Teacher (2019)


You might not want to forget your homework in this teacher’s class.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm) David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilysa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, Bryce Dannenberg, Patrick Weber, Juan Lozada, Shawna Waldron, David Parkes, Sarab Kamoo. Directed by Adam Dick

 

Bullying has been a serious problem in American high schools for many years now. Despite efforts to curb the practice, there seems to be an ongoing issue of strong kids persecuting weaker kids – although who is truly strong and who is truly weak is not always easily evident.

James Lewis (Dastmalchian) is an English teacher trying to get across the intricacies of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to bored kids at Prairie Trail High School, in a tony suburb of Chicago. James is in the midst of a contentious divorce and is showing signs of alcoholism and rage – as the holes punched in the wall of his apartment attest. Still, he’s managing to keep it together and is on the verge of being granted tenure.

When a sociopathic rich kid named Tim Cooper (Jackson) starts bullying the nerdy Preston (Garry), a smart kid as well as the photographer for the school paper, Lewis isn’t happy about the development. Things begin to escalate though when Preston gets a girlfriend – shy, unselfconfident Daniela (Perez) – and Tim, also the star pitcher for the baseball team, gets two victims for the price of one. Mr. Lewis tries to intervene but a litigation-shy administration in the form of the school principal (Young) put the kibosh on any sort of disciplinary action. It doesn’t help that Tim’s dad (Pollak) is stupid rich and is one of those sorts who is used to getting his way by any means necessary.

\Mr. Lewis as it turns out was severely bullied when he was in school and to top it off, his father was an abusive alcoholic to make matters worse. Between the stress of everything, the flashbacks to his own tortured childhood and the disappointment that his life hasn’t gone the way he expected to lead to a reckoning that nobody could have expected – except for those who have watched a thriller or two in their time.

\Dick in his first feature-length film brings up some interesting and salient points about bullying, it’s effect on the psyche and society’s unwillingness to address it. The question is asked “when is violence justified” and the answer is obviously not an easy one nor is it treated as such here. Dick is a director who has some ideas and that’s always a good thing.

The problem here is that the story is just way too predictable. You can kind of figure out where this is all going in the first fifteen minutes. While Dick has some good ideas, he delivers them in a fairly hackneyed plot that telegraphs most of its twists. It does take a while for things to get moving at a really decent clip, so the attention-challenged might not take to this one as well.

Still, Dick gets the benefit of some really solid performances, many of them from largely unknown actors. Dastmalchian, who to date has mainly done supporting roles, shows he can handle lead roles with enough screen presence to light up China. Pollak, who started his career as a comic and impressionist, has proven himself a solid dramatic actor over the years and has never been better than he is here, both jovial and civilized as well as intimidating and brutish. The guy deserves some plum roles, casting directors.

Overall, this is a nifty film but not one that is going to rock your world particularly. I like some of the choices the filmmakers make here but other decisions seem to play it too safe. I do think that Dick has potential as a director; this isn’t a bad first film at all, but it’s not one that I believe will be an essential part of his filmography when all is said and done.

REASONS TO SEE: Dastmalchian shows some good presence and Pollak is always strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a short film with the same title that Dick made two years prior to the feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Class of 1984
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Leo DaVinci: Mission Mona Lisa

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All About Nina


The comedian is hard to spot.

(2018) Dramedy (The Orchard) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Chace Crawford, Camryn Manheim, Jay Mohr, Mindy Sterling, Angelique Cabral, Clea DuVall, Kate del Castillo, Beau Bridges, Nicole Byer, Todd Louiso, Victor Rasuk, Pam Murphy, Sonoya Mizuno, Melonie Diaz, Elizabeth Masucci, Cate Freedman, Grace Shen. Directed by Eva Vives

 

Some movies are pretty much what you expect them to be. They chug along, doing what you imagined they’d do, making the plot points you expected from them, following a tried and true formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve seen plenty of really entertaining movies that were also formulaic. Then again, there are movies like All About Nina that are motoring along at a brisk pace, fulfilling every one of your expectations to the point where you think you’re going to give a mediocre review. Then one scene comes along, elevates the movie into something special and blows all your preconceptions out of the water, leaving you breathless.

Nina Geld (Winstead) is a stand-up comedian who has been banging her head against the wall of male hegemony in the stand-up business. Her act has a lot of anger in it as she reaches across taboo lines like diarrhea and menstruation and keeps on going until she can find another line to cross. She is involved in a relationship with a married cop (Crawford) who beats her up from time to time. Her life is, in a nutshell, going nowhere.

