My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea


A wonderland of turgid prose.

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan, Alex Karpovsky, Louisa Krause, John Cameron Mitchell, Matthew Maher, Emily Davis. Directed by Dash Shaw

When an animated feature starts off with a warning that the movie features stroboscopic effects that may negatively affect people with photosensitive epilepsy, one isn’t sure to take it seriously or as the movie’s first joke. Not for nothing; take it seriously.

This is one of the most imaginative and self-consciously hip animated features to come along in quite awhile. It feels like an online comic strip come to life which is no coincidence since Shaw is a noted online comic artist whose Bottomless Belly Button has won a good deal of online acclaim. The dialogue is snappy with a bored but snarky sensitivity that falls in perfectly with the millennial milieu and I would guess that most people who love online comics are going to do cartwheels when they see this. Virtual cartwheels, anyway.

The plot is basically The Poseidon Adventure on acid; two good friends, Dash (Schwartzman) and Aasif (Watts) are starting their sophomore years at Tides High. They both work for the student newspaper – well, they essentially are the student newspaper along with their editor Verti (Rudolph) whose name is an off-shoot of the Latin word for truth (see, I did learn something in high school). When she develops a crush on Aasif and hands him the plum assignment that Dash wanted, it drives a wedge between the two which is further widened by Dash’s borderline libelous newspaper column about his ex-friend.

However, all that gets swept aside when Dash discovers paperwork that indicates the school’s foundations aren’t up to code and wouldn’t stand up in a natural disaster. Dash tries to tell everyone what’s going on but Principle Grimm (Ryan) shuts him down and nobody believes Dash anyway. Of course, right about then an earthquake knocks the entire high school off the cliff it sits on and into the ocean where it promptly begins to sink.

Dash and Aasif patch things up and along with Verti and Mary (Dunham), a popular girl who turns out to have a heart underneath her shallow exterior as well as Lunch Lady Lorraine (Sarandon), a no-nonsense military sort who has maintained her military skills, are forced to make their way up through the Junior floor and then to the Senior floor before graduating to the roof if they are to survive. They will have to take on Jellyfish attacks, shark attacks, a kangaroo court of jocks, electrical wires and school bus blockages in order to get there.

Shaw uses a variety of techniques, often hand drawn, throughout the film although he generally uses the sort of heavy black markers with crayon-like colors. The movie comes off as a disaster movie produced by Adult Swim animators and written by twenty-something online writers. There’s no doubt what kind of audience this is aimed at and it’s not the underage kind; there are some pretty nasty moments in the film that parents may not want their kids to deal with quite yet.

Shaw has been friends with Schwartzman for years which helped him get the kind of talent he managed to get for the film which include a few cultural touchstones for the Millennial generation, including Dunham, Mitchell and of course Schwartzman himself. Sarandon does a gravelly voiced job as Lunch Lady Lorraine and was one of my favorite characters in the movie.Parents of angst-suffused teenage children may get a vicarious thrill of watching so many teens offed during the course of the film. I know I did.

There is a psychedelic sequence near the end of the movie which I suppose is an attempt to 2001 the hell out of the movie but it runs much too long and slows the momentum of a movie that is already short and sweet. A scant 75 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome other than the aforementioned sequence.

I get that not everybody is going to love this film; it appeals to a younger, more savvy audience that is much more aware of current pop culture. As a result, the film might end up being dated even a few years from now but there is enough humor in it that it might stand on its own two feet as a legacy. Still, this is worth seeking out particularly as I mentioned earlier if you love online comics. It might just rock your world, if that phrase isn’t out of date yet.

REASONS TO GO: There is a good deal of allegory in the film which may lead to some interesting discussions among audience members. It’s sort of a modern “Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too surreal for some and the psychedelic sequence is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of teen peril, some drug use and a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daria
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Belko Experiment

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Kensho at the Bedfellow


New York can be a real lonely zip code.

New York can be a real lonely zip code.

(2015) Romance (Kensho Films) Brad Raider, Kaley Ronayne, Steven Klein, Grainger Hines, Kathryn Erbe, Sahr Ngaujah, Christina Brucato, Dana Ashbrook, Kiran Merchant, Danny Deferrari, Madison McKinley, Mara Davi, Shyaporn Theerakulstit, Matt Burns, Michelle Cameron, Meliki Hurd, Chaka Desilva, Sally Gifford, Michael Hogan, Maximilian Frey, Lindsey Gates. Directed by Brad Raider

Discovering who we are is never an easy process. Sometimes we are taken in by easy joys – sex, drugs, alcohol – and we end up losing our way. Sometimes that’s because we can’t bear the pain.

