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Film Review: The Guest

Dir. Adam Wingard
Score: 6.1

David Collins (Dan Stevens) seems like a pretty upstanding dude. Or he would if the film, with its ominous music, and shots of him in repose, sitting without blinking in the lotus position, where the bonhomie drains off of his face like cheap foundation powder in a drizzle, wasn’t constantly suggesting otherwise. He’s got all sorts of talents and skills. Visiting the family of his deceased soldier buddy somewhere in New Mexico, he starts out as a kind of benign guardian spirit, offering his friend’s mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley), solace, his father, Spencer (Leland Orser), a chance to rise up in the ranks of his small-time job to become regional manager; his younger brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer), an opportunity to get savage revenge on the high school bullies who keep harassing him; and his fetching, 20-year-old sister, Anna (Maika Monroe), a chance to find a different boyfriend, such as himself.

Along the way, he also displays tremendous skills in knife work, combat, and advanced firearm discharge, all without ever needing to sleep, or even blink, when he’s not being watched. It’s really only when Anna starts to get suspicious of him and his true intentions, especially after a couple of her friends turn up dead in the desert, that things really start to take a turn for the bloody worse.

What’s intriguing about writer/director Adam Wingard’s perfectly entertaining thriller is just how self-aware it is of its own propensity for foolishness. Is the moment when David confronts Luke’s high school principal with a hate-crime lawsuit after the school bureaucrat threatens to expel the boy after he finally retaliates against one of his abusers meant to be taken at face value, or is his admission that the boy is gay simply a ploy to throw the principal off the track? Do we read the film’s action-studded climax in a Halloween-themed haunted maze, replete with strobe lights, fun-house mirrors and cubic tons of dry-ice smoke as just so much over-the-top idiocy, or as carefully crafted, excessive action exaltation?

Of course, it’s difficult to say definitively with sneaky films such as this, but from the amusingly abrupt opening credits — where we cut from a lone figure jogging down a rocky dirt road to a sudden flash of the title card with a loud splash of music, and just as quickly to a shot of a scarecrow standing uncertainly amongst several flat fields — to the bugnuts conclusion (let’s just say it involves a would-be death scene where a character gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to his attacker), there is a pretty strong sense that Wingard, whose You’re Next worked similarly self-aware angles, knows precisely what he’s doing.

Which frees us up to take the film on its own amusing merits. First off, you have Stevens, continuing his Not-Just-A-British-Fop Tour, absolutely gnashing the scenery with his bare teeth, turning Collins into just the sort of charming, desirable, complete sociopath that this family so dearly needs, even as he starts whacking its members. Stevens, who exploits his boyish charm, intense blue eyes, and topsy-turvy smile to maximum effect here, seems perfectly in his element, shifting in a given scene from smooth-talking mooch to cold-eyed killer and back again in the blink of an eye. Freed at last from the double-breasted suits and posh accent of Downton Abbey, Stevens has a ball as the explosively remote Collins, apologizing gravely even as he’s literally stabbing someone in the heart as he’s doing it. Enough with the china cups and monocles, bring on the blood squibs.

The director also has a find with young Brendan Meyer, who endows the sad-sack Luke with permanently crestfallen eyes and a leeching, awkward sort of presence. He’s the kind of kid you would see in the cafeteria, instantly feel sorry for, and end up sitting as far away from as possible. Hanging out with the debonair, take-no-prisoners Collins, you see his face finally spark with some kind of vitality, a kid in a dark, wet tunnel who becomes convinced he’s finally spotted a little flame of escape. It’s his plaintive reaction to his sister’s dire warnings of the murderous inclinations in their houseguest at the end (“David would never hurt us,” he wails) that proves just how deep in the much Luke is willing to go to keep that particular candle lit.

For a film that begins with a scarecrow and ends with a profane epithet, it sounds difficult to believe, but Wingard never lets the pulpy material spin out of his control. He’s like the dude in the foxhole who seems like he belongs there, pumping round after round off into the darkness, cackling the whole time. He might not be hitting much, but he’s having a hell of a time doing it.

