Monsieur Lazhar – Phillipe Falardeau (2012)

There is an awful lot of power at work just below the surface of Philippe Falardeau’s Oscar nominated grade school drama. After their teacher commits suicide in their classroom during recess, a class of 11 and 12 year olds have a tidal wave of unfamiliar feelings with confront with their new teacher, an earnest Algerian refugee who lied to get the position. Ernst Lubitsch always said let your audience add two and two together and they’ll love you for it, and that’s a lesson Falardeau learned well. He attacks the material with a stern yet soft touch, avoiding the obvious pitfalls, and Mohamed Fellag and youngsters Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron hand in equally impressive, subtle performances.

Goodbye First Love – Mia Hansen-Love (2012)

If love is irrational and makes us stupid, then love’s most irrational, most stupid form is first love, before we know any better. In High Fidelity, Rob Gordon (John Cusak) concludes that every romantic episode in his life has been a scrambled version of his first unsatisfying tryst, and retraces his steps to find out what went wrong. Not that knowing better solves anything. Be it unrequited crush, whirlwind passion or longstanding relationship, first love – or maybe more to the  point, first obsession – destroys us as much as it builds it builds us up, leaving us to sift through the broken pieces, many of us for the rest of our lives.

For Camille (the lovely Lola Creton), those pieces – hammered off of her piece by piece at age fifteen – never leave her mind. All she wants in the world is to be ever at the side of her boyfriend, the slightly older, slightly aloof Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). All he wants in the world is his freedom. Camille’s clinginess, his parents’ expectations, school, work, responsibility – ahhh, ahhh, ahhh! – everything is a threat to him, to his freedom, even the things he loves.

Despite Camille’s emotional entreaties and outright threats to try and keep him from leaving, Sullivan finally runs from everything in Paris that he feels is choking his life away, taking an extended backpacking tour of South America with some friends. She eventually promises to wait for him, and he promises not to cheat, but as he travels from country to country his sense of the life he wants to live changes. Camille becomes collateral damage in his life epiphany as their contact gradually goes from constant letters to a cold shoulder, an empty mailbox mocking the essence of her being every day.

Though she takes the long way about it, through crying jags and a detour through the hospital (suicide attempt? The film doesn’t elaborate), she eventually gets over Sullivan and his epiphany and settles into her own life. Though she remains lonely and hurt from Sullivan’s selfishness, she goes to university to study architecture and falls in love again, this time with her professor, Lorenz (Magne Håvard Brekke), a brooding Norwegian who has also been dumped and is lonely and loves her work. But remember the stupidity of first love. When Sullivan suddenly finds his way back to Paris, he is a difficult temptation to resist.

First love is not an un-essayed topic in film. It may be the most over-essayed, in fact. But Hansen-Love, in her third feature, brings a delicate combination of immediacy and an arm’s length overview to the screen as she traces almost a decade’s worth of scar tissue building up on a young girl’s heart.

In spanning almost a decade, the film makes a few unmeasured leaps through time as it moves along. It’s slightly jarring at first because there is no true marker for it, leaving us to guess by the length of Camille’s hair. But this lack of timestamp is almost freeing within the form of the film. Time moves in very strange ways when you’re lovesick. Hours become minutes, minutes become days, seconds become weeks all depending on when you last made contact with the one you love.  It’s all the worse and make for more distortion when you are not loved back, or not loved back as much as you deserve to be, as is Camille’s problem, especially in her view.

But Hansen-Love doesn’t hold Camille up for ridicule for her adolescent silliness or the awkward way in which she gropes in the darkness to find her path through it all. Everyone’s been there and because everyone has been there, the picture painted can cause almost a collective sigh of relief at a shared, intimate moment of helpless awkwardness. That really is the best cinema anyway.

Punch – Han Lee (2012)

As one of the biggest South Korean films of the year, trailing in box office behind only The War of the Arrows and Sunny, the anticipation for the DVD release for Han Lee’s Punch was substantial. But it seems that more often than not, just like the American box office, that’s a dangerous thing to base any kind of hope on.

Like Sunny, Punch is another coming of age film, this time from a boy’s perspective. But instead of the bright, cutting sentimental edge that Sunny came out and won hearts with, Punch is little more than an amiable but misfiring attempt to take a bite out of the hardships of life for the poor in Korea. The bite barely makes it past the skin, foregoing the larger questions for easy answers, when there are answers at all.

