How to Watch: “Teacher of the Year”

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Step 1: Remember teachers are usually underappreciated. Teacher of the Year highlights this point to hilarious and poignant effect.

Step 2: Hand it to the guy. In this mockumentary, we meet Mitch Carter (Matt Letscher), a Californian English teacher who is awarded the national “Teacher of the Year” for his hard work teaching kids at Truman High School. Clearly, he’s better than his thankless job, but he truly loves what he does, and the students — well most of them — know he cares. Carter, however, is faced with a dilemma when his newfound acclaim attracts the attention of education lobbyists in D.C. who want him to join their team to help speak for teachers nationwide… and they are going to pay him a lot of money to do it. Should he take the job or stay to be the best teacher in one school? Hmmm…

Step 3: Recognize some comic standouts.  Funnyguy Michael Keegan-Key, who is just about everywhere these days, slays you as the school’s principal, a bureaucrat who just to be the kids friends but just comes off mostly as a giant idiot. As for Carter’s co-workers, the hysterical Jamie Kaler plays the school’s Robotics teacher, Steve Queeg, who thinks he should have been the one to get the award. As Queeg explains, “English is a dead language. Everyone already knows how to speak it. But robotics, now that’s the future.” Also, there’s the two-man band Queeg formed with fellow teacher Eric Sanders (Karl T. Wright), who both explain that even though Sanders can’t play the guitar or sing, they are excited about performing. Other standouts include college counselors, twin brothers Lowell and Clive Hammer (Jason and Randy Skylar), who just give the worst advice to the kids… the absolutely most hilarious bad advice ever.

Step 4: Applaud for job well done. Filmmaker Jason Strouse aptly combines humor with an honest depiction of what it’s like educating our youth in this country. One of the best sequences is the parent-teacher conference night, from the screaming parents to the complacent ones, and how each teacher handles it. Ultimately, though, it’s Carter’s story, and Letscher brilliantly portrays the angst of an educator of his quality stuck working in the inhibiting bureaucracy of the US school system, but who loves the high of reaching kids who appreciate his efforts to teach them. While making you spit out your drink with laughter, Teacher of the Year also warms your heart and gives hope that there are more teachers like Carter out there.

How to Watch: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

mad-max

Step 1: Describe Mad Max: Fury Road in three words: Holy freaking hell! This is one of those rare cases in which a trailer, which completely blows your socks off, is actually only a taste of what you’re going to experience in the theater. This incredible cinematic masterpiece takes you on a high-octane acid trip that gloriously assaults your senses… and yes, if you could just imagine some of the smells, even that sense, too. Mad Max: Fury Road is probably one the best action movies you’ll ever see… EVER.

Step 2: Keep the story tight. Although the title suggests something different, Fury Road is really Imperator Furiosa’s story. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland nightmare she finds herself living in, Furiosa (brilliantly played by Charlize Theron) has one mission: to return to her “green” home after years toiling as a truck-driving flunky to a megalomaniac named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who, if you are a Mad Max connoisseur, is the same actor who played the wacked-out evil dude in the original Mad Max). They reside in a lush place called The Citadel, two tall rock formations that overlook hordes of starving, thirsty desert denizens who just wait for Joe to shower them with water, aka “aqua-cola,” every so often. Furiosa has had enough of Joe and in her quest to escape, decides to rescue his five baby-making “wives,” too.  So, they secretly pile into Furiosa’s rig and on a planned trek to get more “guzz-o-line,” they run. And then they are pursued, in one spectacular chase sequence after another (more on that in a bit).

Step 3: Live up to your name. Now that we know how Furiosa feels about things, where does Mad Max fit in? The iconic reluctant hero, played with quiet ferociousness by Tom Hardy, has been captured by Joe’s men and finds himself an unwitting participant in said chase, eventually helping Furiosa and the girls. Hardy’s Max is a slight change to the character Mel Gibson indelibly implanted in our brains 30 plus years ago, but Max is still a man of few words, loves his car and gets pissed off when you steal it. Hardy aptly shows us this tortured soul, haunted by his past, who truly never wants to get involved but always ends up doing so anyway, grunting in protest.

