Review: Booksmart

Booksmart

I enjoyed the HELL out of Booksmart. And not just because my own high school best friend was — and, 10 years later, continues to be — very much the Beanie Feldstein to my Kaitlyn Dever. Although I’m sure the relatability factor helped.

Olivia Wilde takes a refreshing, freewheeling approach to the high school coming-of-age story with Booksmart. The set up is familiar: best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) realize they’ve squandered their high school years by always following the rules and, on the night before graduation, decide to cut loose and attend a party hosted by cool guy Nick (Mason Gooding). As you might be able to guess, misadventure ensues.

And yes, films like Superbad and Dazed & Confused come to mind. (Though there’s certainly worse company to be in.) But what makes Booksmart stand apart is the unabashed emotion that Wilde and the film’s quartet of female screenwriters mix in with with its comedy. These types of films do often have a sweetness to them, but Booksmart has an emotional core to it that is rare in a wide release film and that feels distinctly — yes — female. Throw in its representation of a young, out lesbian lead character (acknowledged with a refreshing casualness) and this is a movie that certainly feels like something we haven’t quite seen before..

I did love that Booksmart was goofier than expected and has elements of genuine “gross” humour that’s usually reserved for the boys. And it’s actually very funny. (For example, a scene involving the world’s most uncomfortable Lyft ride with an expected driver.) But in the same film, you get poignant scenes of self-discovery, such as the dreamy pool sequence that comes late in the film, and the chain reaction of emotional unspooling that follows it.

No doubt driven by her experience as an actress herself, Wilde lets her leads have some wonderfully genuine, intimate moments as it goes along, which I was a bit afraid wasn’t going to happen during the film’s fairly broad first act. But it sneaks up on you. Dever, in particular, gives a performance that is stunningly natural and that grows to something pretty spectacular. That won’t surprise anyone who has seen her previous work in Short Term 12 or Men, Women and Children, but Booksmart shows a next level of growth from her and is the perfect showcase for her skills.

The supporting characters were a bit more hit-or-miss for me. I loved everything about the ridiculously wannabe-bro Jared (Skyler Gisondo), yet the unstable socialite Gigi (Billie Lourde) never really clicked into gear for me.

The best scenes, though, are undeniably the ones between its two central characters. Their friendship — and the honesty with which it is written — is what really makes Booksmart soar. The intricacies, goofiness, and complications of that kind of friendship are all perfectly on display. And set over the course of one night and told within a 90-minute film, no less. Whether or not you’re a woman and whether or not you’ve had that sort of ride-or-die friendship in your life, it’s a rare, special pleasure to watch it play out on screen.

Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Extremely Wicked

The Zac Efron Ted Bundy movie is here, folks. I’ve sat with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for a few hours since watching, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

To start with, I don’t agree with those who have accused it of glamourizing Bundy and his crimes. That’s not to say that it handled some of those trickier aspects perfectly. (And a convincing argument could probably be made that this film never needed to be made in the first place.) But I never felt that it was pushing us to sympathize with his character or make him seem “cool”. There is a clear divide in the film between the persona that Bundy projected and the horrible atrocities he committed. Other characters may be sympathetic to him, but it’s not the film’s agenda at all to make us agree with them.

In fact, that matter of perspective is probably the most interesting aspect of Extremely Wicked. The film is told partially through the perspective of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), who believed in Bundy’s innocence for many years and, as the film depicts, stood by his side to the detriment of her own well-being. The film shows their meeting and the beginning of the relationship briefly before jumping forward to Bundy’s initial arrest, his eventual trial for the murder of two young women, and his time spent on death row. Liz’s confidence in him fluctuates throughout the years, and the film is as much about her struggle to process the decimation of her “happily ever after” as it is about Bundy himself.

By looking at it from Liz’s point of view, it makes sense that the film presents Bundy in a slightly intangible way. We don’t see him commit any violence for the vast majority of the runtime, and the film seems largely uninterested in trying to dive into his psychology. By looking at him the way Liz (and the media and his adoring female fanbase) saw him, it sort of makes him a passive character whose story is told via the impact he had on others.

And to put a matinee idol type like Efron in the role (given that he’s certainly more objectively handsome than Bundy was) is also clever, since it again underlines the large gulf between how Bundy was perceived by those who saw what they wanted to see (someone who, through manipulation, could make himself seem great and you feel great), and who he actually was. And how, if you’re too close to the situation, the reality is sometimes only possible to see in hindsight. (And Efron, for his part, is excellent. He oozes a perfect mix of steeliness and subtle desperation.)

