Kicking the Tweets

Sex Ed (2014)

Agenda Neutral

Like actual puberty, movie puberty ain't pretty. Some films confidently lead audiences on a journey that seems painstakingly mapped out. Others are torrents of conflicting emotions and ideas whose epic identity struggle makes a relatively short ordeal feel like forever. Isaac Feder's Sex Ed is the latter kind. I'm glad to have laughed at, squirmed through, and dissected all the stuff that did and didn't work, but I'm mostly grateful it's all behind me.

Except for this review, of course. How do I distill Sex Ed's promise and problems without spoiling the whole thing or just saying, "Go watch it, and see for yourself?" I'm don't know how much of Bill Kennedy's screenplay was Frankenstein-ed via editing and other decisions to create the end result, versus what was on the page at the outset. I can say that this is three distinct movies in one. More accurately, it's three partial movies, none of which have any business harmonizing as much as they do:

Movie #1: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, a high school detention monitor who learns that his roomful of rambunctious teens is dangerously ignorant about sex. He begins a health-studies class and runs afoul of a local pastor (Chris Williams), whose son is one of Eddie's students. Trapped between a secular school policy that's oddly defined by religion-based community standards and a moral obligation to keep his kids from making terrible mistakes, Eddie gets creative in helping both sides find common cause.

Movie #2: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, an out-of-work math teacher who takes a job at a bagel joint to make ends meet. In the opening scene, he fends off two horny college kids who desperately want to screw in the bathroom. It's another sad reminder of the sex Eddie isn't getting (that he has, in fact, never gotten). Trapped between dealing with actual adult issues of employment, self-esteem, and life-planning, and the epic war raging in his pants, Eddie must get creative in navigating a world of freaks and geeks without either head exploding.

Movie #3: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, a dorky virgin who winds up teaching health studies to rambunctious kids after school. One of his students, Tito (Kevin Hernandez), has an attractive older sister named Pilar (Lorenza Izzo), with whom Eddie falls in instant love. Pilar has a bad-ass boyfriend, of course, (Hector, played by Ray Santiago), and Eddie finds himself trapped between respecting Pilar's relationship, following his own heart (which beats with different kinds of affection for both Pilar and Tito), and managing insecurities about his inexperience.

Taken on their own, each of these concepts is a solid (if not already thoroughly explored) foundation for a movie. But the cross-over elements make things problematic and more than a bit ooky. Eddie's roommate, JT (Glen Powell), for example, is a mid-twenties Steve Stifler-type, a clueless poon-hound who offers terrible advice based on his rotating cast of conquests. This makes for a solid case of the fidgets when Eddie invites him to role-play in class, opposite fourteen-year-old girls whose boyfriends are pressuring them into various sex acts.

No, this newfound perspective doesn't make JT grow up and respect women--that honor falls to Ally (Castille Landon), the hook-up who turned out to be bona fide girlfriend material. Connecting these three dots with a solid line, rather than a dotted one, would have made things really interesting; it also would have bled into Movie #4, in which the Eddie character is relegated to third billing at best.

There's also the problem of genre expectations. Sex Ed opens with raunch and strays into weird raunch (personified by Matt Walsh's perverse and utterly tuned-out school principal). By the time Eddie walks into his classroom, Feder and Kennedy have seeded an American Pie-style sex comedy. In a flash, we realize these kids are A) very young and B) realistically drawn Teens With Problems--not the oversexed, college-bound horn-dogs who make cartoon virginity pacts and put the moves on baked goods.

The movie switches from the kind of film where gratuitous nudity seems inevitable to one where I hoped to God no one would take off their clothes. There is one scene, toward the end, where we see a pair of exposed breasts. They belong to an adult, fortunately, but they're revealed as the punch line to an utterly depressing joke, the result of tagging the spirit-rousing climax from Movie #1 with the sex-comedy silliness of Movie #2.

