THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) – Comedy-Drama Captures Intensity of Teen Years

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The best movies, regardless of genre, are based on truth.

And that’s what makes THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016), a coming of age comedy-drama about seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld),  so enjoyable.  It comes across as oh-so-true.

Nadine is the ugly duckling in her family, forever living in the shadow of her near-perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner).  Through voice-over narration, we follow Nadine’s difficult childhood, from dealing with school bullies to butting heads with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) who gets along much better with her son Darian.  Nadine’s one champion is her father Tom (Eric Keenleyside), but in a tragic moment symbolic of her entire childhood, he suffers a fatal stroke behind the wheel of their car while Nadine watches helplessly from the passenger seat.

As she turns seventeen, the one positive for Nadine is her relationship with her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).  The two girls are inseparable, and being with Krista is the one time Nadine feels happy.  This all comes to a dramatic halt when suddenly Krista starts dating Nadine’s brother Darian.  For Nadine, this is a betrayal and is something she cannot handle.

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Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson)

Now feeling absolutely alone, Nadine finds herself at her lowest point ever.  While she continually pours out her troubles to her stoic seemingly non-caring teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) who in spite of his constant snarky comments is always there to listen to her, she adores the hunky Nick (Alexander Calvert) from afar.  She also finds new hope in quirky Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a fellow student who is obviously very interested in her.  Trouble is, she’s not that interested in him.

Sure, this story is nothing new, but what is refreshing and incredibly satisfying about THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is the script and direction, both by Kelly Fremon Craig, and the excellent acting performances.

I loved Craig’s script.  The dialogue is sharp, frequently hilarious, and right on the money in terms of what it’s like to be seventeen.  It also especially nails the contentious relationship between Nadine and her mother.  One of movie’s best moments— and there are many of them— is when near the end of the film Nadine texts her mom that she’s safe, and her mother struggles to respond, writing and then deleting angry, fearful texts before finally settling on “OK.”  It’s a poignant moment, one that many parents have to deal with, that battle between being protective and letting go.

But the best part of the script is the humor.  I laughed out loud quite a bit during this movie.  Some of the funnier scenes are between Nadine and Erwin— their scene on the Ferris wheel together is a hoot.  The scenes between Nadine and Mr. Bruner are also very funny.

The serious scenes are equally as good.  The moment where Nadine becomes the punchline of a conversation about the movie TWINS (1987) is pointedly painful.  Likewise, the touching moment near the end of the film where Darian confronts Nadine is satisfyingly powerful.

Craig’s direction is just as good.  The film is lively, quickly paced, and full energy.  THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is not a superficial raunchy teen comedy.  On the contrary, it’s a deeply moving comedy-drama about a teenage girl dealing with her troubled life while searching for some meaning to it all.

The acting is wonderful.  Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as Nadine, and she easily carries this movie.  While Steinfeld was particularly memorable several years ago in the remake of TRUE GRIT (2010), I actually enjoyed her more here.  She captures the teen angst which Nadine experiences and makes it real.  She’s believable as a character who just wants to fit in, who wants to have friends, wants to have a boyfriend, but who feels so alienated from other people her own age.  One of the funniest and most insightful scenes is when Nadine goes off on her generation’s incessant use of texting on their phones.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is Steinfeld’s movie and she owns it.  But she has a fine supporting cast as well.

Haley Lu Richardson is sincere and likable as Nadine’s best friend Krista.  It’s clear that she’s devastated that her new relationship with Darian has damaged her lifelong one with Nadine. In another powerful scene, the moment where Nadine forces Krista to choose between her and her brother is one of the best scenes in the movie.  Krista initially refuses, but with her back against the wall, she chooses Darian.

Hayden Szeto is particularly good as the nerdy Erwin.  Other than Steinfeld, I think Szeto gives the best performance in the film. Erwin is obviously a good person, but Szeto’s performance lifts Erwin above the cliched “nice guy.”  First off, he’s as uncomfortable about relationships as Nadine is, but unlike Nadine, he’s coming from a happier place inside.  You are really rooting for him to win her over.

Kyra Sedgwick is also excellent at Nadine’s mom, Mona.  It’s clear that the reason Mona and Nadine butt heads so much is because they are so similar.  Mona is absolutely lost after her husband dies, and afterwards she is just as miserable as her daughter.  Sedgwick does a fantastic job emoting her pain and unhappiness.  You can see it all over her face.  But Mona is not a hopeless lost parent.  Sure, she struggles and is not going to win any parent of the year awards, but she continues to fight.  One of her more telling scenes is when she gets into a shouting match with her son and she uses the line “I’m the adult here!” to which Darian replies, “Then why do you always call me?”  And at that moment Mona realizes that he’s right, and that she’s been relying on him too much, because as she realizes she has no one else.

