I Watched The Phenom


The Phenom is a movie that really took me by surprise.

It’s about a pitcher named Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), a kid just out of high school who has a 100 mile fastball and a big future in major league baseball.  However, after a promising start, Hopper is struggling.  He has control issues.  He’s throwing wild pitches.  He’s losing games.  The team finally sends Hopper to see Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a sports psychologist who say that he can help Hopper regain his focus.

Hopper has a lot to deal with.  He’s still just a teenager but he feels like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He promised his mom that he’d buy her a new house and, at the same time, the press is constantly hounding him and demanding that he give them a good quote every time that he loses a game.  Meanwhile, Hopper’s father (Ethan Hawke), who has always put tremendous pressure on his son, is failed ball player himself and a drug dealer.  Hopper finds himself torn between two philosophies, his father’s belief that winning is the only thing that matter and Dr. Mobley’s more gentle approach to the game.  The problem is that, with everyone wanting someone from him, Hopper doesn’t know who he can trust.

The Phenom is a baseball movie and the main character is a pitcher but hardly any of the action takes place on the mound.  Instead, most of the movie takes place in either Dr. Mobley’s office or in Hopper’s head.  The Phenom does a good job of showing the type of daily pressure that Hopper is living under.  All of his life, everyone has told Hopper that he has a special gift and now, he’s so scared of not living up to his potential that he can’t get the ball across the plate.  At the same time, the film is also critical about the the emphasis that society puts on celebrities and professional athletes.  While Hopper goes into the major leagues straight out of high school, his valedictorian girlfriend struggles to pay for college.  Because Hopper can throw a fastball, no one has ever cared about whether or not he actually got an education.  But what’s going to become of Hopper and all the professional athletes like him when they can no longer play the game?  Hopper is a kid who was always told that he would never have to grow up and now, he’s expected to make adult decisions about the rest of his life.

Johnny Simmons does a really good job playing Hopper and the film really makes you think about the pressure that society puts on professional athletes to constantly win.  Most people can get away with having a bad day but, if a pitcher or a quarterback does it, the whole world wants their head.  The next time I want to yell at whoever’s pitching for the Rangers, I’m going to remember Hopper and this movie.

The Phenom was directed and written by Noah Buschel and it is currently streaming on Netflix.

Playing Catch-Up: The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Tribe


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The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story.  It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University.  A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement.  15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment.  For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards.  The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.  Why?  Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.”  Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.

(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience.  Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners.  I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him.  After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.”  And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.

But then something happened.  Miller faded into the background.  In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other.  Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards.  Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student.  But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen.  He starts to speak in a Southern accent.  He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.

In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film.  While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance.  Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain.  He’s not a bad guy.  Instead, he’s playing a role.  He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen.  The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.

It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015.  Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.

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The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying.  Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles.  However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.

And it’s appropriate really.  The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis.  It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.

What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is.  A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop.  When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.

(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence.  When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam.  They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment.  In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)

The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots.  The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate.  Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film.  It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.

Back to School #74: The Perks of Being A Wallflower (dir by Stephen Chbosky)


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“We are infinite.” — Charlie (Logan Lerman) in The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)

So, here’s the thing.  In general, I try not to judge people.  I have friends (and family) of all races, religion, and political ideologies.  I may not always agree with you but I will always respect your right to disagree.  With that being said, if you don’t love the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, then I’m worried about you.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is based on a novel that I read and loved right before I entered high school.  In fact, I loved the novel so much that I had my doubts about whether or not the film could do it justice.  Of course, if I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that the film was directed by the same man who wrote the book, Stephen Chbosky.  Everything that made Wallflower such a powerful book — the honesty, the understanding of teen angst, the underlying sadness — is perfectly captured in the film.

Wallflower tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a painfully shy and emotionally sensitive high school freshman.  Charlie starts the school year under the weight of two tragedies — the suicide of his best friend and the death of his aunt.  Because he’s so shy, Charlie struggles to fit in and make friends, though he does find a mentor of sorts in his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd, playing the type of teacher that we all wish we could have had in high school).