Granted, that reading of the film starts to cracks when you look at the scenes that aren’t seen through someone else’s eyes, and where Bundy is the only character on screen. And I think that’s where this film runs into trouble tonally. Take, for example, the instances where Bundy is trying to MacGyver his way out of a jail cell. The film starts to take on almost a weird caper tone. And while those scenes didn’t feel as though they were trying to make me like Ted Bundy, I’m also not really sure what they were trying to say. (Maybe you could argue that those scenes are still from Liz’s perspective as though she was daydreaming about his escape, but I’m not sure that theory holds water.) And as the film goes through some of the antics of the Bundy trial itself, it feels like it’s being included more for the sake of telling a good yarn than it is getting at anything very insightful.

Director Joe Berlinger has created an intriguing film, but I don’t think he followed some of these threads through to their full potential. For example, I think there’s more to be mined in terms of a meta-commentary of the media and public glamorization of shocking stories like Ted Bundy, which is just barely touched on. (Can you imagine Michael Haneke doing a Funny Games-esque deconstruction of the subject? Preferably still starring Zac Efron?) The more conventional scenes here are the least interesting, and it’s a shame to see Collins (and her character’s interesting questions around denial, complicity, and self-worth) get somewhat sidelined for much of the draggy middle portion of the film. Because even though you may not think this film needs to exist, with a bit more focus it could have been something pretty interesting.

Hot Docs 2019: Midnight Family

Midnight Family

Luke Lorentzen’s doc Midnight Family takes a complex look at the morally thorny world of privatized healthcare in Mexico City. And the perfectly charming set of protagonists makes a lot of it feel rather… fun, which is surprising considering some of the territory covered.

We follow the Ochoa family, a team of a father and two troublingly young sons who run their own semi-legal private ambulance business in Mexico City (a metropolis, the opening titles tell us, woefully underserved by public ambulances). They race from accident to accident (sometimes literally careening past their competitors on the way), helping people while also looking to make some cash along the way.

The specifics of the legality and morality are a bit murky (and only become more complicated as Midnight Family goes on), but the film makes it clear that the Ochoas genuinely want to help and strive to provide good care to their patients. And Lorentzen does an excellent job capturing the energy of the situations they find themselves in. At times, Midnight Family feels more like a narrative than a documentary, thanks to its fast pace and often eye-popping cinematography.

In terms of how the story is told, this is “fly on the wall” style through and through. Which helps heighten the tension, as everything unfolds in real time and in the moment. However, I do wish the film had taken a breath and gotten into some of the specifics about who these people are and how they got there. We do glean information about their lives from contextual clues in the quieter moments (when we see them at home, when we see Juan speaking to his older girlfriend on the phone), but a bit more exploration of the rest of their lives would have made it an even more emotionally gripping watch.

As it stands, though, Lorentzen has created a film that is empathetic, illuminating, funny, and heartbreaking all at once. In some ways it’s hard to believe that this family’s life is real yet it’s also, sadly, not surprising at all.

March 2019 Favourites

The Last Days of Disco

For the uninitiated, each month I break down a few of my favourite things from the previous month. I don’t limit it to film-related things, but this month’s list happens to be pretty heavy on that front. Here’s to a more diverse April?

At the Cinema: The Last Days of Disco with Whit Stillman
Despite being a pretty big fan of Stillman’s most recent film (2016’s Love & Friendship) and mostly liking the film he made prior to that (2012’s Damsels in Distress) I’d never delved into his pre-2000 filmography – arguably his most touted work. So when a 35mm screening of the final installment of his ‘90s loose trilogy, The Last Days of Disco, was announced (with Stillman in attendance, no less!) I knew it was a must-see. The film was as incisive and funny as I’d hoped, and the Q&A with Stillman afterwards a delight.

Depressing Viewing at the Cinema: Climax & High Life
This month, I checked out two A24 releases from French auteurs at the theatre, Gaspar Noe’s Climax and Claire Denis’ High Life (full review here). I can’t claim that either were especially fun viewing experiences, as both directors proved to be experts at ratcheting up the anxiety-inducing strangeness being depicted on screen. (The films actually had more in common than I would have predicted.) I came out of both with extremely mixed feelings, but in the days since I’ve thought about both of them a lot. Ultimately I think both are great – it just took me a bit longer to come to that conclusion.

