Levitt Rates “The Duff” (B- On A Teen-Comedy Scale)

duff

On the surface, the plot of The Duff, follows in a long tradition of Boiler-Plate Teen comedies .  The recipe is: Take a misfit protagonist, a stuck up homecoming queen, the school jock, and sprinkle in some John Hughes teen angst  and stir.

The plot off “The Duff” is the most highly derivative teen comedy I have ever seen and, since most of these films borrow from each-other, that’s saying alot.  Here are some of the more copy-cat plot points:

The central character of the film is a social mis-fit who is just one make-over away from being attractive (in every teen flick): check

The embarrassing viral video (see “American pie”)

The pretty but dim friends (any teen comedy) check

The climactic prom scene where the jock must make a decision to choose love over social convention. (She’s All That)  Check

The cool girl’s come uppance (every teen comedy)

The central story of the film involves Bianca’s realization that she is the Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) for her friend group to whom people approach who are more interested in her prettier friends. Once she realizes this less-than-profound fact, she is able to take a stronger ownership of her invisible social status:to act/dress different, confront her peers, ie get out of her comfort zone and take more risks. She quickly buddies up with jock, “Wesley Rush” who, in exchange for help with his science Class, agrees to help tutor her to confront her Duff Status and navigate through the tough social waters of high-school life ( you know,in between push-ups/making out with the homecoming queen).

Ulitmately, What makes these geek to chic teen comedies work is largely the likability/relatability of the central character. That’s where this film, for me, breaks above the average pack of this genre.  The writers make The Duff, aka Bianca Piper (played appealingly by  by Mae Whitman) a fully three dimensional character. Not too Goody-Goody, not too much of an angry outsider. She just seems real.  She’s casual and self-deprecating but also sharply critical of the people around her. Physically, Mae Whitman she reminds me as sort of a cross between Amanda Bynes and janeane Garofalo ( although with less real-life baggage than Bynes and less sardonic than Garofolo).  The writers also smatter-in plenty of witty social media references and pop culture references to keep things moving and entertaining.

But of course, “The Duff” is the most likable character in the film  The writers hardly give the other characters a fighting chance. The other actors are mostly  stock figures: pretty girls who take turns either preening or mercilessly bashing their underclassman.  The only other character who has a more singular personality is the 2nd lead of the film, The Jock/heartthrob “Wesley Rush”.  I like how the writers named a football character “Wesley Rush”. Get it? I guess the name “Scott Scrimmage” was too on the nose. The writers make him a decent guy but with raunchy streak that gives his character more depth/reality than your basic jock/good samaritan type which is pretty common in these types of films.  Less successful, though, is the odd addition of  actress  Allison Janey to play The Duff’s mother Its questionable why they cast Janney as mother since she towers above Mae and physically they barely seem part of the same species much less family members.  The film largely sidelines the talented Janney relegating her to just a sounding board for Bianca’s problems .

The film is obvious in its treatment of social groups. These types films never met a cliche’d teen niche they didn’t like/exploit.  From the original template of The Breakfast Club: you have your Jocks, criminals, nerds, wierdos etc.  Anyone who has experiences high school, knows that social groups that not very sharply delineated.  Its not like jocks or nerds telegraph their status that obviously:  “Look, I’m a jock and I can’t be seen talking to you.  Read the contract!”.  Social groups are, more often than that more varied;  weird melting pots of people who could probably and do hang equally with many different social groups.

The ending morality of the film, everybody is somebody’s duff.  We’re all nerds, blah blah is straight out of every other teen movie from John Hughes On. Not that earth-shattering.  But its still nice to see difference being embraced after the slew of body shaming/ cyber bullying that happens so frequently online and through social media these days.  Its also nice, if cliched, to see the heroine of the film achieve love and self-acceptance.  So, despite its extremely copy-cat, by the numbers plot-line and cardboard supporting characters, I liked the lead actors and some of the sharp/witty dialogue enough to give this film a B- (On a highly more generous Teen-Comedy Scale)

 

 

 

Psychological Themed Films- The Ah-Ha Moment

psychiatry

Over the years it has become commonplace for films that depict psychological or psychiatric themes to feature a dynamic “Aha!” moment of emotional clarity for their heros. In films like Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting, and even the broad Analyze This, the suffering protagonist finally discovers the secret of their inner turmoil during an intense role-play with their shrink.

