Goosebumps

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Darren Lemke; Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Rob Letterman

If anyone asked me what got me into writing, I would tell them it was R.L. Stine. I wanted to be like him so much I came up with my own ghost stories as a kid; I even started mimicking the artwork that made his books unique . . .

.  . . and so, in 2015, they decided to make a Goosebumps movie. Not that I asked for it, or expected it to come now, some 20 years removed from the peak of Stine’s popularity (to give that time frame some context, this was the era of the flat-top haircut, Walkmans and quality children’s programming on Nickelodeon).

But of course it would happen — how could a book series that became so endeared to millions of impressionable pre-pubescent minds not get picked up by a studio and be given a new lease on life? How is Goosebumps anything other than an inevitability? The good news is that the film is actually worth seeing; this is as good as inevitable gets. Forget the fact you and Jack Black may not get along; forget your inner child wanting to rebel against the cinematic treatment, for you’d be lying to yourself that the only place Stine’s monstrous creations should live are in the pages of the books or in your memory. Getting to see the Abominable Snowman on screen is a kind of privilege. Better yet, seeing (and hearing) Slappy the dummy physically make threats is believing.

Everyone knows the series wasn’t exactly substantive nor inventive. Categorically predictable and breezy reads, they were defined more by the creatures that inhabited the pages, many a variation on ghostlike presences but sometimes branching out to include more obscure objects — who remembers ‘Why I’m Afraid of Bees’ or ‘The Cuckoo Clock of Doom?’ That their intellectual value was the equivalent of nutrient-deprived cereals like Captain Crunch’s Oops All Berries didn’t mean they were devoid of value completely, and on the basis of sheer volume — the original series which lasted from ’92 to ’97 included 62 titles — you couldn’t find many more book series geared towards children that were quite so exhaustive. Their longevity is owed to the fact Stine never tried to do anything fancy with them. The set-up was simple: stage a beginning, establish a middle section and cap it off with a twist ending.

Naturally, a film dealing with these very creatures and the author who dreamed them up, if it had any interest in reconnecting with a by-now fully-grown and steadily more jaded audience, would find formulaic storytelling appealing. What Rob Letterman has come up with is safe, harmless, occasionally eye-roll-worthy. What it’s not is scary. More importantly, it’s not a disaster.

Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (the increasingly busy Amy Ryan) have just moved to Nowheresville, Delaware (the town is actually called Madison, but it’s the same thing) after the passing of Zach’s father. Zach makes a friend almost immediately in his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is just as quickly intimidated by her creepy father, who introduces himself as Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) — but we all know that’s a front. Even the 11-year-olds in attendance can see through that, what with his exceedingly thick wire-framed glasses and generally strange demeanor. The new-kid-in-town premise is, yes, exceedingly dull, particularly when it feels obliged to deal in a few fairly annoying characters who help expand the environment beyond Zach’s new home.

So far, so ‘Goosebumps.’ The stories never compelled on the virtues of their human characters. It’s not until Zach invades Hannah’s home (the fine for breaking and entering doesn’t faze this kid) upon hearing screams coming from her room that he discovers a small library filled with old ‘Goosebumps’ manuscripts. When he opens up a book, the fun begins. A monster is unleashed upon them and it’s up to Hannah to try and contain the chaos before her possibly psycho-father finds out. Unfortunately it’s not just the one creature they have to worry about. Soon every book starts unleashing their contents upon the small community and wreaking all kinds of PG-rated havoc, a development that’s better left unspoiled.

It’s up to Zach, his newfound friend Champ (Ryan Lee, who falls decidedly into the ‘fairly annoying’ category), Hannah and the loner author himself to save Madison from being overrun by a combination of lawn gnomes, giant mutant praying mantises and monster blood. It helps to think of Goosebumps as a ‘Best of’ Stine’s monstrous creations; few creatures truly stand out (save for everyone’s favorite talking dummy, voiced by Black) but what it lacks in quality it compensates in quantity. Once again mirroring its source material, the film benefits from sheer volume of creative CGI and lavish costume design rather than going into detail on any one thing.

It should go without saying such genericness will hardly compel viewers to champion its award potential. In fact, if you’re expecting quality of any kind outside of how strongly the film tugs on the strings of nostalgia, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t expect any goosebumps to form on your skin come the frantic, rushed conclusion.

Recommendation: Very much a pleasant surprise in terms of the memories it brings back and the entertainment value provided by a game cast, Goosebumps‘ cinematic presentation won’t linger very long in the mind, but luckily enough it won’t have to as a sequel is all but a sure thing. With any luck that will also become a fun trip down memory lane. Anyone who read at least a few of these books should find this a perfectly acceptable rental night at home with the kids. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins

Quoted: “All the monsters I’ve ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open . . . “

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Superbad (2007)

Time to break out your favorite JanSport backpack, No.2 pencils and loose leaf notebook paper boys and girls, because it’s once again time to go back to hell school in this second edition of Throwback to School September. (Catchy phrase, right?) Fortunately in this world, all you’ll really need is a backpack to throw in some illegally purchased bottles of liquor as you seek high school celebrity status in 

Today’s food for thought: Superbad.

Becoming McLovin’ since: August 17, 2007

[DVD]

Instead of offering my thoughts on this raucous comedy from the dirty minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, I figured I’d once again do something a little different with this TBT and list the ten things I was reminded of about high school having watched this movie. I will just say that one thing that works in this film’s favor, aside from the ideal casting of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse — all three physically embodying high school seniors while simultaneously fully embracing their juvenile mentality — is a script that tells it like it is. After all, Superbad was never a film you wanted to watch with the parents, it’s too awkward. Just like high school.

