A Look Back: Clueless

In the movie, “Anywhere But Here,” there’s a scene (one out of long line of many) in which Susan Sarandon’s flaky divorced mom character mortifies the heck out of Natalie Portman, who’s playing her daughter and has her friends over to study, by urging Natalie to go on an acting audition. “You could do a scene from Clueless!” she says, which is ironic because it happens to be her who is the most clueless character in the movie. “Clueless” is also an update of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, although you don’t have to read the book to enjoy the movie. (However, if you were to be tested on the book, just watching the movie would not be enough.)

In “Clueless” Alicia Silverstone plays a well-to-do Californian teenager who lives with her widowed dad (Dan Hedaya) in a McMansion. Her uber-dorky stepbrother (Paul Rudd) is currently in college but makes regular visits home so the two can bicker adorably. Paul believes Alicia is an airhead (to put it politely), and Alicia believes that Paul is a loser because he is politically aware and not fashion-crazy, or even fashion-conscious. Alicia, however, is a trendsetter in that department at her Beverly Hills high school, and she and her friend, Dionne, (Stacey Dash) wear outfits that have to be seen to be believed. The movie is progressive in that it sends the message that it’s the coordination of your accessories that matter to today’s teens, not the color of each other’s skin, although the first priority mattering as much as it does in this movie is a little scary. But then this is Hollywood and Beverly Hills (around the same time the TV show “Beverly Hills: 90210” was also popular; and one of the characters notes that Alicia is “saving herself for Luke Perry).

Alicia’s dad is a high-powered lawyer who clearly loves his daughter, even if he does look at her report card and quip, “Honey, I couldn’t be happier than if they were based on real grades.” The academic side of things does give Alicia a bit of trouble, but she knows the key to good grades is happy teachers, and so she gives one of hers (Twink Caplan) a makeover so she can date another (Wallace Shawn), and her marks shoot up. Alicia is good at formulating pearls of wisdom about everyday life such as, “Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as looking for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie,” but not so good at retaining say, the cultural background of her housekeeper. However, she has a truly charitable streak and is one of the only popular cinematic teen girls who is as nice as she is cute and rich.

Early on in “Clueless,” two new students appear at Alicia’s to help jumpstart the plot: one a tomboyish pothead (Brittany Murphy), who Alicia and Stacey befriend and then give a makeover to, so she can fit in and snare her dream boy (although in movie tradition, he turns out to be someone else than who she originally wanted). The other is Christian (Justin Walker) who likes Alicia, but perhaps not in quite the same way, although it takes her a staggeringly long time to figure this out.

A third plot thread is the acquisition of Alicia’s driver’s license, which at first appears hopeless as she is a terrible driver, but may not matter so much because, as she points out, every place where she lives has valet parking. Stacey is a marginally better driver, but there’s a scene where she accidentally gets on the freeway and then in a rush of relief at escaping, makes out with her boyfriend. Alicia, herself, is a virgin, but even though Christian turns out not to be quite the Adonis she longs for, there is someone else, literally closer to home.

“Clueless” is also responsible for introducing lingo like “Monet,” (someone who looks good from a distance but a mess up close) into the more widespread vernacular. (I even found the term defined in a Tom Wolfe novel on college, which surprised me). The movie’s message may at first appear to be that makeovers are the key to happiness, but it’s actually more complex than that – it’s not only having a closet full of color-coordinated outfits that satisfies Alicia in the end. Wardrobe updates, new hairstyles and snazzy shoes all have a role in making someone feel good about themselves, but so do things that Alicia initially winds up sneering at (like political activism). There is only one true “mean girl” is this movie, and she isn’t one of the trio, who have their differences, but in the end, stay friends – and get to celebrate the end result of one of their match-making schemes.

2015 Fall Movie Lessons

May contain spoilers.

1. If no one saw it, it didn’t happen – even murder. (Black Mass)

2. If a member of the mob asks about your secret family recipe, he’s not making polite conversation. He’s testing your loyalty. (Black Mass)

3. When negotiating POW swap situations in Germany, always pack an extra coat, in case yours gets nicked. (Bridge of Spies)

4. In the same situation, it’s also wise to order one breakfast item at a time, in case you are interrupted and have to leave. (Bridge of Spies)

5. Burger King and French peasant food have much in common: they’re both monotonous for one thing. (Burnt)

6. If the maître d’ of your restaurant has a crush on you, you can get away with destroying whole sections of your kitchen on a regular basis. (Burnt)

7. Once you capture an elderly dictator in failing health, it’s all right to let him wander around the property; he can’t possibly escape. (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2)

8. When living in a dystopian world, it’s better to end up with a lover, not a fighter. (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2)

