Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

The Only Living Boy in New York


Reflections in my mind.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Tate Donovan, Wallace Shawn, Anh Duong, Debi Mazar, Ben Hollandsworth, John Bolger, Bill Camp, Richard Bekins, Ryan Speakman, Oliver Thornton, Alexander Sokovikov, Ed Jewett, Amy Hohn. Directed by Marc Webb

 

It is not uncommon for young people to finish college or drop out of college and end up feeling adrift. Okay, I’m done with school; now what? It’s an exciting and frightening concept at the same time.

Thomas Webb (Turner) – and to be sure, it’s Thomas and not Tommy or Tom – is in just such a pickle. He is the son of successful publisher Ethan (Brosnan) and artist Judith (Nixon) and has not quite moved back in with them but has taken an apartment on the Lower East Side, not far from his parents on the Upper East Side (and true New Yorkers will know that they might be not far away but they are worlds apart).

He’s not sure what to do with his life. He wants to be a writer but his publisher dad dismissed his work as “serviceable.” His mom is fragile emotionally and seems on the verge of falling apart. He is very much in love with Mimi (Clemons) who is more interested in a platonic relationship with him and to make matters worse, is headed for an internship in Slovakia. Thomas is trying to make some sense out of his life; fortunately, he meets W.F. Gerald (Bridges), a writer who lives in apartment 2B of his building (by extension meaning that Thomas lives in not 2B – think about it).. W.F. is kind of rough around the edges but he takes a fatherly interest in Thomas, which suits Thomas just fine since his own dad is distant to say the least.

But Thomas’ world begins to spin completely out of control when he discovers that his dad is having an affair. He becomes obsessed with the mystery lady and discovers that her name is Johanna (Beckinsale) and that she works as a contractor in Ethan’s office. Thomas confronts Johanna and tells her to stop seeing his dad; the cool and collected Johanna responds that what Thomas is really saying is that he wants to sleep with Johanna himself. As it turns out, she’s right.

Thomas is caught up in a dilemma and he doesn’t know how to get out of it. The hypocrisy of his situation isn’t lost on him and so he decides to tell his dad that he knows about Johanna and furthermore, he’s sleeping with her himself. However, this revelation threatens to destroy Thomas’ family altogether leading the way for another stunning revelation that changes Thomas’ life forever.

The critics have been pretty much panning this which is a bit of a shame; it’s not a flawless film but I ended up liking it. Bridges is absolutely wonderful as W.F. and Beckinsale is sexy as all get out as the Other Woman. The dialogue has also been called tin-eared but I found it pretty sharp most of the time. I know, this isn’t the way real people talk – but it’s the way sophisticated New York literary sorts talk. Make of that what you will.

The main trouble here is Turner. His character is wishy-washy, vindictive and fully self-involved. There’s nothing mature about him – and yet the sophisticated literary type ends up sleeping with him and later in the film, another woman falls in love with him. ‘Course, I’m not a woman but I find it absolutely flabbergasting that any woman would see him as the object of love. He offers nothing but immaturity and leaps to conclusion that rival Evel Knieval flying over Snake River Gorge.

And yet they do. Then again, there’s a bit of a literati soap opera feel to the whole thing. It doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to create drama. This is very Noo Yawk which may put some folks off on it – there are certain parts of the country where being from the Big Apple is a hanging offense. Some have compared this to the Woody Allen of the 90s which is not Allen’s best creative period; I can see the Allen comparison but I would push it back a decade.

The soundtrack is a bit eclectic but in a good way; you get Simon and Garfunkel (including the title song) and Dylan, both of whom evoke New York City in a certain era although this is set in modern day. The cast also overcomes some of the script’s flaws, particularly Bridges, Beckinsale and Nixon who does fragile about as well as anybody. There is some charm here, enough to make it a worthwhile alternative to late August film programming. This won’t be for everyone but it might just be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges is absolutely delightful. The dialogue is sharp. There’s some strong music on the soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Turner is completely unconvincing in the lead role. Could be a little too New York literati for most
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a bit of drug-related material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second 2017 film with a title shared with a Simon and Garfunkel song (Baby Driver was the first).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Graduate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Everything, Everything

Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey


Life’s a beach.