TEN THINGS ABOUT HIGH SCHOOL SUPERBAD REMINDED ME OF

#1) Hormones dictate every decision (and purchase) you make.

#2) We gave teachers way too much shit. They’re too underpaid to be this under-appreciated, even if half of what they taught us we never ended up using.

#3) Some cliché about how generally useless P.E. classes were. Why couldn’t high school have recess, like the good old elementary school days? And why did we have to wear those tatty shirts that were cribbed from a Wal-Mart dumpster?

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#4) Of all the rites of passages, getting your driver’s license was one of the greatest because it meant you could go and hang out with your friends whenever you wanted. Only drawback? Being 16 and having a curfew.

#5) Going to a party where you didn’t really know anyone and where everyone was older than you was the most uncomfortable thing ever. Especially when you found out that some of them were coked out of their minds.

#6) Teenage crushes. Awwwwwwww

#7) Every year there seemed to be at least one major fight. We’d always gather in the parking lot of The Fresh Market to see who would win. Most of the time all they amounted to was a bunch of shouting and insults regarding a certain female parental unit. But every once in awhile we were treated to a spectacular showdown.

#8) Peer pressure could be a bitch.

#9) Adults seemed lame at the time. (Spoiler alert: they still are.)

#10) Senior year is a bittersweet time. Friendships are fleeting, and who knows where everyone ends up in college. The trick is to make the most of what time you have left together.


Recommendation: One of the definitive movies about the high school experience, Superbad is a must-watch, especially if you’re facing your ten year high school reunion. Endowed with an incredible script that’s essentially a pervert’s stream of consciousness, and armed with superb performances from its entire cast Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg struck comedic gold with their story that’s loosely based on their own experiences. Pretty much a modern classic. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

TBTrivia: When this was being filmed, Christopher Mintz-Plasse was 17 years old and so his mother had to be present on set during his sex scene. I guess for some, the awkwardness from high school never goes away.

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Dope

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Rick Famuyiwa

Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance darling isn’t particularly revelatory filmmaking, but it’s much more intelligent than its dopey title suggests, rejecting racial stereotypes and erasing cultural gaps as confidently as it embraces its young leading trio as a righteous symbol of individualism.

Dope channels an infectious spirit à la executive producer Pharrell Williams’ hit single ‘Happy’ via a cast brimming with fresh, relatively undiscovered talent, evolving its giddy comedic approach through a series of misadventures experienced by three geeky teens growing up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood referred to as “The Bottoms” — translated geographically, Inglewood.

There’s Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore), who’s trapped in the ’90s with his flat-top haircut and loud clothing; Diggy (22-year-old Kiersey Clemons in her first big screen role), a lesbian who cares not for what anyone thinks about her preference for dressing a little differently; and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s very own Tony Revolori), who may seem like a misfit but his 14% African blood speaks for itself, thank you very much. The threesome jam in a punk-rock band and are very close, but the film places extra emphasis on Malcolm as his investment in academics and in trying to get into Harvard make for a character that shames most archetypal movie teens. He’s focused on what’s most important to him, while trying to avoid ending up on the wrong street corner at the wrong time.

One afternoon he’s not so lucky, targeted by A$ap Rocky’s Dom as he bikes home from school down a particularly dangerous street. The encounter introduces Malcolm to a whole new world he’s woefully ill-equipped to deal with, a world where drugs, violence and gang affiliation reign supreme. When his delicate flirtations with Dom’s former flame Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) grant him admission into a club party, he ends up with some precious cargo in his school bag, subjugating him and his friends to the kind of sudden attention no one wants or needs.

Dope is sheltered comfortably under the ‘coming-of-age’ umbrella, making quick work of establishing an environment which its oddball characters desperately need to outgrow and move away from. Contrary to the relationship Malcolm shares with his geeky friends, it is with Nakia whom he chases the same light at the end of the tunnel. They both are college-bound hopefuls, though unfortunately Nakia’s aspirations hardly take center stage or much of the stage at all. The negligence doesn’t come at the cost of the film’s enjoyability, though Dope‘s failure to fully develop Malcolm’s female equivalent is a backwards step given its adherence to creating real people in real environments. Ultimately, Kravitz fulfills the requirements of a slightly less obvious token girl, one whose preference for book-smart boys rather than the street-wise thugs she’s surrounded by isn’t enough to escape cliché.

Nonetheless, and despite strong supporting performances, Moore’s fish-out-of-water remains the driving force behind Dope‘s emphasis on individuality. Malcolm, determined to put “The Bottoms” behind him, ironically turns to dope-dealing as a way to rid himself of the contents of his bag. Handing the bag over to the proper authorities is obviously out of the question. The narrative devotes most of its time to the boy desperately attempting to dispose of the stigma of a misled youth possessing illicit drugs and weapons. One scene in particular brilliantly showcases how close Malcolm comes to succumbing to stereotypes. Fortunately, the incident is a rare blemish on an otherwise thoroughly endearing character.

It’d be more accurate to describe the moment as Dope‘s most piercing truth about human nature, on how certain societal pressures render even the most strong-willed susceptible to change. Malcolm, even with his myriad rare qualities — you know, the kind that afford him a daily ass-beating in school hallways — is far from a role model. One of the more ridiculous but oddly satisfying cultural probes is this group’s fascination with talking as though they were from the street. They constantly refer to ‘bitches’ and ‘dope’ despite their physical appearance indicating they’ve rarely (if ever) been in tough circles, at least up until this moment wherein they’ve been forced to conform to them.

