Movie Review: I Feel Pretty

In the movie “Shallow Hal,” the hero (Jack Black) who is resoundingly average in looks but who has stratosphere-high standards for the women he considers dating, gets hypnotized so he can experience the gift of seeing how beautiful people’s inner selves are right away. Post-transformation, Jack goes to a bar with his equally shallow pal (Jason Alexander) who has not been hypnotized and is therefore clueless. Soon Jack’s bogeying the night away with who he perceives as three gorgeous ladies, having the time of his life, and he’s baffled as to why Jason can’t see what he sees. But the camera clicks into Jason’s (i.e. reality’s eyes), and we see – lo and behold – three average women. Or what Hollywood considers average or below par anyway.

Now in “I Feel Pretty,” Amy Schumer tells the story from the side of one of the dancing women. What if one of them was also hypnotized and genuinely believed she was gorgeous (and perhaps being kind to Jack)? (Or maybe she was already empowered and having a good time anyway?) In what may or may not be a “Bridget Jones” reference, Amy plays a young woman named Renee, who like 99 percent of American women, has things about her appearance she wishes she could change. When we first meet her, she has great friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips) who are in the same boat, and a go-nowhere job at a cosmetics empire which sticks her in a basement office because she’s not pretty enough for the actual office. The company is founded by Lauren Hutton, who is the grandmother of the current CEO (Michelle Williams), and when Amy discovers there is a receptionist job open, she wistfully wishes she could apply.

After a series of movie mishaps which include toppling off an exercise bike during a fully-attended class, Amy makes a wish in a thunderstorm (after watching “Big” on the couch with the requisite glass of wine – but no cat) that she would become beautiful. Sure enough, after she has an accident and bumps her head, she emerges fully convinced that she’s gorgeous – although the viewer and everyone else in the movie can’t see any change. However, Amy’s confidence soars, and soon she’s sashaying down the street convinced every stray whistle and smile is aimed at her. She gets a boyfriend (Rory Scovel) in record time (mostly by quasi-terrorizing him), and the longed-for promotion. In “Big” tradition by employing total bluntness, Amy catches the eye of Michelle by explaining that average women would really appreciate having a makeup brush included in the package, and so on. But alas, the magic has an expiration date.

I Feel Pretty” starts off strong, as Amy throws herself (sometimes literally) into her role, even participating in an impromptu bikini contest but gets surreal after Amy wakes up to the reality that she’s been bewitched. Everyone else in the movie assumes she’s just being her usual wacky self, which makes apologies about treating people shallowly difficult. But in the end, she rallies and achieves that most sought-after movie prize: wild applause after an impromptu speech on Being Yourself No Matter What. (This is Michelle’s second recent movie with this message following “The Greatest Showman.”) While this is a time-worn message, it’s still something that’s always good to hear. Especially served with a side of hearty laughter.

 

 

 

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A Look Back: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

It’s not surprising that parents frequently keep secrets from their children, but it’s also true that children often keep secrets from their parents – often for similar reasons, the main one being that they’re concerned about misunderstood. Throughout the history of film, children have consistently proven themselves a genius at secret-keeping, whether it’s sneaking out in the middle of the night to train their stallion for a match race, or in the case of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial,” keeping a friendly but bewildered alien in their bedroom closet. Movie kids have also tried to conceal dogs, cats, barnyard animals and even monkeys in their bedrooms, but perhaps it’s Elliot (Henry Thomas) who takes the prize here. Of course, the deception doesn’t last too long, but you have to give the kid points for trying.

Henry first encounters E.T. (voiced by Pat Welsh) when he goes outside during a game of Dungeons and Dragons (it’s the early eighties) that his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) and his friends are playing. E.T. has recently been stranded when the group he was with accidentally took back off in their spaceship, after being scared by government officials (more on those shortly) and is understandably skittish around an actual Earthling. Henry then uses ingenuity in the form of Reese’s Pieces to lure E.T. to him and convince him to come hang out in the aforementioned closet. Their mother (Dee Wallace), who is divorced, has enough on her mind so that she fails to notice, at least for awhile. Henry’s brother and adorable younger sister (Drew Barrymore), however, do make E.T.’s acquaintance later on. Drew, whose precocity won her the role, teaches E.T. English by using “Sesame Street.” Later they use a Speak and Spell toy to help E.T. – this is a movie that can be studied to learn the secrets of cinematic product placement.