Dan Bender (Raider) at 33 years old is stuck in a rut. Once a promising playwright, he works the overnight shift at the Bedfellow Hotel with his roommate Max (Klein) who is in the midst of presenting a seven night stage festival of seven different seven minute long plays each night. Dan, who hasn’t written a thing in years, at least since his sister April (Cameron) died of a drug overdose, for which he blames his father (Hines) who used to do drugs with her when she was a teen. That event has been a central milestone of his life; he continues to talk to April and occasionally, she talks back. His inability to form lasting relationships with others can be traced directly to her passing.

The Bedfellow is full of characters – Darpak (Merchant) who talks to his cat and seems overly enthusiastic about fresh towels just out of the dryer; there’s also Byron (Theerakulstit), the hotel’s security chief who is a Korean who converted over to Judaism, which Dan, a natural-born Jew, is entirely skeptical about. He also hangs out with Ashley (Brucato), his former girlfriend who isn’t quite convinced they’re broken up. She manipulates him somewhat, but he also doesn’t mind having sex with her now and again.

After a sexual encounter with a hotel guest (Davi) gets him fired from his job, Dan begins to spiral into complete emotional chaos. Already on the edge financially, with Max having had to cover his rent already, the self-absorbed Dan begins to alienate the few friends he still has. Then, he encounters Kate (Ronayne), an old friend from his childhood who is back in New York working with an aid organization that reunites families torn apart by civil wars in Africa. Kate finds this work appealing, while Dan who is becoming very attracted to her, lies about his situation in order to keep from scaring her away. Of course the truth eventually comes out, especially when Dan pilfers some drugs from his dealer (Ashbrook) which is probably not a very good idea. In fact, it certainly isn’t.

When Dan hits rock bottom, having lost everything, an unexpected act of kindness from an unexpected source leads to something of a spiritual experience for Dan. The trouble is, how is he going to share his new-found wisdom with the world when the world basically has no desire to hear anything he has to say anymore?

This micro-budgeted indie was shot on the RED Epic camera in both the New York City area, but also in L.A. where Raider now calls home. For tyro filmmakers just starting out, a viewing of this film should be a good primer as to what is possible with almost no budget but with the right equipment, the right cast and the right crew. This is an exceptional looking film that looks like it was shot on much more expensive equipment with a professional crew.

The cast is also quite professional; most have a fair amount of experience (although Erbe, as Kate’s boss for the non-profit is the best-known for her work on Law and Order: Criminal Intent) there are also actors here who had regular roles on shows like Twin Peaks, Public Morals and Last Resort. Usually it’s not a good sign when you see someone who is directing, writing and starring in the same movie; more often than not they end up putting more focus on one or two of the roles at the expense of the third. That doesn’t happen here; the writing is pretty strong (although there are a few areas in which it seems that Raider was utilizing some indie tropes), the direction assured and the acting – well, let’s just say that Raider looks like the love child of Tom Cruise and Zachary Quinto and has the chiseled features of a superhero. He has all the elements he needs to be successful in this business.

Raider is trying to write a movie that explores our own self-awareness and that’s not an easy feat and it can be forgiven if there are a few stumbles along the way; however, he does seem in places to be striving too hard to be deep and I think that hurts the film a little bit. Towards the end, Dan ends up in a hotel room with a giant cat who leads him on a psychedelic journey of discovery which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it just comes out of left field and is a bit too 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque for my tastes. While I admire the imagination, it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie.

All in all, this is a solid feature. It’s just beginning to hit the festival circuit as we speak and hopefully it will make it to a festival near you. Keep an eye on their website (you can get there by clicking on the photo above) for future screenings. In any case, this is a surprising but solid debut by someone I think we’re going to hear a lot more of in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Raider is a star in the making. Surrounded by good acting.
REASONS TO STAY: Psychedelic sequence comes out of left field. Reaches a bit too hard for depth.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexuality, as well as a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Racing Extinction

Jodorowsky’s Dune


Space...the way-out frontier...

Space…the way-out frontier…

(2013) Documentary (Sony Classics) Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, Michel Seydoux, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, Drew McWeeny, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Christian Vander, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Amanda Lear, Dan O’Bannon (archival audio). Directed by Frank Pavich

Getting a film made in Hollywood is a treacherous, heartbreaking process. For every movie that makes it to your multiplex, dozens more fall by the wayside, victims of escalating budgets, script issues or studio indifference – or any of a thousand different reasons. Some movies that might have been great just never get beyond the dreams of a filmmaker.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker, became famous in the early 70s for El Topo and Holy Mountain, a pair of surrealist epics that essentially created the midnight movie market. Both were successes in the United States which, given the modern more pedestrian tastes in movies, seems almost impossible. We did a lot of drugs back then though.

