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,

Movie Review: The Big Short

Why do good people do bad things? Why do people who consider themselves decent and honest take jobs which involve cheating other decent and honest people? It’s not on anyone’s lifetime top movie list, but I’ve never heard the answer expressed as succinctly as it is in “Regarding Henry,” in which Harrison Ford plays a cut-throat lawyer who winds up becoming a better person after accidentally sustaining brain damage.

Harrison Ford’s lawyer character, earnestly: “What we did is wrong.”

Harrison’s colleague, matter-of-factly: “What we did is paying for our lunch.”

You can sum up a universal truth like that in a low-key way, or you can make an entire movie about the lack of morality in the business world, which is what happens in “The Big Short.” The movie uses pretty much all the techniques in movies like “Boiler Room,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” to hold the viewer’s interest in what would otherwise be a lot of mostly white men disagreeing with each other for two hours. These include rap music (though the theme to “Phantom of the Opera” is also snuck in); jump cuts, scantily clothed women (including Margot Robbie as herself in a hot tub), scenes set in places like nightclubs and casinos which naturally hype up the energy a notch; and breaking the fourth wall. The characters in “The Big Short,” are supposed to be outsiders to the financial industry, but there doesn’t seem to much of a character arc for most of them; first they’re all gung ho about making money, and later when it’s time, they get a little less gung-ho. “I’m going to seek moral redemption,” one character claims at one point, but I was never sure if he was being ironic or not. This is the kind of movie where someone responds to being called a big piece of shit by beaming – without irony.

In the movie, Christian Bale plays a glass-eyed, quasi-autistic doctor genius who correctly predicts that the housing market is going to collapse pre-2008. He’s definitely won the jackpot when it comes to quirky roles, and the other characters have to work twice as hard to make an impression next to him. When I was watching, I kept having deja-vu, finally it struck me that Bale is playing both the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman roles in “Rain Man,” at once. Sometimes he’s stomping around demanding money to invest; other times he’s screwing up his face, rocking out to his Ipod and playing air drums. Other characters, such as Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt (disguised under heavy facial hair), and Steve Carell, who gets to play a character with moral qualms from the beginning, but who mostly just conveys this by furrowing his brown and frowning a lot. (Carell is an excellent actor, but here, he struck me as a little lost.) The movie knows that the average movie-goer probably can’t or has no inclination to follow complex financial analysis, so the characters explain things in a way anyone can understand, by comparing things to fish, poker, toy buildings or poop. Example: “The CDO is cat shit wrapped in dog shit.” If “The Wolf of Wall Street,” holds the record for using the most f-words, this movie might also set a record for using the word “shit.”

“The Big Short,” reminded me of another Oscar-nominated/winning movie “Spotlight,” as it’s about mostly white guys crusading for the truth. “Spotlight” has a scene where Mark Ruffalo’s reporter bursts into the newsroom and demands that they run a story identifying pedophile priests, and there’s a similar one where Steve Carell points out that the people in the financial world knew full well the taxpayers would have to bail them out, but they didn’t care. Like “Spotlight,” there’s also a grim postscript which tells the viewer what happened (although of course, this is public knowledge already), which is that almost no one got punished for their sins. The perpetrators are still at it, and Bale’s real life character got audited (four times) when he tried to speak out. Such is life, but then people do have to pay for their lunch.

Movie Quiz: How Clichéd Is Your Main Teen Character?

1. Appearance-wise, I can be described as:
a) Average
b) Plain but with great makeover potential
c) Attractive if I just upgraded my wardrobe and ditched the heavy eyeliner

2. My suburban house:
a) Is pretty unremarkable
b) Could not be picked out of a police lineup of neighborhood residences.
c) Has a flawless exterior, velvety green landscaping, a pool and a multi-car garage containing several expensive cars.