Dope‘s vibrant characters brushing shoulders with the brutal realities of street life in particularly impoverished communities like “The Bottoms” makes for surprisingly entertaining viewing. The title may betray Famuyiwa’s seriousness of purpose, but there’s no denying the dynamic energy and off-beat, charming performances from his young stars do its coming-of-age themes justice.

Recommendation: To belabor the point, the film’s title is unfortunate. It’s likely going to have a negative effect on attendance. Although, its wide release is exciting and the sharp wit and incredibly fun characters deserve to be seen by far more than those who are actually going to spend the money on a theater viewing. Anyone up for an alternative to this weekend’s major Pixar release ought to take a chance on this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Some brother really needs to invent an app like Ways to Avoid All These Hood Traps.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The D Train

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Release: Friday, May 8, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Directed by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Ah, the time-honored ‘Act Like a Jackass at Your High School Reunion’ plot.

Even though it’s a far cry from consistent entertainment, The D Train presents a valid argument for staying away from said social function if you’re not in the right mindset. Although I admit I would be more inclined to attend mine (happening within a matter of weeks) if I could get either of these movie stars to come and crash the party. . .

Head of reunion committee Dan Landsman (Jack Black) wants to compensate for his status back in high school by convincing Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the most popular guy in school, to attend the humble little get-together after seeing him in a national commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. “Hell-to-the-yay-yeah,” Dan says, in thinking that what he has seen is Oliver truly making a name for himself post-grade school.

Dan’s presumption gets him on a flight out to California to visit Oliver in a desperate attempt to pitch the idea. But it’s not quite that simple. In excusing himself from his job for an extended weekend, Dan inadvertently involves his boss Bill (Jeffrey Tambor) by selling the trip as an effort to expand their business. In one of many examples of writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s rather contrived script, Dan passes Oliver off as the business contact. This is only possible after the pair. . . e-hem. . . establish a repartee the night prior. Talk about an awkward scene.

The D Train chugs along with little consideration for tonal or logical consistency. It toots its horn for being a comedy but in truth it’s closer to black comedy, and not just because of who stars in it. Black’s character is something of a jerk whose ostracism from most social circles doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It is odd, though, how quickly Marsden’s slick and suave Oliver takes to him when he arrives, especially given the disinterest he advertises when the two first speak on the phone.

The poster may advertise this as a buddy-comedy, but in truth the spotlight falls on Dan and his desperation for redemption. He’ll all but ignore his family, even refusing to give relationship advice to his son Zach (Russell Posner) who is this close to getting into a threesome at the ripe age of 14. (“Dad, you should be proud of me.”) Empathetic, Dan is not; though we may at times feel sympathy towards him when he’s fully backed into a dark corner. This is largely due to Black’s strong presence, juggling comedy and drama often in the same scene.

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge him — nor Marsden for that matter — too harshly in the context of a story that favors humiliation, melancholy and selfishness. Kathryn Hahn’s Stacey as the under-appreciated wife is an oasis of kindness, but she’s undervalued both by her husband (apparently she’s known Dan since high school) and questionable characterization.

Contrivances extend beyond the little stunt Dan manages to pull over his boss and they include Stacey’s willingness to let Oliver crash with them at the drop of a hat, not even blinking an eye when he brings his Hollywood partying lifestyle home with him; Dan’s plan for financially reinstating Bill’s company following Dan’s essential bankrupting of it because of that one little lie he told. In fact the entire plot is one long shot in the dark that even fellow members on the reunion committee acknowledge as such.

The fates of some of the characters in The D Train are almost too good for them. Almost. However, this is the stuff of farcical modern comedy. More often than not what Mogel and Paul come up with is pretty damn amusing. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m closer to calling this a B-grade movie experience, it’s not totally deserving of the D-grade.

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2-0Recommendation: You are likely to find far worse films in Jack Black’s rather inconsistent comedic backlog. On the other hand, he has been better elsewhere. But the pairing of him with James Marsden is very interesting and these two together make up for some of the film’s many shortcomings. Come for the jokes and the high school drama, but maybe not for the story.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “It’s like one of those charity events. They bring out the celebrities; if Dave Schwimmer goes, everyone goes.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Boyhood

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Release: Friday, July 18, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I know my refusal to get up out of my seat even after almost three consecutive hours of sitting — in considerably cramped quarters, I might add — is pretty weak testament to the fact that Boyhood just may be one of the coolest films this reviewer has had the privilege of watching. Saying I didn’t move after the film ended is not a very flashy statement and it probably won’t help sell a lot of tickets, I’ll admit. Instead it’s one that might even lead readers to think I just got stuck in the chair or something. Maybe I had even fallen asleep. I have seen that before, actually; people just lying there comatose while the credits rolled — sigh. What are they paying for?

If I had fallen asleep here, I would have just paid to sleep through a rare kind of cinematic event. Foolishly, I would have muted a voice I, as something of a nit-picky consumer of media, have been needing to hear for awhile. A voice that’s already too hard to hear when the Michael Bays and Brett Ratners and M. Night Shamalyans of the world won’t hush. Indeed I would have, in effect, slept through another chance to grow up once more, to do it all over again.

