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

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Black Snake Moan


Black Snake Moan

"Pappy" Jackson will make you watch this movie by any means necessary.

(2006) Drama (Paramount Vantage) Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James, Adriane Lenox, Kim Richards, Neimus K. Williams, Leonard L. Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Claude Phillips.  Directed by Craig Brewer

Black Snake Moan opens with blues legend Son House explaining as best he can what the blues means. It really is an impossible task; the blues can’t really be explained. The blues are felt and experienced at a deep level that is half-primitive. It is the pain that makes us feel alive, and the joy that reminds us of all our despair. Now that you’ve come to the dawning realization that I’m not going to explain the blues any better than Son House – not that I had a shot of doing that to begin with – let me just state for the record that this is a blues movie. Not in the sense of a movie with blues music on the soundtrack; there have been plenty of those. No, this is a movie that makes you feel the blues as you watch it and in watching it, you may even feel as if you’ve gained an understanding of the blues that was lacking before. Don’t kid yourself; however, it is true that the filmmakers get the blues as well as Hollywood filmmakers are going to.

Set in the South, young Rae (Ricci) is a beautiful young girl who is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) who is being deployed by the National Guard. Rae is terrified that without Ronnie, she will sink back into the nasty habits that she had before she hooked up with him. You see, Rae has a very bizarre form of nymphomania that comes on her like a physical disease, forcing her to get relief any way she can.

Lazarus (Jackson) is hurting big time. His wife (Lenox) has left him for his own brother (Thomas) and the two are leaving town, leaving Lazarus – a grizzled old bluesman – humiliated and angry. After confronting the two who have wronged him, he goes home to rid it of every trace of his ex-wife, including her rose garden which he plows under with a certain amount of satisfaction.

Rae gives in to temptation and goes out with her friends. She takes to drinking heavily and popping pills. Nothing seems to help the terrible cough she’s developed; a little physical release is what she really craves. After a night of wild partying with the town pimp/drug dealer (Banner) and what looks like the local high school football team, she is too sick to party on any further, she’s been deserted by her friends and she is out of her mind with drugs, booze and God knows what else. Her boyfriend’s buddy Gill (Raymond-James) offers to drive her home, but when he tries to take advantage, she makes a cutting remark and he beats the holy crap out of her, then panics and dumps her at the side of the road and leaves her there, bleeding and half-naked.

The next morning, Lazarus finds the nearly dead girl and brings her into his home. Concerned for her life, he figures out quickly that it isn’t the beating that is the immediate concern; it’s the fever that is more likely to kill her. He goes down to the pharmacy where a helpful pharmacist (Merkerson) supplies him with what he needs. Slowly, through her fever dreams (which are nightmarish), he slowly nurses her back to her senses. He gets tired of chasing after her, however and finally comes up with the idea of chaining her to his radiator.

He is curious as to the identity of his houseguest and since the only clue she’s given him is the name of the pimp that she mumbled while insensible with her fever, Lazarus seeks him out and questions him about the girl. When he finds out about her nymphomania, an idea takes hold of him. This girl Rae has been put in his path for a reason, and he means to cure her of her wickedness, whether she wants to be or not.

There is a great deal of sexuality in the movie. Ricci has the thankless role of playing a woman driven to doing what most of us would consider disgusting things in order to get relief. There are times when her sexuality is graphic, and that may offend some. For my money, this is her best performance in years; she makes Rae trashy and vulnerable and sexy and terribly wounded, but still capable of love despite all the pain life has dealt her. Still, as much sex as goes on in this movie, it is not a movie about sex. It is a movie about love, and not the kind of love you’re thinking of either. Rae and Lazarus develop a kind of love that is not physical, but almost spiritual; they are friends yes, but more than that. They have been through Hell together and the bond they share is as unbreakable as the 40 pound chain Rae is imprisoned by.

