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Another day, another Netflix movie which I guess is really aimed at a YA audience, a bit like A Week Away (I suppose). Today we are discussing Moxie, based on a novel by Jennifer Mathieu and directed by Amy Poehler. Normally I’d be a bit wary of approaching this kind of film, but revisiting Parks and Rec (starring, produced, and occasionally written and directed by Poehler) has been one of the things that’s kept me sane during the current lockdown, so I figured it was worth a look.

It starts off looking like a fairly routine high-school comedy-drama. Main character Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are just starting eleventh grade; we see are the usual high-school tribes and characters, including a comedically jaded form room teacher and a less than entirely impressive principal (Marcia Gay Harden). There is also new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), who immediately makes an impression by questioning the choice of The Great Gatsby as an English lit text, as it is predominantly concerned with the lives and issues of wealthy white men.

This puts Lucy on the wrong side of wealthy white American football team captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who sets out to annoy (in the words of his defenders) or persecute (in the words of everyone else) his victim. This only makes Vivian more aware of the entrenched unfairness of the high school system, especially when the jocks post their list of all the girls, ranked according to various demeaning criteria.

Vivian finds herself compelled to do something about this, but what? It turns out her mum (Poehler) used to be a bit of a rebel herself, and a fan of the early-90s radical feminist riot grrl movement. Vivian is inspired to anonymously publish a zine she calls Moxie, urging the young women of the high school not to accept the status quo, but to stand up and make their voices heard, finally…

So, once again it’s fair to say I am probably not in the primary target demographic for this movie – unless this notion itself is just another example of putting people into categories rather than judging them as individuals. It may be slightly counterintuitive to say so, but this is a rare example of a mainstream movie which doesn’t, on some level, have a feminist subtext. However, this is only because Moxie has an explicitly feminist text, albeit an inclusive one that suggests men can be feminists too (hey, you know what, I’m absolutely not even going there).

Now my a priori response to something like this would be to echo the old Sam Goldwyn (or possibly Humphrey Bogart, or Ernest Hemingway) line about how messages are for Western Union and this sort of thing is best done with a light touch. But here again I am forced to doubt myself and wonder if doing so isn’t itself being complicit in the misogynistic culture the film is rightly so critical of.

I suppose this in itself is a sign of the film’s success in raising awareness of the issues involved and making the viewer (i.e. me) think about what it’s saying. I was always aware I was having issues raised for my attention, and being gently (or not so gently, most of the time) guided towards a particular set of conclusions, but the film never feels especially shouty or strident: angry, yes, but justifiably so.

How does it manage this? Mainly by never losing track of the traditional storytelling virtues. It’s not just about issues and injustices: the characters are carefully drawn and played by the (fairly) young cast with conviction. None of them are established names, as far as I’m aware – with the exception of young Schwarzenegger, and this is a different sort of thing entirely. (Let’s be scrupulously fair here and judge Patrick Schwarzenegger on the merits of his own performance, which does everything the film requires, rather than his family connections or anything arising from them.) Good work, too, from the older cast members: Poehler gives a very nicely-judged turn, and she is supported well by Ike Barinholtz, Harden, and Clark Gregg (eagle-eyed viewers may spot a very tiny cameo by Helen Slayton-Hughes, whom Parks and Rec fans will recognise as long-suffered City Hall clerk Ethel Beavers).

Still, this is a more serious piece of work in every respect than the kind of thing Poehler is best-known for. It would be deadly for this to come across as too much of a single-issue movie, though, and Poehler dodges the pitfall by ensuring it is nuanced and character-driven. Loud and angry protesting doesn’t come easily to everyone: one of Vivian’s closest friends has a different cultural background and as a result has a slightly different set of issues to deal with. There’s also the fact that being a perpetual state of anger is exhausting and risks alienating otherwise-sympathetic people around you.  The film recognises that, no matter how glaring and egregious an injustice may be, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the solution to it is simple, straightforward, or will come without sacrifices.

The only times the film falls down are when it loses track of this, and becomes more simplistic, even verging on the melodramatic: the disinterest of the school principal is essential to the framing of the story – this is young rebels versus the establishment, after all – but it just doesn’t seem credible, post-Weinstein, for a female character in a position like this to be quite so indifferent to some of the abuse going on. There’s also a third-act plotline about a sexual assault which feels just a tiny bit glib and contrived. We could also talk about the problematic way in which white men are inevitably demonised, to some extent at least, in this kind of narrative, but this is a big and complex topic.

Given that Netflix have, as noted, also recently funded a faith-based musical romance of almost ferocious innocuity, one has to wonder the extent to which its commitment to feminism agitprop is equally calculated. The two films couldn’t be more different: but this is by far the superior of the two. It’s not perfect, but then axe-grinding films like this one almost never are. Nevertheless it manages to be an engaging piece of entertainment as well as an openly angry and political film, and this is a considerable achievement.

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If you’re looking to make an uplifting family-friendly musical, starting off with your protagonist being pursued by the police is not the most obvious choice, but it’s the one that director Roman White makes at the start of A Week Away (currently showing on a Netflix account near you). Yes, our hero is a lad named Will (played by a dude named Kevin Quinn, whose striking similarity to a young Zach Efron it seems to be compulsory to mention). The script has a tricky balance to strike, in that the plot requires Will to have a long history of trouble with the authorities, while the general tenor of the film (not to mention its target audience) means that he must also be, in the final analysis, essentially wholesome and non-threatening.

The compromise they hit upon is that a) we don’t actually see Will doing anything naughty, the film just starts with him being pursued by a cop and b) at least some of his misdemeanours are presented in a ho-ho-ho slightly ironic way (he has supposedly put his high school on Craigslist, for instance). Anyway, he is duly nicked and we get some background: orphan, long list of expulsions from various schools and foster homes, and so on, but his most recent exploit – stealing a police car – has landed him in particularly hot water.

Normally I would have said the essential non-naturalism of the movie musical was epitomised by the fact that people keep singing and dancing about every few minutes. This does happen in A Week Away, but it is still somehow rather more realistic than a young male stealing a cop car in the US and pretty much being let off, which is what happens here. Will’s social worker does a lot of more-sorrowful-than-angry head-shaking and offers him a tough choice: he can go to Juvie, or… he can spend a week at camp with one of the foster parents (Sherri Shepherd) and her family. Hmmm, poser.

So off they go to family-friendly camp, which is run by the only person in this movie I can ever recall having seen before, David Koechner (previously in the Anchorman movies and Snakes on a Plane). Will bunks with his new foster mum’s son (Jahbril Cook), who is a nice guy but terribly uncool and hopes Will can give him advice on getting it together with one of the girls there (Kat Conner Sterling). Will, however, is rather preoccupied by Koechner’s character’s daughter (Bailee Madison). But given her thorough-going perky wholesomeness, how will she react if she eventually learns of Will’s scallywag past…?

The word ‘wholesome’ has cropped up a few times so far, along with ‘family-friendly’. It should therefore come as no surprise if I reveal there is a bit more to this movie than just a sort of chaste take on the Dirty Dancing-style holiday-romance plot structure. The first big musical number, only a few minutes into the movie, opens unexceptionally enough until Shepherd starts belting out lyrics about ‘the grace of God’ which the chorus all enthusiastically join in with.

This turns out to be a motif in the songwriting of A Week Away. The songs are not painful to listen to, and the performances are decent if not outstanding (in a similar vein, the choreography is hardly up to Gene Kelly standard but performed with gusto). Most of the numbers cover commendable themes encouraging teenagers to have confidence and self-esteem, but you can’t help but notice that the grace of God does get mentioned quite a lot. There’s another song called something like ‘Whoa, God is Awesome’ and one of the oldies smuggled onto the soundtrack – the kids in the target audience will be too young to recognise this – is ‘Baby Baby’, by arch CCM-pop-crossover star Amy Grant. In short: yes, this is a faith-based movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never found a religion that actually worked for me, though only a fool would dismiss the importance of the great faiths to world history and culture. Faith-based movies? Not so much. These things tend to get pretty brutally reviewed, on the whole, and the only one I’d actually watched prior to A Week Away – just to see if it was quite as bad as its crits – was Last Ounce of Courage (yes, it was). I’m not sure why it should be such an iron law that faith-based movies are invariably so bad, but then of course I’m sure that many people of faith must find them entirely satisfying entertainment in the way that non-faith-based entertainment presumably isn’t. Perhaps we touch upon a deep truth about how one’s belief system colours one’s perceptions of the world here. Nevertheless, to paraphrase someone off Roger Ebert’s website, even the best of these films put me in mind of a commercial for a product which everyone in the target audience already owns.

And, to be fair, A Week Away isn’t anything like as bad as Last Ounce of Courage. True, early on I did catch myself wondering if I could somehow throttle myself into unconsciousness and get to the end a bit quicker that way (in the end I just ended up playing a lot of 2048 while watching it just to keep my higher brain functions busy), but it’s sort of amiable and unmistakably good-hearted, even if the requirements to be wholesome and family-friendly mean that it is almost totally innocuous, lacking drama, tension, or any sense of threat. It’s almost as if near-total blandness is a genre convention for this kind of film. Jokes which poke very gentle fun at faith-based organisations probably count as edgy, subversive material in this kind of film. (Not that there isn’t the odd particularly weird moment: at one point the leading couple experience a moment of shared triumph by wreaking havoc together on the paintball course, which feels rather tonally wrong – there are various other points where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to seem cool.)

Oh well. In the end, this kind of film really isn’t my kind of thing, but it’s bright and colourful and some of the songs are pleasant enough. I suspect that Netflix (who are streaming it) don’t feel any great ideological affinity with it either, but the Christian-movie audience is large and juicy and they probably need the subscriptions right now. I wonder how Christian movie-watchers feel about being exploited and/or pandered to in this way? It’s hard not to conclude that Netflix’s investment in this film is ultimately quite cynical and calculated. There are strong and less-strong ways of running your movie streaming service – and I can’t help but think that this is a weaker way.

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Nothing lasts forever. Netflix has risen to ubiquity in the last few years due to an effective two-pronged strategy: lavishly-produced brand new material you can’t see anywhere else, and licensed old favourites from many other places you’d really like to watch again. The enormous success of this approach has taken traditional media providers by surprise, catching them flat-footed, but this state of affairs will not endure. Disney are due to launch their own streaming service within the year, which means a sizeable tranche of movies and TV shows will vanish from Netflix and move onto the rival (this will include all the Marvel and stellar conflict movies); other providers will likely follow suit, taking their own archive content with them.

So it is very likely that Netflix will become increasingly dependent on its self-generated content in order to stay successful. Here the service’s ‘here and nowhere else’ policy may actually count against it, especially when it comes to less-commercial movies. Your typical arthouse or quality movie release is often dependent on reviews and awards success in order to find or attract an audience, and most awards-giving bodies have been very clear that a Netflix-only release does not qualify a film for the big name prizes – it has to play in actual cinemas if it wants to get nominated.

For a long time Netflix held the line and refused to compromise when it came to putting their original movies into cinemas – to do so would be to defeat the whole point of being a streaming-only site. However, recently they seem to have cracked, putting Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on at film festivals and into actual movie theatres. This appears to have paid off in spades, for in addition to most likely being the best-performing subtitled movie in years (Netflix is coy about these things), Roma has managed to displace The Favourite as the favourite for this year’s most prestigious awards.

The film is mostly set in Mexico City, nearly fifty years ago, and concerns the life of a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who is the live-in cleaner, child-minder and general domestic help for a wealthy family in the wealthy suburb of Colonia Roma.  The couple are experiencing marital difficulties; their four children are loud, demanding, and (I found) rather annoying. Cleo has a lot on her plate nearly all the time.

For a while this looks like it’s going to be one of those slice-of-life movies where nothing much actually happens worth mentioning, but then Cleo discovers that her new boyfriend, the martial-arts-obsessed Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), has managed to get her pregnant. His response when told of this is to vanish from the scene quicker than you can say ‘Come home, Speedy Gonzales!’ Meanwhile, her employers’ marriage disintegrates, the husband moving out and leaving his wife (Marina de Tavira) to cope alone, while trying to keep the truth from the children.

You know me, I’m not especially cynical (quiet at the back!), but while watching Roma it did occur to me that if you wanted to make a movie that was custom-built to become a critical darling and Oscar bait, the end result might very well end up looking rather like this one.

For one thing, it is made in pristine, luminous black and white, which is a choice that directors make for one of two reasons: either as a sort of visual shorthand to indicate that a film is set way back in the past, or because they’re interested in the aesthetics of a film, rather than its narrative qualities. This movie is not set so long ago that black and white feels like the natural way to go (indeed at one point the characters go and see the colour movie Marooned – perhaps a playful tip of the hat, coming from the director of Gravity), so I’m guessing it is at least partly a visual thing. Certainly the film always looks beautiful even when the things appearing on the screen probably shouldn’t.

Also stirred into the mix for this spicy favour-currying curry is the fact that despite the cinematic artifice of the film’s presentation, the story it depicts is resolutely naturalistic and down to earth. There’s inevitably a whiff of socially-aware film-making going on here, which is of course a long and estimable tradition within ‘serious’ film-making. The lives of the different strata of Mexican society are presented, and the various injustices and issues within that society are obliquely addressed.

Although it has to be said that this is not a film which feels especially inclined to dive in and get its hands dirty, or anything like that. Roma is not one of those movies where the director’s art vanishes behind the story – Cuaron is clearly at work throughout. Quite apart from the choice of the film’s aesthetic, he opts for quite a formal approach, with many scenes composed of very long takes, mostly in long shot, with the camera panning or tracking to follow a particular character as they move about. The very-long-take seems to be in fashion at the moment as a way for directors to show off (there’s a particularly ostentatious example near the start of Outlaw King, another Netflix movie), but it does manage to feel less contrived here, even when the logistics of achieving some of the shots make them undeniably impressive.

You may be sensing that I am less swooningly in love with Roma than many proper film critics – well, it’s a fair cop, guv’nor, I have to say that this is true. For the most part I did not find the story particularly immersive or especially engaging. The film is so self-consciously and obviously crafted as a work of art that the characters and their story almost feel secondary to anything else – it looks beautiful, of course, but this is the beauty of a painting or sculpture, intended to be viewed holistically, rather than that of a really great narrative.

The one exception to this is a sequence towards the end of the film involving a hospital visit, which is genuinely tough-to-watch, emotionally wrenching stuff – not just because of what happens, but also because of the general sense of the viewpoint character being treated with a total lack of empathy or consideration. Perhaps this is what the film is about, at its heart: Cleo and her employers live together, and all have their own personal problems to deal with, and while to their credit they do seem to have some concern for her, she is not quite a member of the family – if anything, she is treated like a much-loved pet, and most of the time they remain preoccupied with their own concerns.

As I say, though, if there is a particular message that Alfonso Cuaron would like Roma to deliver, then it does not feel like the film’s only, or even primary concern. This is a beautiful film, skilfully crafted, with solidly naturalistic performances, and a deeply humane sensibility. It feels precision crafted to be an awards contender, and perhaps that’s the problem with it: it feels perhaps just a little bit too calculated. Nevertheless, I expect it will continue to do very well for the remainder of the awards season – I’m not sure it would get my vote, though.

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