3. The climate can best be described as:
a) Warm in the summer months; cold in the winter
b) Sunny every morning; with birds chirping regardless of month
c) Always sunny and pleasant except when a tragedy is taking place

4. My parents’ various issues affect me in the form of:
a) Finding excuses to stay away from home
b) Twice a week sessions with a sympathetic shrink
c) Illegal and antisocial behavior that may bring me in contact with the law

5. My mom is newly single again, and she
a) Is working more than ever, since our family income has since decreased.
b) Asks me for tips on her dating site profile.
c) Has frank talks about exceedingly awkward subjects.

6. My crush:
a) Attends my school
b) Bisects my path once or twice a day.
c) Lives next door, and we used to run around the yard naked as toddlers

7. It’s my senior year, and I’m applying to:
a) A reach school and a couple of safeties
b) One school only, and it’s an Ivy League one
c) No schools in particular, I’m just going to decide what to do after graduation.

8. My attitude toward popularity is:
a) It is what it is.
b) College will be a great time to make up for my deficits in this area in high school.
c) Since it’s senior year, I’m going to make every minute count!

9. A classmate tells me there’s a big party, and I should go. Next, I
a) Ask when and where it will be.
b) Get the details online or from a friend.
c) Say, “Great!” because I automatically know all the particulars.

10. My favorite teacher __
a) Often chats with me about non-academic subjects.
b) Is so attractive that we may just breach age barriers to get together.
c) Gives me a long-term assignment that seems impossible, but in the end, has amazing relevance to my personal life.

11. Because my mom doesn’t want me to go out on the night of the party, I _____
a) Tell her I’ll be staying at a friend’s.
b) Sneak out by climbing down the trellis and get a ride from a friend.
c) Sneak out and decide to take the sports car that my dad loves more than me because why not complicate things needlessly?

12. When I finally get together with my crush, for our first date. I choose:
a) The movies or a family style restaurant.
b) A baseball game where I catch a fly ball and give it to my date.
c) A romantic dinner in my house complete with rose petals on the carpet and a gazillion lit candles.

13. For the prom, I ____
a) Rent/buy a normal looking outfit.
b) Go to the thrift shop and remake an outfit into something totally outrageous.
c) Not only wear an outrageous outfit but make an impromptu speech about values which is roundly applauded.

14. But just as everything is going great, I stumble upon what looks like some kind of encounter between my crush and my worst enemy. So I_
a) Take a deep breath and realize it’s probably nothing to get upset about.
b) Ask my crush later on in a rational way what’s going on.
c) Be immediately seized with a feeling of horror and doom, and decide to skip town by taking a plane to someplace far, far away.

15. As I prepare to board the plane, my biggest concern is___
a) Getting through security and finding my seat.
b) The weather conditions which are looking ominous.
c) My crush, who is attempting to get close enough to declare his/her eternal love.

16. And in the end,
a) I board and leave without incident.
b) I get a call, but because I am currently being frisked, I let it go to voice mail.
c) My crush succeeds in persuading the entire line of people boarding to let him/her go to the front and tell me that I am the only person in the world for him/her, whereupon everyone starts applauding, and we then live happily ever after.

If you answered mostly b’s and c’s, congratulations, you have succeeded in creating a classical teen movie cliché of a character.


Movie Review: The Bronze

“The Bronze,” made the last gymnastic movie I saw, which was “Stick It,” appear practically Oscar-nomination worthy. Both movies feature a tough-talking female gymnast who winds up learning a little humility on the road to redemption, as well as resolving some issues, but that’s where the comparisons end. “Stick It” is about a teenager, and “The Bronze,” stars Melissa Rauch (who also wrote this) as a washed-up former Olympian who took a bronze after injuring her foot and won the hearts of America. Perhaps this part was inspired by an occasion in the 96′ Olympic women’s gymnastics when Kerri Strug performed a second vault after injuring her foot, thus helping the team take a collective gold for the first time in history. In any case, with gymnastics, the philosophy that you should remount after falling off the horse should be taken literally. However, Melissa’s character is hanging on to her former fame long past her expiration date: she still lives in her hometown with her doting but increasingly annoyed father (Gary Cole), and spends the bulk of her days scoring freebies from milkshakes to track shoes. She steals, does drugs, and throws tantrums at the slightest provocation: basically, Melissa is Veruca Salt in a warm-up suit and ponytail. Oh, and a mouth like a “South Park” character.

