Real Life (1979)

“We want the greatest show of all: life!”

Real Life Poster

Synopsis:
A pushy film director (Albert Brooks) recruits an “ordinary” American family — Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain, Lisa Urette, and Robert Stirrat — to open up their house to a documentary crew and two psychologists (Matthew Tobin and J.A. Preston).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “reasonably funny satire” — which “pokes fun at PBS’s American Family series that presented the lives of the Louds in cinema verite style — shows that “the presence of a camera alters reality” and “asserts that documentarians have a lot of gall to take their cameras into people’s homes to exploit them”. Given that reality television is now beyond de rigeur (and few younger viewers will have seen the original series), director-star Albert Brooks’ satirical insights no longer pack the same punch; 21st century audiences understand how “reality” is inevitably obscured by being filmed, and (thanks to ample mass media coverage) have a more nuanced view of what it means for participants to be “exploited” while simultaneously exploiting the genre for their own fame and gain. With that said, as Peary notes, the movie “has peculiar insight into family life, some believable characterizations, and several truly hilarious scenes”, including Brooks singing “to Phoenix residents about how he ‘sincerely’ appreciates them; the visit to McCain’s crooked gynecologist; and Grodin’s showing incompetence while operating on a horse”. (I also enjoy the slow-mo montage sequence.)

However, things get off to a creaky start as soon as filming begins in the Yeagers’ house, as we’re shown how the Yeagers’ “normal” appearance during the audition process masked (who knew?!) a darker suburban reality of bitchy wives, petulant children, and put-upon, milquetoast husbands. McCain’s immediate crush on Brooks — while strategically fueling the ego of his “opportunist” character “whose integrity and sensitive come and go” — feels patently false, and the two kids are instantly forgettable. Although Peary argues that the secondary plotline involving “Brooks’s meetings with psychologists and studio executives” causes the film to lose momentum, I disagree; I actually find Brooks’ character (as obnoxious as he is) the most perversely interesting and authentic in the film, and his dealings with a faceless producer ring all-too-true. The film’s denouement is reasonably inspired, and zany enough to leave us feeling that this film is really about outsized Hollywood egos run amok.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some amusing moments
    Real Life Montage
  • Brooks’ no-holds-barred performance as (a variation on) himself
    Real Life Brooks

Must See?
No, though you’ll certainly want to check it out if you’re an Albert Brooks fan.

Links:

Olympiad, The/Olympia (1936)

“For the last time, the athletes have to fight with all their might.”

Olympia Poster

Synopsis:
Athletes from around the world compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as Adolf Hitler watches from the sidelines.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “two-part film of the Berlin Olympics of 1936″ — “regarded as one of the best documentaries ever made”, as well as “among the most controversial” — is “extremely disappointing”, given that “there is virtually no excitement on any event” and we “have no idea who most of the athletes are [or] what their strategies will be”. He concedes that some of the “best moments in this long, interesting, but overrated documentary… are the close-ups of the athletes’ faces, the shots of cheering fans in the grandstands, and, of course the heralded [final] diving montage in which faceless, acrobatic bodies become one with the sky, air, and water”. He notes the interesting fact that “the clips we always see of [Jesse] Owens setting Olympic records (and thus disputing the Nazi myth of white supremacy) are taken from this documentary, but that [the] shot of unhappy Hitler we always see after Owens’s victories was taken from another part of the movie and… had nothing to do with his reaction to Owens”. Finally, he points out that despite being regarded as “fascistic” because “it idealizes athletes as beautifully built, superhuman figures”, Riefenstahl “gives fair coverage to events in which Germans lost”.

Indeed, given its reputation as yet another propaganda-laden film by the infamous Nazi-affiliated director of Triumph of the Will (1935), Olympia — officially titled Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations and Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty — comes across as surprisingly even-handed in its representation of athletes from across the globe. The primary indicators that this film was made in pre-WWII Germany are the presence of swastika-laden German flags, several collective heil-salutes, and reaction shots of Hitler and his key henchmen in the audience. Regardless of her political affiliations (which of course one shouldn’t dismiss or forget), Riefenstahl was an undeniably brilliant filmmaker. Although the film is too long to enjoy in one setting, and often repetitive, I find it far from boring; Riefenstahl could have chosen a different, more personal approach to filming this material, and edited more strategically, but her decision — to show a range of incredible sporting talent and physical beauty across nations — seems defensible. One finishes this marathon, two-part documentary with an appreciation for what the Olympics are (in part, ideally) designed to do: allow gifted athletes to compete as humans while simultaneously bringing honor to their homelands.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gorgeous cinematography and direction
    Olympia Cinematography
    Olympia Cinematography2
  • Valuable historical footage of early Olympics games set in a notorious global era
    Olympia Owens
    Olympia Salutes
  • The stunning closing diving sequence
    Olympia Diving

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance and aesthetic value.

Links:

Wizard of Oz, The (1939)

NOTE: This re-posting of an older review is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Synopsis:
A misunderstood Kansas farmgirl (Judy Garland) dreams that she has been transported to the wonderful world of Oz, where she meets a scarecrow with no brain (Ray Bolger), a tin man with no heart (Jack Haley), and a cowardly lion (Bert Lahr).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
One of the all-time great cinematic fantasies, The Wizard of Oz (a cult favorite) has become a part of our collective consciousness — as Peary notes, “The effect this Hollywood classic has had on Americans cannot be overestimated.” It’s a rare children’s film which holds equal appeal for adults — indeed, adults will enjoy it on a completely different level — and bears multiple, repeat viewings. In addition to the stunning Technicolor cinematography, creative set designs, clever special effects, and classic songs, the acting in Oz is top-notch: watch young Garland’s face as she reacts to the characters around her; she’s genuinely scared or delighted or angry, not merely pretending to be. Margaret Hamilton earns instant kudos in dual performances as both Miss Gulch (who represents every unreasonable, child-hating adult we’ve ever known) and the Wicked Witch (poor Hamilton had the perfect features for this role). Equally enjoyable are Bolger (what a dancer!), Lahr (what facial expressions!), and Haley as Dorothy’s friends; their camaraderie together never seems forced.

Rewatching Oz for the first time recently as an adult, I was struck by how skillfully the filmmakers managed to blend comedy (as when Professor Marvel convinces the naive Dorothy that he knows all about her life back on the farm), terror (the over-sized hourglass in the witch’s castle still fills me with anxious fear), and surrealism (what in the heck is a Lollipop Guild?!) into a colorful musical. The narrative never lags, moving smoothly from one phase of Dorothy’s journey to the next — and, even when we think the denouement has arrived (Dorothy and her friends successfully snag the witch’s broomstick and bring it to the Wizard), there’s more to (over)come.

While some have argued that it’s overrated, and Peary asserts that the film’s “There’s no place like home” theme “is nonsense”, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. As noted so succinctly in Time Out’s review, Oz “exposes our childhood anxieties about abandonment and powerlessness and brings to light the tension between the repressive comforts of home and the liberating terrors of the unknown marking all our adult lives.” After her successful venture into the strange, magical, terrible land of Oz, Dorothy ultimately learns that she’s in control of her own destiny — no small feat for a young girl (or boy) coming of age.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland’s sensitive, heartfelt portrayal as Dorothy (Peary nominates her for an Alternate Oscar as best actress of the year)
    Garland
  • Ray Bolger as Dorothy’s first friend in Oz, the Scarecrow
    Bolger
  • Burt Lahr as the Cowardly Lion
    Bert Lahr
  • Jack Haley as the Tin Man
    Haley
  • Margaret Hamilton as Miss Gulch
    Miss Gulch
  • Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West
    Witch
  • “Terry” as the most famous dog in cinematic history: Toto
    Toto
  • Frank Morgan in a plethora of amusing roles
    Morgan
  • Professor Marvel (Morgan) using his “magic powers” to convince Dorothy to return home
    Marvel
  • Dorothy being reunited with Toto after he’s run away from Miss Gulch
    Reunited
  • The frightening tornado scene
    Tornado
  • The talking apple trees
    Tree
  • Many genuinely scary moments in the witch’s castle
    Flying
  • Magical costumes and sets
    Munchkins
  • The simple yet effective special effects
    Special effects
  • Luminous technicolor cinematography
    Cinematography
  • Consistently clever lyrics:
    “The wind began to swish / The house, to pitch / And suddenly the hinges started to unhitch / Just then the Witch / To satisfy an itch / Was flying on her broomstick, thumbing for a hitch / And oh, what happened then was rich!”
    The Wind Began to Swish
  • The enjoyable musical score, including such favorites as “Over the Rainbow” (nearly cut), “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”, “We’re Off to See the Wizard”, and many more
    Over the Rainbow
  • Countless memorable, classic lines: “Toto, I’ve [got] a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…”
    Not in Kansas

Must See?
Of course — multiple times. Peary awards it an Alternate Oscar as best picture of the year. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

Categories

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

Links:

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

“I had a tough day.”

Peggy Sue Got Married Poster

Synopsis:
A former prom queen (Kathleen Turner) married to a philandering car salesman (Nicolas Cage) collapses at her high school reunion and wakes up to find herself a teenager again, living with her parents (Don Murray and Barbara Harris) and viewing her existence from a new perspective.

Genres:

Review:
Francis Ford Coppola has had a noticeably varied career, directing such indisputable classics as The Godfather (1970), The Godfather II (1974), The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979) in addition to much more experimental and/or independent fare — i.e., Dementia 13 (1963), Finian’s Rainbow (1969), The Rain People (1969), One From the Heart (1982), and The Outsiders (1983). It’s difficult to say which category Peggy Sue Got Married was meant to fit into, but it’s an unfortunate disappointment regardless. Compared (as it inevitably is) with Back to the Future (1985) — the immensely popular sci-fi time-travel tale released the year before — Peggy Sue… comes across as overly nostalgic, lacking in any real narrative tension, and bogged down by the terrible miscasting of Nicolas Cage as Peggy Sue’s insufferable beau and husband; it’s possible this story could have been salvaged if we cared even a bit more for the flawed man she’s saddled with both as a teen and an adult. Watch either Back to the Future or Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) for a much more engaging take on the topics covered here.

P.S. Knowing that Penny Marshall was originally set to direct this title (with Debra Winger in the lead) also puts the entire project in a different, slightly more sensical light…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kathleen Turner as Peggy Sue
    Peggy Sue Turner2

Must See?
No; only check this one out if you’re curious.

Links:

Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939)

NOTE: I’m posting this review and the next one as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s “Fabulous Films of the 30s” spring blogathon. When I committed to writing about “Intermezzo” (both versions), I honestly didn’t know whether they would classify as ‘fabulous’ or not, since I hadn’t watched the 1939 version in many years, and had never seen the original. While both unfortunately failed the test of fabulous-ness (they’re not “must-see” classics of the decade), their luminous star — the inimitable Ingrid Bergman — is as classic and fabulous as they come! So, I’m happy to introduce you to both Bergman’s first Hollywood film, and the film responsible for bringing her to English-speaking audiences.

“I wonder if anyone has ever built happiness on the unhappiness of others?”

Intermezzo 1939 Poster

Synopsis:
A talented pianist (Ingrid Bergman) giving lessons to a young girl (Ann E. Todd) falls in love with Todd’s father (Leslie Howard), a famous violinist whose long-suffering wife (Edna Best) realizes their marriage is at risk.

Genres:

Review:
Ingrid Bergman was wooed to Hollywood by David Selznick after he witnessed her stunning presence in the 1936 Swedish romance Intermezzo (1936), which was remade in English nearly scene-for-scene several years later. In both films, Bergman’s starstruck young beauty harbors an enormous crush on the famous father (Howard) of her pupil, and ultimately can’t resist her romantic longings. Will things end well for the sinning couple — especially given how sympathetic Howard’s wife (Best) remains? Not likely. The entire affair is presented in an overly tasteful fashion, with characters solemnly making comments such as “Love isn’t sensible” while gazing into each other’s eyes and spending time in beautiful locales. A zither appears at one point, adding a bit of musical distinction and presenting a young girl (Marie Flynn) meant to evoke Howard’s sense of paternal obligation and love. There is ultimately little here to hold onto in terms of narrative; Intermezzo only remains distinctive at this point for its visual classiness (Gregg Toland’s cinematography is impeccable) and for Bergman’s luminous beauty. She’s a delight to watch no matter what material she’s given.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Anita
    Intermezzo 1939 Bergman
  • Gregg Toland’s cinematography
    Intermezzo 1939 Cinematography
    Intermezzo 1939 Cinematography2

Must See?
No; like its predecessor, this one is only must-see for Bergman fans.

Links:

Intermezzo (1936)

“Is it a crime to realize I can’t live without you?”

Intermezzo 1936 Poster

Synopsis:
An aspiring pianist (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with the violinist-father (Gosta Ekman) of one of her pupils (Britt Hagman), eventually causing the break-up of Ekman’s marriage to his long-suffering wife (Inga Tidblad).

