Halloween by Hollywood

I don’t know how it was with you when you were growing up, but when I was a kid, Halloween costumes did not get that fancy – either we went homemade or bought a relatively cheap one from the store. But in Hollywood movies, something decidedly different happens – regardless of the age group, on Halloween people get decked out in costumes worthy of a Broadway production. Where do they manage to get such elaborate ones on such short notice – rush order online perhaps? Anyway, regardless of costume, Halloween in the movies – the non-horror ones – is usually a chance to gather together key characters and advance the plot. Here are four ways the holiday coming up next Monday is used to do so.

1. As an escape hatch and done so by hiding in plain sight

In “E.T: The Extra Terrestrial,” young Elliott (Henry Thomas) manages to befriend an alien with a judicious use of patience and Reese’s Pieces, but then he’s faced with the problem of where to conceal E.T. Luckily, his closet proves just the place, but eventually, he figures out that the alien longs to return home. Thus, he, his little sister (Drew Barrymore) and older brother (Robert MacNaughton) decide to smuggle out E.T. during trick-or-treating on Halloween. This works like a charm in that no one suspects a thing, although it winds up taking much longer to return E.T. to his home.

2. As a catalyst for the protagonist to plan revenge

In “Mean Girls,” Lindsay Lohan plays a home-schooled teen who gets a crash course in clique dynamics and “Girl World,” when she begins high school and is “befriended” by a trio of A-listers. At first, things seem to be going well, but then comes a fateful Halloween party, which is yet another opportunity for Lindsay to grasp something important about the holiday. As she puts it via voiceover. “In the real world, Halloween is when kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it.” However, she goes as the Bride of Frankenstein, but has bigger problems when she realizes that one of her friends is hooking up with the guy (Jonathan Bennett) Lindsay has a crush on. Off to her other group of friends she goes to plan a three-tier process of getting revenge on the Queen Bee.

3. As a way for simmering tensions to come to a brew

In “The Karate Kid,” (the original) Ralph Macchio plays a new kid who is having major difficulty fitting in to his California home. This is mainly because he has done something no eighties movie teen wants to do – run afoul of a bully played by William Zabka. And it’s not just him, but his cadre of budding sociopaths, all of whom train under a truly scary karate master, that are out for blood. Making perhaps the biggest mistake of his life, Ralph decides to attend a Halloween dance – dressed as a shower, which provides excellent cover to hang out with the girl of his dreams (Elisabeth Shue), but far too cumbersome after he pranks the bullies – collectively known as the Cobra Kai -in the bathroom and is forced to flee – literally in this case – for his life.

Luckily, this turns out to work out okay in the end, as Ralph is rescued by a mysterious avenger who turns out to be his apartment’s handyman (Pat Morita), who confronts the Cobra Kai’s karate master, and promises to train Ralph for the upcoming competition, where hopefully, he will get a chance to face his tormentors fair and square. Alas, this doesn’t quite happen, but the whole thing is Hollywood movie inspiring anyway.

4. As a goad to make a major life decision

In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Tim Burton decided to add a few things that weren’t in the original: mainly flashbacks and Oedipal issues for Mr. Wonka (Johnny Depp). In one, young Willy (Blair Dunlop) returns home from trick-or-treating only to have his dentist father (Christopher Lee) confiscate all his candy. But he rebels by creeping down late at night and retrieving a chocolate from the ashes – which immediately puts him on the path to his future career as a chocolatier. I’m not sure it enhances the book’s author, Roald Dahl’s plot to give a character obvious psychological baggage, but it does offer an easy explanation for why their factory host is so odd.

Happy early Halloween!


Movie Review: Ouija: Origin of Evil

The Official Parenting Handbook
Chapter 24: How to Tell If Your Child Might Be Possessed

Please check as many of the following that apply.
1. Tendency for crows to congregate in your child’s presence.
2. Strange animals, such as dogs, hanging around that seem perpetually hostile.
3. Sudden claim that he/she has cool new (apparently imaginary) friends, particularly if he/she has been friendless before.
4. Sudden ability to channel different voices, including those of the other gender, with apparent ease.
5. Appearance of talents, gifts, skills etc. that could only be acquired with years of practice/studying.
6. Doors slamming shut, lights going off and objects moving around on their own in your child’s presence.
7. Projectile vomiting, even when the child appears to have ingested nothing harmful.
8. Sudden appearance of priests in the vicinity who seem interested in your child’s odd behavior.
9. Newly acquired ability to propel oneself in the air and slam into walls.
10. Newfound ability to get even with bullies by scaring the daylights out of them and even putting them in the hospital.

