PICKS OF THE WEEK
Flipped (Four Stars)
U.S.; Rob Reiner, 2010, Warner Home Video
For the past few years, I've been looking, yearning even, for a few American studio movies that would make me feel the way I sometimes did as a movie-going kid -- digging among all the obvious trash or sappy dreck of so-called family movies today for that old kind of warm, smart, good family show, the sort that had great characters, that depended for its impact on personality, writing, "invisible direction" and a strong connection to the culture outside.
I've longed, usually in vain, for just a few live action movies that could make me laugh and cry the way It's a Wonderful Life or The Quiet Man or the old Disney feature cartoons all did when I was young, or the way the best Pixar animation often does now.
Rob Reiner just made one. Flipped.
You may be surprised at my high evaluation of Flipped -- I'd rank this movie with my favorites of the year -- because, even though Reiner's puppy love chronicle about a grade school crush in the '50s and '60s (told by the smitten girl and reluctant boy in alternate chapters) has received some positive or even ecstatic reviews, and fully deserves them, it's also received almost as many mixed notices or witty, acid-tongued knocks.
Since Flipped's naysayers tend to be from the more sophisticated media outlets, you may have sensed some consensus of hip brewing. It's an understandable take. It's been a long time since I've felt about a Rob Reiner movie the way I feel about this one. But when I walked out of the screening room for Flipped, thoroughly entertained, I was also both elated and weeping. I could feel the tears coursing down for at least 12 blocks on my walk home. (I'll tell you why later.)
Flipped, though, risks the opposite response, critical contempt, just as its little heart-on-sleeve heroine, Juli Baker, keeps risking rejection by throwing herself on the line repeatedly for her leaden-footed, unadventurous big crush, Bryce Loski.
Yet not only has Reiner completely regained his form here (if he ever lost it), I actually prefer Flipped to Stand By Me. (I like Stand fine, but I think it was a mistake for Wil Wheaton, and not River Phoenix, to have that gun at the end.) I would also rank Flipped with or above the other previous top movies in Reiner's canon, This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Misery, The Princess Bride and even When Harry Met Sally. I'd be surprised if, despite those sophisticated pans, he wasn't very, very proud of it. And he should be.
Flipped is based on the 2001 teen novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, a longtime schoolteacher and mother, and someone who obviously understands kids from ground zero, with depth and sympathy. She's arranged the novel, ingeniously, as the two-sided story of a longtime schoolgirl crush. In the beginning, live-wire second-grader Juli Baker (played by the adorable Morgan Lily) rushes across her sunny suburban street to meet her new neighbors, the Loskis, and immediately flips for blond, blue-eyed fellow second-grader Bryce Loski (played at seven by the skittish-looking Ryan Ketzner).
It's one of those golden days, where every detail lingers forever afterward in your memory -- for Juli, but not for Bryce, who immediately tries to ditch her. He gets his escape hatch when his dad Steven (Anthony Edwards), who understands pesky little girls and how annoying they can be, and tells him to go do some chores.
But before Bryce can run to his mother Patsy (Rebecca De Mornay), and hide behind her skirts, the determined Juli races after him, the two kids get tangled up, and they wind up holding hands in wittily romantic slow motion. It's magic for her, embarrassing for him, and an image that hangs over the entire movie, until the very last shot.
From then on, we get the saga of Juli and Bryce from two sides -- in alternating chapters, one told by the seemingly exasperated Bryce, the next by the seemingly indefatigable Juli. Soon we jump ahead, to the eighth grade, in 1963, where most of the story takes place.
In the movie, the kids are played as eighth-graders by two splendid young actors, Callan McAuliffe and Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote). These two are both so good, so wonderfully unaffected and so completely into their roles, that you can pay them the ultimate actor compliment: You never see or feel the players as separate from their characters. I think Madeline Carroll will always be thought of, and treasured, as Juli Baker, and that McAuliffe will likewise always be remembered as Bryce Loski. These youthful actors both give us everything we or Reiner could have wanted in these roles, all the subtlety and undercurrents and emotion, as does the rest of his astutely picked and beautifully controlled ensemble.
