Anthem of a Teenage Prohet


In a world where appearance is everything, posing is a natural extension of life.

(2018) Drama (SP Releasing) Cameron Monaghan, Grayson Gabriel, Peyton List, Juliette Lewis, Aaron Pearl, Richard de Klerk, Alex MacNicoll, Alex McKenna, Patti Allan, Beau Daniels, Sebastian Greaves, Joshua Close, Jasmine Sky Sarin, Danny Woodburn, Alex Lennarson, Malcolm Craig, Jaden Rain, Spencer List, Robert W. Perkins, Raj Lal. Directed by Robin Hays

 

Being a teenager is nothing resembling easy. Coping with a world whose rules shift almost daily and are confusing even on a good day coupled with raging hormones that make rational thought nearly impossible make it no wonder that teens are synonymous with angst. When you throw in some supernatural abilities, things get even more complicated.

Luke Hunter (Monaghan) is a fairly typical teen in a small Michigan town in the mid-90s. He gets from place to place via skateboard, hangs out with a group of friends who listen to rap but dress like grunge, smokes way too much, drinks when he can, gets stoned when he can and generally tries to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life.

One afternoon while hanging out with his friends including his boyhood friend Fang (Grayson) who likes to climb things and golden boy Stan (MacNicoll) who is the boyfriend of Faith (P.List) whom he has a fairly serious crush on, he has a vision. Stoned out of his mind, Luke blurts out that one of them is going to die the next day, hit by a truck with out of state plates. “Blood on the sidewalk,” he murmurs while everyone looks at him in amusement. Luke’s really baked isn’t he ha ha ha.

But nobody is laughing the next day when Luke’s prediction comes horribly true down to the smallest detail. The looks change from amusement to suspicion and downright fear. When a reporter overhears one of the incredulous teens blurt out that Luke had predicted the tragedy and later broadcasts it on the air, Luke’s life becomes something of a media circus.

Luke withdraws further into himself despite his supportive ex-hippie mom (Lewis) and somewhat clueless dad (Pearl). Faith, suffering through the loss of someone she cared about, is drawn to Luke who is going through the same thing. However, it’s not quite the same thing; Faith is not in the media’s eye as Luke is, nor is she an object of fascination in the same way Luke is. He doesn’t know what to do and ends up lashing out. Not to mention that he gets another vision about someone who is going to die.

Some may be drawn to this movie, which is based on a novel by Joanne Proulx, by the supernatural element but those folks are bound to be disappointed as that element is definitely played down. This is much more about surviving the teenage years than about dying during them. We are witnessing Luke’s emotional growth which isn’t always pretty. Luke is a complex character, one who is a talented artist, who adores his mother (as much as any teen boy would be willing to admit to) and pretty much just wants to be left alone to find his own way, also pretty much like all teen boys.

Monaghan is best known for playing a Joker-like character in the Fox Batman show Gotham but this is an entirely different performance here. Far from being manic, Luke is a bit of an introvert and Monaghan captures that personality well, from the distrust of others to the banter he has with those he does let inside. Given the diversity of performances in the two I’ve seen of him so far, I think that it isn’t being premature to say that this actor has enormous potential. Time will tell whether he can acquire the roles that will allow him to realize it. My one problem with him is that he tends to pose a little too much; it doesn’t look natural.

The writers and actors do a great job of capturing the swagger of boys on the cusp of becoming men. They think of themselves as invincible and their lack of life experiences don’t bother them – they revel in their inexperience in many ways. They are young and un-bloodied by life until the death of one of them catches them all up short.

While the swagger is perfectly depicted, the dialogue is less successful. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t intelligent and snappy – it is both those things – but it is not the way teen boys in the mid-1990s talked. It is more like the way boys in 2018 talk, from the rhythms of their speech to the expressions they use. Kids tend to use a lot of slang and jargon, which is a way of setting their own generation apart. You get none of that here.

