Friday, August 26, 2016

EVERYBODY CAN'T BE ON TOP: a review of "Don't Think Twice"

Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia
**** (four stars)

It was at the end of the summer four years ago, when I was inspired to see and was happily surprised by Writer/Director Mike Birbigia's semi-autobiographical filmmaking debut "Sleepwalk With Me" (2012), a film I described as being a "smart, unique, entertaining, often hilarious and subtly moving tale, that above all else, celebrates the art the comes with expert storytelling." Now, nearing the conclusion of what has been an ultimately disenchanting and dismal summer movie season, Birbiglia returns with "Don't Think Twice," his excellent, creatively bar raising follow-up feature, which announces his cinematic arrival so fully that this just may be one of the best films that I have seen in 2016, so far.

The wonderment of "Don't Think Twice" should not be undersold to you, due to the increasing rarity of films like this one being offered to the public in our multiplexes in favor of all manner of costumed characters and bombastic CGI yawn fests being shoved into our eyes at the expense of nearly any other kind of feature films being made. With this film, Mike Birbiglia, a longtime stand-up comedian and writer, has crafted and expertly perceptive and most importantly, character driven backstage drama where the comedy truly stings, the nearly constant discomfort provides palpable and often heartbreaking tension as we are given a front row seat to the inner circle of six friends/aspiring artists who wish for nothing more than the betterment of each other as long as success does not elude them all. If "Sleepwalk With Me" was Birbiglia's calling card, "Don't Think Twice" should fully and deservedly, raise his public notoriety as a creative cinematic force who can exist quite easily alongside the likes of Woody Allen, Nicole Holofcener and Richard Linklater. Yes, Birbiglia is that good and so indeed is his terrific film.

"Don't Think Twice" stars Mike Birbiglia as Miles, a member of the New York improvisational comedy troupe The Commune, a sextet who (somewhat) harmoniously work as well as live together, sustaining themselves on their live comedy performances that celebrate the inventiveness and instantaneous art and magic of being creatively inspired on the spot in front of an audience while also hoping and wishing for that big break that has so far eluded all of them.

Stuck in dead-end day jobs and with news that their home theater is soon to be demolished in one month's time, the pressure increases for The Commune and reaches a fever pitch when they are informed that representatives of "Weekend Live," a "Saturday Night Live" styled comedy show, will be attending a performance for a new casting search for performers and writers. Suddenly, the groups's "all for one, one for all" mission becomes threatened as standout player Jack Mercer (played by Keegan-Michael Key), is immediately warned by Miles to not one-up his castmates in pursuit of the greater glory.

Regardless, both Jack and his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs from television's "Community") are requested for auditions, while hopeful graphic novelist Allison (Kate Micucci), wayward rich girl/aspiring writer Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Bill (Chris Gethard), who is stressed due to caring for an ailing parent and Miles himself, ironically the one who teaches an improv comedy class and has personally trained the entire troupe, are not. When Jack is ultimately cast on "Weekend Live," what was once familial becomes filled with jealousy, envy, disappointments and resentments that threaten to break The Commune apart forever.

For a film set within the world of improvisational comedy, as well as one that features many sequences of The Commune live on stage in their struggling theater, Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice" is probably the saddest film that I have ever seen about the nature of the comedic creative mindset and profession. Now, I do not mean that Birbiglia has crafted an experience that drifts towards the more melodramatic of something like David Seltzer's "Punchline" (1988), Billy Crystal's "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992) or nearly as devastating as Richard Pryor's flawed but brutally open hearted "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" (1986).

For me, I felt that Birbiglia concocted an effort that could stand powerfully shoulder to shoulder with Judd Apatow's undervalued "Funny People" (2009) and Chris Rock's criminally underseen "Top Five" (2014), as "Don't Think Twice" carries itself with a matter-of-fact quality that never forces any of the comedy or drama because Birbiglia is wise enough as a storyteller and filmmaker to understand that all of the joy and pain is completely inherent in the story he wishes to present, allowing all of the themes and emotions to reveal themselves organically, through Birbiglia's sharp yet fully empathetic writing and direction and the pitch perfect performances from his entire cast.

Most certainly, "Don't Think Twice" is a tale of envy among friends, provocatively so and without even a trace of any in-authenticity or predictability. In a sense, Birbiglia provides us with the sense of one-upsmanship that sits at the heart of the stand up comedy world, as each comedian is striving to make their individualistic mark in a world just bursting with hopeful talents. Within the confines of The Commune, that veritable sense of competition is ever present even as much as all six members try their damnedest to not allow it to interfere with their creativity.

But such as it is, Birbiglia showcases how their backstage preparations, while pure, are often quite unctuous, as they are trying to clearly impress and even outdo each other before racing the stage, embracing each other while expressing "Got your back!" repeatedly to each other, fully noting the complete collaborative effort of their performances. Yes, once word arrives that "Weekend Live" will be in the house, measures of self-preservation and survival within such a precariously cut-throat industry instantly rears its ugly head as Jack takes the spotlight for himself in the guise of collaboration. Within those moments, Mike Birbiglia brilliantly blurs the lines between professional and creative honestly and falsehoods, which will then fuel the motivations for all of the film's characters for the remainder of "Don't Think Twice."

When Jack is cast on "Weekend Live," Birbiglia presents his Commune castmates painfully reading the news on the internet and even as they watch him perform on nationwide live television each week and do sincerely wish him well, you also realize that they are secretly hoping for him to fail, questioning why they were not chosen instead of him and consistently request if he would be able to put in good words for them. This aspect, in turn, gives Birbiglia wonderful opportunities to illustrate Jack's dilemma with not only sudden national fame without his friends but how his fame now affects The Commune's live performances as their audiences now wish for Jack to not only return to the stage but to endlessly reprise his now famous television characters. And now armed with famous friends like Ben Stiller (who makes a cameo appearance), Jack additionally struggles with the nature of success on a tougher level than he ever anticipated, where competition is fiercer, the stress for survival is higher and the rewards just may be fewer.

On an even deeper level is the film's extremely touching love story between Jack and Samantha, who indeed was not chosen for "Weekend Live," and possibly never even wanted the show in the first place, which reveals feelings of guilt for Jack and feeling increasingly misunderstood for Samantha and the two of them threatening to drift apart into completely separate lives.  Again, I deeply appreciated how Birbiglia never over-played even one moment between Jack and Samantha, allowing their respective character arcs to unfold as naturally as life and also giving them tough questions to ask of themselves and each other and without providing any easy answers.

The level of envy feels to run the highest for Miles, who repeatedly proclaims that he was just this close to finding himself cast upon "Weekend Live" years earlier but was not chosen and is simply seething that the ones he has taught himself have out paced him in the world he feels to love more than any other members of The Commune. And yet, the 36 year old Miles is himself caught within a state of arrested development, living with the members of The Commune in what is essentially an extension of college dorm life (he even sleeps in a wooden elevated loft bed), and perpetually bedding 22 year female students from his improv classes until he strikes up a new relationship with a former high school crush, an event that may push him towards a greater maturity, if he chooses to accept it.

And even further, Birbiglia presents the inspirational hunger for all of the characters who seem to thrive within this live setting that exists without a net, the camaraderie when all members are present, the sadness when all members are not, as elegantly displayed through Birbiglia's motif of a set of chairs onstage that increase or even decrease in number depending on the performance. There is true danger within the setting of improvisational comedy, the threat of complete failure and the utter brilliance of individuals brave, creative and funny enough to even want to repeatedly attempt something that feels to be impossible.

It's..ahem...funny, but even with so many sequences within the film presenting The Commune, clearly inspired by the likes of Chicago's Second City as well as The Upright Citizen's Brigade, on stage, I was surprised at how little I actually laughed during those scenes as I happened to not find The Commune to be that particularly funny at all. Now this quality is not a fault of the film in any way. In fact, and in addition to their level of funniness being determined by each and every viewer of the film, Birbiglia is displaying for all of us just how difficult improvisational comedy actually is. That the kind of comedy that we can see within the fully improvised films of Christopher Guest or on and Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" arrives from an uncanny creative, comedic, rapidly fast and unquestionably fluid mental agility that not just anyone can possibly accomplish. It is indeed high-wire comedy, the kind of which can only exist within the moment before it is gone forever.