Finding the Silver Linings: A Conversation with Matthew Quick

Matthew Quick  had a very secure life as a high school English teacher in Haddonfield, NJ, with a nice house and a good pension. He was a well-liked, active member of the community. In many ways, he was the picture of normalcy. But then he decided to take a chance.

Quick, who earned his Bachelor’s in English at La Salle and his Master’s from Goddard College, left his job as a teacher, choosing instead to pursue his dream of being a novelist. Moving into his in-laws house, Quick drafted, and subsequently scrapped, five novels before he finally wrote The Silver Linings Playbook. Managing to sell the film rights before he was even finished with the novel, Quick started to generate a huge buzz in the literary world pretty early on. While sales for The Silver Linings Playbook were good after the book’s publication, they became great after the release of the film in September 2012 – it’s been a New York Times Best Seller for several weeks.

The film adaptation – starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro – is up for eight Oscars. Just as the film has won scores of accolades and acclaim, so too has Quick. Readers and critics have taken to the novel’s loveable, if highly flawed, characters. Despite their unhealthy obsessions and their various forms of self-medication, there is a common thread woven throughout the story that ties these characters together: they yearn for a human connection.

Surely one of the brightest young stars to emerge from the Philadelphia area – a place that seems somewhat starved for artists, despite its size – in quite some time, Matthew Quick is bringing the national spotlight back to The City of Brotherly Love. I had the opportunity to talk with Matthew, where we touched on everything from mental illness to Chip Kelly:


two.one.five magazine: What impact did Philadelphia and New Jersey have on you as a writer, specifically with The Silver Linings Playbook?

Matthew Quick: It had a huge impact. South Jersey and Philadelphia, I know, is one of the main characters of the book, if not the main character of the book. All of the characters – how they think, what they say, what they care about – is largely influenced by the area that they live in. I live in Massachusetts now, but every book that I’ve published has been set in or around Philadelphia, be it a fictional town or a real town. Like with The Silver Linings Playbook, it’s set in Collingswood. So it’s in my blood; it’s who I am. The people that raised me are all Philadelphians. I’ve got deep roots [there]. My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression, when it was all over Philadelphia. We’re proud of it. Very proud to be from Philly.

two.one.five: Is there something specific about Philly that you think makes for such a great setting for your novels? Or is more just that you’re so familiar with it?

MQ: The people that raised me – especially the men that raised me – were hard men. They worked hard. They had a blue collar mentality. They were extremely loyal. Those were the types of people that I grew up with. Philly has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder. People call it ‘Baby New York.’ I don’t like that term at all, because I think Philly is a beautiful city in and of itself. It doesn’t need to be compared to anything else. But we always have that kind of underdog attitude.  Even our most famous, iconic fictional character, Rocky Balboa – he’s an underdog, a guy that nobody cares about. I think largely that’s the type of people that raised me. My grandfather came from abject poverty. He didn’t even have enough to eat when he was growing up. Then my grandfather went to World War II. He fought hard, he came home, he worked his whole life to put his kids through college.

And I think that type of story is so common, especially in South Jersey where I grew up. Most of the fathers grew up poor in Philly, and moved to South Jersey when they got enough money to move to the suburbs. They weren’t always the best-educated men, but they were good people, and they were wise. So I think those are the types of characters that you find in The Silver Linings Playbook. They don’t speak like they went to Harvard, but they’re good people, and they have wisdom. And they’re doing the best that they can. I think that’s what Philly is all about.

two.one.five: And who did you read growing up? Who were your big influences?

MQ: Going to Collingswood High School, people didn’t read novels, fiction particularly. My father read a lot of nonfiction, and my friends didn’t read a lot. So largely I would read the books that people gave me in school. So, Dickens and Hemingway, Twain and Shakespeare. When I found Vonnegut, I started to say, ‘Wow, there’s other books out there that my teachers aren’t giving me that I can delve into.’

