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Month: January 2007

Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona (1987)

“Biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless.”

Synopsis:
When a newly married ex-con (Nicolas Cage) and ex-cop (Holly Hunter) discover that they can’t have or adopt children of their own, they kidnap a baby (T.J. Kuhn) from a local furniture tycoon (Trey Wilson) and his quintuplet-bearing wife (Lynn Dumin Kitei).

Genres:

Review:
While it’s not for every taste (Roger Ebert panned it upon its release, and it has a Metacritic score of only 55), Raising Arizona remains — in my humble opinion — a delightfully surreal and colorful comedy. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter (both early in their careers) are perfect as the desperate childless couple: Hunter’s spontaneous expression of love for her new baby boy (“I love him so much!” she sobs) is classic; and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Cage embodying “Hi” (who, as put so delightfully in Rita Kempley’s review for the Washington Post, “is a deep thinker, without the IQ to support his habit.”)

Not everything about the film works, however. Many supporting characters — most notably Randall “Tex” Cobb as a greasy Motorcyclist From Hell — are too broadly written to be amusing, and there’s an over-abundance of slapstick violence. In addition, John Goodman and William Forsythe as Hi’s escaped-convict friends — who play an essential role in the plot later on — are only intermittently entertaining, and quickly devolve into stereotype. Nonetheless, for every ho-hum scene in Raising Arizona, there’s another hilarious one just up ahead — and this, combined with our sympathy for the surprisingly likable protagonists, make the film well worth watching.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nicolas Cage in one of his best comedic roles
    Cage
  • Holly Hunter as Hi’s intensely maternal wife
    Hunter
  • Goodman and Forsythe emerging from the mud like newborn adults
    Mud
  • Cage and Hunter stopping to pick up a package of dropped Huggies during a getaway
    Huggies
  • A unique and touching premise for a comedy
    Couple
  • Many juvenile yet unexpectedly laugh-out-loud lines:
    “Son, you got a panty on yo’ head!”

Must See?
Yes. This early comedy from the Coen Brothers set the stage for their later films, and remains one of their most successful endeavors to date.

Categories

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

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Stay Hungry (1976)

Stay Hungry (1976)

“Don’t you think you’re taking this attraction of yours to other types of people too far?”

Synopsis:
On behalf of a business syndicate, a wealthy southerner (Jeff Bridges) visits a local gym and tries to persuade its owner (R.G. Armstrong) to sell. Meanwhile, he finds himself attracted to a petite gym employee (Sally Field), and fascinated by the lifestyle of muscleman Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Genres:

Review:
Bob Rafelson’s comedic follow-up to The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is, in a word, quirky. More concerned with unusual characters and settings than plot, the story meanders along at a leisurely pace until, just like Jeff Bridges’ character, we forget what our original goal (in watching) was, and instead simply allow ourselves to enjoy each scene as it comes. Indeed, Stay Hungry is full of countless strange and humorous moments (see “Redeeming Qualities and Moments” below) — and when things devolve into hectic slapstick by the end of the film, we accept this, simply because it’s in keeping with the movie’s general tone of irreverence.

Unfortunately, there are a few needlessly uncomfortable moments in the film: an African-American gym employee (Roger E. Mosley) commits actions which are meant to be funny, but instead stereotype him in an offensive way; and the gym’s owner (a buffoonish R.G. Armstrong, wearing a hideous toupee) turns inexplicably violent at the end. However, these detractions are more than redeemed by the film’s strengths: a refreshingly subtle commentary on class relations in the “new south”; (mostly) likable characters; a sweet, believable romance between Bridges and Field; and an overall aura of infectious eccentricity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jeff Bridges as the wealthy nonconformist who undergoes a major change of heart
    Bridges
  • Sally Field — looking all of twelve years old — as Bridges’ spunky new love interest
    Sally Field
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger’s slightly stilted yet sympathetic performance as the sensitive “Mr. Olympia”
    Schwarzenegger
  • Kathleen Miller asking Schwarzenegger about the “romantic leanings” of musclemen
    Miller
  • Bridges dancing with refreshing abandon in the midst of a group of fiddlers
    Dancing
  • Bridges stealing a gaudy painting from a bank simply to impress Field
    Painting
  • Some truly bizarre imagery of body builders roaming the streets of Birmingham
    Streets
  • A frank look at class relations in “the new South”
    South

Must See?
No, but it’s worth checking out once. Peary lists it in the back of his book as a Cult Movie (and it still has many fans).

