Category Archives: Rites of Passage

THE WAY, WAY BACK

The Way Way Back (2013) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.8
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Stars: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell

Endearing drama following an awkward teenager as he and his mother spend the summer at her cantankerous boyfriend’s beach house. While the mother gets indoctrinated into her boyfriend’s grownups-gone-wild culture, he finds solace at a local water park under the wing of its wisecracking manager. Rights of passage comedies are difficult to get right because there’s often an onus on the filmmakers to extract the comedy from real life. But as comedy more typically comes from exaggerated characterisation and circumstances, that is easier said than done. The Way Way Back has its fair share of exaggerations but so charming is the project and so easy is it to watch, that they successfully solicit our forgiveness for such transgressions. Of course, that much of the comedy does indeed emerge from realistic sequences (or at least the emotions they’re built around) and that those sequences are so perceptively judged and written helps a great deal.

Critical to this type of film is the script and cast and the former (courtesy of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is an honest breath of fresh air, rarely sacrificing the film’s sentiments for cheap gags or tangential comedy vignettes. The latter is loaded with quality from the typically wonderful Toni Collett as the mother to an against-type Steve Carell as her asshole boyfriend. Allison Janney is the crazy neighbour responsible for most of the wilder antics and fulfilling that remit to perfection. As is always the case, The Way Way Back is infinitely enriched by the presence of Sam Rockwell as the park manager. Playing a big kid with a big heart in a quirky comedy is meat and potatoes to Rockwell but his charisma is irresistible and sends a charge of energy throughout the movie.

That said, the real rewards to be found here are in young Liam James’ central performance and his relationship with Collette and Rockell’s characters. Charmingly awkward, entirely sympathetic, yet with a hidden strength he’s the steady pulse at the movie’s core. Collette puts in a gorgeous turn as the insecure mother and there’s so much warmth between mother and son that the movie satisfies despite the darker themes of loneliness. In that last regard, credit must go to Collette and Carell who work terrifically in balancing the tone of the film by maintaining an undercurrent of seriousness through all the laughter. Carell for his part is fantastic as the selfish streak of misery and close observers of this film won’t be too surprised by his more recent Foxcatcher turn. But as deep as everything gets into the adolescent and midlife crises departments, any heaviness is blown away by the fresh sense of fun that Faxon and Rash’s writing and directing bring to the party.

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American Graffiti (1973) 4.53/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 79.8
Genre: Drama
Duration: 110 mins
Director: George Lucas
Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Harrison Ford

For those who (somewhat understandably) used the most recent Star Wars films as reason to doubt George Lucas’ talent as a director, this is one of two films they should watch that will assuage any such doubts (the other being THX 1138). An ode to the 1950-60′s cruising generation, American Graffiti follows a group of friends the night before two of them are due to head off for college. Lucas knits each of the scenes together with a medley of era-specific rock and roll hits which are intermittently punctuated by local radio pirate Wolfman Jack and he quite brilliantly uses the radios of passing cars, restaurants, gas stations, etc to ensure the soundtrack is a constant feature of the background. The fun of the evening’s adventures are had in a series of cracking set pieces ranging from drag races to that now classic liquor store robbery. On the acting front, all acquit themselves admirably with Richard Dreyfuss and Paul Le Mat scoring particularly well. Dreyfuss brings a lot of depth to his character and taps that ever present ability to strike up immediate chemistry with a variety of on-screen partners. On the other hand, Le Mat quite simply gives us one of cinema’s coolest characters as king of the strip John Milner. Unmissable.

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Hidden Gems

SubUrbia (1996) 3.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.6
Genre: Comedy Drama
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Nicky Katt

Richard Linklater’s completion of an unofficial trilogy of films looking at the plain nuances of late adolescent life in small town U.S.A. is the most understated and indeed pessimistic movie of the bunch. After the ‘devil may care’ optimism of Slacker and the nostalgic charm of Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia (not to be confused with the famous and not dissimilar punk documentary of the same name) takes an acerbic glance at the disaffection of middle class kids a year out of high-school. Following a group of friends over the course of a night as they hang out on their preferred corner of a convenience store, the film looks at the effect that the return of a former friend, now a successful rock star, has on their night and already touchy self perceptions.

Among the group is Giovanni Ribisi’s “Jeff”, who is as close to a lead as Linklater gets here. The tracks to Jeff’s rut are the most worn and, though his rantings are often wearingly familiar, Ribisi layers them with just enough exasperation and angst to make them both funny and relatable. Ribisi always had a sideways charm (that’s probably held him back on the cusp of proper stardom) and it’s in these indie comedies where it works best. Nicky Katt has a (welcome) larger role than he usually gets and he makes the most of it as the twisted ex-soldier “Tim” whose depression has turned to anger because he thinks he’s seen the world outside his town and it’s not much better. Steve Zahn’s manic “Buff” is the only one of the group who seems content with a life of under-achievement and he is the star of the show. Achieving a joyous balance between verbal and physical comedy, his character is the movie’s safety cord, sling-shotting it back from the depths of post-adolescent panic on numerous occasions. As Jeff’s girlfriend “Sooze”, Amey Carrie has the most difficult role too pull off as she plays the only one of the gang with enough optimism to try to escape their rut but who’s barely hidden insecurities are repeatedly exposed by the cynicism of Jeff and Tim.