While the film borrows its tone from a few disparate sources (one that I noticed was Final Destination minus the macabre deaths) other critics have name-checked the work of John Hughes and Gus van Sant. While the movie is a little bit on the long side, it is a very different teen movies. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience and it tackles some fairly serious concepts. I don’t know how many teen boys will want to see this movie – this isn’t the kind of movie they typically choose to see – but this is a movie about them and one they would no doubt recognize. That may work against the film as its niche audience may somewhat ironically be disinclined to see it. Still, it is a worthwhile watch for those who want to understand teens a little better.

REASONS TO GO: The film nicely captures teenage boy swagger.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue sounds more like 21st century than mid-90s.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, teen drinking, smoking and drug use, some violence and dangerous behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, Monaghan and List were dating.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Project Almanac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
An Acceptable Loss

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Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point

Why Him?


Talk about a generation gap...

Talk about a generation gap…

(2016) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Cedric the Entertainer, Keegan-Michael Key, Griffin Gluck, Zack Pearlman, Jee Young Han, Tangie Ambrose, Mary Pat Gleason, Kaley Cuoco (voice), Steve Aoki, Richard Blais, Elon Musk, Adam Devine, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Andrew Rannells, Casey Wilson. Directed by John Hamburg

 

The father-daughter relationship is a very special one. A man’s daughter is always his princess; the light of his heart, the twinkle in his eye, she inevitably has him twisted around her little finger. It goes without saying that no man will ever be good enough for Daddy’s Little Princess.

Ned Fleming (Cranston) is by all appearances a successful guy. He’s a pillar of his Michigan community and runs a paper company that has been one of the most successful in the Midwest for years; he has put his daughter Stephanie (Deutch) through college at Stanford where she is nearing graduation and his life is generally going just swell.

His bubble is on the verge of bursting though; his company is in serious financial trouble and there isn’t much of a future for it anyway – paper is going the way of horse and buggy given that most communication is electronic these days. His wife Barb (Mullally) and son Scottie (Gluck) are mainly unaware of this. However, the biggest blow is that Stephanie has a boyfriend that they don’t know about and what’s worse they’ve been together for more than a year. This disturbs Ned who had always assumed that his daughter told him everything. It seems she has a whole lot of secrets that he isn’t aware of. With the holidays coming, Stephanie invites her family to spend them in Northern California.

Said boyfriend is Laird Mayhew (Franco) and rather than being a doe-eyed college boy he turns out to be a 30-something tech magnate who earned his billions developing videogames. With a chest full of tattoos and absolutely no filter, he is a bit of a handful and a lot for the conservative Fleming family to take in. Most parents would be overjoyed that their daughter had caught the eye of a billionaire and seemed to be very much in love with him besides but not Ned. He’s suspicious of Laird and is positive that he’s up to something and Laird, to be honest, is a fairly manipulative guy. His high-tech Palo Alto mansion is full to the brim with all sorts of gadgets and toys, including a Japanese toilet/bidet combination that doesn’t quite work right (and hilarity ensues), a Siri-like house computer whose voice is that of Kaley Cuoco from Big Bang Theory and who tends to get cranky from time to time (more hilarity ensues) and a brand new bowling alley that Laird installed because he heard that Ned loves to bowl. Midwestern, right?

There is also a stuffed moose preserved in an aquarium full of it’s own urine which you just know is going to get all over someone sooner or later (not a spoiler: it does) and a valet named Gustav (Key) who is about every Eastern European goofball that populated sitcoms and movie comedies in the 80s and 90s and who, like Kato in the Pink Panther movies, attacks Laird with martial arts without warning (although to be fair the movie does name drop the series for additional laughs).

Laird means to marry Stephanie and wants Ned’s blessing, a blessing that isn’t forthcoming. It’s Christmas though and miracles can happen – although it might take several miracles to make this happy ending come true. Stephanie tries to make her father see that beneath the cursing (Laird drops F bombs constantly, a product of having no filter) and the sometimes bizarre behavior Laird is really a very nice guy, but that will be a tough sell to a father who already thinks that no guy is good enough for his princess.

