A Look Back: Some Kind of Wonderful

According to the biography, “You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried,” by Susannah Gora, acclaimed director John Hughes was far from an outcast in his youth, but at one point, he bemoaned to his dad that he wasn’t as popular as he’d like, to which his father apparently responded along the lines that it didn’t really matter because in a few years, he wouldn’t see any of his classmates ever again. When we are young, we often lack the ability to project ourselves into the plausible future, so it falls to the adults around us to provide a reality check.

I myself can relate to this anecdote because when I was a teenager wanting unattainable (material) things that seemed necessary in the present, my parents also tried to take the long view with me. As in, “Absolutely not. That money is in the bank to pay for college.” Had I done what Eric Stoltz attempts in “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and blown my entire savings on a gift to impress my crush, who might well just be using me, they would have been upset. To put it mildly. However, luckily Eric and the other film characters exist only onscreen, plus it’s a Hughes movie, so there is – spoiler alert! – a happy ending.

In the movie, Eric plays a blue-collar teen who is both a skilled auto mechanic and an aspiring artist, which makes him unpopular with his peers – his only real friend is the tomboyish, from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks Mary Stuart Masterson, an aspiring musician herself. (As in many Hughes’ movies, Eric is also in conflict with his dad who wants him to go to college – and do something more practical than art.) Of course, in this case (and as the movie replicates the year before in “Pretty in Pink) this may mean that Mary possibly has unrequited feelings for Eric (that she hasn’t admitted even to herself). To complete the love triangle, there is a popular girl in their class – played by Lea Thompson – who Eric has unrequited feelings for. However, things change when Lea has conflicts with her jerky boyfriend (Craig Sheffer), and she agrees to a date with Eric. This turns out to be a potential set-up for humiliation at the hands of Craig and his buddies, but Eric decides to go through with the date anyway – with Mary as his chauffeur – plus purchase the aforementioned gift (diamond earrings) for Lea.

Well, in the real world, this would be a recipe for disaster, but again, things work out in a way that satisfies the viewer – but also, it’s worth noting, in a way that “Pretty in Pink” conspicuously did not. In that movie, Mr. Unattainable (Andrew McCarthy) not only stands up to his rich, douchey friends, he gets the girl (Molly Ringwald), while her quirky best friend (Jon Cryer) gets the consolation prize – an ending that occurred only after the original in which Molly/Jon wind up together was soundly booed by the test audience and subsequently changed. In “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Mary and Eric ultimately wind up together, while Lea decides to “stand alone for the right reasons.” This ending was apparently satisfactory enough to pass the test audience test, and which also thrilled me as a teen. In the real world, most of us have to wait until after high school to reap the benefits of being ourselves and find someone who is worthy of diamond gifts, but in Hughes’ world you can have it all as a teen – at least for one magical night.

 

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Movie Review: A Phantom Thread

Originally today, I was going to see “I, Tonya” starring Oscar-nominee Margot Robbie, a movie about a very devious woman who takes a rather extreme route to dealing with her jealousy, but then I decided to see “A Phantom Thread,” (also Oscar-nominated) and discovered that the “heroine,” played by Vicky Krieps, makes – over the course of the film – Tonya/Margot look like a Girl Scout. If using the “Is this a character I would want to spend a good deal of time with in real life?” test predicts an awards victory, this movie’s main characters don’t stand a chance. (Not only would you not want to have a meal with Vicky, you’d probably run screaming from the table after discovering that she prepared it herself.) How can what looks like a character in an English Period Porn Movie do something as equally vile as kneecapping a rival skater? Well, don’t read further, if you don’t want the spoilers that the trailers have avoided.

We first meet the other protagonist in “A Phantom Thread,” a dressmaker-to-the-elite, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, in close-up as he’s covered in shaving cream, prepping for his day. Everything has to be done just so, but that’s all right because Daniel rises extremely early anyway. Everything also has to be exceedingly quiet during the actual breakfast taking, but that’s not a problem either because Daniel lives with his unmarried sister (Lesley Manville) who has been trained to deal with Daniel’s quirks with aplomb. Early on, Daniel goes on a trip and orders breakfast at a hotel with the precision of Meg Ryan choosing dessert which charms the waitress (Vicky), and they fall in love, and she moves in with him and serves as a model/muse. There are a number of obstacles, however, to them consummating the union properly due to Vicky’s tendency to chew too loudly at breakfast and become upset when her attempts to charmingly surprise Daniel end in tears for her and stormy silence for him. Plus, she really wants that ring. So when she’s gathering mushrooms in the woods – and spoiler! – and is given a lesson on which are the poisonous ones, a light goes on in that devious head of hers.

