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Month: July 2014

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

“I ate garbage for dinner last night, Barbara — and I liked it!”

Down and Out in Beverly Hills Poster

Synopsis:
A suicidal homeless man (Nick Nolte) befriends a wealthy hanger manufacturer (Richard Dreyfuss) and eventually becomes a part of his Beverly Hills household — which consists of his neurotic wife (Bette Midler), his cross-dressing son (Evan Richards), his eating-challenged daughter (Tracy Nelson), and his sexy maid (Elizabeth Pena).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, Paul Mazursky’s “remake of Jean Renoir’s 1932 classic Boudu Saved From Drowning” (based on René Fauchois‘ 1919 play) has been updated, transplanted, and “injected [with] many ingredients”, including “the nice but screwy family from My Man Godfrey“. He argues that while “the acting by Nolte, Dreyfuss, and Midler is the picture’s main plus”, the “humor is so erratic that Mazursky repeatedly cuts to dog reaction shots to get easy laughs”. He adds that while “the entire family is obnoxious at the beginning”, “Mazursky obviously likes them and simply assumes that we’ll soon share his warm feelings just because they grow more tolerant of each other and Nolte”. Indeed, the film’s narrative trajectory depends upon each member of Dreyfuss’s household becoming humanized and/or liberated due to Nolte’s influence — and the running message seems to be that a caring outside perspective is often enough to function as a catalyst for personal growth and increased self-confidence.

I agree with Peary that the film’s humor is often overly broad (those dog shots certainly feel gratuitous and repetitive) — but overall I find this to be a rare example of a (mostly) successful updated remake. There are quite a few scenes that ring true and seem to respectfully highlight important nuances in class relations. In one scene, for instance, a cleaned-up Nolte is having lunch with Dreyfuss at a swanky Beverly Hills restaurant when he notices his homeless buddy Al (Felton Perry) walking by. Perry and Nolte are thrilled to see each other, and Perry comes inside to join them — but, to Dreyfuss’s astonishment, he politely refuses an offer of lunch (though he does steal bread rolls from various tables on his way out). Dignity of a sort is maintained, with Nolte openly acknowledging his humble origins (rather than maintaining a new facade of wealth), and Perry demonstrating self-sufficiency in the face of charity.

Indeed, part of what makes Nolte’s character so oddly appealing is his refusal to “take advantage” of anything offered to him: he accepts Dreyfuss’s offer of food, clothing, and shelter, but it’s understood that he’ll leave whenever he pleases, and is unwilling to become the object of anyone’s pity or derision. He’s a refreshingly unique protagonist, and makes the film worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nick Nolte as Jerry
    Down and Out in Beverly Hills Nolte
  • Good use of The Talking Heads’ “Once in the Lifetime” to open and close the film

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable updated adaptation of a classic story.

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Cocoon (1985)

Cocoon (1985)

“Men should be explorers, no matter how old they are.”

Cocoon Poster

Synopsis:
A man (Brian Dennehy) and his companions (including Tahnee Welch and Tyrone Power Jr.) charter a boat run by a down-on-his luck captain (Steve Guttenberg), intending to rescue alien-filled cocoons from the ocean floor and nurture them in the pool of a mansion near a retirement home. When a group of elderly friends (Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, and Wilfred Brimley) go swimming in the pool, they find themselves mysteriously rejuvenated and healthy, and invite their partners (Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon, and Maureen Stapleton) to join them — but will they be able to keep their “fountain of youth” a secret from others?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “popular sci-fi fantasy” about “four friendly aliens who have come to earth to take back members of a crew that was left behind centuries before” is “well-intentioned and has an undeniable sweetness”, but feels “endless and disjointed”. He points out how problematic it is that “the original premise about rescuing the alien crew is… exchanged for [a] storyline in which old people go off with the aliens”, given that “we’re never convinced that these old people will be better off going out into space”. Indeed, while we come to care at least somewhat for the core group of elderly characters — who respectfully ask permission to share the life force generated in the pool — the remaining old-age home residents (who we know almost nothing about) simply act like selfish “jerks” with “a total lack of compassion”. Ultimately, Peary argues that this film is “not bad, but overrated and filled with Spielberg cliches” — though it was actually directed by Ron Howard after his blockbuster success with Splash (1984).

