GROWING UP IS HARD TO DO: Theeb, The Peanuts Movie and The Night Before


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Warning: SPOILERS

theebTheeb is Jordan’s entry in the Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards.

I think that it was stated best by one movie critic I heard on NPR: If you only see one Jordanian film this year, this is definitely the one to see.

Theeb is a first rate coming of age story. It’s what one might term a big little film. The plot in many ways is simple, but the background at times, the vast deserts, the wide vistas, the looming mountains, the huge backdrop of nothingness seen against an endless sky, gives it the feeling of a Lawrence of Arabia, Jr. (and parts of that movie were filmed on location there).

 

The central plot revolves around the very young Theeb, third son of a sheikh who has recently passed away. Their tribe is now overseen by Theeb’s oldest brother.

 

One day, a fellow countryman arrives at camp with an English soldier who is transporting a mysterious box. Theeb’s people are obligated by the custom of hospitality to guide the two to a well where the soldier and guide are to meet up with a second party.

 

It falls to Theeb’s next oldest brother to lead the men. But Theeb, not wanting to be left behind and letting curiosity get the best of him, secretly follows until the men are forced to include him on their journey.

 

It becomes clear though intimation, that the soldier will use what’s in the box (a detonator) to blow up some train tracks. But at the well, they are ambushed. After the dust settles, Theeb must join up with the man who killed his brother (now wounded and deserted by his compatriots) if either of them are to survive.

 

Since Jordanian cinema is not particularly known over here, one might expect Theeb to be a bit primitive in execution. This wouldn’t mean it was good or bad (Timbuktu, from the equally not known for its film industry Mauritania, is very primitive, but also very good).

 

But Theeb is a movie made with high skill and by people (written by Bassel Ghandour and Naji Abu Nowar, who also directed, a first feature for each) who make one feel as if this is what they’ve been doing all their lives. It’s beautifully shot, solidly acted, and has a strongly plotted, engrossing and well thought out story.

 

One reason for its excellent technical aspects could be that Jordan has been used in many a film to stand in for other locations in The Middle East such as the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Hurt Locker (Ghandour was a production assistant on this last production).

 

Though Theeb is called a coming of age tale, I’m fairly certain that one would not call it a family film. It ends on a bit of violence that many parents would probably prefer their pre-high school children not bear witness to (unless one is running for office and has received backing from the NRA—then you might find yourself taking every pre-teen you can find to it).

 

It’s a shocking ending, that is true. But it’s not forced or gratuitous. This is the way the world is for Theeb.

 

With Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat as Theeb.

 

peanuts movieThe Peanuts Movie is 100% pure, unadulterated nostalgia and charm.

 

There is probably not one Peanuts reference that is not referred to at some point here, and not just from the comic strip by Charles Schultz, but from the various TV specials as well.

 

This includes not just the more memorable and standard scenes of Lucy’s psychiatric business, the kite eating tree, the Sisyphean moment of Lucy removing the football, and the too cool for cool jazz music background (one of the greatest contributions that the television incarnations gave us), but also includes the more hit and run mentions of the Great Pumpkin, the carol Christmas Time is Here, and the Snoopy dance, as well as the way the characters bust a jive at a school get together.

 

Perhaps the only reference missing is the gang playing bridge, something that I believe is in the earliest of the early strips, one of the reasons I became interested in the game.

 

At the core of this movie are two love stories: that of Snoopy’s love/hate relationship with the Red Baron, as well as his attempt to rescue the beautiful and daring aviatrix, the poodle Fifi, while patrolling the war torn skies of World War I; and good ol’ Charlie Brown’s crush on the newest student at school, the Little Red Head Girl.

 

Snoopy’s story, of course, rises from his fervent desire to be a writer (one of my favorite strips was when Snoopy received a rejection letter that begins, “We regret to inform you that…well, actually, we don’t regret it at all”). His novel begins with that infamous opening line to Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night”, the author considered now to be one of the worst of all times (though in his defense, he also gave us “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed” and “the almighty dollar”).

 

Charlie Brown’s story, in contrast, is straight out of John Hughes’ oeuvre of typical teenage angst: the nerdy, unpopular or awkward guy who falls for the girl who is totally out of his league. The comic strip never resolved this story line (which is probably truer to life), but here the movie is far kinder.

 

Still, the movie is an utter delight and a joyous look both at childhood as well as something that spoke to us and made our childhood a bit more bearable.

 

Written by Bryan Schultz, Craig Schultz, and Cornelius Uliano and directed by Steve Martino.

 

With Noah Schnapp voicing Charlie Brown; Bill Melendez doing Snoopy and his faithful companion Woodstock; and Kristen Chenoweth doing Fifi.

 

night beforeThe Night Before is also a coming of age story, but the central characters are a group of Peter Pans who missed the freeway exit to adulthood thousands of miles earlier.

 

The basic premise revolves around three BFF’s who are beginning to realize how not eternal that forever actually is. Ever since Ethan’s parents died at Christmas, he and Isaac and Chris have gotten together every holiday eve, creating their own set of traditions (Chinese food, playing piano by foot at FAO Schwartz, and drugs—lots and lots of drugs). However, now that Seth is married and a father, and Chris is becoming a big time football star, they are realizing that this tradition has a time stamp on it and this has to be their last get together.

 

That’s a perfectly good through line, but the filmmakers have tacked on an extra bit of plot: one year, Ethan discovered that every holiday there is a Christmas party to end all Christmas parties thrown by a mysterious unknown figure, and is very, very exclusive (though the way the movie is written, exclusive seems to be defined as everyone in Manhattan other than our three luckless heroes).

 

This year, Ethan scored (i.e., stole) some tickets to the party and since this is their last ballyhoo, all three see this as the perfect cherry on top with which to end their tradition.

 

Life lessons are learned, character arcs are fulfilled, everyone becomes older, but wiser, though never very believably and all pretty forced.

 

I hate to phrase it this way, but The Night Before is only a very funny movie to those who will find it very funny. I’m not sure how else to describe it.

 

For me it was a mess, scattered, clunky and not even hit and miss, but came across almost as if they were making it up as they went along. Because of the two through lines, it feels like a movie that was originally conceived as low concept that everyone tried to make high concept, and the new wine just didn’t fit in the old bottles.

 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan and Anthony Mackie are the friends. They’re perfectly okay under the circumstances. Rogen comes off best, especially in a scene where his wife gives him an early Christmas present of a box of mind altering substances, as well as a scene where he ends up attending midnight mass with his wife’s family.

 

However, the best performance and best scenes are with Michael Shannon as a drug dealer who at first turns not to be who you think he is, but then turns out to really not be who you think he is. These bits are sharply written and Shannon makes the most of them.

 

Directed by Jonathan Levine who also wrote it with a committee of three others (which may explain a lot).

 

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