A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Duel

May 10, 2011

Duel

Steven Spielberg presents: road rage – the movie.

I recorded this off of TV in the mid-eighties. Chanel 38 I think. I was intrigued of course because I had heard that it was Steven Spielberg’s big debut. It’s been a lot of time since I last saw it, but I can pretty much remember the gist of the movie: sometime in the seventies a guy in a little car is terrorised by a big menacing truck. Looking back on it before we put it in tonight I couldn’t for the life of me remember how Spielberg was able to milk such a simple concept into a seventy minute made for TV movie.

I mean, this is seventy minutes of a car and truck trying to pass each other. How can such a thing be maintained? How can such a thing possibly work? Amanda and I had a lot of discussion as we watched the movie about if it qualified as a tense thriller. In my mind it is a sort of cinema milestone and achievement in experimental film making. I view it from a very academic standpoint and find myself analysing Spielberg’s technique rather than simply watching the movie. Amanda, on the other hand, was caught up in the tension of the movie and actually had a quite visceral reaction. Which proves, I suppose, that Spielberg has considerable talent.

There are clear indications here of the Spielberg we know and love. The Spielberg of Jaws and Jurassic Park. He does actually manage to make a big rusty truck into a menacing and frightening foe. When the truck pulls slowly into the shadows of a tunnel and turns its headlights on (with accompanying musical sting) it has a great sense of malevolence. This is a truck that will kill you. An impersonal and implacable enemy with no morals. That’s a pretty cool accomplishment.

Oh, the movie isn’t perfect. It has huge great swaths of nothing happening. It has a completely unnecessary and rather irritating voice-over (which I don’t remember from the version I saw on TV – maybe it was added for the extended theatrical cut.) There’s a whole scene where Mr. Mann (our protagonist) gets his car stuck under a school bus that felt like it drained the tension from the movie like a punctured tire.

On the other hand, there is some genuine adventure and tension here. Mostly thanks to a great score by Billy Goldenberg (heavily influenced by the score of Psycho) and a whole lot of fantastic editing. I’d have loved to have seen some of the camera rigs involved in filming this. They have tight shots of rear view mirrors, cameras mounted on car bumpers, cameras right in the passenger seat, cameras looking through the windshield. My favorite angle in the whole film is a camera mounted about a meter out to the side of the big rig near its tail end looking forward down the road which bounces and shakes like crazy when the truck rumbles to life. It makes the truck feel like an angry beast, which is perfect.

I’m not particularly caught up in the tension of the movie, but watching this tonight I found myself feeling tense on my wife’s behalf, which was kind of cool. I also shared her disappointment that in the end the truck, which is clearly labeled to hold flammable contents, neither burst into flame nor exploded. Proof, I suppose, that this movie wasn’t made in the eighties.

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May 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Grindhouse: Death Proof

March 7, 2011

Grindhouse: Deathproof

Tonight is a hard one. Part of the premise of our project here is that we’re going to watch every single movie we own, and this is probably the movie I’ve been looking forward to least. Before putting this movie in tonight I warned Amanda that it was unremittingly and irredeemably awful. I liked the concept of Grindhouse. That it was a strange kind of homage to the cheap movies of the seventies. I liked the scored up looking film, missing reels, the bad editing and out of sync sound. The idea that these movies were made to look like they were from the seventies but feature cell phones, SUVs and other modern day anachronisms tickles me. So why did Tarantino have to make such an awful movie?

This film is two movies, really. The first half is a horror slasher movie. Not a genre I’m interested in at all. We spend the first excruciating hour of the movie following an unappealing group of people as they slowly get shitfaced drunk. There’s a trio of girls (a local DJ and her friends.) There’s the ill-defined short haired girl who shows up eventually to sell weed to the trio. There’s the lonely girl who has been left at a bar in the rain and has no ride home. There are a couple of horrible slimy bastards who want to get the girls drunk so they can sleaze their way to a weekend getaway at a lake house. There’s an annoying bartender who forces them to do shots. (Our director ladies and gentlemen.) After all this time getting to know these characters as they carouse together – with plenty of trademark Tarantino pop culture inspired dialog – every one of the girls is brutally murdered by our villain. He’s a stuntman, see, with a car which he claims is “deathproof” because it is designed to be crashed. So he crashes it.

It’s a scene of horrifying brutality which defines the entire movie for me. The first time I watched the film I turned it off at that point – about two thirds of the way through – because I couldn’t stand to watch it any more. It’s supposed to establish how completely and unbelievably evil Stunt Man Mike is so that for the second portion of the movie – the girl power revenge portion – we can get a sense of justice. But what it does for me is establish how evil the whole movie is.

