Easy A

“Easy A.” 2010. Will Gluck, director. Sony/Screen Gems, 93 minutes.
Here’s a new twist on an old formula: boy pays girl to pretend she likes him, so other kids at school will think he’s cool. It worked in “Can’t Buy Me Love” (1987), when geeky Roland Miller (played by dreamy Patrick Dempsey) hires the lovely and popular Cindi Mancini (Amanda Peterson) to pretend she is his girlfriend. Cindi goes along with it because she desperately needs $200, but she establishes strict rules governing their relationship, and it remains chaste until after the pseudo-romance blossoms inevitably into genuine love. It’s a sweet movie about the superficiality of teenagers and the transformative power of a good haircut.
“Easy A,” however, avoids the relationship and cuts to the chase. In this film we are expected to believe that geeky teenaged boys would pay a girl simply to say “I had sex with her,” (as though boys ever had to ask permission to start rumors like that.) Moreover, we are expected to believe that a pretty, witty, and seemingly intelligent girl would be willing to destroy her reputation just to help these poor slobs out. Even more, we are expected to believe that having a one-time-only roll in the hay with the high school tramp would make a boy seem anything other than pathetic. I just don’t buy it.
As if that doesn’t require enough suspension of disbelief, we then have to buy the idea that, after she has destroyed said reputation, the guy of her real dreams would still want her, slutty reputation and all, no questions asked. I may be old, but I don’t think human nature has changed that much since my dating days.
The film is presented episodically as Olive (Emma Stone) tells her story via her webcam journal. Supposedly Olive feels “invisible” and ignored by her peers, but she is friends with one of the coolest girls at school and is invited to her parties. She seems to be friends with the jocks and the cheerleaders as well. So I don’t get this angle either.
The film begins innocently enough, with Olive making up a date with an imaginary boyfriend to avoid going camping with the family of her best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Mychalka). When Rhiannon asks for prurient details about the date, Olive goes overboard in describing a night of passion, unaware that Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the class prude, can overhear them. Marianne spreads the false story, and everyone at school starts talking about Olive and her mysterious college boyfriend. Instead of denying it or ignoring it, Olive embraces her new reputation by pretending to sleep with every boy who proffers a gift card, beginning with her gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) who wants to stay in the closet. Puh-leez!!
Coincidentally, Olive is studying Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” at school, so to demonstrate her contempt for the way others are treating her (even though it’s her own fault for lying to them), she buys an assortment of bustiers and corsets, adorns them all with deep red A’s, and begins living the martyred life of Hester Prynne. (Or so we are led to believe.)
However, as anyone who has read “The Scarlet Letter” knows, Hawthorne’s Hester is not a slut. She does not happily service every unhappy man in town–or pretend to. She falls in love–true love– with a man whom she cannot marry, and she becomes pregnant. Shunned by the community when her pregnancy begins to show, and forced to wear a letter A on her clothing as a brand, Hester lives a life of solitude and service to the community that has shunned her. She does it on her own terms, with her head held high. Through her actions, as time goes on, the “A” seems to transform from “Adulterer” to “Angel” in the eyes of many of the women in town, although they never lift the shunning. For Hester, the scarlet letter is not an “easy A.” It comes at a high cost. In fact, she names her baby “Pearl” to acknowledge the ” great price” she has paid.
Like Hester, who is persecuted by her community’s puritanical leaders, Olive is persecuted by an overzealous Christian Club at school, led by Marianne. Members of the club are presented with typical Hollywood venom. They are self-righteous, cruel, vapid, and judgmental–and at least one is a sexual hypocrite (of course). By contrast, Olive’s parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are presented as hip, witty and cool. Olive banters with them, exchanging clever word plays and literary references. But they are too hip–or too hippie– to provide any actual parenting, rules, or guidelines. “You know we accept your choices,” is all her mother says about the bizarre new wardrobe, providing a contrast to the judgmental Christian Club at school, but not much help.
School administrators are no better–the principal gives her detention for using the British curse word “twat,” but says nothing to her about wearing lingerie as a shirt. Olive’s guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow) is equally useless, giving Olive a handful of condoms when what Olive really wants is help figuring out how to undo the web of lies that entangles her.
Usually I enjoy teen films that borrow their plots from classic literature, such as “Clueless” (1995), based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and “10 Things I Hate about You” (1997), based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” These timeless stories translate well to modern settings, giving the films greater resonance and depth. But this one doesn’t work. It’s hard to root for a teenager who glorifies casual sex, teen drinking, pal parenting, and stereotypes of any kind, whether Christian or gay. (Or business. When a Quiznos mascot shows up inexplicably at a Christian protest, Olive complains derisively, “The only thing that trumps religion is capitalism.”) Oh, Hollywood. You are so predictable.
On the surface, the movie is a lot of fun. Emma Stone is a fine actress (if a bit old for this part). She is cute, sassy, smart and fun, reminiscent of Lindsay Lohan in “Mean Girls” (before she was ruined by some of the same casual values portrayed in this film). Critics have almost universally praised the film for its high quality of acting, its humorous banter full of literary allusions, and its funny situations as the virginal Olive pretends to have sex. In the most memorable scene, Olive and Brandon stagger into a house party, feigning drunkenness, and ask for a bedroom where they can “finish what we started” in the car (wink wink). Partygoers gather around the closed door to listen as the two jump on the bed, pound on the wall, moan and shout while they pretend to have sex. (He’s gay, remember, and she’s a virgin, so neither of them has any experience in “lemon-squeezing,” as Brandon so delicately puts it.) A movie hasn’t been this much fun since Harry met Sally.
So why don’t I find this film as funny as other reviewers do? I think they are blinded by the age of the actors. Emma Stone and Dan Byrd (Olive and Brandon) are both in their mid-twenties. They’re adults. It’s easy to forget in this scene that they are portraying children. But if 16-year-old Dakota Fanning were playing 16-year-old Olive, I think audiences would have a completely different reaction to the film.
My biggest beef with “Easy A” is that it simply looks too easy. Olive ruins her reputation with a long list of pretend liaisons, and then restores it overnight, just by telling the boy of her dreams that it was all made up. But as any real girl will tell you, it ain’t that easy when you’re easy. If we learn anything from “The Scarlet Letter,” it is that reputations are easily tarnished, but painfully restored. There is no such thing as an easy A.

The Town

“The Town,” directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2010, 125 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
“The Town” tells the story of four childhood friends who have grown up to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Unfortunately, those footsteps have led in most cases to prison or death. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, we are told, “Bank robbery is passed down from fathers to sons like a family business.”
The film opens in the middle of a well organized bank heist. The robbers, dressed in Hallowe’en masks and toting AK-47s, sail through the bank with speed and confidence, disabling cell phones and computers as they head for the vault, where they coolly check for dye tags and take only the clean stuff. When one quick-thinking employee sets off the silent alarm, they decide to take the pretty young bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), as a hostage.
Most of the gang members are typical thugs, but Doug (Ben Affleck) is the robber with the heart of gold who wants to break away but can’t leave his friends. After they let Claire go (unharmed), Doug decides to track her down, ostensibly to find out what she might have told the FBI, but also to see how she’s coping with the ordeal. He ends up falling for this pretty girl from the other side of town, despite the fact that he is already in a relationship with a local girl (Blake Lively), the sister of his best friend and partner, Jim (Jeremy Renner). Claire represents the life Doug might have had if he hadn’t grown up in the projects of Boston. He is torn between loyalty to his pals and a desire for a different life.
The film has plenty of excitement, with a thrilling car chase down narrow Boston alley ways, and a shootout at Fenway Park. The robbers are cool, their plans are smart, and one of them has an itchy trigger finger that can get them all the death penalty if his bullets hit home. We especially feel sympathy for Doug, a good guy growing up in a bad situation.
The film doesn’t praise or glorify crime so much as it attempts to explain it. Life doesn’t provide white picket fences for kids in the Projects. Parents often end up dead or in prison, or they just walk away. Children learn to keep their eyes open and their mouths shut. They create their own code of right and wrong, with loyalty to friends at the top of the list.
The relationship between Doug and Jim, whose family took Doug in when his father went to prison, is best portrayed when Doug comes to Jim with a special request. Angry at some hoodlums who have been hassling Claire, Doug says to him, “I gotta ask ya to do something. I can’t tell ya why. We gotta hurt somebody.” Jim replies without question, “Let’s go.”
What happened in Charlestown? Why is it such a bastion of bank robbers and auto thieves? The film offers several reasons. As the FBI agents begin to close in on the robbers, Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) comments dryly, “We won’t get 24-hour surveillance unless one of these guys converts to Islam,” suggesting that Homeland Security diverts funds away from hometown security. But it’s more than that. In another telling scene, when the gang has outrun several police cars and crossed the bridge from Boston to Charlestown, they suddenly come eye to eye with a local policeman. He stares at them, and they stare at him. They’re caught. Then the cop deliberately turns his head and looks the other way. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys when they all grow up together.
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, the film is more than a typical bank heist flick; it is Ben Affleck’s love letter to a town he adores. He grew up in Boston’s neighborhood, and he knows her seedy side as well as her beauty. He knows her accents and her moods, and he knows how to charm her into giving him exactly what he wants. Affleck’s acting career has had its ups and downs, but Boston is clearly his lucky charm. He earned an Oscar (with Matt Damon) for the screenplay of “Good Will Hunting” (1997), set in Cambridge, where the two actors grew up. His directorial debut, “Gone, Baby, Gone” (2007), also set in Boston’s seedy district, earned both critical accolades and box office success. “The Town” makes it a hat trick. Affleck is clearly back on top.