I found a wider reading list when I went to La Salle. All of my friends at La Salle were English majors, so they loved reading. In high school, none of my friends read books. They weren’t into reading or writing at all. It was a radical shift when I got to La Salle, and was surrounded by people who read books for pleasure, rather than just for school. And that’s when I found Camus. I was way into Camus. I was a big Edward Albee fan. And it went from there.

two.one.five: It’s now a pretty famous story, how you were working as a school teacher, when you decided to quit and move into your in-laws basement to focus on writing. Was there a particular moment where you knew your now-previous lifestyle wasn’t working?

MQ: Living in Haddonfield particularly, where I was teaching… I wasn’t able to write because I was working so hard as a high school English teacher. Haddonfield is a phenomenal school, and they demand a lot from their teachers. And the kids are phenomenal kids.

I felt very trapped. At the time I had tenure and a house. And yeah, I do think that I was seduced for a little bit in my 20’s by the security of suburban New Jersey life. Again, my grandfather fought his whole life to get that. So, when I left all that behind, it was really hard. My grandfather, who was alive at the time, he didn’t understand it. Growing up in the Great Depression, you did not leave a good-paying job with a pension and health insurance. That was unfathomable to him. But it was something I had to do. I’ve also talked a lot about how – like Hemingway was always moving away – I think authors live on the fringe. And I think I had to leave Philly to write about Philly. When I was there, I was kind of too close to it. When I moved to Massachusetts – largely because my in-laws are the only people that would let us live with them – I really missed Philly. And writing The Silver Linings [Playbook] was a way to go home, and be around the types of people that I was missing.

two.one.five: Fast-forward a few years, when you were writing The Silver Linings Playbook. Was there a moment when you realized that you were really onto something?

MQ: I wrote The Silver Linings Playbook during the 2006 Eagles season, pretty much in real time. The book follows the season. About halfway through the season, and halfway through the writing process, I started to realize that I had something that felt more complete, more polished, more salable than I ever had before. And, to be honest with you, it kind of scared me a little bit: that moment, you go from ‘I think I might be able to do this in the future,’ to ‘I might be ready right now.’ In some ways that was kind of terrifying.

Sometimes I look back at that time of writing The Silver Linings [Playbook] – when nobody knew who I was, and there was no media to do, and I didn’t have to maintain a website… sometimes I feel like I really romanticize that time. And I tell young writers, before you’re published, that’s your time to experiment and really figure out who you are, before it becomes so public.

two.one.five: And what about Pat [, played by Bradley Cooper in the film]? Where did the inspiration for that character come from?

MQ: Well, there’s a lot that goes into it. But the story I tell is that I had been writing for almost two-and-a-half years, living with my in-laws, hadn’t gotten a job, was really depressed. And I went for a run, which I often do when I get depressed. And it was a cold winter day. And I looked up one day and there was this beautiful cloud silhouetted in silver in front of the Sun. It was just gorgeous. And I thought, ‘Maybe it’s an omen that I’m going to make it as a writer.’ And then I immediately thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. You can’t think that. That’s delusional thinking.’ And then as I was running I thought, ‘What if I had a character who believes in delusional thinking, and omens, and silver linings?’

I got home and I started to craft Pat. Of course, I wanted to write a story about my obsession with the Eagles and father-son issues. And I have a background in mental health – I was struggling with depression at the time. But when I was writing, I didn’t think about all that; I just wrote. Pat’s this guy who comes home and says, ‘The old Pat isn’t me. The guy who you thought you knew isn’t me. I’m this new guy.’ And that’s exactly what I was doing, as a writer. I was saying, ‘I’m not a high school English teacher; I’m a writer.’ And there were people who made me feel like that was a crazy thing to say. Pretty much everyone in my life was like, “What are you doing in the basement?”