Certainly, more than a few of these apply to young Doris (Lulu Wilson) in “Ouija: Origin of Evil.” Oh, she starts out as a normal, adorable little girl, left suddenly fatherless, who lives with her mother (Elizabeth Reaser) who employs Lulu and her older sister (Annalise Basso) to make her séances convincing in 1960’s Los Angeles. But when Lulu starts displaying seriously odd traits, such as an ability to write cursive that she’s never been taught, a tendency for the Ouija planchette to move on its own in her presence, and the ability to read the minds of Elizabeth’s customers, her mom decides to roll with it – maybe the “gift” has skipped a generation – and have her help out even more. This is the part where the movie characters begin to act like they are in a movie, as opposed to reality. For example:

You are a youngish, hip and handsome Catholic school headmaster/priest (Henry Thomas), and one of your students has missed four days of school. Her older sister informs you that the situation is complicated, that the child is not sick, and that she is actually assisting her mom with her séance business. You:

a) Tell the sister to please make sure the child returns to school in a timely manner because there are laws about these things.
b) Call the mom and inquire as to what’s going on.
c) Invite the mom in for a conference so you can get to the bottom of this.
d) Invite the mom out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and only bring up the topic after you order a lavish meal.

Yes, folks, in “Ouija,” Henry goes straight for option d), which understandably confuses Elizabeth (and the viewer), especially because Henry is a widower. But nothing improper happens because there are bigger problems to deal with – such as the discovery that Elizabeth’s home’s basement once housed victims of a Nazi doctor who managed to escape to America and continue his experiments. The same basement that has been revealed to have a secret chamber in the wall in which real money appeared after Lulu asked her father to help when they were threatened with foreclosure. After Henry participates in a séance, he realizes Lulu is – wait for it – possessed and needs an exorcism. This task, especially as the Nazi doctor’s victims may be complicating things, will not be easy.

“Ouija” is suitably scary for a movie appearing the week before Halloween, though not as scary as the trailer for “Split,” starring James McAvoy as a man with 23 personalities, who abducts three girls, which is truly creepy. (One wonders, however, how the scriptwriters chose the number 23.) And Annalise gets my vote for Most Sensible Horror Movie Character ever when she points out that splitting up during the climax is about the dumbest thing ever. Finally, someone with common sense.



A Look Back: Mr. Holland’s Opus

As a former high school band geek, I’m disappointed to realize now how few movies I can remember whose plotline revolves around teens in concert/marching band. “Bandslam” is one, and another was “Drumline,” (about a college marching band), and of course, there’s good old “American Pie,” which, while not primarily about band, nevertheless managed to alter non-initiates’ idea of band camp. (A later sequel would be set in one.) Another came out in the mid-nineties: “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” a very long movie set in high school, featuring a band teacher (Richard Dreyfuss), who spends several decades inspiring his students (but not realizing it until the end). The ‘opus” in the title begins as one thing and winds up ending as quite another – but perhaps a more satisfying one.

Richard initially takes the job as something he sees as a temporary gig because his first love is composing music. His wife, Glenne Headly, is supportive, at least at first, as he negotiates such hazards as indifferent students, bureaucratic interference in his syllabus, and cafeteria food. He does make a friend (Jay Thomas) right off the bat, surprisingly enough the school coach, but their relationship winds up lasting. Still, at first, it’s rough going. When Richard comes home one night and tells Glenne that when he was in high school, he always wanted to be elsewhere – but he had no idea his teachers felt the same way, she clucks in sympathy and then when they transition to the topic of whether they thought their teachers ever “got it on,” Glenne confesses that she was in love with high school music teacher. Later on, this will come back to haunt Richard, but for now, he manages to connect with his class after he starts playing rock and roll. (This also worked well for my middle school teacher, though I hope we weren’t quite as unmotivated as Richard’s students.) When confronted by the stuffy principal and vice-principal on this, he responds that he will use anything if it sparks his students’ interest. Unsurprisingly, he will spar more than once with these two as the years progress.

