Category: 1987


HouseOfGames1

Can a movie predicated on an endless series of twists and turns still carry any dramatic or emotional weight even if you can predict every turn before it happens? 90% of the time I would say no it can’t, and that would be the end of the story. Predictability should be the death-knell of any noir or thriller worth its weight in salt, but leave it to playwright auteur David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) to be the exception to that rule. The psychological gamesmanship on display in House of Games is blindingly forecasted almost from the start, and when all is said and done, if you can’t guess what’s going to happen, you’re likely a little dense. But, despite the fact that House of Games is a psychological crime thriller/neo-noir on its surface, it is really a character study into man’s attraction into our darkest impulses, and in that regard, it’s a typical Mamet success.

My rather immense enjoyment of House of Games was unexpected (despite how much I worship Glengarry Glen Ross and mostly enjoyed Wag the Dog) because at the beginning of the film, the movie radiates a sense of theatrical artificiality. House of Games was Mamet’s directorial debut, and considering his background as a stage director, I had initially assumed that he was simply struggling to adjust to the big screen. I realized that was all intentional because House of Games is all about the masks we wear when we interact with others and how virtually all human interactions involve the exploitation of others to fulfill our own needs. And so as the leads of the film slowly start to shed their masks (or are simply better at hiding their mask than others), the lens of theatricality slowly begins to slip away from the film and it is revealed for the stunning psychological insight it is.

HouseOfGames2

Margaret Ford (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Lindsay Crouse) is a best-selling author and psychiatrist specializing in addiction and compulsive behavior. But, Maggie’s life is empty and she feels that much of her work is meaningless and that her most vulnerable patients are beyond her help. And when a young, troubled gambling addict walks into her office fearful that a $25,000 debt he owes to a bookie may mean his life, Maggie attempts to truly help someone for maybe the first time in her life. But even then, Maggie’s motivations aren’t quite what they appear. At the back room poker game, Maggie meets Mike (Joe Mantegna), the bookie that the gambler says he owes money to. But, in the first of many of the film’s twist, the debt isn’t $25,000. It’s only $800, and soon after, Maggie finds herself seduced into a world of fast-talking con-men and dangerous liars.

Though the film finds itself falling down a somewhat predictable path, I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t seen it (and maybe don’t have my perceptive sense for how noir and crime thrillers work). But, House of Games starts out as what you think may be one woman’s attempt to redeem herself and instead chronicles her descent into a world of crime, easy money, and constant deception. And in that regard, House of Games hits on that classic Mamet theme: a cynical perspective on human nature. In Mike’s world (which quickly becomes Lindsay’s world), there are two types of people: suckers and those with the gumption to part the suckers from their money when given the opportunity. And Mamet extends that dynamic to our entire life where we either suffer or we exploit someone else to alleviate our own suffering. He isn’t saying that’s right. He just observes that’s how it is.

HouseOfGames3

I have complex feelings towards the performances in this film because of the sense of artificiality that I mentioned at the beginning of the movie. Early dialogue is either delivered in bored monotone or from a place of theatrical bombast. But, they’re doing that intentionally so part of me can’t fault them for this. And, in fact, I suspect that on a future second viewing, I might appreciate this more at the beginning when I understand what’s meant to be done. Because as the film progresses, both Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse (particularly Crouse) deliver hidden layers and unexpected complexities. Crouse finds herself finally free to be herself for the first time in her entire life and without wanting to spoil the film, let it be said that Mantegna proves to be overwhelmingly excellent as a con man and reader of human nature.

I also have somewhat complicated feelings towards the film’s direction. Glengarry Glen Ross worked so well as a movie because the director gave the film a suffocating visual atmosphere that wasn’t even possible in the stage play. And while there are some inspired shots in House of Games, it was also clear that it was Mamet’s first directorial feature and thus the film comes of as slightly stale from time to time. Also, understanding his intentions to make the film seem artificial at times (it draws attention to itself so we, the audience, recognize the hollowness of the characters’ lives), that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where it all felt too forced and it drew me too much out of the action of the film. What happened at moments was that Mamet appeared supremely proud (and rightfully so of his dialogue) and by putting so much theatrical emphasis on words, we were forced to recognize his (admitted) genius. It entered the realm of literary pretense.

HouseOfGames4

Thankfully, the script more than outweighs any concerns I may have about direction or acting. Mamet is, along with Kenneth Lonergan, one of the great writers of our day. And through his obsession with the darkest impulses of human nature (how capitalism and ambition turn us into monsters in Glengarry or how the pursuit of power can only lead to corruption in Wag the Dog), Mamet fashions tale after tale of men and women at the brink of morality. House of Games shows how the allure of depravity and dishonesty can seduce even the most seemingly upright members of the community. And though House of Games appears to limp out of the gates, once it picks up a head of steam, it flies onward full-stop to a satisfying (if not unexpected) finale and for all fans of Mamet’s work and great neo-noir, it is a must-see film.

Final Score: A-

 

RaisingArizona1

I might be wrong, but I think, at this point, the only directors that I have reviewed for this blog as often as the Coen Brothers are Woody Allen and David Lean. It’s not an intentional decision by any means; these directors have just made an exceptionally large number of films and they were almost all critically acclaimed. I’ve reviewed so many Coen films at this point that I would have to open up my list of every movie I’ve reviewed (all 360 or so) just to pick them all out. I bring this up because, despite their occasional flaws and pretenses as filmmakers, the Coens are arguably the most versatile and multifaceted writer/directors of the modern era, and their early screwball classic, Raising Arizona, is ample proof of why.

