Lean on Pete


We all need somebody we can lean on.

(2017) Coming of Age Drama (A24) Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn, Chloë Sevigny, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Alison Elliott, Jason Rouse, Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain, Frank Gallegos, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Dennis Fitzpatrick, Jason Beem, Rusty Tennant, Tolo Tuttele, Francisco Garcia, Joseph Bertot, Dana Millican, Julia Prud’homme. Directed by Andrew Haigh

When we are desperate, it’s like we’re drowning; we reach out for whatever might be at hand in order to save ourselves. Often what we find is the most unlikely of life preservers.

Charley (Plummer) is a typical teen; he’s not high on high school but he is a decent football player and enjoys the camaraderie of the team. He lives with his dad (Fimmel) on the wrong side of the tracks in Portland – his mom has been out of the picture for some time now – and his Aunt Margy (Elliott) has had a huge argument with his dad and the two don’t speak to each other anymore although Charley still remembers Margy with some fondness.

Dad is a bit of a ne’er-do-well who has trouble hanging on to jobs but not, as it turns out, to the bottle. He’s initiated a romance with a married (but separated) woman who is kind to Charley. Charley is more focused on getting ready for the football season – it is the middle of summer after all – and while out running he stumbles into a world he never knew existed.

Del (Buscemi) raises quarter horses for racing on the independent circuit which means fairs and carnivals and on tracks that the English with their peculiar sense of understatement might term “dodgy.” He does so with a mixture of gruff charm and world-weary irascibility. Charley is quite taken with him and manages to get a job mucking out stables, walking the horses and doing whatever menial task Del needs done. Charley becomes enamored with a horse named Lean on Pete who is nearing the end of his usefulness to Del which means the equine is one step away from being ground into pet food in Mexico. Charley doesn’t know that though.

However, things change as they inevitably do and not for the better which Is usually the case for people like Charley. He ends up taking a journey with Pete that will take him to unexpected places as he vaguely searches for his Aunt and some sort of normal life that seems to be completely out of reach for him. This might be his only chance to get one.

This looks on the surface very much like “a boy and his horse” kind of movie in which the horse teaches the boy something about courage and determination and helps the boy turn his life around. This isn’t that kind of movie at all, however. Based on a novel by Oregon-based writer Willy Vlautin, the film has a number of unexpected turns of events that in at least one instance caused a startled “Oh!” to pass my lips That’s not easy to do, I can tell you.

Buscemi who remains an independent film icon has been on a bit of a hot streak for the past several years following Boardwalk Empire. His performances have become less quirky and more grounded and as a result he’s become more relatable as a performer. He in fact has become an actor whose films I will see just by the virtue that he’s in them. He’s absolutely magnificent as a tough guy who quite clearly does not have a heart of gold and is not a father figure; he is a survivor who has gotten that way by not getting too attached to people or horses He’s not a bad guy but he isn’t above cheating to win a race. Del exits the movie fairly early on and when he does, the movie isn’t as good.

Plummer though plays Charley so low-key as to be almost comatose. For good or for ill much of the movie’s success rests on his young shoulders and at the moment, at least for me, he’s not up to the job. I don’t feel drawn to Charley and I was indifferent as to what happens to him. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was marking time while viewing the film which is certainly not the reaction any filmmaker wants but quite frankly there are entire sequences that could have been easily cut without effecting the integrity of the film.The truth is that this is a 90 minute movie in a two hour time slot.

Plummer does get the bond between Charley and Pete just right to be fair, and that might be enough to draw horse lovers into the film and that’s an audience that quite rightly will probably appreciate the movie more than someone like me who is more of an admirer of horses than a lover of them. The movie has gotten some fairly praiseworthy reviews from critics I normally trust but I have to say that I didn’t connect with the film as much as they obviously did. Perhaps it’s just me after all.

REASONS TO GO: Buscemi is outstanding in his role. Horse lovers will be drawn to this film without a doubt.
REASONS TO STAY: Plummer plays this way too low-key. The movie is way too long by about half; there are entire sequences that could have been cut without harming the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief violence and a disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in chronological order.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Back to Burgundy

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Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie


A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

(2015) Coming of Age Drama (Self-Released) Christine Ryndak, Mira Furlan, Fredric Lehne, Vincent Piazza, Leah Yananton, Dennis Hill, Joshua Zirger, Kevin Murray, Mikayla Park, Patrick Welsh, Rusty Clauss, Marycarmen Wila, Joanna Becker, Stefan Stratton, Matt Cannon, Ellana Barksdale, Marjo-Riikka Makela. Directed by Leah Yananton

Finding ourselves is no easy task. At 20 years old, we are expected to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives and who we want to be. The truth of the matter is this; at 20 we don’t have the experience to really know ourselves, and how can you figure out who you want to be if you don’t know who you are to begin with?

