2017 Fall Movie Lessons

Warning: These contain spoilers.

Good Time

1. It’s always best to double check before you spring a hospital patient whose face is obscured by bandages in case it’s not actually your brother.

2. White Castle is a great place to refuel and clog up your arteries before you destroy your life even further.

3. A teenager whose boyfriend is a dealer may not be fazed by a total stranger showing up at her grandmother’s apartment in the middle of the night, even when you start unexpectedly making out with her.

Annabelle: Creation

4. If you’re staying at a reclusive couple’s home and sense evil, you should trust your instincts and run for your life.

5. Even an innocent looking scarecrow stored in a barn can come alive and thwart your plans for escape when you least expect it.

6. Throwing a demon-possessed doll down a cistern is just going to make it angrier, so you might want to destroy it more directly.

It (2017)

7. Evil clowns are actually methodical in when they decide to kidnap and murder kids. If you suspect one may be terrorizing your small town, look for a pattern.

8. If you find the prospect of exploring a sewer tunnel scary and disgusting, remember how the girl who disappeared into there without returning feels.

9. Even mean girls say something helpful once in awhile, such as that your mom may be giving your placebo meds for your “illnesses.”

Home Again

10. Encouraging your moody older daughter to submit a play to a contest works better than any antidepressant for cheering her up.

11. If you lecture a twentysomething on immaturity, it is probably best not to negate that by then going out and making an idiot of yourself while drunk.

12. There’s a limit to how many men you can invite to stay in your house at once before a fistfight breaks out.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

13. If you’re dangling upside down during a car chase, it’s a good idea to use the liquor bottle from the mini-bar to assault the bad guy after you.

14. If your friend is hanging out at your home looking after your dog when you’re not there, you should probably lock your top secret spy room.

15. Never underestimate the power of Sir Elton John to help you defeat the bad guys when you’re in a tight spot.

Battle of the Sexes

16. If your number one rival is deeply conflicted over her secret lesbian affair, it’s a huge bonus for your own game.

17. If you want someone to agree to play you in an exhibition tennis match, it’s best not to interrupt their sleep in the middle of the night, especially when they’ve never told you their hotel room phone number or even their specific hotel.

18. It’s better to remove a jacket your sponsor gave you during a big match rather than risk passing out from heat stroke (even if men allegedly have more stamina than women).

Stronger

19. You may be conflicted about whether or not you’re a hero for surviving a terrorist attack, but trust me, no one else will be.

20. Even if you’re an amputee in a wheelchair, it’s still possible to rile your girlfriend up enough so that she literally walks away and doesn’t return.

21. Being revealed as a public hero is a huge bonus when you get pulled over for driving drunk, as long as you’re willing to provide an autograph in return for not being charged.

Marshall

22. If you’re going to case a crime scene near water, always wear a secondhand pair of shoes if not knee-high waterproof boots.

23. Claiming you couldn’t scream during an abduction because you were gagged is a defense that will fall apart in court if someone decides to demonstrate.

24. If your husband is potentially being threatened and grabs a knife before getting the door, it’s always good to grab a backup weapon yourself just in case.

Happy Death Day

25. Asking for Tylenol before you depart for the day is a perfectly valid thing to do to a guy you presumably hooked up with and plan never to see again.

26. When trapped in a time loop, reliving each day makes you weaker, but you still retain the ability to smash glass with your scantily clad arm and not hemorrhage to death on the spot.

27. The benefits of belonging to a fat-shaming sorority include being able to successfully conceal yourself behind a concrete pillar when you’re being chased by a psycho-killer in a parking garage.

Suburbicon

28. Choosing a night there is a full-fledged race riot going on next door is a good cover if you want to commit murder.

29. If you need a getaway vehicle, your child’s bike will serve in a pinch, although you might look rather silly riding it.

30. If it’s a choice between death or traumatizing your nephew further by asking him to remove the weapon embedded in your back, it’s best to say goodbye calmly and go into another room to expire.

LBJ

31. It’s good to be the king, or at least the Senate leader for it may all be downhill from there in terms of other politicians’ respect.

32. Sometimes it helps to sincerely like yourself before trying to get other people to like you.

33. A changing world may one day make it inevitable that you must ultimately call out your longtime mentor for his prejudiced views.

Murder on the Orient Express

34. If you want to avoid having your profession pinpointed by a stranger sitting next to you, it’s a good idea to make sure there are no telltale stains on your clothes or hands.

35. Eyeglasses, a pompous attitude and affected racism will not be enough to deter a truly astute detective who will eventually see through your “professor” disguise.

