Pahokee


There is nothing that says optimism so much as high school football.

(2019) Documentary (Topic) Jocabed Martinez, Na’Kerria Nelson, Junior Walker, BJ Crawford. Directed by Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas

High school is a time in our lives that we endure while we’re living it and, often, treasure more when we’re older than when we’re actually there. The rituals and ambitions of high school are pretty much universal but there are places that they take on a more urgent quality.

Pahokee is a small agricultural town in South Florida on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Most of the residents are either African-American or Hispanic. Much of the work in the town revolves around working in the fields or in the processing plants. There is little more than that for the young people to look forward to; most who have ambitions beyond that know that they will have to leave Pahokee to get a college education

This documentary follows four students in Pahokee High School’s senior class of 2017 in a particularly turbulent year at the school. Jocabed Martinez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who managed to save enough from working in the fields to open their own roadside taqueria where she helps out after school working the cash register. She has been doing tremendously well academically and has a realistic chance at an academic scholarship to a four-year college. Na’Kerria Nelson is an outgoing and personable cheerleader who is running for the equivalent of homecoming queen. She has ambitions of getting into a nursing program but with fair to middling academics, she needs every edge she can get and will likely have to pay for her own education. Junior Walker is a drum major in the school band who is also father to a cute-as-a-button toddler, a daughter whom he dotes on. With few employment options and a baby to support, college isn’t likely as he seeks employment in the town. Finally, BJ Crawford is the bruising center and co-captain of the football team that is challenging for the state championship. Both of his college-educated parents are fully in support of him getting an athletic scholarship but his dad cautions him to have a plan B just in case football doesn’t work out for him.

The camera follows them through most of the high school high points, from homecoming, the football state playoffs, prom and graduation. In between there will be moments of triumph, disappointment and even tragedy as on Easter Sunday there was a shooting in the local park. The camera crew happened to be there and captured the chaos and terror of the moment.

There are plenty of compelling moments throughout including the shooting sequence. The problem is that the movie really leaves the audience hanging; the football team suffers a devastating blow and it is essentially left without any sort of context or follow-up. We are often flies on the wall but the teens are rarely questioned directly. There are some video diaries recorded on cell phones and those are weaved in skillfully but I would have liked to have seen the teens talk about some of the things that happen onscreen beyond the platitudes you would expect.

As a glimpse of rural life particularly for those of the ethnic groups previously mentioned this is a pretty decent diary. It could have used some more context and more discipline rather than stream of consciousness. There are a lot of shots of fields being tended, distant factories, trucks roaring down small-town roads used as linking devices. There are also some lovely sunset shots. More grating is that there are some wonderful moments all throughout the movie but they are essentially lacking any sort of cohesion. With a bit of a firmer hand in the editing bay this might have been an extraordinary documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some truly extraordinary moments throughout the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks cohesion; the film could have benefited from more disciplined editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bresnan and Lucas lived and worked in Pahokee making short films prior to tackling this feature documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoop Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ash is Purest White

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Liverleaf (Misumisô)


The phrase “pure as the driven snow” doesn’t apply here.

(2018) Horror (T-Joy) Anna Yomada, Hiroya Shimizu, Rinka Ôtani, Rena Ôtsuka, Kenshin Endô, Masato Endô, Kazuki Ōtomo, Masahiro Toda, Seina Nakata, Minori Terada, Ayaka Konno, Arisa Sakura, Reiko Kataoka, Aki Morita, Sena Tamayori. Directed by Eisuke Naitô

Bullying is sadly not an unusual thing, whether in American  high schools or Japanese ones. There always seems to be a human urge for the strong to prey on the weak.

Haruka Nozaki (Yomada) falls into the latter category. A transfer into a small rural middle school from a larger city, she doesn’t fit in and is preyed upon mercilessly by a gaggle of girls led by the diffident Queen Bee Taeko (Ôtani) who for a short while was friends with Nozaki. Now, she gives tacit approval to her followers in making the life of Nozaki a living hell.

Things start off typically; knocking her book bag out of her hands, throwing her shoes in a mud pit, knocking her into the mud-type things. Then things begin to escalate; a dead crow is put in her locker and she is jabbed with needles. Her mother (Kataoka) and father (Toda) have a meeting with Nozaki’s teacher (Morita) who is strangely cowed by the other students; they call her “vomit teacher” because she throws up when the misbehaving gets extreme. In any case, the teacher informs the parents that the school is closing at the end of the term and there’s no sense in opening up a can of worms. Nozaki’s parents take the extraordinary step of keeping their daughter home from school.

