Easy A (2010)

There has been such a great wealth of teen-girl-POV sex comedies in recent years that it’s easy to take the genre’s gender-flipped resurgence for granted.  Titles like Blockers, Booksmart, Plan B, and Never Have I Ever have successfully de-Porkys‘d the high school sex romp entirely, to the point where the 80s straight-boy fantasies of yore are more of a distant memory than a ripe target for feminist satire.  It took years to ramp up to this new, de-jocked normal, though, and it’s easy to lose perspective on how far the genre’s default POV has come.  When The To Do List attempted to give teen girls’ libidos a spin at the wheel for a change in 2013, it got away with it by casting fully-grown adults in the teen roles and setting its horny hijinks decades in the past, filtering its transgression through an ironic remove.  In 2022, the Hulu series Sex Appeal borrows The To Do List‘s exact premise wholesale (in which an uptight honors student applies her academic work ethic to learning how to be good at sex) without having to soften its post-Porky’s hook.  The genre has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, especially considering how long mainstream comedies were specifically about boys’ quests to shed their virginities in opposition to the demure deflections of their female classmates.

2010’s Easy A might even be a clearer benchmark for the genre’s recent progress than The To Do List, since it’s a teen-girl sex comedy about its heroine not having sex.  Emma Stone stars as a precocious high school senior whose self-serving lie about losing her virginity to a college student spirals out of control, falsely labeling her as The School Slut.  As an early prototype for a Blockers-style revisionist sex comedy, it is embarrassingly restricted by how much sexual desire “good girls” were allowed to express onscreen in its time.  Our heroine has no interest in participating in the sexual adventures her peers imagine her to be indulging.  When a friend gifts her a vibrator as a thank-you present it’s played as a cheeky joke.  Of course, she wouldn’t use one of those.  She’s a good girl.  Easy A is set in a bizarre fantasy world where California high school students are having so little sex that it becomes the talk of the town when a senior loses her virginity (except don’t worry, she didn’t, really).  It makes a semi-progressive moral stance against slut-shaming gossip, but to get there it has to pretend that smart, well-mannered teen girls don’t actually want to have sex.  That’s still reserved for the realm of mouth-breathing boys (such as the leads of 2007’s Superbad, Emma Stone’s professional breakout).

Contemporary timidness about teen girls’ libidos aside, Easy A is cute.  If you haven’t noticed in her star-making decade that followed, Emma Stone is a charismatic, easily loveable performer who has no trouble commanding the spotlight.  Here, she’s saddled with a near-unbearable overload of voice-over narration—delivered directly to camera via a late-aughts webcast—which includes disastrously overwritten chapter titles like “The Shudder Inducing and Clichéd However Totally False Account of How I Lost My Virginity to a Guy at Community College.”  She handles the challenge ably, though, working in crash-course lit guides to The Scarlet Letter and twisty self-owns like “I’m not really as smart as I think I am” with a casual ease.  By the time she’s riffing with her absolutely delightful parents (Patricia Clarkson & Stanley Tucci), it even feels like she’s having fun (though not near as much fun as they’re having).  I don’t know that the movie ever graduates from cute to hilarious, but I also don’t fit its target demographic anyway: 12-year-olds who want to feel Adult.  The film is basically a slightly-growed-up version of a Disney Channel Original—tipped off by the villainous presence of Amanda Bynes—and for that, it’s endearing enough to get by.

Maybe I’m not giving Easy A enough credit for pushing mainstream-sex-comedy boundaries in the dark days of 2010s.  It blatantly announces to the audience (through rapid-fire montages) that it intends to mash The Scarlet Letter together with 1980s John Hughes comedies, and it certainly achieves that goal, however chaste.  It also takes a few pot shots at overly religious sex-negativity, assuming the audience shares its pronounced secular worldview, which does feel bold for the time.  I’m just hung up on the idea that it’s a teen sex comedy where no teens actually want to have sex (except one dastardly cad who propositions the lead for an act of prostitution).  Its idea of provocation is dressing Stone in lingerie top & blue jeans combos to test the boundaries of her school’s dress code.  That would certainly raise the eyebrows in any American high school, even today, but it still feels timid considering what similar comedies have done since.