(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders

 

Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.

Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”

Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.

Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.

The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”

The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.

There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.

The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. For those with morbid curiosity, the film will be available on DVD on August 4th, 2020.

REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me)


Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

(2016) Drama (HH Pictures) Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Jiang Xueming, Li Shiru, Wu Juejin, Ren Long, Liu Jieyi, Gu Qilin, Li Mei, Jia Zhigang, Deng Gang, Wang Zhengping, Jiu Qi, Han Yuye, Tian Feng, Luo Wei, Shi Ying, Yan Jia, Ma Chenxiang, Yu Zhengnan, Huang Xiaoya, Wu Yue, Du Gangqiang, Liu Kaiming, Huang Yan, Xia Hongxia. Directed by Yichun Wang

NYAFF

Growing up is a dangerous, frightening thing. It’s a struggle, dealing with all the hormones coursing through your body, trying to understand the world around you as best you can without much help from your parents and other adult figures in your life, although they often mean well; they just don’t get what you’re going through and in any case, they never have anything good to say about you – it’s all just complain, complain, complain and nothing you do is ever right. Lucky for you, they don’t have time for anyone but themselves and frankly, you want to keep it that way.

Qu Jing (Xiaotong) feels exactly that way. She’s a pre-pubescent girl in a Chinese mainland technical high school in the Hubei province in 1991. In the late spring, the nude body of a woman is found in the local lake. She’d been raped and murdered, and a crude cross carved into her thigh. Qu Jing’s dad, Qu Zhicheng (Xiao) is a police officer, one who happens to have been trained in forensic medicine. He’s the butt of jokes to his peers and a source for exasperation to his commanding officer, Chief Cao (Shiru). He prefers to use deductive reasoning and follow clues while his fellows prefer choosing suspects pretty much at random and beating confessions out of them. It keeps the rate of conviction impressively high.

When a second victim is found, pressure is put on the cops to solve the case and they haul in a suspect (Gang) and get him to confess to the crime. Qu Zhicheng is skeptical about the accuracy of their investigation; the discovery of another victim, killed while the suspect is in police custody, proves him right.

Qu Jing is having problems of her own. Her mother (Dan) is a shrill shrew, unhappy in her marriage and her life and taking out all her issues on her family. Zhang Xue (Qiwei) is Jing’s best friend but Xue’s not the nicest person ever; she is condescending to the point of arrogance, knowing that her beauty and sexuality will take her far – far out of town, which is what she wants to be (as far as the more tropical Hanmei resorts if she has her way). Xue is sexually active and has attracted the attention of Zhao Fei (Xueming), a local tough guy and petty criminal.

Qu Jing is beginning to have hormonal shifts that are causing her to think about sex. She asks questions like ‘”Does giving birth hurt?” and reads clinical manuals, trying to find out everything she can. She goes to romance movies and watches the love scenes with great interest. When Xue disappears after being thrown out of class for falling asleep, the murders begin to come frighteningly close to home.

I originally listed this as a suspense film but changed my mind; it’s not a mystery. It’s more of a drama. This isn’t a police procedural. The crimes here hang on the periphery, coloring the proceedings but never dominating them. Yichun wrote this as largely autobiographical. Part of that is why this is set in the era that it is, and the era this takes place in is critical to why this movie exists.

China was on the verge of changing its economic structure from pure communism to a blend of communism and capitalism which it employs today. While the rural areas, such as the one this was set in, still carried over many of the same restrictive policies that existed for the past decades, change was in the air.

The performances here are interesting. Xiaotong is a real find; 17 years old when she made this, she shows a great deal of emotional depth, from playful to petulant, sullen to joyful.  She epitomizes the confusion and pain of growing up, particularly in a household where she’s largely reminded at how much it cost the family to even bring her in to this world. She was the second child in an era when families that had more than one child suffered heavy economic penalties for it; her older brother, away at university, doesn’t appear other than as a reference in the film.