Things turn bleak for Melissa when her father stops her allowance, forcing her to figure out some way of acquiring an income. Fortunately, her former coach commits suicide, and leaves a note promising Melissa that she will receive a sizable chunk of cash, as long as she helps current young hometown star (Haley Lu Richardson) make it to the Olympics. At first, Melissa is (as the soundtrack helpfully points out) a bitch: sabotaging the Pollyanna-like Haley’s training regimen, acting snide to the geeky gym employee (Thomas Middleditch); and so on. The head coach of the women’s gymnastic Olympic team is Sebastian Stan, a cocky former love interest (to put it politely) of Melissa’s, and he becomes her rival for who will ultimately coach Haley. Will Melissa recapture her old passion for gymnastics, and get possibly a few degrees more tolerable as a daughter, coach and girlfriend? Do you even need to ask?

“The Bronze,” is to young gymnastics fans what “Black Swan” was to would-be ballerinas – totally inappropriate to be viewed, unless you happen to be a jaw-droppingly permissive parent. The movie is rated “R,” and unlike some movies, it becomes clear why within the first five minutes. The main character cusses like a truck driver, even after her “redemption,” and there’s a sex scene which answers the question: How might two Olympic medal-winning gymnasts do it? The answer turns out to be a scene that probably took as much choreographing as the gymnastic scenes, but is, alas, like most of the movie, not particularly amusing.

Movie Review: Eddie the Eagle

Critics have compared the recently released “Eddie the Eagle,” starring Taron Egerton as a real life working class Brit who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics to such triumph-of-the-underdog films as “Rudy” and “Cool Runnings” (which gets a shout-out since it’s held at the same Olympics), but when I was watching it, I was reminded more of the South Park episode “Ass-pen,” in which Cartman and Co. stumble into what appears to be an eighties’ teen movie on the ski slopes while their parents are trapped in a presentation on time sharing. Sitting through the movie is not as painful as being trapped in a time sharing lecture, but it really did resemble an Afterschool Special, though Taron’s character is in his twenties. The South Park episode also pointed out the invaluable piece of advice which is that if you want to train and compete in a sport for which you have little experience/expertise, you need a montage. “Eddie the Eagle,” has a lot of montages, all set to peppy eighties’ hits, including the ever reliable “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” montage.  It even uses Van Halen’s “Jump,” after Taron lands a tough jump, but then I suppose the filmmakers couldn’t resist.

Of course, if you want to be a triumphant underdog in a Hollywood movie, you need more than montages, but luckily Taron is in luck. It helps to have at least one parent or adult in your corner, and here it’s his mum (Jo Hartley) who supports his dreams no matter what. Her ten-year-old son wants to catch a bus to the Olympics in the middle of the night? Hey, whatever floats your boat, kid. It’s the dad who disagrees, and because this is a movie, the belief that it’s better that your child find an interest that won’t leave him permanently disabled is treated as if it’s completely irrational. Luckily, after Taron decides to go to a German training camp to train in ski jumping for the Olympics, he gets inspiration from has-been ski champ, Hugh Jackman never seen in the early scenes without his flask. Hugh, in turn, is fighting demons from his training with his old coach, who is played by Christopher Walken who for whatever reasons, does not change his facial expression one iota, even when he’s finally holding out long-withheld approval. Overall, the movie is sweet and earnest and could have benefited from the black humor of the last ski movie I saw, which I think was “Better Off Dead.”

