Movie Review: The House

Often movie characters, as sympathetic as the script tries to make them, experience plights that the average moviegoer can’t imagine having to deal with. Luckily, “The House,” starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as devoted parents who face the prospect of being really proud of their only daughter (Ryan Simpkins) but not having the expected money to send her to her dream college avoids that – though only briefly. Here are some of the options middle-class suburbanites, like the characters, had in that case twenty years ago when I went to school.

a) Beating the bushes for even more scholarships/financial aid.

b) Working part time while taking classes and transferring after a year if things go well.

c) Selling your organs on the black market.

Unfortunately, the families I knew did not happen to be characters in a Hollywood movie, so we bypassed option d) Start a casino in your mutual, newly-single friend’s house, which is what Will and Amy choose after several unsuccessful attempts to gain the money legally. Like the recent “Going In Style,” the movie loads the deck by having the main characters turn to crime only after playing by the rules for all of their life. Clearly, the pair adores their daughter, who is a genuinely good kid, plus they are both alums, so the option of having her go elsewhere really isn’t fair. In addition, their entire town has agreed to give Ryan the money – so when smarmy town council head (Nick Kroll) decides to rescind the offer and spend the money on a community pool, it’s a slap in the face. So when their mutual friend (Jason Mantzoukas) offers his house for a do-it-yourself casino, Will and Amy agree.

Soon they find themselves engaged in a series of deceptions – including lying to their daughter – in order to arrange the whole thing. At least getting their neighbors to come is a breeze, they’re more than eager – leaving Nick and his already-married love interest (Allison Tolman) in the dark. But soon, Will and Tina start to flirt with more danger – involving “fight nights,” axes, angry patrons looking for revenge, and regular shakedowns of those who don’t pay up fast enough, as they discover that damn, it feels good to be a gangster. Kidnapping, embezzlement and a car accident are added to the mix, too. Eventually, Ryan stumbles upon their secret, insists on helping them pull off an alternate heist in order to secure the money at last. Rob Huebel plays the town cop, who starts off helping Nick but then has a change of heart, making for some amusing scenes. However, most of them don’t manage to make it into more than chuckle-worthy territory if that. The main thing the movie has going for it is that it’s short – and at least, it whips through the obstacles in record time, so that the lack of humor isn’t as dire as it might have been otherwise. If you want to avoid the hordes of kids at “Despicable Me 3,” it’s a decent option.

A Look Back: Teaching Mrs. Tingle

In the O’Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two men kidnap the young son of a wealthy man, only to a) soon can’t wait to return him, and b) find that the father is less than eager for this prospect. I mention this because this is often the template used in ransom movies – where the balance of power fluctuates between the kidnapper and the captive. Obviously otherwise, there would be no cinematic tension. From a truly terrible indie film called “SFW” to last year’s “Money Monster,” there are multiple ways a hostage can strike back. In “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” a nineties film, director Kevin (Dawson’s Creek) Williamson answers two important questions: a) How far would a “good girl” go to become high school valedictorian, and b) which Hollywood actress is more than capable of out-acting three photogenic teens while spending most of the movie tied to a bed? Answers: a) Kill one’s horrible history teacher, and b) Helen Mirren.

In the movie, Katie Holmes plays the daughter of a blue-collar single mom, who has perhaps the worst last week of high school in cinematic history ever (unless you count Molly Ringwald getting dumped by Andrew McCarthy in “Pretty in Pink”). However, by all rights, it shouldn’t be – she’s just completed her final project for Helen’s class, and is set to become valedictorian which will presumably lead to a spot at a college far away from her hometown. The project is – drumroll please – a hand-sewn fictional diary of a young girl at the time of the Salem Witch Trials written with homemade elderberry ink and crafted out of personally deer-tanned leather. (Just kidding, but not that much.) Not only does Katie make the whole thing herself, compare it to the projects of her best friend, Marisa Coughlan, who dresses up as Jackie O to deliver a monologue that’s long on passion but weak on facts, or her quasi-boyfriend Barry Watson who brings in a rock (yes, really). (Someone else brings in a longbow, which will play a role later on.) Unsurprisingly, Helen makes short work of such projects, but she also rolls her eyes at Katie’s. It’s baffling in the beginning why Helen has it in for her, but perhaps it’s because Katie herself is something of a victim – or she misuses the term “irony” (though that would be her English teacher’s fault). Or simply that the film needs a villain.

