Movie Review: Mean Girls (2004)

Title: Mean Girls
Release Date: April 30, 2004
Director: Mark Waters
Production Company: Broadway Video

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George?

Every high school has a clique of popular, conventionally-attractive, and typically wealthy girls who use their advantages to bully and manipulate the other girls at the school.  This teen comedy, oddly, adapts a sociological non-fiction work called Queen Bees and Wannabes and carries that more serious message under the more comical narrative.  While it feels like every beat in Mean Girls has been memefied over the years, the film still holds up well after almost two decades.

Naive 16-year-old Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) enters school for the first time after growing up homeschooled by her zoologist parents researching on location in Africa. Cady is unexpectedly given the opportunity to join the ruling clique, The Plastics, made up of queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams),  gossipy Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert), and ditsy Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried). Cady’s new friends Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) convince her to infiltrate The Plastics in hopes of finding ways to embarrass them.  Hijinks ensue as Cady finds herself alternately repulsed and fascinated by Regina.

The movie was a vehicle for Lohan, whose troubled personal life has overshadowed her film career, but McAdams and Seyfried have gone on to very successful careers.  The talented younger cast is supported by a lot of Saturday Night Live veterans as the adults, especially Tina Fey who wrote the screenplay as well as co-starring as the math teacher, Ms. Norbury.  That script, of course, is full of quotable dialogue and remains hilarious on repeat viewings.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Better Off Dead (1985)

Title: Better Off Dead
Release Date: August 23, 1985
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Production Company: A&M Films | CBS Theatrical Films

Lane Meyer (John Cusack) becomes suicidal after his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) dumps him for an obnoxious jock,  but his increasingly elaborate attempts to kill himself fail spectacularly.  This doesn’t sound like the premise for a comedy, but in the hands of Savage Steve Holland it becomes an iconic teen movie of the 1980s.  The absurdity of Lane’s life is everywhere, from his eccentric parents (played by tv veterans Kim Darby and David Ogden Stiers), the Korean drag racers who talk like Howard Cosell, and an extremely persistent paperboy (and this only scratches the surface of the oddities in this movie).  The soundtrack is also eclectic with songs by Howard Jones, Van Halen, Neil Sedaka, Frank Sinatra, and Muddy Waters, among others.  Lane’s life turns around when he befriends French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin) who helps him regain his confidence.

This was one of my favorite movies when I was younger, mostly because it is so extremely silly with hilarious, quotable dialogue. On the downside, it gave me the unrealistic hope that my teenage romantic woes might be solved if only my school got a cute foreign exchange student.  But it only occured to me on this rewatch that so much of the absurdity serves to reflect the heightened emotions of teenagerhood.  I’m guessing that I’m probably ranking this movie too highly based on nostalgia, but those memories are an important part of my experience with this movie, and besides it still makes me laugh.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Say Anything… (1989)

TitleSay Anything…
Release Date: April 14, 1989
Director: Cameron Crowe
Production Company: Gracie Films

Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is a well-liked teenager with a lot of nervous energy and a passion for kickboxing, who lives with his older sister (Joan Cusack) and young nephew. Diane Court (Ione Skye) is a academic high achiever who feels she’s missed out on the social connections of high school.  At the time of their high school graduation, Lloyd decides he wants to ask Diane out although his friends Corey (Lili Taylor) and D.C. (Amy Brooks) say she’s out of his league. Nevertheless, with persistence, Lloyd and Diane form a bond and begin a whirlwind romance in the summer before she leaves for a fellowship in England.  Things hit a snag when Diane’s close relationship with her divorced father Jim (John Mahoney, soon to remain in Seattle and be Fraser’s father) is shaken by an IRS investigation into his embezzling funds from the residents of the retirement home he operates.

That’s the basic plot of the movie, but it really doesn’t say anything  (ha!) about why this movie is so special.  More than any other teen movie of the period, the characters feel like real human beings with natural behaviors and motivations.  Cameron Crowe’s script is sharp with lots of memorable dialogue.  And the editing is interesting, really showing the development of a relationship over a period of time without excessive exposition.  Then there’s the iconic soundtrack featuring songs by Fishbone, The Replacements, and, of course, “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.  But seriously, this movie is sooooo much more than that boombox scene.

Rating: ****1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)

Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Ian Samuels
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Weed Road Pictures | Wishmore Entertainment

I saw this movie described as “If John Green did Groundhog Day,” which I think captures of the gist of the movie but undersells the originality and charm of the movie. Yes, this movie does namecheck Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, and shares similarities with Palm Springs and other time loop movies. But as a teen comedy/drama/fantasy/romance it also uses the time loop trope to effectively examine the problems of young people ranging from dealing with grief to the fear of a future under climate change.

The movie begins with Mark (Kyle Allen) having already been in the time loop for some time and enjoying the godlike powers that come with knowing everything that is going to happen.  Things change when he meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a girl his own age who also is stuck in the time loop.  They begin spending time together and looking around their town for perfect moments of beauty which Mark documents each morning on a map (hence the title).  While Mark grows increasingly interested in finding a way to escape the temporal anomaly, Margaret is more reticent.  Mark is also interested in a romantic relationship which Margaret rebuffs.

Over the course of the movie, their are some interesting revelations and character growth I won’t spoil, but it ends up for making a very thoughtful and heartwarming film. With strong, nuanced performances by the lead actors (especially Newton), good storytelling, and editing, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a lot better than I expected and better than others have been giving it credit for.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Clueless (1995)

Title: Clueless
Release Date: July 19, 1995
Director: Amy Heckerling
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Clueless was released just after I graduated from college so I wasn’t in the target audience for a high school comedy.  Nevertheless, I watched and enjoyed the movie.  Revisiting the movie 25 years later the inescapable 90s-ness of the movie dates it considerably.  But a lot of the humor and charm of the movie persists.

Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless focuses on Cher (Alicia Silverstone), a wealthy and stylish girl from Beverly Hills. Over the course of the movie, Cher learns to put aside self-interest and work to help others. Silverstone’s performance and the script by director Amy Heckerling (who also created Fast Times at Ridgemont High) help make Cher a likable character despite her initial snobbery and carelessness.

Part of Cher’s good deed doing involves adopting the new student Tai (Brittany Murphy) and making her over to be one of the most popular girls in the school.  Murphy’s sweet naivete steals a lot of scenes, although I’ll never figure out what kind of accent she’s supposed to have.  Cher is also transformed by a relationship with her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), a socially conscious college student who has maintained a close relationship with Cher’s lawyer father. I obviously didn’t know who Rudd was in 1995 and was amazed to see him in this movie, not least because he still looks as youthful as he did 25 years ago.

The movie is sweet and silly, part parody of the lives of clueless rich teenagers, but never acerbic about it. It was definitely worth a 25th reunion rewatch.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Title: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Release Date: June 11, 1986
Director: John Hughes
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

My 12 y.o. wanted to watch this movie which was a surprise since he rarely wants to watch movies at all, much less teen classics from the 80s.  Some things you notice when you’re watching a movie for the first time in decades with your children: 1. there’s a lot more profanity than I remembered, and 2. Ferris is really a jerk and deserves to suffer SOME consequences for his misbehavior.  Maybe not so much for skipping school, but  for how he mistreats his friends and family.  At least Cameron calls him out on it.

The story, should you not be aware of it or have forgotten, is that Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) pretends to be sick in order to skip school for the 9th time in his senior year in high school (we need 8 prequels to learn what he did on those days!). He picks up his chronically-depressed and hypochondriac friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), who is also absent from school. Ferris basically steals Cameron’s father’s antique sportscar (Cameron has some good suggestions of renting a car or hiring a limo, something these kids had the means to do).  They pick up Ferris’ girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), from school on the excuse that her grandmother died.

The trio drive to Chicago for the geekiest day of truancy ever.  Impossibly, they are able to to visit Sears Tower and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, dine at a fancy restaurant, attend a Cubs game, visit the Art Institute of Chicago, and then see the Von Steuben Parade, which Ferris famously crashes to lead a sing-a-long and dance of joyous Chicagoans (and since I visited Chicago in 2018, I recognized exactly where those parade scenes were shot).  Meanwhile, the school principal Ed Rooney (played by real-life sex offender Jeffrey Jones), creepily tries to track down Ferris, going so far as to break into the Bueller’s home.  Simultaneously, Ferris’ younger sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), angered at her parents’ favoritism toward Ferris, also tries to bust him for faking illness.

The movie works because of the generally wholesome activities the lead trio engage in on their trip to Chicago, a steady series of gags, and all-around great performances from the cast and great chemistry among the leads.  But as I noted above, Ferris is not a hero, but more of an agent of chaos.  The real protagonists of this movie, or at least the ones who change the most, are Cameron and Jeanie.  Cameron finally reaches a breaking point where he’s able to stand up for himself to Ferris, which leads him to gain the confidence to stand up to his neglectful father.  And by the way, watching is this as a parent makes me wonder just how monstrous this father is.  Meanwhile, Jeanie is able to exorcise her jealousy and righteous rage at Ferris and attempt to just take control of her own destiny.  This, of course, means that everything works out just perfectly for Ferris, the little twerp.

Almost 35 years after its release, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is still very funny and doesn’t feel dated.  Sure, there are boxy cars and big hair, but it doesn’t scream “EIGHTIES!” as much as John Hughes’ other movies. I do wonder what this movie would be like if Ferris had a cell phone, though, considering his ability to use technology to his advantage. More importantly, it doesn’t have the inappropriate moments that make one cringe at the sexual misconduct and racism that you find in 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club.  I also appreciate the directorial style, such as viewing Cameron debating himself about joining Ferris through his car window, or how Ferris running home at the end is directed like a Chuck Jones/Tex Avery cartoon, complete with zany sound effects and music cues.

If you liked it when you’re young, watch it with your (older) kids.  They may just enjoy it as well.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Title: 10 Things I Hate About You
Release Date: March 31, 1999
Director: Gil Junger
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures

This 1999 teen movie reinvents William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as a romantic comedy set at Padua High School in Seattle.  Obstetrician and single dad Walter Stratford has strict rules against his daughters dating in high school but modifies them so that his younger, sociable daughter, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) cannot date until his older, rebellious daughter, Kat (Julia Stiles) goes on a date first.  He does this knowing that Kat wants no part of high school social conventions.

A new student at the school, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is smitten by Bianca and works out a plan with his nerdy new friend, Michael (David Krumholtz), to find someone willing to date Kat.  Realizing that they need money to bribe a potential suitor, they call in the obnoxious BMOC, Joey (Andrew Keegan), who also has interest in Bianca. They decide the fearless meathead with a notorious bad boy reputation, Patrick (Heath Ledger), is the best man for the job.

I realize that it’s taken me two paragraphs just to describe the complex, and somewhat silly, machinations behind this movie’s plot.  But once the pieces are set into motion, the movie really soars with some hilarious moments and quotable dialogue.  Curiously, the movie starts with Cameron, Michael, & Bianca as the A plot and Kat and Patrick as the B plot, but part way through the movie these switch places, to the movie’s benefit. Probably the best part of the movie is how it allows the main characters to emerge as more complex than their originally established stereotypes (well, except Joey, who remains a vain bully).

This movie is screamingly Nineties, and yet, for the most part, doesn’t have the cringe factor of revisiting many things from that decade. The dad, Walter Stratford, and his creepy, controlling attitude toward his daughters is deeply uncomfortable, but at least that is called out in the movie.  Prominent appearances by the bands Letters to Cleo and Save Ferris add some 90s charm, and the soundtrack holds up well, although apparently 90s kids partied to more music from the 70s than I remembered.

Rating: ****