Saturday, June 28, 2014

Friday's Menu (2001)

Full Course Treat. Hold the Shrimp!

Rating: 2 & 1/2 STARS
Director: Jeremy Benson
Starring: Mark Williams, Rezia Massey, Ginger Hurst, Shannyn Howerton, Jacob Hanshell, James Warren
Length: 1 hour 31 minutes
Rated: N/A

      What's it like being 20; in between high school and the real world? Writer director Jeremy Benson knows because he is there. "Friday's Menu," the first film by the independent filmmaker tries to capture the experience. Benson has succeeded for the most part in his witty, profane film about two guys trying to find something to do on a Friday night. Obviously influenced by the work of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, Benson has created an episodic little film which follows various groups of characters through a hectic night in which nothing seems to go right, but in fact does. JP (Mark Williams, who also coproduced) has promised both Kelly (Ginger Hurst) and Ricky (Rezia Massey) that he will hang out with them on Friday. Ginger proves elusive, so JP reluctantly goes out with his buddy, Ricky. Ginger meanwhile ends up hanging with her bud, Ginger (Shannyn Howerton). Thrown into the stew are two inept robbers, Big Jake (Jacob Hanshell) and Smiling Jim (James Warren), a couple of wallflowers sitting around chewing tobacco and watching cheesy movies, Alice (Chris Bowman) and Poe (Georganna Wallace), a couple of bums (director Benson and Mark Williams again) and various insundry others. Plotwise, there isn't much further to report. Director Benson follows these characters as they ramble through the night. A Gen X take on "American Graffiti" except these kids spend more time discussing sex than whether they are going to leave for college the next day. Sex, sex and more sex as a matter of fact.

      At the premiere, I sat on the row behind the parents of the folks who made and acted in this film. I had seen the first half of the film when I interviewed Director Benson and editor Rusty Herring a week before. I wanted to see the reaction of an older crowd. For the most part, they were laughing like the rest of the audience. The elderly couple sitting next to me did walk out rather quickly though. I thought that was a good sign. This movie is not for your grandparents (maybe it is!). One thing that struck me about the movie was how Benson captured his female characters. The standout scene in this regards involved not Kelly and Ginger, but rather the two wallflowers: Alice and Poe. As they sit on the couch watching TV they break into a conversation about the pros and cons of giving as opposed to receiving oral sex. The discussion is frank and almost clinical. The girls deal with the issues of emotional subservience, physical pleasure and love. In juxtaposition compare this scene to it's counterpoint involving Jake and Smiling Jim. The two robbers sit huddled on their drug dealer's kitchen floor waiting to buy some weed. They two break into a stoned conversation about getting head versus just having sex. These two guys prove that dudes on dope should keep their mouths shut. Their ramblings are crude and funny. Unlike the ladies earlier, there is no talk of love or emotional involvement. Benson pegged that essential difference between the sexes in these two scenes.

Ricky (Rezia Massey) and JP (Mark Williams)

      The acting for the most part is quite good. This is remarkable considering that with the exception of Ms. Howerton, none of the cast has had any training or experience. In the acting department Rezia Massey as Ricky is a real find. His Ricky is a wildman par excellence. Mr. Massey has a real screen presence. When he is on screen you can't help but wonder what he will do next. Its kind of like Lord Byron meets Eminem. He is a perfect spoil for Mark Williams' JP. JP would rather be with Kelly this night. He pulls his van over several times that night to try and call her. Ricky constantly rags on his friend for being whipped. There is a great scene between JP and Ricky as JP breaks one of the rules of being a guy and opens up about his true feelings for Kelly. He dares to reveal true emotions. This takes place following a fairly traumatic experience, so PJ's breaking the rule is understandable. Williams also has a strong screen presence. He and Mr. Massey dominate the film. When Benson cuts to other characters you want to return to JP and Ricky. It's kind of like wanting to stay on Butch and Sundance when that film cuts away from them.

