It's a shame "The To Do List" is a bit of a drag, because you can see writer/director Maggie Carey trying to pull off something semi-progressive inside the form of her teen sex comedy.
Carey wrote the screenplay (which once made The Black List's yearly roundup of great unproduced scripts) based loosely on her own experiences as a teen lifeguard in Boise, Idaho. Set in 1993, the low-budget film charts the awkward but scarily organized sexual experimentation of just-graduated high-school valedictorian (and virgin) Brandy (Aubrey Plaza).
Brandy decides she needs to learn about sex during the summer before she heads to Georgetown on a full-ride scholarship. True to type-A form, she makes a handwritten checklist of sexual acts she barely comprehends -- with the goal of checking off as many as possible before bedding the hot lifeguard (Scott Porter) who works with her at a run-down Boise swimming pool.
Many of her erotic experiments involve her safe-male pal Cameron (Johnny Simmons) -- who gets emotionally hooked on her even as she's fooling around with Cameron's friends and coworkers and the occasional touring rock musician.
What's unusual is that Carey has crafted a filthy teen sex comedy in which the lead is (a) a strong-minded young woman who (b) doesn't define her entire self-worth through boys or feel much in the way of shame while (c) ultimately learning (relatively) nuanced lessons about sex as it relates to emotion -- how it's both "a big deal and not a big deal," as she puts it at one point. That's all rarer than it ought to be in this comedy genre. And I guess '90s nostalgia is a thing now. Makes for a decent soundtrack.
I just wish the movie was funnier, and a lot less uneven.
Aubrey Plaza is a great deadpan presence, and properly deployed she can carry a film (see "Safety Not Guaranteed" for proof), but she doesn't quite find a consistent character here. Good comic actors (Alia Shawkat, Clark Gregg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Carey's husband Bill Hader) are wasted on gags that are telegraphed or dopey -- a set piece in which Plaza is just repeatedly pushed in the pool comes to mind. And undeveloped subplots (Hader learning to swim, an out-of-nowhere rivalry with a nearby country club) pad out the premise.
There's a potentially innovative teen comedy in here somewhere, but it's surrounded by one that's much duller. ______
(104 min., rated R for for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language -- all involving teens)Grade: C
As horror movies go, "The Conjuring" is an extremely skillful, entertaining remix album.
That's not an insult.
Director James Wan ("Saw," "Insidious," "Death Sentence") has crafted a wickedly effective horror thrill-ride -- taking well-worn elements of the genre (from a long list of classics including "The Exorcist" to "Poltergeist" to "The Shining" to "The Birds") and re-combining them using solid actors, a minimum of splatter, and a carefully engineered sense of dread.
It isn't particularly deep, but it's a grab-your-seatmate good time at the haunted house.
The movie fictionalizes the adventures of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), most famous for the controversial "Amityville Horror" case that became a 1977 book and 1979 movie (and another influence on "The Conjuring").
Ed is a non-ordained demonologist -- in the exorcism game, sort of a cool private eye to the Catholic Church's police force -- and Lorraine's a clairvoyant with mental battle scars from a long-ago exorcism gone wrong.
Wilson and Farmiga underplay the couple as loving, supportive and smart. * They ground the film, and probably a sequel or two, given how well this one works and given the gallery of possessed objects Ed keeps in a locked office -- genie bottles waiting to be opened.
"The Conjuring" follows the Warrens' attempts to help a family in Maine (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor and five adorable and well-sketched daughters) as they're menaced by a demon taking them in full '70s-horror style through the stages of "Infestation, Oppression and Possession," as the Warrens helpfully outline for us on a chalkboard at one point.
What makes the film connect is the way Wan and his collaborators build trepidation through patient technique -- using character, shadows, anticipation, sound, music, POV, camera moves and the opening and closing of doors rather than gore, excessive CGI or cheap shocks. (Well, okay, there are several shocks, but they're well-placed).
By the time things go bananas, as the Warrens would absolutely not put it, Wan has earned the right to make us nervous about the simple stuff: floating sheets, the opening of any door, the point just beyond the range of a light source, and assorted scary dolls and music boxes. Every ghost-story cliché in the book, in other words, made fresh using classic tools. _______
* That said, my sole beef with any performance in the movie is that Wilson's light Boston accent leaves him sounding a little like Dan Aykroyd in "Ghostbusters" on a couple of lines. Wait for the bit where he says "This is where the witch committed suicide" and you'll see what I mean. ______
(112 min., rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror)Grade: B