In Ordinary People, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) begins to relive the horrible boating accident and his shrink (Judd Hirsch) is there there to act the part of his stubbornly drowning brother. the epiphany is dramatic and neat, he blamed himself for his brother’s drowning”. Thanks doc, all better now. Therefore In the minutes after his cathartic session, Conrad is able to hug his cold-fish mom (btw so convincingly portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore In the film, I had a hard time believing that she wasn’t just acting”) and plan a healthy date- redo with his new girlfriend.

hutton

Good Will Hunting’s shrink (robin Williams) similarly takes on the role of Will’s (Matt Damon) father in the dramatic role play which shows that Will blamed himself for his father’s beatings and culminates in the cathartic phrase, “It’s not your fault”. Soon, with a clean bill of psychological Health, Will is able to finally re-connect with his estranged girlfriend.

williams

So, In both of these situations, the hero quickly realizes that they have been doing a
number on themselves psychologically and, finally after some soul-cleansing gasps/tears, they end up in the warm healing arms of their psychiatrists.

hugglewilliams

The role play device is definitely compelling film device but a hollow/ineffective strategy for anyone to follow in real life. Its not like a situation will suddenly present itself wherein We can spontaneously start role playing with our alcoholic dad or that woman that cut in front of us in the Starbucks line; have a real thrashing out of a list our grievances both real and imagined and end up by hugging it out at the end. for, even if your parents/enemies actually made themselves available for these kind of “hashings out” or “emotional exorcisms”, I doubt whether most of the results would be that revealing or satisfying. Ultimately you (the offended party) and the other person (the asswhole) would probably just end up blasting eachother. No, in reality, despite how others in life mistreat or disappoint, your daily perceptions are really the most powerful factors in keeping these negative feelings alive.  Furthermore, despite what movies would have us believe most of our real emotional breakthroughs take place when we are alone and most real psychological change only takes place through concerted/sustained effort and practice.

Also, where are all these kindly/caring shrinks we keep see in the movies? Do they
advertise online? Does my health insurance cover their services? psychologists, by profession have to keep a professional detached distance from their clients in order to be effective and not get sucked into their drama. simply put, they insulate themselves from all the shit they have to hear all day. The last thing they do is go around hugging their clients. You are more likely to get a sloppy kiss from your emotionally withholding protestant mother. Forget about the notion that your kindly neighborhood shrink will be available for that suicidal phone call at 2:15 in the morning too. You better get ready to spill your guts to their service or their less than empathetic answering machine. Plus, with the modern-day limitation of a psychiatrists hour-long appt (actually only 50 minutes), you have to pity the poor fool who will get their aha moment of emotional clarity at minute 51!

robin

Levitt Reviews Films On Politics

 

dave

Many are already sick of this political season.  With the sheer volume of candidates, the volatility of the candidates, and the endless 24 hour analysis cycle some wonder when it will ever end.  Debates, town halls, analysis of debates and town halls, facebook posts , angry tweets, venting,  your friends make fear dire predictions if the wrong person will gain the top post,  Others warn of the government siphoning off your income for nefarious purposes and some even threaten to leave the United States if their candidate doesn’t win the presidency. Bon Voyage!

So, in keeping with this busy, hot-headed political season, I’ve decided to add my voice to the mix and review political films.  Now, When I decided to embark on this topic, I suddenly realized that I really don’t like political films all that much.  There are only a handful that I can bear to watch more than one time.  Then I thought about why.  I think the main reason is that politicians by in large do not directly control their destiny. They can give fiery speeches or debate an issue but they still have to wait and convince other people to take action.  Wheras Bruce Willis can just shoot somebody in the face. problem solved.  waiting for laws to pass through legislation is just not rich dramatic material.  You never hear someone exiting a theater stating that ” whew, thank god that law was enacted, that bill passed, that policy ratified.  Its just not compelling drama.

Furthermore politicians have to project and sometimes even assume a persona which exudes bragadoccio. Constantly under the lens of the media, they are forced constantly to defend their actions publicly and, as such, can almost never let down their guard, show indecision, humility, and exasperation.  The most memorable movie characters however openly show their flaws and their humanity to give movie goers a true mirror to their own souls.  Simply, Politicians barely ever show us “The wheels turning”.

So therefore, given the slow pace and stiff exterior of politics, my favorite movies about politics have less to do with governing or making changes in policy but using politics as back drop for stories more about life, people, and character.

