GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER

By Marc S. Sanders

Watching Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner had me reflect on a brief encounter I had many years ago.  I was a head teller in a bank and approached the drive thru window to collect a customer’s transaction.  The junior teller who was part of my team got there before me and as she reached for the checks and deposit slip she commented “That’s disgusting!”  I was so engrossed in a busy day that it didn’t register until later what she was referring to.  In fact, I’m proud it did not register.  The customers in the car were a mixed couple with two children in the back.  I guess I’m happy to be naturally color blind.  Sadly some others still live with such an ailment.  We’ve come a long way, but I think we have a lot further to go.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a classic American film that should be watched by anyone with a pulse.  If not for anything else, then to realize that somehow our human nature is held back by prejudices that we can not keep from considering.  So, let’s learn to overcome whatever foolhardy thinking stands in the way of happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

Sidney Poitier portrays Dr. John Prentice, a gentlemanly successful, polite, and brilliant physician with an educational background from Johns Hopkins, a professorship at Yale and internships with the World Health Organization in Africa and Asia.  He has just flown into San Francisco from a Hawaiian vacation with the young girl he has fallen madly in love with, Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton).  Joanna is the daughter of Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn).  She is a highly energetic twentysomething with an optimistic view on life.  Everyone else has to take a second look at the fact that Joanna is paired up with a Negro or a colored man (as the movie indicates).  Even their cab driver has to offer an odd glance while the happy couple kiss in the back seat.  John is even aware that it can be a little startling at first.  Joanna doesn’t give it a second thought as she was raised by liberal parents who taught her that no race or creed is better than any other.  Everyone is equal.

The test for Matt and Christina however is whether a black man can be a husband to their white daughter?  It’s much different when you are on the outside looking in.  How do you respond when such a scenario occurs within your own household.  Even the black loyal housekeeper to the Draytons, Tillie (Isabel Sanford), takes a serious contempt towards the situation, more vocally than Joanna’s parents.  For Tillie, this is a hairbrained stunt by a wild-eyed young girl.  John’s parents fly up to meet Joanna and they have reservations as well.  It does not help that John doesn’t share with his mom and dad that Joanna is white ahead of meeting her in person.  Joanna also did not offer the same courtesy to Matt and Christina about John.  Curiously, for Joanna it should not even make a difference.  For John, he’s hesitant because he knows this will not play out well, initially. John is okay with his new, loving relationship.  He’s wise enough to know that his parents, particularly his father, will not be, however.

What caught my attention more than anything was the difference in age between John and Joanna.  He’s 37.  She’s 23. 

In Stanley Kramer’s film, there isn’t so much a prejudice towards whites or blacks.  It’s more so that there is a reservation toward a mixed race couple.  Should blacks only belong with blacks, and whites only belong with whites?  Of course not.  However, biting sarcasm is tossed into the script suggesting that what Joanna and John are doing would be considered illegal in 14 states.  It wasn’t at the time of the release of this film in 1967, but this was just ahead of when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated amidst the civil rights movement spreading throughout the country.  Joanna even makes reference to the fact that she would not let go of John even if her mother was Governor of Alabama, who at the time was Governor Lurleen Burns Wallace, wife of notorious segregationist and former Governor George Wallace.  As well, let’s face it.  While it might be legal on the books, many in the United States were still intolerable of a living situation like this. Legally, a mixed marriage can happen.  Yet not everyone settles for just accepting what is law. 

Spencer Tracy as Joanna’s father Matt is the one who most prominently struggles with this situation.  He’s insisted upon to offer his blessing on John and Joanna’s upcoming nuptials.  However, he’s on a deadline to approve as they are flying out of town later that night and will get married in ten days while John is working in Geneva.  This is all contrived to contain the story within one day where a beginning is offered that must arrive at an end that provides closure.  It’s kind of sitcomy.  Christina warms up to the idea.  She likes John very much.  It’s Matt who has the problem.  It’s also John’s father (Roy Glenn) who takes issue as well.  His mother (Beah Richards) approves if the children are happy simply because she loves her son.

Spencer Tracy closes the film with his reasoning on the subject.  Arguably it is one of the most well thought out soliloquies in film history.  What I took away from it the most is that he stressed his concern for how hundreds of people across this country will look upon John and Joanna with unjustified derision.  Yet, the young couple will have to plow on and survive through those challenges. 

As a film, I could not help but account for a common theme in the picture which did not have so much to do with race as it did with a change in generations.  First, Kramer offers a quick escapist scene where a white delivery truck driver is bopping along to the latest rock music.  Tillie’s daughter joins in and hops in the truck for a ride with the fella.

Matt drives to a diner with Christina and orders an ice cream float.  Upon leaving, he accidentally backs his car into a young black man’s hot rod.  The older white man has to negotiate and accept fault with the younger, frustrated black man.  Once it is settled, Matt vents to his wife that he runs into one of them everywhere he looks.  Times have changed.  Matt has taught his daughter that no race is better than any other.  Does he realize that as well, though? 

Later in the film, Sidney Poitier as John has a stern conversation with his father.  John says in no uncertain terms that he owes nothing to his father.  He does not owe it to his father to not fall in love with a white woman.  His father owes everything to him for having him as a son, and he will commit that same mindset to his own children, if he should ever have any, regardless of the changes that come of that future generation.

There’s a reason Sidney Poitier is noted as a pioneer for black actors in cinema.  He was the first African American man to win an Academy Award for Lillies In The Field.  He also performed in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in the same year he made In The Heat Of The Night, which focused on a black Philadelphia cop headlining a murder investigation in the racist state of Mississippi at the time.  Both films were nominated for Best Picture. Heat won.  Poitier was well aware of the racist strife permeating throughout the country.  Per his insistence for his own safety, In The Heat Of The Night had to be shot primarily in the state of Illinois, away from the southern states that were not ready to accept a black man in an authoritative role.  I recall reading that Poitier refused to be cast in roles as the clown where the black man was treated as the punchline for white people’s entertainment.  He kept to a policy of adhering to roles demonstrating the intelligence of black men the same as other colleagues in his profession who were of the Caucasian race.  What an influence he was because of his doctrine.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner does not take daring risks with its story.  Every single character is likable, other than the racist colleague memorably dismissed early in the picture by Hepburn.  At times, the story does play like a sitcom ready to welcome a laugh track.  Nevertheless, it is an important film to see nearly sixty years later when racism and prejudice remain uninvitingly prominent.  The script, written by William Rose, is so sensible.  What is so wrong with a man, any man, in love with a woman, any woman?  Yes.  It feels unconventional when your household has consisted of one race for so many years or decades.  However, despite the difference in the pigments of two people’s skin, happiness is what is most important.  Matt testifies towards his unconditional love for Christina in his closing remarks and determines that is the one true factor in a relationship that must always be questioned whether it is the start of something new or something that has reached its twilight years.

