Booksmart

bsDirector: Olivia Wilde

Screenwriters: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow

There was a time not long ago where we were getting a nice little onslaught of better than average coming of age films. The sweet spot maybe was 2013 – 2014; movies like Boyhood, The Spectacular Now, Mud, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Hunger Games films were all happening during this period, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe while in full swing, had not quite fully established its supreme dominance. Films like those seemed to have dropped off the mainstream in recent memory. Lady Bird certainly broke through in 2017, but other than that, it’s been a different sensibility at the movies. Fortunately, Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart may be proving that the time is right to resurrect this delicate genre where the performers wear their hearts on their sleeves and we reflect on our inner-child rather than galactic super-dominance. And just so we’re clear, I loved Avengers: Endgame, but variety is the spice of life!

Booksmart documents the final days of high school for Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two best friends who embraced school to the fullest, lead the student council, earned every academic honor, and have been accepted to prestigious colleges. Their beliefs were that in order to reach these epic academic heights, they had to be laser-focused on studies and extra-curricular activities, leaving no room for the indulgent parts of high school.

That being said, when circumstances reveal that several of Amy and Molly’s popular and partying classmates (whom they perceived were than bright) also had received admirable post-secondary opportunities, they realized that, perhaps they missed out on the high school experience after all, leading to a mission to make up for lost time in one night by hitting parties, giving into urges, and just being kids!

The bulk of the film can be described as in the vein of other films like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Superbad where outsiders decide they want to be insiders and awkwardly work their way in only to learn it’s not so great on the inside, but the journey is the truly valuable experience. I’m not subjugating the plot to be critical because while this is a time-tested format, the journey truly is the valuable part, and Booksmart does just enough with this to make it stand out as clever, relatable, and entertaining.

Much (all) of the credit for this film’s success should be given to the two lead performers, Dever and Feldstein. This movie is two actresses away from being middle-of-the-road. Comparable to the way Metcalf and Ronan elevated Lady Bird, these two actresses give everything to their performances and make us care about them, their friendship, and their futures. Supporting roles that are practically cameos come from Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s husband), Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow who all basically bolster the comedy side of things, and they do so nicely. However, this film is all-in on its two leads.

Appreciating this film does involve some true introspection. Some of the negative criticisms I have read about the film come from reviewers who clearly just missed the nuances and the point. One reviewer mentioned that Booksmart wants you to laugh at someone being vomited on, but I don’t think that scene was meant to be funny at all. Another said that “name-dropping” Malala was in poor form, but if you’ve ever met a teenager, you’d know that this is something that they would totally do, and their reasoning for it is actually quite in the spirit of who Malala is and what she represents as an activist (not that it even has to be). What I’m trying to say here is that this film attempts to breathe the air its characters breathe, and if anything, I’d say it’s not authentic enough being set in a highly affected, mostly affluent school with kids who do not really represent everyday kids. Booksmart does not want to cater to perceived expectations. It also does not want to shock or make you uncomfortable; however at times it does both of those things because that’s life. B+

Booksmart is rated R and has a running tiem of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

ImageFour years ago, I was having a conversation with some of my high school students regarding what books they like to read.  One fairly astute young man, whom I held in high regard, told me he was reading a book called The Hunger Games.  He said it was about a supposed utopian North American society that holds annual organized battles to the death to maintain order throughout the numerous districts.  It sounded interesting, but I was not that impressed as my critical mind, still reeling from the absurdity that was (and still is) the Twilight “saga,” began its prejudicial routine of condemning most young-adult literature as being dumbed down versions of classics in order to make cash grabs at an increasingly illiterate reader-population.  However, this one particular student’s recommendation obliged me to forgo my rant about Brave New World, The Giver, 1984, and the host of other “Big Brother is watching you…” examples and give this one a try.  Now, as the adaptation of the book series’ second novel comes to the big screen, I confess myself as a fan awaiting the return, with millions of others, of Katniss Everdean to the big screen.

2012’s The Hunger Games was a tremendous hit automatically green lighting the entire film franchise and splitting its final entry, Mockingjay, into two separate films.  This year’s film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (or Hunger Games: Fire by some people – you know who you are) is based on perhaps the best book of the trilogy and finds our heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back home in District 12 awaiting the annual victory tour that follows the 74th Hunger Games and precedes the 75th.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) remains none too pleased as Katniss and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) risky move in the previous games showed an unexpected weakness in his control and has sparked a sort of uprising in some of the poorer districts.  The 75th Hunger Games offers Snow an opportunity, as every 25 years marks a quarter-quell, a special competition that gives Snow and his new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a chance to even the score.