I agree with Peary’s review, and would add that it’s troublesome how the script fails to sufficiently develop any of the lead elderly characters: we simply learn that Cronyn has cheated on his wife (Tandy) for years (a trait which becomes even more pronounced once he’s given renewed vim and vigor and is freed from cancer); that Ameche finally feels confident dating a sexy dance instructor (Verdon); and that Brimley — shown several times fishing with his doting grandson (Barret Oliver) — will regain his failing eyesight and be able to drive again. We also discover that Guttenberg, lo and behold, will fall for the sexy female alien (Tahnee Welch — Raquel Welch’s real-life daughter, who “looks like a young Ali McGraw with short hair) and will get to experience alien sex (imagine a special-effects laden version of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron in Sleeper (1973), taking place in a pool). But, as Peary notes, all of this simply diverts our attention from the much more intriguing story of the aliens’ rescue mission; their lives and home context are glossed over quickly, with two of the aliens never even saying a word.

Speaking of the aliens, Dennehy gives the best performance in the film as a potentially formidable presence, bulky and domineering yet ultimately an intriguing and kind leader. Of the elderly folks, Cronyn’s performance as a man given a sudden second chance at life is the most nuanced (though we dislike him for fooling around on Tandy). Ameche won a Best Supporting Actor award, but I’m not exactly sure why he would be considered a better candidate for this than Cronyn. [On a side note, Ameche gives a wonderful lead performance as “Gino” in David Mamet’s Things Change (1988) — this is the film his fans should watch if they’d really like to see him in a worthy swan song role.] Ultimately, as Peary points out, “it’s great seeing so many fine veteran actors work together, all in good parts”, and “some of their scenes are perceptive and heart-warming” — but Cocoon itself is a minor disappointment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Brian Dennehy as Walter
    Cocoon Dennehy
  • Hume Cronyn as Joe
    Cocoon Cronyn

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

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Gates of Heaven (1978)

Gates of Heaven (1978)

“There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”

Gates of Heaven Poster

Synopsis:
Pet cemetery owners in California discuss their motivations and business protocols.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “intentionally bland” debut documentary by filmmaker Errol Morris “isn’t as bizarre as one would guess from its cult reputation”, or “as revelatory as one would expect”. He describes Morris’s stylistic use “of a stationary camera” and “medium shots of his seated subjects, who are positioned so precisely within the frame that they might as well be lamps”, and points out that they “deliver lengthy monologues about animals, about life” instead of responding to interview questions. He argues (I disagree) that since the “real people” we see here are “the kind you meet every day, what they say sounds familiar”, so “you don’t react to them in one way or another” — and “if you laugh, it’s at the pathetic human condition”. Peary’s clearly not a big fan of this cult flick, though he does concede that “the montage in which we see tombstones which have animal photos and owners’ dedications comes across not as either stupid or outrageous… but as oddly touching”.

I find Gates of Heaven more inherently intriguing than Peary — though I am troubled by the fact that Morris seems to be presenting his participants in the quirkiest possible light, strategically editing and interweaving their interview clips so that they all come across as either deluded, arrogant, or ridiculous. It’s no surprise that the main cemetery on display, Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa Valley, makes no mention whatsoever of the documentary on its website. One scene in particular — in which Bubbling Well’s founder fawns over a photo of a couple’s unusual-looking dog (“This is a most unusual, most unusual [dog] — I just can say I’ve never seen anything like it…”) — stands out as especially mean-spirited on Morris’s part.

Knowing the unique direction Morris would eventually take with his documentaries (i.e., his use of an “Interrotron” machine, allowing his subjects to look directly at him while speaking to the camera), this early film feels quaint, stylistically-speaking, in comparison. Yet Morris’s characteristically droll, highly philosophical approach to his material is in clear evidence: as Roger Ebert noted in his overview of the title on his “Top 10 Favorite Films” list, “Morris is not concerned with his apparent subject. He has made a film about life and death, pride and shame, deception and betrayal, and the stubborn quirkiness of human nature.” Whether one agrees with Peary’s more cynical perspective, or Ebert’s loftier one, this cult favorite should be seen at least once, simply for its notoriety.

Note: It’s interesting that Peary fails to mention that this film was the basis for Les Blank’s short documentary entitled “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”; click here to read more about the bet that led to this event, as well as Morris’s eclectic background in general.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A revealing, often unintentionally (?) humorous peek inside a niche industry
    Gates of Heaven Still
    Gates of Heaven Still2

Must See?
Yes, as a cult documentary with a notorious production bet attached to it.

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