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Spontaneous (2020)

Spontaneous is a movie that grabbed my attention immediately, made me laugh quickly, and then made me fall in love over the course of its explosive 100 minutes. The more I think back about this bizarre little movie, based on the YA novel by Aaron Starmer, the more affection I have for it and its messy accomplishments. Writer/director Brian Duffield has been one of the most exciting screenwriters for years, penning highly inventive stories that have a distinct, vivacious comedic voice that leaps off the page and smacks you across the face with how good it is, and then you ask for more (check out The Babysitter for the closest representation of what a Duffield screenplay delivers; skip the sequel though). This is Duffield’s debut as a director and I feel like he’s a natural fit for the quirky, blood-soaked material. Spontaneous is a dark comedy that can also make you feel something because it doesn’t simply treat its characters as disposable punchlines.

So the senior class of Covington High School has a serious problem. They’re spontaneously exploding. Nobody knows why, nobody knows who will be next, and even after a government quarantine, the answers aren’t any clearer. Mara (Katherine Langford) just wants to live to grow into a badass older lady who lives on the beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Her dreams of a life after graduation might never come true. Dylan (Charlie Plummer) introduces himself to Mara and they begin a tender courtship, falling in love during a precarious time where either of them could explode and soak the other in gore and viscera. Can these two crazy kids make it and grow up when their own bodies might betray their fleeting happiness?

Almost instantaneously I was drawn into the romance between Mara and Dylan, and I enjoyed deeply how each helps to shape the other, finding a sincere connection in the most extreme and unexpected of circumstances. Their budding romance dances with tragedy and dread as we worry over the fate of our lovers; surely, with this horrific premise, they won’t end happily ever after, or could they? Every time another student exploded, I winced. I laughed a few times, I’ll admit, because the context can become darkly hilarious and absurd, but it’s also a natural human reflex to relieve tension. Each one of these kids is a potential suicide bomber and they don’t know it. It’s sudden and something that you, even as a viewer, will never get used to. What you will do is start to dread who is next and whether that explosion sound was someone you liked. With an omnipresence of tragedy, it pushes the characters to make the most of their potentially short lives and that brings a greater significance to their next steps, the little attempts to “feel like an adult,” to reach for their desires, and to declare who they are while they are still standing to do so. It takes the coming-of-age setup and deftly dials up the emotional stakes.

Make no mistake though, Spontaneous is an uproariously funny movie. We’re primarily seeing the world from the perspective of Mara and her narration and occasional fourth-wall breaks. There are some fun asides where other characters take over narration duties, but this is chiefly her movie and she’s delightfully odd, prickly, and worthy of our attention. Duffield’s screenplay is brimming with wit and the conversational banter flows with such a confident cadence, all while not being overly mellifluous and self-satisfied. I adored just spending time with the characters because I was anticipating what they would say and do next. The social satire is present but not as substantial as I would have thought. The film trades in familiar stereotypes we’ve come to associate with high school movies, yet it can take some interesting detours, like when the football team cheers in support about their fellow player for coming out as gay. This is a high school movie mixed with a horror movie, where a big party to cut loose could become the latest crime scene. Most of the adults are simply scared and don’t know what to do, and that helpless vulnerability extends outward and keeps going. Just because you may be older doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. I cackled plenty from the physical humor, slapstick gross-out gags, but when Duffield wanted to be serious, you better believe I shut my trap and pulled up the blanket.

I think it’s worth acknowledging, and I don’t consider this a real spoiler, that the cause of the spontaneous combustion is never resolved. There is no explanation, and if that’s a deal-breaker for you then I think you’re prioritizing the wrong parts of what Spontaneous is offering. It doesn’t really matter why it’s happening because the movie isn’t a scientific mystery. As much as it might seem bizarre to declare, this is far more than the “kids blown into bloody bits” movie. It’s not about what is happening per se but how it emotionally affects the characters. The unknown bodily explosions could serve as a gory metaphor for modern-day threats of school shooters, terrorism, or even our current pandemic (pick your metaphor, anything really works). Students don’t know who will be next, when their time will be up, and an anxious pall hangs over their day-to-day lives as they trudge onward trying to regain a sense of normalcy during a troubling and uncertain time of numbing trauma. That’s really the core of the movie, the response to inexplicable trauma. Some characters maintain a blasé, nihilistic attitude, questioning whether their minute remaining time has value. Others look at the random threat of exploding as a motivator to overcome the obstacles that kept them from achieving their goals, ignoring social hang-ups and personal misgivings. It’s the proverbial kick that Dylan needs to finally talk to the girl he’s been crushing on. He elects to live with his remaining time on this planet, no matter how brief, and elects to be happy, which is about one of the bravest things a person can do. That’s why the combustible student body doesn’t need an explanation, and to be fair what possible explanation would ever have been truly satisfying (“Oh, we all just ate too many carbs. Huh.”)?

If she hadn’t already established herself from Netflix’s somber soap 13 Reasons Why, this would have been a star-making role for Langford (Knives Out). She’s captivating from her first moment onscreen when she discusses the mundane details of her day at school right before the girl in front of her explodes. Her sardonic and spiky attitude permeates the movie and gives the film an energetic jolt, amplified by Duffield’s stylish flourishes that reminded me at points of Edgar Wright with how playful and involved the visual transitions could get. Our leading lady is a force of nature, and after enough time, you can understand why Tess wants to be her bestie, why Dylan would fall in love with her, and why other students would be afraid of Mara. There are moments where Langford can be silly and diverting, like dressing in mourning over the 2016 election, and others where she feels like she’s harnessing the totality of youthful feminine rage (I loved a late declarative statement directed at our current president) to be a symbol. The “same old” just isn’t going to cut it when the stakes are this high. Langford isn’t just the too-cool gal spitting pithy insults from a safe distance. There’s some heavy-duty existential drama here that she carries while through the prism of her eccentric teenager’s attitude. Her romance with Plummer (All the Money in the World) is sweet and affecting and feels entirely genuine.

Sticky, sweet, and wickedly funny, Spontaneous is obsessed with death, the uncertainty of knowing when your time is up, and yet I came away feeling ultimately uplifted and moved. There are some jolting moments, both funny and heart-breaking, and Duffield wants you to take the time to feel the full experience of being young and angry and hopeful and anxious and in love and feeling weird. In a disastrous year of worldwide calamities, Spontaneous is a bright spot, and given the bloody premise, that should tell you everything you need to know about the year 2020. This is a delightful, heartfelt, and surprisingly mature teen drama that also happens to have people bursting like balloons. Duffield even touches upon the profound at points, which is hard to do with any filmmaker, let alone one playing with these crazy genre elements. Spontaneous is a coming-of-age drama with equal parts ache and warmth, gallows humor and personal insight. Find this movie, devote 100 minutes of your time, and wear a poncho if necessary.

Nate’s Grade: A

Huckleberry (2019)

As I’ve been more involved in my local film scene, I’ve gotten to know and befriend many good people and creatives that are following their dreams. My long-standing belief is that any movie is a miracle given the enormous undertaking and collaboration it requires, especially if it’s through the often arcane and contradictory gatekeepers of the studio system in Hollywood. Fortunately, writers and directors just gather what resources they can and make their movies on their own terms rather than waiting. I’ve found that these projects could benefit from sincere and respectful film reviews, and that’s something I can actually contribute to. As with other Ohio film projects, I do happen to know a few people involved in key areas with the movie Huckleberry (currently available for free on Amazon Prime, folks), but I promise to be as objective as possible with any constructive criticism and discussion. It’s an intriguing 77-minute feature with an admirable presentation, good acting, and some plotting missteps that hold it back from hitting its full potential.

