Movie Review: Dazed and Confused

Compressing your story into the time frame of a single day (or night) can be a challenge, but it can be done, and those who have tackled the challenge successfully include Virginia Woolf (“Mrs. Dalloway”) and Richard Linklater with the movie “Dazed and Confused.” Set in 1976 on the last day of school, it follows about a dozen teens, as they celebrate their freedom by drinking, smoking, toking, hooking up, and hazing the incoming freshmen. It features actors who would go on to become major stars (Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey), as well as ones that were indie darlings at the time (Parker Posey) and others whose careers would not turn out to be so illustrious.  Perhaps as a sign that the director takes these characters seriously, they almost all have first and last names, regardless of how much dialogue they’re given.  And at least a few are based on real people who were upset enough to see their big screen depictions that they tried suing Linklater.  Frankly, if it were me, I’d be kind of flattered.

In “Dazed and Confused,” there is generally harmony between the various groups, at least when it comes to sharing weed and partying, though there are a few flare ups here and there.  Marijuana and beer are the bridge between exalted seniors and lowly freshmen; jocks and stoners; bullies and victims, etc.  Partly because of the freely passed around stimulants, and partly because adolescence is a time where you take self-discovery seriously, there is a lot of philosophizing in this movie, some of it wise, some of it, well, half-baked.  There are also moral dilemmas for the characters to grapple with, such as football player Jason London (a movie jock who actually isn’t a one dimensional jerk) who must decide if he will sign an contract from his coach swearing to stay clean.  Jason’s character “Pink” Floyd gets the best line of the movie, in my opinion.  “If I start referring to these as the best years of my life,” he deadpans, “remind me to kill myself.”

Many teen movies climax with a Big Game, Big Party or Big Showdown.  “Dazed and Confused,” has all three, but they’re presented as just part of the 24-hour period.  Rather than have everyone congregate at a house party, there’s a twist where the would-be host’s parents get wind of the situation and decide to stay home.  Thus the poor kids are forced to head off into the night in search of entertainment, but they succeed admirably.  As for the game, there’s a part where freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) pitches, but his concentration is impaired by a group of seniors who taunt him with the possibility of getting paddled (apparently a tradition for the boys).  The girls also undergo a ritual humiliation, but since both freshmen characters wind up getting their own back, I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies bullying.  Actually, it probes the mixture of admiration and fear the victims have for their tormentors, such as when Jason’s character tells Wiley’s that his seniors wound up paddling the crap out of him and then took him out for a drink.  Even Parker’s character who gleefully squirts condiments all over the freshmen girls seems to have some self-awareness when she notes she’s”supposed to be being a bitch.”  Moreover, revenge ultimately happens, even if it’s a dish best tasted cold.

I was pretty young during the time period in which the movie is set, and thankfully, never had hazing like this when I did reach high school age, though I believe the athletes had something similar to the contract Jason and his buddies had to choose whether or not to sign.   In “Dazed and Confused,” there are no major moments of redemption, just small ones where the character triumphs or has a revelation.  This may make it different from many teen movies of that era, but perhaps it more accurately reflects reality for that age group.

 

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Movie Review: Southpaw

“Southpaw” is, of course, the term for a left-handed athlete or just plain left-hander, which is one of the more positive terms, as “left-handed” translated from other languages often means something like clumsy, ill-mannered or possessed by the devil. However, as many have noticed pre-release, the star of the new movie, Jake Gyllenhaal, is right-handed, so where does the title meaning come in? The truth is that it comes from a training tip from Jake’s movie coach, Forest Whitaker, who is helping him get his groove back and earn redemption in the Big Match, but it’s slipped in during a montage when he advises Jake to fight well, in the southpaw stance. We never get a full conversation, unaccompanied by music encouraging the star to put one foot in front of the other, about the pros and cons of this training technique, but it does – spoiler – come in handy in the end. Now this is also a metaphor for life, but still, it’s an awfully casual way to explain what is supposed to be the movie title. Maybe they just had a struggle coming up with a name in the first place and wound up picking one at random that didn’t sound too terrible.

