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Movie review: People Places Things

This review originally appeared Wednesday on Unseen Films.

Comics are cool and hip, right? Well, maybe not that superhero stuff necessarily, but those “literary” graphic novels that tend to get featured in the New York Times and such. Those and the people who make them are worth writing an indie romantic drama/comedy around, certainly.

I am kidding here, partially — but writer/director James C. Strouse’s generically-titled People Places Things seems to take that conceit. While I give Strouse credit for some of his details, much of the “graphic novelist” elements seem like a cute motif in the larger story. While they add some unique touches, they do little to elevate the movie much beyond where you’d expect it to be.

The extended title sequence features blue-pencil comic art illustrating how graphic novelist Will Henry (Jemaine Clement, better known as half of Flight of the Conchords) met his current partner and mother of their twins, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne). As openings go, it’s intriguing but not necessarily insightful. Artist Gray Williams, who provided the art, illustrates these scenes in a typical indie comics way (think Adrian Tomine) — clean and a bit cute. It does little to tell us anything about who Will and Charlie are, however.

We first meet them in the flesh at their twins’ birthday party. Will catches Charlie cheating on him with “off-Broadway monologist” Gary (Michael Chernus). It’s an abrupt introduction to these characters — especially to Charlie — and sets up the meandering tone the movie often has.

When the story picks up a year later, Will is in bad shape, drifting through weekends with his (admittedly adorable) twin daughters (played by sisters Gia and Aundrea Gadsby) and the class he teaches on cartooning at School of Visual Arts. When a student, Kat (the amazing Jessica Williams) sets him up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall),Will begins to question the direction of his life is taking. Or something. I think that’s what we’re supposed to think.

While Will should be an oblivious manchild, Clement brings such sweetness, wit and charm to the role it’s hard not to root for him. His initial scenes with Diane have a playful antagonism that show someone who’s smart but cautious with who he lets in. Even though the movie does have a few non-surprising scenes, like where Will fails to get his daughters to school on time — his gentle but deep love toward his girls is honest and heartfelt. Will is not without his faults but he’s man who is trying to do the best he can for his daughters and himself.

And that’s really the major flaw of the movie — as appealing of a leading man as Clement makes (and no doubt, he’s already a star, but he’s wonderful in this), Will has no real journey. And the major issue is with the character of Charlie.

While some of Charlie’s fears and complaints are understandable — she gave up her own ambitions for Will’s career and after becoming a mother — her character is written in a shrill, unlikable way (and introducing her while she’s cheating on the father of her daughters does her no favors). Allynne does what she can with the role, but Charlie feels unfortunately selfish and flightly because the movie requires her to be. I never really felt like I understood her motivations of what Will saw in her, other than they shared a history. (It doesn’t help that Clement and Allynne have little chemistry.)

But let’s get back to the comics stuff, which is what interested me in this movie in the first place.

While Will’s career as a graphic novelist is somewhat integral to the plot, it also too much like window-dressing. Will could’ve been any sort of artist — a writer, a musician, an actor. The “comics” aspect does come across way too much as a bid for hipness, especially when it comes to a somewhat forced conversation about the relevance of comics as American literature with Diane. I have fears that “graphic novelist” will quickly become the creative occupation of choice for protagonists of indie movies.

The movie does get some comic things right, though — Will teaches as SVA and certainly, many comic artists do. I’m not particularly sure why we’re supposed to look down on Will for living in Astoria (I know people who make comics who live there happily) and I kind of want to complain there aren’t enough women in Will’s class (although the bit about a male student sharing his comic about learning to masturbate felt pretty on-point, complete with Will’s eye-rolling exhaustion about it).

The shining star in this movie is Kat (and if there’s any justice in the world, Jessica Williams will be a huge star). She’s a 19-year-old black woman who wants to make comics and hangs out (or works — it’s not entirely clear) in a poorly-disguised Bergen Street Comics. She’s working on a comic with her life with her mother (and the men her mother dates) and from what we see of it, it’s pretty awesome. Will recognizes it’s awesome too, and he shares his work-in-progress with Kat. They have an intriguing, complicated relationship that feels built on mutual respect rather than romance, In fact, when Will misreads Kat’s intentions initially, she shuts him down so fast. It’s refreshing to a younger woman and an older man connect on a level that’s not sexual at all.

I loved that the movie recognized that it’s young women who are the future of comics, and choose to represent this with a woman of color. There was not nearly enough of Kat in this movie.

If you watch the trailer, you’ll know what to expect with People Places Things. It’s by no means a bad movie, but it’s slight and “cute” is probably the strongest word you can come up with for it. It’s definitely cute. It’s definitely a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes. But sadly, the more interesting elements get lost in movie that decides to hit the most obvious beats that the appealing cast can’t overcome. There is a good movie about these characters (especially about Will and Kat) but this movie just isn’t it.

(People Places Things is in theaters and on Video On Demand starting Aug. 14.)

Movie Review: We Are the Best!


We first meet Bobo, sitting sullenly in the corner of her mom’s rambunctious 40th birthday party. Awkward and androgynous, she’s appealing and out of place. This is not a a world she wants to be a part of, but you immediately want to be a part of hers.

It’s 1982 in Sweden and everyone keeps telling Bobo that “punk is dead.” Bobo knows different. Punk isn’t a genre of music. It’s a feeling you have in your heart.

Lucas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, based on his wife’s, Coco Moodysson, semi-autobiographical comic, Never Goodnight, is the punk-rock movie you didn’t know you wanted but absolutely needed. It’s one of the few movies that gives absolutely respect to the inner life of girls. There is nothing here that makes fun of them. They are treated as the absolute forces of nature that they are.

The reserved Bobo and her more antagonistic friend, Klara, decide to form a band on whim — mostly to show up a few jerky teenage boys that made fun of them. Despite not being able to play instruments (or know anything about music), they decide to write a song about how much they hate gym class. In the process, they befriend the talented but conservative Hedvig.
The three girls’ friendship is at the core of the movie. They are all open and sweet, and the three young actresses (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) bring a natural quality to their roles. Some scenes feel improvised and the chemistry between the three is a delight. Even when they come into conflict over boys (stupid boys!), it is such a minor part of their journey. The band is the most important thing! It’s so refreshing to see a movie that celebrates female friendship in such a way.
There is sweetness at the core of this movie — all three girls come from loving families. While Bobo’s parents are separated, they both still care about her. Klara’s family is wild but supportive and while Hedvig’s family is presented as being a bit more uptight, her mother just has her best interests at heart. The lack of conflict grounds the movie. The girls don’t really have much to rebel against, no, but that makes them feel real and honest. Maybe there are bigger problems than gym teachers, but these girls are fighting against what they know to fight against. I’d be excited to catch up with them in a few years.
This is a kind-hearted movie that shows the power of girls to change their worlds. I am not 13 but I still want to go start a band now. It’s never too late to be a punk.
This review was originally written for and posted at Unseen Films.

Saturday Night Comic Book Movie Double Feature: British Edition

I know there are more British movies based on comics than just these two (some of which I’ve already covered, though), but mostly, I just decided it was funny to pair these two together.

Tamara DreweTamara Drewe (2010)

Stephen Frears’ Tamara Drewe is based on Posy Simmonds’ serialized graphic novel of the same name, and while it’s been a while since I’ve read it, it has the same mood that I remember. It’s full of mostly unlikable but sympathetic characters.

Gemma Atherton as Tamara herself, at least for me, is the easiest for me to relate to. She’s a late bloomer who finds her power and sexuality later and is happy to use it to her advantage. But she also gets angry (justifiably!) when people underestimate her. She’s a troublemaker but she’s earned it.

But all of the characters are imperfect and fun to watch — the cast of this movie is amazing. I especially loved Tamsin Greig’s Beth (but then, Black Books forever!). These are all complicated, troubled people. While their choices aren’t always good ones (or almost, never good ones), they understandable within the context.

The overall plot is meandering and dramatic and mostly deals with the intricate relationships between people. Last-minute drama both feels out of place and appropriate.