In Ohio 1999, Huckleberry “Huck” (Daniel Fisher-Goldman) is trans and living as a man, with the occasional hormone shot via the Internet. He’s living with a foster brother (Yang Miller), aggravating various neighbors and authority figures with his attitude, and not-so-secretly crushing hard on his friend Jolene (Sarah Ulstrup). The problem is she already has a boyfriend, an abusive drug-addict named Clint (Justin Rose) who Huck cannot stand. One night it’s too much for Huck to bear, and he takes it upon himself to provide a reckoning for Clint. However, this confrontation doesn’t quite go as planned and an “unknown attacker” gets back at Huck.

The story of a hero pulled into the spiderweb of a wronged woman in need of protecting is the setup of many an indie thriller and classic Hollywood noir. It’s the scenario of the character getting in over their head and learning that their preconceived notions of the world were naïve. Huckleberry borrows elements from that familiar setup. The direction of the story is very much tied to the lengths Huck will go to protect and/or win over his crush, Jolene. You think this will ultimately create a series of spiraling events that get worse and worse, but that’s also not quite what happens.

Huck is our plucky protagonist unafraid of much, including kissing his crush as his school video project (under different circumstances this act, and his insistence on sharing it to the class knowing Jolene’s potential discomfort, might come across more as creepy). The story does a fine job of establishing a one-sided relationship between Huck and Jolene. She does care for her friend but she’s clearly hesitant about anything beyond platonic, but she doesn’t use Huck’s obvious feelings for overt scheming. It would be easy to have her slide into femme fatale territory and manipulate Huck to take out Clint, but that doesn’t happen. Huck, seeing himself the champion, takes it upon himself to target Clint, and this unrequested intervention actually upsets Jolene and harms Huck’s relationship with her. That was a nice development. By choosing to have Huck incapacitated for a decent portion of the film, Jolene steps into the spotlight. The change in her character is a tad rushed, having to get to a place where she welcomes Huck’s white knight compulsions, but I feel writer/director Roger Hill (Flying Paper) has put together sufficient reasons why she would make her final decision.

This is a low-budget movie that doesn’t feel like a low-budget movie thanks to the admirable professionalism of its presentation and the occasionally stirring cinematography. There were a few moments that made me go, “Wow,” which is exceptionally rare for low-budget films. The photography by Jon Coy (The Turn Out) is gorgeous and makes a painterly use of light. The sets are impeccably chosen as well, making fantastic use of the decaying parts of small-town Ohio to provide a sense of ambience and time and place. There are some judicious shot selections as well, often tethering the camera to a moving object like a car. There’s one shot I thought was really well done where the camera is attached to a shopping cart and we watch Huck place different items inside, each contributing to a bigger, sinister purchasing picture of what lies ahead.

Another sterling facet of Huckleberry is the acting overall. Ulstrup (The Dance of Amal) is a future star waiting to happen. There are several moments that live or die depending upon her line delivery, and she always succeeds, elevating the scene. A tearful confessional late in the movie had me spellbound. She comes across as so natural from scene-to-scene, whether it’s her awkward uncertainty of what to do with her friend’s feelings for her or the hurt and self-loathing she swallows in her abusive relationship. Ulstrup is excellent at hiding the affectations of acting and digging into her character. Fisher-Golden (The Emma Agenda) has an interesting presence and can definitely play to his character’s strengths of know-it-all condescension and coiled anger. The actor’s best moments are when he’s trying to contain the emotions that will spill out. Rose (Super Dark Times) does a fine job conveying a grungy, desperate lowlife who probably knows he’s never going to be cut for a better life than the one he’s eking out. Rose could have gone on autopilot as the “creepy abusive boyfriend” role, but he establishes a, for lack of better word, integrity to the character that reminded me of the better character actors. I could see Scoot McNary (Argo) in this part, and that’s a fine comparison. I want to single out one performer for making the most of it. Consider the No Small Parts Award to Dennis Lee Delaney (Departure), who plays the school principal who clearly has contempt for Huckleberry, referring to him by his feminine birth name. Again, it’s the kind of role that could be a caricature, but Delaney underplays the scene, bringing a greater sense of realism and disdain. At the end of his one scene, I found myself congratulating the actor and hoping casting directors would see this.

Where the movie miscalculates is once Huck is attacked by an unknown assailant. The aftermath takes up maybe a half hour and far too long, which puts the main character in the penalty box and relies upon the established supporting characters to carry the film. This can’t quite work because the supporting cast, with the exception of Jolene, have just existed to serve the protagonist. They don’t feel like they have a real inner life of their own. This makes it even more challenging when the narrative transforms into a “who dunnit?” mystery. The obvious first suspect is Clint, but the movie telegraphs he is not the perpetrator and makes you suspect everyone else, so we’ll get scenes of people acting mysteriously vague and peculiar to keep up the air of mystery. When a character responds to the news of Huck awakening with a look of worry, is that person the culprit? When another character ominously alerts someone that Huck has awoken, it plays like a warning, but ultimately most of these are misdirects. The narrative cannot sustain this extended guessing game because we haven’t gotten to know the supporting characters to the point that we may suspect them. When the eventual culprit is revealed, I literally said seconds before, “Wait, who is this character?” The reveal lacks the impact needed for a mystery because the eventual culprit was so incidental as to be forgotten. Once revealed, I felt like Huckleberry found some renewed life, because now this person had a secret to keep and would they be caught? How far would they go to keep it? If the film were going that route, I would reveal the perpetrator with no mystery early to better luxuriate in that tension of the consequences of this violent act. However, the emphasized mystery doesn’t allow for that, so it places the film in an awkward holding area with characters unable to carry the narrative burden.

There are a few problems with setting the movie in 1999 and one of them is the treatment of being a trans high school student, an important dramatic aspect that doesn’t feel fully explored. Early on, when the movie establishes that our lead character is a trans man, it got my attention a little more, as this is not a perspective often showcased in movies during this time period. I thought it would be a way to make a neo-noir thriller or coming-of-age indie fresh. The problem is that nobody in this Ohio rust belt high school views Huckleberry being trans as any big deal. The only push-back comes from his principal during their hostile meeting. That perspective might work in 2019, after greater trans representation and general cultural understanding, but it feels inauthentic to a Midwestern world of twenty years ago. As somebody who was in high school in the 90s, in Ohio, I can say that any trans student living openly as they felt comfortable would have met some degree of resistance, name-calling, and bullying. The fact that everyone in this high school is so accommodating and understanding is remarkable and remarkably unrealistic.

This also opens up the question over why the filmmakers elected to have Huck be a trans man at all. It doesn’t affect the story in any significant way, beyond maybe one neighbor’s added fury when catching his teen daughter intimate with “another girl.” I suppose you could make the argument that Huck is trying to stake his claim on his identity, on this town, and doesn’t care what people think, but does the character need to be trans to convey this? You could also argue just having the lead character be trans is a positive for diversity and simply having better representation, and that’s true. Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that the story had this really interesting perspective and as executed it feels too peripheral. Huck could just have easily been a cis lesbian and achieved the same effect, or even just been a straight cis male. If you’re going to make your protagonist a figure from a marginalized minority group, often the target of bullying and worse, it feels like a narrative disservice to not make that perspective known. This is a very general analogy, but imagine telling the story of an African-American WWII soldier integrated in the armed services and having every person be oblivious to their race and the potential conflict.

