Category Archives: The B’s

The Oscars: Why Birdman’s More Deserving Than Imitation Game but Cumberbatch Might Just Edge Out Keaton

Grade: A

The Imitation Game
Grade: B

The Imitation Game, like many good films, follows the filmic formula created by the slew of its predecessors. Take your ingredients—a clean script, well-written dialogue and ripe actors—toss them in the bowl with a handful of significant history, some heart, and a dash of humor and let your concoction stew. If you’re lucky, if this combination is cooked just perfectly, the blend of star-power and story-importance just right, your film will end up an Oscar contender.

Only, there’s a big difference between an Oscar-contender and an Oscar-winner, and The Imitation Game will not win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It will not. Iñárritu’s Birdman or Linklater’s Boyhood can and will claim the golden statue on February 22nd.

Or at least they should.

the-imitation-game-benedict-cumberbatch-2What it comes down to is longevity. Award shows, especially ones as well-regarded as the Academy Awards, owe it to film history to choose the films that will stand the test of time. Will we remember the film in five years? Will we recall the grin on our face and the thoughts racing through our head as we watched it? Will we still be talking about it, comparing it to other films, deeming it the model to which others can aspire to? We’d better. That’s what I want in my Best Picture winner and that’s precisely why The Imitation Game won’t win, but Birdman very well might.

The Imitation Game tells the untold story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch)—master code breaker, mathematical genius and closeted homosexual during World War II tasked with the challenge of cracking Germany’s unbreakable code and helping the Allies win the war. Turing’s biggest obstacle is not Hitler, but other people’s ignorance, not only due to their inferior mental capacities, but also their inability to appreciate his contributions to the war effort while being blinded by the perceived-indecency of his illegal homosexuality.

Is The Imitation Game an important story? Yes. Does it deserve its telling? Of course. Sometimes, that is good enough. As a person who values stories, ones on the screen or otherwise, I appreciate moments that prove the necessity of storytelling and The Imitation Game is, arguably, a more necessary story than Birdman. The Imitation Game has the power to change people’s perspectives, make them approach history, diversity and humanity in a new way and that accomplishment is powerful. But Best Picture winners can’t simply be important. We’re not awarding the best “subject” or the best “topic” the golden statue. The award must also be about craft. The winner must push the boundaries. It must be a game-changer.

The Imitation Game did not twist the filmic-formula enough. It followed the rules. Birdman, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of style, morphed the conventions of storytelling, and blurred the lines between truth and fiction in ways that engage its viewers beyond simply causing basic feelings of joy and anguish. Birdman follows Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) Hollywood comeback as he puts everything he has into a failing Broadway play to prove to himself, and the world, that he’s still relevant and not just the man in the bird costume from the blockbuster superhero flicks of his past. Shot in a way to look like one continuous take, peeking in on its cast of characters, sneaking up on them in their natural habitat, the camera doesn’t so much as highlight the action as it does chase it down. The result is interactive, involving the film’s viewers, begging them to analyze, urging them to change their mind, all the while playing with form in ways that support the film’s complexities. No two viewings will yield the same analysis. No two screenings will cause the viewer to reach the same conclusion at its completion. Birdman is art in the truest form, providing just enough to point you in a direction, but trusting you to fill in the blanks however you see fit.

Birdman doesn’t say too much. It doesn’t scream its meaning at you. It asks you to decipher for yourself. Its themes are vast and complex—truth versus reality, art versus commercialism, ego versus craft and at its center, the universal quest for validation. And what we come to see again and again and again, is that any attempts at validation don’t matter. Fame is not based on skill, or credence, or hard work, but entirely on chance. Riggan’s success and failure is not his own—it’s a result of critics, viral videos, and the shenanigans of his co-stars—it has nothing to do with talent. In an endless attempt to find truth, real truth, the curtain is simply raised on more and more illusion. What is real in show business? What is real in life? We’re all playing a role. The actors are simply playing a role of playing a role. We pretend to be chasing reality, but really we’re all just basking in illusion. “Truth is always interesting,” Mike (Edward Norton) tells Sam (Emma Stone) in one of their many games of Truth or Dare, but the film would say otherwise. Truth is only interesting because it’s unobtainable. We’re all meandering and chasing it down in endless loops and knots, just like Iñárritu’s camera, just like the maddening film industry, just like Riggan’s life. And for what? The struggle for validation never goes away. “You don’t matter,” Sam tells her father. No one does. The struggle is the only thing that does, it’s the only place where our story is truly authentic. Fame and recognition is a monster we can’t predict, a puzzle even Turing couldn’t solve.

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Essential 3D, but an Inessential Story: A Review of Gravity

Grade: B-

As a viewer who hasn’t quite jumped aboard the 3D bandwagon, there are times when 3D works and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one example. All too often, 3D it’s just an excuse to create some buzz and hike up the ticket prices. It needs to have a function. Did the three-dimensional iceberg in Titanic in 3D create more suspense? Not really. Did Andy giving his toys away in Toy Story 3 hit you harder when the box he’s packing them away in protrudes from the screen? No. It’s unnecessary. It does nothing to support the story. 3D, if it’s used to tell a story, needs to have a function. 3D has a function in Scorsese’s Hugo (read my Hugo review here). It coincides with the enchanting, snow globe of a world that Scorsese wanted to create—a world you need to feel like you are inside to understand. More importantly, this 3D world needs to be felt and seen in order for Scorsese to use it to preach to the power of cinema. In a movie that so lovingly tells the tale of film in its very silent, black and white beginning, 3D was a way to show exactly how far cinematic-storytelling had come.

Until Gravity, Hugo was the film I pointed to when I needed to show 3D done correctly. The difference between the two films is that Hugo could’ve survived as a film without the 3D element, Gravity absolutely could not.

3D has never been more necessary in a movie than it is in Gravity, but it’s necessary in a different way than in Scorsese’s Hugo. It isn’t for theme. It isn’t to mirror lessons taught in the story, but it’s used to enhance the entire experience and plant you firmly in the chilling mise-en-scène. In order to feel for Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she’s left entirely alone in outer space, you have to sense what it must feel like to be that alone. To feel it, we have to see it. Being lost in space is not a situation that the average human is privy to. Despite being separated from your parents as a child in an amusement park, or lost alone on a dark highway, or on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, we’ve never been as lost as Ryan is in this film. We can’t begin to imagine how she feels. To experience her fear and desperation, we have to get as close to her eyes as we can, we have to see what she sees.

Black. Bleak. Hollow. Nothingness.

3D helps achieve that sensation better than 2D ever could. We feel like we’re in outer space.

That being said, where the film strays is in its story. The film’s characters are lacking, and the filmmakers know it. They know it and they know they don’t need it. It’s not necessary to make George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, well developed. We know so little about him. We know he’s a natural leader, we know he’s calm in crisis, we know he likes to tell his tequila-tales of debaucherous nights past, but apart from that we know nothing. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is no different. We know she lost a child, we know she likes to drive at night to escape the pain from that ordeal, but is this enough to make us like her? Are a few jokes cracked by Matt back to Houston enough to make us root for him? Is this enough to make us care whether he lives or dies? It isn’t. But it’s George Clooney. That voice we’ve known since ER, that face, that grin, that silver hair. We see him, we hear him, and it doesn’t matter what he’s saying—we’re rooting for him. The only problem is we’re rooting for George Clooney, not Matt Kowalski, but we trick ourselves into thinking they’re one in the same. Can you blame us? We’re protective. We don’t want anything happening to our George. Why worry about a multi-dimensional character when your audience will like him no matter what as long as he’s played by the right actor?

What would we have if the character wasn’t played by George Clooney? What about Matt Kowalski would make us remain as invested if he was played by some nameless actor? Nothing. The story is too sparse. And mirroring the setting’s bleakness to the plot, I’d argue, was not the filmmakers’ intention. There just isn’t enough there. Especially not with the characters, and not with the plot either.

The whole time I was watching Gravity, I was thinking how the story would function so much better as a short story. I know that contradicts my “necessary 3D” claim, but plot-wise, the short story medium would make the plot more acceptable. There are conventions we accept for film and there are conventions we accept with literary fiction. When we’re watching a movie with two blockbuster stars, we expect certain things. We expect a “happy” ending. We expect a resolution. We expect a grand, action packed, race to the finish. I’d never dream of knocking cinema, but there are certain things that a written story can get away with that a film cannot. Call me a cynic, but I didn’t want a “happy ending.” I didn’t want a resolution. I wanted a true, brutal lesson about the bleakness of space, about the different levels of loneliness, about desperation. I wanted them to make bad luck appear somehow poetic with subtle back story, inner monologue, and a strong sense of what’s going on in the character’s heads. But I didn’t get that. A short story could’ve provided that without the audience feeling gypped by the ending. Do I appreciate that they allowed the audience to fill in the blanks, that they didn’t bombard us with backstory? I do. But then they had to go and get conventional. They had to make us chant “Girl power!” at Sandra’s success and leave the theater feeling like we, too, just battled for survival and won. They had to take us on a ride. They had to give us that Hollywood ending. And I was left shaking my head, awed by the 3D spectacle, sure, but wondering if a smaller, bleaker story, with richer characters (and without Clooney and Bullock) might have given the film more of that lasting punch it so desperately needed.

More than anything, I was left with an unanswered question—Who is Ryan Stone? It’s a question I should never have to ask. It’s a question the filmmakers surely didn’t want the audience to have to ask. We just need a little bit more.

Just A Taste When We Need A Whole Bite: A Review of The Way, Way Back

Grade: B

Quarters for Pac-Man, water slides, station wagons, clambakes, Candy Land board games and bikes in coastal beach towns—what more could be offered in order to illicit the warmth and nostalgia of childhood summers? Filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bring to life summers of childhood past in their film The Way, Way Back. We feel the angst, we feel the summer ease, we feel the water slide burn on the back of our legs and the salty humidity in the air, but THE WAY, WAY BACKwhat do we feel for the characters?

The film follows 14-year old Duncan (Liam James), a socially-awkward teeny-bopper plagued with poor self-esteem who is forced to spend the summer with his mother, Pam (Toni Collete), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), at his summer beach house. Carell’s Trent is a ruthless prick who takes a particular liking to beating Duncan down a peg in the name of brutal honesty—bullying him in ways he deems necessary for Duncan’s social well-being. In the opening scene he tells a passive Duncan, keen on keeping to himself in the rear-facing backseat of Trent’s Station Wagon, that on a scale of 1-10, Duncan is a 3. With this admission their dynamic is set and the film’s central hurdle is established: make Duncan see he’s worth something. Duncan finds solace in a summer job at a tacky water park where one of its lifelong employee’s Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes it upon himself to break Duncan out of his shell. As would be the case, by the end of the summer Duncan emerges sans-shell, new and improved, with a sense of self-worth and a summer chock-full of memories.

The film is about self-discovery. Specifically, self-discovery through the people we encounter—our relationships. This is especially the case when you’re fourteen, when your parents are divorced, and when a new father figure comes into your life, and it’s only further complicated when you’re in the middle of adolescence with all the sweaty palm, angst-bucket indecision that looms over every zit and growing pain. Duncan doesn’t have it easy, but he also doesn’t have it much different than most.