As I come to my conclusion, again I reflect to that incident I had working in the bank with that teller.  What exactly was so “disgusting?”

NOTE: On this second viewing of the film, I specifically paid attention to Spencer Tracy’s closing monologue.  George Clooney recalled on Inside The Actor’s Studio with James Lipton, a story he heard.  Tracy was very ill during the making of this picture.  So ill, that Katharine Hepburn contributed financing to making this film to appease the insurance company that was concerned about the actor being unable to finish the project.  She drove him to and from the studio and often left early with him when she could see he could not go on much longer in the shooting days. During Spencer Tracy’s monologue, you can see him looking down frequently as he delivered his dialogue.  He was reading lines and blocking cues on the floor.  Clooney was just so impressed.  Typically, an actor would be directed to avoid looking down so much and focus on the camera in front of him or the other performers in the scene.  Spencer Tracy was just so impressive with his timing in this moment.  His glances down at the floor were embedded into the behavior of the character.  Sadly, Spencer Tracy passed away 17 days after filming was completed on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.  He received a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  I like to think the challenge he endured lent itself to an adoring, beautiful and unforgettable performance. 

MARY AND MAX (Australia, 2009)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Stop Motion Film”

PLOT: A tale of friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and Max, a forty-four-year-old severely obese man living in New York.


“Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the color of poo.”

Thus begins the narration of one of the most poignant movies I’ve ever seen, Mary and Max, a 2009 stop-motion animated film made in Australia.  It never got a wide release in America; were it not for the fact it appeared on the IMDb list of the top 250 favorite films worldwide, I might never have heard of it.  Thank goodness I found a copy online and bought it…one my best “blind-buy” purchases ever.

At this point in an earlier draft of this review, I launched into a plot description which veered into a discussion about the movie’s color palette, its tone, its agenda, etcetera.  But that somehow didn’t feel right, and I got bogged down.  What I really want to impart upon you, the reader, is how it made me feel.

It’s a drama about mental illness wrapped in the trappings of a Tim Burton-esque dark comedy.  What this means is, some of the visuals are right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas: oversized flies with googly eyes, suicidal goldfish, main characters whose body shapes resemble vegetables more than people.  But the story and emotional beats rival any Merchant Ivory film or James L. Brooks weepie.

Eight-year-old Mary Dinkle, who lives in Australia, starts up a pen-pal correspondence with Max Horovitz, a 44-year-old obese single man with undiagnosed (at least initially) Asperger syndrome.  After his initial panic attack at receiving a letter from a complete stranger, which throws his carefully controlled equilibrium out of whack, he writes her back, and they wind up having a decades-long correspondence.  She has no friends due to her prominent forehead birthmark.  He has no friends because he can’t relate to people.

The movie is mostly an unseen narrator bridging gaps between their letters, while the letters are read as they’re being written/typed by Mary and Max.  The relationship between the two is as touching as anything I’ve ever seen on film.  She sends him a hand-drawn picture of herself, which he keeps in his mirror to remind himself how people are supposed to look when they’re happy.  He sends her his recipe for chocolate hot dogs (a chocolate bar in a hot dog bun).  She asks him all the important questions, like: if a taxi drives backwards, does the driver owe YOU money?  He explains a long gap in their correspondence: “I was hospitalized, won the lottery, and my next-door neighbor died.”

These two lonely souls reaching out to each other just made me feel sunny inside, even amid the small tragedies they each faced.  Mary’s father dies.  Max keeps having to buy goldfish.  Mary falls in love with the Greek boy across the street, a boy who stutters, wants to be an actor, and, when they become engaged, makes her wedding dress for her.  Uh, huh.

The way in which the stories of these two people were written to complement each other without being identical is a delicate balancing act that threatens to veer into farce, then rights itself at the last second.  As I say, it’s hard to describe.

A turning point occurs when Mary gets a bit older, goes to school, studies mental disorders, and writes a book about her American pen-friend with Asperger’s.  She sends him the very first copy…but Max’s reaction is not what she anticipated.  She falls into a depression…

And here the movie takes a brilliantly dark turn.  I remember watching it for the very first time thinking, “Are they really telling THIS kind of story in a stop-motion film?”  Yep, they are.  There is a key scene where Mary has a kind of fever-dream hallucination choreographed to a haunting version of “Que Sera, Sera”, and my jaw dropped.  I cannot claim to have intimate knowledge of mental illnesses, but this scene just feels right.  This is a great representation of what someone’s mind might look and sound like on the brink of a terrible decision.

I realize I’m not making this movie sound like a lot of fun.  I can assure you that it is entertaining and fun, with a nasty (in a good way) habit of getting a chuckle while juxtaposing it against a scene of subtle awfulness.  The way Mary’s mother dies gets a laugh…but only as you’re listening to her death throes in the background.  The way Max’s various goldfish die is alternately funny and gruesome, or both at the same time.

And the REAL kicker is the final sequence, where Mary finally discovers where Max has kept all her letters through the years.  This moment is one of the greatest revelations I’ve ever seen, and I nearly shed a tear when she did.

Portrayals of mental illness in films have had varying degrees of success.  For every Rain Man, there’s an I Am Sam.  With Mary and Max, the filmmakers used the stop-motion medium to present hard-hitting material without totally getting bogged down in the inherent trauma or pathos of the illness being portrayed.  It’s an ingenious combination, but I’ll be damned if I can explain exactly WHY it works.  It just does.  Mary and Max remains one of the most unique animated films I’ve ever seen.  Seek this one out if you can.


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Were you surprised by the ending? What would you do differently?
I was bamboozled by the ending. I do sort of wish we had some idea of what happened to Mary after her trip, but I guess that’s okay. I wish her well in her future endeavors, wherever she may be.

Why do you think stop-motion was chosen for this film rather than animation?
As I mentioned, I believe it was to leaven the deep, potentially dreary material with the inherent oddness of the medium. Even a man in a wheelchair with no legs looks undeniably goofy…but it’s tragic. But he looks kinda funny.

PARENTHOOD

By Marc S. Sanders

Once you’re a parent, you’re always a parent.  You’re also always a child to someone.  No matter if you are close with your mom and dad, or estranged and not on speaking terms, or your parents have passed on, you are always a child to someone.  Parenthood from 1989 demonstrates that you never clock out from being a parent or a child.

The Buckmans consist of four adult children portrayed by Steve Martin, Dianne Weist, Harley Kozak and Tom Hulce. They all got little ones to tend to with respective partners (Martin with Mary Steenburgen, Kozak with Rick Moranis and the other two are currently on the single status).  Their parents are portrayed by Jason Robards and Eileen Ryan and even the generation before them is represented by Helen Shaw.

With a cast of characters this large, there are various storylines and dynamics of raising and supporting children to go around.  Each child, or in other words, each parent has daily struggles to deal with.  The nuclear family of Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen’s is given the most attention when it is uncovered that their eldest child of three is struggling with anxiety.  Elsewhere, Robards finds himself trying to rescue his immature, lying twenty-seven-year-old son, Hulce, from gambling addiction and debt.  Weist is doing her best to survive a sexless life after her letch of an ex-husband has left her to deal with a daughter (Martha Plimpton) pregnant and married to a stock-car racing airhead (Keanu Reeves) and a quiet, distant teenage son (Leaf, later known as Joaquin, Phoenix).  Kozak’s storyline really belongs to Rick Moranis as her genius, nerdy husband determined to raise their three-year-old daughter as a virtuoso prodigy.  Kafka is a bedtime story.

Wow, that’s a lot of baggage to unload in two hours’ time.  Yet, it works so efficiently in a film directed by Ron Howard.  I’ve used this compliment before, but it bears repeating.  You can write a full-length screenplay about any one of these characters.  I guess that is the goal you strive for when you produce a film featuring an all star cast filling the slots of a large collection of characters.  A film like Boogie Nights and Love, Actually accomplishes this feat so well.  Parenthood just the same.

Favorite moments for me occur with Jason Robards’ character.  It is evident that he was not the best father, particularly to Martin’s character, and his admiration is likely misdirected towards the kid who hasn’t made the best choices in life, played by an aloof Tom Hulce.  I really like the story arc of Robards and Hulce’s relationship when the truth rests like an ugly slime on the surface that just can’t be filtered away.  Suddenly, a man prepared for retirement and rest, has to acknowledge that his adult son needs help but is he worthy of support and love any longer?  This movie is arguably not even the highlight of Jason Robards career, but you can not deny what a gifted actor he was.  His timing and delivery are so recognizable as a hard-edged retiree parent.

Dianne Weist, the only cast member to be nominated for an Oscar for this film, has a couple of good storylines as well.  Much of her performance stems from all too common drama where a spouse leaves her and abandons any relationship he had with their children.  It’s so unfair for the child.  It’s hard on the mother who has to maintain a career while raising teenagers who are entering a new phase with regards to love and sex.  Plimpton gets into an argument with Reeves, her boyfriend, and Weist starts to swat him away.  Then Plimpton unexpectedly announces they just  got married and Weist turns to swatting Plimpton.  Weist is funny while the material holds dramatically.  It’s a real nice balance.  

Steve Martin has a good storyline as well.  He’s a hard working white collar executive who wants to prioritize attention for his son though it kills him to lose out on a promotion he knows he’s entitled to.  At the same time, he battles with how his own father (Robards) treated him at a young age.  He makes sure that his son’s birthday party is the best.  He encourages the boy to play second base on the little league team.  He attempts to do everything denied of his own childhood for his son, now.  Still, it’s not enough.  Parenthood can often feel like a winless battle. 

Martin also has good scenes with Steenburgen, and they remind me of my relationship with my wife.  She’s the sensible one.  I’m the one who gets trapped in insecurity and anxiety and low self esteem as a worker, a friend, a husband, and especially as a parent to our teenage daughter.  I excel at taking care of the bills though. 

Why am I making this personal all of the sudden?  Well, perhaps it is to call out the true nature of family and marriage that exists within the script for Parenthood, written by Babaloo Mandell, Lowell Ganz and Ron Howard.  There are some moments where Martin’s character daydreams of scenarios for his son.  One time the boy becomes a valedictorian with a speech offering complete recognition towards his father.  In another moment, he’s a rooftop sniper blaming dad for making him play second base and missing the game winning out.  When I get trapped listening to the thoughts in my head, I envision what could be.  More often than not I’m predicting dread, which almost never arrives.  Yet, I believe parents yearn to raise the perfect child that they never were.  It’s an impossible stretch.  I write that here and now, and still, I’ll try and try.  So what, though! While I’m working for perfection and absolute happiness for my daughter, I must remind myself that my efforts are contributing towards a successful path for her full of fulfillment and happiness.  More importantly, while at least half of my efforts could lead in failure on my part, my intentions are always done with absolute love and care for her.  That’s what I see in the here and now.  I’m blessed. My whole family is blessed.  So many families have it so much worse and I wish them well.  I have to remind myself not to take what I have for granted.

Ron Howard’s film is not entirely perfect.  I could have done without some of Steve Martin’s recognizable schtick from his stand-up routines.  I always like his material.  I just think some of it doesn’t belong here, the same way Robin Williams would let his known antics creep into some of his films.  Some scenes are also spliced into the film jarringly, like when a dentist’s office is suddenly vandalized.  Thematically, these break away moments should have remained on the editing floor.  Fortunately, the movie isn’t anchored by these plot points for too long.

There’s much to relate to with Parenthood.  Kids who gleefully sing about diarrhea, to parents mired in regret and doubt.  Teenagers who think they have found love to the absence of father figures.  Grown-ups who just haven’t grown up and parents who are just getting a little too ambitious in their child’s upbringing.  This is not a film, necessarily about the love a parent has for a son or daughter.  Rather, I appreciate how it questions the role these characters serve towards their fathers, mothers and children. 

Love is only one dynamic in fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood.  Parenthood focuses on everything else.

GO

By Marc S. Sanders

Character perspective is so vital to a story.  It becomes even more important when you are telling multiple tales.  When you have a collection of five or six characters in your screenplay and they each have a circumstance that overlaps with one another, a smart way to narrate one reckless evening is by chopping up the time period into multiple plotlines.  Numerous stories offer several perspectives and then you may appreciate what director Doug Liman accomplishes with one of his earliest career films, Go.

Go focuses on an assortment of early twenty-somethings scrounging for money while also taking in the nightlife during an evening close to Christmas.  Two supermarket cashiers, Ronna and Simon (Sarah Polley, Desmond Askew) have different things on their mind.  Ronna, who is exhausted having worked double shifts, is on the verge of getting evicted from her apartment because she has no money to pay the rent.  Simon just wants to go with his buddies for a good time in Las Vegas, but he’s got to work.  So, the two swap shifts. 

The script follows the Ronna avenue first where she meets up with some acquaintances of Simon’s looking to score some ecstasy.  Ronna thinks of a get rich quick scheme to meet with Simon’s drug supplier, Todd (Timothy Olyphant), and then sell to Simon’s buddies directly.  Naturally, it doesn’t work out so neatly.

