‘Booksmart’ is an Instant High School Movie Classic

Booksmart movie poster

Looking back at my high school days, I wonder if I got into enough trouble as a kid. I was a good kid for the most part, a pretty good student, and was and still am a firm believer in karma. Still, a lot of my fellow classmates who constantly got into all kinds of mischief, some of which involved police involvement, seem to be doing much better in life than me. The other day, I read an article about how the kids who were really into heavy metal back in the 1980’s have since turned out to be well-adjusted adults. Perhaps if I had discovered Metallica in elementary school instead of high school, I would feel well-adjusted as well. Besides, neither Megadeath nor Motley Crue came even close.

I bring this up because these thoughts went through my head as I watched “Booksmart,” an American coming of age comedy which has at its center two females who have been best friends since childhood and are now one day away from graduating high school. They have been model students, paid far more attention to their studies than partying, and they have since been accepted to some of the best colleges America has to offer. But with one day of high school left, they begin to wonder if they haven’t fooled around enough in the past four years. What results is a film which has been described as a female “Superbad,” and it is one of the best coming-of-age films I have seen in some time.

It is made clear from the start how best friends Molly Davidson (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy Antsler (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent more time studying these past four years than they have getting wasted every other weekend. Molly is the student body president, but she is nowhere as popular as the vice-president, Nick Howland (Mason Gooding), who only went for the position because it involved planning parties. Amy came out as gay two years ago, and she is harboring a huge crush on fellow classmate Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) which could go unrequited. But while they have accomplished so much, these two young women are typically spurned by their fellow classmates as being too pretentious.

Molly ends up convincing Amy to go to Nick’s party, the biggest end-of-the-school party of all, after she makes a shocking discovery. While she and Amy have gotten into good schools, Molly discovers her fellow classmates who looked to have been partying their scholastic years away have also gotten accepted to prestigious institutions as well. How is this possible? Well, Molly isn’t sure, but she sees this party as their last chance to have the fun they somehow denied themselves during their time in high school.

Like many great movies, “Booksmart” isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey. Molly and Amy’s determination to get to Nick’s party is quickly thwarted by the fact they have no idea where it is. As a result, they are forced to endure detours to other parties they did not plan on going to, cell phones which are quickly drained of all their energy, and teachers who either have unexpected side jobs or have forever sworn off drinking certain smoothies from Jamba Juice.

“Booksmart” marks the feature directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, an actress as strikingly intelligent as she is fiercely beautiful. She has said “The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Clueless” served as inspirations for this film, and she has taken the best parts from each of them and created something which feels wonderfully unique. It has many laughs and heartbreaking moments which we can all relate to as, regardless of the advances in technology, our high school years were always emotional battlefields which left us with psychic scars which never fully heal.

Along with a cleverly crafted screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, Wilde takes the time to explore the various personalities high school has to offer, and of the cliques they have long since been consigned to. But as the story goes on, these same individuals get a chance to peel back the façade given to them by their classmates to where we see people trying to survive these rough and tumble years as rumors about their supposed behavior still spread like wildfires which can never be easily put out. It’s moments like these I always cherish in high school movies as no one is ever what they appear to be on the surface, and this is what I think “Booksmart” is truly about; looking past what you think you see to discover what is really there, and making us see we are all the same.

Both Davidson and Antsler are perfectly cast as Molly and Amy to where they make you believe they have been best friends forever. We root for them as they look to live their last night as high schoolers to the fullest, and we feel for them as they eventually realize they may never see each other again for the longest time after this year is over. And yes, the two have a tense confrontation when they reveal truths which should have been confronted ages ago, and Wilde sticks the knife in deeper by muting their conversation as the looks on their faces is enough to illustrate the painful truths and grudges which have now forced their way to the surface.

Another memorable performance comes from Billie Lourd as Gigi, a gleefully blissed-out individual who somehow shows up at every high school party Molly and Amy are at. She is a riot throughout and inhabits her character with such wonderful abandon to where I believe Silberman when she said extra scenes were written for Lourd as everyone was really impressed with her performance.