Sex Ed benefits from solid casting, the glue that holds these disparate elements together. Osment and Izzo are great, and their characters' relationship goes places I hadn't expected at the outset. Ditto for Landon's character, and that of Retta, who plays the wise and sexually adventurous owner of the bar Eddie lives above. In fact, Sex Ed brims with female performers and characters who I wouldn't describe as strong in this context, but who are interesting enough to warrant being fleshed out in Movie #5.

Feder and Kennedy are adept at fooling around in different genres, and I would love to have seen any of the three main movies they hint at here. But skipping the crucial outlining process (which helps organize thoughts and strengthen the thesis before diving into the fun stuff) changes Sex Ed from an essay into a multiple-choice pop quiz.


The Jungle Book (2016)

Chapter and Versus

On Monday, Disney announced plans to develop a sequel to their live-action remake of the 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book, which opens today. I am profoundly disappointed by this news, and not because I dislike the new film. On the contrary, director Jon Favreau has created one of the most astonishing technical and dramatic achievements I'm likely to see this year. Disney continues to turn the remake trend on its ear by offering lush, transportive fantasies that stand on their own, and it would be nice to spend their arsenal of creative bullets developing other properties (even--gasp!--original ones). Like Maleficent and Cinderella before it, The Jungle Book is a relatively short, self-contained children's tale that has no business being a franchise.

I can't judge how well this version compares to the original, or to Rudyard Kipling's book, as I'm not familiar with either. Fans of both may find that Favreau and writer Justin Marks haven't covered much new ground, story-wise. But as a spirited adventure, and as a landmark of digital-effects innovation, the filmmakers break ground in ways that should send James Cameron and Zach Snyder back to the drawing board on those Avatar sequels and misguided DC Universe movies.

Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, a young boy living among several species of wild animals deep in the jungle. Correction: talking wild animals. Yes, Mowgli sasses his panther mentor Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), and fits right in with his adoptive wolf parents Akila (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), and sibling pups.

Into this harmonious ecosystem stalks a ruthless tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). He threatens to kill everyone in sight if Mowgli is not delivered to him, and a debate erupts within the community as to whether or not they should give him up. Bagheera guides Mowgli sneak away, in search of the human village at the edge of the jungle; though Mowgli has never had significant contact with mankind, Bagheera reasons that they're his best chance for survival in a jungle ruled by Shere Khan.

From here, The Jungle Book becomes almost episodic. Mowgli has several misadventures on his way to the human world, which complicate his already mixed emotions about engaging it. He learns his origin story from a seductive python (Scarlett Johansson), becomes the unwitting servant of a con-artist bear (Bill Murray), and runs afoul of a singing primate mobster named King Louie (Christopher Walken). No prizes for guessing that Mowgli eventually returns to the place he calls home and faces Shere Khan, but Favreau, Marks, and Seethi sell the journey of self-reliance and identity that make the film's climactic confrontation a truly powerful experience.

None of this would have been as effective, or even possible, ten years ago (much less forty). Ninety-nine percent of The Jungle Book's animals and environments were created digitally,* and its place as a marker in the history of photo-realistic-animation milestones is guaranteed. From Terminator 2 to Jurassic Park to Star Wars Episode I to The Lord of the Rings to Avatar to Rise of the Planet of the Apes to The Jungle Book, the state of the art has progressed from relying on a blend of digital innovation and practical trickery to practically bridging the Uncanny Valley.

Unlike superhero movies and dumb summer blockbusters that treat the digital toolbox like a toilet, Favreau and company use everything at their disposal (including performance capture and some terrific voice work from the top-notch cast) to create wholly realistic, empathetic characters. In the middle of the film, I recalled a moment, years ago, when I revisited The Neverending Story. As child, I was convinced Falcor and the giant rock monster were real. As an adult, I just saw puppets and efforts that had been left in the dust by technological progress. For an hour and forty-five minutes, The Jungle Book reignited that eight-year-old's desire to believe in impossible creatures. To be honest, I was a tad disappointed when I got home from the screening, and my cat refused to tell me how his day was.