The sad part is that the latter half of the movie with its kick-ass girls and the fantastic performance by stunt woman Zoe Bell as a stunt woman named Zoe is actually pretty fun to watch. Once it becomes a movie about women hunting down a crazed maniac who tried to kill them I actually enjoy the film. Too bad that by then I’ve had to sit through so much nastiness and unpleasantness that it isn’t quite enough to redeem the film.

There are little glimmers of genus in this movie which make it so much more disappointing than if it had simply been consistently bad throughout. Kurt Russell as Mike delivers a powerful and disturbing performance. His character is probably one of the most frighteningly and apologetically evil beasts ever committed to film. Zoe Bell is charming and funny and impossible not to love. The whole strange grindhouse idea is quirky and fun.

In the end though I actively hate this movie. Amanda is right – it’s a movie that is intended to appeal to people who want awful things to happen to women. I much prefer Tarantino’s next movie – which is a movie intended to appeal to people who want awful things to happen to Nazis.

March 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 287 – Austin Powers in Goldmember

Austin Powers in Goldmember – December 12th, 2010

And so we come to the end of our Austin Powers weekend. I’ve got to say I think this one is my favorite. Bizarre, I know, but it has two connected storylines I love and it has Michael Caine. Seriously, how could I not love Michael Caine? Anyhow, it has some bits I like, a fun female lead, some time travel, some flashbacks and sharks with frikkin laser beams on their heads. What’s not to like? Aside from more Fat Bastard and the titular Goldmember?

No, I still don’t like Fat Bastard here. I gave my reasons why yesterday and they still apply here. As for Goldmember, I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to be creepy and discomfiting. I’m almost 100% certain that’s his point in the movie. He eats his own skin flakes and has a gold fetish and an awkward high pitched laugh. And I don’t know, I just find him more cringe-inducing than funny. He has a line or two, but mostly he’s just bizarre. Fortunately, like the first movie and the second movie, the bits I find unfunny are outnumbered by the bits I find hilarious.

Now, by the third movie it’s fairly clear that Dr. Evil will come up with a convoluted plan to take over the world and Austin Powers will thwart him somehow. A new sexy female companion for Austin will show up at some point and a new villain sidekick will show up too. Puns will be made, sex will be talked about, nostalgia-based references and humor will abound. And so it goes here. Except Austin thwarts Dr. Evil in the beginning, right at the outset, and is knighted for his efforts, bringing in a family plot that I love. Austin’s father skips the knighting ceremony, setting off a wave of daddy issues for Austin. Eventually Dr. Evil and Mini Me escape from jail and then the movie goes as expected, with Austin gaining his new companion, Foxy Cleopatra, from the 1970s, and Dr. Evil gaining Goldmember from the same time period.

It’s the family stuff I really enjoy here. Austin and his father, Scott Evil and Dr. Evil. They’re great combinations of characters and casting and when everything comes to a head and Scott goes full on Evil it’s just perfect. I love Seth Green as Scott and he does a great character arc here, from Dr. Evil’s skeptical son to the heir to the family business (that would be the business of evil). He even gets his father sharks with frikkin’ laser beams. It’s fantastic. And then there’s Austin and his father, played fantastically by Michael Caine. Adding to all of that are some flashbacks to Austin and Dr. Evil (as well as Number 2 and Basil Exposition) all at school together as boys. It’s great fun and some good humorous character development for a comedy.

Of course there are the usual dick jokes and sex jokes and poop jokes and puns and fourth wall breaking gags (like the unreadable subtitles that Austin messes up). It’s that sort of movie. And it’s not at all unexpected. Verne Troyer is still great as Mini Me (and I love his fight scene with Austin) and Robert Wagner is still great as Number 2. I still like Michael York as Basil and I actually really like Beyonce Knowles as Foxy. The meta opening, with the Austin Powers movie opening being filmed by Stephen Spielberg, is a fantastic bit of inanity full of cameos, and if you look close you can spot two actors from Heroes in small roles. So really, I can handle two characters I’m not fond of. Just like in the other movies, there’s enough funny to block them out and keep me laughing.

December 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Austin Powers: Goldmember

Austin Powers: Goldmember

By the time that Mike Meyers and Jay Roach had reached the third movie in this franchise they had absolutely mastered the format. This movie spends almost as much time making fun of itself as it does making fun of the spy movie tropes that spawned it. The completely over-the-top Hollywood style opening credits with big name stars taking the roles of Austin Powers, Dr. Evil and Mini-Me set the tone for the entire movie – it’s going to be a self-referential feast of hilarity for fans of the other two movies that is bigger and more outrageous than anything that’s come before.

