A Look Back: Forrest Gump

After several Academy Award shows that left me seriously scratching my head, I developed a theory (probably common sense) that the actors most likely to win in the Best category were ones who portrayed someone the viewer would most like to go out and have a drink with – not too intellectual, but still a decent guy. Now there are exceptions – particularly if someone comes along and chills us to the core with their portrayal of a psychopath – but in general, it’s the nice guys who finish first on the big screen. This may partly why Tom Hanks won a Best Actor Oscar for “Forrest Gump” in ’94 (based on the novel by Winston Groom), and also because the Academy has a soft spot for characters with disabilities. (And of course, because Tom did a great job.) The eponymous Forrest is mentally challenged, but, although lacking the autistic savant skills of his book counterpart, manages to be present at, and alter the course of a great many events of the twentieth century. Indeed the audience is put right away in the position of having a drink with Tom, so to speak, as he spends most of the movie recounting his life story to various passers-by at a bus stop, which helps engage them right away in the narrative.

“Forrest Gump” begins with the sight of a white feather lazily drifting downward toward the hero. A white feather is traditionally the sign of a coward, but since Tom really does not fit the definition of a coward, perhaps the intention is more Emily Dickinson – “hope is the thing with feathers,” and all that. Certainly, Tom’s mother (Sally Field) is determined that her son’s limitations not hold him back from living a full life, starting with elementary school in the fifties, in which she manages to get the principal to admit Young Tom to a regular class. On his first day of school, he meets a girl, Jenny, (played by Robin Wright as an adult), with whom he becomes smitten and who he cannot forget throughout all his adventures later in life. Now Jenny has always struck me as kind of a wuss – you’d think she could at least chuck something at the bullies taunting Young Tom rather than just whining at him to “run fast,” but that turns out to have a silver lining because he develops a gift for running fast – and once he does it holding a football, wins a scholarship to the University of Alabama – where he eventually meets President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is just one of several presidents whose paths Tom will cross – others include Lyndon B. Johnson and there’s also a nod to Watergate and Richard Nixon. But first, Tom has to get through the turbulent sixties.

So cue “Fortunate Son,” which seems to be one of the go-to songs for Vietnam movie montages, and Tom is off to basic training where he makes a friend (Mykelti Willliamson), who dreams of working on a shrimp boat once war is over. Their platoon leader is “Lieutenant Dan” (Gary Sinise) who is later badly injured but survives (Mykelti is not as lucky). When Tom returns home, he winds up co-starting a shrimp boat company, but not before getting the funding after discovering he has an uncanny talent for Ping-Pong. He also dabbles in long distance running, invents a famous logo, and invests in a software company (Apple) that turns out to be fantastically profitable. Eventually, he meets back up with Robin and discovers that they have a son (Haley Joel Osment) who is not mentally-challenged, although Robin turns out to be terminally ill. The movie ends with Haley going off on his first day of school under the proud gaze of Tom and so comes full circle. Personally, I think the movie might have been more interesting if they’d stuck in some of omitted adventures (such as Tom’s stint as an astronaut) and made Tom’s character less “innocent,” but the movie makers knew what they were doing, and hence a raft of Oscars became theirs at the Academy Awards for that year.

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A Look Back: There’s Something About Mary

Thanksgiving was yesterday, which meant many Americans voiced gratitude for things as varied as good health, a semi-functional family and hopefully, a primo parking spot if they planned to do some shopping Friday. Sometimes, though, we don’t have to wait for an official holiday to give thanks – we find ourselves doing so automatically when we’re watching a Hollywood movie. For example, in “There’s Something About Mary,” directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, several months before Thanksgiving when it was released in July, both audience members of the male and female persuasion felt gratitude early on into the film – as they watched Ben Stiller engage in a battle with an errant zipper and a particular body part, as he prepares to get ready for the prom in the bathroom of his date’s house – either that you weren’t Ben or would never be.

