The Other Kids


Even the other kids gotta blow-dry.

Even the other kids gotta blow-dry.

(2016) Drama (CB Films) Savannah Bailey, Hunter Gilmore, Kai Kellerman, Sienna Lampi, Natasha Lombardi, Joe McGee, Isaac Sanchez, Abby Stewart. Directed by Chris Brown

Florida Film Festival 2016

High school, according to Hollywood, is a party. Everyone is cool, or popular or both. Guys are studly, girls are gorgeous and everyone gets laid. We form deep friendships that last a lifetime and eventually graduate and move on to a great life.

For most of us, our high school experiences are a bit different. Sure, the popular kids exist and they seem to sail right through (and that in itself is a myth). Then there are the other kids.

You know the ones. The ones that don’t fit in. The ones that never get invited to parties. The ones who sit by themselves at lunch. The ones that are too busy working to socialize. These are the kids who caught filmmaker Chris Brown’s (Fanny, Annie and Danny) attention.

Brown took a handful of kids at a small Northern California town and convinced them to tell their stories. He let them develop their characters and gave them what essentially was a filmmaking crash course. The result was a mix of fact and fiction, what Brown has dubbed a “Fictumentary” which presents these teens in the manner in which they choose to be presented.

It’s a bold concept and tons of things could easily have gone wrong but happily, what has come to pass is a fascinating look into the lives of modern small town teens as they enter the final months of high school before graduation. Some have plans to continue their education; others are going right into the workplace. Some have relationships going, others are single, happily so or otherwise. Some have stable family homes, others do not.

The thing with teens is that they are not always easy to spend a lot of time with. They are learning as they go along, feeling things out; they will talk just for the sake of calling attention to themselves, making meaningless chatter rather than listening to what others might have to say. There is also the arrogance of youth, of knowing that you are young and strong, which in the eyes of youth gives you the idea that you know everything you need to already. This isn’t a dis of young people, incidentally; we all are guilty of the same mindset when we’re high school seniors and a little older. It isn’t until life has kicked us around a little bit more that we discover how ignorant we truly are.

The kids here are engaging and thankfully, interesting. There’s no doubt that they have a certain amount of screen confidence that allows them to hold your attention; none are camera shy and none are particularly awkward onscreen, although some of their native awkwardness is portrayed. Like with all teenagers, the hormones rage hard within them and the emotions can be overwhelming. Things become life and death with them, things that the gift of perspective not yet bestowed upon them might have diminished.

The big question I have here is whether or not that it would be as illuminating to simply spend time with teenagers of your acquaintance as opposed to watching this. The answer is I don’t think so; kids that age tend to be much more reserved around adults and you don’t really get the opportunity to know them as well in real life as you might here. Parents of teens or pre-teens might benefit from seeing this as it may give them insight into what their own kids are going through.

This isn’t a slam dunk by any means; anyone who has raised a teen will roll their eyes a little here at some of the things said and done. I know there were times that my own son had moments as he was growing up that affected me much the same way as nails on a chalkboard does. Those with a low tolerance for teen angst may also want to steer clear.

For everyone else, this is illuminating as much as it is entertaining. Even though we have survived our own teen years, the world of teens five, ten, twenty years removed is often as mysterious as the most remote parts of the Amazon. It’s not so much that we forget so much as we have changed. The things that made sense at 17 are no longer easily understood at 27, or 37, or 57 and the further away we drift through the years, the less it makes sense to us.

This serves as a reminder not just of who these kids are but who we were as well. I don’t think Brown, a fine filmmaker (and for the sake of transparency, a good personal friend) really expects that this will bring any sort of great understanding among the generations. What I think this film accomplishes extremely well is that it shows these young people dispassionately but also compassionately – it portrays them as real people, not just cardboard Hollywood cutouts. These are the kids who are walking past your house on the way to and from school, the ones hanging out at Mickey Ds, and the ones who are laughing at you behind your back. They’re the ones who are inheriting the world we are giving them, and at the very least we owe them some appreciation since we’ve messed it up so badly.

REASONS TO GO: Has a real documentary feel to it. A literal slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Spending time with teens can be aggravating.
FAMILY VALUES: Some teen sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film centers on teens attending Sonora High School in the Gold Rush country of Northern California.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Breakfast Club
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

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Copenhagen (2014)


Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

(2014) Drama (Scorched Films) Gethin Anthony, Frederikke Dahl Hansen, Sebastian Armesto, Julie Christiansen, Olivia Grant, Mille Dinesen, Martin Hestbaek, Silja Eriksen Jensen, Gordon Kennedy, Helene Kuhn, Tamzin Merchant, Baard Owe, Asbjorn Krogh Nissen, Preven Ravn, Zaki Nobel Mehabil, Sebastian Bull Sarning, Miriam Yeager. Directed by Mark Raso

Florida Film Festival 2014

Travel allows us to see new places and gain new perspectives. It also allows us to completely be ourselves – or completely reinvent ourselves. Then again, what we do depends on what we’re travelling for.

