The Myth of the American Sleepover


Ships that pass in the night.

Ships that pass in the night.

(2010) Coming of Age (Sundance Selects) Jade Ramsey, Nikita Ramsey, Amy Seimetz, Amanda Bauer, Jean Louise O’Sullivan, Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton, Brett Jacobsen, Annette DeNoyer, Wyatt McCallum, Mary Wardell, Steven M. Francis III, Megan Boone, Madi Ortiz. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

The last day of summer is a bittersweet affair for a high schooler. The sweet freedom of summer vacation is at an end and the school year is about to begin. The latter of course is the grind of homework and classrooms but also the possibilities of being another year older, another year closer to adulthood with everything that entails, the good and the bad.

In a small town in Michigan, that can be especially poignant. Small towns have their hierarchy, their social strata when it comes to high school. And being a small town, everybody knows everybody, everybody knows their place and that place is mainly in a town where nothing much ever happens.

Rob (Morton) runs into a beautiful blonde (Ortiz) and spends the night chasing her all over town. Fiercely independent Maggie (Sloma) chooses not to go to the party she was invited to but wants to go to something far more adult because she has an eye for pool boy Cameron (Francis). New girl in town Claudia (Bauer) is a bit of an outcast among the other girls because she has the gall to have a boyfriend (trollop!) of her own. And college-age Scott (Jacobsen) drives back to town from Detroit in order to pursue his high school dream girls the Abbey twins – Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey), ending up spending an evening discussing who he loves most and which twin actually loves him.

This is not a Project X destruction of property drunkathon. Sure the alcohol flows liberally but the point here isn’t getting into a coma; it’s to get to a point of comfort and confession. There is a bit of a mellow feel that is a refreshing counterpoint to the usual frenetic coming of age teen sex comedies.

And don’t fool yourselves, sex is the central issue here although the focus is more on discussing it rather than doing it. Which if you think about it is pretty much true for most teens. First-time director Mitchell gives the movie a more or less authentic feel – although my teen years were spent in the suburbs and not a small town, the characters here seem pretty familiar and realistic to me.

The trouble might just lie in the familiarity. While most of the actors here are relatively inexperienced, Sloma stands out mostly because she radiates more personality and attitude than the other actors. From my standpoint she seems to be more developed and perhaps more natural than the other actors – none of whom disgrace themselves, I might add. But Sloma stood out as someone with potential for a pretty serious career. The rest of the cast looks so youthful that at times they look like children dressing up as adults which could serve as a definition of teenagers in some ways.

The trouble is that in making the teens realistic teens that we are treated to one of the main drawbacks to being a teen – the not really knowing what you want or how to get it. Because of that, the film lacks a certain amount of focus, wandering seemingly aimless through plot points. And with that teenage concern for being hip and happening and up-to-the-minute, there’s a sense here that the filmmakers are a bit too self-aware about their own film – I have a feeling that in 20 years this movie will be exceptionally dated.

As first efforts go I’ve seen worse. You have to give the filmmakers props for making a coming of age teen sex dramedy more thoughtful and less raunchy. It portrays kids as more than just their hormones, which is also a worthy achievement. With some better story-telling and fewer characters, this might have been an important film. As it is there are too many storylines to really get you time to get involved with any of the characters. While there were no parents anywhere in the film (and precious little adult presence), you get the sense that Mitchell had parents in mind when he made this because it seems to me that this is a teen coming of age movie aimed at their parents more than at the teens themselves.

WHY RENT THIS: A more sensitive, indie version of the teen sex comedy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders aimlessly in places. Sometimes too self-conscious.

FAMILY VALUES: Sex and lots of it; actually more accurately, discussions about sex more so than depictions of the act itself. Also a pretty liberal use of foul language and some teen drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trip from suburban Detroit to Ann Arbor that Scott undertakes is about 50 miles give or take.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41,045 on an unknown production budget; although it’s production costs were certainly quite low, I’m reasonably sure that it lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

Stone


Stone

Milla Jovovich gets steamy with Robert De Niro in hopes it might win her an Oscar.

