Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Hooray for Jumpsuits and Martha Plimpton!

I know you've all been waiting with rapt anticipation for my assessment, and I'm here to let you know that you can breathe a collective sigh of relief because the 1988 River Phoenix movie Running on Empty TOTALLY HOLDS UP!!!

Super glad to be swiping left on this one!
Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

The politics of the movie are strikingly modern, without a whiff of misogyny, no homophobic "jokes" played for awkward laughs, no troubling stereotypes at all. It is not a terribly racially diverse movie, but if that's the worst thing you can say about something made 33 years ago, I think you're doing okay.

In fact, even the fashion holds up! First, check out Christine Lahti absolutely rocking this jumpsuit that I would 100% wear today.


The white t-shirt, relaxed-fit jeans look, which both Lahti and Plimpton are costumed in, is also incredible, and if I ever wear hard pants again, I'm stealing this style.

Could be worth ditching the sweat pants for

I would totally wear this dress that Plimpton has on when she attends her dad's stuffy chamber music concert in their living room.

Curtain matching dress (not a euphemism)

Very fine looks ladies, and congrats to costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone for both nailing the look of the late 80s, and also designing some fabulous costumes that are still relevant.

To the movie: Annie and Arthur Pope and their two kids have been on the run from the FBI for 15 years after the parents took part in a protest bombing that went wrong and paralyzed a janitor. They have to pick up and move town when the merest hint of a G-Man is in the air. Their oldest son Danny (Phoenix) is a talented pianist, and the movie shows how his options grow limited the longer he stays with his family on the run, but staying together is the only way they've survived so far. So, not an easy or light watch, but damn it's a good movie!

This movie marked my introduction to River Phoenix. I likely would have watched it in 1989 or 1990.  I remember the VHS copy and being at a friend's house, which means I would have been 11 or 12 at the time. It's not a typical teen-movie at all (my husband Sam commented upon this, his first watch, that he would have been bored as toast watching it at 12 years old), and I like to think that it was more than just Phoenix's non-threatening boy good looks that made it a hit for me (although, that didn't hurt). It's not just me who thinks this was a stand-out performance; Phoenix was nominated for an academy award for this film (he lost to Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda).

Running on Empty was the only time Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar
Photo credit: Mike Beuselinck via Flickr

I think the reason Phoenix is so strong in this movie, and why a movie like A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon falls apart for me, is that here he's pure vulnerability. Looking forward (which we'll do a little more near the end) to the roles that I've enjoyed him in the most, they're all ones that showcase his vulnerability as a performer, let him settle into that space and explore it. So good job director Sidney Lumet (I'm sure he reads this blog religiously)!

This movie also gave me such a gift in the casting of Martha Plimpton. First of all, she's a wonder on screen (as we saw during her brief appearance in The Mosquito Coast). She also gave (and gives) me hope. Because she's absolutely gorgeous, but she's not what I would call pretty. Her character has a sharp wit and speaks her mind. Judd Hirsch's character describes her lovingly as being "full of beans." She's real and a bit dark, she's funny and loving, she doesn't look like she just stepped off a fashion runway, but you want to look at her all day. In the 1980s, women and girls were allowed, briefly, to be full people like this. And they were celebrated for it! Plimpton was an on-screen love interest for both River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, making her highly aspirational for young Amy. In fact, she even dated Phoenix in real life. Staring in the 1990s, a trend began where women started to need to look more and more polished, with fewer edges or sharp lines, and definitions of beauty began to get very constricted, which was hard to grow up with. Martha Plimpton, for a brief moment before all that, was everything, and I'm so glad.

Walking the red carpet at the Oscars
Photo credit: Alan Light via Flickr

Possums, we're heading into what I believe is the Golden Age of River Phoenix movies, which began here with Running on Empty. Next up is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and we're also going to watch I Love You To Death, Dogfight, and Sneakers, all of which I have seen and loved, and also My Own Private Idaho which I watched for the first time waaaaaaaaaaay too young, and didn't understand, but I'm going to do some research going into that one, and I hope to be in a better position to appreciate it.
Me, hard at work, getting ready to understand Gus Van Sant
Photo credit: via Pixnio

So rest up, my lovelies, 'cause we've got a lot of movie watching to do!

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Little Ni-who-ta?

I might not have been in the best headspace when we sat down to watch the next movie in River Phoenix's filmography. Three of his movies came out in 1988. The first was A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, which blog readers will remember was not well-received (by me). 

The last Phoenix movie of 1988 was Running on Empty, which marked my introduction to River lo these many years ago, and which I immediately loved (both him and the movie). I've seen it many times, but probably not for at least 25 years, and I'm so looking forward to seeing it again, and desperately hoping that it lives up to my memory and isn't full of homophobia or racism or other 1980s disappointments. 

PLEASE let Running on Empty have aged well!
Photo Credit: Matt Brooks

And the middle Phoenix film of 1988 is the one this post is about, Little Nikita. Caught between the horror of Jimmy Reardon, and my baited anticipation of Running on Empty, it's possible I wasn't as focused as I could have been. The notes I took while watching Little Nikita are sparse's fine. It's a perfectly fine movie. It's a Russian spy story that seems to hold together. Sydney Poitier is in it and he's lovely (fun fact that my husband reminded me of: Poitier and Phoenix will work together again in the 1992 movie Sneakers which I am also looking forward to re-watching). My biggest complaint is that the audience learns the big secret in the movie early on and we then spend about 30 minutes watching Phoenix learn the same thing which isn't the most riveting storytelling, but it's fine. There's a perfectly fine chase scene at the end, and it's all   just   fine.

There's some fun early exploration of technology when Poitier's computer pulls up a "record" (see: single line of green text) of someone who has died, but that same individual, years after their death, opened a business, and the computer then blasts us with a very large text box in a different font declaring "DOES NOT COMPUTE." I actually wish this was how computers worked, so when I typed into Google "do I need a hyper-realistic dinosaur costume," it just tells me "DOES NOT COMPUTE" and I have my answer (I do need one, by the way. I don't care what Google has to say). 

That's some snazzy early coding right there!
Photo Credit: Raimond Spekking

Watching the opening credits it struck me that there are a lot of guys named Richard in this movie. Three of the main actors (after Poitier and Phoenix) are all named Richard, one of the characters is named Richard, and the movie was directed by a Richard. I thought about making a joke that this was a real dick movie, and I guess I just did.

So while I don't have a whole lot to say about this movie plot-wise, I have a few things to say about River. Because while teenage Amy would not have liked River's character Jimmy Reardon (god, I hope she wouldn't have liked him!), I think she would have been smitten with Jeff Grant in Little Nikita. His hair is very swoopy and floppy, which for some reason was important to her. He twice (!) wears a tank top. And he goes on a completely charming date with his girlfriend Barbara in the middle of the movie. It's a scene that does nothing to move the plot along, but I loved it. They're at a drive in with a bunch of other kids, then Jeff and Barbara split off, share one kiss (chaste, but not too chaste), and then absolutely devour their french fries. A date like that with a non-threatening boy would have been right up young Amy's alley. Heck, I would still consider that  a slam-dunk of a date.

Primo Reading Material
Still shot from The Simpsons

I don't believe Little Nikita will stick with me, and that's not entirely the movie's fault, but rather its placement in Phoenix's filmography. I feel confident in saying that if you're going to watch one River Phoenix movie from 1988, it should be Running on Empty, but I will confirm that in our next installment!

Saturday, 26 December 2020

The Hottest of Messes

The story of watching A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon begins with my quest to find the movie. Since we subscribe to eleventy-million streaming sites, I thought for sure it would be on one of them, but no luck. Fine, I thought, I'll rent it, but neither Amazon nor iTunes carried the title. Will I have to buy this movie? I said to myself. My search on Amazon yielded a VHS copy that could be mine for the sweet, sweet price of $52 USD. Since I don't even have a VHS player, this was not a viable option.

A portent of things to come
Photo Credit: Toby Hudson

At this point my husband took over the search because he is better at internetting than I am. He was able to find a DVD copy for the more reasonable price of $12 that could ship from the UK. He ordered it, but then had another look online, and Vimeo offered up the director's cut, available for streaming. Thankfully he was able to cancel the DVD order because, spoiler alert, no one needs two ways to watch this movie!

But wait, the version we found online was titled Aren't You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye?. Is this even the same film? It stars River Phoenix, so I was committed, as either way it is required viewing for my completist project.

I came into this movie knowing virtually nothing about the film. All my assumptions were gleaned from this poster.

Highly misleading

This is clearly an 80s high-school romp comedy, yes? That is what I went in expecting, but I was the victim of sleazy Hollywood marketing, because this movie is NOT what it appears. 