Infuriated, the bullies send Rumi (Ôtsuka) – a girl with a stammer who would be next on the list to get their full attention – to get Nozaki back to school but Nozaki knows all too well that things will end badly for her if she goes to school, so she declines. Rumi, wanting to fit in with the ugly bully crowd, professes that she wants Nozaki to die. Some of the boys in the group decide to see how serious she is. In the meantime, Nozaki has a friend in Aiba (Shimizu) who is more than a little interested in photography and is, like Nozaki, a transfer student. He lives, for some unexplained reason, with his grandmother.

But Nozaki’s refusal causes things to spin completely out of control from there as the bullies go way, way, way over the line. Tragedy results and Nozaki is left a shell of herself, a ghost floating in the winter snow. Even then the bullies won’t leave well enough alone and Nozaki finally stands up for herself – and she’s holding a knife when she does.

The film, based on an ultraviolent manga, is the latest teen bully horror film from Naitô who has already directed a couple of movies with comparable themes. Some critics have labeled this a revenge film and I’m not really sure if that’s accurate; certainly Nozaki’s actions later in the film could be construed as seeking vengeance but I get more of a sense that it is self-preservation she’s after. She’s pushed to a wall and like any cornered animal, fights her way out.

Yomada is excellent as the timid, cringing wallflower turned psycho killer. Her change from one extreme to the other is totally believable and while the gore and mayhem may be somewhat over-the-top, it is a comic book adaptation folks and one would expect an exaggerated amount of violence and bloodshed in that situation. In fact, some of the most brutal scenes in the movie are so beautifully photographed by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya that you almost feel guilty enjoying the images he captures.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; the climax is a long time coming and when it arrives it’s almost a relief. I was left wishing it had come sooner but again, like most Americans I have the attention span of a loaf of bread. It felt like Naitô was taking a bloody long time to get to where he was going. I haven’t read the manga so I’m not entirely sure how faithful the film is to it but it feels like there was some fat that could have been trimmed.

As scary movies go this is more visceral than spooky. The scares are mainly in the gore and violence, not so much from any build-up from tension; think of it as a slasher movie in a Japanese school girl uniform (you know, the Sailor Moon outfit) and there you have Liverleaf, which is a local flower that blooms to usher in spring and is a big deal to Nozaki’s photographer friend, her only friend and maybe more than that. This isn’t going to scare the bejeezus out of you but then again, not every horror film has to.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes of brutality are filmed in a strangely beautiful manner. Anna Yomada delivers a killer performance (literally).
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and disturbing images, gore, profanity and scenes of brutal bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Misumisô manga by Rensuke Oshikiri.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
1/1

For Ahkeem


Attitude is everything.

(2017) Documentary (Transient) Daje Shelton, Antonio, Judge Jimmie Edwards, Tammy Shelton. Directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest

There are those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that All Lives Matter, not just black ones. Of course they do. The issue is that sometimes white America, particularly the institutions of law enforcement and education treat the African-American community with such contempt that reminders are necessary.

This documentary follows young African-American teen Daje “Boonie” Shelton. She’s a typical young girl in North St. Louis; she has friends she hangs out with, she likes boys and as far as school goes, meh! But Daje has some anger issues; she gets into fights at school and now she’s being expelled. She stands in front of Judge Jimmie Edwards, her mother Tammy at her side and Judge Edwards essentially tells the two of them that despite mom’s pleas for one more chance, Daje has run out of them. She has one option and one option only: to enroll in the alternative school that he helped found, the Innovative Concept Academy (ICA) which specializes in helping at-risk youths transition from the criminal justice system into the education system and break the endless cycle of jail, release, jail, release that besets so many African-American teens.

Daje is extremely reluctant to go but her mom and Judge Edwards impress upon her that her only other choice is to drop out and find a job and this Tammy is adamant that Daje avoid. Daje is a bright girl who has a shot at going to college and Tammy is encouraging her to go. Little by little, Daje begins to blossom at ICA and become more self-confident and even as she struggles with math, she has a good chance at graduating and getting into college. With the help of counselors and teachers who believe in her, Daje learns to shine.

She also meets a boy named Antonio and from the moment they lock eyes they’re joined at the hip. Antonio has even more difficulty handling school than Daje and eventually drops out. Shortly thereafter Daje discovers she’s pregnant. The odds just got a little tougher but she perseveres, taking care of her pregnancy as well as school. Once she gives birth, she’s all about her baby boy Ahkeem. Everything she does is for him.

