Tootsie (1982)

“I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be the object of so much genuine affection.”

Tootsie Poster

Synopsis:
An out-of-work actor (Dustin Hoffman) in need of money to produce a play written by his roommate (Bill Murray) dresses like a woman and is given a role on a daytime soap opera, where he falls in love with a beautiful actress (Jessica Lange) who is dating the show’s director (Dabney Coleman). Meanwhile, Hoffman-in-drag is pursued by both a co-star (George Gaynes) and Lange’s widowed father (Charles Durning), all while trying to maintain a new romantic relationship with his longtime friend (Teri Garr).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Sydney Pollack-directed film “is the kind of project that could have turned into a disaster”, but instead “works beautifully.” He points out the many parallels between this and Billy Wilder’s comedy classic Some Like it Hot (1959): just as “[Jack] Lemmon and Tony Curtis masquerade as women and consequently free their better female sides from years of repression, Michael [Hoffman] becomes more kind, gentler, more perceptive (toward women mostly, but men also) and less inclined to blame everyone else for his failures”. Interestingly, Hoffman chose not to “base [Dorothy] on famous female characters (although he uses a Blanche Dubois accent), but lets [her] character have a life of its own (influenced by his male knowledge of men and their power games).” Indeed, it’s Michael/Dorothy’s life-altering shift in perspective towards the world that fuels the film, rather than simple curiosity about how long he’ll get away with his charade, and what the consequences will be when he’s inevitably found out.

In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names Hoffman Best Actor of the Year, and describes how Hoffman spent no less than a year experimenting with the characterization, finally stating, “I’m not going to try to do a character; I’m just going to be myself behind this and see what happens”. It’s refreshing that while Michael is certainly flawed, self-absorbed, and deceptive, he’s not “the biggest sexist pig around”, and thus “we see that even the average man must change”. Hoffman’s excellent performance undeniably anchors the film (it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role!), but the supporting cast is all fine as well — most notably Lange (who won a Best Supporting Actress award for her performance) and Durning as her widowed father, who we feel genuine pity for as we watch him falling hard for Dorothy while being taken for an embarrassing ride. Adding welcome levity in the midst of so much narrative tension is the hilarious subplot involving “a lecherous actor” (Gaynes) whose character (unlike Lange and Durning) is so buffoonish we don’t mind seeing him duped.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dustin Hoffman as Michael/Dorothy
    Tootsie Hoffman1
    Tootsie Hoffman2
  • Fine supporting performances across the board
    Tootsie Lange
    Tootsie Pollack
  • An often hilarious screenplay
    Tootsie Baby Watching

Must See?
Yes, as a comedy classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Old Yeller (1957)

“Old Yeller just saved your life — and Elizabeth’s, too!”

Old Yeller Poster

Synopsis:
When his father (Fess Parker) goes away on a cattle drive, Travis (Tommy Kirk) helps his mother (Dorothy McGuire) care for his younger brother (Kevin Corcoran) on their Texas ranch. A visiting mongrel, “Old Yeller”, soon earns his way into Travis’s heart — but tragedy strikes when rabies begins infesting local animals.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary reveals known spoilers right away in his review of this live-action Disney film, noting that “if you were a kid when you saw this in the fifties, you definitely cried when young Tommy Kirk gallantly shot Old Yeller (played by Spike of TV’s The Westerner)”. Indeed, the film is notorious for giving kids nightmares (despite Bosley Crowther’s casual assertion, in his original review for the New York Times, that the film is a “warm, appealing” and “trim little family picture”). On a personal note, I vividly recall the pain of both reading Fred Gibson’s sensitive novel and seeing its cinematic adaptation in school one day; because of traumatic memories, I actively put off a rewatch until now, but am pleased to say that it’s held up well, and remains fine viewing for adults (or especially hardy youngsters — which I wasn’t).

