Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) is a successful BBQ salesman with a fast car, a girlfriend who’s well out of his league, and a dark secret: he’s a high school drop-out. Which isn’t really a problem until his career goes down the toilet and the only job on offer requires a High School degree. With his sales skills he figures night school will be a breeze until he discovers his high school nemesis Stuart (Taran Killam) is now the principal, his teacher (Tiffany Haddish) is not interested in his nonsense and his classmates are a mix of the wacky and the disturbed – and sometimes both at once. It’s a flimsy plot and intentionally so, as many of the laughs here come from the cast taking an idea and running with it. It’s the kind of comedy full of set-ups for jokes that were left on the editing floor: Teddy has a smart twin sister who’s introduced than never seen again, and what’s going on with his girlfriend‘s bitchy best friend? She’s always there but gets nothing to do. But all that really matter here is whether it’s funny or not, and despite the rough edges this does have some good laughs scattered throughout. Just don’t expect to learn from this particular school.
Films based on true stories usually go down one of two paths. Either the story’s told documentary-style with voice-over and talking heads and archival footage and the bare minimum of re-enactments, or it’s a full re-creation “based on actual events”. American Animals mixes the two. Large stretches of the film are thriller-style re-enactments of the real-life attempt by four not-so-sharp guys to steal a number of extremely valuable books from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004, but the film also features the real-life guys talking about what they were thinking (or not) and brief appearances from their parents and other involved parties. It’s a freewheeling approach that only really adds to the story on the brief occasions when the guys’ recollections don’t coincide, but it does firmly underline the main point of the film: these guys definitely didn’t think things through; they came up with a plan based almost entirely from watching heist movies, and when things didn’t go according to their plan – which they were never going to do – they fell apart in ways that were way more real than they were ready for. It’s definitely an interesting way to tell a story, but it’s the story and not the way it’s told that makes this so gripping.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
Gus Van Sant’s biopic of US comedian John Callahan (here played by Joaquin Phoenix) is named after Callahan’s memoir, which is turn is named after the punchline of perhaps his most famous cartoon: a couple of cowboys clearly chasing a villain down find an overturned wheelchair and… you get the idea. It’s a sharp skewering of clichés, the kind of cartoon that’s bound to offend, and this biopic contains pretty much none of that spirit. Rather than dig into why Callahan – a boozehound who became a quadriplegic after a drunken accident – became a cartoonist, or what drove him to drink in the first place (it turns out he always had drawing ability but never used it: the shame he felt at being adopted is the reason he gives for hitting the bottle), this film is largely a look at how Alcoholics Anonymous helped him straighten out after his accident, following him through all twelve steps as he gets back on track and eventually finds some success with his cartooning. Phoenix gives a great performance and there’s a solid sense of what kind of guy Callahan was to be around, but the AA steps feel largely generic: they could be from a film about anyone.
With a great cast and a classic play, this should have been a no-brainer for arthouse highlight of the year. But something was lost along the way and director Michael Mayer’s adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull never quite comes off. After a gloomy flash-forward opening that reveals the superficially tolerable yet still somehow disheartening fate of most of the characters, the action returns to the sunny heyday of the Edwardian-era Russian lakeside mansion owned by Sorin (Brian Dennehy), where his actress sister Irina (Annette Bening) holds court. Her lover, the author Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) adores her; her son Konstantin (Billy Howle), a budding playwright himself, struggles to escape her constant need for attention. When he puts on a (admittedly surreal and somewhat pretentious) play starring his girlfriend Nina (Saoirse Ronan), Irina’s constant interruptions sends the curtain down early, stirring up the frustrated desires that drive almost everyone present. The performances are excellent; Elizabeth Moss as lovelorn drunk Misha is a standout, while Bening dominates as a grandstanding tightwad with an emotionally vulnerable core. But overly flashy camerawork and some weird pacing issues detract from rather than support the performances. There’s a lot of great pieces here that never quite fit together.
The Dawn Wall
Screening at The Pivotonian Geelong
In early 2015, American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attracted global attention with their attempt to climb the Dawn Wall, a 3,000 foot high rock face in Yosemite National Park, California. Their effort took 19 days, with the men camping out on the vertical cliff face as they climbed. But there was more to their attempt than just trying to do the seemingly impossible (Caldwell had been planning it for close to a decade). Overcoming a history of setbacks – Caldwell had been kidnapped by rebels in Kyrgyzstan (he ended up shoving one of his kidnappers off a cliff) and had lost a finger in an accident – this climb became his way of working through and getting past the collapse of his marriage. The film’s co-directors, Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer, are climbers themselves, and it shows: this is stunning filmed, over in extreme close-up. If you’re not good with heights, this may not be for you; everyone else will find it thrilling.
Films reviewed by Anthony Morris