That’s right! She’s going to poison Daniel. One might then expect several consequences, none of which wind up transpiring. In between waiting, watching and wondering when someone is going to clue in to the point where someone is going to get hauled off to the local authorities with some explaining to do, there are endless shots of perfectly framed British breakfasts (scones and jam and cream, oh my), luscious gowns, and landscapes, so the viewer has something to feast their eyes on even as credibility begins to ebb. By the end, the viewer may be thinking that Nick and Amy Dunne of “Gone Girl,” have nothing on Daniel and Vicky. Daniel informs Vicky early on that ever since he was a boy, he has liked to hide tokens in the linings of clothes; if you are the kind of person who has never concealed anything more exciting than an extra tube of Chapstick, you may leave the theater shaking your head. But the choreography is lovely. It’s just the characters who aren’t.

A Look Back: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Wacky things tend to happen in youth-directed fantasy books (that then get turned into movies). Whole houses get ripped off their foundations and whirled away to faraway places populated by the vertically challenged. Attempts to elude one’s siblings playing hide-and-seek bring one into a wondrous world where it is always winter. If you read such books/watch such movies when you are old enough to “know better,” you might think – what a creative conceit. If you aren’t, however, you might think – hey, maybe that could happen to me one day. The second example which is, of course, C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and its debut book “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” came out in 2005 which was too late for me to have the first reaction, but even not being a kid wasn’t a handicap to greatly enjoying it.

Y2K was, in fact, an interesting year for Narnia, although I’m not sure what C.S. Lewis’s reaction would be to the “Lazy Sunday” rap performed by Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg which at first attracted little notice on “Saturday Night Live,” but then took off due to YouTube. Also author Lev Grossman “borrowed” (to put it nicely) the whole Narnia concept for his adult fantasy series “The Magicians,” which became successful enough to have its own TV series. Anyway, “Lazy Sunday,” was good publicity for the movie which stayed faithful to the books. However, the seven-part series seems to have stalled after the third, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” came out, perhaps due to the need to keep finding fresh actors (the characters are only allowed to visit Narnia a few times before puberty disqualifies them – the guy in charge of Narnia – a lion named Aslan – is a spoilsport that way).

In the first installment, four plucky British youngsters: William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley, are evacuated from London during the Blitz while their father is away fighting and sent to stay with an eccentric (is there any other kind?) bachelor (Jim Broadbent) in the countryside who has a home with some very odd aspects. While playing hide-and-seek one rainy day, the youngest (Georgie) hides in the titular wardrobe, where she discovers a land, Narnia, where it is perpetually winter – due to a curse by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). This takes a New Englander’s worst nightmare – what if spring never came – and explores it with Biblical overtones (although they can be safely ignored if you choose). Thanks to a friendly Faun (James McAvoy), Georgie learns that this deep freeze can only be ended by the arrival of four mortal children. There is also the titular talking lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) who will help the four with their quest when they finally all get on the same page, arrive in Narnia together, and seek him out for help.

Of course, there are obstacles to overcome, including being swept away by a melting river, as the curse is breaking, a war between Good and Evil – the latter led by Tilda who has a wand that turns everything in its path to stone, and the treason of their brother (Skandar) who goes astray when Tilda offers him some awfully tempting magical candy. But the young heroes prevail. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” is a good movie to watch in the dead of winter, as a reminder that yes, one day, even the deepest banks of snow will sometime melt away – at least until next year.

 

A Look Back: Erin Brockovich

Movies are wonderful things because they teach us truths about big important issues like war, illness and our place in the universe. Sometimes they also teach us truths about more petty things, such as wardrobes. Among the many amazing things movies have taught me over the years is that if you’re a woman on the big screen, there is no dress too tight, no bodice too skimpy and no shoes too impractical to do anything from scaling tall buildings in a single bound to outrunning the bomb going off just a few feet behind you. Many are the times I have watched a female character fleeing for her life and wondered why she doesn’t kick off the heels already and go barefoot, but apparently my advice isn’t necessary because I have yet to see anyone to get captured due to flimsy footwear. (Of course, it also helps to have a male costar pulling her along like airport luggage when she’s escaping the bad guys.) In “Erin Brockovich,” a whistleblower movie based on a true story, Julia Roberts, the heroine, manages to get justice and do so wearing a series of truly revealing outfits. In such movies starring men (example: Matt Damon in “The Informant!”) they get to uglify themselves to match the real life person, but as it happens, the real Erin really does (or did) dress this way. So there, everyone who says you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, cinematically speaking.

