Adventureland (2009)

How do I start this review? Well… I enjoyed the film a whole lot but I am just trying to figure out how it got made because it is like some kind of prestige indie film.

I’ve discussed my thoughts on indie films before (“indie films” are independently made films that share enough conventions that they have become a genre yada yada yada) and Adventureland pretty much hits all the notes to qualify;

Slice of life story? Check.

Low budget? Check.

Hipster offbeat soundtrack? Check.

And yet it doesn’t look like one and the cast is light years beyond your typical indie: you’d think it was a major Hollywood motion picture.

And yet, at the time of production, Greg Mottola only had two features under his belt, one of which was the wildly successful Superbad. Plus he wrote and directed this film with a budget under $10 million.

Let’s look at the cast for a second: you’ve got the star, Jesse Eisenberg, who wouldn’t have his big break until Zombieland, a year later, Kirsten Stewart, who would have been a major name due to her role in Twilight, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who were both SNL alumni’s and of course, Ryan Reynolds, who is a big enough star I don’t need to even mention any of his projects.

I’m guessing Greg Mottola earned his stripes with Superbad and decided to work on his own, lower budget project rather than another Judd Apatow movie or some such. And I’m guessing Superbad’s success is what brought in everyone else. I don’t know. It just seems weird to have what is ostensibly an indie film with such a high profile cast and Hollywood sheen.

Anyway, Jesse Eisenberg plays James Brennan, who is fresh out of high school and has Big Plans. These go awry when his parents reveal they are broke and James has to get a summer job. He goes to work at the titular, Adventureland, a truly dismal looking amusement park.

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Here in the UK, we have our share of dismal amusement parks and I imagine America, being so very much larger, has more than its fair share (ha ha) and this kind of thing is probably more culturally relevant there. Still, Adventureland is exactly the sort of soulless, unamusement park you have probably visited yourself.

James goes to work there and, as in The Way Way Back, we are introduced to a whole host of offbeat characters. The most notable being the sardonic Emily, played by Kirsten Stewart, and the womanising Mike, played by Ryan Reynolds.

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There’s a lot going on in this film and it’s all good! It is principally about the romantic entanglement between James and Emily.

Emily is a student at NYU and doesn’t need to work at Adventureland due to her father being very rich. But yet she chooses to work at the dismal amusement park, largely as a big “FU” to her socialite stepmother. Her birth mother died of cancer only a short time before her father remarried and “Em” has deep resentment toward said stepmother.

Through a mixture of grief and this resentment, she began dating the married Mike.

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Mike Connell is the park technician and uses his good looks, effortless charisma and the fact he plays guitar, to impress the young women who frequent the park. Mike is a scumbag and everyone should hate him but of course, being so charming, it is hard to dislike him. And I’ve know real life people like this: people so charming, that even knowing what a shithouse they are, you still end up liking them all the same. I like to think that Mottola had Reynolds in mind when he wrote the character because he is so perfect here.

Let’s be straight: Emily is clearly in a dark place and many of her choices in this film are driven by her grief. Mike is clearly a bad decision and James is a rock to grab hold onto. And yet she struggles to handle a potentially good relationship with James.

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There are further complications, such as James’ friend Joel, who has a crush on Emily and becomes upset when James and his crush become close and the Adventureland “It Girl”, Lisa P., played by Margarita Levieva, takes an interest in him. Everything comes to a head and resolves itself by the end of the movie in an enjoyable and satisfying way.

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There’s not much else I can say about the story without spoiling it.

This being a slice of life indie film, it is very heavily character driven. Fortunately, everyone turns in great performances (even Kirsten Stewart, who I find to be a thoroughly uncharismatic actress, but that strangely works for her in this role). So chalk one up for great casting choices for their roles!

James occupies a weird space of being the guy the girls pursue. Kirsten Stewart’s character pretty much seduces James and I get the impression that his character probably wouldn’t have pursued her, despite his attraction. Kudos to Jesse Eisenberg’s acting skills. And then Lisa P., the hot girl all the guys have a crush on, pursues him because he is nice to her without any ulterior motive… which did seem a stretch too far. Or perhaps it doesn’t say much about Lisa P’s character.

In fact, Lisa P. does manage to criticise Emily for being a “home-wrecker” for having an affair with a married man, despite the fact that he is the one who is married. James points out how backward that is but Lisa P. is having none of it. This is also interesting considering Kristen Stewart would go on to have an affair with a married man and receive exactly the same criticism.

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One thing I wanted to comment on is the setting: you’d be forgiven for not realising that this film is set during the 1980s. Yes, there is a lot of ‘80s background music but given how dismal Adventureland is, it feels more like that everyone else is modern day and it’s the park which is stuck in a time warp. I legit didn’t realise it was the ‘80s until a club scene later in the film.

This didn’t detract from the film, it is just a weird curiosity.

Anyway, it’s currently on Netflix, so if you have a couple of hours, definitely worth a watch.

TLDR; “A well polished non-indie indie film.

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Say When (2014)

We’re back once again plumbing the depths of Netflix’s finest offerings. And once again, it’s an indie rom-com!

The Netflix summary of Say When (known as Laggies in the U.S.) is “Clinging to youthful irresponsibility, 28-year-old Megan agrees to attend a career-development retreat, only to spend the time with a teenage friend.” I can relate to a few of the points in this film and so thought it might be interesting.

It is a curious animal: it stars Keira Knightly and Sam Rockwell, two relatively big names for a film of this nature (it only took $1.8 million at the box office, so I am doubtful it had widespread distribution), and both of them are them are really good in this, but seems to steer clear of any real insight for an indie movie.

Keira Knightly is Megan, a woman who still dates her high school sweetheart and hangs round with her high school friends. Megan has a Master’s Degree in counselling because she thought she wanted “honest conversations” but then realised she simply couldn’t relate to the people she was supposed to be counselling. Since then, she has been bumming around, unemployed, avoiding having to make a decision with her life.

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You can tell she’s a slacker because she’s employed in a minimum wage job… 

While at a supermarket, she is approached by some teens who want her to buy them booze. Remarking that she did the same thing at their age, she buys them the drinks they want and she asks for a go on the skateboard they have, following which they ask her to hang out with them…

It’s only now, writing a review a few hours later, that I am questioning whether or not a bunch of 16 or 17 year olds would ask a 28-year-old woman who bought them beer to hang out. I’ll chalk it up to it working because there’s something slightly unreal about Keira Knightly’s Megan…

Anyway, Megan befriends one of the teens, Annika, who later asks her to pretend to be her mum at a Parent-Teacher meeting. No one seems overly sceptical of Megan, despite the fact she clearly isn’t old enough to be Annika’s biological mother, but then I suppose questioning who exactly Megan is would de-rail the movie…

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“Why yes, I really am her mother. Why do you ask?”

Following her doing this favour for Annika, Megan calls in said favour and asks to hang out at Annika’s house because “the lease on her new apartment doesn’t start for a week” (read: she doesn’t want to face her partner, friends and family). Again, Annika is quick to just let this random 28-year-old woman into her house and just chill out rather than question why she can’t stay with, say, an adult friend or even her parent(s)…

Look: let’s just face the fact that some slightly implausible things happen to push the story along. And yet, if I can watch a film where one of the most British men on the planet, Benedict Cumberbatch, plays an American wizard without breaking my suspension of disbelief, I can accept Keira Knightly doing some slightly implausible things.

A quick aside about Keira Knightly’s American accent: I thought it was pretty good! She can be extremely British but here her accent works. Unlike, say Hugh Laurie (House) or Sean Bean (Silent Hill). Ugh. Sean Bean’s American accent… just… no.

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“Why yes, I am a 28-year-old woman who is friends with your teenage daughter. Why do you ask?”

Annika’s dad, Craig, arrives at home and quickly deduces his daughter isn’t alone. Bursting into Annika’s room to catch her out, he finds her with an 28-year-old woman… His (natural) reaction is to interrogate her and find what the F is going on.

He ultimately relents and Megan mooches around the home of these two complete strangers because of course, that’s what you do when you want to escape any form of responsibility or adulthood. Megan grows close with Craig and his daughter, even going to visit Annika’s estranged mother with her.

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“I didn’t have enough of teenage non-drama when I was a teenager, so I am back for more.”

All this culminates with Megan realising that she has outgrown her boyfriend and her circle of friends and that she wants more than that. And that this is the reason for her general inability to face life.

Now I’ve typed that, I’ve kinda realised that the film doesn’t really know what it is about.

At the beginning of the film, Megan has some issues trying to relate to this group of girls she has known since high school. That they don’t understand why she just can’t be “normal”. Her boyfriend has kind of been gently trying to get her to do something with her life but otherwise seems happy for her to mooch around.

But then it changes gears as she spends all this time with Annika and her peers, who are going through all that teenage bullshit she had grown out of. This sort of gives her a wake up call but not really?

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Teenage wasteland. Its only teenage wasteland.

After a week of hanging out with Annika and her dad, she decides she loves him and after a night of drinking, they have sex which is enough for her to break off her relationship with her long-term boyfriend…

The film kinda wants to simultaneously portray Megan as a train wreck and a manic pixie dream girl, which is an interesting combination (and if you really think about it, being a slacker not wanting to face up to reality is a groove a manic pixie dream girl could fall into) but then she is never really enough of a trainwreck or a manic pixie dream girl to really have a message.

And the final realisation that her friends and boyfriend are this cloying group of people she no longer feels any connection with seems to just come out of nowhere. Megan makes friends with some teenagers and then has sex with an older man and this is enough for her to throw away her entire life? O… kay?

It is like the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes are one film and then everything that happens in between is some weird alternate reality.

I think the only really I enjoyed this film is because the three leads, Megan, Craig and Annika, are all really great and you want to watch them. You want it all to end nicely for them. Which is fine, I guess, but the film could have had a real message.

Its kind of in the same ballpark as Standing Still, a film about a group of high school friends who have all have to face up to the fact that they aren’t 18 anymore. That film had something to say whereas I’m not sure Say When does.

There’s probably an early draft of this script which was a harsh critique of the Megan character and that would have made for a better film, I think. Instead, this is a fairly empty film with some engaging performances by its leads and for that, I think was successful.

However, if you are looking for something more insightful, look elsewhere.

TLDR; “Keira Knightly befriends a teenager and then bones her dad while avoiding real life responsibilities. Then dumps all her friends.”

Adult World (2013)

We at ISCFC are dedicated to reviewing films off the beaten path (or, in the case of marklongden, plumbing the depths of depravity). This means we watch a lot of terrible films.

You’re welcome, internet.

One of the things I’ve learned from all these terrible films is that there is never an excuse for a bad script. Bad direction, bad effects, bad acting, they are all, somewhat, forgivable. But bad writing? Nope. Never. I mean, that’s literally the beginning of the process.

