A Look Back: Scent of a Woman

“Scent of a Woman,” a 1992 Academy Award-winning film, based on the 1974 foreign film “Profumo di Donna,” is a “teen” movie in that it stars an adolescent (Chris O’Donnell) but unusual in that most of it takes place away from school – in this case, a private New England school for repressed rich folk. (In the movies, is there any other kind?) The first and the last act takes place there, but the bulk of the story occurs in New York, the perfect place, of course, for a mismatched duo to head and learn a slew of life lessons. Here the other partner is retired Army officer Colonel Slade (Al Pacino, who nabbed a Best Actor), who is blind. Chris plays a cash-hungry student who takes a caretaking job over Thanksgiving break (recipient: Al) so that he can fly home for Christmas. Alas, he is under a cloud as he leaves campus, as a result of a dilemma that will be waiting for him when he returns.

To summarize. Both Chris and a classmate (Philip Seymour Hoffman who manages to steal his final scene) are in the vicinity when three boys pull a prank on the headmaster. Discovering this, the headmaster promptly pressures Chris to come clean with the names, even attempting bribery (a letter of recommendation to Harvard). Though Chris refuses at the time, he is still conflicted. However, he soon has his hands full dealing with the irascible colonel who hijacks the week’s plans and ropes Chris into accompanying him to the big city. There Al gives Chris a rather different (but equally valuable) education in the ways of the world – including liquor, dancing and how to woo an attractive woman. Indeed despite his handicap, Al winds up performing a flawless tango with Gabrielle Anwar (who didn’t get quite the “lift” fame-wise that some thought she deserved after that). But unbeknownst to Chris, Al is planning his own death. Fortunately, however, after a tussle, Al gives in to Chris, and they both return to face the music.

During the “trial” at school, Philip winds up weaseling his way out of trouble by insisting that he was changing his contacts at the time of the incident and so could not see clearly. Despite being an obvious few years out of high school, Philip effortlessly channels the immature arrogance of a guy born with a silver spoon (later using it as Matt Damon’s nemesis’s friend in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”). After Chris takes his place on the witness stand and is scapegoated for not snitching, Al, who is in the audience, is given a perfect opportunity to stand and raise a ruckus. Defending his young friend, he states, “I mean, the only class in this act is sitting next to me, and I’m here to tell ya this boy’s soul is intact. It’s non-negotiable. You know how I know? Someone here, and I’m not gonna say who, offered to buy it. Only Charlie here wasn’t selling.”

After declaring that it’s about time someone takes a “flamethrower” to the school, Al then gives a rousing speech about principles, thus making sure Chris will be freed of blame. But Al has learned a few things about life, as well, and so have the students. Just as Al finally realizes that the way forward for personal growth is taking a stand, so, too, does everyone in the auditorium realize the importance of honor and integrity. In this case, it’s clear that the staff might need more schooling than their students.

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2016 Random Movie Awards

Most Cringeworthy Tagline
Swiss Army Man: “We all need some body to lean on.”

Most Gratuitous Punctuation in a Film Title
“Everybody Wants Some!!”
Runner-up: “Hail, Caesar!”

Most Humorous (Possible) Confusion of Film Title
“Weiner” a documentary about disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, which was released
near the time of “Weiner Dog,” the Todd Solondz sequel to “Welcome to the Dollhouse”

Best Overall Use of Eighties’ Hits
“Eddie the Eagle”
Runner-up: “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Best Lip Synch Scene
Renee Zellweger doing House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” in the opening of “Bridget Jones’s Baby”

Best Dance Number
“No Dames” in “Hail, Caesar!”

