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:


NEBRASKA (2013)

November 24, 2013

nebraska1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Alexander Payne has proved yet again that he has a remarkable eye for characters, and no need to bury those characters deep in plot. About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants provided us with characters we could laugh with, cry with and feel with. His latest is his first film which he did not write, but it’s clear that he and screenwriter Bob Nelson are similar type people watchers.

What you notice immediately is that this film and its characters move at their own pace. There is no rushing or urgency. They do nebraska2things and say things in due time. Or not. What you also notice is that the camera does the same thing. Filmed in stark black and white, the camera is exceedingly quiet and still … just like the characters and landscape. We can thank Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael, who also worked with Payne on Sideways and The Descendants. Even the score is a bit offbeat. The blending of trumpet and guitar is rare, yet seems to fit just right.

Bruce Dern is 77 years old and in his sixth decade of acting. While I have liked him quite often – and really liked him in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – this may be his best performance and best role yet. Dern’s Woody Grant is an alcoholic, nebraska4and hard of hearing, and crotchety, and isolated. More seriously, he seems to be in the early stages of dementia given his insistence on walking to Nebraska to collect his “winnings” from a mass marketing mailing similar to Publishers Clearing House. With minimal dialogue, we “get” Woody. That’s thanks to Dern’s physical performance and ability to emote through simple gestures. We feel his quiet desperation in the search for meaning in a life that is slipping away. He just wants to be somebody before the end.

The delivery mechanism is a road trip shared by Woody and his very patient son David (Will Forte). We sense David looks at the trip as an opportunity to connect for the first time with his dad, and maybe even get some life questions answered along the way. On the trip, other family members join in, including Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and Woody’s colorful wife Kate (June Squibb). The trip takes them to Woody’s hometown where they cross paths with other family and old friends.

nebraska3 Woody’s insistence that he is about to be a millionaire brings out the “true self” in those whose paths they cross. Many of his old friends are truly happy for him and wish him nothing but the best. Others aren’t so kind. True colors can be hard to watch, especially as shown by Woody’s old partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and other family members who are just after “their fair share” of the loot. The movie excels in these moments … watching a fiery Kate put these vultures in their place, while defending the husband she has spent the whole time badgering is priceless.

Ms. Squibb delivers the film’s funniest lines, but she also gives a depth to Kate that adds the level of realism. Will Forte is surprisingly effective given his “Saturday Night Live” background, but we never lose sight of Bruce Dern (and his hair). The characters we see are grounded rural midwesterners who live their life from day to day, depending heavily on family and friends. Their interpersonal skills are quite different than what is found in metropolitan areas, and those born and raised in heavily populated areas may struggle to relate.

The film should garner Oscar nomination consideration in multiple categories, and Mr. Dern is probably a shoe-in for a Best Actor nom. So slow down and share this trip from Montana to Nebraska … while I can’t promise a prize of one million dollars, you will definitely be rewarded.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy character driven dramatic comedies based on people you might know (if you know people in the rural midwest)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your sense of humor is more likely to parallel that of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell than Sideways or About Schmidt.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT5tqPojMtg