Guo Xiao also does an outstanding job as the somewhat nebbish police officer, adrift in a sea of incompetent goons. He lashes out at his daughter, henpecked by his wife and laughed at by his fellow officers. Deep down however he loves his daughter as only a devoted father can. He shows it in between bouts of screaming at her for her transgressions, real or imagined.

The dynamic here is a lot different than what we’re used to from Western films. The police are not only as fallible as all get out, they’re also clods who do little constructive to protect or serve. Fathers and mothers aren’t supportive and wise; they have their own hang-ups and issues and don’t necessarily have their children’s best interests at heart at all times.

The society they live in is repressive and prudish but something darker lurks beneath the surface at all time. All around Qu Jing and Xu there are men leering lecherously; an old man in a senior home makes a pass at young Qu Jing in a particularly loathsome manner. The message here seems to be that while some things can be repressed on a societal level, that doesn’t mean those urges aren’t still there.

The senior home sequence and others like it might be off-putting for some who may be a little queasy at the sexualizing of prepubescent and pubescent girls, who are often made to wear make-up for choir performances and school functions.

This doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d find in a typical mystery. There are no gun battles, no car chases, no fistfights. The ending is abrupt and disconcerting. We don’t get much detail on what the police are doing to solve the crime (other than picking up the wrong people and forcing them to confess). We get a sense that after the film ends, things aren’t going to change much.

When all is said and done, this is more of a slice of life type of film; this particular slice happens to have a serial killer in it. It’s like getting a slice of mincemeat pie and biting into a clove. It’s just the luck of the draw. However, this is a tasty slice of pie from someone you can tell is going to only get better at baking pies. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Yichun’s oven.

REASONS TO GO: Unsettling atmosphere keeps viewers from getting too comfortable. Interesting portrait of a period in China less familiar to the West.
REASONS TO STAY: Sexualizing of young girls is a bit off-putting. Too slow-paced for most American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content, some foul language and a disturbing image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Qu Jing is the same age as director Yichun would have been in 1991.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diary of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buddymoon

The Art of Getting By


Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

(2011) Teen Romance (Fox Searchlight) Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Sasha Spielberg, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ann Dowd, Maya Ri Sanchez, Blair Underwood, Ann Harada, Rita Wilson, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Reaser, Andrew Levitas, Sam Robards, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Angarano, Dan Leonard, Sophie Curtis, Lindsay-Elizabeth Hand. Directed by Gavin Wiesen

It seems sometimes that the world is overcrowded with movies about teens, floundering to find themselves, finding romance which inspires them to put aside whatever bullshit they were into and grow up. I’m not sure if the source of these are frustrated parents of teens, desperate for hope that their own kids are going to grow out of the phase they’re in, or by former teens who wish that their issues could have been resolved that easily.

George (Highmore) is a self-described misanthrope, although I might have added nihilist to the description. He is a budding artist who is inspired by nothing. We’re all going to die eventually, he reasons; why bother doing anything? So the homework at the elite prep school in Manhattan that he attends remains uncompleted and he spends his lunch breaks alone and reading Camus. And if you needed one more clue that George is a pretentious Morrissey-wannabe, he always always always wears a dark overcoat. Except in the picture above.

Then Harry – I mean George – meets Sally (Roberts) and impulsively takes the fall for her smoking on the school roof. Side note: has anybody actually named their daughter Sally since, say, 1947? Anyway, the two start hanging out together and George begins to develop those kind of feelings for her which are either not reciprocated or ignored. As it turns out, Sally’s got issues of her own although we don’t find out what they are until later in the film.

George also meets Austin (Angarano), an artist who starts hitting on Sally. George’s parents – his doormat mom (Wilson) and his stepdad (Robards) who turns out to be not nearly as successful as he let on – are having issues. George, now really upset, has a blowup with Sally and the two fall go their separate ways, Sally into a relationship with Austin and George into a quest to find meaning by finishing his homework which leads me to believe that the first group might be the source of this particular film.