-Brandon Ledet

Cruella (2021)

So far, I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding Disney’s live-action reheats of its own stale leftovers.  2019’s Lion King, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, and 2015’s Cinderella have all been massive commercial successes for America’s favorite Evil Corporation, but I personally don’t understand their appeal.  Why would I want to see the expressive, imaginative artistry of animation classics re-interpreted in lifeless, colorless CGI?  If I ever catch myself feeling pangs of nostalgia for Aladdin, Dumbo, or The Jungle Book, the original works are just one library loan away – no substitutes necessary.  Unfortunately, my resolve to avoid Disney’s de-animated retreads is much weaker when it comes to the spotlight origin stories for their classic villainesses.  In 2014, I somehow found myself watching the de-animated prequel Maleficent in a near-empty multiplex, and this year I was helpless but to repeat the ritual (from the safety of my couch) with its spiritual successor, Cruella.  Neither movie is especially terrible (nor especially great), but do I resent that I got sucked into their middling orbits.  The Disney marketing machine comes for us all eventually, and my personal weakness as a potential mark is apparently misbehaved women who toe the line between couture and drag.

As a convoluted prequel to 101 Dalmatians, Cruella is an embarrassment.  In order to reorient its dog-skinning, chain-smoking sociopath from villain to anti-hero, Cruella has to change every single aspect of her persona until she’s unrecognizable.  Emma Stone might wear the right wigs and drive the right cars to signal her performance as Cruella De Ville cosplay, but the movie goes miles out of its way to make it clear that she loves dogs and refuses to wear fur.  Confusingly, as much as it wants to disassociate Cruella from her future sins, the movie also frantically runs around London collecting as many minor characters & callbacks to 101 Dalmatians as it can for cheap nostalgia pops, so that the source material is never allowed to drift from the audience’s mind.  The central couple of Roger & Anita from 101 Dalmatians have no tangible impact on the plot at hand but are afforded distracting amounts screentime to underline the film’s flimsy connection to the animated original.  Even the shoe-horned inclusion of dalmatians in Cruella’s origin story feel weirdly out of place, not least of all because they’re rendered in uncanny CGI that doesn’t resemble any breed of dog that’s ever walked the earth.

As Disney’s version of a “punk” film, Cruella is even more of an embarrassment.  A young, chaotic fashion designer sandwiched between the glam & punk eras of 1970s London, our haute-to-trot anti-hero is clearly modeled after Vivienne Westwood, and the tattered glamour of her work shines through in Cruella’s fashion designs in a really fun, authentic way.  However, the visual iconography that frames that lookbook-in-motion feels much less like first-wave punk than it does like jacket art for an early-aughts Avril Lavigne CD.  The unrelenting, ungodly expensive soundtrack places at least one classic pop song into every single scene—so that the entire film plays like a 134min trailer for itself—but actual punk songs are few & far between.  The best you can hope for is the most recognizable singles from safer, venerated punk acts like Blondie & The Clash.  Otherwise, there’s a neutered cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with all its grimy Iggy-isms shielded from children’s ears, and a nighttime car chase is set to a fast-paced Queen track as if there aren’t a thousand punk singles that could’ve easily taken its place.  At the very least, it would’ve been nice to see Siouxsie Sioux, Exene Cervenka or, I dunno, the estates of Poly Styrene & Ari Up pick up an easy paycheck and a boost in Spotify streams here.

As much as I’m griping about Cruella‘s shaky punk credentials and sweaty desperation as a character-rehab prequel, I wouldn’t call it a total waste of time.  As a superhero movie for fashionable gay children, it’s a hoot.  Combining the Big Bad Anna Wintour drag routine of The Devil Wears Prada with Jenny Humphrey’s gate-crashing fashion shows on Gossip Girl (speaking of Avril Lavigne chic), Cruella is remarkably fun as an origin story for an emerging couturier on a revenge mission.  The costumes are fabulous, the (unskinned) underdog story is rousing, and Emma Thompson’s performance as the queen-bee villain is classic camp.  Instead of concluding with direct tie-ins to the opening notes of 101 Dalmatians, Cruella should’ve just signed off with its fully ascended anti-hero watching over London from the rooftops, wielding her sewing machine as a superweapon to avenge all the crimes of fashion on the streets below (à la The Dressmaker).  I might not understand this film as nostalgia bait or as punk rock posturing, but I do see its merits as a power fantasy for the future drag queens of America.  I hope they’re able to get their little hands on Cruella™ brand black & white wigs while they’re still young the same way Batman masks & He-Man swords were hot commodities when I was a kid.  It’s nice to have tangible props to help complete the fantasy.

Just like “Wells for Boys,” if you don’t get who Cruella is for, “That’s because it’s not for you, because you have everything.”  Personally speaking, the movie gave me everything I wanted out of it along with a bunch of stuff I never want out of anything. I recognize its many, many faults, but I also know that I’ll be suckered back into this exact scenario again as soon as Disney’s Ursula hits movie theaters in 2026.  Hopefully they cast an actual drag queen next time just to keep the routine fresh, but I’ll likely show up either way.

-Brandon Ledet

The Favourite (2018)

When exiting our screening of The Favourite, we watched a confused man point to a theater lobby standee advertising the upcoming historical biopic Mary, Queen of Scots. “That’s the movie I thought I was seeing!” he complained to an impatient usher and amused passersby. “When does that come out?” I explained that he was only a week early and asked what he thought of The Favourite, having not been prepared for it. He chuckled and responded, “It was . . . different,” which is exactly the thing moms say when they want to be nice about hating something they know you loved. To be fair, The Favourite is “different” if you consider it a part of the same genre as Mary, Queen of Scots: Oscar Season costume dramas with famous actors playing dress-up & chewing historically accurate scenery in governmental battles of manners. Featuring Olivia Colman, Rachel Wiesz, and Emma Stone (and sometimes Nicholas Hoult) entangled in a barbed, sadistic 18th Century power struggle, the movie could easily be confused with something tamer & more buttoned up if you just quickly glanced at a TV spot or a poster. The Favourite is something much less palatable for wide-audiences, though, something deliberately off-putting in its self-amused cruelty: it’s the new Yorgos Lanthimos joint.

As disoriented & befuddled as my new theater lobby friend already was by The Favourite, it’s difficult to imagine how much more shaken he would have felt exiting a previous Lanthimos film like The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Would he have even made it to the end credits? No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Lanthimos on his best behavior. Many of his usual auteurist themes about the absurdity of “civil” behavior and the stripping of emotional artifice carry over into this work, but the dialogue is not as deliberately stilted and the violence not nearly as jarring. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced behavior, whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. It also helps that this is the first film Lanthimos directed but did not write (the screenplay was penned by Tony McNamara & Deborah Davis), so that his most upsetting impulses are somewhat dulled. The jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

To further complicate the question of whether The Favourite is a well-behaved historical costume drama or a provocatively cruel art film, it’s loosely based on a real-life conflict in the 18th Century court of Queen Anne (Colman). The Queen’s closest confidantes (Weisz as a childhood friend & Stone as a power-starved upstart) compete for her affection to siphon off a small fraction of the privilege & political weight bestowed by the Crown. How they compete is where the film deviates from what you’ll find in similarly staged costume dramas about power grabs between members of the court: gay sex, bitchy retorts, Paris is Burning style voguing – behavior more befitting a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race than anything you’re likely to find in Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s not that Lanthimos isn’t interested in the real-life historical dynamic he’s depicting or that he only uses the setting as set dressing. It’s more that he doesn’t let detailed historical accuracy get in the way of big-picture truths. The queer sexuality, useless fop men, “civil” power struggles, and absurdist displays of decadence (best represented in the court’s hoarding of pet bunnies & gambling on duck races) depicted in the film are exaggerated & modernized for comic effect, but they do often get to deeper truths about the era the movie might not have had the time or energy to mine if it were more factually behaved.

There are two hurdles to clear in appreciating The Favourite. The first is in accepting modern sensibilities’ intrusion on a historical setting. My confused theater lobby friend compared that temporal breach to A Knight’s Tale. I’d more likely use Barry Lyndon, Marie Antoinette, or Phantom Thread as reference points. That’s the easier hurdle to conquer either way. What’s more difficult to manage is Yorgos Lanthimos’s auteurist schtick. This is the closest I’ve come to fully falling in love with a Lanthimos pic, but I still felt my appreciation slipping the further he strayed from compromise in the film’s second half. The first hour or so of The Favourite is exquisite, outrageous comedy I love to pieces. Some extremely Lanthimosy choices in the more dramatic second hour gradually cool it off from there and I kind of wish the whole thing were pure sadistic fun because I am a frivolous fop at heart. Still, I left the theater immensely pleased in a way no previous Lanthimos feature, no matter how “different,” had affected me. I very much sympathized with the poor befuddled chap who left just ahead of me, though, as he feebly pointed to the standee advertising a much more accessible picture. A Knight’s Tale is not at all a decent enough primer for your first bout in the ring with this humorously cruel provocateur, no matter how well he’s behaving.

-Brandon Ledet

La La Land (2016)

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fourstar

“Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?”

La La Land was a rare cinematic experience for me. In its first 20min stretch, I was outright hostile towards the film. I felt even more alienated in the two big production musical numbers that open La La Land than I did watching Moana, a movie that’s appeal I didn’t understand to the point where I had to abstain out of fairness from directly reviewing it. The emotional impact & entertainment value of a traffic jam erupting into a big budget musical number about Los Angeles sunshine reminded me of the lofty gravitas of a car commercial, specifically that one where the hamsters gather all of New York for a Central Park jam session. This adverse reaction to the material wasn’t necessarily a fault of the movie’s, but more a personal shortcoming  when it comes to appreciating musical theater, especially when a chorus sings in unison, drowning out raw emotion with the shared mediocrity of a massive collective. Something changed for me during La La Land, though. Somewhere in the first act, when the narrative got smaller and the songs became more intimate, I finally got lost in the film’s love letter to Old Hollywood musicals, particularly of the Fred & Ginger variety. La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.

The content matches the form nicely here, continuing Damien Chazelle’s hot streak as a gifted, bare bones storyteller after his exciting one-two punch of the jazzy thriller Whiplash and the gleeful pulp of Grand Piano. Just as the modern-minded crowd and musical theater traditionalists must find a common ground to appreciate where Chazelle is pushing the movie musical as a medium, the film’s protagonists also begin their story at odds with each other. Playing an actor and a jazz pianist who suffer several hostile meet cutes before they begin to reconcile their mutual attraction, Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling are perfectly convincing as our modern equivalent of Classic Hollywood charmers. Their Adam’s Rib-style hostility at an awkward pool party is where the film started to lure me into its web. By the time their romance flourished in movie theaters, jazz clubs, and planetariums only to flounder & fizzle once realism disrupted their romantic ideal, I was already humming “City of Stars” to myself and preparing to buy a poster to hang on my imaginary dorm room wall. The couple pushes each other out of their comfort zones in order to survive an ever-changing world; the jazz musician must learn to innovate to stay relevant, the actor must risk embarrassment to achieve success. In addition to their good looks, ease with comic timing, and gorgeous costuming, the couple at the center of La La Land appeal to the audience as a useful window into what the film was trying to accomplish. When their realistically cyclical, impermanent romance clashes with a surreal movie musical reverie in the film’s final act, the full scope of Chazelle’s ambition becomes crystal clear and any complaints about taste or expectation going in feel silly & irrelevant. This is a work that graciously rewards after its initial discomfort, whether you’re a musical theater traditionalist who needs to be pushed into exploring new ideas or a cold-hearted modernist cynic who needs to be warmed up to what the medium can accomplish even in its purist form.

I think it’s worth noting that while La La Land is sometimes uncomfortable to reconcile with personal sensibilities, it’s always gorgeous to look at. The film’s intense colors, beautiful dresses, and attention to symmetry & movement amount to a carefully constructed spectacle that, like Hail Caesar!, is a welcome reminder of the scale & fantasy that only Old Hollywood productions could muster. Whether Chazelle is overlaying shots of neon signs with poured champagne as a direct nod to Hollywood musical past or he’s using that hyper real abstraction for entirely new, surreal purpose, La La Land is consistently a wonder to behold. Even when I wasn’t enjoying the film’s content in its earliest stretch, I was never turned off by its form or energeric execution. All I needed to be won over by La La Land was for that manicured spectacle to be put to a more intimate & modern use, an emotional heft that could be whispered instead of belted for the back rows to hear. I get the feeling that the film intended to not only teach me a little appreciation for the value of its medium, but also to push those on the other side of the divide over to my own modernist, heretical sensibilities. And just when those two audiences meet for a brief moment of shared appreciation, the film then disrupts & explodes its own rules, breaking down the walls of that divide for a brief glimpse of how both audiences were always of the same mind without ever being aware of it. Innovation & tradition are equally important in La La Land and when they’re done right, they’re practically the same thing. There’s a long, discomforting path to that realization, one that’s made more difficult for some than others, but once you reach its epiphanic destination, it’s a real game-changer, an eye opener, one that’s well worth the initial unease.

-Brandon Ledet