Although adolescence is hell, there’s no denying it contains some of the best times in life. To be 16 and sneaking under-age into a nightclub is to know an excitement that can scarce be expressed once you’re over 21. There is something about not knowing much about the world, thinking every “best time” is the best it’s going to get… That’s what Almost Famous is about.
Junebug is a TV movie for people who don’t watch TV. Its setting, its premise and its characters are all stock only in prospect. In execution, Phil Morrison’s movie is strange because no-one acts like they’re acting, or that there is a dramatic structure to their travails. This is a movie about a man from North Carolina taking his big city wife to meet her backwoods in-laws. We know from lengthy experience how things should pan out: an awkward beginning leading to an inevitable mutual acceptance, punctuated at intervals by laughter and tears. But things do not conform to expectation. The awkward beginning never ends. This is life.
Freedom Writers is a movie about inspiration. It is not inspirational.
I write those words with great disappointment, as I believe its writer/director Richard LaGravenese is capable of wonderful things. His script for The Fisher King – while unwieldy and overwrought and pulled in six different directions at the best of times – was and is a joy to watch. The Fisher King is a good place to start in saying what goes wrong with Freedom Writers because it offers an excellent example of a movie that, for all its faults, risks something. Freedom Writers fails because it’s cautious.
You either forgive James L. Brooks his failings or you don’t. There’s no in-between. Accusations of schmaltz and Hollywood-endings are valid, shameless audience manipulation – fair. His characters do tend to go on journeys, have “arcs”, meet cute. There is never much to frighten the horses in his movies. If an f-word sneaks in, it isn’t the focus of anything (not a Mamet f-word). Bad language is like anger in Brooks’ movies, a little dark cloud before a month of sun. There would be no reason to review a movie like Spanglish, but for the fact that, besides the schmaltz, Brooks writes character like a Billy Wilder who believed in human beings.
Awe and wonder aren’t often found in movie theatres. For the most part we make do with excitement, laughter, shock or tears. In war movies, especially, awe and wonder seem antithetical to audience expectations; we’ve only just got used to realism – why tax us with grace? War movies should be about the horror of war; we should come away from war movies traumatised, like good soldiers. When The Thin Red Line opened to audiences in 1998, a lot of people thought director Terrence Malick had missed the point… all those shots of flora and fauna and seemingly nothing felt, no tears or cheers, no-one to care about in the thicket of his cast… But a lot of people were wrong about this movie; wrong about its goals, wrong about its failings, wrong even about its genre – since it isn’t a war movie at all, it’s a prayer.