Much of what makes The Hunger Games: Catching Fire work comes from the source material.  This entry in the series has many more tricks up its sleeve than the previous film.  That being said, the trio of screen writers (including author Suzanne Collins herself) and new director, Francis Lawrence have noticeably shifted the film’s focus away from the characters and more to the atmosphere, themes, and events set in action from the first film.  In fact, the writing is bit edgier leading to some extra spirited dialogue especially from Peeta and Heavensbee.  Accordingly, this film has a different feel and agenda, which keeps the series fresh, but also may disquiet fans who want more Katniss.  That is not to say, Ms. Everdeen is not the film’s shining star, she is, and her love triangle between Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta continues to be provocative rather than stale and arbitrary.  Lawrence continues down her path to being the most beloved starlet of her generation by authentically representing Katniss’s struggle between newfound fame and inherent defiance.  Furthermore, she is supported by a very recognizable A-List cast.  However, saying much more about the cast or plot would ruin some of the film’s best surprises. 

One surprise worth ruining is Jena Malone’s role in the film.  It should come as no surprise that there is another reeping, and there is another host of tributes.  Malone plays the highly anticipated Johanna Mason from District 7, and she steals every scene she’s a part of – possibly making her the best new element of the film. 

Altogether, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a fine adaptation of Collins’s novel, and it is a highly entertaining film as well, ascetically edging out its predecessor.  The film’s nearly doubled budget from the original is obvious – the costumes pop, the effects are much better, the acting continues to be strong, and the ambitiousness of the film is far more evident.  A-

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 26 minutes.  It is a superior follow up to The Hunger Games and a phenomenal set-up to the series’ two-part conclusion.          

 

This is the End

ImageI know this won’t be a popular statement for the 80 or 90 people that loved Freaks and Geeks in 1999, but I’m glad it got cancelled if it led this group of young actors to strive for a level of celebrity that allows for a film like This is the End to be made and to work so well! 

This is the End is another example of pseudo-reality entertainment in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where actors play versions of themselves albeit sometimes deeply ironic versions of themselves; I’m talking to you, Michael Cera – at least I hope I am!  Seth Rogan wrote and directed this film along with his partner, Evan Goldberg, and the film clearly benefits from having someone so close to the actors involved with all parts of the production. 

This is the End opens simply enough with Seth Rogan meeting his friend Jay Baruchel at the airport.  They plan to hang out in LA and eventually end up heading to James Franco’s new house for a big house-warming party.  The opening act of this film is a cameo-filled (Emma Watson, Rhianna, and Paul Rudd to name a few) laugh fest that just piles on the humor in ways that a big-screen comedy hasn’t done since The Hangover in 2009.  The comedy is not just name-dropping cheap laughs though.  Rogan and Franco along with Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel have permeated their way into celebrity in such a way that they can satirize the entertainment business through self-referential humor.  Rogan has written a screenplay that characteristically paints his characters as corrupted in one way or another by the entertainment industry, and this biting satire plays out far beyond the opening act. 

Rogan also makes a series of wise choices as both a writer and a director that keep this film from quickly growing stale.  Most notably is his decision to play the rest of the film as a true disaster film.  Once the inevitable apocalypse begins, it is not treated as a joke to introduce more absurdity.  Instead, it is used as a backdrop of real danger designed to continue the motif of contempt that has built up in the characters.  That is not to say the laughs stop coming – that is in no way true.  However, the balance of humor and real danger keep the film fresh and alive. 

The apocalypse that hits is quickly discovered to be a literal onset of the Book of Revelations complete with the Rapture and the arrival of Satan on Earth.  Such high stakes force the boys to hole up in Franco’s house along with Craig Robertson and Danny McBride.  Irreverent humor abounds with some of the meanest, nastiest, low-brow, toilet humor imaginable – all of it hilarious.  Occasionally, the film hits a slight snag in terms of pacing and some of the gross-out humor is tasteless and extreme, but it is hardly at the film’s detriment.  The film has a little bit of something for everyone; in fact, even fans of The Backstreet Boys owe this film a tremendous debt of gratitude for preserving a shred of their relevance in cinematic history. 

Rogan and company have truly tapped into a genre of humor that grows along with them.  In one scene, they try to kill boredom by filming crude home-movie versions of sequels of their own films.  Somebody get to work on this exact version of Pineapple Express 2 immediately!  In fact, This is the End would be a great exclamation point at the end of the “end of the world” movie fad that has been so commonly explored in entertainment lately.  However, with World War Z, The World’s End, and Elysium still to come this summer along with fall’s second installment of The Hunger Games series, it’s clear that we are far from done with this genre.  A-   

This is the End is rated R – very, very, very R – and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.  It is heavy on the raunch, and while I highly recommend it as a comedy, it is not for the easily offended.