Film Threat Review: The We and the I

103 minutes


It seems like a great number of adults forget what it was like to be a teenager. Maybe it’s because they somehow got out of that period unscathed. Maybe they’re suppressing some serious trauma. Perhaps the modern clothes and music that they don’t understand distract them into thinking “I was never like THAT.”

But they were. We all were. I haven’t forgotten. And as long as films continue to accurately depict the horror show that is high school, I don’t see how I ever could. There are films that romanticize it to some degree (e.g. “The Breakfast Club”) and films that fantasize about ways to survive it (e.g. “Heathers”). And then there’s Michel Gondry’s “The We and the I,” a flawed, but still chillingly accurate illustration of that hormonal war that drafts every single one of us on our way to becoming fully realized humans.

Gondry is a singular director who clearly wants to try everything. The one connection amongst his incredibly diverse body of work is that each film is unlike any other contribution to whatever genre it falls into. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was a reinvention of the romantic comedy. “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party” was a music documentary that focused more on the community that music creates than on the music itself. “The We and the I” is Gondry’s version of a John Hughes film. It’s partly scripted, partly non-fiction and wholly genuine.

It’s the last day of high school and the students enjoy a brief moment of free air before boarding a tinier version of the social prison they’ve been sentenced to for four years. The only thing that separates this city bus from a school bus is the (reluctant) presence of civilians. It’s enough to make a masturbating hobo (more prevalent on a public bus than you might think) seem quaint.

It’s not long before the scant grownup commuters, unable to ride in their preferred collective invisibility, evacuate the budding war zone. But there’s no escape for most of these kids. Not yet. They’re still trapped inside their awkward, ragingly hormonal bodies. The bus is a microcosm of their teenage social lives and it’s god-awful for every single one of them, from the lowliest nerd to the popular kids who reign over the rear seats.

For two years, Gondry worked with students at The Point, a community arts center in the South Bronx, to create these characters. Though Gondry drew up a twenty-page outline (along with Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch) to keep the narrative on track, the kids all play themselves. The final script was a collaboration of Gondry’s own recollections of youth and the true back-stories of these urban students, where there were numerous parallels. While there are certainly some striking differences between the socioeconomics of the South Bronx versus, say, a high school in France, Gondry doesn’t focus on any of that. Instead, he highlights the universality of being a teenager.

No one is safe. In the world of a teenager, there’s no such thing as personal property. Journals are snatched away, ridiculed and ripped up. Backpacks are thrown out the window. Clothes are ruined by pudding. A guitar is smashed, which is fine for the rock and roll star that can afford another, but a tragedy for a kid who probably toiled for months to buy that one. The fact that it’s the last day of school creates a more intense interaction between the students. For some, it’s the last time they will see each other and that makes them more honest and emotional. The kids turn on each other in an instant. They’re balls of Id banging together in a confined space. Not much happens, plot-wise. But somehow it’s simultaneously compelling and horrifying, like one of those abused farm animals videos that vegans like to make.

Of course, certain fabrications were necessary to achieve that level of “realness.” The actual bus ride doesn’t take nearly as long as the film’s 103-minute running time. Gondry employs his signature whimsy in flashbacks and YouTube videos that fill the audience in on the back-story. The prevalence of cell phones may date the film, but even before every teenager had one, they still managed to spread gossip like wildfire. No secret stayed secret very long.

Though the film takes place in modern day, Gondry got the idea from a memorable bus ride in 90s Paris, during which twenty or so students piled on at the same stop and exited slowly, with the dynamic changing after each departure. At that age, they’re only just learning how to be introspective and how important that skill is in interacting with others. They have to be separated from “the We” to become “the I.”

In order to survive high school, you have to either blend in, or defiantly stand out. There is no in between. It really does get better. But it’s not hard to see how escape can seem impossible. Teenagers are teenagers no matter their socioeconomic background. They’re vulnerable and cocky, selfish and casually cruel. They have yet to realize how their actions affect those around them, yet nearly everything that happens TO them, from getting invited to the right parties to sexual assault, carries the exact same (substantial) emotional weight.

The film can feel tedious when some of the less natural performers are on screen. It is also a bit repetitive at times, (especially with the use of Young M.C.’s “Bust a Move”) but that repetition also lends itself to a sort of rhythmic editing. Gondry cut his teeth on music videos after all.

Regardless of its problems, “The We and the I” is required viewing. It very well may be one of the most important films about teenagers ever made. It’s crucial that we grownups don’t forget our teenage years. If adults don’t show teenagers empathy, how are they ever going to learn it themselves?

Originally published on (now defunct).


Film Threat Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Rated PG-13
130 minutes


No one has ever accused Sam Raimi of trying to be an auteur. The guy makes movies, not films. The bottom line is that he wants his audience to have fun. Raimi’s brand of fun usually involves a smartass anti-hero with a particular skill set that happens to come in handy for fighting evil. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is basically a PG version of “Army of Darkness” on mushrooms. Despite the presence of greatness (i.e. Michelle Williams and Rachel Weiss), it is not a great film. But it sure is fun, if you like that sort of thing (I do).