Paired with Hardy’s subtle performance is Theron’s powerful one. Her Furiosa has seen some shit go down, and all she wants now is peace and as she puts it, “redemption.” As this intense warrior queen, wearing black grease that make her beautiful eyes pop, Theron just pours the determination, kindness –and weariness — into this incredibly kickass character. These two excellent actors only elevate the already superb proceedings.

Step 4: Go along on said acid trip. The supporting cast also does a fine job portraying what it would be like living in this very desolate, dying and strange world. Director George Miller just loves the weird, and in a post-apocalyptic setting, where, famine, dehydration, disease and desperation run rampant, he can paint just about any milieu he wants. There are ghoulish crow people on stilts, a severely deformed Citadel lookout and other characters with names like The Doof Warrior, The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer. There are also these creepy little bald-headed children, painted in white, who grow up to be aggressive young men known as War Boys, who battle at Immortan Joe’s request and scream “VALHALLA” a lot.

Nicholas Hoult plays one these boys, a brainwashed soldier who finally gets a clearer understanding of the world outside the Citadel when he encounters Furiosa and Joe’s wives. Those lovelies are portrayed by Zoe Kravitz, model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton, who thankfully bring much-needed beauty to the otherwise bleak surroundings. My favorite, however, is Immortan Joe’s stereo car. Its sole purpose is to provide a running soundtrack as they rush into the chase, with guys playing drums in the back and a horribly disfigured dude in a skull mask in front, wailing on a guitar that spews fire. It cracked me up every time it was on screen.

Step 5: Bow down to George Miller. This Australian auteur has never been properly given his due. Sure, the Oscar win for Happy Feet counts but not like this. It’s time to honor Miller; Fury Road is an unparalleled marvel in filmmaking. Future action directors should learn from this 70-year-old that it’s possible to create action without a ton of CGI. From mind-blowing frenetic action, complete with some unbelievable stunts, to the bleak, orange tones of the desert wasteland, to the weird oddities described above, Miller finally realizes the Mad Max world he’s been living in for these many years. Along with all those elements, you add a score from Junkie XL that sends shock waves and chills through the theater. Then there are the themes in Fury Road: Hope vs. fear, finding redemption, searching for a new normal that doesn’t include despots with boils on their back. And finally, Miller makes a feminist movie to break the bank, never cow towing to any stereotypes but creating these fierce, beautiful women who clearly should be running the show.

Step 6: Time to stop gushing. Okay, I’ll end my Mad Max: Fury Road love fest, but heed this advice: Don’t wait for it to come out on Blu-ray or on some streaming platform. See it in the theaters NOW because Fury Road embodies everything you love about going to the movies.

How to Watch: ‘The Fourth Noble Truth’

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Step 1: Remember these three words about The Fourth Noble Truth: Meditation, mindfulness… and anger management. On the surface, The Fourth Noble Truth is a simple tale of a movie star named Aaron (Harry Hamlin), who has some anger issues that his lawyer wants him to deal with before he heads into court on a road-rage charge. Enter Aaron’s meditation teacher, Rachel (Kristen Kerr), who strives to calm him down and start him down the path of mindfulness. The only disturbance in the relaxation training, however, is the fact she’s always had a crush on him, which begins to add sexual tension to the proceedings. On Aaron’s part, what self-respecting bad boy would turn down a romp with his sexy meditation teacher?

Step 2: Embrace the romance. Writer/director Gary T. McDonald combines a story of redemption and transformation with Aaron and Rachel’s adult romance. Hamlin and Kerr sizzle with chemistry, acting like asteroids that gravitate towards one another, collide, separate and then collide again.  As Rachel, Kerr aptly shows how she struggles against the attraction to Aaron, while trying her best to help him meditate and become more centered. For his part, Hamlin can play the lothario role in his sleep, but he does a nice job digging deeper, getting under the façade of a movie star character and emerging as a better person.

