of imaginary friend, scolding or advising as he sees fit. At one point the two architects even bicker that Baldwin ruins a “scene” by interrupting. Odd, right?
Easily the most confusing and intriguing story is how a random, average citizen one day just becomes a celebrity. On his way to his car, a reporter just sort of points at him and screams, “Hey look at that guy! What is he doing!?” In a furious flash, dozens of reporters are interviewing him on his shaving habits, what he ate for breakfast, and every last detail of his mundane day. He’s invited to movie premieres, flirts with models and movie stars, and is constantly being harassed, hounded, and interviewed by paparazzi and reporters. At first he hates the attention, then he loves it, then he gets sick of it, and when it’s finally gone and the world has moved on to some other random person, he misses it so much he goes nearly mad.
When the man asks his former chauffeur what happened, Woody Allen tells us the entire point of this ludicrous plot through the man’s words: “Life can be cruel whether you’re a regular person or a celebrity…but it’s always better if you’re a celebrity!” Really? That’s the take-home message we are supposed to have here? It’s insulting, as if Allen is saying that no matter what we do, life sucks and people are cruel, but if you’re a celebrity at least you have money, fame, and attention, so that makes it just a little bit better. So at the end of the day, it’s like he’s waving a big flag in our direction just to remind us that he thinks he’s better than us. All in all, this entire story makes people seem like idiots in the way they obsess over celebrities, trying to devour every detail of their lives for no reason at all when at the end of the day, no matter how famous, a person is still just a person like everyone else with their own problems and needs.
"Midnight In Paris" was able to handle the vaguely absurd by feeling more magical than anything else. "To Rome With Love" is just absurd for its own sake and doesn’t seem to make a point out of it all or have any coherent morals or themes. The little that it does say is spelled out so overtly and cynically that its more likely to depress its viewers than show them some truths about human nature. It’s a really interesting premise that had a lot of potential but it gets bogged down by a lack of likable characters. We can’t blame the acting by any means; everyone was pretty spot on. If anything, we ought to blame Woody Allen’s mixed messages and shifting moods that he has in his old age. "Paris" brought out his romantic optimism, and apparently "Rome" brought back that biting cynicism. What a shame.
Who doesn’t love Disney’s Pixar? Between the unbearably cute short films that introduce their larger stories and the delightfully peculiar yet heartwarmingly touching feature-length films, Pixar pretty much has the 3D animation game in a headlock. I’d almost go so far as to call it a monopoly if “How to Train Your Dragon” wasn’t so dang good too! What began with Toy Story has become a dynamo chain of fantastic films that the whole family can enjoy. Our favorites will always vary: maybe it was “Finding Nemo” or “Monsters, Inc.” or the much more recent “Wall-E”, but for me, I think it will always be “Up!”.
The new contender on the block is the recently released “Brave”, toting mythic Scottish overtones and branded as Pixar’s very first fairy tale. I had my hopes up from the first teaser trailer (admittedly partially because I may or may not have a thing for redheads). The main character this time around is a young ginger by the name of Merrida who prefers the freedom of horseback-riding and archery to the suffocating duties expected of her as princess. This developing conflict only gets worse when her mother tries to force her into an arranged marriage. Determined to change her fate, Merrida enlists the help of a wily witch with a bizarre bear obsession to cast a spell. Naturally, things get a little weird and a lot magical; pretty soon Merrida has to risk more than her life to set everything right. Oh, and if you’re afraid of bears, you might want to sit this one out:
"Brave" winds up being a nicely wrapped package at just over an hour-and-a-half in length. And the animation is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the musculature on a bear as its coat shimmers in the sunlight is amazing to behold. But the full experience feels like it falls short of Pixar’s usual masterpieces for a number of reasons.
They tried very hard to make it feel like “Brave” was straight out of Scottish folklore. It’s complete with thick accents and the kilts galore, along with a few magical wisps and drumming clansmen. The overall “accent” of the film, as colored by that culture, almost comes off as overbearing and distracting - almost. For me, the saving grace was the music which is some of the best I’ve heard in an animated film. It drags you into the lush scenery with breathy voices and ethereal sounds that are so enchantingly Celtic that you can’t help but get a little bit giddy. It’s beautiful, majestic even.
While many of the characters in “Brave” are insanely charming, none of them feel quite as developed or as well-drawn (pun not intended…but I’ll leave it! haha) as Pixar favorites like Mr. Frederickson or Wall-E. Merrida and her parents, even her triplet younger brothers feel like caricatures of simple archetypes. You’ve got your disgruntled princess, the buffoon of a king, and the overly stern queen.
"Brave" really is a pretty great and entertaining movie, but it’s easy to expect a LOT from Pixar considering their history. As a standalone animated film, I’d recommend "Brave" to anyone, but it lacks the level of insane creativity that makes so many Pixar movies shine. Making a movie about a princess rebelling against her fate is a safe bet. But look at any other Pixar movie and it’s legitimately crazy. Just imagine how that first guy sounded who pitched these ideas:
"Alright so we’ve got a bunch of toys, right? But when nobody’s looking they get up and move around and talk!"
"There’s a lonely robot living in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Earth…"
"So this old man’s wife dies and then he flies away in his house with a thousand colorful balloons tied to his chimney."
See what I mean? Pixar movies by definition are usually bizarre almost beyond belief. Right there we’ve basically got two horror movies and one bad acid trip. Pixar thinks outside the box and draws outside the lines, right off the page, and traces crazy swirls all over the dang table with their crayons. And it’s always genius! I mean who would’ve thought we could care so much about a fish trying to find his son? If someone told me that without showing me “Finding Nemo”, I’d call them crazy.
If you haven’t gotten the chance yet, go see “Brave”. You’ll enjoy it for its charm even if it isn’t the best animated film you’ve ever seen.
You can only love Superman so much, because being a virtually all-powerful boy scout, he can get kind of boring. And Batman’s dark and brooding personality is a bit too grave for my taste. Aside from those two big names, I’d have to say that Spider-Man is easily the next most popular hero in comics to date, and with good reason. Having been a very shy nerd myself once upon a time (I know, I know; hard to believe, right!?), Peter Parker is one of my favorites.
Naturally, I loved Marc Webb’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise that was released on July 3. Not only am I engrossed by the amazing pun of the director’s name (Webb! Spider! Get it!? Ha!), but Webb was responsible for one of my favorite movies: 500 Days of Summer. While a superhero flick is quite a leap from the realistic failed romance of Tom and Summer, Webb has done quite well here.
Everybody remembers the Spider-Man trilogy directed by Sam Raimi and led by Tobey Maguire that lasted from 2002 to 2007, ending with the universally despised Spider-Man 3. Sam Raimi’s films relied heavily on the classic Spider-Man story arcs with some minor tweaks here and there. The final products made for some really enjoyable movies, particularly Spider-Man 2. But Raimi’s campy style, made most evident in his past work like The Evil Dead, ruined Spider-Man 3 when it was burdened with too many villains and plot points to handle (most likely the studio’s fault, not Raimi’s). At the end of the day, Raimi had the flair, but none of the depth.
Whether or not the last Spider-Man movie was a failure, the immediate question here is obvious: why bother with a reboot so soon? One thing you’ve got to realize is that Spidey was born in the ’60s and much like the even older comic book icons, his story has been rebooted, retold, and altered countless times. Different villains, love interests, costumes, and even powers have changed and evolved over time to appeal to the developing audiences. In 2000, Marvel launched their “Ultimate Marvel” universe, with the explicit goal of retelling and enhancing all their stories in a thoroughly modernized context. Sure, they wanted more relatable characters, but it was a cheap money-grubbing marketing ploy if I’ve ever seen one, not that I’m complaining!
The Ultimate result is that the general story arc of the new film is incredibly familiar: Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider and then inspired by the death of his Uncle Ben to become a crime fighter. Yet, somehow this new depiction is fresh, unique, and infinitely more interesting than its predecessors. And it owes almost everything to our new lead played by Andrew Garfield (Social Network).
—-This awesome panel video from Comic-Con is exactly why Andrew Garfield is an awesome dude.—-
Whereas Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was the classic bumbling, weak giga-nerd with glasses, Garfield’s version is the apathetic skateboarder who prefers the quiet solitude that comes with drifting just under the radar. He’s clever and smart - hardly a Tony Stark level genius by any means - but he doesn’t flaunt his brains or bury his insecurities in his school work. At school, he seems mostly bored, but as soon as something catches his interest, he’s brilliant. He catches a bit of flack from jock Flash Thompson, but Webb includes a scene in which a pre-powered Peter actually sticks up for the school nerd getting picked on, rather than have Peter be that nerd. It’s made very clear that this Parker is no dork, geek, or nerd. He’s different. He’s modern. He’s still isolated, confused, and frustrated, particularly because he lost his parents as a boy (a long-established Spider-Man plotline that is further explored in the Ultimate Marvel Universe and in the new film AND it was recently announced that this plot will provide the story for the next two Spidey flicks). These are some interesting ways to break down our preconceptions of who Peter Parker is, thus making him infinitely more relatable because neither Peter himself nor his audience understand his identity. That’s what gives us the hero’s journey that holds our attention.