In addition, there are some nice cameos from Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow who play Amy’s parents and have prepared a dinner with food names which need to be heard to be fully appreciated. Jason Sudeikis has some choice moments as school principal Jordan Brown who shows up unexpectedly throughout the film. And Diana Silvers has some strong scenes as Hope, a seemingly mean school girl who eventually lets her poker face down.

Wilde also has wonderful collaborators in Dan the Automator who composed the energetic film score, and cinematographer Jason McCormack who gives the visuals a reality we can relate to as well as a fantastical quality when our heroines slip into their imaginations to where one dance sequence looks like it was shot by Benoît Debie.

“Booksmart” arrives in theaters one year after “Eighth Grade,” a film about the worst year in our lives. “Booksmart” isn’t quite as brutal as it takes place in a time when the divisions between teenagers begin to disappear as they are all about to advance to another, and more vulnerable, stage in their lives. Still, it proves to be as entertaining, thoughtful and at times as heartbreaking. While it may invite easy comparison with “Superbad,” it is by no means a gender reversed remake of it. I don’t know how many out there think it is, but it is worth pointing this out here.

In a time when summer blockbusters and superhero movies reign supreme at the box office, a movie like this can get buried too easily. Here’s hoping “Booksmart” gets the audience it deserves in one way or another. And after you have watched it, you will agree that panda bears will never, ever be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

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‘Deadfall’ is an Effective Thriller with Strong Performances and Beautiful Cinematography

Deadfall movie poster

Deadfall” is a riveting thriller which held my attention from beginning to end, and sometimes that’s all I ask of certain movies. This one came out under the radar back in 2012, premiering on VOD first and then debuting in a few theaters, and it is no surprise in didn’t catch on with audiences as a result. But while it may not break any new ground in the crime drama genre, and I did have a couple of issues with the script, I did admire the performances from the entire cast. Also, director Stefan Ruzowitzky does strong work in keeping the level of tension high throughout the proceedings, and this is enough for me to give the movie a solid recommendation.

“Deadfall” opens with Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) driving through a snowy landscape while on their way to the Canadian border. They have just robbed a casino which didn’t go exactly as planned (things like that never do), and their situation gets even more precarious when their car crashes which forces them to split up. The car crash which opens the movie is a hair raiser and pretty nasty, and it reminded me of how deer are more fascinated with oncoming headlights than they have any right to be.

Meanwhile, Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison and is contemplating the possibility of meeting up with his parents June (Sissy Spacek) and Chet (Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. But things get bad for him as well after he accidently injures a former colleague severely, and he ends up on the run rather than run the risk of going back to jail. While driving through blizzard conditions he comes across Liza who is shivering due to the lack of warm clothes, and he quickly saves her from freezing to death. From there, you know all these characters’ paths will eventually cross with one another by the movie’s end.

The first thing I want to point out is how beautiful the cinematography in “Deadfall” is. It was shot in Canada and director of photography Shane Hurlbut does incredible work in capturing the snow’s beauty as well as how unforgivingly punishing it can be. Even as I watched this in a very nice air-conditioned screening room, I found myself wanting to put my jacket on. This became even more so while watching poor Olivia Wilde walk through a blizzard while wearing a miniskirt. After watching her in “Deadfall,” you cannot say she is not brave actress.

As for the performances, the best one was given by Eric Bana as Addison. The actor has left an indelible impression on us in movies like “Chopper,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Munich,” and he makes Addison a very charming bad guy. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Addison’s a psycho and someone we would all be best to keep our distance from but you can also understand why some of the characters in “Deadfall” hang out with him a lot longer than they should. Bana proves to be very unpredictable in the role, and you can never be sure at certain times if he’s going to be naughty or nice.

Wilde also delivers a strong performance as Liza, and she once again proves what a fiercely intelligent actress she is. Throughout “Deadfall,” we watch as she takes Liza from seeming like a lost girl to becoming a person whose confidence in their self continues to build. The relationship Liza ends up developing with Jay helps start the process of freeing her from Addison’s Svengali hold, and Wilde creates a fascinating portrait of a woman who manages to come into her own by the movie’s end.