And that, dear readers, is the exceedingly poignant core of "Don't Think Twice," creating and existing within moments that are not designed to last. Birbiglia has indeed created a film that is not only bittersweet but also elegiac as we are witness to the potential endings of friendships, romantic relationships, the closing of a cherished yet run down theater, and finally, the individual hopes and dreams of our cast of characters. Yes, sometimes, as the adage proclaims, we laugh so that we may not cry but for "Don't Think Twice," whatever tears that do fall, Mike Birbiglia richly earns each and every one.

Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Twink Twice" is a handsomely rewarding slice-of-life comedy/drama that carries no stitch of prefabricated intentions or plot threads but is filled copiously with smart, savvy, creative characters all trying and often failing to do right by themselves and for the people closest to them. This is not a film with any villains, although our cast often hurt each other while trying to advance themselves and despite their best intentions to the contrary. And most of all, it captures the turbulence, for better or worse, contained within every moment of decision, either in comedy or within life itself, every moment that is here and gone in less than a second but has the power to reverberate infinitely.

Mike Birbiglia, you have truly risen through the ranks to become one of cinema's most unique, fresh and refreshing voices.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Written by John Hughes
Executive Producer John Hughes
Directed by Howard Deutch
Released February 28, 1986

I know so deeply how much this particular film has meant and will always mean to me. But there are times when I just am unable to believe that this very film, this deceptively simple film, has continued to endure so strongly after all of this time.

For the seventh year, I once again return to my annual tribute which commemorates the life and films of Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes who passed away from a sudden heart attack at the young age of 59 while on a morning stroll during a visit with his family in Manhattan on August 6, 2009, As I have always attested, I firmly believe that if it were not for Hughes, my life as a writer may not have occurred, or at least in the ways that is has grown and developed over much of my life since my adolescence. This, certainly, is not designed to denigrate or remotely downplay the writers whose work has also massively influenced me, either around the same period as John Hughes or even long afterwards, like Lawrence Kasdan, Cameron Crowe and John Irving to name just three. But John Hughes is the one whose work struck me to my very core. Like the finest and most powerful of lightning bolts, it found me, made a direct hit and altered my life forever in every conceivably positive way, influencing and inspiring me to degrees that I am still discovering.

If only I could thank him...

For this year's tribute, I turn my attention to Hughes' "Pretty In Pink," which he wrote exclusively for star Molly Ringwald, executive produced as the directorial debut of Howard Deutch, and is also a film that officially reached its 30th anniversary earlier this year! 30 years!! Amazing. In so many ways, I do find it incredible that the legacy of "Pretty In Pink" has remained intact for such a long period of time primarily due to its ages old plot line of a poor girl literally from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with a rich boy from the right side and desires to go to the school prom with him. In truth, the continuing legacy of the film has seemed to even strike all of the participants involved with the same level of bemused surprise as the simplicity of the story feels to be so easy.

But, this is precisely why John Hughes, at his very best, was so powerfully effective, enormously entertaining and undeniably moving. He distinctly knew and believed in what he was doing within his stories and characters, even if everyone else around him didn't quite see the fullness of his vision as these films were being made. His films were deeply heartfelt odes not only to the teenage years but to a certain rite of passage and the very personal transformations we all experience at any age. With "Pretty In Pink," just as he accomplished with his beloved "The Breakfast Club" (1985) and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), was to create a multi-layered experience that simultaneously had Hughes' adolescent nerve endings fully exposed but also armed his adult perspective as this film was made when Hughes was in his mid 30's. Maintaining that level of artistic and emotional balance is no small feat and John Hughes handled the experience with a brilliance and bittersweetness that has ensured that the resonance of "Pretty In Pink" has not solely endured. It has even become even more lovingly rendered than I had ever felt it to be.

John Hughes, Howard Deutch, Jon Cryer
and Molly Ringwald on the set of "Pretty In Pink" circa 1985

I first saw "Pretty In Pink" at the age of 17 at an advance sneak preview in Chicago and alongside my cousin's Adam and Susan, who were kind enough to take me as my entire family by this time had been more than aware of my devotion and obsessions with all things John Hughes by this point. To provide you with an accurate picture, at this stage, Hughes previous three writing and directorial efforts, "Sixteen Candles" (1984), "Weird Science" (1985) and the aforementioned "The Breakfast Club" has essentially been playing on a continuous loop in my household on the family VCR located in the basement, which had then become my primary domain, aside from doing homework in my actual bedroom upstairs. While Hughes had very quickly become a hero to me and friends at school had certainly seen those films, enjoyed them and laughed about them, endlessly quoting key lines of dialogue to each other in the school hallways, it still felt as if Hughes was mine, that he had reached me in a much more profound way than anyone else. Little did I know how much of an impact he was having across the nations teenage population.

During those years, John Hughes remarked occasionally that what he was trying to do with his films during this period was the innovative practice of building an audience for his work. That when one film was playing in theaters, the next one was being made and the previous one would be available on home video--much like what Disney is currently performing with the Marvel Comics movies.

I followed the Chicago newspapers, plus film and entertainment magazines for any and all information I could find on upcoming Hughes projects. When news of "Pretty In Pink" first arrived, I believe it was within the Chicago Tribune "Inc." gossip columns from writer Michael Sneed, who first gave an official "Open Casting Call" announcement for young men between certain ages interested in playing what was being advertised as "Molly Ringwald's best friend" for a future John Hughes feature. Although I knew that I would never had a chance (although why couldn't Molly have a Black best friend?) and I wasn't interested in acting anyway (I just wanted the chance to meet Hughes), I found my most recent high school class photo, since I knew nothing about head shots and sent it into the address listed in the article.

I heard absolutely nothing in response. But, a high school upperclassman acquaintance of mine supposedly did.

By now, you can all guess that the role in question was for the part of Philip F. Dale, otherwise and forever known as Duckie, the lifelong best friend of Ringwald's character, who achingly nurses an unrequited crush for her--a dilemma of which I possessed vast personal experience if anyone in Hollywood had wished to know about it. This role in particular was up for grabs as Hughes veteran Anthony Michael Hall, for whom the part was originally written, actually turned the part down for fear of being typecast and also desiring to try other projects, a decision made to Hughes' severe disappointment as the two never spoke again, notably to Hall's confusion.

At any rate, news traveled around my  high school hallways that one of our own had been called and did try out for the part of Duckie. His name is Chris Csikszentmihalyi--yes, it really is! I remember the two of us being smaller kids and inauspiciously meeting on one of the school's playgrounds with him asking me to guess his name and its spelling. Since I didn't know him at the time, I had no response or guess to give to him. So, he proceeded to write his last name in the dirt with a stick, to my disbelief and his insistence that it was indeed his last name. Anyhow, I found Chris and asked him if he had tried out to which he said, "Yes." I asked if he had met John Hughes to which he said, "No." But, if memory serves me well, he did seem to be more than a bit tickled to have tried out and even moreso, as he was supposedly (according the the high school hallway rumor mill) called back several times before Paramount Pictures (Hughes' production home base after leaving Universal) forced the production (as well as Hughes and his family) to move and be filmed in Los Angeles instead of Hughes' native Chicago, thus opening the door for Jon Cryer to receive the coveted role and leaving any young Chicago acting hopefuls--including Mr. Csikszentmihalyi--out of the running entirely.  

By the time "Pretty In Pink" was gearing up for its release, I tried to anticipate when television commercials promoting the film might air and absolutely rejoicing when I was finally able to see snippets of what the final product would look like. It was also around this time when I realized that Hughes himself would not be directing the film, a decision that confused me as I had read interviews and stories about his tribulations with other directors not serving his material in ways that he had wished to preserve the story as he had originally conceived. I had no idea of who Howard Deutch was, especially as he was a first time director. But since Hughes was the Executive Producer and his name was above the film's title, I hoped that his influence and creative voice would remain evident.

Finally, the advance screenings were set for one night only at a round of Chicago movie theaters and again, according to Sneed, John Hughes himself was planning to possibly attend one of the screenings as he enjoyed watching how his films worked with actual paying audiences. Certainly, as I lived on the Southwest side of Chicago, worlds away from the wealthy Northern suburbs where Hughes himself resided, I still held out some hope that I would catch a glimpse of his owl framed spectacles, shaggy brown hair, denim jacket I had seen in interviews coupled with the unlaced gym shoes that I had read about, and somehow find the courage to try and speak to him, forging a long wished for connection even for a fleeting moment. Of course, that moment never happened but even so...