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Something we can all relate to. See also: “I’ve seen some things.”

Maybe I am looking at this simplistically but, if you remotely care about the quality of your film, why on Earth would you decide to film a badly written script?

The point I am making is that, like a lot of the crappy movies we review, most independent films don’t have a lot of money behind them. But by their very nature, the script has to be good, otherwise they don’t get made.

You don’t need a massive budget to make a decent genre movie (fans are actually much more forgiving in that regard). The most important part is telling a good story, which is what your typical indie movie is all about (and why I tend to drift toward that category when looking for something to engage me).

Anyway, maybe if your typical SyFy or Full Moon movie had the same level of attention paid to the script as your typical ‘indie’, there would be a lot more low-budget yet still decent science fiction, fantasy and horror movies.

 

Moving on to the actual review now… Adult World is your typical indie film: character focused, real world setting, quirky characters and featuring music from a band only fans of indie films have probably heard of…

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Never let a drag queen do your make up.

I need to stress that Independent movies aren’t a genre, despite what Netflix professes. They are relatively low budget feature films, not made by one of the major film studios (Pulp Fiction is an indie film by that definition). It just so happens that this lack of budget and major film studio does tend to garner a certain type and style of movie, to the point where it kind of is a genre. If that makes any sense?

Adult World is a perfect example (almost cynically so) of this.

It follows Amy (Emma Roberts), a would-be poet fresh out of college, struggling to find paid work in her field. Her parents inform her that they can’t afford to pay for her to just bum around trying to get her poetry published while she has thousands of dollars of student loans to be paid. So she decides to enter the adult world by getting a job.

Only a degree in poetry doesn’t prepare you for getting a job in said adult world. Unless of course, you are talking about Adult World, the porn shop, which is where Amy ends up working with Alex (Evan Peters).

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And I think we can all relate to this sentiment…

Amy learns her favourite poet, Rat Billings (John Cusack) is doing a book signing. She follows him home and through sheer force of personality gets him to become her mentor.

The problem with Amy, in context of the movie, is that she is exactly that kind of over-earnest post-adolescent who genuinely thinks they have lived and felt real emotion. When Rat asks her why she thinks she can write poetry, she comes out with a line that you just know that in a few years time she will remember it and just cringe. But the thing is, she hasn’t lived: she hasn’t had her heart broken, she hasn’t travelled, she hasn’t done anything.

Several times people ask why she’s using that voice. Amy is confused by this, wondering what’s wrong with the way she speaks. Obviously the subtext is that she hasn’t found her artist’s voice and it’s these little subtle lines and ideas why I enjoy indie cinema so much.

There is a key moment in the movie when you realise exactly the sort of artist Amy is. She learns one of her friends is a really good painter. She asks “Have you ever shown these?” and the response is “No. They’re just for me. Haven’t you ever just written poetry that’s only for you?” and her response is a blank look before replying “Why would I do that?” or some such.

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She later claims she was in the 97th percentile for the SATs. She got straight A’s. She deserves to get what she wants. Because Amy doesn’t understand that technical ability is not enough.

The way I have described her, might make you think Amy wants a wake up slap round the face. Maybe she does. But the thing is that she is very likeable. So likeable that no one wants to be the one to burst her bubble.

So with all that, is the film any good?

Well, it isn’t massively original. Remember when I said it that indie movies aren’t a genre but kinda are? Well, this has so many of the hallmarks of an indie movie (alternative soundtrack featuring non-mainstream bands, older actor wanting to do something different…) that at times I felt it was made by someone wanting to make exactly that kind of movie. A quick check of IMDB reveals the director has acted a lot but only directed one other movie.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. All the performances were fantastic (John Cusack was absolutely perfectly cast as the aged, sardonic Rat Billings), the story was good (the script is Smart) and brought something new to the table, and predictably, I liked the soundtrack a lot.

Would recommend.

TL;DR “Pretentious art student learns to be less pretentious.

Beautiful Girls (1996)

I haven’t heard of a good proportion of the films on Netflix, let alone seen them. So increasingly, I find myself just randomly shuffling through its catalogue looking for something interesting.

I came across Beautiful Girls quite by chance. I had started another movie which entirely failed to grab my intention, so much so that I can’t even remember what it was about.

Turning that off, I shuffled onto the Independent Category (which is where I usually end up). I wasn’t particularly enthused by the Netflix write up;

A piano player returns to the small town he left behind as erstwhile friends, lovers and the scary thought of settling down swirl around him.

I only watched it because people actually bothered to rate it and highly (people on Netflix seem to be really harsh when rating things!). So if anyone has bothered to rate a film at 4 or 5, you know it is probably good…

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This is last time you will ever see some of these actors on screen…

Anyway, that synopsis is sort of what the film was about but not really. It’s much more of an ensemble piece, revolving around a group of high school friends about to attend their 10 year high school reunion. While the the piano player’s story is kind of the only one with a true dilemma and resolution arch (the rest being more ‘slice of life’) but that doesn’t actually make it central to the film.

The film is about how ‘beautiful girls’ affect this group of friends or rather, how beautiful girls present some sort of challenge or dilemma for some of the characters to win or overcome. Because actually considering these girls as real human beings apparently isn’t an option.

Willie (Timothy Hutton) is a musician who left the small working class town of Knight’s Ridge after graduating high school. Moving to New York, he found semi-success playing piano and met his long-term girlfriend, Tracy, a successful lawyer.