Peary points out that “Disney’s first film about a dog” — the “best of its kind” — is “well acted by the four stars and the talented Spike” (as well as a fine cast of supporting actors, including Chuck Connors), “sensitively directed by Robert Stevenson, [and] nicely photographed by Charles P. Boyle”. Dorothy McGuire solidly grounds the film, adding a sense of calm assurance to a situation fraught with troubles — including a trampled fence, a bear attack, rampaging wild hogs, and the worthless pseudo-assistance of a lazy neighbor (Jeff York), who gets his sweet daughter (Beverly Washburn) to take on tasks he should be doing himself. Naturally, Old Yeller is there throughout all these misadventures, proving his mettle and earning our loyalty. Easing the burden of the film’s outcome are two additional factors: Old Yeller’s mate quickly gives birth to a son who looks much like him; and Stevenson uses restraint in not anthropomorphizing Yeller through frequent facial close-ups (as is so often done in films with a personable animal as a central character — i.e., Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Yeller is a “smart, brave (fabulous!) dog” — but when he loses his mind from “hydrophobia”, it’s plain to see that Kirk is actually putting the poor animal out of his misery.

Old Yeller is certainly worth a look by all film fanatics — though I can’t say for sure when I’ll allow my own kids to see it… And be forewarned that the catchy title song will stick in your head long after the movie is over.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dorothy McGuire as “Mama”
    Old Yeller McGuire2
  • Fine performances by the ensemble cast
    Old Yeller Kirk
  • Many memorable scenes
    Old Yeller Coming of Age

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring — if undeniably troubling — childhood classic.

Categories

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Sky Above, the Mud Below, The (1961)

“We are here just as observers — and, if they will let us be, as friends.”

Sky Above Mud Below Poster

Synopsis:
A team of European explorers are assisted by New Guinean natives as they travel through uncharted jungle territory.

Genres:

Review:
This Oscar-winning documentary remains a fascinating (if perhaps inevitably patronizing) artifact of an historic expedition through the mountains, jungles, and rivers of “Dutch New Guinea” (now Papua New Guinea). As with earlier documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) (or Werner Herzog’s fictional Fitzcarraldo — discussed in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams), one is consistently aware of how challenging it must have been simply to gather the footage on display: while watching the arduous, months-long trek through seemingly impenetrable landscape, we’re aware that the film crew itself was traversing the same terrain (not to mention carrying bulky, sensitive equipment). We see individuals becoming too sick to continue the journey; daring maneuvers made by pilots willing to drop much-needed supplies near the expedition (at one point the travelers go for three days without food); and cringe-inducing scenes of leeches being burned off legs. While we’re aware that the majority of the troupe eventually made it to their destination — and that radio communication was maintained throughout — the adventure feels genuinely tenuous at times, especially knowing that some of the tribes they encountered actively engaged in head-hunting and cannibalism.

At the same time, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly distressed by the exoticizing tone of both the solemn voiceover (“They say in the jungle, only fools and children ask questions.”) and many of the scenes — beginning with a staged introduction as the adventurers and a pretty stewardess smile while pointing to various locations on a globe (good thing they had that with them on the plane). As nudity, dramatic body piercings, and unsettling tribal customs (i.e., bare-breasted women suckle not just human babies but animals and adult guests) are put on display, we wish it were less obvious how superior the explorers feel to their “stone age” counterparts. Yet the filmmakers are nothing if not direct in their explanation of how and why the journey (funded by Dutch royalty) took place, making it easier for modern audiences to place the film within historical context and forgive some patronizing elements. Audiences at the time were surely enthralled by the opportunity to glimpse the lives of fellow humans so completely untouched by global influence — and modern film fanatics will likely be, too.

Note: Viewers interested in this subject matter and area of the world might want to check out the more recent documentary The Search for Michael Rockefeller (2011), which weaves similar footage from the same era into an investigation of the famous heir’s mysterious disappearance. Also recommended is the National Geographic documentary series based on Gerald Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (2005).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fascinating footage of a harrowing expedition
    SAMB Laughter
    SAMB Tribal
    SAMB Leeches

Must See?
Yes, as an engaging historical document. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Romancing the Stone (1984)

“You’re the best time I’ve ever had.”