Switching gears, I wish to God I didn't know about the sequel. The knowledge alone shatters all surface-level analysis and invites the harder-to-ask questions about whether or not Disney set out to make art here, or if art was a cosmically fortunate bi-product of an utterly cynical business decision. It becomes too easy to strip away the layers, to see, for example, not a diverse and talented voice cast, but a bunch of Marvel movie contract players:

Then there's the man himself, Jon Favreau. It's fitting that the writer/actor/director who birthed the Marvel Cinematic Universe and re-birthed Robert Downey Jr. by casting him as Iron Man would lead another revolution in the way artists tell stories. But then I think of Chef, his phenomenal, deeply personal 2014 dramedy in which he exorcised all the demons he'd absorbed as a fallen Hollywood hit-maker. I'm a great admirer of Favreau (though not of Iron Man 2 or Cowboys & Aliens, which could be seen as the inciting incidents that led to Chef), but I can't help but wonder if this isn't déjà vu all over again.

I hope you're lucky enough (that is to say, unjaded enough) to neither understand nor care about this commentary. I hope you see The Jungle Book on the big screen, with someone you love, and that it makes you feel young and wild and invincible. Experience Favreau's awesome new world. Be inspired by it. Then close the book and move on.

*The movie doesn't have a post-credits stinger, but you may gasp when the single filming location pops up on-screen.

**Okay, that's not part of the Marvel Universe, but give it time.


The Invitation (2016)

The Big Chiller

The Invitation may spawn a new horror sub-genre: the Support Group Thriller. Karyn Kusama's latest film, about a dinner party that devolves into mayhem, is so unnerving you'll need friends close by to keep each other from climbing the walls in panic. Like an idiot, I watched the film at home, and found myself pausing six times in the first hour to pace in and out of the living room. I got some water. I told my wife (more than once) that my nerves were shot. I tried again. And again. And again.





This sounds silly, especially if you watched the trailer and thought, "Terrific. An art-house version of You're Next". Or if you asked yourself the question my wife posed to me: "Why don't those people just leave?"

At its core, The Invitation is a drama about broken relationships, grief, and reconnection--and the lengths to which people will go to heal. Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi explore the extremes at which rage can manifest, from bottled-up social anxiety, to the kind of all-consuming sorrow for which dead bodies are the only elixir.

Lesser movies spend twenty minutes setting the table, and the remaining eighty flipping it over. The Invitation reverses those proportions, focusing on character dynamics and building tension as several mysteries hang in the air. By the time the somewhat predictable third act rolls around, we're fully invested, rooting for characters to live, rather than ticking off the splatterific deaths of two-dimensional meat puppets.

About this party: Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) receive an invitation from Will's ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), to visit their former house, which Eden now shares with David (Michiel Huisman), the man for whom she left Will two years ago. The place looks mostly as Will remembers leaving it, except for three key details:

1. The living room is filled with Eden and Will's closest friends, who haven't been together since before Will moved out.

2. Eden looks radiant and healthy, an eerie change from the gaunt, frazzled mess that eloped to Mexico with David after the divorce.

3. All the locks on the house are now inside.

The party is also down one friend, and up two newcomers who seem to know the hosts a little too well: a coked-up-looking hippie girl (Lindsay Burge) and a dead-eyed giant (John Carroll Lynch) who barely speaks unless activated. It doesn't take a cineaste to know that Will's distrust of his ex, her new friends, and this soiree is well-founded. But I love that Kusama does her damnedest to play the misdirection game. Could it be that Will is imagining the sinister cues he's picking up on? That maybe the divorce, and the tragedy that led to it, have driven him insane?

Fortunately for us, Kusama, Hay, and Manfredi don't pull a fast one ("It was all in his head!"). Instead, they weave a complicated tapestry that sees Will slipping into madness during an event that is, itself, mad. I'm going crazy trying to avoid spoilers here, so let's take a breath and talk about filmmaking.