In “A Civil Action,” John Travolta’s real life character, an attorney who handles a case involving sick kids and contaminated water, goes broke in his quest, but that’s not an issue for Julia in “Erin Brockovich.” At the start, Julia’s a flat-broke single mom with three young kids, no job and no likely prospects. This makes it kind of tricky to find daycare and even lunch out in a diner (where she’s served by the real-life Erin). Things get even dicier after she’s injured in a car accident and hires what she considers a highly incompetent small-town lawyer (Albert Finney) who isn’t much help in securing justice. However, he does reluctantly offer her an office job, where she quickly finds out that what Reese Witherspoon’s father in “Legally Blonde” told her about lawyers is accurate: that they’re “boring and ugly.” Surprisingly the staff isn’t too keen on making someone who looks like Julia dresses feel at home. However, Julia perseveres, especially as she has managed to find better child care in the form of amiable biker guy Aaron Eckhart who has recently moved next door and may want something more from her.

Soon after starting, Julia becomes intrigued when she’s out traipsing in the middle of nowhere in a halter top and short shorts, and stumbles upon a community of unsophisticated but likeable folks who report that their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric, is amiably paying their medical tests, even though a surprising number of them seem to have developed cancer and other fatal conditions. A light goes on because obviously, this seems a little too thoughtful. Perhaps – just perhaps – there might be an ulterior motive? You never can tell.

Eventually, Julia works out that the high cancer rate in both kids and adults is probably related to a harmful chemical that’s plentiful in the water supply – including their backyard swimming pools. With Albert and his crew, she assembles a legal case against the nasty bigwigs (mostly played by actors you haven’t heard of except for perhaps Peter Coyote). And eventually, the good guys win. As whistleblower movies go, “Erin Brockovich” is excellent, as long as perhaps you don’t own a pool your kids spend lots of time in.

When Characters Switch Places Onscreen

Roald Dahl once wrote a short story called “The Great Switcheroo,” in which two men friends cook up a wacky plan so that each can sample sex with the other’s wife without the wives being any the wiser. Surprisingly, this does not go quite as planned. In cinematic history, however, switcheroo movies are generally aimed at children and teens, though there are exceptions. If an actor is the confident sort (like Jean Claude Van Damme in “Double Impact“) he or she can develop two different onscreen personalities, however, if not, there are shortcuts to clue the audience in such as having one twin don spectacles, a different hairstyle, or in the case of John Glover in “Love! Valour! Compassion!” a Veddy Proper British accent. (In case you still had difficulty figuring the whole twin thing out, the characters’ last name was none other than “Jekyll.”)

Switcheroo movies for the younger set can be slotted into four categories:

Youth twin movies: The most famous of which is probably “The Parent Trap,” in which identical sisters, whose parents are separated, meet at summer camp and decide to switch places. The sisters take a serious stab at pre-avoiding any problems by briefing the other on all aspects of their home lives, except for some reason, the question: “What do I do if a friend calls and says let’s get together before school starts?” never comes up. In this case, getting the parents back together is the ultimate goal, even though in the original version with Haley Mills, Mom has a disturbing habit of walloping Dad when she gets upset. In the original, the gold-digging girlfriend is pretty vile; it’s only after you grow up a bit that she seems rather sane next to the twins’ real violence-prone mom.

A twist on this, albeit a well-worn one, is when the twins have been separated at birth with one growing up very poor and the other extremely wealthy. This works in both fiction (“The Prince and the Pauper”) and charming direct-to-video movies such as “It Takes Two” starring the Olsen twins, Kirstie Ally and Steve Gutenberg.

Youth switches places with a parent: There was a period in the eighties where this question was very much on the minds of scriptwriters. Why, I had no idea at the time being young myself except maybe it had something to do with all the yuppies developing nostalgia for their younger days. In any case, multiple movies like “Vice Versa,” and “18 Again!” came out. The latter was remade with Zac Ephron and Matthew Perry after losing the exclamation point and dropping the teen’s age all the way back to 17. Given the age group it was aimed at, there was very little Perry but plenty of Zac.

Youth becomes his or her adult self overnight: If there’s one thing kids of all backgrounds occasionally long for, it’s the chance to be older or “Big.” This was also done in “13 Going On 30” in which Jennifer Garner gets a birthday wish to become an adult and discovers that she really really likes Mark Ruffalo and that the middle school mean girl (Lucy Greer) who she worshipped turned out to be equally awful. The question of sex is sidestepped in both movies, which is just as well.

The fourth category can be titled “Miscellaneous Scenarios That Beggar Belief,” which covers movies like “The Hot Chick,” a cinematic gem in which Rob Schneider switches bodies with yes, an exceedingly attractive high school girl (Rachel McAdams). This is not a film for children obviously, but it takes the opposite tack of “17 Again” by having Rob get the most screen time.

When you’re a character in a movie like one of the above, it’s a good idea to avoid all flea markets, antique shops and magic fortune-telling machines at fairs, at least if you don’t really want to experience being an adult just yet. It’s also best to be a good person from the start, so the universe won’t take it upon itself to teach you a lesson, though of course, if that were true, your movie would be a dull one.

