Archive for March, 2014

Apollo 13 (1995)

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan

As a small boy, there were two subjects which interested me above all other things. One was dinosaurs and the other, thanks in large part to “Star Trek,” was outer space. I always got a kick out of looking up at the stars through my telescope. I loved reading about the planets of our solar system and their moons, and the history of our world’s space program was particularly fascinating. Cut to the first launch of a manned space mission that I ever witnessed. The day was January 28, 1986. Does that date sound familiar? Indeed, it was the day the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, only to explode just 73 seconds into its flight. All seven crew members were killed, including Concord, New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Mind you, I was not in Cape Canaveral on that day, but rather I was sitting in my parents’ living room in Knoxville, Tennesee, my father by my side. The very first exposure I had to a live television broadcast of Man traveling into space, and it just so happened to be the first time an American space mission had resulted in loss of life (the Apollo 1 fire notwithstanding, as that mission never got past the testing phase). The Challenger disaster was almost preceded by an even more horrific tragedy, as an oxygen tank explosion ended the chances of Apollo 13 making its scheduled landing on the Moon and could very well have ended with three astronauts either succumbing to the lack of breathable air and extreme cold of space, or burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.

The movie begins on July 20, 1969. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), who flew two Gemini missions as well as Apollo 8, watches with his family as fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to set foot on the surface of the Moon. My own parents were of high school age at this time and my father, thinking quickly, snapped some Polaroids of the TV… what passed for screen captures back in the day.

Lovell is determined he wants to return to the Moon, this time to land on it, as the Apollo 8 mission only involved a Lunar orbit. He gets his chance when he, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) are awarded the Apollo 13 mission, scheduled for launch on April 11, 1970. The computer I am using to write this review is more efficient, and can therefore be said to be better equipped to send men to the Moon than the ones that were actually being used back in those days. For that matter, your cell phone is of superior technology to the computer onboard the Apollo space vehicle. One week prior to the launch of Apollo 13, Mattingly is replaced with his backup, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), when it is learned that Mattingly may have been exposed to the measles. If that had been the only hiccup the mission would face, there would be no movie.

For reasons I’ll never quite understand, it was decided that public interest in the space program had dwindled down to the point where it seemed pointless for the TV networks to give the Apollo 13 mission the kind of coverage they had given to the previous two. That all changes when one of the Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks explodes, and the other is left venting its contents into space. With the astronauts lives now in peril, suddenly everyone’s interested. At least one of the networks even wants to set up shop on the front lawn of Jim Lovell’s house, to which Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) strongly objects. In space, Swigert’s inclusion had already created a certain amount of tension among the new lineup, tension which is heightened once things go wrong. Meanwhile, the best and brightest at Mission Control in Houston, Texas scramble to come up with a viable plan to get their men home alive. “Failure is not an option,” Mission Director Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) tells them.

That Lovell, Haise and Swigert manage to find their way back to Earth and survive re-entry is no great spoiler. You can look those facts up in the history books. Director Ron Howard nonetheless manages to build suspense through the audience’s question of how their dilemma resolves itself. Even as we know no harm will come to them, the audience still gets caught up in the moment. The visuals in this movie are also quite stunning, none greater than the launch sequence. For the movie “The Right Stuff,” the actual footage of the Mercury 7 launches were used. Here, the massive Saturn V rocket (on top of which sat the Apollo 13 capsule) is entirely CGI. But, oh goodness, is it ever a sight to behold! More so, I’m sure, for anyone of my parents’ generation, for whom the entire movie is like a giant time capsule.