The Invitation feels desperate in the best possible way. It is the work of a team that believes no one will give them another chance to shoot precisely the movie they want to make, with a high-quality cast, and with the time and budget to make as visually and dramatically satisfying a horror film as possible. Kusama, cinematographer Bobby Shore, and composer Theodore Shapiro conspire to give us a series of dreamy images and meticulous compositions that enhance the screenplay's numerous set-ups and pay-offs. One springs to mind:

During a moment of tension between Will and David, we see John Carroll Lynch's character at the left of the frame. He's cropped and obscured by shadow, but the meaty, unclenched hand dangling at his side is unmistakable. Like a Western in which only the audience knows the entire saloon is armed to the teeth, our innate mistrust of this guy subtly elevates the tension in the focal point of Kusama's frame.

To be fair, I'm not sure how effective The Invitation will be on younger audiences, who might go in expecting, frankly, You're Next. This is a movie about adults going through non-sexy, complicated adult things. I wouldn't blame a teenager for pulling up Twitter somewhere around minute forty, after precisely zero characters have been stabbed and ten characters have listened to a monologue about regret. I would expect the adults to be enraptured, though, and wrestling with how their own life experiences might compel them to respond to a situation that escalates emotionally instead of viscerally.

Sure, the film opens with a jump scare and ends on a very chilling image, but The Invitation's true, raw-nerve energy comes from being knocked off balance early on by a protagonist who can't trust what he sees (or remembers) and a nemesis that's rooted in ideology (a much trickier and terrifying catalyst than revenge, sport, or even supernatural evil). This film demands company, discussion, and analysis. Just make sure you know where the exits are, and which side the locks are on.


Aeon Flux (2005)


Reincarnation is real, at least for movies. And I don't just mean thematically: I'm talking about movies being brought back from the dead as other movies.

Aeon Flux entered the world as a series of shorts on MTV's Liquid Television in the early 90s. Animator Peter Chung envisioned his dystopian-future action series as a parody of brainless blockbusters: the titular heroine is a leather-clad, gun-toting warrior fighting her way up the food-chain of an oppressive technocrat's regime. As enticing as this might have sounded to mass audiences, Chung subverted expectations by making Flux a gangly, grotesque dominatrix-type in a carnival-mirror world that shunned conventional beauty while embracing the trappings of fetishism.

Flux's early adventures were practically wordless, and saw the butt-kicking hero die at the end of every mission. The shorts became popular and began to evolve, eventually becoming a half-hour show with dialogue and stabs at continuity. Though the satire had taken on something resembling narrative substance, few people would have expected it to become a multi-million-dollar action movie, starring one of Hollywood's most beautiful and accomplished actresses.

Yet that's precisely what happened in 2005, when director Karyn Kusama teamed up with Academy Award winner Charlize Theron to bring Aeon Flux to the big screen. With this combination of casting, cult name-recognition, and the popularity of The Matrix franchise (which, it could be argued, was inspired by the original show), few could have predicted that the film would so thoroughly bomb critically and commercially. I don't know where my head was at when I saw Aeon Flux in the theatre, but I remember liking what Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi pulled off. The global marketplace and I didn't agree, however (surprise, surprise), and the vanished almost instantly, destined to be forgotten beyond the realm of trivia.

Or should I say, "forgotten by some"?

Fast forward eleven years to my recent revisiting of Aeon Flux. Yes, the movie feels very of-its-time, boasting loads of techno-scored shoot-outs and balletic martial-arts displays. But it is also alarmingly contemporary, specifically in its similarities to Veronica Roth's Divergent Series. I'll preface this by saying that I have no proof that Roth lifted elements from, or is even familiar with, the TV show--much the same way I am forced to accept the public record of Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, who claims to have not heard of Battle Royale when constructing her particular brand of YA blockbuster. But to paraphrase Bill Maher, I don't know it's a fact, I just know it's true: one cannot watch Aeon Flux and the three (and counting) Divergent films without wondering if there was some hard-core cribbing on Roth's part--or if Kusama's film has simply been cosmically resurrected in a far more commercially viable form.

