Shorties #8

Here it is April already, and if the entertainment world put out quarterly reports, the stockholders would be running for the hills right now. Movies, books, games... All of them have been disappointing so far this year. My next several posts will be about television, which has been a nice exception to the drudgery, but you'll note that all of the praise I'm about to heap only applies to shows that came out no more recently than last year. There are some promising things on the horizon, but since most of this year's entertainment could be summed up with a shrug so far, I've had plenty of time to go back and grab some of the movies in recent years that I missed when they first came out. Come on, 2013. Get it together.

#1: Ruby Sparks: When this movie made the rounds last year, the reviews didn't fill me with hope. But the premise of a lonely, frustrated author who starts writing about his ideal woman, then discovers said woman in his kitchen, really appealed to me. Paul Dano is a really intriguing actor who unfortunately doesn't get a lot of attention, and his performance here makes the protagonist pretty relatable, even if he sometimes falls into the trap of being the most literal kind of controlling boyfriend. Some of the plotlines are a bit rote - people who see a lot of movies are already intimately familiar with the trying-to-convince-others-of-extraordinary-circumstances schtick - but overall, it was a pretty cute movie. (Grade: B-)

#2: The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Another 2012 movie, but unlike Ruby Sparks, this one was always on my to-watch radar. The author of the novel it's based on got to direct the film, which is about a shy, insular high school freshman (Charlie) with some mental illness that his family is forever tiptoeing around. He befriends two seniors (Patrick, who is not-so-secretly gay, and Patrick's step-sister Sam), and with their support, slowly begins to come out of his shell. He falls in love with Sam, and his problems come roaring back when Patrick is harassed at school and Sam goes out with guys who treat her like dirt. It's a film that hits close to home for anyone who was wedged firmly in an offshoot clique, neither lonely nor popular. The basis of Charlie's mental problems is revealed at the end, and while I won't spoil it, I will say that it felt wedged in unnecessarily. This may be the case for the book as well, but at least as far as the movie goes, there are plenty of people like Charlie who don't need traumatic past events to enter high school as a shrinking violet. (Grade: B)

#3: Election: I probably haven't seen this movie since it was released in 1999, so I got a welcome reminder of how good it is. I generally enjoy Alexander Payne movies, but didn't realize that Election was based on a Tom Perrotta novel, so there's some nice redemption. And though Pleasantville was a terrific movie, and there were lots of excited whispers about Cruel Intentions, this is the movie that really established Reese Witherspoon as a movie star, and for good reason. She nailed the role of Tracy Flick, an over-ambitious high school senior willing to step on anyone to achieve her goals, even if the goal is a mostly-symbolic student presidency. Matthew Broderick plays the civics teacher who feels she desperately needs to be taken down a peg, and begins to scheme against her. As with many Payne movies, the story is more interesting because there are no purely evil characters, nor purely good characters (possibly excepting Chris Klein as Tracy's opponent, who is too naive to be devious). You truly can root for and against everyone. (Grade: B+)

#4: Film Critic: One of the recent episodes of the /Film podcast was ostensibly supposed to be a review of Oz the Great and Powerful, but turned into a much more interesting discussion of the monetization of podcasts in general, and if/when/how an audience should support shows they find entertaining. The guest was film critic Laremy Legel, whose opinion I'm always interested in. After hearing his views on the need to toss a few bucks to the niche entertainment outlets I want to see continue, I was energized to jump on Amazon and buy a copy of his book. I'm always curious to get a peek behind the curtain of film criticism. Hmm. You know those silent film stars that couldn't make the transition to talkies? Or a musician that's amazing in the studio, but can't put on a decent live show? I'm afraid Legel is one of those people who comes off better when they stay in their niche. On podcasts, he's compelling, amusing, and persuasive. His writing, however, is scattershot and a little dull. I like all the topics he gets to, but he doesn't stay on any of them long enough to do anything but scratch the surface. One thing he does go into depth about is his peeve over movies that don't feel the need to aspire to quality because they're for kids or dumb summer blockbusters. We don't excuse people who make bad cars or bad sandwiches, he argues. Only filmmakers seem to be able to get away with saying something like "It's a G.I. Joe movie! Of course it's crappy!" I wholeheartedly agree with that stance... Which is why it's so unfortunate that his book is riddled with typos and syntax errors. If a movie-maker should be held accountable for not giving any thought to plot or character development, then it's also time to put the smack down on books that didn't get proofread. (Grade: C+)

#5: Young Adult: I was bummed that this movie passed me by in 2011, since I enjoyed the Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody collaboration that resulted in Juno. I sometimes have issues with "cringe" movies; the awkward social situations cause me to get more and more progressively embarrassed for the characters. I stuck it out for this one, in which Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a ghost-writer for a soon-to-be-canceled young adult series (think along the lines of Sweet Valley High). When she gets an email blast from an old boyfriend about his newborn baby, she resolves to go back to the hometown where she was once queen bee and steal him back, if for no other reason than validation. When she gets back, she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), the prototypical nerd, who is partially disabled from the beating he got back in high school for being perceived as gay. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and Matt tries to be the voice of reason to dissuade Mavis from attempting to homewreck her old flame's happy life. This being a pretty dark comedy, it goes about as well as you'd expect. Despite having to fight the urge to watch a lot of scenes through my fingers, this was a very good movie, and I can easily see why it ended up on so many people's best-of-the-year lists. (Grade: B)


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