Best “Impromptu” Dance Number
Cast of “Everybody Wants Some!” doing “Cotton Eyed Joe”
Runner-up: Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn in “Office Christmas Party”

Most Sympathetic Movie Physician Ever
Emma Thompson in “Bridget Jones’s Baby”

Most Entertaining Olympic Commentator
Jim Broadbent in “Eddie the Eagle”

Best Sidekick
Dan Fogler in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
Runner-up: Akiva Schaeffer in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”

Best Non-Human Sidekick
The Nifler in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
Runner-up: The turtle in”Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”

Most Unconvincing Undercover Spy
Brad Pitt in “Allied”

Most Parental Child
Angourie Rice in “The Nice Guys”

Having the Worst Year Character-Wise
George Clooney – First, he’s drugged and kidnapped by Communists in “Hail, Caesar!” then gets assaulted by irate Josh Brolin after he’s rescued. In “Money Matters,” he plays a TV financial show host who’s taken hostage on stage but considered expendable by the police when capturing the perp.

Best Kept Cool Under Pressure
Julia Roberts in “Money Matters”

Worst Friend Ever
Matthew Lewis in “Me Before You,” who winds up marrying his paralyzed best friend’s (Sam Claflin’s) ex-girlfriend.

Worst Roommate Ever
Will Brittain in “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Best Sport (Human)
Mark Strong in “The Brothers Grimsby.”

Best Sport (Non-Human) 
The elephant in “The Brothers Grimsby.”

Best Sport (Musical Group)
Chumbawamba which allowed their hit “Tubthumping” to be used in “The Brothers Grimsby” (in which Sascha Baron Cohen puts a lit firecracker where the sun don’t shine and mugs.)

Biggest WTF Casting
“The Bronze,” in which Cecily Strong – a whopping seven years older -plays the mom of Haley Lu Richardson

Fastest Growing Fanfiction Not Associated With A Franchise
“The Nice Guys” (around 40 in Archive of Your Own in two months; 70 by 2016 end)

Best Cameo
Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters 2016”
Runner-up: Dan Akroyd in “Ghostbusters 2016”

Most Overdone Product Placement
The Apple Store in “The Meddler”

Best Product Placement
Pringles in “Ghostbusters 2016” as Kate McKinnon comments, “Just try saying no to these salty parabolas! ”

Best Sneaking Past Security Scene
“Snowden”
Runner-up: “Now You See Me 2”

Most Awkward First Date
Andrew Garfield and Teresa Palmer in “Hacksaw Ridge”

Most Awkward Quasi First Date
Casey Affleck and Jami Tennille in “Manchester By the Sea”

Most Athletic Sex Scene
Melissa Rauch and Sebastian Stan in “The Bronze”

You Picked the Wrong Day to Visit New York Award
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
Runner-up: “Ghostbusters (2016)”

Most In Need of a Sequel
“The Nice Guys”

Most Likely Unnecessary Sequel
“Now You See Me 3”

A Look Back: Not Another Teen Movie

If you’re a character in a Hollywood movie, which of the following should you never attempt?

a) Attempt to keep two appointments scheduled for the same time by being there in person.
b) Fall asleep on Christmas Eve expecting a dreamless slumber until morning (and not a visit from three spirits).
c) Engage in taunting an underdog team shortly before they compete in the championship game.
d) Make a bet to see if you can turn the plainest girl in school into a prom queen.

The answer, of course, is e) All of the above. But movie characters tend not to be all that bright – or at least not have watched most of the movies that the audience has, so they tend to get into the same dilemmas over and over. There are exceptions, though, especially in parody movies like the “Scream” franchise, where the characters are overall a savvy bunch. A second is “Not Another Teen Movie,” which takes the outline of “She’s All That,” (starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook), mixes in a liberal helping of teen movie tropes from “American Pie,” to “Weird Science,” a sprinkling of musical numbers, several perfect cameos, and adds plenty of humiliation for its deadpan crew. It ranks high in the overall movie character intelligent quotient, however, there are the usual adolescent pitfalls (and pratfalls) to negotiate, hence things going wrong anyway.

