Tag Archives: B-

BOOKSMART

Producer: Megan Ellison, Jessica Elbaum, Katie Silberman, Chelsea Barnard and David Distenfield
Director: Olivia Wilde
Writer: Katie Silbrrman, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Susanna Fogel
Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Victoria Ruesga, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Noah Galvin, Skyler Gisondo, Mason Gooding, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Nico Hiraga and Diana Silvers
Studio: Annapurna Pictures

B-

The script for actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut has reportedly been making the rounds in Hollywood for ten years (the initial version was on the 2009 Black List of promising unproduced screenplays), which makes perfect sense: “Booksmart” is essentially a gender-reversal variant of the surprise 2007 smash “Superbad.” (The linkage is accentuated by the fact that Beanie Feldstein, who plays one of the leads, is the sister of Jonah Hill, who co-starred in the earlier movie with Michael Cera.)

Not that there aren’t differences between the two pictures. The high school seniors determined to fill their pre-graduation weekend with raucous fun aren’t a couple of desperately nerdy guys this time around, but two brainy best friends who discover to their horror that they’ve pointlessly wasted the chance to have a good time for the past four years by applying themselves unstintingly to studying and campus service in order to get into good colleges—only to find that the classmates they’ve looked down on as hopeless, time-wasting goof-offs have all gotten into great universities (or landed great jobs) too.

The realization that they could have had both success and enjoyment inspires aggressive Molly (Feldstein) to convince her more compliant pal Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) that they should make up for what they’ve missed by going all out in the few hours they have left. Their objective involves crashing a party being held by Nick (Mason Gooding), the class VP to Molly’s President whom she dismisses as a dim-witted dullard but is secretly infatuated with anyway. The problem is that the shebang is at Nick’s aunt’s house, and they don’t know where it is. Molly is also prodding Amy to make some sort of move toward skateboarding Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), the tomboyish girl she’s interested in.

Their wacky attempts to get to the party bring the duo into contact with some of the school staff—the principal (Jason Sudeikis), who’s a Lyft driver on the side, and their teacher Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams), whom they call on for help at one point (and who’s being pursued by a student played by Eduardo Franco). They also have to deal with Amy’s flaky parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow), who have been preparing a very different sort of graduation party. There’s also a pizza delivery man (Michael Patrick O’Brien) from whom they try to extract information, only to be rebuffed.

But their classmates are the major players in the evening’s adventure: George (Noah Galvin), the histrionic drama guy who’s holding a party of his own; Annabelle (Molly Gordon), who’s branded with a reputation as an easy lay; Hope (Diana Silvers), known for her caustic tongue; and many more. The strangest, though, are Jared (Skyler Gisondo), the ultra-rich kid whose money can’t buy him friends, even if he’s hosting a party on a ship, and his girlfriend, flamboyant Gigi (Billie Lourd), who periodically appears out of left field to engage in some new outrageous conduct, and who sometimes spikes drinks with drugs. (An encounter with her concoctions leads to an animated sequence in which the girls imagine themselves as a couple of dolls.)

Molly and Amy eventually do wind up at Nick’s party, where both initially appear to be making progress in assimilating with their classmates and connecting with the people they’d like to know better. But then the obligatory collapse occurs, and they find themselves at odds with one another; they split up, but not, of course, for long.

It’s admittedly a switch to see a raucous high school story like this told from a female perspective, and Wilde and her cast bring a good deal of energy to it. In the final analysis, though, the vibe isn’t all that different from so many recent teen farces or even the John Hughes pictures of the eighties. It’s one of the better raunchy high school comedies to come down the pike recently, but apart from the gender switch the level of innovation is actually pretty modest.

Still, the quality of the writing is better than the norm, Wilde and editor Jamie Gross keep things moving, and production designer Katie Byron, costumer April Napier and cinematographer Jason McCormick create a convincing ambience. Most importantly, Feldstein and Dever prove a fine pair, and all of the small army of supporting players put over their characters with enthusiasm, even if some of them (Lourd, Gisondo and Galvin, for example) play things very broadly.