Carroll and McAuliffe score in their edgy scenes together and apart and also in the confidingly intimate voice-over narrations, where they speak their mind and tell us what they think and feel. That narrative device has also been wittily knocked, though, of course, it comes right out of the novel. Juli and Bryce's narrations are funny, and kiddishly candid and revealing, and they tell us more about the kids, and about their families than the speakers themselves may fully understand as they speak.
They're no natural couple. There's a schism of temperament between them, and a class split as well.
The Bakers are blue collar, the Loskis white collar. Juli is a little dynamo, who wins science contests and is a brain and a crusader. She tends chickens and sells the eggs, hates the snobby little flirts and phonies in her class, like her big-hair nemesis, Sherry Stalls (Ashley Taylor), and adores her hard-working father, Richard (Aidan Quinn), who paints landscapes on the side; her mom Trina (Penelope Ann Miller); and her high-school-age brothers Mark and Matt (Michael Bolten and Shane Harper.)
Juli gets to know, only later, the other family member, her Uncle Daniel (Kevin Weisman), whose partial strangling at birth by his umbilical cord left him mentally challenged and institutionalized, and whose health care bill keeps the whole family financially strapped.
Bryce, on the other hand, is something of a little suburban prince, with a more divided family. Smart but nowhere near as active and accomplished as Juli, he rejects her partly because his snobbish, acid-tongued dad, Steven (a role nailed by Anthony Edwards), looks down so snidely and dismissively on the Baker family and their messy yard (a weedy tangle because the Bakers' landlord never maintains it and Richard lacks the time). Bryce's mother Patsy (Rebecca De Mornay) and his sister Lynetta (Cody Horn) are, in a way, princesses, too, but more likable, earthier ones. They're basically on Juli's side -- as is her strongest ally, Grandpa Chet (John Mahoney, good as always), who calls Juli "iridescent" and says she reminds him of his late wife, Patsy's mother. (Just as strongly, by the way, she reminds me of my own mother, Edna.)
Bryce, we eventually realize, really does like Juli, even if he can't admit it. Maybe he would be her friend without prodding, if he had the guts (grade-school girls and boys of that era almost never mixed) and if he wasn't so destructively influenced by his mean dad. And Bryce's scathing papa's venomous prejudices become more understandable after it's revealed that Steven was a would be musician in his youth (a rock saxophonist in the movie, a guitarist in the book) who sacrificed his big dreams, hates his job, and wishes ill to anyone who has aspirations like the ones he tossed away. Bryce's worst instincts are also enhanced by his wannabe-rich-kid rat of a best friend, Garrett (Israel Broussard), a social bully and back-stabbing opportunist of the slimiest kind.
Now, you'll see from this description that Flipped definitely has its dark and unsentimental, realistic side, that it's no sunshiny Leave It to Beaver descendant. (It's worth remembering though, as we now mostly don't, that the TV Beaver was initially hailed by critics as a more naturalistic, sophisticated innovation in family TV comedies. And back then, it was.)
So, in Flipped, the incidents that drive the story forward are full of symbolic power, genuine conflict, strong themes and real emotion. This is a funny, charming movie about teen romance, but it's also about bigotry and blasted dreams, social divisions and family tragedy. It's about never giving up and about finally, morally growing up and becoming a person.
The characters resonate and so do the big scenes. Young Juli's neighborhood haven is a huge, gnarled old sycamore tree, from whose upper branches she dreamily watches the world below. When it's finally slated for chopping down and removal, she tries to organize a town protest, even tries to enlist Bryce in her tree-in, but the embarrassed Bryce won't join -- though that article about Juli's crusade is what draws Grandpa Chet to her, and finally intrigues Bryce as well.
