The Scarlett Johansson Project — #5

Another new movie experience and another lesson learned. The one we have to talk about this month has become something of a cult classic since its release nearly two decades ago. I can see how it has earned that reputation. It’s a very well-made movie, a realistic take on teen alienation that comes with a prickly sense of humor. Unfortunately I cannot say I enjoyed it very much. In fact the first third of this movie was a constant struggle not to hit the Back button on my remote.

In the Pros column, the performances are outstanding. They absolutely do their job. It’s cool to have finally seen the first comic book adaptation Scarlett Johansson took part in. This is a different kind of comic than what audiences are accustomed to seeing her in today. Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World is a movie with a defiant personality. It’s (mostly) costume-less, leisurely paced and gleefully misanthropic. This cynical dramatic comedy is based on the 1995 serial (later turned into a graphic novel) by Daniel Clowes, whose collaboration on the screenplay surely helped the film pick up that Oscar nom. The movie is also notable for being the role that put a young Scarlett Johansson on the map. She celebrated her Sweet 16th after it came out.

Ghost World has, oh let’s see, a 92% critical score and an 84% positive audience response on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a movie about outsiders, but I’ve been left at the end feeling like one myself. That’s not to say I didn’t identify with anything the characters were saying or that I didn’t understand what the movie was doing. I was just put off by the aggressively nihilistic attitude. I found it a struggle to really care about what happened to any of these characters after a certain point.

Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: With only the plan of moving in together after high school, two unusually devious friends seek direction in life. As a mere gag, they respond to a man’s newspaper ad for a date, only to find it will greatly complicate their lives. (IMDb)

Character Background: Rebecca is best friends with Enid. They’re a pair of misfits who have had each other’s backs all through high school. Now staring at a wide open calendar, they find themselves listless and aimless. They may not have plans like all the losers bound for college but they’re going to make it a goal to mess with other people’s plans. Yes indeed, the opening minutes prove they aren’t really the gossipy type. Trash-talking is more their style and everyone is a target — the crippled, the elderly and possibly senile, struggling parents and fugly waiters.

To her credit, even from the beginning Rebecca comes across as the more mature one. She often pulls up short of the line Enid is willing to cross. You also get the sense Rebecca is more popular with boys. Yeah she’s pretty but moreover she’s more approachable; she isn’t constantly spitting venom. The movie is about how the two friends eventually drift apart over the course of the summer. We get a steady trickle of moments where Rebecca demonstrates a desire to move on, to change. To grow. Director Terry Zwigoff, a bundle of anxious nerves himself, observes all these changes in the most mundane of ways but there’s clearly a sense of stability in Rebecca that we do not find in Enid.

What she brings to the movie: confidence, the kind only working with the Coen brothers can provide. Coming on the heels of The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World you can almost consider Part Two in a two-act coming-out party for the young teenage actor. She pendulums from a clearly not-shy teen in a 50s noir to a disaffected teenager in a post-Kurt Cobain world. The sultry and seductive voice that defined her character in The Man Who Wasn’t There is traded out for an amusingly dry monotone that rarely raises above calm speaking voice. Her portrayal is nuanced and authentic and, at least for me, the most sympathetic of all the main characters.

In her own words: “Terry just let us be ourselves. He understood that he cast two people who had really good chemistry. We were kid actors who, by that point, had started to understand how to do our job and explore this kind of naturalism that the film required. I think that is what is so great about Ghost World, is that it captures these characters at this very specific point in their lives.”

Key Scene: when Enid goes to visit Becca at work is one of my favorite moments in the movie. It perfectly captures the soul-crushing nature of minimum wage jobs, while also subtly introducing the fracture that ends up becoming quite a rift between the two besties. (Also, while I may not have really liked Thora Birch’s character, the movie gets bonus points for this being the only identifiable costume in this comic book adaptation.)

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):  


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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of the Criterion Collection 

King Jack

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Felix Thompson

Directed by: Felix Thompson

Writer-director Felix Thompson’s first feature King Jack is a prickly little 81-minute production that shuffles through a nameless, shambling suburban block somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Rather than offering anything in the way of a traditional narrative, it provides a window into the life of a young boy who must contend with neighborhood bullies, summer school and his annoying younger cousin.

