Page to Screen: The Addams Family (1991)

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The Addams Family
based on the comics by Charles Addams

★★★½☆

1991 • 99 minutes • Paramount Pictures

As a very young and very sheltered military brat in the late nineties and early aughts, my understanding of the pop cultural landscape around me was limited to what my mother watched, my brother played, and scraps of whatever mainstream anime I could get my hands on. But I could still largely match characters to their text of origin. You found Skywalkers in Star Wars, there were Borgs in Star Trek, and Pikachu in Pokemon.

But where did you find Addamses? That was a tougher question to answer, largely because we didn’t have Wikipedia in the nineties. They were definitely in the water, but where did they come from? Much like the Muppets, they appeared, to my sharky little eyes, to be a free-floating creative entity, untethered to any specific show. I mean, there were shows. There was The Addams Family: The Animated Series and The New Addams Family, which I caught glimpses of during my fanatical childhood devotion to Fox Family (rest in peace, you beautiful monster!). And then there were the movies—The Addams Family and Addams Family Values—which I never saw, but knew that they existed. But I’d never heard of the original television show or the original cartoons until college. I think this unsettles me a little bit because I’m otherwise so inured to extensive multimedia franchises, but it’s not like the Addams Family has a coherent story or continuity attached to it like, say, Star Wars.

The Addams Family boom of the nineties began with today’s film, 1991’s The Addams Family. We might complain about unnecessary film reboots these days (Memento? Seriously?), but the nineties hosted their own veritable cornucopia of rebooted sixties television shows—The Avengers, anyone? The Addams Family is no exception: its genesis is a crew of studio executives singing the theme song and realizing that there was still a lot of recognition value in that brand.

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At The Movies: Election (1999)

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Election

★★★★☆

1999 • 102 minutes • Paramount Pictures

If you haven’t read the Dissolve’s amazing “The 50 most daring film roles for women since Ripley” and added roughly a thousand new films to your movies to watch list, please do so now. (I don’t mind. It’s a holiday here in the States, so I am probably asleep or at a screening of Magic Mike XXL. AMERICA!) It’s a wonderfully thoughtful list, even if it is more West-of-center than I’d like. Genevieve Koski, the editor who pitched the list, talks more about it with her fellow editors on the most recent episode of the Dissolve Podcast, which I also highly recommend.

The Dissolve is one of the few places online where I will read the comments. Their commentariat is particularly thoughtful and even-handed, so I was surprised to see exclamation points being thrown around in the comments in regards to Election. Not in regards to Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick in the film, which I’ve only ever heard praise for, but in regards to how much sympathy you should feel for Jim McAllister, Matthew Broderick’s character, and how much antipathy you should feel for Tracy, especially in the context of a student-teacher “relationship” (read: statutory rape, always always always) between Tracy and Jim’s best friend Dave that precedes the film, gets Dave fired, and motivates, on a subconscious level, Jim to ruin her campaign for student council president.

Election, Alexander Payne’s adaptation of the 1998 Tom Perrotta novel, seems to revel in that question: all of its main characters are lying to themselves to some degree. Do we pity them or despite them for how they lie to themselves? Continue reading

At The Movies: Wayne’s World 2 (1993)

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Wayne’s World 2

★★☆☆☆

1993 • 95 minutes • Paramount Pictures

I think Mike Myers invented teenage boys. Specifically, both flavors of teenage boy that I encountered in my childhood seem traceable back to him—the just under the wire snarky Gen Xers known as my brother and his friends, as well as the masculine Millennials I actually went to class with. Both variants were capable of easy charm and smug, self-satisfied snark; the difference was the ratio. As someone roughly a decade younger than her older brother, I was not privy to the exact ratio those frost-tipped Gen X boys had, but it was certainly more balanced than the Millennial snots I actually suffered through class with. (Were they all snots? Probably not, but boys were afraid of me in middle school. As nature intended.)

Wayne’s World and Wayne’s World 2 both have that same kind of charm and smugness, but it works in Wayne’s World because the smugness comes across as a production team simply delighted that they get to make this movie—Mike Myers bringing Wayne to the big screen, Tia Carrere getting a chance to play a well-rounded female lead in a big summer movie, and director Penelope Spheeris getting to do a comedy. There’s a bit in the brief behind-the-scenes featurette on the Wayne’s World DVD where Myers talks about how he and Carvey had to figure out how Wayne and Garth, previously always seated, walked, and he simply lights up at that little detail. (Myers went for the subtle front half of a centaur gait.) Plus, Wayne’s World never feels like it’s punching down; Wayne and Garth rarely goof off at the expense of other people. I mean, it happens, don’t get me wrong, but they’re just as much the butt of the joke as other people.

