Ashley

Y’know, like the Marx Brothers

AshleyThe key to Ashley is not in trying to deduce what it’s about; it’s in reading the film’s puzzling structure.  You have to decide from the outset if you’re going to take everything literally in spite of the dreamlike quality of many of the story’s character-centric vignettes (some of which seem far too convenient and inevitable, especially in the later sections).

The story is led by the titular Ashley (Nicole Fox), a seventeen year-old girl who has experienced an extended depression since the passing of her father.  Despite her age, she’s secure in her sexuality (“I like girls,” she tells a nerdy boy who innocently tries to hold her hand) and apparently in her introversion.  The film takes the form of a few dozen self-contained scenes, most of which involve Ashley being abused in some way – she’s taken advantage of by classmates (both male and female); has the stuffing kicked out of her by a gaggle of mean-girls who discover her preference for girls; her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Madsen) tries to kiss her; a girl she has a crush on (Mallory Moye) breaks her spirit after playing a cruel game with her; the school shrink (Tom Malloy) exhaustively tries to open her up; and worst of all, her own mother, Stacy (Jennifer Taylor), who is dealing with single-parenthood and an uncontrollable temper combined with the fact that her own daughter barely says a word to her, is frequently abusive.  Ashley is into self-mutilation, incorporating it into most facets of her life, even associating it with intimacy.

The characters who interact with Ashley are only allowed, as far as the narrative structure goes, to interact with her, not so much with each other.  This means that Nicole Fox carries every scene in the movie.  Since Ashley has no friends, she frequents dating sites on her laptop (when was the last time we saw cybersex in a movie?), eventually meeting Candice (Nicole Buehrer), a 33 year-old woman who also happens to be very lonely.  For most of the film, we only hear Candice’s voice, making us wonder whether there’s a more sinister motive behind her instant-message sweetness and her phone calls to the much younger Ashley (when was the last time we saw phone sex in a movie?).  But Ashley, for whatever reason – maybe faith alone, since literally everyone else has let her down in some way – trusts her, and they agree to meet.

Why isn’t Nicole Fox a full-time actor?  I realize that a scripted, brainjunk reality show got her to where she is, but let’s make the most of it after this masterful (when was the last time I used that word two posts in a row?) performance.  She defines this film, appears in almost every scene, and probably has fewer lines than Ryan Gosling had in Drive.  Most of her communication is done through facial expressions and the beginnings of words.  Watching her attempt to say “I’m sorry” and struggling to even form words is truly painful.  Where did this performance come from?  Why are so few talking about it?

Jennifer Taylor delivers a great performance as well, although it may be partially wasted on a film that isn’t really about her character.  The scene where she finally attempts to reconcile with Ashley is very difficult, and plays out as pleasantly as it can.  But it’s good payoff.  Michael Madsen briefly appears, still looking and sounding way too much like Mr. Blonde to be able to convince me of much else, but if he, like so many others in this piece, had bigger roles, the fact that he even appears here might not be so glaring.

The ending of the film is where things become a little too convenient.  I like movies that are honest about depression.  I am allergic to contrivance.  One person being nice to you does not yank you out of years of feeling absolutely nothing, does not cure addictions and harmful habits, does not heal all of your relationships and personal problems and allow everyone to understand you.  This is why I use the term “dreamlike” to describe what happens after Ashley’s protracted and very well-acted date with Candice: could Ashley possibly be imagining all of this?  That after all of the failures, abuse, and sheer bottom-of-the-barrelness she must deal with every day, that she pictures herself as a person who people love to talk to, who has a good relationship with her mother and an attractive romantic partner, who has male friends that don’t want to sleep with her, who doesn’t need therapy, etc.?  The film doesn’t do anything to indicate that what’s happening is in fact not real, but if the pacing of the film’s shoehorned denouement were slowed down, I might believe it more.  I also have concerns about the whole “girl has a sexually abusive father, so she becomes a self-loathing lesbo” trope, which is based entirely upon stereotypes about girls that have been perpetuated forever through mediums like this.  This film, and these actors, are better than that (even if the script-writers aren’t), and it would only have taken a minor tightening of the celluloid lug-nuts to fix it.

The takeaway here: stop making movies about depression if you think the depressed person has to become “happy” by the end, or if you think that introverted people secretly want to be extroverted.

Ashley (2013); written by Domenic Migliore; directed by  Dean Ronalds; starring Nicole Fox and Jennifer Taylor.

Much Ado About Nothing

Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons

Amy AckerShakespeare is one of the only writers whose work can be acceptably “interpreted” to fit new adaptations.  One of the more popular ideas about Much Ado About Nothing – among the most effective of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that Beatrice and Benedick are rediscovering an old love as opposed to finding it for the first time.  Joss Whedon plays with this in his new adaptation, which he shot at his own home in Santa Monica in record time.  Much of the great nuance stems from Whedon’s film technique, including his use of black-and-white, which may remind one of the great comedies of old (Shakespeare’s play is unarguably one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy), namely the 1930s.  Finally, a Shakespeare film adaptation by a director that not only understands the text, but also understands the conventions of the film genre in which he works and how employing those conventions might bolster the effectiveness of the movie.

