#ThrowbackThursday – Bend it Like Beckham

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Original US release date: March 12, 2003
Production budget: $5,640,000
Worldwide gross: $76,583,333

I have scars that are still healing.  I’ve been a full-time teacher since essentially 2003.  Before I taught at the college where I am currently a professor, I worked at a boarding school for over seven years.  I left there in 2010 and it closed down exactly five years and two days after that, but in the time that it existed, those in charge controlled both the students and faculty through a system of fear, intimidation, and guilt.  Individualism was stifled.  Dissenting voices were quashed.  If someone proved to be gaining too much traction and began to present a problem for the efforts of the board to maintain their illusion and control – if doubt in their methods was firmly planted in the campus population – the guilty party was systematically discredited and often excommunicated.

Being there has left scars on many.  It has scarred a copious amount of the former students.  It has scarred many of the former employees.  I’m one of them.  I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, but the influence they attempted to exert still has a hold on me and affects me to this day.  As a result – in an effort to protect myself on numerous levels – I have put up walls in the years since leaving.  I do my current job the best I can but when I leave campus, I disengage.  I have trouble allowing myself to connect to others.  Because I remember.  And I don’t want to put myself in that situation again.

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There are many who were there who are feeling the lasting effects to a far greater degree than I am.  I got off relatively easily compared to others.  But I saw these very themes and ideas represented in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham.  The movie is a bit of an odd duck and the themes are dealt with mostly through a lighthearted, comedic approach, and in a completely different context, but they’re definitely there.

In the film, Parminder Nagra plays “Jess” (short for Jesminder) the daughter of Indian Sikh parents.  Her family adheres very strictly to all Sikh traditions, yet Jess has grown up in a modern (2003) Britain, whose values and practices forcefully clash with those of her religion.  More than anything, Jess wants to play football (or “soccer” to us Americans.  I’ll be referring to it as “football” from here on out.).  In spite of her parents’ frustrations, Jess is a huge fan of David Beckham and is greatly inspired by him, to the point that she joins a local girls’ team at the behest of Keira Knightley’s Jules, her teammate.  Jess’s parents object so strongly that she must keep it a secret from them.  And her secrets don’t end there.

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Cosmetically, the film doesn’t feel like is has a budget of over $5 million.  In fact, I got a consistent vibe that I was watching something that was produced in the eighties, both in terms of the production value and the stylistic sensibilities.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the entire production feels . . . well . . . cheap.  The contrast is blown out, the voice dubbing is poorly synced, the shots are too quick and close to give the performances room to breathe and, while the three main cast members are solid enough (Nagra, Knightley, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers), much of the supporting cast are genuinely weak actors, coming off as hammy and over-the-top.

But when one digs underneath the surface, what is uncovered is a film long ahead of its time.  Bend it Like Beckham addresses female empowerment, freedom in the face of religious oppression, and tolerance towards others of different upbringings, origins, and sexual orientations.  Long before these were all daily topics of conversation, this little British comedy was tackling all of them head-on.  And, on paper, creatively, the film does an excellent job with all of it.  Some may roll their eyes when Jess and Jules quarrel over the affections of Rhys Meyers’s Joe, but that issue ends up leading directly to conflict between Jess and her family over traditional relationships within their own religion and upbringing.  With the institution of marriage being such a pillar of Sikhism, I was fine with that particular point f contention between Jess and Jules as it does nothing to elevate Joe above the women and instead serves Jess’s quest for independence.

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Jess struggles with that quest, however, to the very end and most likely beyond.  She has essentially been indoctrinated by her family and her religion and taking a stance in direct opposition to either feels inherently wrong to her, even if she knows better in her head.  She actually feels like she owes them her loyalty, when in fact all she owes is to herself.  She owes herself the freedom to live her own life.  But she never truly gets those thoughts and feelings of guilt out of her head, and I can understand that.  I can’t understand it from the same perspective, or even to the same degree.  But there are still things that are fully acceptable that I feel are not, simply because I had it drilled into my head for so long by a controlling and insecure institution.  On some level, I feel her pain.  Nagra conveys this internal conflict perfectly and Chadha (along with his co-writers) shows a clear comprehension of the baby steps that are required to overcome that which has been ingrained so deeply.

