Thursday, December 24, 2015

Four Flicks: Two Nix and Two Picks

Between Christmas and New Years Day there may be some time for lazing in front of a TV screen. Below are some thoughts on four of the options.

Safelight (2015)
OK, it had to happen: Juno Temple starred in a bad movie. The busy young actress has had leading or major roles in a remarkable series of indie films in the past several years plus relatively minor roles in big studio productions including The Dark Knight Rises and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Indies on her résumé include Little Birds, Dirty Girl, Kaboom, Killer Joe, The Brass Teapot, and Afternoon Delight, all of which have real merit. Quentin Tarantino of all people praised Afternoon Delight in particular. Other indie flicks including Jack and Diane, Magic Magic, and Horns are at least interesting. Even if in the end I didn’t really like them, I don’t regret having spent the time on them. Does no truly bad script ever come Juno’s way? Oops, one did.

“Safelight” has three meanings: it is the name of the town where the main characters live, it is a darkroom light for developing photographic film, and it evokes the lighthouses that appear in the movie. Vicki (Juno) is a stereotypical young truck stop HWAHOG (hooker with a heart of gold) in thrall to her crazy pimp. She befriends Charles, an inexperienced teen with a bad leg who works at the truck stop with his ill dad. For a school project he takes photos of lighthouses on the California coast. Vicki visits the lighthouses with him and they talk a lot about nothing very interesting. Vicki’s story of how she became a runaway is clichéd and tired. Perhaps all this worked as a novel (I haven’t read the book on which it is based) but as a movie it is soporific in the extreme. Now that Juno has had her obligatory miss, she has no need to repeat it. Thumbs down.

Playing It Cool (2014)
21st century screenwriters tasked by a studio with writing a romantic comedy have a problem. For reasons I don’t fully fathom – but which might have something to do with the current state of the gender war – audiences for more than a decade have been too cynical to give credence to old-fashioned romantic love in film, at least insofar as ordinary people are concerned. Maybe if one person is a vampire or an alien or a head of state or traveling backwards in time or some outlandish thing, they might allow the notion as being no more improbable than the rest of it. But for normal folks, forget it. Infatuation yes, but how can that end but badly? Even Disney has doubts: witness Maleficent in which the nonexistence of true love in a romantic sense is an important plot element that is never disputed.

For Playing It Cool, screenwriters Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair tackled the problem by making their screenplay about a screenwriter (the character is actually listed as “Me”) who is having trouble finishing a romcom screenplay because he himself doesn’t believe in love and can think of no third act that isn’t clichéd, hackneyed, and unbelievable. Naturally he (Chris Evans) falls hard for a girl (“Her”: Michelle Monaghan) who is unavailable, so he tries to have a platonic relationship with her. The third act (can this really be considered a *spoiler*?) is deliberately clichéd, hackneyed, and unbelievable right down to a race against time to stop a marriage. (Harold Lloyd did this best in Girl Shy [1924], and it wasn’t new then.) We the audience are supposed to get that the screenwriters get that these screen conventions are not at all like real life. This movie is not a spoof in the usual sense, despite the protagonist phrasing his love declaration, “I'm willing to regret you for the rest of my life.” Playing It Cool is played straight. Shafer and Vicknair cynically wrote a non-cynical movie that telegraphs the irony to us. Does this meta-romcom work? Not really: too cynical. Thumbs down.

Leviathan (2014)
Some *spoilers* follow. In a bleak Russian coastal town near Murmansk, Koyla lives with his wife Lilya and his son Roma; their home and his business are on the same property. The corrupt mayor Vadim callously uses eminent domain to seize Koyla’s property for purposes that, by benefitting the Orthodox church, also will be of political benefit to himself. Koyla’s old army friend Dmitri is now an urbane lawyer from Moscow, and he tries to help. Dmitri’s legal appeals to stop the seizure, or at least to pay Koyla a fair price, go nowhere. Dmitri has a file on the mayor that he obtained from his connections in Moscow, however, and he threatens to reveal the file’s scandalous contents unless Vadim cooperates. The mayor quickly demonstrates that old-fashioned thuggery is still effective against file-waving lawyers, and Dmitri before long is on a train back to Moscow feeling lucky he is still alive. There are secondary plots involving adultery, teen rebellion, and drunkenness – a lot of drunkenness. There are no happy endings. Corruption rules.

Cronyism benefiting the politically well-connected (“special interests” is the preferred euphemism) at the expense of individuals and individual rights is no rarity in the US, of course, even if most often it is not technically regarded as corruption by most voters. The councils, zoning boards, and regulatory committees which practice this are doing exactly what they have been charged to do by popularly elected politicians. The effect, for those who have been at the losing end of it, is much the same. Nonetheless, the undisguised abuse of power depicted in this movie is grim indeed.

The Biblical and cetaceous references of the title are obvious, but it also calls to mind Hobbes, whose 17th century philosophical work Leviathan defended state authority, which, he argued, whatever its faults was superior to an anarchic state of nature. There always have been governments that cause us to call this into question.

Leviathan won best screenplay at Cannes. Thumbs up.

The Duff (2015)
By the 1930s high school was the majority experience in the US and most other industrialized countries. Since that time, the high school movie has been a recognized genre; almost everyone can relate to it. The movies have long lives: the Brat Pack movies of the ‘80s are still liked by the current crop of teens. OK, High School Confidential (1958) might be too dated to be relatable to current youth, but it is a hoot for just that reason. Adults always have been a big part of the audience for these films (at least on home screens) because the high school experience sticks with us. Most of us forged a big part of our adult identities as adolescents within high school walls.

Mean Girls has been the quintessential film of the type since 2004, but 2015 is not 2004 and each generation needs its own cinematic prime representative. I don’t think The Duff is it, but it is a better than average addition to the roster of high school films nonetheless. The film does a very good job of emphasizing the dominance of smart phones and social media in current teen life. 

Mae Whitman, a young actress reminiscent of Amanda Bynes in her teen years, is fine as Bianca, the lead character. She learns she is the DUFF, the “designated ugly fat friend” in her social circle, used by her friends for social convenience. She has a guy friend who is a jerk on the surface and she has a crush on a seemingly artistic guy who is a jerk underneath. She is tortured by the popular girls led by Madison (Bella Thorne), a character who is drawn just a bit too cartoonishly. I think the reader knows where this is going. You’ve seen high school movies before. But that’s OK, because this one is written and directed well enough. It’s not Mean Girls or 10 Things I Hate about You, but it’s not bad. Sometimes that’s all we ask. Thumbs Up.


  1. Good reviews. I'd wondered about Leviathan. Looks bleak. One thing about some foreign films they don't feel compelled to end on a happy note or tie things up neatly. The Duff I had not heard of and although I'm not a huge fan of that genre, it doesn't sound too bad either.

    Safelight started out not sounding to bad actually until you got to the cliched part. I hate it when that happens. :)

    I watched An Unmarried Woman last night, and remember it from the old HBO days, but had been many years since I'd seen it. There were a few dated or silly scenes, but overall worth a watch.

    1. I saw An Unmarried Woman in the theater back in 1978. I haven't thought of it in years, but I remember the gist pretty well and I mostly liked it too. Jill Clayburgh was well cast in the part. The ending, including the Hemingway-esque artist boyfriend, is a bit of fantasy fulfillment, but that's OK. A lot of movies are just that.