Tag Archives: Bella Thorne

The DUFF

The DUFF is exactly what you’re expecting, but it also has charm, wit, and a killer lead performance from Mae Whitman.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the duffThe DUFF follows Bianca (Mae Whitman), a high school senior who has two hot popular best friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) and wants to fit in but who’s very much an outcast due to her alternately snarky and awkward attitude, love of cult horror cinema, and not being a complete hottie that lecherous boys can drool over.  One night at a party, perpetual frenemy and next door neighbour Wes (Robbie Amell) informs Bianca that she is The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her friends which crushes Bianca and the resultant paranoia leads to her breaking up with her friends.  Enlisting Wes’ help, as he’s the only one who told her about it, she sets about trying to un-DUFF herself and maybe even ask out hunky dreamboat guitar player Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman).

…so how many spots on your “Teen Comedy Bingo Card” are currently filled in?  I think I’ve got a full house on mine, just need a bitchy popular girl who makes it her life’s mission to bring misery to everyone and especially our protagonist (Bella Thorne) and a soundtrack of hip pop music… oh!  Oh, I have bingo!  I have bingo!  Flippancy aside, The DUFF really is exactly the movie you’re expecting it to be from the premise, trailer, poster, name, hell, even an out-of-context screenshot.  Will Bianca realise that labels are utterly meaningless unless you prescribe meaning to them?  Will she realise that everyone is a DUFF to someone?  Will Wes and Bianca seem to bond real close-like during their escapades?  Will she make peace with her friends?  Will she eventually “own” being the DUFF at the Homecoming dance?  If you have ever seen a teen comedy before, you already know every single one of these answers.

That said, I don’t mean this as a dismissive insult towards The DUFF.  Originality may be a valued commodity in filmmaking for us critics, in all honesty this film’s lack of it is why I’m not about to bust out the five-star rave review quotes, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of a film’s qualities.  For example, I could predict every last beat of The DUFF almost down to the second as I was watching it – including the moment where the slightly self-absorbed mother (Allison Janney who makes the most of what she’s got) would finally offer up some real advice for Bianca – but I still enjoyed the heck out of this movie.  Seriously, I’m sat here typing up this review with a tangible bound in my being, the kind that I can only get from seeing a particularly good movie on a nice day.

So why does The DUFF work?  Well, there are three particular reasons.  The first is that it’s really charming.  Visually, director Ari Sandel enjoys deploying social media aesthetics in order to help convey information and such – the opening of the film introduces each of our main cast of characters with little hashtag-accompanied montages to get us up to speed on them, and is incidentally the sole time in the history of mankind where I have and will laugh at the word “amazeballs” – which undoubtedly is going to date the crap out of this film in a few years, but does give it a nice distinct feel of its own instead of just trying to be Mean Girls 2.0 or whatever.

That charm also manifests itself in the script, too.  The characters do mostly fulfil the expected archetypes, but they’re still incredibly well-drawn and likeable.  The DUFF very smartly casts Bianca’s friends, Jess and Casey, as her real genuine friends with Bianca’s breaking up with them coming purely from her paranoia instead of anything they did.  After all, pretty much everybody wants some kind of companionship and the concept of The DUFF – the approachable one who makes their other friends look hotter by comparison, not necessarily fat or ugly – combined with the social pressure cooker that is high school, is just the kind of thing that can cause somebody to misguidedly eject those closest to them from their lives out of paranoia.  A lesser film would have made Jess and Casey exactly what Bianca fears them to be, but The DUFF portrays them as genuine friends and that sort of sincerity is manifested in most every character.  Hence: charm.

(Incidentally, and I feel I need to mention this before we go further: The DUFF does not condone the idea of The DUFF or that Bianca herself is in any way super ugly or fat.  At least to me, anyway.  The film very much paints her struggle with DUFF as her own self-esteem issues and fear of not being accepted rather than her becoming more socially acceptable and such.  It also never asks you to see her as ugly or in any way undesirable, helped by it making most of the guys who subscribe to that line of thinking as lecherous jackasses whose behaviour is Not OK.  That’s my take, at least – others may feel differently and may even be correct since I’m probably the last person who should speak authoritatively on this.)

The script also provides reason number 2 why The DUFF works: wit.  Whilst not a gut-buster of a film, and filled with material that again will date this thing substantially in a few years’ time – this is the kind of movie where teenagers are able to make the requisite cyber-bullying video go viral by saying out loud to each other if they want it to “Go viral” before sending it off – this is still a very funny movie, one that roots the majority of its jokes in character work and teenage behaviour at this moment in time.  It’s the kind of film that throws around constant references to various social media and teenage aspirations – Bella Thorne’s character’s dream goal in life is to be a reality TV star – but at no point caused me to cringe horrifically at their mentioning because the film doesn’t loudly judge these things or just name-drop in an attempt to be hip.  It all feels somewhat natural, even the inevitable “older characters reminiscing about non-technology days” tangent.

There’s a similar naturalness to the jokes.  Because it’s not aiming for giant major laughs, the film manages to get a good flow going rarely stopping for an extended sequence of beating a joke into the ground – although there are one or two and they are still rather funny thanks to the third reason that we’re about to get to.  This is not really a setpiece comedy movie which means that there are no major laughs, but instead comes with the vastly preferred trade-off of having consistently funny material excellently delivered by a great cast headed up by…

The third and final reason why The DUFF really works: Mae frickin’ Whitman.  Now, full disclosure, I adore Mae Whitman and have done for ages.  Her resume is the kind that most actresses would kill to have, she does a tonne of voice acting, and she is an extremely talented and relentlessly charming performer.  Hell, I was alerted to and excited for this film by the fact that her name was in the lead role and I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with the opportunity to headline a film.  Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t waste this chance.  Hell, that’s an understatement; she absolutely kills it, she’s phenomenal here!

Whitman, you see, commits.  She commits.  No matter what the script asks her to do – whether that be snark her way through the requisite voice over, or believably-without-overdoing-it convey Bianca’s emotional upset over social rejection, or spend several minutes strutting about in ill-suited makeover clothes whilst sexually coming onto mannequins in a sequence that should not be anywhere near as funny as it is – she’s there leading the charge, throwing herself into it with palpable gleeful abandon.  That natural likeability practically becomes a weapon, actively challenging the viewer not to fall for and root for Bianca, and her comic talents, especially her way with facial expressions, are given ample room to work their magic.  In a just world, this would be the performance that launches her into the big time if she wanted it to.  Seriously, she friggin’ kills it.

Admittedly, I have seen The DUFF multiple times before, under different names and usually much better than it’s done here.  However, I still don’t consider that much of a knock.  I have a soft spot for a good charming teen comedy, which is very much what The DUFF is.  It has a charm to it that makes the aesthetics, if not the underlying mechanics that power the thing, feel like its own thing, it’s got an enjoyable wit to it that got me laughing at various levels throughout most all of its 101 minutes, and it has a powerhouse Mae Whitman performance backed up by strong supporting work – particularly by Alison Janney, Bella Thorne, and Robbie Amell.  I went in wanting pretty much all of that and got almost precisely that.  It’s fun, it’s sweet, it’s a teen comedy, and when those are good they can be really good.

Or to put it another way, it’s a film that makes prominent usage of the song “#selfie” and the rest of the film is so good and so enjoyable that I didn’t immediately want to barge into the projector room and set the place ablaze.  I very much class The DUFF as a win, in my book.

Callum Petch has got muscle, he is tough.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Advertisements

Blended

BlendedCynical, lazy, sexist, racist, prolonged torture.  All of these descriptors and more apply to Blended.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

You know, every point this year where I think that we have hit the bottom in regards to film releases, I keep getting proven wrong.  First, there was A New York Winter’s Tale back in February, still one of the worst films I have ever seen (incidentally) and a total failure in all basic aspects of moviemaking.  I was certain that we would not see anything close to its level for the rest of the year.  March quickly put pay to that line of thinking with 300: Rise of an Empire which gained points for at least passing basic filmmaking standards but immediately lost all of those points for being a hateful piece of misogynistic tripe.  The tail-end of April presented, for my consideration, Ava-Tarzan, quite possibly the worst feature-length animated film to see the light of day since 2006.  And now, as May gives way to June, we have Blended.

Folks, I do not like having to re-evaluate what the worst film of the year is every month.  Not, of course, so that I have a headline grabbing phrase to parade my review around with when the time comes (papa don’t play that way), but because I don’t like having to subject myself to films that keep striving for new levels of badness.  It’s like they’re in competition with one another.  “I’ll see your total failure at basic filmmaking conventions and raise you blacked-up actors and an attitude to women not unlike that of a psychopathic thirteen year-old!”  Only there are no winners in their contest, and we, the film-going audience, but mostly just me because I don’t have a choice in subjecting myself to these avant-garde attempts at flinging poo onto a film reel and releasing the result, suffer due to their petty game of one-ups-man-ship.

Blended is a comedy made by statisticians and accountants.  It is a comedy made by people who have not got the first clue of how to tell a joke but have seen far more talented people make a lot of money telling jokes, and so decided to make their own comedy purely to get at that money.  Of course, being statisticians and accountants, this comes with the built-in handicap of nobody involved knowing how to tell a joke.  But such an issue does not stop them from their dream of making loadsamoney as they have hatched a cunning plan.  Instead of coming up with jokes, with set-ups and punchlines and wit and insight and originality and all of those things that make up good jokes and which allow things that would otherwise cross lines of good taste pass by unscathed, they would instead simply present people with concepts that are supposedly inherently amusing and ask you to laugh at them.  Who cares if you only laughed at them in other films because they had actual craft in their construction?  Their graphs and pie charts and glances at two minute red-band trailers on YouTube show that you laughed at these topics in other films so, mathematics dictates, you will laugh here too and their film won’t offend anyone at all!

I’m just going to go straight for the jugular here, I think that Blended is racist.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with Terry Crews’ “character” (for the fully intended effect, I want you to imagine that those air quotes are as tall as a New York skyscraper) whose entire character can be summed up as “look at the funny black man with the weird voice and the crazy eyes sing the word blended over and over again!”  He comes with a back-up crew of about seven other people who look exactly like him and have the exact job description.  Crews wanders about the screen nearly always leaning forward, eyes looking like they’re ready to pop out of his skull, voice sounding like a drunk Oxford senior’s party impression of what he thinks ‘the blacks’ sound like, and the joke is the same every time.  “Laugh at this walking black stereotype!”  There’s no nuance, nothing profound, no grand subversion.  Just, “Laugh at this walking black stereotype!”  It’s like a minstrel show periodically gate-crashes the rest of the film; I was waiting for Joel McHale (who appears in two scenes playing the total douche role he did far better in Ted two years ago) to show up covered in black shoe-polish to seal the sorry mess.

AND IT’S A JOKE THEY KEEP COMING BACK TO!  Again and again and again with no change in pacing or tone or content, until the realisation set in that this racist stereotype is something that everyone involved in the film thinks is legitimately funny.  Not ironically funny, not a set-up for a takedown of such outdated and offensive stereotypes.  No, it’s something that is supposedly just hilarious because “Laugh at this walking black stereotype!”  The other black characters (I count three with names) aren’t anywhere near as pronounced in their racist caricatures but the joke is still nearly always “Look at the black man talking with the funny voice!”  Well, except for Shaquille O’Neal.  He turns up for two scenes, for some reason, and his joke is that a man of his size and physicality cries over-dramatically at something.  I’ll let you decide if that’s a real step up or not.

I’m sorry, I thought we were past this?  I thought that we’d all come to the realisation that this kind of shit does not fly anymore?  That it was outdated and offensive?  That we’d actually have to work to get laughs from our characters of colour now by writing actual characters and actual jokes?  Say what you want about Ride Along but that at least tried writing actual characters and actual jokes for those characters, instead of going, “Laugh at this walking black stereotype saying words that sound different coming from his funny voice!”  Yet, every time Terry Crews came on screen, the audience in my screening were giggling and guffawing as if his every sequence was a classic Malcolm Tucker tirade.  I don’t get it.  How can these people not tell the difference between a clever subversion of racist stereotypes with an effective payoff (which this is not) and an uncomfortable one-note stereotype that has no substance to the joke besides the fact that he’s a walking black stereotype (which this is)?

Sorry, sorry.  I’m allowing my own moral and social beliefs to infect my judgement of a film again.  My bad.  I should leave the racism point behind and move on to my next point which is that Blended is sexist.  Question: are you a girl who dresses in a decidedly unfeminine manner?  Congratulations!  Blended thinks you’re a man or a lesbian or someone who is willingly holding themselves back from love and happiness and acceptance by society, and it won’t stop letting you know that for the whole film by constantly making fun of people who look like you and using jokes based around literally those same points I just mentioned!  I dread to think of how more sensitive people who happen to choose to style and dress themselves in an unconventionally unfeminine way will react to the constant scorn and mockery the film throws their way.  The film hints towards revealing that Jim (Adam Sandler) is practically forcing his daughters into dressing this way and participating in such a masculine lifestyle because he’s living through them or something, but nope.  Lauren (Drew Barrymore) practically swoops on in and unlocks Hilary’s (Bella Thorne) femininity and voila!  She’s actually totally gorgeous and so much happier now that she’s an actual woman and oh my gods typing these words are making me realise just how truly horrible the whole thing is.

In fact, quick sidebar: this film’s usage and treatment of Bella Thorne worries me.  For one, there are the aforementioned “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you looked like a guy” jabs which are constant, demeaning and never once deviate from exactly what I just typed.  For two, and much more problematic, I got the vibe that we, the entire audience, are supposed to find Bella Thorne super-hot.  She was 15 at the time of filming and her character in the film is 15, too.  Yet her second scene (no prizes for guessing what the first was) involves her in a bra in front of the mirror, sticking out her apparently non-existent chest for the camera and lamenting her apparent lack of breasts.  It feels creepy but maybe I could let it slide on the basis that the camera (to my recollection) does not focus totally on her chest and the fact that if this was a coming-of-age drama, or something, I’d probably not get that interpretation from the scene.

What I cannot excuse is later on, when she makes her grand womanly-charms-embracing re-entrance and the camera introduces her in the same way that other films introduce their much older female stars when they want to get across how good they look.  You know the way: camera pans up in slow-motion from their legs all the way up the body so that the last part revealed to you is their face because the face is always the least important part of a woman, apparently.  Back it with appropriately sexy music (which the scene does eventually, in a gag that I still do not understand), cross-cut to other characters’ stunned reactions and maybe blow a little gust from the wind machine in their direction and watch the number of people getting a visit from Chris Hanson shoot through the roof.  Now, you may sit there and claim that my mind chose to go there and that I’m the pervert and paedophile.  I would retort by noting that I got that interpretation from the scene because the scene employed the conventions that appear in such a sequence and if it didn’t want that interpretation, it should not have filmed it in such a way.

Also, this is a film that has a joke involving a teenage boy sexually harassing a girl who appears to be maybe three years older than him in the finale, and you’re supposed to not be offended and even find it charming because you’ve already spent 110 minutes in this creep’s presence so it’s acceptable, I guess.  Try telling me that I’m the one who is off-base about this film’s intentions.  Go on, I’m waiting.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah, Blended’s casual sexism.  So, Jim is an asshat.  A total, barely likeable asshat, much like all of Adam Sandler’s characters.  This is a character who named his child Espn after… you know what, I’m going to let you figure that one out.  He’s rude, boorish, demands fist bumps after every supposedly cool thing he ever does and, somehow, he is still a better person than Lauren is.  Lauren, you see, is often exactly like Jim (minus the fist bumps, thanks the Maker) but she always happens to cross the line whenever her and Jim are in a verbal sparring match.  She’s also shown to be a terrible mother, whose kids are a future sex offender/serial perverted murderer and a kid who may or may not have ADHD and who keeps getting his hand banged really hard on walls by Lauren because child violence is hi-larious?  Jim’s daughters, meanwhile, are a little one who just says the darndest things, the middle child who still talks to her mom (who died of cancer years ago, which the film likes to bring up for drama with Jim, and only Jim, whenever it gets the chance) and whose grief is used near-exclusively for “look at that weirdo” comedy, and the tomboy we’ve already discussed (also it’d be remiss of me not to mention an excruciatingly awful scene in which Hilary beats a boy in basketball and, when the boy is informed that she’s a girl, Terry Crews’ Minstrel Society jumps in out of nowhere to re-enforce traditional gender values with a song about how embarrassing it is to be beaten by a girl at a sport).

As for the other women in the film who are on screen for more than 10 seconds; we have a babysitter who is the target of sexual obsession by the older of Lauren’s two sons, Lauren’s alleged best friend who is shown to be a completely selfish, inconsiderate and repulsive human being at all times, an air-headed trophy wife the group stumble across on the Africa trip and whose entire character involves speaking like a bad Kristin Chenoweth impersonator and shaking her cleavage for the camera, and a group massage leader who has no character except for her poor British accent.  “Now, hold up, Callum!” you’re probably going.  “The film has dreadful male characters, as well!  It’s equal opportunities poor treatment!”  True, but I have two things I want to note to you.  The first is that, with the exception of two hecklers at a child’s baseball game and that Joel McHale cameo and I guess Lauren’s children, these are mainly black people.  Jim’s an asshat, but the film constantly tries to put him in a likeable light, more so than it does Lauren, anyway, so The White Guy is the least terrible person in the film.  The second is this fact: the worst physical humour that befalls Jim is that he is flung from an ostrich into a drinking trough.  The worst physical humour that befalls Lauren is that she is nearly speared in her vagina by a rhino that she avoids by spreading her legs like one does when they’re gearing up for sex.

Sorry, sorry.  I appear to have let my personal moral and social beliefs overtake this film review.  Again.  It’s the beginning of A4 page 4, now, and you want to know the reasons why I hate Blended that can’t be traced back to my own personal hang-ups.  OK, then.  Sandler and Barrymore have no chemistry, which is especially surprising since they’ve already done this twice before.  Every child actor or actress in this is appalling, pulling off that overly stagey “LOOK AT MY ACTING I AM ACTING SO HARD” thing that all terrible child actors and actresses do.  It is atrociously paced, withholding the ending long past the point it should appear in order to artificially pump up the run-time to two hours.  It looks extremely cheap, pretty much all of the animals are CG and not in the slightest bit convincing.  Its tone, particularly in that unnecessarily long final 20 – 30 minutes, is whiplash inducing whenever it brings up the whole “Jim’s first wife died of cancer” thing.  It practically stops at several points and becomes a tourist destination ad for South Africa.  It thinks that the height of comedy is having a shot of two CG rhinos doing each other like dogs.

Have you got enough yet or do you need me to go on?

Look, I wouldn’t make such a big stink out of this if there were jokes here.  I’m not infallible, I can acknowledge that something’s offensive but still find it funny.  If the joke’s good enough, I will laugh at it and that’s a guarantee.  But Blended has no jokes.  Again, this is a film that thinks that the concept of sexual harassment is a funny enough gag to put at the end of your film, that having a teenage boy try to claim that their mother can do better than somebody like Jim because “she’s hot” is such a funny and messed up thing that it should run that joke into the ground at every opportunity, that a grown man poorly phrasing his question about what tampon is best for his teenage daughter is just raucous material, and that foreign black people are automatically hilarious because stereotypes.  These are not jokes, these are carnival side-show attractions brought out for your amusement without any effort made in the department of them being worthy of your amusement.  It’s just “Black people: laugh!  Women who look like men: laugh!  Drew Barrymore may get impaled through her vagina by a rhino: laugh!”  So when this is all the film can be bothered to come up with, hell yeah, I’m going to fixate on the troublesome undertones it ends up peddling!  There’s nothing to distract me from them, because the jokes aren’t funny, so why wouldn’t I find them a legitimate problem?

I honestly didn’t think that Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production company had any lower to go after they turned statutory rape into a light-hearted set-up for a bawdy comedy.  But, much like my continuing belief that 2014 can’t keep churning out even worse films, it turns out I was proven wrong.  Blended is lazy, cynical filmmaking; the kind of film that’s slapped together with no effort or talent and shunted out of the door on the belief that the audience will turn up to anything with a big star’s name on it.  And I think that’s why this trash angers me so.  That it’s not even trying to be offensive, it’s not trying to push any boundaries of taste for comedic effect or anything.  It wasn’t setting out to be racist and sexist or anything like that, it just turned out that way because it lazily tried to present things that it thought were inherently funny with no effort towards making them funny and no effort put into thinking of the implications of not adding jokes to these supposedly inherently funny concepts.  This is trash, trash of the lowest order.  I do, however, hesitate to say that 2014 can’t bottom out any further, because I don’t want to jinx anything.  I do not want to experience a film worse than Blended in a cinema in 2014.  Please.

I did not like it.

Callum Petch races towards an early grave.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!