Sophie Hofkind (Ryndak) is entering her junior year in college. She is a poet of some talent, having been taken under the wing of her English lit teacher Professor Slateman (Lehne). Her free-spirited BFF Keira (Yananton) seems to have a moral compass that points directly at her own crotch; she pretty much bangs anything that moves and has quite a sexual attraction to Sophie, even if Sophie chooses to ignore it – most of the time. Once in awhile, Sophie isn’t above leading Keira on.

Sophie also has Jimmy (Piazza), who wants very much to be her boyfriend. Each gave their virginity away to the other; while Jimmy is hopelessly in love with Sophie, Sophie keeps a bit of a distance with Jimmy. Oh sure, she has sex with him, but it wouldn’t exactly be called making love, at least not for her.

Sophie is in a good spot. She has mostly paid for her tuition through private funds, refusing to utilize her mom as help – the two have been estranged essentially since Sophie left for school. However, the thing about life is it rarely stays in the same place for long. Sophie develops more than a crush for Professor Slateman and the professor’s enigmatic wife Jacqueline (Furlan), which begins to take its toll on all of Sophie’s relationships. Also, she has begun to run out of money for her schooling, which means she’ll have to work and given that she has an 18 credit workload means that she’s going to have little time for socializing and sleep.

Still, Sophie is making a go of it, but she runs smack into some life-altering decisions that will change her life forever but also the lives of everyone around her. These are the kinds of things that give us a road map to “finding ourselves.”

If you ever wondered what being a young co-ed in the 21st century is like, the movie gives the old college try at showing you. Not being a young 21st century co-ed I can’t really vouch for the accuracy here, but I have to admit that the dialogue doesn’t always ring true here. While college students of both sexes have a tendency to mistake literary quotes and highfalutin’ language as depth, most discussions that take place between college students has little to do with the meaning of poetry. Rather, like most young people, college students spend more time discussing social activities than they do literature and philosophy.

Fortunately, the two leading ladies – Ryndak and Yananton – are both charming, smart, pretty and sexy. While Ryndak’s character isn’t always likable in that she is capable of great self-absorption, she has a light about her that makes the audience want her to do the right thing and end up happy. Yananton, who has to portray a girl whom the judgmental among us might call a slut – although I have issues with labeling a woman who happens to enjoy sex – makes the character the sort of girl you want to hang around with, even if you have zero chance of sleeping with her.

The supporting cast is pretty good as well, but delivering an exceptional performance is Mira Furlan. Most remember her from Babylon 5 and J.J. Abrams’ Lost but she is a superb actress who has never really connected with American audiences to the degree I thought she would. She doesn’t have a huge role here but it is a memorable one and Furlan fills it with personality and emotion. Her scenes with Ryndak in the cabin late in the film are really superb.

The problems that Sophie encounters are for the most part very realistic. Young women enter an environment where their sexuality is both encouraged and discouraged at once; it can be very confusing to navigate the treacherous waters of human relationships at any age, let alone so young. Sophie makes some poor choices here but she also makes a few good ones. Whether or not she has truly learned from them is an enigma; how often do we truly learn from our mistakes? Not always. Some less often than others, but all things considered I have high hopes for Sophie.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. It occasionally falls into pretentiousness but of the kind that might come with characters who have more intelligence than experience. Particularly near the end of the film, Yananton sets up some beautiful shots and utilizes some artwork throughout that’s very feminine to the point of being yonic (the “9” in the opening titles looks decidedly ovarian). In fact, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to label this a bit of a woman’s film, although that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) preclude men from enjoying it, but it certainly is aimed at young women with a young woman’s point of view. Using the structure of Dante’s Inferno to structure the movie is fairly interesting for the most part, but some of the segments feel like the subject matter was shoehorned in a little bit. An ambitious idea but one that I think ended up inhibiting the filmmaker somewhat.

Summing up, not all of this works but that’s okay – enough of it does that I can give it a reasonably solid thumbs up. The film is just beginning to hit the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for it at your local film fest. Don’t be surprised if it turns up at one near you.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting artwork with a decidedly feminine bent. Mira Furlan is a criminally underrated actress. Some really nicely set up shots.
REASONS TO STAY: The lead character’s behavior can be frustrating. Occasionally pretentious. Some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like 20-year-old girls talking.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sex and some nudity, adult and sexual content, some foul language and drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere last weekend at the Hollywood Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Mistress America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Key

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

Nice Guy Johnny


Tastes great? Less filling!