Step 3: Learn the truth. The film uses the four noble truths of Buddhism as a structural device that takes us through Aaron’s journey and the trajectory of the nascent relationship between Aaron and Rachel. The whole film is much like a meditation session, and we are allowed to reflect on our relationships and personal growth. It definitely moves slow, but in a summer filled with superheroes and action flicks, The Fourth Noble Truth is a nice change of pace. It draws you into its worldview of calm and serenity.

How to Interview: Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara Are Crazy Cute… Off Screen

hot-pursuit

Although their new female buddy cop comedy Hot Pursuit didn’t wow them at the box office, Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara have undeniable chemistry. It unfortunately just happens to be stronger off screen than on.

Here are some snippets from the press conference:

Step 1: Don’t sweat not being the “pretty one”:

Reese: “I knew Sofia would be beautiful one in the movie, so I was comfortable being the ‘dude.’ I sort of like playing weird characters anyway.”

Sofia: “Yeah, it’s great because you got to be comfortable on set. I was miserable the whole time, dressed like a sausage in that white dress, sweating. Then the high heels, blisters. While she was so carefree, sitting on the floor and she wouldn’t even change for lunch. The dirtier she looked, the better. It’s like she knew what she was doing.”

Step 2: Try to speak Spanish:

Sofia: “Well, [Reese’s] Spanish was not very good.”

Reese: “No respect.”

Sofia: “That was actually one of my favorite scenes. She had to struggle a lot. I could see fear in her eyes, anxiety, and confusion. So it was great, because I feel like that’s every single scene of my life, you know? I really enjoyed it and didn’t try to help her too much. When I finally saw the movie, I was like, ‘Oh my god, now I understand why people laugh at me.’ It’s hysterical to see someone try to talk in a language not their own.”

Step 3: Embrace the similarities:

When asked about working with Witherspoon and Vergara, director Anne Fletcher said that they were physically and culturally different, but before she could finish her thought, Sofia interrupts… “Not really. [Reese] has hot guys eating out of the palm of her hand. We sat down and found out we like the same food, the same makeup. We like family around, the same places to travel. We had kids young… we had a lot of similarities.

Anne: “I don’t know these two women.”

Step 4: Talk about that onscreen kiss:

Reese: “It was Sofia’s idea.”

Sofia: “Delicious… she smells like a strawberry. [And on pulling Reese’s ponytail while doing it?] It felt like the right thing to do. It was like right there.

Reese: “She just grabbed my hair, pulling my head back, laughing, ‘Let’s do it again!’ I had whiplash for three days.”

Sofia: “You can’t just fake a ponytail pulling!”

Step 5: Play a Type-A personality:

Reese: [sighs] “Oh boy, I guess just have it in me. People just like it and think it’s funny, and I just enhance it and make it bigger and more annoying. People just really enjoy laughing at me.”

Sofia: “I did.”

Reese: “I like the find the heart of that person. She’s a nerd and doesn’t have any friends. She’s kinda a wreck and when she meets Sofia’s character, she’s like, ‘That’s my first friend!’”

Sofia: “And she’s not even a friend!”

I wonder if they’ll stay as close now that the film’s promotion is over.

How to Interview: ‘The D Train’ Stars Jack Black and James Marsden and Their Awesome Nicknames

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Step 1: Give Jack Black a bitchin’ nickname, please:

In the dark comedy “The D Train,” Black plays Dan, a small-town insurance agent who is a little too manic and intense and who thinks he’s running his high-school reunion committee, much to the chagrin of the other people on the committee. One night, Dan sees the most popular guy from his high school, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), in a commercial and concocts a plan to fly to L.A. to track Oliver down and convince him to come to the reunion. That way, if Oliver comes, all the others will come, too, and Dan will finally be respected as the cool dude he has always wanted to be and get a really cool nickname.Things get kind of crazy in L.A., and even though Dan succeeds, more or less, Oliver’s return to his small town isn’t exactly how Dan imagined it.

James Marsden: “I didn’t have any nicknames. I always wanted one but didn’t feel important enough. Jimmy, Jimbo, those didn’t count. You wanted something like Ace. Or Flipper.”

Jack Black: “If you were a gymnast, Flipper would work. Jackety McBlackerty is one I called myself.”

