Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review - La Notti Bianche

March 24, 2017

La Notti Bianche (White Nights) – Italy, 1957

After a preview screening of Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, one reviewer was said to have commented, “Mr. Statement didn’t make a statement.” The remark highlights an expectation that can hinder someone’s ability to appreciate a movie – the notion that Mr. Lee, fresh on his acclaimed masterpiece Do the Right Thing, was supposed to have had a higher purpose for making his film that simply telling the tale of an perfectionist jazz artist who makes great music at the expense of a personal life. I mention this because I found myself doing something similar with Luchino Visconti’s La Notti Bianche; I expected the film to be about something monumental, and therefore as the film progressed and it slowly dawned on me that it was not going to be, I found myself more disappointed than I probably would have been had I watched the film without such lofty optimism.

This does not of course mean that La Notti Bianche is a bad film, just that it is forgettable, a minor blip in what is widely considered to be a spectacular career. Yet the film is deceptive, perhaps intentionally so. It is as if Visconti knew his film was ultimately about nothing and tried to pull the wool over our eyes. Why else would the film subtly hint at dark elements only to dismiss them later on with events that make what preceded them completely illogical? If this sound harsh, watch the way the film suggests through murky shadows and images of men leaving a bar with multiple women that the film’s lead heroine is in the oldest profession in the world - only then to reveal her as the most chaste woman in Italy. Watch the way the film begins by portraying the object of the woman’s affection as a cold, suspicious cad with something up his sleeve only to cast this characterization off without any explanation for the impression having been created in the first place. And watch as the film tries to convince viewers that the other man in the woman’s life has fallen in love with her as quickly as the film wants viewers to believe he has. One minute he’s proclaiming her crazy, the next foolish and heartless, and then perfect for him. Actually, this was the most believable of all of the film’s storylines, and I’m not such a firm believer in what this film portrays as love at first sight.

I know. I know. Here I am again sounding negative. I can’t seem to help it. Perhaps it’s the critic in me, the side of me that finds it easier to critique than to praise. Let’s look at the film from another angle then.

La Notti Bianche is about a man (well played by Marcello Mastroianni) who has recently arrived in Livorno, Italy, yet been unable to fit in. In the film’s opening scene, we watch as he stands in the center of a Livorno street practically begging for someone to stop and talk to him. When he sees a woman he finds attractive, he finds himself clinging a bit too tightly to the notion that here, finally, is a person that he can make an impression on. He tries too hard, yet his persistence eventually pays off, and he winds up with a commitment from her to meet him the following evening. Thus begins an intriguing courtship between a man perhaps a little too desperate and a woman whose heart belongs to someone who may or may not be stringing her along. I suppose the drama lies in whether the man will eventually be able to change her focus.

There’s plenty to like about La Notti Bianche. The film is well acted, and Maria Schell is so delightful in the role of the woman that she elevates the material to quite impressive heights. However, most of what is praiseworthy in the film comes from its technical side. Visconti once again demonstrated his ability to film the intermingling of light and shadows like few others could. Witness the way the night flickers on the faces on the characters, one moment bringing them into the light, the next blocking them from view. It’s as if Visconti had hired the constellations and made them do his bidding. Scenes in which characters move from the background to the foreground seem to channeling film noir, creating the notion of a land of sin and vice, a land that could easily seduce someone to the dark side. There’s even a jarring moment in which the two lovebirds sail in Livorno’s underground waterway looking for romance only to find homelessness and utter poverty. Jarringly, the man suggests the scene will be more romantic after they’re engaged.

However, the film doesn’t know what to do with any of this, so it simply casts off any notion of seediness or dishonesty. Everyone is good, and even when all hope is lost, the power of love and patience triumphs. Sure, this is not the ending that every character in the film wanted, and it has the curious effect of making you feel guilty for your previous misgivings, but none of that is supposed to matter. Except it does, and it should. La Notti Bianche settles for being about the ordinary. It has no grand message, no purpose other than offering a glimpse of what could have been. The film is neither monumental nor inconsequential. It is simply decent, a film that I was likely more impressed with than liked. Do I feel this way because I expected something different? Perhaps, but sometimes a great director just has an off day. Sometimes he creates a visually stunning piece of fluff that’s only mildly of interest, and hey, sometimes that’s enough. They can’t all be masterpieces. I should remember that next time. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

3 stars

*La Notti Bianche is in Italian with English subtitles.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review - The Iron Giant