There's an achingly real and painful sequence where Juli, who's been selling eggs from her chickens to neighborhood ladies and giving them free every morning to Bryce, finally catches him sneakily throwing them away. There's the marvelously strained and falsely convivial two-family Baker-Loski supper that Patsy organizes, where, afterwards, we finally see what a tormented bastard Steven really is.
All these episodes take on heightened significance, as we observe them through Bryce's eyes, then Julie's. Far from being hackneyed TV sitcom-style stuff, the whole movie is smartly designed and deftly constructed, full of passion, intelligence and wit. And full of a humanity rare for most movies these days. Flipped only seems like a sitcom if you're not watching it closely.
That's why it's so right, so apropos, so flawlessly judged, that Reiner decided to re-set the story from (roughly) the present day to a span from 1957 to 1963, and to embellish the soundtrack with a Scorsesean medley of early '60s rock 'n' roll hits and oldies, starting with Curtis Lee's bouncy "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" (as a fitting anthem for Juli), and ending, devastatingly, with The Everly Brothers' (or at least Phil's) soulful, heart-breaking 'Let It Be Me." (Flipped, like Stand By Me, has the perfect last image and the perfect song playing over it.)
All these songs, juke box gems from the onset of the rock era, obviously mean something precious to Reiner. (They were, after all, the hits and dance songs of his youth.) And they'll carry a charge to most of the audience as well, including most of the post-Boomer audience who know them only from revivals. There's an added boost from the period setting. Putting crusader/activist Juli and her eventual convert Bryce right on the cusp of the '60s means we know they'll go through the late civil rights and Vietnam years together -- and we know which side they'll be on.
That isn't necessarily true of the book. Author Van Draanen sets her Flipped in the present day. (It was published in 2001.) And one of the few cultural details she uses is to make Grandpa Chet a reader of novelist Tom (Patriot Games) Clancy. I hated that, not only because Clancy, a Cold War mega-thriller specialist and right-wing trashmeister, seems to me such an overrated, overbought writer (Clancy's Red Storm Rising is the worst-written long book I ever read all the way through), but because a taste for Clancy doesn't jibe with Chet's more liberal, open personality.
Van Draanen's book is rich in details and insights into youth behavior, and she's great at character and narrative. But Reiner and his collaborators and his marvelous cast have made it warmer, more deeply touching. Flipped the book would never have made me cry, though maybe Van Draanen doesn't want tears.
Now I'll tell you part of why the movie made my tears flow. (Part of the reason anyway.) It's because something in it reminded me of my own childhood, though nothing that I'm proud of.
When I was in the third grade, my mother Edna -- the woman of whom Juli reminded me so much -- began telling me about a family up the street whom she liked and who had a little girl named Caroline, who was about my age, was very smart and took care of some chickens, ducks and other farm animals that the family owned and kept nearby. Edna eventually brought me to meet the family, the animals, and Caroline, who had big eyes and a wide, blazing smile. She was very active and, as Edna said, very bright.
Caroline was a little older than me, and she was sort of temporarily gangly and, for the moment, very tall, as "little girls" sometimes are at that age -- a gawkiness they can grow out of spectacularly. She seemed delighted to have a friend near her age whom she could talk to and play with and show her animals. But I got worried that my classmates would think she was my girlfriend, and tease and laugh at us, if we were seen together too much. So I blew up one day in our house, and, with Caroline there, began storming childishly about how she looked, how she dressed, how tall she was. "Look at her dress! Look at her clothes!" I yelled, like a callous little idiot.
I cannot tell you how much I hate myself when I look back on that day, or when I remember Caroline sitting in a chair in our garage apartment, the big smile suddenly gone from her face. How still she was. How sad she was. I've replayed that scene and wished a hundred times I could go back in time and shake that little jerk, me, by the shoulders and yell and slap some humanity into him.