The American President

dance

The most populous movie about politics that comes to mind is of course “The American President” (B). Basically the movie is about a relationship that happens despite the public scrutiny, limitations of the office. A widower president is a novel idea for a president and the romance is still a classy noble affair showing the president (michael Douglas) discussing policy/falling in love w political lobbyist (annette Benning).  Its a good movie well written in the Sorkin style and with good performances especially by Martin Sheen and Michael J Fox who basically jump-started their careers (each with a political TV series) again with their standout performances in this film.  I found the main relationship a little too buttoned up and classy. They not only like each other but respect each others political views.  Now, that’s hot!  Sorkin seems too interested in provided a balanced relationship with two intelligent, well spoken, politically conscious people.  Relationships usually operate on more primal levels. Not that I wanted a more lurid/50 Shades of Gray treatment exactly but the two leads admire each other and are too sensitive regarding each other’s respective political roles that the actual romance part is a little too polite/passionless for my tastes.

Dave

couple

 

Dave (C)- is a sort of “fish out of water” tale of a regular amiable temp employment agency owner who is asked to temporarily impersonate the president-because of his physical resemblance- while the president is unconscious in a coma.  Dave (Kevin Kline) spends much of the film trying to dutifully carry out the role of president while Chief Of Staff just wants him to be a “suit” who reads speeches and doesn’t take any of his own initiative.  The films most inspired part has Dave even hiring his own personal accountant to work out the kinks in the national budget.  I could have used more cute satirical touches like this. The film is okay, pleasant enough but suffers from the main character being too earnest and bland.  Dave dilligently tries to help people and repair estranged relations with his vice president and his wife so that an actual romance ensues. However ,I would have prefferred the Dave character to have more of an edge, a kid in a candy store  or party vibe that would have leant more fun to the most powerful office in the land. He should have relished his power… “I can tell people to do anything” and the film could have badly also used some scenes of him stirring up trouble, more pandemonium etc since he was only temporary and he didn’t really have the any of the real weight or responsibility of the office.   Instead, the real edge of the film and most of the scene-chewing in this  film is provided by by Frank Langella whose character because flawed is more able to interestingly misuse his authority, act selfishly, and to color out of the lines.

*Other notable films about politics: Nixon (strangely miscast, muddled narrative, I ended up disliking Nixon even more than before I watched the film. Not a good sign) Mr Smith Goes To Washington (saw it a long time ago, don’t remember much but it has Jimmy Stewart so it must be good) Same thing for Fail-safe (didn’t see it but it has Henry Fonda and was directed by Sidney Lumet so it must also rule.

 

 

 

 

Levitt Reviews “The Martian” (B)

martian

“The Martian” is the most recent in the rash of survivalist flicks where one man or woman must use their ingenuity and fortitude to survive against a cruel and unforgiving environment.  Films like The Castaway and Gravity also pit their lead largely sole, character against a war of wits and humanity against mother nature or in this case “Space Nature” to stay alive.

I think they key to a major factor on whether a lot of these films being successful is the vulnerability of the lead actor. They must convey the loneliness and desperation of their struggle for us to totally emphasize and get invested in their struggle. Unfortunately, Matt Damon the film’s star and the lone astronaut who is marooned  on Mars after a horrific storm, is known for having a cool calm demeanor on screen. “The Martian is no exception.  Damon is, in large part, missing the  “oh shit, I’m alone on a desolate planet factor”  Its a little like watching Denzel Washington try to play helpless on screen. It doesn’t totally work.   The film needed someone with more vulnerability, more emotional subtlety in their performance. In addition in many scenes Matt Damon is seen being snarky (railing against disco etc) which, while funny and made him more likable removed me from the complete seriousness of his situation.

Matt Damon was, of course, thought of for this film for his star power but I think Damon should have refused for the good of the movie.  I think Matt Damon is too interested in being in control in the acting projects he chooses i.e. his ego wont allow him to play someone inept or deeply flawed.  In any film he chooses,  he has to show he’s the best, the most qualified character in the film. He played a card genius in Rounders, top CIA Assasin in The Bourne Films, in Good Will Hunting he was a math-genius janitor and Even in this film, he’s the self proclaimed best botanist on Mars!

Damon’s screen strength/arrogance also doesn’t play well when you consider that his crew has to go completely (and a bit unrealistically rogue, taking them a year off course, risking their lives, and in complete contradiction to direct orders) to complete a daring rescue of him in space.  Damon’s demeanor, to me, doesn’t inspire loyalty.  I had the same problem with Damon in “Saving Private Ryan” when after he was rescued by Hanks and his men,…they came all this way just to save Matt Damon?! and too top it off, he didn’t even seem to care about their sacrifice.