Raising Arizona is arguably the closest the Coens have ever come to doing a straight comedy. Although I think that The Big Lebowski is the second greatest American comedy ever made (behind Annie Hall), it twists and turns in its post-modernist nihilism and genre-bending so much that no one could ever call it a straight comedy. But Raising Arizona is classic screwball and slapstick in the vein of My Man Godfrey or The Philadelphia Story. Relying on the insanity of its characters and a constantly escalating series of mishaps that snowball towards the film’s climax, Raising Arizona is a loving (if subversive) throwback to the classic comedies of yore, and honestly, nobody has made them like this since.

RaisingArizona2

H.I. McDunnough (Adaptation.‘s Nic Cage) is an unrepentant bandit. Robbing gas stations (with an unloaded gun to avoid armed robbery charges), H.I. is in and out of prison with an astonishing regularity. However, when he catches the eye of ex-cop Ed (Jesus’ Sons Holly Hunter), he vows to get his life back on the straight and narrow. The two two marry and move into a trailer in the middle of the Arizona desert. H.I. gets a job at a sheet metal factory, and everything seems to be back on the up and up, until H.I. and Edwina decide to have a baby. But, when Ed discovers that she’s incapable of getting pregnant, their lives begin to fall back apart.

Potential salvation comes in the form of news that a local furniture salesman, the titular Arizona, has had quintuplets with his wife. Getting it into their head that the Arizona family now has more children than they can manage, Ed and H.I. believe that they’ll be doing the Arizonas a favor if they take one of the babies off their hands. And, so, H.I. kidnaps little Nathan Jr. and he and Ed hope to raise the baby as their own. But when two of H.I.’s old cell mates break out of prison (including an excellent John Goodman) and show up on his doorstep, their plans immediately spin out off control and the arrival of a psychotic bounty hunter only make things worse.

RaisingArizona3

Although part of me suspects that Raising Arizona has some very minor pacing problems (during its 90 minute running time, there were little moments here and there where my mind began to wander), the movie is still, then, thankfully full of classic comedy bits. Whether it’s early in the film when H.I.  is trying to decide which of the Arizona quints to steal as they start scattering all over their house, or a gas station robbery gone horribly, horribly south, or any other of a number of gag-fueled scenes, Raising Arizona earns its reputation as one of the true cult comedy classics of the 1980s by keeping the laughs coming consistently from beginning to end.

I’ve brought this up so many times now for this blog that it almost seems dumb to say it again, but here goes. Nic Cage has completely destroyed any credibility he had as an actor this last decade or so, but Raising Arizona reminds me of why he should have been one of the biggest stars of his time. He has a natural comic timing, and he has inhabited so many zany and eccentric characters over the year that it’s a shame he decided to play an endless series of the same type of character in mainstream action duds. Holly Hunter was also hysterical as the appropriately emotionally hysterical Ed, and I’ll actually be watching another Holly Hunter classic later this week, The Incredibles. So, I’m excited for that.

RaisingArizona4

I could go on at length about how this film is also a perfect snapshot of 1980s Americana and a commentary on the economic angst of Reagan’s America, but I’m hungry so I’m going to draw this review to a close. If you’re looking for a witty and endlessly clever comedy to whittle away the hours today, I’m not sure if you could do much worse than Raising Arizona. It was one of the films that shot the Coen brothers onto the map, and while it may not be one of my favorite films of theirs (it’s impressive that a film as great as this doesn’t crack the top 5 for a director), it’s still one of the best comedies of the 1980s.

Final Score: A-

 

Hellraiser1

(A quick aside before my actual review: Long time readers may remember me mentioning about a month and a half ago that I had decided to remake the master list for my blog. After realizing that I had been accidentally deleting entries into the list [and not being sure how to fix it in a long term way because I use Google Docs and save things in the cloud], I knew I had to make my list all over again which was as painful as it sounds. It took me a month and a half but I finally finished it so maybe I’ll actually have time to focus on my screenwriting again.)

Before I settled on this path for this review, I wrote a whole paragraph decrying the “torture porn” subgenre of horror before I realized the irony of what I was about to do. Buckets of blood and disgusting brutality have become the norm for so much modern horror in lieue of actual atmosphere and plot.  The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ushered in the Dark Age of Comics by birthing predecessors who couldn’t match the political/character subtext with the darker storytelling devices utilized by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Similarly, good horror films with gore were aped by films that thought disgusting visuals were the sole element in a truly scary movie.

Hellraiser2

Nobody is ever going to mistake 1987’s Hellraiser from horror luminary Clive Barker as high art, but as an example of how atmosphere can define the horror genre and of how a unique attempt at world-building can make a film distinct, Hellraiser remains enjoyable despite the film’s sillier conceits. Set in a world that is sadomasochism meets H.P. Lovecraft and dedicated to pacing that allows characters to grow and develop (at least by most horror standards), Hellraiser feels worlds apart from many of its 1980s peers and reminds us that you can be extremely gory (it is) and still have time for actual storytelling.

After moving into a house that was once occupied by his half-brother Frank, boring white-collar everyman looks to reboot his life with his wife Julia, who was once Frank’s lover. However, the house’s disgusting state when Larry and Julia first move is, in fact, a reminder of the sordid uses Frank was giving it and of the evil core still remaining at the heart of the house (almost literally). Frank had summoned a transdimensional race known as the Cenobites with a supernatural puzzle box to find the ultimate pleasure. But, pain and pleasure are synonymous to the Cenobites, and ultimately, Frank is ripped apart and only his soul remains in the house.