March 16, 2017

Iron Giant, The – US, 1999

In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as if Hollywood was obsessed with film about aliens. Many of these films presented the aliens as enormous threats to mankind (i.e. Aliens), visitors who only intended to be on the Earth for a short time (i.e. Starman), and youth-oriented tales that depicted the greatest revelation in human history as a merry adventure involving children and their alien friends (i.e. none other than E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial itself). Few of these movies had a message for the audience beyond how quick the military could be to draw their weapons. (Explorers, with its cautionary tale about the misunderstandings that our portrayals of aliens can create, was an exception.) Some of these films have stood the test of time; others, I suspect, have suffered as their original audience has aged and is no longer as impressed by movies in which aliens are taught to see Earth through the eyes of children. I suspect that Brad Bird’s 1999 film The Iron Giant will be an example of the former.

Part of what makes Bird’s film a keeper is the fact that it is animated. This may sound silly to say, but it is much easier to accept a tale as fantastic as this one when it is presented in a form in which fantasy thrives. Animated films are a genre that has primarily focused on the tales of young people since its inception; therefore, it seems completely natural that one would focus on the budding friendship of a young boy and a robot that crashes near a small town in the countryside. Just as wisely, Bird has included a number of elements that will appeal to adults – references to Cold War paranoia, duck-and-cover educational videos, and discussions over the correct use of nuclear weapons.

At the heart of the film is Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), a spunky, curious young boy who has the kind of courage we normally see in these kinds of films. In other words, he’ll look at a path of destruction and think to himself, “I’d better go see what caused that.” And so off he goes, in the direction of smashed fences, broken trees, and half-eaten cars. It is a path that leads him to a wounded robot stuffing his mouth with steel outside a power station. Soon Hogarth’s taking it home, introducing it to comic books, and teaching it basic English.

And guess what? It works - Hogarth’s infectious energy, his budding friendship with a James Dean-look alike tellingly named Dean McCoppin (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.), the government agent who grows increasingly paranoid as the film progresses, and his mother (Jennifer Aniston), whose habit of working late allows Hogarth the opportunity to get into an adventure like this one. It worked so well that I was even willing to forgive its slightly formulaic script, and that’s saying something.

The Iron Giant was not a hit when it was initially released. However, in the years that followed, it acquired the reputation of being something quite special. In fact, the Wall Street Journal went so far as to call it an “instant classic.” While I’m not willing to go that far yet, I am ready to call it a great film with something for both young and old. It deserves its reputation and warrants not only repeat viewings but also introduction to the next generation of filmgoers. In fact, I can’t wait to show it to my own kid. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review - The Double Life of Veronique

March 9, 2017

Double Life of Veronique, The – France, 1991

I first saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique on a secondhand VHS tape more than twenty years ago. It didn’t impress me, and I quickly got rid of my copy of the film. Normally that would be the end of the story, yet in the years that followed Kieslowski would release his incredible Three Colors trilogy, and I would be introduced to his 1988 masterpiece The Decalogue. Then the coup de grace – the good people over at the Criterion Collection elected to release The Double Life of Veronique as part of their collection of important classic and contemporary films. Thus, it was inevitable that I would eventually begin to question my previous assessment. Perhaps, my inner voice went, I had been too young and inexperienced with the nuances of film to understand the movie. On the other hand, my head countered, Criterion also released versions of Michael Bay’s Armageddon and The Rock, two films I would hardly call important.

For those unfamiliar with the film, The Double Life of Veronique begins from the perspective of a young woman named Weronica, played by Irene Jacob. Shortly after we watch Weronica have a romantic rendezvous with her boyfriend, Antex, she reveals to her father that she has the sneaky sense that she is not alone in the world. Her father, not knowing the title of the film he’s in, explains the logic of this. After all, she has him, her friends, her family. Weronica eventually makes her way to Krakow, where, during a chaotic protest that threatens to turn violent at any moment, she sees in the distance her doppelganger snapping pictures of the action around her. The moment is fleeting, for the look-a-like is quickly ushered onto a bus and whisked away.

Now, I suspect the average person would view such an event as truly mind-blowing, perhaps even causing you to question the nature of reality and the curious characteristics of chance. However, Weronica just smiles and then returns to her life. We see her audition for a choir, begin to grapple with a severe pain in her left side, and then die during a performance. The film then shifts focus to Veronique, the doppelganger.