Huckleberry clipped along nicely and had many attributes that I admired, from the crisp photography, professional use of visuals and locations to enhance the story and mood, and the overall good acting. The story is only lesser because there are certain choices that don’t feel as best capitalized, from the main character being trans to the inclusion and overlong attention on a mystery that feels like a diversion at best. Also at no point does any character explain why Huckleberry wants to be called Huckleberry, which seems like a moment tailor-made for 90s-centric indie cinema. The story elements were there for an even more engaging, compelling, and unnerving story but it can’t quite maximize that potential. As a result, Huckleberry is an enjoyable and sincere little movie that was knocking on the door of being great. It’s worth your 77 minutes and I think it points toward bigger and even better things for Hill and Ulstrup in particular.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Blockers (2018)

Blockers (nee Cock Blockers, and changed on some posters to appear like Rooster-Shape Blockers) is like getting two fairly funny sex comedies in one. We have the perspective of the panicked parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz) who are doing whatever they can to thwart their daughters from seeing through their presumed deflowering pact on prom night. We also have the horny teen perspective from the teen girls (Kaitlyn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon). Each group has their own character arcs and comic set pieces, flunkies and wild supporting characters, and as they criss-cross over the course of one debauched night, lessons will be learned and, more importantly, feel earned. I was steadily impressed with how much Blockers does and does well, chiefly maintaining a sex positive attitude and never supporting the parents in their hysterical, generally sexist alarm. Each parent has to confront their feelings about really letting their daughter grow up, and that relationship leads to a sweet moment for each to acknowledge the error of their ways and grow closer with their child. If this had come out in the 80s or 90s, I’m sure the film would have adopted the parental viewpoint as correct. Hell, if it came out in the 80s, the fact that one of the daughters is gay would have been a source of shock or shame. Today, the father already knows and supports his daughter being a lesbian (he frets she’ll feel pressured to lose her virginity to the wrong sex). Oh, on top of all that, the movie is pretty funny from start to finish thanks to a deep cast of characters. Cena impressed with 2015’s Trainwreck and he shows yet again the promise of his heretofore-untapped comic resources. There is one comic set piece involving blind couple foreplay that feels downright inspired as it develops. Blockers is a raunchy sex comedy with more on its mind than yuks. It’s got a sweet center that allows the characters and their relationships to feel genuine. When you care about the people onscreen, it helps eliminate the sense of downtime.

Nate’s Grade: B

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a twenty-year plus sequel that is way more fun than you would have expected for a twenty-year plus sequel. It’s updated to modern-day by ditching a living board game and instead transporting four Breakfast Club high school stereotypes into the world of an old school adventure video game. The biggest boost is the camaraderie and comic interplay of the four leads (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black), each blessed with memorable moments to shine and a satisfying arc. The adults are great at playing as children-in-adult-bodies. The film does a good job of introducing the rules of its world while also explaining the mechanics of video games (cut scenes, life meters, re-entering the game), at the same time holding your hand through it all. The satire of video games is often amusing like the strengths/weaknesses discussion, and there’s a very good reason why Gillan is dressed in a skimpy outfit, which even the movie calls out. It’s a simple story told without subtlety but this movie is packed with payoffs and spreads them evenly throughout. The actors are truly delightful and this should be a breakout role for Gillan. She is very adept at being silly with physical comedy and has a wonderful bit where she tries to seduce some guards after some flirting coaching from Jack Black. Thankfully, Black being a self-obsessed teen girl on the inside doesn’t veer into transphobic/homophobic mockery. The awkwardness of the body swap scenario is never forgotten, which lends itself to consistent comedy and heart. There are a lot of great little moments and enjoyable set pieces. Jumanji is a tremendously fun movie that won’t insult fans of the original. If you’re looking for an unexpected amount of entertainment this holiday season, check out the Jumanji sequel and one of the year’s best comic teams.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

15 years. 6 movies. 3 different lead actors. 2 reboots. I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the American public likely knows more about Spider-Man than their relatives. In 2002, the first Spider-Man movie kicked off the new century by affirming to studios that superhero movies are a sound financial investment. Director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire kicked off the glut of superhero cinema, paving the path for the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its own unparalleled run of financial and critical success. Then the overreach killed off Raimi’s Spider franchise in 2007 and overreach again killed off Sony’s Spider reboot in 2014. Sony wisely sought out an assist from the gurus of Marvel, striking a deal and having the web-slinger return to the MCU. Fans rejoiced. Spider-Man: Homecoming announces itself as a brash, exhilarating, hilarious, and amazingly assured film that immediately lines up with the upper tier of the MCU. Marvel should use this as Exhibit A, submit it to Fox, and say, “Here’s how we can do your franchises better.”

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is your ordinary 15-year-old from Queens, New York who was given amazing powers after being bit by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider. It’s been weeks since he was called into action by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to thwart Captain America (Chris Evans). Now Peter is back home and waiting for his literal call to adventure, for Stark to officially call him up to join the Avengers. Peter anxiously waits for school to end so he can don his Spider-Man suit, modified by Stark Industries, and fight local crime and injustice. This mostly amounts to stopping bicycle thieves, helping old ladies with directions, and other inglorious tasks. Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) would prefer he focus on his studies rather than the time he’s been spent on the “Stark internship” (his fib to cover said crime-fighting). New weapons begin appearing on the streets, built from the discarded alien technology from The Battle for New York. Spider-Man investigates the source, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a pilot who adopts the moniker of The Vulture while in the sky with his winged jet pack. The formidable weapons pose a real pressing danger to society, and Peter pushes further, at his own peril, to confront the Vulture and stop the flow of high-tech weapons.

For many fans of the webhead, this will feel like the first time they’re watching the Spider-Man of the comics on screen. This is the first film incarnation where Peter remains in high school for the entire duration of the movie, and it’s also thankfully the only telling that eschews an origin story. He just is Spider-Man, however, the arc of the movie is him settling into that identity. It’s in many ways a coming-of-age story for the superhero set, as Peter has to come to terms with his earnest desire to help others and his own maturation, both as Spider-Man and as a high school sophomore. He’s learning just as much to be Peter as he is Spider-Man. Just because he has these powers doesn’t mean he’s ready for the rigors of the world. Homecoming is very much a high school movie. There are familiar John Hughes influences throughout, and the film smartly subverts certain high school tropes (driving lessons, prom dad from hell). It presents our hero struggling with asking the cute upperclassman (Laura Harrier) to the dance just as much as the demands of being a fledgling local superhero. His interior life is much more available and relatable but he’s still a teen navigating the world. Also, by having Peter be the youngest film incarnation yet, it allows for the satisfying indulgence of superhero wish-fulfillment. Whereas the X-Men powers are naturally linked to the progression of puberty, those are usually portrayed as a curse, something that ostracizes, confuses, and produces great anxiety and fear. With Spider-Man, being a superhero is the coolest thing in the world. He’s not consumed with angst like Andrew Garfield’s broody Peter Parker and his weirdly special DNA (what was the deal with his parents and that conspiracy? Oh well). Watching this exuberant Peter Parker embrace his new abilities with glee is a great way to keep the movie light and bouncy.

This is also, bar none, the funniest film yet in the MCU (yes, even dethroning Guardians of the Galaxy). With the lighter tone, the movie finds consistent opportunities to inject comedy, from the irony of Peter trying to lead a normal life, to the awkwardness of Peter’s attempts at crime-fighting, to his over eager demeanor, to misunderstandings and hasty excuse-making to conceal his double life, to the sterling supporting cast of characters that contribute different flavors of jokes when called upon. If anything there is so many talented supporting players I wanted even more time with them (Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr). This cast is a comedic embarrassment of riches.

I was laughing pretty much from beginning to end with Homecoming. Just thinking back on the school’s morning announcements (complete with anchor Betty Brant) makes me giggle. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the movie’s chief source of comic relief, and in less careful hands he would become rapidly annoying. Instead, he’s a reliable presence and given a character arc with a payoff of his own, his desire to be Peter’s “guy in the chair.” It’s genuinely impressive screenwriting when even the comic relief sidekicks have arcs. Zendaya does an impressive job of selling every one of her jokes, which traffic in a very specific smart-aleck, apathetic tone. She’s graduated from the Disney Channel to the bigger leagues. There’s a hysterical series of inspirational education videos featuring Captain America, and if you stay past the end credits there’s a great payoff for that. There’s even some sly meta jokes calling back to Raimi’s Spider-Man. Every joke at least lands and most of them hit hard, benefiting from strong development and timing.

Nevertheless, just because it happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year, Spider-Man: Homecoming still finds plenty of space to be dramatic and thrilling. The comedy doe not tonally detract from the other elements. This is not an insubstantial movie just because it knows how to have some fun (take notes, Zack Snyder and DC). This is not a flippant movie because of tone or the heavy joke quotient. There are sincerely sweet moments born out of the characterization, like when Aunt May takes it upon herself to teach Peter how to dance (this would not be possible with a geriatric Aunt May). Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) has a steady command with his high-flying visuals and maintains the tight walk of tone that allows all the elements to work together as a blissful whole.

There are superb action sequences that advance the story forward and allow for the characters to grow. It’s exactly what good action is supposed to do, besides, you know, quicken the pulse. The humor can also arise naturally from these set pieces. Take for instance Peter suiting up while attending a suburban house party. He spots some alarming energy discharges on the other side of the suburb, but without any tall buildings for him to latch onto, he has to hoof it the whole way on foot. It’s a smart comedic aside and it helps to remind us that this Spider-Man isn’t an instant pro after getting his powers. It all comes together best in a D.C. rescue at the Washington Monument. It bridges the personal with the action. The bifurcated ferry set piece serves as the Act Two break and it’s a killer segment that pushes Peter to his limits to solve a dilemma that seems incapable of being fixed. There may not be any action scene to rival Raimi’s finest but the character-centric action and the organic development of the complications lays a foundation for a consistently entertaining film littered with joyful payoffs.

The biggest fear I’ve read from Spidey fans was that the involvement of Robert Downey Jr. would tip the scales, turning a Spider-Man movie into a defaco Iron Man sequel. Considering America loves Iron Man, I don’t see how his inclusion is a problem. Civil War was still very much a Captain America film even though Iron Man was the co-lead. Tony Stark represents a distant mentor for Peter and also the gatekeeper. Peter is anxious to become an Avenger and looking for Stark’s approval, which brings an enjoyably unorthodox paternal side from Downey. If there is a complaint I can foresee, it will be that Spider-Man is too similar to Iron Man thanks to the special suit. Spider-Man’s suit has its own Jarvis-style A.I. program (adeptly voiced by Jennifer Connelly, wife to Paul Bettany, former voice of Jarvis) and extra special gadgets including a spider drone and unusual web shooting options. It provides a new sense of discovery for the character since we’re already starting with him powered. The second act is Peter getting accustomed to the boost his suit gives him, becoming reliant upon them, and then having it stripped away as a natural Act Two break so that the conclusion has even more stakes without the security of the suit. It makes Peter much more vulnerable. The Iron Man parts are more a background motivational force and this is still very much a Spider-Man film.

Holland (The Lost City of Z) is already my favorite Spider-Man. Period. He made such an immediate and strong impression in Civil War that I was greatly looking forward to his first big starring venture, and Holland does not disappoint. This is the first Spider-Man that doesn’t feel crushed by the heavy burden of being a superhero. He’s a kid eager to grow up and join the world of other caped crusaders, but he’s modeled his crime fighting from what he’s seen on TV. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s still an awkward kid, and Holland brings great authenticity to the smaller character moments and the bigger heroic strides (while maintaining a convincing American accent). This is a more relatable, vulnerable, and interesting Peter Parker. Even though he thinks he should be beyond the mundane life of high school, he doesn’t ever act pompous or look down on other characters, which is endearing. At times Holland feels like he’s going to explode with energy, as if life is too much to process in the intermediary. He’s a teenager and the world feels so big and open. It’s an instantly engaging and likeable portrayal that wonderfully capitalizes on the introduction from Civil War. This is a Spider-Man, and his spider world, that I want multiple sequels to further explore and challenge.

Keaton’s Vulture already ranks as one of the best villains in the MCU (a low bar, I admit), and that’s because the movie humanizes him and gives him significant moments. He’s just a regular working-class man trying to provide for his family. In fact the first five minutes of the movie focus exclusively on Toomes and explains his sticky situation. He feels cast aside by those in the upper echelons of power. His eventual “you and I are the same” speech to Spider-Man has credible points. You can see, from his perspective, how he’s an underdog sticking it to the rich elites. Shockingly, there’s only one death in the entire movie and even that is an accident. Toomes is not your standard comic book villain, and there’s a brilliant third act twist that makes him even more centrally involved in the narrative. That opens a delicious sequence of dramatic irony. Keaton has a quiet menace to him that’s very unsettling. It’s all in the lower register. His character doesn’t blow up. He just narrows his brow and intensifies that scary stare. I’m glad the filmmakers realized that more Keaton was an asset to the film.

Let’s also take some time to celebrate the sixth Spider-Man movie for having a diverse population of characters that would actually represent Queens. Peter’s best friend is of Filipino descent, the girl he crushes on is biracial, the loner girl is biracial, and even the high school bully, Flash Thompson, is Hispanic, played by Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. This might be Marvel’s most diverse cast yet, though “yet” being the operative word considering that Black Panther is arriving in early 2018.

This movie is a total blast. Spider-Man: Homecoming actually manages to give new life to a character that has already appeared in five other movies. That’s an amazing feat. Another amazing feat is that six different screenwriters, including the director, are credited with this movie, yet it feels fully coherent in its vision and presentation. This is Peter Parker, the teenager struggling with self-doubt, hormones, and an eagerness to grow up, and the movie feels much more human-scaled, forgoing giant CGI smash-em-ups for something more grounded, personally involving, and ultimately successful. Just because Homecoming is fast-paced and funny doesn’t mean it lacks substance. I was elated during long portions of this movie, impressed by the steady stream of setups and payoffs, the incorporation of the many characters and comedic voices, and the varied action set pieces that were focused on character progression. If you are tired of superhero stories, I’d still heartily recommend this movie. Dear reader, I feel like I’m failing you and turning into a frothing fanboy because I can only think, at worst, of negligible quibbles against the film. Everything in this movie works. Everything. It’s everything I was hoping for and then some.