Because Damon is so unpreturbed throughout much of the film its Its up to the other characters to show their worried. Other actors particularly NASA engineer Mindy Park (played by mackenzie Davis) does an excellent job and conveying the nervousness and range of emotion necessary to be empathatic.  I think she should have played the marooned astronaut and left Damon to play some unconcerned Nasa bureaucrat instead.

The first half of the film the action is told in large part of Damon making a video diary of his daily life on the planet, gradually by degrees is able to grow food (whattaya know he just happens to be a botanist…that’s a lucky break!) and gradually able to communicate with nasa. Soon, complications, technical failures, and the barren-ness and oxygen less enviroment take their toll.  At times things do get a bit slow in the action as Damon is forced constantly to confront adversity and work each situation through in a math-like way to arrive at a solution. Soon, I almost wanted some kind of Mars Monster to come out of a crater and attack Damon to relieve the monotony and so Damon could bust out some cool Judo moves or something.  Instead there are long stretches of Damon planting crops, rationing food, and although interesting a documentary way were at times a bit dull.

I did enjoy the secondary characters in the film, Damon’s crewmates especially “Rick Martinez”, Michael Pena, are fun and Chwietol Ejiofor, who plays Dr. Vincent Kapoor, head of NASA’s Mars missions, conveys the humanity largely missing from Damon.   Less successful I thought was Kristin Wiig who seemed out of place in a cast of otherwise earnest actors. She’s not horrible but always looks like she’s holding back something that she thinks is funny so took me a little out of the action.

In the final analysis, I liked The Martian Okay but aside from Matt Damon’s casting, I generally have a problem with all vehicles which are largely one man shows like The Castaway with Tom Hanks. To be completely engaged on all cylinders , to borrow from aircraft jargon, I prefer more conflict, friction/clashing of wills, multi-person viewpoints to get lost and feel a stake in the action.  One actor, no matter how gifted, cannot frankly play all the sides of the same issue and, in this case, if you’re not totally in love with Matt Damon, you won’t be totally in love with “The Martian”.

Levitt Sounds Off On Project Greenlight

greenlight

I  watched the Premiere of Project Greenlight last night with much interest because I’m also an aspiring film-maker.  More of a writer than director etc but  in the ballpark.  Anyhow , first off not crazy about the show’s premise: the fact that Affleck, and Damon sponsor a contest and  help to hand pick the director of a comedy film There’s just something too…” Success anointing success about it”.   I realize that most deals in Hollywood done by successful people. this way but the fact that two primo sucess stories in the room and are personally choosing the director(with the exception of the one they actually picked) are expected to kiss their Affleck and Damon’s ass and make a case for themselves is just too much fawning for me.  At least with shows like “Undercover Boss” the guy in the power position at least pretends to be on equal footing to begin with so that he can get a true perspective of his workers and not their “Best sucking up behavior”

To Heighten the stakes, In the very beginning of the show, Affleck and Damon claim they are putting their integrity/career on the line with their choices.  Obviously, they’re not.  The prior winners of Project Greenlight were barely a blip on the movie radar Yet Ben managed to go on to Box Office, Oscar and nanny boffing success regardless. Now, if Damon and Affleck, would agree to give all their money/posessions to charity if the winner of Project Greenlight didn’t succeed, then there would be real drama and we could see  the duo get more emotionally invested in the show,  instead of appearing occasionally in perfunctory phone conversations about this or that insignificant detail.

After some preliminary back and forth with Damon, Affleck, and the rest of the other judges (The Farrelly Brothers) and Brown (who argued for ethnic diversity), The show went out of its way to pick a volatile/arrogant director because they thought he had the most talent. Even though the director they chose specialized in dark films and they were shooting a broad comedy. But,   Its also no secret that dicks are good for ratings: (ie Simon Cowell, or Dennis o’leary SharkTank). So, its likely they picked this guy at least partly because he was an obnoxious jerk.  I mean  No one is going to tune in to watch a show about a a well-run movie production team lead by nice guys high-fiving eachother

In the end result, if these contest driven reality shows (America Idol, The Voice etc) prove anything at all, its that you can’t engineer success. Even successful people occasionally produce shit -literally and figuratively- (Affleck and Damon not excluded). In addition,  How can anyone really be expected to really “Create good art” in such a high stress atmosphere in which every decision they make is filmed for HBO, high profile stars like Affleck and Damon are breathing down your back,  and every decision you try to make is second guessed by a committee?

