Skateland


Vogue, Seventies style.

Vogue, Seventies style.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle) Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Greene, Haley Ramm, James LeGros, Taylor Handley, A.J. Buckley, Heath Freeman, Brett Cullen, Melinda McGraw, Ellen Hollman, Casey LaBow, James Landry Hebert, Ross Francis, Caleb Michaelson, D.W. Moffett, David Sullivan, Joshua Bridgewater, Morgana Shaw, Rachael Lee Magill, Krystal Mayo. Directed by Anthony Burns

 

The summer after we graduate high school is a kind of a cusp between the first stage of our lives and adulthood and yet speaking just for myself I don’t even remember it very well. Different responsibilities and higher expectations are demanded of us as we enter into college, the military, the job market. The world becomes a much different place for us than it was in high school and we struggle to figure out how to adjust.

In a small Texas town in 1983 Ritchie Wheeler (Fernandez) has graduated high school and is managing a roller skating rink called Skateland. His sister Mary (Ramm) and girlfriend Michelle (Greene) are pushing him to submit college applications but Ritchie is in no hurry to go to college. He enjoys hanging out at Skateland with his friends, particularly Brent (Freeman), Michelle’s brother who has just returned to town after a stint as a motorcycle racer. There’s also Kenny (Handley) who is a rich kid who hosts frequent keggers and appears to be going nowhere.

You’d think Ritchie’s parents would be pushing him to start moving forward with his life but his Mom (McGraw) and Dad (Cullen) are having serious marital problems which take up most of their focus, leaving none upon their son who is beginning to drift aimlessly. He’s a talented writer (as most kids in movies like this are) but he’s in danger of having nobody ever find that out. And when Skateland announces that it’s closing its doors, his troubles are really beginning because Michelle, getting ready to attend the University of Texas in Austin in the fall, is beginning to suspect that she’s growing up while her boyfriend isn’t….and that they might just be growing apart.

Skateland is going for a bittersweet nostalgia which isn’t a bad thing. It definitely takes its cues from movies of the era with a kind of John Hughes-like appeal in teens who are reaching a crisis point in their lives. Whereas Hughes made those films funny and poignant, Burns has to settle for poignant.

The young cast is pretty decent here. Greene, who appeared in the Twilight films, is actually a pretty good actress and even though she doesn’t get as much screen time as the hunky Fernandez, when she is on she’s performing so confidently that you can’t help but notice her in a good way.

I do like how Burns captured the era so well – an era that I lived through, so I can attest to the look, the design and especially the attitudes. Whoever chose the soundtrack chose wisely; the songs really brought back the era nicely in my mind. One should never underestimate the importance of music to setting a scene of time and place in a movie.

This reminded me of a lot of different teen angst movies, many made in the era being depicted here. That’s not always a bad thing but sometimes you wind up asking yourself the question whether or not your time would have been better spent watching those films instead of this one. My big complaint is that it really doesn’t add anything to the coming of age genre, but it doesn’t disgrace it either. You could do worse than seeing this movie as an example of the teen rite of passage film. Then again, you could do better, too.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures the era perfectly. Some strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Has been done better in other movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is teen drinking, smoking and drug use as well as a little violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is dedicated to the memory of John Hughes, a director whose work the movie emulates somewhat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,411 on an unknown production budget; it’s unlikely that the movie made any money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Unfinished Song

The Happy Poet


The Happy Poet

Paul Gordon ponders the difficulty in attracting a crowd to a quality product.

(2010) Comedy (Self-Released) Paul Gordon, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, Liz Fisher, Amy Myers Martin, Richard Lerma, Sam Wainwright Douglas, Carlos Trevino, Anita Kunik, Paul Famighetti, Jordan Strassner, Matt Joyner, James Jensen. Directed by Paul Gordon

Dreams come in all sizes, big and small. Some people dream of changing the world, others are happy at merely changing their own lives. Some want to do great things – some just great things for the world.

Bill (Gordon) doesn’t have a grand agenda. He just wants to serve good, healthy food from a food cart in his hometown of Austin, Texas. However, he is drowning in debt, mostly due to student loans accrued as a creative writing major at the University of Texas. When he goes to a bank to see about getting a loan to start up his business, he is met with a nearly laughable offer of $750.