Here's where I stopped to wonder if the director's cut that we watched deviated so significantly from the theatrical release as to feel like an entirely different movie. Of course, the way to solve this problem would be to watch the theatrical release (if it can be found), but that would mean watching the movie again, and that is just...something I'm not prepared for. 

Some quick Googling has led me to believe that the theatrical release doesn't deviate in plot, perhaps only in tone, and one reviewer suggested that the director's cut is significantly better than the theatrical release, and the director's cut is so very terrible that I need to never watch this movie again.

A quick summary: Phoenix plays the titular Jimmy Reardon, a pretentious 17 year old beat poet who is in love with Lisa's breasts Lisa. But Lisa won't immediately yield to him in the yard outside her parent's house, and so Jimmy has no choice but to have sex with EVERY OTHER WOMAN IN THE MOVIE! Here's an actual line from the movie that is used to justify Reardon putting his penis in any and all available holes - "a vague insistence came from my lap." A vague bit of puke just came from my stomach.

He has a best friend named Susie, who you know is his best friend because he says "Susie is my best friend," despite the fact that they have almost no scenes together, exchange perhaps three or four lines, and it is absolutely irrelevant to the plot that they are friends. But still, we know, because of that sparkling dialogue.

The movie (and this may be the director's cut only) is narrated by Jimmy, except Jimmy, confusingly, sounds like a 56 year old smoker who owes you money.

Also, this movie introduced Matthew Perry.

Listen, if you haven't guessed yet, this movie is an incoherent and indulgent pile of absolute garbage, and I'm going to dive into some of the worst offences. If this is as far as you make, your take away should be that you should never watch this movie. Please let my suffering have been for something.

Is this a pile of garbage or A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon?
Doesn't matter.

Nothing is examined in this movie. It's ostensibly about class and wealth (Reardon's family is working-class and he has to pay for college; his friends are all rich), but the movie doesn't look beyond Reardon feeling that a great injustice has occurred in the world because he isn't fabulously wealthy without putting in any work. The only people of colour are literal servants, and that problematic situation is left un-examined. 

And the women! Jimmy claims to love Lisa and want to be with her, but fondles every breast he sees, and never feels remorse, never examines how he treats women. Does he make a horrendous "joke" about raping Lisa to try and make another dude angry? Yes he does. Does he chase Lisa and pin her to the ground when she wants to get away from him? Oh yes he does. It's not just Phoenix's character who has such contempt for women either. At one point, Jimmy's dad calls him a "son of a bitch," which is a lot to unpack. Jimmy's mother just sighs and returns to the stove. I'M NOT MAKING THIS UP!

About two thirds of the way through the movie my husband asked me if I thought people actually talked like this in the 1960s, and I said, "this movie is set in the 80s," and that's when I learned that I had missed a title card at the beginning telling us that it was 1962 AND I HAD NO IDEA.

I'll give the word on the 1962 setting to Rotten Tomatoes commenter Pete Vonder Haar:

He's right about the hair, but wrong in his generous rating

The movie was released in 1988 but filmed in 1986 which means Phoenix was 16, possibly 17, when it was shot. Knowing this makes the already awkward sex scenes (and there are many) that much more difficult to stomach. I'm going to go on the record here that 17 year olds should never film sex scenes. I'm not saying that characters that age shouldn't be having sex, but dear god, don't make these poor children pull of their shirts and simulate unwieldy pelvic thrusts. No one needs that.

At one point I jotted down in my notebook that I wasn't rooting for anyone in this movie, and then I reflected on whether this movie might be the hairshirt I must endure, although it's unclear what I'm being punished for.

It also occurred to me that a 1980s movie with stilted unrealistic dialogue, multiple awkward and prolonged sex scenes, and a main character who screams "LISA!!!!" might be a precursor to Tommy Wiseau's 2003 film The Room. I have to believe Wiseau watched A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and thought "yes, there's some good stuff in here."

I hope that even boy-crazy teenage Amy would have had problems with this movie. Indeed, it might have lessened the glow that I saw around Phoenix in those days. But, in all likelihood, I would have just enjoyed his hair and seeing him without his shirt on. For remember, teenage Amy was quite superficial. 

I am hoping that A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon is the lowest point in my journey to watch all of River Phoenix's movies. Dear god, I hope it can't get worse than that. Next up is another film I've never seen and know nothing about, Little Nikita. Based on this trailer...

I am cautiously optimistic. 