Charlie Hunnam, best known for his work on the television show “Sons of Anarchy,” looks appropriately tough in the role of Jay. As we watch him getting released from prison at the movie’s start, he looks more than capable of boxing any opponent into complete submission. But the strength of Hunnam’s performance comes from those shades of vulnerability which his character cannot keep hidden. While prison has made him hard, it has not robbed him of his soul. Jay has made some foolish mistakes in his life, but Hunnam makes you care about him to where you cannot help but be deeply involved in his plight.

Kate Mara is also very good here as police officer Hannah, but she is unfortunately saddled with a father who treats her poorly because she’s a girl. Treat Williams plays Hannah’s dad, but while he’s always good, his character feels like an unnecessary addition to “Deadfall.” All we see him do is talk down to his daughter even when we can tell she is absolutely right about everything she sees going on. It’s the stupidity of characters like which really gets on my nerves.

You also have to give credit to Ruzowitzky for taking the time to cast Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay’s parents. It’s astonishing to realize these two actors have never worked together before, and they bring an authentic down to earth flavor which helps ground the movie’s story in a reality we can recognize. Kristofferson’s part is a little underwritten, but it’s still fun to watch him here.

“Deadfall” ends on a somewhat frustrating note as there are a lot of loose ends left over and the fates of certain characters are left unresolved. Still, I found it to be a very entertaining movie thanks in large part to the terrific performances of the entire cast. And yes, the cinematography was incredibly beautiful, and especially for a movie which cost only $12 million to make. It alone reminds me to bring layers of clothing the next time I visit a blizzard-ridden city as I have been spoiled by the sunny California weather for far too long.

* * * out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEFAN RUZOWITZKY FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED.

Olivia Wilde Discusses Playing Liza in ‘Deadfall’

Olivia Wilde in Deadfall

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Olivia Wilde might seem like just another pretty face in Hollywood, but she continues to give the characters she plays a strong intelligence they might not otherwise have. If you look at her performances in “Tron: Legacy” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” you will realize she has put a tremendous amount of thought in how she approaches her roles to where you leave the theater incapable of forgetting the effect she had on you. The latest example of this is “Deadfall” in which she portrays Liza, the sister of Addison (Eric Bana) whom she is on the run with after a casino heist gone wrong.

Deadfall movie poster

For Wilde, the role of Liza represented a huge departure for her. She had just finished playing Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley on the television show “House,” and Liza took her in a completely different direction.

“Liza was so different from anything I’d ever played before, and I think I was really attracted to playing someone a little more broken,” Wilde said to Sophie A. Schillaci of The Hollywood Reporter. “I had spent many years on ‘House’ playing this very tough woman. I had played tough women in movies, and I realized that was something I was gravitating toward because it’s probably something I aspire to. But I’m interested in exploring people who really don’t have their act together completely.”

At the beginning of “Deadfall,” Addison and Liza’s car crashes in the snow which forces them to separate and go on the run towards the Canadian border. Liza, wearing little more than a miniskirt, almost freezes to death until former boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam) rescues and later starts up a relationship with her. I got to attend the movie’s press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and it was fascinating to hear Wilde talk about the relationships Liza had with each of these men and how deeply they affected her.

“Well I think with Addison she’s a perpetual child, she’ll always be his little Liza,” Wilde said. “So that established what the dynamic was like in that she’s very dependent on him. She’s terrified of him and yet she is still very drawn to him. But the romance between Jay and Liza allows her to be a woman, and you really see her coming into her own. So naturally in the writing they were very different relationships, and that kind of did the work for me.”

There was also the question of how deep the relationship between Addison and Liza went. At the start of the movie they look to be as close as a brother and sister can be, but as the story continues it looks like there is a lot of sexual tension between them. While it is not entirely clear if their relationship is an incestuous one, a kiss the two share at a Thanksgiving dinner seems to imply there might be. This led Wilde to talk more about the research she did for this role.

“That (kiss) kind of underlined the tension between them,” Wilde said. “I heard someone say that the relationship between passion and rage is very close, and there’s a violence to our upbringing in our lives that I think could just easily fall over into sex. It was really helpful to read about incestuous relationships and to know quite a lot about how that tends to happen, and yet it’s a very subtle part of the film. There are only one or two spots where it’s hinted at, and I’m glad we didn’t over explain it because it does leave it a bit of a mystery, but it adds so much to the story.”