I honestly can’t say enough how much I love Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker. I’ve been saying for months that his build is much better for Spider-Man than Maguire ever was. You can bicker about the ideal Spider-Man, but for me it will always be that lean and wiry…”spidery”-looking hero:
But from an acting standpoint, Garfield as Peter works in a lot of idiosyncrasies to the character that make him just so damn charming and believable. He moves like someone who prefers being alone, with the slight hunch that closes him off from the world. He’s most at ease and content when alone and engaging his creative mind in a project or mystery, or even when just skateboarding around town. This Peter Parker is far from a popular kid, but he’s still really likable. The last time I saw such a complete performance of an adapted character was Daniel Craig’s version of Blomkvist in Girl With a Dragon Tatoo!
Garfield’s acting really shines in scenes with his primary love interest Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone, who might I add, is perfect. The two of them have an amazingly complicated chemistry where Gwen is lightly teasing much of the time, and Peter somehow confidently bumbles his way through their conversations. It’s obvious that they like each other well before Peter suddenly becomes a superhero (one of the most refreshing differences from the Raimi films). Seriously, these two put Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst to shame, upside-down-Spider-Man-kiss or not.
One of the more interesting choices that Webb made in mixing it up with this new film was by excluding the oft-quoted phrase by Peter’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” By now, it’s become trite and even meaningless to Spidey fans, no matter how succinctly it defines Spider-Man as a hero. Instead, Uncle Ben explains virtually the same sentiment in a heated argument with Peter, even playing into Peter’s daddy-issues. The subtle change works wonders with the emotional impact of Uncle Ben’s inevitable death and Peter’s transformation into a fully-fledged superhero.
When faced with a great loss, we are often left with a void to fill within ourselves. You could also say, “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” After we lose something dear to us we begin to grieve, and we oftentimes describe the sensation as a feeling of emptiness. That gaping wound within ourselves tends to get filled up with the first positive influence that comes along, whether it’s some inspirational image, a few trite words of encouragement, or a gentle shove in the right direction. That’s what happens to Peter Parker. Every time his Uncle dies in a tragic accident, he clings to the last bit of advice he ever got from him. And it changes Peter’s life forever. Hence why I think Spider-Man is one of the more interesting heroes out there, and why this new movie is pretty great.
To be fair, here are my two main complains about the movie:
1. Rhys Ifans seemed to do a great job as Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard, but for some reason he just wasn’t interesting. He was only an enemy for a very small portion of the movie, leaving well over an hour to deal exclusively with Peter farting around, developing his powers.
2. One of the classically overused aspects of Spider-Man’s heroism is how the average citizens of New York always band together to support him in times of need. He’s not just a symbol for crime-fighting, he’s a symbol for New York City in a way that Superman never could be for Metropolis. In true Spider-Man fashion, there’s a scene where a bunch of blue-collar workers line up a dozen or so conveniently placed cranes to allow Spidey some easy web-swinging that allows him to reach ground zero faster. Call me cynical, but this felt a little forced and unnatural to me.
2.5. Peter never catches Uncle Ben’s killer?
“What I found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.”
It was once easy for me, particularly as a guy, to just write off “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” as just another in a long line of chick flicks that I wanted nothing to do with. Pictures of Audrey Hepburn as the spunky Holly Golightly adorned the walls of quite a few female dorm rooms in college, many of them awash with pink and flowing with pearls and huge sunglasses. Ugh. For much of my life, my entire experience with the title was from that Deep Blue Something song that basically has absolutely nothing to do with the novella or the movie. But what did I care? It was about some silly girl wasn’t it? How could it be worthwhile?
Naturally, our initial assumptions oftentimes have a habit of proving wrong once we give things a chance. That’s what happened to me last year when I finally got around to watching “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”, which inevitably led me to finally reading the original novella by Truman Capote recently. I loved both, and amazingly enough, despite how nearly identical the two works are in dialogue, overall plot structure, and characters, reading and watching the story are entirely different experiences. Or I would be better off saying that we are looking at two unique visions of Holly Golightly. And of course, Hollywood had its tendency towards a more heavy-handed romance in the film, so I guess you could say the main character is changed quite a bit as well!