Basically, “Eddie the Eagle,” is “Forrest Gump” on skis. Taron’s character isn’t actually mentally challenged but because of his facial tics, naiveté, klutziness and the unrelenting disdain the bad guys in the film have for him, it occasionally comes off that way. Like Forrest, everyone Taron encounters in his quest is either amazingly supportive or plain evil. The exception is Hugh in the Lieutenant Dan role, who gets to experience a character arc from cynicism to wholehearted approval of the hero. The other movie I had flashbacks to was “Dirty Dancing,” because Taron gets to do a lot of lifts with Hugh while practicing. Luckily, at the Olympics, neither gets put in the corner, and everyone has the time of their life.

A Look Back: The Brady Bunch Movie

Sitcoms, when you’re a kid, tend to have a peculiar charm, as they don’t really resemble your actual family life or that of your friends. In a sitcom world, you may get the chance to observe strange new customs and rituals, but you always have the security of knowing that issues will be resolved in thirty minutes, certain problems will only crop up at certain times of the year, and very little can’t ultimately be resolved with a tidy moral and a laugh track, just so no one gets too bummed out.

When I was growing up, shows where the kids were raised by dads and dad figures were popular (which Freud would have a lot to say about), but before that, there was the Brady Bunch, bravely going where no TV stepfamily had gone before. In BradyWorld, pop stars manage to visit high school dances, good-looking un-related teens develop no sexual tension whatsoever living together, and there’s nothing more fun than an impromptu trip to Sears. Though of course, BradyWorld has a lot of things that don’t make a great deal of sense. Either you start realizing these things as you mature, or it’s left to someone in the house older and more jaded to point out such plot holes/conundrums as:

1. If Alice is the live-in full-time family maid, what does Mrs. Brady do all day? Surely, her hair appointment can’t take that long.

2. If Mr. Brady is such a great architect, why doesn’t he figure out a way to add on more bedrooms so six kids aren’t jammed into two rooms?

3. What happened to Tiger, the dog that was present in the early episodes?

In 1995, “The Brady Bunch Movie,” was released. Instead of placing the whole thing in the original era, the filmmakers went for the genius twist of having them living with their values intact in the nineties, untouched by such things as drugs, crime and political correctness. If their world is symbolic Astroturf, their neighbors’ is looking more than a bit grub-infested.

Gary Cole takes on the role of the head patriarch, Mike, channeling the passive-aggressive amiability he used for his “Office Space” role but without any of the smarm. Shelley Long plays his wife, perky Carol, who stands firmly behind her man, chirping “Your father’s right, kids!” even as his metaphors become hopelessly convoluted. Playing the junior bunch are Christine Taylor (a ringer down to the last hair swish) as Marcia; Christopher Daniel Barnes as Greg; Paul Sutera as Peter; Jennifer Elise Cox as Jan; Jesse Lee Soffer as Bobby; and Olivia Hack as Cindy. And Henriette Mantel plays Alice. Cameos by several of the original bunch, including Florence Henderson, Barry Williams and Alice B. Davis are also included. The theme music, home, profession of Mr. Brady, and problems of the six survive, although the Brady’s perpetual optimistic approach to life baffles and disgusts their nineties’ acquaintances. As one character puts it, “Come on! A family that’s always happy?”

The main plot has to do with the threat of the Brady’s possibly losing their house if they can’t raise an enormous sum in time. In Brady tradition, the kids decide to put on a show and compete in a song and dance competition. This will tie in with Marcia’s obsession with Davy Jones, Greg’s desire to become a professional musician, Jan’s determination to eclipse Marcia, and Peter’s first crush. The younger kids also have their own problems, as does Alice who, in this version, finds her suitor, Sam the Butcher, hopelessly unromantic. Eventually, of course, everything works out, the house is saved, and the Brady’s neighbors learn a few lessons about the importance of looking at the sunny side of things. A sequel would follow, in which the Brady’s take a vacation to Hawaii – giving them another chance for a “Something suddenly came up,” joke. And in “The Brady Bunch Movie,” Shelley does toss off an aside about Tiger’s whereabouts. (The real Tiger died offset, but that part is left out.)



Movie Sequel Making 101

Before making a movie sequel, what’s the first question I should ask?