If we’re looking at the film objectively, Bend it Like Beckham strives to be a better film than it formally is.  The more technical and cosmetic components of the filmmaking are certainly subpar and never allow the movie to present itself as the quality contender that it knows it can be.  But creatively and artistically, Chadha and company succeed on every level, with a thoughtful, insightful narrative that was ahead of the societal curve by nearly a full decade.  Ultimately, I can forgive the film’s glaring flaws in favor of its prescient cultural relevance and its willingness to speak to those who didn’t have too many people to talk to, even as recently as 2003.  As with most “sports” movies, the film isn’t truly about football, but rather about what the football brings out in Jess and, vicariously, the viewer.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Bend it Like Beckham

#ThrowbackThursday – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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Original US release date: July 28. 1951
Production budget: $3,000,000
Worldwide gross: $5,200,000

Remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  The first feature-length animated film in movie history?  The one that grossed $185 million on a $1.5 million budget, simply by virtue of being the first of its kind?  Well, that was almost Alice in Wonderland.  Walt Disney had been a lifetime fan of Lewis Carroll’s works and had plans to make this film before Snow White.  He was initially unable to procure a treatment for the film that he was satisfied with and the project stalled, falling by the wayside in favor of Snow White.  It wasn’t until after World War II – over a decade later – that Disney finally found the approach that he liked and Alice in Wonderland was released, eventually becoming a legendary all-time classic in the world of animated cinema.

I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that this is going to be a positive review.  Disney’s adaptation of this story is still my favorite version and actually made me a fan of the Alice story, in general.  I have read Carroll’s original books (though it’s been a while) and seen many adaptations, both live action and animated, over the years.  And this one is still the best.

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Disney’s version adapts material from both of Carroll’s Alice books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Disney doesn’t squeeze everything from both books into their version but they manage to get a lot of it in there.  And with a very brisk running time of 75 minutes, they don’t waste any time getting right to it.  As Alice lounges around while being read to by her older sister, she desperately wishes to have a more exciting life.  As she begins to drift to sleep, her cat Dinah runs off, necessitating a chase by Alice.  As she follows Dinah, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, plunging an untold depth as she calmly shouts a goodbye to her beloved cat, sure that her wish for a more exciting existence is about to bear fruit.

The structure of the film results in the narrative playing out almost as if it’s designed as an anthology of short stories centering around Alice’s adventures, rather than one continuous tale.  In a way, that’s exactly what it is, as Alice bounces from one whimsical land to the next, meeting a cornucopia of colorful – both literally and figuratively – characters with each transition.  Each character she meets makes their mark and leaves a lasting impression on both Alice and the audience.  They either have their own minor adventure going on, a story to tell, or a song to sing.  Or, perhaps, they have a question.  There are lots of questions for Alice, ranging from the existential (“Whhhhhhhoooo r u?”) to the enigmatic (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”).  Eventually, they are all brought together to form a singular, cohesive narrative.

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The story and characters are brought to life by Disney’s traditional and classic animation style.  As always, it’s smooth, clean, and extremely pleasing to the eye.  The character designs are brilliant as are the voice talents who bring them to life.  The vast majority of these characters have also withstood the test of time and gone on to become pillars of the Disney brand.  In addition to Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Queen of Hearts have all had tremendous staying power within the pop culture zeitgeist and it’s all because of this Disney adaptation.  If only the Jabberwocky had been included, as well.

Thematically speaking, each challenge that Alice encounters requires her to look for the solution within herself.  Absolutely no one that she comes across is of any help to her.  She develops a resourcefulness and an ability to assert herself in order to survive and find her way home.  And eventually, that’s exactly what she wants, as she comes to the conclusion that she should have been careful what she wished for, because she certainly got it.  Boring isn’t always so bad.