The second act of the film focuses on Simon with three buddies (Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer and James Duval).  Because Simon is written as happy go lucky, but also careless, he’ll get into his own kind of adventures and mischief.  It can only happen in Vegas.

The third act turns the viewpoint over to those acquaintances that approached Ronna, two soap opera actors named Zach and Adam (Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf).  These guys weren’t just looking to score some drugs.  They’re up to something else entirely.

I’ve never been one to take to movies where the characters are intoxicated or high through most of the film.  I can only handle so much of Seth Rogen’s drug episode schtick like with Pineapple Express, released years after Go.  What’s most appealing about Liman’s film, however, is that you are moving along one path, and then suddenly you are reversed and driving down the other side of the fork in the road.  This routine occurs again for a third time. 

Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, you can argue that the writer/director could simply take the straight route from beginning to end.  Yet is that really interesting?  Would Pulp Fiction have worked as well or better than its final composition?  Don’t we usually see that approach in everything else out there?  As well, these characters are not following a storyline that contains gripping material with symbolism or intense dialogue and circumstances.  So, how exactly do you heighten a kid buying drugs off another kid while keeping the viewers’ attention span?  You stir the pot.  (No pun intended.)

Following a rage dance club effect of opening credits, Liman does a close up of Katie Holmes as Claire, Ronna’s friend.  She’s talking to someone, who we can’t see, about how fun the surprises are with opening Christmas presents.  Go works from beginning to end because it turns in surprise encounters that you would never expect.  Call it a butterfly effect.  A flap of the wings leads to this encounter which leads to that encounter and so on.  If you are taken with the film, you just might smirk with pleasant surprise when you uncover who Claire is actually speaking to.

Early on in the film, we will see a one-sided conversation on the phone.  Later we will see the other side of that same call and I get a kick out seeing a story running parallel to another story I just got done seeing. (Forgive the redundancy of that sentence, but that’s the point!)

Another moment will have a character draw a gun on another character, only a hit and run with a car disrupts the moment.  Thankfully, we’ll meet the personalities behind that car later on.  As the picture becomes more and more clear, you might cheer “Bravo!” at the invention of Go.

As noted before, Doug Liman’s movie has been compared to the drive behind Pulp Fiction.  I understand the temptation to make that association.  However, this movie stands on its own.  Where Tarantino will show perspective of different characters, he will branch off into forward thinking with new events.  Go steers its focus to parallel plot points.  We see what’s occurring in Los Angeles right now with Ronna.  Later, we will see what’s happening in Las Vegas at that very same time with Simon.  Tarantino picks up where we left off.  Liman documents what’s happening elsewhere.  While these two characters are going along their own paths simultaneously in different parts of the universe, what happens to one of them will bear on what happens to the other as the trajectories continue. 

I might be making this out to be fancier than it ever needed to be, but it’s a kick ass good time, nonetheless.  The soundtrack is absolutely fun.  You get absorbed in the settings, almost wanting to be in the Christmas night club party with strobe lights and neon colors, or the Vegas casinos and strip joints.  The personalities and dialogue are super smart and witty with hilarious comebacks.  “If you were any more white, you’d be clear!”

At the time Go was released in 1999, from a marketing perspective, it did not appear all that attractive.  Lots of club music and symphonics surround the picture.  The most marquee name in the film, probably still, is Katie Holmes who is not exactly on the same level as an Angelina Jolie or even a Jennifer Lawrence of today.  Yes.  Nearly twenty-five years later many of these young actors are more recognizable.  I dare you to come up with their names though as soon as you see them in the picture.  However, because I’m not watching Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, I have no expectations of how any of these various storylines are going to turn out.  When the film leaves the Ronna storyline, are we going to get to see what happens to her next?  Will Simon get back from Vegas?  Lots of questions abound as the film moves on.

While Go is reveling in its debauchery, it’s performing as a smart machine that hits all the right notes where it will lay the groundwork for comedy, but then segue into serious material where the protagonists find themselves in a situation they might not be able to escape.  Go is a movie that keeps you alert, even if you’re high, during one sleepless and irresponsible night. 

THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (Norway, 2021)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Film with Subtitles”

PLOT: The chronicles of four years in the life of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a young woman who navigates the troubled waters of her love life and struggles to find her career path, leading her to take a realistic look at who she really is.


I love “what-if” scenarios.  There is a whole line of comic books, Marvel and DC, dedicated to intriguing “what-if” questions.  What if Peggy Carter took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?  What if Bruce Wayne’s parents had not been killed?  And so on.

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a what-if scenario for film geeks.  What if…Woody Allen wrote a romantic comedy about a woman in her 30s on a road to self-discovery?  And then what if Ingmar Bergman took a crack at the screenplay and decided it was too happy, so he added some material about death?  And then…what if David Fincher directed it on 35-mm film with the bare minimum of CG effects?

Julie (Renate Reinsve, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this role) is a 30-something woman who cycles through career paths before finally settling on photography.  She meets, falls in love with, and moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic-strip creator and author in his 40s.  They are happy together, share deep conversations, discuss kids (he wants them, she doesn’t), and spend time with his family at their lake house.

But then one night Julie walks home from a business function with Aksel and, for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, crashes a fancy party.  Here she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a charming fellow with a broad smile.  They talk.  There is a clear connection, but they are both in committed relationships.  They decide they will not cheat.  But…what defines cheating?  Does drinking from the same bottle of beer constitute cheating?  What about sharing a secret?  What about smelling each other’s sweat?  How far this little game goes, I will not reveal, but it did not end where I thought it would.  Their meet-cute ends with them walking home in opposite directions, neither giving the other their last names so they won’t be tempted to search for each other on Facebook.  Will they meet again?  Don’t make me laugh.

The Worst Person in the World is brain candy.  I am on the record as stating that I have been, somewhat unsuccessfully, avoiding films with heavier subject matter over the years.  (I can think of no situation in which I would willingly sit and re-watch The Conformist [1970], for example, to see what I missed the first time I slept through it.)  However, over the years I have seen and reviewed some heavy films that were highly rewarding: Amour [2012], Incendies [2010], and Nomadland [2020], to name a few.  The Worst Person in the World is not quite as gut-punching as those other films, but it was intelligent and funny and startling in all the right places, and what more could you ask for in a romantic comedy/drama?

The David Fincher element I alluded to earlier comes from the visual style of the film.  Director Joachim Trier loves to include primary colors, especially white, in his compositions, which is apparently a big no-no when it comes to cinematography.  The result of this choice is that anything containing colors of any kind really <pops> on the screen, while lending a kind of antiseptic feel to some of the scenes, as well.  For some reason, I associate that combination of clinical distancing with popping colors with Fincher.  (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] comes to mind.)

