Wildlike


Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

(2014) Adventure (Greenmachine) Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Nolan Gerard Funk, Brian Geraghty, Diane Farr, Joshua Leonard, Ann Farr, Russell Josh Peterson, Bradford Jackson, Pamela R. Klein, Erin Lindsay King, Elias Christeas, Teddy Kyle Smith, Ching Tseng, Thomas Mark Higgins, Tom Okamoto, Leo Grinberg, Erick Robertson, Joe Tapangco. Directed by Frank Hall Green

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we read about teen runaways, often we look at them as anti-authoritarians who couldn’t handle being told what to do. We look down upon them, feeling that they are responsible for their own mess, and that certainly is true in some cases. The reality is that sometimes running away is the only option.

Mackenzie (Purnell) has come to Juneau, Alaska from Seattle because she really has no other choice; her father has passed away within the last year and her mother is entering treatment in Seattle for her drug dependency. She’s staying with her Uncle (Geraghty) who at first seems to be trying to be nice in the face of teen “whatever, go screw yourself” attitude and raccoon-like eye make-up from Mackenzie. She seems to warm up to him when he gives her an iPhone.

Then things get messy. A nocturnal incident leaves Mackenzie feeling vulnerable and alone; she knows she has to leave. So when the opportunity presents itself, out she gets. Armed with money she stole from her Uncle, she sets out to make her way home to Seattle but what she doesn’t realize is that Alaska is a big effin’ state.

Trying to get in out of the cold and the rain, she breaks into a motel room but it turns out that it’s not empty; Rene “Bart” Bartlett (Greenwood) has rented the room and he’s getting ready to undertake a difficult task – to hike through Denali National Park alone. When Bartlett discovers Mackenzie under the bed, she bolts, unnerving him.

For some reason she latches onto him and follows him to Denali and then into the wilderness, much to his chagrin. He tries to convince her to head back but she refuses and so reluctantly he takes the woefully unprepared girl along with him. What he ends up discovering is that he needs her as much as she needs him.

I’m not sure how to characterize this film, whether it is a coming of age film or an Alaska wilderness adventure or a social commentary. It has elements of all of these things and you wouldn’t be wrong in characterizing it as any of the three. It definitely has that in its favor; it is a tale told in a unique manner.

Also in its favor is the beautiful vistas we see throughout. Alaska is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it just isn’t shown in movies nearly enough, probably having to do with the remoteness of most of the state. Filming here can be a challenge and the window of opportunity can be small seasonally speaking. Green, a first-time director who has hiked Denali himself on several occasions and has been a outdoors type for most of his life, knows Alaska well enough to choose some brilliant locations and to get the shots he needs. This is a gorgeous movie that will certainly inspire some to want to venture to the 49th state.

Also to its advantage is the performance of Purnell, who captures the look and attitude of a teen girl damn near perfectly. She’s got all the attitude in the world, affecting a “I don’t care” look that most teenage girls master at an early age but the inner vulnerability and scared little girl comes out at the right times. Mackenzie is 14 in the film and Purnell was 19 when the movie was made which is a bit of a relief considering some of the scenes she has to play here.

And there are a few scenes that are pretty difficult, particularly the one which is the cause of Mackenzie’s need to leave. It is handled respectfully, not in a prurient manner but more in a matter-of-fact kind of way. And yes, there is a creepy factor when you throw a teen girl and a middle-aged man into the same tent, but to Green’s credit (as well as Greenwood’s), the awkwardness mostly comes from the viewer’s own preconceived notion of why a middle-aged man would hang out with a young girl.

The movie doesn’t explain a lot of things, leaving the audience to kind of explain them on their own. We never get a sense of why Mackenzie follows Bart into the wilderness; it seems to be a random and spur-of-the-moment choice which, to b fair, is often how teen girls seem to act. I suppose it’s better to let us invent our own story rather than to spoon feed us but more framework would have been nice. There’s also a scene in which Bart and Mackenzie encounter a group of people testing out kites in which an important monologue is delivered but the music is so loud that it is difficult to hear what is being said.

