Easy Town (Weekly Links)

Hester Prynne never endured the Thursday chipped beef: Easy A

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Easy A. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Dismissing teen comedies is an expected part of a movie reviewer’s job, unless the film is released by an indie distributor and has Ellen Page in it. And hey, it’s easy; “The Virginity Hit” opens this week, and that’s awful enough to require little explanation.

Easy, but sometimes lazy. So most reviewers missed a kicky comedy last year in “Fired Up!”, a movie about two jocks who attend cheerleader camp in order to meet girls.

That film’s director, TV veteran Will Gluck, has another one this week, “Easy A.” This time good reviews should be more plentiful; it’s impossible to miss the assured starring turn by Emma Stone, or the terrific ensemble cast, or the sharp one-liners.

Still, as with “Fired Up!”, the plot sounds dubious. Misfit high-schooler Olive (Emma Stone) realizes that she’ll get more attention at school—even if it’s the wrong kind—if her classmates think she’s been sleeping around. She hasn’t been, but she strikes a bargain with a gay classmate (Dan Byrd) that their imaginary liaison can help him stop being harassed by bullies. She soon shares her reputation with prestige-seeking nerds and losers.

The “A” in the title is inspired by “The Scarlet Letter,” which Olive’s lit class is reading. It doesn’t really play too great a role in the script, except to provide regular, well-deserved insults aimed at the Demi Moore movie version.

Gluck has a flair for the jazzy moving camera (not the jiggly kind) and he likes to push scenes along with rapid-fire wisecracks. You see this breathless style in TV all the time, in shows such as “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs,” but for some reason people rarely try to sustain it in movies. When it works, it’s a hoot.

Also, Gluck gives actors room to be silly. This pays off beautifully when you’ve got Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci playing Olive’s parents; they banter and tease and basically come across as the most fun parents you’ve ever imagined. Representing the grown-ups, we’ve also got Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow as teachers, and Malcolm McDowell as the principal. Now that’s a high school staff.

Among the students are dead-on Amanda Bynes as a Jesus-preaching proponent of abstinence, Penn Badgley (“Gossip Girl”) as Olive’s longtime crush, and Aly Michalka as Olive’s best (but not especially nice or supportive) friend.

A good group, led by the spirited work of “Zombieland” star Emma Stone. She blends snarkiness and sincerity in a healthy way, and makes us believe in what could have been a gimmicky premise. Just like the rest of this self-aware movie, which pays explicit homage to the John Hughes high-school comedies of the 1980s but lays down a funny new vibe of its own.

The Town. “At times you feel the material wanting to stretch out into a miniseries.”

Mademoiselle Chambon. “Can’t entirely disguise how familiar this situation is.”

The Virginity Hit. “Repellent people and not-especially-funny jokes.”

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There may well be a good movie to make from the unreal life of Hugh Hefner, perhaps a fictionalized saga of publishing and morality and endless parties for swingers. With a lot of sex in it.

But that “Citizen Hefner” will have to wait, and “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” is here in the meantime. A frankly fawning documentary profile of the Playboy founder, it argues the case that Hefner’s role in changing 20th century culture went beyond the printing of pictures of naked women.

Director Brigitte Berman traces Hefner’s determined battles against restrictive censorship laws (and an uptight sexual culture in general) when Playboy was launched in the 1950s. In fact, Hefner did play a significant role in First Amendment issues in his first iconoclastic decade of publishing. Berman also lays out evidence for Hefner’s activities in the civil-right movement, which ranged from the forward-looking inclusion of black celebrities in his magazines and TV shows to the publication of important interviews with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He also backed up the rhetoric: when a couple of Playboy Club franchises in Florida and New Orleans went to a whites-only policy in the 1960s, Hefner bought back the clubs himself and integrated them, taking a financial loss.

All of these things are in Hef’s plus column. There’s also the more debatable elements of his Playboy Philosophy, and the peculiar vibe generated by the fact that his magazine published some powerful ideas (and the best available writers) while also presenting a parade of airbrushed, available women with no clothes on.

A few naysayers are given voice, including morality crusader Pat Boone and the influential feminist writer Susan Brownmiller, who continues to decry Hefner’s centerfold-peddling doctrine (her battles with Hefner go back decades, and she now has the weary humor of someone describing a naughty, exasperating old uncle).

These inclusions hardly make the movie balanced; it’s still a gushing portrait. But if this tone gets tiresome, and the running time (at 124 minutes) goes on too long, the film keeps coming up with vintage footage that brings back choice moments: Hefner on Sixties talk shows, or his strangely geeky appearances on “Playboy After Dark,” a staged cocktail party with celebrities. The 84-year-old Hefner chimes in regularly, sounding like a man who hasn’t really changed his ways much over the decades. Of course, he’s a brand name; they’re not supposed to change. The spectacle is both oddly reassuring and not a little strange.

Bunny and the Bull. “Soon becomes monotonous.”

The Harimaya Bridge. “Pokey.”

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Steve Scher about the faux-documentary phenomenon, including Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish. (This was recorded before Casey Affleck admitted I’m Still Here was a hoax; but we got it right anyway.) Listen here; the movie bit kicks in 15 minutes into the broadcast.

Sunday afternoon, September 19, I’ll be talking at 2 p.m. at the Frye Art Museum about “Domestic Discontent” in films such as Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. It’s free; more info here.

Movie Diary 9/14/2010

They’re here already

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010). Official: after Fired Up! and this, Will Gluck is an auteur. Seriously, the guy’s got it, and this is another funny wisecracky movie with a great cast and a sprung rhythm. (full review 9/17)

Heartbreaker (Pascal Chaumeil, 2010). A dumb movie that will be popular. At least you get to look at Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis (although Chaumeil doesn’t really know how to photograph them). (full review 9/24)

The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010). Boston crime saga, with a big impressive cast and not much time to go deeper than the surface excitement – but the surface is pretty exciting. Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, and Jon Hamm make the most of their chances. (full review 9/17)

Hell Is for Heroes (Don Siegel, 1962). Lean and serious war movie, with McQueen feeling his oats, plus a touch of the gimmick casting that crept into some movies of this era (namely Bobby Darin and Bob Newhart in key roles). The final couple of minutes absolutely kill.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). Watched this Sunday night and wondered how old Kevin McCarthy must be these days; turns out he was already dead, as of 24 hours earlier or so. Classy performance, such a smart movie, and Siegel provides strong (but not rushed) forward motion in the storytelling – as well as suggesting the quiet “difference” in people and places that the invasion has already touched. And of course every year it seems to get relevant. Watching it again for a talk I plan to deliver a few times in the coming year (see Upcoming Events tab, above).