Willie feels he should marry Tracy but, at the same time, the idea doesn’t excite him leading him feel like he shouldn’t actually marry her. The 10 year high school reunion gives him an excuse to leave New York and return home to try and get some perspective.

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A brilliant actress, probably most famous for being Luke Skywalker’s mum or Thor’s girlfriend…

 

His ‘beautiful girl’ is Marty (Natalie Portman), a thirteen year old girl. She is a girl on the verge of womanhood and Willie can see her just ready to blossom. She has a youth and vitality he has been missing in his life. He knows his feelings for her are wrong and try as he might to stay away, the temptation is strong…

His high school friends are the two snowplow entrepenurs, Tommy (Matt Dillon) and Paul (Michael Rapaport) and factory manager, Michael (Noah Emmerich). Along with Kev, who works for Tommy and Paul, and “Stinky”, the local bar owner.

Tommy was the ‘big man on campus’ at high school. Nicknamed “Birdman”, he was the football star, dating Darian, the hottest girl at school. Only after high school, he hasn’t achieved anything. He is part-owner of a snowplow company along with his high school buddy (which is presumably seasonal work?). He is dating Sharon, who clearly loves him but Tommy doesn’t reciprocate.

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His ‘beautiful girl’ is in fact Darian, his high school sweetheart. She is married to another man with whom she has a young daughter. She is also conducting an extra-marital affair with Tommy. Tommy wants to recapture something from his glory days and sees Darian as a living trophy.

Paul is the kind of crass intellectual you can only find in indie movies: he’s a guy who spends far too much time thinking up theories about life.

He rants one of his theories at Willie, which kind of sums up some one of the themes of the film (that women are somehow a trophy for these man-boys). To punctuate this, he has a bedroom with pictures of centrefold models all over his walls.

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His beautiful girl is Jan, a waitress he dated until she broke up with him after issuing an ultimatum (the details of which are never revealed, though it is probably the hundreds of pictures of nearly-naked ladies on his wall…). Since breaking up, he has become obsessed with her, to the point of harassment, wanting what he can’t have, just like a child.

All of the characters need to grow up. Take the affable Willie. He explains to Marty that a new relationship is exciting, that falling in love is exciting, but after that fades, you just… exist as a pair. He explains to her that he has plenty of time to experience new relationships and get to the existing part later in life. However, he comes to realise that this is a refusal to grow up and accept that you can’t keep treating people like that.

Tommy similarly comes to realise that Darian doesn’t really care for him. That she will never leave her husband and in fact, she represents a flawed attempt to relive a time that has long since passed.

Lastly, Paul realises that he is being a complete dick to Jan. They are broken up and his obsession over her because she rejected him is childish.

The film sounds misogynistic but it is clear in its message that the guys attitudes are wrong and that the women are not trophies to be won or commodities to be possessed.

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The following exchange pretty much sums up the central themes to the film (which I am going to quote in full because it is worth reading);

GINA: “Yeah, that’s nice right? Well, it doesn’t exist ok. Look at the hair. The hair is long, it’s flowing, it’s like a river. Well, it’s a fucking weave, ok? And the tits, please! I could hang my overcoat on them. Tits by design were invented to be suckled by babies. Yes, they’re purely functional. These are silicon city. And look, my favourite, the shaved pubis. Pubic hair being too unruly and all. Very key.

This is a mockery, this is a sham, this is bullshit. Implants, collagen, plastic, capped teeth, the fat sucked out, the hair extended, the nose fixed, the bush shaved… These are not real women, all right? They’re beauty freaks. And they make all us normal women, with our wrinkles, our puckered boobs, hi Bob, and our cellulite feel somehow inadequate.

Well I don’t buy it, all right? But you fucking mooks, if you think that if there’s a chance in hell that you’ll end up with one of these women, you don’t give us real women anything approaching a commitment. It’s pathetic. I don’t know what you think you’re going to do. You’re going to end up eighty-years old, drooling in some nursing home, then you’re going to decide, it’s time to settle down, get married, have kids? What, are you going to find a cheerleader? Charge it, Mitch.”

TOMMY: “I think you’re over simplifying.”

GINA: “Oh eat me. Look at Paul. With his models on the wall, his dog named Elle McPherson. He’s insane. He’s obsessed. You’re all obsessed. If you had an ounce of self-esteem, of self-worth, of self-confidence, you would realize that as trite as it may sound, beauty is truly skin-deep. And you know what, if you ever did hook one of those girls, I guarantee you’d be sick of her.”

Even Willie, who is ostensibly the good guy of the piece (being the most mature), half-jokingly, contemplates cheating on his girlfriend both with Marty and with Stinky’s cousin, Andera (Uma Thurman).

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Andera is sort of the central narrative ‘beautiful girl’. She has a few scenes with all the men, being the attractive ‘cool girl’ that all the guys want to impress. Paul uses her to make Jan jealous but ruins everything when he tries to kiss her, for example, while Andera and Willie have a moment in an ice shack, the subtext being that they are discussing sexual lust versus romantic love.

She describes her romantic life in Chicago and he describes a sexual fantasy. Andera states that she would rather have the romance. Willie is then jealous of her boyfriend, that he gets to have that romantic life. Andera tells him that there is more than likely a person who feels the same way about Willie and Tracy. And it is this that makes him realise that he has only considered what is lost by commitment and not what is gained.

I appreciate that this review reads more like a Film Studies essay. Thinking about it, its because this is one of those films that, the more you think about it, the deeper it is.