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Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is a short, but supremely entertaining grass-is-greener story.  It prioritizes entertainment over education (and certainly does nothing to discourage children from eating wild mushrooms) but that’s okay.  The lessons are there as subtext and could invite a good conversation between children and their parents, should the parents desire to have one.  If not, it’s not a loss, because the film is an all-time classic from the days when hand-drawn animation was the height of cartoon technology, rather than being considered an archaic relic, as it is today.  These older films should still be appreciated by people of all ages and Alice in Wonderland makes that easy to do with its eclectic mix of art, music, eccentricity, and a timeless tale of one little girl who should have been out of her league but was strong enough to not only survive, but triumph and stand tall.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

#ThrowbackThursday – Sixteen Candles

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Original US release date: May 4, 1984
Production budget: $6,500,000
Worldwide gross: $23,686,027

Not too long ago, I did a #ThrowbackThursday column for John Hughes’s classic film The Breakfast Club.  Though writer-director Hughes had a fairly versatile career within the realm of comedy, he is undoubtedly best known for his high school coming of age films. The Breakfast Club is probably his most highly-regarded, but that was his second film.  Before The Breakfast Club came Sixteen Candles.

This was another classic film that I had never found the time to watch until now.  I really like The Breakfast Club so I was expecting to enjoy Sixteen Candles to a similar degree.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  Though the film is not without its charms, it’s also not without its flaws – including one particularly troubling narrative misstep that ultimately leaves a permanent sour taste on the tongue of any unsuspecting viewer just looking to have fun for ninety minutes.

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The film follows Samantha (Molly Ringwald) on her sixteenth birthday.  However, the significance of the day is overshadowed by her older sister’s impending wedding and her high school classmates’ general disinterest, causing Samantha to feel invisible and unimportant on the day which she believes should be her most memorable.  When she attends a party at the house belonging to her crush Jake (Michael Schoeffling), she finds herself in for an evening of unexpected surprises with equally unexpected consequences.  And so does the viewer.

So, yeah, this is a coming of age film.  But, as relatively common as coming of age films are today (with Lady Bird being the most recent example), and though this wasn’t the first, it was really Hughes who put the genre on the map with this movie.  So, in looking back on this progenitor after it’s been exerting its influence on the art form for nearly thirty-four years, it’s easy to think, “Well, I’ve seen most of this before.”  Of course, while that technically might be true, the films in which we’ve seen it have all borrowed from this one.  And while some might have done it better (I’m looking at you!), love Sixteen Candles or hate it (and most people still admittedly love it), that much can never be taken away from it.

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And there are aspects of the film deserving of that love.  Most obviously, there’s a reason that Molly Ringwald became a generational icon with only three performances (this one, the aforementioned The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink).  Ringwald did such an excellent job with defining and portraying the ultimate girl next door that her name still gets tossed around today by film and entertainment lovers, having never been forgotten due to only three movies (though many will also recall her from the television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand).  She’s likable, she’s endearing, she’s charming, and perhaps most importantly, she’s genuine.  It’s easy to understand why so many teenagers in the eighties had a crush on her and how she became the face of a decade.

Also joining Ringwald in both this film and The Breakfast Club is Anthony Michael Hall.  Whereas Ringwald was Hughes’s go-to for the embodiment of a teenage dream girl, Hall was Hughes’s perpetual geek.  Hall also made a name for himself thanks to the two Hughes films, though not to same degree as Ringwald.  And, though Hall played this role well, his subplot is what nearly (and maybe entirely) brings the whole film crashing to the ground.