Blake Jenner is okay as Darian, and Woody Harrelson does his job as droll Mr. Bruner.  He’s not a particularly effective teacher.  We see him showing movies to his class and teaching them with as much enthusiasm as a study hall monitor, and he speaks to Nadine in ways that could easily get him fired if overheard, but the bottom line is in his own way he’s there for Nadine.  He is her constant listener, and later when she finds herself absolutely alone, it’s Bruner who she turns to, and he doesn’t let her down.  One of his better lines comes late in the movie as he drives her back to her house:  “I know this has to be said, and there’s no other way to say it, so I’ll just come out and say it.  Get out of the car.”

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Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson).

I really enjoyed THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.  While it reminded me of how happy I am that I’m not seventeen anymore, it also captured the promise and energy of what it feels like to have your whole life ahead of you.  Of course, it also captured the pressure, which gives an entirely different meaning to the “edge” in the title.  Rather than being on the verge of seventeen, “edge” here can easily refer to the intensity and sharpness of the age.

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016), Woody Allen’s Latest, Low Key Affair

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016), the latest film by Woody Allen, is a bittersweet love story set in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his family in the Bronx and sets out to make a name for himself, or at the very least, get a job, in Hollywood.  His mother  Rose (Jeannie Berlin) arranges for him to meet with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who’s a successful Hollywood agent.  Phil hires Bobby as his personal errand boy, and he also introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).  Phil asks Vonnie to show Bobby around town, which she happily does.

It doesn’t take long before Bobby falls for Vonnie, but she’s up front with him and tells him that although she likes him, she has a boyfriend.  As Bobby’s confidence grows, and as he receives a promotion at work where he’s now reading scripts, he vows not to give up on Vonnie, and it’s clear that Vonnie has feelings for him, too.  Things get more complicated when it’s revealed just who it is who Vonnie is seeing, and suddenly a rather uncomfortable triangle is formed.

CAFE SOCIETY presents us with three rather real and sympathetic characters, Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil, who are all likable enough so that you want all three of them to get what they want, yet they can’t. This part of the story works, and works well.

I’m not the biggest Jesse Eisenberg fan, but I enjoyed his performances in ZOMBIELAND (2009), NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015).  On the other hand, he did little for me as Lex Luthor in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).  He’s OK here as Bobby, but in a role that Woody Allen himself may have played had this been written back in the 1960s, he’s much too subdued to make Bobby all that exciting.  Bobby clearly comes off as a nice guy, but not much else.  He’s nowhere near as manic or depressed as he needs to be, and for most of the film it’s a one note performance.

Kristen Stewart continues to grow on me as an actor.  Forgetting the TWILIGHT movies which I try as hard as I can to forget each and every day, Stewart has made good impressions in STILL ALICE (2014) which is my personal favorite Stewart performance, where she played the daughter of Julianne Moore’s alzheimer’s stricken Alice, and in AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) in which she also co-starred with Jesse Eisenberg.

She’s very good here in CAFE SOCIETY as Vonnie, and it’s easy to see why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly. In a Hollywood society filled with egos and pretensions, Vonnie is down to earth and practical, and she’s a breath of fresh air for Bobby in this strange land so far away from his New York home.  And so when she makes choices that don’t go in Bobby’s favor, he not only feels disappointed but betrayed, because her decisions stray so far from what she had led him to believe she was all about.

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Bobby (Jesse Eisennberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) share a tender moment in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

And yet it’s not hard to understand her decision.  She makes a choice which few women in her position in this time and place would be able to resist- to be with someone who had made it to the top in Hollywood and who would be able to give her a life she always dreamed of.

Stewart is also incredibly beautiful here, and the way Woody Allen photographed her throughout this movie, she has never looked more attractive.

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Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

 

Steve Carell also plays it low key, delivering a much more subdued peformance than he did in last year’s THE BIG SHORT (2015).  But like Eisenberg and Stewart, he makes his character Phil Stern a genuine person.  Better yet, as Phil he rises above the standard Hollywood agent cliche.