The movie, which starts with a scene involving masturbation, “Pretty in Pink,” and a group of little kids, zeros right in on the staler-than-a-week-old-birthday-cake trope that the “ugly” girl, who is chosen to be transformed into a swan, is usually only unattractive by Hollywood standards. Here the girl is played by Chyler Leigh (an incredibly good sport, if you ask me), who is clearly destined to be prom queen, once you remove the glasses and paint-stained overalls. The guy who makes the bet is played by Chris Evans (also a good sport) a shallow jock who is goaded into it by his equally shallow best friend (Eric Christian Olsen). But there is one person, Malik “The Token Black Guy” (Deon Richmond) who shows an impressive grasp of what will likely happen. “I’m guessing you’ll lose the bet,” he notes, “but learn valuable lessons in life.” Surprisingly, this is exactly how it plays out, but not without quite a few of the movie characters learning some lessons of their own.

There are quite a few subplots swirling around, including the following:

An attractive, fresh-faced new girl (“Pleasantville”) tries out for the cheerleading squad despite having Tourette’s. The squad’s leader is also about to realize that their routines have been directly lifted from an all African-American squad (“Bring It On”).

Chyler’s little brother (Cody McMains) is having quite a few freshman adventures, including getting detention with his pals overseen by a authoritarian principal ((“The Breakfast Club”), making a bet with his pals to lose his virginity (“American Pie”), and going on a road trip to a really rocking party (take your pick).

Chris begins the movie under a cloud because he is responsible for a mentally challenged would-be football player (“Lucas” or “Rudy”) getting badly injured in a football game. His constantly cussing coach has benched him, but he just might have a chance to turn things around. His dimbulb pal (Ron Lester) is set to start, too, but he might have the kind of luck that, well, happened also to Ron Lester in (“Varsity Blues”). Or something.

I imagine the scriptwriters had a bunch of meetings where they gravely debated how far to go, and then in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) decided that you can never go too far. Actually, it is possible to overdo such things as bathroom humor (which happens here), but overall, there are a lot of chuckles to be had.

Best and Worst Movies of 2016

Whenever I see the year end top movie lists, I agree with some, disagree with others – and there’s yet a third category entitled “Movies I’ve Never Even Heard Of” that the rest fall into. Sad to say, this is often the largest category, regardless of how many movies are ranked because reviewers seem to love picking films that haven’t yet opened but that they got to view in advance or movies that only played in a handful of theaters nationwide. On the bright side, I can make sure to see them eventually.

It often seems as if there is something of a snob factor to assembling these lists. There seems to be an unspoken rule that indies and art-house films (including at least one with subtitles) should outnumber more mainstream fare, and that only one or two blockbusters are acceptable to nominate. Taste matters – even when it’s an audience who doesn’t know you.

However, here’s my (mostly) mainstream year end list.

The Best

1. Eddie the Eagle – “Delightfully feel-good,” proclaims the cover blurb, and it’s true of this movie starring an unrecognizable Taron Edgerton as real-life Eddie Edwards, an working class British Olympic ski jumper, although you could also describe it as “aggressively heart-warming.” With Hugh Jackman playing the stereotypical washed-up champion who is reluctantly drafted to coach Taron. You may think you won’t tear up at the climax, but you may be wrong.

2. Everybody Wants Some!! – Despite the colossally dopey two exclamation points in the title and the fact that I’m not into baseball, I enjoyed this Richard Linklater movie. Blake Jenner (also appearing in “The Edge of Seventeen”) looks a little long in the tooth for a college freshman, but he gives a great performance, and besides, his fellow students look like they’re edging into their thirties.

3. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Yes, I have a soft spot for the “Harry Potter” franchise. This movie starring Eddie Redmayne is a mostly adults-populated movie, but as long as there’s plenty of the aforementioned fantastic beasts, I don’t mind. Also, there are sequels to look forward to, as apparently this franchise will have as many lives as “Star Wars.”

4. Free State of Jones – Despite a jarring subplot that takes place much later, the movie features excellent performances from Matthew McConaughey (as the real life Newt Knight who led an uprising during the Civil War), Mahershala Ali (as a runaway slave), and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who falls in love with Matthew).