William (Anthony) is a thoroughly unpleasant sort. 28 years old, he is only interested in getting laid, getting drunk and doing what he wants when he wants. He respects nobody and likes nobody except for maybe his friend Jeremy (Armesto) whom he’s travelling with, along with Jeremy’s girlfriend Jennifer (Grant) whom William thoroughly dislikes and quite frankly, doesn’t want her around on this trip that was just supposed to be him and Jeremy.

They’re in Copenhagen and it’s not by accident nor is it for the tourist attractions. William needs to find his grandfather to give him a letter that his late father wrote and asked William to give to him if he ever made it out there. Finding granddad will be a problem, especially when Jennifer, tired of the abuse, finally bails and takes Jeremy with her, much to William’s disgust.

Fortunately, an employee at the hotel – Effy (Hansen) – is willing to help and even though William is rude to her initially, he realizes that he needs her to translate (he doesn’t speak a word of Danish) and help him navigate the city to find his grandfather.

But all work makes William a dull boy and Effy takes him out on a number of adventures in Denmark. William is beginning to fall for the free-spirited girl and Effy clearly feels a strong attraction towards him. The brakes are put on though when William discovers that she’s just 14 years old. A mature 14 but 14 nonetheless. That’s a no-no even in Europe.

This is Canadian-born Mark Raso’s first feature and he shows a good deal of promise. This was one of those rare films that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. That’s a by-product of really good writing (also Raso) as well as confident directing. Yeah, there are parts of this that are really dark but there are some really funny moments as well.

Raso filmed this in Copenhagen with a mostly Danish crew and he does a great job of really giving us a sense of the city, not just of the tourist areas although there’s a really lovely scene filmed late at night at the iconic Little Mermaid statue in the harbor. We get a sense of the daily life of the people who live there and a sense of their values, their lifestyles and their sense of humor. I’m not sure if Raso spent much time in Copenhagen but clearly what time he did spend there he used wisely; he’s clearly a keen observer. His cinematographer, Alan Poon, clearly is as well – we get some really gorgeous and unique views of the city and environs.

Hansen is a real find. Although playing a 14-year-old, she was 19 years old at the time of filming and she captures the mindset of a 14-year-old girl nicely, albeit one wise and mature beyond her years. As the film goes on, we discover that Effy has some issues as well and we get to see the layers of her personality gradually revealed. While some of that is clever direction on Raso’s part, it is mostly just Hansen doing a bang-up job.

Anthony has a more thankless role with William, a guy that you’ll be convinced after ten minutes that this is a guy who must get punched in the face regularly. Even though he’s pretty good looking, it’s impossible to imagine that he could get laid regularly, as portrayed here. I can’t imagine that a woman would want to spend long enough with him to get her clothes off, but that’s just my take. Women do make some strange choices in bed partners sometimes and William can be charming when he needs to be, but that charm rarely lasts long. It’s to Anthony’s credit that he never tries to make William sympathetic; even when he’s starting to soften up and let Effy in, William is still a massive prick.

What makes this movie even more memorable is the dynamic between Effy and William. Quite frankly, some are going to be uncomfortable with it and even I have to admit to a couple of moments of squirming in my seat but all in all it is handled quite well and with a great deal of sensitivity. That doesn’t mean we don’t soon realize that these are two people who are really good for each other. Both of them have dysfunctional families bordering on the psychotic in places, although William does take home the prize in that department.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Raso views the city with a great deal of affection and we do at the same time get an insider’s perspective as well as an outsider’s. That’s unique and invaluable and I wound up leaving the film feeling I knew the city of Copenhagen just a little bit better, but this is no travelogue. The real reason for seeing this movie is for the compelling relationship between Effy and William and the dynamic performances of the actors who play them.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps the viewer guessing. Fine performance by Hansen who has some serious star quality.

REASONS TO STAY: Relationship between Effy and William may make some uncomfortable. William can be a truly unpleasant jerk to spend time with.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult situations, some sensuality, drinking and smoking, plenty of foul language and a little violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anthony is best-known for his role as Renly Baratheon in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Midnight in Paris

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Woman Power commences!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


We can be heroes.

