Film Review: The Last Word (dir by Mark Pellington)


So, I watched The Last Word tonight.

It’s a film that premiered, earlier this year, at Sundance and then it got a very brief theatrical run.  It was directed by Mark Pellington, who is one of those odd directors who, for some reason, I always assume is more talented than he is.  Seriously, when I saw this was directed by Mark Pellington, I actually got excited.  I was like, “Mark Pellington!?  He’s great!”  Then I realized that I wasn’t really sure who Mark Pellington was.  I looked him up on Wikipedia and I realized that I was mistaking him for actor Mark Pellegrino.  Mark Pellegrino played Jacob on Lost and is an outspoken Libertarian.  Mark Pellington is some guy who started out in music videos and then eventually moved up to directing pedestrian films.

Anyway, the film stars Shirley MacClaine as this annoying old busybody who demands that Amanda Seyfried write her obituary because MacClaine wants to know what people are going to say about her after she’s dead.  When Seyfried discovers that everyone hates MacClaine, she writes a boring and very short obit.  “Everyone hates you,” she helpfully explains.  So, MacClaine sets out to do some great things so that her obituary will have a little more spark.  She’s going to set a fire of quirkiness, she is!  Of course, this leads to MacClaine adopting a little black orphan, getting a job as a DJ at the local radio station (she plays boring adult contemporary music, of course.  No EDM), and helping Seyfriend get a boyfriend.

To be honest, this film would probably be a lot more bearable if it was a prequel to Bernie, because then you would at least know that you could look forward to Jack Black showing up with a hunting rifle and putting everyone out of their misery.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.  Instead, this is another one of those movies where a cranky old tyrant teaches all of us young folks how to better appreciate life.

Y’see, Shirley MacClaine is playing an oldster so she has a sharp tongue and she’s always putting people in their place.  Because she had to struggle, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that she spends most of her time making everyone around her miserable.

Amanda Seyfried, on the other hand, is a millennial so she puts her feet on her boss’s desk and has no direction in her life.  Why, she just needs some annoying, elderly busybody to come into her life and make her listen to smooth jazz.  She might even get a hipster boyfriend out of the deal!  (Of course, her potential hipster boyfriend is a 2008-style hipster as opposed to a 2017-style hipster.)

Meanwhile, AnnJewel Lee Dixon (as the little girl that MacClaine adopts) is a plot device so she doesn’t do anything unless the script specifically needs her to humanize the other characters.  She gets to dance towards the end of the film.

Oh, and then there’s Anne Heche.  She plays MacClaine’s estranged daughter.  The reunion between her and MacClaine is so overwritten and overperformed that some viewers will probably be inspired to rip out their hair while watching it.

Hey, did I mention that there’s a scene where MacClaine does something quirky and all of the supporting characters break out into applause?  I think we’re supposed to clap to but I think most members of the audience will be too busy ripping out their hair by the handful.

Fortunately, I really love my hair so I resisted the temptation to start plucking strands out of my head while watching the film.  It wasn’t easy, though.  To be honest, the pain of plucking a strand of hair is nothing compared to the pain of watching the first fifteen minutes of this film and realizing that you already know every thing that’s going to happen.  By the time that the priest showed up and started to cry while talking about a time that MacClaine’s character had been rude to him, I imagine that viewers with less self-control were halfway bald.  But, as I said, I love my hair too much to take my frustration out on it.  Instead, I just kicked the coffee table a few times.  Now, my foot hurts.  Ow.

Seeing as how Shirley MacClaine is one of the last of the truly great actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age and she actually does give a pretty good performance (when the script allows her), it’s a shame that the rest of the movie is such a let down.  Then again, this film is full of talented people who are let down by an overwritten script and Mark Pellington’s painfully obvious direction.  This is one of those films that tries to hard to be profound that it forgets the importance of being entertaining.

As I watched this movie, I took a glance at Mark Pellington’s filmography.  Did you know that he directed The Mothman Prophecies?  The Last Word really could have used a visit from the Mothman.  Seriously, this film was crying out for a scene of MacClaine putting Mothman in his place.  The fact that Mothman did not appear leads me to wonder what exactly this film was hiding.

