Thursday, October 15, 2020

Birds & Bees Movie:

Pity the sex comedy, that endangered species, done under by getting caught between a resurgence of puritanism in Hollywood productions, and the free-wheeling permissiveness available on any social media platform. Add to that the increasing disappearance of mid-budget films and the migration of once-proud genres into distended projects for streamers, plus the tricky social climate, and it’s no wonder studios, let alone filmmakers, are more likely to not even bother. Nonetheless, when we get a rare good sex comedy, like 2015’s Magic Mike XXL or 2018’s Blockers, it succeeds with a broad-minded kindness, centering desire and consent without losing the inherent silliness of interpersonal fumblings and foibles. They’re celebrations, not merely objectifications, of this normal aspect of life. No room for the snickering juvenile leering of the old frat house yuckers and locker room droolers like Revenge of the Nerds or Porky’s, films which were cheap, cruel, and exploitative, even back in their own day, and have aged about as well as a raw egg in the summer sun.

That cultural shift is what makes the curiously evergreen American Pie franchise such an oddity. What began as a quaint, comparatively innocent, cringingly raunchy comedy of teen embarrassment back in 1999 begat a long line of sequels and direct-to-video spinoffs that never quite recaptured the strangely naive vulgarity of the original. Here we are, two decades hence, with the ninth: American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules. Unlike the first of the series, which follows a group of senior guys hoping to get some experience before college, this one is about some young ladies. About time there’s a better gender balance here, some might say, if hopelessly inclined to pin their progressive hopes solely on the optics of their lowest-common-denominator entertainment. (I’m thinking of the memorable tweet which jokingly described this tendency thusly: conservatives want to lock up their enemies, while some liberals ask for more women guards.) Regardless, this new Pie bakes up nothing more than another batch of flailing sub-sitcom farce and cringing gross-out gags in this tired franchise. In brightly lit, indifferently staged medium shots, director Mike Elliott (one of Universal’s stable of DTV sequel helmers, having tackled the fourth Scorpion King and second Blue Crush) has characters endlessly discuss who is doing what to whom and who wishes to put what where. It’s an endless torrent of profanity, innuendo, and sexual slang. The movie knows the words, but it never once indicates that it knows the feeling. Here are characters who so mechanically discuss desire that their antics are entirely disconnected from genuine human experience. It then sends them through a gauntlet of extreme humiliations—take the opening, in which a nice girl wedgies herself on the top of a fence, falls into a mud puddle, gets a prophylactic stuck in her throat, and falls out the second story window. It wants to be open-minded enough to focus on female desire, but instead finds non-stop punishment. It doesn't let them off easy. At least that’s par for the course for this execrable franchise.

Much better at putting us in the mind of a young woman is Yes, God, Yes. It’s the directorial debut of Karen Maine, who had a story credit on Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, the 2014 Jenny Slate-starring indie rom-com about a woman falling in love while waiting for an abortion. That movie, so sweetly frank, gently funny, and warmly understanding of its characters, is the better picture, but Maine’s new feature shares some of those same qualities. It stars Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer as a student at a Catholic high school. Her stirrings of desire rub up against her upbringing’s expectations. Set in 2001, it’s a story of AOL chats and Titanic on VHS, of whispered rumors among friends and faculty, and a casually stern priest (Timothy Simons) policing the boundaries of expected behavior. Most of the film takes place at a four-day retreat sponsored by her school. There she finds herself lost—feeling alone even in the group, since others are admitting their struggles and sadness and she can’t quite bring herself to admit the feelings with which she’s wrestling. Take an early scene in which the handsome senior football player (Wolfgang Novogratz) greets the group. The camera cuts in tight on his hairy, muscular forearms. Then it cuts back to Dyer, as her eyes flit and stare. An apt period-appropriate pop song pounds onto the soundtrack: “Genie in a Bottle.” It’s clever. The movie admirably sticks to her viewpoint, and the film is quiet and soft, even a little slow, even if some scenes seem to end abruptly. It never quite reaches a good climax. And I wanted more follow through on some character beats. But the sense of space and place is sensitive and its keen understanding of the lead’s alienation and inner conflicts is tender. Would that that grace be extended to some of the supporting characters, who are either casually complicated, or tossed aside for a point. Compared to something similar like the great Miseducation of Cameron Post, and its warm understanding for even its antagonists, this small, slightly more comedic take can’t compete. For how well it knows Dyer's character, it loses nuance around the side characters. Worst is a wise old biker who actually speaks the words “You should check out colleges on the east and west coast” as advice, as if our main character’s dilemmas are uniquely midwestern. So it could be a better movie, but its commitment to close-up portraiture of a particular experience is admirable.

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