Early one, Henry shows strong signs of a psychic attachment to E.T., and gets in trouble at school for engaging in age-inappropriate activities such as kissing, that E.T. is experiencing/watching back at home. Still, he is thrilled to have a new friend and begs E.T. to stay with them forever, but E.T. is insistent: “E.T. phone home!” So they attempt to help E.T. make connections with his home planet, but those pesky government officials show up again. It all ends with a token sympathetic agent (Peter Coyote) helping the kids spirit E.T. away – and E.T. does manage to return home at last.

I did not know until I consulted IMDB today that E.T.’s famous voice was achieved by Pat Welsh smoking two packs a day; this news is rather alarming, just as the discovery that Judy Garland was put on a diet of amphetamines so as to appear sufficiently girlish to play Dorothy Gale. But at least she will go down in history, so I guess risking lung cancer temporarily is a small price to pay. On a happier note, I also learned that “E.T.” is based on Spielberg’s “real” imaginary alien friend he had as a child, who helped him through his parents’ divorce. It’s always inspiring to hear a real-life story of how adversity was transformed into true art, the kind that even hardened cynics will tear up at during the triumphant climax. Looking back, “E.T.” is a reminder that you don’t always have to cram a movie full of pop culture references (cough, cough “Ready Player One“) to make magic.

Movie Review: A Quiet Place

If you were a character in an post-apocalypse movie, what would you do when it came to raiding empty homes and stores? Well, personally, I would not be too choosy if they had something I needed or I would expire. And while I was taking the non-perishables, if they also had something else that looked cool, I would probably nab that, too. Because it’s not like whoever lives there is going to return and care, you know?

But the parents (John Krasinski and Emily Blunt) of “A Quiet Place,” are apparently looters with morals because after they raid a drugstore for prescription drugs (I guess none of the expiration dates read ‘To-Be-Taken-Pre-Plague-Only’), they refuse to let their adorable youngest son (Cade Woodward) bring back a toy rocket ship. Or maybe they’re just really spiteful. However, Cade’s oldest sister (Millicent Simmonds) secretly signals him that it’s okay to nick it. Alas, this is staggeringly poor judgment, and poor Cade is the first character sacrificed to the Hungry Hippo Robot Monster who apparently hunts by noise and is carnivorous. Oops.

Neither Millicent who has taken to sneaking down to her father’s basement lab in an attempt to help him find the antidote to the HHRM nor her other younger brother (Noah Jupe) who is too terrified to even leave their compound is satisfied with the compromises they must make to avoid becoming dinner, including not wearing shoes and using sign language at all times, but they are coping. So is Emily, who is obviously near her due date, which may seem a sign of instability that she and John believe having another child will be a roaring success. Seriously – how the heck do they plan on imposing a 24-7 gag rule on an infant – even if it’s born deaf, as Millicent already is? What happens if the child needs emergency medical care? But John and Emily only seem worried about the HHRM.

Anyway, John up and decides that Noah must go with him to the river to learn how to catch fish, and Millicent, after getting into a snit about not being able to go too, tromps off to visit Cade’s grave. This, of course, is breaking a very important movie rule involving pregnant women – never leave them alone for any protracted period of time in an abandoned building because then they will go into labor no matter what their due date is. (Also, never let them use an elevator for the same reason.) This happens because when Emily accidentally makes noise, the HHRM descends. Chaos occurs and never lets up except for brief intervals for the rest of the movie. Eventually – spoiler alert – Millicent discovers how to scare away the HHRM, but you know they aren’t going to exactly live happily ever after. Well, it’s a post-apocalyptic world, after all.