Operating on the basis that hard luck stories will pull on everyone’s heartstrings with little coaxing, the film sscillates back and forth through a series of challenges and life obstacles for its teenage protagonist, Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in), that never go anywhere or mean anything. Punch even fails at the basic task to at least put something interesting on the screen to mask the film’s puddle deep thought process.

So what are Won-deuk’s problems? The film starts out as the 18 year old’s father (Park Soo-young), a hunchback single dad just scraping by as part of a comedy dance act, loses his job when the cabaret he works at goes under. Because it’s the only thing he knows how to do, he tries to keep his act going by hitting the road, dancing at big flea markets, but ends up running afoul of the gangsters who run the place.

But that’s not really his problem. Because his father forbids him to quit school to start earning a living early, Won-deuk is left home under the not-so-watchful eye of their neighbor, Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). That’s his problem.

Dong-joo, aside from being a bad neighbor is also Won-deuk’s homeroom teacher, an emotional bully who torments him there even more than at home, where Won-duk can at least evade the man if he steps quietly enough up the stairs, even if he has to share his food aid packages with the demented mentor.

At church, Won-deuk pleads with God, begging him to strike Dong-joo dead. Of course, God doesn’t work like that, and even if he did, movies don’t work like that, and besides, Dong-joo is a wide-reaching problem, as he is an elder at the same church, and seems to never be without his bible. He even seems to be trying to help Won-deuk out, taking him to learn kickboxing and reuniting him with his estranged mother, who Dong-joo knows through church.

Our problem is that film never really delves deeply into any of Won-deuk’s problems, it just sort of states them matter-of-factly and either solves them without a whole lot of soul searching or definition, or just lets them pass quietly in the night. Punch is the definition of the neat little bundle. Won-deuk didn’t necessarily have abandonment issues, so when his mother comes into the picture and they start to creep up on him, they are underdeveloped and almost entirely contained by the fact that she is now around, making him dinner while is father is out trying to earn them some money. His biggest pang of doubt seems to be that it was the evil Dong-joo who reunited them. So Won-deuk’s new problem becomes that fact that his nemesis might not be such a bad guy afterall.

Kim Yoon-seok and his yelling matches with an irritable neighbor (Kim Sang-ho) are the lone bright spots in the film. I used to consider Kim something of a poor man’s Song Kang-ho, but he might have a little more width to him than that. He’s funny in an understated way that, like Song Kang-ho, sometimes spills over into short bursts of violence to shake away the boredom of an otherwise unimpressive film.

The World of Henry Orient – George Roy Hill (1964)

I’m an absolute sucker for a good stalker comedy. Whether it be AmeliePunch Drunk Love or Hana and Alice, there is just something so wonderfully off about them that it makes me happy. Just knowing that the stalkers are harmless and generally good-natured takes entirely all of the creepiness out of what, in reality, is a pretty despicable act. And The World of Henry Orient may actually be the best of the genre.

It stars Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth as Val and Gil, a pair of mischievous high school loners who meet, hit it off and along the way accidentally ruin Henry Orient’s (Peter Sellers) liaison with a married woman while playacting in Central Park. And then again. But when they ruin a second liaison between Henry and the woman, something happens to Val: she falls madly in love with him, buys all of his records and, with Gil, creates the Henry Orient Bible, a handmade diary full of press clippings and photographs and a fake love letter that Val keeps meaning to reply to.

The object of Val’s love, Henry Orient, is a middling-to-bad pianist and ladies man, the top billing who has to escape the concert hall through a posse of refund seekers, so bad are his avant garde stylings. He doesn’t practice enough, says Val, who, before meeting Gil, was all alone and practiced too much.

We never see films like this anymore, films that prize sweetness and mischievousness over cynicism and edginess. Cynicism and edginess absolutely have their great points, but have been so done over and over again that a film like Henry Orient is a breath of fresh air, a cup of cold water in the face and a joy to watch. If you don’t have a grin stuck on your face for almost the entire film, then I don’t know what is wrong with you.

So what is it about The World of Henry Orient? Is it sunshine and roses, a tale of rich girl Eloise-types running around Manhattan in a bulletproof bubble or privilege?