Most of the laughs come from Bobby’s family back in the Bronx.  His very Jewish parents Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) have some of the liveliest conversations in the movie, like when Marty tells his wife that she’s wrong, that he’s not clueless about death, that he won’t go quietly but that he’ll protest death, to which she says, “Protest to who?”  She also has a great line when their other son, a gangster, is facing the death penalty and as a result converts to Catholicism because it has an afterlife.  She laments “My son is going to the electric chair and he’s become a Christian.  I don’t know which is worse!”

Corey Stoll, nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair, plays their gangster son Ben, and he too enjoys some of the movie’s more lively moments.  Then there’s Bobby’s caring Aunt Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her philosophizing husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) who sums up the theme of the movie when he paraphrases Socrates saying an unexamined life is not worth living but an examined life offers no assurances.

The characters in CAFE SOCIETY make decisions, some good and some questionable, but they go forward and deal with the ramifications of these decisions, even when these choices make their lives more difficult.  As expected, it’s a smart script by Woody Allen.

Blake Lively is also in the cast, and she’s quite enjoyable as the “other” Veronica who Bobby meets when he returns to New York.

CAFE SOCIETY looks great.  As a period piece, the film is perfect.  Woody Allen captures the look and feel of 1930s Hollywood to a T.

As such, the script works best as a period piece love story rather than a comedy.  There are certainly funny moments in the movie, but they mostly serve as comic relief to the love triangle drama.  The funniest bits, as you would expect in a Woody Allen movie, come in the convesations about death.

I liked CAFE SOCIETY, as I like most of Woody Allen’s movies.  That being said, it doesn’t rank with his best films, as it is a low key affair, but it still makes for a relaxing and diverting 90 minutes at the movies.

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Quirky MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016) Has A lot to Say About Relationships

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MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016), a new comedy drama by writer/director Rebecca Miller, has a lot to say about relationships, so much so that its story is richer in its poignacy than in its comedy.

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a young a career advisor for art and design students, and when the movie opens, she laments that she can never seem to remain in a relationship for more than six months.  She tells her friend Tony (Bill Hader) of her plan to have a baby and raise it on her own without the help of a father.  She has a plan because that’s what Maggie does- plan for everything. She’s arranged for one of their college friends, Guy (Travis Fimmel) to provide his sperm so she can artificially inseminate herself.  Tony is none too happy about this because he remembers Guy as a weird math major in college, but Maggie assures him that Guy is fine, as he is now a successful pickle entrepeneur.

Maggie’s plan gets derailed when she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke) an adjunct professor at the college, and the two hit it off immediately, especially since John is having a difficult time with his marriage, having to deal with his domineering wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) who’s a professor at Columbia University.  John feels trapped in the marriage, as Georgette is so focused on her career, he has to take a back seat with his, plus raise their two children pretty much on his own, and as such he cannot write the novel he’s always wanted to write.

Besides falling in love with John, Maggie also sees herself as being able to rescue him from his manipulating wife.  Since John has fallen in love with Maggie as well, he divorces Georgette and marries Maggie.  They have a daughter, John can now work on his novel, and they can enjoy their perfect life together, except that things are not perfect.

John soon finds himself focusing only on his novel, pretty much ignoring Maggie and their family, and before you can say “Jack Torrance,” Maggie finds herself wondering if perhaps her marriage to John has been a mistake.

If this plot sounds rather serious and sad, that’s because it is.  However, that’s not to say the film isn’t funny.  It has its moments.  There’s a light tone throughout, and the characters are quirky enough to keep things lively.  Just don’t expect to be laughing out loud.

The best part of MAGGIE’S PLAN are the characters and what their story has to say about relationships.  The acting’s not so bad, either!

I thoroughly enjoyed Greta Gerwig as Maggie.She makes Maggie such a sincere and well meaning character, you can’t help but like her.  She also possesses an adorable innocence about her.  At one point, Georgette questions Maggie’s personality and wonders if there isn’t something just plain stupid about her, but Maggie isn’t stupid.  She just wants to do right by people.  The trouble is, the more she tries, the worst things get.

Take her first plan, for instance, where her geeky math friend Guy agrees to provide her with his sperm.  The two characters are each so quirky you can’t help but chuckle when they’re on screen together, but the story keeps you from laughing out loud because it’s obvious that Guy likes Maggie a lot and wants to be more involved with her, yet he’s too awkward to do anything about it.  When he asks Maggie how much involvement she expects from him, she answers, “I was going to say none.”  She then offers to change her mind if he feels otherwise about it, but all Guy can muster is “None.  Yeah.  That’s great.”