Quibbles aside, this is a solid, well-made and beautifully photographed movie that will stick with you. Solid performances by most of the lead cast and a compelling story will leave you hooked. At present the film is on the festival circuit but hopefully it will be grabbed by a distributor for either a limited theatrical run or a VOD release. It deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous Alaskan wilderness. Handles difficult subjects respectfully. Purnell gets attitude and look down pat.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit light in connecting the dots. Music overly loud in places it shouldn’t be.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual scenes and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Purnell, an English actress, spoke with an American accent from the moment she got off the plane in Alaska and stayed in that accent 24/7 until she got on the plane for home when shooting was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Druid Peak
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrow We Disappear

Advertisements

We’re the Millers


The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms, Molly Quinn, Tomer Sisley, Matthew Willig, Luis Guzman, Thomas Lennon, Mark L. Young, Ken Marino, Laura-Leigh, Crystal Nichol, Dickson Obahor, Brett Gentile, Kelly Lintz, J. Lynn Talley, Deborah Chavez. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

What could be more middle America than a road trip vacation with the whole fam damily in the ol’ RV? Nobody is going to take a second look at one of those, not even George Zimmerman even if the entire family is wearing hoodies and munching on Skittles.

David Clark (Sudeikis) is a low level drug dealer; he has a certain moral compass (he doesn’t ever deal to kids, even 18-year-olds) and is part of the neighborhood fabric, making deliveries like the milk man used to. He lives in an apartment building where his neighbors include the dorky latchkey kid Kenny (Poulter) and the grouchy stripper Rose (Aniston).

When David gets robbed of all his cash, he knows he’s in deep to his supplier, Brad (Helms). However, Brad gives David an assignment; go to Mexico, pick up “a smidge and a half” of weed, and bring it back to Denver and not only will the debt be forgiven but he’ll get the standard courier rate of $100K. David isn’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to be a drug smuggler with potential federal ramifications but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

He’s a bit worried on how exactly to go about it when he hits the idea of the family RV road trip. Nobody at the border will give him a second look, particularly if he clean up and shaves. However, David is single so he’ll have to rent a family. Kenny is all in, and David convinces a street urchin named Casey (Roberts) to be the daughter. That leaves mom.

David approaches Rose but she – having an ingrained distrust of drug dealers to begin with – isn’t having it. However her finances are, shall we say, in crisis so reluctantly she agrees to get on board. And of course, we know this isn’t going to be a trip one is going to show home movies of afterwards.

As with most R-rated comedies these days there’s a fair amount of raunchiness although surprisingly less than you might expect. There’s plenty of drug humor although not so much of the Cheech and Chong variety; this is a stoner film where nobody gets stoned. Then again, it really isn’t about the marijuana.

Aniston plays very much against type; ever the girl next door, she does one scene where she delivers a pretty hot strip tease (down to her undies – sorry pervs) and she’s not so much brassy as she is grumpy, but she is definitely the star attraction here. Sudeikis meshes well with her, maybe as well as any actor since David Schwimmer, and plays against his usual nice guy type as well.

Hahn and Offerman are hysterical as a straight-laced couple also on an RV adventure who aren’t as straight-laced as they might lead you to believe; Offerman’s career in particular is really taking off and I suspect it won’t be long before he’s headlining some big flicks of his own.

There are some really wicked bits here, including a girl-on-girl action scene, one in which Kenny is taught how to properly kiss a girl, and an adverse reaction to a spider bite. A lot of the humor has to do with taboo sex and those whose values are a bit straight-laced might be offended – of course not many of those will be lining up to see a comedy about drug smuggling I would think

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the film – the comedies this summer have been a pretty dismal lot in general and I suspected that the funniest bits of the movie might well be in the trailer but that doesn’t turn out to be the case (although the trailer hints at them). While the ending is a bit predictable, the cast – particularly the core family cast – get on so well that you feel a genuine affection for the lot of them by the film’s end and do stay for the credit roll outtakes; one of the funniest moments in a movie I’ve seen all summer can be found there.

We’re the Millers is one of those summer movies that the expectations are pretty low for and manages to exceed them. In a summer where most movies haven’t met the expectations set for them, mild or not, it’s a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe Detroit-smelling air. Not really fresh mountain air. You smell what I’m cooking.

REASONS TO GO: Laugh out loud funny. Nice chemistry between Sudeikis and Aniston. Offerman and Hahn nearly steal the show.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like drug humor might take offense. Pushes the taboo sex angle a bit hard.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh, where to begin? A ton of foul language, plenty of drug humor, a ton of sexual references and one scene of brief but unforgettable nudity (as in you can’t un-see it once you’ve seen it).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter stayed up all night listening to TLC’s ”Waterfalls” in order to learn the rap portion properly for shooting the following day.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Life, Above All

Renee


Renee

Not your typical fairy godmother.

(2009) True Life Drama (Two Streets) Kat Dennings, Chad Michael Murray, Rupert Friend, Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy, Corbin Bleu, William Peltz, Brian Patrick Clark, Rus Blackwell, J. LaRose, Ylian Alfaro Snyder, Kristi Engelmann, Brad Benedict, Rachael Yamagata. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

Drug addiction, self-mutilation, sexual predators, clueless parents – all of these things are issues our teenage girls face in the war that growing up has become. Fortunately, they don’t have to necessarily go out into battle alone.