The story follows the original, down to the exact word aside from some interesting shifts – the various songs from the play, sung by characters, are here absorbed into the film’s soundtrack – and Whedon’s inspired choice to switch Conrade’s (Riki Londhome) gender, rendering her the lover of the mostly-offscreen scoundrel Don John (Sean Maher).  This enables some wonderful opportunities in blocking, and also some invention on the part of the filmmakers, which is always important in an adaptation, and usually leads to vicious abuse of the source material.  Not here.

Beatrice and Benedick, the leads, are played warmly and familiarly by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who just might be the new sweethearts of the screen (think Peppy and George, but not quite so forced).  Acker’s Beatrice is steadfast, opinionated, and witty beyond belief.  Denisof’s Benedick is relentlessly hammy, and never misses the mark with his nearly endless quips.  I’d have watched a movie comprised of nothing but these two, but we get much more, namely in Riki Lindhome as the infamously straightforward Conrade, whose facial expressions in the film are as good as any of her lines, and Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry, written by Shakespeare to be the dumbest, most inept character of all time, who inadvertently (along with his underlings) saves the day by revealing Don John’s dastardly plot to frame naive and frustratingly-silent Hero (Jillian Morgese) for an adultery she never committed.  Fillion delivers Shakespeare’s arduously-crafted malapropisms more naturally than anyone I’ve seen in the role (don’t take that the wrong way, Nathan).  Fran Kranz appears as Claudio, the play’s Boring Hero, and delivers most of the film’s straight-played dramatic dialogue more than convincingly.  The role of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon – who functions mostly as Claudio’s drunk friend whose lot in life is to provide bad advice with high-school-level maturity – is taken up by Reed Diamond, who keeps an appropriate presence and doesn’t upstage the less overt Claudio when he isn’t supposed to.  Clark Gregg of The Avengers plays Leonato, governor of Messina, who decides on all of the ridiculous stipulations in the story.

The resulting movie is the best onscreen comedy in years, in a world wherein screwball comedy has lately been defined by lowbrow sex jokes, hit-or-miss improv, and increasingly preposterous situations.  Here is something low key, accessible, cultured, and smart.  Here is something heartfelt, truly funny, and furthermore, relevant – Shakespeare’s poking fun at the incompetent police forces of his day (which at the time were made up of respectable citizens who took up the job for a few nights a year despite being all but completely unqualified to do so) doesn’t quite pinpoint the more serious missteps of our current enforcement, but Dogberry’s ineptitude (not least of which is his famously redundant list of Conrade and Borachio’s felonies) and eventual day-saving suggest that social order and emotional normalcy can and will be restored by sheer providence/circumstance.  It also showcases women in a medium (Renaissance comedy) wherein many folks may not have thought prominent female characters would exist (or at least not as wives and damsels, as they do in much of Shakespeare’s work).  Moreover, all the wit and wordplay still dazzle, right down to the title: “nothing” and “noting” were homonyms when the play was written, and here we have a story in which every character’s emotional stability is upturned due to something that did not actually happen (i.e. “nothing”), and every major turning point in the story is triggered by characters spying and eavesdropping on one another (i.e. “noting”).

May Whedon continue along this road.  This is real superhero work.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013); written and directed by Joss Whedon; adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Riki Lindhome.

Little Birds

Once you know, there ain’t no comin’ back

I would love to see a movie starring Juno Temple’s character from Little Birds, Sarah Bolger’s character from The Moth Diaries, and Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive.  It’d be a fantastic road movie in which they would, in the words of Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winnfield, “walk from place to place, meet people, [and] get into adventures.”  But there would be a roadster and a bike involved.  Don’t ask me who would be the voice of wisdom and save them all from certain destruction.

Little Birds was written and directed by Elgin James, which in retrospect makes some of the supposedly “based upon true life experiences” bits seem simultaneously synthetic and hubristic, but I want to forget about the behind-the-scenes stuff for a minute, because Juno Temple’s and Kay Panabaker’s performances here are really worth the sit.

The story centers around Lily (Juno Temple, the reason I turned the movie on), a depressed fifteen year-old who has gone halfway to killing herself at least twice, once by cutting her thigh.  She lives in a poverty-choked town near the Salton Sea – a highly saline lake in California accidentally created by a flood, leaving wreckage, dead fish, mud volcanoes, and a generally run-down vibe.  Lily, tired of this place and feeling neglected by her mother (Leslie Mann), dreams of running away and going anywhere else.  Her best friend, Alison (Kay Panabaker) hangs at her side, also living a sedentary life near the lake and keeping few (or no) other friends.  Alison lives with her seemingly catatonic dad and helps out on a farm owned by her uncle Hogan (Neal McDonough).  The early scenes of Alison and Lily sharing a one-person bicycle may as well be iconic shots from an exemplary youth-rebellion film, which is saying something, because I believe, to an extent, that these characters (or at least their archetypes) are important.

