2016 Spring Movie Lessons

Warning: May contain spoilers.

The Boss

1. It’s acceptable to have a convicted felon leading your daughter’s scout troop if it’s only white collar crime.

2. A town car will not automatically be provided after you get out of prison for insider trading.

3. Having a former flame/colleague attempt to murder you with a samurai sword can be a real turn on, as long as he fails in his original aim.

4. If you’re staying with your ex-employee and her preteen daughter, it’s best to lock the door when experimenting with spray on tanner.

Eddie the Eagle

5. The British Olympic Committee can make up a rule out of thin air to keep you from going if they don’t think you’re posh enough.

6. Ski-jumping coaches can be found in the most unlikely places, including the jaded alcoholic snowplow driver.

7. Practicing for a dirty dancing performance and a ski-jumping event have a few key moves in common.

8. You don’t need a jacket in frigid weather, as long as you’ve got your trusty flask.

The Bronze

9. “Camel toe” is not synonymous with “dismount.”

10. Third place finishers in national gymnastics championships can still get freebies a decade later, even if they have a mouth like a garbage disposal.

11. If your adult daughter needs to be instilled with a sense of responsibility, it’s okay to fake a will from her deceased former coach promising half a million dollars if she trains the new kid in town.

12. If you’re a former gymnastics champion going on a date, it’s okay to trade your warm-up pants for a skirt, but don’t remove your jacket unless you plan to have sex with another former gymnastics champion.

The Brothers Grimsby

13. Ask for more details than just the outfit color when going undercover to seduce a woman.

14. Be ultra-specific when talking to your children about drugs. Explain that they should only vape as preteens, not anything harder, if they must smoke.

15. Think twice before you take refuge in an elephant vagina, particularly if she’s feeling hormonal.

16. Think twice before you assume an overweight woman is pregnant, even if she’s surrounded by dozens of kids.

Everybody Wants Some!!

17. You could get a great tax write-off in 1980 by donating your house to a college which will then use it to house a sports team. However, the length of time it will remain standing will probably be shorter than the school year.

18. There’s apparently no irony in mocking your dorm’s one redneck hick mercilessly, then going out and dancing to “Cotton Eyed Joe.”

19. It pays to double check every one of your baseball team’s background because there could be a thirty-something attempting to masquerade as a freshman.

20. The key to finding out who you are is not being afraid to do things that are dumb.

Money Monster

21. It’s a really good idea to vet random people dressed as deliverymen before letting them into the inner sanctum of a TV studio.

22. Finding a hostage-taker’s pregnant girlfriend and letting her berate him is not a good way to de-escalate the situation.

23. Having your “talent'” held hostage is a great way of realizing that you can’t get along without him after all.

24. If you take someone hostage on TV, every minute will be televised, including if you move the hostage to another location.

The Nice Guys

25. If you and your partner are going to heave a fresh corpse over a fence, make sure no one’s holding a dinner party there.

26. Threatening to harm a thug-for-hire’s fish is a sure way to piss him off and ensure that he won’t cooperate with you.

27. Empty swimming pools that you don’t intend to fill make great giant ashtrays.

28. Private investigators apparently bring hair dryers with them on a case, since their hair looks perfectly dry after swimming in a fish tank.

The Meddler

29. Apple Stores are great places to hang out for hours and find new lives to meddle in, though not matches for your adult daughter.

30. Chickens are happiest when Dolly Parton is playing on the boombox.

31. Updating your daughter on every detail of your life via your cell phone is not conducive to getting your car home accident free.

32. If you’re going to scatter your loved ones’ ashes in the ocean, pick a time when the beach is deserted because otherwise you’ll get in trouble with the law.

Movie Review: The Meddler

Occasionally, when watching a movie, I get a feeling of uneasiness, which is usually due to one of several things.

a) The characters are doing/saying something that is disturbing/thought provoking, etc.

b) I see an actor, and try as I might, I can’t place him or her.

c) I’ve seen a movie with a similar plot.