There’s also a celebrated sequence in which Julie, still in a relationship with Aksel but unable to stop thinking about Eyvind (especially after bumping into him again unexpectedly), conjures a fantasy in which she runs to meet him where he works while the entire world around her remains frozen in place.  The effects in this sequence are flawless, especially when you realize that the only CG effects were those removing visible supports that kept a couple of bicycles and human limbs suspended in midair.  Everything else was done 100% real, in-camera, with real people simply frozen in place.

The effect of this scene is magical.  It evokes that giddy period we (hopefully) all remember when a brand new love has taken hold of us, and the rest of the world goes on hold while we hold hands and kiss and share a sunset and talk and walk and kiss again and time stands still, or goes too fast, depending on your point of view.  The brilliance of this movie is that it evokes those glorious feelings…and the whole time, in the back of the viewer’s mind, is that reminder: “But they’re cheeeatiiiing…”

The movie’s title immediately made me think Julie was the titular “Worst Person”, and for a while it seems to be true.  She can’t decide on a career, she knows she doesn’t want kids with Aksel but can’t really explain why, she impulsively flirts with Eyvind, she writes an internet-famous/infamous article wondering how a woman can be considered a feminist if she engages in oral sex.  But after watching the movie, I don’t believe that’s the movie’s intent.  I think we’re supposed to see how other people, including myself, might make the mistake of thinking Julie is a terrible person.  On the contrary, she’s just as confused and inarticulate about relationships and feelings as I am, as any of us are.  As she breaks up with someone, she makes what might sound like an emotionally cruel statement: “Who knows?  Maybe we’ll get back together again in the future.”  But in reality, she’s just refusing to rule anything out.  Badly phrased?  Perhaps.  But she is being as honest as she knows how to be.

(I haven’t even discussed the sequence where Julie ingests some “magic” mushrooms and goes on a drug trip for the ages, involving cartoon characters, aging, a touch of body horror, and the kind of face painting you’ll NEVER see at a theme park.  The movie even pokes fun at the shock of some of this imagery by inserting a shot of a movie theater full of people visibly cringing…a neat bit of meta-humor/commentary on the value of shocking your audience.)

The Worst Person in the World is worth your time if you’re a fan of love stories that don’t pander in any way, shape, or form.  Director Joachim Trier has gone on record as saying it’s a “romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies.”  That’s about right.  Don’t look for a conventional happy ending or a conventional main character.  These are just people searching for connection, who even when they’ve found it, never stop looking.  For better or worse.


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Best line or memorable quote?
JULIE: If men had periods, that’s all we’d hear about.

How important is it to you to watch a film in its native language?
Very. But not always. For example, I would not have wanted to watch a dubbed version of The Worst Person in the World. However, I have no issue with watching a dubbed version of something like Akira [1988] or Spirited Away [2001]. It comes down to the medium. For live action, I feel it’s most important to know the precise meaning behind what the characters are saying, and it’s difficult to get that from watching someone’s lips not moving in synch with the sounds coming out of their mouths. However, with animation, I want to drink in the visuals as much as possible, and that’s not as easy to do when you’re trying to read subtitles.

Do you feel subtitles lessen the overall movie experience?
Not at all. Look at Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds [2009]. In that film, subtitles were absolutely essential to the plot, especially the opening sequence at that French farmhouse. There are those who disagree, but that’s my opinion. (But don’t get me started on those who insist on watching English films with English subtitles on…that’s another story.)

CAMP (2003)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Graff
Cast: Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin De Jesus, and introducing Anna Kendrick
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 64% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch an Early Film of a Famous Actor or Actress”

PLOT: Teen drama enthusiasts attend a summer drama camp and perform in several productions while dealing with an alcoholic musical director and their own messy lives.


Todd Graff’s film Camp plays like Meatballs [1979] crossed with Waiting for Guffman [1996].

A bunch of theatre-geek teens attend Camp Ovation, a summer drama camp where the campers rehearse and perform a different show every two weeks.  And I’m not talking Aladdin Jr. or Annie.  Among this camp’s productions are Follies, Promises Promises, and a color-blind presentation of Dreamgirls.  (It’s exactly as weird as it sounds.)  And the camp’s choreographer is Savion Glover, who is given exactly one scene with spoken lines.  Alas.

A brief prologue introduces the main characters, including Michael (Robin de Jesus), a gay boy who gets beaten up by classmates when he attends his junior prom in full drag.  Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is a plain-but-pretty girl with a self-image problem exacerbated by the fact she has to beg her brother to be her date to her own prom.  The appropriately-named Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is a handsome young man who doesn’t seem to have any overt personal problems.  At his camp audition, when he accompanies himself on guitar while crooning “Wild Horses”, one of the camp counselors is beside herself: “An honest-to-God STRAIGHT boy!”

There’s also the introduction of a mousy young lady named Fritzi, played by a 16-year-old Anna Kendrick in her film debut.  We all know how attractive she is in real life, but when we first meet her, she is in complete “Princess Diaries” mode: long straggly hair, flannel skirt, and acting as personal flunky for Jill, the blond camp floozy who doesn’t let anyone forget how pretty and talented she is.

Vlad is the eye of the storm at Camp Ovation.  Ellen is attracted to him, Jill wants to make out with him, Michael is burning to know if he’s gay or straight, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.  He’s also an emotional demon-child, an incurable flirt in both directions, so everyone is off-center around him.  That’s the “A” story.

One of the flaws of Camp is that there are one too many “B” stories.  Maybe two too many.  There’s Bert Hanley, who composed a musical decades ago that is still performed today, but who has not written anything since.  He’s coming in to assist with the camp’s productions, but things look grim when he shows up two days late, drunk, and with a suitcase full of booze bottles.

There’s Michael’s ongoing issues with getting his unsupportive parents to attend one of the camp’s performances.  One of the movie’s high points occurs when Michael is performing in Romeo and Juliet, sees the empty chairs in the audience where his parents are supposed to be, and launches into his own interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale.  Bernstein and Sondheim would have approved.

There’s a hilarious subplot that is never fully explored where the camp introduces a sports counselor.  At a drama camp.  This bit is granted two brief scenes, then never heard from again.  Alas.

There’s Jenna, a young girl whose parents wanted her to attend “fat camp” instead of drama camp, so they compromised: Jenna will attend Camp Ovation with her jaws wired shut.  I will leave it up to you to discover how she performs onstage through clenched teeth.  (This subplot does get a very satisfying resolution by movie’s end, it must be said.)

Most of these subplots are good enough to support an entire movie by themselves.  In Camp, however, you get a little whiplash going from comedy to drama to teen angst to revenge back to comedy to performance and so on and so on.  While watching it again, I noticed more than ever how many times the editing seemed to be working around chunks of dialogue that probably had to be cut for time.  Somewhere out there is Todd Graff’s 3-hour director’s cut of this movie, in which every story is given enough time to breathe, expand, and evolve.

