The Kings of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2013)

tkosA few years ago I used to watch anything that had come out of Sundance, exclusively because it had come out of Sundance. After my awakening to all things quirky and the realization that indie films existed, Sundance was like a treasure chest full of insanely interesting documentaries and weird teenagers, in equal parts. While I still adore the documentaries, I guess that the “indie film about an outsider” category got a bit boring for me, not to mention the cinematography copycats that seem to reign in that world.

The Kings Of Summer is brilliant precisely because it took the best out of the genre and mixed it with something new. It isn’t trying really hard to be quirky; the characters are average teenagers, if a bit spoiled. They have actual conversations. There are shots of fields in the golden hour, but they are tied into the story, not just there to be pretty and make the viewer go “oooh”.

Joe and Patrick are in that wonderful age in which one fights with one’s parents for no sensible reason; add in the fact that their parents are actually impossible, and voilà! They decide to move out to the woods and build a house, where they will provide for themselves and become men. Obviously, putting a house together and learning to hunt and live as savages is not easy for middle class boys. What makes The Kings Of Summer amazing is how the narration is true to life, without peaks of drama and insane plot twists for the sake of the film. Even the most absurd events seem realistic.

The situations in which the protagonists put themselves are hilarious, but the nuance with which their relationship with each other, with their friends and their relatives is treated is just perfect. There is no need to overexplain and overanalyze: everything feels genuine, true to life, in particular the complicated ties between Joe and his father after his mother has passed away. While the entire cast is great, it is impossible not to have a particular love for Nick Offerman’s stubborn, wounded Frank; his performance as a dad who just can’t be conciliatory with his whiny teenage son is perfectly in balance between hilariousness and heartbreak.

Another remarkable performance — which I still can’t believe really happened — is Moises Arias playing Biaggio, a weird kid who joins Joe and Patrick in their adventure. Biaggio made me cry laughing, but also terrify me. I can’t imagine what dark, dark corner of writer Chris Galletta’s mind where such a creepy, bizarre character has come from.

I hate the sentence “coming of age story” with ferocious intensity and I find it particularly wrong in relation to The Kings Of Summer; Joe and Patrick still have a whole lot of growing up to do. What their experience in the woods brings out is the fact that they are in fact children, and even they realise that. This film tells the story of a great summer adventure and it is so entertaining and moving only heartless people will fail to appreciate it.

file under: Nick Offerman is a guarantee of quality.
final grade: 5/5
cryfest factor: 3/5 fairly likely.

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Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013)

tranceThere is only one case in my history with Danny Boyle in which I didn’t start grumbling half an hour into the film. That case is not Trance (spoiler: it is masterpiece Sunshine). The premise of Boyle’s new endeavour had me drooling for months before its release, which is probably why now I am so disappointed with it now.

Art auctioner Simon has accepted to collaborate with some art thieves to pay for his gambling debts. He helps steal a painting from his own auction house, but when criminal Franck opens the case of the painting, Witches In The Air by Francisco Goya is missing from the frame. The worst part is that Simon, who has received a blow to the head during the theft, is suffering from amnesia and has no idea of where he put the masterpiece. This is when hypnotherapist Elisabeth Lamb is hired to help him remember.

While some films lack any narrative complexity, Trance is committed to surprising the viewer every three minutes. This turns out to be a bit too much. The line between reality and trance becomes gradually more blurry, which is great, but this is done through continuous twists and 180° turns in the plot. By continuous I really mean that as soon as the film seems to make sense, a new element comes in to erase everything that has been said until that moment. At the end of the first hour, I was on the verge of giving up on the entire thing and walking out — not because I am equipped with a small brain, although that could be a factoring element, but because the effort of revolutionizing the plot was taking the film in directions that made it incoherent and weirdly structured.