(2010) Thriller (Overture) Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Rachel Loiselle, Peter Lewis, Sandra Love Aldridge, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sarab Kamoo, Dave Hendricks, Rory Mallon. Directed by John Curran

Some of us go through life as blunt objects. We’re cudgels, beating people over the head until they realize what we’re trying to get across. Others of us are sharp objects. We’re scalpels, sliding in unnoticed and making changes in the minds of others sometimes without them even knowing it.

Jack Mabrey (De Niro) is a cudgel. He is a parole officer at a Michigan prison, close to retirement and welcoming not having to deal with the lowlifes and scumbags that he is forced to release back into society. Then again, Jack is no saint either; when his wife threatened to leave him some years back, he counter-threatened her by dangling their baby out the window and promising to drop it three stories onto the pavement. Mrs. Mabrey (Conroy) decided to stay, finding solace in religion which Jack seems to accept; he listens to religious programming on the radio.

His last case is to be Gerald Creeson (Norton) who goes by the nickname of Stone. All corn rows and badass talk, Stone wants to be paroled in the worst way. He’s quite a manipulator, not above using his very hot and sexy schoolteacher wife Lucetta (Jovovich) to seduce Jack. And Jack, for all his Christian values and professional ethics, isn’t above being seduced.

The questions become who is playing who in this scenario. How far is Lucetta willing to go to get her husband out of prison? Is Stone aware of what she’s doing or she the one pulling the strings? Is Jack more aware of what’s happening than he lets on?

This is not your typical drama – it’s not a procedural on the parole system, for one. It’s almost Southern gothic despite its Michigan setting and it’s a script that doesn’t assume the people who are watching the movie are drooling idiots. No wonder it bombed at the box office.

In fact, sometimes the movie is a bit too smart for its own good; you’re constantly left wondering who’s doing what to who and what’s really going on and at some point after all that build-up you want an answer to those questions that will be impressive – and when you don’t get one, you kind of feel let down.

You won’t be let down by the acting here. De Niro is a powerful presence and while this isn’t Jake La Motta or Vito Corleone, he imbues Mabry with a kind of brutal gravitas. It’s the kind of work only De Niro can do, and when he is on his game as he is here, you can see why he’s one of the best that ever was.

Norton is also one of the best actors out there and he has an entirely different role, one which shows his versatility. He is white ghetto trash; a rap-listening corn-rowed trickster who gets off on making people dance to his tune. It’s a powerful performance, as different as night and day as De Niro’s but equally as impressive.

What is surprising is Jovovich who isn’t ordinarily thought of as the same caliber of actress as the two male leads but she holds her own. Her character is vivacious, charming, calculating, cunning, sweet, sexy and devious all at once. It’s a marvelous character which makes you look at your local schoolmarm with different eyes.

Where the film falls down is surprisingly on one of its strengths; it’s intelligence. You are given so many scenarios and so many questions that your head can’t really wrap around them all. While repeated viewings might solve this problem, this really isn’t a movie I’d want to see repeatedly. Also, I had trouble with the relationship between Stone and Lucetta; it needed to be spelled out a bit better.

Usually I don’t have an issue with smart films, but you can’t be smart for no other reason than to be smart. There has to be some rhyme and reason and if it isn’t there, you’re going to give your audience a headache. You don’t want your viewers first impulse to be to grab the Excedrin; that’s a bad thing. Still, there are some elements that are gripping and seeing De Niro and Norton at their best is surely worth considering.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro, Norton and Jovovich all contribute strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cerebral plot overthinks things. Some of the characterizations don’t ring true.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, a little violence and a whole lot of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filming location for the prison scenes, the Prison of Southern Michigan, was once the largest walled prison in the world.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Cell

30 Minutes or Less


30 Minutes or Less

Some guys don't look intimidating at all, even when they have ski masks and guns.

(2011) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Michael Pena, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward, Brett Gelman, Ilyssa Fradin, Paul Tierney, Rebecca Cox, Rick Irwin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Ruben Fleischer previously directed the hit horror comedy Zombieland which starred Jesse Eisenberg. Both of them are back for a follow-up, leaving me curious as to just what kind of film we’d be seeing.

