REVIEW: “Booksmart”

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I’ve steadily grown more and more convinced that most of Hollywood is only interested in one particular depiction of the teenaged experience. You know, the one featuring a collection of dense, potty-mouthed teens marked by obsessions with sex, booze, and and endless supply of dumb decision-making. We get these movies all of the time. Some are more dramatic; some are straight comedies. But they all paint teens with a broad and rather boring brush.

Thankfully there have been a few anomalies – movies like “Eighth Grade” and “Lady Bird” that are both authentic and insightful. I was hoping “Booksmart” was one such welcomed aberration. Sadly it’s not and a couple of really good scenes can’t shift the balance from the overload of tired and rehashed teen movie clichés this film revels in.

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“Booksmart” is a left coast teen comedy that is sure to play well within a couple of specific groups. Many who are deeply invested in progressive ideology will love it despite it having nothing particularly profound to say (its politics are mostly found in weird name drops and shallow lip service to a handful of popular social issues). And fans of raunchy comedies will get plenty of what they like, much to the detriment of the film as a whole.

The story revolves around two smart but pretentious high school seniors. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are life-long best friends who have spent their school days with their noses buried in textbooks and looking down on fellow students. But on the eve of graduation they’re hit with with a shocking revelation – you can have fun and make good grades at the same time.

So the two set out to cram years of missed social opportunities into one night of partying and rule breaking (so much for book-smarts nurturing any kind of discernment and good judgement). What follows is a relentless series of eye-rolling antics ranging from low-brow raunch to all-out absurdity. There are a couple of emotionally strong moments but unfortunately they’re stuck within a mire of teen movie tropes and stereotypes.

It’s made more frustrating because the performances are generally good. Dever is the standout and while her character doesn’t always make sense she gives a believable and at times affecting performance. Feldstein is fine but too often she seems stuck in high gear. And then you have the sizable supporting cast playing an assortment of run-of-the-mill teen character types, many of them dialed up to 10. Some are fairly entertaining but none are especially compelling.

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Most of the issues can be tracked to the writing and direction. The screenplay was put together by a team of four writers whose apparent aspirations to be “Superbad 2.0” overtakes the meaningful story at the film’s core. And first-time director Olivia Wilde never seems to know when to pull back the reins to allow her characters room to breathe. And when we do get a deeper character moment, it’s often over in a snap and we’re quickly ushered back into the film’s manic comedy whirlwind.

“Booksmart” frames itself as a fresh take on the coming-of-age story, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I had seen these stories and certainly these characters before (or at least variations of them). Dever shines and there are a few lines of witty dialogue, but nothing here is particularly eye-opening or original. It’s your standard raunchy teen comedy full of stock characters and caricatures. It tosses out some good ideas but rarely explores them. It also portrays a linear portrait of teenaged life in America that will certainly resonate with some yet be utterly otherworldly for others. Yet another instance of “Booksmart” being unable to strike a much needed balance.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

 

REVIEW: “Brightburn”

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So here’s a story I bet you’ve never heard. Something from space crashes down near the property of a hard-working farm family. In the wreckage the couple finds a baby boy who they take in as their own. As the child grows up it is revealed that the boy possesses an assortment of superpowers. Sound familiar?

The new film “Brightburn” essentially takes the Superman origin story, changes the characters, and adds a pretty big ‘what if’ element to it. What if the child grew up and used his powers for evil instead of good. “Brightburn” takes that premise, runs with it, and (most importantly) sticks to it which is a key reason why the movie works as well as it does.

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“Brightburn” has been touted as a James Gunn production, written by Mark and Brian Gunn, and directed by Gunn collaborator David Yarovesky. The story follows Tori and Kyle Breyer (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a couple who have struggled with their farm and with having children. That’s why they saw the arrival of Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) to be such a blessing.

Ten years prior a meteor fell near their home. Inside was a baby who the Breyers adopted and named Brandon. But as years pass he begins to notice he’s different than other kids. And with the discovery these newfound superpowers comes a troubling turn in Brandon’s psyche. Tori and Kyle desperately try to keep their son’s secret and keep him on the right path. But can they shield him from the dark forces that are pulling him towards evil?