A proof of this is that one of the main players in solving the mystery in the final act of the film is Rosario Dawson’s pussy. While it’s clear from the beginning that Elisabeth Lamb has something to hide and her part in the events emerges a clever way, the film goes to exaggerated lengths to put her at the centre of the story. We had been taken so very far from where we had started, and the resolution was so outlandish and intricate, that by that point it was hard to still feel involved and not to “meh” at the final sequences.

What cannot be taken away from Trance is that it is a terribly stylish film. Its loud, rowdy soundtrack fully expresses Simon’s state of mind, especially in the first parts; the contrast with the quieter tracks and how it all harmonizes with the development of the story is pure magic (as usual from Underworld’s Rick Smith).
The continuous use of reflections, mirrors, coloured glass once again mimics the intricate mind-play happening in the film. It might be a bit of an obvious choice, but it really does create a specific look and atmosphere that is consistent throughout the film, dominated by oranges and blues and sharp lines.

Some sequences are so imaginative, wonderfully written and shot that they lift up the entire film for me; one of them is the incredible scene with all the stolen and destroyed paintings, in which not only does James McAvoy outdo himself in terms of acting, but all the elements — scenography, lights, dialogue, music — come together so beautifully that only the appearance of yet another iPad can take away the poetry from the scene.

On the downside, I tend to be incredibly annoyed by Danny Boyle’s gimmicks with the camera, so I was quite disappointed when they suddenly appeared after a first half-hour of straightforward filming. Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for weird angles, but not to the point where I feel seasick watching a film that’s not set on a boat.

I have been struggling to summarize my thoughts about Trance in a grade. On one hand, two weeks after watching it I feel that overall I enjoyed it: the overall plot arc, the writing and the execution have many great elements to them. But to be completely honest, my first opinion wasn’t very far from “total rubbish”. Would I want to see Trance again? Ultimately yes, if only to try and follow the ridiculously complicated plot properly, at least the second time around.

file under: sometimes simplicity is key.
final grade: 3/5
cryfest factor: 0/5 unless you’re a Stendhal syndrome habitué.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

bernadetteI don’t usually let ads convince me but, alas, this is the case with Where’d You Go, Bernadette?. Seeing the poster every single day in Baker Street Station slowly persuaded me that I had to read it. Thank you, advertisers. This is my suggested (end of) summer read. My suggested read for all year, even.

No synopsis can explain to how great Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is. Bernadette Fox has disappeared during a trip to Antarctica. Said trip was planned by a virtual assistant living in India. Her daughter Bee, a ridiculously bright fifteen-year-old, has to go back to the beginning of her mum’s troubles to figure out where the hell she’s gone.

The book is a collection of emails, letters and other bits of documentation that Bee has put together; the story comes together slowly, with pieces of the puzzle being added in at different times, and sometimes coming from seemingly random characters.

They describe Bernadette’s feud with her neighbors and the parents at Bee’s school, in full Desperate Housewives style, with exterminators and family friends taking part in the drama. In the meantime her husband Elgie’s career at Microsoft is on the edge because of the crisis and Bee is struggling to keep things as normal as possible while her family goes bonkers. But this is not all: Bernadette seems to have had a bright past that slowly turned into an axiety-filled, misanthropic present, which is now coming back to haunt her.

This is an exceptionally quirky novel, with constant changes of direction that turn the plot upside-down. I found myself both laughing out loud and gasping in shock at the twists in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?. I’ve seen it being described as a comedy, but it’s so much more than that. The narration is just irresistibly funny, the caustic descriptions of life in hipster Seattle being the highlight, but there are so many darker layers. Bernadette’s frustration with her boring and unsatisfactory life, together with her regrets for abandoning her career, are deadly serious but as brilliantly written and impactful as the comedy surrounding them. I never thought that a book sold to me as satyrical could affect me so deeply.

As I read this, I kept thinking that it was the most absurd piece of fiction I had read in a while, but in reality it’s disconcerting how the story could easily be something that really happened despite being so over the top. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is hilarious, multifaceted and just brilliant. I want more.