Movie Weddings: High Jinx at the Altar

Though plenty of movies (at least certain genres) try their best to depict issues that affect ordinary people off-screen, sometimes they fall short. This is especially true of romantic films, which often place two people who are supposedly in love in situations that no sane person would subject themselves to – or at least not without requiring major therapy afterward. Yet movie characters in love have an endless capacity for humiliation, bounce back from all their setbacks, and wind up riding off into the sunset with the person who’s Really Going to Make Them Happy.

It should go without saying (but we’re going to anyway) that it is best to have certain discussions about certain topics before you tie the knot presumably “until death do you part.” If you happen to be engaged in real life, it might be fair to predict that you and the other person have had at least one heart-to-heart talk about your values, career plans and future family. You are probably under the impression that the person whom you’re marrying is compatible because why else would you be spending a colossal amount of time and money arranging a wedding? Right?

Wrong, at least in the movies. It is very uncommon for two people who are engaged at the start of a film to actually make it through the wedding ceremony. Usually, what happens is that the main character spends most of the movie completely blind to the fact that his/her would-be partner is incompatible – to the point of humor, until the Real True Love shows up at the altar and rescues him/her. Rather than calling the authorities to come and remove this intruder right away, the spurned bride/groom manages to find a backup person to fall in love with. Thus everyone lives happily ever after.

For decades, movies have explored what might happen to the carefully-laid wedding plans if one of the two parties happened to prefer their own gender (“In and Out”), or was really meant to be with someone much older, younger or dorkier. Love is blind, so the saying goes, but in the movies, it is a whole other league of visual disability, such as in “The Wedding Singer,” where Drew Barrymore’s intended is a guy who hits on other women when she’s throwing up after too much liquor in the bathroom (“The Wedding Singer”). Another lesson we learn from that movie is that if your first name and would-be-surname rhyme, it’s definitely not going to happen. In general, potential mates should be chosen on the basis of how willing they are to hijack a vehicle, break a ton of traffic laws, and display complete callousness for your intended’s feelings. If your chosen partner can do all that without a hitch, he or she is truly destined for you.


A Look Back: Beaches

Ideally, a movie title should tell you something important about its theme and plot. Well, “Beaches,” which came out in 1988, is the place where the two lead characters (Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey meet and form a lifelong friendship, but if you’re hoping for a lot of time in the sand and sun, you’ll be disappointed. Only a minority of the overall scenes are shot on a beach; the rest take place in less fun places like apartments, shopping malls, recording studios and hospitals. The last is because (spoiler alert) one of the characters (Barbara) develops a terminal illness which, even though she is beautifully choreographed during her chemotherapy treatment, and Bette sings an inspiring song about their friendship, she winds up dead. This is not so much a five-star movie as a five-Kleenex box movie, which makes it an ideal “chick flick.” Directed by the late Garry Marshall, it is also the only chick flick to boast a musical about the origin of the brassiere (more on that later).

“Beaches” begins with what I’ve always considered an Oscar-caliber performance by Mayim “Blossom” Bialik as Young Bette as she meets Young Barbara (Marcie Leeds) for the first time at the Jersey Shore and auditions for a children’s talent show. The two wind up having to part rather suddenly when Marcie’s aunt notices that she’s gone missing and tracks her down, but they promise to be pen pals when their vacation is over. Rather quickly, Mayim grows up to be Bette, the “brassy” one and an aspiring torch singer, while Marcie turns into Barbara, the “classy” one who wants to be a lawyer but instead winds up in a traditional marriage. The two reunite as adults, and are thrilled to see each other, but also turn out to have jealousy and insecurity based on the fact that the other friend seems to be having the more enviable life.

Barbara’s main drama (before she gets sick) is that she discovers her husband is having an affair while she is pregnant, and she no longer wants to raise her would-be daughter (Grace Johnston) with him, but Bette steps in to support her decision to be a single mom. When Barbara does travel to New York to meet her adult friend for the first time, she winds up attending a musical in which Bette performs a bawdy song about the invention of the bra. This is the part in the movie I always imagine, was put in to entertain all the audience members who nobly agreed to sit through it, despite private qualms. After the musical, Bette and Barbara wind up going shopping, where they have a huge public fight – but luckily, Barbara soon gets the major bad news, so they make up, and take Grace on vacation to the Jersey Shore for lots of bonding opportunities.