If you’ve seen the trailer for “Southpaw,” you’ve seen all the main spoilers, so nothing in this review will come as a great surprise.  Jake plays (heavy symbolism alert) boxer Billy Hope, who grew up in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage and married his childhood sweetheart (Rachel McAdams).  Now he’s mega-successful, has a lot of friends and admirers, and a mansion, multiple cars, etc.  He also has a precocious young daughter, Oona Laurence, who is a good actress but still left me wondering how Jake and Rachel could produce such an average looking child.  Anyway, when the movie opens, Jake isn’t doing quite as well in his matches as his wife thinks.  She believes he should back off and take a break, but there’s this rival, the arrogant, trash talking Miguel (played also by an actor named Miguel Gomez) who keeps popping up and taunting Jake about being too cowardly to fight him.  So the stage is set for a tragedy, which leaves Jake without his assets, many of his friends, the respect of the boxing community, his wife, and finally, his daughter, who is taken into custody by child protective services, so he can get his act together.

As mentioned, Jake takes refuge at a down-at-the-heels gym, owned and run by Forest Whitaker, who sees himself (in sports movie tradition) as a mentor to disadvantaged minority youths, as well as a coach.  To help Jake satisfy the requirements needed to release Oona, he gives him a menial job and begins to train him.  There’s no professional pressure at first, as Jake has been suspended, but soon fate comes knocking, and regulations be damned, a charity match is arranged between Jake and another guy, and then (due to much improved behavior) Jake is now free to face his big rival in the ring.  After Jake proves his humility by being nice to the youths at the gym and painting both sides of the fence so to speak, he is ready to train, montage-style, – and perhaps win.

As plenty of reviewers have already noted, this is a very formulaic sports movie with no surprising plot twists to speak of.   There is a lot of cussing (at least five f-bombs in that many minutes in the opening scene) and amazingly enough, a lot of violence.  At one point, Jake’s now former manager advises his flunkies to follow Jake out and make sure he doesn’t destroy anything on the way; this is about all the humor you’re going to find in the movie.  As he did in “Nightcrawler,” Jake also gets to express emotional anguish by smashing a mirror, which seems to be a popular way for actors to demonstrate that they are in pain, when their character is too inarticulate to convey this through words.  I felt the director overdid the panning to the daughter during Jake’s Big Match in order to generate heart-warmingness, but if you like boxing, this is a perfectly good movie to spend a couple hours watching.

 

A Look Back: The Chocolate War

Upon viewing the opening scenes of “The Chocolate War,” the viewer might reasonably wonder why the shooting crew appears to be playing Hot Potato with the camera. But thanks in part to two Yaz songs in a row, it becomes clear that the shaky cam is supposed to be symbolic of the protagonist’s, a Catholic school teen named Jerry (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) tumultuous worldview. His mother has recently died, and after his first football practice (which does not go well), he goes home and tries to get his father to talk about something deeper than the casserole in the oven but fails. Also, unbeknownst to him, two members of the school’s secret society, the Vigils, played by Wally Ward (the leader) and Doug Hutchinson (the toadying second-in-command) have been observing him and decided that what he really needs is some “therapy.” (And football has no part in it. If you’re in the mood to see a plucky, puny kid triumph in that sport, watch “Rudy.”)

Meanwhile Brother Leon (John Glover) has been put in charge of the annual chocolate bar sale and is attempting to whip up the annual school spirit so that all the candy will get sold, and all the staff will be happy. We see early on that John is very into mind games – witnessed by a scene in his classroom where he falsely accuses one kid of cheating. (I didn’t attend Catholic school, but I remember a few teachers of mine trying the same kind of thing – who knows why – maybe they just got into teaching because they had a sadistic streak, and kids are easy targets.) Anyway, Wally’s idea of therapy is to force Ilan to refuse to sell chocolates, which he must do publicly and thus suffer some ostracism. Surprisingly (spoiler!) Ilan’s rebellion winds up influencing a few other students, and this does not sit well with John. He tries to get Wally to rally the students and make selling chocolates “cool,” but that darn Ilan keeps on refusing, even after his assigned period is up, and he’s now supposed to go back to being a sheep. Wally keeps trying to get Ilan to obey, but now that he’s gotten a taste of rebellion, he’s not about to let it go.

Watching the movie, you might well wonder if Wally will wind up teaching impressionable students when he’s an adult, or if he has bigger ambitions like maybe running for office one day. In eighties’ film tradition, the actor is blond, poker faced and looks way too old to be in high school. His character’s motto is: Life is shit. We never see his family, but we do get to see him stick a pin into a dead butterfly, so it’s clear that he’s the real villain in the story, and John is the Diet Coke of evil in comparison. When assigning tasks to his assigned victims, Wally always chooses a marble from a box filled with white with only one black, and if he picks the black, he must do the task instead – but so far, even though his fellow Vigils are getting fed up with his leadership, he never picks the black one. You can probably tell where this is going.

The movie, which is based on the eponymous book by young adult author Robert Cormier, had its ending changed from the novel’s. In the movie, Ilan, who gets endlessly (and somewhat creatively) hassled by the various Vigils is given an opportunity to box one of them (a kid who, among other things, keeps insinuating that he’s gay). So the event is sanctioned and held on school property, and the entire student body gets to put suggestions for boxing moves, and they also get to pick who does which move. The twist involves someone rigging the marble box, and the real bad guy getting the crap beaten out of him.  And the status quo is upended, but then it is depressingly restored.  Still the ending is definitely more upbeat than the book.  Life may be shit, but in Hollywood, the underdog deserves at least a fleeting moment of triumph.

Movie Review: Trainwreck

If “Trainwreck” could be slotted into that neat little formula X meets Y, you might say it’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary” meets “The Devil Wears Prada,” though both of those were much better movies.  Like “Diary,” it’s the escapades of a single woman who doesn’t quite know who she is or what she wants, and it has a work setup straight out of “Devil.”  Alas, it’s much more restrained both when it comes to the heroine humiliating herself and then triumphing.

For example. “Diary” has a great f-you scene when Renee Zellweger quits her job as a book publishing assistant by informing her boyfriend/ boss, Hugh Grant, who’s been cheating on her, that she’d rather take a job wiping Saddam Hussein’s ass, and everyone gives her the “you go, girl” sign, including an older woman colleague who Renee has always believed looked down on her.  “Trainwreck” has a scene where Amy Schumer is canned from her job as a writer at a men’s magazine, but it’s not cathartic, just depressing, and there’s no sisterhood to be found at her job, with her uppity British boss (Tilda Swinton) giving her backhanded compliments or colleague who winds up taking her job and is insufficiently non-gloaty about it.  The ending is amusingly over-the-top, but the rest of the movie could have benefited from some more of that. (A lot of dialogue is sexually crude but in my opinion, overall just not that funny.)

Starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader as her Prince Charming-to-be, an adorkable sports medicine doctor who gets to hang around with luminaries like LeBron James, “Trainwreck,” begins with Young Amy’s dad informing her and her sister that “Monogamy isn’t realistic.”  He then illustrates the point further by asking Amy’s sister if she would be happy playing with just one doll for the rest of her life and elaborates from there.  The end result: while the adult sister (Brie Larson) is in a committed relationship, has a sweet stepson and is pregnant, Amy is well, kind of a hot mess.  Her “boyfriend” i.e. guy she lets take her to the movies discovers that she isn’t monogamous and dumps her, even though she assures him that it’s okay if he sees other women (“It’s every guy’s dream!”).  Unfortunately, Amy’s boyfriend really wants to settle down, form a cross-training company (don’t ask) and have kids.  “We can have three boys and then two…more boys,” he offers, but there’s that darn monogamy thing again, and Amy winds up fleeing.

Things change when her boss makes her take an assignment profiling Bill Hader’s character, pitched by another colleague who isn’t too pleased to have his assignment yanked out from under him.  Even though Amy hates sports and sports fans, she realizes that she’s finally met a guy who wants to see her again, and who she might want to see again, too.  Basically, like Colin Firth in “Diary,” Bill is a bona fide grownup with a mature attitude toward his parents, job and personal life.  As in, if he gets angry, he expects that things will eventually blow over and work out.  This is a novelty to Amy, and anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy before won’t be surprised to learn that the route to their ultimate happiness is paved with wacky high jinks and multiple misunderstandings.  Amy has to learn to deal with the inevitable down spots in a relationship without running away, and Bill has to learn to be a bit more assertive about his doubts and fears, too.

“Trainwreck” is funny, and I enjoyed all the cameos, as well as Bill’s rapport with his clients, including LeBron, with whom he plays a seriously one-sided game of one-on-one basketball.  It just doesn’t have any big surprises, but is as good a way to seek some air-conditioned refuge during the summer as any.

A Look Back: Annie

“Not Another Teen Movie” has a scene where the prom goers perform a impromptu synchronized number, and a bystander remarks on how amazing it is that so many people who attend his school appear to be professional dancers. As a young kid, I had a similar reaction while watching (the original) “Annie” in the theater. Apparently, there was a strong correlation between being an orphan and possessing musical/gymnastic talent. Orphans, I would also learn, particularly girl orphans, tended to have creative gifts in abundance, in general, whether it was through music or words. Now there have been studies of eminent people showing that a high number lost a parent early on in life, but I’ve never seen a real life connection between creative gifts and orphanhood. But it was easy to get the wrong idea as a kid. I remember thinking that all the orphans would have to do to escape forced servitude was to run away and join a vaudeville act. Even in the Depression, they’d be likely to be a hit.

The plot is simple: preteen orphan Annie lives in an orphanage in New York during the Depression era and believes that her parents will one day show up and claim her – as they’ve left her with half a locket around her neck.  Her nemesis is the evil Miss Hannigan, who forces the orphans to clean the entire place in the middle of the night and is desperate to have sex with the delivery man (and about every man we see after that except her brother, Rooster/Tim Curry).  One day, a stylish woman shows up saying that she’s millionaire Oliver Warbucks’ secretary, and she’s going to choose an orphan to spend a week with him (for publicity reasons).  She winds up taking Annie, who proceeds to win the hearts of all the staff and Warbucks himself.  However, Annie insists that she wants her biological parents, so Warbucks conducts a search.  The parents who do show up turn out to be imposters, so Annie winds up being adopted by her benefactor after all.  “Annie” raises some serious topics like poverty, unemployment, even con artists who directly threaten the life of the main character – but because it’s a musical, nothing can’t be solved without a song and dance number.

“Annie” bothered me a bit, though I loved the film at the time it was released, because I didn’t have what I assumed was the expected reaction to two of the main characters. For one, I just felt sorry for the orphanage head, Miss Hannigan (played with mustache twirling gusto by Carol Burnett) instead of being scared of or disliking her. First of all, she was extremely outnumbered; second, it was clear she had no other options jobwise; and third, she just really seemed to be desperate for a sexual relationship with any halfway receptive man. And she does redeem herself in the next to last act, when she attempts to rescue Annie from her evil brother and his girlfriend who plan to kill the kid.

I also couldn’t help but notice that even though I liked Annie (Aileen Quinn) and her endless spunk and courage, she seemed very manipulative. Now when it comes to standing by her dog and refusing to visit Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) mansion unless he came with her, that was cool. But not so much when she decides to matchmake Albert and his secretary, Grace (Ann Reinking).  In one scene, she persuades them both to take her to a movie at Radio City Music Hall and promptly falls asleep after the opening.  As a kid, this puzzled me.  Was she genuinely tired or was she doing it so that Albert and Ann would feel free to cuddle?  Anyone, anyone?  One might reasonably argue that children, however precocious, aren’t really equipped to be matchmakers for adults.  But in the movies, their instincts are always mistake-proof.