5. Ghostbusters (2016) – Melissa McCarthy makes up for a disappointing “The Boss,” with this remake, starring Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as her fellow ghostbusters. Takes aim at angry Internet fanboys among other targets and succeeds. Unsurprisingly, the action sequences surpass the original’s.

6. Hacksaw Ridge – Andrew Garfield plays real-life Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss, who served as a medic in the Battle of Okinawa. Unlike many real-life based characters, Doss was apparently even more heroic than his film-counterpart, presumably this was toned down to maintain credibility.

7. Hail, Caesar! – Josh Brolin plays a Hollywood fixer in the fifties who is having a horrible, no-good bad day, especially as his leading man (George Clooney) has been kidnapped, among other subplots. Features many song and dance numbers that mimic their original inspiration and has solid performances across the board. Could have used more Jonah Hill, though.

8. Manchester By the Sea – Casey Affleck gives an authentic performance as a working class man who suffered a tragedy, who loses his brother and is forced to assume guardianship of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). Has the unpopular message that life often sucks and there’s not much you can do about it, but you’ll come to care about the characters, even Michelle Williams’s estranged wife.

9. The Nice Guys- When I saw that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were starring in a movie as a pair of detectives in the seventies, I thought “nah.” And I was completely wrong. If you don’t mind the vintage soundtrack (“The Great Escape,” “Horse With No Name”), you’ll probably laugh more than a few times.

10. Race – And here’s the second feel-good sports movie. With Stephan James as Jesse Owens and Jason Sudeikis as his college coach, this movie has a decent first half, but it’s the second that takes place at the Hitler-era Germany-hosted Olympics where it really shines. It addresses racism, of course, but also juggles a handful of controversies for both sides.

And the worst:

1. The Disappointments Room – It’s never a good sign when a minor character has to quote the movie title to explain things, which happens here. Kate Beckinsale plays a mother who lost a child a year ago and has the bad luck to move into a country house with a malevolent ghost and his daughter. Due to Kate not being the brightest bulb on the porch, many gory things happen which usually happen in a horror movie and put her in grave peril.

2. Fifty Shades of Black – The plus – It’s beautifully choreographed just like the original “Fifty Shades of Gray.” The bad news – it stars Marlon Wayans and Kali Hawk who gamely do their best, but the script – with a few exceptions – isn’t that funny.

3. Girl on a Train – Emily Blunt, (for some reason keeping her British accent), plays a mousey woman who gets her kicks imagining other people’s lives and who stumbles into a murder mystery. I had hoped it would be this year’s “Gone Girl.” It wasn’t.

4. Me Before You – Sam Claflin is listed twice at IMDB when you do a search. It might have been more entertaining if he had played twins, rather than a single paraplegic millionaire who is tended by Emilia Clarke, with whom he falls in love. But it isn’t.

5. The Neon Demon – Elle Fanning plays a naïve young woman who seeks a modeling career in California, but who runs afoul of said demon. Features lots of flashing lights, a slight plot and an unshaven Keanu Reeves as Elle’s landlord. Also there is a live tiger who easily matches the cast in talent.

6. Now You See Me 2 – This is one of those movies that boasts an all-star cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson) but just doesn’t come together the way it could.

* I could add a few more, but this list is depressing enough.

** Also I don’t mean to pick on horror movies – I did enjoy “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” especially when one character pointed out the stupidity of splitting up with ghosts on the loose.

*** Overall: a fair year, lots of decent movies but nothing that I will watch over and over.

Movie Review: Manchester By the Sea

It’s a typical Hollywood scene that screams “Tragedy ahead!”- four people standing solemnly around a hospital bed, while the occupant is soberly informed that he has until age fifty or sixty to live, due to a heart condition. “It’s a bad disease,” the woman in the lab coat intones. “What is a good disease?” quips the guy in the bed (Kyle Chandler), and the replies come instantly because in the movies, everyone is a stand-up comedian. However, in “Manchester By the Sea,” someone (the only woman present) gets fed up and takes off. You can almost hear the directing team congratulate themselves on avoiding that cliché, and since they do this many other times, they deserve it. This is not a movie where the terminally ill suffer from Ali McGraw disease and get to expire bathed in golden light. No, here the deceased wind up in a freezer because it’s mid-winter, something that bothers his brother (Casey Affleck) and son (Lucas Hedges) a lot, but can’t be remedied. As Casey points out, the cost of renting a machine to do the digging is astronomical, plus they can’t even afford a new engine for their boat.