First-time director Wiesen cast this Sundance entry well, with Highmore especially proving to be fortuitous. The young Brit has been a skilled actor for quite awhile (and has received rave notices for his work on the Psycho TV series. The George character is truly unlikable when we first meet him; pretentious and angst-ridden in the worst teen way. Like many teens who prefer to embrace the doom and gloom, they refuse to see the things right in front of them that are good – a mom that loves him, a school that wants to inspire him, a girl that could be good for him.  Instead, he prefers to mess things up for himself which is pretty true-to-life.

What isn’t is that the movie follows too many teen movie cliches in that everything is resolved by a girl leaving a guy, forcing him to make changes for the better and by the end of the movie he’s actually a likable guy with a bright future and of course the ending is as predictable as a Republican reaction to an Obama policy. Most kids are far too complex and far too smart to believe this as anything but the most optimistic fantasy. Change comes from within, and change for the better is hard work. I can’t think of many schools, particularly elite academic institutions, that would be willing to let someone who has slacked off on turning in his homework all year save his academic life. In fact, most schools would have expelled his ass long before.

Despite the cliches, this is actually a pretty decent example of the teen coming-of-age romance genre and while it’s no Say Anything it’s still competently made and has some decent performances, especially from Highmore. And, for once, the adults aren’t treated like morons; they have their own issues sure but they are well-meaning. Of course, the trend lately is to eliminate the adults from the conversation entirely, but Wiesen doesn’t do that. The Art of Getting By more than gets by, thankfully; it’s not a movie that will change anybody’s life or perception of it but it fits the bill, particularly if you’re into the niche that it fits in.

WHY RENT THIS: Highmore is engaging and turns an unlikable character into a likable one.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really add anything to the teen coming-of-age romance movie genre which is overcrowded as it is.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are aimed at more mature teens and adults. There’s also plenty of foul language, sexual content and scenes of teen partying and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the first scene, the camera passes by Tom’s Restaurant, the one made famous by Seinfeld.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of very brief interview segments on New York City and young love in general.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Outside the Law

Wildlike


Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

(2014) Adventure (Greenmachine) Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Nolan Gerard Funk, Brian Geraghty, Diane Farr, Joshua Leonard, Ann Farr, Russell Josh Peterson, Bradford Jackson, Pamela R. Klein, Erin Lindsay King, Elias Christeas, Teddy Kyle Smith, Ching Tseng, Thomas Mark Higgins, Tom Okamoto, Leo Grinberg, Erick Robertson, Joe Tapangco. Directed by Frank Hall Green

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we read about teen runaways, often we look at them as anti-authoritarians who couldn’t handle being told what to do. We look down upon them, feeling that they are responsible for their own mess, and that certainly is true in some cases. The reality is that sometimes running away is the only option.

Mackenzie (Purnell) has come to Juneau, Alaska from Seattle because she really has no other choice; her father has passed away within the last year and her mother is entering treatment in Seattle for her drug dependency. She’s staying with her Uncle (Geraghty) who at first seems to be trying to be nice in the face of teen “whatever, go screw yourself” attitude and raccoon-like eye make-up from Mackenzie. She seems to warm up to him when he gives her an iPhone.

Then things get messy. A nocturnal incident leaves Mackenzie feeling vulnerable and alone; she knows she has to leave. So when the opportunity presents itself, out she gets. Armed with money she stole from her Uncle, she sets out to make her way home to Seattle but what she doesn’t realize is that Alaska is a big effin’ state.

Trying to get in out of the cold and the rain, she breaks into a motel room but it turns out that it’s not empty; Rene “Bart” Bartlett (Greenwood) has rented the room and he’s getting ready to undertake a difficult task – to hike through Denali National Park alone. When Bartlett discovers Mackenzie under the bed, she bolts, unnerving him.

For some reason she latches onto him and follows him to Denali and then into the wilderness, much to his chagrin. He tries to convince her to head back but she refuses and so reluctantly he takes the woefully unprepared girl along with him. What he ends up discovering is that he needs her as much as she needs him.

