REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘request’

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

In Comedy, Horror, Motion Pictures, Musical, R, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSusan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, “Little Nell” Campbell, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray, Peter Hinwood

DIRECTOR – Jim Sharman

MPAA Rating: R
(UK Version Not Rated)

A funny thing happened on September 26, 1975. A movie based on the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” opened in theatres nationwide. It tanked. But an even funnier thing happened a few months later. Those same movie theatres, who were obligated to keep prints of this musical disaster for a certain amount of time, relegated it to screenings at Midnight on the weekends. Over the next 15 years or so, The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved into a cult phenomenon unlike anything else in cinematic history. In its heyday, millions of people the world over dressed in costumes, performed the movie in front of the screen in real time, talked back to characters, and threw items at the screen on cue. In essence, this was interactive cinema in its truest form, and (to my knowledge) the first known wide-spread case of it. I went to exactly one screening with a roommate in 1985; it was the singularly most bizarre experience of my life, and one of the most fun as well. On this occasion, with the movie’s 35th Anniversary upon us, I have decided to try to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Normally, this is where I set up the plot for the movies that I see, but the plot to Rocky Horror is so incomprehensible, I can only try, so here goes: Love birds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) have just left a friend’s wedding. On their way out of town, they get caught in a storm and find they have taken the wrong road. But when they try to turn around, the car gets a flat tire and (wouldn’t you know it?) the spare is no good. So, our intrepid vagabonds walk back up the road  to a castle they’d seen earlier, so they could borrow their phone. When they get there, they are greeted by a strange-looking handyman named Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) and his master, one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). From there, it gets… weird. The plot (such as it is) moves forward, courtesy of a Criminologist, aka “No-Neck” (Charles Gray), who tells the audience of Brad and Janet’s ordeal at Frank-N-Furter Castle as the movie plays out.

Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) meet Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)

This is one of those movies that, by itself, is confusing and convoluted. Riddled with so much camp and cheesiness, it is amazing to note that this movie was the launchpad for the careers Susan Sarandon, Brian Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf. Full of overt pansexual imagery, Rocky Horror is not for the uninitiated. It may not be Mary Poppins, but what makes this movie special is the audience participation. The DVD has two versions of the movie, US and UK (The UK version has one extra song). I strongly recommend that if you decide to screen this movie, you do so during a party, because the overall experience will play out better if the crowd is into it.

The special features of the DVD have the customary audio commentary, but there is also an audio track (which plays in the rear surround speakers) of an audience shouting out at the movie. It’s a bit chaotic, but entertaining nonetheless. Another feature that got my attention is the Multi-view feature; when activated, a set of lips will appear on screen, prompting you to see theatre audience members perform that scene live. Finally, there is the “Audience Participation” feature, which cues the audience to do something during the movie. For this, I recommend you lay down a sheet of plastic, or at least have a non-carpeted surface, for easy clean-up. Here are the items you’ll need to take part (Just be careful not to damage the video equipment):

  • Rice
  • Water pistols
  • Newspapers
  • Candles/Cigarette lighters
  • Party hats
  • Noise makers
  • Household cleaning gloves
  • Confetti
  • Toilet paper
  • Toast
  • Frankfurters

The Rocky Horror Picture Show essentially posits the question “What if Dr. Frankenstein was an alien drag queen who was trying to create a boy-toy of his own?” Oh, there are a few hints of “Frankenstein” here, including the requisite castle and thunderstorm, the fact that Rocky Horror, aka The Creation (Peter Hinwood), is afraid of fire, Riff-Raff has Igor’s hunched back, and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) appears in a Bride-of-Frankenstein wig in one scene. But where it is different from the Mary Shelley classic is… well, everywhere else! So, the next time you invite 20 of your closest friends to your home (At least that many, or it just won’t work), break this ol’ chestnut out and make it a real party!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

(Group Screening)

(Alone)

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DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

In Comedy, D, Independent, Motion Pictures on June 17, 2010 at 1:53 am

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STUDIO – Universal/Gramercy 

CAST – Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Shawn Andrews, Michelle Burke, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Christin Hinojosa, Sasha Jenson, Milla Jovovich, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Anthony Rapp, Marisa Ribisi, Wiley Wiggins 

DIRECTOR – Richard Linklater 

MPAA Rating: R 

Every so often, a movie comes along and takes a nostalgic look at the innocent days of youth from years long past. Arguably, the greatest example of this is George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In 1993, writer/director Richard Linklater tweaked the Graffiti formula, relocated it to Austin, Texas, set it in 1976, added lots of beer and grass, and gave us Dazed and Confused