Seriously, why are the people behind The Last Word protecting the Mothman?

Back to School #35: Sixteen Candles (dir by John Hughes)


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The 80s are often considered to be the golden age of teen films and that’s largely due to the work of one man, John Hughes. A  former advertising copywriter and a contributor to National Lampoon, Hughes went on to direct and write some of the most influential films of all time.  By deftly mixing comedy with themes of alienation, rebellion, and youthful disillusionment, Hughes changed the way that teenagers were portrayed onscreen and his influence is still felt today, in everything from Juno to Superbad to Easy A to … well, just about any other recent film starring Michael Cera.

(Okay, I know Michael Cera was not in Easy A but it really seems like he should have been…)

Hughes made his directorial debut in 1984 with Sixteen Candles, a comedy about love, birthdays, and weddings set in an upper class suburb of Chicago.  (I have to admit that, much like with My Tutor, one reason that I like this film is because I like seeing where everyone lives.)  As the film opens, Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is not having a particularly good time.  For one thing, everyone is so wrapped up in her older sister’s wedding that they’ve forgotten about Sam’s sixteenth birthday.  Her house is full of wacky grandparents (and one foreign exchange student named Long Duk Dong).  At school, Sam is in the unenviable position of being neither popular enough nor unpopular enough to actually be noticed by anyone.  Instead, she’s just there.  She has a crush on Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) but is convinced that Jake doesn’t even know that she’s alive.  (Of course, she’s wrong.)  She’s also being pursued by a character who is occasionally referred to as being “Farmer Ted” but is listed in the end credits as simply being “The Geek.”  (I’m going to refer to him as “The Geek” because Farmer Ted makes him sound like he should be killing people in a SyFy original movie.)  As played by Anthony Michael Hall, The Geek isn’t your typical high movie nerd.  Instead, he’s the outspoken and confident king of the nerds and he’s proud of it.  The Geek is madly pursuing Sam and has made a bet with his friends (including John Cusack) that he’ll not only have sex with her but he’ll prove it by bringing them her panties.  (BAD GEEK! — but fortunately, Anthony Michael Hall gives such an energetic and likable performance that you can forgive him.)

There are parts of Sixteen Candles that have not aged well.  And, by that, I’m mostly referring to the character of Long Duk Dong, who is so well-played by Gedde Watanabe that it’s tempting to ignore just how racist the portrayal of his character really is.  As well, I know that a lot of my more erudite friends would probably only briefly look away from their copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The 21st Century, just long enough to pronounce that Sixteen Candles is essentially a film about “first world problems.”

Well, maybe it is.  But I don’t care.  I like it.  John Hughes’s script is full of classic lines and funny characters, Anthony Michael Hall is likable as the Geek, and, as played by Michael Schoeffling, Jake Ryan is the epitome of the perfect guy.  If your heart doesn’t melt a little when he says that he’s looking for true love, it can only be because you don’t have a heart.  And finally, Sam remains a character that we can all relate to.  As played by Molly Ringwald, she’s the perfect sullen everygirl.

Of course, an undeniable part of the charm of Sixteen Candles comes from the fact that it really is a film that could not be made today.  Sixteen Candles may take place in an entirely different world from films like The Pom Pom Girls and Suburbia, but it’s still just as much of a time capsule.

First off, there’s about a thousand apps out there that will make sure that you never forget anyone’s birthday.  If the film was made today, Sam’s parents would have checked their e-mail and found a message from Facebook telling them that “Samantha Baker has a birthday this week!”  They could have just written “Happy birthday to a wonderful daughter!” on her wall and half of Sam’s problems would have been solved.

Secondly, it’s doubtful that, if the film was made today, the Geek would be able to get away with just showing everyone’s Sam’s panties.  Instead, they would have demanded nude pics, which would have then been posted on the internet for the entire world to see.  And let’s be honest: “Can I send my friends naked pics of you?” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?”

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*And, no, I haven’t read Piketty’s tome.  I have a life to live and movies to see.