The first amazing sight of the evening actually occurred before I saw even one frame of the finished film. If memory serves, the night featured a sold out audience, the largest audience that I had yet seen a John Hughes film. It was obvious that  Hughes' business plan of building an audience had succeeded swimmingly as this night, it felt as if John Hughes had fully arrived, that he had built his brand over the course of three films, gained the trust of his targeted teenage audience and now that he had us, we all flooded the theaters in support. In fact, all of the articles that I had been scouring in the newspapers and magazines, articles that I imagined existing as secret coded messages for my eyes only, were in actuality being read by everyone else in the movie theater as I overheard other kids also pondering if John Hughes himself would make a covert appearance. Regardless, the night carried the unmistakable vibe of the most highly anticipated rock concert and we were all ready! Adam, Susan and I took or seats, had our snacks and I anxiously awaited for the opening moments of the new John Hughes Production.

Vibrantly announcing itself with The Psychedelic Furs' re-recorded song from which the film was named, "Pretty In Pink" opens on a late Spring morning in the working class poor home of high school Senior Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald). After readying herself for school, fully adorned outwardly with her thrift store wardrobe and self-created fashion designs, Andie prepares breakfast and coffee as she wakes her loving yet unemployed and brokenhearted Father, Jack Walsh (Harry Dean Stanton), still paralyzed by the emotional wounds left behind by Andie's Mother who walked out on the family years ago.

At the wealthy public high school in her community, life is no less stressful for Andie as aside from the standard trials and tribulations of adolescence, she is ceaselessly taunted by her white collar classmates,  most notably by the serpentine Steff McKee (James Spader), in an environment divided into two camps, the "richies" (the wealthy) and the "zoids" (the poor), where aside from classes, never the 'twain they shall meet.

Until the day, the wealthy Blane McDonough (Andrew McCarthy) makes his move.

Blane, who has long held a secret attraction towards Andie, finally strikes up the courage to break ranks with his social group and approach her, first inside of Trax!, the trendy record store where Andie holds an afterschool job under the employ of the internally wayward and wandering Iona (Annie Potts) and secondly through the school's computer system via some fancy pre-social network cleverness.

After the two begin to strike up nervous, flirtatious conversations, Blane finally asks Andie out for a date, which sends shockwaves through the hallways, especially through the respective best friends of both hopeful romantics, Steff on Blane's side and the gregarious and heartsick Duckie (Jon Cryer), Andie's best friend since childhood who has long held an unrequited love towards her.

As social pressures build for the star crossed lovers, everything reaches its climax as Blane asks Andie to the prom, forcing all of the characters to question their own allegiances to their social groups as well as to their own struggles with independence, strength, individuality, class warfare, respect, dignity, personal successes and failures all the while negotiating and experiencing the lows and highs of falling in love.

John Hughes and Howard Deutch's "Pretty In Pink," in my heart as well as in the movie theater audience that surrounded me, made a direct hit and seemed to be destined for box office glory. That packed night held riotous laughter, cheers, screams, audible tears and rapturous applause over and again and as for myself, whatever trepidacious feelings I had over Deutch handling the directorial reins instead of Hughes completely evaporated. While he did not posses  Hughes' consistently innovative directorial gifts, Deutch confirmed that he was easily was able to handle the larger moments (Duckie's romantic outpouring via his record store dance to Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" was, and remains, the roof raising crowd pleaser) and most importantly, the quieter, more interior moments absolutely beautifully. Howard Deutch demonstrated that he was a patient director, one who was especially observant, who allowed silences to play, having unspoken moments to reveal deeper emotional textures and nuances tat have actually grown to be more stirring and satisfying over these 30 years.

To the best of my knowledge, I may have been the first kid in my school to see it, and as was my wont, I pestered everyone about it, telling my friends how much I loved it but that it was a slightly different kind of John Hughes experience. It felt to be a tad more traditional, with the drama taking a larger role than in films past, and that included "The Breakfast Club," which still feels like an independent art film along the lines of Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre" (1981). And while the film did indeed become a box office hit, I do think that the earnestness of "Pretty In Pink" was somewhat lost on my friends, who possibly preferred something that was not perhaps so overly romantic or at least so seemingly old fashioned or even melodramatic. But, for me, and whatever my views on romance happened to be during those years, John Hughes made my heart ache and soar all over again, filling my teenage dreams of love with hope and possibility.

Director Of Photography Tak Fujimoto, John Hughes and Howard Deutch

And now, we arrive 30 years later and the film is more prevalent than I feel it has ever been. Certainly, it serves as a source of nostalgia for my generation but it is a film that despite its obvious aesthetic ties to the 1980's, is a film that has truthfully becomes timeless as its characters and themes have transcended any sense of cliche and have resonated richly for several generations since its original release. The film is still widely seen upon cable television channels and a few years ago, when I had the pleasure of meeting Molly Ringwald at a book signing, I had the opportunity to viewing teenage girls and women of a variety of ages and backgrounds, all eager to have a moment to express their affection and gratitude, especially for "Pretty In Pink," which played in a loop on a large screen television in the auditorium. Unquestionably, the film has held up over time powerfully.

Honestly, dear readers, if "Pretty In Pink" was solely a film about which boy would Molly choose, then it would not be worth giving a second thought, no matter who was behind the scenes, John Hughes or otherwise. As I have previously stated, the film is deceptively simple and for me, "Pretty In Pink" is a film that actually spirals off from "The Breakfast Club" to be an experience that explores and understands peer pressure to a meticulous and fully empathetic degrees, illustrating how we have the ability to hurt and damage others as well as ourselves through actions that are typically designed for self-preservation. Hughes and Deutch honored that specific dilemma, showcasing how this kind of pressure is one that permeates all ages and backgrounds, making for a story that is ultimately about human nature, not just Hughes' richies and zoids.

I felt that it was perfect to explore peer pressure through the filter of a love story, and one that does indeed extended beyond its "Romeo And Juliet" framework. "Pretty In Pink" is not just about Andie and Blane. In fact, it is a love story that goes beyond the love triangle once you include the unrequited Duckie. Hughes and Deutch have given us a film where Andie is pursued by three suitors: Blane, Duckie and Steff McKee.

Howard Deutch, James Spader and John Hughes

Steff McKee, as played to slithering perfection by James Spader, feels to function as Hughes' strong insight into male behavior (and for that matter, White male privilege) a type that may be the closest link to the cruelty within The Psychedelic Furs' song ("the first in the line is the last to remember her name") as Steff represents the type of young man who makes a habit of using women as toys and possessions to ultimately be discarded. Yet, when Andie firmly rebuffs his advances near the opening of the film, Steff's response is to openly call her a "bitch," and then spend the remainder of the film covertly attempting to destroy her and Blane. And even still, Hughes delves deeper to illustrate Steff's overall callous relationship with his parents, his family's wealth and his jaded view of life itself.

I still love that terrific scene set in his family's home library, as he almost absentmindedly rolls a joint while quietly threatening Blane with social exclusion should he continue to pursue his romance with what Steff refers to as Blane's "little piece of low grade ass." This scene remains a stunning moment of blatant human disregard where the only gains are in power, control and having that front row seat in viewing the losses of others, in this case Blane's sense of self-respect as he is soon to fully crumble. The teenaged Steff McKee is certainly in the running to become a full fledged Tea Party Republican in his future unless a scrappy school hallway beating courtesy of Duckie and a final dressing down by Blane at the prom are unable to restore any sense of heart, soul and decency within him.

As awful as Steff is, Hughes and Deutch wisely do not let Blane off of the hook either. While he is the one who first courts Andie and his intentions are pure, that pesky wealthy White male privilege rears its ugly head here and there as Blane consistently misses social cues and makes serious mistakes to which Andie always rights his wrongs, which to his credit he always obliges, withstands and even seems to appreciate with bemused, self-deprecating humor.

The mid-film date between Blane and Andie is an extremely painful section of "Pretty In Pink" as their respective social classes are in conflict despite their individual mutual attractions to each other, leading to a series of misunderstandings that are indeed mostly Blane's fault. Assuming Andie needs to return home to get dressed for their date when she is fully ready. Overestimating the tolerance of his wealthy social class by taking Andie to Steff's final weekend high school blow out  house party, where she is routinely insulted and humiliated, most notably by Steff's girlfriend, the especially nasty Benny Hanson (Kate Vernon). When Blane, ashamed of himself with his errors at one point asks Andie if she wishes to hit him and is met with a powerfully tact "Yes," he recovers with humor while acknowledging his mistakes.