All actors need to take the time to research the similarities and differences between them and the characters they play. For Wilde, it made her realize that her life could have been much different if she was more like Liza in “Deadfall.”

“I feel very lucky to not be Liza,” Wilde told Jay Stone of the National Post. “It makes me really appreciate having a very loving family and healthy upbringing and not having been abused. It’s a horrible problem that exists in many families. One of the reasons we’re doing this as actors is to reflect humanity, to show these types of people on screen and bring light to them in a certain sense.”

We’re going to see a lot more of Olivia Wilde in the future. Up next for her is “The Longest Week” in which she stars opposite Jason Bateman, “Black Dog, Red Dog” with James Franco and Chloe Sevigny, “Her” directed by Spike Jonze, and “Drinking Buddies” which is the project she is most excited about being a part of. As long as Wilde continues to bring that same level of thoughtfulness and intelligence she brings to movies like “Deadfall,” we will have so much to look forward to.

SOURCES:

Sophie A. Schillaci, “Olivia Wilde Sheds Her ‘Tough Woman’ Image for ‘Broken’ Character in ‘Deadfall’ (Video),” The Hollywood Reporter, December 7, 2012.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with the Cast and Director of Deadfall,” We Got This Covered, December 7, 2012.

Jay Stone, “Deadfall’s Olivia Wilde feels ‘lucky not to be Liza,'” National Post, December 7, 2012.

‘Tron: Legacy’ Digs Deeper into the World of the Computer

Tron Legacy movie poster

“There is no better moment than this moment, when we’re anticipating the actual moment itself. All of the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments. Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it is going to be perfect, when the moment actually happens. But, the moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks!”

-Lewis Black

I include this quote up above because it more or less symbolizes what I feel about the promotion Disney did for the long-awaited sequel to “Tron.” The company overhyped it to an alarming degree, making several different movie trailers and spent a good three years promoting it. With this kind of marketing, many may go into “Tron: Legacy” thinking it will be one of the greatest movies ever made.

As for myself, I weary of the hype and try to go into most movies with little to no expectations whatsoever. In fact, I think it’s better to watch most films with the lowest expectations possible. With the hype which has greeted movies like this or the “Star Wars” prequels or even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it is way too easy to be incredibly disappointed by the finished product. Nothing ever does come out as well as it does in our imaginations.

Well, reality may suck, but “Tron: Legacy” did not. I walked in expecting a fun time, tickled to death Walt Disney Pictures even bothered to make a sequel to a movie which was not a huge box office success back in 1982. At the very least, this sequel, which has been in the making for over 25 years, is more of a continuation of what came before. What it may lack in a fully coherent storyline, it more than makes up for with amazing visual effects, a fantastic score by Daft Punk, and a pair of great performances from the always reliable, and no longer underappreciated, Jeff Bridges.

So, here’s the story behind “Tron: Legacy:” after saying goodnight to his son Sam, Kevin Flynn rides off to Encom to work on a new digital frontier which will revolutionize the world of technology. Instead, he disappears without a trace. Shift to more than 20 years later, and Sam has become a rebellious young kid with strong technology skills he gleefully uses to thwart the executives at Encom who intend to profit and exploit Flynn’s work, work which Flynn wanted to make available to everyone for free.

Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) comes to Sam’s domicile one night to inform him he got a page from his dad the other night, and that it came from a line at Flynn’s Arcade which has been shut down for 20 years. Sam goes to the arcade to see what’s what, and we all know what happens from there as he gets sucked into “the grid” the same way his father was, and he is forced to fight for his life by hurling discs and racing light cycles in games which are deadlier than ever.

The premise behind “Tron: Legacy” is actually quite interesting. Kevin Flynn ends up developing a more advanced version of his Clu program who, of course, looks exactly like him. Together, they work to create the perfect system meant to bring about a new kind of life form, but somewhere along the line Clu grew resentful and comes to see a world of perfection far more different than his creator does. Soon afterwards, Clu turns against Flynn, making himself the ruler of all programs, and Flynn is trapped inside “the grid” with no way out.