We can be heroes.

(2012) Drama (Summit) Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Jonny Simmons, Nina Dobrev, Nicholas Braun, Julia Garner, Tom Savini, Melanie Lynskey, Mae Whitman, Adam Hagenbuch, Erin Wilhelmi, Reece Thompson, Zane Holtz, Joan Cusack, Landon Pigg, Emily Callaway, Jennifer Enskat. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

Our Film Library

It is somewhat ironic that while as we grow older we look back upon our high school years with more affection than any other era of our lives, while we are living those years they are often the most painful of our lives as well. We are so desperate to fit in, our self-confidence so low that we doubt even the most basic facts about ourselves. We often wonder if we are good enough and throughout our high school years we’re pretty much sure that we are not.

Charlie Kelmeckis (Lerman) is a freshman in high school. His older brother Chris (Holtz) has just graduated from the same school, a football scholarship to Penn State under his belt. His older sister Candace (Dobrev) is a senior who is dating Ponytail Derek (Braun), so named for his hippie-like appearance. Charlie discovers that Derek has been physically abusive with Candace but she tells him that it was a one-time occurrence and swears him to secrecy. His parents (McDermott, Walsh) are fairly clueless to what’s going on with him.

Charlie has a lot of problems. His best friend committed suicide the year before and he still has flashbacks to the death of his Aunt Helen (Lynskey) who died in a car accident on his seventh birthday. He finds himself unable to make friends, although he manages to make a friend of Mr. Anderson (Rudd), a sympathetic English teacher.

Two misfit seniors, Patrick (Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Watson) take him under their wings after a football game and the three become fast friends. Charlie is admitted into their inner circle, attending screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater in Pittsburgh in which Sam gets up on stage and dances provocatively. Charlie also discovers that Patrick is gay and having a relationship with a football hero (Simmons) but keeps that to himself as well.

Things are going well for Charlie overall. While he carries a torch for Sam, she has a boyfriend in college. Still, she gives him a Christmas present of a vintage typewriter, recognizing his skills as a writer and bestows upon him his first kiss – because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him unlike her own.

Charlie gets asked out to the Sadie Hawkins dance by Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) who takes him to her home and kisses him, declaring him to be her boyfriend. The relationship continues, dominated by the strong-willed Mary Elizabeth in which Charlie gets more and more uncomfortable although they have been having sex which he doesn’t mind at all.

However, in a thoughtless moment during a game of Truth or Dare, he is dared to kiss the most beautiful girl in the room and plants one on Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth. That puts him on the outs with his friends and creates a rift with the people he cares about most. Charlie’s past is beginning to catch up with him as his memories begin to resurface and old feelings begin to drag him down like an anchor into the depths. Charlie needs his friends more than ever but without a support system around him, will he be able to make it through to his sophomore year?

This is based on a book Chbosky himself wrote and adapted for the screen, becoming the rare occasion when  an author not only adapts his own work for the screen but directs it as well. The source material has been praised for its accurate portrayal of teenagers and while it is set in the early 1990s, it nonetheless resonates timelessly.

Part of the success of the adaptation comes from an amazing cast. Watson, best known as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films is simply fantastic. Sam is a very vulnerable character who is nonetheless loyal to those she loves. Watson shows that vulnerability without making it Sam’s defining characteristic.  Miller also is wonderful as Patrick. Catty and arch without becoming a gay stereotype, Miller turns Patrick into just a regular kid who happens to be gay. In doing so he does a lot for breaking those stereotypes.

Lerman is the center of the film and he does a terrific job here. While he has had his share of less than stellar performances, here he shows that he can and should be a major star. Charlie is one of the most complex characters that you’ll see in films, and Lerman imbues Charlie with all of that complexity – his angst, his self-doubt, his kindness, his neediness, his pride, his love, his cruelty – Charlie is far from perfect and while he may have more issues than most teenage kids, he certainly can’t be called unusual.

Chbosky wisely shot the film in Pittsburgh where he grew up and as the movie is said to be fairly autobiographical using familiar territory to set his film in works marvelously. Although I’m 30 plus years removed from my high school days, I felt immediate kinship with Charlie and his friends and the film resonated deeply with me, a feat indeed for a film that is clearly meant for younger viewers.

The movie has gotten its share of (deserved) praise and is one of those movies which may not necessarily be one that appeals to older audiences at first glance but the emotions and the feelings here are universal; younger audiences will relate completely to the movie and older audiences will find it resonant as well. It doesn’t hurt that it has an awesome soundtrack – any movie that contains the Smiths’ “Asleep” and David Bowie’s “Heroes” as major thematic songs is bound to be a good one.