Part homage, part unauthorized prequel to Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic, “Oz the Great and Powerful” has some big shoes to fill. To further complicate matters, they couldn’t even use the shoes you would expect. Iconic images like the ruby slippers, the original Emerald City and even that particular shade of Wicked Witch green were off limits. They managed to work around these elements and still included tons of references. But the way they had to go about putting them in definitely gave the entire film a “red-headed step child” tone.

Though that didn’t seem to bother Sam Raimi much. He clearly had the time of his life making this movie. He pulls out all the Raimi-esque stops including swirling vortexes, sharp objects flying at the protagonist’s head, a preparing-for-battle montage, cackling demonic women and even Bruce Campbell. There are some genuinely comedic moments and some unintentional comedy as well. James Franco actually seems to be doing a Bruce Campbell impression in several scenes.

Like “The Wizard of Oz”, the story kicks off in a dusty black and white turn-of-the-(last)century Kansas. There, a sheister by the name of Oscar Diggs (“Oz” to his frenemies) runs a crooked carnival magic show with his put upon assistant (Zach Braff) and a parade of ditzy crowd plants. He’s also been sticking his wand where it doesn’t belong and must unexpectedly escape the wrath of a cuckolded strongman. His getaway transport of choice is (naturally) a hot air balloon that immediately gets swept up in a twister. Fortunately, it’s one of those supernatural porthole twisters that are so prevalent on the Kansas prairie. Suddenly, Oz finds himself in a full color, widescreen land that shares his name. Is it destiny, or an elaborate coma dream?

While we assume that Oz is a real place within the narrative, because of another Kansan who ends up there, the script drops numerous hints that this might all be in Oz’s head. For starters, the first person he meets is a good witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who is as naïve as she is beautiful. She wastes no time telling him that he fits the bill for a prophesy about a powerful wizard savior. After defeating the wicked witch, this wizard would rule the land with the hot townie of his choice and do laps in a gold-filled pit that would make Scrooge McDuck jealous.

So confident are the locals in Oz’s abilities that their faith remains in tact even after he tells them that he is probably unqualified for the job. Along the way, he meets other characters who suspiciously recall people from his former life: Finley, a flying monkey who looks and sounds like Zach Braff (much less irritating in simian form), a busted-up China doll named Little China Girl (heh) who resembles a crippled girl from his final carnival audience and Glinda the Good Witch who bares the spitting image of his sweetheart who got away. In fact, the last thing he said to her real-world counterpart was “See you in my dreams”.

Whether these allusions are red herrings or just sloppy screenwriting doesn’t really matter because at least 50% of the enjoyment is in the 3D experience. It’s certainly one of the greatest uses of 3D ever. So much of the picture is in 3D that it continues to feel like it’s taking place inside a diorama long after the paper cutout opening credits. It’s not so much a movie as it is a ride at Disney Land. We are in that hot air balloon with James Franco. We are ballroom dancing with James Franco. We are riding inside a bubble over a poppy field with James Franco. That is some cool shit. But it’s not sustainable beyond a theatrical release. Once you’re sitting on your couch watching a flat image, you’ll no longer be distracted by butterflies fluttering past your head and enormous flowers blooming all around you. You’ll have to pay attention to the plot and the dialog. The spell will be broken.

That’s not to say there’s nothing left to enjoy. But that monkey’s jokes will grate a whole lot more. Those endless blooming flowers will become tedious. Mila Kunis’ god-awful acting will really stand out. That said one of the biggest laughs for me was when Theodora flips out in a mirror, screaming hysterically at her reflection for what feels like five minutes. It was like an outtake from “Black Swan”. If Kunis displayed that level of camp in the rest of her scenes, her performance wouldn’t have paled so much in comparison to the flawless Rachel Weiss as Evanora, Theodora’s sinister sister that coaxes her to the dark side.

Kunis suffers from the same affliction that plagues the likes of Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves. She just can’t shake that California accent. (Worse yet, she lacks their innate likability.) Things would have been vastly improved with Kunis in the bland Glinda the Good Witch role, having little more to do than float around gracefully and offer words of encouragement. Michelle Williams possesses the necessary versatility to convincingly transition from innocent to evil. But she was utterly squandered for no discernible reason other than the color of her hair. Hair color can be altered, people. Bad performances cannot.

James Franco isn’t entirely in the clear either. Even with all of his Franco charm, he just can’t pull off the necessary fast-talking suaveness that a truly effective con man requires, nor does his redemption seem entirely genuine. It’s not the worst performance in the world, but it is, at times, glaringly lacking.

One place where casting excelled was with the background actors. There are some of the most amazing extras in this movie. There are at least five hams in every crowd scene. So while the lack of 3D will majorly detract from the overall quality, the extras bump the re-watch factor back up a bit.

The people who will enjoy this movie the most are fans of “Army of Darkness”, kids who aren’t easily frightened, Steampunk families and stoners. Everyone else will likely walk away unsatisfied. Although, as I was exiting the theater, some dudes behind me were discussing all the dirty things they would like to do to Mila Kunis, despite having hated the movie. So I guess people with Mila Kunis boners might also wish to apply.

Originally published on (now defunct).