Movie Review: We Are Your Friends

You know you’re getting old when you spend half a movie thinking how much the lead actor, in this case Zac Efron, who plays an aspiring DJ from California, resembles a star from an earlier era. In this case, I kept marveling at his resemblance to Jason Priestley back when he was attending Beverly Hills High 90210 in the nineties. I believe many cast members of that show were in their twenties (plus one closing in on thirty) playing teens, and when I saw the opening scenes of “We Are Your Friends,” I thought Zac was supposed to be playing a teen, just as he did in “17 Again.” But no, his character and his three sidekicks (Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez and Alex Shaffer) are in their twenties. The marginally wiser mentor in this movie is an older DJ, played by Wes Bentley, who gives Zac such nuggets of wisdom as, “You are not really a person until you’re 27.” The only other “adult” is one of the character’s dads who gets a couple of lines and is never heard from again. So much for mentors who are going to skillfully guide our heroes as they learn Life Lessons.

The most interesting thing about this movie for me was that it starts off following a familiar formula for coming-of-age/hitting the big time films, then hangs a left and starts to morph into “Boiler Room,”/”The Wolf of Wall Street,” before getting back on the expected track again. That was the only twist I did not see coming a mile away. When the movie starts, Zac and his buds are passionate about electronic dance music, with Zac freelancing as a DJ whenever he can. One night out clubbing, he meets Wes and Wes’s girlfriend (Emily Ratajkowski), who is currently acting as Wes’s assistant/doormat after having to leave Stanford due to financial difficulties. Although Zac privately considers Wes washed up, he’s still flattered when Wes invites him over and gives him advice on mixing tracks. But being a DJ isn’t exactly a stable profession, so Zac takes a second job cheating people out of their homes which have been foreclosed, only of course, he doesn’t realize that that’s what’s happening right away. (However, we know from the start that his supervisor is pure evil because he gives pep talks swinging a baseball bat.) As he masters the craft of cold calling, in addition to music mixing, Zac dutifully keeps his earnings in a shoebox under his bed, hoping to one day have a place of his own. He also starts to have feelings for Emily, who doesn’t seem too turned off by him either. Eventually, the inevitable happens, punches are thrown, apologies are made, etc., and then comes the Wake Up Call.

The Wake Up Call, which I won’t spoiler, usually happens in these kinds of movies in the third act, and its primary function is to sober up the protagonist and his friends and make them start thinking about doing something than simply living in the moment.  It usually, though not always, involves a scene around a gravesite, followed by the main character buckling down and doing something noteworthy, and growing up in the process.  Here, it involves music, of course, and a traditional movie type triumph on the part of Zac and his friends.

This is a movie that, even with shortcomings, you can’t deny wants to explain to non-fans the appeal of this type of music, and it does a fair job of breaking down the science of what gets people moving.  Otherwise, it’s probably worth waiting to rent.


A Look Back: “Back to School”

I remember when I saw the movie “Accepted,” thinking it could be described as “Back to School” meets “Camp Nowhere.” Now looking back, “Accepted” seems very dated, and “Back to School” seems positively antediluvian. How time flies.

In “Back to School,” Keith Gordon plays the son of Rodney Dangerfield, who isn’t having a great first semester of college. After failing both to make the diving team and get into a fraternity, he decides the logical next course is dropping out. But Rodney, whose character is a crass but loving dad, as well as a self-made millionaire businessman, decides to encourage his kid to stay in school by enrolling himself. When he learns the truth, he’s disappointed in Keith, but doesn’t dwell on it. (“You don’t lie to me. You lie to girls,” he instructs him.) Having chosen this plan, Rodney wastes no time renovating his son’s double (which he shares with his quirky friend, played by Robert Downey Jr.) and installing a hot tub to boot. He throws his weight around to get what he wants and is not above resorting to devious means, such as suggesting to a jam packed bookstore of students that Bruce Springsteen is outside. But he’s generous with his wealth, too, hosting the mother of all parties with Oingo Boingo (very hip in 1986) and putting the purchases of everyone in said bookstore on his tab. You see, he’s likeable because – life lesson – he’s comfortable with himself, something the son has to learn. But maybe Rodney has a few things he can learn from his son, too.