Hellraiser3

And, one day, as Larry and Julia are moving into the house (with the help of Larry’s daughter, Kirsty), Larry cuts his hand on a rusty nail and bleeds onto the attic floor. This act returns Larry to a corporeal form, but his body is only half-finished. He’s a disgusting blob of meat and sinew, and he needs more blood to become whole again. So, Larry enlists the help of his old lover Julia to bring him more bodies so he can become a human being again. But the clock is running out for fear that the Cenobites may return to claim his soul once and for all.

While the film may avert a lot of the bad tropes of 1980s horror, many others are still there in full affect. The acting is bad. It is Friday the 13th sequels bad, except for possibly Clare Higgins who plays Julia who grows accustomed to killing in order to bring her man back to life. The camera angles Clive Barker chooses to use can be absolutely silly at times, and occasionally (though thankfully rarely) things that are meant to be terrifying just turn out to be silly instead.

Hellraiser4

Though the effects may seem cheesy by modern standards, I was actually fairly impressed by the make-up work done for this film. When you see the various stages that Frank goes through as he tries to become human again, the make-up is quite detailed and quite disgusting. The different cenobites are all distinct and horrifying (particularly the Chatterer), and I can’t really understand why they decided to only use Pinhead in the sequels (though Clive Barker had no involvement past the second one). All in all, the film’s make-up work constantly upped the sadomasochistic horror subtext of the film’s main story.

I would never really call Hellraiser a “good” movie in a traditional sense. The acting is bad, the story is silly, and it’s psychosexual overtones are all over the place. But, if you judge films on there ability to evoke actual emotions, Hellraiser is genuinely disturbing and though the cenobites are underutilized for much of this film, when they finally appear, it gives Hellraiser a truly distinct flair. It’s easy to see why this film has acquired a cult status among “horror heads.”

Final Score: B

FatalAttraction1

It’s weird how popular the “erotic thriller” genre became in the late 80s and early 90s. The combination of highly stylized sex and violence as a mainstream form of artistic expression seems to be at odds with America’s usual puritanical values. Basic Instinct turned Sharon Stone into a household name, but, honestly, she mostly spends a lot of the film naked and let us not forget the movie’s most infamous scene. Don’t get me wrong. I actually think Basic Instinct is a pretty great movie. It just astounds me that this particular genre of film experienced so much commercial success. It seems so European (although with about half of Europe’s subtlety). One of the most famous examples of the genre is 1987’s Fatal Attraction (from erotic thriller mainstay Adrian Lyne), and while it’s not quite a great film, Glenn Close is scary as hell in it and it should make any man think twice about having an affair with a complete stranger.

Dan Gallagher (The American President‘s Michael Douglas) is a successful lawyer, married to the gorgeous Beth (Anne Archer) and has an adorable five year old daughter named Ellen. Dan and Beth are in the process of trying to find a home in the country so they don’t have to raise their daughter in the crowded New York City. One weekend, Beth and Ellen go to look at homes in the country while Dan has to stay in the city to work. There he meets the seductive Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) and the pair share a passionate weekend of love-making. But Dan’s married and loves his wife despite his infidelities, and Dan wants to break it off. But from the get-go, it’s clear that Alex isn’t that willing to let go. When things escalate from Alex ceaselessly phoning Dan’s office to Alex shifting into full blown psychopathy, Dan knows he may have to go to extremes to protect his family.

FatalAttraction2

The film came out in 1987, and the AIDS crisis was really starting to get underway, and it was scaring the hell out of everyone who was having sex on the planet (I say this shit like I was even alive in 1987. Anywho). Consequence free sex was quickly becoming a thing of the past and everyone was terrified that the next person they might have sex with was going to infect them. Perhaps I’m reading way too much into this film, but Fatal Attraction seems like a huge allegory (just with a semi-happy ending) about the paranoia and fears that were destroying the sexual liberation movement. A man has a brief fling with an intelligent and well-to-do women and then it suddenly threatens to destroy his very life. If this movie were made today, maybe I wouldn’t jump to this same conclusion, but for the time that it was released, I don’t see how you can get anything else from the film.

But even if you take away the possibility (more like reality) of the film as an AIDS parable, you’re still left with a morality play on the consequences of infidelity. As far removed from the intellectual polyamory of Woody Allen films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Manhattan as humanly possible, Fatal Attraction is a stark warning to men about sticking their dick where it may not belong. In fact, one of the most daring things the film does is that it doesn’t give Dan an obvious excuse to cheat on Beth. She’s gorgeous. Their marriage seems to be in great shape. Other than the usual marital ruts, they seem to be a picture of contentment. But Dan sees the opportunity to spice up his life and takes it. And then the film tortures him and his family for nearly two hours because of that decision. If you watched this film when it was first released and still had affairs, you were a brave, brave man.

FatalAttraction3

Let’s ignore for a second my inability to actually believe that someone would cheat on Anne Archer with Glenn Close and focus on the film’s performances. First off, Glenn Close should have an Academy Award for this movie. The fact that she lost to Cher for the unfuckingbelievably awful Moonstruck has to be one of the worst travesties in Academy Awards history. Her woman scorned ranks among the all-time great crazy women in movies. She’s up there with Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Laura Dern in Inland Empire. When she said, “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan,” I got chills. I was just thankful that her icy stare wasn’t being directed at me. I dated a girl that was bipolar. Obviously, she was much more sane than Alex, but watching Glenn Close’s performance, all I could think about was how well she captures a woman with a clear case of borderline personality disorder.

Ever since my mom made me watch Romancing the Stone as a kid, I’ve always been a big Michael Douglas fan. I don’t think he’s one of Hollywood’s greatest actors or anything, but he’s a great-looking guy (can I say that as a straight man) and he always brings sizzling sexual chemistry to whatever woman he’s paired with on-screen. His on-screen relationship with both Anne Archer and Glenn Close are no exceptions. Clearly Alex is unhinged, but Douglas makes Dan so sexual and so sensitive that you can at least understand why she’d fall for him so quickly (although not why she’d be such a crazy bitch other than the fact that she’s literally insane). Anne Archer was also great as the wife who quickly realizes that her husband may be hiding something from her and finds that she is willing to go to any length to protect him and her daughter.

FatalAttraction4

A random funny aside before I continue this review. I’m actually pretty sure that you can see Glenn Close’s nipples in just about every picture I used for this review. That girl does not believe in brassieres (at least not in this film). Back to the review, Adrian Lyne’s direction is great and he certainly earned his nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards (though he rightfully lost to Bernardo Bertolucci for The Last Emperor). When the film needs to be steamy and erotic, good lord is it. The sex scene in the loft elevator is a moment of pure genius. And when it needed to be horrifying, it really, really was. The film has the infamous “bunny” sequence and the cross-cutting among the different members of the Gallagher family as they realize what’s about to happen was brilliantly executed.

Fatal Attraction isn’t perfect. It might run a little too long. Sometimes, the banter sequences (which are meant to establish the character of the Gallagher family and their friends) seem a little stale. Maybe there should have been more signs of Alex’s instability before she tries to kill herself early in the film (though it wasn’t really a legitimate suicide attempt). Regardless, Fatal Attraction is a smart and sexy thriller. I’m not sure if I enjoy it as much as Basic Instinct (although I haven’t actually watched it in years), but it’s a movie that I can finally mark off my list of movies that I’ve been meaning to watch for years. And now I know better to sleep with strange women in New York City with a penchant for not wearing a bra.

Final Score: B+

TheUntouchables1

It’s always disappointing to return to movies that you have very fond memories of from when you’re younger that fail to live up to the high expectations memory has endowed them with. It doesn’t happen often. Usually the sheer nostalgia factor tends to overwhelm the senses and make me push aside any shortcomings I have towards a film. This is particularly true of children’s films and the reason why you could pop in any episode of any 90s cartoon and I would be lost in joy for as long as you put it on. But for a film presumably for grown-ups which I watched first as a young teenager, my mature self (and certainly more knowledgeable of good vs. bad cinema) can pick out the flaws in films I used to enjoy so completely. And although The Untouchables can be a rousing adventure story; it is just that. While trying to capture the feel of the classic crime films of yore, The Untouchables comes off like an overly romanticized (and overly directed) boys tale.

In the 1930s, Prohibition is in full-swing and bootlegging alcohol is the key to making a quick buck. And in the corrupt streets of Chicago, nobody does it better than Al Capone (Robert De Niro). A self-made millionaire, Capone was a murderous gang leader who held the illegal alcohol racket under his boots through a mix of intimidation, murder, and great press relations. After one of his thugs accidentally murders a ten year old girl as part of Capone’s racketeering schemes, federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) makes it his personal crusade to bring down the most powerful man in Chicago. And when Ness quickly discovers that Capone has most of the Chicago police department in his back pocket, he forms a small team, including wise Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), crackshot rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia), and G-Man accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), to get the job done.

TheUntouchables2

I have a litany of complaints about the film but at the end of the day, it’s still enjoyable as long as you realize that this isn’t an especially serious take on one of our nation’s most famous criminal investigations. The film’s script came from the inimitable David Mamet (Wag the Dog), and either his famous ear for dialogue was completely broken for this movie or director Brian de Palma intentionally dumbed the script down. I don’t know who to blame. But at the end of the day, the film sounds almost comically noble. Whereas White Heat or The Public Enemy succeed because their dialogue sounds realistic and gritty, The Untouchables makes Eliot Ness and his crew sound like superheroes. The only exception, of course, being Sean Connery’s Jim Malone (but more on that shortly). Certain scenes ring with the typical Mamet brilliance (a great speech from Al Capone before he murders an associate rings to mind), but the majority of the film features hilariously overblown theatrics.

And this is going to sound crazy, but Ennio Morricone’s score for the film is also downright laughable. He’s a man that is perhaps one of the top three or top five beloved scorers in the history of cinema, but the score for the film is laughably over-the-top. It was holding the audience by the hand and telling them exactly how to feel in every single scene without a hint of concern for subtlety or not being laughably obvious. Though, to be fair to Morricone, certain numbers worked very well. Although one can’t blame him for his score being over-the-top and noble in a strained sort of way when virtually everything about the film screamed of simply trying to hard.

theuntouchables3

And, boy, did Brian de Palma just over-direct the hell out of this movie. I love Fellini. I love Terence Malick. I love Akira Kurosawa. I love directors that put themselves into every frame of their films. But, you have to know what you’re doing in order to make that kind of constant visual flourish work. And, at least for this picture, Brian De Palma did not know what he was doing. And, if he did, he was clearly trying to frustrate trained viewers with almost unending, unnecessary visual quirks. One of the film’s most famous moments (and arguably the climactic shoot-out) nearly made me start laughing, not because the scene was supposed to be funny, but because De Palma was so desperately trying to channel Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin when it was totally not needed. And about half of the film consists of such over-the-top silliness.