Throughout, we watch as Clu coldly eliminates those programs which do not meet his high standards. It’s an interesting Frankenstein motif in how a creation runs amuck despite the master’s best intentions, and we all know what this leads to). It also reminded me of a line from “Star Trek: First Contact” which the Borg Queen says, “You’re an imperfect being created by an imperfect being. Finding your weakness is only a matter of time.”

The visual effects are unsurprisingly amazing, and they clearly reflect how far technology has come since the 1980’s. This time, they are much more fluid to where not everything is shown going in a straight line, and this gives the action scenes far more friction than they had in the original. The use of dark and neon-like colors doesn’t feel dated, and the costumes have been given a much-needed upgrade. There’s no more of those bulky suits which Sark’s guards and the MCP had, and the digital world presented here is a dark one and very un-Disney like.

By having “Tron: Legacy” focus on Flynn’s son, it seemed like Disney was desperately trying to court the youth demographics and would have been happy to cast the hottest teen or young adult heartthrob the role. Garrett Hedlund, however, turns out to be quite good and holds his own with Bridges. It’s not a great performance, but he does solid work here and keeps his character from becoming some annoyingly whiny brat whose daddy issues get the best of him. He does, however, have the disadvantage of saying the movie’s cheesiest lines like “this isn’t happening” and “this can’t be good.”

Another actor I enjoyed was Olivia Wilde who plays the warrior program, Quorra. She is a strong and engaging presence here, and her role as a Data-like figure eager to learn about the real world leads to some of the movie’s more intimate, as well as some of its funniest, moments. And yes, she does kick serious ass in the action scenes, easily derezzing those evil programs without even breaking a sweat.

But one actor I truly got a kick out of was Michael Sheen who plays Castor, the owner of the End of The Line Club. Stealing every scene he is in, Sheen holds nothing back as he gleefully hams it up as the life of the party, completely unbound by the soulless machinery at his disposal. We never really did see a program like this in the original “Tron,” did we?

And then there is Bridges who remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. His performance here reminded of just how good he was in the original as he never let the special effects overwhelm his work as Flynn. Even though he was acting against a green screen more than he wasn’t, he makes himself feel like part of the reality to where it seems like nothing is impossible for the Oscar-winning actor. Oh, and if you listen close enough, there is a line designed to remind you of his famous role as The Dude. Trust me, you will know it once you hear it.

Yes, “Tron: Legacy” does have plot holes and some wooden dialogue, but so did the original. Thankfully, none of the dialogue is as cringe-inducing as the kind George Lucas gave us in the “Star Wars” prequels. Also, the story does get slowed down by exposition which could have been shortened. All the same, I’m glad the writers didn’t get lazy and bring back the Master Control Program (MCP) as if it was never defeated back.

Joseph Kosinski made his directorial debut with this sequel. In the past, he has received acclaim for the “Mad World” commercial for the video game Gears of War, and he has since gone on to direct “Oblivion” and “Only the Brave.” For my money, he does a much better job of blending actors with special effects in a way Lucas never could, and he does well in keeping “Tron: Legacy” from becoming overly-cheesy or infinitely monotonous.

The soundtrack by Daft Punk is infinitely awesome, and the duo is a perfect fit for this kind of material which serves as their first official film score. Like the brilliant score Wendy Carlos did for the first film, their music is a strong mix of orchestral and electronic elements which, and brings a strong sense of humanity and emotion to a wholly technological world.

Could “Tron: Legacy” have been a better film? Sure, but why can’t we just be happy Disney took the big risk of making this sequel? For what it is, I enjoyed it and admired the fact it was made by people who respected its predecessor. More than two decades is a massively long period of time to wait for any sequel, but “Tron: Legacy” was worth the wait for me, and I would certainly be open to seeing it again.

Still, I have to wonder, can human beings really exist in a digital world even though they are users instead of programs? Can a program actually be brought into the real world? Oh, who cares! I had fun!

End of line.

* * * ½ out of * * * *