Who is your target audience? How old were they when the prequels came out? What was the economy like back then (if there’s a noticeable difference)? Also consider whose money they will be spending. In other words, be aware that your target audience may have had a burning reason to see the first movie that is now obsolete.

Back in the day, movies had the option of going straight to video, which meant in order to rent them, you needed access to a car and/or someone with a driver’s license. You could stumble across them at the video store or by channel surfing, but otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be aware that they even existed. You could buy them, but again, before online shopping, this was trickier. Also, in such cases as say, “The Neverending Story,” and “The Karate Kid,” the target audience tended to mature faster than the sequels could be released, as did the young cast members. Even Macaulay Culkin couldn’t escape the python of puberty, and so the third installment of “Home Alone” featured a preteen.

Now, of course, enjoying a recent movie from the comfort of your own home is easier than ever, so there is much less incentive for people to bundle up, get into the car and actually go out and see a movie in the theater. However, if you are making what can be termed a Hot to Trot sequel, and the franchise/series is insanely popular at the moment, you probably don’t have to worry. Ask yourself: Will my target audience skip school/call in sick at work in order to see this? If the answer is yes, you’re golden.

My sequel is part of a series based on a set of popular books, but there’s only three! I’m going to need to come up with an entirely new movie idea soon.

Don’t you hate when authors refuse to take into consideration the difficulties of making money from a potential franchise? Consider asking the author (if he or she is still alive) to write more sequels. Or split the last book into two movies. Also consider suggesting they write a prequel, but this may have its own set of problems.

I want to ask Actor X to be in my sequel, but he just won an Oscar, and all the critics have anointed him the Next Big Thing. He’ll probably laugh in my face.

Don’t be so sure! Oscar winners have a record of following up their prestige piece with something more popular with a less discriminating audience. If you’re having trouble mustering up your courage, think of these two words. “Boat Trip.”

How about adding some celebrity cameos to my sequel?

Good idea but in moderation. Celebrities tend to have a short shelf life. Also, there’s the risk that they will get involved in a scandal, which may not be good publicity for your movie. You may have to cut the cameo or add some kind of follow-up joke. Whether you decide to err on the side of taste depends on the ego of the celebrity, unless they are heading for jail.

How about adding an icon from a former generation to my sequel cast? Maybe so-and-so, if they are still alive?

OK, but keep in mind that if your target audience is younger (or much younger), they a) won’t recognize the icon, b) may do so for the wrong reasons (“Hey, that’s the guy in the cereal commercial!”) and likely c) won’t care one way or the other. If the icon is recognizable by their parents or grandparents, that may be good for a chuckle, but the odds are low, they’ll venture out to the theater for someone who’s only in a few scenes.

Do remember that this individual will likely be singled out by critics if the movie bombs as an object of pity. Critics will say things like, “The only person I felt sorry for was So-and-So having to appear in this mess.” They will be able to walk away unscathed, considered a victim of temporary poor judgment, whereas you yourself might not be so lucky.

Speaking of generation gaps, what about the Nostalgia Factor?

Well, say your sequel is based on a TV show that was popular 20 or more years ago. You’ll have to gamble on the possibility that parents will just make their kids wait until they can stream it. Or that the kids will properly understand the magic of the original, which, let’s face it, kids tend not to. Keep in mind, unless you can get the younger crowd to beg and throw tantrums in order to go see the movie when it’s released, the Nostalgia Factor will only carry you so far.

Any other words of wisdom?

Yes. Keep in mind that the one factor you can’t control is history. If you put in a plot about world domination, plane hijacking, bombs, etc. you can’t guarantee that Something Similar in Real Life won’t coincide with your opening weekend. You will look as if you have incredibly poor taste if this happens, whereas it’s really only a unfortunate coincidence.

What about a kidnapping plot? Would that work?

That’s a safer bet. Of course, someone famous could get kidnapped around opening weekend, but it’s not likely. In the case of a truly tragic coincidence (tragic for your box office figures, that is), it may be better to delay the movie. Sometimes life really does take precedence over art.

Good luck!