Scenes That I Love: Christopher Walken In Pennies From Heaven


PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, Christopher Walken, 1981. © MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Today, we wish a happy birthday to the one and only Christopher Walken! And what better way to do that than with a little song and dance?

Walken only has one big scene in the 1981 film, Pennies From Heaven, but it’s a showstopper. In this satirical and downbeat musical, he plays Tom, a stylish pimp who seduces a school teacher named Eileen (Bernadette Peters) by singing, tap dancing, and stripping on a bar. Director Herbert Ross did five takes of the scene and, each time, Walken performed the entire dance without stopping once. This is a scene that, in my opinion, shows that Christopher Walken is more than just a character actor with a unique way of speaking. At his best, he’s a force of nature.

The Game’s Afoot: THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Universal 1976)


cracked rear viewer

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Sherlock Holmes has long been a favorite literary character of mine. As a youth, I devoured the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, marveling at the sleuth’s powers of observation and deduction. I reveled in the classic Universal film series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and still enjoy them today. I read Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” as a teen, where a coked-out Holmes is lured by Watson to Vienna to have the famed Sigmund Freud cure the detective of his addiction, getting enmeshed in mystery along the way. I’d never viewed the film version until recently, and while Meyer’s screenplay isn’t completely faithful to his book, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the novel.

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This is due in large part to a pitch-perfect cast, led by Nicol Williamson’s superb performance as Sherlock. We see Holmes at his worst…

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Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #28: The Turning Point (dir by Herbert Ross)


(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June.  She’s trying to get it all done by July 11th!  Will she make it!?  Keep visiting the site to find out!)

The 28th film on my DVR was the 1977 film The Turning Point.  I recorded it off Indieplex on June 3rd.

I guess I should start this review by admitting that I really have no excuse.  As someone who grew up dreaming of being a prima ballerina and who unknowingly caused her mother to spend an incalculable amount of money of dance classes, dance outfits, dance shoes, dance trips, and all the medical bills that go along with having a klutzy daughter who is obsessed with ballet and as someone who continues to love to dance today, I really have no excuse for not having seen The Turning Point before last night.  Along with The Red Shoes and my beloved Black Swan, The Turning Point is one of three ballet movies to have been nominated for best picture.  It’s a film that, as a result of its box office success, established many of the clichés that continue to show up in dance movies to this day.

Seriously, how had I not seen it before?

And make no mistake about it — The Turning Point is a dance movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a plot.  Actually, there’s several plots and it’s not incorrect to describe The Turning Point as being something of a soap opera.  But ultimately, all the plots are just window dressing.  Director Herbert Ross started his career as a choreographer with the American Ballet Theater and the characters in The Turning Point are fictionalized portraits of people that he actually knew.  Ross’s love for both ballet and the dancers comes through every frame of The Turning Point and the film’s best moments are when the melodrama takes a backseat to the performances onstage.

But I guess we actually should talk about the melodrama.  Okay, here goes:

Many years ago, DeeDee (Shirley MacClaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft) both belonged to the same New York ballet company.  DeeDee was the star of the company and was set to play the lead in Anna Karenina when another dancer with the company, Wayne (Tom Skerritt), got her pregnant.  DeeDee not only dropped out of the company but she married Wayne and moved back to his home state of Oklahoma.  (The film suggests, in an oddly regressive moment, that Wayne only slept with DeeDee in order to prove that, despite being a male dancer, he wasn’t gay.)  DeeDee and Wayne opened a dance studio in Oklahoma City while Emma got the lead in Anna Karenina and went on to become a prima ballerina.

18 years later, Wayne and DeeDee’s daughter, Emilia (Leslie Browne), is invited to join the company.  Because Emilia is shy and somewhat naive, DeeDee accompanies her to New York while Wayne stays behind in Oklahoma with their younger children.