Nate’s Grade: A

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Me-and-Earl-and-the-Dying-Girl-trailer-della-commedia-premiata-al-Sundance-1In many ways Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels like the perfect specimen that was programmed and brought to life in some mad scientist Sundance film lab. It’s got a hip point of view, a meta commentary on its plot and the directions it doesn’t take, style to spare with lots of self-aware camera movements, and even Wes Anderson-styled intertitles and colorful visual inserts, including stop-motion animation. It’s about two amateur filmmaking teenagers, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (R.J. Cyler), who befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to have terminal leukemia. The movie has a good heart and it deviates from convention with its storyline, though it has to stop and add narration to point out how it does this, like it demands a pat on the back for not being a “typical cancer weepie.” The big problem is that we’re stuck with the perspective of Greg, who is the least interesting character and just trying to stay invisible. He has a low opinion of himself and his friendship with Rachel will somehow make him a better person. Earl and Rachel are both tragically underwritten but valiantly played by their actors. The annoying aspect is that Greg makes everything about him and so does the movie. The supporting parts are broadly portrayed and fit awkwardly with the larger setting, like Greg’s overenthusiastic teacher, Rachel’s lush of a mother who seems one drink away from committing statutory rape, and Greg’s mom, who forces Greg to hang out with Rachel, even though they were acquaintances at best, because the plot demands it. The script by Jesse Andrews, based upon his YA book, sets up the completed tribute film as an emotional climax that cannot be met, and the abstract movie results prove it. This is a likeable, funny, and entertaining indie with a sense of style and wit. It’s good, but it could have been better. I wish the “Me” had been removed from its title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Easy A (2010)

Usually when I think “teen comedy” I think lowest common denominator and a pitch straight down the middle of the plate. Will there be fart jokes? Probably. Will the climax taken place at the prom? Absolutely. Does Easy A do either? Not a chance. This is the sort of teen comedy that would have greatly appealed to me back in my own days of high school institutional education.

Olive (Emma Stone) is a high school senior that gets good grades, behaves well, and spends her weekends hopping around her bedroom and singing a song she can’t get out of her brain. She’s not into parties or idiots or anything remotely dangerous. Then her world turns upside down when she fibs about losing her virginity. Suddenly Olive is branded as the school’s hussy. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous character, Olive decides to embrace the rumors, accessorizing her wardrobe with plenty of scarlet “A”s along the corseted bust line. Olive’s gay friend asks her for a huge favor: he wants to use her fake notoriety to lose his virginity. The two will attend a party, find a room, and dramatically interpret animated sex. It works like a charm. Her pal is given a free pass, some extra popularity, and it isn’t long before other downtrodden high school rejects seek a similar deal. Outraged at Olive’s lack of shame is Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the school?s busybody and leader of a vocal Christian abstinence program. She doesn’t know whether she wants to save Olive or banish her.

All hail the coming of Emma Stone, comedy goddess and future heartbreaker. Easy A is a fantastic showcase of the many strengths of this irresistible actress. After several supporting roles in films like Superbad and The House Bunny, this is the first opportunity for Stone to have a film where she gets to be the lead, and trust me folks, this won?t be the last one. Stone has a great way of becoming instantly empathetic and, much like the film, being brainy and playfully risqué at the same time. Watching the success of Stone is like watching the road not taken by Lindsay Lohan (be careful whose advice you take, Emma). Stone makes her good times seem effortless, like she really is having a blast playing up her bad girl image. Her facial expressions and sarcastic, know-it-all line readings help push her comedic range even further, and yet she remains completely empathetic the entire time. Stone is the kind of girl that other girls would want to hang out with and guys would crush on. It is impossible to not love this actress, and she makes Easy A easily enjoyable and downright effervescent at times.

The rest of the cast is having just as much fun with the material as Stone. Chief among them are Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s hyper-literate parents. They may seem like they stepped off the train from a Diablo Cody movie at first, but you will quickly get used to their glib rapid-fire repartee. Some might dismiss them as kooks. Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) tries to make the glamorous movie idea of the Hip Teacher into a droll square and succeeds admirably. There’s even Lisa Kudrow (TV’s Friends) as a guidance counselor and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween) as a blasé principal (“This is public school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus”). Then there’s Bynes (Hairspray, She’s the Man) in what was billed as her final film performance before hastily retiring from acting, and then following in the footsteps of other famous retirees like Michael Jordan, Stephen King, Jay-Z, and Brett Farve, and hastily un-retired. She has her cutesy, dimple-faced shtick she cling to, but what happened to her? Her face looks very swollen, like she had an allergic reaction on every day of shooting. It looks like someone inflated her head with the plot to turn her into a Macy’s Day balloon. I started to get concerned for Bynes by the end.

While Stone is the number one, two, and three reasons for seeing this movie, Easy A doesn’t let down her efforts. This is a teen comedy that might just be light years ahead of the pack. There are jokes guaranteed to go over the heads of a majority of audience members, from wisecracks about Sylvia Plath to French wordplay to the Kinsey scale. You’re not going to find any of that stuff in your typically brain-dead Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle (is it just pathetic to keep holding onto a 10-year-old anti-FPJ grudge? The answer is, “No!”). Though I died a little inside when the movie resorts to explaining the plot of The Scarlet Letter to Joe Public; however, this intellectual Cliff Notes salve was saved by Stone bemoaning the idiotic 1995 Demi Moore film that takes some of the sharpest deviations I’ve ever seen from a classic literary adaptation (“If I have to grade one more paper talking about Hester Prynne taking baths all the time?”). The dialogue is routinely snappy and occasionally barbed, which is a bit of a surprise. It’s witty, a little cheeky, but it doesn’t go over the line or play for the easy gross-out gag. It?s a well-constructed, well-executed teen comedy that has a playful zing, a facetious tone that celebrates literature and makes being smart sexy.

While sex is at the forefront of the plot, the film does not treat the serious subject matter with flippancy. There’s some heavy stuff about what it means to sell out your ideals, prostituting yourself in more ways than the obvious. Olive begins her crusade as a means of taking ownership of her reputation and as an amusing character to play. But then as she dives ahead, accepting gift cards for her imaginary yet cred-boosting favors, the bloom of idealism dims and the meaning of her crusade become murky. What point is she trying to prove, exactly? In the end, is there a sharp difference between being a prostitute and being a “prostitute”? How big of a distance can irony give you? Easy A may have its fun when it comes time to doing the deed (I was howling with laughter about Olive chastising her first “client” about his comment on the aroma of sexual intercourse), but this is a teen movie ready to accept the consequences of its actions with a clear and level head.

Not everything hums with precision. Easy A can be faulted for being too reverential and referential to 1980s teen comedies. Its ambition to be a modern-day member of this group is a bit too in-your-face. The abstinent Christian opposition feels too broadly drawn and setups for cheap shots and some downright mean punchlines. This movie is better than stooping to tin-eared caricature. The relationship between Olive and her best friend (Alyson Michalka) is vastly underdeveloped. The emergence of a Herpes outbreak also seems a little tacky, especially given its salacious carrier (trying hard not to spoil plot reveals). Then there are simply questions of believability. I?m not expecting a journalistic document of the American educational system, but since when was a high school student losing their virginity scandalous gossip? Why would Olive become the talk of the town by doing something that, according to the CDC, 80% of men and 75% of women have accomplished by age 19? Now, later in the film, the whiff of prostitution would definitely create a stir in the social gossip machine, and with technology, a rumor can spread at the speed of texting.

The film follows a well-worn path and owes a serious debt to the teen films of the 1980s, but Easy A is a winning teen comedy thanks to a snappy script, a playful sense of the taboo, and the courage to shoot for a higher level joke, also Stone’s charismatic comedic performance makes the grade. The entire movie has this bustling, quirky energy to it that feels un-labored. They make it all look so easy. Despite being a thorough genre flick, it is lifted thanks to its zesty writing and acting. In the most simplistically crass terms, Easy A scores.