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

1 Star: Misleading Title, Not Enough Mosquitos

Look, in a movie called The Mosquito Coast, I expect to at least once see someone swatting away a huge swarm of mosquitos buzzing around their head, maybe ingesting a few and then heaving in that really unattractive way we all do when we eat a bug. I figured there would at least be a sub-plot about malaria, but no, The Mosquito Coast contains none of that!

Imagine this coming at you. You'll have to imagine, because it isn't in the ding-dong movie!
Photo credit: Bill Gaultiere

This very serious and not-at-all frivolous complaint aside, The Mosquito Coast is a good movie, and you should watch it if you haven't already (heck, watch it again, I'll bet it holds up!). This post will contain only mild spoilers mostly pertaining to River Phoenix's character Charlie, so feel free to keep reading even if you haven't seen it. 

This movie is from 1986, so it's the same vintage Phoenix as Stand By Me (but this movie features, sadly, less Phoenix). Quick summary: Harrison Ford plays Allie Fox, River Phoenix's dad, and an inventor who thinks he's better than everyone, and is fed up with aspects of life such as having to do the job he was actually hired for, and not being able to buy products that were made in the USA! So, despite the many indications that this will not go well, he packs up his family (literally leaving dirty dishes in the kitchen sink) and takes them all by boat into the jungle where he can indulge in his white saviour fantasies and pontificate on the spiritual importance of ice. Allie is the worst kind of dude who thinks he's more open-minded and evolved than everyone else, but is really a racist a-hole.

I hadn't seen this movie before, and didn't know anything about it. In fact, based on my quick glance at this movie poster

I thought the movie starred Nick Nolte, even though it clearly says Harrison Ford above the title (Nick Nolte would have been a very bad choice for the role). When I learned from the credits that this movie also starred Helen Mirren and Martha Plimpton I said "yes please!" Although I would soon learn that even with these two powerhouse women, the film sadly, just like Phoenix's other two movies we've reviewed so far, does not pass the Bechdel Test. I still liked it, but stay tuned for my feminist complaint about Mirren's character.

Early teenaged Amy would have been enthralled by the possibility of romance that is suggested between Plimpton and Phoenix, however we will need to wait until the excellent Running on Empty to actually see that romance in action (fun fact, we also get to see Phoenix and Ford together again in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Phoenix plays a young Indy). Plimpton plays the daughter of a missionary, and she and Phoenix meet on the boat taking them to the jungle. Her flirting technique is flawless. She begins by simply offering herself to Phoenix as a girlfriend (he does not respond). She then lays down the excellent come-on line of "I think about you when I go to the bathroom." She is so committed to this line that she mouths it to him again once they have arrived and are about to go their separate ways. I am stunned that her approach didn't work, but I encourage all of you looking to snag a partner to try out her line. And then please, please, tell me what happens.

We see Plimpton only once more, near the end of the movie, when things are going poorly for Phoenix. He sneaks up to talk to her, at which point she declares "you look disgusting, you got smaller, and your hair is gross." Even though she is only on screen for a few brief minutes, I love everything about Plimpton's character. Had I seen this as a younger person, it's possible I would have tried to emulate her. It would have gone terribly.

Things start to go badly in the movie for Allie and family when he decides that he needs to show a block of ice to a tribe deep in the jungle that has never before seen ice. He believes this will blow their minds. Well, Allie, hate to disappoint you, but you didn't need to travel all the way into the deep jungle for that. You just needed to come to my backyard circa 2014. Let me explain.

Mind blown?
Photo credit: Darren Hester

I'd just finished hosting a party in my yard and I was cleaning up while my then 3-year old daughter was playing outside. I dumped the ice cubes from the bottom of the cooler onto a patch of garden thinking that the melt would help whatever was trying to grow there, then went back to tidying. About two minutes later, my daughter appeared at my side her hands full of the shiny cubes and said "look mommy, cold jewels!" At this moment I realized that she had never before seen ice. Was she momentarily impressed? Yes, she was. Did she think it was pretty neat? Yes, she did. Was her life forever changed because, according to Allie Fox, "ice is civilization?" No. She soon grew tired of the ice melting in her hands, dumped it back in the garden, and demanded to be shown Toopy and Binoo cartoons.

Ford's character is clearly unhinged, and suffering from mental illness. At the beginning of the movie he channels some of Han Solo's arrogance, but where Solo just keeps improving and making better choices, Fox keeps getting worse. He's blind to the needs of others, demands to be worshiped, and refuses to learn from anyone, but is the worst thing about his character the fact that he calls his wife Mother? Yes, yes it is.