First Post

Why Now?

For a long time I’ve resisted the impulse to create my own blog due to the sheer volume/morass of other blogs out there and inherent vanity of publishing my own opinions which I felt was lacking in my character.  But then I remembered that I’ve been posting my thoughts with great frequency on my website, facebook, and other online channels for several years. Clearly, I had no vanity left.

But, the difference, I assumed, in writing a blog would be the “personal nature” of the posts.  I’d have to go and open up my psyche to those internet trolls who had the misfortune of having enough time on their hands to read about about how I felt about this or that local restaurant, how my local barista didn’t serve my coffee with enough fawning, and the usual dreck of people that feel they are being treating unfairly by life and want to rail to the heavens about it.

But this is my blog and can be as superficial and lightweight as I choose. No topic is too vacuous. I’ll leave the people who foam about politics, or this or that social social injustice to be alone with their opinions while I embark on the topics which obsess and perplex me.With that whole rambling intro out of the way, I’d like to talk about the recent movies I’ve stumbled across this week on cable and my random thoughts/criticisms about them.

witherspoon

 “Wild” (with reese witherspoon)-   (Those darn flashbacks)  I started to watch “The wild” yesterday because it had been nominated for Reese Witherspoon’s peformance and I was curious about it.  Reese Witherspoon has always struck be as a kind of female Tom Hanks in that she sort of has an “every woman” quality and you automatically root for her every time she sets foot onscreen.  The film “The wild” also shares some similarities with Tom Hanks peformance in “Castaway” in that this film too is, in large part, a look at one person’s struggle with nature.  The film strives to be a journey both figuratively for the characters psychological growth and literally through her 300 mile trek through some very harsh and unforgiving terrain.  For a while we see Witherspoon’s character struggles with her past (drug abuse, divorce, and death) through constantly re-occuring flashbacks. Unfortunately,  I found the sudden flashbacks distracting from the main action.  Because Witherspoon’s character did not have another character to vent her feelings to, the use of flashbacks were meant to give us some background on why she set off on a 300 mile hike alone and how this trip was meant to cleanse her of past pain.  This flashbacks, however, were disjointed and served as brief snapshots that did not allow the audience to get a true sense of this woman’s past life. only brief scenes of her abusing drugs, in the throes of casual sex, or railing at her mom were like a quick 20/20 treatment of the woman’s life  Some prolonged 10-20 minute scenes prior to her trek might have filled in more of the blanks and been better for the flow of the piece.

Too “Hot” for Hiking Another thing which bugged me is that each time Witherspoon’s character was getting into some trouble: no food, no water, boots ruined etc, she would be saved by some convenient, usually horny male passerby who offered her just enough but no more than enough aid go get back on her feet and continue her pathetic journey.  “Hot women are kinda scarce in these here parts” might have been the subtitle for a lot of these exchanges.  Witherspoon’s looks, even without make-up or her usual Legally Blond pluck, was still too much for a lot of the local yokels and, for me, removed much of the danger element necessary for these survivalist flicks. In addition, as soon as one of the male hiker’s or motorists approached Reese, some wife or friend would come by and cut the tension.  To be fair, there was one almost-rape scene later that was slightly tense but one gets the sense that even if attacked by some sex starved bark-eater, Reese would have pulled out some fancy judo moves she learned the night before by reading some self-defense manual.

Where’s the epiphany? – When I noticed that there was only 10 minutes left in the film, I feared that the ending would totally suck and I was not mistaken.  There was a little obligatory voice-over narration where Reese looks satisfyingly over a bridge at the end of her trek and says some things about redemption blah blah blah but I wondered how, since most of her problems stemmed from her interactions with other people, how she got the tools to go back to her life by spending 3 months away from society.  Vacations are nice too but they are only temporary.  Not to be a shrink here, but I think Reese spent those 3 hiking months building up her survivalist skills but needed to get to the root cause of a lot of her problems and develop better people skills.

Some random other thoughts about “Inside Llewelyn Davis”-

llewelyngoldberg

 

I won’t talk at-length about this film but, aside from the pleasant soundtrack, much of the film just kind of lay there for me.  The taciturn lead of the film, actor Oscar Isaac, had too much of a resemblance to The Jim Gaffigan show’s, foil character, Adam Goldberg so that I kept thinking, “Why didn’t they just get Adam Goldberg”?  but other than a few tense exchanges the film, I felt, did little more than create a small time capsule of one forgettable folk singer’s life.