The unique central premise of “Brightburn” drives the film from beginning to end. It’s a cool subversion of the superhero genre although it’s nothing too deep. Instead, at its core it’s a straight supernatural horror movie. And not just another tame jump-scare thriller that we get by the dozens these days. Yes, there are a few sudden loud bumps but there is also some delightful old-school Raimi-esque gore that I wasn’t expecting. And by keeping it focused on and revolving around the film’s central conceit, it never loses its freshness.

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But there is one big frustration that unfortunately had a big effect on my experience with “Brightburn”. This turns out to be one those examples of a trailer revealing too much and killing the suspense in some of the film’s biggest scenes. If you’ve seen the trailer you already know the fate of several characters. Knowing ultimately undermines the impact of what should have been big some of the movie’s big moments. It’s hard to figure out how that should effect a review score but it certainly effected my viewing experience.

And that’s a real bummer because there is so much I like about “Brightburn”. The performances are good, the pacing is crisp, end it sees its concept through to the end, finishing up in what I think is a very intriguing place. It’s truly a fun alternative take on the superhero genre. Just make sure you stay away from the trailers. Their impact on the movie had me pulling out my hair.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Best of Enemies” (2019)

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File this one under ‘too crazy not to be true’. The deep personal friendship between outspoken civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader turned fellow civil rights activist C.P. Ellis is as inspiring as it is extraordinary. The new drama “The Best of Enemies” tells their remarkable story which is nothing short of improbable.

The film is based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. It marks the feature film debut for Robin Bissell who directs and wrote the screenplay. Bissell spent a ton of time with Atwater learning from her experiences and getting valuable input. The two became close with Atwater giving Bissell’s script her enthusiastic stamp of approval. Sadly she would pass away in June of 2016.

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The film is driven by two equally big yet equally fabulous performances. Taraji P. Henson loses herself playing Atwater, a single mother raising her children in the powder keg that was 1971 Durham, North Carolina. A notorious fireball (even earning herself the nickname Roughhouse Annie), she was an ardent community organizer and the face of a local hard-working activist group.

C.P. Ellis is played by the always fiercely committed Sam Rockwell. In Bissell’s telling Ellis runs a small full service gas station (he was actually a college maintenance man) which barely offers enough income to support his wife and kids. But people around town mostly know him as the president of Durham’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This earns him the respect of the prejudiced white community, understandably draws the ire of the black community, and sets him up as a puppet for opportunistic local politicians.

A suspicious fire at a black elementary school pushes integration to the forefront of local conversation. The white supremacists see it as segregation’s last stand and they have a stacked City Council to back them. The outspoken Atwater leads the other side who are willing to defend their children and their rights regardless of the cost. As the threat of violence intensifies Bill Riddick (a pitch-perfect Babou Ceesay), a lawyer and organizer from Raleigh, is brought in to mediate a 10-day “Save Our Schools” community summit to find a public resolution. I bet you can guess who he chooses as his co-chairs?

Bissell’s script tees up several big scenes especially for Henson. They certainly come across as attention-getters but it helps that Henson knocks it out of the park. She’s also given some meaty monologues which not only highlights the performance, but shows Bissell’s smart handling of dialogue. Sure they can be a bit on-the-nose, but they always feel genuine and in tune with the characters and story.

The second half shifts more of its focus to Ellis and not because of some racially insensitive preference of the filmmaker (I’ve actually seen that intimated). Ellis’ transformation is not only key to where the story is going but true to the real-life relationship at the film’s center. Bissell doesn’t sugarcoat Ellis’ deep-rooted prejudice, but he does give Ellis some emotional complexities and personal insecurities which paint him as more than your run-of-the-mill stereotype. Rockwell is superb.

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Other strengths of the film – I like how it captures the early seventies southern setting complete with its boiling racial tensions. The ugliness of white supremacy and the powerful influence the Klan still brandished is captured and conveyed in a palpable way. I also can’t say enough about the supporting cast. Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill, and John Gallagher, Jr. all deliver. My only real beefs – There are second half stretches where we simply don’t get enough of Henson. And at just over 130 minutes couldn’t a little more time be given to the personal side of Ellis and Atwater’s budding friendship?

