Saturday, September 18, 2010

Easy A

I grew up watching those John Hughes teenage comedies; “Ferris Bueller's Day Off”, “The Breakfast Club”, etc. I remember, as a kid, thinking how cool it would be when I was that age and in high school... yeah, not so much. Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone: “Zombieland”, “Superbad”) has a similar issue (save that where I saw those movies in the theater, she would have seen them on DVD); she badly wants to live in a 1980's John Hughes movie, but instead she finds herself in “Easy A”

“Easy A” is the story of a teenage girl, Olive, who, while not the “homely” girl who just needs to remove her glasses and comb her hair, is not one of the popular girls. She's just another teenager in a school full of teenagers until one little lie spins out of control. In order to avoid going camping with her best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka: “Bandslam”), she makes up a story about having a date with a college guy.

When the weekend is over, and Rhiannon grills her for details, Olive ends up saying that she slept with him. This lie is overheard by super-Christian Marianne (Amanda Bynes: “What I Like About You”), and quickly spread across the school, growing in ridiculousness as it goes. Unlike most high schools, apparently no one at this school is sexually active because everyone seems either shocked or impressed by the news. Suddenly Olive, while not exactly popular, is the center of attention.

Things get worse when Olive admits to another student, Branden (Dan Byrd: “Cougar Town”), that she made it all up. Branden is the regular recipient of beatings from the school's homophobic jocks because he is gay, and when Olive suggests to him that he pretend he is straight until he's out of high school he asks her to help by pretending to sleep with him.

“Easy A” is a surprisingly smart and funny movie. Even though it appears to be set in the town of Ojai, California everyone seems to live on the planet Snark, from Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church: “Spider-Man 3”), the English teacher, making jokes about teachers rapping in bad movies to Olive's repeated references to the Demi Moore version of “The Scarlet Letter” witty dialog flies fast and furious. The style of humour in this movie reminded me a lot of the borderline absurdity found in “Arrested Development”, and that's not a bad thing.

One of the major purposes of this film seems to be turning those old John Hughes films on their ear. Far from the oblivious/absent/panicky parents found in those films, Olive's parents are present and accounted for, they just don't interfere. The school principal (Malcolm McDowell: “Heroes”), while still stern, makes jokes about school fundraisers with musical numbers, and the guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow: “Friends”)... well, that would be spoiling things a bit.

Fast paced and funny, the film is not perfect. Amanda Bynes comes off like someone trying to do an impression of Mandy Moore's character from “Saved!”, and it really just never works for me. In a film full of over-the-top characters, she just seems like she's trying to hard. While she does succeed in creating a really unlikable character, it just doesn't seem as natural as everyone else in the film.

The other small issue, and this really is just nitpicking, is Olive's brother, Chip (Bruce Clyde Jenkins). The poor kid only has three lines the entire movie, and seems more like a piece of the set than an actual character. Judging by the look on his face in some scenes, even he's not sure why he's in the movie.

The only big potential issue, and this is not one for me, is the religious aspects of the movie. It is almost impossible to like Marianne and her cadre of Christian fundamentalists. While the hypocrisy of her group is not as blatant as in a movie like “Saved!”, they still manage to be mean, hateful, judgmental, and just out and out liars. They are never really portrayed as the bad guys, but if this film has antagonists, they are it. It's all quite funny really, but if you are one of those Christians who thinks you are part of an oppressed minority then you may not see the humour.

Big applause has to go to Emma Stone. She plays her character as smart, witty, sexy, and just a little bit bitchy; switching from being a cheerful snarker to someone who just starts spitting out facts when she's flustered (think two parts Michael Bluth and one part Temperance Brennan). Plus it's just nice to see that she can carry a movie as the lead instead of just a supporting actress or part of an ensemble.

While I don't think this movie is going to be the next “Superbad”, it is better than a lot of the mediocre stuff out there (I'm look at you, "Going the Distance"). “Easy A” gets a solid B+ from me; it is a funny movie that won't insult your intelligence, and I definitely recommend heading out to the theaters to see it.

“Easy A” in in theaters now, and is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drugs, and strong language.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Social Network

I love social networks; without them there are a number of people who I almost certainly would have lost track of over the years. Heck, you probably found the link to this review through Twitter... or Buzz, Friendfeed, Tumblr, Myspace, or the current big daddy, Facebook, so I guess that maybe you like them too.