36. “Holding one’s feet to the fire,” can be used literally to unearth a murder confession, if you insist that all train passengers disembark and huddle before you in snow-covered nowhere while you announce your hypothesis.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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A Look Back: Bridget Jones’s Diary

People have different definitions of the word “genius,” but I think regardless of which one you use, Jane Austen qualifies, not only because her books, set in period England, translate so well when Hollywood wants to make a modernized version of them (something that’s also true of Shakespeare) but because she managed to write two novels with opposite life lessons, both of which resonate with today’s reader/viewer. To use a test analogy: “Clueless” (film) is to “Emma” (novel) as “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is to “Pride and Prejudice,” with the added twist that “Bridget Jones” became a bestselling novel initially and is written by Helen Fielding, who knows a good classic to update when she sees one. The sequels “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” and “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” both made it to the big screen, as well, which I enjoyed (though I never got past the first twenty pages of the first “BJ” novel).

While the heroine of “Clueless” eventually clues into the fact that she should stop focusing so much on fixing her friends’ love lives and figure out who would make her personally happy to be with, the heroine of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” comes to realize that she should stop fixating on her calorie count, number of smokes per day, etc. and – gasp – just be herself and focus on the people who like her the way she is. Other lessons you can glean from the book/movie include.

1. It’s the manners, not the clothes, that make a love interest. And even then you can be mistaken if someone’s just having a bad day.

At the beginning of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Renee reluctantly attends a Christmas party with her parents (Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones) only to discover that Colin Firth is there, too, under similar circumstances. Sadly, not only does he come attired in a sweater with a reindeer on it, he is markedly unimpressed by Renee, and when she overhears him calling her a “verbally incontinent spinster,” potential sparks fizzle. Stung, Renee decides to keep a diary of self-improvement measures over the next year which includes finding a much better man. Little does she suspect that first impressions are not always right.

2. Mixing the personal and professional is ultimately a horrible idea.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Soon Renee doesn’t have to obsess about Colin because she begins a fling with her boss (Hugh Grant) at work, which involves (the book came out in the nineties) exchanging steamy emails, and eventually, Renee sleeps with Hugh, although she is unfortunately wearing granny panties (Hugh professes to find them charming). Hugh also confides to Renee about Colin’s (allegedly) caddish behavior, prompting Renee to be very glad she is not with him.

3. If you’re attending a costume party, double check to make sure you really must show up in costume.

In one of just a long string of wacky misunderstandings, Renee attends yet another party, which she erroneously believes is a “Tarts and Vicars” one. Thus she shows up in a Playboy bunny-style outfit. This does nothing for her self-confidence, but it does reveal either further social cluelessness – or perhaps hidden depths of chutzpah.

4. If you’re going to unleash long held-in grudges, try not to involve innocent diners in a restaurant.

Eventually, Colin tells Renee the real story, which is that Hugh is the bad one, then follows this up by punching Hugh, which triggers a full-blown English brawl, part of which takes place in a restaurant. Both men, however, manage to retain some manners in that they stop to wish a patron a Happy Birthday, even if they then continue to demolish their surroundings.

5. If a man is willing to eat blue mystery soup that you’ve cooked, he’s probably The One.

Towards the end of the movie, Renee hosts a small dinner party, attended by her three close friends and Colin, involving hours of preparation – only to produce several modest dishes, including the aforesaid blue soup. It’s also there that she begins to truly realize that Colin is the one for her. Of course, there are two more movies to go, which means more bumps along the way, but that’s the risk you have to take as a heroine of a trilogy.

A Look Back: Little Miss Sunshine

“Everyone, just pretend to be normal.”

That’s the order given to the Hoover clan in “Little Miss Sunshine,” when their VW bus is pulled over en route to a kid’s beauty pageant (long story), and from what we have already seen of these people, we know it will be a tall order, to put it mildly. The head of the clan, Greg Kinnear, is a totally unsuccessful motivational speaker who divides the world into winners and losers, or as Dave Barry once put it, takes his philosophy of life from Nike commercials. His more-grounded-but-not-by-a-lot wife is played by Toni Collette, hauling one of her patented world-weary mom indie film roles out of the bag. Toni’s grown brother, played by Steve Carell, has just returned to crash with them when the movie begins and is despondent because his boyfriend has dumped him for the second most eminent Proust scholar in the country (Steve being the first, a point he is very proud of). The reason for this journey in the first place is their young daughter (Abigail Breslin) who has managed to qualify for a beauty pageant. “Managed” is relevant because Abigail, although bright and spunky, is not the kind of classically photogenic child one might think would compete in one, but this plot hole is solved by having had relatives help her qualify for the first round. (One imagines that Toni would not be much help in prepping her child for a pageant in the first place – she has too much to deal with already on her plate.)