Rodney soon gets a crush on an English professor (Sally Kellerman), who already has a snooty boyfriend.  Rodney asks Sally if she can help him “straighten out his Longfellow,” which leaves her distinctly uncharmed, but eventually, he begins to grow on her.  Rodney’s approach to his other subjects is unorthodox to say the least, but he does know more about running a successful business than the economics professor.  However, he slacks off in his other classes, leading to a situation in which he’s eventually in academic hot water.

Instead of the Big Game, there is the Big Meet.  Early on, it’s revealed that Rodney was once a champion diver and performed a legendary move called the “Triple Lindy.”  The coach gives Keith another shot, once he learns who his dad is, and this time he makes it.  To spice things up, there’s a rival (on the same team no less) who’s blond, preppy, goes by Chas and is played by William Zabka, so you know from the start he is evil personified.  Diving is not a very exciting sport for the spectator/viewer (unless you’re a fan), but there’s a great scene in which Robert tries to sabotage the other school’s team. In addition, for drama, there’s also the Big Exam, for which Rodney studies to a montage and in the process, learns from his son about the satisfactions of actually mastering the material.

After both Rodney and Keith triumph, we fast forward to Rodney’s graduation ceremony.  He gives a speech and tells the grads, “Stay in college!”  Also: “Look out for number one.  But don’t step in Number Two.”  Not the most eloquent and inspiring advice, but certainly true, as I discovered after college and long after I first watched this movie.





Summer Movie Lessons I’ve Learned

1. Never underestimate dowdy overweight women, for they may secretly be high powered assassins. (Spy)

2. It’s best to avoid horseplay when inside a room full of sperm samples. (Ted 2)

3. The only people worth saving in the event of an apocalypse are optimistic geniuses. (Tomorrowland)

4. Immortality-maintaining drug side effects won’t have any effect on your newfound ninja skills. (Self/less)

5. Rules governing a cappella competitions are about as logical as a five-year-old’s game of Let’s Pretend. (Pitch Perfect 2)

6. “Monogamy isn’t realistic,” unless you meet a sports doctor who looks like Bill Hader. (Trainwreck)

7. It takes only a month to lose everything you have, and a month to recover it all. (Southpaw)

8. Avoid taking advice from local yokels about where the hot springs are located. (Vacation)

9. The road to higher education can be a slippery slope. (Dope)

10. If you are looking for subjects to test a new drug that turns its user into a killing machine, a church full of rednecks is a good choice. (Kingsman: The Secret Service)

11. The dead are closer to us than we think. (Mr. Holmes)

12. If your shrink insists on accompanying you on dates, it’s probably time to get rid of him.  (Love and Mercy)

13. If you are going to rebuff a former classmate who you used to bully back in the day, it is prudent to invest some kind of home security system, not to mention shower curtains. (The Gift)

14. Always read your contract all the way through, no matter how convoluted it appears. (Straight Outta Compton)

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

There’s an early scene in the Mozart biopic, “Amadeus” where the title character (played by Tom Hulce) eagerly describes an opera he’s working on to a group of Austrian court members and is asked what the setting is. The answer: in a brothel does not please anyone. Over the course of the movie, we see the musician deal with professional jealousy and backstabbing; family and financial woes; as well as excessive alcohol use and incomprehension (mostly from older critics) as to the true nature/message of his work.

“Straight Outta Compton,” which opened last week, a biopic of the rap group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) follows a group of young African-American men from rags to riches, as they grapple with many of the same issues that plague gifted musicians on their way up, regardless of skin color and era, though of course, there are certain problems that stem directly from racism.  A white teenager chanting, “Fuck the police,” is clearly never going to be seen as half a threat a black teen would, and he may even avoid getting put in a headlock and slammed up against a cruiser, which happens to the protagonists several times in the movie for offenses ranging to speeding to standing on the sidewalk shooting the breeze.  Artists have always been (in)famous for shaking up the status quo, but the consequences don’t always involve being arrested simply for their lyrics.