Wayne’s World 2, however, is almost all smug, self-satisfied snark. Is it because the turnaround between both films was, frankly, absurdly quick? Is it because the gentling punk rock hand of Penelope Spheeris is absent? Is it because the movie forgets that Wayne and Garth enjoy their lives as is? It’s because of all of those things, and more.

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At The Movies: Wayne’s World (1992)

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Wayne’s World

★★★★☆

1992 • 95 minutes • Paramount Pictures

Shrek is widely credited—or, more precisely, blamed—for the proliferation of pop culture references in kids’ movies these days. But it’s really Shrek 2 that should be blamed. After all, it opens with Shrek and Fiona on their honeymoon, parodying everything that was white hot at the time. That was the first time I saw a Lord of the Rings reference in pop culture, which blew my mind wide open. (This was largely because I didn’t know how television worked and therefore missed out on any other references to the films.) While DreamWorks has course-corrected into the Oscar-nominated heights of How to Train Your Dragon, there were some dark days in the mid-aughts. Robots, anyone?

Pop culture references on their own are fine, of course; it’s when they’re used as a crutch or, worse, as a replacement for an emotionally engaging story that they become frustrating. It’s perfectly possible to make timeless entertainment that’s also fascinated with its own pop cultural milieu. Cases in point: Aladdin and Wayne’s World.

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At The Movies: The Court Jester (1955)

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The Court Jester

★★★★½

1955 • 101 minutes • Paramount Pictures

Alone among my favorite movies, A Knight’s Tale occupies a unique niche. It’s a medieval(ish)-set romp that uses its setting more as an excuse to play merrily with anachronism for comedic effect than any attempts to mimic historical truth. (Although it’s adorable that it’s occasionally dinged for having a lady blacksmith—despite the fact that she’s a widow who took over the family business, like a lot of women in the Middle Ages.) I have often searched in vain for films that do the same (this is why I watched Virgin Territory), usually after I watch A Knight’s Tale, but I usually just put in A Knight’s Tale again after giving up. (Oh, no, what a hardship.) It’s a microniche that endlessly delights me, but emphasis must be placed on its micro nature.

I just glanced back at my copious notes to figure out where I stumbled across The Court Jester. I distinctly remember it being an AV Club Watch This recommendation inspired by Galavant, but I’m only turning up a Scenic Routes column about the “the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle” scene. Therefore, we can only conclude that The Court Jester appeared to me in a very good dream, because it’s the only other film I’ve seen that satisfies the same itch A Knight’s Tale does. (Well, it does lack a soundtrack completely composed of ‘70s songs. Nobody’s perfect!)

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At The Movies: Interstellar (2014)

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Interstellar

★★★★☆

2014 • 169 minutes • Paramount

Spoilers below.

Sometimes, when I watch a mainstream Hollywood film, I like to play a game. In that game, I imagine what the screen would look like if everyone who is a white dude who doesn’t need to be a white dude wasn’t a white dude. You’d be (not) surprised by how much that supposedly default setting is only really necessary to the marketing campaign. I can usually play this game quite easily with Christopher Nolan’s filmography, but in watching Interstellar, I was, for the first time, thwarted. While Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper doesn’t necessarily need to be white, he does necessarily have to be a man, because Interstellar, among the vast number of themes, concepts, and ideas that populate its three hour running time, offers an alternative take on what it means to be a father.

Towards the end of the film, we discover that Cooper is actually the character’s last name. He is not provided with a first name in either the film’s credits or any supplemental material. (This does lead to the inconsistency that Cooper’s grandson is Cooper Cooper, unless, of course, the child has his mother’s surname. I imagine this is an oversight, but I read the text, the author is dead, etc.) He doesn’t merit a first name, because his main function is to be a father—to his daughter Murphy, to his fellow scientist Dr. Brand, and to humanity. This sounds like the set-up for a Great White Male Savior character. And, in many ways, it is. But I find that the details that complicate it. Despite a speech early on about how humanity used to be full of explorers and not caretakers, Cooper’s paternal function is to sacrifice himself. “They didn’t choose me,” he concludes late in the film. “They chose her,” he marvels.

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