I’m not sure how to characterize this film, whether it is a coming of age film or an Alaska wilderness adventure or a social commentary. It has elements of all of these things and you wouldn’t be wrong in characterizing it as any of the three. It definitely has that in its favor; it is a tale told in a unique manner.

Also in its favor is the beautiful vistas we see throughout. Alaska is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it just isn’t shown in movies nearly enough, probably having to do with the remoteness of most of the state. Filming here can be a challenge and the window of opportunity can be small seasonally speaking. Green, a first-time director who has hiked Denali himself on several occasions and has been a outdoors type for most of his life, knows Alaska well enough to choose some brilliant locations and to get the shots he needs. This is a gorgeous movie that will certainly inspire some to want to venture to the 49th state.

Also to its advantage is the performance of Purnell, who captures the look and attitude of a teen girl damn near perfectly. She’s got all the attitude in the world, affecting a “I don’t care” look that most teenage girls master at an early age but the inner vulnerability and scared little girl comes out at the right times. Mackenzie is 14 in the film and Purnell was 19 when the movie was made which is a bit of a relief considering some of the scenes she has to play here.

And there are a few scenes that are pretty difficult, particularly the one which is the cause of Mackenzie’s need to leave. It is handled respectfully, not in a prurient manner but more in a matter-of-fact kind of way. And yes, there is a creepy factor when you throw a teen girl and a middle-aged man into the same tent, but to Green’s credit (as well as Greenwood’s), the awkwardness mostly comes from the viewer’s own preconceived notion of why a middle-aged man would hang out with a young girl.

The movie doesn’t explain a lot of things, leaving the audience to kind of explain them on their own. We never get a sense of why Mackenzie follows Bart into the wilderness; it seems to be a random and spur-of-the-moment choice which, to b fair, is often how teen girls seem to act. I suppose it’s better to let us invent our own story rather than to spoon feed us but more framework would have been nice. There’s also a scene in which Bart and Mackenzie encounter a group of people testing out kites in which an important monologue is delivered but the music is so loud that it is difficult to hear what is being said.

Quibbles aside, this is a solid, well-made and beautifully photographed movie that will stick with you. Solid performances by most of the lead cast and a compelling story will leave you hooked. At present the film is on the festival circuit but hopefully it will be grabbed by a distributor for either a limited theatrical run or a VOD release. It deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous Alaskan wilderness. Handles difficult subjects respectfully. Purnell gets attitude and look down pat.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit light in connecting the dots. Music overly loud in places it shouldn’t be.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual scenes and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Purnell, an English actress, spoke with an American accent from the moment she got off the plane in Alaska and stayed in that accent 24/7 until she got on the plane for home when shooting was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Druid Peak
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrow We Disappear

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

Terri


Terri

John C. Reilly is getting fed up wth these early morning breakfast read-throughs with Jacob Wysocki.

(2011) Coming of Age (ATO) Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina, Tim Heidecker, Justin Prentice, Mary Anne McGarry, Curtiss Frisle, Tara Karsian, Diane Louise Salinger, Lisa Hoover, Jenna Gavigan, Jessica D. Stone, Jamie Lee Redmon. Directed by Azazel Jacobs

Fitting in is pretty much all we aspire to, particularly in high school where it reaches a place of importance somewhat higher than breathing. There are always non-conformists who kind of find their own way but it is nearly always at the expense of pride and self-esteem, as they undergo a gauntlet of vicious teasing that skips over the line right into cruelty, thank you very much.

Terri (Wysocki) is one such non-conformist. He lives with his Uncle James (Bratton, best known for his work on “The Office”) who is elderly, sick and maybe afflicted with dementia. Terri does the best he can, for if Terri’s parents are around we never see them. He is forced to miss a few days of school, which attracts the attention of Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the vice-principal who has problems of his own and recognizes Terri’s good heart and strong potential.