The movie starts out (where else?) in 1986 Compton, California and follows the five main band members, including Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy E. (Jason Mitchell) from their beginnings as friends with a passion for music, who, despite the moans of one of their mothers, devote their free time to performing and mixing songs.  One day, a white guy, Jerry Heller, (Paul Giamatti, seen in a similar role in “Love and Mercy”) approaches them and offers to represent them.  At first, they are skeptical, as is Paul’s elderly colleague, who attends a NWA performance and says, “Jerry, you’re my friend – but call me when you find the next Bon Jovi,” and beats a hasty retreat, but soon they realize he can help them.  The help turns out to be a mixed blessing, as tensions flare over who is getting more publicity, and eventually, the band splits.  There is much controversy over the lyrics “glamorizing the ghetto lifestyle,” as well as real life historic events like the LA riots following the Rodney King verdict.  There are rivalries and friendships formed with other would-be famous rappers.  Eventually, one of the characters starts coughing, and someone else utters the prophetic words, “You don’t sound well.”  Strides toward maturity are made, as the mistakes made due to youthful inexperience and perhaps an excess of testosterone are learned from, and the movie ends with pretty much everyone older and wiser.

I’ve seen online complaints that this movie “shouldn’t have been made,” presumably because  of the frequent coarse language and depictions of the protagonists’ lifestyle during their popularity, but I didn’t really see anything better or worse than say, in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s there for a reason besides mere shock value.  Though the band members are accused of glamorizing, the reality is that the lyrics may simply hit close to home (witness the look on the cops’ face during one performance), and it’s clear that they have tapped into genuine emotion in their fans.  Perhaps they didn’t stir up trouble so much as give a powerful voice to problems already existing.  As Ice Cube puts it in the movie, “Speak a little truth, and people lose their minds.”

Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

Among other things, “Mr. Holmes ” is a movie about the difference between fiction and reality, the benefits of cross-generational friendships, the hazards of beekeeping, how the dead are really not that far away from us, and how logic sometimes falls short when it comes to solving a mystery. It takes three plot strands and weaves them expertly into a story that includes potential murder, suicide, and an adverse reaction to wasp stings, but manages to end on upbeat note, even though much of the subject matter is grim.

Sporting an impressive array of age spots plus a stoop and matching hobble, Ian McKellen plays Mr. Holmes, who has retired and is living a quiet life in the country with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young, precocious son (Milo Parker), who takes a fancy to the strange boarder and spies upon him. This Holmes is still the smartest man in the room, but he’s also struggling with the ravages of old age, including senility, and is under the care of a doctor who advises him to make a mark in a blank book every time he can’t remember something. Quips Ian, “What if I forget to make a mark?” but the doctor doesn’t find this amusing. Ian currently keeps himself busy by beekeeping and writing down his version of a case that he felt he failed to solve well. His housekeeper isn’t too thrilled about having to shoulder the burden of live-in nursing, and is considering moving to a new job in a hotel, which doesn’t please her child, who wants more from life than merely working as a tradesman.

The second storyline is the backstory of the case Ian is writing about, even though (I think) Watson has already published his version of those events. A young, distraught man visits Ian one day and explains that his wife, ever since the death of two of her infants, has become obsessed with music and is taking lessons from a teacher who believes that it can help her contact the dead. The husband engages Ian to find out what the heck is going on, and Ian soon stumbles into something more sinister that the wife may or may not be planning.

The third piece of the puzzle is a Japanese man who meets Ian in his country and extols the advantages of the prickly ash plant, which is a native, grows in the remains of Hiroshima, and may help with senility. It turns out the man has an ulterior motive for helping Ian: his father emigrated to England, leaving his son and wife behind. The father was a Holmes fan and gave his son a copy of one of his novels when he was a child.  Ian claims not to remember the father, but is this a case of age-related amnesia or is there another reason?

Unlike the majority of movies I have seen this summer, “Mr. Holmes” contains not one joke about poop, projectile vomit or pubic hair. It is relentlessly tasteful and contains no humor but the martini-dry British kind, which was a welcome change.

How Clichéd Is Your Horse Movie?

1. Is the main character’s horse black or gray (white)?

2. Is it born in compromising circumstances?  In the wild?

3. Are its owners rich, snobby and completely unethical?

4. Does it have a name that connotes nature or weather like “Shadow” or “Thunder”?

5. Is its trainer an alcoholic?  Does he fall off the wagon at least once in the movie?

6. Is the main character a child or teen who has no money and has never ridden before but passionately loves horses?

7. Does the main character have a deceased parent?  Was this parent an awesome equestrian?

8. Is the main character troubled or rebellious in some way?

9. Is the horse at first completely unsuited for whatever it’s trained for or improperly trained?

10. Does the horse get injured in some horrific manner prompting the snobby owners to get rid of it?

11. Does the main character learn to ride in an amazingly short time, such as a couple of months?  Is this whole process kept completely secret?