Nick (Eisenberg) is a slacker who has been delivering pizzas for awhile. He has little ambition beyond getting stoned and hanging out with his friend Chet (Ansari) who at least has sufficient ambition to rise beyond being a part-time substitute teacher to becoming a full-time one. Neither of them seem to have much drive to move past the surroundings of Grand Rapids, Michigan where they reside. However when they get into a fight and discover their worst secrets – Nick slept with Kate (Vadsaria), Chet’s sister, and Chet was the one responsible for letting Nick’s dad know that his mom slept with a lifeguard, ending their marriage and leading to his dad leaving town for good – the two split up.

Dwayne (McBride) chafes in the shadow of his father, the Major (Ward) who is sitting pretty off of a $10 million lottery win. The Major feels nothing but contempt for his unemployed son, while his son wants his dad to hurry up and expire so he can still inherit what’s left of the lottery fortune, which the Major has been squandering in a hurry. Dwayne and his best friend Travis (Swardson) are chased out of the house by the major and wind up hanging at a local strip bar where a stripper named Juici (Kajlich) implants the idea that Dwayne should kill his dad and inherit now, hinting that she knows someone who can do the deed – for a hundred grand.

But Dwayne and Travis don’t have fifty bucks between them, let alone $100,000 – until Travis suggests robbing a bank, which might not work that well since neither one of them know how. That’s when Dwayne comes up with the brilliant (but demented) idea to get some other schmuck to rob the bank for them. A pizza delivery guy, for example.

Nick is lured to their junkyard with a pizza order; they knock him out and attach a vest to him with an explosive device. When he awakens, the two would-be criminal masterminds tell him he has ten hours to rob the bank and bring $100,000 to them otherwise they’ll detonate the bomb. Nick, panicking, goes to Chet who after initial horror agrees to help his friend on the condition that he never see his sister again.

In the meantime, Juici is plotting with Chango (Pena), the hitman she had referred to – who happens to be her boyfriend – to take the money and run away with her. Double crosses are in the air – everyone is planning to betray everyone else. How will Nick and Chet escape the crossfire, assuming these two slackers can figure out a way to rob the bank?

As good as Zombieland was, 30 Minutes or Less is less consistent. Uneven in its pacing, I get the sense that they couldn’t decide whether to make a caper comedy or a raunchy drug comedy. The movie tends to be better when it goes with the former and less successful when it channels Cheech and Chong.

While all of the main characters have a following and a certain amount of success – Ansari in “Parks and Recreation,” Eisenberg netting an Oscar nomination in The Social Network for example – none of them have been actors I’ve been particularly fond of and to be honest, this movie doesn’t change my mind for any of them other than Swardson, who with his 70s porn star moustache and puppy dog attitude at least displays a certain amount of charm.

None of the rest of the leads are likable enough for me to particularly care much about any of them, a bad thing for a movie. I could forgive that however, if the movie was funny enough to sustain interest but in fact it only does so sporadically. Some of the scenes seem to want to dumb things down until only a one celled creature could possibly find it amusing.

I wish the movie could have been a little more consistent and a little less wishy-washy because it really did have some pretty funny moments. Unfortunately, they were few and far between enough for me to recommend that you find other ways to spend your movie dollars.

REASONS TO GO: Swardson does some nice work and when the movie works, it’s very funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely inconsistent, the pendulum swinging from too raunchy and dumb to smart and funny in a heartbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of crudity, and a little bit of nudity. There is some language most rough and some violence a little tough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an incident eerily similar to the one depicted here when on August 28, 2003, pizza delivery man Bryan Douglas Wells entered a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck in Erie, Pennsylvania with a very similar story. However, it ended badly as the bomb detonated as the police approached, killing Wells instantly.

HOME OR THEATER: Home, more like.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Operation: Endgame

Please Help


While this is a movie review site, I’d like to take the time to ask all of my readers a favor.

I’d like to introduce you to Kellyn Nabozny, a student in Michigan. She’s the pretty gal in the picture above. She is an amazing young woman, someone who has been dealt a few lousy cards by life. Most of the details are on the site I’ll be directing you too and it’s explained much more concisely there than I ever could here but here’s the skinny; she needs a service dog.

She has some serious neurological issues that leave her barely able to walk (with the aid of a walker) as well as back issues that leave her in chronic pain, unable to bend at all which means she needs assistance to do even the simplest of tasks. She is a beautiful 23 year old woman who has been going to school and running her own business – a bakery and catering business – until a combination of mounting medical bills and her pain and neurological issues rendering her unable to do the physical work needed.

