A Look Back: Erin Brockovich

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

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

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

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


When Characters Switch Places Onscreen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Movie Review: The Post

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

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

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

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





Movie Review: Downsizing

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

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

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



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.


A Look Back: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

In the movies, a vehicle for ultimate better-personhood can be many things. Sometimes it can be a sport or an animal or a form of art. Sometimes it can even be an actual vehicle, such as in road trip movies. Or it can be less tangible – like the pre-cable TV-era San Diego news channel in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” In “Anchorman,” with his tongue firmly in cheek, Will Ferrell plays the titular character (although his name could just as easily be Ricky Bobby or Chaz Michael Michaels or…), indeed a legend (at least in his own mind) who learns that as someone else puts it, “It’s the 70’s. Ladies can do stuff.” Indeed they can, and with the arrival of Christina Applegate as the new co-anchor, wacky high jinx will abound.

Christina plays a sharp cookie with, as she puts it, “exquisite breasts,” named Veronica Corningstone, probably because “Veronica Glassceilingsmasher” would be too obvious. She’s hired by the station head (Fred Willard) to spread diversity, although her physical attributes may also have played a role in the decision. Unsurprisingly, she is more than a match for Will and his three colleagues. While Dorothy Gale had the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion, Will has sportscaster David Koechner, roving reporter Paul Rudd, and mentally challenged weatherman Steve Carell as his sidekicks. None of them are any more evolved (indeed Steve believes that the scent of menstrual blood attracts bears which will matter later on), but they have a ball together doing such things as facing off against a public TV access team (led by Tim Robbins) which soon disintegrates into an actual brawl – though with the caveat that no one touches anyone’s hair. Although there is mutual attraction between Will and Christina almost from the start, there is also the obligatory friction that keeps them one-upping each other throughout the film – which culminates with someone getting temporarily canned and a dramatic zoo rescue involving polar bears. It also spawned a sequel some years later.

Will is reliably good at playing guys who have things going for them, though probably  not quite as much as they are convinced they do. Examples include the aforementioned Ricky Bobby, plus (from Saturday Night Live) the guy in the Blue Oyster Cult who plays the cowbell. Here he displays a talent for flute playing and also concern for his friends (at one point, he warns Steve that killing a man with a trident puts him at risk for arrest) and also undergoes the obligatory “humbling” before winning the girl. Or the anchor-woman. The movie is full of lines like “We woke up the mama,” and “I pooped a hammer,” which make no sense if you haven’t seen the film but which, I swear, are funny in context. At least if you like movies where redemption arrives in the form of a polar bear rescue.



Best and Worst of 2017 Films

The Year’s Best (So Far)

Note: These do not include films I would have loved to see but didn’t come anywhere near me and whose names I have forgotten. Also movies like “Get Out” which got excellent reviews but which I have yet to catch up on, and ones like “Post” and “The Darkest Hour,” which sound like surefire Oscar-bait but have yet to open where I live.

1. Lady Bird – In Greta Gerwig’s autobiographical coming-of-age film, Saouise Ronan (likely) completes her trilogy of Oscar nominations. Portraying a Catholic high school senior and reluctant resident of Sacramento, Calif., Saouise spends the movie sparring with her mother, Laurie Metcalf, who is juggling financial worries, a full-time job and a depressed husband (Tracy Letts), as she learns the same life lessons most onscreen teens learn but in an unexpectedly fresh way. (Note to Oscar presenter – it rhymes with inertia.)

2. The Big Sick – In Kumail Nanjiani’s and wife’s Emily Gordon’s autobiographical film of how they met, fell in love, and then had their relationship tested by a twist that involves a hospital – and seems too bizarre to be true. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play the parents of Zoe Kazan’s character (the girlfriend) and also do a great job.

3. It (2017) – You’ll float, too in this remake of Stephen King’s horror novel – but first you’ll get the pants scared off of you, as you watch Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) gleefully terrorize the small town of Derry, with only a band of brave young “losers” to foil him. With a sequel to come to do full justice to this tome.

4. Dunkirk – In my review, I struggled to come up with a verb that appropriately described my viewing experience. “Enjoyed” and “rewarding” seemed tasteless. “Grueling but worthwhile” is closer to watching this two hour plus film about how Belgian, France and British soldiers are rescued from seemingly inevitable disaster by the Germans in World War II.

5. Patriots Day – Great retelling of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, starring Boston native Mark Wahlberg, and a good cast, including J.K. Simmons as a police officer seeking justice.

6. Good Time – Uneven but deserves full marks for originality. Robert Pattinson plays a lowlife criminal who drags his mentally challenged adult brother (Benny Safdie) along on a robbery – then proceeds to make a stunning array of wrong decisions that might have worked anyway in a Hollywood movie, but sadly not this one.

7. Hidden Figures – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae play a real life trio of African American women who made a crucial difference in the American space race and smashed some glass ceilings at NASA in the sixties. Wholesome enough for the whole family to watch. (“I like her digits,” is not a pickup line.)

8. The Promise – Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale play a love triangle in the film set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Moving and suspenseful depiction of the Turkish Armenian genocide.

9. Marshall – Josh Gad plays a lawyer who is forced into teaming up with Thurgood Marshall (at the start of his career), played by Chadwick Boseman, in order to take the case of a black chauffeur accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Textbook courtroom drama, but it holds your attention from start to finish.

10. Battle of the Sexes – Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King in this depiction of the titular tennis match with Steve Carell. An unexpectedly large portion is devoted to Emma’s relationship with the tour’s hairdresser, but there’s still plenty of tennis. Since Carell’s take is more goofy than sinister, Bill Pullman does the honors as a textbook sexist villain.

And the Year’s Worst (So Far)

Note: These do not include films I actively went out of my way this year not to go anywhere near including “The Emoji Movie,” “The Book of Henry” and the film version of “Baywatch,” most of which I’m sure would have easily made this list had I done so. Again, there’s no significance to the numerical listings. I’ll stop at six to avoid depression.

1. It Comes At Night – After a black-humored Monty Python reference to kick off the film, the movie’s pace turns sludgy, as Joel Edgerton, playing a father trying to protect his family during a dystopian plague, is reduced to haranguing his unexpected guests to never open the Chamber of Secrets.

2. The Circle – Emma Watson plays a cipher in the future who is at first thrilled to get a job at the high-tech “Circle” but – amazingly enough comes to realize that Something Sinister is going on which May Impact Society Negatively as a Whole. Unlike say, the Harry Potter series, her book character (based on the Dave Eggers bestseller) is not fleshed out at all, perhaps handicapping the concept from the start.

3. Just Getting Started – Not so much blatantly bad as simply a failure to launch and a colossal waste of all cast members (including Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo). Scenes follow one after the other without much tying them together or with a genuine payoff, in this film about a man in the Witness Protection Program who discovers that his new rival at a retirement community may be involved in the Mob.

4. The House – Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler must have done something awful in a previous life to be trapped in this film about parents running a casino to fund their child’s educaton, although they (and their onscreen daughter, Ryan Simpkins) deserve full marks for executing this movie without once looking as if they were considering firing their agents.

5. The Dark Tower – I’m sure this looked awesome on paper. A popular novella from the pen of Stephen King; Idris Elba and Jude Law facing off against each other in an epic battle between Good and Evil, plus a sympathetic young hero (Tom Taylor) – oh well. There’s always “It” to come.

6. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – Charlie Hunnam plays the young king in this movie which totally bypasses the more familiar “Sword in the Stone” narrative in favor of lots of brawling, modern language, and special effects. Including a facial mask of glowing coals because – why not? Plays like a cinematic version of mediocre fanfiction.

It might seem that Hollywood has a long way to go before surpassing these films in sheer badness, but there’s always 2018 to meet this challenge. Cheers!