BOOKSMART (2019)

May 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every generation tends to get the high school movie (the movie about high school life) they deserve. Going back to James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Sidney Poitier in TO SIR WITH LOVE (1967), what followed were such memorable films as CARRIE (1976), GREASE (1978), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), most every John Hughes movie from the 80’s, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), SAY ANYTHING (1989), DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), CLUELESS (1995), 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999), MEAN GIRLS (2004), HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (2006), JUNO (2007), and SUPERBAD (2007). It’s that last one on the list that this directorial debut from Olivia Wilde is likely to draw the most comparisons to.

Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) and Beanie Feldstein (LADY BIRD, and sister of Jonah Hill) star as Amy and Molly, two best friends and high school seniors who have sacrificed a social life (i.e. partying) for academics in order to position themselves for the best colleges. Amy has decided to take a gap year doing charity work in Botswana, while Molly wears her intelligence and class ranking on her sleeve and sits in judgement of her less disciplined classmates. She is headed to Yale with her ultimate life goal being an appointment to the Supreme Court (she has an RBG poster up in her room).

Imagine their shock when, the day before graduation, Amy and Molly discover that many of their less-disciplined (i.e. hard partying) classmates will also be attending elite schools. The besties immediately scheme to make up for 4 years of nose-to-the-grindstone by attending the biggest party of the year … and showing others how much fun they can be. Plus, the party affords each the opportunity to pursue their crush: skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) for Amy, and athlete Nick (Mason Gooding) for Molly.

Although (full disclosure) I was never a high school girl, the one thing that stands out about the film is how the kids seem like real kids. That’s not to say most every aspect isn’t slightly exaggerated, because it is. The level of gayness in the Drama club is a bit difficult to take, and the teenage body is objectified in more than one shot; however, director Wilde has a knack for making high school look cinematic. Two sequences are particular standouts for the way they are filmed: the swimming pool scene with Amy underwater, and the house party as the characters weave in and out of rooms in the large house

Supporting roles add depth to the comedy thanks to Jason Sudeikis as the school Principal/Lyft driver; Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, who is always popping up and stealing scenes; Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents; Molly Gordon (“Animal Kingdom”) as the misunderstood ‘Triple A’; the aforementioned Victoria Ruesga and Mason Gooding; and star-in-the-making Diana Silvers as Hope – the aptly named rebel who clicks with Amy.

Co-written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, the film presents a realistic friendship between two teenage girls, and mines some common and recognizable personalities for comedy gold. Smart and funny female characters are interesting at any age, and “no one knows me” is the anthem of most every high school student since caveman days. The inevitable comparisons to SUPERBAD will likely be favorable to this film, and it will probably be the perfect fit for this generation – even if we hope most students avoid many of the happenings. With Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers, you should prepare for the harsh language high school kids are known for, as well as that ‘brazen, yet insecure’ blend so common to the age. Of course, we can’t help but find the timing of release quite interesting, given the recent college admissions scandal. It won’t replace AMERICAN GRAFFITI for me, but with Olivia Wilde having been known as an actress, we now recognize her as a legitimate director.

watch the trailer:

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TUMBLEDOWN (2016)

February 10, 2016

tumbledown Greetings again from the darkness. If I find myself three minutes into a movie and have already executed a couple of eye-rolls, any hopes for a decent little Romantic-Comedy-Drama would ordinarily be dashed. However, having Rebecca Hall’s character narrate her writing efforts as she taps away on the keyboard, actually does serve the story. The first feature from director Sean Mewshaw and his screenwriting wife Desiree Van Til takes advantage of a beautiful setting, a slew of contrasts, and some heartfelt music to keep us interested in how things plays out.

Ms. Hall plays Hannah, the grieving young widow who has stashed herself away in a lakefront cabin located in the rural Maine community in which she was raised. Her grief remains burdensome some two years after the tragic death of her husband Hunter Miles – a folk singer whose only album (and subsequent death) created a public mystique and a defensiveness on the part of Hannah to protect and control his legacy.

As a Ph.D from Brown, periodic contributor to the local newspaper, and soul mate of Hunter, Hannah undertakes the writing of his biography in the shadow of the studio monument that continues to expand with trinkets left at his gravesite by a cult of fans paying respect. Griffin Dunne plays her friend and owner of the local bookstore and publisher of the newspaper. His less than enthusiastic critique of her early pages of the biography correspond with the vigorous pursuit by a Hofstra Pop Culture Professor with a book publishing deal who wants to make Hunter a key element of his new project.