Director Brewer does a flawless job of making the blues a living, pulsing part of the film. During a scene where Lazarus plays at a local bar, I was vividly reminded of hot summer nights in stifling little dive bars when great bands were playing to a packed house of sweaty people. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, this is frankly not a movie you’re going to need to see. Brewer, whose previous effort was the much underrated Hustle and Flow has a real feel for the South and its music, and is putting together a terribly impressive resume. He’s currently directing the remake of Footloose and one can only hope he’ll find the big success that has eluded him so far. 

This is a great role for Jackson, who gets to take his on-screen persona and stretch it as far as it will go. In some ways, while I enjoy Jackson in nearly everything he does, I’ve gotten the sense that he doesn’t do much beyond recycling his on-screen persona from time to time. This really is his best performance since A Time to Kill. His Lazarus is quirky and well-intentioned, but in the end he has demons of his own that are driving him and he realizes that it is himself that he is trying to fix really, not so much the girl who cannot be fixed by him or anyone else. You would think the movie would end with that realization but it doesn’t – and quite frankly, I’m glad. When the movie ends, nobody is fixed. No problems are really solved. There’s just the potential for things getting better somewhere down the road. That’s the way life works in reality.

I have to mention too that Justin Timberlake does a pretty decent job in a supporting role. The one time boy band poster boy has developed into a solid actor the way former pop star Mark Wahlberg also did. This was really the first time I’d taken notice of his acting skills which he has since refined and shown to be considerable.

There is a pulp fiction feel to this, and I think that’s intentional. The lurid graphics and steamy plot would make it right at home in some of the pulps of the ’40s and ’50s (although the graphic sex and drug use depicted here would be a bit much for those eras) and even Ricci’s look in the film is a bit of Daisy Duke meets femme fatale. There is also unexpected humor at various times during the flick, keeping you a bit off-balance but in a good way.

Critical reaction has been uniformly strong, but the box office wasn’t impressive.  Even so, this is a movie definitely worth checking out, but it isn’t a movie for those with delicate sensibilities and how many of those are reading this anyway?

WHY RENT THIS: Scintillating performances by Ricci and Jackson. The feeling of being in a crowded bar on a hot summer night listening to great music.  Realistic plot line that doesn’t solve everything in a neat little package.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Graphic sexuality and drug use may be offensive to some. Definitely a Deep South feel to it.

FAMILY MATTERS: Did I mention there was a lot of sex and drug use? There’s also some violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackson learned to play guitar for this film while he was completing post-production on Snakes on a Plane.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette showing how the music for the film was chosen, and delves a little bit into the culture of the blues.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.9M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Mirrors

Something Borrowed


Something Borrowed

Being BFFs means never having to say you're sorry - although both women should apologize for this movie.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson, Colin Egglesfield, John Krasinski, Steve Howey, Ashley Williams, Jill Eikenberry, Geoff Pierson, Leia Thompson, Jonathan Epstein, Sarah Baldwin, Mark La Mura. Directed by Luke Greenfield

Perhaps the most frustrating element of being a movie reviewer is seeing a movie that has a good deal of potential only to waste it with clichés, Hollywood endings and just plain bad writing.

Rachel (Goodwin) is a successful lawyer in Manhattan who is surprised on her 30th birthday by her best friend Darcy (Hudson) who throws her a big party. Also there is Rachel’s confidante and buddy Ethan (Krasinski); Claire (Williams), a somewhat high-strung woman who has the hots for Ethan who is interested not so much, and Marcus (Howey), a new man in town who basically has the libido of a Viagra poster boy, the deft touch of a Neanderthal and the maturity of a Justin Bieber fan. Naturally, as is Darcy’s wont, she becomes the center of attention over the birthday girl but Rachel doesn’t seem to mind – that is part of Darcy’s charm.

Not quite so charming to Rachel is that Darcy is engaged to Dex (Egglesfield) who went to law school at NYU with Rachel and who Rachel had a BIG crush on before she allowed Darcy to swoop in and claim him. Still, she seems okay enough with it to be Darcy’s Maid of Honor. However after the party, she finds herself alone with Dex; they have a couple of drinks and wake up the next morning in the same bed.

