Notes on Recent Movies

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

“Adult World”

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A boilerplate coming-of-age story with a few clever twists, “Adult World” is, for me, the first movie in which Emma Roberts has registered. She’s a tiny thing, some seven inches shorter than her aunt Julia, and she has an ungainly intensity that reads as a sort of ardency, even when she’s communicating obliviousness. Her pedagogic, I’m-running-for-class-president qualities are reminiscent of Anna Kendrick, but she’s softer, ditzier, blurrier around the edges. And she’s a capable comedienne; she stays in the grooves of the movie’s comic situations even when those grooves are quite shallow.

The title doubles as the name of the sex novelty shop at which Roberts’ Amy takes a job upon graduating college. Her poetry degree is useless, and she’s a terrible writer — facts which the tough-minded screenplay, by Andy Cochran, refuses to play down. (This is one of the few movies to address the difficulty experienced by contemporary liberal arts graduates when looking for jobs.) That tough-mindedness finds its personification in Rat, an aging poet portrayed by John Cusack. He’s a semi-satirical take on the irascible mentor figures familiar from films like “Finding Forrester.” Unlike Sean Connery’s Forrester, Rat isn’t using grumpiness to conceal a deeper sensitivity — he really is an asshole. And he never fails to tell Amy exactly what she needs to hear. His frankness is by turns tonic and withering. 

The Upstate New York locations — it was shot around Syracuse — provide the movie with a grubby, seen-better-days ambience that dovetails with its hardscrabble point of view. We understand that this an area young people want to move out of. The direction is by longtime actor Scott Coffey, who is in his 50s. This may account for the peculiar out-of-time quality of some of the movie’s elements. I don’t buy that a girl like Amy could make it through the college system of today with her virginity intact. And the erotica store, with its walls full of thumbed-over rental videos, seems like a relic of the 1980s.

“The Trip to Italy”

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“The Trip to Italy” takes what was good in its predecessor — the sophomoric banter, the travelogue format, the hints of melancholy — and expands on it. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves, travel through Italy, stopping to sample local cuisine, and engaging in a continuous game of verbal one-upmanship. Their jousting is subtly competitive, but it’s also a form of flirtation, their means of maintaining intimacy. It’s a hedge against reality, too: These two men, who suggest overgrown English schoolboys, are diverting the demands of adulthood by reflecting them into a mirror-hall of cultural references. Celebrity impersonations, quotations from Byron (who made his own trip to Italy), nods to movies with Italian connections: I can’t think of a recent picture with a denser weave of allusions. Yet its sophistication is offhand; it sneaks up on you.

In their bantering mode Steve and Rob are in control; they’re star and audience of their own private roadshow. But when they need to be themselves — to deal with family, work, or after-hours alone time — they’re diminished and lacking in purpose. There’s a funny mind-life/physical-life dichotomy at work here. Steve and Rob are too restless and analytical to take la dolce vita at face value. They’re Englishmen interfacing with Italy.

It’s smart how the Rossellini reference of the title plays out in the movie’s form. Like so much of Rossellini, the real and not-real are braided in a way that’s more complicated than is apparent on first glance. (There’s a scene at Pompeii that explicitly references “Voyage in Italy.”) And I suspect the frequent references to the second “Godfather” picture have an ulterior motive: they’re an acknowledgement that this sequel has ambitions that exceed those of its forerunner. The picture was written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, who deserves to be recognized as one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last 20 years.

“We Are the Best!”

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Lukas Moodysson’s strength as a filmmaker is his ability to evoke delicate, sensitive mindsets. His interiors tend to be suffused with a warm, all-over glow that’s the visual equivalent of the insulated, protected feeling we experience as children when curling up in a blanket along with a favorite book. Sometimes, as in his teen lesbian drama “Show Me Love,” he swaddles his characters in a decorative otherness. We’re meant to fear that the outside world will impinge on their essence, their purity. Of course, that kind of insularity can be a weakness. Eventually, we all need to step out of it. Moodysson effectively dealt with this in my favorite of his films, the 2000 “Together,” in which the tenderness of the teens inhabiting a ’70s hippy commune was offset by the bitterness of their parents, whose naivety had curdled with age and experience. And it was treated with a fair amount of wisdom by Terry Zwigoff in “Ghost World,” a picture that is all about the limits of adolescent navel gazing.

Moodysson’s latest, the ’80s teen punk drama “We Are the Best!,” lacks that rigor. It’s a valentine to kids who are “different,” as well as a wish on the part of Moodysson that their differentness will infect the surrounding world. (Moodysson doesn’t want his characters to grow up. He wants us to grow down to their level.) The young actresses who occupy the primary leads, Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin, are terrific, but aside from their unlikely love of punk music — we’re never told how this obsession started — there is little in their characters to latch onto. They’re moppets on whom the word “antiauthoritarian” has been painted in big day-glo letters. Only when the girls become interested in boys and start competing with one another does Moodysson allow them to escape the tidy dream personas he’s crafted. You think: “This is where the movie will switch gears.” But then the girls slip back into lockstep for the predictable us-against-them finale.

Hedvig, a hesitant, elongated creature who joins the girls’ band, is even less satisfyingly realized than her friends. (She’s played by the wonderfully named Liv LeMoyne.) Blonde, overtly Christian, and attractive in a way that’s straightforwardly Scandinavian, Hedvig seems a relic of an impulse on Moodysson’s part to show how democratic punk was. But it’s never clear what she’s thinking. An episode in which Barkhammar and Grosin pressure her into lopping off her hair suggests all sorts of possibilities, none of which are realized. Hedvig’s mother scolds the girls for pressuring her daughter in the same way they complain about being pressured by “society” (a valid point). Yet when we reencounter Hedvig she seems okay with her new hair. Is this meant as a condemnation of the mother? I’m not sure, and I don’t think Moodysson is either.

Hedvig’s mother aside, I enjoyed the movie’s grownups more than its kids. Using only a few brushstrokes Moodysson suggests the quiet anxiousness of people running up against 40 and facing the sobering prospect of the ’80s. There’s a marvelous tension in the adults’ brief party scenes — a sense of people doing their damnedest to unwind, feel good, and make things work. You also sense this in the aging hipsters who run the ramshackle community space used by the band for rehearsals. The actors who play them give their lines a sensitive-guy impotence that’s endearing and gross in about equal measure. They made me giggle even as I wished their material was better.

There are plenty of other things to enjoy in “We Are the Best!” It’s fun to watch the girls grow into their instruments as they intermittently pound out their sole number, a plodding thing called “Hate the Sports.” And the local teen metal band is funny in a way that only ’80s metal bands can be: They’re called Iron Fist. Details of this sort, and the glancing way in which Moodysson handles them, are what make the movie feel authentically lived-in and ragged. Unlike the movie’s central drama, they’re not hermetically sealed.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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7 Responses to Notes on Recent Movies

  1. mupetblast says:

    Ha, choosing the wrong major and eventually dabbling in porn seems a popular one-two-punch. I wrote porn scene descriptions for a while…

    The Trip to Italy wasn’t as good as the first IMHO, but even better scenery.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Would love to hear more about your work writing porn scenes descriptions!

      Like

      • Mupetblast says:

        It was in a tiny office near the Oakland airport, for a company that went by an unsuspecting name. Something vague and generically “tech” that nobody would suspect.

        Anyway, apart from mentioning the basics – blonde, muscled (I had to watch gay porn too) – I was free to pen all kinds of ridiculousness, complete with odd references. “Chinese gymnasts have nothing on these two masters of contortion…” etc.

        Fun gig, for a while. Having to watch that stuff all day left me feeling mildly nauseous. And the pay was awful. You could say it sucked.

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  2. peterike2 says:

    Just watched “The Trip to Italy.” Quite enjoyed it, though I never really find it “funny” in a laughing way, but it’s enjoyable to watch their banter. The scenery is quite amazing, though as a foodie I wish they had focused more on the food. Those tiny glimpses into the kitchens were nice, but then they would just pop something in their mouths and go “oh this is good,” and that was that.

    Ok, admitedly digressions on the food would make it a very different movie, but I would have liked it!

    “Adult World” looks like my kind of film and I’ll check it out, even though I can’t stand John Cusack. There are certain actors whose faces I just react badly to (Cusack, Jeff Goldblum, Robin Williams, Michael Caine…. oh hell, lots of them, but no actresses I can think of off-hand. Oh wait, Natalie Portman.).

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Another foodie I know had the same reaction to “The Trip.” I guess that makes sense. But part of me thinks that dwelling on the food too much would have unbalanced the movie a bit. As it is we get a sense of Italian culture without really dwelling on anything, which I think is part of the point. These guys are doing their best to soak everything in, but it’s not really in their natures to enjoy things at that basic a level. At best they get a few brief moments of unfiltered pleasure.

      “Adult World” is pretty enjoyable. A small movie that doesn’t try to do too much.

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  3. JV says:

    I also just watched The Trip To Italy and had a similar reaction. I didn’t laugh out loud once but found the movie enjoyable. I thought The Trip was hilarious so I was a bit disappointed, but as you say, the scenery and bits of food porn were nice, and I thought that portraying Dryden’s more desperate side was a nice touch, considering his portrayal in The Trip was as the composed family man in contrast to Coogan’s messier life.

    I’m in my mid-40s now and I find these movies with people my age and older having intelligent, witty, artsy, somewhat neurotic conversations incredibly enjoyable, perhaps because of the dearth of those types of conversations in my real-life. But also because it validates the continuing pursuit of the finer things in life, for lack of a better term, throughout one’s lifetime as a valid one. I also appreciate it when movies show people in middle-age still struggling with things like identity, sexuality, friendships, etc., illustrating the fact that we’re never “done” as people as long as we’re still alive. Seems like an obvious fact, but one that isn’t portrayed as much or as deeply as I’d like.

    I think these are the reasons why I find a trifle like The Trip To Italy so fulfilling.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      It’s interesting the way movie conversation, when presented well, can be really captivating, isn’t it? Talk isn’t one of those things you immediately think of as “cinematic” (whatever that might mean).

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