The movie takes place over the course of 24 hours, starting on May 28, 1976. But this isn’t just any day picked at random; it is the last day of school for students in Austin, Texas. At Lee High School, the outgoing juniors are preparing to wreak havoc on the new crop of freshmen. For the girls, it’s a series of humiliating, yet relatively harmless, stunts, including being covered in ketchup, mustard, and oatmeal. then cleaning off at a car wash. But for the boys, it’s being hunted down like prey by gangs of upper-classmen and getting swatted with custom-made paddles. One of the new seniors, star quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) seems less interested in the hazing than he is in the so-called “team pledge” he feels he is forced to sign so he can play football next season. Meanwhile, one of the freshmen, Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), starts to blend in with the upper-classmen after getting “busted” earlier in the day. But everyone is geared up for the event of the year: an end-of-school-year blowout at Kevin Pickford’s (Shawn Andrews) house. But the beer arrived early, his parents cancelled their trip, and the party got nixed before it even started. Bummer! Enter David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), an old-school party animal who quickly rustles up the gang for an impromptu gathering at the Moon Tower. Before long, everyone is drinking beer, smoking pot, and making out at the party. 

Dawson, Wooderson, Pink, and Mitch (Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, Wiley Wiggins) hang out at the Emporium

 It goes without saying that Dazed and Confused is a very loose movie. Basically, the plot has at least five different story lines. First, “Pink” Floyd doesn’t want to sign a written pledge made out by his coach to stay off drugs, though his teammates want him to. Next is a small group of freshmen trying to evade getting “busted” by the seniors (with mixed results). Then there are the three intellectuals (Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Sabrina Ribisi), who try to fit in, even though they can’t stand anyone else but each other. There is the two-time senior – and major jerk – Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) who gets his comeuppance, masterminded by freshman Mitch Kramer. And, of course, there is the aforementioned party that got busted and relocated. 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this move, so much that it took two screenings to get it all. I had seen this movie before several years ago, and quite frankly, I didn’t get it. After watching again, there are some things I now understand, and others that make me think “My God, were things really that anarchistic in the ’70s?” Behaviors exhibited in this movie clearly demonstrated how lax things were back then. Public hazing, pot smoking, underage beer consumption, and an apparent lack of curfew were among the many things that were not only not enforced, but in some cases even encouraged (as evidenced by one junior-high teacher who smiled when the seniors came over to announce their intentions). I wonder how today’s kids would view this movie. Would they inspired into some kind of radical behavior, or would they look at their parents (and even grandparents!) in awe at imagining them doing even some of the things seen here? Given that the school year is wrapping up here in Southern California, and that my car got egged while I was working this evening, I’m more inclined toward the latter. Egging a car? Not very original… 

Upon viewing this movie, I started drawing comparisons to my own high school experiences. No one got paddled my freshman year. The preferred method of hazing was called “trash-canning” (I got it twice; the second time, they tied my laces together). Drugs were pretty pervasive my first two years in high school; there was a spot near the girls’ locker room known as “the field”, where hundreds of students would get stoned during recess. The seniors in my freshman year were quite rowdy, too; the Senior Class President was actually forced to resign when he was busted for shellacking Playboy centerfolds onto the school’s lunch tables! Mind you, this was the late-70s and early-80s, not 1976, but there are some similarties, nonetheless. 

Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s personal American Graffiti. Some would argue the movie is semi-autobiographical. Several residents in Austin, Texas, tried to file a defamation lawsuit against Linklater and Universal Studios because some of the characters had names similar to theirs, but the statute of limitations had passed. Still, Dazed and Confused launched the careers of some of today’s more popular Hollywood stars (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey), and it is an amusing and nostalgic look back to a time when our whole lives were ahead of us, even if momentary terror made it appear otherwise. 

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, M, Motion Pictures, War on June 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CASTHenry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond

DIRECTORSJohn Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.

Doc (William Powell) and Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) make a bottle of "Red Label" for Ensign Pulver

Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.

My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!

A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.

It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.

The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.

Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.

“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”

YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998)

In Comedy, Motion Pictures, Romance, Uncategorized, Y on May 16, 2010 at 7:17 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Jean Stapleton, Dave Chappelle, Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, Dabney Coleman

DIRECTOR — Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG

Dear Friend–

So far, it has been an intriguing month of viewing and reviewing movies, including three of them with the same premise. I’m not sure how to put this, but having that sense of déjà vu while watching a movie is so unsettling, yet so entertaining at the same time. So, how should I approach this review? I’m sure I’ll figure something out…

Welcome to the conclusion of this three-part review, in which I have taken a journey spanning nearly 60 years, to look at three different movies based on the same story. I began with Jimmy Stewart’s The Shop Around the Corner, followed by the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime. Now, we have reached the end of our journey, with You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, only this time they aren’t co-workers; they are business rivals.