She decides to shake things up a bit and heads out to Los Angeles to try and get a special on the Comedy Prime network. Supported by her very pregnant agent (Cabral), Nina moves in with a sweet New Age sort (del Castillo) and soon begins to make some noise in the L.A. comedy clubs. Her self-destructive impulses however have followed her from New York; too much drinking, too much sex with the wrong guys…that kind of thing. Then she meets Nate (Common), a contractor who takes an interest in her as she does in him. Suddenly there are possibilities. The network is interested in her as well but it all comes crashing down, leading her to a confessional standup session where everything comes out.

That confessional standup sequence is alone worth seeing. It is one of the most mind-blowing, heart-rending sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. Winstead is not a stand-up comic but she does a credible job with her delivery here. She also brings an animal intensity to the role that gives Nina the kind of edge that we rarely see in movies since the ‘70s. She’s been on a roll of late and hopefully we will start to see her in the kind of prestige roles she is well-suited for.

Common also excels here. He’s a bit on the Zen side in terms of being calm, cool and collected in the face of Hurricane Nina but he’s such a good boyfriend type that one wonders why he hasn’t gotten more romantic lead roles before now. Hopefully this will lead to a good many more of that sort of parts and I’m sure there are plenty of ladies who’d agree with me on that point.

The movie can be difficult to watch; Nina has a self-destructive streak a mile wide and can be unpleasant to be around. She is bitchy at times and a rage bomb at others. Her stand-up routine is not for the faint of heart or of stomach and those who are offended by profanity might as well give it up – there are sailors who would blanch at the filth that comes out of Nina’s mouth both on and off stage. However, if you have the stomach for it and the patience for it, this is a movie that has been slowly rolling out around the country that deserves a look if it’s playing anywhere near you.

REASONS TO GO: One scene elevates this movie into something special. Winstead and Common deliver solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: A good deal of L.A. stereotypes infests the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Vives’ feature film debut. She is known previously for writing the story for Raising Victor Vargas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Church

Joe (2013)


Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

(2013) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, AJ Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, John Daws, Kay Epperson, Lico Reyes, Erin Reed, Dana Freitag. Directed by David Gordon Green

florida-film-festival-2014We are none of us born perfect and some of us come into the world with more obstacles than others to achieve perfection. We still plug away nonetheless, eking out our place in the world and trying to make a life that we can call our own.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. He is trying the straight and narrow as the boss of a crew that poisons trees so that a developer can come in and snatch the land for rock bottom prices, then raze it and do what they like with it. It’s illegal as hell, but it’s the most honest living Joe can find.

He drinks and smokes too much and from time to time gets into bar fights, particularly with a lout named Willie Russell (Blevins) who shoots Joe in the shoulder in retaliation. Joe takes up with hookers and drives a battered old truck, occasionally running in with the law and getting bailed out by his old friend Earl (McPhaul) who knows that despite the rough edges Joe is basically a decent sort.

One day a young teenage boy named Gary (Sheridan) shows up looking for work along with his father Wade (Poulter). The dad is an absolute disaster; a raging alcoholic who beats his son up and takes the money he earns to buy cigarettes and booze. Gary on the other hand is a hard worker who impresses Joe from the get-go and the not easily impressed Joe takes the boy under his wing somewhat and becomes a mentor to him.

Certainly Gary could easily be headed on the same freight train that his father is riding but even the exceedingly imperfect Joe is more of a role model than his dad. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Wade who meets up with Willie Russell who after further humiliation from Joe is ready for something even more violent.

Cage in recent years has achieved the kind of notoriety that no actor wants – for excessive scene-chewing and taking on roles in movies that are wildly forgettable or worse. Here in one performance he very nearly erases a decade of performances that are simply put not worthy of a man of Cage’s talent. This is the Nicolas Cage whose movies I looked forward to seeing; this is the guy who won Oscars and charmed critics with his offbeat charisma. Those who have been disappointed by his recent run of B, C and D movies can rejoice that he’s finally been given a role deserving of him.

Sheridan continues his hot streak of excellent roles in mainly Southern gothic films. As in Mud he has a first-rate adult actor to work with and one gets the sense that Sheridan is learning well from watching pros like Cage and Matthew McConaughey at work. One gets the sense that he is going to be around for a good long time and may well be the most decorated actor of the 2020s.

Green, like Cage, had a little bit of a career hiccup after a promising start; it seems likely that he knew that he wasn’t doing his best work and took a step back and started where he came from – the indie drama. This is his best work in awhile, the fine Prince Avalanche notwithstanding. He captures the sordid desperation of the very lowest and impoverished classes in rural Texas and allows them their own brand of dignity. These aren’t people you may hang out with or even want to, but Green gives them more respect than other directors might have been willing to in the same position. Kudos to him for that much.