Was Tenacious D [Black’s band with fellow comedian Kyle Gass] ever brought up? “I tried to get them to change the name of the movie. I was like, ‘Wait a second, I have a band Tenacious D and the fans are going to think it’s a Tenacious D movie!’ They were like, ‘Too bad.’ And now Kyle hates me because I have a movie called ‘The D Train’ coming out.”

Step 2: Describe what it’s like playing Dan:

Black: “I really liked this movie because of Dan. The least popular guy was very interesting to me because I’ve always been fascinated by those people in real life. The people who are the least loved in the room. Why? What makes some lovable or not lovable? I remember back in the day, when I was just starting out in comedy, with my band Tenacious D, we’d be playing clubs and there was this one guy that everybody hated, this one comedian. He would get a comedy show together and do all the work, flyers etc. And everyone would do the show because he would always get a packed house, but then he’d inject himself in the show. And everyone thought he was a piece of sh*t and made jokes about him. I just thought there was something so interesting in that… the hated one. I wanted to make a documentary about him, follow him around. What’s life like to be that guy? So I had an opportunity to play a character like that and also I felt like I could relate to it. I know what it is to want to be liked. It’s an interesting character study.”

Step 3: Describe what it’s like playing Oliver:

Marsden: “I think he’s a guy with high hopes. You grew up, in high school being the popular guy. With guys like Dan, and people around him, worshipping him. He was the basketball star, sleeping with the best looking girl in school. These kids who peak in high school, they move to Hollywood with an inflated sense of reality, thinking they’ll be the next Marlon Brando and find out there are 5,000 others just like them, trying to do the same thing. Oliver had some mild success with a commercial but it didn’t turn out like he thought. Real life sets in and it humbles him.”

Step 4: Try to find a cool high-school photo:

Marsden: “By the way, I played the cool guy in the movie? I was NOT this guy in high school. At all, in Oklahoma. This is a true story. The directors asked me for photos from high school of me looking badass, your senior photos looking like a stud. I told them, ‘Don’t got ‘em.’ I had horrible style, bad haircut, skinny. I was in drama. I sent them what I had and they said, ‘This is a real problem.’ Jack’s photos from high school, however, were badass! He’s wearing a green, military jacket… he looked like Emile Hirsch! He was a f**king badass!”

Black: “I know. It was a problem. We really had to do some Photoshopping.”

Step 5: Attend your high school reunion:

Marsden: “I think I was working on a movie and couldn’t go. I would have gone. I would have been anxious about it but I would have gone. I still keep in touch with most of my high school friends.”

Black: “I went to mine and it was fun. Saw people I hadn’t seen in 20 years, lot of catching up to do. Lot of weird emotions, too, insecurities coming back. It’s like you’re a teenager again, wondering if they like me? Did I say something dumb? That joke wasn’t funny, nobody laughed. Aaargh.”

Step 6: Give advice to someone starting out:

Black: “It always tough for me to give advice to young people or anybody. The way my life went, it was like, ‘Oh man that was super lucky. That was lucky, and that was lucky.’  It’s all just lucky, so what do I say? ‘Be lucky.’ So then it becomes what do you want to do? If you meditate and figure that out, then ask yourself what do you want to do for free? Because that’s probably going to be what ends up happening. I knew early on I wanted to be in the arts. I liked acting, doodling, singing. Acting was my favorite, though because I liked the audience and the laughs. When did it click? Probably when I realized I didn’t need a headshot anymore.”

Marsden: “I was lucky, too. My dad spotted me the cash to live out here for a year and if didn’t work out, I’d come back and finish college. He also knew someone who was a casting director and sent me out on auditions. I got super, super lucky.”

“The D Train” is pulling into theaters now.

How to Watch: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

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Step 1: Fully embrace this Avengers sequel in all its Marvel-ousness! Despite some minor flaws, Age of Ultron packs an expected and welcomed thrill-ride punch.