Whereas most directors would flounder in the earnestness of teenage angst or end up compromising the entire project with the necessary comic relief, Linklater breathes in one and out the other. Like Slacker, a stream of colourful and often disparate experience replaces plot but, through his skill as a writer and director, it coheres around character profile and some marvelously improvised acting. Drunk and stupid is not an easy thing to pull off without losing the audience at some point but so charming is the dialogue, so tangible is the characters’ inertia, and so impeccable is Linklater’s distance that it all plays to the central musings of the film and, with it, a generation of intelligent but under-stimulated minds. And having Steve Zahn’s improvised mannerisms and his remarkable but less seen genius for physical comedy in there hinders not at all.

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) 2.71/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71.2
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 90 mins
Director: Amy Heckerling
Stars: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold

It has dated somewhat over the years but Fast Times at Ridgemont High tapped the zeitgeist of its times and remains an enjoyable glimpse of a year in the life of a bunch of high school kids as they deal with romance, sex, jobs, and hardcase teachers. For those who grew up on 80′s comedies, the jokes are bolstered by the sense of nostalgia but for those who didn’t those same jokes may come across as dated and weak. Its major strength is that the movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a bit of fun. This might not be the right tack to take when dealing with some of the trials and travails that the characters go through but, for a slice of teen comedy, getting bogged down in the emotional trauma of abortion or betrayal just won’t do. So everything is artificially sugar-coated and the audience is left all the happier for it.

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Sixteen Candles (1984)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.2
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 93 mins
Director: John Hughes
Stars: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Justin Henry

“No more yankie my wankie. The Donger need food.” Effortlessly wacky comedy from John Hughes that’s delightfully devoid of all the cliches of Pretty in Pink and the melodrama of The Breakfast Club. This is just 90 minutes of pure fun, mayhem, and outlandish humour. The story focuses on a high school teenager (Molly Ringwald) who turns 16 the day before her sister is getting married. However, the premise is really just a backdrop for a series of wild characters to crash parties and cars and spout one immortal line after another. The scene set-ups are utterly deranged and will live long in memory. Scenes such as the school bus journey, or where the heavily inebriated “geek” (Anthony Michael Hall in superb scene-stealing form) stops to put on his headgear before he passes out in the Rolls Royce he just crashed, or where Long Duk Dong jumps out of a tree shouting “Oohh, sexy girlfriend!”. Sixteen Candles is Hughes’ finest hour and in the modern era when directors-for-hire are cynically trying to simulate quirkiness in order to project a false sense of freshness, Hughes’ film serves as a lesson from the past in authentic quirkiness. “You’re in a parking lot opposite my church”, “You own a church?”

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To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 95
Genre: Drama
Duration: 129 mins
Director: Robert Mulligan
Stars: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, John Megna, Robert Duvall

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” To Kill a Mockingbird is cinematic power exemplified as Robert Mulligan brings Harper Lee’s spellbinding novel to the screen and does every word of it justice. Gregory Peck takes on the role of Atticus Finch, the dignified lawyer and father of two whose defence of a black man accused of raping and beating a white woman brings him and his family face to face with the ugliest side of their southern town. Mary Badham and Philip Alford play Scout and Jim, Finch’s two children and it is through their eyes the story is told. Telling this particular story through the perspective of children is surely one of the most ingenuous devices employed in modern story telling as their perspective becomes the soul of the story. Watch out for the scene where the angry mob are shamed into retreat by the mere presence and innocent conversation of the children. If the children are the soul of the film, Peck’s performance is truly its heart and he is utterly tremendous as Finch. Any number of action stars from John Wayne to Arnold Schwarzenegger on their best day didn’t and couldn’t project the strength and force of integrity that Peck did here. In what must be one of the best acting accomplishments in the history of the medium, he gives a masterclass in the power of simplicity as he allows Finch’s disciplined modesty to be the lawyer’s loudest weapons. Through the seminal acting, directing, Elmer Berstein’s beautiful score, and of course its majestic writing the film is completely captivating and has remained the definitive cinematic exploration and indeed explanation of the psychology of racism, fear, cowardice, self-deception, and self-loathing. It is a haunting film that will stay with you on both an emotional and intellectual level for as long as you live.