Her website will enable people to donate money to help her get her dog. Service dogs are expensive propositions and Kellyn needs the dog to help her get around and lead a normal life. I’m asking all of you who stop by to read my reviews to take a gander at her site and if you can, donate whatever you think is appropriate. Even a $5 donation, the cost of a cup of coffee, can help change this young lady’s life for the better.

Come on down and meet Kellyn at this site. Please give if you can. Thanks.

Tooth Fairy


Tooth Fairy

Even a hockey setting couldn't save this movie.

(2010) Family Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Judd, Julie Andrews, Steven Merchant, Ryan Sheckler, Seth McFarlane, Billy Crystal, Chase Ellison, Destiny Grace Whitlock, Ryan Sheckler, Brandon T. Jackson. Directed by Michael Lembeck

The belief of a child is precious and powerful at once. Attacking that belief – whether it is in the infallibility of its parents, or the existence of Santa Claus is a profound turning point in their lives.

Derek Thompson (Johnson) is a goon on a minor league hockey team in Lansing, Michigan who has garnered the nickname of “Tooth Fairy” for all the dental work he’s sent opposing players for (although I have to point out that no self-respecting hockey player would have a nickname that contained the word “Fairy”).

Off the ice he’s an affable enough sort, although he’s a bit of a self-centered jerk. His girlfriend Carly (Judd) has two kids that he has trouble relating to. Randy (Ellison) is a sullen teenaged annoyance who gets what little pleasure he gets out of life from his music. Tess (Whitlock) is a bit of a dreamer and Derek, who has been jerked around by life, having never had the talent to go very far in the game he loves, tells her that there’s no tooth fairy and even steals the money from under her  pillow. Now that’s a douchebag. It also gets him the heave-ho from the only good thing in his life – his relationship with Carly.

Well, the powers that be hear about this and boy, are they miffed. Derek is sentenced to spend a week as a tooth fairy (apparently there are a whole bunch of ‘em) in penance for trying to attack the belief of a child. Those powers that be, they don’t mess around.

There Derek meets Lily (Andrews), the head fairy which is kind of an executive position as it turns out; Tracy (Merchant), an adenoidal fairy without wings who is Derek’s case worker, and finally Jerry (Crystal), a kind of Q Division fairy who gives Derek all sorts of gadgets such as a horn that scares off cats and a shrinking potion. These fairies, they’ve got a hell of an R&D department.

At first Derek is just there to serve out his time and doesn’t take much care in doing his job properly until he begins to learn what tooth fairies mean to kids…and what kids mean to them. The arrogant, selfish Derek begins to morph into a kinder, gentler Derek. But is it too little, too late?

After a promising start in action films, Johnson moved into family-friendly movies like this one. He’s become quite a staple in them and his easygoing personality make him a natural, plus his notoriety as a former WWE wrestler makes him even more kid-friendly. I like Johnson in roles that utilize his comic abilities, but his formidable skills as an action hero have been seriously missed.

He’s got a pretty decent cast behind him; Andrews and Crystal certainly perform as advertised, but their roles are brief and are in fact little more than cameos (Crystal goes uncredited in the film). Merchant has a more sizable role but his eager beaver caseworker comes off a little too forced, a little too bland.

Frankly, I’m surprised Disney didn’t snap this up; they’ve made these sorts of movies for decades and nobody does it better than they do. I think the movie could have used the Disney touch a little bit; still, Johnson is just so damned likable that you can’t help but like him in the movie, even though he’s a bit of an arrogant prick for much of it.

Kids will probably love the movie for the whimsy shown with the tooth fairies and some of that is actually pretty fun. Unfortunately, even the charismatic Johnson can’t save this movie from an overabundance of kid flick clichés.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock on ice. Need I say more? Also some nice cameos from Crystal and Andrews.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Typical family fare that Disney does so much better

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and a bit of rude humor on the family-friendly side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Billy Crystal’s first live action movie role in eight years.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sing-along feature with Johnson and Merchant called “Fairy-oke” and a kid’s workout video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.3M on a $48M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Barney’s Version

Somewhere in Time


Somewhere in Time

A better looking pair of people we may never ever see again.

