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Movie Reviews


Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Let your freak flag fly! Just when you think things are hopeless, a movie like this comes along. Jon Heder, unknown at the time, starred in his buddy’s off-kilter, now classic, movie about three high school misfits—a geek, a girl, and a Mexican—and the mean kids who bullied them. It features the best dance routine of all time and the unforgettable slogan: “Vote for Pedro.” If only Pedro were running for President now…

See also:
That’s What I Am (2011)
A sweet if simple-minded story about a junior high school boy who is paired with the school’s biggest geek on a special project and learns to appreciate how special he is. The wise teacher responsible for the pairing is played by Ed Harris in a dignified, pacifistic, bow-tie-wearing kind of way. It would be easy to dismiss the movie, but it’s really about tolerance, and maybe we just don’t get enough of that.



Invictus (2009)
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon star as Mandela and the captain of the 1995 South African rugby team (respectively). Clint Eastwood directs this interesting portrayal of leadership and its common elements on and off the sports field, and the challenges that face any nation that might be inclined to strive for integration and diversity.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Coen Brothers take on gold diggers and marriage, complete with pre-nups, biting dogs, and a hit man, in this romantic comedy. George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a high-powered divorce attorney, creator of the iron clad Massey prenuptial agreement and lifelong bachelor. He takes on the case of a cheating husband whose wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is divorcing him. Massey wins the case, leaving the wife with nothing but becoming fascinated by her  in the process (who wouldn’t). Little does he know what lengths she will go to wreak her revenge. The plot becomes rather farcical, but the actors are beautiful and fun to watch. Billy Bob Thornton makes an appearance and steals the show.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Surprisingly endearing despite its peculiar concoction of bipolar disorder, marital failure, risky football bets, and a dance competition. Our protagonist, played by Bradley Cooper, is hospitalized after a violent episode when he discovered his wife in the shower with another man while Ma Cherie Amour, their wedding song, plays. After he is released, he returns home to his parents and attempts to reconcile with his wife although he still fears a breakdown if he should hear the song again (sound weird enough, yet?). Claiming she will help get him back together with his wife, an oddball friend of a friend (Jennifer Lawrence) entices him to enter a dance contest with her. The father, played by the always interesting Robert De Niro, engages in a convoluted betting scheme, on both the dance competition and the Philadelphia Eagles, raising the stakes in a romantic and performance showdown. The movie was a massive critical and commercial success and was nominated for eight Academy awards, including four acting categories.

No Man of Her Own (1950)
Barbara Stanwyck stars as a pregnant and penniless train passenger, abandoned by her paramour, who gives birth to a son after a terrible crash. Upon awaking in the hospital, she is mistaken for the wife of a wealthy fellow passenger, both of whom were conveniently killed in the accident. In order to provide a safe haven for her new son, she is continues the ruse after she is taken in by the passenger’s family until her old boyfriend shows up to ruin her life again.

Mrs. Winterbourne (1996)
Ricki Lake stars as a pregnant and penniless train passenger, abandoned by her jerk of a boyfriend, who gives birth to a son after a wreck. She is mistaken for the wife of a wealthy fellow passenger who was killed, along with his wife, in the accident. Invited home by the man’s mother, played by the charming Shirley MacLaine, she accepts the hospitality until the passenger’s brother, portrayed by Brendan Fraser, calls her bluff.

In a World… (2013)
Astonishingly good movie written and directed by actress Lake Bell who stars as a struggling vocal coach who finds herself competing with her renowned father for a voice-over role. Funny, quirky, and smart, it’s a window into the world of voice-over and its male egos and is courageous enough to address the larger feminist issue of how people react to women’s voices.

Little Voice (1998)
Sweet LV stays in her room all day singing along to her dead father’s records of the greats, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, and Shirley Bassey. An uncanny mimic, she is too shy to sing in front of others until her mother’s manipulative boyfriend (played by Michael Caine) convinces her to give a concert. The movie lurches uneasily from musical, to comedy, to tear-jerker, to romance, but it’s worth seeing for the musical numbers all sung by the remarkable Jane Horrocks.

Les Reines du Ring (2013)
A mother attempts to re-connect with her estranged son who is obsessed with pro wrestling by convincing her fellow grocery clerks to form a team of “catch.” Hilarious characters and scenes in a classic sports movie with a twist. (In French with Marilou Berry and Natalie Baye)

The Hot Flashes (2013)
I loved this movie about a group of former basketball players who, despite being post-menopausal, challenge the high school girls’ basketball team to a series of games in order to raise money for a mobile mammogram unit. Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, and Virginia Madsen star and look like they are having a blast. Eric Roberts strikes just the right infuriating note as a beer-guzzling dick of a husband. The Hot Flashes’ manager, the only decent guy in the movie, played by a dwarf (get it?) asks the women: “What have we got that [the high schoolers] don’t?” “Er, lazy husbands?” someone guesses. Every moment is predictable, and that’s what makes it so great. A joyous chick flick on steroids.

The Heart of the Game (2005)
Filmed over six seasons, this documentary covers a Seattle high school girls’ basketball team and their unorthodox coach, a tax law teacher from the University of Washington, who taught aggressive strategies and adopted a different animal metaphor each year—a pack of wolves, a school of piranhas—to motivate his players. The movie focuses on one star player, Darnellia, who became pregnant her junior year and dropped out of school. A year later, she returned to school and the team, but was banned from playing by some Washington officials. They cited a rule that a player cannot play more than four years unless she has experienced a hardship. With the support of her coach, Darnellia fought the ruling, and her attorney argued that having an unplanned child constitutes a hardship. I won’t spoil the film, but the drama on the court and in the courts is interesting.
Drama continued after the movie was released, when the coach, Bill Resler, was summarily fired in 2007 by the high school’s new principal, three days before a new season began, despite his winning record and popularity. The school refused to offer an explanation, but a Seattle reporter was able to piece together a story about a small group of unhappy parents and their success in lobbying for Resler’s dismissal. They ostensibly objected to Resler’s drinking and bad language, but an email from one of the parents pointed to the lack of “teaching young ladies integrity [and] responsibility for actions.” Could Resler’s defense of a black teenage mother (the high school is predominately white) have been the real cause of his dismissal?

Cloud Nine (2014)
A privileged snowboarder assumes that her place on the resort team is well-deserved until indiscretions reveal that she holds the spot only because of her daddy’s influence. Determined to prove that she can hold her own, she begins training with a former legendary snowboarder whose ambition was destroyed by a bad accident. Together, the two work to achieve their dream of completing the ultimate trick, the Cloud Nine, as part of a contending team, along with two goofy sidekicks and a bunch of dogs.
Yes, it’s a Disney movie, but perhaps that makes it all the more interesting to watch a movie about a female athlete who puts in the work and, over the low expectations of her father, her coach, and her former boyfriend, succeeds in reaching her goal and wins a victory for her team. If that sounds like a cliché, name me one other movie that shows such a thing without her having to pay some terrible price—like dying, or losing her family, or becoming a lesbian, or some other non-sequitur punishment.

Ping Pong Summer (2014)
Another sports movie that appears conventional until you look a little more closely. In this 80’s period piece, a new kid in town aspires to beat the local bully at ping pong but has a problem—the bully’s game is better. With the help of a former champion, the new kid’s game improves, but will it be enough to beat the bully in a championship game in front of the whole town? The twist on an old tale comes in the form of Susan Sarandon playing the gruff, beer-guzzling coach who keeps an old pingpong table in her garage, surrounded by car parts and fishing equipment. I would watch any film with Sarandon in it (really), but I’m biased. Amy Sedaris also stars as the kid’s rather horrifying but entertaining, body-obsessed aunt.

20 Feet from Stardom (2014)
A well-done documentary about the plight of backup singers from the sixties to the present through the eyes of the singers, along with the usually white, male stars they supported. Some of the singers were comfortable out of the limelight, but many desired and were denied an opportunity to front a band, because of bad luck, bias (most were black women who grew up singing gospels), or, as they say hesitantly, just not believing in themselves. They report the usual exploitation: broken promises, records released without credit, abruptly dropped contracts, financial ripoffs—Phil Spector comes off very badly in the film.
Two present-day backup singers are featured: Lisa Fisher whose powerful voice, control, range, and creativity are breathtaking, but whose solo effort was a failure, and Judith Hill, who nearly caught a break when she was set to tour with Michael Jackson, but fell back into obscurity after he died. Major stars, such as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder participate in the movie, which won an academy for best documentary, acknowledging the importance of the background singers, who were instrumental in making songs such as The Tracks of my Tears and Walk on the Wild Side into hits. When the aging women get together to talk about the old days, they tell it like it is with humor and feistiness. One of my favorite lines was by black singer, Merry Clayton, who was appalled to be asked to sing backup on the controversial confederate anthem, Sweet Home Alabama, at a time when the state was notorious for racial discrimination (well, I guess that would probably be anytime). “Sweet Home Alabama, my ass,” she said, but then she decided to take the job and make the song her own. “I decided I was going to sing it, and I was going to sing the hell out of it.” And she does.

And In the Category of Something Different:

That’s What I Am (2011)
A sweet if simple-minded story about a junior high school boy who is paired with the school’s biggest geek on a special project and learns to appreciate how special he is. The wise teacher responsible for the pairing is played by Ed Harris in a dignified, pacifistic, bow-tie-wearing kind of way. It would be easy to dismiss the movie, but it’s really about tolerance, and maybe we just don’t get enough of that.

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