However, that’s exactly what Renee Yohe (Dennings) did. An independently-minded teen from a comfortably middle class family in suburban Orlando, she and her inseparable mates Dylan (Saul), a budding musician and her BFF Jessie (Harkavy) navigate the party scene with the courage and innocence that comes with being a teen.

Renee has always had a thing for fairy tales, seeing beautiful gardens when life got messy. No garden can save her however when she falls in among the wrong crowd. She is hooked on drugs and abandons her friends and family, living in a drug culture cared for only by downtown pedi-cab driver Mackey (Bleu) who can’t protect her from a sinister looking druggie who has designs on her body.

She escapes from the drug house that she was in and calls Dylan. He is working as an (unpaid) intern for an agent for musicians, David McKenna (Friend) who is a former addict himself and does motivational speeches at churches and schools throughout Central Florida. He agrees to help her get into a rehab program but the director tells him that since Renee still has drugs in her system, they can’t accept her since they don’t have the facilities to help her through detox. She’s going to have to wait five days for her system to cleanse itself of the drugs before she’ll be allowed in.

After a fruitless attempt to convince her parents to let her crash at home, McKenna reluctantly decides to take her in where Jessie and Dylan can keep an eye on her. This is news to his roommate Jamie Tworkowski (Murray) who is impressed by Renee’s straightforward nature and her courage to tackle sobriety. It’s no easy thing for Renee to get sober, particularly with all the temptations around her including a downtown music festival, ghosts from the past and David’s own fragile sobriety.

While Renee finally makes the recovery clinic, Jamie is inspired to write Renee’s story. This leads to him founding a non-profit organization to help kids like Renee. That organization is To Write Love on Her Arms, which would become a respected and acclaimed agency  that helps kids get the treatment they need to get through their drug addiction.

This is based on the true story of Renee and the agency that she helped inspire. Frankowski nicely accents the gritty realistic tone of the film with flights of fancy, many depicting the fairy tale quality of Renee’s imagination. That makes for a lovely juxtaposition which offers some relief from what would be a grim fairy tale indeed.

Dennings, known more for comic roles, shines here. Renee isn’t always the most reliable of people and she doesn’t do the right thing all the time. She can be far from sympathetic in her actions until you remember what she’s been through and as you watch the story unfold as a child from an essentially loving environment makes such horribly self-destructive choices. It’s heart-breaking at times and yet Renee isn’t one to apologize or feel sorry for herself. Those qualities shine through in Dennings’ portrayal of her and creates an unforgettable character who’ll stay with you long after the movie is over. I don’t know if the real Renee Yohe is anything like how Dennings portrays her but if she is, she’s someone I wouldn’t mind meeting someday.

Denning has some pretty good support here too. Friend brings out the torment in McKenna’s soul, making him a stand-up guy who is a lot less strong than he appears to be. It’s a spot-on perfect of a recovering addict that Dr. Drew would no doubt approve of.

In fact, there’s a lot about this movie that Dr. Drew might praise. For one, Renee’s release from rehab isn’t the end of her journey but more like the beginning. She realizes, even if those around her don’t, that she is far from recovered and is very much at risk. She also knows that this will be a lifelong fight for her. I don’t know if the real Renee has remained clean and sober – I’d like to think she has – but realistically speaking the odds are far greater that she’s relapsed at some time. This is true for any addict, not just her – kicking drugs isn’t the kind of thing that can be really covered in a 90 minute movie adequately. You don’t get the sense of how it is an insidious disease that rears its ugly head whenever it isn’t wanted or needed.

The power of this movie is very evident. The local Orlando filmmaking community can take a lot of pride that a movie of this quality has come out of it and hopefully it will pave the way for more movies this accomplished. As for Renee, you will leave as I did rooting for her to make it and find that elusive happiness that is hard enough to find when we’re sober. You would also do well to remember – as I’m sure she’d be the first to tell you – that she is just one of many such stories, and there are probably some being written a lot closer to you than you might think.

REASONS TO GO: Enormously emotional with some excellent performances from Dennings and Friend. Realistic and “non-Hollywood” view at addiction.

REASONS TO STAY: Choppy pacing at times. Rape scenes may be too intense for sensitive souls or survivors of the crime.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some graphic depictions of drug use, plenty of foul language, a little bit of violence and sexuality including rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the crew came from the primary film schools in Central Florida – the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University and Valencia College.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crutch

ORLANDO LOVERS: The movie was shot around downtown Orlando and features the parts of the city that people who just visit the theme parks never see.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Eye of the Hurricane