Wait, I didn’t mean I slept through my childhood the first time, just that I would have been. . . . . oh, never mind. You know what I mean. And you know what else, even if that opening line isn’t all that attention-grabbing, hey at least I’m being honest! I remain unable to leave this film behind, physically or psychologically. Yes, I might still be in denial. Yes, I’m still in the theater a week later. Yes, okay, that’s a lie.

But here’s something I can’t lie about: Richard Linklater’s much-anticipated project no longer exists in mythology. It’s now out there, ready for public consumption, even if its distribution will only allow the public to ingest it in nibbles.

Should I be surprised, though? Maybe it is fate that Transformers: Age of Exstinky debuted to some 3,000 theaters all crammed to the brim like cans of sardines while this astounding feat of cinematic beauty has slowly earned the right to open in front of less than 1,000 indie crowds over the past month and a half. Seems to me the public always picks its battles quickly, and in this example it’s one between films with short skirts versus those with long-winded explanations. And it’s so totally a one-sided affair, too. An overwhelming number of times the former emerges victorious. Visual stimulation is easier to accomplish — not necessarily cheaper to produce — than ones of a conceptual or emotive nature. After all, even despite dismal reviews that caucophany was the fourth installment in a series that has seriously lost its way but is still earning money. Lots of it.

Boyhood is a rare film for many reasons, but chief among those has to be how faithfully it adheres to the typical viewer’s own experiences. (Unless, of course, you’re an alien.) Never before has the line between fiction and reality been so flirtatious, so challenging to define. Character names and relationships are afforded the protection of fictionalization, and thank goodness too because that’s one of perhaps two things distinguishing proceedings from home-video footage (the second element being a distinctly more expensive piece of equipment used in filming). Production values exist on a level liable to boggle the mind if one is not careful. And hopefully, if one is not passed out in their seats.

We first meet Mason as his diminutive frame sprawls out upon a patch of brilliant green grass — eyes wide and full, ingesting every ounce of the sky above. Already he is engaged in a process we, the mere spectators, have been practicing for some time: being aware of his surroundings. (Later, finding a way to blend in.) While it’s a bit disconcerting never being able to pinpoint the precise moment we become aware of our own presence, there certainly becomes a point where its clear cynical men have abandoned the nescience of true boyhood. Such abstraction may not occur to every viewer, but it’s one of the more breathtaking developments over the course of these fleeting minutes.

In that iconic opening shot, Mason’s already sponge-like, absorbing and observing things about his environment, about the kinds of things kids his age do. He’s learning his family is also not the most traditional one, but he won’t understand why for another little while. Neither will we.These are the kinds of things real people grow up having to cope with, rather than worrying about when the token girl will pop up “on screen” and “become central to the plot via some contrivance.” That sugarcoating just won’t ring true here. And yet, Mason’s going to be a hero all the same for walking through this. Although enigmatic from the get-go his charm is not instantly earned. Particularly in the early years, Mason doesn’t feel as though he’s made of the stuff of even the most transparent of cinematic creations.

There’s something more organic about Coltrane’s presence. Whether this comes down to a particularly subtle acting style on his behalf or a sensationally perceptive script could be debated until the cows come home. Or at least, you know. . . until the absentee father does. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, two somewhat illustrious names in the industry, help ensure some of the film’s emotional gravity is not lost on slightly inexperienced actors. But this casting is about as extravagant as Boyhood becomes and it is not to suggest Coltrane doesn’t have to sweat the big stuff. Oh, how he does. But rather than sweating, Coltrane remains graceful, poised. He simply becomes what is asked of him.

Meanwhile, more identifiable ‘performances’ can be found with Hawke, as he embraces the opportunity to portray Mason Sr., the biological father whom Mason and Samantha only see on the odd occasion. A very fun Ethan Hawke provides charisma and energy where these kids really require strong parental support (every hard-working mother in the room should be able to empathize to great depths with Arquette’s brilliant performance); gifts where they need valuable lessons.

Ah, but he comes prepared with a few of those, too.

Mason Sr. is a great guy, but perhaps not so much a competent father figure. All of his wisdom is imparted on-the-go. A scene in which he’s delivering the birds-and-the-bees speech takes place in a public setting and he’s even considerate enough to include both kids in the discussion. That kind of awkwardness only manifests itself in reality. There’s no way this scene is actually scripted. . .is there? Could it be? That’s just one example, albeit a particularly strong one. If I were to name some others we could be here all night and day.

As per the lyrics: “let me go. I don’t want to be your hero. I don’t want to be a big man. I just want to fight with everyone else.” Indeed. Ever the idealist, I didn’t want to get out of my seat because I wanted those pangs of nostalgia to never subside. Best part of all, my refusal to move is merely unique to one particularly reactive moviegoer. Linklater easily could have groped for sentimentality but where he avoids forcing saccharinity, he’s unable to escape effecting profundity.

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5-0Recommendation: Boyhood is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Immense in both scope and ambition, Richard Linklater’s project is also intensely personal. His name ought to be crowned among the greatest directors of all time. With a single movie — although it would be a bit dismissive to label this just another title to add to the stack — I feel he has earned that right. A labor of love it may be, but this is also one of the most important and significant films ever released. I urge you with something akin to desperation, to treat yourself to this marvel.

Rated: R

Running Time: 165 mins.

Quoted: “Why are you crying?”