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Blues Brothers, The (1980)

Blues Brothers, The (1980)

“I say we give the Blues Brothers one more chance.”

Synopsis:
While gathering their old band members together for a fundraising concert, ex-con Jake Blues (John Belushi) and his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) must dodge the police, an angry country-and-western band, and Jake’s jilted fiancee (Carrie Fisher).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this popular “Saturday Night Live” spinoff suffers from a “slim” storyline, one-dimensional lead characters (“their dress is more interesting than their personalities”), and a lack of “good verbal wit”. Indeed, as a comedy, it falls flat nine out of ten times: even supposedly hilarious sequences — such as the Blues Brothers’ former Catholic schoolteacher (Kathleen Freeman) giving the grown siblings grief for their foul language — come across as cheap and unoriginal. As a musical, however, the movie benefits enormously from the talents of renowned blues artists James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and others; their appearances mark the indisputable highlights of the film. Cameos by Carrie Fisher, John Candy, and others are wasted in this inexplicable cult favorite.

P.S. The Blues Brothers was renowned as the most vehicularly destructive film made to date — but a little of this goes a long way.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Brown leading his active congregation in a rip-roaring hymn
    Church
  • Belushi[‘s double] doing a series of excited flips down the aisle of Brown’s church
    Flips
  • Aretha Franklin’s sassy waitress singing a song while dissing her husband
    Aretha
  • The Blues Brothers performing at a country-and-western club behind a protective fence
    Fence

Must See?
Not, but it’s worth a one-time look simply for its status as a cult favorite.

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Thief (1981)

Thief (1981)

“The deal is over. I want my end, and I’m out.”

Synopsis:
A professional safecracker (James Caan) becomes involved with the Mafia, but soon realizes that his dreams for early retirement with his wife (Tuesday Weld) and child have been put on hold.

Genres:

Review:
Michael Mann’s directorial debut features exciting action sequences, a fascinating glimpse at high-level safecracking, and a powerhouse performance by James Caan. Unfortunately, however, it remains a less-than-satisfactory film, due primarily to a lack of vested interest in Caan’s character. He comes across as bull-headed rather than sympathetic, and his unwise decision to get involved with the Mob shows that he isn’t really ready to come clean. The moral of the film is crystal-clear: a connection with the Mafia is for life; don’t try to delude yourself otherwise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some fascinating, lengthy scenes of big-scale safecracking
    Safecracking
  • James Caan as the thief longing to go straight after a lifetime of crime
    Caan
  • An exciting final shoot-out

Must See?
No, though fans of Michael Mann will undoubtedly want to see his directorial debut.

Links:

King of Marvin Gardens, The (1972)

King of Marvin Gardens, The (1972)

“You notice how it’s Monopoly out there?”

Synopsis:
A radio d.j. (Jack Nicholson) visits his petty-gangster brother (Bruce Dern) in Atlantic City, where he learns about Dern’s unrealistic plan to “get-rich-quick” by buying property in Hawaii.