Low-key, meditative drama ponders the nature of fate and consequence in small-town America, swamps of socioeconomic stagnation that give rise to trouble-seeking behavior and juvenile delinquency. Thompson’s fascinated in this teen with idle hands named Jack (Charlie Plummer), first seen spraying graffiti on a neighbor’s garage. His home life is far from ideal, what with an absentee father, an oblivious mother (Erin Davie), and an older brother Tom (Christian Madsen) who calls him ‘Scab.’

It’s not just at home where Jack faces conflict. Because his brother was something of a jock back in his high school days, nicknames like ‘Scab’ and ‘King Jack’ have become a part of the language throughout a community where high schoolers never really move on. Thugs like Shane (Danny Flaherty) are intent on perpetuating that tradition. It’s their rite of passage, an inheritance of “duty” not that dissimilar to what you see in popular gangster movies. With Tom having moved on, and now floundering in the real world as a mechanic with a gambling problem, the baton has been passed.

An element of survivalism pervades and is underpinned by gritty solemnity, a toughness that helps King Jack divorce from other troubled teen-centric indies. Events take place over the course of only one weekend, and yet a large chunk of the story finds its beleaguered protagonist wandering the streets rather than hanging around at home. Jack is something of a curiosity. He tries, like most sane people, to avoid confrontation but unlike the majority he also doesn’t do many things to endear himself to others — the way he treats his cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) as a prime example.

King Jack may be slight but its realism is potent. If you find the film speaking to memories of where you grew up it may even be poignant. Flaherty’s performance in particular is outstanding, a damning indictment of the futility of resorting to violence in order to deal with your own internal pain. But it’s Plummer toward whom I was constantly drawn, a solid young actor who plays both the victim and the instigator — often to heartbreaking effect.

Recommendation: King Jack probably won’t do much for those who seek closure and finality in their movies but it’s a solid little coming-of-age drama whose events are effectively and often provocatively depicted. King Jack also operates as a powerful anti-bullying PSA and I’d actually recommend it more strongly on that basis rather than on the merits of its cast and up-and-coming writer/director. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “Leave me alone. You’re not my friend. So don’t try to act like it.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Nerve

'Nerve' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jessica Sharzer

Directed by: Henry Joost; Ariel Shulman

If you accept the dare to watch Nerve, understand a few conditions first: 1) this is a teen-centric, sexed-up adventure thriller set in the Twitter Age, thereby you are volunteering up brain cells you’re never going to use again; 2) James Franco’s not in it, his lesser talented and less interesting younger brother is, along with Emma Roberts who is just as bland; 3) the film ends in such a way you may find yourself requesting a refund. If you accept these terms and conditions, by all means log in and join the action.

Based on Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel of the same name, Nerve addresses the addictive nature of social media and the Insta-Fame effect. It creates a world parallel to ours in which a kind of sadistic, cyber version of Truth-or-Dare (minus the Truth part) has become extremely popular. Er, rather, has ‘gone viral.’ Curious surfers are given the choice to either be a Watcher or a Participant — the film even helps itself to The Matrix‘ supply of red/blue pills in thinking we would feel shortchanged without the extremely hackneyed visual.

Watchers, yup, they just sit and observe (like total buzzkills) and Participants agree to do crazier and crazier things as requested by the Watchers, for increasingly large cash prizes. Sure enough, it has cost the lives of participants, as was the case one year in Seattle. Some poor sap apparently fell from the top of an industrial super-crane. Nerve enthusiast Ian (Dave Franco) witnessed the tragedy first-hand. How convenient that he happens to be Vee’s first challenge (kiss a random stranger for $100), parked in the very diner where she’s finally trying out the game “just this once.” She’s trying Nerve just so she stops feeling like the loser her friends have made her feel she is. It’s nice to see that peer pressure not only manifests as a theme but as an important plot device as well.

Unfortunately you can’t really just check this game out once and be done with it. There are two ways to lose the game: by Failing to complete a Dare or Bailing on it. When you lose, you don’t get the money. (I feel like there should be another consequence if you Bail, like Watchers reserve the right to kick your ass for being a ninny; merely losing the money just seems too easy.) Also, Snitches Get Stitches, people. Snitches . . . get . . . sti . . . I can’t believe I’m reviewing this movie. Long story short, Participants are strongly advised against seeking the appropriate authorities, even when you believe dares are getting out-of-hand. Even if they’re getting a little on the illegal side. If you do snitch, Watchers actually will come and kick your ass.