Unless you knew the source material (and Simmonds did base her book on Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd), there’s not much here that would indicate this started its life as comic. Frears’ direction is open and honest, and the cinematography, with its lovely, lushcolors, points to a larger feeling and mood. It’s maybe a bit longer than it needs to be and absolutely begins to drag toward the end (I think cutting Simmonds’ book down to the essentials would’ve served this movie more) but still entertaining and a delight.

The comic and the movie seem to compliment each other, though, while being their own things. They make good companions but it’s OK to consume one without the other.

However, I want to see more Simmonds material adapted to film (I know Gemma Bovery is in the works, or was). She has a unique and powerful voice and a good sense of people and storytelling. Her work is uniquely suited to film and she absolutely deserves it.

DreddDredd (2012)

I put an impromptu call out for comics based on British comics and I said “that weren’t the Dredd movies.”

But you know, you take what you can get. And many people I trust responded with “It’s good!” So I decided to watch Peter Travis’ Dredd.

I am a huge fan of dystopian fiction, but I’ve never read the Judge Dredd comics. But regardless, I really loved this more than I expected.

Everything is smoggy and daylit — different from the neon cities of Blade Runner and does provide a great modern update. Most of the movie takes place in the interior of an apartment building, giving it a great “haunted house movie” kind of feel.

We never actually get to know Dredd (Karl Urban), but who cares? The movie is more about the young Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) and evil Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). I adore how the rape threat is brought up but minimized (and Ma-Ma shuts it down when she can) and there’s no romance tossed in. The women in this movie are allowed to be who they are. These women are given intelligence and agency in a movie where they didn’t need to be. That’s pretty awesome.

It’s a super stylish and while it has some of that turquoise/orange thing, it’s dirtier and weirder. it’s immediately about this world. It’s not as gory as it could be, thankfully — there’s some blood, but the movie never dwells on it. It’s still a big dumb action movie, but a surprising and satisfying one.

It’s a movie that’s smarter than you expect while still fulfilling the parts that want a dumb action movie. It’s not intelligent cinema, but it’s more fun than expected. It defies clichés and delivers. I think more people need to watch it.

Saturday Night Comic Book Movie Double Feature: Girl Power! Edition

Yeah, I know it’s been a while, but I’ve come to realize I’m running low on obscure comic-related movies available through streaming services to watch for this thing. Or at least ones that make neat pairs. (And sure, I could watch Thor or whatever, but what is the challenge in that?)

Neither of the comics that these two movies are based on are exactly “comic books” but close enough for me. Neither of them are what I’d call “good” either, but they’re both pretty much fun. This is not a Near Miss post, but it’s also because I was in that kind of mood.

My Name is ModestyMy Name is Modesty (2003)

Yes, there have been two other adaptations of Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway’s Modesty Blaise — a movie in 1966 and a TV pilot in 1982. People just keep trying with this property and failing. Which is kind of baffling since it’s such rich source material.

This one doesn’t work much better. It went straight to video. Even with “Quentin Tarantino Presents” before the title, it’s probably not something that anyone would bother with, unless they were interested in Modesty Blaise. It feels a lot like a TV pilot (and, more or less, has the production values of one).

Alexandra Staden as Modesty does bring smarts and glamor to the role. She’s believable as someone who’d hold her own against thugs both physically and mentally (Staden is tall and thin, so the physical part isn’t necessarily the most realistic, but she does a good job of selling it). She and lead baddie Miklos (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who apparently is on Game of Thrones for those of who you care) do have a surprising chemistry.

Still, the movie is pretty static — most of the plot takes place inside of a casino, with flashbacks as Modesty narrates her history. It’s an origin story of the worst kind. There was no attempt to seamlessly integrate these scenes. Even at less than 80 minutes, it feels padded.

It does have a good amount of stylishness and playfulness, though. The lack of budget is obvious, but the filmmakers used limited sets and costume changes to good effect. The action is entertaining enough, and both the leads are fun to watch. There are worse ways to spend a little bit more than an hour, as long as you don’t go into it expecting too much.

(And I would’ve loved to have seen a Modesty Blaise TV series starring Staden. That’s also not the DVD art that is everywhere, but that promises much more than the movie delivers.)