Suffice to say, I think I am little bit in love with this film. It is incredibly clever with some great performances (Natalie Portman in another early role steals every scene) and has a very intelligent, very relevant script.

Scott Rosenberg, writer of this film, also the writer of Con Air (which couldn’t be more different) based some of the ideas and characters on people he knew from the small town he himself came from.

He based Knight’s Ridge on his home town and wanted it to be a stand-in for every other small working class town across the U.S., but specifically the East Coast.

He also had the cast live together for a time, so the actors had bonded before even stepping in front of the camera.

I think that’s why the film ultimately works. It is very real, based on real people,  showing real relationships and set in a very realistic town, telling a story we all probably have witnessed firsthand in some fashion.

The fact that I had never even heard of this film is a travesty. If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should. Plus, it is kind of hilarious that only one of the characters actually goes to high school reunion.

TLDR; “A bunch of man-children grow up in Everytown, USA.

Christmas Crush (2012)

Continuing the dubious pleasure of reviewing random festive Netflix movies, next up was Christmas Crush AKA Holiday High School Reunion. This is a made for TV movie which Netflix must have picked up as part of a package deal or something.

This is another of those films which just happens at Christmas rather than being about Christmas. Here, I think it fails the “Is this a Christmas film?” test in that it could be set at any other time of the year with minimal changes. Also, do people have school reunions at Christmas?

Let me stress at the outset that I only watched this film because I wanted to see something trashy and not too Christmassy (it was nearly midnight on Christmas Day: I was all Christmassed out) and in an effort to watch a broader spectrum of movies, I opted for the festive rom-com. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it…

I actually enjoyed this movie. Far more than I thought I would, given there aren’t any lasers nor Cthonian evil.

The plot is a bit better than Netflix would have you believe. Netflix describes it as “Twentysomething Georgia pines for her old boyfriend and is thrilled to have a second chance at love when she attends their high school reunion.” That’s not strictly true. She dumped her old boyfriend because she thought he was cheating on her but because she never had any proof, she romanticises their together and seeks to reclaim the “best thing she ever had.”

Georgia Hunt (played by Rachel Boston, which IMDB tells me has consistently worked since 2002, despite never having seen her in anything else) was voted “Girl most likely to succeed” at her prom. At school, she was popular and talented (head cheerleader and award winning glee club singer). After school, she hasn’t really amounted to much in the following 10 years.

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Genuine chemistry!

I think that’s something we can all relate to. At school, there is a sense that the whole future is open to you but as time elapses, your options narrow and narrow until it’s almost like you are trapped in your chosen industry, paying off your loans toward the dream of homeownership (which is somewhat depressing as not paying someone else to live in their house is like the smallest of dreams). I mean, the trap isn’t actually real: at any time you could quit your job, sell your house and illegally emigrate to Australia. If you really wanted to.

But anyway, when Georgia hears about the reunion, she laments her life and romanticises her high school years. So obviously she decides to go and reconnect with her old high school boyfriend, Craig (played by Jon Prescott, who has also done quite a lot of work).

Once back in town, she bumps into her high school best friend, Ben (Jonathan Bennett, “that guy” who was in Mean Girls, Smallville and a load of other minor roles in TV and films). Georgia and Ben haven’t spoken in 10 years as he moved away and lost contact with everyone from high school.

It is clear from the outset that Ben was Duckie to her Andie at high school (Pretty In Pink) and moved away to forget about her. And if you have seen any films of this nature (Trojan War and Some Kind of Wonderful), you know how this movie is going to end…

Georgia ends up hanging out with her fellow former-cheerleader and glee club girlfriends, Tory, Katie and Heather (all attractive, relatively successful twentysomethings). Feeling somewhat inferior, she lies to them about her work (and if you have seen any amount of films, you know how that will play out too).

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After the initial set up, the film is largely about the reunion itself. Despite the fact that you know exactly where the plot is going at all times, there is an honesty underlying the film that I found very refreshing. I feel like that the writer had something to say but was tasked with making a charming rom-com, so any edge or point she was trying to make is buried amongst the schmaltz. Still, it is there if you pay any thought to it.

The performances of the principle players are very good (Rachel Boston and Jonathan Bennett especially so) and purely through the power of good acting, you are shown just why Georgia enjoyed her time at school so much (because she was hot and fun and doing the splits could get you the coveted role of head cheerleader and you got to date the captain of the football team, things which mean nothing in real life).

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Totally 18…

As an aside: all the high school roles are played by the adult actors and actresses, who have pigtails and fringes to make them look younger. It doesn’t really work but then again, this is a trashy TV movie, why do you care?

The more Georgia explores her past, the more she realises that she wasn’t remembering her time at school as well as she thought. Most of the memorable things she had done at school weren’t with the boyfriend she regrets breaking up with, they were with her best friend, Ben.

This then causes her to question everything, including her reasons for breaking up with Craig in the first place. Ultimately, Georgia realises that none of it matters and comes clean about her lack of success outside of school (which others at the reunion also relate to). And, spoiler alert, she realises that Ben was the one she should have dated.

The message is that the things we do, and the things we are, in high school don’t really mean anything. The captain of the football team might be a good quality at school but outside? Things like personality, interests and applicable skill sets are far more important outside of that fishpond.

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The world’s tamest fan dance about a Christmas tree you’ll ever see

Furthermore, it is easy to romanticise the past (take the very cringe-worthy dance routines the glee club won awards for 10 years ago but now look ridiculous), especially if your present is not that much fun.