If you thought Carrie White had a bad prom, surely, Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” runs a close second; at least poor Carrie actually made it to the prom and got to enjoy herself a bit before the climax. Ben, on the other hand, although his invitation issued by the eponymous Mary (Cameron Diaz) after he defends her mentally challenged younger brother (W. Earl Brown) in the schoolyard thrills him, doesn’t even make it to the actual event because of said zipper incident. Instead he winds up in the ER (en route, a medic shouts, “We’ve got a bleeder!”) and loses touch with Cameron. However, in his twenties, he decides to hire a private investigator (Matt Dillon) to track down Cameron, on the advice on his friend (Chris Elliott), who turns out to have his own checkered history with her. Despite being fed a fish story about Cameron being exceedingly overweight and unattractive, Ben proceeds down to Miami where he (of course) finds the opposite. Not only is Cameron as gorgeous as she was in high school, she’s also an orthopedic surgeon and still being pursued by inappropriate men.

How inappropriate? Well, there’s a British-accented guy on crutches (Lee Evans) who lusts after Cameron and who turns out to have a pretty ordinary second shift. There’s also Matt himself who begins dating Cameron, in spite of, or perhaps because of, being incredibly politically incorrect. Meanwhile, Ben has a series of misadventures involving Cameron, an alternative to hair gel, a rest stop break gone wrong, and more high jinks involving W. Earl Brown,  who is beginning to trust Ben and whose trust will pay off in the end for a happy ending. There is a twist involving Brett Favre (as himself), and a brave act of sacrifice, but everything does work out in a fairy tale way. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, you find yourself laughing despite, or perhaps because of, the political incorrectness (a staple of Farrelly brothers’ films), which in the nineties when the movie came out, was a good thing.

2016 Fall Movie Lessons

Warning: May contain spoilers.

The Disappointments Room

1. Resident ghosts can only be patient for so long before they order the recently moved-in residents to take a hike.

2. Always prop open the door of a mysterious hidden room if you intend to actually go inside for awhile.

3. Anniversaries of deceased children are not the best time to invite friends over to distract your wife, regardless of what your shrink says.

Snowden

4. The guy who playfully tosses you a Rubik’s Cube as he leaves work may actually be smuggling out top secret data.

5. Everyone who insists that they “have nothing to hide” would be horrified if they knew how easily their home computer can be hacked.

6. Microwaves are perfect for scrambling cell phones when you are meeting with a team of whistleblowers in order to leak NSA data.

Bridget Jones’s Baby

7. If you’re going to be kept in the dark as to which guy is the dad of your child until you give birth, you luck out either way if the dad is Colin Firth or Patrick Dempsey.

8. If you’re going to be an unwed pregnant woman in a film, you should definitely hire Emma Thompson as your physician because she is a load of wry British fun.

9. There are still fewer bigger satisfactions in life than quitting your job in a cloud of moral righteousness. Especially when you preface it with, “You can’t fire me because…”

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

10. You can go until your mid-teens without being aware that you have a superpower.

11. If you land on a Welsh isle and need a tour guide, do not engage a pair of wannabe rappers because they will desert you in a mucky bog.

12. Even the ultra-creepy peculiars have abilities that come in handy in battle, such as summoning up an army of rampaging zombies.

The Accountant

13. Training your two sons to fight will pay off, especially when they grow up and choose an adult career.

14. Inviting your accountant over to do some innocent target practice might result in some actual attempts on your lives.

15. If you mail someone a valuable painting, it pays to disguise it as a cheap reproduction first.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

16. If you’re a priest and you wish to discuss a child in your school, it’s appropriate to take her mom out to the fanciest restaurant in town.

17. You do not mess with a kid who has recently acquired the power to commune with the dead, no matter how big a bully you are.

18. If your companion is so scared he falls off his chair in a séance, you might get a free reading out of the deal.

Hacksaw Ridge

19. If you see a disheveled elderly man talking to himself in a cemetery, he might be a decorated veteran, so pay him the proper respect.

20. If the platoon returning from battle looks haunted, there’s a darn good reason, and you’d best be prepared that the worst is yet to come.

21. You don’t need a gun to be a hero while serving in a war (though it certainly helps).

Shut-In

22. Skype can be invaluable when you’re being stalked unaware in your own home.

23. There do not appear to be stiff penalties for losing a child you are supposed to be transporting to his new home as part of your job.

24. It’s perfectly possible to fake catatonia for sustained periods if you want your mom to care for you like a baby.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

25. Bank personnel are humorless jerks who refuse loans to honest, hardworking folk, even when they bring in a suitcase of delicious looking pastries.