They develop an unlikely friendship, even a Terri is picked on mercilessly. He wears pajamas to school for one thing (Roger Ebert applauded this as an indication of character but it is really a one-way ticket to non-stop ridicule) and he is a little smarter than most of his peers. He has no real friends. At his uncle’s insistence he puts some rat traps in the attic and on his way to school, dutifully lays the corpses on a log in the wooded area between his house and school. One day, he watched a carrion eating bird consume the corpse. After this, he makes a habit of baiting the log.

This might sound weird, morbid and even cruel but it really isn’t. Terri is actually a good-hearted soul. He’s made some other friends – a misfit named Chad (Bratton) who has a tendency to act out, and Heather (Crocicchia) who was almost expelled for performing a sex act in a home economics class until Terri took the rap for her. They make an odd trio but an endearing one.

They learn valuable social skills through trial and error because high school is a time to make mistakes. The problem with high school is that it is a time to make mistakes and they begin to make some doozies. Can their fragile friendships survive?

This is one of those movies that doesn’t come at you with some grand revelation or mindbending twist. While these are all unique individuals, they aren’t quirky indie film caricatures. They are real people – flawed yes, damaged goods yes. In short, just like the rest of us. They’ve had their share of bumps and bruises over the road of their journey but they manage to keep on trucking down that road.

Wysocki is largely unknown but he delivers a self-assured performance. It’s genuine and honest and while there’s a unvarnished sense to it, i wouldn’t call it raw. This is more the performance of a young actor who has a good grasp on his character and some excellent abilities. Sadly, Wysocki’s girth make it unlikely that the weight-conscious Hollywood casting agents will ever give him a part this memorable again unless it’s in a comedic context. Hollywood long ago made the decision that overweight actors would only be accepted in comedies. Because, apparently, fat people don’t have stories to tell – none that anybody wants to hear, anyway.

Reilly is always Re-Reilly-able (har har har) and he is no less so here. He is a high school administrator who is not a bureaucrat but an individual who legitimately wants to make a difference in the lives of his kids. He is not without damage either, and sometimes he expresses himself awkwardly in the way of adults trying to relate to kids on their own level and with their own language (generally  good six months to a year behind the current idioms). While there are some inherent creepiness to Mr. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Terri (I always get suspicious of adults wanting to be too friendly with high school kids which is kind of sad but that’s the time we live in) the movie is sweet enough and has enough humanity to make the relationship work.

This is not an exhilarating movie to say the least; it moves a little too ponderously for that. It doesn’t necessarily engage a great deal of contemplation, although the more cerebral viewer might opt for it. No, this is a movie simply to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop you and soak into you, like bathing in a cool pond on a warm summer’s day at twilight. It’s imperfect but life’s a lot like that. And Terri is a lot like life.

WHY RENT THIS: Well acted and never loses sight of the film’s inner humanity. Flawed characters seem much more real and less archetypal.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes seems willfully quirky. Mr. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Terri is a bit creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a good deal of bad language, some teen drug and alcohol use and a fair bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the weekend it was released, only Transformers: Dark of the Moon had a higher per-screen box office average.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $655,802 on an unreported production budget; I think it probably made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fat Girl

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Words

HappyThankYouMorePlease


HappyThankYouMorePlease

Malin Akerman demonstrates the proper “crazy eyes” technique.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Anchor Bay) Josh Radnor, Malin Akerman, Kate Mara, Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale, Pablo Schreiber, Michael Algieri, Bram Barouh, Mary Elena Ramirez, Peter Scanavino, Fay Wolf, Dana Barron, Sunah Bilsted. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

There comes a point in all of our lives when we turn from twenty-somethings to thirty-somethings. It’s a bit of a milestone and in many ways it’s not that easy. For most of us, it’s a milestone from which we graduate from being “young people” to being “adults.”

For Sam (Radnor) and his friends, that change isn’t coming easily. Most of Sam’s circle are aspiring artists; none have really accomplished much in the arts to be honest. Sam has written a novel but not gotten it published although, with a title like The Other Great Thing About Vinyl there’s perhaps a clue why not. Sam is in fact on his way to see a publisher when he spies a kid hanging around the subway.

