Thoughts on growing up, boomboxes and John Hughes

In my memory it’s sometime in the late eighties, and the lights have dimmed in the theater where I sit munching popcorn and watching trailers. In one, a young attractive couple have a series of wacky flashbacks leading up to the birth of their child. When I hear that the appropriately-titled “She’s Having a Baby” is a John Hughes film, a thrill shoots through me – but then I hear the names of the stars: Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. The latter I’m not familiar with, but the mention of Kevin strikes a jarring note. “Wait,” I think to myself, “isn’t Kevin still a teenager? Wasn’t he the guy who taught an intolerant Midwestern town about the power of healing through rock-and-roll just a couple of years ago? How can he own his own home already? Who does he think he’s fooling with those glasses?” Though I know movie teens are frequently played by actors in their twenties, it suddenly occurs to me to wonder where all the movies with sensitive, passionate and smart college protagonists are. Once these actors get their metaphorical braces off, all of a sudden, they’re buying homes and being full-fledged adults. People my parents’ age (who are, like, ancient) do stuff like have kids and fret about mortgages. People my age who are barely in high school are still searching for clues on how to navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence. Forget agonizing about marital infidelity, we were still in the stages of handling one romantic relationship at a time.

The movie I’m about to see is called “Say Anything” and by its end, I will be ready to hop on the nearest plane and follow its couple, played by Ione Skye and John Cusack, to England just to see what happens next. In real life, I lose track of Skye, but watch Cusack wisely make the decision to ditch teen movies, after all like Hughes, he’s already made plenty of decent ones. (Besides after he “graduated” high school and had sex onscreen, how could he really return to playing virginal dorks?) In real life, too, the “Brat Pack” is struggling to gracefully make the transition to adult roles, something that many critics will analyze, concluding that for many fans, their growing up is the last thing anything wants. In other words, so many stars – despite roles in movies like “St. Elmo’s Fire,” – have been frozen in our collective memories in adolescence. Think Molly Ringwald gazing at Michael Schoeffling over a blazing birthday cake in “Sixteen Candles,” Matthew Broderick camping it up on a parade float in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or Judd Nelson pumping his fist in the final shot of “The Breakfast Club.” For me, though, it wasn’t that I didn’t want these actors to mature – I just wanted it to be at a pace that paralleled my own.

With Hughes, there’s a simple explanation for the transition – he, like many creative geniuses, found college superfluous and dropped out after a year, then married and had children as his film career took off. So experiences like dealing with an incompatible college roommate, mountains of student loans, or an unsympathetic professor from his viewpoint never made it on the big screen. Instead, Hughes’ protagonists became either full-fledged adults or began to shrink (“Curly Sue,” “Home Alone,” “Baby’s Day Out“). (I half-expected Hughes to keep going and pen a script in which a group of unborn kids have adventures and learn valuable lessons.) And while this was not necessarily a bad thing – he helmed some hits along with his share of bombs – it rather left Gen Xers around my age adrift. Most college movies played their characters’ problems for laughs, which while entertaining, did not provide the kind of idealized guidance you could take away from a Hughes’ teen film. I knew – at least in theory – not to settle for just anyone when it came to romance, and the importance of holding on to my values despite peer pressure – but how would I navigate the unknown waters of college life once I finally arrived there?

Of course, it’s a tad unfair to expect movie directors to fashion their films solely to please a certain demographic without letting them move on when they feel they’ve outgrown the material and need a new challenge. And of course, college isn’t a required station en route to adulthood – but Hughes’ onscreen teens: suburban, white and middle-class do entertain at least vague plans for this (even the Peter Pan-ish Ferris alludes to higher education). It’s true that there was really no template for a “serious” college-set film at the time, but then that was also true of high school ones before Hughes came on the scene. And even today, coming-of-age films tend to stay firmly in high school. (Richard Linklater did finally get around to making a college film about Xers, “Everybody Wants Some!”, but by that time, college was a misty memory for most of us.)

Still the lessons I learned from Hughes’ teen films, however hokey they sound stated here: that you should stand by your friends, take time to stop and smell the roses once in awhile, and never, ever compromise your integrity to try and be someone you’re not, are the kind that ring true regardless of age. They’re the kind that you can take with you (along with a stereo and a bucket to transport toiletries to a coed bathroom) to college to make sure, as Ally Sheedy puts it in “The Breakfast Club” that your heart doesn’t die once you become an adult. Growing up in the era where “Greed is good,” was a catchphrase wasn’t always easy,  and Xers owe a big thank you to filmmakers like Hughes who reminded us – regardless of what life held for us after high school – what mattered when it came to being a decent person wasn’t material.


A Look Back: The Giver

Imagine a wondrous fantasy world that only exists in a young person’s book but is universally beloved by all who open the covers and turn the pages. Then imagine years later, the news that it’s going to make the leap from the page to the big screen. Naturally, former readers will nurse concerns. Will the right actors be chosen to play the cast? Will the special effects be too cheesy or overwhelm the story? Will the magic get lost in translation?

Directors often seem to do their best to compound the problem by announcing beforehand that they are going to make some changes, which may seem minor to them, but which become controversies that set off Twitter wars and so on. In “The Giver’s” case, one of the big questions was how the black and white world that predominates at the beginning would be portrayed. Also of concern was that the three protagonists, who are supposed to be twelve in the book, all appeared to be well-acquainted with puberty, at least according to their Internet Movie Database photos.

Also, the author Lois Lowry set off a mini-tempest of sorts when she was interviewed about the film and joked that she was going to have a cameo playing the elderly woman that the protagonist helps bathe at a senior care center in the book. Some took her seriously, so up popped online headlines like “Lowry to appear in “The Giver.”

Anyway, after all that was cleared up, the film was completed and released. Its plot generally stayed true to the book, although there was the aforementioned puberty problem that was jarring for me, though I can’t speak for anyone else. When “The Giver” opens, the young(ish) protagonist, played by Brenton Thwaites, lives in a world where pain, fear, lust and all strong emotion is unknown, but is feeling apprehensive anyway because tomorrow he and his two friends (Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan) will be assigned their adult jobs in a ceremony that takes place before the whole community. Brenton’s parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) try to reassure him, telling him that they felt the same way when they were his age, but he still worries. When the moment does arrive and the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) skips over him, Brenton (and the whole community) panics, but it turns out that this was deliberate, and Brenton has been chosen for a special position: Receiver of Memory. The “Giver” (Jeff Bridges) will entrust to him all the messy memories of the past that the rest of the community has agreed should be his burden alone. Whew! Sounds like a blast.

But soon Brenton discovers that he has the capacity to feel joy, love and all those great forbidden fruits, so much so that he chooses to stop taking the pills that all adults (young and up) are given daily, which unblocks even more emotions. The black and white world (think “Pleasantville”) suddenly begins to change color, just as it has in the past, but more often. He also learns the fate of the previous Receiver (Taylor Swift), the Giver’s daughter, who chose death over continuing to take in the pain that comes along with the memories. Brenton is understandably upset and conflicted, just like Taylor, but when he discovers that the foster infant his family is caring for will be “released” (i.e. euthanized for failure to thrive) and not only that, but his father will be the one to do it (as it’s “just” his job), he decides to leave the community. With him gone, the village members will be forced to start receiving the memories. But (unlike the book), this will put him in direct conflict with his two friends.

“The Giver” is a short book, so much of the fleshing out the world building makes sense. Why Taylor Swift was chosen to be showcased, I have no idea, but the other cast do a fine job. And Katie Holmes, who has had real-life experience surviving as a mom in a cult-like community, is great as Brenton’s mother. The film doesn’t attempt to answer some important questions about how the community works, but then that’s up to the reader or viewer to imagine.