The movie does a good job of remaining fun and light (if not exceptionally cheesy at times) but still having a valid and important message at its heart. As I said, this is a trashy TV movie but it was far more fun and far more interesting than it ought to be.

TLDR; “Strong performances from the principle players and decent writing elevate this trashy sounding TV movie into a worthwhile 1 hour something.

Happy Christmas (2014)

Christmas films seem to fall into two camps: those merely set at Christmas (Die Hard, Love Actually) and those where Christmas is central to the plot (Gremlins, The Nightmare Before Christmas). Are films in the former really Christmas films? Well, that’s an argument for the ages…

Happy Christmas is one of the former. But it was on Netflix’s Festive Films category, which brought me to watching and reviewing it…

Anna Kendrick plays Jenny, a 20-something who just broke up with her boyfriend (though it’s not clear who did the breaking up) and has moved in with her brother, his wife and their baby.

It became pretty apparent early in the viewing that this is one of those character driven ‘slice of life’ movies with no real agenda or plot to speak of. Given it had 1 and a half stars on Netflix, I wasn’t expecting much from it but actually, this is solid.

Anyway, Jenny has no job to speak of, direction or any apparent goals in life, and spends most of this movie being a bit of a bit of a fuck-up, largely getting wasted in a variety of ways.

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Within 20 minutes of the film starting, she has eaten with the family and then skipped out on them to go to a party. She gets so wasted at said party that her friend has to call Jenny’s brother to take her home and then Jenny doesn’t get out of bed the next morning when she should be babysitting her nephew.

She’s a fuck up but it’s never really explained why. In other films, there would be some big emotional scene where she breaks down and reveals that her ex-boyfriend dumped her (or some other super important explanation why she is a fuck up) and then that puts her on to the road to recovery.

But not here: this film tries to play things realistically. Jenny isn’t a total fuck up, not exactly going from one mess to another, because in real life, no one is a constant screw up without redeeming qualities. And sometimes people are just fuck ups because they are. There isn’t always an underlying reason.

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Jenny actually has some positive influence on her sister-in-law, Kelly. Kelly is a stay at home mother whose life revolves around their young son. She used to write (and it is clear that Jenny has read some of her stuff) and Jenny’s enthusiasm for life pushes Kelly into writing some erotica (and their discussions around what and how to write it are a lot of fun).

In fact, the chemistry between all the cast is what makes this film really rather good.

It appears to be filmed largely on a hand-held camera and follows the cast around so the viewer is a bystander to the action.

There’s not much story to the film but that’s okay, it isn’t about the plot. It’s about the characters and everyone is brilliantly normal.

There’s no overwrought cathartic scene, no huge life threatening fuck up (the worst thing Jenny does is burn a pizza early in the morning) or anything like that: this is just how drama plays out in real life.

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And that’s the point of this film, I guess. It is real life, with realistic characters, and we as the viewers are right there, following Jenny around.

Very early in the movie, I was very impressed with how natural the dialogue was. I believed that Jeff and Jenny were siblings and that’s impressive. As it happens, as with a lot of Joe Swanberg movies apparently, the dialogue is 100% is improvised and that’s why this film works.

We’ve all known people like Jenny, Jeff and Kelly. Take Jenny: we all know people who are perfectly charming but have flaws that make dealing with them problematic. And like I was saying earlier, no one is a constant screw up without redeemable qualities and Jenny is very likeable, fun to be around and enthusiastic, when she’s not drinking and smoking to excess.

But living with her? Dating her?

There’s a pivotal scene where the fellow she is kinda dating has ‘travel plans the next day’ and ‘can’t’ stay over with Jenny. And the problem with Jenny here is that we don’t know whether this guy wants out of their burgeoning relationship or legitimately is being responsible and simply doesn’t want to let his family down. Because Jenny wants this guy now and would sack off whatever plans she had the next day. When he doesn’t do that, she takes it as a rejection. And that’s her deal. That’s her. That’s what we take away from this film.

And that’s why this film ultimately works. The four cast members (five if you count the cute baby) do a fantastic job of drawing us in and making this real.

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To be frank, I was expecting this to be an indie acting-vehicle for Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Twilight) in much the same way Rachel Getting Married was for Anne Hathaway. But where the latter comes across as Hathaway chasing an, any, award, this feels less cynical and more like Kendrick was into it.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit. Surprisingly so, given I thought it was a random library-filler on Netflix but it’s more than that.

As an aside, Joe Swanberg wrote, directed and stars as Jeff (an indie movie maker). That’s pretty impressive. I will definitely looking for more of his work.

TL;DR “Random Christmas indie film is far better than expected.”

A Case Of You (2013)

I like movies. And unless you have some weird fetish involving reading reviews of things you don’t like, I’m assuming you do too.

And when I say I like movies, I mean a broad spectrum, something you wouldn’t have picked up on judging by the reviews I have posted…

After watching Star Wars IV and V this weekend, I felt the need to watch something less geeky which brings me to why I am reviewing a random rom-com starring Justin Long.

I doubt very much you have seen this film: it is a relatively low-key, low budget affair which you’ve probably never heard of, given the distinct lack of advertising. Which is weird since it features cameos from Sienna Miller (American Sniper), Vince Vaugh (Dodgeball), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2), Busy Phillips (Cougar Town) and a barely recognisable Brendan Fraser (The Mummy). I guess it must be fashionable for well-known actors to have bit-parts in off-beat indie movies or something.