In many ways this movie perfectly illustrates the disconnect between Hollywood and Mid-America which in turn spotlights why Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election. Ned and Barb as well as son Scotty are portrayed as extremely naive particularly about pop culture sexuality, not knowing what either motorboating or bukake mean – not that those are common terms but certainly the way that it is portrayed here is that they’re the only ones not in on the joke and quite frankly it’s a bit cruel. The West Coast hip tech types, standing in for the elite liberal crowd, are condescending and a little put off by the squares. It may interest the left to know that there is Internet in the Midwest and most of the people living there are a lot savvier than given credit for.

Cranston and Franco are no strangers to each other and it shows here. The chemistry between them is letter perfect and both exhibit a lot of give and take in terms of who gets the laughs and who is the straight man. Both perform beyond what you’d expect for what is essentially a holiday comedy which often tend to be just paychecks for big name actors. Cranston and Franco earn both of theirs.

But all the good intentions and strong performances can’t save a script that has little bite and feels more like a sitcom than a big screen comedy. There are some really funny moments (like when Laird brings in Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from KISS for Ned and Barb who are avowed members of the KISS Army) and a few cringe-worthy moments (the aforementioned moose piss gag) but by and large there’s nothing truly offensive here. Neither is there anything truly noteworthy either.

REASONS TO GO: Cranston is on point as always and he has some terrific chemistry with Franco.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little heavy-handed and riddled with clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language and some sexual innuendo throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ape Assassins game that made Laird Mayhew famous is available for download on the iTunes App Store.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 13th

Max


Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

(2015) Family Drama (Warner Brothers/MGM) Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Luke Kleintank, Lauren Graham, Robbie Amell, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake, Jay Hernandez, Owen Harn, Joseph Julian Soria, Raymond W. Beal, Edgar Arreola, Jason Davis, Pete Burns, Miles Mussenden, Joan Q. Scott, Ian Gregg, Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by Boaz Yakin

]It is a Hollywood truism that it is never a good idea to work as an actor with children and animals, unless you like getting upstaged. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable – families must have their films and they are often crawling with kids and pets.

Max is a dog working for the military. He and his handler, Kyle Wincott (Amell) are in Afghanistan, where Max faithfully sniffs out weapon caches for the Taliban and alerts the platoon when there’s trouble. However, all of Max’s training can’t save Kyle from a Taliban ambush.

Back home in Texas, Kyle’s family is living day to day; his ex-marine Dad Ray (Church) bears his wounds that he got in Desert Storm and runs a storage facility. His wife Pam (Graham) relies on her faith in God to get her eldest son back home safely and to keep the peace between Ray and their youngest son Justin (Wiggins). Justin is at an age where he is, quite frankly, a jerk – like most teenage boys. He has little or no respect for either parent (less for his demanding Dad than his Mom), plays videogames all day long and has no interest in spending his summer working for his Dad who really needs the help. He is also burning bootlegged copies of videogames that haven’t come out yet for a local hoodlum named Emilio (Soria), who is the cousin of his best friend Chuy (LaQuake).

The Wincott family is devastated by the news of Kyle’s passing. It is Max, however, who is the most inconsolable. His relationship with Kyle and devotion to him is such that he is of no use back in the field; he suffers from PTSD (and yes, dogs can be afflicted by it) and won’t let any other handler near him. The Army ships him back to Texas where he was first trained to see if anyone can deal with him. They bring the dog to Kyle’s funeral, where he breaks hearts by running up to the casket, pawing at it and with a piteous whimper lies down at the foot of it. Why don’t you go get a tissue now, I’m sure you need it.