Once in New York, DeeDee starts to wonder if she made the right decision when gave up ballet for domesticity.  She run into an old friend, conductor Joe Rosenberg (Anthony Zerbe, not playing a villain for once) and has an affair with him.  Meanwhile, Emma is having an affair with a married man named Carter (Marshall Thompson) and is struggling to accept that she’s getting older and will soon have to retire.  Just as DeeDee regrets giving up dancing, Emma regrets never having children.

Meanwhile, Emilia slowly starts to come into her own and blossom as a dancer.  She even ends up having an affair with the self-centered and womanizing Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov), one of the stars of the company.  Emilia and Emma start to grow close, with Emma treating Emilia like her own daughter.  DeeDee finds herself growing jealous of both her daughter and her former best friend.

Needless to say, it all leads to Emma throwing a drink in DeeDee’s face and the two of them having a cat fight on the streets of New York…

The Turning Point is no Black Swan or Red Shoes.  Leslie Browne (who was playing a character based on herself) was a great dancer but not much of an actress so you never care about her the way that you do Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  The dancers are amazing in both films but Darren Aronofsky literally put the audience in Portman’s ballet slippers while Herbert Ross keeps the audience at a distance, allowing them to watch and appreciate the dancers’s passion but not necessarily to experience it with them.

But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed The Turning Point.  What can I say?  I love dance movies!  Both Shirley MacClaine and Anne Bancroft give excellent performances.  Bancroft apparently had no dance experience before shooting The Turning Point (and it’s hard not to notice that, whenever Emma is performing, the camera focuses on those moving around her as opposed to Emma herself) but she still does a good job of poignantly capturing Emma’s fear of getting older and her joy when she realizes that Emilia looks up to her.  MacClaine, meanwhile, has an amazing scene where she watches her screen daughter perform and, in just a matter of seconds, we watch as every emotion — pride, envy, regret, and finally happiness — flashes across her face.

And, of course, there’s that cat fight.  It’s a silly scene, to be honest.  But seriously, if there was any actress who could convincingly throw a drink in someone else’s face, it was Anne Bancroft.

The Turning Point was nominated for 11 Oscars and it ended up setting a somewhat dubious record when it managed to win exactly zero.  (This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising when you consider its competition included Annie Hall and the first Star Wars.)

Well — no matter!

Though the film may not be perfect, I liked it!

The Turning Point

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Goodbye Girl (dir by Herbert Ross)


Goodbye_Girl_movie_poster

After I watched San Francisco, I decided to watch yet another film that I had DVRed during TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.  I had several films to choose from and I ultimately decided to watch the 1977 best picture nominee The Goodbye Girl because, in general, I like movies from the 70s.  Add to that, the film was described as being a comedy and who am I to turn down the chance to laugh?

The Goodbye Girl asks the question, “What would happen if two of the most annoying people on Earth were forced to live together and then ended up falling in love with each other as a result?”  Paula (Marsha Mason) is recently divorced and is trying to raise her 10 year-old daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cumming), while also trying to relaunch the dance career that she put on hold when she got married.  As played by Marsha Mason, Paula is probably one of the most humorless characters to ever be at the center of a romantic comedy.  It’s not just that Paula is written to be a very angry character.  (For the most part, Paula has every right to be angry).  Instead, it’s that Mason gives such a totally sour performance that you get the feeling that Paula has probably never smiled once over the course of her entire life.  When, later on in the film, she does smile, it feels forced and unnatural.  You worry that her face is going to split in half.

In the course of one very bad week, she is abandoned by her actor boyfriend (he’s going to Italy to shoot a film) and she discovers that, before he left, her ex also sublet their apartment to another actor.  That actor is Elliott Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), who is hyperactive, immature, self-centered, and very, very talkative.  He does things like play guitar in the nude and meditate in the morning.

Once Elliott shows up and barges his way into the apartment, a familiar pattern is established.  Elliott does something eccentric.  Paula yells at him.  Elliott yells back.  Paula yells in reply.  Elliott yells some more.  Even if you never quite buy the idea that the two of them would ever fall in love, you’re glad when they do because at least it gives them something to do other than yell.