Moments like these pepper the building relationship between Andie and Blane before he fully succumbs to peer pressure, backing out of his own invitation to the prom with the lamest of lame excuses, the culmination of his worst impulses despite his good nature and honest feelings towards Andie. It is only when Andie tearfully screams and throttles him by the lockers in the high school hallway does Blane McDonough finally realize that Andie Walsh is stronger and better than he could ever truly be if he really wanted to fully win her hand. He is broken by the fact that he has hurt Andie definitely, but I think that his realization that he is ultimately undone by his own weakness is what shakes Blane to his core. That he is not the person he thought he was. Not as above the prejudices he thought that he was. And if he isn't, then he is just as horrible as all of the people around him that he calls friends and family. This is Blane's existential "benchmark moment" as he is now forced to ask of himself, "Who am I? What have I become? Is this who I am destined to be?"

Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer

But of course, what just may be the most painful relationship in the film is the one between best friends Andie Walsh and Duckie Dale, as with "Pretty In Pink," John Hughes has written a tender portrait of friendships on the precipice of life altering transitions, a theme he further explored in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987), and to a extent within "She's Having A Baby" (1988).

It has been expressed in interviews that Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer actually did not get along that swimmingly on set, as Cryer described her as being somewhat aloof and therefore, resistant to his more gregarious and excitable nature (especially how thrilled he was to be working on a John Hughes production). even so, that real life tension worked tremendously well for their characters as we are witnessing two life long friends who are indeed drifting apart in the final weeks of high school. Andie, much more serious minded and academically strong than Duckie's class clown, who just might be deliberately failing his classes due to his fear of the inevitable future, is at a stage where she just does not have the time to deal with all of Duckie's antics, no matter how much she loves him. And as for Duckie, all he wishes is that Andie could possibly love him in the way that he has been so desperately in love with her for far too long. For if she did, perhaps this would be one aspect of his life that would not have to change after graduation and Andie unquestionably heads off to college.

Here is the aspect of Duckie that is markedly different than Andie: Duckie is friendless. Throughout the film, we see Andie with other high school friends, from the caustic Jena Hoeman (the late Alexa Kenin) and Simon (Dweezil Zappa), either in classes or within the teen nightclub where Duckie is constantly denied entrance, and aside from scenes where he and Andie are together, Duckie is essentially all alone. Even mentions of family are present within the film for many of the characters except for Duckie, whose sad home life we witness is one of somber solitude set to music by The Smiths.

The "crying clown" would be nothing more than a cliche if not for the sensitivity of Hughes writing, Deutch's direction and most certainly, Jon Cryer's wonderful, hysterical and heartbreaking performance. His gregariousness and humor are the only shields he has in a world that turns a blind eye to him, and that includes Andie Walsh, whose friendship and love is gradually turning to irritation, sometimes to a surprisingly harsh degree ("You ever have one of these?" she coldly asks Iona after Duckie's unleashes his record store dance). Duckie is the kid who just tries a little too hard and is therefore an outcast within his own group of outcasts. The only people who are remotely patient with him, aside from Andie (and even her's is waning), are the adults in his life, from Iona, Andie's Father (in a very lovely scene the two share) and Andrew "Dice" Clay's nightclub bouncer, as they seem to recognize his predicament in ways his peers simply cannot. Yet, again, where are Duckie's parents? They are never seen nor are they mentioned even one time.

Duckie Dale exists as one of John Hughes' several isolated loner characters from Alison Reynolds and John Bender from "The Breakfast Club," to Cameron Frye in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," to Watts the Drummer Girl in "Some Kind Of Wonderful" to even the gregarious and grieving travelling salesman Del  Griffith in "Planes, Trains And Automobiles" (1987). Duckie is one more Hughes hero cut off a bit from the mainstream, a lonely figure on the fringes but one who may be most deserving of attention, respect and love due to the fact he rarely receives it. And yet, even so, he is one of the strongest as his perseverance is steadfast despite any obstacles thrown in his direction, especially those that are self-made.

The key to Duckie is the greatness of his loyalty and dedication, even after his heart has been shattered on the night Andie has her date with Blane. He defends her honor not once but twice after their "breakup" and yet, he makes his most crucial decision on prom night when he finally acknowledges the truth of his relationship with Andie and lets her go to be with Blane--a decision where he begins to ultimately let go of his past to make significant first steps into the future he is undoubtedly fearing.

Prom night is the night where Duckie begins to build his newfound sense of maturity.

There can be no exploration about "Pretty In Pink" without delving into the film's leading protagonist, Andie Walsh and the film's star Molly Ringwald, again for whom this film was specifically written.

The collaboration between John Hughes and Molly Ringwald was truly a magical one for me. While she was not one that I had ever housed any sort of a crush, I deeply admired her, looked up to her, all the while realizing that there was simply no one else who looked or sounded quite like her and displayed a certain sense of intelligence and conviction that was just unheard of within the 1980's teen film genre (and for that matter, has there really been anyone else like her since?). With "Pretty In Pink," her final collaboration with Hughes, Molly Ringwald was graced with a character that allowed her to rise to the fullest of her powers at that time as Andie Walsh truly is a cinematic rarity as well as a character of undeniable strength and tenacity.

It would not be hard pressed to describe "Pretty In Pink" as being a film of empowerment. Yes, the "Cinderella" framework of the poor, put-upon girl being courted by the young handsome prince to go to the ball is more than evident, as John Hughes was certainly the master of the teen fantasy. But, it was within that fantasy that Hughes gave his characters and story some truthful realities to give the film weight and gravity, ensuring the fantasy did not just fly off into the ether but resonated and reverberated powerfully and honestly. It is a dance that Hughes, along with Howard Deutch, handled richly as they never wallowed in the darkness but also never gave the film's tougher elements short shrift either. Everything was doled out in just the right amounts where the comedy, drama, reality and fantasy all worked together in perfect tandem.

As with so many elements in our own real lives, everything begins within the home and for Andie Walsh, that could not be more prevalent. "Pretty In Pink" gives us a window into the world of an 18 year old girl forced to play the role of parent to her own Father, dilapidated, depressed and possibly alcoholic fr three full years after her Mother and his wife abandoned them. Andie's strength and tenacity stems from their combined loss. Where Jack falls apart and with no sense of repair remotely in sight, Andie finds her resolve to not only keep her family afloat. Just think, her record store job is most likely ensuring there is food in the house and that bills are paid as Jack's part time employment could not possibly cover all of those costs. Her fashion sense and creativity has allowed her to be frugal and only spend on the necessities. And still, er eye in on her future as she as also resigned herself to not become as lost as her Father as college and potential scholarships are in her direct sights. As she informs Jena during gym class wen asked why she studies so much, Andie briskly replies, "I don't want to work in a record store my whole life."

To that end, Andie is essentially surrounded by figures who are all within some state of feeling emotionally stunted or lost entirely. Duckie is lost in love as well as being lost in his fears of the future. Blane is lost in his insecurities and failings. Even Iona, who functions as Andie's surrogate Mother/big sister figure as well her employer is lost in nostalgia and her own identity crisis. Only Andie knows what she wants and is determined enough to do whatever she is able to do to achieve her goals, if only to not fall into the traps that everyone she loves has fallen into.

This quality doesn't make Andie a perfect individual by any means. She loses her temper, falls into her own insecurities and even feels ore than resentful at times that she just can't always depend upon her Father to just be her at her, leaving her to be the child for once. Take the gentle scene between Andie and Jack after her first date with Blane. While Jack tenderly offers his advice to a confused Andie regarding the class differences between herself, Blane, their respective social groups and whatever consequences a potential romance may hold, he just as painfully turns the tables when he essentially needs Andie to console him because he is the one she is forced to confide in now that Mom has exited their lives. Not even for one night can Andie solely exist as the daughter and Jack as the Father and the responsibility and pressure is exhausting and eventually explodes in what I feel to be the film's most difficult and emotionally raw sequence where Andie forces her Father to accept that Mom is gone and will never come back.

Over these 30 years, it has become more and more apparent to me that Andie Walsh functions as the John Hughes surrogate--possibly serving as the best of himself (or how he wished he could have been) as he navigated through Hollywood. "If someone doesn't believe in me, I can't believe in them," Andie shares with Blane. More and more, that sentiment feels like a personal John Hughes mantra considering the sensitivity of his heart and emotions when dealing with his creations and the relationships he formed with individuals bringing them into three dimensional life.