Nerve‘s frantic, coincidence-riddled narrative revolves chiefly around Vee’s experience as a Participant as she hooks up with Ian downtown and commits to a series of dares that have an immediate, positive impact on her bank account. Her mother, working the night shift as a nurse, is receiving a flood of notifications on her phone as a result. It’s raining virtual dolla-dollas! The adventure finds Vee completely breaking out of her shell — this happens so quickly you’d think she’s suffering from some sort of personality disorder — and leaving behind her boring, predictable self. To prove she’s got what it takes, I guess to be popular, she accepts one particular dare that demands she and Ian reach a speed of 60 miles an hour while the driver is blindfolded. Gee, I wonder how this turns out . . .

Character development is not a priority here, and it really should be. We shouldn’t feel numb when a friendship turns sour between Vee and her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade), when the latter accidentally overhears a private conversation between the two that Vee’s phone happens to pick up. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: one of the main complaints I’d like to file is the fact that in order for the game to work, they have to be capturing themselves on their phone’s camera. This naturally gives rise to a few preposterous moments.) We are supposed to laugh at the superficiality of Sydney’s concerns, that’s really the point. To all of this. Social media is the real enemy here!

Ignoring a plethora of contrivances — there are Watchers clinging to every single corner of the frame; they’re literally everywhere so dares come quick and they come often and always just at the right moment — Nerve still provides a perfectly serviceable experience for three quarters of its runtime. Energy levels remain high and the film glows in Michael Simmonds’ sleek cinematography. But then we run into the post-Hunger Games gladiatorial arena into which our internet sensation friends here are dropped and ordered to eliminate the other. The laziness of such a set-up should be enough to lose several, perhaps less patient followers — and then the twist happens. A twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, a bizarre kink that shamelessly deletes the villainous human component in one fell swoop. It’s like we never needed it to begin with.

For what it’s worth, Franco and Roberts make a good team and while their characters certainly fail, the names are just enough to make Nerve tolerable, but not enjoyable. Everything you could possibly fear about a movie geared towards the post-Twitter teenage bracket Nerve squeezes in in 96 short minutes. It’s firmly rooted in escapist entertainment. That doesn’t mean there aren’t redeeming qualities, but predictably each opportunity the film is given to rise above and become something better it bails for an easy way out. #fail

Dave Franco and Emma Roberts in 'Nerve'

Recommendation: Socially relevant commentary really could have used the Sophia Coppola touch. Her magic wand could have turned all the sexiness into something useful and she’s really good at crafting pictures aimed at an entitled generation who think the world revolves around them. Nerve, a giddy teen-centric outing that doesn’t really offer much at all, fits that bill. The end result is pretty disappointing given that the story has something to say. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Somebody is putting money into my account!” / “White people problems . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

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

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Scouts Guide movie poster

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Landon; Carrie Evans; Emi Mochizuki

Directed by: Christopher Landon

Where will you be when the apocalypse happens? With any luck, within reach of your trusty Swiss Army Knife!

Yes, I saw this film and yes I chose to watch it in a theater. Now that you’re doubting my credibility, I’ll try and stage a comeback here by arguing that watching zombies getting their heads lopped off by a trio of high school-aged scouts on a big screen carries with it a certain level of satisfaction. Satisfaction of the oh-man-I’m-pretty-buzzed-right-now-and-this-movie-is-already-better-because-of-it variety. Wait, I guess you can still do that at home. But the big screen. Okay, yeah, that’s my saving grace. It’s just on a bigger screen.

The film’s title leaves little to the imagination, which isn’t much of a surprise. What’s even more clear is how time-sensitive a film it is. Clearly pumped out just in time to make a beeline for the wallets of any teen who’s grown out of the trick-or-treating phase, Scouts Guide still manages to fall short of its potential. And this was a potentially very fun movie.

Christopher Landon (who’s behind Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) settles for a nonchalant, dare I say inept, style of directing that neither allows his talented cast nor interesting premise (I’m getting ahead of myself — potential premise) to flourish. Instead of gritting its teeth and plowing headlong into the realm of the ridiculous, his film instead retreats into yet another all-too-comfortable suburban tale of a group of innocent high schoolers who end up becoming the least-likely saviors of a very small town. I take less of an issue with the scope of the outbreak as I do with how pedestrian this affair becomes.

I’m complicit in this too, though: I bought a ticket. I gambled too much on the unique title.

