Satan & Adam


The ultimate odd couple.

(2018) Music Documentary (Cargo) Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, Adam Gussow, Harry Shearer, The Edge, Al Sharpton, Kevin Moore, Phil Joanou, Bobby Robinson, Joan Gussow, Frank Migliorelli, TC Carr, Quentin Davis, Miss Maicy, Jeremy Jemott, Peter Noel, Margo Lewis, Rachel Faro. Directed by V. Scott Balcerek

 

The blues can be a beautiful thing. I think (and many agree) that no music touches every aspect of the human spirit the way the blues does. The blues can be sad yes but it can be cathartic, make you feel good when you feel down, bind us together (who hasn’t had the blues at one time or another?) and give us guidance. The blues is wisdom, man.

Adam Gussow had the blues one afternoon in 1986. He had just broken up with his girlfriend and the Princeton grad (and Columbia grad student) was walking around, finding himself in Harlem near the Apollo theater. I imagine if he’d been thinking about it clearly, he might not have ambled into that part of town so easily; New York City in 1986 was rife with racial tensions and people as lily white as Gussow were regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility there.

About a block north of the legendary Apollo Theater he heard music and saw a crowd gathering. Being a harmonica player himself, he was curious and listened to the man identifying himself as Mr. Satan’s One-Man Band. The man who called himself Mr. Satan played hi-hat and tambourine using pedals and played the kind of guitar that rubs the soul raw. Totally in the right space for this Mississippi Delta blues, the white Gussow asked Mr. Satan if he could sit in on a couple of tunes. The older African-American man said sure. And lo and behold, the white boy could play. Afterwards, the young Ivy League grad asked if he could come back. Satan said sure. So Adam came back. And soon he was a regular partner. Mr. Satan noticed that the crowds were bigger when Adam played; it was a novelty that a white man could play the blues like that. While there was some grumbling that Adam was just another white man out to appropriate the music of black musicians, the partnership between Satan and Adam continued to grow and blossom.

The story of this duo is not your usual music industry tale. The duo would go on to record an album for the prestigious Flying Fish label, tour Europe and play such events as the New Orleans Heritage Jazz Festival. They were on the cusp of being a big act in the blues market…and then Mr. Satan just disappeared.

The movie takes place over a 20-year span. Balcerek first ran into the pair playing on the streets of New York City and became absolutely entranced with their story. He’s been filming them off and on over that time, sometimes in black and white (particularly the early years) but also in color. He buttresses the performance footage with interviews not only with the musicians themselves but by those in their orbit; friends, fellow musicians, celebrities. I was surprised to learn that the two were spotted by director Phil Joanou when he was filming the U2 concert documentary Rattle and Hum and U2’s guitarist The Edge was so taken with them that he put a snippet of their performance of the song “Freedom for My People” on the soundtrack.

I don’t want to spoil too much about their story; I’m deliberately leaving a lot of things out which will have greater impact if you experience them without any foreknowledge. The tone is pretty low-key and even some of the emotional highlights don’t hit you like a sucker punch but still there is a melancholic tone that reflects the music nicely.

And that music! Mr. Satan, whose birth name was Sterling Magee, is one of those raw, natural talents who come along every so often and simply rewrite the book. Think of him as up there with Sun Ra (jazz), George Clinton (funk) and Jimi Hendrix (rock). Yeah, he’s that good. Gussow compliments his sound nicely, not quite in the same league as a musician but wise enough to know that his main job is to support Mr. Satan.

Needless to say, a guy who calls himself Mr. Satan is kind of an interesting cat and you’ll be captivated by him. Magee can be charming although he has a temperamental streak as well and Adam learned when to tread carefully around him when he was in a bad mood. But once onstage, Magee was as joyful a human being as there ever was – it radiates from his face and from his smile. He reminds us that while the blues may be rooted in a particular set of emotions, there is joy in playing the blues at the absolute best of your abilities.

The story is unusual enough to make this a different kind of music documentary. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but even those who aren’t blues fans will be captivated – and who knows, it might win over a few converts. While as a documentary this isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, it is compact enough that it doesn’t require an exorbitant investment of time nor does it overstay its welcome. At the same time, you get to hear some raw street blues, some of the best you’ll ever hear. That alone has got to be worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one. The music is incendiary.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit of a lull in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: The is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Magee played in the bands of James Brown, Etta James and Marvin Gaye (among others) and had a solo career on Ray Charles’ label before walking out on the music industry in disgust.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hail, Satan?