Genres:

Review:
In his follow-up to Five Easy Pieces (1970), director Bob Rafelson presents a similarly no-holds-barred look at family relations and broken dreams in America. Unfortunately, however, Marvin Gardens comes across as too relentlessly bleak for its own good — while Pieces had many classic moments of humor interspersed with its more serious themes (remember the cafe scene?), this film seems hell-bent on leading us towards its tragic conclusion, without providing much relief along the way. On the other hand, it does possess a number of redeeming features. The performances are uniformly excellent — especially by the always-reliable Dern, and by Ellen Burnstyn as his jealous aging girlfriend. Additionally, Rafelson makes effective use of Atlantic City’s gloomy seaside ambiance; and the connections between Dern’s wild dreams (he hopes to buy a hotel) and Monopoly are subtle enough to be clever rather than cloying. Ultimately, however, this remains a ceaselessly downbeat tale, one which is probably not for every taste.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Dern as Nicholson’s “big-dreaming” brother
  • Ellen Burstyn’s stand-out performance as Dern’s middle-aged lover

Must See?
No. While it’s considered an underrated classic by many, it’s ultimately not must-see viewing.

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Mouse That Roared, The (1959)

Mouse That Roared, The (1959)

“In other words, gentlemen — in effect — we declare war on Monday, we are defeated by Tuesday, and by Friday we will be rehabilitated beyond our wildest dreams!”

Synopsis:
The prime minister (Peter Sellers) of the smallest nation on Earth (ruled by the Grand Duchess Gloriana, also Sellers) decides to invade the United States in order to receive millions of dollars in reparation aid. His plans are foiled, however, when his military leader, Tully Bascombe (also Sellers), accidentally gets ahold of a dangerous Q-bomb, and the United States surrenders.

Genres:

Review:
This classic Cold War comedy (based on a novel by Leonard Wibberley) has dated a bit since its release nearly fifty years ago, but nonetheless remains a humorous look at international diplomatic relations post-WWII. Peter Sellers got his first chance (a la Alec Guinness) to perform several separate roles in one movie, and clearly shows a hint of the genius that was to come in later films such as Dr. Strangelove (1964). While The Mouse That Roared devolves into a bit too much slapstick in its second half, there are enough moments of clever satire to make it well worth watching at least once. Followed by a sequel (The Mouse on the Moon, directed by Richard Lester) in 1963.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Sellers in three radically different roles
    Duchess
  • The spectacularly inept Tully Bascombe leading his tiny army through the empty streets of New York
    Army
  • A group of politicians playing a Monopoly-esque board game called “Diplomacy”
    Diplomacy
  • Jean Seberg in one of her all-too-rare screen performances, as daughter of the scientist who created the Q-bomb

Must See?
Yes. While it’s somewhat dated and considered by many to be overrated (see review links below), this comedy classic is must-see viewing due to Sellers’ performance(s).

Categories

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

“I’ve lived in this city all my life, but somehow today I felt everything had changed — people were different.”

Invasion Body Snatchers 1978 Poster

Synopsis:
As alien pods descend on San Francisco and begin replacing humans with clones devoid of emotion, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), his co-worker (Brooke Adams), and their married friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) run for their lives while trying to convince the authorities that something is amiss.

Genres:

Response Review:
Peary — an enormous fan Don Siegel’s original 1956 …Body Snatchers — misses the boat completely in his review of this remake by director Philip Kaufman. He complains that the “San Francisco setting seems ill-advised because we’re not seeing the transformation of average Americans but people who are already weird” — yet this is exactly Kaufman’s purpose. In his updated tale — taking place in the notorious decade of self-exploration, the 1970s — a mass-invasion which homogenizes humans would be doubly notable in a “city of individuals” like San Francisco.

Peary also laments the loss of political subtext so prevalent in Siegel’s film, but this doesn’t really matter: a world in which everyone you know suddenly becomes “somebody else” is a scary enough premise to exist on its own. Finally, Peary complains that Kaufman places too much emphasis on “special effects and snazzy visuals”, but I disagree; other than the subtle yet effectively creepy opening sequences of spidery alien wisps growing into tiny flowers, special effects don’t make an appearance in the film until almost halfway through — at which point they’re used judiciously and to good effect. With that said, Kaufman’s version does run a bit too long, and I could have done without the subplot involving Sutherland’s crush on the married Adams; nonetheless, this remains a surprisingly effective remake, and is well worth watching on its own merits.