Charlie, however, does not find a mentor in shop class, which is taught by Mr. Callahan (Tom Freaking Savini!).  However, he does meet Patrick (Ezra Miller), a witty and cynical senior who, because he’s openly gay, is as much of an outcast as Charlie.  Patrick introduces Charlie to Sam (Emma Watson).  Charlie assumes that Sam and Patrick are dating (especially after he sees them dancing together) but later he learns that they are actually stepsiblings and that Patrick is secretly seeing a closeted jock named Brad (Johnny Simmons).  That works out well for Charlie because he has a crush on the free-spirited Sam.

The rest of the film follows Charlie as he survives his first year in school and Patrick and Sam as they complete their final year.  It’s a long but exciting year in which Charlie discovers everything from drugs to the mysteries of sex to the pleasures of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Even more importantly, it’s a year that forces Charlie to confront his own unresolved emotional issues.

Sensitively acted by the three leads and featuring a great soundtrack, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is one of the best films about growing up that I’ve ever seen.  For me, there is no scene that best captures everything that’s great about being young than the scene where Sam, upon hearing David Bowie’s Heroes on the radio, demands to be driving through a tunnel.  It’s a great scene from a great movie that celebrates both just how scary and amazing it is to have your entire life ahead of you and the special friendships that help us survive.

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Back to School #73: 21 Jump Street (dir by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)


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Though the TV series that its based is a bit before my time, the 2012 comedy 21 Jump Street is a personal favorite of mine.  The film tells the story of how nerdy Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and popular but none-too-intelligent jock Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) first met in high school, went to the police academy together, both turned out to really bad cops together, and then returned to high school together.

Why did they return to high school?  Because they’re both working undercover now!  As part of a recently revived program from the 80s (and that would apparently be the original television series), young cops are being sent undercover into high school.  As all the other cops involved with the program appear to be super cops, Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) has every reason to believe that Schmidt and Jenko will be able to discover who is responsible for dealing a dangerous new synthetic drug known as HFS.

One of the things that makes 21 Jump Street work is that, at no point, does the film pretend that either Channing Tatum or Jonah Hill could still pass for a high school student.  One of the film’s best moments comes when a drug dealing environmentalist/student named Eric Molson (Dave Franco, brother of my beloved James) tells Jenko that he suspects that Jenko may be a cop.  “Why?” Jenko asks.  “You’re taste in music. The fact that you look like a fucking forty-year old man,” Eric replies.

Not surprisingly, Jenko and Schmidt prove themselves to be fairly clueless about how high school has changed.  One thing that I’ve always found interesting about high school films is that often times, regardless of when a particularly film might be set, it still feels like it’s taking place ten to twenty years in the past.  That’s largely because most high school films are made by directors who are trying to relive their youth and, as a result, they end up making a film about a high school in 2014 where all of the students look and act as if they’re living in the 90s.  The truth of the matter is that things change pretty quickly.

That’s one reason why I haven’t set foot back in my high school since I graduated.  As much fun as I did have in high school and even though I’ve been told that I can still pass for high school age (and I still constantly get asked for ID), the fact of the matter is that it’s no longer 2004.

When Jenko and Schmidt return to high school, they do so expecting to have to return to their previous teenager personas.  That’s good news for Jenko and not so good news for Schmidt.  However, once they arrive (and after their class schedules accidentally get switched), they discover that high school has changed.  Jocks like Jenko no longer rule the school and Schmidt is now one of the popular kids…

Before I saw 21 Jump Street, I knew that Jonah Hill was funny.  But the film’s big surprise was that Channing Tatum is just as funny.  Throughout the film, Tatum shows a willingness to poke fun at his own image and proves that he can deliver an absurd one-liner as masterfully as just about anyone else working today.  There’s a lot of reasons why 21 Jump Street is a funny film.  It’s full of funny lines and the movie features a lot of very sharp satire of both the action and the teen genres.  But the true pleasure of the film comes from the comedic chemistry between Tatum and Hill.

It’s just a lot of fun to watch.

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