Anyway, the basic plot is Sam (Justin Long) is a writer of movie tie-in novels (don’t knock regular paid work in a field you enjoy, dude). While attending a signing, an old girlfriend drops by and he learns that she is not only married but pregnant. With a lacklustre job and similarly lacklustre life, he feels shamed into wanting to get that mythical creature called a ‘girlfriend’ (as that’s how you measure success in life in these kind of movies). Enter Birdie.

She’s a barista at the local independent coffee shop he frequents. She’s always late, unconventional (her parents are hippies who named her ‘Birdie’ so “she would always fly free”, for example)… you can see where this is going.

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“The chemistry is palpable…”

Now this film could quite easily fall into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory (those unfamiliar with the term, go here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ManicPixieDreamGirl) but it doesn’t. This is not about a girl saving a dreary or brooding guy but it is about him becoming something he isn’t to ‘win’ her.

Our protagonist meets Birdie, they have a brief flirt after which he then spends time getting to know her via her Facebook profile (as opposed to, say, going for a coffee or something). From Facebook, he learns all the things she likes and uses that to his advantage, e.g. she likes ballroom dancing, he learns to ballroom dance, she likes guitarists, so he learns to play guitar… effectively turning himself into her ideal partner.

Just an aside: we’ve had horror movies heavily featuring social, Unfriended and Sadako (the post-VHS, digital age reboot of The Ring), and now romantic shenganigans courtesy of social media, it is kind of sad to me that social media is creeping into literally every crevice of our lives.

Anyway, while Justin is learning how to be Birdie’s ideal guy, he is also writing a novel based on his experiences because he is a ‘real writer’.

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“It’s Brendan Fraser!”

He engineers a situation to meet her and asks her out. They date and, unsurprisingly, she grows to like this new guy she met who is a guitarist, who likes the same music and loves her favourite book. He goes ballroom dancing with her, goes rock climbing with her and all kinds of things to impress her. And inevitably, she falls for him.

Sam doesn’t quite feel the same way because, spoiler alert, he has been lying to her throughout their entire relationship. So when she tells him she loves him, he freaks out and realises that she doesn’t know the first thing about him.

In the meantime, he has finished his novel and has sent it to his publicist and the publisher. And they love it! They say the protagonist of the novel (which is a fictionalised version of Sam’s life) is a “real eunuch” and that it is “really interesting how the main character is the bad guy and you side with the girl.”

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“It’s Vince Vaughn!”

Of course, Sam can’t believe this: they clearly don’t understand that she only likes a fictional, idealised version of himself, not the real ‘book-Sam’. They of course, correctly opine, that any character who goes to such lengths to win her over, only to drop her when she finally falls for him, is destined to be alone forever.

Sam is confused but eventually realises that he does genuinely like Birdie and goes to win her back. He reveals that he did all those things because he read her Facebook profile and doesn’t actually like rock climbing and spiritual retreats and so on. The thing is, Birdie knew that all along as it was fairly obvious and started just posting random stuff to see if he would do it.

The moral of this story is that your interests and hobbies don’t matter anywhere near as much as whether someone likes you as a person or not. And guys and girls pretending to like stuff to impress a prospective partner has been happening since Ugh pretended to be a mammoth hunter to impress Ogh. So it’s all a bit lowstakes really.

I enjoyed this movie but aside from the lowstakes it was lacking something else. Co-written by Justin Long, his brother and his co-star, Keir O’Donnell, it is missing something. It doesn’t have the schmaltz or romanticism of your typical rom-com nor is it particularly funny (unless you think Peter Dinklage playing a camp barista sounds hilarious) but then it doesn’t have the edge you’d expect from an indie film.

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“And Peter Dinklage!”

So it just kind of meanders along, with two people dating, falling for one another and then having a lowstakes challenge right at the end leading to the not-very big reveal… And maybe that is really the point of this film: this could actually be about any of your friends or even yourself.

So what’s good about this film? Good question. Well, I guess it is never boring (and given some of the films I have seen recently, that’s actually notable) but it is lacking in so many areas that I’m not sure it really works as a ‘slice of life’ movie. While I think huge orchestral scores and your typical rom-com narrative structure probably wouldn’t work, it does need something to hook you in.

So while it has none of the artificial gravitas that Garden State (which was more enjoyable, if only for the performances of the players) neither does it have the sheer brilliance of 500 Days Of Summer or even the charm of Elizabethtown (which I would have loved but for Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, those being the principle players…).

For me, it falls into the same category as The Break-Up, a similar ‘slice of life’ rom-com (which also ended up being neither romantic nor funny). So if you liked that, you’ll probably like this. Otherwise watch any of the films in the previous paragraph.

TLDR; “Justin Long co-wrote, starred and produced a film which was exactly like watching one of your mates dating a girl. And exactly as entertaining.

The Monster Squad (1987)

The Monster Squad. What a curious film this is.

I’m not sure what to make of it.

Let’s start at the beginning: in the late 1920s, Universal Studios started making primitive genre movies (horror, science fiction and suspense). Though there were many such movies made over the next 30 years, the most well-known of them all featured Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster.

Those four were the most famous of all the “Universal Monsters” (with the Creature From The Black Lagoon becoming recognised as the fifth monster, despite not being released until 1957), most of them spawning multiple sequels, and even crossovers, possibly even creating the concept of a movie franchise.