Fast forward a few periods, and we have Helen interrupting the trio in the school gym – the other two have procured the final in advance, but it’s Katie who gets caught holding it red-handed. This means that her chief rival, the uber-focused Liz Stauber, is now a shoo-in to become valedictorian, and Katie’s future is over – however, she gives into the pressure of her friends and pays a visit to Helen that night to try and resolve things. This leads to the aforementioned situation of Helen tied to her bed, while the trio tries to figure out how to avoid assault charges. Meanwhile at school, the principal (Michael McKean) rejoices (Helen knows his dirty little secret – he’s in AA), and so does Molly Ringwald (as a fellow teacher). Needless to say, the students are also ecstatic.

As time passes, Helen plays the trio like a violin – with the added complication of the school coach (Jeffrey Tambor), who turns out to be her love interest, paying a visit (sexually-active middle-aged people are always amusing, especially when they’re authority figures). Eventually, things are resolved in Katie’s favor, and Michael gets to utter the words to Helen that he’s longed for twenty years: “You’re fired.” And Katie at last uses the word “irony” correctly. Her English teacher would be proud.

A Look Back: Weird Science

In fairy tales, the protagonist is presented with a series of seemingly impossible challenges – such as spinning gold from straw, solving cryptic riddles, or washing blood from permanently stained clothes (in the pre-detergent era) before getting the guy or the girl. In romantic movies, the hero or heroine is also called upon to perform similarly difficult deeds – such as cleaning up a house-trashing party, buying a cake and lighting all the candles without burning oneself in a short enough span of time that one can celebrate a lovesick girl’s birthday before the parents arrive home (“Sixteen Candles”). Or holding up a boombox for an extended period of time outside a window (surely, after a few minutes, your arms might start to feel a little funny). But characters in movies are endowed with superhuman persistence and perseverance – although the ones who might take the trophy are those who decide to create their own love interest from scratch, such as occurs in the eighties classic “Weird Science.”

The John Hughes-directed movie stars Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith (who went on to become a college professor) as resourceful teen outcasts who create the ideal woman via computer. It also features Kelly LeBrock, whose modeling career produced one of the most obnoxious lines in advertising history: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” (And probably had more than one female viewer yell at the TV, “OK then, how about because you’re conceited!”) The title is additionally a song by Oingo Boingo. So again, Hughes has hit the trifecta producing a film with geeky but sympathetic protagonists, a love interest (literally) from another hemisphere, and an instantly recognizable pop song. The plot is standard teen movie fare with such standbys as bullies (Robert Downey without the Jr. as one), an out-of-control house party, snazzy sports cars to cruise in, etc., but also incorporates science – of a sort – the government computer system, high range nuclear missiles and a biker gang. In the eighties, movie teens (such as Matthew Broderick in “War Games”) did hack into the government, but rather than to start World War III, Anthony and Ilan choose the less harmful alternative: a super-woman called Lisa.

Our heroes’ quest for social acceptability begins after they get humiliated at school by Robert and his sidekick, return home, face more abuse at the hands of Bill Paxton (Ilan’s older brother) and decide that they’re not gonna take it anymore. Thus the wacky sequence in which the duo successfully manages to conjure up Kelly, who is something else – although (spoiler alert) she does not actually sleep with either boy in the film thus avoiding the date rapey vibes of the aforementioned “Sixteen Candles.” As you watch the movie, though, following Anthony and Ilan through the night – there will be more embarrassments and danger along the way as they come to realize that – newsflash – it’s self-confidence, not cockiness that attracts the opposite sex – including Bill being turned into an animatronic turd and repenting of his bullying ways. So all in all, their quest is a success. And don’t hate the actors because neither of them got anywhere with Kelly off the set being a lot younger. Plus, at the time, her boyfriend was Steven Seagal,

Movie Review: All Eyez On Me

 

When white people try to rap, the results can be anything from financially profitable (Beastie Boys, Eminem) to politely ignored – except say, you are Vanilla Ice, and you borrow the opening for your one hit (“Ice Ice Baby’) from another white dude (David Bowie), and then you may be talking lawsuit. But if you’re black, you don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation. In the nineties, musicians like Tupac Shakur, the subject of the new “All Eyez On Me,” was one of those artists that teens in my era listened to and imitated – although the ones I knew were unfamiliar with most of the topics firsthand – the closest we ever got to having guns in my high school was when someone got in trouble (really) for bringing in a water pistol. It also didn’t hurt that prissy public figures like Dan Quayle and Tipper Gore kept having hysterics over what a bad influence it was. Talk about a badge of honor for those concerned.