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) tells Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) what he thinks of her "inconsequential" book store

Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, heir apparent to the monolithic Fox & Sons Books store chain. Meg Ryan is Kathleen Kelly, owner/proprietor of a children’s book store called The Shop Around the Corner (a nod to the original movie). Kathleen’s book store was started up by her mother, and it was a fixture in Manhattan for 42 years. When Fox Books moves in to open a store (literally) just around the corner, she is initially confident that her little store will continue (though we can all tell she is in denial). One day, a gentleman with two small children enter her store (the kids wanted to see the Storybook Lady) and he strikes up a conversation with Kathleen, introducing himself simply as “Joe”. Later, at a party, they bump into each either again, only this time she finds out second-hand that “Joe” is really Joe Fox of Fox Books. Let the battle begin!

Now, the funny thing is that both Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly have significants other (Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear, respectively) whose behaviors and habits are infuriating: Joe tells his friend Kevin (Dave Chapelle) that Patricia (Posey) “makes coffee nervous”, while Kathleen thinks Frank’s (Kinnear) fascination with typewriters borders on obsession. But, they both also have been secretly exchanging e-mails with someone they met online, and they both find themselves becoming more and more fascinated with their respective anonymous friend. But there is a catch: Joe and Kathleen’s online friends are each other.

You’ve Got Mail is the second movie starring Hanks and Ryan that was directed by Nora Ephron (and their third, overall). On the up side, Hanks and Ryan work well together. Even at the peak of their conflict, you can still see the two characters ending up together. Meanwhile, the themes of large corporations squeezing out local businesses and of meeting someone online were very real concepts in the late 1990s. I used to live in a town which had numerous busy shops downtown, selling everything from CDs and TVs, to rugs and vacuums. When a “big-box” store (I won’t say which) decided to move into a new (and much larger) location in town, many of the stores downtown (and even in the local mall) were forced to close their doors because they couldn’t compete with the low prices the “big-box” store had. Meanwhile the Internet was still somewhat a novelty during this time, and chat rooms, bulletin boards, and discussion forums were popping up everywhere. Suddenly, a man in Columbus, Georgia, could strike up a conversation with a woman in Hilo, Hawaii, without the expense of travel or long-distance phone calls. At the time You’ve Got Mail was released, these were contemporary concepts.

But times change. Today, with the economic slide of the past few years, small business has been making a comeback, and large companies have been pink-slipping their collective workforce. Meanwhile, the Internet has changed, too. America Online (from whom the title of this movie was inspired) is no longer an Internet service provider; it is now an Internet portal, free to everyone. And there are other avenues available today. With text messaging, instant messaging, Internet access on phones and other portable devices, and dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com, it is now unlikely you will “meet” someone online without ever knowing what they look like until you meet them face-to-face.

You’ve Got Mail feels like The Shop Around the Corner meets Sleepless in Seattle. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does share several elements with the Sleepless formula. It stars Hanks and Ryan, it’s directed (and co-written) by Ephron, and it’s about people fascinated with someone they’ve never met. And in both movies, Meg Ryan’s character has a boyfriend with whom she breaks up amicably (Here, Kinnear assumes the reins of Bill Pullman’s role from Sleepless).

Now, it’s time to give you a really great piece of trivia: All three of the movies in this series of reviews has a connection to The Wizard of Oz. The store owner in The Shop Around the Corner was played by Frank Morgan (The Wonderful Wizard himself), In the Good Old Summertime starred Judy Garland (duh!), and the final scene of You’ve Got Mail featured the song “Over the Rainbow”. Ah, the things you pick up while working on this ongoing project…

I saw this movie while on a date in early 1999, during its initial release. While it played a small part in what would develop into one of the better relationships I have forged in my life, I look back on it today with a fresh pair of eyes, and some of the luster seems to have worn off to me. Don’t misunderstand me. I still feel it is an entertaining movie, but just over a decade later, it already feels a bit dated. The charm of Hanks and Ryan does manage to rise above that, but I would prefer either Sleepless in Seattle or the original (The Shop Around the Corner) instead.

THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977)

In Comedy, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 9, 2010 at 1:04 am

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings, Paul Benedict

DIRECTOR — Herbert Ross

MPAA Rating: PG

In the history of motion pictures, there are a few select years in which the Academy got them all right, and it’s almost a sure thing that you have seen at least one Best Picture nominee from that year. The usually-mentioned first “great year” was 1939, when Gone with the Wind took Best Picture. There were nine other nominees that year, including Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, and a little-known fantasy called The Wizard of Oz (perhaps you’ve heard of it). 1977 is said to be another such year, with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall taking the honors, while another small film called Star Wars waited in the wings. Here is an interesting fact: Director Herbert Ross helmed two of the five Best Picture nominees in 1977, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl. And, like Star Wars, they also watched while Woody Allen won. I have seen both of these movies, and both are excellent. One is a drama, the other a comedy, and both are about dancers. Today, I focus on the lighter of these two movies.

Paula McFadden (Best Actress nominee Marsha Mason) is an ex-dancer in New York City. For the last couple of years, she and her daughter Lucy (Best Supporting Actress nominee Quinn Cummings, in her official motion picture debut), have been living in an apartment with a stage actor named Tony. We first meet Paula and Lucy on their way home from a shopping spree, eagerly anticipating their upcoming move to L.A. (Tony got a TV gig). But when they get home, Paula finds a “Dear Jane” letter from him, saying he took a six-month movie shoot in Italy instead. But it gets better! Later that day, she finds out Tony had sublet the apartment to somebody else!

Paula (Marsha Mason) and Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) discuss the living arrangements

Enter Elliot Garfield (Best Actor Richard Dreyfuss), an actor from Chicago who is about to start rehearsals for his first New York production. He enters the apartment building from the pouring rain, sticks his key into the lock, turns it… and discovers the door is chained from the inside! Puzzled as to why he can’t enter, he hits the buzzer to figure out what’s going on. To say this relationship starts on a rocky note is an understatement, but seeing that he has the legal right (and the money) and she has a child to take care of, they agree to share the apartment.

This is why I like Neil Simon. I have regarded him as one of the greatest American playwrights. He is to contemporary comedy what Tennessee Williams was to Southern melodrama. There is really no other way to put it. Now, most movies with Simon’s name on them start out as plays, like The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park. But The Goodbye Girl was written directly for the screen, and with Simon’s (then) wife, Marsha Mason, in mind. But it still looks and feels like a Neil Simon play. One of his trademarks is how he writes conflict into his scripts: Two characters (usually the leads) start yammering about two completely different things, then the conversation comes closer and closer to the subject at hand until they are both talking about the same thing, only to drift off into opposite directions again (I picked that little gem of information up from my high school drama teacher, Susan Stauter. See? It is possible to recall things you learned in high school! Wherever you are, Ms. Stauter, I hope you are well).

Anyway, The Goodbye Girl stands out as one of the great romantic comedies of the 1970s, and arguably of all time. Both Dreyfuss and Mason are a delight to watch, especially when they first meet! On that first night, you will be thinking “Wait a minute! These people hate each other!” And they do. Just watch it for yourself, and see what happens. Both Dreyfuss and Mason give energetic performances. And, since a performance is sometimes based on the quality of the script, it stands to reason that the screenplay is also top-notch.

As for Quinn Cummings, who makes her official debut in this movie (she also had an uncredited role in Annie Hall that year), her portrayal of Lucy was spot-on. Lucy is our eyes and ears in this movie. Let me explain. Good drama requires two basic types of people, participants and observers. Paula and Elliot are obviously participating in a developing relationship. Lucy is on the outside. She is watching these events unfold as an independent third party, making her the observer. And before you say “But she is her mother’s child”, remember that Lucy is not the one directly dealing with Elliot, Paula is. Therefore, as an observer, she get to be our eyes and ears, as we watch Paula and Elliot’s relationship develop. As for the character herself, Lucy is supposed to be at just that right age when she is learning and discovering how things really work in this world. As a result, Lucy is supposed to possess a special curiosity and innocent wisdom, as evidenced during the opening credits, when Paula tells Lucy she was “born [at age] 26”. As played by young Miss Cummings, Lucy comes off as a child with that kind of precociousness.

I will be the first to admit that The Goodbye Girl isn’t my personal favorite of Neil Simon’s work (That honor goes to The Odd Couple), but it is among the best that Neil Simon has to offer. A note to all you guys out there: This is a great movie to pop into the DVD player with your other half on a rainy night, just you, her, the movie, and a giant bowl of popcorn. Trust me. If she hasn’t seen this one, she’ll be glad you introduced her to it. It was great to watch 30 years ago, and I can still watch it today. And even now, it will still make me smile.