Within seconds of seeing Maggie and John married on screen, it’s clear that there is trouble in paradise.  Gerwig does a terrific job showing us Maggie’s internalizations, and when she realizes that their marriage is doomed, that perhaps John really does belong back with Georgette, and she approaches the icy Georgette with a proposition, it doesn’t come off as manipulative or calculating, but completely sincere. Of course, Georgette doesn’t agree.

Yet, later, when the two characters find themselves liking each other, it plays out in a perfectly natural fashion.

Julianne Moore has an absolute field day as Georgette.  She’s never been icier.  As you would expect, Moore lifts the role above the cliche as she makes this seemingly cold-hearted character someone you actually like.

Only Ethan Hawke struggles to connect as professor-wannabe-author John, and he stands out because nearly every other character in the film does connect.  Part of it is John is something of a self-absorbed cold fish.  I understand why both Georgette and Maggie want to be with him.  For Maggie, she’s initially enthralled by his intellect and she feels she can save him from his wife and empower him in his life.  Georgette loves him because he defers to her dominance and supports her every move.  Yet, she’s smart enough to realize later in the movie that she was too selfish with him and should have been thinking about his needs.

But as a character, John is wishy-washy and noncommital, seemingly changing his mind every time the wind blows.   He’s a difficult character to like.  Yet Hawke does make him sympathetic-finally near the end- when he correctly realizes he’s being manipulated and doesn’t like it all that much.

The supporting cast is a good one and provides the film with its quirkiest characters and moments. Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s husband and wife friends Tony and Felicia come closest to being straight out funny.  Tony is brutally blunt, and generally has Maggie’s best interests in mind, even though she doesn’t always want to hear it.  Maya Rudolph’s Felicia calmly and  drolly puts up with her husband’s outspoken antics, and she’s more than capable and comfortable putting him in his place.Both Hader and Rudolph are alumns of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Travis Fimmel is charming in an oddball geeky sort of way as Guy, Maggie’s math genius turned pickle entrepeneur who’s ready to donate his sperm to her, and like Maggie, his character exudes raw honesty to the point where he seems a bit dumb, although like Maggie, he’s anything but.

The screenplay by director Rebecca Miller, based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, works more as a quirky drama than a comedy because the story is seeped with honesty and pain.  The characters in this movie are not calculating and cold-hearted, although Maggie likes to plan and Georgette has ice in her veins, but both characters come off as three dimensional and genuine.

Even when some scenes enter into comedy, laughter is difficult to come by because of the sincere tones of sadness underneath.

That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments in the movie.  The sequence where Maggie tries to inseminate herself is nicely paced as it goes from slightly awkward to full blown embarrassing.

And in a near perfect moment, it’s both ironic and telling that the liveliest and perhaps only laugh-out-loud moment in the movie comes when John and Georgette find themselves stranded together in a lodge in snowy Canada.  It’s ironic because Maggie is the liveliest character in the film, yet for the movie’s liveliest moment, she’s absent, and it’s telling because it’s what’s true about Maggie’s life:  she’s always trying to help, but things tend to work best when she’s simply out of the way.

Subtlety reigns throughout MAGGIE’S PLAN, and as such, you won’t find yourself laughing too much.  But that won’t stop you from enjoying this low-key tale of a love triangle that never seems to go as planned.

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Savor Every Moment of THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

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The-Hundred-Foot-JourneyMovie Review:  THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

Watching a movie that gets everything right- acting, writing, directing- can be as satisfying as eating a gourmet meal.

Such is the case with THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) a new comedy-drama about an Indian family opening a restaurant in France across the street— one hundred feet to be exact— from a renowned French restaurant, and what happens when the family crosses paths with the established restaurant’s owner, played with delectable precision by Helen Mirren.

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY begins in Mumbai where the Kadam family runs their restaurant, but when election night riots destroy their eatery and take the life of their mother, Papa (Om Puri) moves his family to Europe in the hope of starting again.  They settle in France, and Papa, a rather eccentric fellow, spies an abandoned restaurant and decides on the spot that this is where they shall open their new eatery, even though it’s situated directly across the street from one of the area’s most prominent restaurants.

The family tries to talk him out of it, but Papa is undeterred, and he quickly goes about setting things in motion, buying the property, and promoting his son Hassan (Manish Dayal) as the best Indian chef in the land, all to the chagrin of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who owns the French restaurant across the street and cringes at the idea of competition.