Nate’s Grade: B

Fame (2009)

Was there anyone out there clamoring for a remake of the 1980 movie Fame? If so, was there anyone clamoring for a remake that drains all life and intensity and passion from the original, leaving behind a squeaky-clean, shallow, and dumbed down version perfect for teenagers? As we churn through Freshman Year to Senior Year, we will follow scads of teens (played unconvincingly by actors in their 20s) that aren’t worth our time. The movie is overproduced and utterly simplistic. Fame is a genuine waste of most of the talent on screen.

Apologies to the Fame theme song, but I was hard-pressed to remember anybody’s name even minutes after the movie ended. Literally, I was walking back to my car and for the life of me could not remember a single character’s name. This is because the movie crams about a dozen characters and gives little to no time to them for development. We don’t get scenes, more like snippets of scenes, snapshots compressing four years of life, and yet Fame also fails in displaying any maturation during that time period. I understand that the actors have to act like they?re plainly “acting” at the start, but the script doesn’t focus much on the rigorous training these kids undergo. Somehow in between one of the many fadeouts, the students are just better. Cutting to the chase makes for fine drama, don’t you think? Screenwriter Allison Burnett (Feast of Love) foolishly thought the audience would be more interested in watching the characters in sub-par soap opera dynamics rather than long moments of training talent. Inside the classrooms are expert teachers played by the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, and the stupendous Charles S. Dutton. We would all have been better served by spending more time at school.

The structure works out to this: small character snippet, then song and dance number, small character snippet, then song and dance number. Repeat. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that it has no showstopper. This is a movie about forging talent, and yet the song-and-dance numbers feel uninspired. They look competently choreographed but there’s little to dazzle because the sequences are few, treated indifferently, and edited within an inch of their lives. We are rarely afforded the luxury of enjoying the dancing. At least the Step Up movies knew that the audience didn’t come for the story. The high points for the film include a Halloween party with some impressive stutter-stop gyrations (does the school have a production design class to make all those fancy costumes and sets?) and an improvisational jam in the school cafeteria. One kid lays down a beat, others join in adding texture to the jam session. Though I suppose the aspiring actors are left with little to do. This moment isn’t necessarily fully believable but it effectively communicates the creative energies that should be coursing through a school dedicated to performing arts.

I don’t care about any of these characters, mainly because these people are one-line descriptions of characters. These are cardboard cut-outs of characters, and they do a disservice to cardboard. Jenny (Kay Panabaker, looking like Ellen Page?s little sister) is the mousy girl-next-door who needs to come out of her shell. On the opposite end, Malik (Collins Pennie) is an angry street kid who needs to tap into his life experiences for acting power (Burnett also has to make sure the “street kid” character has a deadbeat dad and a little sister who was killed in a drive-by shooting). One girl’s entire story is that she wants to be a dancer and wouldn’t mind annoying her stuffy WASP parents. She invites her new Hispanic wannabe DJ boyfriend (Walter Perez) out to dinner. Cut to thirty minutes later ad she’s breaking up with him to tour with a dance company. It’s supposed to be a moment of drama but I defy anyone to care. Why should I care about this relationship or these characters when the movie doesn’t bother to care?

The conflicts are usually contrived (oh no, the girl with the most talent in the rap group is told… she has the most talent), mostly involving grumpy, disapproving, fabulously wealthy parents. Denise (Naturi Naughton) is given both of these aforementioned conflicts. Her father demands she play piano, but she wants to sing, so how about she can play piano and sing? It hasn’t hurt Alicia Keys. In other instances, the conflict makes the characters annoyingly naïve, like when Jenny goes to the trailer of a sleazy soap actor to record an audition alone. When the characters do get a chance to speak their minds, well, you wish they would go back to dancing or singing. This also has to be the first time that Sesame Street is responsible for a student flunking out (an actor student gets a small-time gig on the long-running educational show and can’t keep her grades up at the same time).

Let’s face it, in the world of performing arts not everyone is on an even playing field of talent. The movie stumbles early during its montage of auditions, which provides some comic relief in watching the hopeless and untalented. Mostly, this audition process is a blur, but Fame loses serious credibility points when it reveals that some of the auditioning students who WERE the comic relief actually were accepted! How does that work? The movie wants me to make fun of a character for being bad and then the next minute the movie tells me that this applicant beat out thousands of other aspiring performers. I’m sorry, but that’s a credibility gap that Fame never recovers from.

For dancers and singers, it’s clear when they have talent, and it’s easy for a film to indulge. But what happens to the actors? Everyone in the movie is already an actor, per se, so when we get treated to supposedly revealing monologues, meant to display great acting talent, it comes across as unremarkable. The only time I have been blown away by a actor auditioning in a movie was when Naomi Watts just became a different person in 2001’s Mullholland Drive. It was sensational the way that she oozed sensuality and took control of her audition scene. Is it too much to ask that the actors who go through four years of intensive work in their chosen discipline be … better? But my biggest irk was the pseudo-filmmaker (Paul Iacono) who displays no discernible talent. His biggest creative break that we see is taping a drunken student poorly reciting NWA’s “Boys in the Hood” and then vomiting. But wait; being an auteur, he also uses split screens. I really hate it when movies involve amateur filmmakers because it always goes one of two ways, either 1) the movie overdoes it to the point of parody, or 2) the movie underplays the actual creative work, meaning that there is no foreseeable impression of talent. Why can’t amateur filmmakers ever be authentically good in movies? In Fame‘s case, I never saw anything that would justify this kid’s placement at such an esteemed performing arts school; and HE was one of the opening comic relief kids too. Is there a legacy program that they have to adhere to at this school or something?

Now, Fame is rated PG but is it too much to ask for something a little edgier than another sanitized high school musical? For one thing, the movie dances around the subject of its would-be gay ballet dancer (Paul McGill) being gay. It’s implied in mannerism but that’s all the bait you get, folks. Any school that deals in theater, performing arts, dancing, and acting, well let’s just say that there?s more than one token homosexual. The original 1980 Fame dealt with sex, drugs, abortion, and the hardships of pushing your body to the limits for a dream. You don’t ever see these performers sweat. Instead, they sit around and spout bland “follow your dreams” platitudes.

The best moment in Fame is the end credits, and I don?t mean that to be disingenuous. During the end credits we roll through the various actors and they cut loose, dance, act goofy, and get an opportunity to be silly. And it is in those final moments where these people feel like people, where they have become unrestrained by the director and the screenplay. The movie itself is overly labored without having anything to show for it. The large amount of characters and quick jumps through time make it downright impossible to connect. Worst of all, the signature performance sections are few and lacking true style. This is a derivative, easily forgettable remake that doesn’t even know the right steps to be an entertaining movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

17 Again (2009)

My introduction to tween sensation Zac Efron came last fall. After hearing about the dominance of the High School Musical franchise I decided to finally watch the first made-for-Disney Channel film and see why exactly tween girls were screaming themselves hoarse. And after watching the musical I felt, well, how can I put this diplomatically? It sucked. Hard. First off, the plot only covered auditioning for a musical, not the actual show. What the heck is up with that? How does a movie musical climax around callbacks? Amidst the bland vanilla pop tunes, goofy hoofing, and painfully simplistic life lessons about class-consciousness, there was the overall dreadful acting by the cast. Efron wasn’t the worst actor of the lot but he seemed to go on autopilot, beaming dreamily and leaving his mouth agape long enough to stockpile flies for a long winter. I could not understand why young girls and the media were making such a fuss over Efron. I am clearly not in Efron’s core flock of fawning fans, but after catching his fairly nimble work in 17 Again I think perhaps this guy might be able to break out from the clutches of Disney and grow into his own, unlike Miss Miley Cyrus, who I believe has an ankle bracelet that will detonate if she travels further than 100 feet from the Disney execs. They don’t want another Hilary Duff getting away and sticking a scorpion down her shorts (see: War, Inc.).

Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) hates his life. He’s 37, just been passed over for a promotion at his job, is getting divorced from his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and his two teenage children (Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg) think dear old dad is a doofus. Apparently, everything was better 20 years ago, in 1989 when Mike was a 17-year-old basketball phenom who had his whole life ahead of him, until he walked out on a climactic game to tend to Scarlett, who just revealed that she was pregnant. Mike wishes he had one last shot to be 17 and have his whole life ahead of him again. Thanks to a magic janitor (I believe it’s really the magic hobo from The Polar Express, except now he’s gone through a work program and become a respectable community custodian), Mike transforms into the visage of his 17-year-old self (Efron). Mike seeks help from his childhood pal Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), who poses as Mike’s father and enrolls him in the same high school his children attend. This leads to many awkward family encounters.

The body swap genre can be counted on for some decent fish-out-of-water laughs and some earned wisdom. Usually transporting young people into older bodies allows for more comedy because it leads to more socially awkward moments and the exaggerations of trying to be old before your time. 17 Again is consistently amusing enough and I was pleased that it found fun plot developments to explore from its body swap angle. So Mike is young once more but that doesn’t stop him from having, on the surface, inappropriate feelings for Scarlett. On top of that, teen Mike must beware the romantic advances of his own teenage daughter. Yes, the movie simultaneously explores robbing-the-cradle romance while dodging incestuous pratfalls al la Back to the Future. There is uncomfortable father-daughter sexual tension without getting too perverse. These two wrinkles nicely take advantage of the older person body swap premise and add some spice to an otherwise safe and sunny movie. Besides that, if you’ve seen any body swap movie from the past (and the 1980s were littered with body swap movies) then you’ll know exactly how everything will turn out with 17 Again. The movie is mostly silly, mostly the fun kind, but it doesn’t dip into being outrightly dumb. It’s derivative but it’s not fluff. I mean the essential premise revolves around a man regretting supporting his pregnant teen girlfriend/eventual wife. You won’t find that in the Hannah Montana Movie no matter how hard you try, perverts.

17 Again isn’t great art but it works as a showcase for its appealing star, the dewy-eyed, shaggy-coifed Efron. The filmmakers clearly know their target audience because Efron is shirtless and sweaty by minute one, displaying killer abs. By minute four, he’s dancing before his big basketball game (does this kid have a clause in his contract that he must play basketball in all his movies?). 17 Again asks little of Efron and he easily delivers on that mandate with a convincing performance that easily charms. He’s also adept at comic timing, particularly when he’s sparring with Lennon. Efron has a fabulous toothy grin and he’s a good-looking pup, but the jury’s still out on whether or not this kid can go the distance. He’s improved considerably since the first High School Musical launched his mug onto thousands of household products. He probably doesn’t have an Oscar in his future but he certainly will be headlining movies for years to come. He’s more movie star than actor, but let’s not mince words, the kid is a star (fun fact: Efron’s first acting credit is for an episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly).

The supporting cast surrounding Efron greatly add to the film’s surprise enjoyment. The subplot involving adult dweeb Ned romancing the principal (Melora Hardin) is an amusing diversion that manages to make me like all of the characters more. Lennon (Reno 911!) steals every moment he’s onscreen and develops a kooky chemistry with Hardin (TV’s The Office). The more these two actors interacted the more I wanted the movie to ditch everyone else. Mann gets the thankless job as “upset wife” but brings a spark to the character without coming across as grating. Trachtenberg (Euro Trip, TV’s Gossip Girl) is actually 23 years old but her youthful looks seem to lock her into teenage girl roles. Look out for cameos by comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho. Perry must have enjoyed working for about a week and cashing his check. Also, Perry looks absolutely nothing like Efron and appears to be over a foot taller than his younger, more genetically blessed doppelganger.

I feel sympathy for the editor of 17 Again, because clearly script supervisor Steve Gehrke must have been asleep for the entire film shoot. There are continuity gaps galore in this movie. Now, normally I don’t care so much about mild continuity errors in a movie because that’s just part of moviemaking. So if a character sits up in bed and the sheets are a few inches lower, or in a different ruffled state, well who cares? But when errors compile wildly and become flagrant distractions, then the movie has a problem and the script supervisor, the person in charge of catching those errors in progress, failed miserably. When teen Mike eats a hamburger in the school cafeteria it goes from being in his hands, out of his hands, having a bite out of it, and then magically reformed. Even worse is a moment when teen Mike is nursing a battle wound and his wedding ring keeps changing hands. Why would anyone even bother switching hands for a ring to begin with? That sounds like an easily avoidable hassle. To be fair, there are several factual errors that are not Gehrke’s total fault, though I’m dumfounded why no one else caught these. In 1989, the coach yells at Mike to quite dancing and refers to him as “Vanilla Ice,” but Vanilla Ice didn’t release his debut album until 1990 (apparently the coach knows his underground white hip-hop). What’s even more puzzling is that this pop culture reference is destined to sail over the heads of Efron’s target tween audience. All of this is easily verifiable. I won’t even get into Mike referring to “hippogriffs” 10 years before Harry Potter was published.

17 Again is a pleasant enough confection that is undemanding and yields some laughs and enough heart. The movie manages to be more mature than expected thanks to some kinky-for-PG-13 sexual tension and yet the movie is a harmless good time at the movies. Efron carries the movie ably but he’s got a great supporting cast to help carry the comedy load. Body swap movies are all invariably the same, and truly 17 Again must have been born with the sentence, “It’s reverse-Big.” It’s playful and light and cheery and pretty much an adept project for its star. It’s a small step in the right direction for Efron, and perhaps his fan base will start including more than squealing teenager girls primed to swoon at a moment’s notice. Swooning: it’s not just for the youngsters any more.

Nate’s Grade: B

American Teen (2008)

890Filmmaker Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes) wanted to document the lives of actual American teenagers. After a national search, she settled on the town of Warsaw, Indiana, which we’re told in the opening narration is “mostly white, mostly Christian, and red state all the way.” American Teen is the feature-length documentary that chronicles the lives of four Warsaw teens during their senior year. The class of 2006 includes Colin, a basketball star worried about securing a scholarship. His father, an Elvis impersonator, supports his son but reminds the kid that dad has no money for school, so it’s either a scholarship or the Army. This, naturally, places tremendous pressure on a 17-year-old and his play diminishes as he tries to up his stats. There’s Megan, the queen bee at the school who feels pressured by her family to get into Notre Dame. This makes her act like a cretin, apparently. Jake is a kid who feels uncomfortable in his own acne-scarred skin. He plays video games a lot and desperately wants to find a girlfriend. Then there’s Hannah, the artsy girl prone to spontaneous dancing who feels trapped by her town.