Long time friends Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) are out on a camping trip as the last of a dying breed at their high school. They’re seemingly the only ones interested in Boy Scouts, but it’s Augie who is all gung-ho about the experience. The other two have resigned themselves to simply giving Augie moral support as neither of them believe in their extracurricular activities anymore, particularly when being led by Supreme Dork Scout Leader Rogers (David Koechner). During their camp-out the three have a semi-falling out when Augie catches the others sneaking off in the middle of the night to attend a party. Because, high school.

Soon weird things start happening, weird things that have been alluded to from the film’s ridiculous opening, a scene featuring Blake Anderson in an amusing but all too brief cameo. Inexplicably the gang are caught off-guard by a hoard of zombies who were, presumably, regular, tax-paying citizens. They form an alliance with a cocktail waitress — not a stripper (played with refreshing honesty by Sarah Dumont) — and begin fending off waves of lame zombies. They retreat away from the very convenience store they were earlier trying to dupe into selling them alcohol using a random drunk to do the dirty work, seeking shelter in a neighborhood that may or may not be relevant. Who cares.

Simultaneously the film retreats into formulaic self-defense strategy quicker than you can say ‘Cloris Leachman.’ (She’s a highlight of the film, receiving a juicy zombie part where she gets to bite poor Augie in the ass.) I am fully prepared to admit this moment is worth the watch. It’s priceless. For everything else this gimmicky titled production promises, there’s MasterCard.

That doesn’t even make sense. Neither does the Britney Spears rendition in the middle of the movie, nor the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it homage to The Thing. Nor the movie as a whole. Sometimes that’s enough to be entertaining, but when the overall direction is so lackluster, a lack of logic is more apocalyptic than anything.

Recommendation: Falling well short of its limited potential, Scouts Guide is a mixture of lame acting, special effects, some boobs, and limited roles for both David Koechner and Blake Anderson. Film does feature a strong female lead in Sarah Dumont, and that is certainly worth mentioning. Everything else though is uninspired, quickly thrown together for those hungover on the day after Halloween. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “Why the f**k do you think everyone’s eating each other?”

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

Some Kind of Hate

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Adam Egypt Mortimer; Brian DeLeeuw

Directed by: Adam Egypt Mortimer


This review is my fifth contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A big thanks to James for hooking this one up!


Adam Egypt Mortimer takes a stand against bullying in his feature film debut. The irony is he bullies viewers into sharing in his frustration using a relentlessly clichéd, propagandistic approach to make anyone watching feel really, really bad.

Someone has to do the job of course, because the acting department can’t. The comic book writer and short film director blends elements of real-life horror with a sprinkling of supernaturalism to produce Some Kind of Hate, a brutal and bloody take on the physical and psychological effects on targets of aggressive bullying. The cause is noble, but unfortunately the end product is so in-your-face it has an adverse effect. I found myself, especially circa the blood-soaked climax, cheering on neither said supernatural element nor the good guys, but rather the time marker on the film’s total runtime as it neared the end. Go! Go! Go!

The film starts off on the wrong foot and has to fight an uphill battle over the course of 80 minutes, sending its quietly angry protagonist Lincoln (Ronen Rubinstein) down a gauntlet of seemingly endless taunting and physical confrontation. We first see him getting intimidated by his loser father (Andrew Bryniarski) before leaving for school, where he’ll immediately get bullied by some dude with a tucked-in shirt. A crowd quickly gathers around the scene to make the incident as humiliating as possible. When Lincoln can no longer take it he reacts, rather brutally, which sets up the events of the rest of the movie in a fairly compelling fashion. He’s sent to a reform school in the middle of the desert where the counselors hope to unpack many of their campers’ issues and help them move forward with their lives.

Surprise surprise, Lincoln doesn’t find any sanctuary from his problems here either, as one of the campers takes it upon himself to make the new guy feel ‘welcome.’ It’s not until Lincoln retreats into the basement of one of the facilities that he finds some kind of solace from the hell that has become his life. But there’s something else down there waiting for him, watching him.

Chief among the issues facing this would-be-thriller is the frustrating lack of exposition regarding this reform facility, weirdly named Mind’s Eye Academy. The remote, arid location is certainly foreboding but there’s no lore, no exposition, no explanation. The camp leaders, themselves victimized by various forms of abusive upbringings — Michael Polish’s Jack and Noah Segan’s Krauss — are so vaguely defined that their creepiness comes across as a byproduct of nonexistent character development. Jack appears to enjoy meditating and speaking in hushed tones, while his underling isn’t sure what good the Mind’s Eye Academy is doing for anyone. Quite incidentally, neither are we. All we know is that this place serves one purpose and one purpose only: to stage some bloody scenes of supposedly justifiable revenge.

Some Kind of Hate rams its social commentary down your throat. Not only that, but there comes a point where the message becomes obscured by something more alarming: bullies may be bad but worse are the victims who don’t stand up for themselves. Grace Phipps’ troubled former cheerleader Kaitlin tries to convince Lincoln of this, and though he’s the closest person within earshot it’s evident she’s preaching to us. All of a sudden fellow campers start disappearing. That’s right folks, ‘innocent’ people are getting killed to death. Is it Lincoln? Lincoln seems to be the only one around here with a big enough chip on his shoulder to warrant suspicion.

Look, I’m all for a vicious revenge plot, if it’s executed well. (I admit that may have been a poor choice of words.) Few things are more gratifying than watching the baddies receiving their comeuppance, particularly when it’s been coming to them the entire time. Annoyingly, the film’s latter stages justify little more than the film’s quota of supplying the red gooey stuff. Some Kind of Hate had a message to send, but unfortunately it all gets lost in a production that is some kind of awful.

Recommendation: This B-horror film is certainly aimed at a niched audience. It features gore, unlikable characters and self-harm in almost equal measure. Count me out of that audience. Apart from a few creative and fun kills, there’s really not much to like about Some Kind of Hate as it carries all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: T.S. Nowlin

Directed by: Wes Ball

All this running and what, no exhaustion? One would think these kids were all born Olympians but in the interest of staying alive, I suppose running is what one must do. Wouldn’t it be funny though if Thomas just suddenly stopped in his tracks and pulled a Forrest Gump . . . and not the spry, hungry-for-life Forrest Gump we most often recall, I’m talking about the generally-over-life Forrest Gump: “. . . I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.”

Actually, I’ll admit that that was something I said towards the end of this ever-plodding, aimless sequel to last year’s sci fi adventure about a group of boys who are herded together and put into a mysterious maze-like complex with little chance of escaping, and even less chance of getting laid, but I guess that’s not part of it. Where the franchise-opener benefitted from originality — a relative term seeing as though this marks yet another Young Adult film adaptation designed to entertain all those youngsters with fewer things to say to one another thanks to their nifty iPads and SnapChat customizability — The Scorch Trials retreats into the shadows of its predecessor.

Wes Ball continues feeling uninspired in his adaptation of the James Dashner series, expanding the setting from a cramped ‘maze’ to a world overrun by sand dunes and crumbling edifice, assuming bigger automatically means better. The Scorch refers to the territory that lies beyond the confines of the facility Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) have since been taken to having escaped the glade. This is a place where they can mingle with the many other maze survivors. While they have been provided comfortable beds and proper meals three times a day, Thomas is unable to shake the feeling that they’re still under the control of WCKD, a mysterious organization supposedly created to find a cure for whatever nearly wiped out the entire human race.

The compound’s leader, a thoroughly generic Aiden Gillen (through no fault of his own) as Janson, tries to ensure Thomas that nothing sinister is afoot. But because Thomas is The Chosen One, he doesn’t believe him and has to find out what’s really going on. He meets loner Aris (Jacob Lofland) who shows him a secret passageway that leads them to discovering the horrible truth: indeed this place isn’t a safe house, it’s a testing laboratory. Indeed, this is as dystopian as The Scorch Trials gets. Bodies hooked up to machines, aligned in row after row after row as far as the eye can see. A literal body farm. The scene is fairly reminiscent of Neo’s horrifying discovery when he wakes up in the Real World after taking that red pill.

Finally, enough’s enough for Thomas. He decides he’s going to flex and bust out of this facility, taking along with him his loyal followers despite their hesitation. The remainder of the film sees the group, with the addition of two newcomers in Dexter Darden’s Frypan and Alexander Flores’ Winston, venturing out into the wasteland where they face death at the hands of zombie-like creatures known as Cranks, death by brutal exposure to the sun, and death by starvation, which appears to be the last thing these hardened warriors are going to succumb to. Even with scant resources, these kids seem impervious to hunger pangs. Thomas sets his sights on locating a group of mountain-dwelling people, survivors who have banded together to form The Right Arm, a primitive army ready to strike back at WCKD for their experimentation on whatever remains of mankind.