(1980) Romantic Fantasy (Universal) Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer, Teresa Wright, Bill Erwin, George Voskovec, Susan French, John Alvin, Eddra Gale, Audrey Bennett, W.H. Macy. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Sometimes being with the one you love isn’t an easy task at all. Distance and circumstance can get in the way, as can the disapproval of others. But what if the one you want to be with lived 60 years earlier?

Richard Collier (Reeve) is a budding playwright who is having a play produced at a community college. The future looks bright for this young man – Broadway producers are sniffing around for his work and he’s got his whole life ahead of him. However, at the cast party, something odd happens; an elderly woman (French) walks in, presses an antique pocket watch into his hand and says “Return to me,” then walks out without another word, a strange little half-smile on her face.

Flash forward eight years. Collier’s now a successful playwright living in Chicago but his life is lacking something. He has no girlfriend, no love life and he is having a hard time writing his next play. He decides to take a breather and goes out on a weekend trip – he has no idea where he’s going, he just gets in his car and drives. He eventually winds up on Mackinac Island – a beautiful island in Michigan (note to purists: while cars aren’t allowed on the island, the production team got special permission to use them just this once). He espies the gorgeous, Victorian-era Grand Hotel and something about it calls to him. He pulls into the hotel and checks in.

He is escorted to his room by Arthur (Erwin), a bellman who has been at the hotel since he was five, back in the 1910s. The view is magnificent from his room and the ambience is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Collier goes down to the hotel dining room only to discover they won’t be open for another 45 minutes. He decides to wander around the lobby and discovers the Hall of History, dedicated to preserving artifacts from the hotels storied past. That kind of thing is of interest to Collier so he browses, but he feels something behind him, beckoning. It turns out to be a photograph of a beautiful woman, the nameplate for which has fallen off.

It turns out her name is Elise MacKinnon (Seymour), a renowned turn-of-the-century actress who once appeared in a play in the hotel’s theater. She became something of a recluse in her later years. Collier becomes obsessed with her. He checks out everything in the library that’s ever been written about her, which isn’t much. However, he discovers that she had a local woman as a caretaker, so he decides to visit her. That’s where he discovers that MacKinnon was actually the elderly woman who visited him with the pocket watch, on what would turn out to be the night she died.

He notices a book on time travel in her collection that an old college professor of his wrote. It turns out that if you hypnotize yourself properly, you can actually send yourself back in time where you will stay – so long as you don’t break the “spell” by seeing something anachronistic. So, he buys himself a turn of the century suit, fills his pockets with coin of the era and starts talking to himself. However, it works – he finds himself back in 1912.

He does manage to meet the lustrous MacKinnon who asks him “Are…you…the one?” to which he replies, “Why, yes…yes I am” which is the right answer, even if you aren’t the one. It’s love at first sight which is big trouble to MacKinnon’s Svengali-like manager W.F. Robinson (Plummer). However, despite all Robinson’s best efforts it appears obvious that MacKinnon is destined to be with Richard forever. However, fate has a cruel twist in store.

There are many who consider this one of the best romantic fantasies of all time, if not the best. French director Szwarc directed this from a nifty screenplay by Richard Matheson who adapted it from his own book “Bid Time Return” (Matheson is best known for his “Twilight Zone” scripts, although he is also an accomplished writer who has had several of his books adapted into movies, including Psycho, The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am Legend). As I mentioned, this is very well-written with a nice twist at the end.

Reeve was then fresh off his Superman: The Movie success and was one of the most sought-after actors in the world, but he did the movie for a considerable discount on what he could have commanded (his agent apparently refused to let him read the script because the producers couldn’t afford to pay him the salary the agent wanted) because he loved the script, which the producers slipped into his hotel room. He comes off a little bit too earnest here, a bit more like Clark Kent than Superman.

Still, his chemistry with Seymour is undeniable. Seymour is absolutely at her best here. She was very much the virginal romantic lead that seemed to be her stock-in-trade back then. She would later go on to “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” which remains her best-known role but at this time, she was still one of Hollywood’s hottest ingénues.

Almost as a third character is the gorgeous Grand Hotel itself. It was then and remains now one of America’s most beautiful hotels, and the movie has only cemented that magic – even today fans of the film flock to the Grand to stay in the place where the movie was made. It is largely unchanged since then, which makes it even more desirable for fans of the movie which are legion.