The movie does have one absolutely perfect thing going for it, and it’s the delicious performance of Sean Connery as Jim Malone. As the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably racist, street-wise cop that helps Ness break up the whole Capone operation, Sean Connery breathes a breath of life and realism into a film that is otherwise something a bunch of wide-eyed teenage boys would tell each other around the camp fire as they recount the feats of heroism of “the Untouchables.” The way that Connery makes you forget how terrible his dialogue can be (and boy can it be bad) is a marvel. Compared to the stone-faced performance of Kevin Costner (who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly an Oscar-caliber performer), the Academy Award-winning performance from Sean Connery lights up the screen and your imagination, and if you’re anything like me, you likely spend much of the film simply wishing there was more Jim Malone.

TheUntouchables4

After so many harsh words (and so few good ones), you might think that I really hated this film. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it. As a cops & robbers movie, it’s fun. You just have to know that it isn’t a serious look into this fascinating period. It, in fact, reminds me of a conversation Jesse James and  Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James about Robert Ford’s love of the dime novels about Jesse’s exploits. This film is the 1980s version of a 1930s story. And that’s ok. For what it is, it’s a fun movie. Just don’t expect it to be anything more. Because otherwise, you’re going to be greatly disappointed. It’s just sad because you expect so much more from the pairing of David Mamet and Brian De Palma.

Final Score: B

I’m going to keep this post short because I just worked an eight hour shift at the mall. It’s my first job where I’ve been on my feet for hours at a time (not counting concerts in NYC) since May of 2011. Long time readers (and I mean long time as in people who were here when I started in February of last year) know that I used to work at a mall at an FYE. Because if I’m going to work in retail, it makes sense for me to sell music and movies (as I finish school). Well, after being away from the company for a year (having spent half of that time at a High Life Lounge as a bar tender and the other half in New York City), I’m back because I can work normal hours there that don’t interfere with my schooling (which was not the case at the graveyard shift heavy bar). My song of the day is the theme song (as performed in the first season) of the single greatest television show of all time, The Wire. Although originally recorded by Tom Waits in 1987, The Wire used a cover of the song by The Blind Boys of Alabama for the shows inaugural season (Tom Waits was used in season 2). This is my favorite version of the song and my dad just got me a book about The Wire which will obviously be consuming a lot of my time.

 

For those who haven’t seen The Wire, that introductory dialogue is from the very first scene of the show between gung-ho (but deeply flawed) Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty and a young street tough that he’s questioning about a homicide.

We have a (necessary) habit of looking past many of the traumatic moments of our childhood. We learn our lessons but our mind has the common sense to not let us dwell on the things we found most terrifying or emotionally scarring. My mind must have been especially scarred by 1987’s children cult classic, The Brave Little Toaster, because when I popped it in my DVD player today, I remembered very little of the film (which I hadn’t seen since the early years of elementary school) other than thinking that I thought it was a good movie. It is… but it’s also one of the darkest and most terrifying children’s movies this side of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. With an on-screen suicide, evil demon firefighter clowns, and countless deaths of ancillary characters, The Brave Little Toaster was a quick reminder that many of my favorite older children’s movies used to downright horrifying.

On its surface, Brave Little Toaster is just another children’s fantasy involving talking and adventurous inanimate objects, and in fact, it is now painfully obvious that a significant portion of Toy Story 3‘s plot was “borrowed” from Brave Little Toaster. However, beneath the shallow observations of a film about common household appliances going on a grand adventure to find their master is a surprisingly prescient meditation on loneliness, abandonment, and becoming obsolete. Since several future members of Pixar were involved in the film’s creation, it’s thematic maturity shouldn’t be all that shocking. I lost track of the number of times in the film that my sister and I broke out in uncontrollable “awwws” because something especially heartbreaking had just happened, and that’s not even getting into all of the pure nightmare fuel that The Brave Little Toaster is built on.

After being abandoned for ten years by their former master (who is now about to leave for college), five talking appliances in an abandoned cottage pass the day away desperately hoping for the return of their Master. Led by the moral leader of Toaster (Deanna Oliver), the group of the childlike Blanky (Timothy Day), Kirby the vacuum (Thurl Ravenscroft), Lampy (Tim Stack), and Radio (Jon Lovitz) wile away a meaningless existence in isolation, all knowing that their Master will never return but praying that he will. After discovering that the cabin is for sale and witnessing their air conditioner (Phil Hartman) intentionally kill himself, the group goes on a quest to find the Master, but crossing a dangerous forest and run-ins with a maniacal appliance shop means that their grand journey will be more dangerous than they anticipated.

I can’t emphasize enough just how scarring this film is. It’s the only children’s film I can think of where a character commits suicide (it wasn’t just the air conditioner either. One of the cars in the infamous junkyard scene intentionally drives on to the conveyor belt where he’s crushed into a cube). There’s a scene (with Phil Hartman playing another character with a spot on Peter Lorre impersonation) in an appliance shop from Hell where appliances who have been driven mad by witnessing their peers turned into scraps sing a macabre musical number full of terrifying imagery. Toaster has a nightmare with the above demon clown firefighter that morphs into a smoke monster that whisks his Master away. The junkyard scene has cars who are being compacted sing about how pathetic and worthless their lives have become. The Brave Little Toaster is probably much more emotional and disturbing for the adults who actually grasp what is happening. The children will most likely just be scared by the more frightening images.

There were two (semi) big names in the voice cast, and unsurprisingly, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman stole the show. Jon Lovitz’s Radio provided the film with many of its best comic moments, and his rendition of old 50s/60s style radio broadcasters was great (and the writing peppered his rapid yammering with enough pop-culture in-jokes to please the grown-ups in the audience including an especially clever North by Norhtwest reference). However, it was Phil Hartman in his two roles that was the most impressive. Who knew that Phil Hartman was such a great impressionist (well I’m guessing anyone who watched Saturday Night Live in the late 80s and early 90s). The air conditioner was an obvious Jack Nicholson impersonation and the hanging crazy lamp was an obvious Peter Lorre (Casablanca). For the older people watching the film, it was a good nod to the adults watching it with their kids (or grown-up now and watching it for nostalgia’s sake).