“Because I don’t have all the answers.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Franco Files — #7

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Welcome to August, and the seventh edition of The Franco Files! I’m back from my quick trip to Negative Town with TFF #6 (infamously known as TTFF by now) and let’s hope to not go there again ‘cuz that wasn’t much fun. As my friend Cara — yes, THE Cara of Silver Screen Serenade — put it, the last edition was a most definite dark blot on an otherwise rather diverse and impressive résumé held by Mr. James Franco.

But happy times, people. Happy thoughts.

A somewhat ironic transition, really, because when it comes to talking about this role of his, it’s almost anything but happiness for several of the characters surrounding him. This is perhaps a role that will also provide somewhat testy for people who aren’t already fully subscribed to the notion that James Franco is a great talent. He plays something of a snake in the grass here, there’s no getting around it. James definitely gets a bit slithery. But he’s good at this. See evidence in his take on Harry Osborn.

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Francophile #7: Mr. B, Palo Alto

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Character Profile: As the head coach of the high school girl’s soccer team, Mr. B finds himself quite the popular man on campus. Carrying an incredible down-to-Earth personality as well as the good looks necessary to garner the affection of some of his female student players, Franco’s is a supporting role that may overstep the boundaries more than any of the other wayward characters in Palo Alto, a movie adapted from his own book, Palo Alto: Stories. Mr. B takes a particular interest in April, the shy girl on his team who has yet to lose her virginity yet always seems interested in him. He also happens to be a single parent. If you’re looking for where the moral and ethical gray areas of the movie come into play, look no further than his disconcertingly charming soccer coach.

If you lose Franco, the film loses: one of the more compelling relationships in the film. Unfortunately, this thread isn’t quite as well-established as I feel it could have been. Franco doesn’t ultimately get a great deal of screen time, but that’s of a secondary importance to the quality of those limited minutes. (As well, that has less to do with the actor himself and more to do with how Coppola managed to filter down these many stories into a mostly cohesive narrative.) Within this fairly truncated time on screen, however, the man works wonders. He’s creepy, but he’s incredibly charming at the same time, to a point where you feel legitimate disappointment when he really and truly crosses a line. If you get rid of Franco’s talents in this role, the relationship changes completely and while it remains interesting to see what others might be able to make out of this little space, there’s no denying Franco inhabits it oh-so-perfectly.

Out of Character: ““There were a couple scenes that ended up not being in the movie, where I was being this reprimanding teacher. I just felt like, oh, man, what a bummer! I identified with the young kids.”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 

4-0


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Photo credits: http://www.pearlanddean.com 

 

TBT: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

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The dog days of summer are upon us. It’s August, and that means back to school for some and the vacations are mostly over for the families who have been basking in the glorious summer sun (though I look forward personally to some more reasonable temperatures. . . we pasty-skinned Brits burn just embarrassingly easily). Yes, August is the one month pretty much everyone aged 10 – 22 sort of thinks is a major buzzkill. But it’s not all bad news, when you think of some of the good old back-to-school (or even just school-related) flicks that have graced our screens over the years. Though they all pretty much boil down to the typical coming-of-age tale, who’s to say that’s not perfectly acceptable escapism from what really lies around the corner. . . . ?

Today’s food for thought: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

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Hanging with Mr. Hand after hours since: August 13, 1982

[DVD]

Oh, to be young and Spicoli again.

I wonder if that’s what Sean Penn thinks every time he glances back on this role (I don’t know what says he does, but humor me for a second, would ya?). . . .if he thinks this role in particular was his true blue Oscar. Truth be told, it is actually difficult picturing a stoner role landing the big whale in February but if there ever were a person. . .a character who came close, I’d say it’d be Penn’s righteously blown-out pot-smoking slacker.

No doubt he’s a highlight, but fortunately Penn’s representative of only one portion of the total population. Granted, his clique might be one of the more amusing and entertaining to hang with, but it’s a credit to the considerations of writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling (Clueless) that the story is filled with so much more, so many more different avenues that collectively create the high school experience. Sure, the decades have changed, but we all know the biggest thing that has affected is the hairstyles.

There’s something deeply true and honest about this immersive experience, something that goes beyond the dynamite chemistry between the vacuous Spicoli and the dreaded English teacher, Mr. Hand. In fact, I’ve got you covered. Here are (the) five reasons this classic is already in your collection (and if it isn’t, well then you’ve got your next project to work on. Rent it, and pronto Tonto!) . . . because, well, let’s face it. Not only are these five images amazing moments from the film, they do quite a thorough job pinning the high school population down to its core groups:

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Spicoli vs Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) These two have a very special relationship. Spicoli is not only one of Ridgemont’s most notorious pot-heads, he’s always late to class, a fact that never sits well with the disciplinarian Mr. Hand. Love ’em, hate ’em, but you just can’t get rid of ’em — the lazy student who always provides the rest of the class entertainment with his combative form of self-expression, and the teacher who is seemingly out to get everyone and make the semester hell. They make an entertaining combo for the film as well as prove to be a compelling example of teacher doing his job, while World’s Worst student learns the same about him. There’s beauty in the mutual respect they end up stumbling upon.

Quoted: “You dick!”

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Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) vs Unplanned Pregnancy Everyone knows a Damone — a lone wolf, the tough guy in the crowd. . .and, okay, so the one you know may not scalp movie tickets but this guy you know has similar schemes. He’s mostly a decent guy who has been endowed with the gift of gab and as such, fancies himself a ladies’ man. A bit misled, sure, but his constant confidence makes you feel good about not only yourself but the times you spend with him. However, is this the kind of dude who sticks around for the harder times? Is there more underneath, or is this just what you get — just a good-looking façade?