“The Social Network” is the new film by director David Fincher (“Fight Club”), based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich, about the birth of Facebook, and the controversy about who really created it.. As if having Fincher directing was not enough, the screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”, “Sports Night”); with names like that in charge I went into this film with some pretty high expectations.

The story is told through a series of legal depositions where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg - “Zombieland”, “Adventureland”) is being sued by his former best friend, and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as well as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), whose idea for a Harvard-only social network seemingly inspired what would become Facebook. As the parties in the two depositions are questioned the movie gives us flashbacks to the incidents they are describing.

Lets speak plainly here, this movie does not portray Mark Zuckerberg as a nice guy; a genius certainly, but also a complete horse's arse. From the opening scene where he gets dumped by his girlfriend for implying that he is doing her future a favour by dating her, Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as someone who is either truly incapable of interfacing with live people, or as someone who suffers from a mental handicap. He's rude, a jerk, insecure, and completely incapable of going more than thirty seconds without insulting someone, but he's also easily manipulated in the right hands.

The right hands belong to Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster. Parker is everything Zuckerberg wants to be; he's smart, popular with women, people respect him, and he can do pretty much whatever he wants. Parker can see the potential in what Zuckerberg and Saverin are doing, but he thinks he knows how to make it go even bigger. Saverin is completely against Parker's ideas, and this puts Zuckerberg in a position of choosing between someone he respects and the only person he could truly call a friend.

Sorkin's writing shines through beautifully in the movie's dialog. He manages to write a conflict where there are no heroes and no villains, there are simply a bunch of people who all think that they are in the right. From Zuckerberg's thinly veiled insults to Parker's overly confident manner, the movie manages to keep the audience laughing while still telling an interesting story without ever really giving you someone you should be rooting for.

Of course the best writing in the world would be worthless in the hands of bad actors; luckily the young stars are able to pull it off. Playing against his normal awkward nice-guy characters, Eisenberg creates a perfect genius jerk; playing things cold and clinical for the most part with just enough human in there to still keep Zuckerberg from being completely unsympathetic. Garfield brings a nice balance to Saverin, making him seem both smart and professional, but still susceptible to emotions that seem foreign to his friend. As far as Timberlake goes, this is the perfect role for him: a complete douche-bag.

The only things really going against this movie are its length and ,strangely enough, its music. The movie is pretty long, coming in at about two hours, but it would be hard to cut anything; the parts that get dull are important to the plot, and the parts that are not important to the plot (Eduardo's girlfriend and the scarf, for example) are genuinely funny.

The musical choices for the movie are not bad, per say, but they are a little odd. The film's original score is by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, yes, that would be the Ross and Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame, and it shows. A lot of the film's music is tense and brooding; stuff that would be a lot more at home in a horror film than a serious drama with comedic highlights. It's not that the music is bad, it's just that I kept waiting for the zombies to show up.

“The Social Network” is one of those rare movies that plays computer use straight; characters speak a language that many people will find foreign. Is your average movie goer going to understand what an “Apache server” is? How about what “PHP” is? No, probably not. I consider myself fairly computer literate, and a lot of that was Greek to me (but then I could never wrap my head around programming). I like that they took this route in dealing with computers though; programming is done in a plain black window and they don't try to make it look cool or exciting. If you want to see flashy montage sequences where programming/hacking is done using cute computer graphics and people hitting keyboards very quickly then go rent “Hackers” because this is not that movie.

It will be interesting to see how this movie is ultimately received both critically and in the box office. It is a good movie, probably even award-worthy, but it's a little Inside Baseball . I would compare it to movies like “The Late Shift” or “Pirates of Silicon Valley” in the sense that the subject matter may not be that interesting to most people, but that the movie itself still manages to be quite compelling.

Even if you are not that interested in computers or Facebook, “The Social Network” is still an interesting movie. With a strong script, good directing, and a solid cast, this is a great movie to go see. It's fun and entertaining while still maintaining a strong sense of drama. Don't forget to whip your phone when the movie is over and Facebook about seeing it; at least that's what people did at the screening I was at.

“The Social Network” opens nationwide on October 1st, and contains adult language, sexual situations, and drug and alcohol use.