I can't believe I have to complain about the credits of a movie again so soon after doing so about Stand By Me (shakes fist at patriarchy!), but DAME Helen Mirren's (fine, she wasn't a dame then, but it's coming) character is listed only as "Mother" in the credits. Not even "Mother Fox" which would at least allow you to pretend that she was a whimsical Wes Anderson character trapped in the wrong film. No, just Mother. Even the actor who plays Phoenix's younger brother who basically just whines about how much he hates his dad (understandable) gets a name! (Jadrien Steele plays Jerry Fox and does a fine job, don't come at me with your Jadrien Steele defense, I'm just saying HELEN MIRREN SHOULD HAVE BEEN GIVEN A NAME!!!)

If anyone deserves a name, it is this goddess!
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore


You might have noticed that this post is a little light on the Phoenix commentary, and I could make an excuse about how he's in a supporting role and that's why, but the truth is, Harrison Ford, for all that his character frustrates you and you want to slap his smug stupid face when he calls his wife "Mother," is captivating. It's hard to watch anyone else; he dominates the screen when the camera is on him. It really is a tremendous performance, which isn't to say that Phoenix (and Mirren, and Plimpton) aren't also giving wonderful performances, but the movie belongs to Ford. But don't worry, there's more Phoenix coming your way because...

next up in our watch is the 1988 movie A Night In the Life of Jimmy Reardon. I haven't seen it before, and Phoenix plays the titular character, so I'm guessing he gets a lot of screen time. It could be terrible, but he's entering the swoop stage of his hair journey, so I'm optimistic. I suspect young Amy would be very excited about this one. Stay tuned possums!

Monday, 26 October 2020

Standing By

Possums! Welcome to the second installment in my journey to watch all of the late River Phoenix's movies, thereby becoming a Phoenix Completist. The 1986 movie Stand By Me was Phoenix's second feature film. Let that sentence sink in for a minute. The second movie you ever make becomes one of the classics of American film, and it's not like you've got some bit part, Agitated Boy #2 or something, you're one of the freaking leads!!!

Quick facts here for those living under rocks or born so late that this movie counts as a period piece (I mean, technically it is since it's set in the late 50s). The movie is directed by Rob Reiner and based on the Stephen King short story "The Body." Four boys from Oregon go on a two-day hike to find a dead body that they heard was in the woods. That's basically the whole plot, plus a loooooooooooot of daddy issues. 

Before I begin to ramble somewhat incoherently about what this movie made me think and feel (you can look forward to my analysis of trains, a moment when I feel a kindred connection to Phoenix, and I'll introduce you to a fun game I play when watching the credits), a huge shout out to the casting directors for this film, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins who managed to cast child actors without any duds. Phoneix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell all had decent careers post Stand By Me, and this movie also features a young Kiefer Sutherland as the bully AND a young John Cusack as the dead older brother (not a spoiler, he's dead from the beginning, and not the body that they go to find). I thought that was impressive.

So, the four main boys each strap a blanket to their shoulders and start walking, after telling their parents the always fool-proof 80s movie lie that they're all spending the night at someone else's house. No 80s parent checked on their children in any capacity ever, so that plot point holds up. They have all, however, neglected to bring food, so they pool their money and Wil Wheaton (his character has a name, I just don't care what it is) buys meat to make four hamburgers and four buns. This food somehow lasts them the entire two days and they never once complain about hunger. 

Clearly enough food for 4 people for 2 days

For some reason they take shelter in a junk yard with a known ornery owner and dog for a while, and they start squirting water out of their mouths into a bucket. Phoenix, I noticed, seemed to have a little trouble spitting the water, so I felt a kinship with him, as I too have had difficulty when required to perform a water stunt with my mouth on camera.

I was filming an intro scene for my husband's sketch comedy group years ago where I had to do a spit take right in his face (you can see it here at the 2:24 mark, then stayed tuned for about 8 seconds of me fake laughing. If that doesn't sound like a long time, you're wrong). It was just after the director first called "action" that I learned I had assumed I would be able to do a spit take on command, nay at all, but we all quickly realized how wrong I was. For one take I just opened my mouth and the large gulp of water I had taken ran freely down my chin while I made no attempt whatsoever to spit. Is doing a spit take hard? No, it is not, which made this realization all the more embarrassing. After multiple takes where I got worse instead of better, my dear friend and fellow actor Trent Wilkie stepped in as my spit-take double, so the shot in the skit where Sam is getting sprayed in the face with mouth water, well that's all the work of Trent (he got it in one take, the bastard). Anyway, seeing River Phoenix also have trouble with on camera spit work, I felt that, had we met, our bond would have been strengthened through this obvious connection.