12. Does the horse take off and jump a huge jump on its own, thus making the main character realize it’s destined to be a champion?

13. Does the main character train by galloping around, jumping random jumps?  Does she mostly train at night by the light of the full moon?

14. Does the main character suffer a really bad fall, but nothing happens, even though she’s helmetless the entire time?

15. For her first ever competition, does her trainer decide to enter her in the Kentucky Derby/Olympics, etc.?

16. Does she wind up competing against the horse’s original snobby owner who has an amazing new mount?

17. Does the nemesis or horse’s original owner get anxious and try to kidnap/harm the horse?

18. Does the horse appear able to communicate telepathically with its rider, such as nodding its head when asked a question?

19. Does the horse injure itself or colic sometime before or during the Big Competition?

20. Does the horse wind up winning the championship, gold medal or its equivalent?

The more “Yes” answers you have, the more clichéd your horse movie will be.  But given that only riders will realize this, it usually isn’t necessary to aim for realism.

Movie Review: The Gift

In one scene in “Billy Madison,” Adam Sandler phones a guy he hassled in high school and apologizes for being a jerk. It turns out that this is one of the few wise things Adam does in the movie. Though the guy is gracious about the whole thing, we get a shot of him crossing “Billy’s” name off his hit list after he hangs up. Key line in one scene: Am I glad I called him!

You gotta watch out for those creepy loner types in Hollywood movies because they almost always grow up and don’t forget or forgive past injustices. In “The Gift,” Jason Bateman plays a husband, who has just moved back to near his hometown, and who is focused on getting ahead in his new job and trying again to have a child with his wife (Rebecca Hall), who we later learn is emotionally fragile following the loss of their first. When out house shopping, Jason bumps into an old classmate (Joel Edgerton who also wrote and directed the movie), who he claims not to remember, although Joel seems to remember every detail of their past in Technicolor detail. Indeed Joel is more than willing to re-kindle whatever their relationship was, arriving on their doorsteps bearing gifts and dropping by unannounced to chat with Rebecca during the day. But while Jason treats Joel from the start as if he has cooties, Rebecca sees him as socially awkward, harmless nice guy. Each of their reactions (and perhaps the viewer’s) says a lot about who they were in high school and the type of people they’ve become.

Surprisingly, Rebecca’s view slowly morphs into Jason’s, but only if you’ve never seen a big screen thriller before. Several of the rules hold true here, as well: 1) Random acts of kindness by strangers always turn out to be sinister, 2) If you think you’re alone and not being observed, you aren’t, and 3) If you go to the authorities with your concerns, you will hit a brick wall. Very soon, of course, discrepancies appear in Joel’s background, as well as chinks in his claims that he’s doing much better now, leading Jason to decide to call it quits with their burgeoning, well, something or other and Joel does not take the news graciously.  He sends a note saying that he was initially willing to let “bygones be bygones,” (this is all in the trailer), and soon, Rebecca is asking pesky questions of Jason demanding to know just what Joel means by that.  Soon, too, bad things start happening to Jason and Rebecca.  While Rebecca feels guilt about cutting off Joel, Jason is equally convinced that it was the right thing to do – but Jason’s conviction that he and his wife are victims being terrorized by an unstable former outcast is obviously not that clear cut.

Feeling increasingly gas-lighted when she’s home alone and unsure whether she’s losing her sanity, Rebecca begins to probe into Jason’s past, even going so far as to unlock the top secret drawers in his filing cabinet.  She hits pay dirt when she discovers that Jason did his share of bullying as a youth.  But was it really more than just “kids being kids” as one character claims?  (Obviously, because these things don’t escalate without fuel.)  Though she begs Jason to make belated amends, it becomes apparent that Joel intends to get revenge for old injuries and settle the score at last.

“The Gift,” ends with a creepy twist, as Jason is coerced into a warped treasure hunt, and it looks like everything he values is slipping through his fingers.  All sorts of lines are crossed in this movie, and it ultimately does an excellent job in showing that our present actions can make up for our past sins – but only if we’re willing to look in the mirror.  Which sadly, only one of the main characters in this movie is.