As much as the movie evokes memories for my father of listening to the radio for updates on Apollo 13’s status as a 16-year old, the film itself holds its own personal significance in my life. Aside from his work on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” James Horner’s soundtrack for “Apollo 13” is one of his finest compositions. I originally saw “Apollo 13” in the theater at the appropriate age of 13. Shortly afterward, I bought a copy of the soundtrack on cassette, and I brought that tape along with me for school field trips to Williamsburg, Virginia, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Orlando, Florida. I have strong memories of pushing the PLAY button as soon as the bus began to move, first hearing the drums, then the trumpet, and then the strings in the opening seconds of Track #1 – “Main Theme.” Even now, listening to it brings me back to each of the liftoffs of my own journeys in to unexplored territory. For this reason alone, I am retroactively fitting “Apollo 13” into my list of all-time favorite films.

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks weren’t done with the story of the Apollo Space Program. Not by a longshot. The 12-part 1998 mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon” is a must-see. The episodes surrounding the Apollo 7 and Apollo 12 missions are my favorites. Though it may upset some of my friends who are fans of the movie “Braveheart,” I really think that Ron Howard and “Apollo 13” were robbed at the Oscars in 1995. But then, space movies just aren’t attractive enough to the Academy. “The Right Stuff” and “Gravity” were each also nominated for Best Picture in their respective years (1983 and 2013), and both also lost. The bigger tragedy is the current state of the American Space Program. I hold no animosity towards anyone for the retirement of the Space Shuttle. That had been long overdue. But were we not supposed to be able, according to our science-fiction writers, to fly commercially to the Moon by now, not to mention preparing for manned missions to Mars? Within “Apollo 13” itself, a monologue from Hanks as Lovell laments the fact that no one has set foot on the Moon since Eugene Cernan stepped back onto the Apollo 17 Lunar Module for departure on December 14, 1972. More than 41 years later, we still don’t have an answer as to when we’ll be going back. What we do have is an entire generation of Americans (myself included), with a second one growing in number every day, who have never experienced this level of awe and wonder for themselves outside of what they read about or see in archival footage. As great as movies like “Apollo 13” are, they can never take the place of the real thing. I would very much like to see at least one Lunar mission happen within my lifetime. Until then, I’ll keep watching the stars.


Forrest Gump (1994)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson

When I was in the second grade, our teacher read “Bridge to Terabithia” to the class. To this day, it’s still the saddest work of fiction I’ve ever encountered. At the time, I wondered how one could justify reading it to young children. I thought that our fables should always be happy, joyful, and otherwise free of consequence or incident. In other words, not having a darn thing to do with real life. That was what growing up was supposed to be for. I did not consider, then, what the author was sharing with me. While children should be allowed to laugh, play and not have a care in the world for politics, money or other adult pursuits, they should at some point be prepared for the concept of tragedy. At the very least, it should be explained to them in a way that they can understand it. There is a moment early on in “Forrest Gump” when the young Forrest and his friend Jenny are praying in the cornfield behind her father’s house. As soon as I saw this scene, the tears started flowing. The perfect, perfect score from Alan Silvestri wasn’t helping either. There was no question in my mind that a dark cloud was looming just over the horizon. Forrest is the type of person for whom “Bridge to Terabithia” would be difficult, though not impossible to explain. “Curious George” is more his speed.

In 1981, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is sitting on a park bench, clutching a box of chocolates and waiting for a bus. While he waits, Forrest tells his life story to those who sit by him. From his birth up until what for him is the present day, Forrest tells the account of a number of amazing things he’s accomplished in his life, and all of the famous people he has helped inspire. He is invited to the White House on three separate occasions, meeting John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He plays football for Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama, becomes a genuine war hero in Vietnam, plays ping pong professionally for the United States in China, and even forms a lucrative shrimp company called Bubba Gump, named after both himself and fellow Vietnam soldier Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue (Mykelti Williamson). It was Bubba whose idea the whole “shrimping business” thing was before he died in Vietnam. Any one of these things would be enough to distinguish Forrest Gump, and enough to be life-altering for anyone else, but still Forrest takes it all in with a perspective most men his age forsook long ago. As the entire world around him changes, Forrest remains constant.