The baby daddy though is making a lot of bad decisions that put him in jail and on probation for a variety of crimes. Even though he professes when Ahkeem is born that he will get  a job and support his son so that he has the opportunities he himself didn’t have, he fails to follow through and instead gets arrested for being involved with a stolen vehicle and then caught with enough marijuana while on probation for the first crime to get arrested again.

Daje has a whole lot of attitude and not very much in the way of accountability when the documentary begins. The problems she has, according to Daje, are not her fault and yet Daje makes a lot of very poor decisions. The a-ha moment for me though was when I considered raising my own son at her age; he was also prone to making some pretty poor decisions. Unlike Daje and Antonio, he had far more opportunities to get his act together. He didn’t have the police breathing down his neck treating him like a criminal just for ambling around the neighborhood. When you treat someone like a criminal, they are far more likely to become one.

The filmmakers remain unobtrusive (although I’m sure that they made quite a stir at ICA) and nonjudgmental throughout. They present Daje’s life as it happens. They had no way of knowing that she would get pregnant (although statistics say that the potential was relatively high) and no way of knowing that she would graduate (which statistics said was far less likely). What happens to Daje happens to a lot of African-American women – her mother relates a very similar story which is why she is so adamant that Daje go to college. The filmmakers simply document and that is the essence of a documentary. My hat is off to them.

Daje in many ways is the face of African-American teen girls. She faces the same challenges, has the same hopes and dreams and survives the same environment. Despite the presence of Barack Obama in the White House when this was filmed, she knew very well that she was part of a system that was broken and yet there wasn’t much will in the corridors of power to do anything to fix that system. Now, with a new President and control of the legislature and the Supreme Court in the hands of men who seem to have little or no incentive to fix things in the African-American community, the outlook is even bleaker.

Leaving the screening for this film, I found myself wondering what sort of chance Ahkeem has at all. It took some time and reflection to consider that the problem isn’t just Ahkeem’s parents; it’s the environment that he lives in. During the course of filming, a young man named Michael J. Brown was shot in nearby Ferguson, sparking nationwide protests and giving rise to Black Lives Matter. Daje has a notebook which is littered with “R.I.P.” notices for fallen friends, most victims of gang and drug violence and she herself carries the scar of a bullet wound. The life expectancy of a young African-American man is not very long and the opportunities for escaping the cycle of poverty and crime not very many. For those opportunities to arise, white America will need to learn to perceive African-Americans differently. Documentaries like this one will help in doing that.

REASONS TO GO: A true slice of life of the issues African-American teens are facing today. Filmmakers take a nonjudgmental approach and are unobtrusive throughout. We get to watch Daje grow and blossom over the course of the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the choices Daje and Antonio make will frustrate you. May be uncomfortably grim for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers, both white, followed Daje around for her Junior and Senior years of high school.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Girl Flu

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

Boyhood


Life is an ongoing investigation.

Life is an ongoing investigation.

(2014) Drama (IFC) Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Elijah Smith, Steven Prince, Bonnie Cross, Marco Perella, Libby Villari, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villareal, Richard Jones, Karen Jones, Zoe Graham, Nick Krause, Angela Rawna, Evie Thompson, Brad Hawkins, Barbara Chisholm, Jenni Tooley, Savannah Welch, Taylor Weaver, Jessi Mechler. Directed by Richard Linklater

Seinfeld was famously a sitcom about nothing. Here we have a movie, filmed over a 12 year span, in which nothing much happens. Nothing much, maybe, except life.

That is what this movie is all about. Richard Linklater, one of the more respected directors in the indie ranks who has such seminal films as Dazed and Confused and Slacker to his credit as well as the ambitious Before trilogy, took the time to film this movie with the same core cast of actors over a 12 year period. What he ended up doing is filming a series of short films which he later stitched together into a full-fledged feature film as we watch the cast grow up and age before our very eyes.

Mason (Coltrane) lives with his mom (Arquette) who is divorced from his dreamer of a father (Hawke) and his sister Samantha (Linklater) with whom he bickers constantly. She’s got a bit of the princess to her and she knows how to stomp her feet and declare her position without equivocation.

They live in various locales in Texas as mom takes on a series of boyfriends and husbands with varying degrees of success. She also goes back to school and gets her degree, enabling her to teach at a local community college. Dad in the meantime returns back to Texas from Alaska and means to take on a more active role in the lives of his kids. At first he’s just another, larger-sized kid along with them, but as time goes by he starts to change and becomes more the father he should have been all along.