(photo credit: Nick Looy, Pixabay)

I have seen Stand By Me once before, and I remembered exactly two scenes from it: the scene with the train on the trestle bridge, and the scene with the leeches. I will begin with the leeches, which to me is the one scene in the movie that truly feels like it belongs in a Stephen King story (I guess the dead body tracks too), because these leeches are enormous. I will refer to them (in a nod to director Rob Reiner who also directed The Princess Bride) as L.O.U.Ss - Leeches Of Unusual Size. They are enormous, and I know of what I speak here, because once a leech curled up for a nap in between my toes (if this sounds cute and you're saying "awwww" to yourself right now, stop it, because my terrified 9 year old self went scream thrashing through the creek where I had picked up this slumbering hitch hiker, attempting to remove it by kicking wildly in the air (not effective). Turned out the creature was not sucking my blood, simply taking advantage of the body heat produced between my toes) and my leech was about 1/16th the size of the ones in the movie. Maybe they breed them big in Oregon, who knows. Anyway, the leech scene is gross.

Appropriately sized leech
(photo credit: Bernard Dupont, Flickr)

The train scene on the trestle bridge was another memory I had from my first viewing, specifically I remembered the anxiety I felt watching it as Wesley Crusher and My Secret Identity have to get to the end of the bridge before the train smashes them. It's tense friends, especially when Jerry O'Connell lies on the tracks in fear while the train barrels towards them WASTING PRECIOUS RUNNING AWAY SECONDS!!! I managed to quell the tension for myself by 1) remembering that they survive, and 2) realizing that their attempt to get out of the way of the train reminds me exactly of me trying to get out of the way of the approaching chair lift during skiing when I have inevitably fallen down while trying to dismount gracefully. Every. Single. Time.

I won't get out of the way in time
(Photo credit: LoggaWiggler, Pixabay)

Trains feature heavily in this movie, and I've done no research but still feel confident in saying that the trains represent penises and daddy issues. It got me wondering what the female equivalent of this symbol would be in a movie about four young ladies on an epic quest. Would they just keep exploring mysterious caves? Would spelunking allow them a greater understanding of self?

Ooooo, mysterious jewel vagina cave
(Photo credit: Flickr)

Well, you don't need to worry about what it would be like for women in this movie, because there really aren't any. Before I launch into my next tangent about representation, let me start by saying that I don't think it's fair to dismiss or condemn movies from the past because they don't adhere to our modern notions, but I do think it's important to discuss the lack of representation because it helps us to see how we've got to where we are now with these issues. 

To start, there is not a single actor of colour in this movie. Now, it is set in Oregon which doesn't exactly have the most inclusive history, but the overwhelming whiteness of the movie stands out when viewed with modern eyes (I mean, I'm sure it stood out to many people who watched it in the 80s as well, particularly eyes that belonged to any person who wasn't white). 

Women fare only marginally better in this film in terms of representation. There are exactly four women characters listed: Mrs. Lachance, Waitress, Mayor's Wife, and Fat Lady. Notice anything about those credits? That's right, not a single woman in this movie is given a name. Stand By Me is clearly focused on the male experience, and when I watch movies like this, there's a little game I like to play during the credits called "When Will the First Woman Appear?" Basically, you take note of how long into the credits it will be before you see a woman's name. I called this one early, telling my husband that we wouldn't see a woman in the credits until Casting (I'm not sure why, but casting is a job that tends to be held by women in Hollywood), and it wasn't like the women started rolling by after that. In fact, there were so few women, and I was taking such careful note of them, that I was surprised when I saw the job title of "Lead Woman" flash across the screen.

