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Month: February 2015

Tootsie (1982)

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 (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:

  • Coming-of-Age
  • Dorothy McGuire Films
  • Fess Parker Films
  • Pets

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)

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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