Movie Review: Love and Mercy

Some movies do an amazing job matching the younger actor playing the same role as the older actor, to the point where it’s no stretch of the imagination to see them as the same person (see “The Imitation Game”), but “Love and Mercy,” a biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson isn’t one. Brian Past is played by Paul Dano during the band’s golden years, and Brian Future is played by John Cusack in the eighties, when he’s trying to make a solo comeback but hindered by his psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti). (There’s also a “Brian Present” character to make things more confusing, but he doesn’t come into the story much.) Each time the narrative switched, I found myself thinking that along to gaining and losing quite a bit of weight over the years, Brian might possibly also have gotten plastic surgery. But each actor does a credible job of interpreting the character, and if Cusack doesn’t look much like Young Brian, he does bring the tortured aspect out in full force. It’s easy to assume before hearing the backstory that this is someone who has suffered serious emotional torment.

“Love and Mercy” opens with a shot of Paul Dano alone in the midst of composing.  “What if I lose it and can’t get it back?  What do I do then?” he muses.  He does have his bandmates and brothers to buoy him up, but he still has to contend with his father (Bill Camp), who is bitter that he has been fired as the band’s manager and lurks on the edges of things attempting to detonate Brian’s self-esteem.  This has more severe consequences than it does with other sons because the singer is starting to hear voices and have panic attacks.  Young Brian is also struggling with the fact that although he wants to move on and create less pop-happy music, the rest of the band feels it’s necessary to say, have a few potential hit singles on their next record so they can, you know, sell records at the same volume as they have been.  But unlike so many “tortured geniuses” portrayed on screen, he’s a decent human being overall, despite the quirky outbursts, so although he has moments of selfishness, he isn’t someone you wind up loving to hate.

Twenty years and some pounds later, we see the Future Brian at a dealership buying a new car from Elizabeth Banks who has to be one of the most glamorous car salespeople ever played on screen, though the movie dealership is always curiously empty.  Hanging around is a guy described as a bodyguard, as well as a strange man who introduces himself as “Brian’s brother by another father,” and turns out to be his shrink (Paul Giamatti), who has anger management issues that may be more unhealthy than any “psychosis” of Brian’s.  (If the combined presence of Camp and Giamatti doesn’t terrify you, you are much braver than me.)  Paul and his entourage insist on following their charge around 24-7, which puts a crimp on his burgeoning intimacy with Elizabeth.  Eventually, (spoiler alert), they get rid of the shrink, and life gets much better.

As mentioned, there’s a big gap in Brian’s history, which included a breakdown period, but is alluded to by Cusack’s character, but the two time periods focused on are so interesting it doesn’t really matter.  The early one shows the bond between Brian and the other bandmates (which eventually becomes strained) and the re-creation of several of the band’s hits.  The later one depicts how hard it can be to break free of an abusive relationship (particularly when the person threatens legal action if you leave).  An afterword reports that the real Brian’s mental health did improve dramatically after firing the shrink and getting re-diagnosed (and winning Grammys couldn’t have hurt either), so there’s a real life happy ending.


Movie Review: Dope

As the opening of “Dope” informs us, it’s one of those words that can mean two opposite things: either excellent or stupid.  This is fitting because the viewer may well go back and forth on whether the main character of “Dope,” Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is doing the right thing.  There’s a narrator for this film, who informs us from the start that Shameik’s character is a geek, but the viewer will probably already pick this up because we first see him discussing bit coins with his mom at breakfast.  The viewer may also be temporarily confused about what time period the movie is set in because of the nineties hit that plays when Shameik wakes up and his wardrobe.  But no, it’s present day – it’s just that the protagonist and his two friends are really into the nineties music, clothing styles, etc.  Besides that, as we’re told, they’re into “white shit” like “getting good grades” and “going to college,” and the plot will center around Shameik’s attempts to get into Harvard.  This makes them a target for bullies, but turns out to have a silver lining when they do start to dabble in trouble.

All the antagonists in “Dope” are African American, including the guidance counselor who informs  Shameik that he’s being “arrogant,” the over zealous security guard at a party, and the school bullies, so the question of whether they are racists or just garden variety bad guys never arises.  Shameik winds up at said party because he’s unexpectedly invited by a neighborhood drug dealer who enlists him to talk to his estranged girlfriend.  At the party, things get heated, meaning there’s gunshot, and though Shameik and his two friends escape, he discovers a gun and a stash of drugs in his backpack the next day.  Fortunately, even though he sets off the school metal detectors and the security guard’s drug dog starts yelping and lunging for his things, his reputation as a geek protects him from anyone investigating further.  But as it turns out, their party host has now landed in jail, so it’s up to Shameik to get the stash to its proper destination.

If this isn’t enough, Shameik has a Harvard interview with a man who formerly lived in his neighborhood and who turns to have unexpected ties to several of the other pre-established characters.   It turns out that he will actually have to sell the drugs himself in order to impress the interviewer, so he enlists his two reluctant friends and a stoner/hacker guy they met at band camp to pull this off.  This entails using the science lab and the computer room, which apparently no one else ever goes in, and telling the principal they want to enter the Google Science Fair, which makes him surprised but impressed.  And ultimately, he does get in, gets the dream girl, and of course, learns a few valuable lessons in the process – the main one being that it’s okay to be yourself, geek or not, but also that you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things that may wind up defining you in ways you didn’t expect.

A Look Back: The Cutting Edge

I first saw “The Cutting Edge” (released in 1992) on a plane flight, and it struck me as being as absorbing as your average made-for-TV/sports movie/triumph of the human spirit flick – which of course, made it perfect to watch on a plane in the pre-Internet era. If you had told me then, however, that it would spawn two TV movie sequels, I would have laughed. But this really did happen.

In the movie, Moira Kelly plays an ice queen/championship figure skater who is smarting (literally and otherwise) from a mishap in the last Olympic games. She can do just about anything on the ice, but off the ice is an entirely different story – as she appears to have PMS 24-7 and can’t carry on an even remotely civil conversation with any guy foolish enough to try and be her partner. However, after all other possibilities have been passed on, her coach does come up with D.B. Sweeney, an ice hockey player who was also injured in his last competition and decides (despite the scorn of his father) that figure skating can’t be a too strenuous alternative. (Boy, is he naïve!) Soon the two are trading barbs, as they struggle to mesh into a competition-worthy pair.

To D.B.’s astonishment (and the viewer’s), Moira’s character already has a boyfriend who is, in movie tradition, a douche, and of course, part of the “suspense” in the movie comes from seeing how long it takes Moira to figure this out herself – and also realize that the perfect guy is right in front of her. Both characters have parental issues, but the real drama comes from their coach deciding to teach them an illegal skating move – because after you’ve humiliated yourself in a world-wide competition, it’s always smart to go with something that can get you disqualified.  (In “Blades of Glory,” Will Ferrell and Jon Heder perform a skating move that, if done wrongly, could wind up decapitating their partner, and we get to see a closeup of Will’s facial stubble getting shaved off.)   Of course, there are the token protests, and several misunderstandings that keep Moira and D.B. from truly realizing that they are perfect for each other, but those fade away in the end, as the two triumph – on the ice and off.  Of course, D.B.’s character does point out that it might not be that he and Moira are perfect for each other, they’re just not going to satisfy anyone else, which is a rare bit of wisdom in such a clichéd movie, so I’m going to give the screenwriters points for honesty.

A Look Back: School Ties

What if you wanted to make a coming-of-age movie featuring a cast of serious young actors set in a stuffy fifties boarding school but preferred to omit the inspirational teacher part?  If it was set in rural Australia, it would probably look like “Flirting” which came out in 1992, but if it was the US, it would likely resemble “School Ties,”(released the same year)  starring Brendan Fraser with a supporting cast which includes Chris O’Donnell, Matt Damon (who plays the treacherous roommate) and Ben Affleck. Though this movie does have its share of expected clichés, it avoids including the teacher who changes young lives forever. Other than that, it’s very well-acted, but has a familiar storyline.

Brendan Fraser plays David Greene, a working class teen, who is recruited by a prestigious prep school for his football talent, although he’s also no slouch in the classroom (he wants to go to Harvard). He’s also Jewish but not the kind you can “tell,” and so when he enters the school, he’s able to fit in and make friends quickly, including his roommate, Matt Damon, who likes him at the start but then after losing his would-be girlfriend and his place on the football team, accidentally discovers Brendan’s secret and then reveals it to all.

The adults in the movie are no help at all, being either clueless, have a knack of inserting their foot in their mouth, or harshly authoritarian (one character has a nervous breakdown as a result). so it’s left up to Brendan to stay true and follow his own moral compass when he winds up involved in a cheating scandal. Fortunately (spoiler alert), the culprit is apprehended and expelled, and that’s how things conclude, with Brendan becoming wiser, if more cynical. It’s not as satisfying an ending as “Dead Poets Society,” because there’s no indication that Brendan’s peers have had any kind of dent made in their anti-Semitism or are considering a career other than law or medicine. But that’s probably a more realistic one, even if doesn’t give you the same kind of satisfaction as watching a group of teens openly defy authority and stand up on their desks anyway.




A Look Back: Heathers

I once had a high school English teacher smugly inform my class that whenever a character in Great Lit appeared with the initials “J.C.” that meant he was a Christ figure. However, this code does not always hold true – in a Melville story “Billy Budd,” that we were assigned, the bad guy has those initials, thus confusing the heck out of my class when we read this. But character names do matter, sometimes more than we may realize at the time. Which is to say when I first saw the movie “Heathers,” I missed the significance of the names of Winona Ryder (Veronica Sawyer) and her original best friend (Betty Finn). However, the fictional high school is called “Westerburg,” after the singer, and the hero/antihero, played by Christian Slater, definitely does have the meaningful last name of “Dean,” as well as the initials “J.D.” which was obvious enough at my first viewing that I got it.

In “Heathers,” Winona Ryder adds yet another introspective, moody brunette teen to her resume (only in “Edward Scissorhands” can I remember her going blonde during this period), who decides to trade up and become part of the most popular chick clique which consists of three girls named Heather (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannen Doherty, who proves she can do more than appear in Lifetime movies-of-the-week). Christian Slater plays the aforementioned J.D., a loner at her school who initiates Winona into the joys of murdering the popular kids than concocting grim cover-up stories. The movie opens with Veronica playing croquet, and like “Alice in Wonderland,” this is just another surreal game that we’ll see unfold before our eyes. (Did anyone actually play this in the eighties? My family had an ancient set that belonged to the people who lived in our house before us, but it was too antiquated for any of us to attempt. Not when there was Atari.)

Winona soon discovers that being popular is not all it’s cracked up to be, but still feels that the Heathers have a hold on her, particularly after she embarrasses herself at a college party, giving them fresh ammunition. (Spoiler alert) She and Christian wind up killing the head Heather (Kim Walker) and making it look like a suicide, and they progress to killing two jocks and making it look as if they were secretly lovers.  This leads to a couple of black humored funeral scenes, including one in which one of the jock’s fathers gets up and sobs, “I love my dead gay son!” It also kicks off the movie parents worrying that suicide is going to become a hot new trend and making absurd interventions.

After more murder and mayhem, “Heathers,” ends in Christian’s character trying to blow up the school, though in an original ending Winona does this.  Like “Mean Girls,” which came a decade later, “Heathers” ends with the protagonist learning a valuable lesson about how shaky the borders between the cool and the uncool are, but unlike that movie, the deaths aren’t fantasy.  And no one gets in trouble, if you can imagine.  No one makes a speech at the prom either about values – the closest we get to that is when Winona puts on the scrunchie of her dead friend and announces that there’s a new sheriff in town, which is, in my opinion, even better.

It occurred to me last week while watching a death scene in “Spy” which is played for laughs that it might just have been a tribute to the Queen Bee’s death in “Heathers.”  Maybe not, but this film set a new bar for black teen comedies that subsequent similar movie either fell short of (“Jawbreaker”) or equaled (“Mean Girls”).  Which is appropriate, as the (nonfiction) book “Mean Girls,” quotes “Heathers,” the one about how Winona’s “best friend” is also her “worst enemy.”  For girls at that age, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Movie Review: Spy

I had to admit that in the opening scenes of “Spy,” I felt a strong sense of deja vu. Like Reese Witherspoon in “Hot Pursuit,” Melissa McCarthy plays an under-employed, unappreciated law enforcement agent (their characters even share a surname), who, not without difficulty, manages to make the transition to actually going out in the field and taking down the bad guys firsthand. Although she is trained as a CIA agent, Melissa only gets a chance to go undercover when her partner (Jude Law) is killed, and she must track down a “terrorist” who has a bomb and is not afraid to use it.  Although she starts the movie with a hopeless crush on Jude, eventually, she earns the respect of her boss by completing her mission and comes to value sisterhood more, although there are hints that she may have a more active love life in the future.

Melissa’s first task is to keep the daughter of a mob boss (Rose Byrne) from being roofied, only Rose repays her by trying to drug and kill her, kicking off the shifting alliances until the end. Melissa must also perform her job undercover, which requires her to wear many hideous wigs and assume identities of the pathetic single woman stereotype (telemarketer, cat lady, etc.). She also gets to ride a moped, fend off an angry Rose wielding a knife, armed with only a frying pan, navigate a private jet on the spur of the moment, and dangle off a helicopter suspended midair in order to diffuse a bomb, and looks adorable doing it (despite the wigs), so I would say that she more than earns her paycheck.

Another major role is played by Jason Statham, an agent who tags along after Melissa, disgruntled at having to share the field with a “secretary,” and he is hilarious, as he’s constantly mentioning all the danger and dire escapes he’s had previously. (His exploits include having supposedly successfully impersonated Barack Obama when testifying before Congress, all of which Melissa is smart enough to take with a whole shaker of salt.) Miranda Hart is also amusing as Melissa’s colleague and friend, who eventually gets to go out into the field herself and even use a gun.  There’s also a cameo by 50 Cent.  The movie relies a little too heavily on having a previously unseen third party arrive in the nick of time to save the good guy, but is still very funny.

“Spy” features lots of profanity heavy dialogue and a shot of a penis (really), as Melissa starts the movie all prim and objecting to others’ language and then starts cursing like a sailor about a quarter of the way through.  I must be getting old because I found myself wondering if “Spy” needed quite so many swears, but overall, there’s no more here than there are in “The Heat.”Still I wouldn’t mind going to see a sequel.

A Look Back: Pump Up the Volume

If you were a teenage girl in an eighties/nineties movie, there turned out to be quite a few occasions in which it was permissible for your character to remove her top, besides the obvious (skinny dipping, changing clothes and as a prelude to sexual activity).  You could also whip it off if your companion on a cross-country journey home for break called you “repressed,” as in “The Sure Thing.”  Or you could do so to prove that you were actually female as happens at the climax (sorry) of “Just One of the Guys.”

Yet another cinematic opportunity for a teen girl to disrobe would be if the father of her quasi-boyfriend was pounding on the basement door demanding to be let in because he’s half-convinced that his troubled loner son is operating a pirate radio show and corrupting the entire student body.  This will turn out to be a perfect way to reassure him that nothing bad is going on, and there’s no longer any need to send him to a shrink.  This may sound farfetched but is actually what happens in “Pump Up the Volume,” in which Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater play the girlfriend and pirate radio host respectively.

Even without that scene, however, it’s clear from the beginning that this is another movie where the parents are going to be portrayed as clueless as best, and cruelly authoritarian at worst.  This is one of those movies which features a Free Spirit who appears out of nowhere to shake things up, cause formerly docile people to think for themselves, and who must ultimately be punished, although in this movie, what becomes of Christian’s character is left up to the imagination.  To make these plots work, it’s necessary to have at least one villain who has no empathy to the point where in real life, you might wonder if he’s sociopathic.  “Pump Up the Volume,” has a school principal that fits this bill nicely, as well as other adults who become upset when they realize how their children are being influenced by this radio host.  (OK, this was kind of plausible in the pre-social network era.)

When I was growing up, all sorts of things – Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, MTV were at first thought to be dangerous influences on the young ‘uns but later turned out not to be or at least not as bad as first supposed.  However, in “Pump Up the Volume,” the concerned parents may have a point, as (spoiler alert) one boy winds up taking his own life after being given terrible advice by Christian over the air, since Christian is not a shrink but a troubled teen himself.  Christian becomes a scapegoat, although he is really only doing the show because he can’t reach any of his old friends after moving. We later learn that the parents are the ones who purchased the whole radio set up in the first place, although the fact that their son might be the mysterious radio host never occurs to them, at least not seriously.  Since Christian’s disconnection with his parents mirrors the ones his classmates have with theirs, he winds up striking a chord when he takes to the air to complain about his problems.  And though he’s ultimately quieted, the seeds of rebellion have been planted, and though no one winds up standing on their desks, they do begin stations of their own.  At least until they discover how to access the Internet.