Sam senses there’s something wrong and tries to help. It turns out the kid, Rasheen (Algieri) was left there. Sam tries to deliver him to the authorities but when that doesn’t work out, he decides that Rasheen can stay with him until Sam can figure something out. Sam is apparently not the sharpest blade in the shed.

He has plenty of competition for that though. Mary Catherine (Kazan), who is Sam’s cousin,  is also a painter in the village – no, she doesn’t paint houses – who loves New York, even though for what she makes she can barely afford it. In fact, she probably wouldn’t be able to were it not for her filmmaker boyfriend Charlie (Schreiber) who has at least been working regularly; now he has received a job offer in Los Angeles, a lucrative one. He wants to go; she wants to stay, showing the kind of L.A. Hate-on only a New Yorker could generate, as well as that insular feeling that the Apple is the only city in the world that those Manhattan dwellers sometimes get. Their relationship has reached a crossroads and could go down either road – separately or together.

Annie (Akerman) has Alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss – in Annie’s case, complete hair loss. She wears an African head scarf to disguise this. She wonders if she can ever be truly loved – but then her taste in men is disastrous. Most of the men she chooses are borderline abusive and are only interested in one part of her body (and it isn’t her hair or lack thereof). A lawyer in her office whom she refers to as Sam #2 (Hale) is sweet on her, but his attempts at courtship are awkward and occasionally creepy. Still, he seems to be a nice enough guy but he’s simply not cool enough for her.

In the meantime, Sam #1 has become fixated on a waitress/barmaid named Mississippi (Mara) who is also a singer and is working hard to break into the music business but until then is waiting tables. She brings much stability into his life, although when she finds out the truth about Rasheen (whom she assumed was Sam’s biological progeny) becomes rightfully concerned as to whether Sam is the right guy for her.

Radnor also wrote and directed this, his first feature film. He is best known for playing Ted on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” In some ways, the characters here are sitcom-like, more caricature than character. Think of it as a hipster sitcom.

Although this is essentially an ensemble film, these are not interweaving stories but part of the same one. Akerman is a fine actress who sometimes gets parts that showcase her abilities; this isn’t one of them. Nevertheless, she elevates it, turning the role of Annie who has elements of self-pity woven into her personality into less of a whiner and more into a compelling character you want to know better. That’s a testament to her talents, and her performance is far and away the best thing going for the film.

Elsewhere, the performances range from marginally okay to satisfactory. Nobody disgraces themselves here but other than Akerman nobody else rises above either. For the most part this is pleasant but unmemorable. The title refers to something an Indian cabbie tells Annie – I’m paraphrasing, but essentially that it is necessary to go about life being grateful for the things that make you happy, and to ask the universe for more of those things. It gives the film a kind of optimism that is not that unusual in indie films these days (you want pessimism, see a 70s film).

However, also the norm in indie films is a focus on a hip New York lifestyle that as depicted the people involved couldn’t possibly afford to live. Sam, for example, has no apparent income and yet lives in a nice apartment in the Village. While not science fiction per se, it does enter that fantasyland of indie films that we have just learned to accept as part of the reality of movies – like the characters always get a parking spot in front of the place they want to go, for example. Just accept and move on.

The movie is charming enough to be palatable while you’re watching it, but won’t stick around in your memory much more than it takes to find something else to do. The film’s message on finding the things that truly make you happy isn’t a particularly revolutionary one nor is it told in a particularly revolutionary manner. It’s just a decent first feature for someone who shows enough promise that I look forward to seeing where he goes from here as a filmmaker and actor.

WHY RENT THIS: Akerman elevates her material. Some moments of insight here and there.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little heavy on the indie cliché. A bit unfocused in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of bad language here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Radnor wrote the film while working on the first and second seasons of “How I Met Your Mother.” He then spent the next two years acquiring financing, writing revisions and casting actors in their roles before shooting in July 2009, just three months (including six weeks of pre-production) after getting the financial backing.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on music composer Jaymay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $216,110 on an unreported production budget; the film broke even at best (but probably didn’t).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Garden State

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Men in Black III