I found American Teen to be largely unbelievable for two major reasons. First, teenagers today are way too media savvy after having grown up on a bevy of reality TV programming, the ultimate genre of manipulation. Remember way back in 1991 when MTV first started The Real World, the pioneering reality TV show? The people selected to live together as a social experiment were interesting, unguarded, a nice cross-section of the country; you felt like you could run into these people on the street some time. Then about half way into its run, the likely turning point being the Las Vegas season, The Real World participants became self-aware. They knew to exaggerate behavior for manufactured drama, to play up romantic crushes, and to work from the realm of playing a well-defined cliché character; no longer did these people feel real, instead they felt like drunken auditions for a really lousy soap opera. And all of the people started looking inordinately beautiful, chiseled hunks and leggy, waif-thin models. When was the last time they ever had an overweight person on that show? Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that thanks to the machinations of reality TV, teenagers today have grown up with the concept of cameras and they know how to manipulate reality. One could argue that you will never capture the true essence of a person by pointing a camera at them, because the instant a camera is placed to document reality it changes reality; people talk differently, either more reserved or confessional. A camera changes reality, but this discussion point is a little beyond the realm of American Teen. So I doubt the legitimacy of watching the “real lives” of “real students,” especially when these kids come from a more affluent area and probably digest other MTV semi-reality dramas like the unquestionably fake The Hills.

41054570So how would you behave if you knew a film crew was making a documentary in your school? I fully believe that many of the actions caught on camera are done so because the students wanted to ensure that they would be in a movie. I cannot blame them. I mean, if I was close to being involved in a film I would probably check every possibility to ensure my lovely presence eventually fills up the big screen. What do you want from kids who have grown up as a generation of self-reflective narcissists thanks to reality TV and uninvolved parents (sorry, soapbox moment)? This is why the nature of documenting reality in a high school setting is questionable. Burstein’s cameras follow Jake around and he’s able to walk up to girls and ask them out, point blank. Would he normally be so bold? I don’t know. What I know for certainty is that there would be fewer girls interested in the acne-scarred self-proclaimed geek if he didn’t have the adjoining camera crew. I’m sure girls looked at Jake and thought, “Here’s my ticket to being in a movie.” I’m not trying to be mean here because Jake is a rather nice, typically uncomfortable and socially awkward teenager who will find his niche once he leaves the confines of high school. I’ve known several Jakes in my life. But I don’t believe that a socially awkward kid like this naturally dates three different girls, all of them pretty, without the promised presence of cameras.

Also, there’s this popular guy Mitch completely thrown in at the middle of the film. All of a sudden he sees Hannah onstage rocking out at a school battle of the bands function, and the movie slows down, Hannah literally starts glowing, and Mitch says, “Wow, I have a crush on Hannah Bailey.” Allow me to doubt the sincerity of this sudden cross-clique crush. We never witness the beginning of this relationship, each side feeling the other out, the nervousness and delightful possibilities. We just get a voice over of Mitch saying he likes her and then the film cuts to like weeks into their supposed relationship when they’re goofing off at a gas station. When Hannah is invited to a party with Mitch’s friends, naturally she’s going to feel a bit out of place amongst the cool, popular crowd. He hangs out with his friends instead of his girlfriend. He makes sure to say hey to everyone else even while Hannah is sitting next to him. The next day Mitch breaks up with Hannah via the modern marvel of text messaging (ouch). You never see Mitch again until the end credits reveal that he feels he has matured. Essentially, Mitch is only seen and introduced to the movie because of his attachment to Hannah. Clearly, Mitch knew that if he buddied up next to the pixie girl he would ensure some place in the movie’s running time. It worked, because Mitch is featured in the trailer, the poster, and even tagged along on the national press tour. To paraphrase the title of Burstein’s superior documentary, the kid found a way to stay in the picture.

americanteenposter2My second point of contention is that Burstein has taken scissors to 1200+ hours of footage to make her documentary about high school stereotypes, not people. Burstein has selected five figures to spotlight and she has whittled them down to one-word stereotypes: jock (Colin), geek (Jake), princess (Megan), rebel (Hannah), and heartthrob (Mitch). She isn’t destroying these lazy classifications but reinforcing them willfully. The marketing campaign around American Teen recreated the poster from The Breakfast Club. I swear, I think that art imitated life and now high schoolers are just imitating what they have seen propagated time and again as stone-cold reality in their schools: the rigid social caste system. There are so many missed opportunities by painting in such broad strokes. Colin is a jock because he plays on the basketball squad, but why can’t he also be a geek? Why can’t a rebel be a princess? I feel tacky talking in such degrading, baby-fied terms. Burstein doesn’t help her case by giving the main figures their own animated fantasy segments. Hannah is obviously the star of the film, and Burstein has seen to it that she narrates the tale as well. I suspect some canniness on Burstein’s part. Either the filmmaker felt that Hannah would most reflect the spirits of the crowds that attend indie documentaries, thus ensuring a bigger gross, or Burstein saw much of herself in Hannah and naturally wanted to make the “different girl” the star, possibly working through some of her own high school demons.

There’s also the issue of how staged some of this comes across. Am I to believe that Burstein’s camera crew managed to capture those perfect moments where the students stare out into space, thoughtfully? Am I to believe that the camera crew managed to capture everyone’s dirty little text messages then and there in the moment? Am I to believe that scenes of Hannah dramatically walking down the hallway weren’t planned? I’m forgiving when it comes to re-enactments but when a movie feels overburdened with re-enactments or posed figures, then it feels too manufactured. Just like The Hills.

Perhaps I’m coming down too hard on American Teen. After all, most documentaries distort some facet of reality and generally are edited to present a series of points. But the reason American Teen doesn’t work is because it offers zero insights into the American high school setting and little to no insights with its “characters.” Hannah is a cute girl with an independent streak but I fail to get a sense of her as a person. She gets dumped twice over the course of American Teen, suffers from crippling anxiety to the point that she misses almost a month of class, and she longs to leave the reach of her conservative town for the holy destination of California, so why then does the film not present her as a person instead of a classification? I also get the feeling that we don’t see any of would-be filmmaker Hannah’s own work because Burstein may be shielding her subject from the harsh realities or critical response.

arts_american-teen_584Obviously Megan is the villain of the piece and Burstein takes advantage of the girl’s self-absorbed sense of entitlement. Megan could be an interesting subject as far as casual cruelty. Megan vandalizes a student council member’s home because the guy had the gall to devise a different prom theme. We watch Megan literally spray paint a penis on a window followed by the word “FAG,” and then she whines that everyone is being mean to her even when the punishment she gets for a borderline hate crime is a slap on the wrists. Megan’s friend Erica makes the unfortunate decision to send a topless picture of herself in an e-mail to the guy she likes, who happens to be Megan’s friend and object of territory. So Megan briskly sends the picture to scads and scads of students with e-mail subject lines like “silver dollars” and “pepperonis.” Megan then leaves mean-spirited voice mail messages saying that Erica is destined “to live the rest of her life as a slut.” This is her friend! Burstein has the good sense of mind to interview a teary-eyed Erica after the topless photo fallout, and it probably is the emotional highpoint of the film because it’s so honest and wounded. Why not follow Erica after this? Surely her story, recovering from humiliation, is more intriguing then watching Megan scoot along her privileged life or whether or not Colin can be a better teammate. Speaking of the tall kid with the Jay Leno-sized chin, why does his dad insist that Colin needs a basketball scholarship or else “it’s the Army”? Has he not heard of student loans? Does Colin’s father believe sending his son into a war zone is preferable to amassing debt?

American Teen is a pseudo-documentary that has little intention to dig deeper under the surface of the realities of high school life. If your high school experience exactly mirrors this film, then perhaps you watched too many movies. Or the filmmakers did and tried to feed into the film idea of what goes on in a high school. Or both.

Nate’s Grade: C

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