★★★★ / ★★★★
“Nostalgic” is the word that is likely to sprout from viewers’ minds as they sit through Jonah Hill’s debut film “Mid90s.” Perhaps the work is even asking for it. The opening shots, for instance, are keen on showing clothing brands, toys, CDs, and video games that were popular at the time. Even the way the images are photographed, bathed in typical ‘90s graininess, are reminiscent of ‘90s independent cinema in which a sense of realism, one can argue, is a character in and of itself.
But these objects and stylistic flourishes are not what makes the film special. It is most surprising that the picture is peppered with tender moments that communicate paragraphs even when the characters in focus are, for the most part, silent. It is without question that these moments are earned; because we have an understanding of the people involved, there is no need for expository dialogue in order for the drama to be appreciated. And when words are used, they cut right to the point and there is nowhere to hide. Both the characters and viewers are confronted with an experience, possibly even exchanges that they may take with them for the rest of their lives.
It is curious in that the protagonist is a thirteen-year-old who simply wishes to belong, but a case can be made that he is not the most interesting character. Stevie is played with effervescence by Sunny Suljic; I was surprised to have found out that he already had several acting roles under his belt prior to this film because he excels in simply being in front of the camera. He is our conduit to a more interesting group of people—four older teens (Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin) who spend every day skateboarding, hanging out, smoking, drinking, and going to parties. Two of them have curious nicknames—Fuckshit and Fourth Grade—and the remaining are called by their birth names Ruben and Ray. Because of how they look, how they dress, how they speak, and how they act, we assume we know everything there is to know about them.
This is the point in which Hill’s screenplay shows its strength. When they hang out, we feel like we are hanging out with them because of the humor. Yes, some of the jokes they make are stupid—which is the point—but there is a rhythm in how the group dynamics change over time. A few banters are laugh-out-loud funny. Throughout the course of the picture’s eighty-minute running time, friendships—plural—evolve over time. It is not just Stevie befriending a group; it is Stevie getting to know each member of the group. Like Stevie, our opinion of each one changes naturally. Compare this to safe and commercialized movies aimed for children or teenagers that are required to have proclamations involving the importance of friendship following forced dramatic turns. The effortless chemistry among Stevie and his friends are far more convincing and real.
Curious, too, are confrontations that happen at home. Stevie’s mother (Katherine Waterston) is barely around but when she is, her presence gives the screen a jolt. We already know how she will react once she finds out who her son has been hanging out with. However, it is the brother, played by Lucas Hedges, who is perhaps most enigmatic. He is physically violent to his younger brother, yes, but we wonder immediately why he is this way. There is a conversation between brothers while playing video games that might explain why Ian feels the need to dominate. But perhaps not. The most fascinating of Stevie’s friends, Ray (Smith), who dreams of becoming a pro-skater, makes a case that environment does not define a person.
“Mid90s” is not everyone’s childhood. It is far from mine. It is without question, however, that there is value in it. Like many coming-of-age pictures that stand the test of time, it is first and foremost an examination of one person followed by material written so sharply, and with great empathy, that we find ourselves deeply invested in this person’s story. We want to know not only the protagonist but also his friends, his family, his home; the type of teenager, young adult, and mature person he might become. At one point, I thought it would be intriguing to revisit late-teen Stevie.
Goonies, The (1985)
★★ / ★★★★
In Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” a group of kids found a map containing the location of a pirate treasure. Brothers Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) had a week before their family were forced to move because their parents could no longer afford their home. But when Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), Mouth (Corey Feldman) and Chunk (Jeff Cohen) agreed with Mikey to search for the mythical treasure for one last adventure, they stumbled upon the hiding place of three Italian criminals (Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, Robert David) on the run from the cops. Their hiding place contained a secret passageway that led to an underground cave that housed the legendary pirate ship. “The Goonies” would appeal to kids because they would most likely be able relate to the characters’ silliness and quirkiness, the soundtrack was energetic, and it played upon the universal idea of children’s penchant for treasure hunting. Despite being a kid at heart, I wasn’t that entertained. There were far too many people in the cave. The two girls, Andy (Kerri Green) and Stef (Martha Plimpton), were completely unnecessary. The romance between Andy and Brand dragged the picture’s momentum. How could we root for their romance if they weren’t fully realized characters? The fact that the picture kept suggesting that there could be something between Andy, around sixteen years old, and Mikey, who was still in elementary school, was more awkward than funny, creepy than cute. I felt like the girls in the movie were added simply to appeal to the same sex. I wish they made their exit when they stumbled upon a well where three guys above could have taken them home. I grew tired of their whining. I enjoyed the film most when the guys accidentally triggered booby traps. It was like watching a light version of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” exciting but we never truly felt that the characters were in any real danger. We were simply curious to see how the protagonists would adapt to the quickly changing environment. I did wish, however, that the criminals were more dangerous. Most of the time, they acted more like cartoon characters. I didn’t buy for one second that they were smart enough to pull off breaking someone out of jail as they did in the first scene. “The Goonies” wasn’t rich with subtlety. The child actors’ lines often felt forced and it was obvious when some of their lines were dubbed. They probably ran out of takes. Still, the movie was entertaining and charming in its own way. Based on Spielberg’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder how sharper and stronger it might have been under his direction.