26. Even the most beguiling witches can’t compete with a chance to leave them and hop into a magical suitcase.

27. If you’re a newspaper owner, never let the recent death of your pompous politician son get in the way of your covering a magical battle and an invasion of fantastic creatures.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

“Mostly, I annoy people,” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) notes wryly to his companion, a Polish-American immigrant (Dan Folger) who falls unintentionally into an underground world of witches and wizards in 1920’s Manhattan in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (based on the book by J.K. Rowling). Certainly, Dan is having quite a day, beginning when he goes to the bank to request a loan so that he can open his own bakery. Alas, being a mere factory worker, he has no collateral and as the man who sees him points out, machines can now make mass produced pastries these days, so out he goes – only to have something else grab his attention. As Dan stares in disbelief at the shaking egg that he pocketed after a brief meeting with Eddie, who leaves it behind, he manages to stammer out, “Mr. English Guy? Your egg is hatching!” And this is only the start of the adventures which take place pre-Harry Potter-era Hogwarts (obviously) in times which dark arts wizard Gellert Grindelwald is wreaking havoc. Gellert, if I have my Potter-ology correct, is Albus Dumbledore’s (now teaching at Hogwarts) former best friend/nemesis who dreamed of a master race with the chilling slogan “for the greater good.” But the duel between the two is fodder for another movie – right now, we’re firmly in America.

Eddie, whose yearly fall appearance starring in an Oscar-bait movie (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”) comes around like clockwork isn’t kidding when he says that he tends to rub people the wrong way. If carrying a suitcase of perpetually trying to escape magical creatures doesn’t do it, maybe it’s the fact that he’s a walking collection of all the mannerisms – stammering, head ducking, physical clumsiness that British actors can get away with without coming across as merely goofy the way an American actor would. He first bumps into Dan – literally, and after Dan’s ill-fated interview, the two are thrown together when Eddie’s pursuit of an errant niffler (a burrowing creature with a fetish for gold) causes him to be mistaken for a thief by the bank security team. Due to an inadvertent briefcase swap, Dan is drawn further into Eddie’s world.

Currently, times look bleak for both the rights of fantastic beasts and magical children born in Muggle (non-magic) world, who are both being persecuted. Anti-magic crusader Samantha Morton extorts crowds to stamp out magic, “for the future, for our children,” while secretly abusing her own including “Squib” (non-magical) Ezra Miller. Ezra, for his part, has formed an alliance with a mysterious man who promises to help him as long as he helps find a magical child who supposedly is the answer to a prophecy. (Or something. I never quite did work out why the child (Faith Wood-Blagrove) was so central to the whole plot.) There is also a subplot about the corrupt son of a newspaperman running for Senate, as well as Johnny Depp popping up in a crucial role. But the real “stars” are the magical creatures themselves.

To aid them in their quest, Eddie and Dan hook up with a pair of witches (Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston), who shelter and feed them (and in the case of Alison, bewitch Dan), but who the guys eventually ditch by jumping into Eddie’s magical suitcase, where we’re suddenly ushered into a multi-dimensional, multi-environmental world full of the creatures. This is the part that is truly fantastic, though I also enjoyed Dan’s performance and thought he should get nominated for convincingly conveying what it’s like to wake up from an enchantment. I’ve always thought that more than one actor deserved an Academy Award nomination (not necessarily win) for their role in the Harry Potter franchise, but of course, that and “Fantastic Beasts,” have the stigma of  being a “kids’ film,” although I expect it to pick up at least one non-acting nomination this year. The movie also gets journalism as a profession mostly right – something that doesn’t always happen in the movies, at least when the climax arrives and makes the “Ghostbusters'” remake’s parade of invaders look tame, the publisher notes the goings-on, and solemnly instructs, “Take pictures.”

A Look Back: The King’s Speech

If you’re looking for proof of how absurd the ratings system is for Hollywood movies, you might want to look no further than 2010’s “The King Speech,” which won multiple awards in the US and abroad, but also had the distinction of being re-released with a PG-13 rating in order to broaden its audience. Containing no sex whatsoever and virtually no violence (unless you count verbal sparring), the movie received an “R,” primarily because of a scene in which King George VI (Colin Firth) swears like a sailor. However, he does this not from frustration, immaturity or to degrade another person, but because his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) has noticed that he doesn’t stammer when he swears. This scene includes both British and American curses, as well as a lot of the “f-word,” but it’s nowhere in league with, say, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Still let’s just say that if the movie is shown on TV with the swears bleeped out, that will be one long bleep.

A couple of things conspire to make Colin’s wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seek out alternate therapies (including a doctor who recommends smoking), to help her husband overcome his speech problem. One is the invention of the “wireless” radio, and another is the world war going on. Since there are signs that Great Britain may join the Allies, as well as the fact that even being a mere prince in this era requires an ability to give speeches (on the radio and otherwise), Helena tracks down an Australian doctor, or who she believes is a person with the traditional background, who agrees to see Colin and hopefully make his future in public speaking smoother. Alas, there is friction between the two at the start, but after Colin goes home and plays a recording of him speaking in Geoffrey’s office stammer-free (by listening to music), he decides to give him another chance. This particular scene led to the popular question: “Why doesn’t Colin listen to music over headphones while he gives speeches?” which appeared again and again on the IMDB forum and probably elsewhere, too. Answer: Because it would be too distracting. (At least I think that that’s the answer.) Luckily, however, this is just one in Geoffrey’s bag of tricks, which he must dive into more than once in order to help – and heal Colin.

Having worked with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome to help them unlock the source of their pain, Geoffrey knows that one key to success with his clients is the ability to draw them out, listen and gain their trust. However, this proves difficult with Colin, given the natural barriers between royalty and the common folk. But when crisis arrives in the form of his brother (Guy Pearce) falling in love with Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) and deciding to abdicate – never mind the upcoming war – it’s crucial that Colin overcome his doubts and insecurities to take his brother’s place on the throne. And after many disputes and confessions, success occurs when Colin gives a successful speech on the advent of Great Britain entering World War II. Today, rummaging around through a patient’s past is considered a necessity in therapy, but back then, it was a new approach. It’s said that J. Edgar Hoover cured himself of his stutter by learning to talk really fast, but of course, that would not make half as inspiring a movie as “The King’s Speech.”

Movie Review: Shut-In

This movie has a major twist, which the review reveals. Read at your own risk.

“Am I dreaming?” stammers Mary Portman (Naomi Watts), as she opens her eyes and discovers that her mouth is bound with duct tape, her previously comatose son is looming over her, and – oh by the way – she’s nude in the bathtub. This may prompt a snicker from the viewer given how many times the main character has woken from a nightmare and “fooled” the viewer. But this time, yes, it’s for real. In “Shut-In,” Naomi plays a child psychologist who winds up getting stuck in a New England snowstorm in her home “alone” with her disabled son from a car crash that killed her husband. And in a plot twist best described as Freud meets “Misery,” she’s about to be taken hostage by her own son. Oh, and she also has an adorable deaf boy (Jacob Tremblay from “Room”) who is one of her patients in the house. who was previously believed to be lost, in peril because – why not? The more people in peril the better! Luckily, Naomi’s doctor, Oliver Platt, has been able to glean from Skype that something is amiss and is hopefully on the way to intervene, snow and all. So there is a lot of suspense – or at least is supposed to be.

Before going into the rest of the plot, let’s discuss “Misery,” for a minute. I know it’s movie villains like Freddy Krueger and Norman Bates that tend to get mentioned as the scariest of all time, but in my opinion, Kathy Bates’s performance as an unbalanced “greatest fan,” of romance writer, James Caan, is one of the most frightening I’ve ever seen on screen. (Who else could make epithets like “Mr. Man,” and “Dirty birdie,” sound more sinister than cursing?) However, if you are hoping for an equally or at least somewhat as suspenseful movie with “Shut In,” you will be waiting quite awhile. Sure there is eye candy in the form of the troubled (to put it mildly) adolescent son, Charlie Heaton, who sulks and pouts smolderingly in the mold of a young Leo DiCaprio or Stephen Dorff, and there’s plenty of cringe factor in the set-up of a son who is infatuated with mom – but the pacing is odd. How slow is this movie? It’s the equivalent of sitting in a really boring class with a growling stomach before lunch. Things tend to happen either lickety-split or with the agonizing slowness of molasses trickling from a congealed jug in August. Perhaps the mistake was putting in enough “Misery” elements so that the viewer naturally expects a similar movie in terms of quality. That was my mistake anyway.

