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.

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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.

 

 

Movie Review: Baby Driver

As movie critics and movie viewers alike have noticed – and noted – film characters are blessed with a myriad of gifts that in real life, most people lack. While out and about, they always manage to find a parking spot conveniently outside their destination; they can go into a bar and order a beer without having the bartender snarkily inquire “What kind, you moron?” They also have the knack of turning on the stereo and discovering Just the Right Song playing. In “Baby Driver,” however, this isn’t necessary because the hero (Ansel Elgort) provides his own soundtrack via earbuds due to the fact that he acquired tinnitus when he got into a car accident as a youngster which left his parents dead, too. As a result, Ansel is a young man without a good deal of positive direction in his life, although because we quickly discover he also has a heart of gold, we settle back easy in the suspicion that everything will ultimately turn out all right.

After Ansel’s parents passed away, young Ansel winds up playing Oliver to Evil Kevin Spacey’s Fagin, and because he is such a talented – well, getaway driver in the various heists that Kevin masterminds, Kevin keeps using him even though he ordinarily never uses the same crew twice. Kevin does, however, manage to find at least one member of the crew (in most of the movie, it’s Jamie Foxx) to be the Designated Ansel Antagonist, which supplies the necessary amount of friction during the heists themselves. When he’s not heisting, Ansel takes care of his guardian in a ratty apartment – the man is not only in a wheelchair, he’s deaf as well, which has the dual effect of cementing the heart of gold trait and giving the opportunity for more dancing around as Ansel does various domestic tasks, such as making a sandwich. Ansel also meets a charming server (Lily James) at a diner who is pretty much your textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and soon it begins to look like a match. Oh, and he also makes mixes of recorded dialogue around him, which eventually play a part in the plot.

Encouraged by his guardian, his heart of gold and his new love interest who muses longingly of taking a very long road trip with him, Ansel tries to go straight, but unfortunately, that darn Kevin won’t let him even accounts and walk away. This puts Ansel at more risk – although it would probably help if their getaway car wasn’t such a distinctive shade of red among other minor things. Consequences do catch up to Ansel, but he does get the girl, and Kevin gets a suitable come-uppance.  “Baby Driver” never takes itself too seriously, though it does take place in your typical movie-verse in which bright red cars serve as effective getaway vehicles. And it has a great, surprisingly varied, soundtrack. Because sometimes a song is worth a hundred lines of dialogue.

 

Movie Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

“And what do you do while your husband plays with monkeys?” inquires a supercilious dinner party guest of Antonia Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) at the start of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” her tone dripping with condescension. “I help,” Jessica replies simply, and indeed she is the key to their Warsaw zoo running smoothly in the early days before the Holocaust, whether it’s pitching hay with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) in pumps or rescuing an elephant from suffocating. Based on the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman who herself gathered material from the real Antonia’s writings to tell the true story of how a zookeeper, his wife and young son managed to save the lives of 300 Jews by first hiding them, then smuggling them out of the ghetto, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a moving cinematic portrayal of how ordinary people can become unexpected heroes.

If you’re an animal lover, you may be wondering how far into the movie do the animals involved begin to suffer; the answer is very shortly, as the director wastes little time jumping into the Nazi invasion of Poland. The Germans dispatch some (arguably out of self-defense), and then an officer (Daniel Bruhl) offers to take the remaining stock off the couple’s hands and transfer them to another zoo. Realizing that they have little choice in the matter, Jessica agrees, and also gives permission to house a bison breeding program on the now mostly empty grounds. Daniel assures Jessica that this whole invasion thing will be over in no time, but unfortunately, the couple’s trouble is just beginning. After some debate, they agree to hide a Jewish friend; and because Johan is involved in the Resistance, he feels compelled to do more, so eventually, the family conceals more refugees, putting them in deeper peril. Johan and Jessica wind up with papers that permit them to come and go in the Warsaw Ghetto, which ultimately allows them to save all but two, though of course, there are plenty of dicey moments along the way to this victory.

As critics have noted, here Jessica (following up “Allied,” also set in Nazi-era Germany) has a rather distracting Polish accent which is as thick as syrup in some scenes but much milder in others. However, she does a superb job conveying the vulnerability of a woman who really has few choices in the grand scheme of things (despite what her husband may say in one scene). The two actors who play the son at different ages also do a good job. The film version differs from the book somewhat, but I assume the changes were made in order to amp up the suspense. The book is also worth a read, but if you’re reading it post-movie viewing, don’t be surprised if it’s noticeably dissimilar.

Movie Review: All the Money in the World

Rich people, narrates Charlie Plummer at the start of “All the Money in the World,” are from another planet. Perhaps this would be sheer hyperbole in another film, but after watching (non-related) Christopher Plummer’s performance as his onscreen grandfather, John Paul Getty the First, the viewer realizes that this may be an understatement. After all, not only is Christopher currently the richest man in the world (it’s the seventies), but he’s the richest man who has ever been, due to his entrepreneurship in bringing oil back to America. (Okay then! Eat your heart out, Bill Gates.) Christopher also seems to have been born without a crucial piece that most humans of all economic backgrounds possess – that can’t be replicated by plastic surgery because it’s internal: his conscience. Although he claims several times throughout the film that he loves his grandchildren, his behavior strongly suggests otherwise – whether it’s to his go-between (Mark Wahlberg) or his estranged daughter-in-law (Michelle Williams). Nor does it seem that he’s just one of those characters often found in movies who simply can’t express his emotions.

After some flashbacks in which it’s established that Christopher is a very peculiar sort, we see Michelle deciding to divorce her husband (Andrew Buchan) due to infidelity and the fact that he’s a drug-addict. She makes the decision not to accept alimony or any kind of financial support, so that she will receive sole custody of her children (including Charlie), which leaves her fund-less but independent. However, Charlie is less-than-thrilled with this, which perhaps help trigger his rebellious adolescent phase; in any case, he’s soon kidnapped by swarthy men with heavy accents and flashy gold jewelry so we know that sinister times are ahead. Because the ransom for Charlie’s return is exorbitant (to put it mildly), Michelle is forced to seek help from Christopher who has issues with paying too much for a cheap tourist souvenir, and these are multiplied when it comes to buying back his own flesh-and-blood so to speak. While Charlie is put through hell and back, Christopher stalks around his estate scowling, while Mark furrows his brow a lot to convey moral angst (he’s better at gritty blue-collar roles) and poor Michelle, who appears to be the only adult in the picture, tries and keeps failing to secure her son’s release.

My first onscreen memory of Christopher Plummer was him in military dress blowing a whistle in “The Sound of Music,” while I always envision Kevin Spacey assaulting the Christmas tree in “The Ref,” or announcing to his nice suburban neighborhood in “American Beauty” that he wants to look good naked, so the decision to replace the latter with the former (due to recent allegations) was an excellent idea.  Christopher could probably play this role in his sleep, but both he and Michelle do a terrific job of portraying their roles. The movie is a little long but worth seeing for the two of them.

(Note: You may also be wondering – how grisly is the amputation scene? It’s graphic, so if you’re squeamish about the sight of blood, it’s a good time to use the restroom.)