Quoted: “I mean, don’t just walk in. You move across the room. And you don’t talk to her. You use your face. You use your body. You use everything. That’s what I do. I mean I just send out this vibe and I have personally found that women do respond. I mean, something happens.”

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Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker) vs the Lincoln High football squad After Spicoli wrecks the crap out of Ridgemont’s star athlete’s beautiful Camaro during a joy ride, it’s all Spicoli can do to hide the fact it was him responsible, so in a panic he disguises the accident as an intentional act on the part of a rivaling high school football team. This causes Charles to fly into a rage, injuring several players in their next game in the process. True, there may be some sort of personality lurking deep inside, but you best not come across this jock after his most valuable possession has just been destroyed. We all have that special thing we can’t afford to lose. For most of us, though, that ain’t a Z-28.

Quoted: [forget the quote. Watch this clip.]

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Brad vs. Linda in Stacy’s bathroom Poor Brad’s had a heck of a senior year. Lost his job because of an obnoxious customer. Lost his second job because they made him wear a pirate costume (and also deal with obnoxious customers). Lost his girlfriend Lisa in the crossfire, and when he gets caught, shall we say. . . sorting something out in the bathroom at Stacy’s, he essentially loses his pride. But Brad’s not a bad guy, he’s just going through a rough phase and wants out of it, now. Who can’t identify with this feeling?

Quoted: “Mister, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to kick one hundred percent of your ass!”

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Mark (Brian Backer) /Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) vs Sexual Tension Without a doubt, here’s the pair that come the closest to anchoring the romantic component of those four angst-y, awkward years. Neither Mark nor Stacy have much of a clue when it comes to dating and romance, so when their respective friends Damone and Linda give them a few pointers, all bets are off when it comes down to taking friendly advice or doing what they both feel is the natural thing to do. They’re both sweet and charming and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can’t find something of their self in these two lovebirds.

Quoted: “You know Damone I always stick up for you. They say oh, Damone that loud mouth — and they say that a lot. I say ‘Oh, no you just don’t know Damone.’ I mean when they call you an idiot, I say Damone’s not an idiot. Well, you know something maybe they know you pretty good. Maybe I’m just starting to find out.”


4-5Recommendation: Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a staple of the early ’80s. While it hardly breaks free of its fair share of era clichés (well, I guess they’re more like stereotypes at this point), this fast-paced ride sheds light on all corners of the high school experience, carrying an optimistic and truly fantastic energy from start to finish, much in the same vein as The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused along with a handful of other lesser-known silver screen signets now owned on home video by millions of children of the ’70s and ’80s. I’m going to sound like a very broken record, but they just don’t seem to make comedies (or movies in general) like this anymore. And at the very bare minimum, see this one for one of Sean Penn’s greatest performances ever in his break-out role as Spicoli. You (probably) won’t be sorry.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

TBTrivia: Phoebe Cates’ reaction face in the above image is very, very real and natural. Fortunately, the thing she is reacting to is not. . .so much. . . .

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Palo Alto

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Release: Friday, May 9, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

One of the last memories I have from high school is staring at the giant inflatable penis dangling from the roof of the Farragut High gymnasium — actually it looked more like a cross than a penis because the way the balls were positioned relative to the shaft. It was the senior prank, and this is how I would be leaving the school behind. Now a landmark fading in the rearview, what was once vivid and colorful has become a grayish blur.

If, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to return to this time through contemporary film, I know I can always rely on the emotional highs and lows of the James Franco-produced Palo Alto for reassurance that I’m now in a better place.

I’ll admit that my walk through high school (ten years ago next May, yikes!) wasn’t exactly a story even the least-discerning director would probably target for a low-budget drama. It’s the folks who unfortunately found themselves often ignored, bullied, threatened or in some other way marginalized in their daily existence, who often surface in compelling cinema. There’s a reason to root for the oppressed and downtrodden in the films we have watched through the ages. The dorks have Revenge of the Nerds; the awkward outsider rightfully lays claim to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And there are others, of course.

Whereas these other titles more-or-less catered to cliques, Palo Alto is just ever so slightly more conscious of being all-inclusive, featuring a variety of students as well as their collective apathy that hangs in the air as thick as the humidity. Remaining faithful to its source material, Gia Coppola’s directorial debut is kaleidoscopic in its surveilling of several disparate, yet similarly troubled youth. Yet, the script remains uniformly brilliant in its rendering of circumstances and environments. And given the low profile of its cast, the film further benefits from the fact that we feel like we’re starting afresh with these young, unknown faces.

We first are introduced to good, but mischievous friends Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff), who are comparatively well-behaved on their own but their frequent hang-outs together foreshadow nothing but trouble. Then there’s the quiet and despondent April (Emma Roberts), about whom there’s a rumor circulating around the school involving the girl’s soccer coach, the popular Mr. B (Franco), and his wanting to sleep with her. And yeah, that’s bad, but at least she isn’t someone whose social status is reduced to her ability to provide sexual favors to anyone who happens to be in her vicinity, someone like Emily (Zoe Levin). We spend more time with these characters than anyone else, though there’s a few others on the fringe who are equally fragile; equally endangered to leading a life fraught with danger.

Palo Alto may drift around a bit in its attempts to weave all these narratives together in a cohesive thread. The occasional dull moment does surface but none of them really endures. What’s more important is that honest portrayals of the teen experience are in abundance, with attitudes ranging from the convincingly cocksure — (what’s this, Nat Wolff as the new Miles Teller?) — to the painfully ambivalent and numbingly apathetic.