Apart from the gender transformation of the leads “Booksmart” might alter the “Superbad” formula only slightly, but it’s winning enough to make you want to return to high school, for a couple of hours at least.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (DI QIU ZUI HOU DE YE WAN)

Producer: Shan Zuolong
Director: Bi Gan
Writer: Bi Gan
Stars: Tang Wei, Huang Jue, Sylvia Chang, Li Hong-qi, Chen Yong-zhong and Luo Feiyang
Studio: Kino Lorber

B-

Some viewers may be inclined to suggest that a better English title for young Chinese auteur Bi Gan’s sophomore feature might be “Long Film’s Journey Into Obscurity,” but while not literally inaccurate, that would be selling the film short, so to speak. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”—which has nothing to do with the O’Neill play (the original Chinese title would translate as “Last Evenings on Earth”)—is unquestionably ponderous, self-indulgent and opaque, but also an engrossing example of cinematic virtuosity, ending in a protracted single take that will become the stuff of movie lore.

In terms of genre, the picture is a film noir, which begins with world-weary protagonist Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) ruminating about his unhappiness as he awakens in a seedy hotel room with a prostitute. After leaving, he continues to discourse in voiceover about the emptiness of his life after losing his girlfriend, the beautiful Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), the moll of a crime lord (Chen Yong-zhong). Returning to his family’s restaurant after a long absence (which, Luo says pointedly, was named after his mother), he finds that his father has died, and discovers a picture of the woman in the workings of a broken wall clock, a telephone number written on the back..

Luo’s dreamlike reminiscences about meeting and wooing Wan in 2000. His recollections of their furtive time together in an abandoned house are intercut with his present-day search to find her again. Interwoven are fragments involving the death of his childhood friend Wildcat (Li Hong-qi), who was involved in criminal activity in a tunnel, and Luo’s encounter with a mysterious woman (Tang) in a glistening green gown who calls herself Wan.

The second part of the film—introduced by the film’s English title card—consists of an hour-long dreamlike sequence consisting of a single tracking shot. It begins, after Luo asks an apparent madam in a ruined courtyard about Wan, in a movie theatre where he and Wan spent a great deal of time. There he puts on 3D glasses and apparently enters the place’s underground tunnels. There he encounters a boy, presumably a young Wildcat, who challenges him to a ping-pong game as the price of escape, followed by a journey on a motorcycle to a cable-car, on which Luo slowly descends to an outdoor stage where a series of singers are performing before a sparse audience.

Here he meets an abrasive young woman (Tang again) and, after a pool game with a couple of young would-be toughs, they make their way to a wrecked house—presumably the one where he and Wan made love long ago—and then to a locked gate where her supposed boyfriend is waiting for her. Luo forces the man to take her with him, but demands a gift from her in return—the broken wristwatch he’d previously given her.

This description of the film’s “plot,” based as it is on a single viewing, might not be entirely correct, and some may rejoice in pointing out a flaw or two. But that wouldn’t matter overmuch, because Bi isn’t primarily—or even really—interested in telling a conventional story. His emphasis is on mood, atmosphere and suggestion: he uses the noir template—as well as lots of allusions to other films—to consider such basic themes as the illusory (or insignificant) nature of time , the fluidity of chronology, and the difficulty of discerning a difference between “reality,” dream and hallucination.

It’s not simply that those ideas are conveyed stylistically; they’re embodied in the fractured narrative technique that Bi has chosen, abetted by Qin Yanan’s editing, which revels in digression (that found photo leads to a women’s prison, where an inmate has a long monologue on the power of stories only tangentially related to Luo’s search, and possibly misdirecting it, while in another case mention of sorrowful people eating apples introduces a sequence of a young man chomping on one). Such views are also specifically enunciated in bits of dialogue and lyrics that speak of “erasing everything,”, or being incapable of knowing whether a memory is true or not, or recognizing the power of storytelling that can conflate and confuse fiction and invention.

The effect is amplified by the deliberately off-kilter production design by Liu Qiang in which much is made to appear hazy and indefinite, and by the dizzying cinematography (in the first half apparently the work of Yao-Hung-I and Dong Jinsang, and in the second that of David Chizallet). Even in what appear to be static compositions, subtle camera movements lead to an unsettled feeling, and of course the long tracking shot that makes up the final section of the film is designed to keep one not just enthralled, but vaguely at sea.

In this context the actors are akin to props being moved around Gan’s cinematic chess board, but Huang strikes the right tone of grim weariness as Luo, and Tang distinguishes nicely among the various versions of the mysterious Wan. The rest of the cast do what Bi requires of them.

One can say that “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” represents triumph of style over substance, though it might be more accurate to observe that it is one of those films in which style is substance. Whatever the case, even if you are totally bewildered, even irritated, by it, you will probably find it difficult to resist its hypnotic spell.