Genres:

Review:
21-year-old Ingrid Bergman is positively luminous in this Swedish romantic melodrama, known for causing Hollywood (David Selznick in particular) to take notice of Bergman’s charms and woo her across the ocean (where she soon starred in a nearly identical English-language remake). The storyline itself is simplistic and (mostly) predictable, with all key players interacting oh-so-tastefully with one another as they voice hoary dialogue (“A human being feels this happiness only once in their life”) while passionate classical music plays in the background. The movie is primarily of interest to film fanatics due to Bergman’s presence: it’s instantly clear why she was considered a cinematic gem worth cultivating. Åke Dahlqvist’s cinematography highlights her considerable beauty and vitality, making this a visually pleasant if overly genteel film to sit through.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Anita
    Intermezzo Bergman
  • Fine cinematography
    Intermezzo 1936 Cinematography
    ntermezzo 1935 Camerawork

Must See?
No; this one will only be of interest to diehard Bergman fans (who will likely feel rewarded by a viewing). Listed as a film with Historical value in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Cheaper By the Dozen (1950)

“They’re all mine — and believe me, it’s no picnic!”

CBTD Poster

Synopsis:
A work-efficiency expert (Clifton Webb) and his wife (Myrna Loy) raise twelve children — six boys and six girls (including Jeanne Crain) — in the early 20th century.

Genres:

Review:
This Technicolor adaptation of Frank Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth’s bestselling 1948 memoir-novel remains a sincere but lackluster cinematic rendering. The film, like the book it’s based on, is episodic, telling a number of faithfully rendered tales from the Gilbreths’ nostalgic recollections of their upbringing in a house of 14 (plus help). In stark contrast to the emotional devastation chronicled by Stephen Zanichkowsky in his memoir Fourteen: Growing Up Alone in a Crowd (2003), Frank and Ernestine appear to have genuinely appreciated their experience as part of an enormous family run by efficiency-driven yet loving parents. They fondly recall incidences such as collective tonsil-removal taking place in their house; Mrs. Gilbreth (Loy, looking appropriately tired yet plucky) responding to a visit by a naive birth-control advocate; Crain’s bold decision to bob her long hair; and various Gilbreth family “council” meetings.

The primary problem with the film is the unfortunate casting of Clifton Webb as the Gilbreth patriarch. Webb — who previously starred to great effect in directer Walter Lang’s Sitting Pretty (1948) (and whose character, Belvedere, endorses this film in the poster above!) — might appear to be a logical choice as an efficiency expert, but (sadly) he lacks the charisma of the real-life Frank Gilbreth Sr., who is described in the book as “like a breath of fresh air when he walked into a room”, and someone who people “couldn’t be around without liking”. Webb is many things — i.e., droll and bright — but an intrinsically likeable breath of fresh air he is not (at least not here). Viewing short (silent) clips of the real Gilbreth family reveals a ruddy, larger-than-life patriarch who was a rare breed of kid-loving, extroverted control freak. Webb tries hard to convey a loving paternal presence on screen, but there’s no denying that one can’t realistically imagine him as the happily married father of twelve.

With that said, the film moves along pleasantly enough, and will appeal to those who prefer their historical dramas heavily dripping in nostalgia; as noted by Bosley Crowther in his original review for the New York Times: “…this is far from a picture of real and believable family life. This is a picture of illusions — happy, sentimental, even absurd.” Most enjoyable are the occasional zingy lines in the screenplay — i.e., Webb noting that Crain’s short-statured, Mickey-Rooney-esque date (Benny Bartlett) “looks like what might happen if a pygmy married a bobtail penguin.” However, this turns out to be taken almost directly from the book, which contains infinitely more enjoyable one-liners:

Dad told mother that the only church he’d even consider joining was the Catholic church. ‘That’s the only outfit that would give me special credit for having such a large family,’ he said.

Ultimately, I only recommend this film for diehard fans of the book who are curious to see how it was adapted.

Note: For the record, I have not seen the Steve Martin remake (2003), and don’t plan to unless I’m convinced it’s significantly better than this version…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fun opening credits
    Cheaper By Dozen Opening Credits

Must See?
No; read the book instead!

Links:

Spotted — GFTFF!

A friend shared this still from a three-part BBC documentary called Sound of Cinema: The Music That Made the Movies.

Check out the shiny blue spine behind the man being interviewed!

GFTFF Spine

This is also a good time to remind readers that a documentary about Peary is in the works — click here to read more!

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)

Links:

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

Links: