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,

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.

A Look Back: Mrs. Doubtfire

The power of love, as Huey Lewis astutely observed in an eighties pop hit, is a curious thing. It makes one person weep; another sing – and occasionally, in Hollywood movies, dress up as an individual of the opposite gender. This, in turn, produces some interesting dilemmas that perhaps the viewer has never before entertained, such as:

1. What if my very own – admittedly drunk – father hit on me when I’m dressed as a girl – without irony? – “Sorority Boys.”

2. What if I pretend to be a boy in order to be taken seriously as a high school journalism student, but wind up falling for my best guy friend? – “One of the Guys.”

3. What if I pretend to be a boy so I can transfer to a new school as a soccer player, but get “outed” when my roomie discovers tampons in my luggage? “She’s The Man.”

Yes, if you decide to don drag for an extended period of time in a movie, you may find yourself in one of these situations or even worse. Luckily, the supporting characters in these movies tend to have either a very low IQ or very poor vision, so it is possible to fool even your nearest and dearest if necessary. At least until the end. As a rule, though, it’s best to avoid putting yourself in another common Hollywood movie situation – in which you must pretend to be two different people at the same time – if you need to toggle between genders. However, a movie does exist in which the lead (Robin Williams) is brave enough or foolhardy enough to do this, which is “Mrs. Doubtfire,” directed by Chris Columbus. The result is successfully amusing, although because it is Robin, you may not be all that surprised when he pulls it off.

In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Robin plays a recently unemployed actor and recently divorced dad who gets busted when he throws his young son (Matthew Lawrence) a forbidden birthday bash behind his uptight wife’s (Sally Field’s) back. Though the fun is G-rated, things still get out of control to the point where Sally is especially reluctant to let him see Matthew and his two other children (Lisa Jakub and Mara Wilson). The die is also loaded because Robin has no permanent place to live at the moment, so while the judge’s custody decision might seem sensible in real life, it means here that it’s time for Robin to exercise his acting powers to the fullest. With help from his brother, a makeup artist, and another friend, he transforms himself into the titular Mrs. Doubtfire, an elderly Scottish woman who applies for and receives a job as Sally’s new nanny. While the domestic side of things takes some getting used to, Robin is otherwise a hit, endearing himself to both the kids and Sally. Surprisingly enough, we get to witness his glee in a montage powered by Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” Eventually, the two older kids work it out but agree not to tell.

Trouble comes, however, in the form of Sally’s new beau: Pierce Brosnan who is, as required by these kinds of movies, to be a colossal jerk. So soon Robin is faced with the challenge of getting rid of the interloper, as well as find a job in a TV studio that will let him use his talents as a comedian and an impersonator. If you’ve never seen a movie before, you’ll be stunned to learn that he is doubly successful in this quest, although a note of reality is injected when Robin and Sally remain divorced. After this, Robin went on to make a trio of darker movies, in which he played both a lonely photo center employee and a cynical clown, but this is fun family fare – though you may start questioning the plausibility of certain things later on.

A Look Back: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A quick question. When a filmmaker decides to improve upon the original source – such as a children’s book – is it really necessary to add dark psychological overtones? Specifically, does the target audience – in the case of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the book by Roald Dahl and directed by Wes Anderson, really care if an Oedipal slant is inserted? My guess is no, but like Tim Burton’s remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (also based on a Dahl book), it received it anyway. The good news is that Mr. Fox’s (George Clooney’s) conflicts with his eccentric son (Jason Schwartzman) don’t detract from the movie, even though adding a backstory about Willy Wonka being estranged from his dad was, in several senses, excess baggage.