9. Breaking into your boss’s mom’s home and stealing her computer is a perfectly acceptable way to keep your boss from embarrassing herself with rogue emails. (The Intern)

10. Discussing where you would like to be buried is also acceptable when making conversation with an intern who’s a good thirty years older. Particularly when wearing nothing but a bathrobe. (The Intern)

11. Even the most thorough investigations to find a distraction may only yield a handful of dead flies in the end. (Pawn Sacrifice)

12. Even chess-playing priests who are your biggest fan have a limit to their goodwill as travel companions. (Pawn Sacrifice)

13. The period right before your ex has a product launch is not a good time to demand he ante up child support. (Steve Jobs)

14. Oddly enough, some people consider issuing contradictory orders grounds for dismissing your from your own company. (Steve Jobs)

15. One of the few good things about a natural disaster is that it may help your wife and mistress reconcile, or at least stop squabbling. (The 33)

16. Thinking outside the box may end up saving a great deal of lives. Paying attention to what your employees tell you avoids having to do that in the first place. (The 33)

17. Always insist on seeing a photo of your estranged grandparents before you stay with them for an extended period. (The Visit)

18. Never let the fact that your “grandparents” are trying to kill you stop you from filming your documentary. (The Visit)

19. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a good way to avoid detection by unwanted authorities. (A Walk in the Woods)

20. Even overly flirtatious, plus-size women may wind up having rabidly protective husbands. (A Walk in the Woods)

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” opens with a close up of Jennifer Lawrence’s badly bruised throat which, as fans know, is due to her fellow Games competitor/love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) attempting to kill her because he’s been brainwashed/tortured by President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) minions after being captured in Part I. At first, she can barely croak out her name, but in the next scene, she’s able to argue with the Resistance’s leader (Julianne Moore) about Capitol defeating tactics and how the revolution of the ragtag army gathered in the District 13 bunker where she is should be spun (since it’s televised). This is typical of the movie’s approach to injuries: they look severe but don’t appear to leave much lasting damage. Jennifer herself gets burned, beaten, shot at, attacked by slime goblins, and pursued by waves of primordial slime, but in general, her hair stays clean and her complexion remains flawless. Still that doesn’t matter much because her character, Katniss Everdeen, is truly a kick-ass heroine.

All the gang who survived the first three movies are back, including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the younger crew of Willow Shields, Jena Malone, Liam Hemsworth (as rival love interest, Gale) and Sam Claflin, among others. Stanley Tucci also appears briefly as a former Hunger Games TV host, who has been appropriated by Donald’s allies and now regards Jennifer as a traitor. By now, Jennifer is having moral qualms about the nature of waging war, although as she points out, the pre-war world, in which teens competed to the death for the amusement of spectators, wasn’t ruled by sanity either.  Although Julianne wants her to stay out of harm’s way and be a safely intact symbol (the Mockingjay of the title), Jennifer eventually decides to get back into the thick of battle – and ultimately kill Donald who she sees as the cause of it all.  With his grandfatherly mien and fondness for white roses (which symbolize a heart without love), Donald is still hunkered down in his Capitol mansion, still making cryptic remarks, playing down his fading health, and eagerly watching to see what move Jennifer makes next.  Again as fans already know, Julianne’s character has mixed motives, which are going to cause personal heartbreak for Jennifer, even as she moves toward achieving their goal of a democratic Panem.

The script follows the book’s plot closely and is popular enough that it doesn’t need too many more explanatory details. In the end, Jennifer is at peace, as is Panem, although as a character points out, they’re in that brief period post-war where everyone is still making good decisions and homo sapiens’ gift for self-destruction isn’t as powerful.  Perhaps, he speculates, post-death, that they will learn from their past, or otherwise be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. The cast unsurprisingly does a great job all around, making you hope that these characters will choose the former. In an early “Mockingjay” scene, Woody recommends that Jennifer consider experimenting with warmth and sensitivity when she makes a speech. This the movie makers have done, as well, making this a standout end to a great series.

 

 

A Look Back: Save the Last Dance

Some hobbies are apparently much more likely to encourage neurotic behavior in those who take them seriously than others. Chess, at least if you believe Hollywood’s depiction, seems to trigger paranoia and obsessiveness in players who devote lots of time to studying it. In comparison, ballet seems to produce eating disorders, self-injury and outright psychosis (at least in “Black Swan”), but this seems to be a curse for young women. Most of their male peers in comparison come across as stable on the big screen. “Save the Last Dance,” presents a heroine (Julia Stiles) who does have issues with a capital I, but they center around other things than body issues and mental illness. I don’t know if her character qualifies as “well-adjusted,” but compared to many movie characters who dance, she’s a beacon of sanity.

In the movie, Julia plays a serious ballet student who aspires to Juilliard, but whose ambitions are derailed when her mom is killed on the way to her big audition, which she also winds up botching. Since her parents are separated, she moves to Chicago to live with her single father, with whom she has a formal kind of relationship. She winds up attending a predominantly black high school, which is quickly established as being “rougher” than her previous one. However, in movie tradition, she meets a helpful Samaritan on the first day, in the form of Kerry Washington, a fellow student and single mom, whose brother (Sean Patrick Thomas) also attends their scchool. Kerry becomes Julia’s friend, taking her to a dance club to strut her stuff, but there’s also tension because Julia is white and starts dating Sean, who’s black, and who has managed to turn his life around (he’s going to medical school), after participating in some gang activity, and whose friend is still involved in it.  Eventually, Julia confides in Sean about her dream to attend Juilliard, and he starts helping her prepare to re-audition.  But can the two overcome their issues, as well as their friends’ and families’, to triumph?

This movie takes a page from “Dirty Dancing,” with the more centered, laid back guy helping the more uptight girl prepare for a big dance performance/learn life lessons, as well as all the Hollywood movies where the white character acquires some hipness from an African-American. But it also takes an honest look at such things as interracial romance, single motherhood (there’s a memorable scene where Kerry has to wait forever for her son to receive medical care), and just plain coming of age.  The movie also won “Best Kiss,” at the MTV Movie Awards, though I don’t know what the criteria are for that.  Plus it has a line that will ring true for anyone who’s ever had a rocky relationship: i.e. “We spend more time defending our relationship than actually having one,” as Julia’s character points out.  Fortunately, there is a happy ending.

 

 

Movie Review: 33

If you want to tell a story about a group of people who, for whatever reasons, are stuck with each other’s company in a limited space for a long period of times, there are a number of ways to do it.  You can go “The Breakfast Club” route and have lots of personal revelations and psychological warfare among the characters, which is good if no one actually has their life put at risk.  Another path is to turn the whole thing into a sitcom and have situations in which the audience is either laughing with or at the characters.  Or you can take circumstances that would arise naturally with these people, depending on their personalities, problems and quirks, and let the drama emerge naturally.  Blending all three also works, and at least gives the audience a release from non-stop drama.

The movie “33,” which tells the true-life story of that many Chilean miners, who found themselves trapped in a San Jose mine for sixty-nine days while the world watched their plight, doubtless praying for them and their families, opts for the last route  Fortunately, the miners got some practical assistance, too, as crews worked around the clock to drill down and extricate the crew.  Props also go to the men themselves who, besides managing not to strangle each other, survived on a starvation rations, as well as aided the efforts from down below.  Another ally (at least in this movie) is a young government minister, played by Rodrigo Santoro, who coordinates the rescue and attempts to calm the miners’ families who are camping out nearby. Leading the families’ efforts to a) get the truth about what is happening, and b) prod the rescue crew into not giving up, is a sister of one of the miners, played by Juliette Binoche, who also does an excellent job.  And all the actors who play the miners manage to convey the courage and determination of their characters, even when shot in a half light, with heavy facial stubble and a head lamp.

The crew who heads down to what they believe to be just another day of work have their own issues of varying degrees of seriousness, which are handled without too much mawkishness.  One man (the ultimate irony) is about to retire and has the papers to prove it.  Another man is dealing with alcoholism; and another is caught between his wife and mistress (which becomes tabloid fodder once the men’s plight becomes public).  There’s a line where one of the crew aboveground exclaims that two of the miners are dealing with mood disorders, but when the conflict becomes physical, this does not appear to be a factor.  There’s also guilt from the team leader who attempts to tell his boss about certain dangers of this particular mine but is brushed off and takes them down anyway.  Fortunately, there is a happy ending.  The men and their helpers triumph, not because they are necessarily the smartest people in the room, but because of a combination of brains, heart and courage.  While recent movies like “Steve Jobs” explores the conflict of the misfit genius, “33” is a testament to how “ordinary” people can work together to bring about miracles.

A Look Back: Mean Girls

Re-watching a teen movie set at least a decade ago is like looking into a yearbook from that period. Not only do you get to giggle at the outdated hairstyles, fashion and slang, but you aget to see So-and-So before they became big; derailed their life with drugs, politically incorrect tirades or shoplifting; or married Mr./Ms. A-Lister and adopted a child from every continent. There’s also the thrill of spotting that actor who is now a huge deal, but in this movie, is just relegated to watching the hero/heroine glide down the hall in slo-mo (don’t worry, your turn will come).