The end is, of course, heartbreaking, especially the part where Bette asks Grace if she’d like to live with her, and Grace asks if it’s okay if she brings her cat – if you’re into the movie and not just patiently enduring it, that’s probably the scene that will turn the waterworks from mere tears to gushing rivers that completely obliterate your makeup. But you can’t have friendship without pain and loss, and as the soundtrack puts it more than once, “That’s the story of/ That’s the glory/ Of love.”



Movie Review: Lights Out

Here’s a question for you. Someone you know has returned shaken and pale, from wherever they were going and asked you to check out the mysterious smells/sounds/sights coming from an unused passageway/room that they were just in. As you dutifully approach, you see green and purple clouds coming from underneath the closed door, hear moans, and when you turn around, the coatrack has somehow positioned itself directly behind you. Your first response is to:

a) Run like hell in the opposite direction.

b) Keep going! All the while whispering, “Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?” until any light is extinguished, and you are attacked by a supernatural creature from whose talons you barely manage to extract yourself from because you have chosen a time to investigate when you have no backup.

Well, most people would pick a) because they’re too smart to be a character in a horror movie, but not the crew in “Lights Out.” Fortunately, all of them have the IQ of a houseplant and the commonsense of a Dorito, so it takes them quite awhile to resolve the mystery that arises. First, we meet Billy Burke, who agrees to check out the mysterious presence which has frightened his coworker, but it’s during the first ten minutes, so I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I report that he does not survive. Fast forward, and his adult daughter (Teresa Palmer) gets a call from her little brother’s (Gabriel Bateman) school, and when she investigates she finds that their mom (Maria Bello) is off her meds again and scaring the crap out of the boy by insisting that her mysterious friend named “Diana” (Alicia Vela-Bailey) is living with them, only she prefers the lights out. The social worker from Child Protective Services is also not a rocket scientist, and does not become suspicious that a family would produce two children behaving oddly but similarly in different time periods. Thus she informs Teresa that she disapproves of her trying to gain custody of her little brother. So with only her memories of this Diana person, Teresa starts rummaging through mom’s stuff and discovers that she was (another spoiler but not a huge one) a patient at a mental hospital when she was a girl. Could this possibly be where she first hooked up with Diana? Eventually, Teresa getting nowhere with her mom, decides to spend the night with her and Gabriel (with her boyfriend Alexander DiPersia), and that is when things start to get ugly.

So why do they insist on staying overnight in a haunted house? Because the little boy won’t be separated from his mom, and I’m sorry, but that’s when, as an older sibling, you pull rank and take the kid to a hotel, while explaining that mom has gone off her “vitamins,” but that you are really, really going to try and get her help.  Anyway, Diana wreaks quite a bit of havoc but is ultimately vanquished, though not without a big sacrifice. To compare it to last year’s “The Visit,” the plusses are that it’s much shorter, no one gets hit in the face with the contents of an adult diaper, and the little boy doesn’t rap a single note. My audience didn’t seem too scared, and most of it will probably remind you of other horror movies, but again, it doesn’t waste time pretending to be anything other than entertainment.

All I Need To Know, I Learned From Eighties’ Movies

When I was a teen, there was a best-selling book called “All I Need To Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.” While the premise clearly appealed to a lot of people, I think another hidden gold mine of life lessons can be found in the eighties’ movies I saw growing up. While time has revealed that some are unlikely to occur ever, others still hold true. Here are twelve that made an indelible impression.

1. Never prank a bully while wearing a non-aerobic friendly Halloween costume.

If you plan to, make sure you’re wearing broken-in sneakers and can quickly shed any part of said costume that might get snagged on something as you flee.

Also never prank a bully who is an outright sociopath or the follower of one. Unless you happen to be rescued by someone with superior karate skills, you may well wind up in a coma and/or die.

Example: The Karate Kid

2. Your child will respect you if you apologize.

But this should be a clear apology said without shame. This shows you’re human, which paradoxically, makes you more worthy of respect.

Example: Dirty Dancing, Sixteen Candles. See also Say Anything for what happens if you don’t.