Winning Best Actor for “Forrest Gump,” Tom Hanks joined Spencer Tracy as the only two men to be presented with the award in back-to-back years, a feat which no one else has since accomplished. It is true that Forrest (along with all other characters in the film) is little more than an archetype. Disregarding that fact, Hanks does manage to transform himself. He disappears so completely into the role that it becomes hard to tell where Forrest Gump ends and Tom Hanks begins. In fact, Hanks puts as much effort into bringing to life this resident of Greenbow, Alabama with an IQ of 75 as any character I’ve seen him play.

Not all of the credit for “Forrest Gump” (winner for Best Picture of 1994) can go to Tom Hanks. Gary Sinise, as Lt. Dan Taylor, is also something special. His work is so admired amongst the Wounded Veterans crowd that he has gone on more recently to do commercials for their cause. Meanwhile, Robin Wright gives the performance of her career as the tragically self-destructive Jenny Curran. Prior to this movie, my only exposure to Robin Wright had been in “The Princess Bride,” her very first starring role in a feature film, as Princess Buttercup. Both movies are pure fantasy, both roles are archetypes, but Jenny and Buttercup couldn’t be any more different. One waits for true love to rescue her. The other has true love waiting for her, but she believes herself to be beyond saving.

The soundtrack is beyond incredible. Alan Silvestri’s score aside, there is a barrage of period music, most of it from the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, what I consider to be the second major revolution in the industry after the Classical period of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the songs are so expertly placed that I can’t help but be amused by their timing. We hear Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” just before a ground battle in Vietnam, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” during a decidedly low point in Jenny’s life, and in a particularly side-splitting homage to 1969 Best Picture Winner “Midnight Cowboy,” that film’s theme song, “Everybody’s Talkin'” by Harry Nilsson, helps the scene deliver itself with a wink and nod. I’m not sure whether it’s director Robert Zemeckis or somebody who regularly works with him, but someone involved here is clearly a “Midnight Cowboy” fan. My evidence is that this is not the first of Zemeckis’s films to feature a reenactment of that movie’s most famous scene. 1989’s “Back to the Future Part II” also has a character crossing the street, nearly being run over, and uttering the lines, “Hey! I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”

When the movie was first released, there was debate among certain U.S. politicians as to the overall message of the movie. Certain people believed it to be pushing a conservative agenda, citing an idealized version of the 1950’s vs. the portrayal of the counterculture of the 1960’s, as well as all the talk about the subject of destiny, as proof. Certain people did not consider that the movie might not have a political message of any kind, or that remembering one’s history IS being promoted. But then, these were the same geniuses who had adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as their theme song ten years earlier, evidently only having paid attention to the chorus. Frankly, I could give a rat’s hindquarters whether or not there’s a political message to be found, or the fact that the overall story is far too fantastical and replete with coincidence. As the movie’s timeline ends around the same time as my own birth in 1982 (likely a few months after), what attracts me the most to “Forrest Gump” is its portrayal of an era which is just out of my reach, but which my parents’ generation lived through. So many wonderful things and so many terrible things happened all at the same time. I, at least, had the advantage of coming into the world with knowledge of how that story ended.

Philadelphia (1993)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas

Just as the Black Death had back in the Middle Ages, the AIDS virus sprang up in the 1980’s like some kind of bogeyman. At first, no one knew what it was or how one contracted it. Then, before other methods of transmission presented themselves, it appeared to be something one caught through contact with a homosexual. Some religious groups even went to the extreme of calling it a “cure for homosexuality,” in that the world would be purged of those who prefer same-sex relationships. The truth was that it could hit anyone, and not just through sexual contact. One could also be infected through a blood transfusion, or even from mother to child during the birthing process. However you want to paint the picture, the entire population of the United States as a whole had been brought to its knees in fear. As a result, countless men and women over the years have been unfairly and unjustly treated through no fault of their own. “Philadelphia” is their story.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a Philadelphia lawyer… an “excellent” one, as he will tell you. He is so well-thought of by his higher-ups that he’s on the verge of making partner, and is presented with the most important case his law firm has ever taken. As the deadline is approaching, an important document goes missing, baffling Andrew completely. At the last minute, it is miraculously found filed away in archives, where it should not be. The case goes well for the firm, but Andrew is soon after fired. That might be the end of the story, but there are two things about Andrew that give one cause to doubt the reason for his termination. Firstly, Andrew is a homosexual and, secondly, he is afflicted with the AIDS virus. Yes, Andrew has kept these facts from his superiors, but not without good reason: the abundance of anti-gay, water cooler humor in the office made his decision easy.

Andrew seeks the legal counsel of Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), with whom he had worked on a case once before, but whom has completely forgotten about him. But there is a larger barrier than selective memory at play, because Joe Miller is as bigoted about homosexuality as the men Andrew intends to file suit against. In fact, he is initially so ignorant about the AIDS virus that he is concerned about sitting too close to Andrew. The camera echoes this, serving as Joe’s eyes in a POV shot that shows Joe nervously staring at the lesions on Andrew’s face, and looking at Andrew’s hat as he places it on the desk. The irony of his behavior should not be lost on the audience. Joe is African-American, and as such has doubtless faced similar prejudice at one point or another in his life. He thoughtlessly uses the derogatory term “faggot” to demean homosexuals, signifying that he has not considered or does not care that this word is just as hurtful as the word “nigger” can be when directed towards those of his race/skin color. His excuse is that he was “brought up that way,” which is no excuse at all. Even as his prejudice endures, Joe does finally agree to take Andrew’s case.

At the trial, the defense is led by a rather despicable (or otherwise good at her job) attorney, played by one of my absolute favorite actresses (heavy sarcasm!), Mary Steenburgen. When she showed up in “Back to the Future Part III,” I saw Mary Steenburgen as little more than the Yoko Ono of that trilogy. Here, she was Marcia Cross before the real Marcia Cross came into the spotlight (as a result of the O.J. Simpson trial, two years later). Annoying voice, and not a particularly likeable character, even if the defense attorney is simply “doing her job.” I’m bringing up my overall dislike of Mary Steenburgen because, in a way, I’ve developed my own form of prejudice against her acting career which I haven’t been able to shake for more than two decades.

“Philadelphia” remained one of the few Tom Hanks films which I either had not seen at all or (in this case) had only ever seen bits and pieces of until now. I very much regret that it has taken this long as it’s a very beautiful, very sad, and very important movie. Something odd happened along the way as I watched it. Although I’m in the middle of reviewing selected works in the career of Tom Hanks, and although this movie won him the first of his two Best Actor awards, I discovered to my surprise that this isn’t really Tom Hanks’ film. Yes, he goes through a great physical transformation, which the Academy loves, and plays a gay character whose law suit is the major plotline of the movie, but “Philadelphia” isn’t actually Andrew Beckett’s story. His fate has been pre-determined by the debilitating disease he suffers from. The character growth and personal journey are for Denzel Washington’s Joe Miller.

There were two scenes in “Philadelphia” which stood out to me as being the most beautiful. The first was the opening shots of the streets of Philadelphia (set to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar-winning song, appropriately titled “Streets of Philadelphia”). Here we see people going about their daily lives, children playing, etc. It reveals Philadelphia as a town like any other town in America, which is exactly as it should appear. We should look no different regardless of our daily income, the color of our skin, the religion we follow/don’t follow or the company we keep. Each of us is equally human; some through their hatred and fear just don’t act like it. The second scene was the one in Andrew’s apartment when Joe is trying to walk him through the Q&A’s for his upcoming testimony. This, for me, is the one that won Hanks his Oscar. Although at first Andrew appears to be either distracted or attempting to brush Joe off, what he’s really doing is trying to “explain it to me like I’m a four-year old.” Andrew plays his favorite opera for Joe, translating the lyrics in a very emotional way. You can see that Joe is not only deeply affected, but that he also understands Andrew for the very first time. To use the word “beautiful” is actually understating the power of this scene.

“Philadelphia” is not an AIDS movie, nor is it a “gay” movie. This is a movie about humankind, both the best and the worst of it. There has been positive change in the 20+ years since the movie was first released. While it still exists today, HIV/AIDS is no longer the growing pandemic it once was. The support for the LGBT community is high, and there are some states in the Union which are now freely open to granting same-sex couples the right to wed. However, for all of the advances we have achieved, there is still a terrible amount of bigotry and hatred hiding beneath the cloak of self-righteousness. We only have so much time granted to us in this life. Why spend it fearing what we don’t understand?

A League of Their Own (1992)

Director: Penny Marshall

Starring: Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, Bill Pullman

As a sports fan, my first love will always be football. When it comes to baseball, I’ll keep tabs on what’s going on during the season, but I’ll usually only watch when it’s time for the playoffs and (especially) the World Series, and even then only if teams I like are involved. But even with a passing interest in a game that moves at a slower pace than I would prefer, I still have an appreciation for the history of the game of baseball. There is one part of that history I had no knowledge of until after the first time I had seen “A League of Their Own.” In the 1940’s, at the height of World War II, Major League Baseball faced a dilemma. The men were being called into service, leaving the teams without their players that drew in the crowds to see the games. The solution was to create the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, or AAGPBL for short. In its first tumultuous season in 1943, the league consisted of just four teams, which carries the impression that winning a World Series was somewhat less of an accomplishment than in Major League Baseball. Just don’t tell that to the women who showed they could play just as well as the men could.

“A League of Their Own” follows the story of that first season in 1943, albeit with some changes here and there.  The main storyline runs through sisters Dottie and Kit Hinson (Geena Davis and Lori Petty). Dottie is a natural baseball talent, but she seems almost oblivious to this fact. She’s more interested in seeing the return of her husband, Bob (Bill Pullman) from the War. Kit is the one who would love nothing more than to be a professional pitcher. At a softball game which the two are competing in, Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) sits in attendance, scouting players for the AAGPBL. He likes what he sees from Dottie, but Kit manages to lose the game because she stubbornly swings at the high pitches, striking out. Ernie goes to the farm where the sisters live and work to recruit Dottie, but she’s not interested. But Dottie sees how much her sister wants to play, and agrees only on the condition that Kit be allowed in, too.

Eventually, the two find themselves members of the Rockford Peaches, managed by legendary MLB player Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks). From the moment Jimmy is introduced, business picks up. Hanks makes a great entrance into this picture, as Jimmy drunkenly enters the girls’ locker room and urinates in the stall. Jimmy is a sad character at first. His playing career having ended prematurely due to his alcoholism, Jimmy takes the assignment of managing a girl’s baseball team as an insult. To show how he feels, he behaves accordingly: sleeping during the games, hurling insults, and arguing with his superiors. Then he sees what Dottie can do, and we see a change in Jimmy’s demeanor. Suddenly, he’s taking an interest in this team he has underestimated because of their gender.

Actor Tom Hanks and director Penny Marshall team up again four years after their previous collaborative effort, “Big.” Both that film and this one are about people who are struggling to find their place in an uncaring world, although in remarkably different ways. This time, rather than a kid trapped in a man’s body, it’s a group of women trapped by rules dictated by a male-dominated society. At every turn, they are threatened with being shut down simply because the men will soon be coming home. Jimmy’s own journey is one of redemption. Through his role as manager, Jimmy can restore order to the chaos his alcoholism has created in his life. Among Hanks’ roles from before he became an Oscar winner, this one may be his best. It’s certainly gifted him with one of the most iconic lines of his career, coming as Jimmy takes it upon himself to explain to one of his players why weeping is not allowed.

The movie is only superficially faithful to history. All of the characters in the film are fictional, including changing the owner of the league from a chewing gum mogul (Philip K. Wrigley) to a candy bar manufacturer (Walter Harvey). Also, the Rockford Peaches did not actually play in the first AAGPBL World Series… although the team did wind up with the most championships by the time the league closed in 1954. Pretty much the only things that remain consistent with the facts are the teams’ names and uniforms, the league’s name and logo, the league’s official song, and the lasting impact that it has had on the sport. But let’s not get bogged down in fact vs. fiction. You want a 100% truthful account of the AAGPBL? Go find a documentary on the subject. Informative though it may be, I guarantee it won’t be half as entertaining.

Big (1988)

Director: Penny Marshall

Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton

I can’t think of a single person I knew when I was twelve who said they wanted to skip the rest of their youth and just dive right into adulthood. How many at that age would be thinking about much of the world beyond their own backyard? No, when it comes to the subject of being uncomfortable with oneself at the onset of puberty, most kids are usually just wishing they were just a little taller. Without a more extensive vocabulary, finding the right words to explain their deficiency could be difficult. So many words have multiple meanings. You can say one thing, and it can be interpreted in several different ways, not all of them good. The English language works in mysterious ways.

Josh Baskin is an average twelve-year old who plays computer games and watches New York Giants football games (Super Bowl XXI, in particular), but also has fun playing outdoors with his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton). Josh also has a crush on one of the popular girls at school, who may or may not take a liking to him as well, but at least she’s nice. He has never gone anywhere without an adult chaperone, including one fateful night at the fair. He wants desperately to get on one of the “scary rides” with the blonde he likes, but according to the rules he isn’t tall enough. Later, he stumbles upon a wish-granting machine which seems to be able to function despite its power cord not being plugged in. He makes his wish, and wakes up the next morning as an adult somewhere in his early 30’s.

The novelty of the “child trapped in an adult’s body” story wore itself thin long ago, even before “Big” was released in 1988. However, actor Tom Hanks’ performance is such that it allows you to set aside the fantastical elements of the movie and believe that you are really watching a twelve-year old boy experiencing the world as a 30-year old man. When he checks into a cheap motel in a rather ugly part of town, we can see the fear building in Josh’s face. When he gets hired by the MacMillan toy company, his work ethic is that of a kid with a pile of homework due the next morning, rather than that of an office worker who paces himself because everyone else does. His initiative quickly grabs the attention of his boss (Robert Loggia), who gives him a big office and the dream job of every kid: playing with toys for a living! The apartment he rents afterwards is all kinds of cool: He has a trampoline, bunk beds, toys scattered all over the place and… my personal favorite… a Pepsi machine.

Among the songs that make up the soundtrack to “Big,” of course the most widely associated is “Heart and Soul,” but there is another which is likely lost on the current generation, in large part due to the practice of “sampling.” Everybody knows Will Smith’s 1997 hit “Men in Black” from the movie of the same name, right? But how many, I wonder, will remember Patrice Rushen’s 1982 song “Forget Me Nots”? Listen to it. I guarantee you’ll find something about it that sounds eerily familiar.

The movie’s heart is built from Josh’s budding relationship with Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), one of his co-workers at MacMillan Toys. From the earlier scenes in the film where Josh has trouble even speaking to girls, we are to assume that he has never been close to any member of the opposite sex (other than his mom, which doesn’t count). Hanks is able to get this point across in several ways, notably in Josh’s interpretation of what “spending the night” means. Susan has become used to life as an adult. When we first meet her, she acts just as serious as all the other grown-ups. But through her time spent with Josh, Susan is reminded how to “have fun” again. She has moved from one boyfriend to the next, finding each one to be immature. Josh seems different to her, though not in the way we know him to be. I often wonder what kind of person Susan would have been without ever meeting Josh. Would she have become increasingly jaded and bitchy like Celia Hodes, Perkins’ character from TV’s “Weeds”?

As a child, “Big” was my introduction to actor Tom Hanks, and I’ve always thought it a very special little movie. Hanks is one of my favorite actors, and I recently thought to give a look at some of his career’s highlights. By “career highlights,” I mean the ones I have on DVD. I believe it fitting to start off where my affinity for the man’s career began. In addition to being charming as hell, “Big” also points out how important it is to go through the trials and tribulations of growing up. There is so much we would miss out on… both good and bad… if we just skipped our teens and 20’s. Likewise, as much as we might want to revisit or even change some part of our past, would that not also theoretically result in our becoming someone different? The best course of action, it seems to me, is to accept that there will be those rides which we’re not yet tall enough to ride, but that a little patience will one day give us the chance to jump on that roller coaster as often as we like.

Career Opportunities (1991)

Director: Bryan Gordon

Starring: Frank Whaley, Jennifer Connelly, Dermot Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney, Noble Willingham, John M. Jackson

Gentlemen, why do I get the sneaking suspicion that most night jobs aren’t anywhere near this exciting? I’ve never worked at night, don’t see myself working at night, and generally just don’t like being out of the house after dark if I can help it. Still, we take the work which we can get. Hard labor for minimum wage is supposed to be character building, and maybe sometimes it is. Other times it’s just a pain in the ass. Break bone for the Man and he won’t care. You’re expendable. We take these mind-numbingly boring jobs not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Jim Dodge (Frank Whaley) is really trying his father’s patience. He’s managed to get himself fired yet again. “That’s got to be some kind of record,” more than one person observes. Jim is in his 20’s and is nowhere close to getting married or even leaving home. He finds it hard to understand why he should leave when he loves his family, enjoys his mom’s cooking, and has a comfortable bed to sleep in. But his dad (John M. Jackson) is concerned that Jim will never make anything of himself if he continues living this way, so he finds Jim a job opening at the local Target… as the “Night Clean-Up Boy.” While on his first night there, Jim is locked in by his gun-toting, hard-ass superior and unexpectedly joined by Josie McClellan (Jennifer Connelly), the girl of his dreams from his high school days. Josie still lives at home, too, only her rich father (Noble Willingham) is so caught up in business dealings and in how he’ll look among other rich snobs that he hasn’t taken the time to truly know his daughter. As a result, Josie has decided to become a shoplifter, not because she wants the undergarments she’s stealing (she can afford to buy the store’s entire stock a few times over), but rather because it will get her father’s attention. Falling asleep in the dressing room wasn’t part of the plan.

“Career Opportunities” came during the post-“Home Alone” portion of John Hughes’ screenwriting career. It carries with it the same theme that most of his earlier movies used: Adults are stupid, while the young find common ground and enlightenment through open and honest dialogue. Like Samantha in “Sixteen Candles,” Jim gains the attention of the town’s most popular member of the opposite sex. Like the high school students serving detention in “The Breakfast Club,” Jim and Josie would never have interacted if not for one chance encounter. One difference between the two films is that “The Breakfast Club” did not require a manufactured conflict to keep the plot rolling. The appearance of the two crooks (real-life brothers Dermot and Kieran Mulroney) feels like unused ideas from “Home Alone,” minus the cartoonish booby traps. By the time the hoodlums arrive, Jim and Josie have done all of the bonding they’re going to do in a PG-13 rated comedy set mostly inside a retail store, and so this ‘conflict’ only exists to bring the movie to a conclusion.

Frank Whaley is no Matthew Broderick, but the lazy, live-at-home Jim Dodge is more relatable than Ferris Bueller’s spoiled rich kid out for a joyride.  He may be the lead, but he’s not the main draw. Anyone with any sense is watching this movie for Jennifer Connelly. Like a certain current 20-something actress named Jennifer, Connelly is naturally talented, beautiful and wise beyond her years. She makes you instantly interested in Josie’s personal dilemma, and she hopelessly outclasses her co-star while she’s on screen… and she looks good in a white tank top.

The movie itself is somewhat inferior when held up against the classic comedies which John Hughes brought us in the 1980’s. After a certain point… I think it was the success of “Home Alone” that did it… he never was quite able to match the success of his teen comedies and of those featuring John Candy (who also has an uncredited cameo appearance here). I’m left not all-together aware what the point of “Career Opportunities” was meant to be. Not all comedy is meant to have a point or teach a moral lesson, but Hughes’ own scripts usually did. Whether it was that everyone has similar worries and doubts, that you shouldn’t let your life pass you by, or that nothing can take the place of family, there were always words of wisdom at the end. The main characters often did something either destructive or illegal (or both) while never facing punishment, because it was all for a good cause. That happens here, too, but what are we to have learned? I suppose it could be to do what makes you happy, not just in work but in life. I’m just not sure. Maybe I’m just too hopelessly distracted by the eye candy to notice.

Sisters (1973)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, Bill Finley, Lisle Wilson

There are films which are of interest because of their story, those sought out because of who stars in them, those we love because of the time and place in which they were filmed/released, and those which were revolutionary and which continue to be highly influential. This is to name but only a few of the reasons why we watch the movies we watch. Sometimes we find a movie that we thought would be a masterpiece turns out to be a waste of time, and sometimes our attention is grabbed by a movie we were hesitant to even gaze upon. In the case of 1973’s “Sisters,” at least for me, the reason for my interest was because it was directed by Brian De Palma, whose works have been of particular interest to me in recent years, most especially his films from the 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Danielle is a French-Canadian model/actress living in a New York apartment. When we first meet Danielle, she is pretending to be a blind woman on one of those old game shows which were popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She hooks up with a contestant named Philip (Lisle Wilson), and the pair hit it off. They return to her apartment, but are followed by her ex-husband Emil (William Finley). They give him the slip, and are able to get cozy with one another. The calm is disturbed once more the next morning by Danielle’s (surgically separated) Siamese twin sister Dominique, with whom she is heard arguing in French in the next room. Danielle asks Philip to run out to the pharmacy to get a prescription refill on her medication. While he is out he buys a cake at the bakery, having been told by Danielle that it was the two sisters’ birthday. When Philip gets back, Dominique murders him. While this is happening, reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) who lives in the apartment across the causeway sees Philip writing “HELP” in the window with his own blood. Grace then takes it upon herself to solve Philip’s murder, letting her investigative instincts kick in, no matter the danger she might face by going it alone.

“Sisters” was by no means Brian De Palma’s first film but it was his first attempt at a horror thriller, and also his first chance to show his love for Alfred Hitchcock. Many of the traits associated with his later films are present, the best of which are the split screen (used during the murder scene and soon after in the subsequent cover-up) and also the way he uses his opening scene to mislead the audience. Here, we are not at first given any indication that Danielle is only playing the part of a blind woman. Speaking of De Palma’s affinity for The Master of Suspense, this movie marks the first of only two times that he was able to call on Hitchcock’s go-to composer, Bernard Hermann (who died on Christmas Eve 1975), the other being 1976’s “Obsession.”

I admit that I am no expert when it comes to the authenticity of a French-Canadian accent, however I can say that Margot Kidder’s accent in this movie so grates on the nerves that it almost single-handedly destroys this movie for me. At no point can I take Danielle seriously as a character, her speech so badly garbled that I have to turn on the subtitles just to be able to understand her. Jennifer Salt is better, if not particularly memorable. Really, it’s Charles Durning’s private detective and William Finley as the absolutely creepy Emil that hold my attention the most. Were it not for Finley’s performance and my love of De Palma’s atmosphere, aided by a truly claustrophobic and frightening finale at a mental hospital, I might have written off “Sisters” completely. There is also a lasting final image, much like the one at the end of “Black Christmas” (1974), which incidentally also stars Margot Kidder.

Very few directors get it right the first time. The ones that do more often than not wind up setting the bar at an impossibly high level which they never quite reach again. Although De Palma did not especially impress me with “Sisters,” I am not entirely let down. I know that there were far better movies to come, and that each of De Palma’s thrillers build upon the lessons learned. As such, “Sisters” serves as an insightful look into the early stages of my favorite director’s career.