I’m always shocked to find just how well many of the children’s films from my youth have aged or at least the animated films. I don’t know what happened at Disney after the mid-90s but their game really went downhill (though Disney only produced this film. They didn’t actually make it) over the last 15 years or so. If you’re thinking about showing The Brave Little Toaster to your kids, they’ll survive it. All of us who grew up in the 80s and early 90s did. Just be prepared that they may not be able to sleep for the next couple of days afterwards. Although don’t be surprised if you find yourself to be more affected by the movie than your children. Much like Toy Story 3 which was all about growing up and moving past the so-called golden years of your youth, the themes of abandonment and loneliness will be much more important to the grown-ups watching the film.

Final Score: B+

It’s been a while since I’ve felt the need to do this so let me explain how I select the movies that I review for this blog before I get some weird looks about this current selection. I put every film nominated for certain categories at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Independent Spirit Awards (as well as every movie on the NY Times 1000 Greatest Movies list plus movies I chose), and I put them in a giant Excel spreadsheet. I randomize it, and that’s the order I watch the movies in until I have to randomize it again a year later when a new crop of movies get nominated for industry awards. Just by this year’s incredibly weak field of Best Picture nominees, you know this can cause problems, and that’s without even getting into things like the Golden Globes which have a separate acting category for comedies/musicals. That’s a pretty notorious place for sending really awful films to this blog (there are several Sandra Bullock films I’ll have to sit through later on thanks to that shit). So, obviously the 1987 “chick flick” Dirty Dancing doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would voluntarily watch since my favorite directors are Malick, Lynch, Tarantino, and Fellini. It’s not the sort of intellectual material I crave. Yet, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were both nominated for Academy Awards, and as far as chick flicks go, this is one of the most famous. So, I sat through, and it wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it was going to be. It was actually semi-enjoyable (thanks to the wonderful soundtrack and dancing) until the very end when it ratcheted the melodrama and ham-fisted storytelling up to absurd levels.

I feel sexist saying this but I’m basically writing this review primarily for middle-aged and pre-teen women (as well as gay men of all ages because if you’re attracted to men, how could you turn down Patrick Swayze in his prime with his shirt off for most of the film?) so there’s honestly a 95% chance you’ve already seen this film. So what’s the point of describing the plot? In the 1960s, the wealthy Houseman family goes to the Kellerman Hotel and Resort in the Catskills for vacation. Centered on the point of view of the young Frances “Baby” Houseman (Ferris Bueller‘s Jennifer Grey) who is spending her last summer before going off to college to study economics of underdeveloped countries, Dirty Dancing is a not entirely subtle take on the sexual development of a young woman on the verge of adulthood. Bored with the bourgeois life she has to live with her well-to-do but boring and stuck up family, Baby strikes up a friendship with the staff of the resort, especially the sensitive dance instructor Johnny (Ghost‘s Patrick Swayze). When one of the other dance instructors gets knocked up and needs an abortion, Baby takes up the reins of Johnny’s new dance partner, and while romantic yearnings begin to bloom between the two, the class system each was born into threatens to tear them apart.

Hoo boy! Patrick Swayze could not act. He can dance. He was a classically trained ballet dancer, and it’s obvious that he’s having to tone down his natural dancing gift to allow the less agile Jennifer Grey to keep up with him. I could watch the dancing in this film all day. It was wonderful. I’m weird like that. However, whenever Patrick Swayze actually had to speak and not just get all of the women in the audience hot under the collar, it was a disaster to watch him. His emotions were as wooden as his washboard abs (I feel like that’s probably a semi-gay thing to say but damn. Dude was in shape.). When he was trying to be dramatic, he was more likely to just make me laugh accidentally. Jennifer Grey was better but most likely only in comparison to Patrick Swayze. She vaguely resembled a young Barbara Streisand which was likely part of why I found myself so attracted to her. She was a decent dancer in her own right although obviously not nearly in the same league as Patrick Swayze. I was never able to buy the romantic chemistry between the two in this film though. There’s a good reason for that though. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze absolutely loathed each other while they were shooting this film. Which was why there was just about zero heat between them sexually even though their romance is the crux of the whole film.

Like I said, I actually found a healthy portion of the film enjoyable til it decided to jump off the cliff in the final act. The visual imagery where dancing was meant to equate with intimacy, foreplay, and ultimately sex well was well-implemented, and there’s a brilliant match cut where (spoiler alert) a particularly sexual dance move with Baby and Johnny segues into their actual first sexual experience. Although I couldn’t buy the wooden romantic acting (and the less than convincing script trying to sell their romance), the dancing scenes were the closest the film came to a sort of raw and pure sexuality and in that regard, it succeeded. Similarly, while the class snobbery themes weren’t particularly subtle, it did add some substance to what would have otherwise been a pure chick flick fluff piece. Plus, Baby was actually a fairly sympathetic and likeable main character so that even though I knew the story was relatively simple and well-trod, she was so relatable that I was able to ignore the critical side of my brain. Then the film’s final act entered into the picture, and all of the sexual and class themes that the film was doing such a passable job of projecting visually devolved into amteurishly written speeches. The dialogue of this film is not a selling point, and when you don’t actually have to listen to anyone talk, it works. People talk way too much in the film’s final twenty minutes and it just insults the intelligence of the viewers because of how clearly it spells everything out (not to mention the absurdly neatly wrapped up ending which robbed the film of any attempts at actual gravitas).