Our narrator/protagonist is an aspiring writer who has just moved into a brownstone apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, he begins to develop a curious interest in his neighbor Holly Golightly, a young women in her late teenage years who subsists by hanging around with rich men. It appears to be her sole dream to marry wealthy. She’s peculiar, mysterious, blissfully naive, effortlessly stunning, and utterly enchanting, whether we are reading about her from the perspective of the unnamed narrator of the novella, or watching Audrey Hepburn bounce about on screen.
As a literary work, Breakfast At Tiffany’s felt to me a lot like a thematic collision between The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. We’ve got a passive but inquisitive and eloquent narrator who observes and idolizes a figure. For Nick Carraway it was Gatsby, and for our narrator it is Holly Golightly. Just as Gatsby created a persona and a life out of pure imagination and drive, so does Holly. They both ran away from their relatively hickish original lives to the East where they could try and fulfill their dreams. Gatsby finds his only to be consumed by it in the end, but Holly? That’s where The Sun Also Rises comes in.
The main plot of The Sun Also Rises involves a bunch of expatriates living in Paris having a good time, and in the second half of the book a bunch of them go watch the bull fights in Spain. And the theme is pretty much stated out loud when Lady Brett Ashley says to the main character rather early on, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.” That’s how so many of modernity’s most tragic figures function, whether in pursuit of a definite dream or not. They’ve got all this inner turmoil and are constantly running away, in search of some uncertain future that they can’t identify. Maybe it’s tied up with trying to return to a happy memory from the past; maybe they are simply running away from the humdrum that once was their dull life? So they run, run, run away from it all! They flee from attachments, anything that could “hold them back” and anything that might serve to only further complicate their already crumbling lives.
Holly is no different. Sure, she creates a new identity for herself like Gatsby, but she is so restless and hopelessly lost - a woman with no specific dreams or desires - that she seems more akin to Daisy Buchanon than Jay Gatsby. She never feels at home, never truly knows what’s hers or who she is. So she keeps moving and never stops looking, never settles down. And just like Daisy, she’s careless and reckless with her feelings and her love, a victim to her own self-consuming confusion.
But that’s why we adore Holly. We all go through that! She’s a fascinatingly tragic hero who is as puzzling as she is beautiful. And like I said before: the novella and film are strikingly different. Written Holly is blonde and almost boy-like whereas Audrey Hepburn is as charmingly womanly as you can get and quite obviously a brunette. It’s one of those cases where if you’re trying to be truthful to the written work, then it’s kind of a bad casting job. But when you look at the final product, Audrey Hepburn made the character her own that stands out as a completely independent entity that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Holly. She’s just that good!
Perhaps the biggest different between movie and novella has to do with the main character. The narrator in the novella is more passively observant of Holly, admiring her from a sexually detached distance (Capote once admitted that the narrator was in fact gay, despite the fact that the narrator confesses some sort of love for her). Holly even points out that the narrator is a small-looking man, so we picture this feeble, unassuming person with a small ego and very little gusto. So we get an unclouded view of Holly that’s both reverent and objectively judgmental, but ultimately detached enough that when Holly’s wanderlust leaves her dangling on the precipice of leaving America forever, the narrator lacks the willpower to do anything about it. He doesn’t care enough to stop her, or perhaps thinks he has no right to. She leaves, and it ends on a note of wistful wonderment, with the hope that perhaps one day Holly might finally find a place that felt like home, where she might belong.
The movie, however, gets wrapped up in an entirely different drama in the end, partly because of the way director Blake Edwards utilizes George Peppard (a classically handsome man, I must admit) as Paul Varjak, who replaces the nameless narrator. Rather than a tragic portrait of a deluded young girl, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” becomes this charming love story with an amazing final scene.
Paul’s got the guts to essentially call Holly out on what one might call “her bullshit” in the final scenes where she’s trying to flee the country. And even more importantly, he confesses his love to her in simple, direct terms. It rains. Holly abandons her cat. Frustrated and fuming, Paul tells her that running away is no good, that she’s only digging her own grave by refusing to let love in. And then he storms off, leaving her left to choose. What does she do?!?
Do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie and read the novella too. I frankly don’t think the order matters because they different enough from one another that the experiences will be independently pleasant.
And as a matter of convenience, if you feel like reliving that awesome final scene from the movie, here’s a link for you:
Also: The movie is available on Netflix Instant!!