Each segment is centered around a student that Richard manages to help, as we head toward the present with help from montages signifying the decade changing. First, he gets Alicia Witt to make it all the way through a clarinet piece, which sounds like a small thing – except she goes on to become governor as an adult. The second part involves Richard teaching (yes, I swear) rhythm to Terrence Howard, so he can participate in marching band. This is also when, during the actual performance, it is discovered that Richard’s young son is deaf. His relationship with him can best be described as troubled, though by the end, they do manage to reach a reconciliation of sorts. The third features Richard’s putting on a musical and dealing with a talented ingénue (Jean Louisa Kelly) who may have feelings for him. Finally, fast forward to the present, when Richard is retiring and gets a surprise reunion of all his old students, who then perform his opus. (Spoiler: It’s not that good, but who cares at this point?  If you’ve gotten invested in the movie, you’ll probably choke up at least a bit here.)

Usually, it’s humanities teachers in movies who get to be the inspirational ones, at least in more traditional subjects like English. Here, it’s nice to see that the coach character is an ally, not a foe, though the principal is pretty stereotypical as a foe. This is a movie which is pretty unashamed about trying to jerk those tears, but there are some acerbic zingers scattered throughout the dialogue, which may make a veteran of band nod knowingly. I know that since every year in my high school, the band program would be rumored to be on the chopping block, I laughed out loud when Richard, finding himself in the same potential position, cracks, “The day they cut the football budget in this state, that will be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!”

A Look Back: The Craft

Bus Driver: “Girls, watch out for the weirdos.”

Nancy: “We are the weirdos, mister.” (The Craft)

Nancy (Fairuza Balk), a Catholic high school student and the leader of a group of outcast girls who become a coven in “The Craft,” isn’t kidding. Fairuza, who was the go-to actress for “edgy” heroines after Winona Ryder passed for awhile, plays a trailer trash rebel, who meets new girl, Robin Tunney (veteran of many indies), and enlists her because hey, they need four witches for the “corners.” The other two are Neve Campbell, best known at the time for biting her lip and looking adorably persecuted on the TV show “Party of Five,” and Rachel True, who I still have no idea about her acting career, but who does an equally terrific job here. Neve is understandably self-conscious due to burn marks on her back, while Rachel’s problem is the racist Queen Bee (Christine Taylor) on her swim team. Oddly enough, the girls don’t hit it off at first, rather there’s friction, but eventually, they get together. Although Robin’s initial issue is with the trio, she soon winds up having a less-than-ideal first date with the school sports star (Skeet Ulrich), and winds up getting slut-shamed – even though technically nothing occurred. After that, she’s more than willing to join a group that promises the chance of revenge.

Although she seems bright and stable enough, we eventually learn that Robin has survived a suicide attempt, which will play a role in the end climax. Robin also has a history of having unexplainable stuff happen to her, stuff that might just be magic. This tendency meshes nicely with the other girls’ study of spells and whatnot, and soon they are actually doing magic – and getting revenge on their tormentors. Revenge like Fairuza and her mom getting to move into a swanky high rise, and Skeet’s becoming hopelessly devoted to the very uninterested Robin. But things take a sinister turn when the girls attempt to conjure up a real live spirit – and succeed. It’s the classic, “Be careful what you wish for,” and eventually friction again flares between Robin, whose only problem is that she has a conscience and wants to put the kibosh on the revenge thing, and the others. This is definitely not what Fairuza wants – and there are signs that she’s not just overly keen on witchery but actually possessed. Get ready for a showdown, involving magic, blood and one of the girls being committed to a mental institution.

Fairuza also played a somewhat younger witch in “The Worst Witch,” which is what you would get if you put a kid’s movie and a musical in a blender and pushed Puree. I don’t recommend it, but “The Craft” is worth a watch if you’re stuck at home handing out candy to munchkins on Halloween. One critic who reviewed it at the time argued that it sends an anti-feminist message since the girls are ultimately punished – but their only crime is going too far. Revenge, it’s said, is a dish best served cold, and perhaps while in the crucible of adolescence, it’s impossible not to be heated by passion.

Movie Review: The Accountant

Autism is getting much more attention than it did when my Baby Boomer aunt (who, like Ben Affleck in “The Accountant” has it) was a child, but it still has yet to yield many of its secrets. There’s heated controversy over what exactly causes it, and some believe, like a character in the film, that perhaps it’s not that people with the condition are incapable of communicating – rather it’s that we have yet to figure out the right way to listen. As a child, Young Ben baffles his parents with his hypersensitivity to various stimuli, but when they take him to a specialist, he provides cautiously optimistic news – that it’s possible to help the boy lead a full life. When the father presses him on whether this will be a “normal,” one, the guy comes back with, “What’s normal?” He has a point, and Ben’s upbringing – as an army brat whose father schools him in martial arts for self-defense – turns out to be ideal for his adult career. However, Ben isn’t exactly destined to lead an uneventful life. “You’re different,” his dad says bluntly to his son at one point. “And sooner or later, different scares people.”

Eventually, Ben matures and becomes the accountant of the movie title. We first properly meet him (as opposed to a shadowy silhouette in the opening scene) when he’s interviewing an elderly couple in a strip mall housed firm and helping them with tax deductions. The couple then invites Ben to come fishing on their property; he solemnly tells them he prefers shooting, which they are also fine with and which becomes integral to the plot later on. Soon it turns out that this is just a cover and that Ben is, in fact, a forensic accountant which involves a lot more risk, secrecy and yes, self-defense with the shady characters he comes across.

His next job is investigating the finances of a robotics company, and this is where he meets a fellow accountant (Anna Kendrick). Together the two solve their assigned mystery, but after the death of its executive, Ben is drawn into a complex tangle of crime, some of it professional, some of it with ties to his family. This involves things like “cooking the books,” and “money laundering,” processes that sound quaint and homey, but in actuality result in lots of people dying in multiple shootouts. Meanwhile a Treasury Department bigwig (J.K. Simmons) enlists/blackmails a colleague (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to investigate into Ben’s doings. Shortly thereafter, as the description for the Internet Movie Database puts it, “the body count begins to rise,” which is the same as saying the Titanic sustained some water damage.

Ben is fairly successful portraying a man who, as he tells Anna, has trouble connecting with people, although he wants to. (The part where he’s doing financial calculations may give the viewer “Good Will Hunting” flashbacks.) Anna and J.K. are, as usual, reliably good. For such a violent film, it turns unexpectedly philosophical at the very end, articulating some good questions about autism and those who must navigate it.  This movie clearly wants to be both entertaining and thought-provoking, and for the most part, it succeeds.

A Look Back: October Sky

“What do you want to know about rockets?” Chris Owen

“Everything.” Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky)

A key clue that “October Sky” will not be your typical Hollywood teen movie comes early on, when the hero, Homer Hickham Jr. (Jake Gyllenhaal) points out his father to the viewers. But rather than a one-time shot of either a tyrant, workaholic or a doofus (typical Hollywood portrayals of He Who Knows Best), we get two scenes – one of which puts the man in a flattering light, the other which decidedly does not. And as the movie progresses, we get multi-dimensional portraits of the key players in young Homer’s world. His relationship to his father, a coal miner who (at first) disdains his son’s desire to create rockets like “Sputnik” whose appearance captivates the rural community, is troubled, but it ends on a positive note when Jake acknowledges that although he deeply admires Werner von Braun (an aerospace engineer), he’s not his “hero.” “You are,” Jake concludes at the movie’s end to his dad, simply but there’s nothing more that needs to be said.

Trust me, even cynics might find themselves tearing up a bit here.