His success was such that French producer Michel Seydoux gave him carte blanche to do whatever project he wished and when asked what he wanted to do, he famously blurted out Dune even though he’d never read the Frank Herbert classic science fiction novel. One of the biggest-selling sci-fi novels of all time, Dune was everything that would seem to guarantee box office success; a rabid following, epic scope, sex, violence, monsters and intelligence. Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t guarantee box office success quite so much.

Jodorowsky set out to assemble a crew of geniuses both in front of the camera and behind it. To set his landscapes and draw up the overall look of the film, he enlisted Jean Giraud, better known as Mobius of the underground science fiction comic magazine Heavy Metal. To design his creatures, he called upon then relatively unknown Swiss artist H.R. Giger who would go on to design the title creatures in Alien. The spaceships would be designed by well-known book cover painter Chris Foss. One of his designs graces this review, above.

For the script he picked up Dan O’Bannon, who at the time had finished Dark Star and would later be known for writing Alien among others. He also added Douglas Turnbull for special effects. Jodorowsky wanted a frame by frame storyboard which he collected in a huge book which eventually became legendary throughout Hollywood.

Jodorowsky was no less eclectic for his choices in front of the screen. For the pivotal role of Duke Leto, he cast David Carradine, then at the height of his fame for Kung Fu. The Machiavellian emperor Shaddam IV would be played by painter Salvador Dali, who wanted to be the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for the privilege, demanding the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 an hour. That was a lot more than the budget that Seydoux had envisioned could tolerate, but he figured out a way around it by asking Jodorowsky how much onscreen time the emperor would get. When Jodorowsky told him three minutes, Seydoux went back to Dali and said “we’ll pay you $100,000 for every minute of time your character is onscreen!” which satisfied Dali.

He also enlisted the great Orson Welles as the corpulent villain Baron Harkonen, promising him that they would secure the services of his favorite French chef to be his personal chef during the shoot. He got Mick Jagger to take the part of Feyd Ruatha after running into him at a party. He cast his son Brontis as Paul Atreides, the Messianic hero of the tale put him through extensive martial arts and sword training – six hours a day for two years. That his son still talks to Jodorowsky today is something of a minor miracle.

The movie was at last ready to shoot. When it came time to get a studio to finance and distribute the movie however, every single one balked. They were concerned with the psychedelic nature of the movie and worried that it wouldn’t recoup its high for its time budget ($15 million). The movie wasn’t just stillborn, it died in the womb.

At 84, Jodorowsky remains lively, engaging and intelligent. He still speaks passionately about the project even though it must have disappointed him terribly that it was never made. Watching him speak about the project and about the events surrounding it is worth the price of admission alone but on top of that we get to see the amazing production art that was created for the film by Mobius, Foss and Giger. Some of the images would go on to influence other films in the genre from Alien to The Terminator to Blade Runner to Prometheus to the David Lynch version of Dune that followed (and that Jodorowsky proclaimed to be “terrible,” with some relief).

If the documentary has some drawbacks, there are at least two. First, the electronic score by Kurt Stenzel is annoying. Yes it sounds like the electronic film music of the 70s and is somewhat appropriate given the subject matter but I found it overly loud and unpleasant, which also signifies that I’m turning into my dad.

Secondly, there is a tendency for artists to be a little bit egotistical which is understandable given the nature of what they do but when you throw in condescending into the mix it becomes like nails on a chalkboard to me. It is art with a capital A to some people and they speak of art as essentially license to do and say as they please because, well, it’s Art. I get that this might well have been an amazing film had it been made but it might just as well have been virtually unwatchable. One of the talking heads (I think it was Faraci, an internet movie critic) mused that the movie business might have been changed forever had Jodorowsky’s version of Dune been made before Star Wars, believing that movie blockbusters would have wound up being more intelligent and more adult in general than they became because of the impact of George Lucas.

It is a bit arrogant to presume anything. It’s possible that this version of Dune could have become as influential and as game-changing as Star Wars  became but let’s be frank here: it’s likely that Star Wars would have been made anyway and even more likely that it would have been as big a hit. The era of the ’70s was already on its way out by the time “A long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away” first crawled across movie screens. The temperature of the nation was changing too. One movie wasn’t going to make a difference in that regard. The movies don’t change America; the movies reflect America. Anyone who believes differently is delusional.

These gripes aside, this is a fascinating look at a movie that never got made. It doesn’t really give us any sort of insight into the film business – this was being made far outside of Hollywood both literally and figuratively. It does give us insight into a madman slash dreamer who had the audacity and the will to chase his vision even though it never made it into the kind of fruition he wanted it to be. Some things are not meant to be but that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue them as far as we can take them. You never know what unexpected tangents may come of the pursuit and that is always worthwhile to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Jodorowsky is a fascinating interview. Production art is stunning. Definitely has some “what if” moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally gets a bit condescending to its audience.  Annoying soundtrack.

FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of swearing, some drug references and some violent and/or sexual images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming the movie, Seydoux and Jodorowsky reunited and decided to make another movie together. That film, La Danza de la Realidad, was Jodorowsky’s first in 23 years and made its debut at Cannes in the same year as this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 21

Wild Girl Waltz


Nobody puts baby in a corner.

Nobody puts baby in a corner.

(2012) Comedy (Levrock) Christina Shipp, Samantha Steinmetz, Jared Stern, Brad Hemesath, Scott Lewis, Kim Barlow, Kim Gordon, Alexander Cook, Julian Lowenthal, Sean McDonald. Directed by Mark Lewis   

 

Ah, the small rural town. Peace. Quiet. Boredom. Nothing on TV but crap. The bars aren’t open yet. Bored with the Internet. What to do?

Angie (Shipp) is already having a bad day. Minding her own business walking on the side of the road, she’s pelted with a milkshake by two young men in a pick-up truck who call her a whore and drive off, whooping and hollering. She’s angry and humiliated and sticky, so she calls her friend Tara (Steinmetz) who in addition to being her BFF is also her brother Brian’s (Stern) girlfriend. Tara is a little bit amused but agrees to go get her.

Brother Brian can’t do it; he’s too busy tracking down Ernie (S. Lewis) who owes him money. After a bit of a blow-up, Brian takes the $15 Ernie offers him and tells him $20 a week until he pays off the $300 that he expected today and was banking on. This puts Brian into a pissy mood.

After Angie gets cleaned up and changed, Tara offers her something that will make her day better. She has two pills that she got from a co-worker; she’s unsure as to what they do other than they’ll “kick your ass.” Forget Iron Man and Superman, Tara’s my superhero. Angie figures the day’s effed up already so with a “why not?” shrug she takes her pill while Tara takes one of her own.

The pills are starting to kick in just as Brian gets home. His day is definitely going to be stressful now as he realizes that it will be up to him to babysit the two righteously high ladies. Angie is having a psychedelic reaction, seeing color trails at the end of her fingers (flesh-colored; in this town, even the drugs are colorless) while Tara gets horny as all get-out and offers to initiate a threesome with Brian and his sister (eww). Before the day is out, they’ll hit a local bar, attempt to get revenge on the shake throwers with a pie and spend a day figuring out that the most exciting thing of all is the bond between people.

While this is ostensibly a comedy, it’s not like the sort that are all the rage these days, the kind that throw as many jokes at the audience and hope one or two stick, nor are they the sort that build up outrageous bits and use shock as a weapon  (while the movie doesn’t shy away from frank sexual discussion, there’s no real raunchiness here and no nudity – sorry fellas). This is a more quiet kind of humor, one which allows you to see something of your own life and situation in the one onscreen.

Lewis was obviously operating on the kind of budget that doesn’t pay for toilet paper on a big Hollywood film but he makes the best of what he has. The movie has an organic feeling; he chooses his locations wisely and you get a sense of the rhythms of life outside of the big cities. The dialogue is pretty realistic too – the people in Wild Girl Waltz talk like people actually talk in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Like most people, the characters in WGW think they are far funnier than they are and when they joke around, they aren’t making zingers that pro comics would level at you but the kind of jokes you’d hear from your friend Jillian at work or your neighbor Kevin down the road. Assuming you know people named Jillian and Kevin, of course.

Steinmetz is a real find here. She reminded me of a young Helen Hunt who captured all our hearts in the 90s sitcom Mad About You. So too does Steinmetz, although I suspect she’s a bit more wild than the character Hunt played on TV – I just don’t see Jamie Buchman taking strange pills from someone she barely knew. Tara does so almost without a second thought; perhaps the difference comes from living in a small western Massachusetts town opposed to living in New York City.

There’s something magical about summer, even when things are boring. Some of our best memories come out of boredom – just hanging out with our friends, drinking a cold beer on a hot day, sneaking glances at the girls in their shorts, their legs summer-brown and their smiles promising wild summer nights. Movies that capture that are the kind that tend to remain in memory much longer than other movies and I suspect that my rating for this movie will creep up over the years.

This isn’t the fastest-paced movie you’re going to see, and there are a few filler shots of countryside passing by a moving vehicle. Montages are useful as a device linking one scene with another but should be used sparingly. That’s just quibbling though; considering the budget, this is a pretty impressive achievement. I mean, there’s enough here to warrant a look if it should ever make it out to your town, or if it makes it out on home video. It would certainly have been a fine representation in my annual American Experience review mini-festival which discusses movies that capture the essence of American life – as this one does here.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the boredom of a small town summer day perfectly. Steinmetz is terrific.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the “high” shenanigans are a bit forced.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of bad language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lewis’ previous film was Bay State Blues.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; outside of a few one-off screenings hasn’t received a limited or wide release yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adventureland

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Skateland