Coppola also likes to take it one step further. Aided by solid work turned in by her young performers, she wisely produces a few compelling reasons as to the decay in these teens’ personal lives. For April, she starves for attention from her parents: Val Kilmer plays her stoner father who would rather rewrite her paper outright than give her helpful advice on how to improve; her mother frequently has to break off phone calls so she can say hello to her daughter. (Woe as me, the inconvenience.)

For the others, we experience less of a single catalytic event than we do a series of wrongdoings and psychologically harmful developments that push the students to extremes.

In the case of Palo Alto, authenticity cannot be dismissed. It also helps that, barring the odd one or two individuals, these are some of the most lovable characters any Coppola has ever presented us with. We may not always approve of their decisions, but this is the kind of disapproval that stems from knowing that we may very well have been doing the same things (if we could remember). We now just hope that these people have the resolve to move on from this; that this is all just a phase.

This is the kind of movie that provides the opportunity to think back on those times, reflect, and feel grateful for what’s been given. I for one, am grateful for that inflatable joke on top of my old gym. . .but I don’t know about you.

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3-5Recommendation: I’m trying to find a better word to use than ‘realistic’ as a way to recommend this film, but I’m failing pretty epically. It is, in every sense of the word, a realistic snapshot of high school life, even despite it’s inclusion of only a few stories. From the brutally honest performances, to the authenticated settings. . . . . even taking into consideration it’s moody (bordering on overly angst-y) soundtrack. . .  everything about Palo Alto screams authentic, and will likely bring back a memory (nightmare?) or two of everyone’s high school (or equivalent) experience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “This party sucks. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Hoosiers (1986)

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Well hello there. Welcome to a new month of some blasts from the past, and this time we indeed do have a few of those. I’d like to officially welcome you to NBApril. The NBA Playoffs are just around the corner at the end of this month. One film that comes to mind that is a great ambassador for the sports genre is the highly improbable story of an Indiana high school basketball squad that defies all odds to compete in the state title game. With impacting performances, a strong sense of nostalgia for a more simple time, and a wonderful if not familiar story, this week’s entry quickly gets us into the spirit of the post-season. 

Today’s food for thought: Hoosiers.

Hoosiers

Release: November 14, 1986

[DVD]

Welcome to humble old Hickory, Indiana, a hardened agricultural community that comes together every fall to get behind their high school basketball team, the Hickory Hoosiers. Small-town Indiana isn’t the kind of place that takes quickly, if at all, to the idea of change or going against the grain of tradition and routine. Getting set in a certain way gives the impression of consistency and stability. But when a new head coach is hired to coach the boys and he is anything but their ideal candidate, how will the town cope with the choice they are more or less forced to accept?

To put it insanely complicatedly, David Anspaugh’s riveting sports drama Hoosiers is a classic. One cannot think of a basketball movie and not have the iconic images found in this love-letter to the fifties in mind almost immediately. The throwback look and tones in his film recall a much more simple time, but it’s not so old-school as to avoid being relatable. It tells the story of a very unlikely high school team that goes on to compete in the Indiana State Championship game, adding in a few excellent twists on the conceit and establishing a strong sense of nostalgia not to be forgotten by those who have seen it.

The modest school had been looking for a new coach, when they finally came across Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)’s résumé. Dale was a man with an interesting reputation, with his last job ending in a firing for physically abusing his players. He arrived in Hickory, somewhat hat-in-hand, knowing his old friend Cletus (Sheb Wooley) would approve of his credentials.

But no sooner the news of the hiring broke out did Coach Dale get mobbed with questions from the inquisitive community at an impromptu town meeting held at the barber shop (of all places). From the get-go it’s apparent the outsider never had made friends quickly, and with this particularly opinionated crowd, Dale drove a much harder bargain by being short on words and light on reassurance that he was on their side. The way in which he performed his job would prove to be an even bigger shock, though the film’s overriding tension is established in the aforementioned scene.

Hickory High is a town so small its basketball team originated with seven players. On the first day of practice Coach let two of them go since they refused to pay attention while he was addressing them. It would be but one of many instances of him demonstrating his desire to control and drive his basketball team hard. He had purpose in Indiana, and was willing to do whatever it took to prove he had coaching chops despite what his personality may have lacked. Thanks to Gene Hackman’s committed performance, Dale was portrayed as a man with a fiercely competitive spirit that bordered on obsessive. It’s his clash with the community and the odds that were stacked against him personally that made Hoosiers such an engaging watch.

Though Hackman brought on a tour de force performance playing the controversial high school head coach, there was a second contribution that stood out as particularly memorable and emotional. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Coach Dale approached one of his player’s fathers, the town alcoholic Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper) and requested he become the team’s assistant coach. It was an offer not without strings attached, however. Dale informed Shooter he would need to clean up his act in order to be present at the games. It’s a memorable scene given Hoosier’s undeniable thematic search for second-chance opportunities. For Shooter, this was his own pivotal moment of redemption.

But for the young squad, their moment of redemption was standing behind a coach frowned upon by the entire Hickory community. During a second community meeting at town hall, in which a vote was to be taken regarding the future of Coach Dale as head coach, his players decided in order to do the impossible this season it would have to be with him and no one else. While it may be the movie’s most outstanding cliché, it hardly feels like one at the time. The team unity from this point on is actually incredibly inspiring. The Hickory Hoosiers proved almost everyone wrong as they advanced further in the tournament, eventually stunning the state by proving themselves worthy of a trip to Indianapolis to face the much more athletic and physically dominant team from South Bend.