By killing off Weronica, the film enters uncharted territory. Usually a film about people who have doubles is about what happens when they eventually have some sort of confrontation. However, the only sign we have of the impact that Weronica has on Veronique is Veronique’s sudden decision to stop taking music lessons. The implication is that the decision somehow saves her life. From there, Veronique’s life is much her own, and her actions begin to resemble those crafted by a writer trying far too hard to be clever. How else can you explain the bizarre decision to have her proclaim that she is in love with someone she doesn’t know and that man’s eccentric attempts to woo her by dropping little clues as to where she can meet him? These are not the acts of normal people, and only in movies do women respond to them in such a positive manner. Really. When was the last time you heard a woman say, It was only when I heard the tape he sent me of street sounds that I knew he truly loved me?

Watching the film again, I was amazed at how similar my reactions were. I fluctuated between boredom, slight interest, and ultimately disappointment. This is a film that goes nowhere fast, and even if the ending presents a version of events that adds a subtle twist to the story of two women who both look alike and appear to be the same age, it’s simply too late to save the film. Kieslowski is indeed a talented director, and even in a film like this one, which never truly gets going, he demonstrates his ability to shape what we see on the screen in an interesting way. His use of colors is particularly impressive, and, at two key moments, he even shapes the action in the kind of frame usually associated with silent films. However, by the end of the film, these techniques come to resemble the kind of smoke and mirrors that a less experienced director may rely on to draw attention away from a simple fact: There’s really nothing else here to look at. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars
*The Double Life of Veronique is in France with English subtitles.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings: On the Oscars and Today's Continental Divide

March 2, 2017

On the Oscars and Today’s Continental Divide

In Bart Giamatti’s masterful essay “The Green Fields of the Mind,” the baseball season, with its four seasons and its ability to absorb our attention and trick us into believing that summer will never end, is a metaphor for the passage of time. It creeps up on us stealthily, Giamatti explains, masking its true self in the form of long regular seasons and magical runs at post-season greatness. And then, it betrays us, popping out from behind the curtain in the form of a failed post-season bid, a heart-breaking playoff loss, or even a game seven celebration. In the end it really matters little whether our team wins or loses – time is the ultimate victor. As the light dim on the season, it suddenly dawns on us – we’re a year older.

I suspect we all measure time in analogous and multiple ways. For some of us, it’s sports; for others, it is the school year: nine months, a summer vacation, and we’re all a little grayer. For some of us (myself included), movies are that great yard stick. Movies, with their potential to elicit tears just as easily as scorn, their ability to elevate up-and-coming actors or cause once-promising careers to come to a screeching halt, and their knack for provoking passionate arguments about the worthiness of a film, the pay of its cast, and film’s place in society as a whole. In these ways, movies and sports are very similar, especially at this time, with the rise of athletes unafraid to speak their minds about social and political issues, as well as actors taking to the podium to deliver passionate speeches about the causes they champion and the political positions they hold.

The year’s cinematic bookend, the Academy Awards, has come and gone, and with that comes the realization that something has passed – 12 months, 52 weeks of new releases, 2016’s four film seasons – the beginning of the year dump of bad movies that cost a lot and thus must get a release date; the season of summer blockbusters; the unfortunate post-summer dump; and the end-of-the-year showcase of films deemed worthy of awards by the studios that produced or distributed them. In a way, the Academy Awards are a replay of the year, an occasion for Hollywood to collectively forget the misfires and embarrassments and focus instead of what it considers its absolute best. It is an insider’s party attended by those privileged to be on the inside and honoring their own for a variety of reasons – not all of which have to do with the film that is honored. After all, there are several cases in which members of the Academy have admitted to voting for movies they either didn’t like or hadn’t seen.

There is a correlation between one’s age and the number of films one watches in theaters, and it is not necessarily a pleasant one. The more one ages, it goes, the less one ventures out to the silver screen. I am no different when it comes to this. I used to pride myself on watching all of the films nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars. This year I saw just one of the nominees – Hidden Figures. However, the Oscars still have an importance to me. Each nominee goes on a mental list of films I intend to watch, and if shows like the Oscars and lists of the top-ten films of the year do not inspire people to watch films they wouldn’t ordinarily have given a chance, than they have failed. All too often people read the list of Oscar nominees or and proclaim there to be no reason to watch the show simply because films they saw and liked were not nominated. This is to miss out on an opportunity. One would hope that winning an award or being honored for one’s work would create interest, not antagonism.

