Heart Like a Wheel

(USA 1983)

“Trying to make us damned…golf!

—Connie Kalitta

Heart Like a Wheel is the kind of movie you see on late night TV: a mildly amusing true story about someone you’ve never heard of and her struggle to overcome adversity and maybe find herself in the process. In this case, that someone is Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia), later known as “Cha Cha,” a 1960s housewife who became the first woman to obtain a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the first person ever to win two and then three Top Fuel titles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Muldowney). Her struggle consists of establishing herself as a serious dragster. The adversity, well, that’s the sexist all-male drag race scene. You might say the whole thing is a drag.

One night, Shirley’s mechanic husband, Jack (Leo Rossi), lets her race his sports car on the street. She beats Jack’s rival and discovers that she digs the thrill of drag racing. Soon, she’s hanging out at the racetrack, where she meets Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges), a veteran racer and womanizer. Jealous of her success, Jack leaves Shirley to her own devices.

I picked up Heart Like a Wheel for one reason, and one reason only: I read that My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult sampled this movie in a song or two. Overall, it’s a mixed bag, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s better than mediocre. The acting is good. Ken Friedman’s screenplay is competent if not exactly deep, peppered with some snappy dialogue. When a skeezy reporter (Martin Casella) asks Shirley what a beautiful girl like her is doing at a racetrack, for example, her one-word response is casual, bored, and totally fucking awesome: “Winning.” Director Jonathan Kaplan stages realistic fight scenes, particularly between Connie and Shirley’s teenage son, John (played by a young Anthony Edwards). He even throws in a couple of real racers (Steve Evans and Sam Posey) and fire. It was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1984). The whole thing comes off like a soap opera, but it works. I never did catch those samples, though.

Bonus: the DVD I have includes trailers for four other films, The Turning Point, Kenny & Company, Rhinestone with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone, and Six Pack with Kenny Rogers and Anthony Michael Hall. They all look as awful as “Born to Win” by Jill Michaels, the Heart Like a Wheel theme song.

With Hoyt Axton, Creed Bratton, Tiffany Brissette, Michael Cavanaugh, Diane Delano, Mitzi Hoag, Nora Heflin, Brandon Brent Williams

Production: Aurora Productions

Distribution: 20th Century Fox

113 minutes
Rated PG

(DVD purchase) C

Sixteen Candles

(USA 1984)

“I can’t believe this. They fucking forgot my birthday!”

—Samantha

It’s not a good day for Samantha (Molly Ringwald). Her entire family, including both sets of grandparents, totally forget her birthday—her “sweet sixteen,” no less. Everyone is focused on her older sister, Ginny (Blanche Baker), who is getting married to oily bohunk Rudy (John Kapelos) tomorrow. A sex questionnaire she fills out and thinks she passes to her friend Randy (Liane Curtis) during class is missing—and she admitted in it that she’d gladly lose her v-card to dreamboat senior Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). Jake doesn’t know she exists—or so she believes. A freshman geek who calls himself “Farmer Ted” (Anthony Michael Hall) puts the moves on her while taking the bus home. Her grandfather Fred (Max Showalter) calls her boobs tiny while her grandmother Helen (Carole Cook) grabs them because “they’re so perky.” She’s coerced into taking a Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), to a dance that evening—where she runs into Jake and Farmer Ted, the latter of whom ends up with her underpants. To top it off, she has to sleep on the couch because her grandparents are using her bedroom.

I’m a sucker for teen movies, maybe because deep inside I’m still a teen or wish I still was. Either way, I love John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles for all its goofiness, crude humor, and heart. Ringwald owns Samantha, a different and very Gen X kind of heroine: she’s angsty, gutsy, and fun. Plus, she has substance. Samantha liberally uses the F word, yet she wants all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas. She’s totally relatable—in fact, she reminds me of a dear friend (I’m talking to you, Michelle) in this film. I want the Bow Wow Wow and Culture Club posters on her bedroom walls. Likewise, Hall owns Farmer Ted, a different and very Gen X kind of dork: he’s got personality, and he dreams big. Things works out for him in the end, I guess.

One of the best scenes is an exchange between Samantha and Farmer Ted in a parked car inside a shop classroom. In typical Hughes fashion, the two talk and discover that they’re not so alien. I love what’s pretty much Jami Gertz’s only lines, indignantly and drunkenly slurred at a party to a guy off camera while she catches on a banister a string of pearls around her neck: “I’m sorry, I don’t do that!” When her drunk friend next to her mumbles that she does, Gertz snickers, “I know!” Seeing a baby John Cusack as a nerd (this was only his second appearance in a film) is special. The wedding is awesome, but the final scene in which Samantha finally gets Jake still sends chills up my spine—“If You Were Here” by Thompson Twins plays while car after car drives away, ultimately revealing him standing there across the street from the church. It’s downright magical.

Sixteen Candles has its dubious elements—Long Duk Dong smacks of racism, the word “faggot” is a bit too casually pervasive, and the appearance of Farmer Ted taking advantage of Caroline (Haviland Morris) when she’s passed out is creepy despite portraying it in a relatively innocent and humorous light. I can’t help but wonder whether these flaws detract from the film when viewing it through the lens of the present. I hope not—Sixteen Candles is a classic fairy tale that never gets old for me.

93 minutes
Rated PG

(Home via iTunes) B+

Weird Science

(USA 1985)

“So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?”

—Lisa

No one can accuse John Hughes of being highbrow with Weird Science, his farcical teenage male fantasy flick. The concept is ridiculously pedestrian: Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), two high school “donkey dicks” who “couldn’t get laid in a morgue,” create an impossibly hot woman (Kelly LeBrock) using their computer and a Barbie doll—where exactly the latter came from isn’t clear. They name their creation Lisa and hope to put her to use for something—they’re not quite sure what. Turns out, Lisa has her own plans for them. Hilarity ensues.

It might sound awful: Weird Science is silly, indulgent, and crass. What sets it apart from other dumb films of the same ilk is that it actually has a heart. Plus, it’s funny. LeBrock is cheeky, charming, warm, and wry here; she knows exactly when to be flirty and when to be more motherly. She puts forth sincerity in her affection for Gary and Wyatt; the way her voice wavers at their parting scene is more touching than she has any business being in a film like this. Bill Paxton is hilarious as Chet, Wyatt’s militant abusive older brother—”he’s kind of an asshole.” His delivery is downright inspiring—that “greazy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray” line gets a snicker out of me every time, as does pretty much everything he says. The scene with Gary’s parents (Britt Leach and Barbara Lang) is classic boy humor. Even Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Rusler are awesome in their smaller roles as tormentors. I love that Hughes incorporates elements from other movies, Mad Max: The Road Warrior and Return of the Jedi to name two. Even the (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek cheesy special effects fit. Bonus: Oingo Boingo. Somehow, Weird Science‘s utter juvenile goofiness is totally endearing. Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.

94 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Home via iTunes) B-

The Breakfast Club

(USA 1985)

“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?”

—The Breakfast Club

I’ve seen The Breakfast Club too many times to track—so many times, in fact, I can practically recite every line in order. What’s most interesting to me is personal: how volatile my view of this film has been through the years. Seeing it as a teenager in its day, I found it incredibly deep. John Hughes nailed high school social politics better than anyone, and he did it with humor and panache. I was taken aback at how accurately The Breakfast Club depicted my own adolescent perceptions, attitudes, frustrations, fears, and dreams. Seeing it in my 20s and 30s, however, I found it trite—moreso the older I got. Still, I adored its juvenile but sharp and totally quotable lines. Flipping through channels on a recent school night, I noticed that AMC was airing it—in like, five minutes. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out what impression it would leave on me now.

The Breakfast Club is an achievement. More like a play than a movie and decidedly minimalist in plot and execution—five characters in search of an exit—it’s unlike anything else Hughes did. The plot is simple: five high school students (Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, and newcomer Judd Nelson) from different backgrounds—and more importantly, different cliques—are forced to spend a day together in close quarters for a Saturday detention. Alien and hostile toward each other, they ultimately bond over silly and not so silly stuff. Not much happens, really—there’s a hallway run that ends with Bender (Nelson) shooting hoops for a scholarsheeeeeeeeep—but that’s okay; the drama comes from the personalities of the characters and the friction and attraction between them. Unlike the plot, the statement here is anything but simple: Hughes says a boatload about stereotypes, peer pressure, conformity, rules, family, and social mores—and how we all trap others and ourselves underneath them. In a way that sort of presages Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, Hughes turns the “American Dream” on its head: all of these characters simultaneously embody and reject the ideal. Whether he’s hopeful for the future or not, he sees that these kids and this generation do not operate like those who came before it.

What makes The Breakfast Club work is its great ensemble cast. Even the shallow treatment of the adults (Paul Gleason as Principal Vernon and John Kapelos as janitor Carl) doesn’t take away from the film. It’s totally believable: after a deep exchange, I can’t help but think that everyone goes back to what they were doing before. Come Monday, maybe Bender dates Claire, maybe Andy dates Allison, and maybe everyone is nice to Brian—but I doubt it. A major theme here is that everyone is full of shit—even the good guys. The Breakfast Club is rooted in its time and culture (i.e., it’s very ’80s and very white middle class American), but it hits something universal. It’s also totally entertaining: it opens with a Bowie quote, has a classic theme song—”Don’t You (Forget about Me)” by Simple Minds—and is jam packed with snarky lines. What’s not to love?

A word about AMC: like a lot of cable stations, it censors “bad” words. I’m not a fan of that, but obviously it won’t stop me from watching something. That said, AMC could’ve done a better job editing here. The dubbing is horrible; apparently no attempt was made to find replacement words that even remotely match the characters mouths. Ditto for the voiceovers. The censoring often relies not on the word but the context. For example, AMC has an aversion to the word “dick” only when it refers to a penis—not when it refers to a jerk. It doesn’t like “asshole,” but “ass” is okay. It hates all forms of “shit,” replacing it with variations like “it’s the pits,” “eat slaw,” and “hogwash” (for “bullshit”). I recommend sticking with the uncut edition—foul language has a place here and something crucial is lost without it: realness.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Breakfast Club “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

97 minutes
Rated R

(AMC) A

 

Foxcatcher

(USA 2014)

A creepy middle-aged chemical magnate (Steve Carell) sponsors a floundering Olympic wrestler (Channing Tatum) ultimately just to secure the athlete’s older brother (Mark Ruffalo) as coach for a start-up team. What can possibly go wrong?

Carrell is over the top creepy and weird in a role that is tough to imagine him taking, but such a great move. My eyes were fixed on this like a train wreck. And I mean that as a compliment. Based on a true story, I have no idea how much of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s screenplay is accurate. Director Bennett Miller makes it such a killer film, though, that it doesn’t really matter.

With Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David ‘Doc’ Bennett, Lee Perkins, David Zabriskie

134 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East 21) A-

http://sonyclassics.com/foxcatcher/