Casey Affleck once played a dim-bulb in a trio of teens who Nicole Kidman manipulated to kill her husband in “To Die For,” and he was quite convincing as he is here playing a man who has suffered a horrifying tragedy resulting in the loss of his children, was probably not too socially adept to begin with, and has what a shrink would call anger management (and alcohol) issues. However, this is the kind of movie where the characters deal with problems by taking the family boat out to fish, rather than say, visit Judd Hirsch or Robin Williams. After Kyle passes away, Casey learns that he has been given custody of his nephew, something which doesn’t please either him or Lucas. Casey, because he lives an hour away and while not thrilled with his handyman job back home, is more or less satisfied, and also because who in their right mind would want such a surprise sprung on them? Lucas, for his part, because he already has a life, and what with being on the ice hockey team and having two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, doesn’t want to wreck a good thing. (May I just ask how, in this day and age, anyone manages such a feat? It didn’t seem plausible, but that was my only quibble.)

Another reason why Casey is less than eager to move back is because everyone knows him as the guy who caused the tragedy, plus his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) still lives in the area. But he deals with both things, one more successfully than the other. Meanwhile, in order to stay in the area, Lucas considers moving to his mother’s (Gretchen Mol) home where she lives with her second husband, Matthew Broderick, both of whom have found the Lord. This does not make for a particularly congenial visit – although it is sobering to see Ferris Bueller paunchy and middle-aged but with that trademark grin intact. In the end, things are resolved, though probably not the way the viewer expects. “Manchester By the Sea,” sounds as if it could be a British indie with lots of plummy accents and Oscar nods, but it takes place in the US, is far more down-to-earth, yet will probably snag at least one Oscar nomination.  It’s one of those movies that I think will end up more admired than enjoyed, but it’s worth seeing, if you don’t mind the slow pace.

A Look Back: Home Alone

If you’ve ever been a put-upon child – perhaps a middle child struggling to distinguish his or herself from the pack – who wouldn’t identify with young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) in the opening scenes of “Home Alone” (a 1990 blockbuster action comedy film which held records until (ouch) “Hangover 2” came along according to Wikipedia). Not only is he the target of teasing and multiple misunderstandings by his siblings (including real-life brother Kieran), he can’t even get his family to allot him a few slices of plain cheese pizza. Eventually his parents (John Heard and Catherine O’Hara) get fed up and banish Macaulay to the farthest reaches of the house, since his bed has been coopted by relatives.

The next morning, Macaulay (a sound sleeper), awakens to find the whole caboodle vanished, although he initially assumes someone is pranking him. But no.

“I made my family disappear!” he marvels, with the magical thinking of kids that age. And apparently he has. Both parents oversleep and must rush to get everyone assembled and accounted for before they head off to Paris via plane. The way he’s overlooked is more or less believable as everyone is in a major hurry. (What’s bizarre, however, is that the parents manage to make this mistake repeatedly in the sequels.) Anyway, this being the pre-cell phone era, Macaulay does not have a way to get in touch with his parents, not that he is all that eager to initially. However, it eventually dawns on John and Catherine that they are missing a member of their brood, and though they are sure nothing bad could happen, Catherine ditches the flight plan, and grabs a ride in a bus going cross-country driven by John Candy, playing the leader of a polka band. Apparently, Catherine hasn’t seen “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” so she accepts a ride. This could be a whole other movie, but the real drama stays with Macaulay. (Candy and Culkin had previously starred in Hughes’ “Uncle Buck” where they did have chemistry.)

Unbeknownst to the boy who’s home alone, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are keeping an eye on the neighborhood, planning to burgle homes that have been deserted for the holiday. But soon Macaulay realizes that they pose a threat and takes steps to protect his home from theft. He does wind up getting help from an unexpected ally, but the main credit for foiling the duo goes to him. Swedish children’s book heroine, Pippi Longstocking, when faced with an identical situation, merely picked up the burglars and put them on a high perch, but of course, lacking superhuman strength, young Macaulay must devise a series of booby-traps, all of which hit their intended targets twice as hard as they’re expecting. Let’s just say that they will need to check into the medical ward, after they are locked up.

Eventually, Macaulay is reunited with his family for a belated merry Christmas. This movie, of course, launched its young star’s career like few of his peers in that era, not to mention he wound up with a trademark – that “Scream” -like face that you can see on the cover.  An interview with Macaulay around that time depicts him bargaining with the interviewer – cash in exchange for him to make “the face”, but then he explains he doesn’t get an allowance. Not that mattered much after “Home Alone” opened.

Movie Review: Office Christmas Party

To my knowledge, here are basically two kinds of office holiday parties. One occurs during the day, takes place on the premises, involves a ton of high-calorie food including (in my last job’s case) the boss’s famous four-alarm chili, and ends with everyone staggering back to their cubicles, post-prandial gorge. This kind is booze-free for obvious reasons, and tends to be described nowadays as a holiday get-together or some such politically correct phrase. The second sort – which is the kind featured in “Office Christmas Party,” takes place after hours, and whether held on the premises or not, does involve alcohol. These tend to be much livelier affairs at least, if unlike the one in the movie, no one has the cloud of probable job loss hanging over them. But with the probability of losing their jobs due to their Internet company’s branch’s mediocre numbers, Jason Bateman, who plays a newly divorced “safe” guy and his colleagues are going to need a lot more than a few drinks to make the party successful. Particularly, if they want to bring investor Courtney B. Vance on board and avoid getting caught out by the head honcho (Jennifer Aniston), who plays the resident Scrooge.

When the movie begins, Christmas cheer is in short supply, and not just with Jason, who is too despondent to properly realize that his tech genius colleague (Olivia Munn) may have feelings for him. There’s friction between Karan Soni and his two subordinates who refuse to believe that he really does have a model girlfriend. There’s also tension between Rob Corddry (the office big mouth) who enjoys winding up Kate McKinnon’s rule-following human resources manager, who for her part, is busy enforcing the dress code. (Her sweater in the opening scene puts Colin Firth’s in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” to shame.) The mood goes further south when Jennifer arrives to scold her brother (T.J. Miller) who’s the boss of that branch and inform him that everyone’s job is in jeopardy. The solution? Invite Courtney to the biggest, most awesome after-hours Christmas party, so he can see how cool their “office culture” is. But with a snowstorm that night, they risk the wrath of Jennifer, and to complicate things, there’s a hooker without a heart of gold, her manager, a high speed car chase, and a citywide blackout that makes everyone lose Internet service. So there’s going to be plenty of trouble on the way to a resolution.

Why is there a hooker in the first place, you might ask. Well, because it turns out (gasp) that Karan does not actually have a girlfriend and so must hire one. Both have seen “Pretty Woman,” but I don’t think either has watched “Risky Business,” though perhaps the filmmakers of “Office Christmas Party” have because Karan, T.J. and several other characters wind up entangled in a scheme when it turns out neither hooker nor her manager has a heart of gold. Unlike those two movies, there is little actual sex in “Office Christmas Party,” although there is a scene involving a risqué ice sculpture and mass quantities of eggnog. Like last year’s “Sisters,” the party guests take awhile to get going, but once they do, there’s no stopping them. The plot is slight, but the car chase climax is cool, particularly since there’s not a cop to be found working that night. Which is a good thing, considering the trouble the characters end up in, I guess.