So…why do I give this movie an 8/10 rating with so much not going for it?  Purely personal reasons.

Camp is a movie about theatre geeks, made by theatre geeks, for theatre geeks.  The film’s director, Todd Graff – who coincidentally played “Hippy” in The Abyss [1989] – was a drama camp counselor himself, and the film is loosely based on his experiences.  There is virtually zero crossover appeal for this film.  Near the beginning of the film, Fritzi is trying to jog Jill’s memory where they’ve met before: “We were in Night Mother last summer, remember?”  That joke only lands if you know how many people are in the cast of Night Mother, and what the plot is, and how ludicrous it is to imagine that show being performed at a summer camp.

For all his shortcomings, Vlad has a scene that speaks directly to me.  He confesses to Michael that he has OCD.  Without medication, he counts the letters in the words in people’s sentences.  (I count syllables.)  He talks about how his affliction is “always there.”  But when he’s performing onstage…it’s not.  Not only does that speak to me directly regarding OCD, it’s also a metaphor for anyone who has felt like an outsider for some reason or another.  Offstage, you might have self-image problems or obsessive behavior or shyness.  Onstage, those things magically fall away.  I don’t use that term lightly: “magically.”  I don’t know how else to describe what happens in that boundary between offstage and onstage.  Anyway, that’s cool to me, personally.

The movie has a suitable climax, but for me, the real centerpiece of the movie comes when a group of the kids and some of the adult band members meet in secret to rehearse and perform a song that Bert Hanley (remember him from earlier?) wrote but never published.  As they perform, the cynical Hanley overhears it and struggles with himself whether to let them play or to walk in and stop the performance.  It’s a cliched moment, to be sure, but the song itself is rousing and borderline inspirational, and when the scene’s payoff occurs, it’s almost cheer-worthy.

And let’s not forget what happens between Fritzi and Jill.  After some harsh words are said, Fritzi exacts her revenge and performs a show-stopping number from a Sondheim musical.  It’s here where Anna Kendrick’s screen and stage presence are both on full display.  For years afterward, Penni and I would see her in other movies and recognize her based solely on her performance in this movie, and particularly this scene.  (Of course, we couldn’t remember her name for a while…she was always “that girl from Camp.”  It wasn’t until after she appeared in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010] that her name finally stuck.)

And, of course, there’s that cameo from a surprise audience member at the camp’s final production.  (Hint: their car’s license plate reads 4UM.)

Camp may not have the name-recognition of so many other teen comedies, but this one speaks to me directly.  I’m not any one of those kids at this camp, but there’s a part of me in all of them.  I loved the musical numbers.  I enjoyed the theatrical in-jokes.  (“There’s this new thing called ‘drums,’ you’ll love it.”)  And maybe there’s also a part of me that wishes I had attended one of these camps in the summer instead of Bible camp two years in a row.  Just sayin’.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

By Marc S. Sanders

John Guare adapted his celebrated Broadway play Six Degrees Of Separation into a screenplay directed by Fred Schepisi.  Having never seen a stage production of the show, I can still see how well it would work in live theater.  It’s a talking piece with colorful dialogue and fast paced monologues revealing the true nature of people whether they are telling the truth, exaggerating, or simply being lied to.  Can a piece of writing succeed at showing the phoniness of people while at the same time displaying the authentic nature of a con man and a liar? 

In a very early career performance, Will Smith plays a young man named Paul.  One night, he stumbles upon the Park Avenue apartment of Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge (Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland), wealthy art dealers ready to make a multi-million-dollar deal with a South African guest, named Geoffrey (Ian McKellan).  Paul is a handsome black man in a navy blazer and college tie, with a knife wound in his side.  He has just been mugged while on his way to pay the Kitteridges a surprise visit.  They welcome him inside, clean his injury and loan him a freshly clean pink dress shirt from their son’s closet. 

Talking and interaction take effect.  Paul describes how he intimately knows the couple’s children away at college.  He segues into an insightful literary evaluation of Holden Caulfied from Catcher In The Rye, and he eventually makes his way into the kitchen where he impresses the high society people with his exquisite dinner preparation and his immense background of being the son of celebrated actor Sidney Poitier. 

By the end of the evening, Geoffrey is ready to sign the deal and the Kitteridges are over the moon with the dumbfound luck of meeting this young man, who is now going to arrange for them to be extras in the film adaptation of the musical Cats, soon to be directed by Sidney, himself.  It’s all too good to be true.  The next morning, after insisting that Paul stay over for the night, surprises abound and perhaps Ouisa and Flan don’t know everything they should have known about Paul.

The couple meets up for lunch with Larkin and Kitty, another high society couple (Bruce Dern, Mary Beth Hurt) who can’t wait to share an unbelievable story with them.  Only their anecdote is eerily similar to the experience they had with Paul.  Could these people have been duped?  The only option is to go to the police, and yet was there really a crime ever committed?  Fifty dollars was leant to Paul to get back to school, and he made off with the pink shirt, but that’s it.  All of their prized artwork and collectibles remained.  No one was physically harmed.  Nothing was stolen.  Still, the four people are insistent on uncovering the mystery of this man. 

Ouisa, Flan, Larkin and Kitty eventually catch up with their children to see how they had come to meet Paul.  The kids have no idea what their parents are talking about and are downright resentful of mom and dad.  Ouisa and Flan’s son (Jeff Abrams, as in eventual director JJ Abrams) is especially hurt they gave Paul his pink dress shirt.  The horror!  Their daughter describes them as ignorant and uncaring simply because of their wealth.

While I can’t describe the structure of the play, Schpisi’s film does a back and forth of Ouisa and Flan gleefully telling their tall tale to anyone who will listen.  While guests at a wedding reception, the crowd of listeners seem to grow around the pair, eventually to the point that the bride and groom are even listening.  Their story spreads at a funeral and dinner parties and on and on.

Later, a young couple (Heather Graham, Erik Thal) enter the frame to share their encounter with Paul after meeting him in Central Park.  Their tale is not as similar as the others, but there is enough to determine that they met the same “Paul” in their experience.

Paul’s existence seems to grow and grow, but not necessarily because of Paul.  Rather, it is because of how widespread his various intrusions become.  While making efforts to pursue the mystery, Ouisa and Flan get interviewed for the paper.  Even more people within New York City (revered for having eight million stories) reveal their own encounters. More people, especially their peers, become even more fascinated by the outrageous anecdote, and it becomes the centerpiece of dinner conversations and social gatherings.  People can’t get enough of the night Ouisa and Flan met Paul and what happened afterwards.