It is with this outlying community — the sequel’s raison d’être — Thomas attempts to join forces and plot a retaliation against WCKD. It helps to think of Thomas as a diet version of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas, leading his fearless (or just speechless) men and a couple of female survivors of another maze into battle against a likely insurmountable force. I suppose this development, especially after miles of plodding through desert, generates some excitement for the next chapter, The Death Cure. The Scorch Trials does end in a rather intense gunfight that, while wholly predictable given at this point in the film anything fits into that category, by comparison feels quite thrilling.

By the time we’ve stopped running it’s unfortunately all too apparent that The Scorch Trials is a tread-water sequel, offering too many action set pieces and too few character enriching moments. O’Brien still isn’t a very engaging screen presence, though he’s far from unlikable. Save for Barry Pepper, who pops up out of nowhere as a bearded post-apocalyptic hippie named Vince and Giancarlo Esposito as the mysterious Jorge, the adult roles either aren’t worth discussing (Patricia Clarkson and Alan Tudyk apparently are in this movie) or they simply don’t exist. That’s less of an issue in the grander scheme of things though, as I’m confident there was enough adult supervision on set of this middling action adventure flick aimed at audiences still having to sneak into films with an R rating.

Recommendation: I should probably emphasize this review is written from the perspective of someone who has not read the book series, nor the prequel series. I typically do not read source material before seeing a film but in this case, I’m wondering if having prior exposure to this world might enhance at the very least the performances. Having some sort of comparison between what the director gets right and what he chooses to do away with (according to some that was actually quite a lot) might’ve added to the experience. As a newcomer, I just couldn’t find a way into this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “I’m a Crank. I’m slowly going crazy. I keep wanting to chew off my own fingers and randomly kill people.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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?

635730030912993969-954295581_superbad1

#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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Grandma

Release: Friday, August 21, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Paul Weitz

Directed by: Paul Weitz

Grandma is a misleading title for a film dealing with taboos such as teen pregnancy and abortion. Presenting a thoroughly convincing conundrum in which a young girl turns to her unstable grandmother following a one-night stand that causes her to become pregnant, Paul Weitz’s latest deflects accusations of being just another political soap box movie with wonderful performances and a nonjudgmental tone.

I know what you’re thinking (other than the fact you can’t believe the guy who made American Pie came up with this one): this is one of those guilt-trip flicks, and it would be a good idea to have a position on the issue before watching. You wouldn’t be completely off-base by assuming this is a film with an agenda. After all, Weitz doesn’t really hide his feelings by using a teen as his subject. But Grandma is far less manipulative than you might (fairly) assume, maturing over the course of 80 short minutes into a heartfelt tale about motherly responsibility and the galvanizing power of familial love.

Lily Tomlin stars as the titular grandma, Elle Reid, a cantankerous sort who’s currently in a bit of a spat with her ex-girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) and having a difficult time financially. Clad in denim and dark clothes, her hair a perpetual mess, Elle is a somewhat obstinate older woman who can’t seem to get along with others. She’s not even particularly liked by other members of her family, though her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) is more level-headed and understanding than Elle’s own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Sage approaches Elle because she believes she will be more willing (not necessarily more able, as the film will prove) to assist her. The pair set off on a quasi-adventure, scouting the area for people who’d be able to help them raise the $600 needed for the procedure. In the process the two become closer to one another.

Their mission is sort of time sensitive, as Sage makes an appointment the same day she asks Grandma for help. Nat Wolff plays the (not good) guy in question. He’s the first of many whom Elle and Sage seek out and, predictably, he refuses to chip in. So Elle righteously smacks him in the crotch with the handle of a hockey stick. (I don’t know if she was attempting to prevent him from making babies in the future, but it sure looked that way.) We move on down the road, coming across many of Elle’s old acquaintances and friends — a tattoo parlor owner named Deathy (nice, that’ll keep customers coming back); an employee working in a small restaurant where Elle’s ex used to work . . . although it turns out Elle was wrong about her employment status; and an old flame in the form of Sam Elliot’s Karl who sniffs out Elle’s ulterior motives quickly.