Romancing the Stone Poster

Synopsis:
A romance novelist (Kathleen Turner) hoping to rescue her kidnapped sister (Mary Ellen Trainor) from jewel thieves falls in love with a rugged adventurer (Michael Douglas) she meets in the Amazonian jungle.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “very entertaining, very funny roller-coaster ride of a movie” — shot on location in Colombia — possesses “many clever touches”. He notes that the “film’s surprise treasure is Turner’s thoroughly dazzling and likable characterization” as Joan Wilder, a woman who switches “from being everybody’s easy touch in New York to a tough-as-nails (but still sweet and sentimental) heroine in the real jungle”; indeed, in his Alternate Oscars book, he names Turner Best Actress of the Year for her performance. In this book, he writes that “we root for Joan as we do for few heroines in adventure films”, in part because Turner “and screenwriter Diane Thomas created a woman” who is not only “alluring to men” but appealing to women. Turner’s character is “funny, smart, and pretty” — an “inspiration for every woman viewer who needs a nudge to pursue her exciting dreams”.

Interestingly, Peary’s review(s) focus almost exclusively on Turner rather than going into detail about the storyline itself. He does note that one of the film’s highlights involves “a horde of mean peasant-highwaymen [who] turn out to be… fanatics” of Wilder’s romance novels (this scene is gut-tickling), but the entire screenplay is surprisingly engaging, full of nicely played comedic touches and heart-racing plot twists. The on-location shooting — helmed by director Robert Zemeckis and DP Dean Cundey — effectively transports us to a world of exotic danger and excitement, and Douglas is well-cast as Turner’s reluctant (at first) compatriot and lover. It’s too bad that the film’s sequel — The Jewel of the Nile (1985), not scripted by Thomas or directed by Zemeckis — is purportedly a disappointment; it’s not listed in GFTFF.

Note: Thomas’s untimely death just before the release of The Jewel of the Nile was quite tragic; click here for more details.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder (named Best Actress of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
    Romancing the Stone Turner
  • Michael Douglas as Jack Colton
    Romancing the Stone Douglas
  • Many rousing adventure scenes
    Romancing the Stone Adventure
  • Fine cinematography
    Romancing the Stone Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fun romantic comedy-adventure with a likeable female lead.

Categories

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Star, The (1952)

“If you’re a star, you don’t stop being a star.”

Star Poster

Synopsis:
When former box-office queen Margaret Elliott (Bette Davis) goes on a drunken spree, she’s bailed out of jail by a boat mechanic (Sterling Hayden) secretly in love with her — but can she make the starring come-back she so desperately desires?

Genres:

Review:
Two years after her Oscar-nominated role as theatrical powerhouse Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) — and Gloria Swanson’s similarly nominated role in Sunset Boulevard (1950) — Bette Davis starred in this lower-budget variation (directed by Stuart Heisler) on the theme of middle-aged divas struggling to maintain their pride and identity in the face of an expired (or threatened) career. In this case, Davis’s Margaret Elliott is more akin to Swanson’s “Norma Desmond” than Margo, given that they are both tragically deluded about the endurance of their appeal; indeed, given that Elliott is similarly “rescued” by a hunky young sun-kissed man, overt parallels between The Star and Sunset Boulevard are unmistakable.

Davis — who purportedly had Joan Crawford in mind when playing Elliott — gives a nuanced, sympathetic performance as a woman unable to face the reality of her circumstances. The scene in which she watches herself in a screen-test, cringing in horror at the results of her vain refusal to accept her director’s guidelines, is masterful, and her interactions with her ungrateful sister (Fay Baker) and brother-in-law (Herb Vigran) are nicely handled. However, the screenplay is ultimately a disappointment in comparison with the two classic titles referenced above, and it’s hard not to feel frustrated by what could have been done with this juicy set-up. The trajectory of the storyline — particularly Elliott’s romance with Hayden — is too predictable, and some patently overwrought dialogue (“I once thought you were a woman. I was wrong; you’re nothing but a career.”) — place the film squarely in the realm of “women’s dramas”. However, Davis’s performance is strong enough to recommend The Star for at least one-time viewing.

Trivia Note: Fourteen-year-old Natalie Wood plays a small role as Davis’s daughter, with one scene — taking place on Hayden’s boat — eerily foreshadowing the circumstances of her untimely death-by-drowning at the age of 43.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Margaret Elliott
    Star Davis

Must See?
No, though film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out.

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Stand By Me (1986)

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.”

Stand By Me Poster

Synopsis:
A writer (Richard Dreyfuss) reflects on his adventures as a 12-year-old (Wil Wheaton) setting out with his buddies (River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell) to locate the body of a missing neighborhood boy.

Genres:

Review:
Before hitting blockbuster gold with The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and A Few Good Men (1992), Rob Reiner helmed this adaptation of Stephen King’s novella “The Body”. Framed as a bittersweet flashback film, the storyline centers on a sensitive young male who — like Timothy Hutton’s Conrad in Ordinary People (1980) — is reeling from the sudden death of his beloved older brother (John Cusack). A road trip is conveniently kicked into gear when Gordie (Wheaton) and his friends are presented with a coming-of-age quest they can’t resist: the rumored discovery of a classmate’s dead body, also sought after by a local bully (Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang. Reiner effectively evokes 1950s nostalgia through both period visuals and a finger-snapping soundtrack (including the popular Ben E. King title song); meanwhile, he balances the film’s darker themes and dicey situations (two of the boys are nearly killed by a train) with doses of levity — most famously in a gross-out storytelling sequence involving pie eating and copious vomit. However, unlike in Reiner’s later King-adaptation Misery (1990), the narrative here lacks a sense of either urgency or menace, making Stand By Me more of a sentimental reflection on boyhood bonds than a tale of adventure or deep personal growth.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The exciting railroad bridge sequence
    Stand By Me Train

Must See?
No, though most film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out once, given its status as a cult favorite. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Witness (1985)

“It’s not our way.”

Witness Poster

Synopsis:
When an Amish boy (Lukas Haas) travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) witnesses a brutal murder in a train station bathroom, the policeman (Harrison Ford) assigned to the case does whatever he can to protect the pair from harm.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Australian director Peter Weir’s… fascinating meditation on violence/peace is extremely well made”: it’s “gorgeous to look at” (John Seale’s cinematography is “excellent”), “very suspenseful”, and features “truly memorable performances by the two leads” (though I’m equally impressed by Haas’s child performance as the wide-eyed “witness”). He points out the “delicately sensual sexual content”, including “beautiful, radiant McGillis standing bare-breasted and unembarrassed as she exchanges stares with [Ford] in the next room” and “the two danc[ing] in the barn” together. However, Peary concedes that “the Amish people’s protest that this film didn’t represent them properly seems to have foundation”, given that “we learn little about them except for their abhorrence of violence (which at times seems like a convenient plot device) and their sense of community” (he accurately notes that “the film has the best communal building scene since the one in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers“).

Peary further notes that “the major problem with the film is that it has trouble mixing commercial Hollywood elements with the mysterious elements that usually dominate Weir’s films”, specifically in its glorified emphasis on “violent action sequences” — though I believe this is intentional; indeed, Weir and “screenwriters Earl W. Wallace and Bill Kelley” seem to bank on audiences’ shock at the collision of these two radically different cultures (Amish country life and an urban homicide squad). Witness is ultimately a romantic thriller at heart — and my primary complaint is that its stock villains (sociopathically corrupt cops) are too predictably one-dimensional. However, what’s primarily at stake here are the lives of Haas and McGillis — and to that end, the film cleverly keeps us in suspense, all while bathing our senses in a uniquely pastoral late-20th-century setting.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lukas Haas as Samuel
    Witness Haas
  • Kelly McGillis as Rachel
    Witness McGillis
  • An authentic sense of culture and place
    Witness Barnraising
  • Joan Seale’s cinematography
    Witness Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a taut, well-crafted thriller.

Categories

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Kentucky Fried Movie, The (1977)

“The popcorn you are eating has been pissed in. Film at eleven.”

Kentucky Fried Movie Poster

Synopsis:
A compendium of irreverently satirical commercials and T.V. snippets bookend a spoof of Bruce Lee movies.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “very funny, off-the-wall sketch comedy spoofing movies, commercials, old TV scenes and newscasts” is “still the best of the comedy revues”, and features “imaginative direction by John Landis and writing by Kentucky Fried Theater members”. He asserts that “the best routine is [the] lengthy takeoff of Enter the Dragon called ‘A Fistful of Yen’, with Evan Kim doing a remarkable impersonation of Bruce Lee (as well as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz)” — indeed, this section does contain some of the most hilarious moments in the film (see stills below). Peary names some of his other favorite bits in the revue — including one scene showing “a young black couple following the bizarre instructions on a how-to sex record” — and notes that there are “many hilarious sight gags”.