Guare’s script is focused not so much on dimension and character change, as it is in demonstrating what can happen when one story blossoms into a multitude of others.  The title follows the idea that every person on the planet can somehow be connected within six different people of one another.  What I took from the film is how inauthentic the ones who were duped actually are.  Flan wants nothing ever more to do with Paul, repeatedly declaring a fear that he may come back and “slash their throats.” Yet, he can’t resist sharing the story and what happened after that and then after that.  Ouisa follows along, until perhaps the end of the picture.

Stockard Channing plays the most dynamic of all the characters thanks to moments offered in the script where Ouisa begins to contemplate how fascinating it is how many people have come in contact with Paul and thus lending credence to the film’s title.  A memorable monologue towards the end earned her Oscar nomination for the film. 

Will Smith is the con man at the center of the script.  It’s an extraordinary performance and it’s an insightful character as well.  Paul is a con man.  That is the one sure thing that viewers assuredly walk away with from the movie.  It may be the only genuine fact in the film.  The people he seduces are eventually revealed to be fake for the sake of laying impressions upon their peers or for exacting aggravation, as the spoiled college age children seem to do.  Nothing that Ouisa, Flan, Larkin, Kitty or any of their high society friends and children come off with genuine affection and care for one another.  Their tales are told simply to impress and uphold relevance.  Only as the credits roll, does Ouisa perhaps have a revelation of how she behaves with her friends, and her children, particularly when in company with her husband, Flan.

Film Critic Roger Ebert didn’t care for this film as he asked what are we supposed to gain from this picture; that everyone in the world is a phony?  Maybe so.  The irony for me however, is that Paul is nothing but a con.  He never deviates from that pattern during the course of the picture all the way to his final scene when he’s alone on the street speaking with Ouisa on a pay phone. He still insists on being Paul Poitier, son of Sidney.  Therefore, let’s at least admire Paul’s consistent behavior of lying, while turning our backs as we realize how artificial the well to do folks really are.  Irony is thought provoking, and I think John Guare’s script at least succeeds in that respect. 

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

By Marc S. Sanders

William Shakespeare’s works will always remain timeless.  His accomplishments are simply magnetic.

If you have any love for live theater, you’ll likely have at least a fondness for John Madden’s Oscar winning film Shakespeare In Love.  I loved the movie.  Perhaps that is because as a moonlighting playwright, myself, I could relate to The Bard’s early dilemma in the film – writer’s block.  It’s a gnawing, aggravating experience to go through.  You have an urge to create.  You just don’t know where to begin.  Believe me Bill, I know what you’re going through.

This likely fictional telling of William Shakespeare’s process of conceiving Romeo & Juliet begins with two competing theaters who have purchased the rights to Shakespeare’s (Joseph Fiennes) newest play that he has titled Romeo & Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter, a comedy of course.  However, he has not yet written one page.  Not only does he suffer through his writer’s block, but William also has to endure the pressure of the theatre companies to stage and cast the play.  Geoffrey Rush and Martin Clunes are the scene stealing theatre owners who pester poor Bill for his script. 

My experiences in theatre allow me to also relate to the frustrations of staging a play.  Casting can be troubling if you don’t have the right selection of actors for the roles to be filled.  Huge egos can also be an annoyance.  Ben Affleck seems perfectly cast for that. (“What is the play, and what is my part?”)  In Shakespeare’s time, women are absolutely forbidden on the stage. As most theater presentations are intended to be comedic, men occupying the female roles only heightens the humor.  Still, as troubling as it is to cast the supporting roles with the available men of the company, including Ethel and her nurse, no one seems right for the role of Romeo. 

A fan of his, and a lover of theater, is Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant.  She musters the courage to disguise herself as a man and attend an audition under the name of “Thomas Kent.”  William is immediately taken with Thomas’ stage presence and upon his pursuit of him, encounters Viola.  They are both immediately stricken with love for one another and soon the writer learns of Viola’s deceit and revels in trysts with her while they maintain the secret for the integrity of the play that he now has inspiration to continue writing to its grand conclusion.  Viola is the muse that William has been seeking.

One problem beyond the usual obstacles in producing a play for performance time comes in the form of Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a snobby cash poor aristocrat, who claims Viola as his soon to be bride as a means of earning a stature of wealth through her family.  Wessex is a demanding and unreasonable fiend of course, and Firth delivers an effectively cruel villain against the heroism found in Fiennes’ Shakespeare.

As the play is rehearsed and the romance between Viola and William continues to blossom, the drama is not left only on the stage.  A grand scene bordering on slapstick occurs when the competing theaters engage in a swashbuckling dual.  Props are tossed, swords are swung and feathered pillows explode.  Later, adventure on the level of Errol Flynn occurs with swordplay between William and Wessex within the theater and its trappings.  Screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard inventively imply that theater, as we know it today, was simply inspired by what Shakespeare encounters in his own life.  When I conduct playwrighting workshops at my local community theater, I always tell the class that you have to “write what you know.”  Shakespeare In Love precisely demonstrates that mantra, even if it is elevated for the theatrics of cinema.  After all, this movie proudly boasts its silly comedy as much as it embraces its romance which thankfully never drowns in sap.

A wonderfully well edited centerpiece cuts between Viola and William’s passion for one another against their stage rehearsals with Viola in her guise as “Thomas Madden.”  In bed, they romance each other with recognizable dialogue, originally written by the real Shakespeare, that then makes its way into William’s pages for his script in progress.  This is where Gwyneth Paltrow really shines as she is momentarily depicted as the lovely Viola and then we see her in the guise of “Thomas,” the naturally gifted actor perfect for William’s Romeo character.  Paltrow’s range with the Oscar winning performance is done so well in this sequence alone.

The final act of the film is joyously assembled.  Behind the scenes, actor and writer William Shakespeare stresses over a stuttering actor who has entered the stage to begin the play.  Can he get through the scene?  What about the poor actor who is stricken with stage fright, and suddenly can’t go on as Juliet?  The audience is left in a rapturous trance with open mouths of silence and tears, following the suicides of the lovers on stage.  Yet, they don’t know if they should applaud at the end of the play.  The actors don’t know how to respond to the applause.  As well, are we given an opportunity to bear witness where the well-known phrase “The show must go on!” originated from?

It’s also necessary to point out one of the most favorite side characters to ever grace a film.  Judi Dench is the staunch and intimidating Queen Elizabeth I.  Arguably, this brief role, that I believe amounts to no more than five and half minutes on screen, carried Dench to not only Oscar glory but a celebrated favorite character actress for years to come.  Dench demonstrates how fun acting can be even if she is wrapped up in layers of 16th century wardrobe and caked on makeup.  Her first scene has her laughing at a poor actor performing with an uncooperative poodle.  Her last scene has her tearing down the romantic gesture of men laying down their coats for her to cross over a mud puddle.  It’s an unforgettable appearance in the film.