In a story about relationships—Duncan’s relationship with his mother, Duncan’s relationship with his father we never see, Duncan’s relationship with Trent, with Owen, with the girl next door, not to forget Pam’s relationship with Trent and Owen’s relationship with his will-they-won’t-they love interest Caitlin (Maya Rudolph)—it’s critical that those relationships are well explored. Unfortunately, Faxon and Rash only scratch the surface on these relationships.

I think it’s intentional on the filmmakers’ part to not delve too deep into the characters’ dynamics with each other. It’s ambitious. It’s a subtlety that I really want to be able to get behind and root for, but I can’t. As hard as they try to straddle the line between showing us just enough and holding back more than a little, they end up showing too little. I commend tThe-Way-Way-Backhe filmmakers for attempting to draw blood with just a scratch to the surface, but I’m not sure they ever break the skin. We get tiny bits, the first layer, of so many relationships which is nice and refreshing and keeps the film from teetering into a preachy after school special, but at what cost?

In their attempt to be subtle, to not drill the dynamics into us, to not plague us with backstory, angst and indecision, we lose the characters. We know their roles. We know a couple adjectives to describe them: Duncan—timid; Pam—submissive; Trent—asshole. We know a thing or two about their relationships with each other—Duncan hates Trent; Trent hates Duncan; Pam doesn’t really love Trent but desperately wants the relationship to work; Duncan sees through the farce and wants his mom to own up. But by giving us just a taste—just a taste of the cheating scandal between Trent and Pam, just a taste of  Duncan’s experience with his divorced parents, just a taste of Owen’s slacker ways ruining all previous chances with his co-worker—we don’t have enough to say yea or nay on the whole meal. We need bigger bites. Don’t bloat us, Faxon and Rash! Don’t make us sit pained on the couch after feasting, but give us more than a sample if you expect us to really feel for the lives you’ve created.

We get tiny vignettes, a brief allusion to the bigger picture, but not enough to make us feel like we know where the characters are  going or are rooting for them to succeed. Maybe Caitlin and Owen will finally get together for real. It’s safe to assume Pam will leave Trent after no-longer-passive Duncan talks some sense into her. But Pam’s final move from the passenger seat beside Trent to the rear-facing backseat with her son as the car sails down the freeway, and Duncan’s bold sprint through parking lots as he escapes the dreaded Station Wagon, would hit home so much harder if the dynamics between the characters had been layered a bit more. Just a few more details, a little extra exploration and we’d truly understand when Duncan sprints from that car what he’s thinking, what he’s fighting for and what he’s losing by sitting one second longer in that backseat.

We do get it. We do know Duncan. But in the filmmakers’ attempt to be subtle we lose the opportunity to know Duncan that much more.

And don’t we want to know our main character as best as we possibly can? Don’t we want to at least think we do?

The Untold Bigger Story: A Review of The Impossible

Grade: B

Viewers flock to certain films when they’re in need of an escape—an escape from the typical 9-5, from the drama, for a distraction from that relationship-tiff, bout of hypochondria, or pending financial crisis.  Period pieces are usually my escape films—far enough from my reality not to trigger any thoughts that will unveil the curtain on my “Escapist Movie Experience”, but still interesting enough to keep my attention. For me, it’s usually The Duchess, or Gattica—for whatever reason.Wave The Impossible

Then you have the films that are difficult to get through. Contrived plot, abysmal acting, a god-awful wig you can’t stop noticing. These are films that follow the Three Act Structure so perfectly that you can call out scenes as they happen, “and this is where she tells her husband she’s leaving him.” We want the Three Act Structure because it’s a formula that has been proven to work, but we want it only if we have to dig a little to find it. Innovation, even if formulaic, is still far more interesting than a romantic chase scene in an airport, or on a bridge, or yelling up declarations of love at an apartment window exactly twenty-two minutes before the credits roll.

And then some films are difficult to get through for an entirely different reason. They’re jam-packed with so much emotional turmoil, tension, and non-stop beating of the main characters that the audience longs for a break from the vice on their chest. They’re a challenge that’s rewarding because you feel something. They’re rewarding because you conquer it with or without tears and you feel better at the end because the bruising pain has subsided.

These films are all well and good, but they’re perfect if you feel all that anguish and learn something. They’re perfect if you feel that pain and it leads to something larger—a greater truth.

Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible about a family vacation in Indonesia in 2004 when the tsunami hits, is a grueling 114 minute long struggle through one family’s traumatic experience as they’re poked, beaten, and torn apart by the devastating natural disaster. It’s a challenge to watch, in the good way, but it’s far from perfect.

Cinema’s purest intention is to make us experience—we watch movies because we want to feel something. But I think it goes a step further than that. What we really want to feel when we sit down to watch a movie is truth. We want that truth to surprise us, popping up where we didn’t think we’d find it, turning a switch in us.Impossible

With The Impossible, the audience certainly feels, but what we feel most is the cold wind whistling through the gaping hole cut out of the “Big Picture.” Yes, an effective story needs to be scaled down, you can’t aim too big or everything gets lost in the chaos, but when dealing with true events, you have to address them in a way that doesn’t leave a sour taste in the audience’s mouth. I enjoyed The Impossible, I thought it achieved what it set out to, but I felt guilty liking it, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how far from reality this story was for so many people left suffering (and still suffering) from the devastating events.  There is so much left unsaid, and the way this family’s peril is so perfectly resolved feels like a slap in the face to all those who had it just as bad if not worse, but whose solution was no where near as easily achieved as it was for the family in the movie.

