Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Endless Love has awakened something in me. Not a long dormant passion for an introverted high school classmate, or a sudden desire to break into the zoo after dark. A question about movies — more accurately, about movie criticism. The same question you would ask yourself if you fell drowsy in the middle of Citizen Kane, or welled up during the emotional climax of Just Friends. The question I ask myself now, as I recount the 103 straight minutes of asphyxiating laughter that I endured during a screening of Shana Feste’s would-be romantic drama: What makes a good movie?
We assign deference to some films, disgust to others — a lucky few of us make a living this way. But what, precisely, are we reviewing? A film’s mission or its execution? The product onscreen or the experience of watching it? All factors come into play when considering whether or not a movie “works.” But on rare occasions you’ll get a film that offers no common ground in its meeting of these standards. You’ll get Endless Love, which strives for dramatic sincerity, winds up with underwritten idiocy, and provokes in its viewers an unrestrained, absurdist revelry — the kind of joy you’d otherwise be forced to seek in a third viewing of The Lego Movie. Laughter at the ill-conceived antics and befuddling dialectical patterns of our central teen couple — a Mars native Gabrielle Wilde and her gaping mouthed beau Alex Pettyfer. Elated bemusement at the younger generation’s propensity for chaotic disrobing and didactically organized dance parties. Unprecedented ecstasy at the Mafia movie intimidation tactics of an overprotective dad (Bruce Greenwood) and the brain-dead disregard of a supportive one (Robert Patrick). As a comedy, Endless Love is unstoppable.
I can only hypothesize that it was not Feste’s intention to roll us in the aisles. I have no cold proof that her resolution in paving every nook in her Georgia-set remake with another farcical stone — Wilde’s instantaneous evolution from wordless ingénue to sexually aggressive spirit walker, Patrick’s loving caution-to-the-wind attitude regarding any situation that has to do with a girl, Rhys Wakefield’s “black sheep” character forming an odd amalgamation of Pauly Shore and Charlie St. Cloud — was not one of Wolf of Wall Street-like satire, or reappropriation in the vein of Spring Breakers. Here are two movies that earned scorn from viewers who read them literally, and in turn vehement defense from those who peered through the exaltation of cocaine and firearms into the filmmakers’ ironic intentions.
Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
To the latter community, one to which I subscribe, I ask: if we’re readily willing to dive deeper for Martin Scorsese and Harmony Korine, shouldn’t we grant Feste this benefit? If we’d defend the authenticity of the splendor we recognized in their movies, why am I inclined to write off the very same when present in this year’s Valentine’s Day cannonball? Why do I eagerly laud the merit in Leonardo DiCaprio directing Quaalude-charged tribal chants and relinquishing subhuman treatment upon anyone short a Y-chromosome, while instinctively shafting the invaluable merriment in Pettyfer’s goofily deliberate declaration that he likes to read into the category of happy accident?
But an even more precise question (one I was challenged to entertain by a friend and film critic far wiser than I am), and this time to the former community: does it matter? Did it matter to all those offended by gunplay and intrusive nudity that Korine set out to demonize youth culture and its omnipresent hedonism? Did considering his intentions make the endgame any less a visceral nightmare? If not, does it matter if Feste poured her soul into the machination of a timeless love story, only to produce a riotous cinematic episode that treads genre parody as expertly as anything from the golden age of the Zucker brothers? Does it matter that she didn’t intend for Wilde and Pettyfer’s sex scene to come off as super-hoke, for every mention of cancer to feel like soap opera send-up, or for Robert Patrick’s vindication of his son’s passion for menagerie trespassing to elicit the biggest laugh of a movie yet in 2014?
So long as I consider the power of cinema, I’ll never be sure if it matters. I’ll never be sure of the answers to any of these questions. But no matter where I find myself standing on this issue down the line, I had far too much fun at Endless Love — and entertained far too many questions on the nature of cinema and the way we react to it — to call it a movie that people shouldn’t see.
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When you're in high school it feels like the whole world is against you. In writer/director Stephen Chbosky's high school-set The Perks of Being a Wallflower the whole world may actually be against Charlie (Logan Lerman) whose freshman year of high school should be listed in the dictionary under "Murphy's Law." Plagued by memories of two significant deaths as well as general social anxiety Charlie takes a passive approach to ninth grade. A few days of general bullying later he falls into a friendship with two misfit seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who teach him how to live life without fear. Perks starts off with a disadvantage: introverts aren't terribly engaging but Chbosky surrounds Charlie with a vivid cast of characters who help him blossom and inject the coming-of-age tale with a necessary energy.
Set in a timeless version of the '90s Charlie's world is full of handwritten journals mixtapes and a just-tolerable amount of tweed. He writes letters to a nameless recipient as a way of venting a preventative measure to keep the teen from repeating a vague incident that previously left him hospitalized. The drab background of Pittsburgh fits perfectly with Charlie's blank existence. And when he finally comes to life as part of Patrick and Sam's off-beat clique so does the city. Like the archaic vinyl records Sam lusters over (The Smiths of course!) Chbosky visualizes Charlie's journey through the underbelly of suburban Pennsylvania with a raw emotion blooming lights and film grit at every turn. Michael Brook's score and an adeptly curated soundtrack accompanies the episodic affair which centers on Charlie's search for a song he hears during the most important moment of his life.
The charm that keeps The Perks of Being a Wallflower from collapsing under its own super seriousness come from Chbosky's perfectly cast ensemble. Lerman has a thankless job playing Charlie; often constrained to a half-smile and shy shrug Lerman is never allowed to grapple with Charlie's greatest fears and problems until (too) late in the film. Watson nails the spunky object-of-everyone's-affection but she's outshined by Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth another rebellious friend in the pack who takes a liking to Charlie. The real star turn is Miller riding high from We Need to Talk About Kevin and taking a complete 180 with Patrick a rambunctious wiseass who struggles to have an openly gay relationship with the football captain but covers his pain with humor. A scene of confrontation — at where else the cafeteria — is one of the best scenes of the year.
Chbosky adapted Perks of Being a Wallflower from his own book and the movie feels stifled by a looming structure. But it nails the emotional beats — there is no obvious path to surviving high school. It's messy shocking and occasionally beautiful. That about sums up Perks.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
It’s 1969 and Elliot Teichberg is back in his hometown of White Lake New York struggling in earnest to keep his parents’ dilapidated getaway motel in business. Elliot is a fey sensitive soul who longs to run away from the deeply set-in-its-ways White Lake to a city with more to offer culturally than weekly chamber of commerce meetings.
Elliot is tied to White Lake by a deeply felt obligation to help his aging parents both Russian holocaust survivors maintain the business. Elliot a painter does his best to bring the cultural vibrancy he yearns for to his mundane situation by planning far-fetched improvements for the cinder block motel housing a theater troupe of often naked hippies in the barn heading the area chamber of commerce and putting on a yearly “music festival” which simply involves him playing his records for anyone who wants to sit in his yard and listen
When Elliot learns a slightly more large scale music festival has been pushed out of nearby Wallkill New York (locals there fear the "hippie invasion") he realizes the permit he obtained for his record party might just work for the bigger event. He makes a few phone calls and subsequently watches history unfold in his front yard.
WHO’S IN IT?
Demetri Martin carries Taking Woodstock as the sweet sensitive Elliot. Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman each steal a few scenes as his hardened aging parents. Emile Hirsch does his best with a broadly written bit as a recently returned Vietnam veteran. Eugene Levy is Max Yasgur the farmer who offers his fields up for the hippie takeover; Liev Schreiber takes a surprisingly poignant turn as Vilma a cross dressing former army sergeant who heads the security team at the motel; and Paul Dano Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep) and Jonathan Groff are delightful as chill-to-the-core members of the beautiful and often naked hippie legion.
Figures like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin whose portrayals could ultimately be distracting appear only on the soundtrack. Elliot never even makes it all the way down to the stage. Rather than taking on the heart of the Woodstock legend by portraying the musicians who performed there director Ang Lee uses Eliot's sweet anxious dreamy lens to tell the story.
The focus on this one character serves well to humanize an event steeped in historical lore and Martin probably best known for his stand up act effectively carries the movie. Among characters that at times come across like caricatures Martin’s performance is nuanced sad gentle wide-eyed and a touch heartbreaking as his character experiences Woodstock as catalyst for self discovery.
Through the use of split screens and multiple cameras Lee also does a masterful job of creating an excited sense of energy around the fast-paced nuts and bolts planning of the prolific event.
The writing and acting in the initial scenes feel clunky and wooden like a bad high school play. The film takes awhile finding its rhythm and devotes a bit too much time setting up Elliot’s White Lake circumstances. The humor in these scenes feels awkward and generally falls flat. Taking Woodstock finally lifts off when the helicopter full of festival planners lands in Elliot’s yard. From here it’s wholly enjoyable.
The film subtly deals with Elliot coming to terms with his homosexuality and the satisfaction in the moment when he gets a passionate kiss from and subsequently kisses back a very attractive man in the midst of a hippie dance party made me want to cheer and cry and relish in his victory.
Taking Woodstock is a bit lackadaisical in its pace and takes awhile to really become engaging. When it does however the film is funny touching and heartfelt. To see what Woodstock meant for one individual provides an understanding of what it likely meant to of the thousands upon thousands of people who experienced history there. Taking Woodstock might not be an especially important film but its pleasant insights are worth being had.