Advertisements

Rebel in the Rye


Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong

 

Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Abundant Acreage Available

Barry


Even reading a Ralph Ellison book in a Harlem schoolyard as a 20-year-old, the future President can’t get away from Joe Biden!

(2016) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Jay, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd, Sawyer Pierce, Eric Berryman, Ralph Rodriguez, Danny Henriquez, Tessa Albertson, Tommy Nelson, Annabelle Attanasio, Matt Ball, Markita Prescott. Directed by Vikram Gandhi

 

Barack Obama is a President who has provoked very extreme reactions. To the left he is a hero, a model of decorum and grace, whose intelligence and class has carried him through one of the roughest most vitriolic attacks from the opposition in the history of the Presidency. To the right he is nothing short of a terrorist, a Muslim whose mission was to destroy our country from within. There are some who take the middle ground between the two of course but largely those two extremes have been the popular conception from each political point of view.

But there was a time before that when he was just an ordinary college student. Back then, everyone called him Barry (Terrell) and he had about as much confidence in his future as any college student, maybe even less so. I suspect if anyone had told Barry that he was going to be the 44th President of the United States he’d probably want some of what you’ve been smoking – Barry after all is not above occasionally partaking in the wacky weed.

He has just transferred to Columbia University in New York City looking for a degree in political science. The product of a white mother and an African father, his parents are divorced; his mom is in Hawaii where he grew up, his dad has returned to Kenya. Barry is trying to write a letter to his dad to express what he feels but can’t find the words. Barry also feels like an outside in both the white and African-American spheres.

He meets Charlotte (Joy), the daughter of wealthy parents and the two begin dating but as always Barry isn’t sure where he fits in. He plays street ball with local guys from the neighborhood like PJ (Mitchell) with whom he strikes up a friendship, but he feels like an outsider. Similarly he doesn’t belong in the world of country clubs and pricey restaurants that his girlfriend is used to. His roommate Will (Coltrane) tries to help but mostly the two get high together.

To my way of thinking this isn’t so much a biography of the President as it is an exploration of how young men can be lost in not knowing who they are. Of course, it’s especially true for someone in Barry’s situation but it should ring true for just about everybody. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography in any case (Charlotte, for one thing, is a composite character) but it supposedly reflects Obama’s inner turmoil and his personality pretty well at that time of his life.

The overall tone is pretty laid-back which flirts with actual boredom from time to time. There is a whole lot of philosophizing going on and not a ton of conflict. Most of the conflict is pretty much internal; while Obama struggles with finding a place he’s truly comfortable with in both the white world and the African-American and there are moments in which he feels discrimination from both sides, it isn’t as if he is overly oppressed here. There are times he is hassled by a University Security guard for likely the color of his skin. He also is targeted by angry African-Americans who resent the opportunities he is getting because of his Caucasian blood.

Terrell does a pretty good job of playing Obama, capturing his very recognizable cadence of speech. This isn’t always a flattering portrait but then again, think of yourself as a 20-year-old and see if a film biography of you at that age will be one you’re particularly proud of. It’s a pretty layered performance and Terrell captures the essence of the man. How close it is to the real man is best left answered by those who know the ex-President well (which certainly doesn’t describe me) but I think that there are at least elements of the real Barack Obama here, or at least the real Barack Obama at 20.

As I’ve said with similar movies about public figures of recent years, I don’t know that this gives us any real insight into the heart and mind of our 44th president who is a notoriously private individual. It isn’t scintillating material but those who admire President Obama will find this interesting. Those who feel the opposite aren’t going to watch this anyway.

REASONS TO GO: It seems to be an attempt to humanize the 44th President by portraying him as a young college student trying to find himself.
REASONS TO STAY: I thought it went a little too low-key.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find a little bit of violence, some drug use, a smidgen of sensuality and a small amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film of both director Vikram Gandhi and star Devon Terrell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southside With You

Ghostbusters (2016)


Uncorking the genii.

Uncorking the genii.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Columbia) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Charles Dance, Karan Soni, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Nate Corddry, Ozzy Osbourne, Andy Garcia, Annie Potts, Cecily Strong, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Al Roker, Susan Park, Katie Dippold. Directed by Paul Feig

 

I have to make a confession; I was not pleased about the prospects of an all-female Ghostbusters team at first; for one thing, it seemed kind of gimmicky to me, a means of establishing a bit of notoriety before the movie opened. The more I thought about it though, I figured I was just using that as an excuse; I was being a sexist so as a critic I swallowed my pride, sucked it up and tried to look at the movie as objectively as I could.