What complicates this critique is that the film is based on a true story, but the question I raise is: Should we tell this story? It’s a harrowing tale of a family that overcomes extreme odds. It’s a miracle that things work out for them as easily as they do, but my problem with it is that this is, as far as I know, the only mainstream film on the 2004 tsunami and what the film doesn’t tell is so much heavier than what it does.

We are asked to sympathize with this family, and there’s no arguing that during the film, we sympathize, but when it’s over and everything’s tied up in a perfect little bow (a bloody bow, but still a bow) do we still sympathize? Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts offer near-perfect performances. Their children played by newcomers Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast are as adorable as puppies falling asleep in your hand. The cinematography and special effects when the tsunami hits are breathtaking and traumatizing all at once, but despite all of these praiseworthy qualities, the film’s subject is off.

In the end, they’re still an all-white family struggling in a largely poor, non-white, non-western culture. They are wealthy. Wealthy enough to go on holiday in a fancy Indonesian resort with a fully-stocked fridge and fedex’d-in Christmas gifts. Oh but wait, we’re supposed to worry about them because McGregor’s character, HThe_Impossible-3enry, is a little bit nervous about his job security right before the tsunami hits? His wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), is currently a non-practicing doctor—are we really concerned for their well-being? And yes, their experience is awful, but in the end (Spoiler Alert) they’re all safe and sound, all reunited after a series of this-never-could’ve-happened-to-the-real-family instances of the separated family members’ paths nearly crossing, only not to, only then to in a grand tear-jerking reunion.

And it’s moving. And it’s powerful. But their harrowing experience is over. Their kin are all intact. They are popped on a plane and air lifted out of there, back to their home that is still dry and in the ground, and their lives are still together, while they leave nothing short of a war-zone beneath the plane’s propellers. And all the remaining poverty, hunger, bloodshed, death, cleanup, shredded families, and devastation that the people on the ground face are left behind—their stories untold. And we’re left to believe that the situation is handled, is manageable, is solved, because the Indonesian locals as skinny as bamboo chose to lend a helping hand to Maria and her son, likely saving her life, while theirs are still in shambles.

Yes, everything’s fine. It’s manageable. Sure it is.

Isn’t there a bigger story left untold? Don’t we owe it to history to represent the “Big Picture” as accurately as we can?

There are true stories and then there are truer stories.

The Impossible is a true one.

Flight: Is Denzel really great in Flight, or does his performance rely on past roles to win us over?

Grade: B-

In storytelling, I’m a fan of the grey line. I love when films flip my morality, flop my perspective and make me question the circumstances that lead to a cut and dry right and wrong. Storytelling can be powerful, and nothing displays its power quite like a story’s ability to open your mind to a perspective you never imagined seeing before. flight-denzel-washington-paramountThere are at least two things that are fantastic about Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, one is a plane-crash scene that’s jarring enough to make me question ever scanning that boarding pass again, and the other is the way it straddles that grey line of morality and keeps the audience constantly questioning what side of that line they fall on.

Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an expert airline pilot full of all the charm, confidence, and zeal that Washington’s characters regularly embody.  Whip Whitaker is the king of his craft, and when his mechanically-ill plane goes down, it’s Whip’s calm, confidence, and natural instinct that proficiently land the plane. The twist: Whip is a raging alcoholic who has let his personal life fall to ruin. Not only did he drink the night before and the morning of the tragic flight, but he was drunk during takeoff.

There are casualties. There are lawsuits. There are lies, but the undeniable fact remains—no one could have landed that plane like he did, sober or not.  Do we blame him? Do we point the finger? Is his behavior excusable because he flew better than anyone could, or do we cling to the fact that sober he could’ve been that much better, that much sharper, and lowered the causality count by that much more?

What hooked me in the moments of the plane’s nose dive, when you know a crash is inevitable, was the way that as a viewer I put my total trust into Whip Whitaker. I’d seen the opening scene where he awakes after a night of debauchery to more coke and more booze. I’d watched him charm the passengers onboard the flight, while also popping the top off a vodka bottle to make a screwdriver with one hand.  The film had no intention to hold back on revealing any of Whip’s dubious life-choices, and yet, as Whip was barking orders, arguing his case, and insisting upon his leadership abilities as the plane headed down, I trusted him. I’d want him flying my flight.

But why?

As I was watching, I credited Denzel Washington’s performance and unwavering acting abilities as the primary reason I put my trust in Whip, which is exactly what the filmmakers wanted and exactly what they were relying on to carry the film, but after the credits rolled and I had time to think everything over, I wasn’t so sure. I’m not certain that Denzel Washington was great in this role. Instead, I think it was the culmination of all his roles, all the characters’ skins he dawned, all the accents he mastered and settings he inhabited, that made this role work. It wasn’t Whip Whitaker I was watching on the screen and it wasn’t Whip Whitaker I put my trust in, it was Coach Boone, John Q, Joe Miller, Private Trip, Malcolm X and Ben Marcho that I put my trust in. It was every other character Denzel has played, every other stellar performance that convinced me that Whip Whitaker could fly my plane. It was the trust I reserved for those characters that allowed me to trust this one.

Too often, I’d argue, movies rely on the big name to carry their movie. Too often we are presented with actors playing characters close to those they’ve played before. In Flight’s case, Denzel’s accolades and memorable characters allowed him to coast through the role. He didn’t have to add much, we trusted his character because we trust all his characters, but what if Whip Whitaker had been played by an unknown? Would a lesser name, even with the same acting ability, have been able to toe the grey line that Denzel did? Or was the character convincing because we’d already been programmed to trust Denzel when he’s on the screen? Are the truly great films and the truly great actors ones that make us forget all that came before, or is it alright if some rely on the canon as long as they achieve that same depth of  immersion as we’re watching?