St. Trinian'sSt. Trinian’s (2007)

Things this movie has: Rupert Everett in drag (because of course!); Gemma Atherton as a sexpot student; Russell Brand, as you know, Russell Brand; Colin Firth (because of course!); a pair of blonde twins that like blowing stuff up; makeover montages (because of course!); and ridiculous heist scenes! Oh, and Stephen Fry shows up.

This is a zany, kinetic, incredibly silly piece of film. Is it good? Well, a movie like this is beyond good and bad. It’s entertainment and sometimes that’s all you need.

St. Trinian’s follows the rather long tradition of films based on the work of Ronald Searle. It’s a pretty loose adaptation, but I think it’s fair to the spirit of his work.

Our lead, Annabelle Fritton (played by Talulah Riley) starts out as the typical nerdy girl out of her depth before the St. Trinian’s students decide to make her one of their own. Despite her makeover, this doesn’t follow the typical “misfit is made over into a popular beauty queen” mode of a lot of teen movies. Rather, if anything, they take relatively normal Annabelle and turn her into more of a misfit.

The plot is the usual “we have to save our school!” nonsense, but involves selling liquor they manufacture on school grounds and stealing a painting to sell on the black market. But the plot is almost secondary to the setpieces — it’s fairly episodic as they go from pranks to deranged field hockey games to cheating on quiz shows.

The result is actually surprise — it’s all ridiculous, sure, but it’s delightful to watch these girls behave badly and get away with it. They’re not like the heroines of most teen movies and that’s part of what makes this movie great. They may not be initially likeable, but you’re rooting for them by the end.

(There is also a sequel. But do we have it in the U.S.? Of course not.)

Movie Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

In Luc Besson’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010), our heroine, played by Louise Bourgoin, spends a good portion of her time sighing in exasperation. You see, Adèle absolutely does not have time for everyone’s stupidity (and, clearly, there are many stupid people around her). She has very important things to take care of and doesn’t need anything standing in her way.

Based on Jacques Tardi’s comic series of the same name, this movie is absolutely ridiculous and charming. I did not expect to have this much fun.

Adèle is a 25-year-old journalist/novelist from early 20th century France who travels the world in pursuit of stories. Allegedly. She’s more in pursuit of her own ends — currently, a mummy of an ancient Egyptian doctor who should provide the key to saving her catatonic sister. Back in Paris, there’s some trouble with a professor who can revive the dead and a pterodactyl. I really hope, at this point, you are thinking “This sounds like the best movie ever.” It’s not quite that, no, but it’s delightful all the same.

When you get down to it, the plot doesn’t make that much sense. It pulls from both “Adèle and the Beast” (or “Pterror Over Paris” as it’s called in the Fantagraphics edition) and “Mummies on Parade” although with liberties. While Adèle’s motivation to save her sister is definitely heartfelt, it’s more of just a plot device to put her in crazy situations.

Most of the fun is watching Bourgoin. This movie is firmly on her shoulders and she’s clearly enjoying herself. While she’s absolutely gorgeous, she also doesn’t seem to mind looking silly on occasion (Adèle dons various costumes in several failed attempts to break someone out of jail). She easily transitions from high comedy to quieter moments. She’s charismatic and playful in the role.

The special effects look fairly cheesy — despite being computer generated, they have a stop-motion look, but it works for the sort of movie this is. Other than some brief, non-titillating nudity when Adèle takes a bath and an off-screen decapitation, this could almost be a kid’s movie (and honestly, no worse — and in some ways, more tame — than Raiders of the Lost Arc, for example). I doubt the costumes or sets are overly authentic, but they’re beautiful and do go far in creating the world this story takes place.

I also really appreciated there was no tacked-on romance. While Andrej (Nicolas Giraud) has a sweet, harmless obsession with her and does prove to be helpful, Adèle isn’t interested, mostly because she has better things to do at the time. That was refreshing.

This is supposed to the be the first of a trilogy, but we’ll see. The ending is either cruel or open-ended on that account, but I’m not worried about Adèle’s ability to get out of whatever situation she finds herself in. She’s a smart, resourceful and clever woman. I have the comics but I wouldn’t mind seeing more of her on screen.

(This seems to be out everywhere except for the U.S. … but if you’re resourceful, you can find it pretty easily and cheaply. And legally.)