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Biloxi Blues (1988) 3.5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.7
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Duration: 106 mins
Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken, Matt Mulhern

Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play is wonderfully brought to the screen by Mike Nichols and amongst others Matthew Broderick as Eugene Jerome. Taking a different slant on the boot camp days of a fresh faced bunch of recruits to the likes of Full Metal Jacket (released a year earlier) it offers a far more human and personal account of growing up to face the harsh realities of the adult world. The comedy is much softer also but no less effective as that scene with the prostitute is testament to. Broderick is somewhat in Bueller mode but that’s no bad thing as you’ll find yourself smirking your way through most of his lines. Christopher Walken gives us a typically original and unorthodox performance as the drill sergeant who the audience will find as difficult to work out as the recruits did. And truth be told, it’s in such reality-based ambiguity that Biloxi Blues properly triumphs.

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Breaking Away (1979) 4.57/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 93.1
Genre: Sporting Drama
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Peter Yates
Stars: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern

“His legs. He’s shaving his legs!” Two futile tasks regarding the watching of this film are, firstly, to figure out why Dennis Christopher never went on to have the career he clearly deserved and, secondly, to watch it without smiling your way through every scene. The story focuses on four high school graduates from the working class part of a university town who must decide what they want to do with their lives while living in the shadow of the blow-in college kids who seem to have it all. Christopher plays one of these kids, an obsessed and ferociously talented cyclist who temporarily avoids this pressure by assuming an Italian identity in honour of the cycling team he worships, much to the despair of his no-nonsense father (played wonderfully by Paul Dooley). Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley play the other kids who each have their own specific ways of confronting the same pressures of life while Barbara Barrie turns in a lovely performance as Christopher’s equally romantic mother.

From the honest and interested manner in which Yates approaches the dilemmas of the young men to the subtle poignancy of their’s and everyone else’s dialogue there is a profoundly touching quality to this film that is accentuated intuitively by the magnificent cast. However, to his credit Yates lets the more heartening elements to the story simmer deep within a series of fun-filled and exhilarating sequences so that when they boil over, they do so in all manner of unique and punctuating ways. From the breathtaking duel between Christopher and the Italian cycling team’s truck, the various confrontations between his friends and the college kids, to the ultimate showdown (which by the way is just about the most electrifying race sequence ever filmed!), Breaking Away is a breath of fresh air for the “coming-of-age” drama. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, Breaking Away is one of the most satisfying of all cinematic achievements and a film you will immediately fall in love with no matter what your taste in film is. It really is as simple as that!

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Big Wednesday (1978) 3.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 120 mins
Director: John Milius
Stars: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey

One of the better coming of age dramas that follows a group of three men through the defining years of their young lives. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are equally excellent (Vincent and Katt were accomplished surfers in real life – and it shows) as the friends who were bound by their love of surfing in their teenage years but who grew apart as those years passed. It’s a touching tale in many ways as personality, ambition, and era defining events such as the Vietnam War intersect to shift the dynamics and relationships. There’s a playfulness to the earlier scenes that echos that of American Graffiti but there’s also a somberness to the film centering on the notion of of times past and expressed poetically and quite beautifully in the interludes as the film jumps forward to another period in the mens’ lives. Bruce Surtees’ (son of the great Robert) beautifully captures the sea and surfing in a number of memorable sequences but John Milius is clever enough not to allow the film to be dominated by the action and instead he uses it as an emotional backdrop to the drama. This gives Big Wednesday a real sense of authenticity even in the more schmaltzy moments which serves to heighten the level of nostalgia that this film operates so successfully on.

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Dazed and Confused (1993) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 90.6
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Matthew McConaughey

With Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater gave us perhaps the most original and entertaining rites-of-passage film. Set in 1976, the film follows a group of high school kids on their last day of school before the summer break as the incoming seniors hunt down and haze the incoming freshmen. This is a film that seduces its audience by channeling a spirit of youth that we all can and want to identify with. It captures a very particular notion of freedom and anticipation that from an adult’s perspective seems to be something we will only ever get to appreciate again in retrospect. Dazed and Confused is also the best demonstration of Linklater’s unique package of talents: his easy-listening brand of dialogue; his ability to skew archetypal characters a couple of degrees either way and make them interesting again; his ability to establish believable relationships between them; and lastly the unobtrusive yet intimate manner in which he frames every shot.

Dazed and Confused is one of those precious few films which creates an unmistakable sense of time and place through a combination of era-specific music, some clever photography, and some witty but well sourced costume and production design. However, it’s the sound of the film which is most memorable as the source music would make Scorsese or Tarantino proud (the latter of which, you might be interested to know lists this as one of his favourite films) and it provides the primary fuel for Linklater’s time machine. The performances are too many to fully note here but Sasha Jenson’s quirky Dawson, Rory Cochrane as the uber stoner Slater, and Matthew McConaughey’s creepy yet ridiculous Wooderson deserve a special mention. Dazed and Confused is a landmark movie where all the pieces fit so well together that it effortlessly resonates with you. Whether you grew up in that era or not, it’ll ensconce you in a warm sense of nostalgia and you’ll be forever going back for more.

