Phenom, The (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting a standard feel-good sports comedy-drama are going to be disappointed with “The Phenom,” written and directed by Noah Buschel, an efficient and haunting character study of a young baseball pitcher whose blossoming career is suddenly endangered because his abusive past has begun to consume him whole. The film is written and shot with great intelligence, insight, a balance of perspicuity and mystery, and humanity from top to bottom, a rarity in the current landscape of the movies where spectacle is valued more often than reality.
Notice the stunning use of silence. Mainstream works are prone to employing soundtrack between moments and even during conversations at times in order to hint at what the character might be feeling or thinking. Here, silence is utilized to highlight the story’s melancholic fog, that even though Hopper (Johnny Simmons) is making millions as an athlete, a dream or goal for many people, he is severely unhappy and no one is genuinely happy for his success. In one way or another, he is envied, especially by his father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who lives vicariously and damagingly through his son’s golden arm.
Hawke is a highly likable and charming performer, and he presents a sympathetic monster here. From the first instance where father and son share a scene and interact, we learn quickly the level of control senior has over junior. When the son is not being insulted, he is being threatened, oftentimes in the form of physical threats but the psychological beatings are equally unbearable and maddening. Hawke and Simmons share excellent chemistry, believable as father and son, predator and prey.
The story has two hearts and both are handled with vitality and a sense of yearning. The first involves Hopper and a sport psychiatrist. Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) attempts to untangle his patient from the vines of depression, inertia, and lack of self-worth. But their exchanges are not inspirational is such a way where the doctor says one line and the patient finds his light out of the blue. It is a process and I appreciated that the screenplay never surrenders to or reduces itself so it could fit into the pitfalls of Movie Psychology 101. Instead, the relationship is, for the most part, built upon the rhythms, beats, and faint pulses of exchanges rather than through what is being outwardly expressed.
The second involves Hopper and a girl named Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Park), a girl from high school who he liked but messed it up terribly before moving onto professional baseball. A few years ago, there was a movie called “The Spectacular Now,” directed by James Ponsoldt, in which it told the story of two teenagers finding a kind of love in one another. It treated its characters with respect without sacrificing an ounce of complexity. There are elements of that picture here which I found beautiful and craved to see more of.
There are no big games. No inspirational speeches. Not even a scene where the main character flicks a switch in his mind and works hard to turn everything around. It offers instead a final scene where the son is willing to face his father at his worst. And Hopper Jr. is not afraid, not even remotely ashamed of his old man. Some may quickly and foolishly label the scene as depressing. I found it to be deeply humanistic and optimistic. Notice there is no silence between them—at least not the kind that cripples, torments, nor poses a threat. And sometimes that’s enough of a first step toward a better tomorrow.
To Do List, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
When a movie is filled with so many people who can be—and have been—funny given the necessary material to elevate their talent, one cannot help but expect it to least have the requisite charm to keep us interested in the potential of the screenplay. I found this film repulsive, boring, and unfunny—a bottom-of-the-barrel would-be female empowerment picture with neither teeth nor spine to support a material that should have been entertaining since the basic elements that make up a competent sex comedy are present.
Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is the class of ’93 valedictorian and holds the record for having the highest grade point average who has ever attended the high school. Because of her tenacity and hard work, she was accepted to Georgetown University under full scholarship. Over the summer, she is to work at a local pool with Cameron (Johnny Simmons), her lab partner, and Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a hunk she met at a graduation party while drunk. Though Brandy is an ace academic, she is completely inexperienced when it comes to sex. Not one to fall behind on anything, especially since her friends (Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele) seem to have more experience with guys, she creates a checklist of sexual conquests she must achieve before heading off to college.
There is nothing cinematic about the “The To Do List.” Though the story takes place in 1993, the film is neither smart nor vibrant enough to communicate why that year is particularly special. The setting could have been in the late-‘80s or mid-‘90s and it would not have made any difference. We see posters of popular bands hanging on bedroom walls and hear chart-topping songs at the time, but there is no feeling or importance behind them.
In addition, the scenes are poorly photographed, a bore to look at, and almost sitcom-like in its approach to get us to laugh. It offers nothing but a series of forced sketches and by the end of each we are handed a freeze frame and checkmark. For a story involving teenagers and sex, it is inappropriately mechanical. Effective teenage comedies command a certain level of reckless abandon despite their subjects being outcasts or members of the popular crowd. The experience of watching this film is akin to observing a fish gasping for air—not the part where it flops around but when it has given up and just waiting to die.