4 out of 5

THE STING (1973)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Motion Pictures, S on April 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

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STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Robert Earl Jones, Dana Elcar, Dimitra Arliss

DIRECTOR — George Roy Hill

MPAA Rating: PG

Back in 1974, I went to the Universal Studios Tour (now known as Universal Studios Hollywood), and I took from that experience a few memories that have stuck with me ever since: lifting a van like the Six Million Dollar Man (Hey, I was 9!), the street scene backlot dressed up for shooting Earthquake (which really was the most powerful memory I have of that visit), and watching audience members reenact a chase scene from The Sting. At least, I think it was The Sting. Ah, memories…

Anyway, this 1973 Best Picture Winner marked the second and final collaboration of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill (1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first). It is a movie with crime, gambling, corruption, murder, revenge, the Great Depression… and it delivers plenty of laughs in the process. When a pair of Chicago grifters, Johnny Hooker (Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones) pull a fast one on a money runner for a gambling operation, they discover they have stolen about $11,000 in cash. That night, Coleman tells Hooker he’s hanging it up, moving to Kansas City, and going legit. He instructs Hooker to look up a legendary con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). Later, when Hooker gets roughed up by a cop named Snyder (Charles Durning), he realizes his friend is in danger. He races back to Luther’s place, only to find his dead body on the street below. The next day, he meets up with Gondorff at a local merry-go-round/brothel, and they hatch a plan to pull a con on the man who had Luther killed, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker (Paul Newman, Robert Redford) observe their "mark", Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, background)

Now, this is a movie in which the bad guys are really good guys, the cops are very corrupt, and the “mark” is a tough brute of a man whose look could kill if it wanted to. The con is on, and it’s performed admirably in what is probably the best caper film ever made. The plot moves forward with very few bumps along the way. There are even a couple of twists which, while I won’t reveal them, will surprise those who haven’t seen this movie yet. George Roy Hill seemed to demonstrate a certain efficient energy that sustains throughout. Newman and Redford are great (It’s a shame they made only two movies together), and the entire supporting cast, from Harold Gould as the dapper Kid Twist, to Dana Elcar as FBI Special Agent Polk, are all an excellent fit. This is arguably one of the best-cast movies in motion picture history. But the coup de grâce is casting Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan.

I can remember Shaw in only two movies, Jaws (1975) and this one. I know, he did a lot more, and I am sure I will find him in future films I see. In Jaws, he was, of course, the crusty shark hunter who had met his demise by becoming his prey’s lunch. I had a hard time watching him in that movie, simply because he seemed to drone almost unintelligibly. It was nonetheless a good performance, but not nearly as good as the steely-eyed Lonnegan in The Sting. Here, he was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it meant something. He was tough-as-nails, with the resolve of an attack dog just waiting for the command to kill. By the way, you may notice that Lonnegan walks with a limp in this movie; that is because Robert Shaw had sprained his ankle playing handball right around the time shooting started!

Now, a word about the the now-iconic music of this movie. Composer Marvin Hamlisch decided to  incorporate several Scott Joplin rags into the musical score. While it is admittedly anachronistic with the period of the movie (by about 30 years), it turns out to be one of the few examples of musical genius in motion picture history. Joplin’s music sets the rhythm and tone of the plot so well, that “The Entertainer” is now forever engrained into the motion picture lexicon as the theme song to The Sting. Even as I write this article, I have that song playing in the background, and it just… feels right.

Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, I could even go so far as to say that The Sting makes for a good family film, if the kids are over 10 years old. Yes, there are hookers, gambling, guns, and a couple of dead bodies, but they are balanced with (mostly) clean language, marvelous attention to detail, and a great sense of comedy. This is a solid movie from start to finish, and it will not disappoint.

4 out of 5

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

In B, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on April 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm

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STUDIO — Samuel Goldwyn Co.

CAST — Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Cathy O’Donnell

DIRECTOR — William Wyler

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

Over the last few years, there have been occasional news stories about combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who encounter difficulties when making the transition back in “The World” (a term sometimes used by service members deployed overseas when they talk about the U.S.). We hear about spikes in divorce rates, domestic violence, and (sadly) even suicide among combat veterans. This isn’t a new problem, as illustrated in the Best Picture of 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives.