It’s pretty easy to predict some of the reactions “The Best of Enemies” is sure to provoke. Expect plenty of critical snark and quick dismissals along with the inevitable “white savior” tag (I’m sorry, but if the film has a true “savior” its Bill Riddick). Sadly, for some it doesn’t matter how much truth is in the storytelling. Unless the film is blistering, brash and screaming at the top of its lungs it won’t penetrate those looking at this subject matter through their own specific prism. That’s a shame because the harsh labels and strange readings can’t keep this from being a thoughtful and worthwhile picture. And boy is there room for its message, especially in today’s far-from-colorblind society.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

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In my eyes Chiwetel Ejiofor has clearly established himself as an exceptional actor. Netflix’s latest original film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” proves that Ejiofor has more in his filmmaking skill set than what we have seen in front of the camera. Here he not only stars in the film, but directs and writes the screenplay for what is at its core a soulful and affecting family drama.

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is based on the true story of a 13-year-old boy who built a wind turbine out of scrap to save his small African village from a devastating famine. So you kind of know from the start where the movie is heading. But as cliché as it may sound, this film is genuinely all about the journey and the characters who make up its center – characters who Ejiofor clearly cares about and who are given plenty of room to develop.

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Ejiofor plays Trywell Kamkwamba, a husband and father who farms a dry patch of land in the small village of Wimbe. It’s hard work but Trywell and his wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) have managed to put enough back to send their bright and resourceful son William (an excellent Maxwell Simba) to middle school. Their older daughter Annie (Lily Banda) anxiously awaits her chance to go to college once her turn comes back around.

But a series of misfortunes dramatically changes things not only for the Kamkwambas but the entire region. Flooding during the sowing season and a crippling drought that follows leads to a poor harvest. An upcoming election has the troubled government in political turmoil making it an unreliable source for any kind of aid. Economically-strapped villages are left to fend for themselves which sends many into chaos.

This brings a heartbreaking strain on the Kamkwamba family. During this time Ejiofor subtly shifts the point of view from Trywell to William. He observes his father slowly cracking under the pressure, his frustrated sister fighting the urge to leave the village, and his mother desperately trying to keep their household together. Ever the inventive one, William conceives a wild plan to build a wind-powered turbine to provide water for his village. But will anyone buy into his idea?

I really appreciate Ejiofor’s willingness to look at his characters through different lenses. These people are fleshed out and multidimensional with real strengths, faults, and a range of organic emotions. They feel like a living, breathing part of the world Ejiofor vividly presents. It also helps that he shot on location in Malawi. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope, much as he did in “Mr. Turner”, creates a beautiful and immersive canvas that is visually stunning but with enough subtlety to keep from drawing attention to itself.

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I loved “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. The predictability may be a hurdle for some and it could be a bit too restrained for those looking for edgier storytelling. But I found it to be a beautiful and at times heartbreaking slice of real life. Ejiofor’s script and direction captures the heart of William Kamkwamba’s touching and inspirational memoir. The performances are even better with Ejiofor rivaling his Oscar-nominated work from “12 Years a Slave” and young Simba standing out as a true revelation.

Ejiofor has said he bought the films rights to this incredible story after being drawn by its optimism and hopefulness. Next he found it essential to be as authentic as possible by learning and incorporating the Chichewa language and by shooting on actual Malawi locations. Finally it was about telling William’s story – a young boy far removed from the privileges we tend to take for granted, living in a village crippled by a famine, but with the heart and know-how to help. The results of Ejiofor’s efforts are exceptional.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

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When you think of rock-and-roll biopics it’s hard to come up with a better subject than the incandescent and enigmatic Freddie Mercury. As lead singer for the legendary British rock band Queen, the wildly flamboyant Mercury became a household name across the globe. He would perform with Queen for over 20 years until his AIDS-related death in 1991. He was just 45.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” sets out to tell the story of Freddie Mercury starting around the time Queen was formed in 1970 and finishing up with their famous twenty-one minute Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985. In between it hits on a several significant moments in Mercury’s life while making up a few of its own. The results are a by-the-numbers musical biopic that feels pretty basic despite the compelling character at its center.