This year, the Oscars were political. How could they not be? And the reaction was predictable, with negative comments about elitism and positive ones because someone echoed what someone else already believes. We must strive to be better than this. The right to speak up is not limited by class or race – the opinion of a Hollywood celebrity is just as important to hear as one from a laid-off factory worker from the Rust Belt. And we must find a way to avoid knee-jerk reactions and labels. The fact that someone supports Donald Trump or believes he should be given a chance is not an indicator of extremism, sexism, or racism, and someone’s apprehension and concern about Trump's presidency should not be viewed as sour grapes or an inability to accept the outcomes of an election. And simply voicing an opinion should not make someone the target of a boycott, be the opinion Meryl Streep’s or Kevin Plank’s. We must listen without prejudice. This is not always easy, and I admit to having had my own problems with this over the years. But if we can calm down, listen, and seek to understand the feelings that are being expressed when someone talks about politics or global issues, we may gain valuable insights into the world we live in and the people we share it with.

I realize I have strayed somewhat from my original topic, but to me, the Oscars are an extension of this. They are a voice that I listen to if for no other reason than that they can open my eyes to things I’ve missed or judged too quickly. I understand wanting to see your favorites up there, but just because they aren’t shouldn’t mean we stop listening. The same is true for the real world.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review - A Man Called Ove

February 23, 2017

Man Called Ove, A – Sweden, 2015

If there’s any justice in the world, Nicholas Sparks will seek out A Man Called Ove and realize just what screen adaptations of his novels have been missing. I say this because A Man Called Ove is one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever seen, as well as a particularly fascinating character study.

I don’t how else to describe it, so I’ll put it as plainly as I can. The opening scene in Hannes Holm’s Oscar-nominated film, A Man Called Ove, is nothing short of masterful. Now I have seen many films like A Man Called Ove (As Good As It Gets and Nobody’s Fool come to mind right away), yet I have never seen one that so perfectly establishes a character as this one does right off the bat. In the opening scene, an elderly man named Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is shown squabbling over the price of a small bouquet of flowers with a store clerk who couldn’t care less about the man in front of her. Such, you might say, are the times in which we live, but as the film progresses, you realize that much more is going on. This is not the first time for either of them. The man has raised a ruckus before, and a store employee, perhaps the same one, has reacted dispassionately to complaints that stem from a dissatisfaction that has very little to do with the clerk. What we are witnessing in the scene is one of Ove’s daily routines, similar to the rounds that we see him go on in his suburban neighborhood despite no longer officially being in charge of security, and the job he has held for 43 years. Sometimes our routines are the only things keeping us here.

In the film’s early scenes, Ove seems to be going out of his way to be as off-putting as he can. Watching the way he relates to his neighbors and turns down what should be a simple request for assistance, I could tell he was mentally cursing mankind and all that it had become. Being approached with termination later on only confirms his most hardened views of the upper class – “white-shirts,” he calls them – and in retrospect his resignation may be the moment he officially gives up on the world. Soon he’s staring at a rope hanging from his living room ceiling and talking about being with his deceased wife. It’s chaos without you, he speaks aloud to her at one point. There’s only one problem – people kept needing his assistance, and he is always bothered enough by imperfections to put his death on hold and offer angry, condescending aid to the sorry sap in need of it.

Films like this one that feature elderly hotheads as lead characters tend to follow a familiar pattern. Eventually someone will enter the picture and pierce through their thick skin, thereby enabling their true self to shine through. In a film with a young character, this often leads to romance. With an older one, it leads to self-reflection and clarity. Too many of these movies simply can’t resist the temptation to turn the disgruntled lead into a repentant gentlemen by the end of the film. In many ways, A Man Called Ove is no different. Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a new tenant of Iranian descent, comes into his life and slowly begins pulling him out of his shell. There’s also the presence of a stray cat that is about as clichĂ© as they come and the apparently requisite neighborhood children whom he’s at first cold to, but who we sense he come around to in the end.

In truth, we’ve seen a lot of these things before. What sets A Man Called Ove apart are the film’s multiple timelines and its depth and emotional resonance. The characters and the scenarios they find themselves in reverberate, from Ove’s reticent widowed father to his awkward relationship with the world around him. He becomes a heroic individual almost out of necessity and never completely loses his social awkwardness. In a sense, most of his best tendencies are the result of his having found someone capable of bringing them out of him. When he hesitates, it is his late wife, Sonja, (played in flashbacks by Ida Ebgvoll) that either takes the initiative or finds a way to push him in the right direction. Even in death, she hangs over him in the form of people she helped who finds themselves with only Ove to turn to. It’s hard to know what he would have become without her. She enables him to be the man he wants to be, one she likely sensed he was from the very beginning.

