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Month: May 2015

Real Life (1979)

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 sensitivity 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.

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

Links:

Olympiad, The/Olympia (1936)

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:

  • Documentary
  • German Films
  • Olympics
  • Sports

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.

Categories

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

Links:

Wizard of Oz, The (1939)

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)

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:

  • Coming of Age
  • Don Murray Films
  • Francis Ford Coppola Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • Kathleen Turner Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Nicolas Cage Films
  • Time Travel

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: