Seven more movies

Boychoir, The Day After Tomorrow, Hocus Pocus, New Waterford Girl, Pump Up the Volume, Rubber Gun, Source Code.

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Boychoir or The Choir
(2014) — YES

A boy’s heavy-drinking mother dies, and he’s sent to a private school, and joins the choir. That’s the plot synopsis, and rarely have I watched a movie that seemed less likely to interest me. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately, so maybe this will help.

I gave it a look only because it’s written by Ben Ripley, and I frickin’ loved his Source Code (see below), so fingers crossed I pressed play …

The kid is angry, understandably — his mom has died, remember — and he’s likable enough, but the movie is half over before it’s clear that he actually enjoys doing all that singing. The music is not something I’d choose to hear, but I didn’t put my fingers in my ears. The other boys are mostly monstrous, or in other words, boys.

The script assumes that the audience shares its boychoir fascination, but I came in knowing nothing of boys' choirs except that they’re boys in a choir. Some of the finer performance points, like the kids’ cutthroat competition to hit a perfect high D note, largely eluded me. I couldn’t hear the difference between “what the hell was that” and “damn that was good.”

There’s Dustin Hoffman, and it took me a while to warm up to his icy John Houseman impression as the choir conductor. There’s Kathy Bates, and I wish there was more of her. There’s Debra Winger, but not much. There’s no Philip Seymour Hoffman, but there’s Eddie Izzard of all people, clearly channeling the younger, deader Hoffman as he says, “If you have to cheat, cheat better.” I don't know why Sissy Spacek's name is on the poster; she's not in the movie. Also, this is maybe the first adult role for Kevin McHale from Glee, and he’s believable as the choir’s third-string coach.

I was more interested in all these believably loopy adults than in any of the snot-faced boys, and I wish the movie would’ve been about the grown-ups, with the kids and all the singing in the background.

The movie is extremely sincere in its love for the music of boy choirs, though, and I’m guessing it was made by people who live and breathe this music, probably sang this music when they were 10. That enthusiasm is what eventually won me over.

It’s basically a sports movie, like Hoosiers or Dodgeball, but the sport is pre-adolescent boys singing 17th-century classical music. The ending is too pat and poetic for my taste, and it’s altogether a strange thing, but I love strange things. The movie's passion is as contagious as COVID, so you’ll soon be infected like I was. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Day After Tomorrow (2004) — MAYBE

“A Roland Emmerich Film,” it confesses right up front, and you have to admire the honesty.

This is a horror story about climate change, which is a real horror that most people shrug about, because it’s a problem for the future. To make it more urgent, Emmerich speeds everything up — climate change is suddenly a problem that’s gonna hit us not in twenty or fifty years, but immediately. Before the second reel, L.A. gets splattered by hurricanes, Manhattan is underwater, etc. There’s a sad but funny scene as our heroes wander through a library, choosing which books to burn so they don’t freeze to death. 

Problem, though — the movie’s whole premise is that it’s cold, so it’s transparently fake when you never see people’s breath when they’re shouting about how cold it is. Also, in the outdoor scenes everyone’s wearing heavy jackets because of the fake cold, so it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s being imperiled and who’s being heroic. 

I respect what the movie tries to do — climate change now, in your face — but the science is not very sciency. None of the movie’s many characters become more than clichés, and every substory is driven by tough-talking males, while the womenfolk exist only to be pretty and rescued and tend to the children.

Good intentions, but it adds up to just a schlocky sci-fi thriller from the 1950s, gussied up with modern effects. The end result still feels fair to middlin’.

♦ ♦ ♦

Hocus Pocus (1993) — BIG NO

Several blogs told me this is the perfect Halloween movie, and a co-worker urgently recommended it as the season was upon us. I do like Bette Midler, but ... Hocus Pocus is from Disney. It’s silly and childish, and it soon occurred to me that the people who’d recommended this movie are parents, whose children are either young or were young in the 1990s, when this movie was making its rounds.

There are a great many unfunny jokes, and here’s a Hollywood rule: When a movie uses the orchestra to make an unfunny comedy ‘feel’ funny, with a zany score and a little ta-da after the slight jokes, that’s never a good sign. There’s a lot of that here. I made it through half an hour, and it was largely the music that made it unbearable.

♦ ♦ ♦

New Waterford Girl (1999) — NO

A smart high school girl is bored with her life and future in a small and painfully Catholic Canadian town, the kind of place where the doctor’s recommendation to a pregnant girl is, “I strongly suggest that you perform penance immediately.”

Then a more worldly girl from the Bronx moves in next door, and starts punching all the guys in town who deserve to be punched — she’s like Ms 45 without the guns. I may have missed a crucial plot point, as the new girl’s punches seem to be supernatural?

Neither comedic nor dramatic, I'd say it's 'atmospheric', nicely capturing a small town vibe. The script plays with serious teen-girl issues like reputation and pregnancy and lecherous older men, but doesn’t really have anything to say. Allan Moyle (Pump Up the Volume, below), made this, which is what attracted me, but — nah.

♦ ♦ ♦

Pump Up the Volume
(1990) — BIG YES

“Eat your cereal with a fork, and do your homework in the dark.” 

At the Seattle Film Festival, they have some screenings called a “secret festival,” where they’ll show a movie without announcing the title or telling you anything about it. It might be a great old movie, or a movie where the distribution rights are all tangled up — you never know. It’s a different and (usually) delightful experience, coming in with no expectations, no idea what you’re about to see — comedy, thriller, a Russian documentary, whatever.

One night in 1990, I was at the “secret festival” when it showed a rough cut of a movie that was released a few months later, called Pump Up the Volume. It’s a high school drama with Christian Slater as a maladjusted kid who’s a pirate radio broadcaster by night. On the air as “Hard Harry,” he gets crowds of kids listening every night at 10:00, plays good rock and Leonard Cohen, and makes impossibly astute observations on the school, and on American life in general. And then, things get real.

High school was a prison for me, not a sweet Ferris Bueller place but a 100% fucking nightmare. I think high school is a mistake, but I don’t mean that attending is a mistake. I mean the whole concept. High school does a lot of people more damage than good, and it’s a premise that should be smacked around with a wrecking ball.

Pump Up the Volume seems to understand that, or at least hints at it. The principal is Nurse Ratched reincarnated. There’s a teacher with a crew-cut and pocket protector who acts like a cop all the way through the movie, and I swear he’s the same bastard who taught my 10th-grade shop class. There seems to be just one teacher interested in teaching, and it’s Ellen Greene, and I wish she’d been given a bigger role. Other than her, all the school’s staff are incompetent or malicious, the parents are conveniently clueless, all the students are troubled but pimple-free and kind at heart, and there’s a blow-dried TV reporter who’s fun to hate.

In real life, almost nobody’s that black and white good or evil, of course (except yes, all TV reporters are evil), but it’s a joy hearing someone speak truth to power, as the kids say these days. Pump Up the Volume is a fairy tale, but so’s Top Gun, and this one’s a much better fairy tale, where kids are encouraged to speak the truth, and then they do. It should happen in real life.

There’s an impossibly young Seth Green, and plenty of memorable lines. “They say I'm disturbed. Well, of course I'm disturbed. I mean, we're all disturbed. And if we're not, why not? Doesn't this blend of blindness and blandness want to make you do something crazy? Then why not do something crazy? It makes a hell of a lot more sense than blowing your fucking brains out.”

The movie is far from perfect, and almost all the supporting characters are only suggestions, but it’s much better than merely ‘good’. I’d recommend it even without the ending, but that’s what startled me most — it’s an earnest plea for others to illegally seize the airwaves, like "Hard Harry." The “author’s message” is: break the law, and that’s not something you expect while munching popcorn at the Bijou. I was impressed, and I wasn’t the only one; it won the best-in-festival award that year.

(The woman I saw it with, though, found the movie offensive. She didn’t like the law-breaking, the foul language, the nudity, and some of the music, which was a great time-saver. That very night she became a woman I used to go out with.)

With some arrests and the FCC loosening the regs some years back to allow community radio stations, pirate radio has become much quieter in America, and that’s a loss. There are a few current pirate streams listed in the sidebar, though. I frequently listen, and you might like 'em too. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Rubber Gun (1977) — MAYBE

Wanting to write a school report on the positive aspects of drug abuse, Allan Moyle (director of Pump Up the Volume, and here also acting) moves in with group of local cocaine dealers. What happens unfolds like a documentary, and 1970s counterculture is inherently interesting to me, so I found the movie worth watching. Be advised, it’s slow and occasionally dull. Cool ‘music from the era.

♦ ♦ ♦

Source Code
(2011) — YES

Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up in another man’s body, on a commuter train that’s doomed. And … I think that’s about all I can tell you, because explaining anything beyond that would diminish the fun. It’s smart, action packed, and things blow up — what more do you need? Living alone and working from home, I rarely bother with deodorant, but this movie got my pits stinking.

It’s from Duncan Jones, director of Moon, which was also quite good, and this is his follow-up to that, so how come I’d never heard of this movie? Wikipedia says it was a box office success, but as often happens, I plead absolute and complete ignorance. Guess I should glance at the newer releases more often. 

I’m beginning to notice that Jake Gyllenhaal is quite good at playing men who aren't too sure of anything. “You’re acting a little strange this morning — are you OK?”

Scene after scene, things happen that I wasn’t expecting. All the supporting characters feel real, not like human plot devices. It features two smart women, and a smart disabled dude. It builds its world with certain rules, sticks to those rules, asks some thoughtful questions, and comes up with bright answers. And it mostly takes place on a train (I love trains), so this one has it all. 

There's one highly implausible moment, though, that nearly shatters the suspension of disbelief: Gyllenhaal’s character is supposed to be brilliant and resourceful, but he searches the internet with Bing?


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  1. Agreed on Pump Up The Volume. I saw it and Heathers really close together in time, the pair knocked me out.

    1. Indeedy, but then his roles got repetitive and he beat up his girlfriend, and cheese whiz, I haven't seen anything from him since.

  2. Hey I meant to tell you -- I saw BLOW-UP on your say so and you got it right, it's a mess but also really good.

    Every time you do seven, I find at least one . Thank you man!! I don't want boys singing and I saw PUMP UP THE VOLUME just a few months ago so I'm going for SOURCE CODE.

    1. Well, thanks and do drop in and drop a turd on me if you hate Source Code.


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