Revisted: Attempting Innovation – A Short Review of "My Best Friend’s Wedding"

My Best Friends Wedding 1997

Grade: B-

Director P.J. Hogan and writer Ronald Bass were probably the pre-adolescent boys who slaved over an elaborate sand castle just for the joy of later pummeling it to pieces. As grown men, they do just that with My Best Friend’s Wedding, building a romantic comedy exactly the way you’d expect, complete with last minute chases, unexpressed love, and a desperate “choose me” scene muddied in lies, betrayal, and ubiquitous pop music. Julia Roberts plays the ruthless Julianne who conspires to make her best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), realize she’s the one for him before his “I do’s”. Immediately, once Hogan and Bass have adequately shoved your face in this rom-com premise, they begin fracturing conventions, mistakenly expecting shock and awe to come from their demolition. Sure, they break our expectations—Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) the stereotypically perfect, pastel-wearing fiancée interestingly becomes more wounded puppy than villain.  Similarly, Julianne plays both hero and foe as we simultaneously want to root for her and shake our heads at her behavior. Secrets aren’t held as long as we’d expect, the “chase” scene has us questioning who’s chasing who, and our happy-ending becomes more and more uncertain, but the film never attempts to make up for the emotion it’s losing in its attempt to be innovative, but simply relies on the fact that it’s doing something “fresh.” Take away the happy-ending, the likable protagonist, the hated villain, and you’re left with a film devoid of feeling. Breaking the mold should be refreshing, instead the audience yearns for the old conventions the filmmakers worked so hard to break just to feel something at the end.

2010 Flashback:: Stone’s a Star – A Review of "Easy A"

Grade: B+

Sixteen Candles, Clueless, and Mean Girls came before Easy A with witty dialogue, smart characters, and cynical sarcasm faithful to the high school experience. And where Molly Ringwald, Alicia Silverstone, and Lindsay Lohan punctuated each film with the face of a star in the making, Emma Stone (when the film premiered in 2010) did the same for Easy A. Without her, the film would fall flat. Her impeccable comic timing, unusual good-looks, and the acting chops that would intimidate any wannabe Hollywood starlet set her apart. Plus, she has the un-teachable ability to contort her bambi-eyes and animated lips into an endless number of telling facial expressions which only add to her comic prowess. But what makes her a perfect fit for this film is the way that she makes her character’s intelligence believable. She plays Olive, a teenager in the 21st century who is well read in classic literature, an avid John Hughes fan, and far more self Easy-A-All-Eyes-on-Me-16-9-10-kcaware than few high schoolers ever are, but the way she makes lines that no sixteen-year-old would actually utter come off as if she came from the womb sputtering one-liners and describing things as “incorrigible” makes the audience laugh with her rather than shake their heads at the absurdity of what they’re watching. Emma Stone is a star, and if the audience didn’t already know that from her past work in Zombieland and Superbad, and her recent-work in The Help, they’ll know soon.

Olive is a wise beyond her years, high school girl who isn’t quite a social outcast but would appreciate a little more recognition from her peers. She spends weekends in her room bonding with her dog while belting out the lyrics to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” which she both calls the “worst song ever” and makes her ringtone. To get out of a camping trip with her best friend Rhiannon’s (Aly Michalka) hippy parents, she lies that she has a date with a college freshman and when Rhiannon insinuates that Olive came away from the date deflowered, Olive goes along with the lie. Faster than mono spreads in a game of spin the bottle, the entire school is quickly aware of Olive’s promiscuity. At first she appreciates the newfound attention and finds the farce a bit comical, but things get complicated when she helps her bullied gay friend strengthen his manly reputation by agreeing to let him tell the school that she had sex with him. What results is a complicated social web of rumors and lies that are meant to reference Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Scarlet Letter—which Olive is reading in her English class—from the ultra-religious “Jesus Freak” attackers, to the scarlet “A” she sews onto her clothes.

Director Will Gluck’s Easy A is a good film. Or, at least the first half is. At a time when teen comedies are often full of stereotypes, excessive parties, sex, and rampant clichés, Easy A is refreshing. The screenwriter, Bert V. Royal, has a strong concept, one that allows for insightful comments onemma-stone-easy-a-pic high school girls’ struggle with their sexuality and the double-standards they face, and one that isn’t strictly about high school cliques or climbing from the shadows up the social ladder. It talks about sex without flaunting it or preaching against it, and the movie walks a blurry line between being strictly teen-entertainment and being controversy. Interestingly, the film straddles this line without ever falling into either category. Still, the movie is flawed, its major problem being that it aims for too much. Like crushing a pill and hiding it in ice cream, the script relies on Olive’s webcast narration to force the audience to swallow the coincidences it depends on. By having Olive acknowledge the absurdity of reading a book in class that of course mirrors her life, the audience can accept it. In the same way, Olive expresses her love for John Hughes movies and other cheesy romantic comedies of the past so that when a boy holds speakers outside her bedroom window blasting 80s pop music à la “Say Anything,” it’s justified. Olive’s narration is a crutch and a way to masquerade as a movie that’s defying romantic-comedy conventions when it’s really just clearing the path for them. There is nothing wrong with the conventions, the same conventions made John Hughes’ career, but the fact that the film parades around as if it’s either defying them or playing homage to the classics if off-putting because it does neither.