The main thing that bugged me was how opposite the message about orphanhood was.  “Annie” made being an orphan look like a blast.  Sure, the head was mean, but you had plenty of company, and there was always someone there to buck up your spirits when you felt down.  And how taxing could those chores really be, if they had the energy to dance, sing and do flips worthy of Nadia Comaneci?  Plus if it got really bad, you could always get the laundry pickup man to smuggle you out to go roam the streets of the city.  Also, if you waited long enough, a millionaire would show up and decide to adopt you, at least if you were musical (as happened in the later TV show “Rags to Riches”). I rest my case.

Not being at all familiar with the comic strip it’s based on, the movie took a rather Twilight Zone turn for me when Miss Hannigan’s brother and his girlfriend announce that they plan to kill Annie.  Is it just me or deciding to dangle a tear-stained Aileen Quinn over the side of a building, and have Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) tell her “A child without courage is like a night without stars,” a little sadistic to all the preteens watching?  Couldn’t they just have forced Annie to do more cleaning until she escaped back to Daddy Warbucks?  It’s a great movie to see when you’re a little kid, but it’s rather bipolar.  Still, the soundtrack was terrific at the time.

Movie Review: Self/less

“Self/less” like many movie titles has a double meaning. There’s “selfless” meaning unselfish, and then there’s self-less, meaning without a self. This is apt, although it’s not explored in much depth, because there’s perpetual tension between characters who are intentionally doing Bad Things versus characters who unintentionally wind up using immoral means to achieve their ends.

“Self/less” opens with a close-up of mega-wealthy, self-made businessman, Damian, (Ben Kingsley), gazing out over his grand estate. Soon we learn that he’s terminally ill, has one close friend/colleague (Victor Garber), and is estranged from his grown daughter who runs a non-profit and gives him the brush off when he visits her (she doesn’t know he’s dying). Somehow Ben acquires a card with the name of a mysterious company that promises him a chance to wake up (after a staged death) in a new body (Ryan Reynolds) that’s much younger. Initiating Ben into this procedure is Albright (Matthew Goode), who appears to wear the same suit and the same grim expression for the entire movie (as if he’s considering telling his agent that he really needs more projects like “The Imitation Game”). He’s playing a psychopath, though, so this works, and one who genuinely believes in the ultimate value of what he’s doing. Spoiler alert – The bodies he’s using for the transplant procedure are not grown in test tubes (as Ben and Victor assume) but are people who have been killed for that specific purpose, and, oh yes, there’s a few catches.

When Ben wakes up as Ryan, he discovers that “death has some side effects.” He needs to relearn basic body movements all over again, and it’s necessary for him to take a daily pill – at first, allegedly to ward off suicidal thoughts (another side effect), but ultimately, to keep Ben’s mind in Ryan’s body intact. Otherwise – more spoilers – Ryan will slowly lose his consciousness and re-become the man whose body he’s taken, Mark, who’s left behind a wife (Natalie Martinez) and an adorable daughter. From the start, Ryan experiences hallucinations of a life he’s never experienced firsthand but which seems eerily familiar.

At first, Ryan is content enough having unlimited hook ups, playing basketball in his New Orleans neighborhood and eating a ton of Skippy peanut butter, but soon he decides to track down Natalie. This brings him in conflict with Matthew and his minions, and kicks off a lot of scenes in which Ryan uses “Mark’s” military training (somehow not affected by the medication at all) to stay alive.  In addition, to retaining military prowess, Ryan also appears to have a bionic body as he manages such feats as getting slammed into a fridge without a concussion, and shatters a window with his elbow without needing a trip to the ER. In fact, he even manages to survive a high speed car chase shootout ending with the car rolling over with just a small red gash on his nose, matching the one over his eye – no stitches or real medical assistance required.