3. If you plan on playing hooky, it pays to head into the city. Your principal may bust you if you hang around locally.

Self-explanatory, at least if you have a principal that puts effort into doing this. But if you do go into the city, keep an eye out for your parents if they happen to work there. They can pop up in unexpected spots.

Example: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

4. Your boss and colleagues may not always have your best interests at heart.

Your boss may be polite to your face but secretly consider you pond scum. Your colleagues may be jealous if you get hired and immediately start to bring that “gung-ho” attitude to everything you do. Sometimes you may have to go behind their back, if you want to get promoted or save the company from bankruptcy, but you can find allies in unexpected places.

Examples: Big, Secret of My Success, Working Girl.

5. Your principal may not actually be your ‘pal’.

Yes, he or she may secretly want you to fail to confirm their low opinion of you.

Examples: Too many to list, but a few include Back to the Future, Pump Up the Volume, Stand and Deliver.

6. If you’re a teenage girl, never drink until you pass out.

If you’re a teenage boy, this probably isn’t a good idea either as it will leave you open to humiliation and you may become the target, not the instigator of wacky high jinx. However, if you’re a teen girl, you could wind up with your hair caught in a door and chopped off to free you, stashed in the trunk of a sports car taken out without permission by a geek who has a crush on you, or be filmed by a trio of geeks doing God-knows-what with one of them.

Example: License to Drive, Sixteen Candles

Also, remember no matter how close your are to your dad, he does not want to know when you lose your virginity, indeed you will be doing him a great service by avoiding the subject altogether. (Dirty Dancing, Say Anything)

7. If your parents insist that they were straight-edge and virginal during their teen years, they may be stretching the truth.

This is what my parents always claimed, but after I saw Back to the Future, I could never quite believe it.

Example: Back to the Future

8. Never throw a house party unless you’re cool with your house being totally destroyed and/or all your possessions going missing.

There is no such thing as a Hollywood movie house party with teens that does not end up with the authorities noticing, someone sledding through the door, a crater sized hole in the backyard and/or roof, and perhaps a drunk foreign exchange student in a tree. If you arrange for your home to serve as a brothel-for-a-night, you’re also putting yourself at risk of theft.

Example: Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Risky Business.

9. Never bully unpopular kids because the likelihood that they will develop superpowers, or at least self-defense skills, is high.

Really. You may have a blast for awhile, but do you want to suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of the right hook of a werewolf, or even just a nerd who’s mad as hell and not going to take it any more? Do you really want to be waxing their car as an adult, while they’re a best-selling author?

Examples: Too many to list, but a few include Back to the Future, The Karate Kid, Teen Witch and Teen Wolf.

10. Even the most oblivious parents will eventually notice that you exist, particularly if you get into enough trouble.

Reliable ways (at least in the movies) include keeping an alien in your bedroom, cracking your mom’s Faberge egg, or becoming part of a secret society that reads lots of poetry.

Examples: Dead Poets Society, E.T., Risky Business.

11. The best mentors are the ones who force you to do a bunch of seemingly ridiculous random stuff.

If your coach/teacher just makes you run laps or suggests making flash cards, he or she is clearly not mentor-material.

Examples: Dead Poets Society, The Karate Kid, Stand and Deliver

12. If someone you know starts behaving oddly out of the blue, there are a lot of reasons.

Don’t just assume that they are mentally ill or perhaps on drugs. Consider instead that:

They could actually be their own parent (still with their young body),

Examples: 18 Again, Vice Versa

Or be your child from another era…

Example: Back to the Future

Or attending a new school as a member of the opposite gender…

Example: Just One of the Guys

Or of another race…

Example: Soul Man

You get the picture.

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

I loved Halloween when I was a kid, and I still love it as an adult. The only drawback is the annual ritual of getting the “Ghostbusters” theme song stuck in my head when it comes on the radio. For me, Ray Parker Jr. deadpanning, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” only once is a surefire way to get it playing repeatedly on a loop for the next few hours. So I figured this would happen when I went to see the remake starring Melissa McCarthy, but decided it was a small price to pay. Fortunately, a character quotes the line in an amusing cameo, but that’s it. Though the original version of the song plays during the end credits.