It is a testament to the creators of A Man Called Ove that the film is funny without ever making Ove himself the target of cheap jokes and sweet without ever straining credibility. It also features strong performances, two of which are given in service of the same role. Only in two scenes does the film do itself a disservice. The first one unsuccessfully endeavors to find humor in different preferences for cars, and the second asks you to believe that someone engaging in morally questionable antics would not have googled himself at least once. These are more than just minor quibbles, for they are given a good amount of screen time, and they take the film out of reality and into Wes Anderson territory. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a Wes Anderson film, but here, it is distracting and somewhat lazy artistically.

Sadly, I have not had time to see many of the films up for the Academy Awards this year. It looks as if the Best Foreign Language film is coming down to Toni Erdmann and The Salesman, and from what I have read, these films are both deserving in their own right. Still, I hope that people seek out A Man Called Ove. It takes a conventional plot and upends all expectations of it. Faults notwithstanding, it is the standard bearer by which all films like it should now be judged, and even that feels like an understatement. Really. When it's good, it is that good. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

*A Man Called Ove is in Swedish with English subtitles. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review - Malta Story

February 16, 2017

Malta Story – UK, 1953

There’s a scene in Brian Desmond Hurst’s Malta Story that struck me as particularly peculiar as I watched it. In the scene, we get a view of downtown Malta, an area filled with bombed out buildings and sprinkled with the occasional cafĂ© and business. There’s even a class being conducted outside. Suddenly, the serenity is interrupted by an alarm and immediately people scatter. Some head in buildings; most head to a shelter. Within no time, a plane appears and begins dropping bombs all around. In less than a minute, the siege ends and another alarm sounds. Out come the crowds and the students that previously meandered there, and life continues as if nothing of significance had just occurred. The scene is a testament to the madness that war breeds, for it seems to suggest that bombings have become just another part of the day, as routine as having breakfast and leaving for work.

As stunning as the scene is, it is also part of what makes Malta Story a frustrating film to watch, for while it is believable that long-term residents and soldiers may become somewhat numb to daily assaults from the air, it is not realistic that a character like RAF reconnaissance photographer Peter Ross would.  Ross, played by the legendary Alec Guinness, is a man with a rather soft soul. More interested in trains than planes and in history than war, he is less a soldier than a documentarian, and his stay on Malta is wholly unintended. However, not even he comments on the insanity that he sees around him, and since no one gives voice to it, it doesn’t register the way it should. We should feel the residents’ anxiety; instead, we just watch passively and wait for the plot to move forward.

Malta Story has two main story lines. The first one details the state of Malta as a whole, under siege, unprotected, and situated perilously between Axis forces. Much of its vulnerability is conveyed by the military hierarchy on Malta, and these men, as well as the women who work with them, are some of the only characters who understand the gravity of their situation. However, while this story line has the potential to be very engaging, all too often the film leaps from situation to situation without giving the audience enough pause to be able to register the danger that anyone is in. For example, in at one point, the British forces are short of planes and under siege. Then they are elated because planes finally arrive, and then just as quickly we see them celebrating military victories. None of it registers emotionally. Only when the film slows down, which it doesn’t do nearly enough, do viewers get a chance to see the residents’ level of desperation and vulnerability.

The second story line involves a romance between Ross and a young local woman named Maria Gonzar (Muriel Pavlow). This is a standard element of this kind of movie, and its success largely depends of whether the film devotes enough time to establishing a connection between the pair or whether it conveys the desperation that causes two people to get together when they might not otherwise. Malta Story takes a different path. It’s the kind more often seen in standard romance films. Two people meet, take a liking to each other, and soon begin dating. The war is practically an afterthought. Only Maria’s mother (Flora Robson) reacts the way someone might be expected to. This is especially true when she learns that food rations have been cut yet again. Robson gives a great performance, and I would likely have enjoyed the film a great deal more had she been its focal point.