With World War II still fresh on everyone’s mind, The Best Years of Our Lives paints a picture of the hardships of three veterans returning from combat. First, there is Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a decorated captain in the Army Air Corps who wants only two things: a good job and quality time with his wife (whom he married before he shipped out). Next is Al Stephenson (Best Actor Fredric March), a banker with a loving family (Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Michael Hall) who became an infantry sergeant in the Pacific Theatre. Finally, there’s Homer Parrish (Best Supporting Actor Harold Russell), an athlete who joined the Navy right out of high school, but lost both of his hands in a fire on his aircraft carrier. These veterans from the (fictional) town of Boone City meet up early on in the Air Transport Command terminal and share the flight home in the nose of a now-decommissioned B-17. One by one, each man reunites with his family, but the real stories begin after the last tears of joy have been shed.

Homer, Al, and Fred (Harold Russell, Fredric March, Dana Andrews) on their way home from the airport

Fred encounters trouble finding work, while at the same time he discovers that his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) is more interested in money and socializing than she is with building a new life together. Meanwhile, Al is welcomed back with open arms by his family, and he is guaranteed a promotion at the bank he had left years before, yet he is uncomfortable and starts drinking heavily. But the most moving story is that of Homer’s difficulties, both internal and external, because of his disability. On the surface, he’s all smiles and eager to demonstrate what he can do with his prosthetic hooks, but on the inside is a man reeling from the pain of being perceived as some sort of freak.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, this is a movie about veterans made by veterans. Wyler (who had served as a film documentarian during the war) made sure the entire film crew consisted of returning veterans, thus lending a perception of authenticity. The lighting, the sound mixing, the costuming, even the editing were all done by veterans, and their combined effort shows in the movie’s overall “feel”. This is especially evident in a key scene toward the end of the movie, in which Fred wanders through the town’s “boneyard” and crawls inside the dusty hulk of what used to be a B-17. Words cannot describe the flood of emotions in this scene, and taken out of context, it is nearly pointless to do so; it is something you will need to see for yourself by watching this movie from the beginning.

Here is a not-so-commonly known fact about this movie: Harold Russell, who had lost his hands in a training accident, is the only actor in the history of the Motion Picture Academy to receive two Academy Awards for the same role in the same movie. As mentioned earlier, he was the Best Supporting Actor of 1946, but he also received an Honorary Oscar “[f]or bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives”. Russell, who passed away in 2002, went on to become a voice and face for disabled veterans since World War II by helping to create AMVETS, an organization he had led on three different occasions.

After the euphoria of the fall of Nazi Germany and the surrender of Japan, America (and the entire world) needed to heal from this gaping wound with scars buried deep within its soul. The Best Years of Our Lives showed us a society on the mend and, in the right hands, the hope of a better tomorrow. It is emotional and sometimes painful to watch, even 64 years later, and its themes have a new-found relevance to today’s combat veterans. If you or someone you know has served in the Armed Forces (which should be just about all of us), then I strongly recommend this movie. And guys, it’s okay to cry with this one…

DEAD-ALIVE (1992)

In Comedy, D, Horror, Motion Pictures on April 21, 2010 at 1:24 am

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STUDIO — Trimark Pictures 

CAST — Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stuart Denevie, Jed Brophy 

DIRECTOR — Peter Jackson 

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: NC-17) 

Something tells me that, from watching this movie, Peter Jackson was the pride and joy of Fangoria magazine back in the early 1990s. 

This is the second of two requested samples of Peter Jackson’s early work (Heavenly Creatures is the other). Originally titled “Braindead”, Dead-Alive follows the budding romance of Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), a local chap with a penchant for clumsiness, and Paquita María Sanchez (Diana Peñalver), daughter of a local shopkeeper whose store Lionel frequents. But Lionel’s mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), still thinks that her son is a child, and she still treats her as such. 

One day, Lionel visits the market to place his mother’s order. Paquita, after a Tarot reading by her grandmother, is convinced that Lionel is the man of her dreams, so she delivers the order to Lionel’s house. She then talks him into a date at the local zoo. The next day, at the zoo, while spying on her son, Vera is attacked by a Sumatran creature called a “rat-monkey”. The next day, she dies, and… it kind of goes downhill from there. 

Lionel (Timothy Balme) and Paquita (Diana Peñalver) try to escape zombies

Be warned: This is one of Jackson’s goriest movies among his early work. It is by far the goriest movie I have ever seen. But it is also a movie with a lighter side, both in the setup to how Vera became a zombie, to the film’s inventive climax, including my personal nominations for Most Creative Use for a Lawn Gnome, as well as Most Effective Zombie Weapon. 

Jackson’s handling of the material shows a master in the making, though still a bit rough around the edges. The zoo sequence, with Lionel and Paquita enjoying the day together, played out like it would if this was a silent movie. The smiling, the innocence, even the kissing, all are reminiscent of such a scene with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton. Too bad Mum had to spy on them, get bitten by that… thing, and ruin everything. 