Melissa is a “paranormal enthusiast” (thank you IMDB for the correct description of her job), who co-wrote a book on ghosts (First line: “This is not a joke.”) with her friend, Kristen Wiig, who is now trying to make tenure at an Ivy League school and does not appreciate having the book surfacing on Amazon. Melissa teaches at a community type college and builds ghost-busting machines with her colleague, Kate McKinnon, who’s an actual scientific genius. Meanwhile, several paranormal sightings have been seen in the Manhattan area, including on the subway tracks by Leslie Jones’s city employee, and she eventually joins the trio, who though doubted and discredited by the mayor among others, hole up above a Chinese restaurant and hire hunky but dim Chris Hemsworth (having fun riffing on his pretty boy image) as a secretary. Chris also has experience making logos, though he has a hard time getting the hang of answering the office phone. While the women prepare to fight the ghosts, a bitter outcast (Neil Casey) is busy rejuvenating tormented souls and turning them into monsters bent upon wreaking havoc in the city. I didn’t understand a world of the scientific jargon they used, but they ultimately manage to triumph. On the way, they run into many of the original “Ghostbusters” cast members, who pop up with regularly.

People who prefer quiet audiences should maybe wait until DVD, as it’s likely veteran viewers of the first will emit audible hoots of recognition during the cameos. One non-human cameo comes in the form of the Marshmallow Man, and there is plenty of green slime, as there was in the first. At first the special effects look like what happens when Voldemort and Harry Potter aim their wands and try to kill each other, but they get better as the movie goes on.  I personally found the remake as funny, if not more hilarious than the original and would definitely go see a sequel.


A Look Back: The Way Way Back

During the summer, discovering independent movies where the characters a) act like real people and b) have a modicum of intelligence can be difficult, but there’s always a few that manage to thrive alongside the hotly awaited franchises and action movies. Maybe part of it is that by the end of summer, moviegoers are getting tired of watching explosions and are craving something a little more nourishing. But if you look, even at the multiplexes, you can always find at least a couple, such as “The Way Way Back” which came out a few summers ago, and managed to stick around into October where I lived.

Besides just being a good movie, “The Way Way Back,” also achieved something few movies do when I saw it, everyone in my theater had the identical reaction to the opening scene. This was, of course, the group cringe, accompanied by silence so complete you could hear a pin drop. Not since Ben Stiller’s “frank and beans,” scene in “There’s Something About Mary,” had I been so sure that not a single other person in the room was doing anything other than wincing their way through it. Like another coming-of-age summer movie, “Dirty Dancing,” “The Way Way Back opens with a family on a car trip, presumably happy to be heading out for a few weeks of vacation. But we skip the expected scenes where either all the characters interact, and/or there’s a solemn voice-over by the character who is about to come of age. Instead, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Liam James, who is sitting in the aforementioned “way way back seat,” and the boyfriend (Steve Carell) of Liam’s recently separated single mom (Toni Collette). But we only see the latter as a pair of grim eyes in the rearview mirror, and hear his voice, as he asks Liam to rate himself as a person on a scale from 1 to 10. This leads to a disagreement in ratings, and as the car pulls into the driveway of Steve’s family beach house, we’re more than primed to see him as the bad guy. (We also learn that he over-prizes his car, this means that he’s a jerk by Hollywood movie standards.)

Anyway, it only takes a minute for Steve’s sister (Alison Janney), who is also divorced and has two children, including AnnaSophia Robb, to swoop down on them and regale them with her life story, embarrassing and R-rated parts included. (There really are people like this, so it establishes her character, not just provides handy exposition.) Also staying nearby in a beach house are Steve’s friends (though later we’ll question that, too) a couple played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. At first, we continue with the group cringe, as Steve subjects Liam to a series of petty embarrassments, as well as Steve’s teen daughter (Zoe Levin) barely tolerating his presence, but eventually, Liam borrows a bike and heads off in search of less judgmental souls. He winds up at a run-down water park called “Water Wizz” (which is a real place and why it is misspelled both ways is never discussed). This is where Liam meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an older employee whose inability to take anything seriously irritates his girlfriend (Maya Rudolph) but whose humor is right up Liam’s alley (even if he doesn’t always get the joke at first). Liam takes a part-time job at Water Wizz, and slowly but believably begins to do some growing up.

Other drama comes in the form of the possibility that Steve is cheating on Toni, Liam’s attraction to AnnaSophia, and tension between Owen and Maya. It all comes to a head at a cookout attended by all but the water park characters, in which Liam confronts Steve. Like Jennifer Grey’s character in “Dirty Dancing,” part of the maturation process involves seeing one’s parents as flawed beings, but ones who do have reasons for their behavior. There are no hot dance or sex scenes in “The Way Way Back,” but both movies involve teens who aren’t glamorous by Hollywood standards, learning some harsh but valuable life lessons – and though it may not end the way the viewer wants, there is evidence that a happy ending is still on the way.

A Look Back: American Pie

The other day, I decided that the movie “American Pie” would be appropriate to review the week of July 4th, which started me thinking about movies set in that period, how things have changed drastically in the way teens communicate in relatively few years and hoverboards. Seriously, by this time – gazing ahead to the future from the eighties perspective, people might have achieved their dream of riding hoverboards to school and to work. Also, there were going to be robots that would do everyone’s menial jobs both at work (not so good) and at home (definitely a bonus). On the plus side, no one has managed to detonate a nuclear bomb and obliterate the planet, so I shouldn’t complain. Plus, the popularity of the cell phone has skyrocketed to the point where if you don’t have one, people assume you are Amish. It’s also ensured that pop songs with the line “waiting by the phone,” now sound ancient.

What does this have to do with “American Pie”? Well, it was a movie which, at the time, was popular and considered reasonable approximation (by Hollywood standards) of how “today’s teens” interacted, but now given the leaps in technology, it appears like it belongs in the horse-and-buggy era. Technology is changing so fast that movies that came out not so long ago that the (young) characters communicate in ways that are now obsolete. “Can’t Hardly Wait” (1999) appears downright quaint in the hero’s (Ethan Embry’s) quest to get a letter to the girl of his dreams. “Mean Girls,” (2004) also looks rather old-fashioned with the school’s Queen Bee terrorizing everyone with her nasty “Burn Book.” As in, an actual notebook. That could only be “hacked” by manually stealing it. Meaning that the online antics of Jason Briggs and his friends in “American Pie” have acquired a dusty golden nostalgic tint by now.

The plot, what there is of it, consists of a group of high school friends who make a pact to lose their virginity before prom night. They are Jason Briggs (the Goofy One), Chris Klein (The Jock With a Heart of Gold), Thomas Ian Nicholas (The Ladies Man), Eddie Kaye Thomas (The Faux Sophisticate), and Seann William Scott (The Boorish Party Animal and token non-virgin). They come up with various schemes in order to achieve this – it’s Jason’s character who winds up embarrassing himself via podcast and also with the title dessert. Why pie? Let’s just say it has something to do with bases.

Anyway, “American Pie” did a few things that marked it as noteworthy, at the time. It:

1. Showcased this newfangled thing called the Internet that could be used by people of ordinary intelligence to make fools of themselves and embarrass themselves in the eyes of the entire school population. For a period preceding that, movie computers were mostly used by young characters, (all anti-social geniuses), to hack into government websites and inadvertently start war, or create dream girlfriends that later came to life. (Can you imagine how fast the news of Jason’s humiliation would have spread in the social network era? He’d be lucky if he could get a job.)

2. Forever altered the way people view band camp, which used to be seen as a decidedly geeky way for teens to spend their summer, not a hotbed of sexual activity.

3. Kicked off its own franchise, which given that none of the characters were based on ones in best-selling novels or superheroes, is impressive.

4. Introduced the phrase “M.I.L.F” into the common vernacular, at least that’s where I first heard it.

5. Gave us two adult characters who actually made as much of an impression as the teen ones. They were Jim’s Dad, played by Eugene Levy, who dispenses advice on sex to his hapless son (Jason Briggs), and Stifler’s Mom (Jennifer Coolidge), the aforementioned M.I.L.F.

A catchphrase and a franchise – that’s something the John Hughes’ teen movies never accomplished – unless you count “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” (You could also argue that a single movie leaves lots of scope for fanfiction.) But like the Hughse’ movies, the filmmakers (mostly) seem to be laughing with, not at, their characters, which makes it something that’s still watchable years later.