At the time of its release, one of the film’s selling points was its reenactments of combat and its persistent use of archival war footage. However, the film doesn’t know how to use these images. At times, characters shout out that they are under attack only for it to cut to footage of a formation of Axis planes that look as if they’re flying at a snail’s pace. When they do attack, the action often takes place in the background and thus seems far away from both the characters and the audience. The result of this is that we are never truly drawn into the moment because what we see seems so disconnected to the characters’ reality. This is a cardinal sin, for a movie like this one needs to make us feel; I just felt impatience.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t individual scenes that work quite well. The film is actually quite moving whenever Robson is on screen, and there are individual moments when we see fleeting images that inspire varying degrees of hope and desperation. Also, the scenes in the command room are well shot, giving the viewer an intriguing look at old-time technology and military strategizing. However, the film lacks the focus needed to succeed completely. In a way, it reminded me of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, a film that underwent numerous rewrites in order for it to better reflect the most recent events of the war. As a result, the film feels disjointed, and its pieces never truly come together. The same can be said of Malta Story. Its varied plot points simply never form a cohesive narrative. The film is dull when it should be exciting and fast-paced when it should take its time. This left me cold and unattached to the events transpiring on the screen, and not even the presence of a legend could change this. It’s a shame really. They had the right actors and the right setting; they just didn’t have the right script. Malta deserved better. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review - Reality Bites

February 9, 2017

Reality Bites – US, 1994

I was 21 when Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites hit theaters, and the buzz about the film was that it was my generation’s The Graduate. Having not seen that film at that time, I had no idea what that meant, yet when I finally saw it, I had no inclination to give Stiller’s film a try. To me, The Graduate was a moderately successful film about a slacker who wasn’t entirely likeable who begins an affair with an older woman who is also not that likeable. I gave it three stars, and since then haven’t really given it much thought. That is, until I finally watched Reality Bites.

Like The Graduate, Reality Bites is also about a slacker, four of them actually. The lead character is Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), college valedictorian and aspiring filmmaker, and if that makes slacker an odd description for her, consider this: While reading her graduation speech on flash cards, she suddenly realizes she has misplaced the final card, and wouldn’t you know it, that card had her vision for what her entire generation can do with the world they inherit. Now something that potentially earth-shattering would normally be etched in someone’s mind, but Lelaina gets tongue tied, fumbles through her notes, and then says that the answer to what they can do is…”I don’t know.” She is cheered for the remark.

Making up the rest of her group are Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), a man who practically boasts of having lost twelve jobs in just a few years; Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), a woman who keeps a record of every person she has slept with and their names – when she knows them, at least; and Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), a young gay man who is in so little of the film that I honestly can’t remember much about him other than an unresolved story line involving him coming out to his mother. In Lelaina’s eyes, the four of them are part of a generation that has no role models and no heroes, one that is desperately trying to find itself.

There is indeed a story to be told about this generation, about a generation of children with divorced parents and massive college debt. This generation grew up during the end of the Cold War, watched both the Challenger explode and nuclear bombs fall in The Day After, and look on as the first Gulf War started just as they were of age to be sent to fight if the draft were reinstated. They were young when Michael Jackson’s Thriller took the world by storm, and they were also around when it turned to grunge and the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. They were around for Tom Cruise’s and Julia Roberts’s meteoric ascent, as well as for the shock that was the arrival of the independent film movement. They, like every generation before them, thought they could change the world.

There’s is certainly a story worth telling. Reality Bites just isn’t the film to tell it. Too much of that generation seems like an afterthought. For example, AIDS, like homosexuality, is brought up briefly and dropped without anything resembling a resolution. Instead, the film elects to focus on a love triangle and to try to say something important through that. To do this, it pits a yuppie (upper class, working, somewhat dismissive of those that are still trying to figure it all out, but overall nice guy) against a slacker (middle class, musician, too cool for school, and  jerk) in a duel for the love of Lelaina, because what all generational conflicts come down to in the end is a contest for the love of a woman straddling both sides of a struggle – sarcasm intended. In this story line, Ben Stiller, playing a TV executive named Michael Grates, is Ethan Hawke’s foil. One guess who the audience is suppose to see as the better alternative.   

Reality Bites plods along rather uneventfully. There are the occasional bursts of energy, such as a spontaneous dance number inside a convenience store that may be what the film is best known for and some heartfelt and telling moments that Lelaina captures on film, my favorite of which explained why many people I knew growing up at least initially rejected the idea of getting married. However, these moments are few and far between, and they are merely the backdrop for a story that becomes increasingly less interesting and more predictable as the film progresses. By the end, I simply didn’t care. How could I when the film’s last moments include a message in which Lelaina’s father is heard on an answering machine asking why there’s a $900 gas bill on the card he gave Lelaina and pays every month. I suppose we’re supposed to laugh. He doesn’t know he’s financing her new apartment, the poor sap. That’ll get him back for being such a bad father. On their side yet? I wasn’t. Good soundtrack, though. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars