The Diary of a Teenage Girl

August 28, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig
Directed by: Marielle Heller (debut)
Written by: Marielle Heller (debut)

In 1970’s San Francisco 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) finds herself going through a sexual awakening. Documenting her experiences on a tape player, Minnie finds herself in an affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Through her experiences, Minnie sets on a mission to find out who she is as a person and as a women in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”

The subdued performance of lead actress Powley is almost to a fault, creating some shaky acting bits and shoddy narration that never truly works. Part of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” takes place through animations, largely from the mind of its main character, an aspiring cartoonist. Generally speaking, live-action blended with animation is a bit of a hit or miss proposition and it doesn’t work very well here. Rather than being an enhancing look and providing depth and insight to the character, the animations feel ill fitting and distracting. The entire plotline of being a cartoonist, in fact, spawns from a single throwaway scene that’s sole purpose is to give the character an eccentric hobby and a new plot device.

If director Marielle Heller wanted audiences to be uncomfortable or feel like the central relationship in the film was wrong on a level, it isn’t something that is conveyed with any strength. In fact, many of the sex scenes, if not all of them, are shot in ways that are meant to titillate. Does she want this to be a normal sexual awakening with little consequence? It is likely that this sort of cognitive dissonance was purposeful, but it’s difficult to shake the moral gray area that “Teenage Girl” spends most of its time in, especially given the age of its protagonist.

Moral ambiguity aside, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is the type of independent film that feels like it is trying far too hard to be quirky and different. Its nonchalant attitude and subdued tone make for a slow driving narrative that lacks any real substance. As a coming-of-age film, it certainly doesn’t resonate with any real meaning or hit the ever-important nostalgia area. At times, there are underlying themes of not only female empowerment, but also the lessons learned by a teen trying to grow up too fast. While the latter hits successfully a few times, the former has its legs taken out too many times and makes for an experience that is frequently grating and wholly unsatisfying.

Brit Marling & Alexander Skarsgård – The East

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

In Zal Batmanglij’s thriller “The East,” actress Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) plays Sarah Moss, a covert operative for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates an anarchist group known as The East that uses extreme means to hold corporations accountable for their shady practices. Actor Alexander Skarsgård (“What Maisie Knew”) plays Benji, the group’s charming leader who allows Sarah to join the collective and help them carry out their eye-for-an-eye tactics.

During interviews with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Marling and Skarsgård discussed why a film like “The East” will resonate with today’s audience and whether doing something illegal for the greater good is a justifiable act.

Brit, tell us about the adventure you and director Zal Batmanglij had living out a vagabond lifestyle.

Brit Marling: This was a couple of years ago. Zal and I were looking for adventure and trying to figure out how we wanted to live our lives. We were very interested in the freegan movement and what would later be known as Occupy Wall Street. Back then, it was all still a grey area. We spent some time traveling and met a lot of really cool people and were really moved by them and what they were doing. I learned how to pick locks and dumpster dive and train hop. A couple years later, we really couldn’t shake that experience, so we wrote [“The East”] and got to make a movie out of it.

Issues like the BP oil spill and Occupy Wall Street really aren’t the headlines in the news anymore, but were you hopeful a film like this would still resonate with an audience because some of the other topics you cover in the film are so timely?

BM: Yeah, I think oddly enough the film has become more prescient. The film is talking about how far someone would go in fighting for a cause. There is a lot to fight for right now. The environment is totally falling apart. There seems to be a rise in general mental un-wellness. Everybody’s on a pharmaceutical of some kind. All of the things Occupy Wall Street was protesting were still a problem. Nothing has been fixed, actually. People start consuming again and things move on. The East is like, “Fuck that shit! We’re going to hold people accountable.” I think it’s very pressing.

Alex, do you think dialogue is enough? I mean, Occupy movements happen and people talk and educate one another, but we go back to doing the same things after everything is said and done. Your character Benji doesn’t think it’s enough.

Alexander Skarsgard: Well, what makes Benji, my character, upset are that these big corporations have so much money and so much power and all these lobbyists. They basically control Washington. They’re never held accountable for what they do. He feels like it’s not fair and he wants to hold people accountable and wake them up and make them realize what they’re doing. What I found so intriguing about this script was that it’s such a complicated question. I didn’t know where I stood when I read it and I didn’t know where Brit and Zal stood. It was complicated. Benji has always held an eye-for-an-eye philosophy, but he questions himself when Sarah shows up because she’s tough and asks uncomfortable questions. I always hate movies where it feels the filmmakers are trying to shove his or her opinions down my throat. It’s always more interesting when the film makes you think and question things. How far are you willing to go? If you can save 10,000 people is it OK to kill someone? What is justifiable?

Some people might compare your character to the cult leader John Hawkes plays in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but I though his character ruled the roost through fear. I didn’t see that in your character.

Yeah, he says that very early on. He is very adamant that he doesn’t have any followers. Everyone had equal value. He is very much against the idea that Sarah is going to come on board. But [the group] votes and he accepts that. So, it’s a real democracy.

Brit, how prevalent do you think these types of organizations are out there?

I definitely think they are out there. I think they are growing in numbers. I think they are incredibly brave groups of people. I think a lot of us share the same feelings and sense of politics, but we don’t live them as radically. I mean, I understand the conflict of where gas comes from to put in my car to get to the grocery store. I know the real price of that gasoline isn’t the price I pay at the pump. A lot of people die for that. There are a lot of those thinly disguised things going on that we choose not to look at in order to live our lives in the way we do. I think a lot of people are wrestling with the question of what the end game of that will look like. Is it getting to a place where it’s all going to fall apart?

The East

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”)
Written by: Zal Batmanglij (“The Sound of My Voice”) and Brit Marling (“Another Earth”)

If you’ve ever wanted to live off the grid – just disappear one day and survive by adopting an anti-consumerist lifestyle – take a look at director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”) and actress/co-writer Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) who did exactly that in the Summer of 2009. They’re little adventure together (dumpster diving and hopping trains) would later inspire them to write the screenplay for “The East,” a high-intensity espionage thriller with an eco-friendly message of sorts. While “The East” only scratches the surface of its eco-agenda, it manages to draw some blood when it matters.

Marling stars as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent turned private intelligence operative who is assigned to a little covert work by her boss (Patricia Clarkson) to protect the companies their firm represents. There’s an anarchist collective known as the East starting trouble for their clients and it’s up to Sarah to find the individuals responsible and infiltrate their group to gather information.

While the script allows Sarah to find who she is looking for a bit too easily, it’s when anarchist members start to trust her that the drama begins to boil over. Included in the group is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), a charismatic and enigmatic group leader who allows Sarah (now calling herself Jane as part of her undercover mission) into their lair, much to the dismay of Izzy (Ellen Page), a longtime eco-terrorist who trusts no one.

Nevertheless, Sarah is able to weasel her way in and uncover what the East is doing. For example, early in the film the group holds a big oil company’s CEO responsible for spilling millions of gallons of crude into the ocean (think BP oil disaster of 2006) responsible by flooding his home with petroleum. It’s through these “jams” (attacks that are a bit more thought-provoking than, say, what Project Mayhem does in “Fight Club”) where the East is trying to make a social statement.

What Batmanglij does with “The East,” however, isn’t making any broad declarations about the state of America and what we as a country are allowing to happen by turning our backs on certain problems. Batmanglij points many of them out, but gives his audience a chance to figure it out for themselves. Can the East justify their actions because they’re doing it for the greater good? We may not get the answers were looking for but Batmanglij and Marling find fascinating ways to ask tough questions about issues that are many times swept under the rug.

“The East” was screened at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

What Maisie Knew

May 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile
Directed by: Scott McGehee (“Bee Season”) and David Siegel (“Bee Season”)
Written by: Carroll Cartwright (“Dungeons and Dragons”) and Nancy Doyne (debut)

It’s a statistic stated so many times in the past few decades it is practically an axiom: half of all marriages end in divorce. While these days the stats show the number is closer to 40 percent than 50 percent, it seems unlikely that author Henry James could have known how timely his novel would end up being when he wrote it in 1897, a year when the divorce rate was a mere 6 percent. As a modern film adaptation of his novel of the same name, “What Maisie Knew” tells the story of a bitter divorce and custody battle through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl.

Set in New York City, rock ‘n’ roll musician Susanne (Julianne Moore) and her successful husband Beale (Steve Coogan) are embroiled in a failing marriage. As their relationship crumbles, a bitter custody battle ensues, causing their young daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) to get caught in the middle. Both parents quickly remarry and eventually dump off parental responsibilities to their respective spouses, Lincoln, (Alexander Skarsgard) a bartender, and Margo, (Joanna Vanderham) who serves as Maisie’s nanny.

Moore and Coogan both give very strong performances, and Moore is especially good at being completely selfish and unhinged. Both actors are particularly strong at conveying tension, especially during the scenes where they butt heads and argue. As the film progresses, it is clear that Lincoln and Margo become more parental figures than Maisie’s actual parents. Though Vanderham is good, Skarsgard is a nice surprise in this role. His character and Maisie’s are thrown together quickly and slow to warm up to each other. As the film progresses, the two actors show tremendous magnetic chemistry and Skarsgard’s charm and interactions with Aprile become very enjoyable to watch.

What keeps “What Maisie Knew” from being a completely upsetting film is both the age of the character and the brilliant performance from a young actress. Maisie is a happy child and one that is largely oblivious to the neglectful and vindictive actions of her parents. It is always a risky move to have a child actor be the anchor of a film, but Aprile’s natural delivery and screen presence is such a wonderful revelation. The young Aprile is able to express so much with a simple gaze or facial expression and she never feels overmatched or misplaced in an ensemble piece with such strong acting all around. Of course, a child actor’s instincts can only go so far and much of the credit should be given to co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel for knowing how to coax a nuanced performance out of her and capture the blissful innocence of a child pitch perfectly.

Since much of the film focuses on Maisie rather than her parents, directors McGehee and Siegel cleverly step around melodrama in a few ways. When her parents have nasty screaming matches or sling verbal barbs at each other, rather than focusing on those characters, they are heard in the background as the camera stays with Maisie sleeping or playing. There are also very few scenes where huge fights, arguments or major emotional scenes feel over the top. A very delicate touch is present throughout the film, never more apparent than in the wonderfully understated moments where Maisie is heartbreakingly neglected. Part of what makes “What Maisie Knew” so effective is that the majority of what is shown in the film is firmly rooted in reality.

“What Maisie Knew” isn’t exactly uplifting. It is clear throughout the film that Maisie, while certainly loved by her parents, is being used as a tool for them to get back at each other. A lack of communication and effort often leaves Maisie in terrible situations or the responsibility of taking care of her dumped off to her respective stepparent. What makes “Maisie” such a beautiful film is showing that a child’s unconditional love is infectious and though sometimes aided by ignorance and obliviousness, how strong and perseverant a child can be in such painful circumstances.