Movie Review: A Wrinkle in Time

Near the end of “A Wrinkle In Time,” wise spirit Oprah Winfrey tells young Meg Murry (Storm Reid) that by completing her quest to rescue her father (Chris Pine) and younger brother (Deric McCabe), she has joined the ranks of such luminaries as Einstein, Marie Curie and Gandhi. To this pantheon can also be added Madeleine L’Engle, who taught me through her young adult books, many things including quantum physics, starfish limb regeneration, how to communicate with dolphins telepathically and what champagne tastes like when you’re underage and on a plane to Europe – and whose characters all wind up, however reluctantly, doing battle with evil. In the movie version of L’Engle’s book, there is some physics but it shouldn’t tax the brains of moviegoers too much, though no champagne. Fortunately, most of the characters’ personalities and the plot are recognizable, though the movie does have flaws.

In the beginning of the film, the Murry family are town pariahs of a sort because their patriarch, a quixotic scientist who is married to another (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has disappeared and been gone for four years. Unsurprisingly, their oldest daughter (Reid) has been dealing with this by acting out at school. (For book purists, her prissy martinet of a principal, Mr. Jenkins, has his obnoxiousness watered way down, and the movie also omits Meg’s great line about how facing facts are a lot easier than facing people.) But things begin to look up when Storm’s precocious younger brother starts collecting various oddballs (Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling), plus a popular classmate (Levi Miller) and hints that something major is about to occur. And indeed it does, when the three spirits appear in the children’s backyard and offer them a chance to space travel (or “tesser”). Soon the backyard starts vibrating and rippling, cueing the special effects to amp up to eleven, impressive though often at the expense of character development. Before the youngsters know it, they’ve landed on planet Uriel, a pleasant stop before ultimately heading to a planet of darkness where Chris is trapped, Deric will morph into Damien from “The Omen,” and Storm will need to rely on her faults to save them all.

Storm makes a superb Meg and earns a victory for awkward girls everywhere by not having to remove her glasses or defrizz her hair in order to ultimately get the guy. Levi looks nothing like Book Calvin and is given a hackneyed Evil Dad plotline but does a decent job nonetheless. The one jarring note is Deric’s Charles Wallace, although the actor is adorable, I don’t quite remember Book Charles anything like how he plays him. In the book, Charles Wallace rarely speaks, except in front of his family, leading to the misperception in town that he is slow – but here, he’s a little chatterbox and acts like he’s in a cereal commercial. But the movie has its lump-in-the-throat moments, mostly between Storm and Chris, and is most appealing when it stops trying to be a special effects extravaganza or a music video and just trusts in the magic of the book. Perhaps children will be more forgiving and enjoy “A Wrinkle In Time” more wholeheartedly than I did.


Movie Review: Every Day

One hazard of getting older as in “heading into middle age somewhat reluctantly” is that you amp up any tendency you have to compare the past to the present – with the present inevitably coming out the loser. Anything: music, customer service, ice cream flavors – even teen movies – can be ripe for this treatment. As in:

“You think today’s movie teens have problems? Well, you’ve obviously never seen “Sixteen Candles,” in which Molly Ringwald not only has to deal with the dual indignities of her crush not knowing she exists or her parents forgetting her birthday, but also her visiting grandmother feeling her up (“Fred, she’s gotten her boobies!”) or the school geek (Anthony Michael Hall) wanting to borrow her panties so he can convince the entire freshman class he’d hooked up with her. Now those were problems, my child.”

“Well, did say Samantha Baker (nee Molly Ringwald) ever fall in love with a guy who was only her dream date when he was inhabited by a strange spirit referred to as ‘A’, and did she ever have to face the fact that he/she could only hang out with her for one day at a time? Unless she drove an hour to track him down, and then had to fend off the guy’s overprotective parents in the bargain.”


“Did Samantha Baker’s ideal crush constantly vary in gender, ethnicity and body type but was actual the same person underneath?”

“Touche! Jake Ryan stayed a hunk throughout the whole film.”

Yes, as it turns out, today’s movie teens do face some unique and peculiar problems, after all. In “Every Day,” which is based on the young adult novel by David Levithan, young Angourie Rice is suddenly faced with a steady (Justice Smith) who wants to ditch school and do something memorable. Not only that, but he actually seems to be attuned to her moods, so much so that she confides in him about her father (Michael Cram) who has been unemployed since having a manic episode. Also Justice has stopped smoking! The next day, however, Justice is back to his usual arrogant self and apparently has no memory of their magical day. (I’m at the age where I felt sorry for Justice – it’s not really his fault that he was temporarily possessed by the Ideal New Age Sensitive Guy. But that’s beside the point here.) Poor Angourie Rice! What’s a teen movie girl to do?

Eventually, Angourie is clued in by one of the personalities that they are all just ordinary teens who suddenly wake up with the pleasure of having “A,” a gender-fluid spirit inhabiting their body for the day. “A” has been like this since “A” was a child and until “A” was about six, figured that everyone lived like this. (One of the more believable parts – without a real standard of comparison, kids will accept total chaos for normality for a long time.) Now “A” is a magnanimous, philosophical sort who accepts this lifestyle and tries not to mess up whoever body “A” inhabits. However, this rule goes out the window when “A” meets Angourie with problems developing. But Angourie does manage to get her artist dad to snap out of his funk by posing for him, and in the end learns valuable lessons which allow her to finally find a guy who appreciates her for who she is.

Of course, Angourie does not take this unique opportunity to ask “A” questions like, “So you must have some astute insights into whether racism is learned or inherent?” Or even, “When you were a kid, before you got your own phone, what did you do during sleepovers?” But no, although the movie dips into darkness, (Satan possession, suicide, etc.) it quickly dips back out. Frankly, I think we could use more movies where teens solve their problems without the help of the supernatural, as well as ones which acknowledged that feeling crappy and having a somewhat fluid identity as a youth are normal parts of growing up, but perhaps the target audience will enjoy “Every Day” more than me. But as Christian Slater noted in “Pump Up the Volume,” “If you were happy every day, you’d be a game show host.”


A Look Back: Cruel Intentions

When I was in school – way before political correctness and participation trophies – we occasionally had to take tests with a certain kind of puzzle question. I don’t know what they are called, but they go like this – A is to B as C is to D. Using this formula, here’s a movie-oriented question: If lawsuits are to law firms then _ are to cinematic high schools?

a) Proms
b) SATs
c) Big Games
d) Bets
e) All of the above

I suppose a case could be made for choosing e), but I think the most accurate answer is d) Bets. While the other three are important parts of movie teens’ lives, I think bets are the things that most get the characters to put themselves at risk for having their lives destroyed if they don’t win and sometimes even if they do. In “Cruel Intentions,” based on the popular (one assumes) 18th century French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s “Les Liasons Dangereuses,” a bet causes one of the protagonists to actually lose his life, not just the respect of the girl he loves, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Cruel Intentions,” which spawned both a prequel and sequel after it was released (not to mention the idea of a potential musical being floated), stars evil stepsiblings in upper-crust New York, played by Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Although they are both supposed to be evil, Ryan is clearly evil-lite and Sarah Michelle – who snorts coke stored in a cross around her neck – is the Real Deal. As actors go, Ryan has always struck me as the whipped cream garnishing the dessert – perfectly decorative as long as it isn’t actually required to do anything but look tempting. Anyway, the two strike a bet arranged around Ryan deflowering their classmate Reese Witherspoon, who is determined to save herself for marriage. If Ryan wins, he gets Sarah Michelle’s vintage Jaguar; if Sarah Michelle wins, she gets to sleep with Ryan because why not? There is also a new student, played by Selma Blair, whose mother (Christine Baranski) has asked Sarah Michelle to look out for her. Sarah Michelle’s idea of this is pretty vile, which we will get to in a moment.

Surprisingly, Reese turns down Ryan which sends him into a fit of pique determined to figure out who might have tipped Reese off ahead of time that there was some kind of chicanery in the works. After consulting his best friend (Joshua Jackson), he seizes on Eric Mabius as the potential snitch, as Eric has a crush on Sarah Michelle’s ex (Charlie O’Connell). After a bit of blackmail, Ryan learns that the real culprit (are you getting all this) is – Christine! Things are also complicated by Selma falling for her music teacher (Sean Patrick Thomas) and getting mixed-up with Ryan, too. “Cruel Intentions” concludes with Ryan seeing the Error of His Ways and falling for Reese for real – but getting killed in the process. “Cruel Intentions,” is one of the rare teen movies where the vintage sports car outlives its driver, and in the end, Sarah Michelle gets busted for drugs, Reese drives down the highway in the Jag with the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” blasting, and Ryan becomes a kind of saint because there is no easier way for this to occur than tragically dying young.