Anyway, the only person Max responds to is the sullen Justin. As it turns out, Justin is beginning to respond to Max, too – after his mom forces him to take care of the dog on his own. It would seem an insurmountable obstacle for Justin, who doesn’t know the first thing about caring for a dog. Fortunately for him, another cousin of Chuy – this one not involved in anything illegal – named Carmen (Xitlali) – has raised pit bulls in her family for ages, so she agrees to help Justin out. The two start to take a shine to each other.

However, things get complicated when Kyle’s buddy – Tyler Harne (Kleintank) returns from duty early and gives Ray an account of Kyle’s death that puts the blame squarely on Max. Ray is all for putting a bullet in the dog’s head after that but cooler heads prevail. Max clearly doesn’t like Harne – he gets upset whenever he’s close by, barking and trying to break his chain to get at the former Marine. Justin thinks Harne is up to something. When Justin’s suspicions prove correct, Harne has Max taken away by animal control to be put down and when Ray finally figures out that his younger son has been right all along, kidnaps Ray to hand over to the drug cartel that he is selling weapons that he liberated in Afghanistan to with the express instructions to take his buddy’s dad to Mexico and make him disappear permanent-like. It’s up to Max to escape doggie death row and aid Justin in finding his dad.

I liked the first part of the premise – bringing a military dog home and helping the dog heal from his PTSD, while simultaneously helping the family heal from the grief of their loss. Had they stuck to that story this might have been an excellent family film. Unfortunately, they add the whole far-fetched junior detective angle that just turns the movie into an Afterschool Special and not a particularly good one.

What saves the movie is Max himself; the dog is absolutely wonderful, the kind of dog that epitomizes why the species is Man’s Best Friend. One can see why the military and law enforcement both rely heavily on dogs, particularly those of Max’s breed. Max will definitely tug on your heartstrings and in a movie like this one, frankly that’s his job.

I didn’t talk much about Carmen in the story summary but let me tell you, Mia Xitlali may have an unusual last name but she also has unusual talent to back it up. She’s absolutely a knockout in the looks department but she has plenty of screen presence to make her a talent to watch out for, so long as she doesn’t go down the Selena Gomez path. Latin actresses don’t often get really juicy roles but hopefully one will come this lady’s way – I know she’ll make the most of it when one does. Mark my words, this girl has a future ahead of her.

Wiggins, who was impressive in the far better Hellion, is less so here. Mostly, he’s the victim of awful writing; Justin is so sullen and so angry at the world that it is absolutely excruciating to spend time with him. Sure, this might be more typical of teenage boy behavior – and I helped raise one as well as having been one, so I know they can be real jerks – but most teen boys, even my son, had redeeming qualities. Eventually Max turns Justin around but by the time he does, you’re pretty much already over Justin. Sadly, Yakin gave Wiggins some cringe-inducing dialogue to speak and you can almost see Wiggins wincing when he says it.

I get that this isn’t meant to be a work of art but it could have been so much better. I think the story that takes up most of the first part of the movie is far more compelling than the Disney Channel detective show that makes up the second. I wish Yakin had trusted his main story to carry him through although to be fair, it’s quite possible (and even likely) that the studio may have had something to do with adding the kids save the day second half. In addition, when a filmmaker casts actors the caliber of Graham and Church and then gives them little to do but look stern or sad, that’s a bad sign. Still, those looking for family entertainment that isn’t animated in a year in which it seems like the only good option for families is Inside Out could do worse than seeing this as a break from multiple viewings of Pixar.

REASONS TO GO: Max is terrific. Some nice cinematography. Xitlali shows some legitimate talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedantic story. Church and Graham criminally underused. Justin may be a “typical” teen but far too abrasive to get much audience sympathy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and peril, disturbing war sequence and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Five dogs play Max, who is a Belgian Malinois (not a Belgian Shepard as is at least once remarked upon in the movie) which are a breed used often by the military and police; the primary canine actor, whose name is Carlos (great name!) also appeared in the movie Project Almanac.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bolt
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meet Me in Montenegro