Ryan brings Natalie and his daughter to Victor’s for temporary shelter, and there – more spoilers – he discovers that Victor’s son, who supposedly died two years ago is alive and well.  I never quite caught how exactly Victor and his wife manage to explain the child to their social circle – unless it was mentioned somewhere that they keep the child locked in a playroom, which I missed. I also wondered how new the process of using kids this way was, and how exactly, they managed to obtain/kill the child whose body they took. (In “Extreme Measures,” Hugh Grant played a young doctor who discovers that his superior is trying to save lives by experimenting on homeless people, raising some of the same issues about the intrinsic value of human life.) But these questions are side-stepped here (though Victor does a good job of conveying anguish when he discovers the truth), in order to focus on Ryan.

After a couple of hours of grappling with moral/ethical dilemmas, and avoiding attempts on his life, Ryan manages to get both Natalie and daughter to safety.  He also ultimately decides to make amends to “Mark,” and stop taking the pills, though part of him has come to care for them both and doesn’t want to just walk away (he feels much residual guilt about not being there for his own daughter).  “Self-less” does raise some unsettling questions about life and death, but seems mostly content to be just another summer action movie.

A Look Back: Roxanne

I’m no social psychologist, but I’ve noticed that the laughter in the movie theater tends to follow one of the four patterns.

1) No one laughs because the movie’s about an ultra-serious subject.

2) One or two people laugh intermittently throughout the whole thing.

3) Several “pockets” of people laugh consistently, perhaps not caring so much what the rest of the audience thinks as long as their companions also find the movie funny.

4) In at least one scene, the entire audience cracks up and enjoys a communal moment of mirth.

Most of the time, 4) does not happen, at least at the films I see. Humor is a subjective thing. But one time it memorably did was when I saw the movie “Roxanne,” a modern day “Cyrano De Bergerac” starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah. The particular scene was the one when Steve’s character is insulted by the original insult “Big Nose,” as he passes a drunk. Instead of doing what he usually does: resorting to skillful physical violence, he decides to confront the guy directly and offer at least 20 insults far more cleverer.

If you keep track, it’s clear that he goes over the stated number (though this isn’t addressed in the film). Just quoting the monologue removes a few layers of humor, it’s something that’s best watched firsthand. I don’t know how well it would hold up if I saw it now, but I remember how virtually everyone in my audience watching the movie in the theater was in stitches during this particular scene (though most people in my memory found the rest of the film amusing, too).

The movie begins by establishing that Steve’s character (his name changed to the more prosaic C.D. Beals) is a firefighter in a small town, who, unlike the rest of his crew, possesses a) irony and b) intelligence, the former of which he tells love interest Daryl Hannah that he stopped practicing years ago because he got tired of being stared at.  As for intelligence, it’s demonstrated in several scenes, including one in which his fellow firemen struggle with a ladder to rescue a treed cat, while Steve simply opens a can of food and flushes the cat out right away.

We also learn (along with newbie firefighter, Rick Rossovich) that Steve is quite sensitive about his nose, and it’s best not stare or make any open remarks on the subject. Unfortunately, Rick, who is handsome but not too bright, can’t keep from blurting out something tactless, but he unexpectedly gets a pass because Steve is in the first flush of love with Daryl, a gorgeous astronomer. Rick is also attracted to Daryl, and eventually, Steve agrees to coach him in the art of witty wooing banter when he goes over to Daryl’s home.

This does not go smoothly – at one point, Steve tells Rick to say that he is scared of words, which Rick mishears as “worms,” and pretty soon Daryl is both confused and disgusted, however, she does wind up hooking up with Rick (who tells Steve the next day that he just shut his mouth and didn’t say a word during the seduction).   Wacky high jinks continue until Steve winds up composing a series of romantic letters and then admitting the truth.  And Daryl realizes that it is possible to love a guy for more than his outward appearance, so there’s a welcome happy ending.