I didn't even have the excuse of arrogant social class or a bad, snobbish father, like Bryce did. My father was a snob, but my parents were divorced and he wasn't around. My mother and grandparents were maybe poorer than the Barkers. Somehow, I'd picked up that stupid prejudice and cruelty all by myself or from school friends -- a bigotry about looks and dress and apparent social class endemic in our culture and pop culture, and fed to us relentlessly, both then and now.
Poor Caroline. She'd done absolutely nothing to deserve my meanness, any more than Juli did in Flipped, or than Flipped has done to its acid-tongued critic/bashers. My mother made me apologize of course. Edna was embarrassed and hurt too, because in some way, I think she saw some of herself in Caroline and wanted me to like her. But I'd busted things badly; I didn't have time to set them right.
Caroline's family left town shortly afterwards. I never saw her again. But, incredibly, she left me a present before they left. She gave me her two ducks -- whom I named Charles Jonathan Duckworth and Janice Elizabeth Duckworth. For years, I fed those ducks and took care of them and walked with them, both quacking, up the street toward Caroline's old house, until one day, much later, Charles flew away.
I remember Caroline's eyes to this day. And her smile. I remember them far more clearly than I do the sparkling eyes and flirty smiles of all the cute little girls, like Flipped's Sherry Stalls, that I thought were so pretty at the time. But I remember her sudden sadness and stillness that day too. Over the years, every time I recall the day that I behaved like such a worthless little jerk and lost my friend, I dislike my old young self more, and wish more fervently I could wipe it all out, do something to bring back her smile, even for a second.
But how can you? Children can be very cruel. And cruelty uncorrected can blight your life.
I hope Caroline was very, very happy all her life, and didn't have any more disappointing friends like me. And I hope she doesn't have too hurtful a memory of the nasty little boy I was that day.
That's one of the reasons I think Flipped is a great movie. ("I bless the day I found you; I want to stay around you....") And it's why I'd like people to try to ignore the negative comments it's gotten, however persuasive they may seem, and to give it a chance. Don't treat it like Rob Reiner's folly, or like his been-there-done-that Stand By Me knockoff, because it isn't. It's really his pride and joy, one of the movies he'll be remembered for. Treat this sweet, brave, funny, charming, beautiful little picture like a potential treasure, a potential friend -- like the little girl (or boy) who keeps knocking at your door and smiling and saying "Hi!" and who may have more to offer than you can possibly imagine.
Modern Times (A)
U.S.; Charles Chaplin, 1936, Criterion Collection
Last week, to my delight, I saw and then reviewed all of Charlie Chaplin's extant Keystone short comedies, including his first appearances as the Tramp, or Little Fellow, in the 1914 films Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. and Mabel's Strange Predicament.
This week, with more delight, and a little sadness, I got to see (again) and review Modern Times, the last 1936 appearance of The Tramp.
But do I really have to recommend or defend this marvelous tale of the little fellow caught in the machinery of the Great Depression? Of that impish human cog Charlie in that Metropolis factory, dancing on the assembly line, lost in the huge gears or trapped in an out-of-control feeding machine? Of the beautiful gamin, played by Charlie's then-lover Paulette Goddard, dancing in the street, and waiting, wreathed with smiles, for him to emerge from jail, where he was falsely convicted as a radical activist and accidentally dosed with cocaine?
Or of Chaplin's buoyant score, orchestrated by the young David Raksin (Laura), featuring Chaplin's signature song/melody "Smile"? Of the incredible department store cliffhanger roller-skating scene, where virtuoso skater Charlie, blindfolded, keeps swooping to the edge of a one-story drop-down, whirling at the last second and skating back? (Confession: It's done with mirrors.) Of the wonderful nonsense song with nonsense "Frenchy" lyrics, with which Charlie brings down the house? Of that last beautiful, beautiful shot, where the Tramp and the Gamin, almost busted again, are again on the run, and (for Charlie, the last of many times on screen) they walk down the road together?