That’s not to say that it’s possible; like millions of others, the original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorite films. When you take on a remake of a classic that is so beloved, comparisons between that film and yours are going to be inevitable. Surely Paul Feig had to know that. But I don’t think he expected the venom that would be directed at his choice to change the gender the team; fanboys absolutely lost their minds, some going so far as to claim that it “ruined their childhoods” which is generally an indication that their childhoods probably should be ruined, if that was all it took.

The storyline here is pretty similar to the original; a trio of scientists – Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a physicist; Abby Yates (McCarthy) a paranormal investigator, and Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), an engineer – are brought together to investigate a haunting. Erin and Abby had once co-authored a book – Ghost from Our Past – but had a falling out. Erin was trying to distance herself from those days and when the book shows up on Amazon just as she’s about to become tenured at Columbia University, she and Abby are brought together. Eventually, Abby agrees to pull the book from Amazon on the condition that Erin allows them to investigate a paranormal activity at a local mansion that had been brought to Erin’s attention by the home’s curator (Begley).

When their investigation is successful beyond their wildest dreams, they enlist Abby’s new partner Jillian who is like a kid in a toy store on Christmas morning – she has all sorts of devices to try out, including a proton pack and a ghost capturing device. With Erin cashiered from Columbia who has found out about her somewhat unorthodox beliefs in the supernatural, the three decide to start up a ghost investigation business. During an investigation into a New York subway, they are assisted by Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City history, particularly the haunted kind. She joins the team as the fourth Ghostbuster (as they are now called, much to Erin’s annoyance).

They hire a receptionist to handle the calls which turns out to be Kevin (Hemsworth), a male model who gets the job because he dampens Erin’s panties more than anything – he proves to be an utter imbecile and not much use at all answering the phone. As they investigate, they discover that someone has been creating gateways allowing the ghosts to come into New York. That someone is uber-nerd Rowan North (Casey) who has some very unpleasant plans for a world that has rejected him and ignored him. When someone plans a paranormal apocalypse, who ya gonna call?

The special effects are spectacular here, which is definitely an unexpected plus – Feig has never really worked an effects-heavy film before but he does a fine job here with the CGI. It’s impressive without being overwhelming. The cinematography is gorgeous and most of the technical end of the movie is soundly executed. I also think that his casting is spot-on – on paper.

Unfortunately, on celluloid is where I have the issues. The chemistry between the team just isn’t as strong as it was for Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson (who all have cameos) and the late Harold Ramis, whose son appears in a brief cameo and who also appears as a bust outside of Erin’s office at Columbia. McKinnon is a little too over the top at times as is Jones who’s shrieking is almost anachronistic, sounding uncomfortably like depictions of African-American characters in horror comedies from say 50-75 years ago.

Wiig and McCarthy are both strong comic actresses who have given terrific performances in other movies, but they are both overly bland here. McCarthy is strangely subdued; I sometimes complain about her characterization in other comedic roles but I would have welcomed more of that energy she brought to those roles here. Wiig is generally an extremely understated performer and was completely miscast; they needed someone who had a little more of a presence. This may surprise some, but I think Leslie Jones might have been better suited for the role of the physicist/doubter, Kate McKinnon better as Abby, Melissa McCarthy more fun as Patty and maybe a different actress – Amy Schumer for example – as Jillian. But still, just reshuffling the roles might not have helped; the ladies just don’t seem as comfortable around each other as they should be.

Despite all of the issues I have with the team, the script isn’t half-bad and there are some very funny moments. The cameos are welcome, but also serve to remind us of how much better the original was than the remake and Feig might have been better advised to leave them out, particularly since he chose to do a reboot rather than a sequel, which I think might have been a better move. Still, one has to give him points for trying, but trying doesn’t save a movie that’s just average.

REASONS TO GO: The effects are impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: It simply doesn’t hold up to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: Some somewhat rude humor and a bit of supernatural action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The book Ghost from Our Past supposedly co-written by lead characters Erin and Abby, is really for sale on Amazon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Legend of Tarzan

Still Alice


Julianne Moore may have Oscar's pulse.