WHY RENT THIS: Resonates with older and younger audiences alike. Amazing performances by the young cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overdoses with angst.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly mature thematic elements, depictions of teen drug and alcohol use, teen sexuality and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theater in which the movie filmed the Rocky Horror sequences was the same theater in Pittsburgh that Chbosky used to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show when he was a teen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $33.4M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Breakfast Club

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Day 3 of Our Film Library!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The old and the new collide in modern Shanghai.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Archie Kao, Vivian Wu, Hugh Jackman, Russell Wong, Coco Chiang, Congmeng Guo, Yan Dai, Ying Tang, Chen Tao, Zhong Lu, Mian Mian, Wu Jiang, Feihu Sun. Directed by Wayne Wang

What makes a friendship last? Is it the experiences we share or is it something deeper, a connection that cannot be explained or quantified? Why is it that our friendships sometimes seem far more lasting and deeper than our romantic relationships?

In the early 19th century in China, two young girls – Snow Flower (Jun), born into a family of wealth, and Lily (Li), born into poverty, have their feet bound on the same day (the bones broken then the feet wrapped tightly in silk in order to inhibit growth which made the feet smaller, a prized feature in ancient China) and are made laotong  – which translates to “old sames” and is a deep friendship between two women that is contractual but entered in through mutual choice rather than arrangement.

The two young girls grow up into women and each are married; Lily, whose perfect feet make her a prize, into the wealthiest family in Hunan Province and into a loveless marriage and Snow Flower, whose family fortunes have taken a nosedive when her father blew the fortune on opium, to a butcher (Jiang), the lowest rung on the social ladder in the day. Snow Flower’s marriage has its share of difficulties but at least there is some love there.

In modern Shanghai, Nina (Li) is about to leave for New York City to run the North American office of a prestigious financial firm. However, her plans are interrupted by the news that her estranged friend Sophie (Jun) has been gravely hurt in a bicycle accident, lying in a coma in a Shanghai hospital. Nina discovers that her friend is writing a book about the two laotong from the 19th century, seeing in them a parallel between herself and Nina. The occasion is hastened by an exhibit on laotong at a Shanghai gallery.

Nina decides to dig into Sophie’s life, searching for a missing fan on which Snow Flower and Lily communicated in nu shu, a secret language for women. In the process, she discovers the insignificance of the barriers between them and the importance of friendship, particularly one as deep and lasting as the one they share.

Wang, who has also directed The Joy Luck Club, based this on the bestselling novel by Chinese-American author Lisa See. He and writers Ron Bass, Angela Workman and Michael Ray, added the modern sequences which didn’t appear in the book. The device allows some juxtaposition between modern and ancient China; whether or not that was necessary is a subject of some debate.

To the movie’s credit, it captures both the ancient and modern Chinas beautifully. This is a very good looking film. Also to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t skimp on the ugliness that sometimes rears its ugly head, from the foot binding to the abuse of women and mistreatment, particularly in ancient China when they were little more than property

Jackman, who has a song and dance background from Broadway, gets to show off his singing chops as a singing nightclub owner in the modern sequences in a very small role so if you’re going to see the movie because of his presence, be aware he only appears in a handful of scenes. However the performance of Li, who plays both Lily and Nina, is strong and is one of the reasons I gave the movie a rating this high. She makes a compelling lead and carries most of the movie on her shoulders, which may seem delicate but are much stronger than they appear.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has received some scathing reviews, some of which I can kind of see, but others seem to be more aimed at the involvement of Rupert Murdoch (who personally lobbied to get this film released) and his wife (who is listed as a producer for the film). While I hold no love for Murdoch or his media empire, I can only review the movie, not who made it. The movie is beautifully made on a subject rarely delved into in Hollywood (even Thelma and Louise was a movie that was less about ordinary circumstances as this one is). Sure, it’s flawed – the pace is a little too slow for my tastes and I suspect that focusing on the 19th century story rather than drawing parallels in modern China would have benefitted the film overall. Nonetheless it’s a movie well worth seeing just for the insight into feminine friendships and the cinematography alone.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling look at female friendships, a rare thing in the movies. Beautifully shot in modern Shanghai and ancient China.

REASONS TO STAY: The story moves at a fairly glacial pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some violence, a few disturbing images and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was scored by Rachel Portman, the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score (for Emma in 1996).

HOME OR THEATER: The beautiful cinematography should be enjoyed on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Cowboys and Aliens