I don’t know if I could have verbalized all of that when I was writing The Silver Linings Playbook. But now, looking back, I definitely think that I was using the story as a metaphor to figure out all of the strange feelings that I was having. You know, the book is fiction, absolutely. But metaphorically, there are a lot of issues that Pat is going through that are similar to what I was going through.

two.one.five: What about the process of seeing it made into a film? What was that like?

MQ: It was surreal. I didn’t have anything to do with the screenplay or the casting, and I was only on the movie set one day. The thing that shocked me the most was how worried [director] David O’Russell was about my reaction. He called me the night before I saw the film, and we talked for about an hour. He was worried that I wouldn’t embrace the film. Storyteller-to-storyteller, he really wanted me to see that he took great pains to be careful with my subject matter.

When I saw the film, I walked into the screening room at Tribeca, and my heart was pounding. My fists were clenched. I was thinking, ‘What’s going to be on the screen? How’s it going to effect my career?’ About a half hour into the movie, I noticed that my hands were open, and I was laughing. I was enjoying seeing some of the dialog that I had written being performed by famous actors. At that point, I realized that we had something special. I gave myself over to the story.

It’s been really interesting to travel around the country promoting the film for [distributor] The Weinstein Company; doing interviews with David O’Russell and talking with Bradley Cooper at the Katie Couric show. Things like that are new to me, but it also let me very quickly see that all of these famous people are real people. They care about the subject matter of mental health as much as I do, and they care about storytelling as much as I do. Of course, Hollywood is Hollywood. There’s a lot of fame and glamour and all that, but at the core of it are just people who are trying to tell stories – which is exactly what I’m trying to do.

two.one.five: What are your future plans, after all of this simmers down?

MQ: Well, I’m going to keep writing. I have a novel coming out in August called Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. That is coming out with [publisher] Little Brown. It’s about a kid who takes a gun to school on his 18th birthday, intent on killing himself and his best friend. So that’s a very serious book. But there’s a thread of hope that runs through it, and I’m very excited about that. In 2014 I have an adult novel coming out called The Good Luck of Right Now, which is with [publisher] HarperCollins. And we sold the movie rights to Dreamworks. And I’ve actually sold my last novel after that, which I haven’t written yet. So it’s pretty busy for me. I’m thrilled to have all these opportunities; I’ve come a long way since the basement.

two.one.five: With all that success, do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

MQ: Absolutely. Number one: write about what you love, and not what you hate. Because if you hate something, it won’t sustain you. If you love something, you’ll write about it forever. Number two: surround yourself with people who make you feel like you can make it. Anyone who’s a hater, or tells you that you can’t, get as far away from them as possible. And number three – and I think this is the best advice: if you want to be a writer, don’t be a critic. Don’t blast people on the internet, don’t write negative reviews. When you see a movie or read a book, try to find what works in that book or movie. Don’t try to find what doesn’t work. If you go blasting everyone on the internet, nobody is going to want to work with you professionally. And if you practice being a critic the whole time, you’re never going to see the good in your own work. You’ll only see the negative, and you’ll never get anything finished. You’ve got to figure out what works, not what doesn’t work.

two.one.five: Now that everyone knows that you’re an Eagles fan, can we get your prediction for this upcoming season? 

MQ: I would lie if I said I wasn’t nervous. But, you know, I’m an Eagles fan through and through. I’ll be at every home game. I’ll be rooting on the Birds. I think a lot has yet to be determined. We don’t really know how the new system will work. The coaching moves are curious, so we’ll see. I want to be optimistic. I think we’ve got to give Chip Kelly a shot, to see if he can pull it all together. I like Nick Foles. I was a little surprised at that restructuring of Mike Vick’s deal. But, maybe he’ll be trade bait. I hope we don’t have another quarterback controversy. That would not be good. So we’ll see.

two.one.five: Sounds like you’re trying to see the silver linings there.

MQ: [Laughs] I’m trying.

two.one.five: Well thank you so much for talking with me.

MQ: My pleasure. Thanks again, and my best to everyone in Philly.