 

 

 

Movie Review: The Post

While watching Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” which tells the story of how the Pentagon Papers were publicized in The New York Times and then the Washington Post, I thought of another movie that has nothing to do with journalism. Specifically, “A Few Good Men,” in which Tom Cruise, playing a hotshot lawyer with a YooHoo fetish, demands “the truth,” and is promptly bellowed at – in one of the great all-time movie bellows – by Jack Nicholson as a Military Higher Up – that he CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! No one hams it up that baldly in “The Post,” thank goodness, but it is also a movie about facing the truth and the painful consequences that may well result.

“The Post” opens not in a newsroom, but in the jungles of Vietnam as Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is serving his country and risking his life on a regular basis and then once he returns and gets a job with the government, he happens upon the famous papers which reveal the unpalatable truth that multiple Presidents and their administrations knew full well that the Vietnam War was unwinnable yet did nothing to save the lives of those who fought in it. So he decides to do a little leaking to the media which happens to be The New York Times. Fast forward to Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of The Post after her husband committed suicide, sitting bolt upright in bed from solid slumber because that is the only way people wake up in the movies, and also to indicate that she is worn out from juggling business decisions about her newspaper – especially, as she has never done this sort of thing before until her husband’s death. Also, she is a woman, and the only bigwigs with whom she interacts are all men. Who are still making their way out of the thicket of pre-feminism, although still respectful to Meryl, as a gentleman would to any proper lady.

When Meryl meets Post bigwig Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) for breakfast in a smoke-filled men’s club, Tom bemoans the fact that a reporter at The Times, who has scooped them in the past, seems to be Up to Something. Soon Tom is sending an employee over to spy on The Times; eventually, they get scooped when The Times starts printing the papers. However, the Post gets a break of sorts when President Richard Nixon orders The Times to stop publishing The Truth and takes them to court. Now it’s time for Meryl and Tom to decide whether to risk a similar fate – which may end by them sitting in a jail cell, as well as end the Post altogether.

Since this is a movie about the media in the seventies, we get lots of shots of pale, paunchy men in shirtsleeves frowning intently at documents and typewriters, or for variety, running around in the streets dodging taxis or making calls on a pay phone while the voice at the other end demands, “You don’t think your phone’s being tapped, do you?” Three-quarters of the way through, the viewer senses that someone reminded Spielberg that he should make some statements about sexism, as well, and so we get those alongside the debate on how far the press should go to check the government. “The Post” is unsurprisingly excellent since it has Meryl and Tom, which is easy to predict ahead of time, the same way someone ordering a restaurant dessert containing both chocolate and peanut butter is guaranteed a treat. Expect bushels of Oscar nominations and likely Oscars to come.

 

 

 

 

Movie Review: Downsizing

If, as Randy Newman once put it, short – or if you prefer, vertically-challenged – people have no reason to live, then he’s probably not referring to the residents of Leisureland in the movie “Downsizing,” starring Matt Damon as an ordinary guy who makes the bold decision to “go small.” An occupational therapist who still lives in the same house he grew up in but longs to purchase a home of his own with his wife, Kristen Wiig, Matt is lucky enough to exist in a futuristic (but recognizably the same as ours) world in which a Norwegian scientist has perfected a process by which the human body can be safely shrunk to five inches, thereby allowing more people to live lives of luxury in smaller-scale communites, but secure and smug in the knowledge that they’re helping the planet. When Matt’s friend (Jason Sudeikis) decides to downsize and returns with gushing tales of how much his life has improved, the couple decide to undergo the operation (shown in amusing detail).

The only fly in the ointment comes when Matt wakes up after surgery and learns that Kristen has backed out at the last minute, a decision which eventually leads to divorce and Matt being unable to fully enjoy his new home which is a lavish McMansion he decides to swap for an apartment now that he’s single again. He tries to take Jason’s advice to get back into the dating scene, but keeps striking out, even after Matt reluctantly attends one of his upstairs neighbor’s (Christoph Waltz) wild parties, featuring drugs, dancing and plenty of flashing strobe lights. However, the morning after, he meets Christoph’s cleaning woman (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was released from prison after being smuggled to the US. After giving her some free medical advice (Hong’s an amputee), Hong soon persuades Matt to come visit her downsized but decidedly un-lavish community and help her feed and care for the less fortunate residents there.

If you’ve seen the trailers I have, you’ve only seen half the movie, so to speak, which perhaps makes “Downsizing” look more entertaining and lighthearted than it actually is. “Downsizing” post-operation shortly turns into one of those nineties’ movies (“Regarding Henry,” “The Doctor,”) in which yuppies re-discover their souls by helping others. The climax revolves around a “Will I stay or will I go” scenario involving both a Vietnamese Bible and the phrase “love fuck.” Matt’s character isn’t particularly selfish to begin with, so the transformation isn’t as dramatic, but even with the second half derailment, the movie is capable of provoking some speculating on the Big Picture and how we fit into it, regardless of size.