Critics have been falling all over each other to praise this movie as you can tell from the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so much so that I can’t help wonder when the inevitable backlash is going to hit. All I can say is not now and not here. This is a magnificent film, one that will engender discussion for a very long time; certainly when you leave the theater you’ll be talking about it.

This was always a project that was going to need a little bit of luck. Getting the parents of the child actors to agree to taking a couple of weeks each year to film for 12 years is quite a commitment to ask for, even from the professionals. What if the kid actors turned out to be terrible? What if one of them decided they didn’t want to do this anymore – and in fact one did. Surprisingly, it was the director’s daughter who asked her daddy to kill her off in the movie. Thankfully, Linklater had enough vision to insist his little girl see it through – and eventually she came back on board.

The point is, there were a lot of ways that this project could have been torpedoed but in every sense of the word this movie was charmed. For one thing, who would have guessed that Coltrane would turn out to be a charismatic young actor? Linklater may well have suspected but there really was no way to know for sure when a kid is eight years old how he’s going to react to things when he’s eighteen.

Nonetheless, Coltrane gives an unexpectedly terrific performance. Sure there are times when as a young boy his acting is a bit forced by as the movie continues you see him grow more and more confident in his ability. By the time Mason heads off to college, there is a maturity to the boy and the performance that simply put gives the movie a grand shot in the arm. I don’t know what Coltrane’s future plans are but he certainly has the presence and the talent to make a go of it in the motion picture industry.

Arquette, who filmed concurrently to her work in the TV show The Medium for a good portion of the movie, has a complicated role. In many ways, her character is the least defined; while Hawke’s dad has a defined journey from flamboyant and immature daddy wannabe to responsible and surprisingly wise father, her character is always the most responsible one of the two. Her issues stem from her very poor choices in men, some with devastating consequences to her family. She’s a very bright, attractive woman but by movie’s end she’s alone. One wonders if her character deserved that fate.

We watch Mason and Samantha grow up before our very eyes while their parents grow older and wiser. One of the complaints that I’ve heard is that there are stretches where nothing happens, but those who make that complaint miss the point. Life happens, and sometimes life happens subtly. It isn’t just the big watershed moments in our lives that make us what we are – it’s the little things as well, sometimes as small as bowling without bumpers.

The late Gene Siskel was a huge fan of slice of life films and undoubtedly this is the kind of film he would have championed. There is no slice of life movie that takes such a slice out of life and makes it seamless and organic. We don’t watch this movie so much as live it; throughout we are reminded of the events and situations in our own lives either as children growing up or as parents raising children, or even both. Those of a certain generation will find nostalgia in Harry Potter book release parties, a spot-on soundtrack, Ninetendos and campaigning for Obama. Others will recognize the kinds of challenges they faced growing up in the era, or raising kids in  the era.

Either way, this film will move you and take you places that while you may have already been there, will give you a fresh perspective on the matter. We all react to movies based on what we take into them from our own experiences, but this is one movie that most people are going to find value in, even in its quietest moments.

REASONS TO GO: Incredibly authentic. Basically appeals to kids that age. A primer for what to expect when raising kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Long periods of “inactivity.”

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of swearing, some sexual references and teen sex, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Morgan and Samantha’s dad take them to an Astros game against the Brewers and tells everyone that the Astros won on a three-run homer by Jason Lane in the bottom of the ninth. In reality the game, filmed on August 18, 2005 was won by the Brewers and Lane’s homer was a solo shot in the second inning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 100/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Get On Up

Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words

Post Grad


Post Grad

Nothing like a little picnic in the frozen food section to make for a truly unique date.

(2009) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Rodrigo Santoro, Jane Lynch, Michael Keaton, Carol Burnett, Craig Robinson, Kirk Fox, Fred Armisen, Bobby Coleman, Catherine Reitman, Andrew Daly, J.K. Simmons. Directed by Vicky Jenson

Graduating from college, especially these days, is like stepping through a door, only to find you’re thirty stories up with no floor beneath you. Like many of us, you either learn to fly or you splatter all over the sidewalk.

Ryden Malby (Bledel) has it all figured out. Get into the college of her choice? Check. Graduate with honors? Check again. Get a dream job at a ritzy L.A. publishing house? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh! That goes to her longtime nemesis Jessica Bard (Reitman).

