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.

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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.

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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.

Links:

Ordinary People (1980)

“When I let myself feel, all I feel is lousy.”

Ordinary People Poster

Synopsis:
In the aftermath of his brother’s accidental death, a teenager (Timothy Hutton) with a repressed mother (Mary Tyler Moore) and a loving father (Donald Sutherland) seeks help from a therapist (Judd Hirsch) as well as solace from his sweet new girlfriend (Elizabeth McGovern).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “Best Picture Winner” — Robert Redford’s debut as a director — is “an extremely successful adaptation of Judith Guest’s prizewinning first novel about the deterioration of an [upper] middle-class family due to the death of the firstborn teenage son and the inability of the mother — the symbol of the family — to love anyone else”. He argues that at times, Redford’s direction “is so precise and cold that the mother… might have directed it”, yet notes that “he’s sensitive toward his actors, and gets several outstanding performances” — particularly from Hutton, “who got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar although he is the film’s star”. He writes that the “Oscar-winning script by Alvin Sargent is perceptive, powerful, emotionally resonant” and “also tender”, with “the scenes between McGovern and Hutton… particularly sweet”. However, he asserts that while “Moore received much praise for her cinema debut as a woman who has repressed her emotions for so long that they no longer exist”, “it has turned out that she plays most of her movie characters with extreme restraint” — indicating that he’s not terribly impressed with her work here.

Interestingly, in his Alternate Oscars, Peary writes that he’s a bigger fan of “the now underrated Ordinary People” — which “received much praise from critics and moviegoers when it was released” — than the critical darling Raging Bull (which he nonetheless gives the Best Picture award to in his book). He notes that while Ordinary People‘s “reputation has… diminished, so that it’s now thought of as a mainstream family drama”, it actually deals “with difficult ‘mother-love’ themes not handled in other films”. I’m in full agreement with this latter assessment. Redford’s direction — despite Peary’s (incorrect) assertion that at times it’s too “precise and cold” — is simply masterful: he captures the dynamics of this deeply troubled family in such a way that we immediately sense the depth of their hurtful dysfunctions. Regardless of Moore’s future roles, her work here as a cold, narcissistic mother is spot-on; scene after scene between Moore and Hutton is heartbreaking in its bitter authenticity. We’re left with no doubt that she openly preferred her older (deceased) son, that she resents her younger son for being the survivor, and that she is solely interested in maintaining a life of appearances and surface pleasures (with her husband, not her child) while repressing any trace of genuine emotion.

As Peary writes, Hutton does indeed offer a powerful, Oscar-worthy lead performance. He portrays a young man not only dealing with immense survivor guilt, but a lifelong legacy of being “second-best” in his mother’s eyes. Redford’s judicious use of brief flashback scenes — showing Hutton’s smiling, blonde, god-like brother (Scott Doebler) interacting with his adoring mother, as well as the tragic boating accident — help us to understand exactly why Hutton was damaged enough to attempt suicide (only to learn that his mother was primarily distressed about her bathroom rug being destroyed by his blood). This type of intense subject matter shouldn’t be easy to watch, yet Sargent’s masterful screenplay carefully balances heavier scenes with uplifting ones — such as Hutton beginning to date McGovern (wonderfully natural in her debut), and Hutton receiving loving, realistic support from his new therapist (convincingly played by Hirsch).

Sutherland also does impressive (if less front-and-center) work; as DVD Savant points out in his review, he makes “you forget all of his previous performances” in his portrayal as “a caring and sensitive father whose tolerant nature may not have been the best thing for his relationship with his wife”. Savant’s review nicely summarizes many of the film’s overall strengths, so I’ll cite him some more. He notes that the film “has some good lessons to teach about divorces and messed-up families, which in real life come less from cruel betrayals or sinful transgressions, but simply grow from our basic natures.” He further writes that “psychological movies have tried to show the miracle of the psych cure, usually with dismal or laughable results” (see my recent review of The Three Faces of Eve for a case study of this cinematic tendency), “but through a lot of give and take, we do see something of a credible turning point occur for Timothy Hutton’s character”, who “recognizes truths he hadn’t before, and sees that though he’s not cured, things are not hopeless.” While the film ends on a somewhat downbeat note, the final scene serves as a valuable reminder that challenging family dynamics are not “a rationalization for chucking all relationships as worthlessly fragile”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Timothy Hutton as Conrad
    Ordinary People Hutton
  • Donald Sutherland as Calvin
    Ordinary People Sutherland
  • Mary Tyler Moore as Beth
    Ordinary People Moore
  • Judd Hirsch as Berger
    Ordinary People Hirsch
  • Elizabeth McGovern as Jeannine
    Ordinary People McGovern
  • John Bailey’s cinematography
    Ordinary People Cinematography
  • Alvin Sargent’s screenplay
    Ordinary People Screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful, finely directed family drama.