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The embattled Bryan Singer handled the bulk of the direction before being fired due to constant no-shows and clashes with the cast and crew most notably the film’s star Rami Malek. Dexter Fletcher replaced Singer with around two-thirds of the movie shot and ready for post-production. I’ll let others figure out which one deserves the most credit and/or the most blame for how things turned out.

Rami Malek is easily the film’s biggest strength. He seamlessly maneuvers between the two sides of Freddie Mercury – the shy and intensely private man and his garish, energetic stage persona. He deftly unveils Mercury’s quiet sensitivity and insecurity. But even more impressive is watching Malek lose himself onstage, perfectly reflecting Mercury’s rock-and-roll alter-ego. Whether strutting charismatically or belting out (kinda) classics with a four-octave range. It’s amazing to watch.

Mercury is very much the centerpiece to the point where the rest of the band almost gets lost in the background. It’s a shame because the movie is best when viewed as a simple celebration of their music. The very best scenes are when the band is together fighting over and making music. That includes a fabulous final twenty minutes which recreates Queen’s Live Aid concert performance and perfectly captures the band’s remarkable chemistry and energy.

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But the movie struggles when the focus is solely on Mercury. The filmmakers make several weird omissions and peculiar changes to his timeline. In the film’s most glaring bit of fiction an arrogant and selfish Mercury, enamored by his own stardom, breaks up Queen to pursue his solo career. In reality Queen never broke up. It’s a needless demonization. There is an attempt to representation Mercury’s descent into the grips of drugs and debauchery. It gets the message across but isn’t what I would call enlightening.

So with “Bohemian Rhapsody” you end up with a very safe and conventional biopic that aims more at being a crowd-pleaser than an in-depth character exploration. When viewed in that light it’s a pretty enjoyable film. Malek is fantastic as is most of the supporting cast (Gwilym Lee’s resemblance to Brain May is uncanny). And while I learned nothing new about Queen or Freddie Mercury, the movie concentrates enough on the music to make it worthwhile.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Beautiful Boy”

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Steve Carell is one busy guy. “Beautiful Boy” was one of three movies he put out in 2018 and his sixth in two years. The film also stars Timothée Chalamet, a good young actor who has essentially become the new Jennifer Lawrence. You know what I mean – a hot young newcomer who gets loads of critical attention and awards nominations for pretty much anything he does…at least for a few years.

I don’t want to cut Chalamet short. He is a good actor. Maybe not to a level matching the overflowing praise, but good nonetheless. For proof look no further than “Beautiful Boy”. His portrayal of a drug addicted 18-year-old calls for a big performance that grabs most of the attention. It’s a role that easily could have went the wrong way. But hats off to Chalamet for keeping his performance under control.

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At its core “Beautiful Boy” is a heartbreaking father/son story based on the memoirs of author David Sheff and his son Nic. Carell portrays Sheff, a father broadsided by the discovery that his teenage son Nic (Chalamet) is a drug addict. The two have always had a close loving relationship but the drug abuse drives a wedge between them. So as Nic tries to break the grip of addiction David tries to deal with the painful reality that his relationship with his son may never be the same.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen and adapted by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies, “Beautiful Boy” has all the ingredients it needs to tell this story and it does a good job dividing its time between father and son. In many ways this is more about David and the problem of hope turning to naiveté. He believes that love and encouragement will cure his son and as a writer he has always had the right words. Reality shows him different. Carell hits most of the right beats, but there are moments, particularly the emotionally heavy ones, that aren’t quite as strong.

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At the same time they wisely don’t overdo it with Nic. He is a very believable representation of a young addict in part because of Chalamet, but just as much due to the the script. Flashbacks reveal a bright teen full of joy yet not always helped by his father’s decisions. But even as he unravels the script never loses sight of his deep human qualities and emotions. This makes the looming uncertainty all the more devastating.

Strangely not all of the film is as engrossing as the performances or the story material. It’s hard to put a finger on why. It’s not that it lacks a realistic edge or the characters fall short. It’s more to do with the rhythm of the storytelling which is a bit uneven in the second half. But it doesn’t undo the film’s ability to evoke empathy and heartache. And in the end that’s what the movie needed to do the most.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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