There’s also Abigail’s morose older brother (Paul Dano) who is going through a phase where he hates everyone (and perhaps himself, as well) which is not atypical of a teenager but with the added twist that he has taken a vow of silence, inspired by Nietzsche, and only communicates via pad and pen. Rounding out the cast is Abigail’s grandfather (Alan Arkin) who has been ejected from his retirement community for the kinds of shenanigans that only elderly people in R-rated movies engage in (drug use and sexual escapades) and who is now living with the Hoovers and helping Abigail prepare for her big event. Eventually, the entire family decides to accompany Abigail on the cross-country trip, which like all movie trips, is ill-fated in that their bus will display unreliability, one character will discover in a very cruel way that he is not destined to become a pilot, and another character will expire. It all culminates in perhaps the most inappropriate talent segment for child pageants in movie history.

If “Little Miss Sunshine” was a TV movie, it would likely go the cliché route of having Abigail’s father realize that the world is more complex, but because it’s an indie, we’re spared that. “Little Miss Sunshine,” however, is bested in overall poor taste by another beauty pageant movie “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” in which a rival is actually electrocuted and another character loses her hand. Neither cast is remotely “normal,” but at least in “Little Miss Sunshine,” we’re able to laugh with, not at, this unique group and be glad we accompanied them on their journey.

 

 

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

“It drew her eyes; it frightened her. A big black hook.”

That’s not from Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” the film version of the novel which opens today, directed and starred in by Kenneth Branaugh, but “And Then There Were None,” which I read in junior high and involves a couple of key characters, trapped in a small space with a bunch of accused murderers, doing something grisly with that hook. Shortly after I read “And Then There Were None,” I stayed at a ski lodge on vacation which had a spare bedroom with a big black hook hanging from the ceiling. In retrospect, it was probably just there for a plant, but it gave me the chills nonetheless. Did our host – whom I did not know very well – want me dead, too? Had I committed a crime for which I had gone unpunished?

Admittedly, I had an overactive imagination, so I can only wonder what I would have started thinking had I been in Kenneth Branaugh’s shoes (he plays the famous Belgian detective Hercules Poirot) when he boards the titular Orient Express in the film and a dead passenger (Johnny Depp) is soon discovered. The bad news: the train has more than enough suspects; the good news is that there’s a famous detective on board who can solve it, plus the train keeps breaking down in the middle of snow-covered nowhere, so at least there’s plenty of time to think before they reach their destination. (Of course, that gives the killer plenty time to strike again). And I had plenty of time to ponder things while watching the movie. Things relevant to the movie, such as whodunit, but also things like, “Is Kenneth Branaugh wearing colored contact lenses? Surely, that’s not a shade of blue found in nature.” and “Just how long did it take to put on that mustache anyway?” This is because although all the performances (from Dame Judi Dench to Josh Gad) as the other passengers are excellent, the movie seemed awfully long. A critic (sorry can’t remember who) once said of Johnny Depp’s performance in “Black Mass” that he enters every scene as if he’s won first place in a costume party, and that line ran through my head whenever Kenneth made a dramatic appearance. (Sometimes he is even filmed from above, which gave me a crick in my neck, but didn’t happen too often.)

The plot revolves around a crime that occurred prior to the journey, when the young daughter of a rich couple is kidnapped and murdered. Unsurprisingly, everyone on the train has some kind of connection to this crime – though of course, there’s plenty of misrepresenting the truth so it will take all Kenneth’s wits and wiles to extract what is really going on. And naturally, the killer might possibly want Kenneth dead, too once he starts snooping around. There is lots of tension, but also lots of scenery chewing, and not just by Kenneth, although he’s the worst offender. I expected to see “Oscar clip” pop up in a few scenes, a.k.a. “Wayne’s World.” But it does provide food for thought – you could hear a pin drop in my theater once it was done, though that may just have been people wondering what they were going to have for dinner.

A Look Back: Thirteen

As a general rule of thumb, if you want to give someone a makeover in a Hollywood movie, your odds of success, often beyond your wildest dreams, are all but guaranteed. This is mainly because the only characters who require remaking are undeniably attractive once they remove a few key elements. Impressive makeovers in the movie pantheon include Patrick Dempsey in “Can’t Buy Me Love,” who wound up looking hot with the sleeves ripped off his shirt; Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries,” after she ditches her specs and frizzy ‘do; and Olivia Newton John in “Grease,” who taught impressionable girls in the seventies that what you really need to appeal to a guy is a pushup bra and pants so tight you need the Jaws of Life to remove them. Twists on the youthful makeover include the original “Freaky Friday,” in which Barbara Harris gets to experience every mother-of-a-teen’s-dream when she gives her daughter (Jodie Foster) a makeover while she is actually in Jodie’s body. (OK, perhaps not the second part.) The result is that Jodie emerges looking awfully like she’s about to go to work at a bank, but all that is soon dispelled when she has to perform in a water-skiing show afterwards. Perhaps female characters are more fun to makeover given that many little girls enjoy pretending to be princesses whereas few little boys pine to become princes.

In “Thirteen,” a 2004 movie, the young star (Evan Rachel Wood) gets an anti-princess makeover of sorts, which leads (as expected) to increased popularity but also (as expected) a lot of risky adventures that teach her some harsh lessons about those who try to grow up too fast. When the movie starts, Evan is the kind of good girl who (literally) plays with Barbies and doesn’t cause her recovering alcoholic single mom (Holly Hunter) to lose sleep. However, she becomes bewitched by the bad girl (Nikki Reed, who wrote the screenplay – as a teen – as well) of her seventh grade class and embarks on an at-first fruitless quest to get her attention. Guilt-tripping her mom until Holly takes her to secure some designer (or close enough) stuff, Evan also experiments with shoplifting – after which, the two girls are close to becoming inseparable. After Nikki, employing the wiles of seasoned bad girls, manages to insert herself into Holly’s household to the point where she stays overnight, confides some disturbing things about her own guardian, the stage is set for the two teens to self-destruct. And this they do, – everything from sexually harassing a neighborhood guy (Kip Purdue) who calls them “jailbait” to body piercing. The film ends with Evan’s former life in flames. Her last word of dialogue is literally, “Stop,” and in case the viewer misses the point, we see her on a merry-go-round.

“Thirteen” will give anyone who has ever seen an Afterschool Special or a Lifetime Movie of the Week about a “good” kid who rapidly goes bad deja vu. Evan experiments with antisocial behavior like it’s a buffet, and she hasn’t seen food for weeks, but the dialogue and the actions of the two young actresses ring true. I suppose parents of teens could watch it and (most of them) feel relief that at least their child’s acting out isn’t as bad as Evan’s. At least Evan, after being initially embarrassed by Nikki, does not do what Winona Ryder in “Heathers” did and plot her murder. The movie does not end on an optimistic note, but I suppose the viewer is free to fill in their own.

Movie Review: LBJ

In the nineties, among the questions asked on film was what might have happened if the Watergate scandal had been blundered into by two dim bulb teenage girls, which “Dick,” starring Dan Hedaya as the President explored. “Dick” went the route of portraying Richard Nixon as a bundle of passive-aggressive tics who, deep down, just wants to be loved. Even by the Canine-in-Chief. “Kennedy’s dog liked him; Johnson’s dog liked him, but Checkers doesn’t like me!” he laments in one scene. “LBJ” released today and starring Woody Harrelson, also goes the route of attributing the main character’s behavior to the need to be needed by those around him. At one point, Woody corners Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) and asks why Bobby doesn’t approve of him, and Michael is gobsmacked. “Well,” he stammers, falling back on the old standby, “we see the world so differently.” There is a lot of truth in this, as “LBJ” does an excellent job of portraying. (It’s also quite an understatement.)

“LBJ” opens with events leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), who thrills the crowd waiting to see him by unexpectedly going over and shaking hands with his fans. Meanwhile Woody is sulking because he is not going to receive an endorsement from a key political player (Bill Pullman), and additionally no one is particularly eager to shake hands with him. Before the historical tragedy can transpire, however, the action jumps backwards in time to when Woody reigned over the Senate, and people were genuinely concerned that America might not elect an Irish Catholic to the Oval Office. Because Jeffrey and his team of advisors believe, as Woody says in another scene, it’s better to have your enemy in the tent urinating out than vice versa, he asks Woody to be his running mate. This requires Woody giving up his position of power, but with the encouragement of his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) he throws his hat in the ring. After the presidential election, however, Woody finds himself frustrated with the limitations of his office, particularly since he feels Michael is actively trying to undermine him (with an eye toward the ’68 race). After the two movie timelines coalesce, however, Woody finds himself with the chance to have greatness thrust upon him, which takes the form, among other things, of passing the Civil Liberties Act through Congress.  The post-assassination drama is centered around this piece of legislation and Woody’s conflict with his mentor (Richard Jenkins) as a result.