      That is not to say that the other characters don't hold your attention, they do. In fact with two exceptions I enjoyed every scene. Their is a scene involving JP's grandfather (Mark Williams again!) and two other guys at a coffee shop, and a blind date scene between one of the coffee shop guys and a flowsy blonde which seem totally out of place. These scenes break to flow of the film. Once Benson returns to JP and Ricky or Kelly and Ginger things get rolling again. Ginger Hurst's Kelly reminds me a several girls I knew in high school. Kelly is a fast talking, no nonsense southern belle who is confused by the mixed signals she is getting from JP. She to would rather be with JP than Ginger. Ginger is a bouncy, effervescent young woman who seems to have an answer for every problem. She is more cocksure than Kelly, but she also seems less mature. Like Ricky and JP, the two girls drive through the night in search of something to do. The two stoned robbers are a bit reminiscent of Kevin Smith's characters Jay and Silent Bob, except these guys really have nothing profound to say. Nevertheless, they are fun to watch. Both Jacob Hanshell and Jim Warren can't help but make you laugh. There are a couple of scenes at the dope man's house. Ricky gets into it with Travo (Travis Macklin), a no nonsense gun toting weed man. Ricky and Travo go at it about which race can hold their weed better. Ricky ignores the gun and gets in Travo face shouting, "I know plenty of white guys who could smoke you under the table!" Mark WIlliams is priceless in this scene as he stands by in fear as his buddy taunts a guy with a semi automatic pistol in his hand. JP tries to intervene, but Travo tells him to "Get his Opie looking face away from him."

Ginger (Shannyn Howerton) and Kelly (Ginger Hurst)

      One final treat is the music! With the exception of the Stone Temple Pilots' song over the end credits, all of the music is original. The soundtrack has a rich mix of Jazz, Rock and Rap. The local artists provided the great score. The band "Martin Slang" which includes several cast members including co-producer/actor Mark WIlliams (this guy is a triple threat), Andy Almendinger. There is some excellent jazz fussion provided by Steve Harris. Finally a harder edge is provided by Deuce, aka Ghetto Metal. Duece reminds me of the hard edge rap/metal of Ice-T. The music adds immensely to the atmosphere of the film.

      Writer/director Benson brings all of the film's threads together by the time the final credits roll. Benson shows great promise in both the writing and directing department. I was struck by the way he created such a large number of individual characters of both sexes and different races and did so with such insight. The film's opening and closing are in color while the main portion is in black and white. Anyone who has read my reviews knows that I'm a sucker for symbolism. I really liked Benson's decision to use color for a limited purpose. Benson is a student of film. His college is Blockbuster, Hollywood video and the like. With no formal training, Benson and his friends just got a camera and did it themselves. He has a good eye for the right camera angles. He also has a nice touch for comedic timing. During the interview, I was shown the first half of the film. There was a scene between JP and Ricky in which I knew what the punch line was going to be. I began to laugh before it came. In fact, I laughed and it didn't come. When it finally did come, I laughed even harder. Benson had telegraphed the joke through the way he shot the scene, yet he held back on the delivery of the punch. It was a very nice touch. There are some things in the film which the viewer will find familiar. The debt that Benson owes to Kevin Smith and Tarantino is obvious. However, "Friday's Menu" isn't a derivative rip-off of those directors' work. Benson's film is personal and heart felt. The one thing I can't forgive Benson for though is that he put me off shrimp forever. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

      Benson's cast, crew and musicians all donated their time for free. So did a local TV personality for a comical voice over. Benson even convinced a helicopter pilot to volunteer to help him film the several impressive nighttime panoramas of the Memphis skyline. Another coup for Benson was the unexpected crane shot at a critical point in the plot. Benson hopes to enter the movie into several indie film festivals. Benson has reason to be proud. While there are a couple of out of place scenes and one or two flubbed lines which could have been corrected, "Friday's Menu" is a funny, and often insightful slice of life in between high school and the real world.

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