Categories

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

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Color Me Blood Red (1965)

“What kind of a vampire are you, painting with blood? Are you a painter or a butcher?”

Color Me Blood Red Poster

Synopsis:
A mediocre but well-known painter (Don Joseph) finds himself gorily inspired by the use of human blood in his works.

Genres:

Review:
This third entry in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “blood trilogy” — preceded by Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) — is a vastly inferior homage to Roger Corman’s B-grade classic Bucket of Blood (1959), and offers nothing of interest to those not smitten with the uniquely tasteless genre of “splatter films”. Given that the directorial and acting skills here are superior (it’s all relative) to those shown in Blood Feast, its camp potential is much lower — though you may chuckle a bit at how truly terrible Joseph’s paintings are (and for a humorous blow-by-blow analysis by a critic who refers to this as Lewis’s “worst film”, click here). Be forewarned that whenever a tedious Beatnik duo (Patricia Lee and Jim Jaekel) show up on screen, presumably for comic relief, you’ll need to have your fast-forward button easily on hand.

Note: Of mild interest is the incorporation of Aqua Cycles into several sequences; this sporting activity is something you just don’t see anymore, in real life or the movies, probably for good reason.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A glimpse at (now antique) Aqua Cycles
    Color Me Blood Red Aqua Cycles

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this one unless you’re a fan of Lewis’s work. Listed as a Cult Movie and Trash (a.k.a. non-essential viewing) in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Blood Feast (1963)

“Well, we’re just working with a homicidal maniac — that’s all.”

Blood Feast Poster

Synopsis:
A detective (William Kerwin) seeks clues to a mysterious rash of bloody killings across Miami, while the mother (Lyn Bolton) of his beautiful girlfriend (Connie Mason) arranges to have a party catered by a crazed Egyptian (Mal Arnold), who is obsessed with reenacting a sacrificial feast for the goddess Ishtar.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this first entry in “goremeister” Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “blood trilogy” — followed by 2000 Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) — as “vile trash” and “one of the sickest, most inept films ever made”. He notes that “the acting is ghastly”, “the casting abominable”, and the “camera work clumsy”. (He also adds that “ex-playmate Mason wears too much clothing”, but I’ll let that opinion pass.) He writes that “ten minutes into the film [he] stop[s] laughing at the picture’s badness and start[s] to get a migraine”, and he argues that while the “picture has camp value, to be sure” he “wonders about Lewis cultists who thrill to no-holds-barred violence and disgusting images”. He ends his review by noting that “if you detest horror films that show how many shocking ways a creative sadist can do away with young women, then Lewis is the man you’ll want to blame and this is the film you’ll want to burn”.

While Peary’s points are all valid, I believe this flick holds more camp value than he gives it credit for. Its ineptitude on multiple levels is so extreme that personally, I couldn’t help giggling throughout its short (60-minute-plus) running time; and while the graphic violence against women is reprehensible, it’s all so shoddily done that — unlike with more recent/modern fare — you simply won’t believe any of it for a second. Along those lines, I’m genuinely puzzled by Peary’s assertion that cultists “want to know exactly how Lewis accomplishes the famous effect” — considered to be “the picture’s highlight” — in which “Ramses rips a tongue out of a woman’s mouth”, given that we simply see Ramses (Arnold) putting his hand in a screaming woman’s red-paint-filled mouth, then a separate shot of Ramses holding up a (sheep’s) tongue covered with red paint. Where’s the mystery, exactly, in how this shoddy “effect” was achieved?

Ultimately, this movie is on a par with what today’s 12-year-olds could easily achieve — and whether it should still be considered “must see” viewing is a point of debate. However, I’m leaning on the “yes” side simply due to its historical relevance for ushering in the era of “splatter films” (a dubious distinction to be sure, but a notable one). For much more information on the film’s Z-grade production history, be sure to listen to the director’s commentary on Something Weird’s DVD release — or, as I did, read the copious notes taken by the reviewer at B-Movie Central.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Laughably terrible acting, special effects, and direction
    Blood Feast Tongue
    Blood Feast Lecture
    Blood Feast Letter
    Blood Feast Face Cast

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status and historical relevance.

Categories

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