Julianne Moore may have Oscar’s pulse.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Seth Gilliam, Stephen Kunken, Erin Drake, Daniel Gerroll, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maxine Prescott, Orlagh Cassidy, Rosa Arredondo, Zillah Glory, Caridad Montanez, Caleb Freundlich, Charlotte Robson, Jean Burns, Erin Drake. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Some movies benefit from strong storylines, great special effects or subject matter that is timely. Still others benefit from perfect or near-perfect casting, with a performance that elevates the movie from merely ordinary into something else.

Dr. Alice Howland (Moore) is a brilliant linguist, a respected professor at Columbia University and an author of what is pretty much the definitive textbook on the subject. She lives in a beautiful Manhattan apartment with her husband John (Baldwin), himself a talented and in-demand research physician. Their three adult kids are Tom (Parrish), a promising med school student, Anna (Bosworth) who is married to Charlie (McRae) and who is trying to get pregnant, and the black sheep Lydia (Stewart) who alone lives in Los Angeles (the others are all clustered near New York) and is trying to get an acting career started, although her mother nags her to go to college because she considers acting a waste of Lydia’s intellect.

But then she begins to forget words and names, forget where she put her keys. All signs, her husband assures her, of growing older; the memory is one of the first things to go. But then she goes for a run around Columbia and stops suddenly, terrified; she doesn’t recognize a thing, it’s a completely alien place, even though she has been teaching on this very campus for 20 years. She goes to see a neurologist (Kunken), privately. No tumors. Nothing to really explain what is causing these memory lapses. Then comes the MRI and the news couldn’t be worse; early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alice is devastated As an academic, she has built a career and a life based around the power of her mind. Now that is to all be stripped away from her. Alice is a fighter however; she uses memory techniques to keep hold of the important things. Her family rallies around her, although John longs for escape and is seriously considering a position at the Mayo Clinic which would be great for his career but would rob him of a year with his wife, possibly her last year as herself. The sort of Alzheimer’s that Alice has is genetic, which means her kids might be carriers. This gives Alice an enormous sense of guilt when one of them turns out to be positive for the disease as well.

Alice can’t imagine life as essentially a vegetable and as we watch her deteriorate and her frustration grows, we see those around her change as well. The devastation her disease creates not just to Alice which is observable, is heart-breaking. Still, being who she is, she has devised a way out, to spare her family the worst of her disease. Will she be able to take it?

Based on the novel by Susan Genova, the movie is a bit rote in terms of how it follows movies of similar coping with disease themes; small symptoms, easily dismissed, leading to larger symptoms, not so easily dismissed, followed by the diagnosis which is excruciating in its own right followed by the repercussions of the disease itself. I suppose most diseases follow the same timeline in reality but there is nothing particularly adventurous in the way the movie handles the subject.

What works here is Moore’s performance. She’s already won the Golden Globe for her work here, along with every significant acting award with only the Jewel in the Crown, the Oscar, waiting in the wings and she’s the odds-on favorite for adding it to her collection. This is absolutely scintillating work, as we watch the terrible progression of the disease. Moore humanizes the character; you feel for her but she doesn’t make Alice pitiable but rather as strong as anyone can be in the face of a disease that robs you of who you are. This is easily one of the best performances of the year and certainly worth the accolades she has received and should she win the Oscar, I don’t think anyone can really argue with it.

Baldwin actually does a pretty good job himself. He tends to play characters who are much more smarmy than this one, but this is a little bit out of his comfort zone in a lot of ways. There is a scene where John breaks down with Lydia, which summarizes the hardship this has been on him, caring for his wife and watching her slip away from him. It’s a heartbreaking moment and one of the worthier moments of the film because it is arrived at honestly. Not all the moments in the film are like that.

Stewart still remains an actress I have trouble connecting to. It’s not just because of her Twilight connection either; it’s just that there is a wall between her and me – maybe not for everyone in the audience, but for whatever reason I can’t seem to penetrate it. There is a disingenuous vibe about her that just makes me feel like she’s acting rather than creating a personality. Maybe it’s just me being unfair to her and I will cop to the possibility that it’s true, but she has yet to truly inspire me in any role she’s played to date.