“LBJ” is a pretty standard presidential biopic, but Woody at least is entertaining, blustering it up on the loo door open while he talks with his staff, using colorful metaphors and at one point hanging up on someone in a rage. Richard is also good, playing a man who, unlike his protégé, cannot adjust his ideas on race with the progressive times. Jennifer Jason Leigh has the thankless role of playing Woody’s rock, at one point having to wrestle forbidden junk food away as he stress-eats. Alas for those hoping that the newly released “Lady Bird,” might give her side of the story are out of luck, as the film has zilch to do with the Johnsons. But one can’t help but wonder what might be going on beneath the pearls and perky smiling façade of the female characters in “LBJ,” even as Woody wears his (considerably) insecure heart on his sleeve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If I Were a Horror Movie Character…

 

Fun science fact of the day: The part of your brain that controls memory, decision making and affects the “flight or fight” response is called the amygdala. I mention this because in your typical Hollywood horror movie, all the characters, without exception, have impaired amygdales, which would explain much of their bizarre behavior. It seems like if there’s a choice between a decision that will preserve the character’s life and one that will endanger it, the horror movie character will, without exception, choose the latter.

There’s an Internet quiz titled, “If I Were an Evil Overlord,” and in that spirit, I humbly present, “If I Were a Horror Movie Character…”

If I were a horror movie character, I would avoid spending time with people who have any kind of Tragic Past. Individuals in particular I would avoid include college students who survived a car crash when they were in high school, arrogant people of all stripes because they are clearly over-compensating for being vile and are in need of comeuppance, and elderly recluses who’ve lost a family member or friend, or who have survived a gruesome accident and are disfigured in some way. Also, bypass anyone who has lost a beloved child in a horrible unexpected way because the odds that they have not come to terms with the event and moved on are high. All these people tend to be magnets for the supernatural rearing its eerie head and deciding to take revenge. You do not want to be dragged into anything like this.

Secondly, I were a character in a horror movie, I would avoid going anywhere alone, even if it is just to the bathroom in the middle of the night or during a party. If I hear or see something suspicious, I will remain firmly where I am and not advance cautiously saying things like, “Hello? Anyone there? Are you playing a trick on me? Well, you don’t scare me, you AHHHHHH!” Better yet, I will take off running in the opposite direction and not stop until I was safely surrounded by other people in bright light. If I hear a cat meowing but can’t actually see it, I will also escape as fast as possible because the odds are that there is a psycho killer nearby have just rocketed. I will also avoid inanimate objects, such as music boxes, that suddenly start moving by themselves for the same reason. Instead, I will use the wonderful modern invention that everyone possesses these days called a cell phone and either record the incident or preferably call the authorities.

A note about bathrooms: They are catnip for the supernatural. Find some other way to achieve cleanliness that does not involve sinks or bathtubs. A sponge bath may not be as refreshing, but it beats getting grabbed by a disembodied hand or stabbed when you step out of the shower.

Third, I would take all warnings that I should stop messing with whoever is orchestrating all the horror seriously. If I happen upon what appears to be a message in blood scrawled on a wall or mirror ordering me to “Stop” or “Danger!” I will calmly walk away in the other direction and not investigate further. I will avoid exploring places that are either extremely high or low, such as basements, tunnels, sewers, parking garages and clock towers because these places are magnets for psycho killers to hang out. I will not make the mistake of thinking that arming myself with a flashlight and crude weapon, such as a kitchen knife, is all I need to navigate such places with my limbs and psyche intact.

Fourth, I would make sure that I was a) fully up on all life-saving self-defense moves, and b) carry some kind of weapon on me at all times. I will not deceive myself that these tactics will save my life in themselves, but they may buy me time for additional help to arrive if I must fight for my life.

Fifth, if I do sense that I’ve become involved with a situation involving the supernatural, I will not make a beeline for whoever is closest and babble at them about how I am in Grave Danger because the odds that they won’t understand and think that I am unstable are sky high. Instead, if I do choose a confidant, I will present my case in a sober manner, using evidence I have accumulated to drive my point home. This might not work either, but it will probably be more effective than the first way.

Additionally, I would make sure that I was white because as Kumail Nanjiani points out in “The Big Sick,” if you’re a character of color in a horror movie, your arc consists of breaking into a deserted building after hours and hearing a cat. The odds of you making it to the credits are nil, unless you are the actual protagonist.

Last but not least, I would also make sure I was male because if you’re a woman in a horror movie, your odds of needing someone to swoop in and save you in the nick of time are quite high. Relying on other characters to save you is usually not a good idea because they are often equally dim. Also you have to spend a good chunk of the movie scantily clad, regardless of the weather or time of year, so the odds of your catching pneumonia by the end (if you aren’t killed first) are excellent, too.

Happy Halloween!