This can be tough going in places. The sordid existence of Joe, Gary, Wade and Willie Russell may be too much grit for some but those willing to stick it out will be rewarded with a real gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Cage’s best performance in years. Gritty and unpleasant but always compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The ugliness can be overwhelming.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly disturbing stuff including depictions of child abuse and alcoholism, violence, foul language and strong sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter, who passed away two months after filming concluded, was actually a homeless man with a history of alcoholism and violent behavior when cast by Green, who is known for casting local non-professionals in his movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lunchbox

The Great New Wonderful


The Great New Wonderful

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco share a tense lunch.

(First Independent) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Judy Greer, Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan, Naseerudin Shah, Stephen Colbert, Sharat Saxena, Tom McCarthy, Billy Donner. Directed by Danny Leiner

New York City is without a doubt one of the greatest cities in the world. It throbs with the vitality of its citizens, and as the song says, never sleeps. One day in 2001 would change the meaning of what it is to be a New Yorker forever.

A year after that day, the citizens of New York are getting on with their lives for the most part. Sandie (Gaffigan) is talking to a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist (Shalhoub) about anger issues which Sandie doesn’t think he has. With each session, Sandie becomes more and more frustrated and his anger seems to be more directed at the doctor than culled from some internal reservoir.

David (McCarthy) and Allison (Greer) are the young parents of Beelzebub, otherwise known as Charlie (Donner). Their young son has been acting out and these actions have grown exponentially worse as time has gone by. They are beginning to realize that he is becoming beyond their ability to control and as a result, their marriage is suffering. The headmaster (Colbert) of the exclusive private school they have sent him to is expelling him for his behavior and they have no idea what to do with their child.

Emme (Gyllenhaal) is an up-and-coming pastry chef in New York’s cutthroat bakery market and looks to unseat Safarah Polsky (Falco) as the reigning queen of the scene. Her ambition is driving her to use means both fair and foul to reach her goals, and she is unknowing or uncaring of the toll it takes on those who work with her, live with her or purchase her products.

Judy (Dukakis) lives with her husband across the East River in Brighton Beach in the borough of Brooklyn. Each night she fixes him dinner, then after eating makes collages while he smokes out on the balcony. Her re-connection with an old friend will open new doors and awaken new feelings of sensuality in her.

Two Indian-born New York resident security guards – Avi (Shah) and Satish (Saxena) have been given the assignment of watching over a dignitary from their native land while he is in New York to make a speech at the United Nations. Avi is carefree, joyful and humorous; his buddy Satish is dour, grumpy and prone to outbursts of rage. It’s hard to believe these two are neighbors, let alone friends.

All five of these stories carry little in common other than that they are set in New York a year to the month of the World Trade Center attack, and that all ten of the main characters share an elevator near the end of the movie. It is up to us to thread these stories together and quite frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch.

What one notices most is the emotional disconnect prevalent in almost all of the stories. The characters have latched onto some sort of idea or emotion and are holding onto it with a death grip, to the exclusion of all else. The self-absorption needed for this kind of focus is staggering, and yet those familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or The New Yorker magazine will not find it particularly far-fetched.

There is a routine also in each one of the main character’s lives and that routine is either a source of comfort or a fiendish trap. Breaking out of that routine seems to be, at least I’m guessing here, what the filmmakers suggest is the key to finding happiness, solace, call it whatever you want.

This is a very impressive cast for a micro-budget indie drama and they live up to their reputations for the most part. The vignette with the least-known actors in it (at least to those not familiar with Indian cinema), the one regarding Avi and Satish, was my own personal favorite as I found Avi to be the least hung-up of the main characters here.

I admit to having a certain fascination with everyday life in the Big Apple. I fully realize I don’t have the equipment to live there myself – it takes a certain kind of person to handle the pace and the feeling of being alone in a crowd that goes hand-in-hand with the NYC lifestyle. Still, I admire those who have what it takes and certainly New York offers perhaps the most attractive and varied choices for those who live there. I’m not sure if The Great Big Wonderful offers me any further insight into the psyche of New York, nor how it was affected by 9-11, but it does offer a nice visit to that town; I’m just not sure I would want to live there.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid cast gives solid performances. Some of the vignettes are interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the vignettes hold my attention. The linking thread is tenuous at best; this is certainly much more of a New York story than anything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly significant amount of salty language in the movie as well as a small amount of sexuality. Much more suitable for a mature audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Leiner is best known for comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 12