A major misstep of the screenplay is not allowing us to care for our protagonist on a deeper level. She is supposed to be very smart but we are not given a chance to measure exactly how sharp she is. While I understood that the character was supposed to convey a blind determination to complete her list, if she were really as smart as the material claimed, the ramifications of her actions should have occurred to her much faster—either on an emotional level or via sheer calculation in terms of where she stands in a sudden shifting relationship. I did not expect for her to be emotionally intelligent but I expected her to respond like a real person—another key ingredient of a good teenage comedy.
Written and directed by Maggie Carey, “The To Do List” tries so hard to be funny by delivering raunchiness but it is so poorly executed that those cheesy after school specials are actually more entertaining. It is so lazy, so unambitious that there is a running “joke” about Plaza’s character constantly losing her top when she gets into the water. Plaza and Simmons, two of whom I find very charming, can do so much better than this ordure.
Perks of Being a Wallflower, The (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Over the summer, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is hospitalized due to what sounds like a suicide attempt. He writes a letter to a friend and claims that he is very anxious about his first day as a high school freshman because he does not want people think of him as “that weird kid who spent time in a hospital.” His situation isn’t helped by the fact that he has an introverted personality and he finds it difficult to make friends. For a while, Charlie struggles to find a connection with his peers until he meets outgoing Patrick (Ezra Miller) and empathic Sam (Emma Watson), seniors, at a football game.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” based on the novel, screenplay, and directed by Stephen Chbosky, is one of the reasons why I believe that coming-of-age movies are immortal. Although the story attempts to tackle familiar elements, like teenagers feeling alienation and isolation, such are expanded upon in ways that are refreshing and exciting. Furthermore, it is executed with a genuine love for its characters and it challenges us to deconstruct our notions about convenient labeling.
The commonalities among Charlie, Patrick, and Sam are rendered beautifully but never obvious. As young adults still trying to figure out who they are, we watch them get into situations that are out of their control and their forthcoming struggles. Charlie remains to grieve over his best friend’s death, Patrick falls for a boy who isn’t out of the closet (Johnny Simmons), and Sam strives to put her life back on track despite a reputation that followed her throughout high school. Because Chbosky takes the time for us to understand the trio’s messy pasts, their current but constantly evolving wants and needs, and what they wish to accomplish in the future, we eventually grow to want what is best for them. By the end, it feels like we know these characters as people who live and breathe instead of cardboard caricatures that happen to be in a movie with a light yellow glow wrapped in a melancholy tone.
In theory, the material at times should have collapsed under its own earnestness. Too much narration and the screenplay might have told more than shown; too much soundtrack and it might have come off as syrupy or serve as padding when the characters ought to be talking to one another. Instead, the aforementioned techniques are used only during the right moments as to highlight an insight or trend in order to enhance our experience toward familiarizing ourselves with what is at stake for each respective character. Since the material has the necessary focus to tell its story, there is a rhythm in the small and critical revelations sans ostentatiousness that distracts.
Despite having a main character that has thoughts about ending his life, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” aims to instill hope and live one’s life no matter what one’s age. It isn’t without genuine moments of comedy. The late night reenactments of Jim Sharman’s “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at a local theatre quickly comes to mind as well as Patrick’s brutally honest remarks toward his friends. With so many children and teens who decide that their life is somehow not worth living, whether it is because of bullies that make attending school feel like walking barefoot through the embers of hell or living with a secret that cannot be shared out of fear that no one can be trusted, this film is a beacon for it shows alternatives on how one can regain control of his or her life and changing it for the better. It makes the case that the foolish twiddle with their thumbs and wait for change to happen while those who choose to participate and try to implement the changes that they want to see happen are the ones who come out on top.