For the sake of argument, I'll just leave this synopsis here and let you decide:

Four hundred years in the future, Earth is a wasteland. The remnants of civilization have walled themselves into a technologically advanced city that is controlled at the very highest level by scientists. As it turns out, the entire population is the result of a highly sophisticated engineering program, designed to reverse the effects of a genetic disruption that nearly ended mankind. A resourceful young woman rises through the ranks of those who would stand against the totalitarian tide. War ensues; revelations about the first natural childbirth in centuries become a major plot point; and the story ends with thousands of people setting out to face whatever lies beyond the wall.

Sorry, I forgot to specify which movie I was describing--the one that came out in 2005, or the film series that began in 2014. It doesn't matter, because their synopses are identical.

The resulting films are not so similar. Aeon Flux was ahead of its time, conceptually, and has an emotionally intelligent core. Flux's nemesis, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas), is not a two-dimensional bad guy; that distinction belongs to his brother, Oren (Jonny Lee Miller), who sees genetic manipulation as the ultimate means of control. Trevor's motives transcend power, and I won't go into them here. The Goodchilds' program is littered with moral quandaries, and it's easy to understand why someone would want to bring them down. Hay and Manfredi make a strong case for Trevor's vision, though, and they allow Aeon Flux to stray into philosophical musings between the wire-work-and-demolitions extravaganzas--much like The Matrix; less so like the Hunger Games and Divergent films, which spend this precious time on gender-swapped Betty-and-Veronica love triangles. 

Time is key to appreciating Aeon Flux. Granted, much of the credit I'm about to bestow likely has to do with the fact that the film died on the vine, but it's refreshing to see a self-contained story that's under an hour-forty-five, and which isn't preoccupied with building four-part trilogies or cinematic universes. Sure, there's a bunch of goofy stuff in the movie (the assassin with hands for feet, the persistent Intro to Naval Gazing eye imagery in the set dressing, etc.), but it comes and goes, and I won't have to worry about it coming around again in hour five-of-nine. The filmmakers hit their points and move on. Then the story ends.

Aeon Flux is not a great movie, but it's not terrible, either. It's a perfectly middle-of-the-road slice of sci-fi that occasionally aspires to more than it should and, in the process, attains moments of genuine loveliness. That it was under appreciated in its time and has since been reincarnated as an empty-headed teen soap should not be held against those who tried to make it more than a twelfth-generation Xerox of The Matrix. Not everyone gets to come back as a butterfly, and sometimes dead really is better.


I Saw the Light (2016)

Abraham The Drifter

Like it or not, conventions exist for a reason. We praise filmmakers who subvert expectations, especially those working in genres that invite a reliance on narrative tricks. Biopics (and their black-sheep cousin, the "Based on a True Story" flick), are the biggest offender: no matter how disparate one historical figure's journey is from another, you can bet both stories will be shoe-horned into a crowd-pleasing, three-act structure on their way to the silver screen. Sure, these movies have become as abundant and tiresome as comic-book tent poles, but I felt downright wistful for their familiarity while watching writer/director Marc Abraham's I Saw the Light.

Full Disclosure (Part 1): I knew nothing about Hank Williams going into this biopic. Coming out of it, I still didn't understand why he was such a transformative figure in the world of country music--and that's a problem, considering the movie is ostensibly about that.

Full Disclosure (Part 2): This review feels like cheating. I saw I Saw the Light under circumstances that shaded my perception of what the film is, what it could have been, and what it should have been. I attended an advance screening with a bona fide Hank Williams fan, and was treated to a Q&A with Abraham and star Tom Hiddleston. These three shared anecdotes that my mind's eye translated into a series of criminally un-depicted vignettes; imaginary deleted scenes that revealed Williams' fractured character and tumultuous relationships more effectively than much of what made the final cut. In other words, barring these insider insights, my review (and understanding) should be much shorter.*

In the Q&A, Abraham said he doesn't like biopics because they're too predictable. He didn't want I Saw the Light to be a traditional cradle-to-the-grave story about a drugged-up musician who died in his prime. By skipping past Williams' formative years, though, and fast-forwarding through the decade that the screenplay does focus on, Abraham robs the audience of context. One moment, Williams is getting married in a gas station; two scenes later, he and his wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), are sharing a meal with a toddler who, it turns out, is Audrey's daughter from a previous marriage. If this crucial information was included in a brief, drawl-heavy exchange somewhere, I missed it.

The screenplay glosses over similar pillars of Williams' biography. From his odd relationship with his mother (Cherry Jones), who pops in and out of the picture, never aging or evolving; to his pills-and-booze addiction; to his selectively chronic back pain, which stemmed from undiagnosed spina bifida occulta; to alleged physical abuse toward Audrey; to the very foundations of his professional career--I Saw the Light is a narrative disaster. The film plays like a two-hour "Best of" YouTube compilation of a six-hour movie.

Despite all that, I recommend this film. In fact, Hank Williams novices (myself included) should probably see it twice: first for the overview, second to make the overview make sense. The screenplay is a huge problem here, but two things make it surmountable:

1. A charismatic lead performance by Hiddleston.

2. Gripping 4D cinematography from DP Dante Spinotti.

As I said before, I don't know Hank Williams from Adam, but Tom Hiddleston deserves credit for pouring such heart, soul, and research into this part. He performed all of Williams' songs for the movie, and created a unique, natural-looking physical cadence. The downside is that I saw more homework than character in Hiddleston. The actor's drive is so self-evident and electrically all-consuming that it wears out an already fragile movie that is ill-equipped to contain it.

As a result, I can only say that Olsen and the supporting cast fare well.** Given the choppiness of Abraham's screenplay, it's hard to tell what many of these characters want (beyond purely surface concerns) or who they are as people. I can't recall if Bradley Whitford, for example, was a record producer, the head of a label, a co-writer, an agent, all of the above, or none of the above. He's the first person we see on screen, for some reason, and we're told through clumsy dialogue that he and Hank are dear friends--even though his character is as sporadic and vague a presence throughout the film as Williams' mother.

I exaggerated, of course, when suggesting that Dante Spinotti delivered "4D" cinematography, but not by much. He brings the same boiling-over intensity to I Saw the Light as he did to Heat and L.A. Confidential, almost literally dousing his compositions in 50s southern sweat. In many scenes, Hiddleston's Williams looks like a zombie: gaunt, doped-up, and yet possessed of the kind of otherworldly energy that would later compel people to accuse rock 'n roll of being the Devil's music. At other times, such as the opening a cappella performance of "Cold, Cold Heart", Spinotti renders Hiddleston/Williams as beatific pop angel so powerful that light shafts take on the appearance of illustrative flourishes. Even when Williams is at his worst, Spinotti makes Hiddleston (and, by extension, the movie) look gorgeous.

But there's enough artifice in biopics, even those that shy away from the mantle. A well-crafted frame is no good if what's contained within it doesn't make sense. All of the mania involved in the Hank Williams phenomenon, for example, is contained within Hiddleston's performance. At no point did I get the feeling that any of his audiences were watching something phenomenal, something breathtakingly new. Unfortunately, there's a parallel here that extends far beyond the screen.

*For an in-depth discussion on some of these insights, check out Episode 129 of the Kicking the Seat podcast.

**Wrenn Schmidt deserves a least an honorable mention. In her brief third act scenes, she gives backbone to what might have otherwise amounted to a disposable-girlfriend character.