Extracurricular Activities


Can you guess which one forgot to do their homework?

(2019) Dark Comedy (Lotus) Colin Ford, Ellie Bamber, Timothy C. Simons, Danielle Macdonald, Paul Iacono, Darlene Vogel, Sarah Hay, Gary Hudson, Isaac Cheung, Bobby Lee, Charmin Lee, Arden Myrin, Tanner Stine, Max Wilcox, Arianna Ortiz, Dileep Rao, Vicki Lewis, Krista Kalmus, Chris Warren, Jill Lover, Dorie Barton, Alex Antov, Christine Ko, Miriam Flynn, Gary Hudson, Savannah Liles. Directed by Jay Lowi

 

Can any of us truly claim to have never felt that our parents didn’t understand us? Can any of us truly claim to have never felt that our parents were taking out their own insecurities on us as we were growing up? Can any of us truly claim to have never daydreamed about our parents meeting up with a gruesome accident to finally liberate us from the one obstacle to our freedom and happiness?

In a Southern California well-to-do bedroom community at a suburban high school, parents have been meeting with untimely ends. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace go plunging into a ravine when they drive their SUV too fast; Mr. Mulnick, an embarrassment to his son (Cheung) because he likes to party with his son’s teenage friends and grope the girls in the hot tub, gets drunk and slips into unconsciousness while in said hot tub and drowns. The parents of Sydney Vaughn (Hay) eat some deadly poisonous mushrooms after gathering them in the local woods.

A run of extraordinarily bad luck is what most people think but Police Detective Dawkins (Simons) is suspicious. He doesn’t believe in coincidences and he soon has a suspect; Reagan Wallace (Ford). Reagan is a brainy kid with unlimited potential in a loving home with supportive parents. Just the kind of kid you’d suspect of serial killing. That kind of thing just isn’t normal.

But (and no spoiler alert here) the thing is, Detective Dawkins is right. Nobody will believe him, especially his no-nonsense chief (C. Lee). Dawkins isn’t terribly well-liked around the precinct for his propensity to bring up the Adderall case which essentially was Dawkins’ big moment, plus he’s become a closet alcoholic.

Reagan is brilliant and covers his tracks well, often making Dawkins look foolish in the process. He isn’t some sort of avenging angel knocking off abusive parents; for the most part these parents aren’t guilty of any capital crimes other than perhaps criminal narcissism and felony neglect. Nonetheless Reagan takes each of these cases on as kind of a puzzle, making each demise look like an accident in return for a cut of the insurance.

Complicating matters is a budding romance between Reagan and teen hottie Mary Alice Walker (Bamber) who isn’t aware of Reagan’s part-time job. With Dawkins closing in and Mary Alice starting to suspect the worst, can Reagan escape the clutches of the law, finish his contracts by knocking off other parents and get a date to the prom?

Teenage revenge movies aren’t new and the concept here isn’t particularly novel. Writer Bob Sáenz constructs the movie pretty well although he reveals Reagan’s guilt early on so there’s no “did he or didn’t he” tension. That’s more of a personal preference on my part although you yourself may feel differently. In any case, I though he missed an opportunity there.

Ford does a good enough job as Reagan but the character himself is I think one of the biggest drawbacks in the film. Reagan is so cool, calm and collected he’s almost icy. In fact, his personality is such that he seems detached and uncaring which make the character totally unrelatable. Reagan is brilliant, particularly at science but comes off as haughty and arrogant as if human interpersonal relationships are beneath him. It’s tough to root for a character like that and you’re torn about whether you want him to get caught or not.

Then again, Dawkins isn’t much better – a verbally abusive father and borderline alcoholic who is simply so unpleasant that nobody believes him even though he’s right. There’s a cynicism there that is a bit unsettling to tell the truth; I’m not really rooting for Dawkins to catch the guy, either.

It’s mystifying as to why Reagan starts providing this service as his parents are the only adults in the movie who are loving and supporting of their progeny. I’m not one of those guys who prefers everything to be explained with a neat little bow on top but there has to be something that justifies a character’s actions; watching someone randomly acting is also undesirable in a movie.