21 Jump Street (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After graduating from a police academy, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), current best buds but former high school nerd and jock, respectively, thought their career would be as exciting as a fast-paced action movie. A bucket of cold water to the face, their first assignment turned out to be patrolling a public park, tedious and unchallenging until a possible drug bust that could give them a promotion. When the duo finally apprehended one of the drug-dealing bikers, Jenko had forgotten to read the perp’s Miranda rights. Due to their incompetence and immaturity, as a form of punishment, Schmidt and Jenko were assigned by their captain to infiltrate drug dealers in a high school and find their supplier. “21 Jump Street,” based on the screenplay by Michael Bacall, made me laugh, although not consistently, so there was no denying that the comedy was there. However, when the jokes were not the centerpiece and the film focused on the investigation involving the drug that killed one of the students (Johnny Simmons), there was a dearth of ingenuity in Schmidt and Jenko’s procedures. It seemed as though they only happened to stumble upon pieces of information which may or may not relate to their assignment. I got the sense that the writer, never the characters, was the one putting the pieces together. This was disappointing because we were eventually supposed to believe that Jenko and Schmidt were ready for real police work. I was far from convinced. If I was watching a comedy show, I would be ecstatic to be entertained by them. They were sarcastic in just the right moments but it was obvious that they were good-natured guys. But if I was a person who actually needed help or was a victim of a crime, I would be very worried that the job, delivering justice and the like, wouldn’t be performed expediently. Furthermore, Jenko and Schmidt’s relationship did not have an interesting arc. I liked that the writing was cursory in glancing through their sort-of rivalry when they were in high school. It wasn’t necessary that we got to see how much of an outcast Schmidt was nor did we have to see Jenko being the cool hunk. What I expected, however, was getting a real sense of the ugly details of their past once they returned to high school. I waited for good reasons why Schmidt and Jenko acted the way they did once they were, in a way, transported to their past. Instead, it relied too much on Schmidt wanting so desperately to be cool, pretty much becoming a lapdog of Eric (Dave Franco), the kid they were supposed to watch in suspicion that he was directly related to the source of the drug in question, and Jenko hanging out with the nerdy Chemistry guys. What the film lacked was not only a genuine connection between its protagonists but how that connection was challenged and transformed so that they could become better friends and, perhaps more importantly, reliable partners out in the field when things got really tough. The chase scenes in “21 Jump Street,” directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were enjoyable, at their best when they poked fun of other action flicks. While Hill and Tatum seemed game to banter and get into all sorts of physical humor, without the relatable pieces to support the punchlines, the picture was only mildly and inconsistently entertaining.
Greatest, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) died in a car accident, his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) knocked on his grieving family’s (Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Johnny Simmons) door, told them that she was pregnant, and had nowhere else to go. The film focused on grief: the father internalized his anger and sadness so that the family would not collapse, the mother was obsessed with her son’s last seventeen minutes of life and held the belief that her son would still be alive if it was not for his girlfriend, while the son turned to drugs and grief counseling. The movie grabbed my attention because I thought it would be more about the unwed mother’s struggle in trying to cope with her situation. I was pleasantly surprised that she was generally happy with her situation and the only thing she craved was more information about the father of her baby. I was impressed with the way the picture balanced the four main characters and their styles of coping. Instead of going for the jugular and simply letting the audiences feel sorry for them, sometimes the characters said certain things that were hateful but we remind ourselves that they needed closure in order to feel right again. However, I found certain missteps especially toward the last fifteen minutes. When Brosnan’s character finally opened up, something did not feel quite right. That scene begged for a retake because it felt forced. Yes, he managed to internalize (with elegance) negative emotions throughout the film but I had a difficult time believing that he coincidentally opened up because the movie was coming to a close and his wife finally realized the truth. It felt contrived, almost too soap opera-like, and it stood out to me in a negative way because I thought the rest was consistently convincing. Another issue I had was the son’s connection with the girl (Zoë Kravitz) whose sister committed suicide. It fell flat because the latter’s performance felt too Disney Channel and I caught myself rolling my eyes when she was on screen. Maybe it would have worked if an actress that had been casted was used to playing with her character’s subtleties. Written and directed by Shana Feste, what I loved most about “The Greatest” was its earnest honesty despite some scenes that were not completely convincing. It had enough insight about people going through different stages of grief. I also loved it when Brosnan and Sarandon lashed out at each other in passive-aggressive ways just as much as I loved observing Mulligan’s elegance and Simmons’ potential to become a versatile actor. Ultimately, I wished it had more scenes of lingering camera work where the characters in frame did not say a word, such as the daring scene in the limousine after the burial.