I can’t say that this is a great film but it is a decent film that is elevated by the performance of its star. Without Moore, this would be just passable, worth the time only if you’re either interested in the subject matter or have seen most of the other items that are in theaters at that moment. With Moore, this is powerful in places and dominated by an actress who’s at the very top of her game. See this for Moore; it’s one of those sorts of performances that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performance by Moore. Baldwin provides strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally wanders into the land of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The overall theme is pretty adult. There is some occasional profanity as well as a sexual reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Co-director Richard Glatzer suffers from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and is unable to speak; he used a text-to-speech app on his iPad to communicate with cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Project Almanac

Beware the Gonzo


Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Jesse McCartney, Amy Sedaris, Campbell Scott, Judah Friedlander, Griffin Newman, Stefanie Hong, Edward Gelbinovich, James Urbaniak, Marc John Jefferies, Lucian Maisel, Jerry Grayson, Yul Vazquez, Steven Kaplan, Tyrone Brown, Noah Fleiss, Tyler Johnson, Lucy DeVito, Julia Weldon. Directed by Bryan Goluboff

High school is, contrary to what many folks think, not a microcosm of life, although there are some similarities. For example, those who are wealthy and good-looking tend to have advantages over those who are not. It is also very difficult to be noticed if you aren’t one of the aforementioned. Come to think of it, high school might very well be a microcosm of life.

Eddie Gilman (Miller) has aspirations. He longs to attend Columbia University and enter the undergraduate journalism program (note to screenwriter: they don’t have one). To that end he toils away on the school newspaper which is ruled with an iron fist by editor and jock Gavin Riley (McCartney) with the tacit support of Principal Roy (Urbaniak).

When Eddie’s hard-hitting expose on bullying in the school is brutally edited down to a single paragraph puff piece, he’s none too pleased and when he complains, Gavin fires him. Eddie’s future is suddenly in grave doubt.

But Eddie is a fighter. He decides to start his own newspaper and calls it the Gonzo Files. Gonzo journalism, as coined by Hunter S. Thompson, is a confrontational style of journalism and Eddie is certainly that. His mission is not only to get himself back on the track he was on but to write for the marginalized and the ignored.

The first issue is a sensation. Eddie and his team – rebellious school slut Evie Wallace (Kravitz) who harbors a dark secret but nonetheless becomes an item with Eddie, Horny Rob Becker (Newman) who goes after the less attractive girls because he figures that they’re easier to score with, Ming Na (Hong), an Asian-American with a chip on his shoulder and Schneeman (Gelbinovich) who is a very much picked-on smart kid – use a web presence with video to blow things wide open in school which neither Gavin nor Principal Roy are pleased about. However, when the second issue features an expose on the school cafeteria complete with pictures and videos of vermin in the storeroom, that garners attention on the school that the Principal is really unhappy about and so the nascent publication is ordered shut down.

Eddie has no intentions of doing that however – after all, he founded it because he felt it necessary to have a free press in school – but the fame and the high of being a celebrity in school has gone to his head. It could cost him everything – his future, his parents’ marriage, his friends and the girl.

This is one of those movies that have some glaring flaws but is offset by some really good writing. If the characters are a bit stereotypical – the sadistic jock, the rebel, the geek, the snobby cheerleaders, the bureaucratic administrator – they are at least talking and acting like real people (mostly). Miller, who is cornering the market on teen angst in movies like We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Here his character isn’t quite as realized as fully as Kevin but there certainly is plenty of angst. Miller was electric in the former movie and although he’s merely good enough here, looks ready to be a breakout star.

Kravitz, the daughter of pop singer Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet, in some ways might relate more to the beautiful people clique of the school – she certainly has the beautiful part down (considering her genes, how could she not?). I admired her performance more than any in the movie; her character not coincidentally has the most depth to it in the script. Evie has some real suffering in her background and Kravitz brings it forward nicely; when she’s betrayed late in the movie you can see the hurt in her eyes. She’s another one to watch.

Veterans Sedaris and Scott are dependable actors but are wasted here, sadly. Most of the rest of the predominantly young cast do decent jobs here some in thankless stereotype roles. I have to admit that there are some cathartic moments where the very snooty and cruel upper crusters get their comeuppance. I’m not proud of it but sometimes it’s a good for the soul to see the privileged get theirs.