Anspaugh did little with his direction to sway opinion on the film’s tendency to walk a cliched path. It’s very easy to set this fact aside, though, when the performances and circumstances were this good. Hackman is eminently watchable as the rough Coach Dale. The kids are a likable bunch of no-named actors who provided just enough charisma to give the illusion they were all the actual basketball team who accomplished the unthinkable. The illusion is one to be watched again and again. On top of being a thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the fifties, Hoosiers has incredible relevance. Though it was made in the 1980s, it’s unrelenting passion and focus on the game withstands the test of time as it seems just as inspirational a film for coaches to show their teams before competing in this year’s Final Four games as it probably was in the decade it came out in.

Exciting, engaging and tremendously earnest, this is a sure-footed underdog story that remains to this day a thoroughly investing and nostalgic watch. It’s one that can be enjoyed again and again, especially this time of year.

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4-5Recommendation: Though it undoubtedly helps to be a follower of the sport, Hoosiers compels as a true story dramatization even for non-fans. It’s beautifully shot and is imbued with a heartwarming tone that allows its central performances to truly flourish. If you want to talk classic basketball films, let’s talk Hoosiers.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Spectacular Now

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Release: Friday, August 2, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Miles Teller had but one chance left to impress before I completely wrote him off as an actor who may have talent, but is perpetually doomed to recycling poor role choices. Even though his resumé may be limited, there’s enough to notice the pattern of him being typecast as the boisterous, most extroverted alpha male in the room. Never one to take anything seriously, the 26-year-old Teller in drunken fiascos like 21 & Over and Project X has been highly unlikable and the movies themselves never led me to believe the kid could really act. Fortunately, that opinion needs to be amended, now that I’ve seen his work in The Spectacular Now, an unusually refined story that shows a young couple falling in love and dealing with the complicated realities of being on the cusp of adulthood. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story, but not one you’ve seen before.

Teller takes on a more civilized version of his once-and-future frat boy persona. Where he was once trying much too hard to channel his inner John Belushi circa Animal House with his high-spirited debauchery and general disregard for anyone around him (including his friends), his Sutter Keely is dressed in a decorum which really goes the extra mile in this new film from James Ponsoldt. While he’s still not my favorite element to the film (that recognition goes to Shailene Woodley’s stellar performance) this guy is a much more likable person and is one that is easy to get behind and root for. Finally.

Sutter’s that kid who refuses to think about the future. He lives very much in the moment, which is typically a healthy practice, but for him it’s become a mindset that has eroded more of his potential than fulfilled it since he seems content to just drift by in school, at his job and even in his relationships, all while embracing being king of high school — even if that is a clock that is set to expire pretty soon. Of course, he knows that, so isn’t that even more reason to remain in the here-and-now?

After a fall-out with his ex, Sutter goes on an inexplicable drinking spree (how does anyone get away with serving this kid when they know he’s underage?), gets tanked and drives home, which results in him laying in someone’s front yard, and being discovered by a concerned passer-by early the next morning. Thanks to his reputation, the girl immediately recognizes him, but he can’t quite put a name to this pretty face. She introduces herself as Aimee Finecky (Woodley). Call the rest history.

The film tumbles into a fierce love story between the two young stars that is intensely captivating. At a certain point, the performances and direction work so seamlessly that the script seems to be relegated to more of a guideline-type role and the real human element, the gut instinct, takes over. Being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, facing real-world problems suddenly with secrets being revealed about one another’s own families and their histories, there’s no doubt that in particular Sutter and Aimee’s transitional year from high school to. . . . . whatever comes next. . . is particularly turbulent. Well, more like explosive, and Ponsoldt was adept in capturing as many sparks as he could. The fact remains that while teenagers do “have it made” more or less, there’s a lot to figure out about one’s self this early on. This film utilizes that time period to explore some deeply personal and complex emotions and head spaces.

In the end, it’s the details that really arrest. From discovering certain underlying reasons as to why Sutter drinks just so damn much; to him convincing Aimee that she needs to quit doing the paper route for her mom (“Mom, get off my motherf**king back!” being one of the movie’s more memorable lines); to what happens on the side of a road one fateful night. The film is a complete tour-de-force as far as the emotional spectrum is concerned. It’s almost a little bi-polar — but that term doesn’t sound good, so we’ll just go with extremely moody. At the same time, it’s a complete package. The ups are terrific and moving, while the low points almost break you to pieces. The last thing I thought I would be doing would be nearly coming to tears concerning Teller’s character at one point.

At the end of the day, with me being completely nonplussed by Teller’s previous output and then being blown away by his performance here — that’s saying something. However, it should also be mentioned that he’s got plenty of great material surrounding him, but it’s obvious he has stepped up his game for this role. He’s really quite likable and to me that was one of the largest payoffs. With that said, the rest of the cast is simply wonderful as well and the movie benefits tremendously from top-notch work turned in by all.

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4-0Recommendation: This is an emotional rollercoaster and if this had a massively long queue lined up for it, it’s surely worth that wait. The cast bring career-defining performances (although for Woodley, she started off on an equally impressive foot with her work in The Descendants) and the events that go down here are all but guaranteed to affect everyone in attendance substantially. If not, then those are some pretty cold-hearted moviegoers. And I pity the fool(s).

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “What do you mean? Everybody’s got a story.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com