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Twentysomething Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) creepily dated an Asian high school girl (Ellen Wong) after he was dumped by a girl around his age who made it big as a rock star. Having a fiery passion with music, he and his kooky bandmates (Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Mark Webber) decided to participate in various battle of the bands until Scott literally met the girl of his dreams (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) named Ramona. Based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, there is no doubt that the adaptation to screen of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is visually creative, hyperkinetic, funny, and charming on the surface. However, I found the picture to be hollow at its core because I did not buy the romance between Scott and Ramona. This was a key problem because we were supposed to believe that Scott was willing to fight for her by defeating her seven evil ex-es (Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Keita Saitou, Shota Saito, Jason Schwartzman) as if he was in a video game. I’m not talking about how they necessarily looked: Scott with his bad haircut and puppy dog eyes and Ramona with her hair color changes every week-and-a-half. After all, we’ve all seen couples where we thought, “What the hell do they see in each other?” I’m talking about how Ramona seemed stand off-ish and almost elitist with her fickle personality of going from one person to another. And it wasn’t like she was warm with his friends either. In a nutshell, whenever the picture had scenes of them together, I could not help but get bored or roll my eyes because the emotion I was supposed to feel did not complement the images I saw on screen. A lot of people might have been easily distracted by the nostalgic images of old school video games (I miss them, too) but I was not one of them. When Ramona and Scott were in the same frame, I wanted to know more about the hilarious gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) who brought home a lot of guys and slept on the same bed as Scott, Scott’s bitter redhead ex-girlfriend (Pill), and the wannabe bass player of the band (Simmons–who was greatly underused; I hated that he was simply there to look cute when I knew he was capable of so much more). As for the battle scenes, I generally enjoyed most of them but was repelled when audio waves were used as weapons. The line between campiness and cheesiness was crossed; there were so many in-your-face images as it is and raping my ears with extremely loud dissonance and feedback was totally unnecessary. I understand that the material was based on the graphic novel and it wanted to remain true to its source (which I appreciated) but I could not help but wish that the duels strictly remained physical or even verbal à la Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (Ramona vs. Roxy Richter was exciting). I say “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” directed by Edgar Wright, is a classic case of style over substance. It was supposed to be a satire for followers of hipster music and video game addicts but unfortunately I think the ones who will end up loving this film are exactly the people it points its fingers on.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I decided to see this horror-comedy about demonic possession and female sexuality not because of Megan Fox but because it stars Amanda Seyfried (“Mean Girls,” “Mamma Mia!”) and it was written by Diablo Cody (“Juno” and columnist on “Entertainment Weekly”). Seyfried must defend her town from a man-hungry Fox after an emo band (led by Adam Brody) who dabbles with the occult kidnaps her. At the same time, she must deal with her sometimes jealous boyfriend (Johnny Simmons) because he thinks there’s something unhealthy about his girlfriend’s relationship with Jennifer. The set-up is very simple and very clean but the journey to the finish was quite rough and sometimes unconventional (but in a good way). Apart from the whippersnapper and often downright clever and funny dialogue, “Jennifer’s Body” reminded me of the horror movies from the 1980s because it had a certain B-movie quality to it. Not to mention that the climax happened during a school dance. At times, it did surprise me because it offered certain insight regarding the dynamics between best friends; how one needs the other in order to feel better about herself, which begs the question on whether they were truly friends or if they were more like “frenemies.” The movie straddles that line really well so then there was this constant conflict between the two best friends even before Fox was turned into a demon. But the star here is not Fox (or her body), but Seyfried. She was able to be this character who was kind of a loser but a great person at heart, be sensitive and tough all at once. One main concern about this movie is that audiences will simply choose not to see it because they either hate Megan Fox for whatever reason (I think she’s one of the worst actresses in Hollywood right now but that’s not news) or label it as another “Juno” because of the modern pop culture dialogue. It’s really more than that because it’s a horror-comedy with a brain, which is very unlike straight (supposed) horror movies like Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II” or Patrick Lussier’s horrid “My Bloody Valentine.” If I were to throw out one major problem I had with this movie, I say it wasn’t scary enough to truly make classic horror fans to be impressed with it. Nevertheless, I still think “Jennifer’s Body,” directed by Karyn Kusama, is a good popcorn flick that lives up to its first line: Hell is a teenage girl.