However, he concedes that the movie “gets laughs by having characters surprise us with vulgar language”, and notes that “some of the humor is too juvenile or tasteless”. The quote selected for this review gives an indication of how “vulgar language” is used for supposed-humor, but instead simply falls flat. As with all episodic films, the quality of each segment is variable — in this case, highly variable. Indeed, while I chuckled at a few select scenes, I’m ultimately not enamored with this early outing by producers Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, who hit true comedy gold with Airplane! (1980) a few years later. Still, fans of Zucker et al. will likely be curious to check this one out, simply to see what portions might appeal.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Intermittently amusing segments and gags
    Kentucky Fried Movie Newscaster
    Kentucky Fried Movie Sex Ed Record
    Kentucky Fried Movie Spoof1
    Kentucky Fried Movie Spoof2
    Kentucky Fried Movie Death

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless it’s your cup of tea.

Links:

Caveman (1981)

“Atouk alounda Lana.”

Caveman Poster

Synopsis:
During prehistoric times, a caveman (Ringo Starr) lusts after the bodacious girlfriend (Barbara Bach) of the bullying tribe leader (John Matuszak) while ignoring the romantic interests of a sweet new acquaintance (Shelley Long).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while “most critics mocked” this “funny prehistoric spoof done on the cheap”, “fans of the genre will get a kick out of the humorous dinosaurs created by David Allen”, as well as the “silly 15-word caveman vocabulary… created by director Carl Gottlieb and his co-writer, Rudy DeLuca”. Indeed, I was surprised to find myself genuinely amused when revisiting this cult favorite, which is filled with “hilarious sight gags” — including Peary’s favorite, in which “a giant insect land[s] on sleeping Dennis Quaid’s face, whereupon the concerned Starr squashes it, causing this gooey mess to pour over Quaid”. It’s all unbelievably silly stuff, but it’s impossible not to giggle (for instance) when watching the group’s attempts to fry an enormous egg (the “special effects” in this scene are impressive), or listening to the gaggle of misfits making nifty improv music together around a campfire. My main complaint is with how badly Starr treats poor Long, who sticks by his side no matter how many times he boots her in favor of obnoxious Bach; Starr’s character wins a prize as one of the most bone-headed, least appealing cinematic protagonists ever.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several amusing and/or clever sequences
    Caveman Back Straightening
    Caveman Fried Egg
    Caveman Dinosaur
    Caveman Music
  • Lalo Schifrin’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one time viewing, given that it may be to your liking.

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Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

“Even though he disgusts me, I did save his life.”

Boudu Poster

Synopsis:
A well-meaning bookseller (Charles Granval) rescues an indigent man named Boudu (Michel Simon) from drowning and brings him to his house, where his wife (Marcelle Hainia) and mistress-housekeeper (Severine Lerczinska) are both initially perturbed by Boudu’s uncouth presence, but slowly seduced by his animal-like “charms”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “comic tribute to Paris’s bums” — directed by Jean Renoir, and based on a play by Rene Fauchois — is “not great Renoir” but remains a “perceptive social comedy” which isn’t “nearly as bad as critics contended in 1967 when it received its first American release”. He points out that “Simon’s movements remind some of Charles Laughton”, and notes how interesting it is that Boudu “is such an unsentimentalized slob — rather than the lovable tramp of the Chaplin tradition”. However, while modern critics delight in the way Boudu subverts expectations by anarchically refusing to express appreciation for what he’s given, he ultimately comes across as simply an annoying cipher. We learn nothing about his background, and — because he’s such a lout — we care little about him or his future. In fact, this is a rare instance where I prefer the remake — Paul Mazurky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), starring Nick Nolte — to the original, given that both Nolte’s character (as scripted) and performance are more nuanced. While the cinematography in Boudu… is beautiful (see stills below), this one is only must-see viewing for Renoir fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lovely cinematography and framing
    Boudu Cinematography1
    Boudu Cinematography2
    Boudu Cinematography3

Must See?
No, though film fanatics interested in Renoir’s work will likely be curious to check it out.

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