Another Andie Walsh-ism, "I wanted them to know that they didn't break me," has proven itself to be even more powerful. Molly Ringwald has expressed that when people, mostly women, have approached her over these past 30 years, they have mentioned this one line of dialogue in particular as having a significant personal effect on their respective lives. As far as John Hughes is concerned, perhaps a statement like that one was Hughes himself offering a window into his inner world to the audience, especially as the demands of Hollywood surrounded him and his family when all he really wanted to do was to just write, create and film his stories with as little interference as possible. Yet, of course, he always had to be influenced by suggestions, alternations and compromises...most notably, filming "Pretty In Pink" in California instead of Chicago and unquestionably, changing the ending to his own film, an alteration which I do firmly believe was indeed for the better.

I think that it is quite telling that Howard Deutch desired to make this film his directorial debut. Much has been said or slightly questioned as to John Hughes' ultimate involvement with the film as he was not credited as director but the idea has been floated that he "ghost directed" the film. Well, both Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer have each expressed that Hughes himself was not on set terribly much. Yet through every production photo that I have seen, plus behind the scenes footage, John Hughes is right on set and actively involved in discussions with Deutch and the cast.

According to Deutch's own wonderful DVD commentary, he expressed how Hughes' availability was paramount to his own work, making their collaboration a true partnership. Deutch explained that Hughes was on set for some crucial scenes, practically standing over his shoulder, guiding Deutch and the cast, telling him that he hasn't hit the right moment or tone just yet and try another take. Two sequences in particular Deutch expressed their difficulty in discovering the correct emotional pitch: The scene where Andie confesses to Blane that she doesn't want him to see where she lives and the aforementioned confrontation between Andie and Jack.

Howard Deutch explained that when John Hughes first approached him to direct one of his screenplays, that he was presented with two different scripts. One was entitled "The New Kid," and was a broad comedy centered around a transfer student from Arizona trying to find his way in a Chicago high school. The other was "Pretty In Pink." Deutch chose "Pretty  Pink" simply because he said it made him cry. He chose Jon Cryer because he saw such vulnerability in him that he just couldn't bear to see this kid getting emotionally hurt. It is that very sensibility which fuels "Pretty In Pink" and gives it its tender eggshell core and again, those nuanced silences that speak volumes.

Hughes and Deutch became a tremendously effective pairing as Hughes helped and assisted whenever needed yet when it came down to making that major change in the film's finale, Deutch was instrumental in having the right alterations made yet keeping the integrity of the project fully intact.

Yes, dear readers, I am in full possession of the novelization as well as the 5th draft version of Hughes' original screenplay and in both, Andie and Duckie prevail against the "richies" at the prom as they dance together, swirling around and around and implying that Andie will at long last reciprocate Duckie's feelings. Howard Deutch has said the test audiences were with the film completely until that ending, because practically, the audiences wanted Molly to "get the boy." Deutch knew that for the full success of the film, the ending had to be changed. Upon having further conversations with an understandably upset Hughes who did not wish for his material to be that significantly tampered with, it was also noted that Hughes was indeed questioned with the following concept should the ending not be changed: Did he really wish to make a movie that tells the audience that people from different backgrounds could not and should not be together?

Ah...yes...and so, Hughes went back to write and decided that Blane would arrive at the prom...all alone.

The masterstroke of Blane not only arriving at prom alone but being there solely with the hopes that Andie would also arrive and he could just tell her that he was wrong, that he was sorry and that he truly loved her, regardless of whether she accepted him or not was wonderful and fully deserving of everything that had come before during the course of the film. This essence was possibly a message Hughes may have had to the young men in his audience about what it takes to be a man. To be sensitive, to own up to your mistakes and wrongful decision if any had been made, to understand that perhaps sometimes to love a women, one has to even walk away in order for both to grow (just as Duckie realized as well). And so, with this climactic prom sequence, Andie Walsh retains the fullness of her integrity and empowerment while Blane finds redemption and forgiveness, Duckie finds maturity and Steff's meets his comeuppance as all four of them take their first steps into their respective post-high school futures.

And to think, all of this from a movie about a girl who wishes to go to the prom.

John Hughes' "Pretty In Pink," as directed by Howard Deutch, is a gift of art and entertainment, a work of great populism and the intensely personal, crowd pleasing comedy and heartfelt drama and containing a nuance and texture in the ways of friendships, family, love and romance that remains a rarity in too many Hollywood features. It is a testament to the full cast and crew for their commitment to ensuring that the underlying qualities of this deceptively simple story were prevalent rather than the fashion, the innovative soundtrack and even the endlessly quotable Hughes dialogue. "Pretty In Pink" had to be emotionally true to the elegant pains and pleasures of love and loss, the dance contained in all relationships of some intimacy, and the feelings inherent within personal successes and failures.
Howard Deutch circa 1985

In an interview published in the March 24, 2016 edition of the online publication Milk, from writer Rachel Hodin, Howard Deutch offered his impressions of why "Pretty In Pink" has withstood the test of time so beautifully.

"I think it's a case-by-case writer situation. I mean, the teen movie, or any movie--the values of that script are based on what the writer's pint of view is. John had a great female voice...He had a great ability to write for women, and young women, when others didn't. So, if you look at 'Sixteen Candles,' and you look at Molly's character, and also her point of view on the different obstacles she had to overcome, you see the story of the journey of a girl (becoming a) woman. It's (a journey) that all girls and all boys have to take. And, that's something an audience and the rest of us can identify with and relate to and get invested in, because it's like our own lives.

In those stories--and (it's) the same (for) 'Pretty In Pink'--I think you, as an audience, not only are entertained, but you're identifying with that character. And if you're a woman, it becomes a much more empowering story when you see the decisions that John wanted that character to make. In the end, these characters discover that they can stand on their own, or that they're worthy of love, or whatever (the story) is thematically about. But, he was unusual in that way. He could write for both men and women, and there aren't a lot, in my opinion, who had that talent...He was an acutely sensitive, empathetic, super raw-nerved, exposed individual. And also, frozen in time, in that high school era. He always, I think, identified with the underdog--always felt underappreciated or looked over. All of the things most of us feel in high school, I think those things stayed with him."

And to various degrees, for each and every individual viewer who has ever embraced this film, perhaps all of those feelings have stayed with us too. I know for certain they have with myself. And somehow, someway, it was John Hughes who captured and harnessed those emotions so uniquely over and again, in order to tell stories rooted within their specific time but are unabashedly timeless.

John, as always, I miss you and for forever, I thank you.

John Hughes
February 18, 1950-August 6, 2009
with Dweezil Zappa, Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy and Jon Cryer

Monday, August 15, 2016

ZAPPA SPEAKS: a review of "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words"

Directed by Thorsten Schutte
**** (four stars)

My worldview was unquestionably challenged and therefore, assisted in its shaping by the inscrutable, uncompromising, ever questioning, satirical, unrepentant mind and music of Frank Zappa.

For a figure who was rarely to never heard upon the commercial radio airwaves, even in the big metropolitan, cosmopolitan city of Chicago, I did, however, possess a knowledge of his existence and I also already and mistakenly carried a perception of who such a figure could possibly be. As a child and growing into early adolescence, I had not heard even one note of Zappa's music but his visage was instantly recognizable. That Mephistophelean mustache, goatee and eyebrows. The threatening elongation of his hawk's nose. The seemingly endless rat's nest of what I assumed to be dirty, greasy, unwashed hair. He just looked like the sinister man in the raincoat you wished that you'd never see in public for fear of what May happen to you. And couple those images and thoughts with the reputation that Frank Zappa was the man responsible for a legion of "dirty songs" and unlistenable music, designed to taint and corrupt a nation's worth of susceptible young people. Look your doors for fear and influence of this sort should find its way over the threshold.

By high school I was proven wrong.

In 1985, I was 16 years old and as a music fanatic with slowly broadening listening horizons, I was indeed fascinated and angered by the actions of the Parents Music Resource Center, forever known as the PMRC, and partially led by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, wives of Al Gore and James Baker, respectively. While I could concede that parents had every right to know what their children may be listening and finding themselves being exposed to, I was vehemently against the idea that a roomful of housewives could decide for me what was indecent or not--decisions I felt that I was perfectly able to make for myself.

Enter Frank Zappa once again and this time, I found myself more than curious as to his involvement with this building controversy and his testimonies to the United States Senate against the PMRC. The first thing, again, was the image of Zappa himself. The iconic facial hair remained but his dress and appearance otherwise was conservative. Clean and pressed suit and tie and even his hair was of shorter length. But, you know about wolves in sheep clothing...

Anyhow, I watched the news reports and once Zappa opened his mouth and began to speak in his baritone voice, I was struck dumb by the eloquence, articulateness and severe pointedness of his testimony, which not only confirmed that all of my prejudices about the man were entirely wrong, they were fully media created and driven, and furthermore, he seemed to be on my side. Once I was able to hear the man himself, unfiltered and in the United States Senate no less, whatever I had feared, more or less melted away, opening a door that I had previously never felt that I would walk through let alone even regard.

In the 23 years since his death from pancreatic cancer in 1993, I have been more than curious as to the public's knowledge of Frank Zappa, from his music to even beyond his persona. Frankly (ahem), I feel that as a society, we are more in need of his words and music at this time in our nation's history, a viewpoint that was firmly designed to shed light upon all of the idiosyncrasies of the world and to cut down all fools and falsifiers with venomous, passionate relish.

"Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words," a new documentary from Director Thorsten Schutte, is a perfect primer into the mind, music and worldview of the eccentric and peerless musical genius. Briskly paced and meticulously researched and edited, Schutte has created a pastiche of interviews performed with Zappa from a variety of sources and interspersed with live concert footage, all of which will challenge any pre-conceived notions one may have had about the man and for longtime fans, Schutte's film is a deeply affectionate and reverential but not fawning portrait of the man who said before his passing that he had no interests in necessarily being remembered.

For here is a point where I wholly disagree with Zappa: he definitely needs to be remembered, for his stance as a social/cultural/political provocateur as well as being a composer/bandleader/musician of the highest order demands that we  open our minds just enough to even try anything that he offered to us when he was with us on this mortal coil. Now that he is gone, his music and words have remained behind and powerfully so, giving Schutte the opportunity to carry that Zappa torch in Zappa's stead. Not only has he delivered a film that is first rate, you just may be surprised by your own reactions to Frank Zappa's worldview, which has remained as up to the minute as the latest breaking news story. I urge you to catch this film while you are able.

Thorsten Schutte's "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words," is a 90 minute and mostly chronological journey through Frank Zappa's time as a media figure, partaking in a collection of interviews, a process which he felt to be completely unnatural and just two steps away from the Inquisition. Before returning to the words, please allow me to just delve into the music for a moment, especially as the film features a significant amount of concert footage starring a seriously bemused Zappa and his inimitable Mothers Of Invention.

For those of you who may be completely unfamiliar with the music of Frank Zappa, yes, there is a large amount of material that does indeed contain scatological material to varying degrees of excessiveness and those aforementioned "dirty words." But, beyond the words, which depending upon the listener will enliven or disgust or in many cases, perform both feats and even more, there is indeed the actual music itself which is unquestionably indescribable due to Zappa's tendency and ability to allow his creative imagination and his overall sense of inspiration to fly freely and unfiltered, blasting through any and all boundaries thus creating a musical language that is entirely his own.

Zappa's music is as demanding and difficult as it is hysterical, playful and downright stunning. It is music where any conceivable sound can become part of the composition itself, from the standard instrumentation, to atonal sounds and noises, to dialogue and vocal ticks, yowls, shrieks and whatever else Zappa felt each particular selection needed. In one of the film's interviews, Zappa explains that in many ways, the massive amount of material he has written, recorded and released essentially could be viewed as one long song, with themes and concepts that echo each other and repeat and return over time.

With all of that taken into account, the same description could be attributed to Zappa's interview process. With Schuette's deft presentation of this large amount of archived material, we could almost view Frank Zappa's decades of interviews as being one long conversation with themes and subject matter on which he speaks of art, inspirations, beauty and ugliness, his lack of drug usage, fully independent thinking, as well as his social and political viewpoints upon censorship, religion, and his role and perception as a counter culture figure, a figure and message he sharply reasons has been marginalized in the primary pop culture conversation, especially upon the radio, solely due to his appearance. Which is a shame, because just as I realized when I was a teenager watching him testify to the Senate on television, Frank Zappa was a man of a uniquely spirited, brilliant mind which was displayed through the power of his expressive spoken language (as well as his musical one), which was often far ahead of the curve, especially to those who would choose to unwisely challenge him.

Often as I watched Schuette's film, I thought to myself of how much we could use a figure like Frank Zappa right now in our collective history in the United States, especially during our particularly horrific election cycle. But then, I figured that perhaps we wouldn't need him to weigh in right now because as you regard the interview footage within Schuette's film, what could Zappa say today that he hadn't already said and expressed over his nearly 40 year career?

Just watch him, in early footage as a clean cut, unshaven young iconoclast demonstrating his bicycle playing skills with Steve Allen to the poignant footage taken from one of his final interviews before his passing, Zappa's words and messages remain consistent and depending upon the context of each interview, he would offer more or less to elaborate or infuriate,but all to challenge and provoke the thought process of anyone who chose to listen to whatever he had to express. Regarding how an discernible element could figure into one of Zappa's musical compositions, I wish for you to regard Zappa's body language and especially, his eyes during all of the interviews contained within "Eat That Question," for they are as telling and as informing as the words themselves.

Through his visage and frame, you can easily view when Zappa was clearly enjoying the interview conversation or when he was profusely irritated and even angered. When the person with whom he was having the conversation was honestly engaged or simply there to pick a fight with him and already had their minds made up. In every situation, Frank Zappa is easily viewed to be very much as a prize fighter, intellectually sizing up his opponent, deciding if they were either friend or foe, and if it was indeed a foe, Zappa was merciless.

Even moreso, was his ability to appear prophetic as his understanding of the American social/political structure in comparison to those outside of the U.S., and filtered through each location's relationships to their own history and culture, was particularly prescient. Over and again throughout Scuette's film, we see and hear Zappa speaking of the increasing conservatism of America as presented through a political prism overtaken by Evangelicalism. While he was indeed speaking of the 1960's, 1970's, 1980's and 1990's, he could just as easy be speaking of the United States right now in 2016, where our American culture has grown more intolerant, overtly racist, sexist, homophobic and ultimately, fascistic. To have a sense of what he woud say today, all one has to do, is find one of his albums or at this time, just venture out and see "Eat That Question." All one needs to  have is an open mind to try and give another viewpoint a chance to be heard, possibly taking his ideas (or even warnings) to potentially spark other ideas within any and all of us.

Thorsten Schuette's "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words" is a completely entertaining and revelatory documentary that I feel would not only immensely please Zappa fans but even moreso, fully surprise those who were unfamiliar with him, aside from his legendary mercurial and nasty reputation. Sometimes, it is in the most unlikely sources form where we can discover a new way of looking at things incredibly familiar. Frank Zappa was undeniably a figure of that very sort, vehemently refusing to accept the status quo as he blazed his own path entirely upon his terms.

In our over-crowded movie season, filled to the brim with all things conforming to the worst excesses of mediocrity, I wish for you to throw all of the sequels, reboots and so on aside to find Schuette's lovingly presented and excellent film if it happens to be playing within your city. If it is, act quickly and go see it, for this is precisely the type of excellent motion picture with which you too can refuse to accept the status quo and engage in a conversation with a deeply idiosyncratic mind.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Written and Directed by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
*** (three stars)

Sometimes, or perhaps more truthfully, most of the time, I am thankful that I am not a parent.

Don't get me wrong, dear readers, this feeling is not due to a dislike of children for you know (only if you are regular visitors to this site or know me personally) that in the real world I have made my career as a preschool teacher with the following year marking my 20th anniversary in the field. even ore truthfully, there was once a time when I deeply wanted children (and I will admit that every once in a while, I feel a sad pang in my heart knowing that now I am long past the age I would like to have been if I were to have children) but in my life as a preschool teacher, I very quickly realized that whatever paternal needs I may house, they are more than met during the day and I deeply appreciate not having children to come home to each night.

Yet, from my specialized vantage point in the classroom, I have witnessed all manner of children and parenting, experiences that have given me a front row seat to the joy and traumas of raising children, a process that has only grown more challenging in the 21st century. In addition to all of the ins and outs of each family's home life, there are educational pressures, societal pressures, work pressures, peer pressures, scheduling pressures, health pressures and all adding up into time and sanity pressures and it truly feels that we, in our continuously accelerated and over-extended American society, none of these elements are remotely beginning to slow down.

This collection of pressures sit firmly at the core of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's "Bad Moms," a consistently funny, cheerfully vulgar, deeply affectionate and surprisingly perceptive take on Motherhood in the 21st century. No, the film does not reach the cumulative power of something like Ron Howard's "Parenthood" (1989) and it doesn't nearly scale the comedic heights of say, Paul Feig's "Bridesmaids" (2011), but in a summer movie season of overly bland, undercooked remakes and reboots, "Bad Moms" warmly proved itself to be just the refreshing cinematic treat we all need.

Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) is feverishly caught within the never ending treadmill of her life. After having her first child at the age of 20 and marrying Mike (David Walton), Amy, now 32 years old and perpetually late for all life's appointments, is a loving but severely over-extended working Mom.

In addition to being employed part time (yet works six days a week) for a trendy coffee company, Amy shuttles her two children, Dylan (Emjay Anthony) and Jane (Oona Laurence), back and forth from school and all of their respective extra curricular activities, makes and packs each of them healthy lunches, completes much of their homework, and is a member of the school's PTA, which is run by the wealthy, domineering Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her sidekicks Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Vicky (Annie Mumolo), all of whom consistently keep Amy under their collective snobby thumbs. And each day, Amy monkey wrenches in daily crying sessions in her car between her endless responsibilities before heading out to do everything all over again.

After catching her husband in an online affair with a porn star and subsequently throwing him out of the house, Amy's life begins to tailspin.While she remains determined to keep it all together, her moment of truth arrives during yet another Gwendolyn led and power point/multi-media presented PTA meeting about an upcoming bake sale. As Amy is volunteered to coordinate the event, she publicly quits the PTA and ends up in a local bar to drown herself in her sorrows, but actually finds herself in the beginning moments of changing the trajectory of her life.

It is at the bar where Amy officially meets the mousy, friendless, housewife and Mother of four named Kiki (Kristen Bell) as well as the foul mouthed, sexually voracious, yet equally friendless single Mother named Carla (Kathryn Hahn). After jointly commiserating about their lives as Mothers while also bonding over the unconditional love they all possess for their children, the trio blaze free from the constrictions of their lives with an all night bender, which then inspires Amy to loosen up and be a so-called "bad mom," as she soon begins taking days off from work, feeding her children fast food, declining to continue doing their homework and taking her husband's prized classic sports car out on the road.

But in becoming that so-called "bad mom," and despite her continuing battles with Gwendolyn and struggles with her exceedingly anxious daughter, is Amy slowly discovering that she is indeed and more truthfully becoming a better mom?

Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's "Bad Moms," while not perfect, was really a nice, entertaining surprise to see on a hot summer's afternoon. Essentially, what we have is kind of a sitcom movie. Bright, shiny, and fast paced with characters consumed with all manner of problems and issues that are resolved happily and tied up in a sparkling bow in the film's final scenes. In fact, the film often feels written, directed, edited and even acted as if it is more of a montage heavy sitcom than a movie. Not exactly the most positive quality but also not something that was really a hindrance either, especially as Mila Kunis turned in a performance that specializes as much with her screwball comedy skills, her gleeful ease with tossing around a myriad of four letter words as well as her genuine warmth that did radiate from the screen, supplying her character with an engaging, relatable personality that makes you root for her success as well as fully understanding her plight.

Kristen Bell and especially Kathryn Hahn fare slightly less well. While they share an easy chemistry with Kunis, both of their characters are more than a bit underwritten, making them a little one-note and therefore, forcing Bell and Hahn to creatively fill in some character blanks to varying degrees. Hahn, playing the R rated comedy's resident wild card, I felt that she hit the pedal a bit too hard, selling her vulgarity a little too strongly, where she inched dangerously close to caricature instead remaining within the confines of a realistic character. When she dialed it down a tad and carried a more natural rhythm, as in the scene where Carla, Kiki and Amy discuss the perils of having sex with an uncircumcised partner, "Bad Moms" soars into breathless hilarity.

Faring much better was Christina Applegate, a sitcom and stage veteran who clearly knows precisely how to sell the lines, jokes and overall attitude without falling into parody while also consistently keeping the insufferably snooty Gwendolyn realistic...sometimes frighteningly so, as I recognized her type so very well due to my preschool teaching adventures. As with Julia Louis-Dreyfus' struggles with the two "meanie moms" on the terrific television series "The New Adventures Of Old Christine" (an actual sitcom that I think is much better written than this film), it was because of Applegate and the competitive rapport she shared with Mila Kunis that made the predictable sitcom level "one-upsMOMship" funny as well as rooted within some sense of reality, speaking to the inter-social/class/political tensions that exist within different sub groups of Mothers, this time as featured in the predominantly White and wealthy northern suburbs of Chicago were battlegrounds are drawn on children's soccer team fields and PTA boards.

This is where the sitcom aspect of "Bad Moms" actually worked very well as the plot conventions, again very predictable, kept the film moving briskly, allowing the comedy and most importantly, the underlying honesty that fuels this film, to shine brightly. Here is where Lucas and Moore really got me on their sides, despite any slight flaws I felt the film possessed. Satirical moments concerning rampant food allergies hit extremely close to home, for instance. One scene where Amy scolds her son Dylan through a great monologue about precisely why she will never do his homework again, almost made me cheer the screen as it spoke humorously while also armed with a razor sharp honesty about the sense of entitlement that has plagued so many children via well meaning parents.

Best of all, I felt was once the film was all said and done, I was extremely appreciative that Lucas and Moore have written and directed a film the is celebratory, appreciative and touchingly sentimental about Motherhood and all of its peaks and valleys. That perhaps being a "bad mom" is actually being a "great mom," for how can one successfully parent without caring for oneself? Not to a selfish degree, by nay means. But one where the care of oneself can lead to a potentially more stable and less stressful life for parents and their children.

We see in the relationship between Amy and her daughter exactly how our adult anxieties can easily filter down to our offspring, making for extremely anxious children, saddled with worries and frustrations they may not be terribly equipped to navigate due to being so young. I appreciated deeply how none of the children in the film are ever viewed as burdens by any of the parents within the film, which was another refreshing quality (and perhaps a subtle thump to the head of parents who just may treat their children as irritating burdens).

Best of all, and despite the tactics of Gwendolyn and her mean mom crew, "Bad Moms" as its core is a film that celebrates female friendships and depicts how once all Moms band together in community and solidarity, whether for school activities or an old fashioned alcohol infused house party splashdown! In essence, there really aren't any villains in the film as Lucas and Moore give all of their leading characters their due, their fairness, and their empathy, ultimately bathing "Bad Moms" in a heartwarming glow that is legitimately earned and fully sustained in a lovely end credit sequence that I will not describe here but is indeed a treat!

Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's "Bad Moms" is a summertime frothy suburban fantasy delight. A film in the vein of past domestic comedies like the Stan Dragoti directed/John Hughes scripted "Mr. Mom" (1983), Stephen Herek's "Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead" (1991) and Sam Weisman's tender but slightly less successful divorced Dad comedy "Bye Bye Love" (1995). Honest, affectionate and unafraid to be as heartwarming as it is nasty, "Bad Moms" is the perfect "Girls Night Out" party movie that not only may rejuvenate a nation's worth of over-extended parents but also an inexcusably unoriginal movie season.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

BAD GUYS, UNFORGIVABLY WORSE MOVIE: a review of "Suicide Squad"

Based upon characters and situations created for DC Comics
Written and Directed by David Ayer
1/2 * (one half of one star)

Dear readers, I will do my very best to make this short and sweet, so I do not have to waste much more time and effort thinking about this movie.

For all of the criticisms launched against Director Zack Snyder's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" earlier this year, and indeed deservedly so, I still stand by my original review which stated that while it is an ambitious, often visually stunning film it also possesses deeply serious flaws that keeps the film from being overly successful. But, that being said and for all of its problems, it is by no means a disaster. On the contrary, the disaster in question would undoubtedly be the next installment in the expanding DC Comics film universe, Writer/Director David Ayer's utterly horrendous "Suicide Squad."

Oddly enough, the longer "Suicide Squad" bludgeoned itself onwards, I found myself thinking of the now immortal words of the fictional Faber College Dean Wormer (John Vernon) in John Landis' "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) in the sequence when he confronts several members of Delta House after the Bacchanalian meltdown of the iconic Toga Party and the infamous road trip where a pit stop at a Black roadhouse bar destroys the car of poor Flounder's (Stephen Furst) older brother. Face to face with the Deltas in his office, Wormer reads Flounder's miserable Freshman year grade point average and dryly proclaims, "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son." I thought of the phrase often as I watched "Suicide Squad," and eventually paraphrasing it to help describe it to myself and now to you: "Big, loud and dumb is no way to make a movie, son."

