Restless – Film Review


Directed by Gus Van Sant
Review by Thomas W. Campbell

On September 14, 2011 I did a Q and A with Gus Van Sant following the NBR screening of his film Restless. Van Sant is a thoughtful and caring man who enjoys discussing film and the creative process as much as anyone I have met. He was particularly interested in praising his young actors for their daring and intuitive approaches to their work.

Link to original NBR review

Restless, Gus Van Sant’s new film, opens with a series of shots revealing a somewhat overcast Portland, Oregon as the bouncy Beatle’s song “Two of Us” is heard on the soundtrack. At first the song seems a mysterious choice, with it’s chorus about “going home”. Neither character we are about to meet is in any process of going home–if anything they are preparing to leave their home for new experiences. But the song is about two people “Sunday driving, not arriving, on our way back home.” This perfectly fits Van Sant’s gentle but unsentimental view of life–especially as lived by the young. This is a story about two people who find each other–who “Sunday drive and don’t arrive” – but home is not part of their lives. It’s something they might dream about, knowing they will never really be there.

Restless is based on a short play by Jason Lew that was developed into a children’s book, before finally becoming a script. It landed on Van Sant’s desk via producer Dallas Bryce Howard and is a stripped-down story that takes some gentle but surprising turns as the characters are challenged by the tragic circumstances of their own lives.

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Jane Eyre – Film Review


Jane Eyre

On March 10, 2011 I did a Q and A with Cary Fukunaga and Mia Wasikowska following the NBR screening of Jane Eyre. Much of the very civilized conversation centered on the value of realism – and how the specific rural English locations sealed the deal in terms of authenticity, especially Haddon Hall in Derbyshire as the Thornfield castle.

Link to original NBR review.

Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), is the first major film adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s ubiquitous 1847 novel since Franco Zefferelli’s 1996 version starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane and William Hurt as her benefactor/tormentor Rochester. Working with producers Alison Owen (Shaun of the Dead, The Other Boleyn Girl) and Paul Trijbits (Fish Tank) and money from BBC television, Fukunaga has made a film that has the look and feel of a classic yet takes some chances with the material that might risk the “can’t be too faithful to the source material” crowd. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of coming up with a definitive version of a book and story that nearly everyone seems to know (there have been over 25 film and TV adaptations so far) Fukunaga and his team have created a film that captures the spirit and look of the novel in a way that entertains and feels right.

Casting a classic is always difficult–if you’ve read the book you have already imagined the perfect manifestations of the central character–probably as people who are in many ways similar to yourself. A film like Jane Eyre, with so many versions already casting impressions on us, can create confusion before we even step into the theater. Ms. Eyre, a teenager in the bulk of the book, is often cast in the Hollywood tradition of the established star–an older successful “name.” Rochester, the mysterious and sometimes coarse man who owns the strange castle she ends up at, seems to be a particularly troubling role to get right. He should be handsome, but not a dandy, brooding but not really disturbed, with a mystery but not unable to appreciate beauty when he stares her in the face. Played by Orson Welles in the Hollywood 1940’s version (to Joan Fontaine’s too old Jane), he seemed a bit “Wellesian,” as though at any moment he might stand up tall and declare “I am Charles Foster Kane!”. William Hurt, in Zefferelli’s version felt a bit eclectic–filled with the same neurotic tics and hesitations we have come to expect from Hurt (History of Violence, for instance).
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The Kids Are All Right – Film Review

The Kids Are All Right

On July 29, 2010 I did a Q and A with the director, the writer and the cast of The Kids Are All Right, following the preview screening of the film. We were joined by Lisa Cholodenko (director/writer), Stuart Blumberg (writer), Juliane Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutchinson.  The Q and A was a private event for members of The National Board of Review so I can not discuss the details – but I will say that it was an incredibly funny and thought provoking event – and the largest group of talent I have sat down to talk film with so far. Below is a link to the original review as published by the National Board of Review.

Review at National Board of Review web site

Originally posted on July 30, 2010

Thomas W. Campbell

The Kids Are All Right, the fourth feature film directed by Lisa Cholodenko, is an endearing comedy that ultimately takes a serious look at the emotional and psychological dynamics of complicated and modern family life. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, a lesbian couple living in California who have given birth to two children through artificial insemination. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is preparing to leave for college, which creates stress in the family and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is spending time with someone who “the moms” feel is beneath him. But these are normal developmental issues that families confront and manage to handle all the time. Things get more complicated when Laser decides that he would like to know who his biological dad is and Joni reluctantly agrees to help. When Paul, who is played with an endearing boyishness by Mark Ruffalo, learns that he has an offspring he agrees to a meeting. But his life gets a real twist when he discovers that he has fathered two children and that the parents are both women. “Oh, I like lesbians” he tells Mia on the phone, while cringing that it may have come out wrong.

It’s a great story set-up that pulls us in because all of the characters are so likable and realistic. Nic wears the pants in the relationship and Ms. Bening plays the driven A-type personality expertly. She is immediately suspect of Paul, explaining over lunch (many of the important events in the film happen during meals or around food) that she understands he is in the “food-service” industry. The similarities between Paul and Jules, on the other hand, are immediately apparent. Ms. Moore plays her role with a touching vulnerability – she is a woman without inherent career drive, having tried her hand at architecture before settling into a “housewife” role. But she surprises Nic with news that she has bought a used truck as part of a new plan to begin a landscaping business. When Paul wants to hire her to transform the backyard of his house she is unsure – but despite her protests he becomes her first client. Jules gains a newfound sense of confidence through the work but Nic becomes uncomfortable with the shifting nature of their relationship.

The script is extremely well crafted, the result of a first time collaboration between Ms. Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg (Keeping the Faith). The universal nature of the story makes it understandable on an emotional level to anyone who has been through family issues and the specific nature of the lesbian “moms” brings a nice twist that feels contemporary and relevant. The family faces internal issues – Joni is about to leave the nest – and must also confront the arrival of Paul, an event that becomes more complicated than anyone expects. The interaction between the family and Paul has a complexity that feels natural – like real life it is a bit messy. The kids develop a strong attraction to Paul’s relaxed way of life, finally isolating Nic as the only one not under his sway. Allegiances sway as Paul’s influence is felt by each one he touches until a crisis threatens to split the family. Regaining trust once it has been damaged is a process and the film sets the family back on the road of forgiveness without making things too simple.

The Kids Are All Right is a good-looking film, much of it shot in natural light. The soundtrack uses a mix of classic rock and newer music to reflect the multigenerational characters and especially benefits from the subtle touches of composer Carter Burwell, who creates simple and moving musical accents to give emotional weight. What makes this film work so well, though, is the strong script and the comfortable performances of the fine ensemble cast. It’s a pleasure to watch Bening and Moore working out their family issues, Wasikowska and Hutcherson struggling with their allegiances between their “moms” and biological father and to see Ruffalo go from nice guy to potential home wrecker. The Kids Are All Right is more than all right – it’s one of the funniest and moving films of the year.