“Mean Girls,” which came out just before the social media explosion in popularity, is that rare movie that isn’t dumbed down for its adolescence audience – and happens to feature teen girls, not boys.  It is based on a nonfiction book by Rosalind Wiseman, which consists mostly of interviews with real life teens. There is no one named Cady Heron in the book; no clique called the Plastics; no math competition or sympathetic math teacher; clueless principal; Burn Book high jinks, or prom.  Some of the subjects’ lines make it into the movie, but they are tweaked to be more Hollywood-script friendly.  But the plot – in which a homeschooled teen who originally lived in Africa, attends American public high school for the first time, become entangled with a trio of popular girls, and eventually learns there is merit in being herself, appears to be fiction.  The one thing the book and the movie both get right, however, is that being a high school student can be, as the heroine puts it, like being a shark tank, albeit with some very attractive sharks.

In the movie, Lindsay Lohan plays Cady, the aforementioned homeschooled teen, who has a rough first day of high school but manages to make a couple of allies her second day, who are Goth-ish Lizzy Caplan and her friend, Daniel Frazese, who is described as “too gay to function” more than once. They helpfully draw Lindsay a map of the lunchroom and who sits where, and clue her in to the presence of the Plastics, the A-list girl clique, which consists of one Queen Bee (Rachel McAdams); one sycophant (Lacey Chabert) and their ditzy friend (Amanda Seyfried), who is so dense that she once asked Daniel how to spell “orange.”  Soon the Plastics notice Lindsay and invite her to sit with them at lunch (as long as she wears something pink).  Lindsay still remains friends with Lizzy and Daniel, however, which is good as the Plastics are aptly named.

Lizzy, who has a rocky history with Rachel, manages to persuade Lindsay to sabotage Rachel and her group, after Lindsay has her own conflict with Rachel. The revenge is multi-tiered and involves a Swedish power bar and a “Burn Book,” which is basically what it sounds like.  Eventually, Rachel is exposed for the witch she is, but Lindsay is also exposed as being vindictive.  There is repentance and the acquiring of life lessons, but every time the movie threatens to veer too close to stereotype territory, something comes along to yank it away.  (Example: One girl tearfully laments that she wishes everyone could just get along – but then is revealed to not even attend the school.)

Directed by Mark Waters with a screenplay by Tina Fey (who also plays the math teacher), “Mean Girls” takes deadly aim at topics like public school sex education; parents who attempt to be their child’s best friend; and the generation gap (“Sometimes old people make jokes,” Tina explains straight-faced to Lizzy and Daniel at one point.)  There are a lot of “Saturday Night Live” alums, including Amy Poehler, who plays the “fun mom.” Looking back, it may seem to be set in an antiquated era (there’s hardly a cell or a laptop to be found), but its insights into “Girl World” are still relevant today.

Movie Review: Burnt

I don’t know what this says about me, but watching “Burnt” I couldn’t help wishing there were more movies that had the guts for the protagonist not to ultimately reach his goal. Having a character do his or her best but not quite make it, would be the best argument for why it’s how you play the game, not if you win. Anyway, “Burnt” sticks to a traditional character arc, in which a former bad boy learns lessons about how “It’s not a sign of weakness to need people,” and thus grows up. There are decent performances, but no surprises plot-wise here.

In the movie, Bradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, a chef who is well-known both for his innovative approach to cuisine and his trainwreck of a history, which involves doing just about every drug invented, getting into brawls with his rivals after they both commit sabotage, and sleeping with all his female colleagues (including one who is a lesbian). To further ram home that Bradley’s a rebel without a cause, he’s seen zooming around on a motorcycle, when he’s not in the midst of a montage where he fondles meat. fruits and veggies. When we meet him, Bradley has begun to put his life back on track, including seeing a doctor who monitors his blood. The doctor/therapist is played by Emma Thompson, and the trailer made me think she was going to have a bigger role, but she is only in a few scenes. He’s also gone to work for a colleague he knows (Daniel Bruhl), a prissy maître-d who hires Bradley because he wants to impress his dying father (though there’s actually another reason). Now he has to deal with thugs who he still owes from his past, as well as a rival (Matthew Rhys), an attractive colleague (Sienna Miller), and the possibility of securing three Michelin stars.

At first, Bradley does not come off as that bad of a boss (in my view), but then someone removes the halibut from the pan a fraction of a second too late, and he flips out, making Steve Jobs, as recently portrayed by Michael Fassbender, look like a Care Bear.  Jobs might agree with Bradley’s character’s motto: “If it’s not perfect, throw it out,” but at least, he wasn’t shown hurling things at his hapless staff and forcing them to only answer with “Yes, (sir)” when especially peeved.  But of course, there is a reason why Bradley is a dick, and it has to do with his bad childhood. Fortunately, the drama is on whether or not Bradley will achieve the three star rating, and we barely learn anything about his childhood.  In the end, Bradley learns how to be a team player, achieves his goal and presumably lives happily ever after.  This seems to be due more to the Michelin rating than therapy, but hey, whatever floats your boat.