Lily eventually leaves town with the help of Alison, who steals Hogan’s truck, though Alison goes along with this only because she’s afraid Lily will get herself hurt.  They make their way to Los Angeles and follow a trio of boys they met earlier: Jesse (Kyle Gallner), David (Chris Coy), and Louis (Carlos Pena, Jr.).  Jesse, thinking he’d never see Lily again, made out with her and promised this-and-that if they ever ran into each other in L.A.  The boys reveal themselves to be a group of wastrels, living in an abandoned motel and occasionally robbing people on the street.  The active viewer asks, where are their parents (with the exception of Jesse, who explains his preposterous, albeit convenient to the plot, predicament)?  I don’t know.  How are they all so lean and muscular without workout equipment or money for good food?  Beats me.  How did David, the group’s de facto leader, get hold of a handgun?  Couldn’t tell you.  The scenario is handy because it gives Lily an excuse to hang out with people her age and still be unaccounted for.

One of the film’s themes is inertia.  Early on, McDonough’s Hogan, essentially the film’s wise old soothsayer (which I’m willing to buy, considering the fact that farmers literally predict the future with a good degree of accuracy every year in the Farmer’s Almanac) tells Alison a story about traveling all the way to Bora Bora in his youth for much the same reason Lily wants to escape the Salton Sea.  The one pearl of wisdom he took from his adventures was the fact that “people are dumb and cruel everywhere.  I could have just stayed home.”  Alison also starts to believe that excitement about life may be interior, and that staying in one spot is okay if that’s what makes you happy.  The problem here is that Alison (Panabaker is 22, but I’m guessing Alison is somewhere around 14) doesn’t seem to have any aspirations.  Lily doesn’t know where she wants to go, but at least adventure is in her blood.  Is Alison really fine with riding her bike around a depressed neighborhood for all hours of daylight?  Regardless, the situation with the male trio signifies another form of inertia.  These guys, whom to Lily represent independence, freedom, and adventure, are actually doing nothing.  Less than nothing, in fact.  No family, no job, and not even the urge to drift.  Lily, in the absence of her cramped home life for a few days, convinces herself that she’s “really happy.”  Alison, the more down-to-earth of the two, can see that nothing has changed, and more importantly, that there’s nothing for Lily out here.

The boys come up with a harebrained scheme: use a dating site (which is all but named Craigslist) to lure perverts into a trap and rob them, using Lily as bait.  Angry at Alison and blindly in love with Jesse (which seems ridiculous given their short time onscreen together, but makes sense considering Lily’s sheltered life and lack of romantic experience), Lily agrees to the idea.  It works once, then David gets greedy and books another meeting (in the middle of the night) without Lily’s permission.  When Alison stands up for her best friend, she is kicked out of the group, all of whom have been annoyed with her from the start for being a know-it-all, disagreeing with their violent points of view, and for not wanting to “party.”  Of course, the guy Lily meets next knows he’s walking into a trap, and when he sees that his captors are kids, he beats the hell out of all three boys.  Jesse shows his true colors and abandons Lily.

Next comes something problematic.  There’s an attempted rape, but it’s the Movie type of rape – the kind that occurs (or in this case, almost occurs) with the intention of standing for something else.  The rape scene in both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was horrifying not only because of the event itself and its sense of realism (both of which are horrifying enough), but because it was not used as a symbol or a consequence of the victim’s actions.  Here, we can sense a “loss of innocence” coming, in a very serious and permanent way.  Lily has been rushing her adulthood through the entire film.  Well, the film seems to say, here’s what rushing your coming-of-age gets you.  Really, dude?  Enough with the Big Bad Wolf schtick, and enough babying women.

But Lily gets one more chance.  As Chekhov says it must, the gun finally goes off.  The rapist rolls over, either maimed or dead, and Alison stands there with the smoking pistol.  Her ability to do this is accounted for earlier – she shoots with Hogan on the farm almost every day.  A character detail that not only deepens its character, but actually functions for the story in a satisfying way!  Who would have thought?  Free of the boys and (hopefully) seeing how idiotic all of this was, Lily joins Alison on a trip home, but we don’t see them get there.  We last see them pulling over on a beautiful beach and prancing into the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, reverting to childlike excitement and literally washing themselves of whatever residue remains from the adventure.

Finally, Juno Temple gets an excellent lead role and does what I’ve always known she could do.  Kay Panabaker, previously unknown to me, is also astounding here; both display incredible vulnerability and strength.  The duo make the film worth watching despite the turns in logic and the filmmaker’s attempt to do everything at once – the story touches on suicide, abandonment, and sexuality, but little concerning any of that is revealed or realized.  Also, why is Juno Temple, 23, topless so often in this?  I can guess.

I imagine that the title, Little Birds, refers to the delicacy/vulnerability of young girls and the dangers of temptation.  But as Alison could surely tell you, there are some little birds that don’t buy into the stereotype.  Velociraptor, for instance.

Little Birds (2012); written and directed by Elgin James; starring Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker.

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