Me, looking for the women in this movie
(Image credit: Mohamad Mohamad Mahmoud Hassan, Needpix)

"What is Lead Woman?" I shrieked in my husband's ear. "What does that mean?" Neither of us knew, and neither, it seemed, did Google, so my husband took to an online forum to inquire (side note, I am pleased to see how invested he has become in my completist project; we're in this together). It took until the next day for us to learn that the title is given to the leader of the Swing Gang on set (not, alas, a group of spunky swing dancers who jump, jive, and wail all over the production), and the title of the leader is either Lead Man, or, if the person happens to be a woman, well, you can figure that out. However, before I had that information, I asked my husband, in total sincerity, "do you Lead Woman the person who is in charge of all the women?" It seemed viable to me that perhaps, Lead Woman was simply the woman wrangler on set. Perhaps an alpha uterus to sync up all of the menstrual cycles, or just a capable woman to lead the spelunking expeditions. Honestly, anything seemed possible at that point.

So women and people of colour don't get enough representation in the movie, and there are also some homophobic slurs bandied about playfully, although the movie does do a good job of depicting physical male friendships. Three of the four boys have a breakdown scene in the movie where they have to cry, and each time they are comforted physically by a friend, without any jokes about gayness, not even to diffuse the tension, so props for that. (Side note: I hope the boys were all treated well during the filming, because they had to go to some dark places emotionally, and I was a little worried for them. Given the overwhelming maleness of the movie, it had the potential to devolve into a real Lord of the Flies type situation. I hope it was a caring and nurturing experience instead).

Okay, enough of my meandering chaotically from thought to thought, let's talk about River!

(Photo credit: Alan Light, Flickr)

Even with the strong cast, it's pretty clear that Phoenix is a stand out in this movie (my husband used the word "smoldering" to describe him). The trajectory that his career took after this is not surprising, and I found myself wondering, I'm sure not for the last time, what he could have accomplished in his career had he lived past the age of 23. 

And what would young teen Amy have thought of Phoenix in this movie? Well, I did watch it when I was younger, and it didn't stick with me, and I now have to face the reality that it's possible most of my affection for Mr. Phoenix was really for his floppy hair cut (see above photo). Never forget, young Amy was very superficial. Brush cut Phoenix just wasn't my jam.

Next up in this adventure is a movie that I haven't seen before and know virtually nothing about, The Mosquito Coast, also released in 1986. I look forward to learning what hairstyle Phoenix has in this movie, and I'd like to thank you for standing by me (satisfied chortle) during this post. Until next time!

Next time, nothing but miles of these along the coast line!
(Photo credit: Pratheep PS)


Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Completist Aspirations

Hi, hello, welcome, are you ready to come with me on a little diversion? I know you're all here for my hot library takes, but I'm shifting my focus slightly, and thought I would bring you along for the ride. If you want, it's not like there's an actual vehicle that I'm refusing to stop. Free will, baby!

(Image Credit under Creative Commons: Franklinz01)

I've started working on an essay about my adolescent feelings for the late River Phoenix, actor, musician, and my first and strongest celebrity crush. As a result of this essay, I've been going down a few Google-holes and searching IMDB to establish timelines, and I have decided, in the interest of very professional research, that I need to watch all of River Phoenix's movies. I will then be a Phoenix Completist, and you better believe that I will include this information in EVERY bio I am ever asked to submit in the future.

I prepare to embark on some Very Serious Research

And so, to make best use of this important research (since not all of it will end up in the essay), I have decided to blog my journey of watching River Phoenix's movies here for you all. I have also enlisted the company of my husband to come along with me. At this point, he believes it will only be feature films, and that is how we'll begin, but I have plans, upon completing all the movies, to dive into Phoenix's television and mini-series work, which means we'll be watching titles such as It's Your MoveBackwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia, and the television remake of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. You'd better believe that alllllllllllll of these will be poor quality YouTube videos that someone uploaded from a nearly worn out VHS version. Hopefully I'll be able to tell which actor is River! My husband doesn't need to join me for these, as they will likely be very trying, but I may lord my Completist title as being superior to his if he doesn't. Which he likely won't care about at all. 

And so, with great excitement (on my part), we began the journey with the 1985 family-friendly movie Explorers, Phoenix's first feature film. He plays Wolfgang Müller, a barely pubescent nerd who provides all the science in the movie. He's friends with less-nerdy (but still nerdy) Ben played by Ethan Hawke. Quick summary: Ben dreams in mid-80s video game special effects, and discovers some formula or equation in his sleep, which Wolfgang programs into a computer, and it becomes a sphere of blue light that they can use to travel through space. A third boy who is "cool" joins them. They trash a drive-in concession stand, and are momentarily chased by the police, but the stakes remain low throughout. Eventually, they make it to space, but not after pursuing their first impulse upon gaining this power which is to look at boobs. To be clear, this movie in no way even attempts to pass the Bechdel test; it's a story for the lads. Once in space, there are aliens, and some problematic inter-species flirting with young Phoenix. Also, James Cromwell plays Wolfgang's dad!