Step 2: Assemble the Avengers! Iron Man, Thor, Cap, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye… this team is a well-oiled machine by now. They cut their teeth fighting Loki and the spiders from Mars in the first movie and by the time this one rolls around, it’s clear they’ve been on many missions together since the demise of S.H.I.E.L.D., fighting the evil Hydra and trying to reclaim Loki’s otherworldly scepter. Armed with writer/director Joss Whedon’s zing-worthy script, the Avengers now finish each other’s sentences, banter like married couples and have little nicknames for things like “code green” when they want Bruce Banner (the stalwart Mark Ruffalo) to turn into the Hulk (although he never, EVER wants to). Then, the testosterone flows as the boys quibble over who can pick up Thor’s hammer. The fact Whedon has kept us completely invested in these characters makes Age of Ultron even more appealing. While Whedon may have a few missteps in the story (especially between Natasha and Bruce), he shows us how these relationships have changed and deepened, for better or worse.

Step 3: Bring in new blood. Those Hydra peeps have been experimenting, using some of that extraterrestrial power to create enhanced humans… and so we meet Russian twins Pierto and Wanda Maximoff, aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (finely portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). As S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) explains, “He’s fast and she’s weird,” but weird is sort of sugar-coating it a bit. Wanda can manipulate minds into seeing stuff – dreams? premonitions? — and ends up messing with some of the Avengers, including Natasha Romanov. We finally get to see a bit of Nat’s backstory, and it isn’t pretty. Scarlett Johansson does a nice job peeling back some of Black Widow’s toughness and showing her wounded side. As does Jeremy Renner, giving us an inside look at Clint Barton. Finally, that guy gets some quality air time.

Step 4: Create another great villain. Ultron is no Loki, but he’s pretty damn close to being the same kind of bad-boy bad. Charming, menacing, sometimes vulnerable, the all-knowing Ultron (played so very exquisitely by James Spader, who delivers some of the film’s best lines) is the kind of artificial intelligence we have been warned about again and again. Tony Stark (the always watchable Robert Downey Jr.), who is becoming increasingly irritating as time goes on, should know better than to create an entity meant to bring about peace but who finds out that humans are the ones causing all the discord, so of course, they must be destroyed. Those A.I. folk have a point; we do love our wars.

Step 5: Ask yourself… Do you find yourself tiring of what seems like the same comic-book scenarios over and over? Maybe Age of Ultron is laden with too many plot points, doesn’t have enough originality to differentiate it from the first Avengers and has superfluous set-ups for the next Marvel movies, including the expected tag in the end credits. But remember, Marvel has big plans for this universe, and we have to expect some kind of retread. I’m forgiving that way because the Marvel movie franchise reminds me of a long-running TV show in which some of seasons haven’t been as good as others, but it doesn’t matter because you’re already all-in and love the characters, complicated as they are, too much to ever give it up. Plus, you want to see how it will all end. Here’s the rub, though: Will it ever end? It doesn’t look like it anytime soon.

Step 6: Enjoy yourself. For all Avengers: Age of Ultron’s flaws, there’s still nothing better than those moments when they are indeed all assembled, kicking ass. And kick ass they do, in tent-pole action sequences delivered in spectacular fashion by director Whedon. Nope, I’m not getting tired of these movies one tiny little bit.

How to Watch: “Age of Adaline”

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Step 1: Sympathize with poor Blake Lively. She has to spend her whole time in Age of Adaline looking young and gorgeous while everyone around her grows old. It’s a solitary life never aging — Adaline stopped in the 1930s — and now in present day, she’s sad. That is, until she meets Ellis, played by the equally gorgeous Michiel Huisman of Game of Thrones fame (he plays Daario Naharis, the Mother of Dragon’s booty call). Now Adaline might have a chance at happiness if she decides to stop running and allow herself to embrace love. Even if, you know, she stays young and he gets older.

Step 2: Admire Lively’s acting chops as she aptly portrays Adaline’s angst and loneliness after finding herself in this strange age limbo. You have to look past Age of Adaline’s severely flawed logic and once you do, you find yourself wrapped up in the romance because of Lively’s convictions and her obvious chemistry with Huisman.