(Of course, The Goodbye Girl was written by Neil Simon, which means that not only are Elliott and Paula yellers but they’re also very quippy yellers.  And while I guess we should be happy that Elliott tells the occasional joke, the constant barrage one liners is ultimately rather alienating.  Every time you think that the film is about to make an interesting point about human relationships, Elliott says something quippy and ruins the mood.)

Which is not to say that The Goodbye Girl is a terrible movie.  The scenes where Elliott rehearses and then appears in a terrible production of Richard III are brilliantly done and wonderfully satirize theatrical pretension.  As well, during its second hour, the film settles down a little bit.  Or, I should say, Richard Dreyfuss settles down and actually starts to give a performance that’s more than just a collection of nervous tics.  It helps that once Elliott and Paula are in love, they don’t yell at each other quite as much.  There’s even a rooftop dinner scene where the two actors finally show a hint of chemistry.

Ultimately, The Goodbye Girl is an uneven film that feels a lot like a sitcom.  It’s one of those films that you watch and, even though it’s not terrible, you still find yourself thinking, “This was nominated for best picture?”

Embracing the Melodrama #39: True Colors (dir by Herbert Ross)


True Colors

For the past 9 days, I’ve been posting chronological reviews of 54 of the most (and least) memorable melodramas ever filmed.  I started with a film from 1916 and yesterday, I completed the 80s.  Today, we start in on the 90s with the 1991 political drama True Colors.

True Colors tells the story of two ambitious law students.  Tim Gerritty (James Spader) is a wealthy idealist who wants to work at the Justice Department so he can uncover and prosecute political corruption.  His roommate and eventual best friend is Peter Burton (John Cusack).  Although Peter initially lies about his background, it’s eventually revealed that he comes from a poor family and the result of growing up in poverty has left Peter with an obsessive desire for revenge on everyone who has ever looked down on him.  And how is Peter planning on getting that revenge?  By marrying the daughter of Sen. James Stiles (Richard Widmark) and eventually running for a seat in the U.S. House.  Despite the fact that Tim happens to be in love with Sen. Stiles’s daughter as well, he still supports his friend Peter and even agrees to be his best man.  However, as Peter gets closer and closer to achieving his goals, Tim starts to reconsider their friendship….

There’s a scene about halfway through True Colors, in which Peter Burton attempts to blackmail Sen. Stiles into supporting his political career.  Stiles agrees but then angrily adds, “God help you when the people find out.  They always do, you know.”  I was naturally waiting for Peter to come up with a properly sarcastic response but instead, Peter simply looks down at the ground, properly chastened.  It’s a jarringly false note and, unfortunately, everything that comes after this scene feels equally false.  The film, which starts out as such a strong portrait of what happens with friendship comes into conflict with ambition, ends up turning into a painfully predictable political diatribe, the type of thing that makes the portrait of politics in The Adjustment Bureau seem subtle and nuanced by comparison.  When Tim decided to betray Peter, it should be a moment full of moral ambiguity.  Instead, we’re expected to ignore their long friendship and just be happy that Tim is willing to do the right thing and protect the integrity of the American political process.

And, who knows?  Maybe that’s the way people viewed politics back in the early 90s.  But for audiences today, it all feels really naive and simplistic.

But, if you can manage to look past the film’s weak’s script, you can enjoy the acting.  John Cusack is wonderfully intense as Peter, making the character compelling even when the screenplay lets him down.  Watching him in True Colors is like watching the performance that he should have given in The Butler.  James Spader is sympathetic as Tim and, like Cusack, his performance almost allows him to overcome a script that doesn’t seem to realize that Tim is essentially a self-righteous jerk.  And finally, there’s Mandy Patikin who has a lot of fun playing the local crime boss who sponsors Peter’s career and who, in one memorable (if out-of-place ) scene beats up a shark that’s jumped up on the desk of his yacht.

Much like High Stakes, True Colors is one of those obscure films that occasionally pops up on cable, usually late at night and usually serving as filler between showings of better-known films.  Keep an eye out for it, if just for the chance to enjoy the performances.