Like classic fairy tales such as those from the appropriately named Grimm’s, many of Dahl’s children’s books feature horrifying parents or guardians. The titular Matilda (of the book and movie starring Mara Wilson) gets told by her used car salesman dad (Danny DeVito), “There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from television faster.” The beloved grandmother who teaches her grandson about “The Witches,” and loves him just the same after he’s enchanted into a mouse, however, is a exception. So too, are Mr. Fox and his wife (Meryl Streep) whose brood of youngsters is shrunk in the movie into one son, although soon a houseguest arrives, their overachieving nephew (Eric Chase Anderson). But there’s bigger problems than quasi-sibling rivalry afoot because Mr. Fox, now a journalist, still longs for his old life raiding nearby farms, particularly those belonging to the mean-spirited, dim bulb trio of Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugo Guinness). When circumstances force the Fox family out of their home at a tree base, and George, with his family and friends is forced into warfare, with the trio, it’s up to Mr. Fox to use every bit of his ingenuity to keep them all from starving.

Originally, Dahl had intended to have Mr. Fox solve his problems by having him burrow under and rob a supermarket. However, his American publishers were concerned that that would send the wrong message – that stealing is acceptable – so they fixed things by suggesting that Mr. Fox rob the original villains of the tale. Though they were afraid that Dahl would take offense, he actually loved the change and accepted it without argument. In the movie, ultimately, Mr. Fox winds up “borrowing” from a supermarket, but suitable revenge is also taken on the three bad guys. Capturing the magic of the original source is a challenge for any director wishing to bring a children’s book to the big screen, but the filmmakers do an excellent job here.

Movie Review: The Founder

One of my early memories involves sitting in a McDonald’s by the window with my family watching the sky light up with lightning from a random thunderstorm. Extreme weather on one side; fast food on the other – what’s not to be happy about, at least when you’re a kid? Of course, this was years before I had one of “those” teachers; you know, the kind who believes it is their solemn duty to educate their charges on the Way the World Really Works, including the realities of how one’s hamburger arrives in one’s paper wrapping, which contributed to my becoming a (sort of) vegetarian. In “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as real-life McDonald’s (co) founder, Ray Kroc, we don’t get to see how the hamburger is made, but we do get to see the behind-the-scenes workings of how the other two founders’ idealism slowly gets eroded, which may make you think twice about patronizing McDonald’s.

When the movie starts in the fifties, Michael is spending most of his time on the road hawking his mixers (which no one really wants) and bemoaning the current state of fast food joints, in which you must wait upward to a half hour for your food, even if it is ultimately served to you by a perky girl on roller skates. When out of the blue, he gets an order for six mixtures for one restaurant, he assumes it’s an error, but when he calls Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald to verify, Michael is assured that it’s valid. In fact, he should even bring two more! When he goes out to San Bernardino, Calif. to see the place for himself, Michael is knock-your-socks-off impressed. Not only does he get his food a few minutes after ordering, it’s tasty, portable and easy to dispose of the trash when done. Soon, he’s proposing to the McDonald brothers that they consider franchising it – but they’re too hung up on things like quality control and avoiding “crass commercialism.” They also want to keep the menu focus just on burgers, fries and milkshakes. If you can imagine. But Michael works on them and gets them to consider the idea, even after he hangs up on them multiple times prompting this exchange:

One brother: “His bark is worse than his bite.”

Other brother dryly: “That’s what Neville Chamberlain said.”

Hee. But soon, they’ve struck a deal with the devil – though like most movies of this sort (“The Social Network”), they won’t realize it for awhile. As it turns out, not only should one read ALL the fine print when signing a business deal, but one must also never simply rely on a goodwill handshake to seal things. The McDonald brothers are savvy about a lot of things – such as taking advantage of the transition from carhops to restaurants without “undesirable elements,” i.e. teenagers, but sadly, make a mistake trusting Michael. Today, fast food chains fill a valuable niche in a world where everything is open 24-7, but probably are not considered shining examples of non-crass commercialism. Everyone in the film does a decent enough job, and it nicely captures the atmosphere of that era, but there’s not a lot to distinguish “The Founder” from similar movies. But perhaps a movie focusing squarely on the McDonald brothers might be worth making – they certainly have a more easy-to-sympathize-with rags-to-riches path. In the end, however, the good guys got shafted, but McDonald’s is still forever. Even if it does serve other items besides burgers now.