The HHRM’s are pretty cheesy looking, and I never did figure out if the family was being terrorized by just one or a herd or what. At the very end, the HHRM keeps staggering around, refusing to die to the point where I expected it to gasp out, “But I’m not dead yet!” However, the cast does a good job, including the ever reliable Emily Blunt. But you might want to wait until “A Quiet Place” comes out on DVD.

 

 

 

 

A Look Back: Better Off Dead

In “The Sure Thing,” John Cusack’s reluctant cross-country road trip companion states that if her (fake) baby-to-be is a boy, she will call him Elliot. This provokes a vehement reaction from John. “You can’t call a kid Elliot,” he berates her. “Elliot is a fat kid with glasses who eats paste.” Nick, John assures her, is a much better name. John himself would go on to play a character named Nick in the film “Tin Cup,” but in “Better Off Dead,” he plays a teen called Lane, which is the kind of moniker you’d bestow upon the uncool quiet guy who spends more time dreaming about getting a girlfriend then actually taking steps to obtain one. This pretty much sums up John’s character in “Better Off Dead,” an eighties’ comedy with the usual staples but with flashes of genius nevertheless.

When the film begins, John is drowning in teen movie tragedy with not a life preserver in sight. His girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) has just dumped him so she can date the evil Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier). In keeping with movie villains, Aaron compounds his evilness by cutting John from the school ski team tryouts for no good reason, plus he’s a witness to John getting canned from his part-time fast food job (which at least saves John from risking ptomaine poisoning). John’s home life is no better – his father (David Ogden Stiers) wars with the paperboy (Demian Slade) over a disputed two dollars, as fiercely as Ralphie’s Old Man battled the stray dog pack in “A Christmas Story,” while his mother (Kim Darby) concocts scary home meals. His younger brother (Scooter Stevens), in the classic oddball sibling mode, is a genius when it comes to building stuff. With such a cast surrounding him, perhaps it’s not surprising that John considers, more than once, ending his life.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the two guys of Asian descent who routinely accost John when he’s out in his car, challenge him to race and speak only like Howard Cosell. Plus John’s only friend (Curtis Armstrong) who snorts random substances that aren’t intended to be used that way. As a result, John takes refuge in his artwork, which occasionally comes to life – something that makes as much sense as anything in his “real world.”

However, hope appears on the horizon in the form of the newly transplanted from France exchange student (Diane Franklin) who is staying with a neighbor family and having her own troubles. Her host mother and her teenage son (Dan Schneider) are so obnoxious that she pretends she can’t speak English to avoid their clutches. When she and John meet at a school dance, however, they turn out to be kindred spirits. Not only does Diane help John renovate his car, she supports him when he challenges Aaron to a ski race. In the end, John realizes that true love has been under his nose the whole time, the nefarious Aaron and Dan receive their come-uppance, and they all live happily ever after. Well, in real life, John had a vehement reaction to the film causing a rift between him and the director, but came to mellow with maturity. Perhaps he caught the “South Park” episode “Ass-pen,” and realized that satire is the sincerest form of flattery. Who knows?

Movie Review: The Isle of Dogs

Jack Handey of Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts,” fame once had a great prank idea for kids, guaranteed to traumatize them for life: i.e. driving them to the aftermath of a fire, and telling them that Disneyland – their original destination – had burnt down. (And if it was late, driving them back home without going to the real Disneyland.)

Or you could simply make them sit through the first twenty minutes of “Isle of Dogs.” Boomers had Bambi’s mother being shot by hunters on the big screen to make them bawl. Gen-Xers had Atreyu’s beloved horse drowning in the Swamp of Sadness to reduce them to a puddle. Now here comes a movie guaranteed to have the current generation of youngsters sobbing hard enough to melt their Milk Duds – or so I first thought. It does get better, but whether this will erase the scars it first inflicts on sensitive kids might be questionable. (Of course, adult viewers being fully mature and hardened will not have this problem – right?)

Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” his new stop motion film, has a grim kickoff indeed. The setting is Japan where an evil leader (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) decides to deal with a virulent strain of canine flu by shipping all the dogs to an isle full of garbage and radioactive waste. His twelve-year-old nephew (Koyu Rankin) who Liev adopted as an orphan several years ago, is distraught at losing his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber), and sallies forth on an airplane which crashes onto Trash Island. Here Koyu is befriended by a pack of dogs, including Chief (Bryan Cranston) who does not fetch or anything like that because he is a stray. The other dogs are former house pets, and for maximum heartstring tugging, we get a scene where they all discuss their favorite food. For a love interest, there’s the lovely Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) who doesn’t have much to do but does get a couple of scenes where she flirts with Bryan, the most romantic canine scene since Tramp and Lady fed each other spaghetti. The dogs and Koyu team up in order to vanquish evil, which makes for some sweet bonding and discovering of long-lost litter brothers. The dog kind, that is.

Back on the mainland, a serum is soon discovered to stamp out the canine flu, but this doesn’t mesh with Kunichi’s re-election plans, so this news is suppressed. However, an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig), who has a blonde Afro big enough to hide a St. Bernard in, enlists her peers in a quest to rescue the dogs. The story does – spoiler alert! – have a happy ending. Originally, I thought Wes Anderson might have had some buried trauma when it came to dogs, as both “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and “Moonrise Kingdom” have a scene where a canine meets an unfortunate violent demise. But “The Isle of Dogs,” ends with the heroes rewarded, the villains punished, and “levels of graft and corruption reduced to acceptable levels.”

The Isle of Dogs,” has plenty of Anderson stalwarts, all of whom do a great job. The movie is an unruly brew featuring Terry Gilliam-ish animation, insights into the dog-human bond, animal experimentation, a plot to exterminate dogs forever, a millennial protester who insists, “I must prove my conspiracy theory!”, haiku, and a last minute kidney transplant. It will definitely achieve one thing among fans and detractors alike: They will want to go home and hug their pets.

 

 

 

 

Movie Review: Goodbye, Christopher Robin

Fun literary fact: Lucy Pevensie of the “Narnia” series was based on an actual Lucy, the goddaughter of C.S. Lewis, and Alice of the titular “Wonderland,” was based on an actual young Alice who knew Lewis Carroll. However, in this day and age, the scenario of an unwed man spending lots of time with a young girl who then becomes his literary muse might be viewed through a less gauzy lens. Luckily, the plot of a father – in this case A.A. Milne of the “Pooh” series, who in casting around for a book that will bring joy to those shell-shocked by World War I, hits on the idea of immortalizing the adventures he and his son (Christopher Robin, known as a child as “Billy Moon”) have in the woods with a charming menagerie of stuffed animals – sidesteps this problem. But although “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” does this well, it also shows how such a scenario might wind up having unintended negative consequences whose effects linger as the child matures into adulthood. (Still, I hope for the real-life Lucy’s and Alice’s sake that they weren’t subjected to the peer bullying that C.R. eventually was.)

Domhnall Gleeson plays Alan Milne, who when we meet him could be described variously as “an odd duck,” or “a typical British male of that era,” or more kindly, a veteran who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and who is struggling to write fiction as he adjusts to civilian life. His wife (Margot Robbie), a beautiful socialite suggests that he create something that cheers people up; she herself decides to cheer up by having a child, which is a horrendous decision because neither Domhnall nor Margot is fit to raise a Chia-Pet. This is soon confirmed when Margot gives birth to a healthy boy but instantly starts bemoaning that he, too, will one day leave her and go off to fight in war. Luckily, they manage to hire a lovely nanny (Kelly Macdonald) with whom they move to a charming countryside home when their child (Will Tilston as a youngster) is eight. Will (cute without being cutesy) is thrilled that he and Nanny are going to live there, plus there’s a bonus “Daddy and Mummy are going to live here, too?” he echoes Nanny in surprise. Well, in a manner of speaking, they are.