Hmm, yes and no. There is an air of privilege, and neither girl is about to starve to death. But their stories told in bullet point wouldn’t be terribly different from a youth film that would be made today. Both girls come from broken or breaking homes, chase an older man, screw with authority, and eventually, dabble in the early stages of sex. Yet it remains light and fun.

Val’s father (Tom Bosley) spends all his time traveling for work, and her mother (Angela Lansbury) spends all her time going behind his back with piano players. She is left alone in an apartment with a maid/babysitter and essentially left to own devices. Her shrink sees more of her than her parents.

Gil, too, has family issues. Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and she now lives on the Upper West Side with her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and her mother’s “friend”, Boothy (Bibi Osterwald). Even though she is happy living with her mother and Boothy, and loves them both, she longs for a normal family life, where father comes home at 6:30 and greets her and her mother.

Things get somewhat serious, though, when Val’s mother snoops through her room and finds the Henry Orient Bible. She demands to know what it is all about, but her mind is already decided what it is about and she has no interest in listening to the answer Val and Gil try to give her.

Towards the end of the film, there is a line by Val that really perfectly sums the film up. It is “awfully happy in a sad sorta way”. The act of coming of age is a sorta sad one, after all. Gone are the days of braces and pig tails and hair ribbons (or pet frogs and racing bikes, if you will), replaced with makeup and boys and the desperate race to grow up too fast. You only miss the younger days later though, and then you feel terribly nostalgic for them, because they didn’t last nearly as long as they should have, and the prize for winning the race to grow up isn’t as nice and shiny as it looked from the starting line. And so The World of Henry Orient stands as a great document of fun, of mischievousness, and a time when film was allowed to reflect the underlying spirit of the world instead of the ugly, bloody image of the world.

Quick Hits on I Am Number Four – DJ Caruso (2011)


-I wanted to like this, I really did. The concept is intriguing and had so much potential. But just like real teenagers who never do anything with their potential, this went nowhere fast.

-It does strike me that, actually, the least implausible thing about this movie is the alien factor. I can buy that aliens are hiding away on this planet to get away from evil fish-gilled, tatted aliens who overran their home planet. That trope is almost as old as film itself. What I can’t buy — what I can’t believe someone tried to sell — is Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron as outcasts. The film itself can’t even believe they tried to sell this, giving Agron’s Sarah the big-time jock ex-boyfriend and sticking her in cool kid parties.

-What ever happened to chemistry amongst actors? The only chemistry here comes because of a cute, protective dog, and we all know that dogs and babies is a big cheat. There is just not an ounce of it to be found anywhere else. Not a single spark, and that’s probably the biggest thing that hurt it as a movie. If there is chemistry and charm you can go back in your head later and edit out all of the bad dialogue or silly plot twists, but as a director, Caruso needed to pinpoint this right away (I think it was John Huston who said he did 90% of his directing during casting). You have to at least give the audience something to work with instead of just putting a hoodie on the hunk and giving the hot girl a weird hat and a camera and tell them Go, pretend to be freaks. It doesn’t work. It’s criminal. It’s job number 1. That’s the first thing they hammered into our head in film school: don’t roll a single frame until your cast is nailed.

-As I said, it’s quite a good concept for a movie franchise when you think about it strictly as a concept. But you have to strip it down to its bare, naked base and lose everything that it actually became. The execution on all levels was pure misery, from the dreadful script, the woeful acting and the insipid directing.

-It’s not the first time I’ve thought this about youth movies. I can remember thinking the same exact thing about Agent Cody Banks of all things, hoping Frankie Munoz might have a few chops in him, but that was an even big stinker than this. I Am Number Four merely wasn’t good.  Agent Cody Banks (and Big Far Liar while we’re at it) were actively, aggressively awful. I half guess it just means I’m old and can’t connect with what the kids are digging these days, but the kids don’t dig it either. Is this just going to be a terrible generation of filmmakers? I hesitate to claim it as my generation because these guys are all a few years older than I am, but we all did grow up on the same Jaws-Indy-Goonies-Die Hard progression of films as kids. But the problem with that is Lucas and Spielberg were mirroring their childhoods in a lot of those films, so when they’re used as inspiration they become secondhand regurgitation of the Lucas-Spielberg childhood instead of something wholly original.