As a “B” movie, it goes without saying that you won’t find anything Oscar-caliber in it. The script has its cheesy moments, and most of the characters are one-dimensional. For example, Ian Watkin is Uncle Les, a greedy slimeball who tries to take Vera’s estate from Lionel. Then there’s Harry Sinclair as Roger, a butcher delivery boy — and rival for Paquita’s affection — who’s obsessed with rugby more than he is with anything else. But what the film lacks is compensated with strong camera and editing work, energetic performances, and irreverent humor (some of it gross, but necessary to offset the goriness of the third act). 

This is the first movie from the horror genre that I had seen in a long time. When I got the DVD in the mail, I read the sleeve, then I checked out the trailer. Finally, I did a quick “sneak-peek” in the scene selection menu. After all of that, I asked myself, “My God! What did I get myself into?” But I pressed “Play” and braced myself for impact. And I am happy to report that I survived what has got to be the bloodiest movie ever made. 

Gross, shocking, gory, funny, energetic, and with enough blood to send the American Red Cross into panic mode, Dead-Alive is a very funny movie of the rancid kind. Hard to believe this came from the same mind that gave us the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you’ve got the stomach for it, then by all means, rent it. Those of you with weak constitutions may want to try something lighter, instead… 

HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

In Biography, Crime, Drama, H, Motion Pictures on April 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

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STUDIO — Miramax 

CAST — Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Pierse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor 

DIRECTOR — Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: R 

A reader from New Zealand dropped a request in my lap: Review some of Peter Jackson’s early work. So, I threw a couple of darts at the wall, and one of them landed on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson’s take on the friendship between Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, both in their big-screen debuts), from the time they met at school in 1952, until their murder of Pauline’s mother, Honora, in June 1954. 

The movie starts as a sort of travelogue of Christchurch, New Zealand, an idyllic city which boasts friendly people, beautiful surroundings, and lots of bicycles. Suddenly, we lurch to a moment of terror: Two young ladies running through the woods, screaming in panic and covered in blood. From that moment, we are taken back in time to when these two girls first met at an all-girls preparatory school two years earlier. Right away, the dynamic between these two becomes very apparent. Pauline is very imaginative, but shy and withdrawn, while Juliet is adventurous, outgoing and worldly. But they form a bond right away because both girls had debilitating illnesses when they were young (Pauline had osteomyelitis, and Juliet had tuberculosis), and they became fast friends. 

Juliet and Pauline (Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey) on Easter Sunday, 1953

Prior to making this movie, Peter Jackson was best known for making low-budget horror movies. But when his wife suggested that he try his hand at a movie based on one of most infamous crimes in New Zealand history, little did she know that it would lead him to bigger and better things. But the two of them sat down and wrote the script, using writings from Pauline’s diary as a guide (The title even comes from a passage in the diary). Heavenly Creatures doesn’t focus on the murder and the trial, which were sensational in their own right, but rather it paints a portrait of the two girls’ friendship, the intensity of which brought concerns from both families that they were becoming a homosexual couple (considered a mental disorder at the time). Whether Pauline and Juliet were lovers remains under debate, that aspect of their relationship is explored in a surprisingly innocent way in this movie. 

There is a lot to talk about in Heavenly Creatures. Jackson’s skill as a director becomes apparent in this movie. He weaves a tale in both the real and imaginary worlds, and in such a way as to illustrate how Pauline and Juliet’s friendship grew stronger with each passing day. We, the viewers, are swept into this imaginary “Fourth World”, where James Mason and Mario Lanza are saints, and the girls are king and queen of the fantasy land of Borovnia. Soon, it becomes difficult to see where the real world ends and the imaginary one begins, especially when Pauline and Juliet begin to believe their parents (Pauline’s mother and Juliet’s father, specifically) are conspiring to separate them. 

For the then-newcomers Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, this was a great debut for both of them. Lynskey’s shy and secluded Pauline was both painful and captivating, and Winslet proved she had star power from the second Juliet entered the classroom for the first time. Both of them were perfectly cast for this movie, and both of them have become well-known actresses as a result. They both displayed the youthful exhuberance necessary for girls of that age, as well as their characters’ obsession for each other, and their chemistry together was nearly perfect. 