Lights! Tunnels! 80s! Video Games!

I had not only never watched Explorers before, I hadn't even heard of it. Phoenix's bowl cut and aggressively 80s glasses likely wouldn't have appealed to 13 year old Amy who, I'm now remembering, was a little shallow. 1992 River Phoenix was peak Phoenix as far as I was concerned, so this is proto-Phoenix. I wondered, would 13 year old me have been more impressed with Ethan Hawke? He certainly had the right hair. To be clear, this Completist project is mostly about reflecting on my teenage feelings and superficiality, but I will point out that even in this movie which doesn't give him much, Phoenix is a very good actor. I'd like to believe that at least some of my feelings had to do with his great talent, not just his great face.

Phoenix Face (photo by Alan Light)

As the movie progressed, and the kids ended up in space, Sam turned to me and said "this is basically the same plot as Flight of the Navigator," another 80s movie that I had not seen (also a "boy movie"), so we paused to watch the trailer. Yes, they are very similar, and Explorers clearly paved the way for Navigator. Also E.T. would have been influential. This has been my very thorough movie analysis of 80s space travel movies. Nothing has been left out.

And so, the first movie in Phoenix's filmography has been watched. Would I have enjoyed it as an early teen, when I would have been close to Phoenix's age? Probably not, there was precious little for the girls in it. Also, Phoenix was convincingly dorky, and I had access to dorky guys at that age (when I say access, I mean that they sometimes spoke to me), so there was no fantasy there. Will all this change with our next film, the 1986 classic Stand By Me? You'll have to...stand by to find out! (Sorry.)

(image by mo68kl, Creative Commons)

Friday, 14 August 2020

Bad Deal

I am very bad at making deals. Thankfully, for the last decade or so, I have worked in a unionized environment where salary is standardized and not negotiable. At least, I don't think it's negotiable. I don't know because I've never asked because I'M BAD AT DEALS. I have accepted every starting salary ever quoted to me without question. I pay sticker price.

13 years ago, my husband Sam and I were planning a trip to Cuba. A friend who had been there before mentioned that they'd had to escort frogs out of their resort room each night; the frogs would jump in through the open windows. I have a problem with frogs. They're fine when they're just sitting there, all squat and warty, but then they release their spring-loaded legs and sproing right onto your face which I don't care for. I find them startling. I wasn't interested in removing them from my room on a nightly basis.

Those tucked in legs are a LIE!!!

And so I approached my husband with a deal, a deal that I thought was particularly generous to him. I told him that he would be in charge of dealing with any and all frogs that got into our room. I, in turn, would be responsible for dealing with any bugs. There were bound to be more bugs than frogs, including potentially unfamiliar and strange (read: creepy) ones, and, I told him graciously, I would take care of the disposal of all of them.

He pondered my proposal for longer than I felt necessary. What was there to think about?  He was clearly getting the better end of this arrangement. Finally, he spoke.

"But I don't mind bugs."

"Right," I answered, panic creeping in, "but you wouldn't have to worry about any of them!"

"I don't worry about them now," he said, his preternatural calm and composure, quite frankly, getting on my nerves. "You should have to deal with something that I don't want to deal with."

My husband, I learned in this moment, is good at deals.

"Well, what don't you want to deal with?" I asked. Would I be tasked with lizards? Small rodents? Recon missions to find the cleanest bathroom stall?

Sam considered this question for at least a minute before he said "you have to deal with talking to any people on the trip that I don't want to talk to. You have to be the buffer."

Well played sir.

I agreed. I took the deal that I knew was a bad one because I really didn't want to have to remove frogs. Also, I secretly believed the internal pressure to be a polite Canadian would be too much for Sam, and he wouldn't enforce that side of the deal.

I was wrong.

There was a team of French Canadian hockey players at the same resort as us, with some very over-bearing personalities among them. A couple approached us the first night, and after about two sentences, Sam just turned and left. No "excuse me", certainly no attempt to also extract me, just a straight shot to delicious mojitos at the bar. 

Drink of choice the whole trip!
(Photo from

I continued nodding and murmuring little noises at this couple before I was also able to leave, a good five minutes later. Thankfully, Sam had a mojito waiting for me when I finally arrived at the bar.

We didn't see a single frog the entire trip.