‘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 * * * *

 

‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ is a Mixed Bag, But It’s Never Boring

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 poster

After I finished watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I was in no hurry to watch part two. The 1974 horror classic still probes to be an intensely unsettling cinematic experience decades after its release, and Tobe Hooper’s film was far more terrifying than I expected it to be. Recovering from the original was no different than when I slowly pulling myself back together after watching Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” or just about any Lars Von Trier film. But with Hooper having recently passed away, the time had come for me to check out “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” a sequel heavily criticized when it opened in 1986, but which has since become a cult classic in the eyes of many.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” takes place over a decade after the original, and an opening narration tells us the police searched for Leatherface and his cannibal family but never found any trace of them. But of course, it doesn’t take long for this sequel to reintroduce us to Leatherface as he gleefully slices away at a pair of obnoxious high school seniors who harass on-air radio DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams). Stretch captures the audio of these kids’ murders and passes it on to Lieutenant Baude “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), uncle to Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin who were victims of Leatherface’s chainsaw wrath. From there, the two of them become determined to end Leatherface and the Sawyer family’s reign of terror once and for all.

How you enjoy this sequel largely depends on what your expectations are when you go into it. If you think Hooper planned to match the claustrophobic terror and unnerving power of the original, you are in for a serious disappointment. But if you are able to accept this sequel in regards to what Hooper intended to accomplish with it, I think there is a good deal of fun to be had even if feels like there is a lot missing from this follow-up.

With “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” Hooper wanted to focus more on the black comedy he said was inherent in the original. Was there black comedy in the original? Yes, but it took a couple of viewings to realize this was the case. This sequel, however, was made to satirize both horror movies and the excess of the 1980’s. Since this one came out in 1986, the time had come to take aim at the greed which came to define this particular decade. Also, when you take into account how the poster gleefully parodies the one for “The Breakfast Club,” you should know this a film which will not take itself too seriously. Plus, this was released by Cannon Films, so you could count on it being entertaining, and maybe for reasons its director didn’t intend.

Looking back at “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” my feelings about it are decidedly mixed. I did enjoy the frenzied energy Hooper and company brought to the proceedings, and the actors look like they had great fun committing onscreen mayhem. At the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity as the style and substance of this sequel proved to be much too distant from the original. Its links to the 1974 film are very weak to where this feels like a sequel in name only. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns’ character from the original) is only mentioned in the opening narration as having since gone into catatonia. It would have been cool to see her come back in one way or another, perhaps as some badass hardened warrior eager to get revenge. Heck, this sequel came out in the summer of 1986 not long after Sigourney Weaver set a new standard for female action heroes in “Aliens.” Had Burns come back, it could have been the summer of the vengeful female warrior.

One thing which especially bummed me out was the lack of actors returning from the original. In fact, the only actor from the original to appear here was Jim Siedow who reprises his role as Drayton Sawyer. While his creepy face alone is the kind which inspires wicked nightmares, Siedow doesn’t get as much to do this time around. As for Leatherface, he is portrayed by Bill Johnson and not Gunnar Hansen who brought a twisted realism to the iconic horror character. Johnson isn’t bad as he can wield a rusty chainsaw like the best of them, and his sudden appearance from a room filled with vinyl records results in one of this sequel’s scariest moments, but Hansen is sorely missed here as no other actor can possibly match what he brought to the first film.

The rest of the cast, however, does rise to the frenzied challenge Hooper laid out for them. Bill Moseley, who has since appeared in Rob Zombie’s “House of a 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” looks to be having the time of his life as Chop-Top Sawyer as he gleefully tortures Stretch even after a part of his skull gets accidentally sawed off by Leatherface. Speaking of Stretch, Caroline Williams brings a wonderfully spunky energy to the role as she uses her smarts to outwit the Sawyer family in an effort to escape with her life, and her last moment in this sequel is a memorable one to say the least.

But the actor I got the biggest kick out of watching in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” was Dennis Hopper who played former Texas Ranger Baude “Lefty” Enright, a man deeply obsessed with finding the Sawyer family and avenging the suffering they and Leatherface inflicted on his kin. Hopper was in the midst of a major comeback in 1986 as he appeared in “Hoosiers,” “River’s Edge” and, most famously, David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” While those films are better examples of his acting, his performance in this sequel is equally inspired as he clearly knew he was in an over-the-top horror movie and relished the opportunity to go mano-a-mano with Leatherface. Seeing the “Easy Rider” battle Leatherface with a chainsaw is wickedly gleeful fun as a battle with chainsaws is something this sequel just had to have.

So, when all is said and done, I did admire “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” but certainly not it in the same way I admired the original. Hooper’s vision wasn’t lacking here in the slightest, but he instead took things in direction fans were prepared for 30 years ago. It is only with the passing of time we can look at it differently and understand how it attained cult status. I don’t think it’s a bad film, but it does feel strange compared to what came before.