As with the second movie in the series Mike Meyers adds another new character here for himself to play. This time it’s the gold-mad dutch playboy Goldmember (who has lost his genitalia in an unfortunate smelting accident.) I suppose it’s a good thing that Mike and Jay didn’t go on to make any more movies in this series, because soon there would be no actors besides Mike in any scene, and it would take weeks to film every one because you could only shoot one angle per day. This movie represents the absolute furthest that you could go with the Austin Powers paradigm, so it has to be the grandest, most ridiculous, most madcap of them all – which it is.

This movie has a more unified central theme to it than the other two. While those are pretty much just a series of gags that lampoon the spy movie genre this movie has at its heart something to say about the relationship between father and son. I seem to recall seeing somewhere that this movie was written very much for Mike’s own father – especially the scene where Austin and his dad Nigel speak in Cockney rhyming slang. There’s the rivalry between Mini-Me and Scott from the second movie which comes to a head here. There’s Austin Powers’ own issues with his legendary super-spy absentee father. And it’s all woven into the usual plot by Dr. Evil to ransom the world – this time using a tractor beam to smash a gold asteroid into the polar ice cap, flooding the Earth.

Austin’s arm candy this time around is Foxxy Cleopatra – a reference to the blacksploitation films of the seventies – played by Beyonce Knowles. She is absolutely my favorite “Powers Girl” because there is so little flirting between the two of them. Aside from a kiss at the end and a scene where she uses Nathan Lane as an intermediary to accuse Austin of leaving her once long ago there she is not so much there to be the object of Austin’s lust, and more to repeatedly pull his bacon out of the fire. I love Beyonce’s performance. She’s totally into the character and kicks every kind of ass. Shazam!

The other major new character in this movie is Michael Caine as Austin’s father Nigel Powers. Nigel powers is a legendary super-spy even greater in reputation than his own groovy son. There’s one scene when he’s been captured in Dr. Evil’s submarine lair where Nigel berates a henchman for daring to point a gun at him. “Do you have any idea how many anonymous henchmen I’ve killed? And you don’t even have a name-tag – you have no chance.” Caine performs him as such a suave, cool, completely experienced super-spy that you never doubt that he could accomplish absolutely anything. He’s just fun to watch.

There is some recycling of jokes from the other two movies but with a self-aware twist. The gag with the spaceship that looks like a giant Johnston (the guy who monitors the radar in the World Organization command room, played again by Clint Howard) is replaced with a giant pair of “Boobs!” says Ozzie Ozbourne “They’re just using the same joke from the last movie!” And when Dr. Evil starts to taunt Scotty with one of his “zip it” tirades Scotty wearily says “Oh, we’re going to do this again. Let me do what I do.” There’s even a scene where Dr. Evil finally gets the frickin’ sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads that he wanted way back in the first movie.

I enjoy this movie from start to finish. It’s crammed with funny gags, much faster paced than either of the other two movies, and pretty much never lets up. It pushes the borders of what can be accomplished in an Austin Powers movie to the absolute extreme. Furthermore I never really felt like there was a joke that fell flat. When I saw this the first time in the theater there were parts that actually made my sides hurt, I was laughing so much. This is my favorite of the Austin Powers movies, and I kind of hope that they don’t make any more, because I can’t see how they could possibly top it.

December 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 277 – La Cage Aux Folles

La Cage Aux Folles – December 2nd, 2010

While I’ve seen the American remake of this movie several times I had never seen the original before today. Silly, really, but the American version is on television fairly regularly and I honestly couldn’t say when I last saw the original’s title pop up in my channel guide. I’d always heard good things about it but never got around to seeing it. But when we went to buy The Birdcage to watch for National Coming Out Day we found that it came in a two disc set with the original, so we bought that and then we watched the remake and stuck the box back on our shelf and didn’t put in the original right away. Until tonight.

I’ve got to say, overall? I’m really rather impressed with the remake having now seen the original. It’s not just that the plot is kept very close, it’s everything. The plot here really is quite similar. Renato Baldi is the owner of a drag club in St. Tropez. The star act is his companion of 20 years, Albin. And Renato’s son, Laurent, has gotten engaged to a very nice young woman named Andrea whose parents happen to be ultra conservative and involved in politics. When a political scandal rocks the conservative party, Andrea’s parents decide a nice wedding would be the perfect distraction, so off they go to meet Laurent’s parents. The bulk of the movie revolves around Renato and Laurent trying to figure out how to pass the family off as acceptable to Andrea’s parents. Albin, being super flamboyant by nature, can’t be there, but how do you tell him that without hurting him? If you’ve seen the American version, it’s the same basic concept. And being a farce, there is obviously a totally ridiculous and over-the-top solution: Albin dresses in drag and passes himself off as Laurent’s mother.

I’m serious when I say that they stuck close to the plot and script in the remake. Yes, the location was changed and there are definitely differences, but there are more similarities, down to the pink socks Albin wears when he puts on a suit in hopes of claiming to be Laurent’s uncle. The conversation about cemeteries? There. The giant crucifix in the living room? There. The butler not wearing shoes because they make him fall down? Yup. Though Jacob, the butler in this one? His hotpants are considerably more sparkly. But really, it’s all so very closely adhered to, it was great to see how the original did everything. Having seen the American version first, I don’t think I can really speak to one being better than the other. I’m biased. I just think it’s really fantastic that so much of what I loved about the remake is right out of the original.

Now, this movie does suffer a little when it comes to period. It’s dated. The clothes, the music, the hair, it all screams 1970s. But it ends up not mattering. The story is still about a family trying to put on this impossible act so that their son can be happy. It’s still got outrageous physical humor and all the comedy that comes from Albin trying to charm the Charriers. It’s got some great touching scenes between Albin and Renato and that made me very happy. The story itself plays out well regardless of the decade it’s set in and the performances from the entire main cast are all fantastic to watch.

My one real quibble with the movie is that it’s incredibly negative towards the women in it. Renato repeatedly and casually calls Laurent’s fiancee a whore when Laurent tells him he’s engaged. Perhaps I’m missing some cultural cues, but when the lines about Andrea “stealing” Laurent away are spoken, they feel a little more serious, a little more nasty, as opposed to joking. And then there’s Laurent’s mother. Not only did she abandon Laurent, leading to Albin disliking her intensely to start with, but she actively tries to seduce Renato when they meet. She’s not welcome in the family at all. I’m not sure I like that dynamic so much. It adds a tone of true discord to the plot that I felt took away from the humor inherent in everything else. There’s already so much conflict, from Renato and Albin over whether Albin can stay for the future in-laws’ arrival, to the frantic attempts not to have conflict between Laurent’s family and Andrea’s. Adding in a serious conflict between Albin, Renato and Laurent’s mother? It’s too much for me. There’s no real time to spend on it, so it feels wasted anyhow.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this. I expected that I would, but it’s nice to be proven right in that respect. The similarities were all fantastic. The differences, I’d have to say, were a mixed bag. I loved things like the bowl Renato keeps his keys in, and Jacob’s sequined hotpants, but I disliked the casual misogyny and one unexpected bit of violence. But they weren’t so very egregious that they ruined the movie for me. There’s too much great humor here. Too many fun performances and good scenes.

December 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

La Cage Aux Folles

December 2, 2010

La Cage Aux Folles

I first saw this movie when I was about twelve or thirteen years old while visiting my grandparents. I seem to recall that they actually owned a copy of the movie, probably a gift from my uncles the film makers. This would have been around 1985 or so – more than a decade before the American re-make was made, so at the time it was just some bizarre French film I had found in my grandparent’s collection. I distinctly recall being utterly confused by the entire film. It was so filled with a crazy flamboyance that was utterly alien to me. I think at the time I chalked it up to French people being exceptionally odd, because nothing in my experience at the time would indicate that anything like this existed in America.

As I watch this again tonight with our review of The Birdcage relatively fresh in my mind I am completely blown away by how astonishingly faithful the American re-make is to the original, and by how astonishingly ahead of we Americans the French are. To think that this movie was made almost twenty years before the 1996 Birdcage – it simply boggles the mind. Practically every memorable moment in the American film had its germination here in the French original. The butler with no shoes. The bowls with naked Greek boys. The lesson on how to be more butch with the toast and the John Wayne walk. (Though Robin Williams gets a better punchline for that scene.) Even the bit where the boy’s biological mother comments on his gay father’s hairy chest, a bit that I would have sworn was written for the extremely hairy Robin Williams, is directly out of this movie.

The plots of the two movies are identical. The son of a night club owner comes home to tell his father that he intends to get married. His fiance is the daughter of a conservative politician who becomes embroiled in a scandal when the president of his party dies in the arms of an underaged black prostitute. The night-club owning father and his son makes an attempt to appear like conservative people to make the proposed marriage more palatable to the girl’s parents. Everything goes hilariously wrong.

There are only a few minor tweaks. The butler in the French version is a flamboyant young black man, rather than a flamboyant young Guatemalan man. (Benny Luke, as Jacob, is every bit as wonderful a scene stealer as Hank Azaria as Agador. Both of them are utterly hilarious and impossible to look away from.) There’s a great moment in this French version where all the night-club employees burst in on the somber party upstairs to wish Renato and Albin a happy anniversary, traipse around the apartment singing, smiling and kissing everybody, then leave again. It’s a great culmination to the entire evening and a funny way to have the joyous life of the drag people contrasted with the dour and bleak lives of Andrea’s conservative parents.

I suppose that’s another contrast between the two films. Michel Galabru plays the conservative father Simon as a loud, angry blow-hard. His home is as bleak a place as you could imagine with its faded brown walls and stark puritan furniture. At one point his daughter starts to take pity on him and is about to confess about Laurent’s parents, but then Simon makes a point of humiliating a waiter in the restaurant they’re eating at and she thinks better of it. I think that Gene Hackman’s character Senator Keely is a more sympathetic fellow. Perhaps it’s that we backward folk in America are still unable to completely vilify our conservative politicians. Or maybe it’s that for the end of the movie to work the way it does in the American version you need to have some sympathy for Keely and want him to escape from the nightmare dinner politically unscathed.

I think that my enjoyment of this ribald and colorful tale is actually enhanced by my love of the re-make. It’s fun to see the original take on all these characters. It’s interesting to note what’s been altered and what, after eighteen years and on a whole other continent, was still just exactly as funny if left the same. I still have my youthful memories of being completely baffled by this alien world being portrayed on the screen, although I think I have a very different perspective on it now. (I blame the inescapable charm of RuPaul’s Drag Race – I’ll never be able to look at drag the same way now that I’ve fallen in love with it as a joyous art form. Can I get an Amen?) I admit that I’ve never seen the French sequels to this movie, which were never re-made for American audiences. Perhaps I should.

December 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 276 – Play It Again, Sam

Play It Again, Sam – December 1st, 2010

Upon learning that it was Woody Allen’s birthday we decided to do one of our two Woody Allen movies tonight. I’ve always had a limited tolerance for Allen’s schtick. It’s solid comedy of embarrassment and that sort of thing often gives me a bad case of contact embarrassment. But we do own a couple of his movies and even though this was a short one and we’ve been trying to reserve short movies for my evening shifts we popped it in tonight.

Now, I know I’ve seen bits and pieces of this movie before. I’m sure I have because I remember the Casablanca references. Maybe it was when I watched Casablanca in a film class or something. Alas, we don’t own Casablanca, so we can’t follow this up with that. It’s a glaring gap in our collection, actually. Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. We have an odd lack of classic cinema. I suppose they’re all things we’ve watched with other people or in classes and seen so often in so many other places we just never thought to buy them for ourselves. Strange, really, when you consider what we do own.

Then again, after watching this tonight I find myself a little apprehensive about going back and watching some Bogart. It’s been years since I last saw either of the movies I mentioned above and I honestly can’t remember just how many casual mentions there were about violence towards women. If the imaginary Bogart in this movie is any indication then “popping a dame in the jaw” would be fairly common. He says it a bunch of times, like it’s this idealized thing a “real man” should be able to do to a woman. Every time that or something similar was mentioned it caught me again. The matter-of-fact and used-for-humor tone in which mentions of hitting and raping women are said completely threw me out of this movie. Given how much of this movie is homage to Bogart and Woody Allen’s character’s obsession with him, I admit it makes me nervous.

It frustrates me to no end that there’s so much in this movie that pisses me off. The whole conversation about rape isn’t just awkward, it’s painfully unfunny. The scene in the bar with the two bikers gives me a full body cringe. And all the talk about punching. It’s just so pervasive and it’s a damn shame because there’s some truly funny stuff in here. While Allen’s comedy of embarrassment thing isn’t my favorite gag in the world, he’s truly made it an art form. Some of his little film-inspired imagined scenarios are fantastic. There’s great throwaway bits with some of the minor characters. It’s good stuff! It’s funny! I did laugh quite a few times through the course of the movie. And then imaginary Bogart would show up and I’d wince.

The plot involves the very neurotic Allan (played by Allen – totally not playing himself, right?) trying to find a new girlfriend after his wife leaves him. While he attempts to date (and fails miserably) he spends a lot of time with his good friends, married couple Dick and Linda. Dick’s a workaholic and Linda and Allan get along great since they’re both full of neuroses and awkwardness and I think it’s pretty obvious where that’s headed. Through it all Allan is obsessed with becoming this bizarre manly ideal as epitomized (in his head) by Humphrey Bogart. He’s even got an imaginary Bogart who pops in every so often to advise him. Of course, his imaginary ex also shows up, but not nearly so much. And so the movie goes. Allan goes on one horrible date after another, botches every conversation he tries to start with a woman, and ends up falling for his best friend’s wife.

I actually really love the ending of this movie. It’s so fitting and so well played and it incorporates the Casablanca references so perfectly. In a movie about a man who finds the perfect woman for himself only to find that she’s taken, there are a couple of ways it could have played out. And the way it does play out isn’t the fairy tale ending a lot of modern romantic comedies would toss in there, but it’s just right for this particular story. I like the overall story, to be honest. I’m not terribly fond of the specifics of how it goes sometimes, but the story itself is solid, and so is a lot of the humor. Even the dated comedy of Dick constantly calling his workplace to let them know what number he can be reached at still has a certain kind of nostalgic appeal to it. But there’s just so much tossed in there that makes me mad. If I could ignore it, I’d have enjoyed this a great deal more, but I can’t ignore it and I don’t think I should have to.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Play it Again, Sam

December 1, 2010

Play it Again, Sam

Yes, we do not own Casablanca. I just wanted to get that off my chest right at the start of this review. This movie is about a neurotic goofball who has an obsession with Humphrey Bogart and particularly Casablanca so it highlights the fact that we don’t own the movie. Or any Bogart at all. Oh, sure, we’ve seen Casablanca plenty of times, we just don’t own it.

Back when I was living with my sister in Somerville this was one of the few movies we owned. As a result I’ve seen it many, many times. I haven’t seen it in about fifteen years though, and it’s odd to see it again tonight. There are parts that I still love as much as ever, but much of the movie is just painful to watch now. I don’t know why I can’t simply enjoy watching Woody Allen making a fool of himself, but now his antics make me wince more than they make me laugh.

In this adaptation of his own play Woody Allen plays the creatively names Allan. His wife has just left him because he is a complete bore and he is a neurotic wreck as a result. His best friend Dick and his wife Linda try their best to comfort him, and for most of the movie attempt to find him some girl he can hook up with. Every time Allan gets near a girl, however, he gets to nervous that he’s incapable of anything but nervous blundering. There’s a lot of broad slapstick humor as Allan knocks things over, stumbles about and stutters incoherently. He is so desperate to impress that he makes a complete fool of himself.

The only woman Allan is even able to have a conversation with is Linda, because he’s comfortable with her and they can share stories of their various neuroses and panic attacks. There actually is a chemistry between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, in a nerdish kind of way, and I enjoy that part of the movie. Except when their conversation somehow diverts into jokes about women’s rape fantasies. That’s a pretty uncomfortable scene. Ultimately their friendship leads to an illicit one-night affair which makes both of them more neurotic than ever before. It’s all an excuse to reprise the final scene from Casablanca, which is played in its entirety during the opening credits.

You see, Allan has an obsession with Humphrey Bogart. His job is writing articles for a magazine about film, and he watches movies all the time. (I definitely sympathise with him on that front.) Bogie visits him in his fantasies and provides him with misogynistic romantic advice. It’s a fun contrast to have the calm, cool hard-boiled character that Bogie played giving advice to the spastic and insecure character that Woody always plays.

This is every inch a Woody Allen film. Aside from the fact that it’s set in San Francisco rather than New York. It explores themes that Woody likes to explore about infidelity and the complexity of relationships. The character that Woody Allen plays is very much the iconic character that he based his entire career on. You have to wonder as you watch it just how much he’s playing a character, and how much he’s playing himself. And then you have to wonder just how hard it must be to be Woody Allen.

There are a few things I love about this movie. There’s the running gag about how the workaholic Dick calls his office all the time and leaves the phone number of wherever he is going to be so they can get in touch with him. I also really like Allan’s fantasies. Bogie shows up a lot of course, but there’s also his ex-wife Nancy and a bunch of imagined outcomes to his affair with Linda. Those are the high points of the movie.

There’s also a fun technique that director Herbert Ross uses to adapt some of the scenes from the play. He has conversations between Allan and Nancy done as sort of montages, so that although their dialog is all from one scene they deliver it in a bunch of different locations, just cut together into a single conversation. It’s a clever way to show that they have meaningful talks which span several days – a nice way to build their friendship.

This movie came out in the year that I was born. As such there are bits that haven’t aged too well. It’s not just the clothes either. You expect the costumes from a film made in the seventies to be laughable. The attitudes towards women, as I’m sure Amanda is saying in her review, are almost painful to watch, though, and that takes a lot of the fun out of the movie. I’m kind of curious now to review Sleeper, which was my favorite Woody Allen movie when I was growing up because it was almost entirely crazy slapstick. I wonder how that movie will look now to my jaded adult eyes.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments

Forrest Gump

October 11, 2010

Forrest Gump

That guy from Bosom Buddies won his second Oscar with this movie. But of course he had a lot of help. This movie is one of those dream projects that only very rarely comes along. It has an amazing, touching, heartbreakingly simple script. It has adept and wonderful direction. It has some fun special effects and a playful attitude about the pop culture of the second half of the twentieth century. And of course it has some astonishingly good acting from Tom Hanks.

This is a five-tissue movie for me. I was tearing up from the very beginning when the iconic feather that bookends the movie and the quaint theme music started. To say that this is a movie that tugs at the heart strings would be an understatement. It is a movie that grabs the heart strings and YANKS them. Repeatedly. It is a movie that has as its only purpose the goal of making you care about this simple guy from Greenbow Alabama so that when the improbable circumstances of his life unfold you can cheer or weep along.

I don’t suppose there’s any point in summing up the plot. You’ve probably seen the movie before, and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil things. It’s the story of the life and times of Forrest Gump, a man with a million catch phrases and a childlike simplicity to him. (Who, at the time that this movie came out, was not sick almost instantly of “Life is like a box of chocolates” or “Stupid is as stupid does” or “Run, Forrest, RUN!”) Through crazy random happenstance he is part of a number of iconic moments of history in the nineteen fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. The movie is very cleverly told through Forrest’s narration as he sits on a bench waiting for his bus and he tells his life story to a series of people sitting next to him. Throughout the movie the central theme is his simple and undying love for the tragic Jenny, his childhood friend who seems to have nothing but trouble in her life and whom he can never quite seem to save from herself and her demons.

The writing in this movie is simply astonishing. It uses a number of clever devices to draw you into Forrest’s story and make you a part of it. For example there are the people listening to his tale, simple random folk like ourselves who start out skeptical and become caught up in the story as he tells it. And there are crowd pleasing get-up-and-cheer moments like Forrest and Jenny meeting in the reflecting pool on the national mall. It’s also fun how Forrest never actually names any of the historic figures he encounters in his life – they’re just folks to him. This not only makes you use your brain a little but makes you an active participant in the story telling as you sort of translate the events he’s describing. I’ve never read the novel the book is based on, so I don’t know how much of this is the work of novelist Winston Groom and how much is that of screenplay writer Eric Roth. All I know is that the script itself is golden, which must have drawn in a lot of the talent that is attached to the film.

Robert Zemeckis has been one of my favorite directors for ages. He always enjoys using special effects as more than story-telling tools. They’re an integral part of his movies. Roger Rabbit for example creates a whole noir mystery around the flawless integration of live action and cartoons. Death Becomes Her revels in the strange ways that it can abuse the re-animated corpses that inhabit the film. And lately he has become the great pioneer into movies that blend motion capture and computer animation so that his more recent films are virtually nothing BUT special effects. This movie must have been a playground for him. Forrest is cleverly integrated into all kinds of archival footage (although in a couple cases – LBJ and John Lennon most notably – the lip replacement used doesn’t quite work.) There’s also a lot of subtle effects work used to remove Gary Sinise’s legs when his character becomes a paraplegic. So for a fan of special effects this film is a treat, and it’s kind of fun to see so many advanced techniques being used in a simple story that involves no time travel or aliens.

Speaking of Gary Sinise – his role as the bitter Lieutenant Dan is another of those things in the movie that really makes it shine. Sure Tom Hanks won the Oscar, and his Forrest is wonderful – able to communicate that though he may be simple minded he actually understands a great deal, but Gary steals the show any time he’s on screen.

I just love this movie. I know it’s manipulative. I know it’s over-the-top. But you can’t help loving Forrest or the people he cares for. It makes me cheer and it makes me cry, and it makes me want to watch it all over again…

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

November 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 181 – The Wiz

The Wiz – August 28th, 2010

After watching the Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz this week we decided we really should own this version. We both enjoy it and it’s been ages since I saw it last. I think it was my mother who first introduced me to it, telling me she couldn’t hear the iconic Ease on Down the Road without singing along. And who can? I’m thrilled that the DVD we bought has a CD with it with that and a few of my other favorites, so I can get them nice and stuck in my head whenever I want. It’s the sort of movie I’d dance to if I had any dancing ability at all, but I don’t, so I just enjoy the people who do.

