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.
Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) is a big-spending but cash-poor shopaholic who has dreams of working for her favorite fashion magazine but ironically is given a job as a columnist for a financial magazine from the same publisher. Of course not being the perfect candidate to dole out advice on managing money she butts heads with her good-looking but work-obsessed editor (Hugh Dancy) until this being a romantic comedy the sparks start flying between them. Her efforts to conquer her addictions hit her fashion career goals and find love and contentment carry this lightweight concoction. Confessions is worth the ride if only to establish Fisher as a comic star in her own right. So good in supporting roles in movies like Wedding Crashers she gets to shine showing humor heart and chutzpah as a girl who never met a credit card she didn’t like. She turns a character who could have been gratingly annoying into someone even the non-shopaholics in the audience can easily identify with and root for. Dancy is a great foil and perfect opposite in the great tradition of romantic comedies going back to the ‘30s and ‘40s. A raft of familiar faces also turn up amusingly including John Lithgow as the magazine magnate John Goodman and Joan Cusack as Rebecca’s loopy parents and the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas as a somewhat clueless French fashion editor. But pay special attention to newcomer Krysten Ritter as Fisher’s moneybags roommate. Australian P.J. Hogan certainly has shown a penchant for this kind of comedy first with the sleeper hit Muriel's Wedding and then the Julia Roberts smash My Best Friend's Wedding. He knows when to tone it down and go for heart which is key to making a broad comedy like this work overall. The film also makes New York terrific Technicolored bright and inviting. It helps that the bestselling books by Sophie Kinsella on which the script is based provide such smart core material. Whether timing in the current economic crisis is right for a movie about an upscale shopaholic is beside the point. Clearly this is more fantasy now than ever and that’s probably all good.
Based on an award winning book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson Savage Grace is a true story of a societal poseur Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore) who climbs her way into a different class by marrying Brookes Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) heir to a plastics fortune. Soon the birth of their only child Tony turns their union upside down as the boy becomes uncommonly close with his mother and remains a failure in his father’s eyes. As the story spans years ranging from 1946 to 1972 dad disappears into his own world of work and affairs while Barbara becomes increasingly lonely desperate and clingy--entering into an incestuous tryst with her now grown son (Eddie Redmayne) a homosexual. The film details her pathetic attempts at presenting herself as something she’s not as she carries on the unnatural relationship-- which eventually leads to tragic consequences. There is no question Julianne Moore is perhaps the most courageous certainly most daring actress of her generation. Again in Savage Grace she proves herself willing to do anything and go further than most. Unfortunately the stilted dialogue and tone of the piece don’t do her any favors. We never get the feeling we’re watching real life unfold as most of these characters speak like they are in a stage production. Nevertheless Moore--with her flaming red hair and open sexuality--is still a treat to watch. Her Barbara is sensual dangerous and unpredictable. British thesp Dillane (HBO’s John Adams) proves again he can do just about anything and rises above the melodramatic script--mostly in the film’s first half. Redmayne’s Tony--a twisted mama’s boy trying to carve out his own identity--is rather hopeless and the actor struggles to make us empathize with him. Hugh Dancy turns up as Simon a gay friend of the family who winds up in a threesome with mother and son. Director Tom Kalin does no favors for his actors by creating a fake atmosphere around them. Even though Savage Grace is shot on a number of glamorous worldwide locations it feels small and claustrophobic. Kalin--like his talented cast--seems a little defeated by screenwriter Howard A. Rodman’s dreary and soapy script heavy with bloated dialogue and far-fetched situations. Writer and director seem to have taken a number of liberties with the real life story and the book the film is based on instead “interpreting” the characters actions from photographs taken at the time. Unfortunately their technique leaves the audience out of the loop. Rarely has a movie particularly one with the gifted Moore seemed so distant and uninvolving. Graphic sexual scenes in the unrated film seem only there to shock not enlighten and by the end we know little more about the Baekeland saga than we did going in.