Movie Review: Happy Death Day

At the end of “Happy Death Day,” the main character (Jessica Rothe) admits to her quasi-boyfriend (Israel Broussard) that she hasn’t seen “Groundhog Day,” which suddenly puts a lot of her actions in a different perspective. It’s not a stretch to think that Jessica, playing a Queen Bee sorority sister, would rather drink Drano than watch something that geeky, but it is hard to believe she’s never read “Before I Fall,” or watched the movie (that came out earlier this year) based on it. In “Before I Fall,” a Queen Bee high schooler is forced to relive a Valentine’s Day-like scenario repeatedly until she figures out how to break the cycle. “Happy Death Day” occurs on Oct. 18 present day, the birthday of Jessica which is also (Spoiler alert) the date of her mother’s death. (Apparently, the lesson for scriptwriters here is to nab an early holiday to structure your movie plot around and release it then as well, lest you be accused of plagiarism.)

Like many horror movie protagonists, Jessica isn’t exactly a rocket scientist when it comes to her figuring out what is going on and why she keeps waking up in Israel’s dorm room again and again, to live yet another day before being murdered by a creepy guy wearing a baby-faced mask. If she was, she might have clued in sooner to the “Perhaps I should be a better person and face my fears honestly,” message, but she doesn’t – at least not for a startlingly long time. Instead, after a couple of replays, she confronts Israel, leaking eyeliner like a demented blonde raccoon, and dumps her problem into his lap. Being the typical nice guy that populates these kinds of movies, Israel cooperates, suggesting Jessica make a list of all potential “suspects,” which include sorority sisters that she’s stolen boyfriends from, the doctor at a local hospital with whom she’s been having an affair, the roommate (Ruby Modine) who only wants to be her best bud, etc. However, this fails, although it does make for a montage where Jessica strolls around campus naked (nothing is shown). So she’s forced to do some more digging into the odd scenarios. Who is that creepy rent-a-cop at the hospital anyway? What does the escaped murderer shown on the news have to do with her killer anyway? And when Jessica finally attempts to play nice, how come that doesn’t work out exactly as hoped?

Jessica starts the movie with plenty of guts, it’s a heart she has to discover within her. This can only be achieved by lots of tries, but unfortunately, Jessica figures out that she only has a certain number before her time is up. So the clock ticks away, while various characters are stabbed, shot at, hung, poisoned, etc., but there’s finally success. “Happy Death Day” is a pretty typical horror movie, though there is humor to be found in spots. At one point, she blurts, “I know I’ve been a bad roommate but…” which prompted several viewers in my theater to burst out laughing. And yes, Ruby is Matthew’s daughter. In his younger days, Matthew was once in a film called “Gross Anatomy” in which he played a cocky doc who needed to learn to be a better person. How time flies.


A Look Back: Wayne’s World

Among the rock groups that brought large helpings of treacle to the US music charts in the eighties was the unforgettable Air Supply who, among other songs, had one with the plaintive refrain: “I don’t know how you do it/Making love out of nothing at all.” It is rather difficult to make something out of nothing much, and I expect that’s also true of some “Saturday Night Live” sketches which work well in five minutes plus segments on late night TV, but don’t quite make a successful transition to the big screen in which they must be stretched out at least an hour or so. After some unscientific analysis, I’ve figured out that it really helps if the sketch features not just likeable characters, but also a bunch of catchphrases that the audience can gleefully chant along. By that standard, “Wayne’s World,” based on a recurring sketch by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, is a bubbling spring of once-popular catchphrases from “Party on!” to “Schwing!” the last of which refers to “babelicious babes” like model Claudia Schiffer (invented in the pre-PC era). It was set to become a success when it hit theaters, and it was – with even a sequel to follow.

“Wayne’s World,” ran on SNL in the late eighties to the early nineties, and starred Mike and Dana, who play heavy mental enthusiasts who still live with their parents but whose coolness quotient is boosted by the fact that they have their own public access cable show which takes place in Mike’s parents’ basement. Their show is a mishmash of dream sequences, wacky high jinks, and the aforementioned catchphrases as the pair discuss the aforementioned babes. Obviously, the challenge for director Penelope Spheeris was to find a way to move most of the action out of the basement setting without sacrificing any of the appealing weirdness of the duo. This she managed to do, using the breaking the fourth wall technique that worked so well in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Characters regularly comment on what is happening in the movie, letting the audience in on the fun. They also mock such tropes that were popular in say, Afterschool Specials as when Mike completes a monologue by confessing that he can’t read. “Is that true?” he’s asked. Except for the reading part is the reply.

The actual movie plot revolves around the two getting a break from their humdrum Aurora existence when Rob Lowe, a sleazy producer, offers to buy their show, and they accept. However, Rob turns out to be the villain of the piece, and the tension revolves around the duo coming to the realization that they’re being exploited (although that’s also done in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge way) and how they get even. There are also love interests for the two, including Tia Carrere for Mike, and a trip to a guitar store where Mike is crushed to see the sign on the wall reading, “No ‘Stairway to Heaven’.” The sequel is, in sequel fashion, not quite as hilarious but still funny. And if it seems bizarre that “Schwing!” once made it into the popular lexicon as something people actually said, keep in mind that this was also in the era of “Where’s the beef?” and “Grody to the max!” Party on indeed.



Movie Review: Marshall

In honor of the date, I thought about reviewing “Friday the Thirteenth” today, but just the sliver I saw as a kid scared me senseless, so I decided to go with early Oscar-nomination bait, “Marshall,” which (unfortunately) is about a timely topic in the news: accusations of sexual assault.

“Marshall,” stars Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous Thurgood Marshall, here introduced in the forties (note those segregated drinking fountains), as an up-and-coming lawyer for the NAACP. Committed to defending minorities who are unfairly slandered, Chadwick is assigned a case involving a white woman (Kate Hudson) from Greenwich, Conn. who was brutally assaulted then left for dead under a bridge, but later managed to escape and inform the police that she was attacked by her black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) who insists that he’s innocent. However, when the presiding judge (James Cromwell) turns out to be the bigot-from-hell and insists that Chadwick’s recently met partner, Josh Gad, do the heavy lifting inside the courtroom, although he’s only done insurance cases, things take a twist. Although Josh is less-than-thrilled (to put it mildly) and worries about the effect taking the case will have on his family and his standing in the community, he agrees. Thus the two men begin to forge a real partnership, both believing that Sterling has been unfairly accused.

On the way to justice, the pair will be hampered in their quest to free Sterling from blame by many things including said judge, the opposing attorney (Dan Stevens, who gets to make a Grand Speech toward the end, just like the more sympathetic characters), witnesses who Blatantly Lie Under Oath, and of course, the accused not being quite honest about key details from the start (which always comes out anyway and blows up in their face toward the trial’s end). Their enemies will even get physical – in one scene that will be more dramatic for those who haven’t already seen the trailer. Is Kate lying and if so, why? As one female character puts it, why would a woman lie about being raped? The verdict – and the truth when it comes out – answers these questions satisfactorily, although if you have seen a courtroom drama before, you may already have guessed.

I saw a review stating that Chadwick is not actually the protagonist despite being the only one featured on the movie poster, but I would disagree. True the script puts him in a tricky position since he’s forbidden to speak during the trial itself; you may wonder why a different case in Marshall’s career (such as Brown vs. the Board of Education) wasn’t chosen to center the movie around instead. But I suppose the argument might run that in order to accurately depict how minorities, including lawyers, were discriminated against, you have to include proof. “Marshall” really is a courtroom drama/buddy movie, as Josh has equal screen-time and character development. The question of who is the main character is simple: both. Kate also does a terrific job as a wealthy woman who’s hiding secrets but not the ones they appear to be at the start. Expect at least a few Oscar nominations when the time rolls around.


A Look Back: The Emperor’s Club

In the movies, if you wish to charm your balky charges into accepting you, a number of options are available. You can simply wait them out, or if you prefer to take a more proactive role, you can follow the lead of Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” and let your wards hang out with you during a thunderstorm, then follow that up by making them hideous play clothes from drapery. If you’re a coach with a plucky but ragtag team, playing hardball at first but then gradually coming to see your players as individuals should do the trick. If you’re a teacher, it’s always a bonus if you can take Shakespeare and turn his work into a rap song. Letting your students play soccer while shouting inspirational quotes worked well for Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” and later on for Kevin Kline in a similar film, “The Emperor’s Club,” getting his students to dress in togas did much to ignite their latent passion for Latin history. Let me explain further.

“The Emperor’s Club,” based on a short story by Ethan Canin, relates things from the teacher’s viewpoint both during his tenure at a prep school and then years later when he reunites with his class as adults. Kevin plays the lead, and except for a chaste flirtation with the school’s sole woman teacher (Embeth Davidtz) has settled into a decades-old bachelor lifestyle. His main relationship is with his Latin history class, particularly his three top students played as teens by Rishi Mehta (The Earnest Minority), Jesse Eisenberg (A Second Earnest Student), and Paul Dano (Yet a Third Earnest Student), all of whom are eager to compete in the end-of-term “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest – a history trivia competition. However, a wrench is thrown in their plans by the arrival of new student (Emile Hirsch) who has been living like a renegade. Though Kevin immediately assumes responsibility and even visits Emile’s father (Harris Yulin), he’s rebuffed, as Harris wishes Kevin to teach only history, not values. This cannot stand, though, and eventually Kevin stumbles onto the key to unlock Emile’s inner Good Kid (hint: it’s an impromptu game of baseball).

After Emile begins, however haltingly, to apply himself, Kevin feels obligated to, shall we say, nudge him into the prestigious contest (bumping out Jesse), but then (spoiler alert) Emile goes and cheats – leaving Kevin with a dilemma. Eventually, (more spoilers) Kevin massages things so another student wins – but since Emile knows Kevin knows and did nothing, his respect for the teacher is shot. Fast forward to when Emile and co. are adults, and Emile decides to host a reunion at his lavish home, complete with a re-match of the Julius Caesar contest. And dang, if history doesn’t repeat itself – but the movie adds a twist the story lacks by having Emile’s young son overhear their confrontation. According to Kevin’s character, this is “a story without surprises,” but to movie viewers used to teachers who do the right thing against all odds, “The Emperor’s Club” may come as an intriguing change.

A Look Back: Gone Girl

Film critic Richard Roeper once compiled (“wrote” might not be quite accurate) a book of movie lists including the more expected such as an Oscar snubs list, sequels that didn’t actually suck, etc., but he also included original ones such as “Seven Movies in Which Ben Affleck Cries Like a Big Fat Baby.” I hadn’t noticed this particular similarity in Ben’s movies before, but once it was pointed out, it seemed obvious. One movie where Ben does not cry is “Dazed and Confused,” in which he plays a bullying senior who is overfond of hazing freshmen; another much later one is “Gone Girl,” directed by David Fincher, in which Ben plays a man who has fallen out of love with his wife (Rosamund Pike) and who will soon have an even bigger headache to deal with once she – wait for it – disappears. In the eponymous bestseller by Gillian Flynn, Ben’s character, Nick Dunne, is described as looking like an teen eighties’ movie nemesis, and in keeping with that, after Rosamund vanishes, Ben insists on displaying the absolute minimum of emotion in her wake. There’s also his troubling opening voice-over in which he imagines grisly things happening to Rosamund. So he has to be the perp. Right? Maybe.

Ben’s ally in hating Rosamund is his twin sister (Carrie Coon) with whom he hangs out in a bar wittily dubbed The Bar and with whom he exchanges sexually charged banter until he is faced with the prospect of having to deal with two detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick “The Kid From ‘Almost Famous’” Fugit) who want to probe to see if he might be a serious suspect. Also, Rosamund’s parents show up on the scene to help coordinate publicity including an actual hunt for their daughter’s potential corpse. A clue to Rosamund’s manic-erratic-sociopathic behavior comes when we learn that her parents wrote a series of children’s books featuring her. But as unreliable a narrator as Rosamund’s voice over is, Ben’s is hardly more believable. Still, as the evidence begins to pile up implicating Ben, the possibility that this all a set-up becomes plausible. As for Rosamund, after a run-in with two shady sorts, she’s forced to hole up in a former boyfriend’s (Neil Patrick Harris) Mansion of Extreme Creepiness and eventually escape in a truly gruesome way. Plot holes also emerge – if “Gone Girl” was a sweater, it would emerge from its summer hibernation with more than a few unraveling threads.  But it’s a lot of fun putting the puzzle together anyway.

Movie Review: Stronger

In 1989, movie-star-of-the-decade Tom Cruise answered the important question of whether he could do Serious Roles; after impersonating an Ivy-League bound high school senior, a bartender, a fighter pilot and a sports car dealer, he played wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran/activist, Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July.” The film did win a couple of Oscars, but Cruise was snubbed for Best Actor so, as the story went, he returned to less taxing parts featuring Pepsodent grins and sunglasses. In “Stronger,” the adaptation of real-life Jake Bauman who put his life back together after losing his lower legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role does an excellent job, although since he played a boxer in need of rehabilitation before a comeback in 2015’s “Southpaw,” I was confident he would from the start.

In the film, Jake plays an ordinary guy who lives in the Boston suburbs with his somewhat stereotypical Boston-area family, including his mom (Miranda Richardson). He manages to get time off from his job at Costco, so that he can attend the Boston Marathon and cheer his off-again, on-again girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) from the sidelines. Unfortunately, he winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time, although he does encounter a guardian angel of sorts, (Carlos Sanz who plays himself) who helps him. Since Jake survives and can also provide identification to the authorities, he quickly becomes a hero – both nationally and internationally to the stunned admiration of his family. (Even Oprah wants in on the interviews.) Unsurprisingly, Jake’s road to recovery is far from smooth, as he struggles with the question that everyone but him seems to have no problem answering, which is whether or not he’s let the terrorists “win.” Complicating matters is (Spoiler alert!) the news from Tatiana (who has sacrificed her job and family to help him) that she’s pregnant. There is a triumphant ending, but few easy answers on the way there.

I don’t know if “Stronger” will net any Oscar nominations (or Oscars), but the cast does a great job. The actual tragedy is portrayed much more briefly and less graphically than “Patriots Day,” although there is an extended flashback near the end. The main focus is on Jake’s recovery and his coming-to-terms with his loss. It’s admittedly a story that’s been told before, but it’s well worth seeing again.


Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

“Battle of the Sexes,” which opens today and stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as King’s rival Bobby Riggs, will likely net at least one Oscar nomination, as well as prompt discussion on the way home about the parallels between the famous match and last year’s presidential election. It’s your typical Hollywood triumph-of-the-underdog story, but with the added bonus of being based on real life, chronicling how King helped break gender barriers even before she played Riggs (and continued to do so long after).

Steve plays an over-the-hill former tennis star who has a gambling problem (he co-opts a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting to explain to the attendees that they aren’t gamblers, they’re just bad at it) and a wife (Elisabeth Shue) who gets fed up with this and throws him out. (She also points out that since she’s the one financing their lavish lifestyle, his anti-feminist rhetoric is a tad ironic.) Casting around for a way to make some cash and return to the spotlight which he craves even more, he challenges Emma to a match. She refuses for at first she’s busier heading the new women’s tennis association and fielding baffled questions from the media about why in the world women should get paid equally for their tournament participation. After all, as Bill Pullman among other characters points out, women just aren’t as exciting to watch, plus they don’t have as much stamina as the boys. Well, this obviously can’t stand, so after Steve trounces a woman player and starts strutting about, a fuming Emma rekindles the match. But of course, she has a host of obstacles to deal with including sexism from the event arrangers, illness, and most importantly, the fact that she’s fallen in love with the tour hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and both her husband (Austin Stowell)) and her game are negatively affected while she figures things out.

While the outcome of the match is deathly serious for Emma – she sees it as a chance to prove Something Important about gender equality in sports, Steve is simply happy to bask in the attention of the media and fans, while he performs a series of publicity stunts including dressing up as Little Bo Peep and doing a semi-nude photo shoot. (The latter of which apparently really happened.) He also sounds off about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but Emma in a later scene points out the difference between Steve’s chauvinism and someone like Bill’s – Steve’s is for show, while with other characters, it’s more ingrained and uglier. And when Emma triumphs, there’s still a lot of progress to be made – as Alan Cummings (who plays the tour costume designer) points out both for women and for gays. Sometimes as the movie shows, you make your point best by shutting up and competing, but even winning there means there’s still much work to be done afterward.