P.S. Watch for several notable cameos: Don Siegel — director of the original …Body Snatchers — appears as a “replaced” taxi driver; Robert Duvall is shown in the very beginning as a creepy priest on a swing; and the original movie’s star, Kevin McCarthy, reappears as a man running wildly through the streets.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Donald Sutherland as the concerned inspector
    Invasion Body Snatchers Sutherland
  • Veronica Cartwright’s memorable performance as one of the last remaining non-clones
    Invasion Body Snatchers Cartwright
  • Atmospheric direction by Kaufman
    Invasion Body Snatchers Direction
  • Creepy special effects
    Invasion Body Snatchers 1978 Special Effects

Must See?
Yes. This is a rare remake which succeeds on its own merits, and should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

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Madame X (1966)

Madame X (1966)

“I am not alive; I only exist.”

Synopsis:
The lower-class wife (Lana Turner) of a wealthy socialite (John Forsythe) is caught in a compromising situation with a male companion (Ricardo Montalban), and forced by her brutal mother-in-law (Constance Bennett) to “die” and live under an assumed name in Europe. Out of guilt and loyalty, she forgoes a renewed chance at romance with a concert pianist (John Van Dreelen), and descends into a life of alcoholism and despair. When a seedy acquaintance (Burgess Meredith) finds out who her husband (now governor of New York) and son are, he tries to blackmail her; she kills him, and stands on trial for her life as “Madame X” — not realizing that her lawyer (Keir Dullea) is actually her grown son.

Genres:

Review:
As indicated in my lengthy synopsis of this big-budget soaper, the eponymous protagonist (played by 45-year-old Lana Turner) endures one unfortunate blow after another in her unjustly difficult life. After marrying into wealth, Holly Anderson finds that her loving yet ambitious husband is barely around; and when she allows herself to seek temporary solace in companionship with a male friend, her downfall is guaranteed. Unfortunately, however, because Holly is portrayed so sympathetically (she never stops loving her husband, and we understand that she never considered her friendship with Montalban to be anything more than just this), viewers aren’t given much to feel other than pity. And when, as a “free woman”, she turns down a chance for love and happiness with a wealthy European pianist, we realize that our tragic heroine is basically biding her time until her death.

Ironically, it’s only once Holly’s life goes completely downhill that Turner — never the greatest of actresses — begins showing some true chops. Her performance comes alive in the second half of the film, but the earlier scenes are less than convincing (particularly since Turner was much too old to be playing a newlywed socialite). Unfortunately, other performances in the film are equally problematic. John Forsythe (Turner’s husband) is so bland as to be practically non-existent; Keir Dullea as Turner’s grown son acts as woodenly as ever; and while Constance Bennett is effectively cruel (in what was to become her final screen role), she’s not on-screen nearly enough: once Holly is banished to Europe, we don’t see Bennett again until the final courtroom scenes, when she inexplicably appears to have tears in her eyes at the sight of her daughter-in-law.

Indeed, the entire denouement of the film — while exciting in some ways, given that we really don’t know how things will turn out — is ultimately unsatisfying, primarily due to an egregious error in logic: in a convenient yet highly unlikely twist of fate, Holly doesn’t learn that her lawyer is her son until the final tear-jerking day of the trial. However, one watches a melodrama like this simply for the emotions and colorful set designs, which Madame X has in spades. If you enjoy your dramas bordering on camp (typical dialogue: “I don’t give a damn about the past; the world begins with you and me!”), and consider gaping plot holes to be a necessary sacrifice for high melodrama, then perhaps this film was made just for you.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lana Turner’s performance — but only in the second half of the movie, when she’s a down-and-out alcoholic mess
  • Ricardo Montalban (in a Latin-lover role seemingly tailor-made for him)
  • Lavish, colorful set designs

Must See?
No. While this film is representative of producer Ross Hunter’s signature “high melodrama” style, he made plenty of other, worthier movies which film fanatics should spend their viewing time on instead. Only recommended for die-hard Lana Turner fans.