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Before I get into the major sticking point(s) of the film, I want to state that, when watching older films, one should always keep context in mind.  Times change.  Sensitivities change.  Social expectations change.  And Sixteen Candles is unquestionably a product of its time.  I can imagine that many modern viewers would have an issue with the portrayal of the Chinese exchange student, Long Duck Dong.  I can understand the initial urge to go in that direction, but outside of his ridiculous name (which is too out there to take as any sort of serious statement regarding the Chinese), he really isn’t all that stereotypical.  In fact, virtually every character in the film is a stereotype of some sort: the timid and virtuous girl next door, the geek with loads of unearned self-confidence, the oblivious parents, the meathead jock, the overzealous and out-of-touch grandparents, and on and on.  And all of them are exceedingly more stereotypical than Long Duck Dong.  The stereotypes are themselves mocked through satire and aren’t a big deal if fully understood.

(RARE SPOILER AHEAD!  It’s regrettable, but necessary!)  While some might get caught up in them, anyway, there’s really no cause for it.  However, a serious narrative issue rears its ugly head when Hall’s geek character meets up with Schoeffling’s Jake, the object of Samantha’s affections.  The geek is anxious to gain some sexual experience and Jake is equally anxious to unload his vapid, superficial girlfriend (another stereotype) Caroline onto anyone else.  Jake casually mentions that Caroline is currently passed out drunk and that the geek would be free to have his way with her and she’d never even know the difference, much less be aware enough of who she’s with to reject him.  Jake’s exact words are, “I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.”  Yeah, the whole movie took a turn for me, right there.

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Did your jaw just drop?  Mine sure did!  The two of them then actively enact and carry out a plan for the geek to cart Caroline away in Jake’s dad’s car and date rape her.  Or, maybe just rape her, since they weren’t actually on a date.  I kept waiting for the moment that it would hit them – or at least one of them – that this wasn’t okay.  I thought that maybe this would be a coming of age moment for the two male leads, as well, and not only Samantha would grow within the narrative framework of the film.  But it never happens.  In fact, the plan works and then – to top it off – Caroline actually falls for the geek!  And she does so, knowing full well what happened.  I suppose the impact is slightly dulled by the fact that the geek also becomes inebriated and doesn’t remember the act, but only slightly.  He still planned to do it and never faltered.

I can’t chalk that one up to the film being a product of its time because, you know, rape was a thing in the eighties.  I’m not going to claim that Hughes was openly endorsing rape.  Society wasn’t quite as enlightened then as it is now.  But this should have still been a clear no-go as far as being included in a comedy as an acceptable attempted source of humor.  Even if the remainder of the film had been flawless (which it isn’t, but it’s mostly good.  The humor often falls a bit flat.), this alone is enough to spoil the fun of the proceedings.

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The success of Sixteen Candles led to the success of strong talents and better films, so I’m not going to say that I wish it hadn’t been successful.  But I’m glad that we have grown as a society to the point where something this atrociously conceived would never be produced in these times.  Ringwald is great and Hughes shows talent but also a severe lack of awareness and irresponsibility that damages the reputation of this esteemed classic.  I’m not one to jump at every perceived societal slight so, in order for me to be harping on this, it’s got to be big and it’s got to be obtuse.  The film has value as a historical work, but its severe sexist heartlessness can’t be ignored, forgotten, or forgiven.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Sixteen Candles

#ThrowbackThursday – Savages

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Original US release date: July 6, 2012
Production budget: $45,000,000
Worldwide gross: $82,966,152

Savages is the third Oliver Stone film for which I’ve done a #ThrowbackThursday in recent months, with the first being Born on the Fourth of July (found here) and the second being Platoon (which you can find here).  Stone has over forty years of experience in directing film and is best known for his political thrillers based upon true – and very well documented – historical occurrences.  Savages – one of his more recent efforts – is a departure from that as he tackles a fictional tale based upon the book of the same name by Don Winslow.

The story revolves around the trio of friends and lovers O (short for Ophelia), Chon, and Ben (Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively).  The three of them share a double relationship (both men love O and she reciprocates, with all three being fully aware and supportive of the arrangement) as well as a marijuana business that operates both legal and illegal branches.  When Chon and Ben run afoul of the Mexican cartel, they find that they may be in over their heads as they discover themselves being dragged into the seedy underworld of the “savages” . . . and O along with them.

