Beware the Gonzo


Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unrealistic.

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

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

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of a High School President

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shadow of the Vampire

Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

New Releases for the Week of May 25, 2012


May 25, 2012

MEN IN BLACK III

(Columbia) Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jermaine Clement, Emma Thompson, Alice Eve, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nicole Scherzinger, Bill Hader, David Rasche. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Agent J of the MIB is beginning to get burned out on the constant stream of weirdness and aliens that pass through his jurisdiction. However, just when he thought that there was nothing that could phase him, he comes to work one morning and discovers that his partner Agent K whom he’d worked with just the night before had been dead for 40 years and that this change in history was somehow connected with an alien invasion of Earth. In order to save the planet and his partner, Agent J will have to go back through time and save K from his untimely death – only to discover that things aren’t so different back in the ’60s as he thought.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language)

Chernobyl Diaries

(Warner Brothers) Devin Kelly, Jesse McCartney, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley. A group of young American tourists decide to take the ultimate day trip – to Chernobyl and the adjacent city of Pripyat, the town where the nuclear reactor workers lived and abandoned since the day reactor number four went ker-blooey. It all seems like a gas at first but soon it becomes clear that the town isn’t quite deserted – and when they become stranded there overnight, they are in for the vacation from hell. (Opens Thursday)

See the trailer, a promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for violence, some bloody images and pervasive language)  

First Position

(IFC) Aran Bell, Michaela Deprince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht. The young dancers at the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition dream of winning the competition and achieving the valuable scholarships that come with winning. Dreams often come at a high price and this documentary follows a group of kids who hope to catch lightning in a bottle and get one step closer to their ultimate dream.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR  

Mighty Fine

(Adopt) Chazz Palminteri, Andie MacDowell, Jodelle Ferland, Rainey Qualley. After being relocated to New Orleans from Brooklyn, an apparel store owner begins spending wildly on a lifestyle he can’t possibly afford. As his business teeters closer and closer to the edge of disaster, he refuses to accept the reality of the situation and jeopardizes his family’s future.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language)