I thought this movie was about how acclaim and adoration corrupt everyone, no matter how well-intentioned although I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the reviews I read. The movie is told as a flashback and when Eddie intones at the start “All in all, I got off easy,” he’s right on target. This isn’t about the rise of the righteous or the fall of the affluent – it’s about the redemption of the ego, which can be the hardest place to come back from. As Eddie has to weigh getting the story against the effect that the story will have on people he cares about, the movie comes to grips with an ethical question that many journalists have had to face in their careers in one form or another. Like Eddie, there were no easy answers for them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever in places. A bit of a guilty pleasure.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unrealistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Basic teen misbehavior and a bit of foul language as well as brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Goluboff is best known for writing the screenplay for The Basketball Diaries.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of a High School President

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shadow of the Vampire

Our Family Wedding


Our Family Wedding

Forest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia wonder if a remake of "The Odd Couple" is next.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Forest Whitaker, Carlos Mencia, America Ferrera, Regina King, Lance Gross, Diana Maria Riva, Lupe Ontiveros, Anjelah Johnson, Charlie Murphy, Vivek Shah, Shannyn Sossamon, Warren Sapp, James Lesure. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

One of the challenges of a marriage is uniting disparate families or at least getting them to co-exist. When you add the elements of different cultures and religions, things can get awfully dicey.

Lucia Ramirez (Ferrera) and Markus Boyd (Gross) have been living together for some time and are deeply in love. She is a Columbia Law School drop-out, teaching underprivileged kids in New York. He is a Columbia Medical School grad, about to join up with Doctors Without Borders in Laos. The two want to get married, but the issue is breaking it to their folks – because they want to get married before they both leave for Laos.

Fortunately, their folks all live in Los Angeles so it’s a train ride back to the City of Angels to inform their parents. Markus’ parents were divorced early on but he was raised by Brad (Whitaker), his dad – a popular all-night DJ. Lucia’s parents – dad Miguel (Mencia) and mom Sonia (Riva) are middle class Mexican-Americans, with dad owning a tow service. Lucia has neglected to tell them that she’s dropped out of Law School and that she’s dating, let alone dating an African American guy. Now, she’s come to tell them she’s marrying him. Probably not the wisest course of action.

The dads instantly butt heads, having met previously in an unpleasant situation (Miguel towed Brad’s Jag) and they continue to constantly one-up each other. They recognize that the wedding is inevitable so each tries to impose his stamp on the ceremony, from the music to the cake to the seating arrangements. Pretty soon the pressures being placed on the kids threaten not only their relationship but those of their parents as well.

This could have been a decent enough movie – the premise is sound – but, unfortunately, it’s wildly inconsistent. For every moment that is amusing (Lucia’s serenade to Markus causing dogs to howl) there’s at least one more that makes you squirm (a wayward goat eating Viagra and then attempting to hump Brad’s leg). The hit-and-miss nature of the movie makes watching it jarring upon occasion.

Ferrera is an enormously appealing actress; her work on “Ugly Betty” as well as her breakout role in Real Women Have Curves shows this to be true. She’s also appealing here but she’s largely used in a reactive role and for a law student who supposedly has a great relationship with her dad, she makes some remarkably foolish decisions. Mencia is actually quite good as well, although he sometimes descends into shtick – but that may well be the fault of the writers more than him.

It is Whitaker who is most surprising of all. He seems uncomfortable and confused here, not nearly to the standards of an Oscar nominee who is one of the better actors working today. His comic timing seems a bit off in places and the confirmed bachelor bit wears thin quickly. I have to wonder if he saw the goat humping his leg in the script and deciding to phone it in from there.

Riva and Johnson contribute nicely as Lucia’s mother and sister respectively. However, by and large, most of the cast seems to be written to confirm racial stereotypes. It can be off-putting especially when you get the Hispanic grandmother (Ontiveros) fainting at the sight of a black man who’s dating her granddaughter. Oh, the horror.

Clearly, this country has continuing problems with race relations and I have no objection to exploring that situation, but I would rather it was not done in quite so dumb a manner. While the movie has some nice moments and occasionally a salient point to make, it torpedoes its own best intentions with infantile humor and poorly executed bits. The subject deserved better treatment – and a better script with better directorial decisions. Sadly, it got none of these.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the moments are delightful and funny. Mencia and Ferrera do a good job.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes the movie tries too hard to be funny and falls flat. Whitaker, a terrific actor, seems lost in his role. Offensive racial stereotypes are reinforced.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations and some crude language briefly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parts of the dads were initially offered to – and rejected by – Samuel L. Jackson and George Lopez who discussed the matter on Lopez’ talk show.  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel here but otherwise unremarkable.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Final Day of Cinema365: From the Heart