If you've never seen Modern Times, I envy you this chance. The rest of us will just have to watch it again, for the umpty-umph time. (Extras: classic 1916 Chaplin short comedy, The Rink; the recently rediscovered, wonderfully off-the-cuff 1933 home movie All at Sea, mostly directed by Chaplin with the young camera bug Alistair Cooke, starring Chaplin, Cooke and Paulette Goddard, with a new Donald Sosin score; interview with Cooke's daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge; 1967 documentary For the First Time; Chaplin Today: Modern Times, with the Belgian filmmaking Dardenne Brothers, an excellent commentary by eminent Chaplin biographer David Robinson; visual essays and featurettes; interview with composer David Raksin; outtakes; trailers.
U.S.; Sam Raimi, 2002, Sony, Blu-ray
Spider-Man 2 (A)
U.S.; Sam Raimi, 2004, Sony, Blu-ray
The first two episodes of what many aficionados tend to regard as the best of all superhero comic movie series: Sony and Marvel's smashingly exciting, surprisingly emotional adaptation of Stan Lee's comic book masterpiece. Here, sumptuously produced, is the continued tale of angst-ridden teen turned journalist Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his alter-ego, the web-slinging, skyscraper-scaling, supervillain-bashing, super-costumed Spidey and his friends and enemies, played by a stellar gallery that includes Kirsten Dunst (M.J.), Rosemary Harris (May), JK Simmons (JJJ), Alfred Molina (Doc Ock), and Willem Dafoe (Goblin).
The first two Spider-Man movies were such smash critical hits (Spider-Man 2, co-scripted by Alvin Sargent, has been hailed as the acme of the whole genre), that an inevitable backlash plagued the vulnerable and tearful Spider-Man 3. But some smasheroos deserve their popularity and these are two of them. (Extras: a mother lode.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux (A)
U.S.: Francis Coppola, 1979-2001, Lionsgate.
Once Apocalypse Now Redux was Apocalypse Now -- Francis Coppola's and writer John Milius' grand, mad 1979 Vietnam War epic, inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with Marlon Brando as genius-renegade Colonel Kurtz, who comes face to face with "The Horror! The Horror!" It was the troubled widescreen tale -- shot magnificently by Vittorio Storaro -- of how Kurtz is hunted, slated to be "terminated with extreme prejudice" by Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) and a boatload of Vietnam-era Fordian searchers that included Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, and young Larry Fishburne.
Aiding them along the way, and at its end, were spaced-out war photographer Dennis Hopper and surfer-general Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a crazy golden warrior who "loves the smell of napalm in the morning." Released in 1979, toward the end of one of the greatest, most experimental eras of American big studio moviemaking, it was the most ambitious, reckless, wildly creative production of that entire daring era. It's on a Citizen Kane level of ambition and -- almost -- achievement. That "almost" was yet to come.
Coppola, whose shooting of the movie became an epic in itself (recounted in this set by the splendid 1991 "making of" documentary Heart of Darkness, by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper), had more footage, more scenes, lots of stuff that he didn't use in his 1979 release. And it wasn't because Coppola thought that footage didn't belong. He was afraid, he says, to put in too much stuff (like Heaven's Gate a few years later), and also determined to emphasize the action adventure elements he sensed would save the day and make the publicity-damaged Apocalypse a big hit. He was right. At the time.
So it was not hubris or self-justification, but a real sense of artistic mission, of a job left undone, that drove Coppola to return to his jungle. With the 2001 Redux -- expanding the first release in 1979 from 153 minutes to 197, restoring numerous small scenes and moments, and returning a whole long French plantation sequence with Christian Marquand and Aurore Clement as temporary hosts to Willard and his crew -- Coppola has made something grander, madder, more incredible. I'm not so sure the reconstructed Apocalypse Now Redux doesn't surpass The Godfather Trilogy as Coppola's highest movie achievement. At any rate, it's the Apocalypse he prefers. Me too. Everyone who loves movies should have this set. (Extras: commentaries by Coppola; featurettes; lost or deleted scenes; Brando's complete reading of T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men.)