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The Universal Monsters have seen remakes (along with appearances in other media over the years) and so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a movie was released featuring them all. Yes, this is like the Alien Versus Predator (or Freddy Versus Jason) of the original horror genre.

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Only it came out in 1987, 30 years since the last Universal Monster movie, and featured a group of prepubescent kids, which is almost certainly not the target audience, if the jokes are anything to go by (more on this later).

So who is it aimed at? A question that the film itself never gets round to really answering and possibly why it wasn’t very successful at the time…

Anyway, the plot is that there is a magic macguffin of pure goodness that is indestructible except for a very small window of time which opens once every 100 years.

There is a magic ritual (because of course there is) that uses the macguffin to create a portal to limbo and Van Helsing tried to use it to send Dracula there a hundred years ago (spoiler: he failed).

Dracula apparently finds this ritual such a threat that he decides to track down the macguffin to destroy it (although this is never explicitly stated).

So he and the other classic Universal Monsters team up to find the macguffin and then presumably destroy it at the stroke of midnight. Fortunately, a group of meddling kids are on hand to stop them.

The meddling kids aren’t Mystery Inc (that would have been way more cool) but are in fact the titular Monster Squad. They are a small group of kids who share a love of monsters, having apparently seen loads of old movies.

The school tough kid decides to join the Monster Squad (you can tell he’s tough because he smokes and wears a leather jacket) because the treehouse looks right into a girl’s bedroom so he can watch her in her bra and panties… I just… who is this damned film aimed at?

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“Yes that is Frankenstein’s monster in the middle of a bunch of kids. Why do you ask?”

The Monster Squad consists of 3 kids of approximately 11 or 12, a young girl of about 4, a young boy of about 5 or 6 and the tough kid, who is probably about 15? But this film is clearly not aimed at that audience: it’s too adult, too scary and yet, are adults going to be that interested in seeing a bunch of kids fight monsters?

Moving on.

Dracula procures the recumbent Frankenstein’s monster from an old World War 2 bomber flying to America (it’s never explained how he knew it was there or even why it was there or why it was being taken to America) and resurrects him. The Mummy, the Creature From The Black Lagoon and the Wolf Man all turn up too.

Meanwhile, one of the kids is given an old book which has the magic ritual in it (which his mother saw in a garage sale and thought it looked like something he would want… that’s right) and he takes it to “Scary German Guy” (the only name he is ever called throughout the movie) because he’s the only one they know who can speak German. He does get a nice line when he reveals he “has some experience with monsters” and you see his concentration camp prisoner number tattoo on his arm.

The monster squad learns all about the ritual and decide that they are only ones who can fight the monsters because none of the adults will believe them (fair). They obtain the macguffin (because of course they do), go to a church because that would make it safe for them to do the ritual but only it is locked (because of course it is) and there is a showdown outside.

It all ends with Van Helsing appearing from out of the portal and pulling Dracula into Limbo, while giving the kids the thumbs up.

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So sounds fun, right? Well…

Let me go back to a comment I keep circling: the film doesn’t know who its target audience is and it shows.

On the one hand, it wants to be a family movie, one where the kids can enjoy the kids fighting monsters and the adults can appreciate the monsters they used to watch as kids.

Only the jokes are a little too adult and the monsters are too scary.

For an example of what I mean about the jokes, the ritual requires a female virgin (because of course it does) to recite the words. They only know one girl who knows a bit of German, so they blackmail her into revealing whether she is a virgin or not. She swears that she is but then the ritual doesn’t work and she reveals “Well, there was Tim, but he doesn’t count!”

It’s like in one iteration of the script, the Monster Squad were all a bit older and the whole film was a bit more risqué. Such as the three school girls who are turned into the Brides of Dracula: you almost see in one version they were all boobs and teeth, only they aren’t and are in fact fully clothed throughout. Or when Dracula walks through the crowd of Police Officers and bloodlessly dispatches them.

It seems to me that they decided to lower the age certificate of the film, you know, put clothes on the hot vampire girls, had the monsters be less violent, less bloody, take out some of the older jokes and left in the ones that would go over the kids’ heads.

Plus the script isn’t quite witty enough. Nor are there enough in-jokes about the Universal Monsters, it’s just not enough of an homage to the older movies to be really interesting.

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“Fancy a bit of kipper? Not ‘alf!”

Maybe I am just looking at it through post-Scream eyes but I can’t help feeling they missed a trick: a John Hughes-esque group of monster-movie obsessed teens who used their knowledge of old Hollywood films to fight real monsters.

Only this isn’t that and is far worse for it.

It isn’t even particularly well made. For example, there is a scrawl at the beginning of the film telling the audience that a hundred years ago, Van Helsing tried to use a ritual to banish Dracula to limbo. But he blew it. It then shows us that scene. Why tell us if you are going to show us?

I remember seeing this as a kid and thinking it was cool. But then I was too young to legally watch it but just old enough to realise that I probably shouldn’t be watching it which made it more cool, somehow.

As an adult, it was kind of bland. In the hands of a better director, it could have been really good. Unfortunately, it failed to have the family magic that films like Goonies or Explorers or E.T. had but wasn’t mature enough to appeal to the teen comedy crowd like Adventures in Babysitting.

So it while it was fun to see the Universal Monsters together (and the SFX for the monsters is really top notch), the actual film is a bit of a mess. Which is a shame. Still, 12 year old me thought it was good…

TL:DR “Some classic monsters receive an 80s update but that’s where the magic ends…