Tastes great? Less filling!

(2010) Coming of Age Drama (Marlboro Road Gang) Matt Bush, Kerry Bishé, Edward Burns, Max Baker, Anna Wood, Brian Delate, Marsha Dietlein, Jay Patterson, Harper Dill, Michele Harris, Vanessa Ray, Callie Thorne, Anna Wood. Directed by Edward Burns

What do you want to be when you grow up? We get asked that question a lot when we’re a child. Usually we have some really cool idea of what we want to do – an astronaut, a cowboy, a teacher – but as we get older, we find something else that occupies our imagination. But still, the question persists throughout our lives, which begs the question whether we ever really grow up at all.

Johnny Rizzo (Bush) is living the dream. He works as a call-in radio host for a sports talk show in a small town in Northern California. He loves what he does. He also loves Claire (Wood), his fiancée who has bigger plans for Johnny. She’d made him promise that if he wasn’t making $50K by the time he was 25. Well, he’s just turned a quarter century and it’s time to pay the piper. Even though he’s doing his dream job and is happy and content, Johnny is also a man of his word so it’s off to New York to interview with his prospective father-in-law for a position as a warehouse manager at a cardboard box factory which is nobody’s dream job.

Once there he hooks up with his Uncle Terry (Burns) who is a hedonistic ladies man. Like Claire, he thinks that Johnny needs to make some changes – he thinks Johnny needs to get laid. So he takes his nephew in hand to Long Island to “get some strange,” as he puts it. So Johnny goes, knowing that he isn’t going to cheat on his fiancée but unwilling to disappoint his uncle, who is probably more about finding a married woman to have an affair with.

While there he meets Brooke, a free spirit who he connects with from the get-go. She’s a tennis instructor who thinks he’s an idiot to give up on his dream for a bigger salary job. Of course the two fall for each other in a big way, bringing up a moral dilemma for Johnny – he’s committed to Claire who he’s plainly not suited for but can he break that commitment and still be a nice guy?

Edward Burns is what I think of as a niche director which sounds a lot worse than it is. What I mean by that is that he consistently does movies that approach life and love from the viewpoint of working class mokes from the burbs of New York (generally Long Island where Burns grew up). As an actor I’ve always considered him a bit of a poor man’s Ben Affleck which again, sounds a lot worse than it is.

This isn’t one of Burns’ best in either role. His Uncle Terry really is a bit of a stretch for him. Not that he isn’t capable of this kind of role but he really isn’t convincing here. He’s a bit of a lynchpin too which makes it worse; what he needed here was someone who could have been more outrageous. As a director, he didn’t really cast this part very well but budgetary constraints and all. You know what I’m saying. Still, he’s entertaining enough in the part to be memorable which helps. He just needed more here.

Bishé really steals the show here. She takes what is essentially a typical indie free spirit role and runs with it. I like what she does here; she’s down to earth and never makes this a caricature. She’s sexy as hell and, unlike a lot of indie roles here, without shame or apology. It’s part of who she is and she doesn’t feel compelled to obscure it with self-conscious cuteness.

Bush doesn’t fare quite as well. He’s a good-looking guy with an aw-shucks demeanor but he’s kind of bland here. I know he’s supposed to be a nice guy (hey it’s the title of the freakin’ movie and all) but that doesn’t mean he has to be vanilla. I think he’s following the lead of his romantic interest and trying to avoid the quirky indie leading man cliché but he takes it a bit too far which leaves the audience with a character without character. By the middle of the movie I was less interested in him than in the female lead which, when you’re the title character in a movie, bodes a bit ill.

I think they would have benefitted from making Claire less of a materialistic harpy. There really isn’t any competition between Johnny’s two love interests and that takes the tension out of the film. If Claire was really loving and supportive it would have made for a more compelling decision. What we’re left with is a case where the audience is wondering why he stayed around as long as he did. There really is nothing to recommend Claire as a romantic partner to anyone other than that she’s pretty and quite frankly Johnny isn’t that shallow a character, or shouldn’t be. Maybe he is and I’m missing something.

Anyway with a few tweaks this could have been a really interesting romantic comedy. As it is, it’s pretty good entertainment and worth checking out for the performance of Bishé alone.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably romantic without being sentimental. Burns is always entertaining.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Writers needed to work a little harder.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality and some salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in ten days by a crew of three who worked for free, although they would share in any profits the micro-budgeted ($25,000) movie would make.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some choppy, grainy audition footage. There is also a special edition (???) that also includes an interview with director Edward Burns. Why?

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adventureland

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Texas Killing Field