It took only five minutes into “The Meddler,” for me to get strong deja vu. In it, Susan Sarandon plays a widow/single mom, who moves to Los Angeles (which she loves) in order to be close to her adult daughter (Rose Byrne), a television scriptwriter. Susan clearly loves her daughter, but she is definitely a smotherer who is too close, even to the point of going to see her daughter’s therapist. Surprisingly, Rose, who has just broken up with a longtime boyfriend, does not appreciate her mother’s aid and sunny worldview and is trying to separate and live her own life.

This is also the plot of the movie “Anywhere But Here,” which starred Susan Sarandon as a newly single mom, who packs up and moves to L.A. (her longtime dream destination) with her teen daughter (Natalie Portman), who she hopes will become an actress. Susan obviously loves her daughter, but may be possibly bipolar or just overly optimistic, which Natalie does not appreciate either, as she attempts to separate and become her own person.

In fact, both daughters seize the opportunity to put lots of distance between them and mom when they get the chance. Natalie’s character applies to Brown University, and Rose winds up traveling back to the East Coast to shoot a TV pilot. In the meantime, in “The Meddler,” Susan busies herself meddling with other people’s lives, but with happier results, including a nice Apple Store salesman (Jerrod Carmichael, who also plays his brother), and a gay friend of her daughter’s (Casey Wilson) whose dream wedding Susan finances.

Susan also (deja vu all over again) meets a man, an ex-cop who raises chickens (J.K. Simmons), but has to return back to her previous home because of funeral arrangements, involving her husband, who she has not yet gotten over and keeps making excuses to avoid dealing with such matters as who gets to keep the ashes. While she there, she’s waiting for J.K. to call, and has much better luck than her character did pursuing a guy in “Anywhere But Here.” Eventually, she will have to learn not to meddle so much – at least, I assume that’s what the character arc is supposed to be, but the movie ends with not a great deal of change on Susan’s part (or her daughter’s). There is some change and maturation, but only if you squint and peer real close. None of Susan’s schemes really blow up in her face and cause lasting damage, which is what I kept expecting to happen. So the movie is very sweet and may make you teary eyed in places (if you’re a sentimental sort), but it’s not particularly memorable.

A Look Back: The Shawshank Redemption

There are two kinds of Stephen King novels/novellas/short stories that get made into movies. One has a very basic message, such as beware of evil dogs, cars or perhaps clowns. These are the kind of book you don’t want to read when you’re home late alone, unless you enjoy having nightmares. The other type may put the protagonist in physical danger, but the bigger threat is psychological. This kind tends to win prestigious awards if made into a film, such as “Stand By Me,” “Misery,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” (incidentally all parodied in a “Family Guy” episode, “The Three Kings.”)

Directed by Frank Darabont (and winning multiple awards), “The Shawshank Redemption,” is based on King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The first two words of the title were probably dropped either because a certain portion of the audience wasn’t familiar with the name or simply because it’s less cumbersome. The movie’s message is easy to “get,” the main one is the importance of never giving up hope even when one is in a crushingly hopeless environment (and can’t leave). But there are others, including:

1. It pays to cultivate a relationship with that guy in prison who can allegedly procure anything.

And:

2. If there’s suddenly a draft near your cell, there may be a serious reason. Especially if it won’t go away.

And:

3. When in need of a place to hide something, a Bible comes in mighty handy.

And the most important of all.

4. Never ever let a prison inmate, no matter how much of a financial wizard, do your tax returns for you.

In the movie, Tim Robbins plays a banker convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to life in Maine’s notorious (literary) prison Shawshawk. Although he protests his innocence, this is hardly new for a convicted man, and he winds up stuck there for most of the movie. The narrator of the film is lifer Red (Morgan Freeman, whose character was originally Irish) who fills the viewer in on the day-to-day indignities of prison. These include sexual assault (shown in several graphic scenes), work detail drudgery, and sanctimonious or sadistic staff, including Bob Gunton, who plays the main warden and eventually gets a nice come-uppance. A savvy man in other things besides finances, Tim lies low when he first arrives, but then figures out (what we learn later) is quite a master plan to get out of there and develops a rapport with Morgan, who is “that guy” and who agrees to furnish Tim with a rock hammer and a pinup poster for his cell (several come and go besides Rita, to signify the passing of time). Although Tim is, at first, in danger of being assaulted, we come to see that his real challenge is maintaining his spirit throughout his stay at Shawshank. But he manages this, and manages to help various other inmates, including Morgan, keep theirs’ intact, too. Although Morgan’s parole possibility has come up before, he is always refused, believing that he has not yet been “rehabilitated.” But he takes inspiration from Tim.