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Much like with war films, films that center on the drug world have a hard time distinguishing themselves from other films that cover similar ground, often hitting the same story beats, the same character arcs, and the same basic dialogue as many of the others.  Savages is guilty of this in some ways but manages to rise above it in others.  The film’s greatest asset is its character development as well as the cast that brings those characters to life.

For the most part, the characters in the film are believable and unusually complex for this type of film, of which many keep their focus on the ins and outs of the dealings of the business and their consequences rather than the relationships and personal motivations of the people involved.  The three primary protagonists are good people at their cores, despite being involved in a shady business.  None of them wish to harm anyone and Ben has even taken great pains to put his product in the hands of people who need it for medical purposes.  Despite their mostly-good intentions, their natural greed is enough justification in their own minds to get involved in some illegal operations as well.  Even with a corrupt police detective (John Travolta, in perhaps the most cookie-cutter of all of the main characters) under their thumb, the trio doesn’t handle things with a vast amount of intelligence and it naturally comes back to bite them.

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Of equal complexity is the principal antagonist Elena, as played by Salma Hayek.  Elena is ruthless in the running of her drug cartel, but she isn’t without her softer sides.  She shows unexpected and genuine sympathy for O as O is drawn into Elena’s world.  As we discover that Elena has an estranged daughter (Sandra Echeverría) it becomes apparent that she sees O as a potential substitute, and the audience is left to wonder whether or not that may actually be an attainable goal.  In either case, Elena is an unconflicted villain who still has a photo of her daughter set as her laptop wallpaper, adding greatly-appreciated depth to a character who would have been a walking cliché in lesser hands than Stone’s.

The actors who have been tasked with portraying these characters turn in charismatic performances that draw the eye to the screen and the ear to the dialogue.  Objectively speaking, if one were to look at the movie from the perspective of the script only, it would not necessarily come across as particularly entertaining or compelling.  On paper, it isn’t all that different from a hundred other drug movies.  But Stone’s sensibilities and his cast’s abilities elevate the material and make it more watchable and engaging than it otherwise might have been.

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In addition, I can’t do a review of this film without discussing the ending.  That’s going to be tricky without spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it, but I’m going to try it, anyway.  I have not read Don Winslow’s book and I am completely ignorant regarding the differences between it and Stone’s adaptation.  As a result, I have no idea if the ending for the film is taken directly from the original source, but it’s one of the more bizarre climaxes I have ever seen, and if it wasn’t changed from the novel, it should have been.  Audiences come to expect certain things from a film focused on the drug trade such as this one, and it’s clear that the desired ending for the story would likely not have satisfied those expectations for many.  So, Stone tries to have it both ways.  Maybe in that vein, it works.  But in taking this route, Stone gives up on ensuring that his film stands apart from others of its ilk and stoops to the mindless tropes that have long plagued the genre.  On top of that, the film’s running time is also extended by approximately ten minutes as a result, and it’s ten minutes that are narratively wasted.

Savages is not a bad film, but it also doesn’t take advantage of its potential to fully rise far above the typical drug movie fare.  In some ways, it succeeds – largely due to the supremely game cast and their characters – but in other ways, Stone is happy to root in the mud with the others, leaning on tired dialogue and uninspired gunplay to fill out the empty spaces of the film.  If not for the ending – as unexpected as it was – I would be heaping more praise upon the overall product.  But, as it stands, Savages is a mixed bag and a mediocre inclusion upon the resumes of all involved, even if the cast has plenty to brag about.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Savages

#ThrowbackThursday – Marley & Me

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Original US release date: December 25, 2008
Production budget: $60,000,000
Worldwide gross: $242,717,113

Ah, the joys of pet ownership.  There have been many, many films about the bond between animal and human throughout the years.  Few seem to have resonated as much or left the same lasting impression upon viewing audiences as David Frankel’s 2008 family film Marley & Me.  Based upon John Grogan’s memoir of the same title, the film is a relatively simple and straightforward chronicling of the growth of a family, using their adventures and relationships with their dog Marley as the backbone of the story.

When Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) suggests to her husband John (Owen Wilson) that she’s interested in having a baby, he follows the suggestion of his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) and buys her a dog for her birthday as a deterrent.  Little do they know just what they’ve gotten themselves into as Marley turns out to be quite the handful.  Resistant to training or any sort of discipline, Marley runs the house and the family as John and Jenny struggle simply to keep up with Marley’s rambunctious nature and behavior.

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Truthfully, there isn’t much story to the film.  Nor is there much in the way of unpredictability or surprise.  But the film largely manages to overcome those handicaps and charm its way through in spite of them.  Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston are largely to thank for that.  Wilson is his typically entertaining self, complete with his characteristically dry humor and everyman sensibilities.  It’s easy for the viewer to identify with his portrayal of John as he tries to fake it until he makes it, never totally confident in his life choices or the direction he’s headed in, but always willing to try anything if he believes it will lead to the best outcome for himself and his family.  Aniston also plays to type as the caring and occasionally temperamental partner, guiding John along the proper path and keeping his attention focused on the bigger picture and the longer game.

The movie is truly about them, even though Marley essentially receives top billing.  But, as with any pet, Marley is a member of the family and his adoption is where the word “family” begins to earnestly apply to our cast of characters.  Before Marley, John and Jenny are a couple.  Sure, they’re a married couple, but the word “family” doesn’t tend to get tossed around until there are more than two involved.  And Marley makes three.

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Marley serves as their primer, as pets often do for young couples.  If they can’t take care of a dog, how will they ever care for any potential children?  Marley puts them through their paces and challenges them to the best of his ability.  I was surprised by how well the humor interwoven into these moments actually works.  And Wilson made me laugh out loud on a surprising number of occasions with perfect delivery of his lines from Scott Frank and Don Roos’s screenplay.

As the years roll by at the same alarming pace that we all eventually come to understand, The Grogans’ lives shift, morph, and grow, and Marley is there to experience it all.  There are ups and downs, happiness and sorrow, and Marley remains the constant.  A couple of these moments play as slightly inauthentic in their delivery.  And many of them are of the clichéd variety.  But that’s okay.  They’re clichéd because we see them a lot.  And we see them a lot because they happen often in real life.  And this film is based on real life.  I don’t personally know which elements in the film are entirely true to how they occurred in real life and which aren’t, but I’d prefer clichéd truths to exaggerated fiction in a story like Marley & Me.

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When it comes down to it, the film makes a statement not only about the relationships between pets and their owners, but also about the relationships between people.  There are none more pure than a faithful pet (or a child).  All pets want is to love and to be loved in return.  They care not what their owner looks like, how much money they make, or what their social status happens to be.  Pets won’t talk about you behind your back, cheat on you, or post intolerant or tone deaf memes on social media.  They trust their owners and they are trustworthy in return.  It seems like such a simple idea, yet one that so many people have a hard time mastering.  Much like WonderMarley & Me isn’t as technically or objectively sound as its reputation suggests but, also like that film, it’s so relatable and moving that it doesn’t matter.  That’s what art is supposed to be about.  Ultimately, the film serves as an emotional reminder of the important things in life, and an entertaining one at that.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Marley & Me

#ThrowbackThursday – The Great Buck Howard

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Original US release date: March 20, 2009
Production budget: Unknown
Worldwide gross: $900,689

The Great Buck Howard is a bit of a mystery.  Not the film, itself, but the circumstances surrounding the film.  The low-budget production, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, never really reached an audience.  Despite its charming narrative and characters and its brand-name cast, virtually no one is aware of its existence.  I only know of it, myself, because I seek out anything featuring Tom Hanks.  But, despite featuring Hanks (albeit in a glorified cameo), his son Colin, Emily Blunt, and John Malkovich, and also despite garnering solid reviews, the film never expanded beyond a release in 55 theaters.  Yes, there was apparently a small budget (I say “apparently” because the budget for the film was never publicly released), but there was seemingly enough to afford some serious star power.  Perhaps after that, there was no money left for marketing and/or getting the movie a nationwide release.  I’m only speculating.  All I can say for sure is that I believe the movie has mass appeal for general moviegoing audiences, so it’s sad that it never got the chance to succeed on a larger scale.