Of course, perhaps the fact that I have a penis (and am not attracted to men) simply means I’m ill-equipped to review Dirty Dancing. I’ve never been a teenage girl in love and having to stare at the established (among women anyways) sexiness that was primo-Patrick Swayze. Even with my problems against this film, I still enjoyed parts of it. I thought it was going to be much, much worse. So, if you’re part of this film’s demographic (a woman) and haven’t seen this yet, I can definitely recommend it to you. I mean, for all serious movie fans, you can probably pass it up unless you consider its cultural legacy as enough of a reason to watch it. I wouldn’t mind watching it again at some point just to learn Patrick Swayze’s dance moves. If I could dance like that (and had his muscle tone), I probably wouldn’t have any trouble meeting women. I’d have to pass on the mullet though. It wasn’t even cool when he tried to rock it.

Final Score: C+

Out of the over 200 films I’ve reviewed for this blog in the last year, there have been a handful of films that I would immediately describe more as visual poetry/tone poems than as conventionally structured cinema. Stroszek (one of the only films whose score I want to retroactively increase because my respect/appreciation for it has grown infinitely since I first viewed it), La Strada, and The Tree of Life made the conscious decision to forsake complex narrative for unyielding emotion and mood. Imagery and atmosphere took precedence over plot and for that, they’ve always stood out. When I’m watching a film like that, I get the same kind of intellectual engagement that I associate more with reading a book than with watching a movie. It’s ironic since films like this emphasize the visual aspect of cinema (particularly in the way that images can create emotional reactions) but they stimulate my mind more than the wordiest “Award-bait” dramas. Directors like Herzog, Fellini, and Malick realize that form can follow function and the power you can wrest away from the visual story. I love what a new friend of mine called “verbal volleyball” films but sometimes you just need to have your mind and heart overwhelmed with a visually arresting experiencing and 1987’s Wings of Desire from German director Wim Wenders is sure to sate that yearning.

In Cold War Berlin, two immortal angels, Damiel (Downfall’s Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), invisibly observe the comings-and-goings of the world. With a mission to study and testify to the human experience, they float around the city hearing the thoughts of the citizens and providing unknown spiritual comfort to those in need. Both angels joke about discovering what it would be like to cease their eternal existence and take on the mantle of personhood to experience the ups and downs of human life. They long to see color, to be able to touch the world around them, to experience the wonders of life when time finally has meaning. When Damiel’s wanderings draw him to a circus on the eve of its final performance, he espies a young trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and instantly falls in love with her. Deciding to renounce his immortality once and for all, Damiel becomes a person and experiences the beauty in life that so many of us take for granted while Cassiel is forced to remain an observer of the tragedies of mankind.

When told through the point of view of the angels, the film is shot in such a rich and striking black-and-white that you’d think you stumbled across a long-lost classic from the black and white era. It is only the moments when the film is told through humanity’s point of view that the world is jolted back into color (and the color palette is heavily saturated). Perhaps its because of the wonderful Blu-Ray transfer, but the shadows and contrast in the black and white scenes are among the most sharp and crisp I’ve ever seen. The cinematographer, Henri Alekan, was making films in the early days of Jean Cocteau, and in its Fellini-esque magic, the visual deluge of the film enveloped me in a way that no film has since I watched The Tree of Life. The film has its share of extended scenes (which provide the emotional glue holding the film together) but the heart of the physical disconnect and urban loneliness that the film spends so much time meditating on arises in the loosely connected and disjointed moments where Damiel and Cassiel flitter through the town helping to bear the burden of other’s suffering and in the film’s minimalist script, the beautifully shot scenes surrounding these moments raises the film to a masterwork of cinematic art.

Two months ago, I made it through two-thirds of Bruno Ganz’s historical drama Downfall (covering the last days of Hitler’s life) before I decided to take a nap and I never finished it. His performance as Hitler was one of the most ferocious and ultimately brave (by both humanizing Hitler while still showing how monstrous he could be) performances of any film that’s name isn’t There Will Be Blood. For what I hope are obvious reasons, Damiel is a much more subtle and low-key role than the Fuhrer, yet somehow Ganz manages to make this one nearly as interesting (if not as incendiary). Damiel has very little in the way of lines despite being the main character. In fact, most of his lines are voiced-over inner monologues. Yet, with an expressive face (that forces me to make another Fellini comparison) that seems right out of Fellini Satyricon, his performance moved me to complete heartbreak for a longing for that childlike sense of innocence and wonder. Otto Sander had the even more difficult task as the more taciturn and reserved Cassiel, but in a scene where he fails to prevent a man’s suicide, he tore my heart out with his anguish. Peter Falk also managed to be a scene-stealer essentially playing a fictionalized version of himself (in some really weird meta-commentary that I didn’t really understand).

It’s at moments like these where I truly wish I had a partner for this great experiment in examining the history of cinema. While I would never wish having to sit through garbage like War Horse on another living being, movies that ask such grand questions and paint such a poetic picture practically demand someone else to discuss them with. I have ideas on the themes of this film but as someone who’s read too much Nietzsche, I know my interpretations of something this ambiguous may ultimately only be a reflection of my personality. The film is at times an ode to the transitory. It’s a celebration of life and all its wonders even in its most tragic. These angels aren’t solely guardian angels. As said by Cassiel, their duty is to testify to the history of life (and even what predated life). They are the eternal observers of the human condition. So, in some ways, the film also acts as a commentary of the way we interact with what we observe and the voyeurism of the visual arts (i.e. the film you’re watching). It explores the ripple of memory and the desire to latch onto the past when life is meant to be lived in the now. It’s power is undeniable and I honestly at this point just want a fresh commentary on the film besides my own so if you’ve seen it feel free to leave comments in the comment section below.