Because Tim hasn’t lost his financial expertise along with his freedom, he eventually sets up shop doing the prison staff’s tax returns for them, in exchange for certain other favors. And of course, he maintains his innocence, but because this is Shawshank, this is seen as a running joke. However, about halfway through the movie, hope appears in the form of a young new inmate (Gil Bellows), who was formerly at another prison and heard something about Tim’s case that could possibly set him free. This does not work out the way Tim hopes, but he still perseveres and manages to triumph in the end. There are casualties along the way, but ultimately, he and Morgan reunite – this time as free men. In the process, he manages to completely turn the tables on his captors – even quoting their own words back at them.

Postscript: If you feel like seeking it out, there is a short called “The Sharktank Redemption,” starring Alfonso Freeman (Morgan’s son), about twenty minutes long, and involving an employee of a Hollywood agency who gets passed over repeatedly for promotion. The main message? Get busy dying or get busy faxing.

Movie Review: The Nice Guys

MadTV once did a sketch based on a premise for a new Russell Crowe TV show, in which Crowe and his boat would travel around the world and Crowe would beat up a different person on a different continent every week. In “The Nice Guys,” Russell gets to do a lot of punching, as a L.A. private investigator in the late seventies. He and co-star, Ryan Gosling, also get to fall out of things (balconies), into things (swimming pools) and onto things (speeding cars), as they navigate their way through this movie. It’s supposed (I think) to be tongue-in-cheek, like say, “Spy,” or “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” However, there are moments when it turns sentimental or serious, which makes an odd pairing with the raunchy language, stripper movie plot and slapstick.

So the year is 1977, meaning lines at the gas station rival those at Disneyland, hits like “Horse With No Name,” and “The Pina Colada,” song are on the jukebox, and everyone is wearing funky clothes, hairdos and facial hair. Smog alerts caution the inhabitants of L.A. to avoid going outside until 6 p.m., but Russell and Ryan are busy earning a living, even if somewhat ineptly (during one undercover investigation, Ryan almost bleeds to death). Russell is divorced, while Ryan is tragically widowed with a precocious teen daughter (Anjourie Rice). Both seek refuge in drinking, smoking and cynicism, although of course, things are about to change. When Russell is hired by a young woman (Margaret Qualley) to discourage a stalker, he winds up crossing paths with Ryan and eventually, they team up because they realize their cases have things in common. When Amelia disappears, the two and the precocious Anjourie, head out in search of her. Meanwhile, the mother of a character (Murielle Tello) we meet briefly at the movie’s start, also contacts the two detectives, which leads to a subplot about the auto industry – which eventually coincides with one about a supposedly dead porn star and the movie she was recently making. When everyone’s agenda starts intersecting, Russell and Ryan must try to secure justice – even though no one is quite sure what that would ultimately entail.

“The Nice Guys,” is a fast-paced action movie/buddy comedy which doesn’t lag once from its absurd beginning to its amusing end, which leaves room open (intentionally or not) for a sequel. The dialogue is generally witty, and there’s a scene straight out of a Monty Python movie involving a protest group of young people demonstrating against poor air quality. Eventually, all the pieces of the mystery fit together, and the bad guy gets what he deserves. Well, more or less. And the two leads emerge battered, but intact, ready for more high jinks.

 

Movie Review: The Big Short

Why do good people do bad things? Why do people who consider themselves decent and honest take jobs which involve cheating other decent and honest people? It’s not on anyone’s lifetime top movie list, but I’ve never heard the answer expressed as succinctly as it is in “Regarding Henry,” in which Harrison Ford plays a cut-throat lawyer who winds up becoming a better person after accidentally sustaining brain damage.

