Reality Check at the Movies

It’s an odd week for movies, with multiple films that delve into perceptions of reality as well as society’s love of online social networking. These come in the form of the teen-focused  movies “The Virginity Hit” and “Easy A,” and the somewhat documentary-formatted “Catfish” and “I’m Still Here.”

Both “The Virginity Hit” and “Easy A” fall into the genre of coming-of-age movies, and the sub-genre of “losing IT.” Such movies are perhaps most identified with the “Porkies” and “American Pie” franchises, but these update the model with even greater reliance on social media as a means for both downfall and redemption.

The basic premise of “The Virginity Hit” is that the protagonist’s step-brother films his entire life with an always present camera. He’s a member of the YouTube generation, for whom “The Blair Witch Project” and its popular reception is a history lesson. We watch a story unfold, ostensibly as if the events were captured on film, and we’re somehow in on the secret. It’s an interesting concept outside of the horror genre, where it has become overly familiar. But it ends up seeming crude, more like an elaborate excuse for low production values than a worthwhile stretching of the boundaries of perceived reality. Worse still is that the story itself is relentlessly mean-spirited and gratuitously crass.  

By comparison, “Easy A” is light and fun. It follows a student as her reputation crashes around her. She makes the mistake of fabricating a story about losing her virginity and the news spreads faster even than the speed of Facebook (the fastest known measure of spreading gossip). The fact that none of this is real makes no difference to either her supporters or detractors. She learns the vital lesson, often relegated to bad courtroom experiences, that truth is less important than perceived truth. What is telling in these days of social media dominance is that her ultimate confession, apparently believed by all (and shown throughout the film like a narration) is delivered online.

“I’m Still Here” and “Catfish” both tell the tales of real lives apparently gone off the rails, but here reality is even more blurred. In “I’m Still Here,” Casey Affleck claims to document a life-changing period for Joaquin Phoenix, as he famously declared he was quitting film and taking up hip hop music. This would be strangely awkward to watch, if Affleck himself hadn’t already told interviewers that the whole project was a hoax. So audiences are left to ponder not the basic question of whether it was real or not, but rather how many of the other celebrities and people involved were in on the joke (David Letterman’s camp has already said that his 2009 interview with Phoenix was staged). Strangely, the performance from Phoenix as an out-of-control star coping poorly with celebrity may be one of his best, despite theoretically playing himself.

In contrast, “Catfish” documents a pair of brothers who actually did film life in the manner depicted in “The Virginity Hit.” One of them, a photographer, had established a friendship on Facebook with a young girl who was painting copies of his pictures.  This blossomed into a friendship with others in her family, and then an online romance with her sister. Until the details of these family relationships started to seem increasingly suspicious and the brothers started to wonder if any of them actually existed. The film paints both a sympathetic and creepy portrait of the other end of the Facebook connection; the brothers themselves don’t look squeaky clean either.  

Of the four, “Easy A” and “Catfish” are the better picks, with “Catfish” likely to cause detractors of social networking to exclaim loudly “I told you so.” It also supports the old adage that truth is stranger (and often more entertaining) than fiction.


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Not an entirely worthless revisitation of the 1987 classic, but it somehow feels like a VH1 “Where Are They Now” double-episode about where greedy Gordon Gecko has gone since leaving prison for insider trading. On that level, it plays along quite entertainingly, with an OK performance by Shia LeBeouf and a far better one from his real life and onscreen girlfriend Carey Mulligan, as Gecko’s estranged daughter. The most interesting aspect of the film is that is serves as director Oliver Stone’s latest indictment of somebody, this time with respect to the collapse of the financial system which is depicted as being far more insidery and greedy than Gecko’s former transgressions.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
This adaptation based on a popular and very long series of books could easily be dismissed as the latest fantasy with light and dark side competitiveness and its own internal mythology. But that would miss the most important aspect of this children’s movie – that aside from a serviceable storyline, the artwork and 3D imagery is phenomenal and a true pleasure to watch. Even the end credits are a thing of beauty – albeit not as great as the individual feathers fluttering during flight throughout the movie. The best digital animal animation since “Stuart Little.”

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