Based on the memoir “Rocket Boys” (an anagram of “October Sky”), the movie takes place in the fifties when America was competing with the Soviet Union to win the space race. According to Wikipedia, the title was changed because it was believed that mature women would balk at going to a film with that title (probably correct). But whatever it’s called, it’s a memorable movie. At first, Jake is unmotivated by school, and because his family expects him to follow in his father’s footsteps, this is understandable Nor do his classmates, save for the class geek (Chris Owen) have an interest in science, despite the prodding of their teacher (Laura Dern), but that changes with the coming of “Sputnik.” This triggers Jake’s enthusiasm for rocketry, and in what may be the only time this scene in a movie does not end with someone getting a makeover, changes lunch tables in order to grill Chris. Soon the two boys, plus Jake’s friends (William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg), are busy building rockets of their own, many of which crash and burn in amusing montages, but slowly the team makes progress. Then two things happen that threaten to derail their dreams for good – one of which is a fire that is blamed on an errant rocket and another which is Jake having to temporarily take his father’s place in the mines. But the boys triumph at the national science fair, defeating, one assumes, students from far more privileged schools, and Jake goes on to work at NASA when he’s grown.

Jake is fully convincing as a youth who may well have come from that part of the country, as opposed to a Hollywood star pretending to be disadvantaged. The fact that Werner is actually a former Nazi who made a wise career change to emigrate to the US and help with its space program is handled with kid gloves, of course, so that awkward fact of who Jake admires gets smoothed over. Overall, it goes beyond the typical follow-your-heart-to-your-dreams narrative most movies of this kind are, soaring, yes, like a rocket.


Movie Review: The Girl on the Train

Trains are easily one of the Top Ten Movie Symbols, with both opening and closing shots of a train chugging along as shorthand for adventure, progress, journeys. Trains are great places, at least according to Hollywood, to have sex after you’ve just tanked your interview to your first choice college (“Risky Business”) or glimpse other lives that may or may not intersect with yours. Such is the case in “The Girl on the Train,” based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, in which an alcoholic and badly bruised from her divorced woman (Emily Blunt) takes the train to Manhattan each day, but not exactly to work. No, she does so in order to window gaze and dream about a woman (Haley Bennett), whom she sees regularly outside her house. Solving a movie mystery based on a book that you haven’t read is like doing a puzzle without looking at the picture on the box top, but it’s clear from the start that Emily is not exactly a model of mental health, obsessing about the woman and her husband’s (Luke Evans) lives, even sketching them. We soon learn that she has recently divorced her own husband (Justin Theroux), who is now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). There is also a therapist (Edgar Ramirez) who may or may not be tied to the crime that occurs later. Oh, and the movie/novel constantly moves around in time, so there’s that to figure into the equation, too.

Rebecca has (seemingly) everything Emily has lost, including a baby girl. Her nanny just happens to be Haley. One day, Emily sees something distressing and goes to confront Haley. The next thing she knows, a detective (Allison Janney) is visiting her and insisting that she has something to do with the disappearance of Haley. Because Emily is prone to blackouts (though she’s trying to quit drinking), and also has lied about keeping her former job, she’s pretty much the model of the Girl Who Cried Wolf, and so she remains under suspicion, as she struggles to piece together what actually happened. And to load the dice, Emily has been stalking her ex-husband and his wife, even going so far as to enter the house and hold their baby. The movie takes place in late fall and early winter (also highly symbolic), and all the yards are covered in leaves. No one apparently has time to rake or blow the leaves away, and so each shot of their yards reflects the characters’ mental states – cluttered with fears, secrets and anxiety. When Emily finally manages to confront the perpetrator, it’s as gory a scene as the climax of “Gone Girl,” but the sun finally emerges and stays out.

I would recommend reading the actual book, if you must see this, because I’m going to assume the characters are far more fully fleshed out there. Here, Emily does a valiant job of trying to breathe life into her character, and for the most part, she succeeds (though why she has a British accent when her character is presumably from NY, I have no idea). The other actors are less successful, though perhaps that is due to factors beyond their control. All three main female characters exhibit what shrinks call “flat affect,” which does not help when you are trying to develop your role. Compared to “Gone Girl,” this is a Diet Coke of a mystery, though it may be worth catching on DVD.