At first, much consternation and much guilt – how could we have done it? Oh my God! Then, realization – there must be something there. Then, longing looks exchanged in secret as the VERY wealthy Dex rents a summer home in the Hamptons and the whole crew escape there each weekend. Then, a weekend alone for Dex and Rachel and more sack time. Ethan figures it out. Thinks Rachel should come clean to Darcy. Dex doesn’t want to call it off though – his mom (Eikenberry) who is ill is so happy because of the wedding. In the meantime, Rachel is miserable. What’s a girl to do?

What this could have been – what this should have been – was a look at human interaction. Instead, it’s a bunch of whiny, more money than brains 20 and 30-somethings navigating treacherous waters without any sort of moral compass in evidence. Sure, Rachel shows some remorse but does she own up to her betrayal? No she does not, nor does she stop her shenanigans with Dex.

Goodwin is an actress with loads of potential – she was so very good in “Big Love” – but she hasn’t gotten over the bland but likable roles that are all that are seemingly available in modern romantic comedies. She does a decent enough job here but ultimately she comes off badly mainly because the character was written badly, making all kinds of poor choices and seemingly never haunted by the consequences of ANY of them.

Egglesfield is given little to do besides look longingly at Goodwin. His character is the worst offender here, completely without spine or sense. After a couple of hours with him, I knew that he would never be a good life partner; he’s handsome and he’s a lawyer, but at the end of the day the character was weak and lacked character, a bad combination.

Krasinski who has done such yeoman work in “The Office” is making a niche as the friend who knows too much which is kind of a bad thing – he has so much more going for him. Of all the actors here he has the potential to be a huge star, but hasn’t landed a role that will get him there. I don’t think he’ll be emphasizing this one on his resume, even though he winds up the most sympathetic of all the characters here and has the best line in the movie, describing the Hamptons as a zombie movie directed by Ralph Lauren.

Now I’m not a prude nor am I someone who needs the movies to have a sense of morality, but this one doesn’t seem to have any. Cheating and betraying your friends gets you rewarded and lying is depicted as an admirable way to make it through the day. I don’t mind people doing bad things but there need to be consequences and these people don’t suffer any.

In fact, there is kind of a wealth worship that I find distasteful. There is so much product placement in the film that it becomes numbing after awhile, the movie having more Madison Avenue than Hollywood Boulevard in it. It all felt assembled on a Hollywood factory line, with all the Rom-Com 101 points hit and an ending that went on far too long and well past the point where I cared what happened to any of these people.

There are points in the movie that show promise, such as a scene at a sleepover where you get a sense of the closeness between Rachel and Darcy and a conversation between Ethan and Rachel near the end of the movie where Ethan makes a “surprising” confession. Smart people can make dumb choices and I get that, but smart people usually don’t act like idiots on a consistent basis. The sad fact is there was a really good movie to be made here, but what we wound up with was a piece of fluff that not only has no substance but actually seems to be suggesting that the more wealth you have, the less likely you are to suffer from being a douchebag (or the female equivalent thereof). It’s always a bad sign when a movie sets itself up for a sequel you don’t want to see – because you don’t want to spend another minute with the people onscreen.

REASONS TO GO: Goodwin and Hudson have some pretty nice chemistry. Krasinski shows a lot of depth here.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin – wasted opportunities abound. A Hollywood ending stretches the boundaries of believability and by the end of the film you don’t care what happens to anybody in it.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive dialogue and a good deal of sexuality. There’s also a bit of bad language and some drug use, including much drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan and Rachel are sitting on a park bench, the woman on the bench next to them is reading a book called “Something Blue” by Emily Giffin. The woman is none other than Emily Giffin, author of the novel this movie is based on.

HOME OR THEATER: A big theater is unnecessary for this one; it’s probably best viewed at home for a little home video date night.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Restrepo