A Look Back: Sixteen Candles

When we watch movies, we’re often presented with scenarios that require a suspension of disbelief, such as when a character accidentally makes dates for the same time and place, and rather than cancelling one like a normal person, chooses to try and be two places at once, inevitably getting humiliated in the process.  Some are completely ridiculous, but others may seem more possible.  “Home Alone,” asked parents if they could conceivably leave behind a child on a trip if it was completely hectic, the kid overslept, and whoever did the head count accidentally included the neighbor’s kid, and although I wasn’t a parent, I found that plausible enough.  Still, the set-up of an entire family (including extended relatives) forgetting their sixteen-year-old daughter’s birthday, as happens to Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles,” is chilling and hard to buy, but it’s possible nevertheless, at least for me.

That perky Molly would wake up on the morning of her sixteenth birthday and receive not a single gift or special greeting seems off at first, but when we learn that it’s the day her older sister is getting married, it seems more plausible.  To add insult to injury, though, Molly’s body is refusing to cooperate and mature in a way that would make her more apparent to her crush (Michael Schoeffling).  But even though Molly is disappointed that she hasn’t turned into a swan overnight, her grandparents have a different view.  Upon arrival, her grandmother squeals, “Fred, she’s gotten her boobies!” plus, they bring along an exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), who is definitely dorky  So things are kind of grim.

Molly’s day does not improve when she answers what is supposed to be an anonymous “sex test” in a class, and after revealing the name of her crush, realizes that he may have seen what she wrote.  We also get to see Michael’s current girlfriend (Haviland Morris) who has finished with the messy puberty process, and very hot, even though it appears that Michael may be having second thoughts about the relationship.  That night, still smarting from being neglected, Molly attends a school dance, and her humiliation increases when it turns out that even dealing with culture shock and dressing in attire that will make a character later inquire if he’s “retarded,” Gedde manages to hook up much faster than she does.  (Alcohol and other recreational substances are the great equalizer – they make teens from all cultures lose their inhibitions.)  Michael and Haviland attend the dance, too, as does a character simply called the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) who has a huge crush on Molly.  It turns out that there is much more embarrassment in store.

In fairy tales, the heroine sometimes has to undergo a humiliating test before she triumphs, gets her prince and lives happily ever after, and this is certainly true for Molly in this movie.  The heroine may also encounter a person who is “different” in some way: elderly, unattractive, etc., and after proving that they are compassionate, are rewarded unexpectedly.  This happens here, too, when Molly agrees to lend Anthony her panties for an hour, so he can show them off to the entire freshmen male population – and he agrees to put in a good word for her with Michael.  Later on, at a party Michael is hosting, a series of unexpected events occur when Haviland passes out drunk, and like a gentleman, he lends Anthony his car so he can deal with her, after learning of Molly’s true feelings.  (In other words, date rape occurs, though this is played completely for laughs so no one has to undergo moral dilemmas or deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome.)  Haviland, as far as movie mean girls go is pretty benign, and her only real “crime” appears to be looking over twenty and not being able to hold her liquor, so when I saw “Sixteen Candles” I did feel sorry for her.  But she’s really a side-note in the story.

Now that he’s slipped his leash, Michael attempts several times to get in touch with Molly, but gets a tongue lashing from her grandparents via phone.  When the wedding arrives, Molly is a bridesmaid (by this time, her dad has remembered her birthday), and her sister winds up with her own dose of humiliation, thanks to a bottle of muscle relaxants.  When Molly comes out of the church, Michael appears like magic and gestures toward her – and it turns out that he’s managed to procure a birthday cake, even though it might be more prudent to try and clean up his totally trashed home before his parents see it.  But that would make for a much less satisfying ending.


A Look Back: Dirty Dancing

A couple of years ago one summer, I exited the grocery store with my bags and the vague sense that I was missing something.  Sure enough, the bagger was kind enough to pursue me out to the parking lot in order to point out the following.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, but I think you have forgotten your watermelon!”

Returning sheepishly to the store to pick it up, I resisted the temptation to make a “Dirty Dancing” joke, but it was tempting.  I resisted, however, because you never know if a movie that made an impression on you had the same impact on a stranger.

But I think the line, “I carried a watermelon,” ranks right up there with, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” as one of the most quoted lines from “Dirty Dancing.”  And really, is there a dorkier, and hence more endearing opening line to the cinematic man of your dreams than, “I carried a watermelon,” which is what Jennifer Grey’s character blurts out to Patrick Swayze’s hot dance instructor at a Catskills resort in “Dirty Dancing”?  The  resort is populated by mostly middle class Jewish families on summer vacation, many of whom appear to be already retired.  Jennifer’s parents, however, played by Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop, are a bit younger, and her dad is still a doctor, which will become integral to the plot.

Though there’s a shortage of males under 30, Jennifer’s sister falls in love with a guy her age who appears to be an upstanding citizen, but who actually turns out to be scum; and Jennifer falls in love with Patrick, who she spots dirty dancing with the rest of the young staff off duty.  Though Patrick initially appears to be a hunky, but not particularly upwardly striving guy, Jennifer’s dad is not pleased with his daughter’s choice – although Patrick is actually a really good guy.  Because – irony – and one of the movie’s themes is that you should never judge a book by its cover.

Jennifer becomes involved with the staff when she volunteers to take Patrick’s dance partner’s (Cynthia Rhodes) place when she has to undergo an abortion the same time as a performance (held away from the resort).  Despite having no sense of rhythm whatsoever, Jennifer generously begins to bypass the cribbage and Bingo tournaments and spend most of her free time being tutored by Patrick.  Soon she’s exchanging steamy glances, as she comes of age to a really cool soundtrack.  Her debut is actually a success, but they return to find that something has gone wrong with the operation, and Jennifer makes the decision to blow her cover and get her father to help Cynthia.  Jerry is pretty cool with lending his expertise (unlike many teen movies, the parents are allowed to have more than one dimension), but he is displeased to find out how involved Jennifer is with “those people” and orders her to stay away.  Surprisingly, she does not become the first teenager in movie history to decide that her parent has her best interests at heart and so keeps on seeing Patrick.

Eventually, there is drama surrounding who really impregnated Cynthia and there’s a mystery concerning a rash of wallet thefts that needs to be cleared up.  Jennifer, who is heading for Mount Holyoke and the Peace Corps, and lives on Planet Young Starry Eyed Idealism, tries to persuade Patrick to take a stand and arrange a more R-rated dance number for the end of the summer show.   But Patrick winds up leaving early – simply so he can return in the middle of the show and utter the famous line, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”  Then they start dirty dancing, and Jennifer’s mom is surprisingly impressed saying, “I think she gets it from me.”  Soon the audience has joined in, and they are all having the time of their life.  And coolest of all – at least from my viewpoint the first time I saw it, Jerry actually apologizes for misjudging Patrick.  Although the older, more cynical me wonders now if it was also reverse psychology.

Review: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

Not being familiar with the comic book that “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” is based on, I’m glad for the title clarification because I would have assumed the “secret service” part meant the American branch that protects the President. (Nor is this a biopic of the guys who did “Louie Louie.”) No, this takes place mostly in London, where the titular spy organization has its headquarters in a Saville Row suit shop, though that means taking a elevator vault ride into the bowels of the earth to reach it. The Kingsmen are a group of secret agents who dress as upper crust Brits, though on closer inspection, everything from their Oxfords to their umbrellas contain the necessary ammunition to defeat the bad guys.

In the opening scene, set a decade beforehand, Colin Firth makes a crucial mistake when interrogating an Arab prisoner, which results in the death of young Taron Egerton’s father. Because the mom’s too grief-stricken to care, the boy is given a special amulet with the organization’s number on it and told that he can make one phone call for help whenever he so chooses. Fast forward ten years, when Taron gets in trouble with the law and gets Colin to bail him out. Colin then informs him that he would make an excellent Kingsman, if he decides to undergo the training, but in the tradition of young movie heroes who are unexpectedly told that they have a gift, he at first wants no part of it. But after witnessing Colin turn into a pinstriped Ninja and take down a group of thugs in a pub, Taron changes his mind and begins training with a group of blue blooded peers and the requisite spunky girl.

Meanwhile, a lisping billionaire villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson, has masterminded a plot to reduce overpopulation, which involves giving a large number of people free cell service, and will result in many becoming spontaneously violent or having their heads explode into fireworks.  Fortunately, even though one of the main Kingsman dies and Taron unexpectedly fails his training, he’s still needed, so the whole thing no longer matters, and he gets to spring into action and show his stuff.  It’s also lucky that the head of the organization, despite having survived to a ripe old age presumably on his wits and cunning, is easily dispatched of (and the movie passes up an opportunity to make a “Princess Bride” joke), so it’s on to the end of the world gala in order to stop the villain.  Toward the end, a foreign princess promises Taron anal sex if he saves the world, and so with that incentive, he goes all out.  (On the way to the end, among other casualties, is a church full of rednecks because it’s apparently okay to mass murder bigots.)

The movie is rated “R”, I guess for language because there’s no sex, and the violence didn’t strike me as anything worse than something you’d see in a PG-13 movie like “The Hunger Games.”  The young cast members didn’t make much of an impression on me, but the adult actors all do a great job, particularly Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Mark Hamill (who plays an academic expert on global warming).  It’s best seen if you want something mindless, entertaining and very action-packed.  But it’s better if you don’t try to analyze it for logic while you’re watching.  Save that for afterward.


A Look Back: Stand By Me

I first saw “Stand By Me” in my high school health class.  So as not to offend our delicate sensibilities (or more likely, our parents’), we saw the edited version, which removed such obscenities as “ass.”  Which, because one of the characters’ names included this, must have taken awhile.  I remember enjoying this movie a lot more than “Beaches,” which we also saw.  I also remember that one of the questions on our follow-up test was something like, “Name two ways in which Gordie and Chris were more mature than Teddy and Vern.”  (That was one of my easier A’s.)

“Stand By Me,” based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King, takes place on the last day of summer vacation in 1959 in Castle Rock, Oregon.  The narrator Gordie (Wil Wheaton), and his friends, delinquent-in-training Chris (River Phoneix) and crazy Teddy (Corey Feldman) are playing cards in their clubhouse, when they get an unexpected invitation from their other dweeby, overly earnest pal, Vern (Jerry O’Connell).  “You guys wanna go see a dead body?” he asks.  It turns out that a boy their age has been hit by a train and is, in fact, dead.  Jerry happens upon this piece of juicy info, when he’s under his porch, searching for his buried penny jar.  His older brother and his gang (which includes Chris’s delinquent older brother) have made plans to go see the corpse, as well.  This triggers Wil’s and his friends’ competitive instincts, too, and so off they set on an overnight trip.

You might be wondering, if you’ve never seen the movie, how they are going to get around their parents.  Well, there’s no real need to worry because three of the four boys have major father issues, and their dads probably won’t notice that they’ve disappeared for awhile.  As for Jerry, he can just use the sleepover excuse, and no one will be any the wiser.  So the boys each go home for supplies, and that’s when we learn that Wil’s parents barely register that he exists (except in the case of dad, to criticize his friends) because they’re busy mourning their dead, older son (John Cusack), who was the family superstar.  Wil takes a canteen and the cap that his brother gave him, while Jerry brings along a comb (“So we’ll look good on TV!”).  River contributes a gun, which turns out to be loaded, and which, following Chekov’s rule, becomes crucial in the climax.

The boys set off – and this is not a movie in which the characters manage to maintain un-mussed hair, unrumpled clothes, etc. – they all quickly become grimy and stay like this the entire way.  (A side trip into a leech filled swamp will also contribute to their general disarray.)  Meanwhile the older boys go joyriding in the same direction, whacking the occasional mailbox on the way.  Wil’s group also engages in some juvenile delinquency (mouthing off to a junkyard owner, scaring the daylights out of a train driver, etc.), but they also devote some time to the profound questions in life, such as what food they would choose if they could only eat one for the rest of their lives.  Also, Wil and Chris confide in each other about their parents’ (and society’s) non-existent expectations of them, what really happened with the stolen milk money at school, and Wil encourages Chris to enroll in the academic track with him when school starts, which makes what ultimately happens to Chris as an adult (which we hear about in the epilogue) even sadder.

Eventually, the boys reach their destination and have a stand-off with the older boys (Chekov’s law alert).  When they return, Wil notes that the town somehow looks smaller, and then we hear, via voiceover, how the group drifts apart, but how “you never have any friends like the ones when you were 12.”  It ends with the adult narrator (Richard Dreyfuss) typing these words at his computer, while his young son and friend wait impatiently outside to go swimming.  Very true, and as an added bonus, the viewer ends the movie with the sense that the Narrator, despite his lapses into literary reveries, is a different type of father than his own dad.

Annoying Experiences as a Moviegoer

Of course, I’ve had the more common ones like the crying baby/whining small child, who isn’t thrilled at being taken to an age-inappropriate movie; the person in back of me who insists on narrating the movie for his/her companion, and the person several rows back who appears to be doing something that could, well, get them arrested if anyone wanted to make a case of it. Also, the group that probably partook of recreational substances prior to entering the theater, as evidenced by their sky high spirits and tendency to applaud/cheer/giggle at every single trailer, even the ones about cancer, natural disasters and war.

Here, without further ado, are my top five most annoying movie-going experiences.

The People With Ants in Their Pants at “The King’s Speech”

The critics raved about this movie when it opened. More than one recommended taking your family as a holiday treat.  The only problem was that it was just playing in major cities at that point, and no one I knew was keen on seeing it, so I went myself, taking the train in, and hiking what turned out to be a much longer distance to the theater than I expected.  After that, I took two escalators up to the top of the building and walked all the way to the end of the third floor to locate the proper room.  By that time, I was ready to sit back and relax.

Unfortunately, many of the people sitting some rows in front of me were, for reasons I never quite figured out, not particularly interested in the movie and spent the entire two hours going in and out of the theater.  Or maybe they were, but either way, it was distracting.

Plus, because of the heavy British and in the case of Geoffrey Rush’s character, Australian accents, it was easy to miss key parts of the dialogue, which was chock full of dry British humor.  So I wound up seeing it a second time a month later, with a less fidgety audience.

The Dying Man at “Flight”

Generally, I am all for going out and trying to distract yourself if you are feeling under the weather, as long as you are not contagious.  This man, however, sounded as if he were on Death’s door and about to expel a lung.  I was seriously worried that someone was going to have to call an ambulance eventually, which did not make for a riveting movie experience, despite the fact that the star, Denzel Washington, playing a pilot with a serious addiction problem, was excellent.

The Upside Down Screen at “Disturbia”

In this movie, a young Shia LaBoeuf plays a high school student whose father has recently died and whose anger management issues get him confined to house arrest  – in both the opening scene, in which there’s a death, and the subsequent one, in which the “crime” takes place that winds up having these consequences, the director is trying to build and maintain tension, so it was unfortunate, that the action appeared to be taking place upside down.  It was only about 20 minutes later, that this was corrected.

Why it took so long for someone to go out and notify the usher of the problem, I have no idea.  Probably because either everyone expected the issue to resolve itself on its own or wasn’t sure if this was some kind of experimental technique on the part of the director.  Who knows?

The Very Loud Latecomers to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Part II”

It’s easy to find yourself in a situation where you have to enter the theater after the movie has begun. Heavy traffic, long lines at the refreshment counter, your companion couldn’t find his/her keys, these things happen. No big deal, or at least it doesn’t have to be.

However, once you are in the theater, it is a good idea NOT to remark on the fact that you are, indeed, late.  Or have an audible debate on whose fault this is.  The important thing is that you are finally there!   Also, it is recommended that you find a seat and take it quickly.  You are, by no means, required to stay in it the entire movie, but it is considerate because your silhouette may be distracting.

You can tell if it’s a large audience assembled and everyone is being virtually silent that it’s a movie that most are anxious to see.  Especially, if it’s based on a popular book, TV show, etc. for young people.  Just a hint.

And speaking of best-sellers meant for young people:

The Weeping Teens at “The Fault in our Stars”

When I saw this, I was only vaguely aware that this movie was based on a young adult novel but wasn’t surprised to see that most of the audience wasn’t yet old enough to drink.  I was also not surprised to hear sniffling early on, considering that the two lead characters, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, as well as their friend, have cancer.  Obviously, at least one wasn’t going to make it to the credits, even if I didn’t know who.

The teens were probably far more clued in about who was going to die than I was and began to curl up in the fetal position and start bawling before the movie had reached the halfway point.  In general, I don’t care if there’s crying at the movies.  Some people are just emotional.  This, however, was genuine grief – I wanted to lean over to the girl nearby and say, “You do know, this is fiction, right?”  But I restrained myself.

A Look Back: Beaches

“Beaches” is a very depressing movie, though I’m sure on paper it looked more heartwarming. For one thing, only a minority of scenes actually take place on the beach. We begin with Bette Midler getting a call in the middle of singing rehearsal from her lifelong friend, played by Barbara Hershey, and then there’s a flashback to when young Bette (played with pizazz by Mayim “Blossom” Bialik) and young Barbara (Marcie Leeds) meet cute (but not too cutesy) when they are eleven and on vacation.  Mayim is a cocky budding child star, and the admiring Marcie winds up accompanying her to an impromptu audition for a talent show.  She doesn’t get the part, but the two decide to become pen pals.  They then grow up rapidly, until they turn into their adult counterparts.  At this point, the movie takes on the quality of a soggy soufflé, and if you continue to watch it to the end, other things will also get soggy, including your refreshments and your Kleenex.

While Bette chooses to Follow Her Dream and become a torch singer, Barbara turns into the perfect society wife.  When the two finally meet up again, Bette has a role in an off-off Broadway musical about the invention of the brassiere (really), and when Barbara watches it, her WASP sensibilities are badly shaken, but she tries to be supportive.  Alas, her repressed jealousy that her friend is leading a more exciting life than she is cannot be fully camouflaged, and the two “friends” wind up having an epic fight in a department store, the only amusing part of which is when a saleslady asks if she can be of service.  Fortunately, Barbara discovers her husband is cheating and that she is pregnant, providing a reason to make up without losing much face.  Unfortunately, however, there is a much less joyful reason for the women to bond in the near future.

I went for years assuming Barbara here had developed some form of movie cancer – in which the patient usually looks pretty good, despite undergoing chemo, and in which the really unpleasant parts of illness happen off screen, but as it happens, she has some heart problem, and has waited too long to seek effective treatment.  By this time, the child is born, and it’s adorable little smart-mouthed girl.  The two friends return to their vacation spot, but since Barbara is dying, there is a cloud over things.  As she progresses through the stages of denial, anger and acceptance, things get grimmer and grimmer until the tragedy happens.  At the funeral, Bette belts out “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and eventually adopts the kid, since dad is no longer anywhere in the picture.  And that’s that.

“Beaches” has most of the surefire chick movie ingredients, and has some genuinely moving moments, but there are way too many scenes where the characters snipe at each other, and you find yourself thinking that permanent estrangement would not be a bad idea.  However, if you want to watch something that will have you sniffling at the end, this is perfect.  To paraphrase a quote from “Field of Dreams,” the filmmakers must have been told, “If you make it, they will come – and cry.”

A Look Back: The Secret of My Success

In the eighties, movies about the dynamics of the workplace were much more likely to put a positive spin on things.  A movie like “Office Space,” probably wouldn’t have gotten much of an enthusiastic reception because the overall message of mainstream films was that one’s (white collar) job was a positive source of self-esteem and identity.  Even if you were a kid in an adult’s body (“Big”) or a teenager trying to earn income to provide for her siblings while mom was away on a trip (“Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”), finding success in an office job was possible  – and it was even likely that if you began on the lowest rung, you’d have a shot at advancing to the point where you were on a first name basis with your boss by the end of the movie.  It was also likely that if the boss was evil incarnate and planned to fire everyone, a bright, fresh-faced adorable movie star would show up and save everyone from destitution.  (Or if he was a complete sexist pig, it was okay to kidnap him and teach him a lesson, as in “Nine to Five.”)  Saving the company was the adult equivalent of getting a dream date to the prom or perhaps winning the big game.  At least thirty years ago.

“Secret of My Success” follows this formula closely.  In it, Michael J. Fox plays a young, motivated grad who gets a good business job in the Big City (to which he’s never been before) and after lining up the requisite rat hole apartment with the horny next-door neighbors, goes into his first day of work – only to discover that he no longer has a job due to a corporate takeover.  So he hits the street, but unfortunately, runs into the conundrum of either having too much experience or not enough.  At one interview, he decides to emphasis his flexibility (“Whatever you want, I can be it.”), but runs into a dead end when he’s asked if he can be a minority woman.  Finally, in desperation, Michael goes to see his Uncle Howard (Richard Jordan) who is a CEO and who gives him a job – in the mailroom.

Michael surprisingly discovers that working in that department is not particularly good for making valuable connections, but there is a bright spot when he spies a woman (Helen Slater) sipping water slo-mo from a fountain, though she at first rebuffs his attempts to get to know her.  Because Michael is driven and Has Dreams, he decides to seize the chance to masquerade as a new executive – by simply taking over a fired employee’s office.  First, he has to find a name that’s even preppier than his own, Brantley Foster, and comes up with Carlton Whitfield.  Carlton is accepted by his peers without major problems, although Michael discovers that being two places at once isn’t always easy.  Also avoiding his uncle, who sometimes drops by unexpectedly, is awkward, but he keeps going.

Complications arise when Michael (in the mailroom worker guise) gets a chance to drive home his Aunt Vera (Margaret Whitton), who doesn’t recognize him and finding him sympathetic to her problems, treats him to a diatribe on how her marriage is falling apart.  Michael, not recognizing who she is at first either, indulges in some poolside flirting, once they reach the home, but then it dawns on him.  However, Margaret is more amused than horrified by the coincidence.

Eventually, Michael’s uncle realizes that his wife has a new flame, and suspecting that it’s this new guy, Carlton, invites Michael to a weekend company get together in order to keep Carlton away from his wife.  This culminates in a scene where everything is revealed and things look grim both for Michael and the other employees in general – but then Michael comes up with a plan that saves the day – and the jobs.  Because I was only old enough for a part time job when I saw the movie, I think part of me expected more happy endings/job security when I did get old enough to join the workforce.  But to be honest, I found the office environment more like “Office Space,” complete with co-workers who quoted that movie.  Still “The Secret of My Success” is fun to watch anyway.