Jason Sudeikis plays Andrew, and his fast-talking big city mannerisms don’t initially mesh so well with the hyper-sensitive and protective grieving widow. The two spar like brother and sister, and the initial adversarial relationship means only one thing in the movie world … romance is in the air. Fortunately, the focus on telling the story of Hunter acts as a form of grief therapy for Hannah and a bit of redemption of spirit for Andrew. Of course, the path to enlightenment is not simple for either. Hannah’s “friend with benefits” is a hunky local power company worker played by Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”), and Andrew’s big city music industry girlfriend is played by Dianna Agron (“Glee”).  But as you would expect, the biggest obstacle faced by the two leads is their own stubbornness.

We learn the most about Andrew and Hannah when they are around others. An Easter luncheon with Hannah’s family is especially insightful. Her parents are played by Blythe Danner and Richard Masur, and as viewers we long for more scenes featuring these two characters (and terrific actors). We sense that these parents see right through Andrew and Hannah. Can Hannah let down her guard so that she can move on with life? Can Andrew quell his ambition so that the emotional connection takes place?

Beautifully shot (with British Columbia substituting for Maine), the aspect of nature plays a role in contrasting country girl with city boy, and it’s the accidental discovery of a long lost song that highlights the stark difference in motives … while also being the impetus for change. Hunter’s original music is heard throughout the film, and it’s actually Damien Jurado whose singing and songwriting add an element of intrigue and realism. Hannah, as narrator, states “In the middle, we feel like it’s never going to end.” While that may be true for many romance movies, the filmmakers here avoid the “too cute” moments that spoil most in this genre … and impressively overcome those early eye-rolls.

watch the trailer:


THE CAMPAIGN (2012)

August 18, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jay Roach seems to be the perfect guy to direct a political campaign parody during a Presidential election year. He has had plenty of low-brow comedy success with Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers. He then gained credibility with his political sharpness in Recount and Game Change, and he is co-founder of “Funny or Die”. Instead, the movie has the feel of being thrown together during a long weekend with his drinking buddies. Luckily for him, his buddies include Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

Revolving around a North Carolina Republican Congressional primary, we are first introduced to a smug Cam Brady (Ferrell), the four term incumbent who expects to run unopposed. Not long after, we learn local twit Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is entering the race … even though he freezes in front of the camera and has no apparent platform or special issue to support. Of course, that is the one thing both candidates share – the issues aren’t the focus of the movie or their campaign. Rather, this is meant to poke fun at what political campaigning has devolved into, and how we as voters continue to fall for the dirty game of politics.

 We soon learn that the billionaire Motch brothers are financing Marty’s campaign. Their single interest is making more money and they need an indebted politician to help them buy up cheap district land and re-sell it to the Chinese so that cheap labor can be “insourced”. Clearly the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) are meant to spoof the real life political power brokers, the Koch Brothers.

Clueless Marty gets help from intense campaign manager guru Tim Whattley (Dylan McDermott) who is there to make him not suck so much. First thing is to re-do Marty’s image … they remodel his house, right down to replacing the family pugs with two more popular breeds. As Marty gets caught up in the campaign fervor, we get the expected results: he drifts from his family, the dirty stuff includes real life political sojourns like drunk driving, sexting, infidelity, false accusations, religious hypocrisy and public embarrassment of the opponents.

The real statement here, if there is one, seems to be that we the voters have allowed political campaigning to turn into a contest of who connects with us and who seems to be like us, rather than a focus on issues present and future. Kissing our baby or attending our county fair shows the candidate is one of us, while in fact, gives no indication of whether the candidate has any true beliefs or understands the issues. There are plenty of laughs in the movie, though it’s not my particular favorite type of comedy (think Talladega Nights). I will especially tip my cap to Zach G for his willingness to do whatever is necessary for a laugh. He is a fearless comedian.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: if a lightweight parody of political campaigning is just the kind of escapism you are looking for OR you never miss anything from Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis, two of the funnier people on the planet.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a biting expose’ of political campaigning.  It’s not even as deep as HBO’s “Veep”.

watch the trailer (all the funny parts):