News: High school theatre and Keanu Reeves
Good news is scarce these days but there were a pair of delightful, film-related stories that captured my – and many other people’s – imagination this past month. The first was this story about a high school in New Jersey that for their spring play chose to adapt, of all things, Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. The sheer ambition and creativity of such an endeavour is worthy of praise in itself, but this particular high school play also looks kind of amazing? And lest you roll eyes thinking about all of the money that was probably sunk into the production, fear not! Apparently it was all done extremely cheaply, with the impressive costuming made entirely out of recycled materials.

Also full of unassuming charm was this other story about Keanu Reeves. When a flight that Reeves was on had to make an emergency landing, he made the best of the situation and seemingly had a grand old time with his fellow passengers as they opted to take a bus for the last leg of their trip. Social media for once served a positive purpose, with one travelling companion sharing some delightful snippets from the journey on Instagram (video is in the article).

Song: “All Hands” by Tim Baker
For my money, Hey Rosetta! is one of the best bands to come out of Canada in the 21st century, so I was sad to hear that they’d decided to go on “indefinite hiatus” back in 2017. And while it may not be a reunion, the solo work coming out recently from Hey Rosetta! frontman Tim Baker helps somewhat fill the gap. His first full-length album comes out later in April, and the early tracks that have been released are sounding great. My favourite of the group (released in March) is “All Hands”, which has the same urgency and yearning of Hey Rosetta’s! best, but with a stamp that is unique to Baker as his own distinct artist.

Blank Check Podcast’s March Madness Bracket
For those who aren’t already familiar, Blank Check is a podcast where its hosts David Sims and Griffin Newman explore the career of filmmakers on a one-film-per-episode basis. They feature those who have earned the coveted “blank check” from Hollywood, which limits the pool slightly, and each March they turn the decision-making duties to the good people of Twitter. I followed their March Madness-style bracket all month (with one match-up per day decided via Twitter poll), which featured such inspired pairings as John Carpenter vs. Penny Marshall and Paul Thomas Anderson vs. Paul W.S. Anderson. A lot of the races were surprisingly close, and despite the fact that my picks lost almost every round, I suppose it ultimately didn’t matter, because Jonathan Demme, who ultimately emerged victorious, was my choice to win. The show’s Demme mini-series will apparently start in the fall, which means I have plenty of time to rectify the many blind spots I have in his filmography.

Review: High Life

High Life

The conception of High Life on its own would be strange enough: septuagenarian French auteur Claire Denis decides to make her first English-language film a sci-fi adventure starring Robert Pattinson. But let me tell you, the result of all that is something much weirder even than you’d expect.

Falling not so much into the “exciting space adventure” subgenre (e.g. Gravity and Apollo 13) nor the “supernatural space horror” subgenre (e.g. Alien and its various offspring), High Life aligns better with the “existential space dread” subgenre that’s been exemplified in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. The films opens with astronaut Monte (Pattinson), alone in an austere space ship but for a sole baby. From there, we flash back to the earlier days of Monte’s space journey – including scenes with the crew that originally joined him – and learn how he ended up where he is.

There are no easy answers or zippy plot points in High Life. There are, however, a lot of bodily fluids. Denis does not shy away from how strange and sometimes grotesque the baser aspects of human existence can be. And then, of course, she magnifies them for narrative effect. The result makes for a pretty uncomfortable watch. Not because High Life is extremely explicit or gross, but because there is a boldness to how unblinking it all is. Only someone with as steady of an eye as Denis could interweave all of that with the film’s more bizarre aspects in a way that feels believable.

There is a sadness to High Life, as well. Denis seems very interested in examining the effects of loneliness, isolation, and exclusion (which, as the film seems to suggest, are certainly all separate things). And Pattinson, shaved head emphasizing his interesting but intense features, proves to be a great lead to help convey this.

Things are presented ambiguously enough that I think everyone will take different things from the viewing experience. It’s also a film that enthusiastically invites rewatches; personally, I don’t feel confident enough to say that I “got” everything that High Life is doing (or aiming to do) on first viewing.

Perhaps thanks to the film’s lack of explanation, there was also something about it that felt a bit incomplete by the end. Denis’ vision is undeniable, and on a literal, shot-by-shot basis, this is a stunning film to look at. However, I do usually prefer a little more clarity in the narrative when it’s a film with such a large scope.

Now that I’m a couple days out from watching and have had a chance to let things percolate, though, I think I appreciate it more. It’s a film that’s less about the viewer’s scene-to-scene reaction, and more about the feeling they’re left with at the end, and during the days after.

Certainly don’t go into High Life looking for answers. But if open to the sometimes-uncomfortable questions it poses, you’re likely to find a rewarding (if slightly befuddling) end to the journey.