Inspired by the real-life magician/illusionist/mentalist the Amazing Kreskin (for whom writer-director Sean McGinly was road manager), The Great Buck Howard stars John Malkovich in the title role as a longtime celebrity stage illusionist whose star has fallen with time.  Told from the perspective of his newly hired road manager Troy (Colin Hanks), Howard sets about trying to reignite his career and become the major attraction that he was in his heyday.

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Howard, himself, is a satisfyingly complex character, played wonderfully by Malkovich.  Howard loves what he does, he loves your town, and he loves the attention.  But, as is the case with many professional entertainers, he’s also very self-absorbed, placing his own success and public perception above all else, including the people around him.  He isn’t mean-spirited, and never truly becomes unlikable, but he’s often inconsiderate if things aren’t going to his own liking.  Though he cares about other people, he cares about himself just a little bit more.  It can be debated whether this makes him more honest than most or just kind of a jerk, and that gray area is part of why it works so well.

Colin Hanks’s Troy probably gets the most screen time – even more than Howard.  We are seeing the story unfold through his eyes.  Troy’s father (played by his real-life father Tom Hanks) is not exactly thrilled with Troy’s vocational choices, preferring him to be a lawyer.  as a result, Troy feels he has something to prove.  Along the way, he meets Valerie, another of Howard’s entourage, and they hit it off, forcing the two to routinely choose between business and pleasure.  Hanks and Blunt both turn in effortlessly endearing performances, easily winning over the viewer with their lightheartedness and easygoing natures.  You want to root for them and they present an appealing alternative when Howard is going through one of his more abrasive phases.

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Ultimately, the film is about the desire in us all to retain our relevance in a world that is constantly threatening to pass each of us by.  Adapt or die.  Howard struggles to adapt, as so many entertainers (and non-entertainers) have before him.  He no longer understands the world around him or what audiences are drawn to.  Becoming a relic, he is no longer able to survive in the comfort zone he has always held so dear.

In contrast, Troy is trying to find his place in the world at the beginning of his life.  He has yet to figure any of that out for himself.  Despite being on opposite ends of life, Troy’s struggles are reflected by Howard’s.  But what is clear to both of them is that people are wired to do certain things.  It’s possible to settle for something else and find what is generally defined as “success”.  But if there’s no personal satisfaction involved in the work – if there’s no passion – then is there really any success?

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I suspect that McGinly put a lot of himself into this film and particularly into the character of Troy.  Aside from both of them being road managers for popular illusionists, both are also doing what they can to follow their passions.  McGinly has yet to hit it big, but he hasn’t given up (he has another film coming up soon starring Deborah Ann Wohl entitled Silver Lake).  I hope he finds his way.  I strongly suggest giving him a chance by seeking out The Great Buck Howard.  It’s a warmhearted, crowd-pleasing tale with an impressive cast, plenty of laughs, and memorable characters.  It deserves an audience, and you can help it find one, even nine years later.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Great Buck Howard

#ThrowbackThursday – Powder

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Original US release date: October 27, 1995
Production budget: $9,500,000
Worldwide gross: $30,862,156

Another Thursday, another throwback!  This time, from director-writer Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers and a whole bunch of personal issues that will not be delved into here) comes science-fiction drama Powder.  The film tells the story of genius albino teenager Jeremy (Sean Patrick Flannery) who, after his lone remaining family member passes away, is revealed to his small local town following a lifetime of being hidden away in the basement.  He encounters many of the locals in the town and is met with the expected mixture of wonder and rejection.

Salva made a strong attempt in the nineties to carve out a niche for himself in the sci-fi/horror/drama genre mix, similar to what Guillermo del Toro has done in more recent years.  Salva, however, hasn’t been nearly as successful as del Toro in doing so.  Powder was one of those early attempts.  It’s clear what Salva is going for with this story, but as obvious as the destination is supposed to be, the path to get there is a confusing labyrinth of mixed messages such that, once the destination is reached, the viewer can’t help but look around and wonder if they’ve arrived in the right place.

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Powder is an earnest attempt at the classic it’s-what’s-on-the-inside-that-matters tale.  Salva attempts to mix it up a bit by making Jeremy (or “Powder”) a bit more unusual than, say, Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That, but it becomes a bit much and, as the film lurches on, the point of it all becomes exceedingly muddled.

Let’s start with the obvious: Jeremy is an albino.  Okay, no problem.  For starters, this alone would be enough around which to construct a movie.  People were as judgmental and superficial in the nineties as they are today, and something as uncommon as albinism would certainly kick up some issues for those who (Warning! Cliché ahead!) fear what they don’t understand.  And that happens, although not always in a particularly authentic way.  For instance, the entire narrative is kicked off by high-schoolers who behave like elementary school children.  It’s a sour beginning because how can someone who’s had to deal with this issue in real life relate to Jeremy if the problems being presented by the film aren’t reflective of their own true-life experiences?

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On top of the albinism, Jeremy has . . . superpowers?  Yes, Powder can control and conduct electricity, read minds, and other assorted things.  This is apparently where his genius intellect also originates.  I understand Salva’s desire to appeal to a certain audience outside of the typical target demographic for this brand of tale, but in this case, the narrative is harmed, not helped, by this creative choice.  The idea is that the poor unenlightened townsfolk are supposed to see through the atypical outer appearance to the selfless person underneath, but that never seems to truly happen – at least not for everyone.  Instead, most people are just dazzled (or intimidated) by his supernatural abilities and often even selfishly distracted by what he can do for them.  It’s never about who Jeremy is; it’s more about how he can be used.

Beyond even that, Salva throws another issue for Jeremy to deal with into the mix, but I won’t specify exactly what it is because it’s a bit of a spoiler (it’s a common theme for Salva, however.  If you’re familiar with his work, you can probably guess what I’m referring to.).  But the whole film plays as if it wants to be a mid-nineties mix of X-Men and Wonder, yet it misses the point of both.  X-Men is about how powers create a barrier between mutants and humans, not how the narrow-minded homo sapiens somehow see said abilities as a bridge between the two.  And Wonder is about how physical differences are irrelevant and often mask beauty within.  But most characters in Powder (characters who are painfully flat and stereotypical, to the point of caricature.  There’s no complexity to be found, here.) never openly acknowledge Jeremy’s humanity.  Mix in several plot threads that are introduced and then dropped without resolution and it’s just a big mess.

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This all leads to a bizarre climax that does nothing to tie all of the loose threads together and only confuses the issues even more.  Everyone is essentially let off the hook – the villains who hounded Jeremy, the empathetic friends who worked to help him, and even Jeremy, himself.  Nobody really learns anything.  They learn nothing about themselves.  They learn nothing about humanity.  And they learn very little about Jeremy.  In a way, that’s even more poignant than the intended message because it certainly seems to jive with how the real world works.  And if I thought for one second that that was Salva’s point, I’d be praising his work, here.  But it wasn’t.  That was a total accident.  Salva’s goal was for the viewer to learn something.  But viewers watch films through the eyes of the characters, and if the characters learn nothing, the viewers learn nothing.

I’m a Jeepers Creepers fan, but Powder just doesn’t work.  I’m always happy to see Jeff Goldblum and Mary Steenburgen pop up, so I enjoyed their performances, and Flannery does fine with what he’s given, but the three of them just aren’t enough to keep this ship afloat.  If you’re looking for some sci-fi drama, I’d suggest you go check out that aforementioned Guillermo del Toro filmography, instead.  The Shape of Water is still in theaters!

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#ThrowbackThursday – Powder