About halfway through the film, the plot gets too complicated. Without giving away the twist, I’ll just say they lost me at Chlamydia and those who’ve seen it will understand what I mean. The twists are too extreme, are layered too heavily to be taken as plausible and seem to be conflict for conflict’s sake. But, just before the ending, Gluck and Royal—with the help of the goofily sweet and charming Todd (Penn Badgley) who wears the laid-back, boy-next-door shoes perfectly—reel you back in. Mostly this is due to the lack of romance, or at least it is a somewhat realistic romance. Attraction isn’t enveloped in corny lines, longing stares, and grand declarations of love. The romance in the movie is sweet, simple, and it takes the back burner to the rest of the story which makes it plausible. The plot is a roller coaster, not necessarily in a good way, but not entirely bad either. It falls apart in sections, reels you back in, and leaves you crimped from the twisting.

One of the film’s strong points, though, is its casting of Olive’s unconventional but completely endearing parents. Played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, their characters provide unique humor and warmth to the movie, making you feel like if given the opportunity you would gladly wish to be adopted into the family. In one hilarious scene they chant “tee, teee, tee” over and over as they try to guess what “t”-word Olive received detention for saying before finally giving up and demanding, “Spell it with your peas!”

Emma Stone is the real star, but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson provide an excellent backdrop for her impeccable comic delivery. The laughs throughout are consistent (although many of them involve repeating a phrase or a word over and over to the point of irritation like “Olive has a boy in her room” and something about Rhiannon’s boobs) and despite the ambitious plot that gets tangled in conflict, the knots untie with little damage. The movie is smart, the acting is solid, and the film has a message which, for a teen comedy, is pretty good. Easy A isn’t perfect, but it’s an entertaining and nostalgic jaunt back to high school, with an outstanding cast and many quotable one-liners that will take fans a few views to master but they will master nonetheless.

All That Glitters is Gold? NBC’s Pilot Episode of its New Musical Drama “Smash”

Grade: B-

A television pilot can be a tricky thing. For the creators, they have 45 minutes to convince networks that their characters, story lines, and overall premise has enough meat to it to withstand 23 episodes and properly timed cliff hangers during sweeps week. But it’s only 45 minutes. What if your characters start out as clichés but will be shaped later? What if your premise starts out simple but will be complicated by the fifth episode or the sixth episode? Exposition has to be told in a pilot, but exposition typically is dull, it’s the paragraph of the story that’s brushed over on the second reading, it’s the aspect of a screenplay that if forced is completely off-putting. A pilot, for the most part, is all exposition, it’s all introduction, and it’s hard to know if the rest of the show is worth watching based on a measly 45 minutes.Smash

So to judge one, to determine if a pilot is worth your time or money if you’re the head of a network, you have to not so much judge on the material presented, but on the potential for that material to flourish into a hit, or a dud, or a cult classic that will make money in merchandise and will have outlandishly costumed fans who’ll show up at Comic-Con, but will only rake in 3 million viewers a week.

But with TV, especially network TV, it’s not so much about the material anymore, it’s about the hype, it’s about that one twist that’ll get viewers watching.

NBC’s Smash, which premiers on February 6th, glitters with countless bells and whistles sure to guarantee a big initial audience, but does the glitter distract from the substance?

Following in Glee’s footsteps, Smash is also a musical television show, set to premiere after the Super Bowl like Glee did, with songs available on iTunes and an incredible marketing campaign. Not only is NBC making the pilot available online before its televised premiere, but there are also countless TV ads, spots, and billboards all over New York City. The show’s stars Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty both sung songs from the show at major televised New York events this season—McPhee sung at the Rockefeller tree lighting, and Hilty at Times Square on New Years Eve. Additionally, Spielberg is attached as Executive Producer along with a long list of additional successful theater producers with numerous accolades, Debra Messing is back on TV with another gay-partner-in-crime (this time, her composing partner, Tom Levitt—played by Christian Borle), and the show comes in to the television ring hoping to bank on the success of Glee with a lot less comedy and more sweeping, and artsy, camera movements.

As I was watching the pilot, I couldn’t help but compare to Glee’s pilot. Despite Glee’s fame, awards, and perfectly positioned place on today’s pop-culture spectrum, I didn’t love the pilot—I found the premise dull, and the characters flat, but nearly all that was forgotten in the last five minutes when Lea Michele and Cory Monteith belted out “Don’t Stop Believing” with her perfect pitch and his awkward dance moves. Suddenly, I found myself jumping on the Glee bandwagon—the music had convinced me that I loved the entire episode.

The same happened for me with Smash. I watched the first episode, interested in some of the story lines, pleased with the style, and most of the acting, but I was never sold on the idea of it. But then, in the last five minutes, when Katharine McPhee opens her mouth and starts in on the ballad, “Let Me Be Your Star” as she prepares for call backs to play Marilyn Monroe in the next Broadway hit, I found my eyes opening wider as I settled back into the comfort of my couch. The last five minutes were perfect: the transitions, the musicality of the camera, the choreography of the characters fluttering down stairs and into taxis and through Times Square, along with the contrasting vocal styles of the two women—Karen Cartright and Ivy Lynn (McPhee and Hilty, respectively)—fighting for the same role.  The song is beautiful and catchy, with just enough Broadway flair to still be contemporary and sure to make millions in iTunes downloads. It has the feel of a Disney classic like “A Whole New World” or “Tale as Old as Time” without personified objects and Disney magic. Admittedly, I’ve watched the last five minutes of the pilot at least five times just for the closing number. And I recall doing the same with Glee’s pilot a few years ago.