Which is a bit funny, considering the movie flopped when it was released. Part of that is due to the fact that there was a Screen Actors Guild strike on at the time, preventing the stars from doing any publicity for the film. It also got butchered by reviewers, who called it “overly sweet” and “too serious about itself.” I can see the criticisms, but this is certainly in many ways a Harlequin Romance novel onscreen and while that may have negative connotations to it, is meant to be complimentary here. The movie is not supposed to be anything but the portrayal of an epic romance and of the lengths a man in love will go to in order to be with the object of his affections.

Now if you want to talk about schmaltzy, let’s talk about the score. The late John Barry is perhaps the greatest film score composer ever (some might argue for Max Steiner but I prefer Barry, particularly for epics) but this score missed the mark. He pulls out Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini nearly every time the lovers are within earshot of one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrific music but it should have been used more sparingly to preserve its impact.

Nattering aside, the movie remains one of my favorites. I do have a sentimental attachment to it; my late father loved this movie. He was a romantic man, far more than his son – I certainly wish that I had more of that in my personality. Still, I can appreciate a good romantic fantasy – heck, I love a good romance movie too, when it’s done right. For all its faults, it’s a pretty good story and that it reminds me of my dad is icing on the cake.

WHY RENT THIS: A glorious premise and Reeve and Seymour make a magnificent couple. Beautiful Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is a star. Well-written, with a very clever ending.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A surprisingly schmaltzy score by John Barry, and a bit too serious about its epic love affair for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations but otherwise pretty mild, even for its day.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In scenes with both Plummer and Reeve, Szwarc referred to the former as Mr. Plummer and the latter as Bigfoot because of the confusion of their identical first name. This was also William H. Macy’s first movie (he is credited under the name of W.H. Macy).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD has a featurette on the film’s very rabid fan club, as well as an excellent hour-long documentary on the making of the movie (I know, there’s one of those on every DVD but this one is a little less of a commercial than most).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie reportedly flopped.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Day 3 of Cinema365: From the Heart

Catfish


Catfish

Nev Schulman wonders what's chasing him.

(Rogue) Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Angela Pierce, Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Abby Pierce, Vince Pierce.  Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

Like it or not, social networks like Facebook have become a major part of our lives. We interact through them, make new friends and sometimes, romances bloom. As someone who met his own soulmate online, I can certainly relate, but there is a darker side to online romance as well.

Yaniv “Nev” Schulman is a photographer who lives in New York City and shares an office with his brother Ariel and Henry Joost, who are both documentary filmmakers. All three specialize in taking images, moving and otherwise, of dancers. After one of Nev’s photos end up in the New York Sun, he is surprised to find that the image motivated an 8-year-old girl named Abby Pierce to make a painting based on his photograph.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship mostly through Facebook. Nev is a sophisticated New Yorker, Abby lives in a rural Michigan town called Ish…Ishpem…it’s a town, okay? In any case, he begins to talk with the girl’s mother, Angela who tells him that the 8-year-old prodigy is already selling paintings to various collectors and is hoping to open up her own gallery.

As the friends and family of Angela and Abby begin to flock to Nev, one in particular gets his attention; Megan Faccio, Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister. Their relationship deepens into a full-on long-distance romance. Megan, a songwriter, begins to compose songs for her new flame. Abby sends painting after painting. Angela describes Sunday morning family breakfasts, and Megan talks about buying a horse farm, having been working for awhile in a veterinary office.

All this is being documented by Ariel and Henry, who are fascinated by the whole Facebook phenomenon which they are admittedly both a part of. However, as the trio venture out to Vail, Colorado to film a dance festival, cracks begin to appear in the facade of Nev’s new relationship. He begins to have qualms and doubts about the people he has lately become so fond of. He decides that he needs to visit them in person to try and get the skinny on who his new friends and would-be romance are, so the three of them fly to Chicago and drive roughly 500 miles to Ish…Ishpem…Ishpeming. Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, once they get there they discover something surprising.

The movie received a good deal of buzz at Sundance and has received some notoriety because of its trailer, which depicts the secret in a sinister light, on the order of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. First off, this is not a thriller by any means, so don’t go expecting to find the Manson family living in Michigan.