The biopic stars Demetrius Shipp Jr. who certainly looks and acts the part, although the film itself is, like many have already noted, similar to a made-for-TV movie. It runs for over two hours and tries mightily to pack as much about Tupac as it can in that time. To be fair, even though Tupac was killed when he was only 25, he had already established himself as an actor, as well as musician, activist and record label owner, perhaps a lot of the material included was too tempting to leave on the cutting room floor. But as my expectations were not sky high, overall I (and the rest of my audience) was absorbed in the film from start to finish – as a character in last year’s “Straight Outta Compton,” quipped, “I like Afterschool Specials.”

Born in 1971, the son of Black Panther activists (his mother was in jail while pregnant with him), Demetrius vows to be just like them when he grows up. After enrolling in a performing arts school in New York where he studies acting as a teen (Shakespeare plays a prominent role in the film), he’s forced to move to California with his sister while his single mom (Danai Gurira) who has substance abuse issues, tries to sort herself out. Her story – from addiction to redemption – plays like a TV movie, but she’s also the moral compass for her son and a lifelong inspiration. Meanwhile, Demetrius meets lifelong friend, Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) while on the West Coast, who helps keep him honest through his career, and gets a chance to tour with the Digital Underground. He also gets acclaim for his role in “Juice,” signs with Interscope Records and begins to get acquainted with the lifestyle that, as his mother reminds him, will give him “all the tools to destroy himself.”

She is prophetic as for most of the movie, it seems like Demetrius can barely poke his head out the recording studio room before he’s swept up in various trouble, including but not limited to substance abuse, run-ins with many authority figures, violence and accusations of sexual assault. Eventually, Demetrius does wind up in jail, where he tells his story to a sympathetic journalist (Hill Harper), gets some guidance from a “lifer,” and while still in and unable to post bail, watches his new album go gold. When he comes out, he signs with Biggie (Jamal Woolard) and Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) who manage the Death Row label – and whose “family”relationship with its artists occasionally edges into “Godfather”-style territory. But sadly, just as things seem to be going well for Demetrius in both his personal and professional life, he is the victim of a fatal shooting, a murder which has yet to this day to be solved.

Watching the movie, I was reminded of another nineties musician, Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide at the height of his fame in the era, and who once wrote “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” As the movie reminds us in the end, Tupac was only 25 when he achieved fame in several areas – and today, he would be forty if he had lived. Imagine what he could have achieved if his life had not been so cruelly ended when it had.

 

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A Look Back: High Fidelity

Some novelists, as inspiring as they are, apparently have but one story only to tell – although by the time they are middle-aged and well-entrenched in their careers, they’ve become pretty good at giving their audience what they expect. When British novelist, Nick Hornby, first started writing, I assumed his niche was going to be young male narrators who need a jumpstart to become adults, but he moved on and even penned the book “Brooklyn,” which was made into a movie last year, about a young immigrant who becomes significantly less homesick after she meets a cute guy. His two early books, however, feature a similar character – in “About a Boy,” a twentysomething pretends to have a young son so he can date attractive single moms, and in “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack in the movie version, a twentysomething tries to figure out how to sustain a romantic relationship.

It’s been asked – “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” but it’s Hornby who, in the guise of “High Fidelity’s” protagonist, Rob Gordon, poses the question, “What came first, the music or the misery?…Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Like the first, I think that’s ultimately unanswerable, but it’s worth chewing over. At the beginning of the movie (the setting is changed from England to the US), John is certainly miserable both because he’s broken up with his girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) and because he works at a not-too-popular record store, which is not exactly a fast track career. In addition, his co-workers (a term here used loosely) are Jack Black and Todd Louiso, who aren’t the most scintillating company – especially when the former insists on ejecting a “sad bastard” song by Belle and Sebastian and substituting “Walking on Sunshine” shortly after John’s breakup. (The duo were originally hired to work part-time but started coming in more, and John doesn’t have the heart to correct the situation.) The upside is that they share John’s passion for incorporating various events in his life into Top X Lists. In fact, he treats the viewers to a review of his Top Five Worst Breakups, including one from when he was twelve that only lasted a few weeks. Even back then, the opposite sex was tough to figure out.

John also gets back in touch with an ex-girlfriend who invites him to a dinner party with her friends, all of whom are better at being grownups than he is. He additionally has the chance to live one of his fantasies – that he’ll date a singer/songwriter (Lisa Bonet) hoping maybe she’ll include a private joke of theirs in the liner notes of her next album. Meanwhile Iben dates Tim Robbins, who is kind of a twat; while Todd also gets a girl, and Jack starts his own band. Eventually, there is the sort of third act tragedy that happens in these movies solely to give the protagonist a mental kick and bring the destined couple back together. As a sign of his newfound maturity, John prepares a mix tape filled with – gasp – stuff that Iben will probably like, as opposed to just him. The movie does an excellent job of bringing the book to the big screen – even with the change in setting, and as Roger Ebert noted in his review, all the characters are recognizable – and mostly sympathetic even with their quirks.

Movie Review: It Comes At Night

About fifteen minutes into “It Comes At Night,” I had the identical reaction I did to a suspense/horror film (“The Gift”) that Joel Edgerton also appeared in a year or so ago, which is basically please, don’t let the adorable dog meet a gruesome end. Or if it must, let it be signaled ahead of time so that I can look away. Fortunately, for animal lovers who plan to see this movie, I’m happy to report nothing bad happens to the dog, though you can’t say the same for the human cast.

The movie opens with an elderly man dying, presumably from something contagious as those attending him wear masks. After some moaning and rocking on his part, they place the guy in a barrow and wheel him out into the woods – this part may remind some of the “Bring out your dead!” scene in “Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.” The poor guy definitely isn’t deceased yet, but this is soon taken care of – and then we jump into the main story – in which Joel Edgerton plays a father who lives in the same woodsy cabin with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and seventeen-year-old son (Kelvin Harrison). Without really introducing anyone or putting things in context, there’s a lot of wordless sneaking around the property with guns loaded, as Joel and his family are threatened by thieves breaking in. The intruders turn out to be a couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner). They insist that they live nearby – and as it turns out, we’re now in a dystopian world where plague runs rampant, so the news that they’re not ill (yet) prompts Joel to agree to take them in. However, the newcomers must follow a strict set of rules – no going into a locked chamber, only leave the house in pairs, etc. This works for awhile – until it doesn’t, and their guests wish to leave. Also there might be ghosts, as the Chamber of Secrets has been opened – but no one will admit to having done it.

Like “The Gift,” “It Comes At Night,” features the dilemma of a man who comes to realize that the person he has invited (however grudgingly) into his life and home turns out to have less-than-honorable intentions and must deal with the fallout of separating from him. What begins as an act from good intentions eventually turns sour and resolving things can only be messy. What is going on in the outside world isn’t focused on, instead we share the claustrophobic view of the main characters as they struggle to connect – and then separate. There are a few sweet moments, mostly involving Kelvin getting to know the newcomers, but it’s mostly action-driven. But on the bright side, the dog (as far as we know) does not share the fate of several characters.

Movie Review: Megan Leavey

As a rule, being screamed at isn’t one of my favorite things, but I have the strong feeling that if I were to suddenly find myself parachuted into basic training in a Hollywood film, I wouldn’t be too fazed, having seen so many boot camp depictions there already. Watching them, all it seems you have to do to get along is bark an appropriate yes, sergeant/no, sergeant and make sure you never start to smile at anything, however funny, lest you be ordered to “wipe that smirk off your face!” In “Megan Leavey,” opening today, we get some of that familiar hazing of the heroine (Kate Mara) and her fellow recruits, but we rest assured that beneath that tough-as-nails exterior lies a heart of gold. Also that the dog Kate eventually bonds with has a literally worse bark than bite.

Kate plays the titular Megan (based on a real life story) who leaves her home in New York and winds up enlisting in the Marines circa 2000 after struggling with family – and possibly substance abuse – issues. Once there, she continues to have difficulty finding focus, not being particularly adept at people reading or wall climbing. When, after she develops social skills for plot purposes, and gets in trouble by sneaking off-campus one night with a couple of girlfriends to a bar, she is admonished by her platoon leader (Common) and sent to do custodial work in the kennels. There she meets Rex (played by a variety of adorable German Shepherd lookalikes), a dog with a bad reputation and begins to work hard so that she can meet the qualifications needed to pair up with such dogs, who serve as “sniffers” of explosives. There’s also a potential love interest in the form of Ramon Rodriguez who appears promising (although he’s not a Yankees fan). But her real bond is with Rex, and when they are shipped overseas to Iraq, it will come as no surprise to the viewer when they both more than prove their mettle. However, that’s just the first half – and the second – even more poignant, involves Kate’s adjusting to civilian life and her quest to eventually adopt Rex after he is retired. But Rex’s temperament will make this a challenge, although unsurprisingly, there is a happy ending.

The day-by-day grim realities of military service are not stinted on and are depicted matter-of-factly- at one point, Kate casually mentions the temperature: 120 degrees. After giving Kate and the others an alarming description of serving in Iraq will be like, a fellow soldier adds that he’s understating things. But “Megan Leavey” also does an excellent job of depicting the unbreakable bond that sometimes forms between a wary animal and their equally troubled caretaker. It beats “A Dog’s Purpose” earlier released this year paws down, too, as the canine survives – and the real life Rex and Megan had a successful post-military bond.