And so she sets out to quash the Kadam family, but Papa is just as determined as she is, and the two go back and forth trying to one-up the other.  Meanwhile, Hassan befriends Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) one of Madame Mallory’s up and coming chefs, and the two begin a relationship which is playfully competitive until Hassan approaches Madame Mallory and prepares a dish for her, proving to her that he is indeed a chef for the ages, who with the proper training, can help her achieve her goal of the restaurant earning the coveted second Michelin star, a critic rating that lifts restaurants to elite status.  When Madame Mallory hires Hassan to work in her restaurant, it sets off a firestorm of events, as it changes the relationship between Hassan and Marguerite, and makes Papa accuse Madame Mallory of trying to brainwash his son, but Mallory is quick to point out that this is an opportunity for Hassan which will change his life forever.

THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY is a highly entertaining and very satisfying movie.  It’s got terrific acting, a topnotch directorial effort, and my favorite, an excellent script.

Top-billed Helen Mirren is sufficiently proper as Madame Mallory, the woman who at first wants nothing more but to shut down the Kadam family restaurant.  But Madame Mallory is more than just a cold-hearted businesswoman, and Mirren does a terrific job making her a three-dimensional character.  When her own chef takes things too far by setting fire to the Indian restaurant, Mallory doesn’t applaud or approve but quickly fires the young man.

Om Puri makes Papa a feisty yet easy to like character whose best scenes are those where he plays off Helen Mirren.  When he wants to make an offer to buy the restaurant, Madame Mallory tells him it’s more than he can afford, and she says this because she heard he bartered for a discount at the local inn, to which Papa replies that his asking for a discount doesn’t mean he’s poor but that he’s thrifty.  The two actors, Mirrin and Puri, share a great chemistry in this movie, for the most part as energetic adversaries, and they become even more likeable when they realize that they actually like each other.

But the best performance in the movie belongs to young Manish Dayal as Hassan.  He is completely believable as the young man blessed with amazing cooking talent.  He comes off as genuine and sincere.  When he tells Marguerite that he has been hired to work at Madam Mallory’s restaurant, he expects her to be happy by the news, but when she’s not, he’s surprised, and you can see his innocence and the hurt he feels when she insinuates that he used their relationship to gain access to Madam Mallory, when that wasn’t what he had intended at all.

Charlotte Le Bon is also very good as Marguerite.  She makes Marguerite attractive, talented, and smart, and she and Hassan make for a very likeable young couple.

Director Lasse Hallstrom captures the beautiful scenery of the French countryside, making this movie a picturesque treat from start to finish.  The camera also captures the remarkable elegant dishes prepared in this film— don’t see this on an empty stomach!—- which will make your mouth water.  You can almost taste the food.  Likewise, Hallstrom captures the flavor of the small village, of the two restaurants across the street from each other, and of the people who inhabit both of them.  It’s an intimate portrayal of these folks, and you’ll enjoy getting to know them and spending time with them for the two hours you sit in the theater.

The screenplay by Steven Knight, based upon the book by Richard C. Morais, tells a heartwarming story that is as moving as it is humorous.  I laughed more during this movie than during some of the recent so-called mainstream comedies of late.  The humor in THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY is smart and nuanced and stems from true situations.

The characters are all well-developed.  I understood young Hassan’s passion for food and for cooking, and Papa’s need to take care of his family and his drive to make his new restaurant a success in spite of the odds against him, which means doing whatever it takes to get it done; and I understood Madame Mallory’s reasons for stomping out her competition, for wanting her restaurant— the passion of her life— to become the best it can be.

In some ways, THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY is predictable, but it still works.  It’s a feel-good movie, and so you expect things to work out in the end for these characters, but when it does, it doesn’t feel fake or forced.  These characters make their own destiny, and when you see them working as hard as they do, acting in ways that show they are real people, not cardboard caricatures who mindlessly step on others to get ahead, but simply work hard and respect those around them, you have no difficulty buying into the notion that they succeed in what they set out to do.

The dialogue is all first-rate, and like I said, I laughed more here than during some of the traditional Hollywood comedies which for some reason too often equate “stupid” with “funny.”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if come Oscar time THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY receives nominations for Best Director, Screenplay, and acting by Manish Dayal, Om Puri, and Helen Mirren.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY.  It’s one of my favorite movies of 2014.

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