(On DVD, November 2017) Fifteen minutes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I experienced a sudden and unexplainable feeling of nostalgia for malls as they existed in the nineties (with bookstores, record stores, movie theatres and other niceties that are being paved over by the march of digital progress) which is really weird considering that as a teenager in a small town, I spent nearly no time at all in malls until my twenties, and even then not that much. Such is the effectiveness of the film, given that it presents high schoolers as they navigate between school, home and the mall (usually as a workplace). It’s directed by Amy Heckerling, from Cameron Crowe’s first script (based on his own book as an undercover high-schooler) and it’s still a cutting, unflinching look at the teenage experience, even when bathed in movie magic. While billed as a comedy, it gets unexpectedly serious at times (such as with an abortion subplot that exemplifies a major betrayal between so-called friends) yet does not really dive deep into misery despite the protagonists’ reversals of fortune. The cast of the movie is amazing—not only does it feature solid performances by Sean Penn (as a stoner surfer hilarious far away from his current persona), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, and Phoebe Cates, it also features near-cameos by then-newcomers Nicolas Cage and Forrest Whittaker. Good characters, organic plot developments, an interesting soundtrack, and a cheerful refusal to bow to conventions help make Fast Times at Ridgemont High still interesting today even after thirty-five more years of teenage high school comedies. No wonder it’s become a cultural touchstone—and now I know firsthand what everyone is talking about, including the infamous poolside scene.
(On TV, September 2017) There are a few reasons to go back to Say Anything … and they’re not strictly limited to this being one of John Cusack’s first big role, or that this is Cameron Crowe’s first movie as a writer/director. Even today, Say Anything does have an off-beat quality that distinguishes it from so many other teen romance movies. Most of the characters defy easy characterizations (indeed, one of the film’s strengths is in undermining the stereotypes it starts with, all the way to an incarceration that feels wildly daring for a movie of this type), the dialogues are witty and the conclusion ends, as it is, in mid-air without being unsatisfying. Cusack’s charm is apparent even at a young age, while Ione Skye distinguishes herself as a teenage heroine and John Mahoney handles a difficult role fairly well. Surprisingly enough, the iconic boombox moment is a fleeting scene without much pomp associated with it. Decently comparable to the slew of John Hughes high school romantic comedies, Say Anything may not be a perfect examples of the form, but it’s readily watchable even today, and it still feels somewhat more sophisticated than many of its contemporaries.
(TubiTV streaming, April 2017) In talking about Elizabethtown, it’s almost essential to talk about aliens and angels. Aliens, because the leading theory to explain what happened to writer/director Cameron Crowe between Jerry Maguire/Almost Famous and Elizabethtown/Aloha is that he has been replaced by an alien with imperfect understanding of human behavior. Elizabethtown professes to be about life, love, laughs and other wholesome sentiments, but even from its first five minutes, it seemingly takes place in a reality with limited similarities to our own. Reading the late and lamented Roger Ebert bring in angels to explain the behavior of the female lead character is a testimony to how far we have to go in order to even make sense of the film. I’m usually good to mention one or two particularly dumb moments in my capsule reviews, but Elizabethtown has so many nonsensical bits that it would take too long to do them justice. Orlando Bloom is sort of bland but still effective as the grieving suicidal lead, while Kirsten Dunst is bubbly as the entirely improbable love interest. “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was invented to discuss Elizabethtown as one of the few rational responses to such a character. I could go on and on about how the film may be a fever dream or a fantasy written by aliens whose only exposure to humanity has been through romantic comedies, but Elizabethtown is frankly just that weird. It even becomes oddly endearing after a while, once it’s clear than anything goes here. The Free Bird/Firebird sequence is amusing (if, again, directed so poorly as to be ludicrous), there are a few laughs here and there and odd resonant piece of dialogues. Alec Baldwin shows up too briefly as a Big Boss, while I always enjoy seeing Judy Greer and Jessica Alba even in minor roles. Still, Elizabethtown seems to belong in a category of its own, a blend of outsider and performance art, perhaps. In that light, I’d be doing a disservice to tell you not to see it.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) on the one hand, I’m not a big fan of obviously manipulative feel-good movies. On the other hand, I won’t deny that I like feeling good and can be lenient toward films that aim to make viewers happy. So it is that with We Bought a Zoo, we have the story of a widower purchasing a zoo, caring for animals and reconciling with his kids and getting over the tragic death of his wife. That’s it. Nothing else. Fortunately, that’s more than enough. Once you throw in the zoo animals, the decent performances by Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannsen, as well as the assorted cast of characters, the film becomes more than bearable enough. A heavier, older, quieter Damon makes for a solid protagonist, but a good part of the film’s charm goes to the underdog nature of a man picking up zoo-keeping from scratch. Speaking to animals is part of the challenge, but speaking to other people is just as important. Despite the blatant melodrama of writer/director Cameron Crowe’s script (the leitmotif “20 seconds of insane courage” aren’t even mentioned until the third act.), We Bought a Zoo is not a bad movie. Sometimes, we can accept manipulation if the end result is to our liking.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Wait, what? Cameron Crowe wrote and directed Aloha? The rather competent filmmaker behind such films as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky somehow ended up putting together this grotesque mishmash of disparate story element forced together? Huh. The frustrating thing about Aloha is that it does feature some very strong elements: Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone are two highly charming performers and it’s maddening to see them struggle with a script that doesn’t serve any substance. There is a provocative idea in trying to match Hawaiian mythology with the hard-edged world of military space technology, except when neither element seem to play off each other. The film’s lackadaisical lack of plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in keeping with the setting) except when it flips out ten minutes before the end credits and then suddenly try to cram some artificially-urgent conflict with a deeply dumb resolution (“Let’s blast it with sound! IN SPACE!”) with no built-up stakes at all. It doesn’t help that, as adorable as Emma Stone can be, she is profoundly miscast in a role that should have gone to someone both older and more ethnically representative. (I’m thinking of Tia Carrere, but lesser-known actresses would have been just as good) There are some terrific scenes here and them (Specifically, I’m thinking about a pair of hilarious near-wordless scenes with John Krasinski), but the script goes all over the place with no discipline nor focus –I’m actually astonished that no one suggested a further rewrite to take better advantage of its strengths. It amounts to a frustrating mess –not a bad movie to watch on pure undemanding entertainment value, but one that fails to reach even modest success at delivering what it should have been capable of achieving. Cameron Crowe; what happened to you?