Step 3: But wait, there’s more… Harrison Ford does a nice turn as Ellis’ father, who has a past connection to Adaline. It’s kind of weird, that connection, but Lively and Ford make the most out of their poignant moments together. All in all, Age of Adaline surprises you with its warmth and sweeping romantic notions.

Listen to more of my thoughts on the ScreenPicks podcast, plus, I talk about the soapy WWII melodrama Little Boy.

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How to Preview: Enter “Tomorrowland”

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Step 1: Blast off! This second teaser for Disney’s Tomorrowland shows a ton more action, which makes it far more intriguing than the previous trailer. Same idea — girl (Britt Robertson) finds a strange lapel pin that when she touches it, reveals a futuristic parallel universe. She seeks out George Clooney’s character to explain it to her, and this is where this particular teaser takes off into an extended action sequence as they escape some Tomorrowland  baddies.

Step 2: Recognize Clooney’s badass-ness. The actor hasn’t had to engage in any laser gun play in quite a while. He still looks good at it.

Step 3: Praise Disney for continuing to come up clever ideas around their theme park rides. Pirates of the Caribbean… well, maybe just Pirates. I’m pretty sure everyone involved would like to forget The Haunted Mansion. 

Step 4: Travel to Tomorrowland May 22.

 

How to Preview: The “Jurassic World” View

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Step 1: Just don’t create a new hybrid dinosaur. Period. Here’s why: “She’s killing for sport.” Not good.

Step 2: Marvel at how Chris Pratt’s character manages to wrangle velociraptors. I mean, he looks so kickass as a carnivore dino whisperer!

Step 3: Secretly wish there was a REAL Jurassic World… just as long as it doesn’t have any crazy types running it. Bryce Dallas Howard, we are talking to you.

Step 4: Enter Jurassic World June 11.

 

How to Watch: ‘Unfriended’

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Step 1:  Listen to the film’s message. Don’t cyberbully or you could unleash the ghost in the machine.

Step 2: Or, if you’re Unfriended’s six dumb teenagers, learn the hard way. With the film’s POV coming entirely from high schooler Blaire’s laptop (Shelley Hennig), it starts by revealing that it’s the one-year death anniversary of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), Blaire’s classmate who shot herself on school grounds (caught on video, of course). You then discover that Laura offed herself after someone posted a humiliating drunken video of her on YouTube, which prompted a flurry of nasty and degrading comments. Now, while Blaire is searching around online about Laura, she is interrupted by a Skype call from her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm). Soon, Blaire and Mitch are joined by four other friends… and one unidentified person. Who is it? Why is Blaire suddenly getting messages from the clearly dead Laura on her Facebook page? Who is playing this mean-spirited game and freaking them out? Try as they might, they can’t get rid of this anonymous person who is remaining chillingly quiet. Then they get this message…

Step 3: Don’t hang up or you’re all going to die. Okay, well, that sums it up. This group of relatively unknown actors then spend the next 90 minutes convincingly portraying cyber hell, stalked by a malevolent spirit, and I must say, they do a damn fine job playing terrified through their small-screen laptops. Unfriended doesn’t rely on too many typical found-footage horror gimmicks but rather pits the characters against one another, exposing lies, betrayal and morally questionable behavior.

Step 4: Keep things bone-simple. At a budget of about $1 million, all the filmmakers literally had to do is find six non-distinct rooms for the actors to sit in and just turn on the computers. Smart. There are also only brief glimpses of the gore that befalls these hapless teens, which is actually very effective in this scenario. And for all the buzz the film is getting, expect at least one sequel. Let’s just hope they keep originality in mind and not fall into the same pattern.

Step 5: Wince at the technology. To be honest, what unnerved me the most is how this creepy ghost story uses all the machinations of social media and web play with such ease. Blaire bounces around so fast on her computer it’s a little mind boggling… and she’s not even the tech head of the group. That’s some other guy, Ken, who, at one point, is able to send them all a swipe program within nano seconds to try and get rid of “Laura.” The most frightening is the way Unfriended highlights just how dangerous and pervasive it all can be and how this technological age makes bullying practices so scary and damaging.