Heavenly Creatures was shot on location in Christchurch. In fact, Peter Jackson went to great lengths to use as many actual sites of the events portrayed, including the now-demolished tea room where Honora ate her last meal. This lends a degree of authenticity to the movie and holds the viewer’s attention throughout. By the third act, Pauline and Juliet’s friendship had become so close, they began to take on each other’s behaviors, but to devastating effect. Pauline grew so confident so quickly, she overcompensated by lashing out at her mother. And when Juliet’s parents announced they were breaking up, she started suffering from separation anxiety. And this is merely the beginning of what became the two girls’ final act. 

Heavenly Creatures is a look at one of the world’s most shocking crimes of the 20th Century, one I would consider as notorious in New Zealand as Starkweather is in Nebraska, and Manson in California. I do not make this statement lightly, nor does Peter Jackson try to make light of it. Instead, we see two friends willing to do anything for each other, only in this case it went too far. 

3-1/2 out of 5

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

In Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O on April 7, 2010 at 2:10 pm

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STUDIO — Paramount 

CAST — Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern 

DIRECTOR —  Robert Redford 

MPAA Rating: R 

When I was in high school, my mother told me about this movie called Ordinary People, and that she all but insisted I watch it. To say it left  a lasting impression is somewhat an understatement. 

This is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and it features some somewhat unusual casting: two TV actors (Judd Hirsch, who was still shooting “Taxi”, and Mary Tyler Moore), an active Julliard student (Elizabeth McGovern, the first student given permission to work during term), and the son of TV’s Ellery Queen (Best Supporting Actor Timothy Hutton, in his motion picture debut). Only Donald Sutherland was an established motion picture actor at the time, so on the surface, a lot seemed to be riding on whether this movie would be successful. Well, it was. This is an emotional, gripping movie which captured four Academy Awards, including the aforementioned Best Supporting Actor, as well as Best Picture of 1980. 

Conrad (Timothy Hutton) talks to Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) about his mother

Ordinary People follows the lives of the Jarretts, a well-to-do family living in the upscale community of Lake Forest, Illinois. On the surface, everything appears to be normal: Calvin (Sutherland) is a tax attorney in Chicago, his wife Beth (Moore) is more or less a socialite, and Conrad (Hutton) is a high school student in the choir and swim team. Yet, despite all the outward smiles, the Jarretts are dealing with a devastating one-two punch. First, older brother Buck (seen only in flashbacks) drowned in a boating accident, then Conrad tried to kill himself. 

Early on, it is established that Conrad’s suicide attempt was triggered by the boating accident (In flashbacks, we see the two brothers on a sailboat in stormy waters), and that he had spent several months in a psychiatric hospital afterward. Once Conrad leaves the hospital, however, what was once a tightly knit family slowly becomes unraveled. Beth wants desperately to show off to everyone that all is well, Conrad resents her for not seeing things as they really are, and Calvin is in the middle, trying to hold it all together. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the Jarretts through Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), whom Conrad sees on an outpatient basis. 

On all fronts, Ordinary People makes for great character study. The performances by all the principal cast members were very strong, something rarely seen in movies. I think this is in part because Redford’s acting background made for great chemistry on the set. Speaking of Robert Redford, even though this is the first movie he directed, it is also some of his best work (He did win Best Director). And the Oscar-winning script was solid, as well. 

I’d like to focus on two of the performances for a moment, because they show how two different types of people deal with trauma, the aftereffects of which can either make or break a person. Timothy Hutton’s portrayal of Conrad showed us a teen so desperate to find an outlet for his pain, he felt the only way he could let go was to die. But he survives, and we follow Conrad during his recovery, a teen who was once broken, but trying to put himself back together again. Then there’s Mary Tyler Moore. At the time, she was America’s Sweetheart; her eponymous TV show was one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1970s. But as Beth Jarrett, she proved to the world that she could do much more than “turn the world on with her smile”. Beth is not a bad person, but her “solution” to these life-changing events was to simply sweep them under the carpet, as if it never happened (a trait I observed in my own father, as noted in a previous post). But Beth, who had apparently always been a decision-maker, overcompensates for her grief by controlling nearly everything around her, while at the same time shutting out her pain altogether. Like I said, Beth isn’t a bad person, but when you can’t feel grief, you really can’t feel anything. And the conflict in this movie is stemmed from the clashing personalities of both Conrad and Beth. But where Conrad tries to work through his issues, Beth just wants to file it away. 

I have experienced trauma in my life; we all have, at one time or another. It is how we deal with it that defines who we are. So I ask you, the reader, how do you face your trauma? Do you hide, or are you open? Do you act like it never happened, or do you talk about it? Do you turn to drugs or alcohol, or do you do something constructive to work through the pain? It is these questions, and more, which are explored but never fully answered in Ordinary People; the answers are left for you to figure out. 

4 out of 5