Her carefully laid-out life derailed, she is forced to move back home with her Do It Yourselfer dad (Keaton), her long-suffering mom (Lynch) and her weird younger brother Hunter (Coleman) who dreams of soapbox derby glory while licking the heads of his elementary school friends. That kid’s got issues.

Also in the mix is Grandma (Burnett) who is picking out her tricked-out coffin and is generally rabid. There’s also nice guy Adam (Gilford) who is a friend who might possibly like some benefits although Ryden has her eye on the hot Brazilian neighbor (Santoro) who directs infomercials and is in this movie basically so he can take his shirt off.

Unable to land a suitable job, she eventually goes to work for her dad at his mall luggage emporium. He dreams of supplementing his income with a mail order belt buckle business. However, things begin to go south. Dad squashes the next door neighbor’s cat. The belt buckles he’s selling turn out to be stolen. Nice guy Adam, fed up with waiting on Ryden decides to go the law school route and heads to New York. Ryden’s carefully ordered world is unraveling and college never prepared her for it.

Director Jenson has previously done animated films like Shrek and Shark’s Tail. This is her first foray into live-action and it meets with middling results. The movie seems curiously static and lifeless in some places and the comedy seems forced which looks to be more a function of the writing than the direction. In fact, there are places that I wonder if there weren’t too many hands involved in the script i.e. studio execs trying to make this more palatable to a Disney Channel audience.

Bledel, who got notoriety in “The Gilmore Girls,” is a plucky heroine who hasn’t yet shown she can carry a feature film on her own. You would think she would have gotten the chance here, but oddly enough Jenson chose to put equal emphasis on a number of the subplots. It’s a shame; I would have preferred to see a little more focus on Ryden here but I imagine the temptation is when you have actors like Keaton, Burnett and Lynch to use them as much as possible.

They don’t disappoint. Keaton has the manic energy and offbeat timing that made him great in movies like Beetlejuice and Night Shift with a bit of the sitcom dad thrown in. He can dispense words of wisdom one moment then preside over a comic pet funeral the next. He doesn’t get the kinds of leading roles he once did but he still has it. It’s odd to see Lynch as the least quirky person in a movie, but here you have it. She has carved out a particular character niche for herself and she does it without peer. This is one of her more restrained roles yet, and it isn’t a career highlight.

When one sees Burnett playing the grandmother here, the first thing that comes to mind is “Now she’s reduced to this?” She is one of the great comediennes of her generation, certainly the equal of Lily Tomlin and Mary Tyler Moore. You would think the eccentric grandma would be beneath her, but then again that kind of role has served Betty White well.

Gilford, who is one of the fine young actors in “Friday Night Lights”, is given a thankless role that isn’t given a whole lot of depth. Nonetheless, he does a pretty good job making something out of nothing. However, the chemistry that should exist between him and Bledel isn’t really there, and that doesn’t help the movie any.

That’s an awful lot of criticism, but those who have stolen a peak at my rating might be surprised at how high it is. That is because the movie has a good heart at its core. Yes, the individual components are maybe not what they can be, but when you take the movie as a whole you walk away with a warm feeling. The family dynamic worked nicely and in the end they aren’t dysfunctional at all, which is somewhat refreshing in an era when families are depicted in comedies as real horror shows that might send a real-life family counselor screaming into the night, arms waving wildly overhead in a grim parody of Macauley Culkin circa Home Alone.

Needless to say, that doesn’t happen here. While I think the subject matter might have been explored better in a different way, there is at least something here that is pleasant entertainment, if nothing more and it is the nothing more that tends to set critic’s teeth on edge. If your standards aren’t particularly high, you can have a good time with this movie, and that’s really the way to approach it – just sit back, enjoy and don’t try to rewrite it too much in your head. That’s where disappointment is born.

WHY RENT THIS: While uneven, at the core the movie has a good heart despite the clichés. Keaton and Burnett are worth seeing in good movies or bad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a pastiche, sometimes of things that are cliché and bland. For some reason the movie doesn’t focus enough on its main character.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few choice curse words and some sexual situations, but nothing your average teenager wouldn’t be comfortable with.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Alexis Bledel role was originally supposed to go to Amanda Byrnes, but she had to pull out of the project due to other commitments.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of quiz-type games entitled “What Not to Wear” and “Find Your Match! The Best Job for You.” There is also a featurette on interviewing tips, generally skewed towards young women, as well as Gilford and Bledel giving career advice.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.4M on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing that the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Unstoppable