What this actually becomes is an examination of how we interact in 2010. We have become totally dependent on very impersonal means of communication – cell phones, instant messaging, e-mails and so on. Face-to-face interaction has become much more of a rare commodity. We develop close relationships with people that in truth we barely know.

For the first hour of the movie, we only see Angela, Abby and Megan as voices on a telephone, text messages, or as messages on Facebook. We see far more of Nev, Ariel and Henry and really, most of it is Nev. Nev seems to be a genuinely sweet guy with a nice smile and a charming lack of self-confidence. Nev wearies of the constant on-camera existence and wants to pull out, although Ariel eventually talks him back into it – some would call it bullying. Still, it’s a good thing he did because we would have been deprived of a good movie otherwise.

The last half-hour belongs to Angela, and she is the focal point in many ways of what the movie is trying to get across. I am purposely going to be vague about what that message is because it’s difficult to articulate it without giving away the twist, and the movie is far more effective if the twist isn’t spoiled. I did pat myself on the back on the way out of the theater for having figured it out in a way that I thought was clever (if you ask me nicely I’ll tell you what I did) and in all honesty, those who have extensive experience with online relationships and certain movies and novels (again I’m being deliberately vague) may also see through to the end before the twist arrives. 

Is this a cautionary tale? To a certain extent, yes. We have a tendency to see what we want to see when it comes to online relationships, and we don’t always know what’s real and what isn’t. In the end, successful relationships – both online and off – are built on truth and trust, and when either is missing, the relationship fails.

There are those who believe that this movie is entirely a put-on, a hoax although the filmmakers deny it. For my money, I think that this is completely real, although I suspect some scenes were filmed after the fact to make for more compelling drama. However, that is neither here nor there; the movie could be real and I believe that it is. Maybe Nev is a little bit too good to be true, but I understand he is still single which I’m sure won’t last long; his stock as an eligible bachelor has certainly increased with this movie.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the pitfalls of modern romance in the age of the social network. Nev is very likable and the use of Google Earth-like graphics is rather clever.

REASONS TO STAY: The twist doesn’t really live up to the billing in the trailer. Some have found the movie narcissistic and condescending, although I personally don’t agree with that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong language with some sexual references; while the subject matter is a bit adult, it should nevertheless be compelling viewing to any teenager or older, particularly if they are on Facebook.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the subject of a bidding war at Sundance after noted director Brett Ratner endorsed the film.

HOME OR THEATER: This movie isn’t on very many screens and may be hard to track down, but the intimate vibe makes it adequate home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Role Models

Flipped


Flipped

John Maloney is fully aware that youth is wasted on the young.

(Warner Brothers) Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Anthony Edwards, John Maloney, Aidan Quinn, Rebecca de Mornay, Penelope Ann Miller, Kevin Weisman, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Cody Horn, Ruth Crawford, Stefanie Scott. Directed by Rob Reiner

Everyone remembers their first love. It holds a special place in our hearts, something that is never recaptured in quite the same way. Often we can remember minute details about the object of our affection, where we were when we first realized what we were feeling, the music that was playing, even the smell of their shampoo. It’s the kind of magic that science can’t explain, that nobody can really put into words but nearly everyone can understand on one level or another.

Bryce Loski (McAuliffe) is moving into a new neighborhood, which in itself is a traumatic thing when you’re in the second grade in 1957. However, when you’re a 14-year-old boy in 1963, nothing is more traumatic than attracting the attentions of the girl next door, or in this case the girl across the street. She’s Juli Baker (Carroll) and she has the kind of smile that lights up a room, and the kind of spirit that warms that brightly lit room. Besides that, she has the kind of character to stand up for what she believes in, even if there’s risk. She also has the compassion to understand the frailties of those around her, especially her dad Richard (Quinn), who paints pictures for a living and sells them at local art shows and county fairs. She has the kindness to want people around her to be comfortable.

All that is lost on Bryce, however; he’s more concerned with the mortification of having someone besotted with him. He does everything he can to deflect her attention, some subtle and some downright cruel. The only thing he doesn’t do is tell her to leave him alone and that he’s not interested.

She takes his disinterest for shyness and redoubles her efforts. Even when he starts going out with her nemesis, Sherry Stalls (Taylor) she just sits back patiently and waits for the relationship to fizzle, which it does courtesy of Bryce’s best friend Garrett (Broussard), possibly the worst best friend ever.