Take Me Home Tonight (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Matt (Topher Grace) graduated from MIT but he recently moved back home because he didn’t know what to do with his life. While working in a video store at the mall, Matt’s high school crush, Tori (Teresa Palmer), walked in. Embarrassed to be seen as a clerk, Matt pretended to be another shopper and she almost immediately recognized him. Hoping to catch up, Tori invited Matt to attend a party. “Take Me Home Tonight,” written by Jackie Filgo and Jeff Filgo, was a trip back to the 80s where shoulder pads and big hair reigned supreme. I was instantly drawn to it because of the wild fashion, catchy soundtrack, and the story about a young man whose life was at a standstill was relatable. However, the writers’ decision to focus on the party and the crazy happenings took away some precious time for us to really understand the pain and frustration that Matt was going through. There was no doubt that the party had its share of laughs. I chuckled watching Barry (Dan Fogler), Matt’s best friend, deliberately put himself into embarrassing situations. The dance-off didn’t propel the story forward but it added to the nostalgia. When I can tell that the actors are having fun, I can’t help but have fun, too. There was also a very funny bit involving an older woman, Barry, and a German guy who had a fetish for watching people have sex. What the picture needed was more introspective moments. There were two scenes that moved me: when Matt tried to convince Wendy (Anna Faris), his twin, not to marry her slug of a boyfriend (Chris Patt) and when Matt’s father (Michael Biehn) had to perform some tough love to motivate his son to get out of the rut he had grown accustomed to. The two scenes stood out because I learned about Matt through other people. Learning about him from another perspective was important because Matt didn’t really know himself. There was only one thing he wanted for sure: Tori. I wished there were less scenes between she and Matt. I understood that our protagonist was so fixated at the fantasy of being together with his high school crush and he needed to get her out of his system. She was a nice character, sure, but that was the problem: she was so nice, she was almost dull. I was more interested in Wendy and the unopened letter she had received from a prestigious graduate school in England. She was interesting because, unlike Matt, she took action to pursue her passion as a writer. She knew her career path but was weighed down by the responsibility of a romantic relationship. She had to choose. The film would have been stronger if the screenplay and direction had taken the twins and allowed them to serve as character foils for one another. Grace and Faris had wonderful chemistry. They didn’t need to do physical comedy to be funny. A friendly banter and rolling of the eyes were enough to make me want to keep listening to whatever they had to say because I felt like they shared a history. The rest were filler.
Expendables, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of mercenaries (Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews) was hired by an enigmatic man (Bruce Willis) to go to an island in South America in hopes of overthrowing a dictator (David Zayas) being controlled by a former CIA agent (Eric Roberts) and his beefy minion (Steve Austin). The film was thin on plot and very heavy on the action which means it’s perfect for men just wanting to sit back, have some laughs, and a couple of beers. I think it succeeded as a brainless action film but it failed in terms of strongly establishing a franchise that could potentially continue and thrive. The script developed certain characters like Lee Christmas (Statham) being a softie at heart, Ying Yang (Li) wanting to have a family someday, and Tool (Mickey Rourke) having a tortured past. However, the rest of the group didn’t get enough attention. For instance, I thought it was very awkward when Crews suddenly appeared (with the big guns and hilarious overkill) near the end when I didn’t see him at all since the beginning of the movie. The picture would have benefited as a whole if it had taken a little bit of time to explore each one even though the exploration may not have been very deep. Forgetting about a character is the worst. Furthermore, not for one second did I believe that the villains’ plans could succeed at the end of the day because they were overpowered by the good guys in numbers and weapons. Was it too much to ask for more (former) action stars to have been hired as bad guys? Although there was genuine tension in the action scenes and I found my heart pounding like crazy because of the adrenaline during the impressive car chase and plane acrobatics, I didn’t feel a thing when all the action died down. When the characters conversed, the lines were laughable; their words were obviously directed toward each other but I felt like they were having completely different conversations altogether. They were like young children still developing how it’s like to really communicate with someone else in a meaningful way. “The Expendables” proved that nostalgia could only take a movie to a certain extent. Without surprising twists and compelling moments of silence (I did love the one scene when the camera was fixated on Rourke’s face as he told his painful story) in between action sequences, the movie stayed limp even though there was an overdose of testosterone. Those impressed with the trailer will end up enjoying the movie one way or another. I did like it but I thought it could have been a lot better if it had filled in some gaps and ironed out its inconsistencies.
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
“Some Kind of Wonderful” was about two best friends named Keith and Watts (Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson, respectively) who initially failed to see that they were perfect for each other. Watts being a hardcore tomboy certainly did not help their situation. But after popular girl Amanda (Lea Thompson) and popular rich boy Hardy (Craig Sheffer) broke up, Keith wanted to take Amanda on a date and Watts started to feel uncomfortably jealous. I did enjoy the movie as a whole but I think it came up short on delivering something unique. I love the whole 80’s thing going on with Keith’s eccentric family, the divide between the rich and the poor students, the big hair, and the nostalgic soundtrack but by the end of the movie, I didn’t feel like I knew the main characters that well. Since the picture was written by John Hughes, compared to his other projects, his characters in this film felt one-dimensional and the way the story unfolded (like most 80s teen movies) felt painfully obvious. But what made this movie work less for me was the fact that it didn’t even try to surprise me in terms of delivering something I didn’t expect from the characters. I also thought it was weird that I didn’t get emotionally involved with the characters’ lives. All of the drama was on the outside so as much as I tried to like it on another deeper level, I just couldn’t. Although there was tension between Keith and his dad (John Ashton) because Keith did not want to go to college, it felt like a distraction because the movie was more about (or should be more about) the relationship between the two best friends. I didn’t feel much chemistry between Keith and Watts so I thought it was necessary for the film to prove to me that there’s a compelling reason for the two of them to be together. There were times when I thought Thompson’s character outshined Masterson’s because of the popular girl’s shame of desperately trying to hide where she came from to the point where she was willing to hang out with snobby rich girls who could care less about her. I was more interested in Thompson’s character because I could see the pain she was going through and the reasons why she decided to make certain decisions. Although Watts had her share of insecurities in the locker room, I needed to know more about her, especially if Keith was going to choose her in the end. Still, there were some funny scenes especially when Elias Koteas (as a bully who looks like a skinhead) was on screen. Directed by Howard Deutch, “Some Kind of Wonderful” needed more sensitive moments that weren’t necessarily expressed in a highlighted manner. Sometimes, subtelty can go a long way. Ultimately, it’s a nice movie but there’s a fine line between sensitive and cheesy. At times it stepped on the latter’s territory.
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Three friends in their forties who weren’t happy with the way their lives turned out (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry) and a twenty-year-old with no social life (Clark Duke) accidentally went back in time after getting into a hot tub with magical powers. As ridiculous as the premise was, after watching the trailers, I was open to what it was about to bring. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as funny as I thought it would be. I think the picture was stuck in a rut for too long; when the four were transported back to 1986, the characters spent too much of their time trying to stick to what they did fourteen years ago so that they wouldn’t accidentally change the future. As a result, the film felt stagnant and boring because the characters knew exactly what they had to do. Fortunately, the script eventually rose above the formula and really let the characters do whatever they wanted with little disregard to the consequences of their actions. Out of the four actors, I thought Corddry was the most effective because of his histrionics. Cusack, Duke, and Robinson pretty much played themselves and they kind of blended among each other. While I thought the nostalgia was there (music, fashion, the way people spoke, the bad special effects–which I loved), the picture needed a lot of focus. There were times when I was very confused where the story was going and why the characters were doing certain things. Also, lessons like “friends always stick with each other” was too after school special for me. It was corny, unnecessary and, quite frankly, unfunny. Still, I enjoyed watching the supporting actors such as Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan and Chevy Chase. They didn’t have much screen time but their appearances were nice breaks from the randomness that were happening. I’ve heard a lot of people claiming that “Hot Tub Time Machine,” directed by Steve Pink, was like “The Hangover” or that it was as funny or funnier than that surprising box-office success. I very much disagree because I felt like “The Hangover” had more control of its material; it didn’t feel as convoluted as this film nor did it feel like it was trying too hard. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy “Hot Tub Time Machine” in parts but there were extended time periods when I wasn’t laughing. I love everything about the 80s (especially fashion and hair that were so out there) but I felt like this movie didn’t take advantage of that era. I felt like the characters were trapped in that ski resort instead of owning it since it was their second time living through that part of their lives. When you’ve got a ridiculous (but fun) premise, you have to deliver in a big way and make sure to rise above the title and avoid using it as a crutch.
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie provided me bucketloads of nostalgia because I used to watch the cartoons when I was younger. Starring and written by Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Raymond Stantz) and Harold Ramis (Dr. Egon Spengler), “Ghostbusters” is really fun to watch because of its originality and bona fide sense of humor. The film also stars Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddmore (an eventual Ghostbuster), Sigourney Weaver as their first client and Rick Moranis as Weaver’s mousy neighbor. I was impressed that each of them had something to contribute to the comedy as well as moving the story forward. I usually don’t like special and visual effects in comedies because the filmmakers get too carried away and neglect the humor, but I enjoyed those elements here because all of it was within the picture’s universe. Although the movie does embrace its campiness, it’s not completely ludicrious. In fact, since the Ghostbusters are part of the Psychology department, I was happy that the script managed to use the psychological terms and ideas in a meaningful way such as the idea of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. I also liked the fact that it had time to respectfully reference (or parody?) to “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Although the humor is much more consistent in the first half, the second half is where it manages to show its intelligence such as the fusing of ideas from gods of various cultures and Christianity’s armageddon. Without the actors providing a little something extra (such as Murray’s hilarious sarcasm), this would’ve been a typical comedic spookfest. The special and visual effects may have been dated but it still managed to entertain me from start to finish because the film is so alive with ideas and anecdotes with universal appeal.