Other than providing voices for Will’s stuffed animals on occasion when she’s feeling frisky, Margot isn’t much up to the parenthood gig – in fact, she escapes to London on a regular basis, but with Domhnall things have the potential to be different. Unsurprisingly, Will is eager to explore the woods with his dad, but Domhnall is still struggling with trauma of the sort that you can’t explain to a child of that age, and so they clash. However, things take a turn for the better when Kelly must go away to tend her ailing mother, and Domhnall lets himself be drawn into Will’s imaginary world of his beloved stuffed animals. Soon he’s invited out a potential illustrator (Stephen Campbell Moore) who is equally charmed with Pooh and co. To everyone’s shock, the Pooh books become instant hits once they’re published – and Will an instant celebrity. Sadly, this only serves to drive a wedge between him and his father, a rift which is only repaired after Will attends boarding school (where he’s bullied as a result) and then serves as a private in World War II.

We learn in an afterword that the real Christopher Robin went on to lead what sounds like a decent, unremarkable adult life. We also learn that Pooh stories apparently inspired the British troops while they were under siege, which seems a stretch, but I guess we should never underestimate the power of the works that stimulated our imaginations when we were at our most impressionable. But as “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” shows so well, growing up, even with such a charming launch, is never easy.

Movie Review: Chappaquiddick

When a scriptwriter wishes to depict a character having a crisis of conscience, he or she may (perhaps if they’re in a hurry and want to beat the weekend traffic) revert to the well-worn device of having an angel and a devil perched on each shoulder arguing ever-more-vehemently about the Right Thing To Do. While this doesn’t occur in the just-released “Chappaquiddick,” one can easily imagine the metaphorical pair having a knock-down, drag-out on the shoulders of Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), as he tries to figure out the best course of action. Here, it’s the morning after, and after having consumed mass quantities of alcohol, driven off a bridge on the Martha Vineyard’s isle after a party, and left his passenger, campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) to die, it’s time to face reality (as the movie soundtrack puts it for those who aren’t paying close attention). Or is it?

We’ve all seen this story before onscreen – (in fact, I did last week when I watched last year’s Oscar-nominated “I, Tonya,”). A character manages to make a really colossal screw-up, the kind which definitely won’t vanish regardless of what you do or who you are. He confesses to his friends (Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan) who respond with a mixture of horror and pleas for him to come clean. However, the surname of the character changes everything. Jason is the last surviving son of an illustrious New England political clan who has been plagued for years with the kind of bad luck that would still rate a mention in pop songs a century later (see Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young”). This means that simply having achieved the position of a Massachusetts Senator isn’t adequate, and his father (Bruce Dern), now wheelchair bound after a stroke) would really, really like Jason to run for President eventually.

So as the Vineyard authorities answer the report that there’s a dead body of a pretty young woman, plus a semi-submerged car in the water, Jason makes some belated stabs at decency by phoning Kate’s family (though he’s not sure how her last name is spelled). He confesses to his father, then attempts damage control – with the help of a granite-faced political spin team whose dialogue is liberally laced with black humor. (Jason may possibly have let his license expire to compound things.) One course of action is to pretend Jason has concussion – although as the media points out, this doesn’t appear to affect his ability to crane his head around at Kate’s funeral to see who has arrived. Another – and this is the one that will put him at odds with childhood friend Ed – is to resign. Fortunately, all this occurs during the Summer of ’69 when Armstrong lands on the moon, so as one character puts it, that’s the best timing one could hope for in a situation like this.

Chappaquiddick” is basically “I, Tonya” if you changed the main characters from working class stiffs to blue-blooded New Englanders and gave them the ability to frostily inform the media that they will release a statement later that week, thank you very much while they’re being hounded. In both movies, characters offer their thoughts on truth, and they are strikingly similar. The fates of those who can’t paper over their crimes with privilege are a lot different, though. Tonya Harding was excommunicated from the skating world and became a “lady boxer,” while Kennedy went on to run for President. But as the movie points out, Kennedy never really wanted to do this, so in one way, excess privilege is a cage, too.