I take issue with one element of the picture, however.  Forgive me for going against the opinion of the Academy Awards, but Shakespeare In Love would have been an even grander experience for me had it not been for an overproduced and intrusive original score from Oscar winner Stephen Warbeck.  The music cuts into the film too much.  It borders on obnoxious.  Over and over, I was telling myself, these scenes hold together beautifully without any of the blaring horns and trumpets from Warbeck’s orchestra.  This film has an outstanding cast of actors and often I felt like they were being upstaged by the soundtrack of the film.  There are magnificent scenes with witty dialogue delivered by the likes of Imelda Staunton, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Affleck, along with Dench, Firth, Paltrow, Fiennes and Rush.  I could literally envision these moments working based simply on their performances alone.  Imagine watching a live stage performance, only elevator music cuts in at the most inopportune times. 

Still, I refuse to end on a sour note for Shakespeare In Love.  It is worthy of a standing ovation.  John Madden’s film is a grand production in cast performance, art direction, costume and makeup.  The script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard is brilliantly clever and witty as they weave inspired references from Shakespeare’s various sonnets, poems and plays into rich, everyday dialogue. 

Sustaining the value of performing arts can easily begin with a viewing of Shakespeare In Love in a school curriculum.  Even better would be to adapt this film into a stage play.  I think to watch Shakespeare In Love, live on stage, would be a wonderous experience.

SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL

By Marc S. Sanders

I don’t get it. Why title a movie with the name of a popular song only to make the movie title seem arbitrary? Some Kind Of Wonderful is a rockin’ great song by Grand Funk Railroad that you turn the volume up on your car radio as you leave work on Friday afternoon. Maybe you get the bar patrons riled up on karaoke night. Some Kind Of Wonderful is also the name of a movie written by John Hughes that has no meaning or relevance to the song it’s named after. It’s as lacking in imagination as the film itself.

Why do you suppose John Hughes didn’t direct this film and left it for Howard Deutch to take over? Could it be that Hughes realized this script was nowhere near as insightful as The Breakfast Club or even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

The characters are positively boring in Some Kind Of Wonderful. In fact, they are so boring that they look bored with each other. They look half-awake when they are talking to one another. Unless, that’s how you look cool in the rebellious 1980s. I dunno. To me they all looked flat.

Eric Stoltz plays Keith. He’s a kid who avoids college discussions with his father (John Ashton) while pining over Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), the popular girl who’s dating the popular jerk with the Corvette. We get to hear a song called Amanda Jones not once but THREE TIMES. Where’s the song Some Kind Of Wonderful, though? Why not just call the film Amanda Jones?

Unbeknownst to Keith, his tomboy best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) plays it cool, while carrying around her cool looking drumsticks, like she doesn’t love him when it couldn’t be more apparent. Keith is so unbelievably stupid that he can’t even detect the slightest crush that Watts has on him when she practices kissing him so he’ll be prepared for an upcoming date he has with Amanda. Now I’d buy this routine if Keith were at least playing dumb to Watts’ advances. However, Keith is not playing dumb. Keith is just dumb.

As a community theatre actor and playwright at times, even I follow at least a slight discipline of exploring character backgrounds. Watts and Keith are best pals yet I don’t recall one tender moment or discussion that even slightly recollects their history or friendship. Pretty In Pink offered plenty of moments that shaped the Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer relationship. Not in Some Kind Of Wonderful, however. Every time Stoltz and Masterson meet up for a scene together it feels as if they never met each other before. They never look like they are familiar with one another and really know what makes the other tick. Are they acting with their stand in doubles?

I also was not so convinced of Keith’s attraction to Amanda. There’s nothing to this girl beyond Lea Thompson’s sultry looks. Granted, I recall having a day or even a month-long crush on a number of girls in high school simply based on appearance alone; girls who never gave me the time of day. Raging hormones naturally will do that to teenage boys but remember this is a movie. In a movie, I need to be shown why there is a crush. Not just told in a statement of dialogue.

Recently, I reviewed Can’t Buy Me Love. I didn’t like that film either. However, the popular girl in that film at least revealed a knack for poetry and a sudden interest in astronomy and an old airplane graveyard. The popular girl here only opts to go out with Keith to anger her jerk of a boyfriend. I don’t know anything about Amanda from beginning to end.

Keith only paints and draws images of Amanda. A talent for art is a springboard for sweet and sincere in a John Hughes movie, but it’s all Keith ever learns about Amanda. So it’s all we ever learn about Amanda. Great! You sketched a third picture of Lea Thompson. Sorry, but I already know what Lea Thompson looks like.

The date between Keith and Amanda tries to aim for cuteness and maybe some comedy. I say maybe because I’m not sure if the cast with Hughes and Deutch are looking for laughs. But see Masterson volunteers to be the limo driver complete with the hat and uniform, and drive the lovebirds around town. A limo uniform on a character can be funny like if Kramer in Seinfeld did it, or if it was one of the Three Stooges. Problem here is no one in this movie sees how funny it could be. So, it’s not funny. See how that works?

No one was at the wheel of this D grade fare teenage 80s flick. Beyond all that’s wrong with the story and characters and performances, ultimately again I ask, where is the song Some Kind Of Wonderful in the movie Some Kind Of Wonderful? If that doesn’t even occur to you, then I can’t have much faith the film will have any provocation of thought either…and it doesn’t!!!!!

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE

By Marc S. Sanders

Roles for the “aging has been” who is either about to retire or refuses to retire seem reserved these days to Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood.

Back in 2012, Eastwood gave up his director’s chair to star in a little known film about an aging baseball scout in Trouble With The Curve. I’ve seen him play this kind of role many times before like In The Line Of Fire, or Grand Torino.

There’s nothing memorable about Trouble With The Curve, but it does feature some good scenes between Eastwood and Amy Adams as his tough as nails attorney/estranged daughter who forces herself upon his scouting trip to look after him when it seems his health, particularly his vision, is deteriorating. Adams is good as the underestimated baseball expert. She can recognize a 95 mph pitch and she can triumph over you in reciting RBI stats, batting averages, etc. Give her a bat and she can also cream a ball outta the park.

Justin Timberlake is the necessary pretty boy romantic interest for Adams, but he doesn’t offer much to the film in the way of humor or even sex appeal. This guy is a great actor beyond his music. (See The Social Network)

The movie belongs to Eastwood alone.

First time director and regular Eastwood crewman, Robert Lorenz does well with the baseball footage of young prospects and the end is satisfying as the argument weighs whether experience and instinct can still trump the power of technology.

Has baseball truly come to rely on what a computer says is the best first round draft pick? Wow…how sad.