He accepts it and sets out to buy provisions and find himself a cart, which he does – an aging hot dog cart from a suspicious guy who has a thing about hot dogs. While Bill isn’t particularly against hot dogs per se, they are not exactly in his immediate business model.

He finds himself a spot in an Austin park and promptly has a truly awful day. Most of the business he gets is from people looking for hot dogs and who aren’t particularly interested in something healthy and organic. He can’t even give the stuff away – he gives one person an eggless egg salad sandwich as a free sample and the guy takes one bite and throws it away. Eventually he meets Curtis (Doubek), a guy who hangs out in the park most of the day who genuinely likes his food. That gives Bill the incentive to come back the next day.

He meets Donnie (Mars), a cheerful self-promoting dope dealer who thinks that Bill’s idea is a good one. He sets up a delivery service and hands out flyers. Curtis even comes up with a name for Bill’s cart – the Happy Poet. Business begins to pick up.

Bill becomes infatuated with Agnes (Fisher), a pretty cubicle drone who finds his lunch cart and she begins to come by regularly. With Bill a bit too clueless to ask her out (despite Donnie’s threats to ask her out himself if Bill doesn’t), Agnes finally asks him if he wants to go bowling with her. The night eventually ends up at Bill’s place where he reads her some of his poetry – an excruciatingly bad vaguely sexual monstrosity called “Chasm.”

However things begin to go south. Despite the good business Bill is getting, he is giving away far too much product to people like Curtis and even to Agnes. He also has payments due on the cart and he is pricing his food too low for him to make sufficient profit. He soon runs out of money and is forced to sell hot dogs, much to the chagrin of his customers.

He also discovers that much of the success of his delivery is due to Donnie’s sideline of delivering pot with the food. The betrayal sends him into a downward spiral of self-doubt and depression. Donnie feels bad about it and when it is discovered that Curtis has a little secret he’s been keeping from his friends, change is in the wind.

This is the kind of movie that doesn’t have to shout to be heard. It is low-key and quiet, getting under your skin rather than in your face. Director/writer/actor/editor/sandwich maker/truck unloader/generally in charge of a lot of things guy Gordon delivers his lines in a flat Midwestern monotone, a cross between Steven Wright and Bob Newhart. This really helps with the development of the character as a bit of a doormat. In fact, the title is very ironic since Bill is neither happy nor much of a poet (which he, in a moment of self-awareness, confesses to Curtis).

Donnie is very much the anti-Bill in the movie; loud where Bill is quiet, aggressive where Bill is passive and self-aggrandizing where Bill is self-effacing. In that sense, Mars and Gordon make a really good team, near-opposites that help create quite a unit. Doubek also does some pretty good work as the enigmatic Curtis.

Fisher does a great job as Agnes. She’s like so many young women out there; decent, giving but having to navigate a relationship that is a bit weird. There is a sweetness to the relationship between Agnes and Bill that flavors the whole movie with a subtle but intoxicating spice.

Austin is a good location for the movie. It’s an arts-favorable city with a hip, sophisticated young citizenry (many involved with the university or state government) and a thriving music scene. It’s a great place to live and the movie showcases that aspect of it.

I’m not really big on vegan and vegetarian food but I found myself kinda hungry for it afterwards; I’m not sure whether that’s attributable to Gordon’s skills as a filmmaker or a chef (I’m more inclined towards the former though). I also really appreciated the movie’s charm, slow pace and understated humor. The Happy Poet is not necessarily for those who limit their comedies to things like The Hangover or Judd Apatow’s movies (and their many clones) but for those who appreciate a quiet, reflective chuckle it is quite ideal. Do I get the free veggie chips with that?

REASONS TO GO: Gordon’s deadpan delivery contrasts nicely with Mars’ frenetic one. Charming story and a cast whose performances are as organic as the food.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too low-key for some who like their humor broad and raunchy.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of drug humor and some drug use, mild sexuality and a little bit of language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eggless egg salad is an actual sandwich filling used at the filmmaker’s favorite organic food market sandwich counter in Austin.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeking out on DVD.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made in India

The Express


The Express

Ernie Davis rumbles for the end zone in the 1960 Cotton Bowl.

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Saul Rubinek, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Gary Fleder

In this age where most of the great athletes in our country are of African-American descent, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one time they were not even allowed to play in the national spotlight. For those pioneers who led the way, the path was often painful.

Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) was a humble young man who had spent much of his childhood in western Pennsylvania with his grandfather, affectionately called Pops (Dutton) who had managed to rid Ernie of his stutter by getting him to read passages from the Bible. Ernie was blessed with natural athleticism, speed and strength, all good qualities to have if you want to be a football star and that’s just what he was on the verge of becoming in High School.

Syracuse University Head Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid) is about to lose the best player in college football, Jim Brown (Henson) to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Replacing him will be a tall order. Brown, for his part, is not unhappy to see the University moving behind him into the rear-view mirror. He encountered a great deal of racism on campus and despite being the best running back in the game by far, he had been denied the Heisman Trophy because of the color of his skin. For a man with the kind of pride possessed by Brown that’s a difficult pill to swallow, so when Schwartzwalder, with whom he had an often contentious relationship, called upon him to recruit the young Ernie Davis, Brown was understandably reluctant.

Still, he accompanies Schwartzwalder on the recruiting visit and is pleased and a little taken aback that Davis can quote all his statistics off the top of his head and obviously has a case of hero-worship. Brown relents and quietly makes his sales pitch to Davis, asserting that Schwartzwalder can make him a better player. That’s all Ernie Davis needs to hear. 

On the campus of Syracuse, Ernie has to put up with a certain amount of disdain from the students as well as a hellacious workout regimen. Even though he’s a freshman and ineligible to play on the varsity, he practices with them and dresses for the games, which is painful because Syracuse definitely underachieved that season, falling to lowly Holy Cross in the season finale.

Still, with Davis eligible to play, the 1959 season is full of hope for the Orangemen and with Davis leading the way, the Orange are propelled to an undefeated season despite encountering racial hatred and all sorts of abuse. Still, things could be worse for Ernie; he’s got a great friend in Jack “JB” Buckley, a big lineman with an easygoing sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a beautiful girlfriend in Cornell coed Sarah Ward (Beharie). When the team is sent to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1, 1960 to play the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the national championship, one of the most memorable bowl games of all time would be the result, a game that would cement Davis’ reputation as one of the great college football players of all time and propel him to a destiny both glorious and tragic.

Director Gary Fleder pulls out all the emotional stops in this one, and given the facts of Davis’ life that’s not hard to do. What I don’t understand is why he and his writer Charles Leavitt felt constrained to exaggerate some of the facts of his story and flat out make up incidents that never happened, the most egregious example of which is a game at West Virginia in which, the filmmakers assert, bottles and other dangerous projectiles were thrown at the players (particularly the African-American ones) and set the scene for a dramatic confrontation between Davis and Schwartzwalder. Guys, I’m sure the same confrontation could have easily have been accomplished without maligning the good fans of West Virginia.

Rob Brown does a fine job at capturing the essence of Ernie Davis, who in life was most certainly a leader but led quietly. He was said to be unfailingly polite and kind with a gentle demeanor when he was off the football field. Brown captures that aspect of him, but gives him a core of steel that Davis undoubtedly had to possess in order to accomplish what he did, and showed the fierce competitive streak that players of that caliber must have in order to succeed.

Quaid does a solid job as Schwartzwalder, giving the crusty old ball coach a soft core but one ringed with steel. The unfortunate aspect is that while Schwartzwalder wasn’t a racist per se, he was a man of his times and it took some fortitude for him to unlearn behaviors that were ingrained into white America for decades.

I was a little concerned about the lighting which was sometimes a bit on the underlit side for my tastes, but that’s a minor quibble. While the era is captured with some success, I never really felt immersed in the era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when this took place.

Still, I’m really glad that a film is finally being made of Davis’ life. He was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman and would have undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted and died at age 23, having never played a down in the NFL. His legacy, however, is unquestioned and his story should be told, and despite the historical gaffes, it’s told pretty well here.

WHY RENT THIS: A fair depiction of a pioneering athlete who has gone largely forgotten by history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the historical inaccuracies are completely egregious and are just as completely unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racism with plenty of racial slurs (including the N-word) as well as other foul language. There’s also a bit of sensuality but overall, it is suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Penn State score is given as Syracuse 32, Penn State 6 but the actual score of the game was 20-18, one of the Orangemen’s toughest games in that undefeated season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a wonderful retrospective on Davis that features interviews with Jim Brown and surviving members of his family and friends. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is a feature on the Syracuse championship season, with interviews with players and coaches both archival and contemporary and archival game footage from that season.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past