This is a fascinating movie to watch, having seen both another version of The Wizard of Oz and another stage-to-screen musical recently. It’s an entirely different creature from both, which I find really pretty cool. It’s far more expansive than The Producers was, making good use of huge sets and some impressive filming locations (like the World Trade Center plaza and the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island). There’s a real feeling of scale, which suits the alternate New York version of Oz really well, but also makes it clear that no, we’re not on a theater stage here. But then contrast it to the Muppet version of the story and the differences in the tone come out in full force. For one, the settings are vastly different, and for another that links to a huge difference in the character of Dorothy. Where Ashanti’s Dorothy was dying to get away from home, there’s nothing Diana Ross’s Dorothy wants more than to stay home where she’s comfortable. It leads to a very different journey.

One thing I noticed watching this now, there were definitely a lot of callbacks to the book. The Munchkins might be graffiti-themed in this version, but the dominant color of the set for the number, the lighting of it and the costumes, is blue. The Winkies, once they’re out of their red sweatshop costumes, wear yellow. The slippers are silver. They’re little things I suppose, but given how big a shift in setting this adaptation does, the details like the colors of the costumes really do make me smile. And they make the urban setting more Oz-like. I like this skewed version of New York City, adapted into Oz like an alternate universe, and I think I’ve mentioned my thing for alternate universes. The changes to the Oz portions are fun too. The Scarecrow is made of garbage, the Tin Man is a carnival barker, and the Cowardly Lion is hiding out in front of the New York Public Library. Instead of the Kalidahs, the group faces a subway where even the walls turn against them (in a scene that haunted me for years). Instead of a horrible castle the Wicked Witch has a sweat shop. It’s a great blending of two worlds that results in a fantastic setting for a quest.

Now, the story itself is pretty similar to any given adaptation of the book. Dorothy, transported to Oz, finds herself needing to get to the Wizard in the Emerald City. She gets a pair of magic shoes, follows the yellow brick road, meets up with three companions and eventually gets to her goal only to be given the task of dealing with a wicked witch. After defeating the witch she finds out the Wizard’s a fraud, then clicks her heels and heads back home. Oh, and everyone had what they needed all along! It’s the specifics that change. For the most part, the story is told well. Certainly they hit all the necessary plot points, and they created a great world to set it all in. Add that to the fantastic musical numbers and you’d think it would be flawless, right?

Sigh.

I do love the vast majority of this movie, but this evening I found myself noting a few flaws and then realized that what bothered me most ended up being part of a single problem. I’ve got a minor issue with the characterization of Dorothy, but it’s not that she’s twenty-four in the movie. And it’s not that she’s timid and nervous and introverted. I get that characterization. It’s her first song. There’s this whole thing about how she can’t share in the emotions of the people there at her aunt’s home for the holidays. The song doesn’t make her out as shy, it makes her out to be emotionally stunted. She’s set up to be thoroughly glued to home, while singing about how she can’t form emotional connections. That’s bizarre to me, and the song itself doesn’t feel like it fits the rest of the movie. And then I started paying attention to that. There are a few songs that don’t quite fit. And at the end? When I looked them up? Wouldn’t you know, they’re almost all additional numbers added to the movie. They’re the meandering schmaltzy numbers that seem to be trying to add character development to Dorothy but ended up boring me and making me tune out. And they take up what feels like an enormous amount of time that I think could have been better used in other ways.

Another issue connected to the pile’o’schmaltz and the time it all takes is that there are moments that seem to lack the impact they should have. For example, while I love A Brand New Day, the lead-up to it seems so truncated. Dorothy and company leave the Emerald City, get chased around a parking garage, and then they’re in Evillene’s sweat shop. It’s a great set and she’s got a great number to introduce herself prior to the garage scene, but once Dorothy gets there? Her friends get threatened, she breaks down and says she’ll give up the shoes, she pulls a fire alarm and hurrah! Dancing time! There’s no real tension there. It takes about five minutes to go from oppressive threats to jubilant dance number. It’s great that the Winkies (eventually wearing yellow bikinis) get freed and dance around, and it’s a great number, but the ratio of tension to celebration is oddly tipped to the celebration side. I think that’s true of a lot of the movie and I blame the meandering added numbers.

It’s really a pity that the movie gets bogged down in places. It takes away from everything the movie does well and gets right. I think it’s telling that when we put this in, I was super excited to see the meetings between Dorothy and her friends, and hear Ease on Down the Road and A Brand New Day and see the bizarre nightclub-like Emerald City sequence, and I’d totally forgotten the slower bits. Did I fast forward through them as a kid? The melting sewing machines in the sweat shop stayed with me, but not Dorothy singing about feeling. I’ll probably do the same now. I’ll remember the awesome singing and dancing and let the rest go.

August 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment