Daily Film Thoughts: Clash of Conventions.

In the past two days I’ve seen a few flicks – one really impressive feature and two entertaining ones; all three are spins on convention, though.

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First up is Fighting – the April release starring Channing Tatum and Terrence Howard. After the critical semi-success of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito Montiel returns to the streets of New York with yet another gritty tale of one man’s growth in the famous state and yet another missed opportunity.

The story is about Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) – a young man who hustles for a living. When a group of men approach him with eyes on his newly acquired dough (from hustling, of course), he takes on all three of them – tossing them around as if they were his merchandise. Turns out that these men are just bait for a much larger picture spearheaded by Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), an amateur fighting manager.

The film was clearly made to get Montiel’s name into circulation with a larger audience, however this film certainly shouldn’t have been the feature to do so. Many people have grown tired of these underdog fighting stories and even fewer people will appreciate the artistic merit that Fighting has to offer. Much is left unsaid and meant to be easily interpreted by the viewer – a subtly sweet directorial stance on the writing. This is where similar films fall flat on their faces – revealing what the audience already acknowledges in a blatant attempt at tacking on unwarranted emotional tension. The entire feature is justified in a few key scenes – the internet browsing of MacArthur’s past by his first romantic link since coming to the city in Zulay (Zulay Henao). His entanglements with her are refreshing, if obvious.

The majority of the films success can be attributed to Terrence Howard’s deviant aura. His character embodies the boulevard of broken dreams half-traveled and in a story that resonates lost opportunities, his story is truly sublime. Whereas Shawn has forward confrontations with men he either doesn’t know or hates – a coincidental reignited rivalry takes over the film in the final act – Harvey has verbal conflicts with old friends, but now enemies. His humor is quite sardonic and his general outlook on life is somewhat nihilistic – a really well developed character and something you wouldn’t expect from a feature like this.

My only real qualm with the film is its lack of respect for self as mentioned above. The screenplay had the potential to be a profound reemergence in the entire combat subgenre. After the disastrous Never Back Down and several other dime a dozen fight-flicks all trying to capitalize on the recent MMA boom, this movie could have made the difference. Instead its a hackneyed, dumbed down version of Rocky – but even the ’76 classic doesn’t have as intimate a character construction as this. Most critics and viewers loathe this film for being “too slow” or “nonsensical” – whereas if you read between the lines it’d be surprisingly fascinating and quite logical. The fight scenes aren’t impressive, but the story usually is. Don’t go into this expecting an adrenaline pumping 100 minutes, but rather a hard boiled landscape of the city trying to claim another victim. [7/10]

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Next up is 17 Again starring the charismatic Zac Efron in his first feature since his Disney success (or first released). Similar to a lot of other features – as you’ve got to figure this entire post will be about by now – 17 Again never struggles to rise above the convention, but patters along playfully for its entirety; never doing anything completely wrong, but never doing anything extremely right either.

As you know from watching the first few seconds of the trailer, the story is about a 37 year old man named Mike O’Donnell who blew his chance at glory and a life worth living when he gave up his college scholarship to fend for his high school sweetheart and their unborn baby. After meeting a sketchy elder figure while recollecting favorable memories at his old high school, Mike gets thrown into a tiff and has his youth revitalized – still in the year 2009.

He enrolls at his old high school – where he two father-loathing children attend – and learns that this second chance at youth isn’t for his seclusive benefit, but for him to get a better understanding of his children. With financial help and a mythical understanding of this situation imputed by his long time friend Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), Mike is set until his destiny is fulfilled.

Sticky situations arise when Mike’s tongue slips about who he really is, defending his only son from a neanderthal-like bully and not being able to attend court dates for his and his wife’s divorce, and of course, not being able to romantically express his appreciation for his soon to be ex because he’s in the body of a minor.

In the end, it seems as if everything that Mike does is all part of some master plan, yet the film only indicates that he is a dopey guy with little ambition to show. This is where the film remains most mundane and obvious – it has no true heart or backbone and seems to be, yes once again, an attempt at capitalizing on a recent boom… this time utilizing Efron’s growing star-power to bring in some cash.

Not all of the film is throw away garbage – there is plentiful humor and quite a few scenes that you won’t be able to keep yourself from smiling at all the way through. Thomas Lennon and Leslie Mann bring in a ripened sense of humor that Efron hasn’t grown to appreciate yet, so the jokes tend to work on several levels. It’s also a much more mature film in content than you’d expect with the solid PG-13 rating. Dirty jokes are prevalent as are sexual innuendos and other things that teenagers adore.

I don’t admire the feature for anything, nor do I think that it’s anything more than pleasant. If you’re in a rut and just want to find yourself enjoying two hours, you certainly cannot go wrong with 17 Again. Especially if you’re older and feeling nostalgic. [6/10]

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If you know me by now, you’ve got to know that I won’t do a write-up on several films unless I really liked one of the features or really hated one of them – well, this is the ‘really’ one. The film is 2006’s Linda Linda Linda – a Japanese feature about an all girl band focused on presenting a short set of music for their school’s annual charity festival.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I adored this movie – there are many stories similar but none quite as potent. The story is about an unlikely group of teenagers being brought together through the medium of music and hoping to find reason to cherish their final days as highschoolers.

You’ve got Son (Du-na Bae), a foreign exchange student from Korea. Her shtick is that she hardly knows Japanese, but is in a position where she’d be singing Japanese lyrics. Then you’ve got Kyoko (Aki Maeda), the drummer and longest standing member of the band Paran Maum (that’s their name). She’s a hopeless romantic that is distracted from her work in the band because of a potential love with a genuine classmate. The bassist Nozomi (Shiori Sekine) a deeply depressed and introverted young woman who strays away from convention and who clothes herself much more than the outfitted school – the one consistent professional in the group. And of course, every group needs a leader and this group’s is Kei (Yu Kashii) the lead guitarist – she’s temperamental, recently had a fight with a former member and is the entire reason the film is. She brings together the unlikely group and is the definition of leader, if not the definition of an impressive one.

All four of the women are completely beautiful and their growth together is one of the most humble and beautiful expressions of friendship cinema has ever produced. Honestly, if this were a more widely seen feature, there would have been a remake of it already and a huge following for it.

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I was most impressed with Du-nu Bae who I recently saw in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (and who I will soon see again in Koreeda’s latest Air Doll). I never expected for her to be such an impressive comedic presence. Although she is fun in just about every scene – containing a bit of sarcasm with her gestures – you can tell that she is most dominant with her facial expressions.

On top of the stunning cast, there is a frothy and fizzling script. If you watch the film carefully, you’ll realize that this is quite an ambiguous feature. Rarely do “teeny-bopper” films successfully initiate a dynamic theme, which this film does with ease, but it also executes the theme, sub-themes and completes character arcs seamlessly. There are hundreds of movies about coming to terms with aging and learning to treasure timeless memories, but Linda Linda Linda is one of the few that actually matters. It’s got an inexorable core to its sunshine coat – a sense that time is fleeting in life is imbued from the opening scene. The only flaw I can see that the film has it that it doesn’t restrain itself enough from giving into convention at the end and delivering a happy ending, although that’s what I was rooting for myself.

What you’ll get with Linda Linda Linda is a sidestep of the cliche. There is rarely any conflict – the friendship of the four stays intact for the entirety – which may be a flaw in some eyes but certainly not for me. Romance resonates often, as does the humor that lays within newly acquainted people (awkward moments, weird conversations, etc.) which keeps the 100 minute feature as dreadful and prolonged as a bubblegum kiss. Throw in an enchanting score atop the already enjoyable soundtrack to one of the most scrumptiously photographed films of the decade and you’ve got a true success here.

Seldom do films really go for your throat with its message. With this, its “ambition fleets with age” and honestly that’s one dire and depressing message, especially for the presentation/target market of the film. An excessively enjoyable film that is perfect for any fan of The Ramones or pop-punk in general. A delightful coming of age tale that will keep you bopping along until the all too soon conclusion. [9/10]

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