Harrison Ford’s lawyer character, earnestly: “What we did is wrong.”

Harrison’s colleague, matter-of-factly: “What we did is paying for our lunch.”

You can sum up a universal truth like that in a low-key way, or you can make an entire movie about the lack of morality in the business world, which is what happens in “The Big Short.” The movie uses pretty much all the techniques in movies like “Boiler Room,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” to hold the viewer’s interest in what would otherwise be a lot of mostly white men disagreeing with each other for two hours. These include rap music (though the theme to “Phantom of the Opera” is also snuck in); jump cuts, scantily clothed women (including Margot Robbie as herself in a hot tub), scenes set in places like nightclubs and casinos which naturally hype up the energy a notch; and breaking the fourth wall. The characters in “The Big Short,” are supposed to be outsiders to the financial industry, but there doesn’t seem to much of a character arc for most of them; first they’re all gung ho about making money, and later when it’s time, they get a little less gung-ho. “I’m going to seek moral redemption,” one character claims at one point, but I was never sure if he was being ironic or not. This is the kind of movie where someone responds to being called a big piece of shit by beaming – without irony.

In the movie, Christian Bale plays a glass-eyed, quasi-autistic doctor genius who correctly predicts that the housing market is going to collapse pre-2008. He’s definitely won the jackpot when it comes to quirky roles, and the other characters have to work twice as hard to make an impression next to him. When I was watching, I kept having deja-vu, finally it struck me that Bale is playing both the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman roles in “Rain Man,” at once. Sometimes he’s stomping around demanding money to invest; other times he’s screwing up his face, rocking out to his Ipod and playing air drums. Other characters, such as Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt (disguised under heavy facial hair), and Steve Carell, who gets to play a character with moral qualms from the beginning, but who mostly just conveys this by furrowing his brown and frowning a lot. (Carell is an excellent actor, but here, he struck me as a little lost.) The movie knows that the average movie-goer probably can’t or has no inclination to follow complex financial analysis, so the characters explain things in a way anyone can understand, by comparing things to fish, poker, toy buildings or poop. Example: “The CDO is cat shit wrapped in dog shit.” If “The Wolf of Wall Street,” holds the record for using the most f-words, this movie might also set a record for using the word “shit.”

“The Big Short,” reminded me of another Oscar-nominated/winning movie “Spotlight,” as it’s about mostly white guys crusading for the truth. “Spotlight” has a scene where Mark Ruffalo’s reporter bursts into the newsroom and demands that they run a story identifying pedophile priests, and there’s a similar one where Steve Carell points out that the people in the financial world knew full well the taxpayers would have to bail them out, but they didn’t care. Like “Spotlight,” there’s also a grim postscript which tells the viewer what happened (although of course, this is public knowledge already), which is that almost no one got punished for their sins. The perpetrators are still at it, and Bale’s real life character got audited (four times) when he tried to speak out. Such is life, but then people do have to pay for their lunch.

Movie Review: Money Monster

Remember when Julia Roberts was a Major Movie Star? Looking back, maybe fame had something to do with why regardless of whether she was playing a medical student, college professor, whistleblower or journalist, I could never quite see her as anything but – well, Julia Roberts. I haven’t seen her in a movie for years (although she has continued making them), but “Money Monster,” proves few actresses are better at going from vulnerable to spunky back to vulnerable again without any apparent effort. In the movie, her character is faced with a moral dilemma early on, one that many unappreciated, abused employees dream of – what to do when a crazed gunmen (Jack O’Connell) bursts into your workplace (here a TV studio) and threatens to kill your boss, here George Clooney, host of a financial show called “Money Monster.” George establishes in the first ten minutes that his character is a major prick, and he’s even wearing a blue dress shirt with a white collar, which is often movie shorthand for “white collar a-hole.” So Julia, who plays the show’s producer (though she’s planning a career change), hesitates a little while, but ultimately chooses to save him by kowtowing to the intruder’s demands.

It occurred to me that this movie starts the same way as “Hail Caesar!” did: with George Clooney showboating around on set, while off in the shadows, someone plots his downfall. Here, he’s taken hostage and strapped into a vest with a bomb attached because Jack has lost his entire savings following a tip from the show that turned out to be a bad idea. As the NYPD plots to retrieve George safely (though their definition of “safe” is bizarre), Jack berates George for being such a low-life. Meanwhile, Julia tries to figure out how to de-escalate the situation, which turns out that she needs to contact the head honcho of IBIS (the company whose stock plunged). This happens to be Dominic West, and if you think George is unlikeable, just wait until you find out the depths of Dominic’s duplicity. This guy is responsible for a underpaid schmuck whose girlfriend is pregnant losing his money, and his response: “Wrong? What’s wrong?” Eventually, the crisis is weathered, but not without a lot of texting, frowning, gun pointing and arguing among the secondary characters.

Watching movies where someone is taken hostage, it seems like most characters are pretty tough: you never see anyone visibly sweating through their clothes or wetting themselves from fear, presumably having a gun pointed at them isn’t that high on their list of instant panic situations. Also, the hostage character typically gets over being tongue-tied soon and has no qualms about taunting or berating the person with the weapon because that would definitely be my reaction to having my life in danger. As Denis Leary’s cat burglar puts it in “The Ref,” it’s the people with guns who are allowed to run the show – but then a movie where one character always has the upper hand would be dull.

Today’s Topic: Spinach Cinema

I was going to review “Suffragette” today, but since it’s not a new release and the plot is straightforward: Carey Mulligan plays a young oppressed Englishwoman who joins the suffragette movement at great personal and professional cost, I decided not to. Also, it would have been cheating because I skipped the last third of the movie. I’m sure the real life stories were exciting and drama-filled, but this one was not, plus a lot of scenes appeared to be filmed in almost complete darkness. So certain aspects of the oppression had to be left to the viewer’s imagination.

I rationalized this decision by the fact that I had just seen a Ken Burns’ documentary on the (American) suffragettes and I figured that even though parts of that were slow, I sat through the whole thing and learned something to boot. It struck me that “Suffragette” (the movie) was an example of spinach cinema, defined by Word Spy, as movies that are not very exciting or interesting, but that one feels one must see because they are educational or otherwise uplifting. The performances of the actresses themselves are excellent, but the only way I would have been excited to see it if it was during school, and it gave me an excuse to do nothing for an hour.

People go see movies for a variety of reasons, some noble, some not so much. People see movies because they are too nice to say no to their companions. People see movies just to kill time or to sit someplace with air conditioning. Or because “everyone” is seeing the film.

Then there are movies that you wind up seeing for the wrong reason because either you’re mistaken about the content or the trailers made the movie look like something else entirely. The movie “Osama,” which is used on Word Spy as an example of spinach cinema, may have had other viewers who, like me, was under the mistaken impression that it was about bin Laden. It’s actually about an Iranian girl whose family becomes impoverished and whose mother sends her out dressed as a boy to find work, and who winds up having to get married to a creepy elderly man and become part of his harem. It’s as grim as if it were about the original Osama, but that’s the point.

With spinach cinema, you may not be entertained, but at least you emerge blinking into the light afterwards and realize that you learned something.

Spinach cinema is usually on a politically correct topic. Also it is depressing. Characters typically go mad, suffer horrible atrocities of the spirit, murder, commit suicide or are sexually assaulted. If you yourself are prone to mood dips of the clinical kind, you might wind up staggering the number of such films you see.

I did this when “Schindler’s List” came out, choosing a day when things were going kind of blah (weather and otherwise), so I figured my mood wouldn’t have too far to plunge. This turned out to be a wise decision.

A popular time for spinach cinema is the fall, as Oscar season approaches. This is when it is assumed that the discriminating moviegoer has had enough of the big budget summertime offerings (junk food) and is ready for Something Serious. This is often when movies about racism, slavery, the Holocaust and World War II get released. Spinach cinema may be synonymous with Oscar bait, though not always.

A good movie changes the viewer in some way. And change may not be pleasant or comfortable, but in the end, it is worth it.

Did you enjoy yourself? Or at least, did you learn something today?

That is the question.