This is ostensibly a comedy with a dark tone. It’s not big on belly laughs – in fact there are none – but the overall atmosphere lends itself to the absurd. In that sense, Lowi is successful here and the movie appears to flaunt the courage of its convictions. Overall, though, it’s disappointing in that by the end credits you feel like you just took a mud bath without a shower in sight.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is true to its tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reagan is a little too detached and cold to be relatable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual situations
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bobby Lee, who plays the hard-partying Mr. Mulnick, was formerly a part of the MadTV cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Tomorrow Man

Advertisements

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

Listen Up Philip


Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

(2014) Dramedy (Tribeca) Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume, Jess Wexler, Eric Bogosian (voice), Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, Yusem Bulos, Maite Alina, Daniel London, Samantha Jacober, Lee Wilkof, Joanne Tucker, Steven Boyer, Teddy Bergman, Rachel Oyama, Babs Olusanmokun. Directed by Alex Ross Perry

Being a writer isn’t as easy as sitting before a word processor and typing away. It involves research and introspection. There are those who find some writers insufferable self-centered boors. There are those who also believe that all writers are insufferable self-centered boors. The reason for that is that some writers give the rest of the ink-stained wretch community a bad name.

Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) is on the eve of the publication of his second novel. He has a beautiful girlfriend, photographer Ashley Kane (Moss) and a certain amount of acclaim in the literary community. You would think all of this would make him content; a career on the rise and all the things in place for a brilliant future.

The truth is that Philip Lewis Friedman is an utter prick. The only thing that matters to him is the acknowledgement that he is better than most people, that those who didn’t believe in his eventual success were fools beyond measure and traitors not just to him but society at large. At the very least those people were uncouth boobs.

But he meets his idol, best-selling author Ike Zimmerman (Pryce) who had a great run in the 70s and 80s but has written infrequently since then. He does have at least one genuine classic to his name and while he’s notoriously reclusive, he sees something in Philip’s writing that reminds him of himself. And so Philip goes up to Ike’s upstate New York “country retreat” leaving Ashley to hold the bag. A couple of weeks turns into the summer and then Philip takes a job teaching creative writing at a local college, a job arranged by Ike. A summer turns into a year.

Into Philip’s life comes Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie (Ritter) as well as a somewhat scheming faculty member at the same college Philip is working at, Yvette (de La Baume) and Holly Kane (Wexler), a student with a heavy crush on Philip. And yet, he views all his relationships by what they can do for him and his career. He can’t stop thinking about Ashley who is moving on. And the mentorship of Ike is turning into a friendship. Can Philip get his act together and be a well-adjusted writer or is he doomed to be an arsehole the rest of his life?

I know there are some critics who found this movie amazing. I can’t help but wonder if they got a different print than the one I saw. I have rarely seen a movie directed so badly. Generally, I’m pretty forgiving about directors who make poor choices in the name of trying something different but there are so many shots that are mis-framed, poorly focused and look for all the world like a home movie. It’s entirely possible that this was the effect that Perry was going for; if so, it doesn’t enhance the movie at all and ends up being annoying and detrimental to the audience’s focus. Of course, some directors may not want audiences being engrossed by their movie. I just wouldn’t want to see their films.

There is narration provided throughout, some of it droll. Bogosian who doesn’t appear onscreen gives that narration a bit more gravitas than it deserves. Which reminds me about the dialogue; it’s the sort of dialogue that people who distrust academics and intellectuals believe that they actually talk this way. I’ve known plenty of both sorts of people; trust me, nobody talks like this and if they do, academics and intellectuals will be right in line with the others making fun of them.

Some of the best parts of the movie are those that concentrate on Ashley. Moss is a pretty decent actress and you can tell she’s really trying to make it work, but at the end of the day her best efforts go for naught; her character is absent from most of the last third and her absence is keenly felt. Schwartzman is talented and has a delivery that could make droll comedy work, but his talents are utterly wasted here. He succeeds only in making us not want to spend another second with Philip, and yet we do. It’s a train wreck of a character.

Usually with indie films I am a little bit more forgiving and maybe it was because I saw it on the heels of watching the really miserable Inherent Vice but I found myself unable to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here. So many of the issues were just basic Filmmaking 101 stuff or Screenwriting 101 stuff that I sat through much of the film incredulous that supposed professionals made this. I kept looking for the YouTube logo in the corner.

I wish the very best for Alex Ross Perry, I really do. I hope his next film appeals to me much more than this one did, truly. But I honestly cannot in good conscience recommend that any reader who places any confidence in my opinion go see this. Watching this was an ordeal, and there are plenty of unpleasant ways to spend an hour and a half as it is that life throws at us whether we want to spend them that way or not to purposely plunk down money to go into a movie theater and be checking your watch every ten minutes and wonder when the ordeal is going to end.

REASONS TO GO: Bogosian’s narration is fun. Moss gives a game try.
REASONS TO STAY: Inept direction. Not funny enough to be a comedy and not deep enough to be a drama. Boring in long patches. Pretentious throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ike Zimmerman character is loosely based on author Philip Roth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robot & Frank
FINAL RATING: 3/19
NEXT: Fur