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Bad News Bears, The (1976)

Bad News Bears, The (1976)

“All we got is a cruddy alky for a manager!”

Bad News Bears Poster

Synopsis:
Former minor-league pitcher Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) becomes the reluctant coach for a team of Little League misfits — including the 12-year-old daughter (Tatum O’Neal) of his ex-girlfriend.

Genres:

  • Baseball
  • Comedy
  • Has-Been
  • Misfits
  • Sports
  • Walter Matthau Films

Review:
Walther Matthau is at his surly best in this classic “misfit kids make good” flick (which was followed by two sequels, turned into a T.V. series, and recently remade by Richard Linklater). Since I’m not a big fan of sports movies (or organized sports, for that matter), I put off watching this film for years; but I’ll admit that once I finally gave it a chance, I was pleasantly surprised. In between many lengthy ball game sequences (hardcore fans won’t be disappointed), there’s plenty of zingy dialogue and countless hilarious moments amongst the motley crew of characters.

Most refreshing of all is watching how un-politically correct Matthau is with his young charges — he drinks in front of them, tosses them beer cans to celebrate a good game (!), and calls them every foul name under the planet. Also notable: his relationship with 12-year-old O’Neal never smacks of anything unsavory, even when he’s talking openly with her about her budding breasts; their friendship is allowed to develop without digressing into any unnecessary subplots about pedophilia.

The fact that watching The Bad News Bears evokes such nostalgia says a lot about the degradation of children’s movies these days (most of which are sickly sweet in their attempt to shield kid-viewers from anything smacking of real-life). Morris Buttermaker may be a foul-mouthed, obnoxious “alky”, but there are plenty of people like him in the world — and kids know it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Matthau as the grizzled, has-been, alcoholic coach
  • Tatum O’Neal in a worthy follow-up role to her award-winning performance in Paper Moon
  • The opening moments of the film, in which we witness some incredible scenes of no-holds-barred parental pushiness
  • Matthau tossing cans of victory beer to his team of Little Leaguers
  • Countless obnoxiously humorous quotes by Buttermaker:
    “Now get back to the stands before I shave off half your mustache and shove it up your left nostril!”

Must See?
Yes. As the forerunner to all films good and bad (mostly bad) about misfit kids on sports teams, this remains must-see viewing.

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1984 (1956)

1984 (1956)

“They’re afraid of love, because love makes a world they can’t control– And it’s a world worth taking risks for, isn’t it?”

Synopsis:
In a totalitarian future, government employee Winston Smith (Edmond O’Brien) challenges “Big Brother” by taking on a secret lover (Jan Sterling).

Genres:

Review:
This unfairly maligned early cinematic version of George Orwell’s classic novel has much to offer — including atmospheric black-and-white cinematography, effectively oppressive set designs, and an overall tone of gloom and despair which aptly suits Orwell’s intent. It’s difficult not to get caught up in Smith’s paranoia as he struggles to maintain a modicum of independence and authenticity under the watchful gaze of Big Brother — and by the final scenes, we find ourselves despairing on behalf of his seemingly hopeless situation. Unfortunately, as noted by many, both O’Brien and Sterling seem a bit “long in the tooth” for their roles, playing characters who most readers imagine as much younger; their clandestine romance is the weakest part of the film, and is portrayed much more effectively in the 1984 version (starring John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton).

P.S. As pointed out in Shane Burridge’s review (see link below), the fact that this film is currently only available as a bootleg — passed along from person to person — simply seems to add to the authenticity of the viewing experience.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively “Big Brother”-ish set designs
    Set Design
  • Atmospheric black-and-white cinematography
    Cinematography
  • Donald Pleasence as O’Brien’s pro – “Big Brother” neighbor
    Pleasnce

Must See?
Yes. While die-hard fans of the book will inevitably be disappointed by minor discrepancies, this film remains a powerful first-stab at adapting the most famous dystopic novel ever written.

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