But the point is that up until the number I wasn’t hooked. I’m still not hooked. I found that the characters were almost all clichés and the plot is entirely predictable. There’s the Midwestern girl (McPhee) living in the big city dreaming of success with parents who tell her that dreams get people nowhere. There’s her devoted boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) who you know without a doubt is going to be thrown under the bus, unintentionally of course, when fame comes a-knockin’. There’s the gay theater producer (Borle), the entitled theater director (Jack Davenport) who happens to be a British snob (because, let’s face it, thanks to Simon Cowell, any critique sounds meaner when spoken with a British accent) who will let any star get ahead just as long as they’ll sleep with him, and then there’s the workaholic mother (Messing) who must balance family as well as career aspirations. You know that the two girls vying for the role of Marilyn will battle every episode until Miss Monroe is cast, that Messing’s marriage will crumble under career pressure, that the director will get laid and the girls who succumb will feel bad about it when it doesn’t get them what they want, and that harsh lessons about the equally harsh world of Broadway will be learned. At the same time, we know that all that talent, hoopla, and struggles guarantee that in the end dreams will come true—at least for one of the girls.

So what about episode two? Is it worth watching simply because the glitter of the last five minutes got caught in my eyes and made me forget that I wasn’t really on board until the end? What does one more episode hurt? Although I’ve grown tired of Glee in general and its ubiquitous story lines about Sue Sylvester sabotaging Glee Club and one member quitting only to come back, I am still a fan of the episode that followed the pilot. The characters were allowed to be more complex, the writing was more nuanced, and the musical numbers were just as captivating. Maybe Smash will follow in Glee’s footsteps in this way as well, and maybe the second episode will be the one that will win me over, making the first closing musical number in the pilot simply the escalator that got me to episode two. I can commit 45 more minutes, and a several streaming commercials, in order to find out if the sparkle can last, but if the characters don’t grow beyond their clichéd shells, and the plot doesn’t begin to throw in some surprises, the show’s glitter won’t sparkle for too long.

A Few Hawaiian Shirts Short of the Gold: A Review of “The Descendants”

Grade: B

To any cinematic follower, or dabbler in pop-culture, or even those who consider themselves as cultured as every narcissistic character in a Woody Allen film, Alexander Payne’s recent award season buzzed film, The Descendants, is the movie to watch for that Oscar gold. (It’s recent Golden Globe win doesn’t hurt either.) It certainly has all the ingredients of an award contender: George Clooney; George Clooney out of his element as anything but a suave bachelor; Fox Searchlight indie spirit with the ten-year-old daughter’s penchant for using her middle finger and talking about “masturbation movies”; and finally, the sniffles heard in the theater that are assuredly nthe-descendants-photo-03ot a result of the common cold. The Descendants is a tear-jerker. What’s startling, and what’s applauded by the onslaught of television ads promoting the film, is its ability to be both heart-wrenchingly tragic and laugh-out-loud funny. That element of the film works beautifully, but not every element of the film is deserving of myriad trophy accolades. Perhaps, and I don’t feel it’s risky to say, George Clooney’s name alone carries this movie closer to critical acclaim than it maybe deserves.

The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney), an understudy of a parent and husband, who must juggle the lives of his complicated daughters as he deals with the pending death of his wife (Patricia Hastie). Grief, family grapples, father/daughter discord, and the realization that bad things happen all are given ample screen time amidst the not-so-perfect backdrop of Hawaii’s lush islands. Throw in a little infidelity, a complicated family decision about what to do with their land trust of a yet to be commercialized patch of pure Hawaiian soil, and a hard-ass father-in-law played by the perfectly cast Robert Forster, and you’ve got a complicated plot to fit alongside the complex matter of dealing with untimely death.

What works well works very well: Clooney’s believability as a struggling father and his impeccable chemistry with the surprise star Shailene Woodley.

Woodley plays Matt’s seventeen-year-old daughter with a dirty mouth, a drug-littered past, and shaky relationship with both parents rooted in anger, betrayal, and misunderstanding. And while on the surface, Woodley’s character is entirely clichéd and exactly like every other troubled teen that’s ever graced the screen, Woodley adds a surprising element of authenticity to the role.

Coming from an actress who is best known for her work on the horribly written and horribly acted teen series The Secret Life of an American Teenager, I didn’t expect much from Shailene Woodley, but I was pleasantly surprised. She perfectly captures an authentic American teenager in The Descendants and you can read every glare at her father, every loving touch on the shoulders of her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller), and every cross of her arms at an uncomfortable situation as actions of a true, struggling, defensive seventeen-year-old girl. I’m not completely convinced that she does it on purpose. In some ways, her trying too hard to come off as a volatile teenager makes her portrayal of one even more effective. By adding an extra dose of teen-attitude, and piling on the eye rolls, her character becomes more real almost by accident—capturing the excess emotions that teenagers often dish out by nearly over-acting herself. In the process, Woodley becomes the one to watch, taking attention away from her typical scene-stealing costar, George Clooney, and commanding the screen with her casual, makeup-less, girl next door appeal.

But what is truly a pleasure to watch is the growing closeness between Alexandra and her father. In an expertly inserted sub-plot, Alex admits to her father that her mother was cheating on him. This triggers a string of comically rich scenes involving the stalking and confronting of Matt’s wife’s lover which creates countless moments for skillfully tiered character development.  The subplot is particularly effective in showcasing the growing bond between Alethe-descendants-12142011x and her father as they work together to seek self-satisfying revenge.

“Don’t do that,” Matt tells Alex as they make plans to visit the cheater, Brian Speer (played by Matthew Lillard), at his rented beach cottage and confront him, “Don’t go getting excited.” But she is excited, and he’s excited, and the complex nature of the situation—confronting the man that you’re dying wife/mother cheated with, alongside the drama of the real emotions involved, is too interesting to not get excited about even as audience members. It is through this mystery that Alex and Matt are solving that we see their relationship build and shift. And the idea of bonding over something so heavy, and being able to convey it with comic appeal is one of the high points of the film.