But, laboriously big, punishingly loud and inexcusably dumb it is making "Suicide Squad" a complete failure, a worthless pile of mega-excess and without question the very worst film that I have seen so far this year. In the cinematic superhero competition between movies set within either the Marvel or DC film universes, Marvel has DC beat hands down as the DC movies have struggled to not only catch up to Marvel's creative high bar, they have struggled even more painfully to try and determine just what is needed to make a good movie...period. Trust me, I know the deep interest is there but do not waste your valuable time and hard earned money over something of this nature. Yet, if you do not heed my words, this will be one splitting headache that you will indeed regret the next day.

"Suicide Squad" opens shortly after the tragic concluding events of "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice," ruthless intelligence operative Amanda Waller (a strong Viola Davis--essentially the only saving grace of the film) hatches an insidious plot should another super being make its way to Earth and is found to not be as benevolent as Superman. Her plot is to formulate a team of imprisoned evil doers to perform high risk missions for the United States government--the worst of the worst brought together to ultimately do some good and if they fail, then they are the perfect scapegoats.

The team includes the ace hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), pyromaniac El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the mutant cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), master assassin Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the deranged Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), paramour of The Joker (Jared Leto)
and is led by the command of Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and his assistant/bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara). 

When Flagg's true love, the archaeologist  Dr. June Moone, long possessed the the spirit of a witch-goddess known as the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) is fully transformed into a sorceress and is unleashed, armed with plans of creating an army of minions to assist her in the destruction of all humankind in revenge for her original imprisonment inside of an ancient artifact, it is up to the newly formed Suicide Squad to stop her once and for all.

And that is all there is for a storyline, essentially another variation of Director Robert Aldrich's "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), which is just fine but it is just unfathomable to me that the the one-sheet poster for "Suicide Squad" made for a better movie than the actual movie upon the silver screen!!

What could have existed as a kaleidoscopic, funhouse mirror version of the DC universe, David Ayer wrestled any sense of ambition, artistry, excitement and most of all, any sense of flat out fun "Suicide Squad" could have been. This has been a severe problem with all of the DC post Christopher Nolan superhero films, the tendency to just bathe the movies in a prefabricated darkness and forgo any sense of entertainment value, making every experience a weighty, overlong ponderous affair that just isn't any fun whatsoever.

Yes, Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008) in particular truly set a gold standard and raised the bar to heights that are difficult for anyone, including Nolan himself, to reach. But even in that film, one that was especially grim, there was still that je ne sais quoi that kept you completely enraptured with the storytelling and furthermore, even returning for repeat viewings. Yet with Snyder's "Man Of Steel" (2013), and "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice," not only is he playing catch up with Marvel, his weak storytelling and tendency for relentless, endless cataclysm all but derail his sense of obvious ambition.

At least there is ambition. David Ayer, however, gives us a movie that is all but brain dead and with a collective of supervillains that really aren't villainous at all. They're just oh so misunderstood, and therefore it is a film that is afraid to go precisely where it needs to go conceptually. If we are gathering a movie's worth of villains, then give us the villains!! But, with "Suicide Squad," we have characters that really aren't far removed from the cataclysm loving "heroes" from Snyder's films, and all with the same bargain basement psychological underpinnings.

All of the Squad's backstories, all painfully underwritten despite the ample screen time, don't exist to inform the audience of how evil these characters are but to basically ensure that these anti-heroes aren't really "bad," per se. They're all just outcasts. Gentle psychopaths, if you will, all in need of a good stiff drink and a pseudo therapy well as an exceedingly better movie to run around in, especially Will Smith's Deadshot, who is easily reduced to being a bullet/trigger happy assassin who loves his daughter just as much as Batman and Superman love they mamas!!!!! In fact, the only real villain in the film is Viola Davis' character, which she plays with a cold, steel confidence that makes me wish the film was all about her...but then again, she doesn't get to wear a snazzy costume.

What we are left with is a film that is over-stuffed with characters who barely register a blip and that includes Jared Leto's The Joker, a crucial mistake Ayer makes as we never really have a good impression of the character let alone Leto's take of him as his screen time is so scant and scattershot. Ayer's vision is truly of a disservice to Leto, because it certainly made me feel as if Ayer was afraid of inevitable comparisons between Leto and the late Heath Ledger's extraordinary take of the same character. If he doesn't have faith in his own material and actors, then why should we?

To that end, the film's "love stories," such as they are between Rick Flagg and Dr. June Moone and most especially, The Joker and Harley Quinn are devoid of any sense of emotion and definitely any sense of delirium or madness. In many respects, there is a movie to be made with The Joker and Harley Quinn, their romance and its origin, which "Suicide Squad" massively truncates in a backstory/flashback, which gives the audience absolutely no impression of who Harley Quinn was before her transformation, all of the necessary material needed to inform the character and the audience of her newly unhinged state of mind and devotion to being The Joker's Queen. Margot Robbie is clearly having a blast but it is ultimately all for naught as any and all manner of that pesky character development was also clearly left upon the cutting room floor.

Aside from the clear lack of fun, character development and any storytelling prowess, David Ayer's "Suicide Squad" is a film about villains and anti-heroes that knows and offers NOTHING about its own subject matter, which is also unfathomable to me especially as audiences have grown to become quite riveted to, entertained by and savvy about all manner of those aforementioned villains and anti-heroes, especially on television from programs like "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad," and films that range from John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" (1981), Simon West's "Con Air" (1997), Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" (2010) and essentially every movie in Quentin Tarantino's filmography. Yes, "Suicide Squad" is a cartoon but in all intents and purposes, so was Tarantino's "Kill Bill" (2003/2004), Tarantino understood that the best cartoons and comics possessed excellent storytelling and characters, whereas David Ayer's "Suicide Squad" eschewed any trace of those elements in favor of an endlessly bombastic, ear shattering experience where nothing happens and feels like a video game you are forced to watch but are unable to play.

Destruction, gunfire, and explosions are rampant as the squad races to take down the hip swiveling Enchantress, the weakest villain I have seen in recent memory and who really serves no purpose than to re-create Zuul's vortex from "Ghostbusters" (1984)--man, even movie villains have succumbed to reboots and remakes--and create interchangeable whack-a-mole henchmen for the Suicide Squad to annihilate for two full hours. THIS is the entire movie and I am sorry, THIS DOES NOT MAKE A MOVIE!!!! Honestly!!! I realize that hips don't lie, but I am not lying to when I express to you that this really is the entire film and do you really feel the need to spend any time watching something so devoid of anything that would be worth your time?

It is obvious that David Ayer's "Suicide Squad" is designed to be DC's answer to Marvel's "Guardians Of The Galaxy" (2014) from Writer/Director James Gunn as it is a film that is also being presented as the supposed anarchistic underbelly of the conflicted yet virtuous heroes that populate the majority of the films. While I still contend that "Guardians Of The Galaxy" was over-rated, played everything too safe and was not nearly as clever as it thought it was (and also possessed a terribly weak villain), it is an infinitely better film than any one moment on display within "Suicide Squad."

As I always say, I see these things so you don't have to. I have taken one for the team and I would never intentionally lead you into cinematic danger. But, heed my warnings when I give them for if you head out to this one after reading this posting, you are on your own self-devised suicide mission.

Monday, August 1, 2016


The best thing that I think that I am able to say about the 2016 Summer Movie Season is that it is almost nearing its merciful end.

This has not been a good year for movies in general and the summer season in particular, as we have reached a creative rut all around. In great years as well as lean, I remain intrepid in my search for all wonderful things in the world of cinema and perhaps this month, there will be a surprise waiting for me.
1. The superhero onslaught continues with the latest from the DC Comics universe, Writer/Director David Ayers' anti-hero epic "Suicide Squad." Why this has possessed a certain intrigue for me, I do not know as I think the cards are somewhat stacked against it as Zack Snyder's previous two efforts with Superman and Batman have been highly ambitious as well as criticized in equal measure. But, who knows for certain? All I can do is to purchase a ticket and judge for myself.
2. On the flipside, I am always ready for the annual film from Woody Allen, and his latest "Cafe Society," is no exception.
3. After spending nearly 20 years in the real world as a preschool teacher, I do have a vested interest in seeing "Bad Moms." My gut is preparing me for something that will most likely be not up to my personal standards, but even so, the trailers have made me laugh and I am hoping all of the good stuff was not placed into the previews. We shall see...

This month, I will again provide my annual tribute to Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes on the 7th anniversary of his untimely passing in 2009 with an exploration and remembrance of "Pretty In Pink," which has reached its 30th anniversary this year.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, dear readers, as it's going to be a busy month. And as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!