Grandma isn’t ambitious. Neither is its leading pair — whose age gap actually makes for an unusual and compelling dynamic. Merely seeking a way to solve Sage’s current crisis, they are people we can really get behind and root for, despite our feelings on the subject. With a story involving abortion, there’s no chance of it escaping the label of ‘controversial,’ ‘bold,’ or other similar, neutral descriptions. Tomlin’s highly entertaining performance makes for a well-rounded and fleshed-out Elle; young Garner impresses as the troubled teen, and though innocence radiates from her in contradictory fashion, that’s sort of the point. The situation having befallen her is more shocking than the decision she makes on her own.

At the same time, Weitz is really putting himself out there, tackling such hot button topics as abortion, sexuality and parenthood, the latter obviously being the least hot button of them all. The way he blends his themes together is ambitious. That he can infuse the drama with a decidedly heavier comedic touch is a plus. Grandma‘s breezy narrative traces the long-term effects that parenting can have, while offering incisive commentary on the different values each generation seems to adopt and discard accordingly. You may not agree with the characters’ decisions but it might be easier to agree that Sage’s grandma is pretty awesome.

Recommendation: A slight production, Grandma could have been a prickly little pear but thanks to heartwarming performances and a genuine understanding of the importance of family it is hardly confrontational. I actually find it to be one of the better non-family-oriented family films of recent times (if that makes any sense at all — basically, don’t take the kids to this one). I’m a newcomer when it comes to Lily Tomlin but I have found one of the year’s greatest performances. Tomlin really makes this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Release: Friday, August 7, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Marielle Heller

Directed by: Marielle Heller

If there was a film this year that epitomized the expression ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ uh . . . yeah, this is it.

In hindsight the suspect title is rather ingenious. ‘Teenage’ is certainly specific, and so is ‘the diary’ for that matter. Those aren’t the key words in the title, though. Instead, this film could have easily been titled The Diary of THE Teenage Girl, and with a simple change in articles, instantly there vanishes the personal space Marielle Heller, in an impressive directorial debut, explores invades. By reducing the scope to an individual experience rather than assuming to speak for a generation of kids going through adolescence, Heller injects her film with an intimacy that makes the film a difficult one to look away from even while being pretty uncomfortable to watch.

The teenager in question is Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), daughter of hard-partying, image-obsessed Charlotte who is played by Kristen “I’m everywhere now and movies are better because of it” Wiig. Charlotte and her first husband are divorced and she is now seeing the handsome, mustachioed Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). While Minnie’s curious, personal confession at the beginning — she’s just had sex for the first time and can’t stop thinking about it — is the kind of opening that quickly grabs attention, but is it enough to sustain it? Fortunately, this diary is loaded with dirty little secrets that slowly expose a family undergoing a major crisis.

Minnie is coming of age in a San Francisco set in the 1970s. Her sexual awakening encourages a series of pretty poor decisions. Her desires lead her into an affair with Monroe, who admits to having had feelings for her for sometime. Minnie hasn’t felt much attention from anyone for as long as she can remember. Perhaps the worst offender has been her own mother, who is more obsessed with extending the long-since-past days of the summer of love; Charlotte is frequently seen drunk and hanging sloppily off of Monroe’s shoulder, the pair adrift in a sea of smoke that fills the house top to bottom. Sometimes friends come over and ingratiate themselves in the cocaine that’s making the rounds.

In a corner and by herself, Minnie has her sights set on Monroe. Monroe every so often acknowledges her in the same room, but the action — yes, that action — will have to wait until later. That clandestinity is sketchy all on its own, but when factoring in age difference and the potential for the relationship to turn legally incestuous, it’s often amazing how Teenage Girl massages the risqué into something that resembles empathetic behavior. Not necessarily relatable behavior, but the kind of stuff that suggests teenage rebellion.

Heller doesn’t set her sights on perverting romance, and hopefully that wasn’t the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, either. For a film shot from the perspective of a confused teen, more often than not the sexual content is taboo rather than romantic. Performances from the lead trio — Powley being the most memorable of all — are across-the-board fantastic. Wiig is continuing a hot streak that’s lasted several years at this point, while Skarsgård challenges Wiig for the least likable adult character. Relative newcomer Powley, though, is the heart and soul of Teenage Girl‘s unusually intense angst and she will be remembered for her bravery here. Dressed down and with a crop of bangs that perhaps too lazily suggests unattractiveness, Powley’s natural prettiness is still visible but never becomes distracting.

That’s mostly because she fits so well into the environment. The film impresses with its strong production design — soft lighting and a dull color palette matches the air of melancholy that represses the Goetze household, as well as the general moroseness of an America trudging through a post-60s hangover. Scenes that don’t take place at home are largely fixated on dark and depressing knooks and crannies. Mood is inescapable. So are the awkward moments. But hey, at least they aren’t the kind you might associate with a film titled The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Recommendation: A likely underwhelming box office draw due to its title, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an authentic, emotional film about a life in transition. Tinged with a romanticism that’s not immediately obvious, the film works on many levels. Well-performed, unexpectedly dark and beautifully captured, I simply have to recommend giving this one a fair chance.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I’m better than you, you son of a bitch.”

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It Follows

it-follows-poster

Release: Friday, March 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: David Robert Mitchell

Directed by: David Robert Mitchell

Subtly unsettling and certainly spooky the unseen, inexplicable threat at the heart of It Follows is not likely to strike you right away, but if you let it that paranoid feeling will eventually find you.

David Robert Mitchell has come up with a new way to move unsuspecting audiences. By allowing us to conjure in our own minds the worst things possible before exposing us to that which we haven’t quite thought of yet, his sophomore — not sophomoric — effort becomes one of the more inventive horror films in recent years. It may not top the list of films that purport to “scare” — a goal that seems to be becoming increasingly unrealistic — this heady mixture of atmosphere and suspense is far more concerned with making filmgoers uncomfortable. Perhaps the scariest thing about this film is how effective it is in doing just that.

The term ‘safe sex’ may never be thought of the same way again. Maika Monroe makes a more aggressive effort to be recognized by a wider (eyed) audience as 19-year-old Jay Height, a role that follows on the heels of her eminently watchable Anna Peterson from last year’s The Guest. After she and her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) share an intimate moment in the back of her car what has heretofore been a pleasant date night spirals into a harrowing and surreal nightmare that defies explanation. She is drugged by Hugh and later wakes up bound to a chair in a decrepit facility where he proceeds to try and offer some clarification as to what is going on.

Something is after Hugh and he tells her that now she’s had intercourse with him, whatever that something is — I’m not being intentionally vague, the film never allows us to know precisely what this terror actually is — will now be after her. She must sleep with someone else in order to rid herself of this apparent plague, a passing of a most disturbing baton.

It Follows manages to plumb anxiety and fear from deep within over the course of a slow burning, eerie 100 minutes. It helps that the source of this . . . yeah, we’ll just go with ‘plague’ for now, stems from a very personal yet universal experience. Coupled with the fact that every character featured is likable on some level, the indescribable nature of the events — the victim can see the pursuer but no one else can — starts to manifest as something truly horrific. We want Jay et al to overcome this, to escape her slow slide into psychosis and yet the way Mitchell constructs his story we have little choice but to accept that perhaps things just aren’t that simple.

Similarly to Adam Wingard’s adrenaline-spiking throwback to the 80’s, It Follows builds tension and carries momentum on the back of a mesmerizing soundtrack. If it’s not some of the more striking visual imagery that pops out arguably too infrequently throughout, then it’ll be the haunting presence of Disasterpeace’s slinking, sauntering electronica. There are a number of destined-to-be-classic tracks featured here. Fortunately the performances from a relatively unknown cast don’t let the music to do all the talking. And the carefully chosen settings, while nothing that screams big budget, set the tone early for creating a sense of inescapability and hopelessness. We get quaint suburbs, grotesque beach scenes, and an unforgettable stake-out in an aquatic center to name a few.

It Follows doesn’t need in-depth analysis. What it really needs is a wide audience, which it does seem to be receiving now. It needs to be seen, it needs to be felt. Is it too early to call this a future cult classic? Perhaps, but it won’t be a stretch to imagine that happening. Creativity runs amok in this highly effective slice of modern horror, a film where the term ‘thriller’ might be too liberally applied. I’d much prefer to label this one a chiller.

it-follows-opening

4-0Recommendation: David Robert Mitchell cranks up the tension from the opening shot. Patience might be tested for some as there isn’t a great deal of fast, frenetic action, and there’s certainly an absence of those “classic” jump scare tactics. That’s chiefly why It Follows has this ability to follow you out of the theater. It’s disturbing in a realistic way. For anyone wanting a refreshing change-up within the genre, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

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