The scene where all this culminates, when the cheater’s family and Matt’s family meet, is priceless old-school comedy gold where a character is cornered in an incredibly awkward situation and struggles to get out of it. It’s hands down the best scene of the movie. And all the while, amidst the comedy, Clooney subtly captures the rage, sadness, and forgiveness of a man who is losing his wife not to the man who she cheated with, but to bad luck and a boating accident.  It’s a unique emotion, and one that Clooney conveys in a way that makes the audience sigh in anguish and just as quickly laugh with pleasure.

And while this plot point to find his wife’s secret lover is effective, there are other plot points that fall flat. In many ways, the movie ties the plot too tightly, making too many knots. Some characters are unnecessary. The first one that’d be on my chopping block is Sid—Alex’s dumb friend (played by Nick Krause) who tags along on the family’s adventures. His pure purpose is comic relief, and while his character involves humorous punches to the face when he says ridiculous things, he’s only good for a dumb laugh that we’ve seen countless times before.  The big mistake with his character was trying to bring heart to it. In an awkward and forced scene, Matt confronts Sid when he can’t sleep and Sid opens up about his father’s recent death. The scene intends to parallel Alex’s mother’s pending death. It was supposed to humanize Sid, make him more than the dumb teen who talks like a surfer dude and cracks lame “retarded’ jokes.  But it’s ineffective. Clooney seems to have no sympathy for Sid, no chemistry with Sid, and nothing enlightening or satisfying was accomplished by their late night chat.

Another woven plot strand deals with the land trust Matt and his cousins must decide to sell or not.  This plot line introduces ten ubiquitous cousins that pop into scenes throughout the movie, urging Matt to go along and sell their land in order to pave the way for million dollar resorts and golf courses that’ll give each of the cousins some extra zeros on their bank statements. The decision to sell is a big one and everyone has an opinion, but the plot meanders with this storyline. In one scene, the decision to sell the land is given a lot of attention and weight, and in the next scene, Matt argues that he has bigger things on his mind like the death of his wife. It’s difficult to understand how much weight this decision was intended to have in the plot. What purpose does it serve except to introduce way too many excess characters who superficially care about their dying family member, but mostly just care about their own pockets? And predictably, in the end, after countless uncomfortable scenes with locals insisting that selling is a bad idea because of traffic and family legacies, Matt decides not to the sell the land, but what purpose does this serve? Yay! Hawaii will stay pretty! Yay, the family will still be able to camp on the land like they used to with their mother. So what, we understand that Matt has changed? That he wants to hold on to what’s his? We understand he’s changed without this plot point. We see it in his interactions with his daughters. We see it in how they respect him, how they understand him, how they walk next to him by choice.

The resolution about his decision not to sell feels incomplete. We’re left with so many questions—how much did the fact that Brian Speer would benefit financially from the sell factor into his decision not to? How do his cousins take the news? We’re led to believe not well, but at the same time, there isn’t one character who feels particularly strong about the issue.  We’re given a batch of superfluous cousins to add to the plot who all have opinions, but none of them have strong enough ones to warrant our interest. The conflict is flat. The resolution is mute. The audience is happy with his decision because it feels right, but at what benefit for the character that wasn’t achieved elsewhere?

At times, the film feels like it was shoved into a plastic bottle in order to contain some of the drama. It’s squelched in places where the drama could thrive. Sometimes, the drama doesn’t hit at hard as it could. And while this light-hearted tragedy seems to be the goal of the filmmakers, it would illicit more emotion from the audience if the weight of the drama was allowed to flourish.

The scene where Matt tells Alexandra that her mother is going to die ends too quickly.  The news is given too flatly, the beautiful shot of her crying underwater ends too immediately, and the angry attack at her father for telling her the news while she was in the pool cuts the emotion and ends the scene just as the weight of it is beginning to resonate. It’s too rushed.  The next scene follows too quickly, and the characters and the audience are cheated of their time to grieve.581851-2011_the_descendants_010

The same is true in the scene where Alex tells Matt that her mother was cheating on him. Clooney plays the role of wounded bird beautifully, where you can almost physically see the blow the news is to his face and his composure, but just as this resonates, again, we’re given a humorous scene where Clooney goofily runs down the street on his way to talk to his wife’s closest friends about what he’s just heard, tripping on his sandals, and looping around the boulevard.

I understand that the gem of the film is its ability to allow comedy and drama to co-habitat, and while this is achieved tonally through the narrative twists, the filmmakers’ penchant to immediately rush to a joke snubs some of the movie’s ability to hit hard with the devastating emotion of the scenes. It has all of the pieces needed in order to get the audience crying with laughter while retrieving their hearts from the popcorn-littered floor, and in many cases it does, but it misses an opportunity to master both comedy and drama by cutting to comedy too quickly, and refusing to cut a few too many superfluous plot-lines.

The pure pleasure, though, of watching Matt’s relationship with his daughters morph and grow in an entirely organic and humanist way is worth struggling through a few awkward Sid-involved scenes and one too many cousins in Hawaiian shirts. And the film’s final shot of the three remaining members of the King clan sharing ice cream underneath the blanket their mother was cloaked in in the hospital is a beautiful send-off, and a near-perfect bow on the entire story. It encapsulates the characters and how they’ve changed, starting out separate, on opposite ends of the game board, and ending up amicably together—they may have lost their mother, but they have their father back.  And thankfully, the freshly-black-eyed Sid is no where to be found.