Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Scott Porter, Bill Hader, Rachel Bilson, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele
There are lots of individual things to like about “The To-Do List.” Aubrey Plaza delivers a fearless performance as the curious virgin, her supporting cast delivers laughs by the pound, and the movie has a coming-of-age vibe to it that was unexpected but most welcome. (You would think that the themes of first-time sex and coming of age would cross paths often, but they really don’t.) For everything it does well, though, it could have done it better. It’s funny, but could have been funnier. It’s clever, but botches golden opportunities to deliver a memorable, poignant one-liner. It works in fits and starts, but there always seems to be something that derails its momentum.
It is June 1993, and Brandy Klark (Plaza) has just graduated from high school. She is class valedictorian, fond of correcting her friends’ grammar, and the most inexperienced virgin on the planet. After a drunken, mistaken-identity encounter with mysterious college-age hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), Brandy decides that before she heads off to college, she needs to know how to handle herself when it comes to sex, the ultimate goal being losing her virginity to the out-of-her-league Rusty. As she gains experience, though, she loses perspective on how her actions affect those around her, particularly her longtime adoring lab partner Cameron (Johnny Simmons).
Described by host Amy Poehler as “a celebration of real friendship, real fellowship, and a kind of community with other girls,” the web series “Smart Girls at the Party” is a kind-hearted, fun and educational program for kids and their parents alike, but especially for young girls. Often specifically focusing on girls who enjoy activities traditionally thought of as being more for boys, the series enjoyed a significant viewership boost in its first season when it introduced its youngest interviewee, seven-year-old Ruby, who speaks precociously about feminism. Its most-viewed episode to date features a 14-year-old boxer named Precela, and another highlight features a young robotics engineer named Rachel.
These are the “girls who are changing the world by being themselves,” in the words of Poehler, who hosts the show with the tongue-in-cheek seriousness of a news anchor before ending each episode with a dance party. Along with producer Meredith Walker and musical director Amy Miles, Poehler explores the special talents and interests of each girl – or in a few episodes, groups of girls – and interviews them, always ending on a “very serious question,” such as “pizza or cotton candy?” or “which is cuter, a baby panda or a baby monkey?” However, despite poking fun at self-serious interview questions, the series never makes fun of the girls or treats them or their interests with cynicism or irony. Instead, it clearly aims to imbue its young audience with a sense of self-worth and individuality, without being boring or preachy.
Now in its second season, the series has markedly improved from its first few episodes, adding a “World Famous 20 Second Song” segment for Miles and boasting higher production values. There are also some familiar faces in the dance parties that parents will enjoy spotting, including Poehler’s husband Will Arnett (who returns from the first season), as well as her “Parks and Recreation”co-stars Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza. Look closely and you’ll also spot folks like Jon Hamm, David Cross and Jack McBrayer in later episodes. With its own new channel on YouTube, “Smart Girls at the Party” is slicker and more fun than ever, and is highly recommended for viewing with children, especially daughters, between the ages of five and fifteen.
This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.
I never got the chance to see director Todd Rohal’s “The Catechism Cataclysm” when it played at SXSW last year, but after watching his new comedy “Nature Calls,” I’m kind of glad that I didn’t. The film stars Patton Oswalt as Randy, an assistant scoutmaster desperately trying to help his father’s deteriorating Boy Scout troop regain its former glory. When the few remaining members ditch their upcoming camping trip in favor of going to a sleepover for the adopted son of Randy’s brother, Kirk (Johnny Knoxville), however, he crashes the party and convinces the kids to go camping with him. What follows is an incredible mess of a movie that tries to pass juvenile stupidity off as comedy, but instead barely registers a laugh due to Knoxville and Rob Riggle’s annoyingly over-the-top performances as idiot man-children. There’s actually a good message straining to be heard amongst all the stupidity, but despite its attempt at balancing vulgarity with heart, “Nature Calls” fails on nearly every level imaginable. It’s a shame that this will go down as Patrice O’Neal’s final film performance, because although it got a good reception from the SXSW crowd, this would never make it onto a theater screen through more conventional means.
“Safety Not Guaranteed”
Colin Trevorrow’s feature film debut is exactly the kind of movie that you go to a film festival hoping to see. Based on a real-life classified ad that was posted by a man seeking a partner to go back in time with, the movie stars Audrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni as a trio of Seattle magazine employees who track down the mystery author hoping it will lead them to a good story. What they don’t realize is that although Kenneth (indie go-to guy Mark Duplass) may be a little eccentric, he honestly believes that he’s solved the riddle to time travel. A character-driven dramedy with equal parts humor and heart, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a beautiful film about the human spirit that is impossible to ignore. All four actors deliver some incredibly honest and funny performances, but it’s Plaza who shows that she can do a lot more than spit out a witty one-liner and mug for the camera. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is original, humorous, heartfelt and, perhaps most importantly, filled with immense hope. And in a cinematic landscape fueled by cynicism, it’s nice to see a movie that hasn’t given up on the human race, no matter how strange we may be.
William Friedkin hasn’t made a great film in a very long time, and while “Killer Joe” doesn’t exactly remedy that, it’s the best movie that he’s made in a while. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his stage play of the same name, the self-described “totally twisted, deep-fried, Texas redneck trailer park murder story” is one of the most intense and polarizing moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Matthew McConaughey stars as the title character, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. When he’s hired by a young man (Emile Hirsch) in debt to a crime lord to kill his mother and collect on her $50,000 life insurance, Joe takes his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral until he’s paid for his services. But as is usually the case with movies like this, things go horribly wrong, and although the events that transpire will likely divide audiences (particularly a tension-packed final act that gets a bit weird and perverse), it’s as oddly fascinating to watch unravel as it is repulsive. Every single performance is great – from Gina Gerson’s devious stepmom to Thomas Hayden Church’s clueless father – but it’s McConaughey who truly commands the screen with his best role in ages. It’s about time the actor showed off his full potential, and this white trash “Blood Simple” does that and more.