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.
In the vein of Field of Dreams Astronaut Farmer is about building the seemingly impossible. Thankfully in this case it’s simply a rocket in the barn not a ballpark in a cornfield where ghosts of baseball heroes past can play the game. That is a bit far-fetched. Instead we meet Charles Farmer (Thornton) a man who was once on track to be an astronaut but was forced to leave NASA to save his family farm. He still wants to go into space however and so sets out to build a rocket inside his barn. By the time the movie starts the rocket is pretty much put together so we aren’t burdened with how he gets his supplies. All Charles needs now is 10 000 pounds of fuel which shoots up a big red flag with the government--a government that now considers Charles a threat--while the media look at him as a big story. But no matter the odds nothing can deter Charles from his dream to break through the atmosphere and orbit the earth. It’s refreshing to see Thornton as a loving father who wants to inspire his kids rather than make them go get him another beer. Of course Charles Farmer isn’t all sweetness and light—he’s an obvious eccentric whose obsession to launch into space effects the entire family—and it’s definitely a role right up Thornton’s alley. Virginia Madsen does an admirable job as the loving and supportive wife who nonetheless puts her foot down when things get out of hand while Bruce Dern plays the grizzled but equally supportive father-in-law. There’s also a supportive lawyer played by Tim Blake Nelson. In fact besides the big evil NASA chief (J.K. Simmons) and two bungling FBI agents (Mark Polish and Jon Gries) everyone supports Charles in his crazy dream. How could he fail? From the writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) Astronaut Farmer is pure old-school—an unassuming throwback to those feel-good movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In fact Thornton told Hollywood.com he considers this his “Jimmy Stewart” movie. While the Polish brothers based Charles Farmer on their own eccentric father and obviously harbor their own boyhood dreams of being an astronaut the guys still follow a nice and simple formula finding some good actors to carry it out and adding cool visual effects when they can. Yes the more cynical moviegoer may look at Astronaut Farmer as completely improbable and trite. But those willing to be taken back to a simpler time--when movies were about walking out triumphant--should find watching Astronaut Farmer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Here's the real-life story: On Nov. 13 1974 inside a large Dutch Colonial house in Amityville Long Island the police discovered a horrific crime scene: The entire DeFeos family living there were slaughtered by the prodigal son Ronald DeFeo Jr. He confessed to methodologically shooting his parents and four siblings with a rifle while they slept claiming the "voices" in the house drove him to commit the grisly murders. Riiight. One year later happy couple George (Ryan Reynolds) and Kathy Lutz (Melissa George) and their children move into said house thinking they had found their dream home. But soon bizarre and unexplainable events began to occur thus speculating on the house's inner demons. A ghostly little girl-- with a gunshot wound in her head--wanders around talking only to the Lutz's daughter Chelsea (Chloe Moretz). Haunting evil voices keep telling George to "Katch 'em and Kill 'em." And yes there are flies involved. Lovely. While the confused and frightened Kathy struggles to hold her family together George's behavior oddly enough becomes increasingly erratic and dangerous. Hmmm. Time to pack up the stuff honey we're moving out!
Horror films never really procure deep meaningful performances. The actors mostly react to the terrifying events unfolding around them which is pretty much what George (Mulholland Drive) and the rest of the supporting cast end up doing in The Amityville Horror. On the other hand Reynolds--who was so funny in Van Wilder and was the only reason to see Blade: Trinity--actually shows off some genuine skills especially by spouting off sarcastic quips in his trademark delivery while at the same time turning into the bad guy red eyes and all. After one particularly harrowing scene in which Chelsea nearly falls off the roof of the house and Kathy tries to console her after getting her down George mutters "What is wrong with you people? God this family is screwed up." If Reynolds plays his cards right he could be on his way up.
Whenever The Amityville Horror is mentioned I'm reminded of an old Richard Pryor routine in which the comedian questions why you would stay in a house if it tells you leave. He says he'd just get the heck out. "Oh baby what a lovely house what a great house we can live here forever aren't we lucky? …[in a satanic voice] GET OUT…OK well gotta go! Been nice but we're outta here!" The original Amityville did suffer a little from that stupidity as well as listening to lame dialogue from a cast who tended to overact. Fortunately the remake guided by commercial director Andrew Douglas cuts right to the chase and surprisingly uses little to no special effects to achieve the chill factor. Of course the scares aren't really anything you haven't seen before: getting locked in a closet with a dead person nearly drowning in a bathtub as ghostly arms hold you down apparitions appearing in the mirror behind you stuff like that. But like The Shining the sinister atmosphere comes from watching a seemingly normal happy man transformed into a crazed homicidal maniac urged on by a place with a malevolent history. Especially if it really was suppose to have happened. Shiver.