I would argue that the only barriers to entry for this film are for those with no patience for foreign films and for those who don’t like more “art-house” cinema (though I would argue that despite its stylistic presentation, Wings of Desire is very accessible as compared to say a David Lynch film). Other than those types of people (who are automatically qualified from being real movie fans in my book), I highly recommend that all of my readers give Wings of Desire a go. It’s a haunting and meditative film whose message has both inspired and moved me. It’s also one of those films that I know I’m going to still be chewing on in the weeks to come. It can be a little slow (when I discovered that I had only been watching the film for an hour and not two like I thought, I was incredibly shocked), but it’s poetic value can’t be diminished even by pacing that may scare off the average movie-goer. As a cynic, you occasionally grow to be distrustful of things that are truly beautiful, but the way that Wings of Desire mixes up melancholy, beauty, innocence, and unbridled joy make it a must-watch film.

Final Score: A

 

Any film designed specifically to appeal to one ethnic group or another runs the risk of encountering two major problems. It is either so full of obscure and esoteric ethnic detail that it locks out non-members of the ethnic community from fully enjoying or appreciating the film (A Serious Man, although one of the more positive examples of this problem) or it is so full of stereotype and cliche representations of the ethnicity meant to enjoy the film that it instead ends up insulting its target audience (Tyler Perry’s entire ouevre). This problem can be avoided through real and honest presentations of the character while maintaining a level of detail and setting that doesn’t overwhelm outside audiences, but it’s simply a trap that many “ethnic” American films fall prey to. From the opening chords of Dean Martin crooning “Amore”, the multiple Oscar-winning Moonstruck falls into the cliched stereotypes territory and not even a surprisingly nuanced performance from Olympia Dukakis (Oscar winner for this film) could save this film from awkward acting and a forced, uneventful script that failed to produce even the slightest chuckle until its legitimately entertaining final moments.

Directed by Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) with an Oscar-winning script by John Patrick Shanley, Moonstruck is the tale of a love-lorn Brooklyn widow, Loretta Casterini (Cher in an Oscar-winning performance) who has decided to marry Johnny Cammarerri (Danny Aiello), a nice enough fellow that she doesn’t love but knows will take care of her. Johnny leaves for Sicily to care for his dying mother and wishes for Loretta to contact his brother who he hasn’t spoken to in years and invite him to the wedding. The brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage in his breakout role), is one-armed baker who lost his hand and ultimately his fiancee in an accident and blames Johnny for everything. Ronny and Loretta fall in love at first sight and have an amorous one night stand, and Loretta has to choose between the more unstable but passionate Ronny or her true fiancee, Johnny, knowing that either choice will tear this family even further apart. Olympia Dukakis rounds out the main cast as Loretta’s mother who must live through the infidelity and distance of her cold and unloving husband.

Olympia Dukakis’s role as Loreta’s mother was the only aspect of the film that didn’t appear to come straight out of some offensive list of Italian-American stereotypes. Combining a volatile mixture of quiet intensity and intelligence with a vulnerability as an ignored wife, Dukakis nailed all of the traits and mannerisms of the only realistically written character in the entire film. Her scenes with John Mahoney where he plays a rakish college professor are among the film’s finest. Cher’s character and performance simply never take off the ground. The film gives her romance with Nic Cage no development and we are simply supposed to believe that she is deeply in love with this man who is an ethnic amalgam of anger, tragedy, and opera. Cage and Cher had little to no on-screen chemistry and their romance was beyond difficult to believe. Nic Cage gives one of the most memorable performances of cinematic history in Leaving Las Vegas, but his early role her as Ronny can only be described as a train-wreck of epic proportions as his thick and fake Brooklyn accent alongside his ridiculously over the top delivery just cemented every second he was on screen as being nearly unwatchable.

For a film that is ostensibly designed as a comedy, the laughs nearly never arrive in the film. A lot of the humor is meant to arise through the awkwardness and insanity of the situations that Loretta finds herself in, but it only served to reinforce the terribly unrealistic and poorly written nature of the situational humor. The dialogue itself does little to add to the overall film experience and if one more character had started yammering off in Italian for no apparent reason, one would have been forgiven for thinking you had found yourself in the Bada Bing on The Sopranos (although a really poorly written episode). These characters seemed to be so defined by their Italian American heritage that the film rarely gave them an opportunity to develop past staid stereotypes. Ronny could have had the opportunity to be an interesting and expectation subverting love interest if his uncharacteristic love of opera (as a blue collar baker) had been given a chance to grow rather than simply being used for a chance to doll both him and Cher up for the scene at the opera.

This film has a reputation as a classic and is still one of the most loved romantic comedies to come out of the 1980’s, but on a look from the perspective of where the genre has gone over the last twenty years, the film simply comes off as stale and conventional. Olympia Dukakis is a delight and so is John Mahoney (although it’s a small role), but other than that, virtually no other aspect of the film stands out as a delight or even good for that matter. Poor writing, poor acting, and a generally tepid pace keep this film from ever getting off the floor. For fans of Cher, it’s interesting to see the film where she finally won her Academy Award but Mermaids was arguably a more challenging and interesting role, although neither film was particularly good. At the end of the day, the only way that I can recommend this film is to fans of its principal cast or for those who like this type of romantic comedy which simply doesn’t work for me on either an emotional or intellectual level.

Final Score: C-