July 25, 2007

The Super Sweet 16 Movie: A Review

Generally speaking, films can usually fall into one of the following four categories: great, good, mediocre, and bad. Obviously there are shades of grey, but usually one of those descriptions will fit. There is, however, an ominous fifth category that must be mentioned separately from the rest: the abominable. These are the movies that do for cinema what Hitler did for Germany. And among those is Super Sweet 16: The Movie.

Evidence of this movie's putrid staying power is that I saw it several weeks ago, and it keeps creeping back into my brain, like some kind of campy B-movie monster. I should probably give the justification for why I saw it: I was at my boyfriend's house, where about 19 trillion different channels are available for our viewing pleasure. We were channel surfing and came upon this, and couldn't look away - it was like a car wreck. I expected it to be like the show. For those of you who don't know, "My Super Sweet 16" is a reality show on MTV that chronicles psychotically bratty and spoiled teens in their quest to have LIKE OMG THE BEST SWEET 16 PARTY EVAR. It's addictive, it's disturbing, and after watching it you feel like you just ate ten pounds of fast food. So naturally I expected the movie version to be a 90-minute edition of the 30-minute show, where they had found some superbrat to fill the time. I was wrong.

Super Sweet 16: The Movie is cast and scripted. I honestly don't know if that's better or worse. Probably worse, because the antics of these particular teens have screenwriters and directors to be blamed. I should also clarify that I only saw between a half and three-quarters of the movie, but it was the latter half/three-quarters, so all I really missed was the introductory parts and thus I can safely consider myself a scholar on the subject.

I should further note that I am not biased against this genre going in. I often find guilty pleasure in made-for-TV movies starring sugary teen stars and aimed at 12-year-olds. Hell, I've seen Cadet Kelly at least five times, which aired on the Disney Channel and features Hilary Duff going to boot camp. But maybe I just like the idea of Hilary Duff going to boot camp.

So in this "film," apparently there are two girls that are BFF. I didn't see the very beginning, which probably features a montage of them being BFFy, but damn, if this isn't the most contrived friendship I've ever seen. One of the girls is black, which I mention because the other one looks and seems like she comes from a super-Aryan colony that has never seen a minority and would ostracize anyone with even a slight tan. So they have the same birthday, which they usually celebrate together, but some shit went down and now they're having competing parties on the same day. One of the stupid ways this sense of competition is shown is a scene where the two girls and their respective posses are distributing invitations, and keep making more grandiose claims in order to lure the crowd to their side. The fickle nature of the throbbing mass of high-schoolers is shown as a wacky, fast-motion montage to goofy music where they keep racing back and forth between the two sides as the party promises get bigger and better. WE GET IT.

The Obligatory Quasi-Celebrity Role here goes to Debra Wilson, most notable for her long run on MAD TV. She's also done voice work for respectable outlets such as Over the Hedge and "Clone High." But she also hosted the World's Ugliest Dog Competition (no joke), so maybe her career is in more trouble than I thought. Apparently the paycheck from that wasn't big enough to keep her from gravitating to this disaster, for which she isn't even credited on IMDB (smart woman). She plays a truly obnoxious party planner who gets one of the girls' parties to be on a boat. It's all very sad.

The Obligatory Dreamy Blond Spiky-Haired Love Interest in this case is named Shannon. They also opted to make him a Sensitive Filmmaker Type. You know the character of Ricky in American Beauty? Imagine a wholesome, less creepy, neutered blond version of that. So naturally the Aryan girl (Sara) is like totally in love with him. In one hilarious scene, they go on a date, and she gets super dressed up and primped, and then they end up going to Chili's. Yes, Chili's. It goes beyond mere product placement, however, as every third line in this scene is one of them commenting on how amazing the food at Chili's is. They even start describing the menu items in detail. It's bizarre. Shit gets even more surreal when Shannon busts out his laptop and starts showing the girl pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Wait, WHAT?

Yes. But she kind of ignores it and keeps talking about her party. TRANSLATION FOR STUPID AUDIENCE: She's shallow. But the Hurricane Katrina theme doesn't stop there. Sensitive Blond Filmmaker Boy, who has been endowed with a sense of worldly wisdom and justice at 16, sends both of the feuding girls a dramatic slideshow of post-Katrina pictures with emo music. And then they feel shallow and cancel their parties.

Yes. I could not make this up.

Except the black girl (Jacquie) can't cancel her party because so much money went into it, so she has to have it anyway, but feels bad. (Sara's dad is understanding, because he is a pro wrestler. Dead serious). So Jacquie makes it a joint party with Sara, because somehow Hurricane Katrina fixed their friendship. Their relationship is salvaged in a scene where the Sara brings Jacquie ice cream, and they eat it together despite Sara stating at least 97 times prior to this moment that SHE'S A VEGAN. Vegans can't eat ice cream, and it was specifically Ben and Jerry's, which to my knowledge does not have any soy products. Awesome. So then I guess Jacquie wants to be a fashion designer, which is convenient, because her mom inexplicably has Beyonce's mom on speed dial. (Beyonce's mom Tina is, both in the movie and real life, an established designer.) So Jacquie's mom calls Beyonce's mom and asks her to turn Jacquie's sketches into the real thing, so their joint party ultimately becomes a fashion show for charity. They invite some random orphans or something to the party, which is pretty weird because everyone else is a teenager and some rap group is performing. During this performance, my boyfriend astutely pointed out that the editor of this movie was awful, because he felt the need to put a cross-dissolve between virtually every cut, which quickly makes the viewer nauseous. And then Beyonce's mom appears as herself, and has a few filler lines. And Shannon and Sara make out in front of a lot of people - ew. You really couldn't supress your passion for the 8 seconds it would take to get to the bathroom or something?

The ending, though, completely contradicts all of the prior Katrina-induced do-gooder-ness. At the end of an episode of the show, the parents inevitably lead their crazed spawn outside to see their BRAND-NEW SHINY PORSCHE! So we get to that point in the movie, where the girls are led outside to see a van decked out with the name of the charity they started. That's nice. They're happy. But then you see that behind the van are TWO BRAND-NEW SHINY PORSCHES! (Or some other equally high-end vehicle). And then the girls scream a lot and then the movie ends.

I learned a lot from this movie. I learned anything is possible when your mom is tight with Beyonce's mom. I learned that you can make people immediately cease to be shallow if you show them aftermath pictures of natural disasters. I learned that Chili's has really great food and that somehow it's okay for vegans to eat ice cream. But above all, the only thing that really matters is that at the end of the day, you have a shiny new car.

(For a ridiculous article where the stars of the movie talk about how it will bring world peace, click here.)

July 16, 2007

Should Portrayals of Real People Have Their Own Oscar Category?

Let's look at two of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Actress: Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen and Penelope Cruz as Raimunda in Volver. Both were outstanding performances by talented actresses in great movies. There is one major difference, however: Mirren played someone who really exists, while Cruz did not. By pitting these two performances against each other, was the Academy comparing apples to oranges?

There has been a surge of actors winning golden statues for playing real people in recent years: Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote, Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in the film of the same title, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and on and on and on. That's only (some of) the winners - there's also been a marked increase in nominees.

I don't know why this is. Maybe it was the rise of Method acting in the 50s and 60s - to really get into the character, do what they would do, etc. Before that, it was more about Cary Grant being Cary Grant and Clark Gable being Clark Gable. I am reminded of an article I read once which claimed that two types of people populate the silver screen: actors and stars. An example given of an actor was Meryl Streep, which is a good choice: she's very versatile, and when you picture her, you don't immediately connect her to a particular role or type of role. A star is someone who just always plays him or herself, but the audience loves it anyway. They gave the example of Jack Nicholson. From The Shining to As Good as it Gets, Jack is always Jack. The Academy doesn't look as favorably upon stars anymore. They want you to pile on pounds, an accent, and an attitude and play someone completely unlike yourself. Cary Grant can't play, say, a dictator very well if he's still playing Cary Grant.

That still doesn't solve the problem, though. The character of Raimunda may not be very much like Penelope Cruz. I can't explain the phenomenon of this increase, but I can explain the psychology of gravitating to these performances. It's simple: the comparison factor.

Judgment of acting is a very nebulous thing. But when you're comparing a portrayal against a real person, it offers some kind of scale. If Philip Seymour Hoffman walks and talks like just like Truman Capote, then clearly he nailed the role. Cate Blanchett mastered Hepburn's distinctive accent, Forest Whitaker could go batshit crazy with the same ferocity of Amin. In these cases, acting can be measured quantitatively.

The problem with this is that it can deteriorate into an impression contest. "OMG, Nicole Kidman looked and sounded JUST LIKE Virginia Woolf, give her an Oscar for that!" Obviously, this is not a conscious stream of thought in the mind of Academy voters, but I feel like it might be subconscious.

It should also be noted that biopics aren't made about just anybody. Filmmakers seek out the juiciest stories that actors would claw out each other's eyes to star in. I feel like the lead in Monster was just an Oscar waiting to happen. Of course Theron did a good job, but I really think any other talented actress working today could have brought home the gold for playing an ugly, scary, lesbian prostitute serial killer. The Academy eats that shit up.

So here's the dilemma. Can roles that are hand-picked for juiciness and able to be measured quantitatively justly compete against ones that aren't? I don't think it's fair. If you're judging a costume contest and one of the finalists is dressed to look exactly like a famous person, and the other is wearing some impressive abstract thing, you're probably going to be biased towards the former, based on the recognition factor. It won't matter how amazing the abstract one is. Is it fair to judge these together?

God knows the Oscar ceremony is long enough already. But perhaps a "Best Performance Based on a Real Person" category could encompass both male and female, or both lead and supporting.

What do you think?