Ryan went on to do a movie called “Igby Goes Down,” in which he also plays a prissy upper-crust New Yorker; in this one, he gets to help euthanize his terminally ill mom (Susan Sarandon) with the help of his brother (Kieran Culkin). “Igby Goes Down” is a better, darker movie, but “Cruel Intentions” can be a lot of fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously. I don’t know what Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s reaction would be if he knew what had become of his story, but I like to think he would have had a chuckle or two.


’17-’18 Winter Movie Lessons

Warning: These contain spoilers.

Lady Bird

1. The culture of Sacramento, California in the early Y2K era is too similar to any other area of Calif. to be even remotely considered for college, so you might as well escape by going all the way to good old New York City.

2. If your boyfriend insists he “respects” you to much to touch your breasts even when you strongly encourage him, that might be a prophetic sign that your relationship is doomed.

3. Your mom will never grasp why a teenage girl who is suffering from perpetual ennui would prefer to attend a high school where she risks getting stabbed rather than a lovely safe (but expensive) Catholic school.

Just Getting Started

4. Permitting the professional carolers who perform at your retirement community to wear flip-flops may make them comfortable but kind of spoils the effect.

5. Even a designer dog wearing the Cone of Shame can get into a lot of mischief, even instigate a jailbreak for a group of exotic animals.

6. A good time to confess your deepest secrets is during a car chase in the middle of nowhere.

Pitch Perfect 3

7. Sometimes it’s better to have a father who never shows for your performances than a criminal dad who simply wants to rope you into his latest scam.

8. If you are a tight-knit a cappella group and your handler thoughtlessly books all of you into separate hotel rooms, you can always just cram into one if you’d like.

9. If you and your a cappella group are being held hostage, a surefire way to buy time before you’re rescued is to put on a show.

All the Money in the World

10. “Antiques” picked up in foreign markets and claimed to be worth millions are probably not worth staking all your hopes on of securing ransom money.

11. If your token sympathetic captor recommends liquor in order to get through the amputation of a body part, it’s a good idea to accept.

12. Italians are exceedingly reluctant to get involved in anything that involves aiding potential captives fleeing their hostage takers, even super-wealthy American ones.


13. Becoming smaller apparently does not affect the size of one’s private parts, or at least not in proportion to the rest of one’s body.

14. If you are unsuccessful hooking up at one of Christoph Waltz’s wild parties, you can always make a pass at the cleaning lady the morning after.

15. Decreasing one’s height significantly may cause you to see things in a different way but not become any less prone to paranoia or bad judgment.

The Post

16. When you are faced with making a speech honoring an esteemed friend or taking a call that might determine the fate of a major news story, you should – after gracious apologies – choose the latter.

17. When your newspaper editor father invites his colleagues over to assemble and break the potentially biggest story of the decade, you can make a killing selling lemonade to the absorbed group, even if you omit the vodka.

18. Never assume that your most recent bombshell news story will be the biggest and most stressful you’ll ever have to deal with in your career.

A Phantom Thread

19. Just because someone is charming while ordering breakfast in public does not mean he is equally affable when eating breakfast in his own home.

20. A potential suitor who appears to love his mother to death but speak harshly of his former nanny may actually have serious unresolved women issues.

21. Buttering one’s toast at a certain volume can be even more irritating than leaving the loo seat up to a suitor who loathes unnecessary noise.

The Greatest Showman

22. He who laughs with the other person’s money firmly in hand has the last laugh.

23. Bad press is always preferable to no free publicity at all – except if you’re photographed kissing an opera star while on a trip away from your wife.

24. You really only need a few friends who sincerely approve of you to be happy in life.


25. Kicking your laudanum habit is essential if you want to solve the mystery of whether your new place of residence is haunted or not.

26. A gun heiress’ salary for her home construction crew may far outweigh any inconvenience of having to work round-the-clock or deal with children suddenly throwing themselves out of windows.

27. It is absolutely essential that you nail each captured spirit in with thirteen nails, but that might not be quite a fail safe method for containing them.

The 15-17 to Paris

28. Playing war games with your preadolescent pals is fun, but what’s really a blast is TP-ing some poor soul’s house.

29. “Keeps looking out the window” is one of the checklist items for ADHD nowadays which apparently teachers can float to parents with a straight face.

30. Upgrading your status from coach to first class on French trains is simply a matter of strolling up to the appropriate car and sitting down.

Game Night

28. If you want to convince your nosy next door neighbor that you aren’t having company soon, it’s best to avoid running into him when you’re carrying a grocery bag crammed full of Tostadoes.

29. A bullet wound that causes a grown man to whimper and squirm when his wife is tending it won’t give him any major trouble for the rest of the night, even when he’s fleeing the bad guys in a car chase or attempting to hijack an airplane.

30. If you’re an attractive woman, you can deflect a bad guy with a gun by claiming you have children at home, but a certain portion of your anatomy may reveal you to be a liar.


Movie Review: Game Night

It’s a movie truth universally acknowledged that while the parents are away, the kids will play – more specifically, that the house will get trashed beyond repair in a wild party, and the parents’ prized sports car will be taken out of the garage and wrecked in a high speed car chase. In “Risky Business,” Tom Cruise’s movie parents hit the trifecta for not only did the first two occur, but mom’s cherished Faberge egg was nicked and then developed a crack on the way to being retrieved by her son before the folks returned. In John Francis Daley’s just-released “Game Night,” the trio of house/car/Faberge egg gets demolished on the way to the main characters (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) learning their life lessons, but that is the risk you take being a movie character.

In “Game Night,” Jason and Rachel play an insanely competitive but much-in-love couple who have been trying to conceive with zero luck. Their doctor suggests that perhaps it’s the stress of this that’s causing problems, when Rachel brings up the fact that Jason has always been competitive with his far-more-successful brother (Kyle Chandler). Jason scoffs at this, but we see the tension lines forming when the doctor asks if Kyle is single. The couple then goes shopping for munchies for their next game night, which is a weekly ritual attended by their friends who include Billy Magnussen (who always brings a different dim-witted but attractive date), and husband-and-wife team of Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury. After Kyle shows up in town with the sports car that Jason’s always dreamed of buying and promises to host a game night in which the winner will take home the car, the players gather expectantly with Billy bringing in a “ringer” played by Sharon Horgan. The twist is that real actors have been hired to simulate a kidnapping, and on the way to solving the “crime,” no one will know what is real and what isn’t.

The actors (or are they?) are scoffed at in the beginning when thugs burst in and manage to subdue Kyle after a dramatic fight. Once the three pairs receive their clues and start navigating, however, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. Eventually, Rachel who is very bright when it comes to imagining all the ways in which the “game” is fake but forgets an important movie rule, mistakes a real gun for a fake one and injures her partner. After that, the players realize that they may be playing with fire, so they all head over to Jason’s and Rachel’s creepy neighbor’s (Jesse Plemons) house. Jesse, who is a cop who used to attend Game Night before his divorce, and who has already dropped ten pound hints about how much he would like to come back, is a pain, but he does possess a computer with FBI-type info. It turns out – surprise! – that whoever is orchestrating the game is not as in charge as he (or she) believes, so things get progressively scarier and then not on the way to the finish line.

I won’t reveal who ultimately is playing who, but the movie is very funny and leaves the door open for a sequel. Jesse is excellent as the rather robotic police officer who plays a more key role than either Jason and Rachel expect. I’m not sure the potential franchise would be as big a hit as “Horrible Bosses,” but judging from the positive reaction in my theater, perhaps it would be worth a shot.