Looking back, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” represented one of several attempts by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of taking a well-received motion picture and turning it into a hopefully long-running franchise. Clearly, they had more luck commercially, if not critically, with “Death Wish,” but at least this sequel fared much better than “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the film which pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for Cannon Films.

Of course, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise didn’t stop there as the buzz of the saw is still an inviting sound to horror fans all over the world, and filmmakers have continued on with other sequels, a remake, prequels and, yikes, an upcoming origin story. People still want to experience the visceral thrill the 1974 horror classic in one way or another, but when it came to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” perhaps Hooper realized from the start that it was not possible to top the original or match its terrifying power. Instead, he felt it was better to try something a little different, and that’s what he did with this sequel for better and for worse.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Jessika Van about ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

Jessika Van returns to the silver screen in “Seoul Searching,” a comedy by Benson Lee which follows a group of Korean teens from all over the world who are sent to a cultural heritage school in Seoul during the summer of 1986. Van plays Grace Park, a pastor’s daughter from Cherry Hill, New Jersey who worships Madonna the way her father worships God. Grace doesn’t even need to point that Madonna is her favorite singer as she dresses exactly like the Material Girl and even performs an acapella version of “Like a Virgin.” She also excels at teasing all the young boys who lust after her constantly, but she soon meets her match when an especially rebellious teenager catches her eye.

Van started her career in music where she was a classically-trained pianist and singer, and she won various awards and even performed for the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson. She made her breakthrough as an actress playing Becca, Queen of the Asian Mafia, on MTV’s critically acclaimed comedy “Awkward,” and she trained in weapons and martial arts for her role in the first-person shooter game “Battlefield 4.” Videos of her work can be found on her YouTube page.

I spoke with Van while she was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching.” She talked about the research she did into the 1980’s and Madonna to prepare for her role, what she learned about Korea while filming there, and of how she managed to peel back Grace’s emotional armor to reveal the person hiding underneath. She also spoke of how “Seoul Searching” is much more than just an Asian American film as it touches on issues that are universal to everybody and anybody.

Check out the interview below and be sure to visit the movie’s website (www.seoulsearchingthemovie.com) for more information.

Exclusive Interview with Justin Chon about ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

In Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching,” Justin Chon plays Sid Park, a rebellious teenager and a punk rocker whose truancy and defiance of adult authority knows no bounds. Sid is one of many teenagers forced to spend the summer of 1986 in Seoul at a camp for “gyopo” or foreign born teenagers where they can learn more about their homeland, Korea. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t want to be there and he tries numerous ways to get kicked out, but eventually his tough guy persona is broken through by a teacher who sees that Sid yearns for the acceptance of his father. What results is the most important summer Sid will ever have in his young life.

Chon is one of the most prolific Asian-American actors working in movies today, and he is best known for playing Eric Yorkie in the “Twilight” series. His career started in 2005 when he appeared in such television shows as “Jack & Bobby” and “Taki & Luci,” and he became known to audiences worldwide when he played Peter Wu in the Disney Channel film “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.” Chon also starred as Sonny, an immigrant who becomes a notorious gangster, in “Revenge of the Green Dragons” which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. In addition, he has also directed several digital shorts that are featured on his YouTube page.

I spoke with Chon recently while he was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching.” While he was a student at USC, he spent time abroad in South Korea and explained how he was able to draw on that experience for his role. He also talked about the 80’s song he wished the movie’s director, Benson Lee, had included on its soundtrack, and he makes it clear why “Seoul Searching” deserves to be seen as more than just an Asian-American movie.

Check out the interview below, and please visit “Seoul Searching’s” website to find out where the movie is playing near you.

Exclusive Interview with Benson Lee about his film ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

It took him 16 years, but writer and director Benson Lee finally succeeded in bringing his most personal film, “Seoul Searching,” to the silver screen. The film is largely autobiographical as it is based on his own experience of being part of a summer school camp in Seoul, South Korea which proved to be one of the best summers of his life. What he attended was a special summer camp for “gyopo” or foreign born teenagers where they could spend their summer in Seoul to learn about their motherland. The intentions of this program were more than honorable but the activities of the teens were not, and we watch as controversies and revelations unfold for the teens and the adults.

Lee is an award-winning Korean-American filmmaker who has worked in drama, documentary and commercial production for many years. His first feature film, “Miss Monday,” made him the first Korean-American filmmaker to be accepted to the Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival where he earned a Special Grand Jury Prize. His first documentary, “Planet B-Boy,” proved to be one of the top-grossing theatrical documentaries of 2008 in the United States. With “Seoul Searching,” Lee gives audiences something close to his heart as he shares his own experiences from when he was a teenager, and the film resonates with many universal themes.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Lee while he was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching,” and he could not have been nicer to talk with. Lee described how this project came about, the challenges of getting many 1980’s songs into it, and of whether he had to stay true to the events he experienced or instead to see where those events took him in a dramatic fashion. Furthermore, he made me realize how Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” affected him on a subconscious level before he even realized it.

Check out the interview below, and be sure to check out the website for “Seoul Searching” (www.seoulsearchingthemovie.com) for more information.