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Risky Business (1983)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.8
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Paul Brickman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Joe Pantoliano

Risky Business is a terrific coming of age drama about a college bound teenager who figures out a quick way to make a buck while his parents are away. Cue prostitution, crazy pimps, and car chases in his father’s Porsche. This had the potential to become a zany comedy more in the mode of the later Ferris Bueller but it’s to director Paul Brickman’s credit that it plays out as a slightly less light-hearted and more contemplative piece. As with most films they’re involved with, Tangerine Dream’s score becomes a dominant force in setting the tone and pace of the film. More than anyone, they gave their films a dreamlike feel and this was nevermore pronounced than in this film as their soft electronica carries the viewer seamlessly from one scene to the next. Tom Cruise was perfectly cast in the lead role and it remains one of his strongest roles to this day. Not so preoccupied with his image as he was post-stardom, there’s a lot of personality in his turn and the more humble character with only hits of ego suited his talents more than the litany of ‘invulnerables’ he has played since. Rebecca De Mornay is equally good as the call girl with all the answers while Joe Pantaliano is in his usual scene stealing form as the wiseguy pimp who runs afoul of Cruise’s entrepreneurial efforts. Risky Business is a terrific little slice of the 80’s teen comedy. It has all the fun of the genre but still manages to fold back on its subject matter (young adulthood) to make some interesting and resonating observations.

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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85
Genre: Drama
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello

“The greatest film never seen” is how Welles’ phenomenal follow up to Citizen Kane is remembered given the extensive cutting the studio did to the original print and the ultimate loss or destruction of that print. It follows the fortunes of a vastly wealthy family, the Ambersons, and the complex relationships and dynamics that exist within it. Of particular interest is the spoiled grandson and heir to the family fortune (Tim Holt) whose grotesque self absorption ensures the emotional destruction of everyone around him. Among those to receive the worst deal are his mother (Delores Costello) and her long time friend and suitor (Joseph Cotten) whose ventures into the early days of the automobile industry eventually see him overtake the Ambersons in wealth as they ultimately slide into financial ruin.

The Magnificent Ambersons is acted beautifully. The cast get the pitch of their characters just right with Holt doing very well to give what could’ve been a cliched performance a strange charm. Cotten always seemed a right fit for Welles as he captured the sentiments of his trademark boisterous scenes instinctively. Ann Baxter is a delight in the role of Cotten’s daughter and would-be partner for Holt’s man-child. Welles had his own take on Booth Tarkington’s novel and added aspects from his own life as a spoiled child to enrich the already complex family dynamic. It’s piercingly insightful stuff too as the characters come off more real and humanly flawed than in practically any other drama from its time or from any other for that matter. The story itself, wonderfully set up by Welles’ soothing narration and profound innovation in story telling, is universally gripping and plays truthfully on the themes which run through all our lives and with it, all great literature.

As good as the tale he spins is, it’s Welles’ direction that stops us in our tracks. It’s no small thing to say, that his scene composition and lighting are as arresting as anything he did in Citizen Kane and like that movie, they are embellished further through the use of some awesomely conceived cinematic devices. Looking back over sixty years on, it seemed that Welles didn’t simply have a better idea as to how to make films than everyone else but so completely unaffected was he by contemporary techniques and conventions, that one could get the impression that he didn’t even watch films. Few could imbue an opulent mansion with the sense of emptiness and foreboding as Welles could as (like he did with Xanadu in Citizen Kane) he turns the Amberson home into a veritable character (his insistence that the full interior to the house be completely built on set paying off in no small measure). With all this class and technique, the story drifts forward with a dreamlike quality, as Welles constantly winds the tension imperceptibly tighter until the emotional terrain of the first one and a half acts is comprehensively turned on its head.

Alas, just when the world of cinema then, now, and forever should be served the final act and conclusion to without doubt one of the most stunning films ever made, it ends in a trip like whimper. RKO had put themselves up against the wall with the financing of the production by going way over their typical maximum budget. Faced with lousy previews and Welles on location in Brazil for his next film, they instructed its editor (and future director) Robert Wise to cut most of the last 50 minutes away and added a happy ending. Even worse, they made no real effort to save the footage and it was lost forever. One can only understate how unfortunate this move was because the film is undeniably heading for something special 70 minutes in but instead, it ends in a confused and rushed manner. It’s still a marvelous film and story but the “what if” will always leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Every medium needs a great “if only” scenario. Cinema has The Magnificent Ambersons.

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