“Shut-In,” expects the viewer to swallow wholesale a couple of things that might be difficult. First, that a parent who is a child psychologist could completely miss the signs that her son is a sociopath, as he has never done anything violent save for a one time stand against some bullies. Second, it asks you to believe that said sociopath could successfully fake catatonia from the moment he wakes up in the hospital to the moment where he takes mom hostage. Said sociopathic son has only decided to drop the façade because he’s overheard Naomi and Oliver discussing putting him in an institution. Now Naomi is not only trying to save herself and the little boy, who Charlie believes is his “replacement,” but she must also play along at times when she’s cornered. I can see how a loving mother, even a psychologist, might be blind to the signs that there is something off about her child, especially if his behavior doesn’t fit the neat little diagnostic boxes. However, the second part seems impossible or at least implausible. Your mileage may vary on this.

As for the storm itself, it’s pretty benign by New England standards. Most New Englanders are going to look at it and shrug because they’ve lived through way worse. But it does put a crimp in the plans of Oliver, although I was never really concerned that help wouldn’t show up in the nick of time. As Naomi struggles to figure out if she’s going insane, there is talk of ghosts and intruders, but nothing can beat the sheer creepiness of Charlie’s behavior. The suspense mainly comes from wondering if the movie will “go there.” After it was over, everyone walked out with “What the heck was that?” looks on their faces. Myself included.

 

A Look Back: Bring It On

In one of those nuggets of common-sense that masquerades as meaningful advice, it’s often advised that when you are trying to connect with someone, the best way is to find common ground. Obviously, sometimes it works, and sometimes it backfires in humorous ways. In “Bring It On,” a movie in which the climax is a national cheerleading competition, perky head cheerleader Kirsten Dunst attempts to bond with Jesse Bradford, the new kid in her high school by asking him if the band on his shirt is his. “The Clash?” he responds surprised but still game, “Afraid not.” Luckily, things go better after she meets Jesse’s sister, Eliza Dushku, who has recently auditioned for the cheerleading squad, and things improve from there. “Bring It On,” one of the few Hollywood teen movies in which the football team begins as lousy and does not get significantly better with the help of an inspirational coach, features guys competing but mostly as backdrops tossing up their female squad-mates into the air as they perform flips that defy gravity. The movie, which spawned several direct-to-video sequels, also features a romance, several moral dilemmas, and plenty of amusing one-liners.

The movie kicks off at the start of a new school year when Kirsten has successfully completed cheerleading camp and is poised to take over as head of the squad from “Big Red,” (Lindsay Sloane), but when another girl injures herself, she’s forced to hold auditions. At first, things don’t look promising – as candidate after candidate appears untalented, unmotivated or plain confused (“These aren’t the auditions for ‘Pippin’?” one poor guy asks.). However, with the arrival of snarky Eliza, who is gifted but also skeptical as to why she should be wasting time bouncing and chanting, the squad has found their linchpin. Unfortunately, more trouble flares when Eliza claims she has seen their brand new routines before. Sure enough, it turns out that Lindsay has been filching routines from an inner-city high school led by Gabrielle Union, and when Kirsten investigates, she learns that they are aware of this and not terribly happy. Of course, Kirsten is devastated at this news. As she puts it in no uncertain terms, “My entire cheerleading career has been a lie!” Still after an emergency meeting, Kirsten’s team decides to do the right thing, scrap their original routine, and hire a coach (Ian Roberts) to help out. Also, upon learning that Gabrielle’s team may not be able to travel to nationals due to financial issues, she tries to help – which has an unexpected twist – but the end result has both teams competing in an exciting finale.

Besides teen movies, cheerleading has also found a place in pop culture with the eighties’ one hit wonder, “Mickey” by Toni Basil, herself a former high school cheerleader. And while cheerleaders usually appear in Hollywood movies as mean-spirited, dim and shallow, if not plain evil, “Bring It On,” offers a more positive portrayal.  Sure some of these girls have a catty streak, but they are also shown to be hard-working, driven and willing to do the right thing even if it takes awhile. They may be perky, but they’re hardly air-heads and are secure in their place in the high school hierarchy. “It’s kind of mean to cheer for them,” one explains about the school’s football team, but the viewer should have no problem doing so for the main characters here.