Catfish

“Catfish,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Rogue Pictures, 2010, 94 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
There was a time when drama focused on the acts of the rich and legendary. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, plays were about kings and heroes, gods and generals. When Henrik Ibsen introduced realism in the nineteenth century, critics predicted that no one would spend money to see ordinary people talking about such ordinary subjects as middle-class marriages and household budgets. But the critics were wrong. Audiences embraced these plays with characters very much like themselves, facing problems very much like their own.
We are seeing a similar shift in entertainment today, with the proliferation of webcams, weblogs, social networks, and reality TV. I don’t predict an end to scripted movies by any means, but I do see a growing interest in documentaries that chronicle what real people are doing. In fact, documentaries are the fastest growing film genre today. Close to 9,000 were submitted to Sundance for consideration last year alone.
Another reason for the growing popularity of documentaries is the recent advance in digital film technology, making it possible for virtually anyone to be a filmmaker. Leaving behind the graininess of video tape recorders, the new digital cameras produce images with the crisp clarity of film, at a fraction of the cost. Documentarians no longer have to worry about the cost of purchasing and developing 70 mm film, or of renting expensive cameras worth tens of thousands of dollars. For a couple thousand bucks, anyone can own a good quality digital movie camera, and for a few hundred dollars more, can store hundreds of hours of footage. As a result, people have the luxury of keeping the cameras rolling and editing the stories later.
One trouble with real documentary work, however, is that the filmmakers have no control over the plot. They begin with an idea, but not a script. They’re more like the hiker out for a walk than the adventurer out to scale Mt. Everest. They know the general area they plan to explore, but they don’t know where specific trails will take them, until they go there. Often the story makes an unexpected turn, and they have to choose whether to pursue the original idea or detour down the new path.
Sometimes documentarians get extremely lucky, as did Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni when they filmed “The Story of the Weeping Camel” (2003)–how could they have anticipated that a rare white colt would be born while they were filming? The result was magical. Other times, documentarians end up creating the story; Woodstock would have been just one of many music festivals in 1969, hardly remembered at all, if not for the award-winning documentary made of the event (and filmed in part by a young NYU film student named Martin Scorsese).
Fewer than one percent of those 9,000 documentaries submitted to Sundance last year were accepted. “Catfish” was one of them. In fact, it was all the buzz, and for good reason. The story is engaging, the main character good looking and likable, and the suspense well developed. The filmmakers also had the good fortune to stumble onto a story they could not have predicted when they began. And what a story!
The film starts simply enough. Shortly after photographer Yaniv Schulman has a dance photo printed in the New York Times, he receives a fan letter from a talented young artist, 8-year-old Abby, who sends him a remarkable painting of his photograph, followed by several additional paintings. Thus begins Yaniv’s online friendship with Abby, her mother Angela, and her beautiful 19-year-old sister Megan. As Yaniv becomes more and more involved with Megan and her circle of Facebook friends, his brother Ariel and his friend Henry Joost, budding filmmakers, start filming. After several months, Yaniv begins to fall in love with the girl he knows only through texting, emails, and phone calls, and the filmmakers decide it’s time for a road trip. The resulting film is fascinating, funny, charming–and chilling.
This film could not have been made 20 years ago, or even ten years ago. In many ways it is both a celebration and a condemnation of modern communications technology. Google earth, Google search, youtube, g-chat, Facebook, iTunes, cyberstalking, texting, sexting, and even identity theft–all of these play a role in the telling of this story. It’s a cautionary tale, as old as “Little Red Riding Hood” and as contemporary as the TV show “CSI”; as emotionally simple as a love story, but as psychologically complex as the movie “Three Faces of Eve” (1957).
And that’s all I’m going to say about “Catfish,” because I want you to enjoy the filmmakers’ unexpected path as much as I did. Shocking yet strangely moving, “Catfish” will reel you in.