Most everyone can see the shine on Juli, especially Bryce’s grandfather Chet (Maloney) who is grieving for his wife that Juli reminds him of strongly. Certainly Bryce’s Mom (De Mornay) can see it; perhaps the only one who can’t is Bryce’s dad Steven (Edwards) who is a bitter, angry man although he disguises it with a crooked grin and a manly slap on the back. Eventually all of Bryce’s little cruelties open Juli’s eyes to the thought that the boy with the dazzling eyes may not be greater than the sum of his parts. He may be, in fact, less.

This is bad news for Bryce who has begun to see Juli for what she is and has flipped for her. He’s made so many mistakes in running away from this girl; can he convince her that he is the boy she saw those years ago the day he moved in to the house across the street?

Rob Reiner has a great eye for era; he proved that with Stand By Me and Ghosts of Mississippi. He’s gone a few years without a truly outstanding movie on his resume, although he has plenty of great movies, including The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, Misery and When Harry Met Sally among them.

Here he takes the acclaimed Wendelin van Draanen young adult’s novel and transplanted it from a modern setting to 1963, an era in which he seems comfortable filming, possible (because he was a teenager himself at the time albeit an older one (his IMDB page lists his birth date as 1946). What he does retain from the novel is the alternating point of view, relying on voice-over narration from the two main characters to address the same incidents from different points of view, something Kurosawa made famous in Rashomon only on a grander scale.

It works here because everything that happens is about motivation, and you can’t always tell what someone’s thinking by what they do and it’s very important that the audience understands what the two young people are thinking. That Reiner makes the back-and-forth work so seamlessly is a tribute to his skills as a filmmaker.

The movie is sentimental without being unnecessarily sweet; this is largely because the two young actors, Carroll and McAuliffe are so stellar. It may be my imagination, but we seem to be going through a phase where really good juvenile actors are much more common, from Dakota Fanning to Abigail Breslin to Saorise Ronan and now, these two. Carroll, in particular, strikes me as the kind of actress who could have a legitimate career that could extend well beyond her teen years; sometimes you catch a glimpse of that and it strikes a chord in you. I may be wrong about her, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I was right.

There are some notable performances in the supporting ranks as well, particularly from Maloney who always manages to project character and kindness in every role he plays; as the grandfather he is wise and giving, although saddled with a son-in-law who is not. Edwards, who we’re used to playing sympathetic roles as in “E.R.” and Revenge of the Nerds, plays a thankless, unlikable role and manages to give the character hidden depth; just enough of the source of his frustrations are revealed to hint at humanizing Steven Loski and making him almost sympathetic.

There is a different family dynamic between the Loskis, who are outwardly more prosperous but internally dysfunctional, and the Bakers, who are outwardly struggling and inwardly close. The differences between the two fathers – Richard who is loving, artistic and a little bit Bohemian and Steven who is uptight, condescending and boorish – help explain why the two children are who they are. I have to say that one thing that impressed me was that nothing here seemed manufactured in any way; everything about the plot is organic and flows nicely, even the flipping back and forth between like and dislike for Bryce and Juli.

Quite honestly, I initially wasn’t looking forward to seeing this and did mostly because something about the trailer spoke to Da Queen. While I like Reiner as a director, his recent track record has been spotty and I was thrilled to see him not only return to form, but deliver a movie that will seriously challenge for the number one spot on my year-end list this year. I was touched by the movie and left it feeling warm inside, remembering my own childhood crushes and aware of how wonderful sitting in a sycamore tree and able to view the world around you can be. I tell you, hand to God, you will not find a movie with more heart than this one.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful and rich in detail, this presents a romance in an organic and non-manufactured way that is charming and yet realistic. This is a movie that will grab you by the heart and keep holding you there.

REASONS TO STAY: People who have difficulty dealing with the finer emotions may find this boring.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of scenes that might be a little difficult for the smaller sort to understand, and there are a few suggestive words here and there but certainly this is fine for teens and most pre-teens as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rob Reiner founded Castle Rock, the production company behind Flipped but later sold it to Warner Brothers; this is the first time he’s worked with them since 1999.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of this movie is shot on an intimate level which is normally fine for home viewing, I think the overall experience is heightened by seeing it in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Frost/Nixon