Film Review: The Last Word (dir by Mark Pellington)


So, I watched The Last Word tonight.

It’s a film that premiered, earlier this year, at Sundance and then it got a very brief theatrical run.  It was directed by Mark Pellington, who is one of those odd directors who, for some reason, I always assume is more talented than he is.  Seriously, when I saw this was directed by Mark Pellington, I actually got excited.  I was like, “Mark Pellington!?  He’s great!”  Then I realized that I wasn’t really sure who Mark Pellington was.  I looked him up on Wikipedia and I realized that I was mistaking him for actor Mark Pellegrino.  Mark Pellegrino played Jacob on Lost and is an outspoken Libertarian.  Mark Pellington is some guy who started out in music videos and then eventually moved up to directing pedestrian films.

Anyway, the film stars Shirley MacClaine as this annoying old busybody who demands that Amanda Seyfried write her obituary because MacClaine wants to know what people are going to say about her after she’s dead.  When Seyfried discovers that everyone hates MacClaine, she writes a boring and very short obit.  “Everyone hates you,” she helpfully explains.  So, MacClaine sets out to do some great things so that her obituary will have a little more spark.  She’s going to set a fire of quirkiness, she is!  Of course, this leads to MacClaine adopting a little black orphan, getting a job as a DJ at the local radio station (she plays boring adult contemporary music, of course.  No EDM), and helping Seyfriend get a boyfriend.

To be honest, this film would probably be a lot more bearable if it was a prequel to Bernie, because then you would at least know that you could look forward to Jack Black showing up with a hunting rifle and putting everyone out of their misery.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.  Instead, this is another one of those movies where a cranky old tyrant teaches all of us young folks how to better appreciate life.

Y’see, Shirley MacClaine is playing an oldster so she has a sharp tongue and she’s always putting people in their place.  Because she had to struggle, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that she spends most of her time making everyone around her miserable.

Amanda Seyfried, on the other hand, is a millennial so she puts her feet on her boss’s desk and has no direction in her life.  Why, she just needs some annoying, elderly busybody to come into her life and make her listen to smooth jazz.  She might even get a hipster boyfriend out of the deal!  (Of course, her potential hipster boyfriend is a 2008-style hipster as opposed to a 2017-style hipster.)

Meanwhile, AnnJewel Lee Dixon (as the little girl that MacClaine adopts) is a plot device so she doesn’t do anything unless the script specifically needs her to humanize the other characters.  She gets to dance towards the end of the film.

Oh, and then there’s Anne Heche.  She plays MacClaine’s estranged daughter.  The reunion between her and MacClaine is so overwritten and overperformed that some viewers will probably be inspired to rip out their hair while watching it.

Hey, did I mention that there’s a scene where MacClaine does something quirky and all of the supporting characters break out into applause?  I think we’re supposed to clap to but I think most members of the audience will be too busy ripping out their hair by the handful.

Fortunately, I really love my hair so I resisted the temptation to start plucking strands out of my head while watching the film.  It wasn’t easy, though.  To be honest, the pain of plucking a strand of hair is nothing compared to the pain of watching the first fifteen minutes of this film and realizing that you already know every thing that’s going to happen.  By the time that the priest showed up and started to cry while talking about a time that MacClaine’s character had been rude to him, I imagine that viewers with less self-control were halfway bald.  But, as I said, I love my hair too much to take my frustration out on it.  Instead, I just kicked the coffee table a few times.  Now, my foot hurts.  Ow.

Seeing as how Shirley MacClaine is one of the last of the truly great actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age and she actually does give a pretty good performance (when the script allows her), it’s a shame that the rest of the movie is such a let down.  Then again, this film is full of talented people who are let down by an overwritten script and Mark Pellington’s painfully obvious direction.  This is one of those films that tries to hard to be profound that it forgets the importance of being entertaining.

As I watched this movie, I took a glance at Mark Pellington’s filmography.  Did you know that he directed The Mothman Prophecies?  The Last Word really could have used a visit from the Mothman.  Seriously, this film was crying out for a scene of MacClaine putting Mothman in his place.  The fact that Mothman did not appear leads me to wonder what exactly this film was hiding.

Seriously, why are the people behind The Last Word protecting the Mothman?

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Horror Film Review: The Possession of Joel Delaney (dir by Waris Hussein)


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The Possession of Joel Delaney is a film that I watched a few years ago and it totally freaked me out.  It’s a film about possession that has never gotten as much attention as The Exorcist but seriously, this is one frightening movie.

This 1972 film takes place in New York City.  Norah Benson (Shirley MacClaine) is a rich and spoiled socialite, a snob who might brag about how nice she is to her maid but who would never dream of being caught dead visiting the neighborhood where she lives.  On the other hand, her younger brother — Joel Delaney (Perry King) — is a self-styled bohemian.  He’s just as rich as his sister and, in many ways, he’s just as much of a snob.  However, he disguises that fact by living in the “bad” part of town and hanging out with (and both idealizing and condescending to) the poor.  (When people talk about the “bad” part of the town in this film, they’re euphemistically referring to any part of the city where the majority of the residents are not white.)  If The Possession of Joel Delaney were made today, Norah would be Sasha Stone and Joel would be Devin Faraci.

Norah is extremely protective of Joel.  In fact, the film suggests that there might be something more to their relationship than just a sibling bond.  Norah worries about Joel living in a bad neighborhood.  She worries about his friends.  She reacts jealously when she meets his girlfriend, Sherry (Barbara Trentham).

So, you can imagine that Norah is rather upset when Joel is suddenly arrested for trying to kill his landlord.  Judged to be insane, Joel is sent to Bellevue.  Joel claims that he has no memory of attacking anyone.  In order to get out of the mental hospital, Joel lies and says that he was on drugs.

Moving in with Norah and her two kids, Joel starts to act strangely.  He starts to quiz Norah about her sex life.  He plays too rough with the children.  He tries to set Sherry’s hair on fire.  And he starts to speak in Spanish!

Could it be that Joel has been possessed by the spirit of his friend, Tonio?  Tonio, it turns out, was the landlord’s son.  It also appears that Tonio was the main suspect in a series of decapitation murders.  Could Tonio have moved his spirit into Joel’s body?  That’s what Norah’s Puerto Rican maid, Veronica (Miriam Colon), thinks!  Veronica quits her job, rather than have to deal with possessed Joel.

Norah decides to go to Veronica’s home and ask what’s happening with Joel.  What follows is a mix of horror and social satire.  Despite being a total stranger in Veronica’s neighborhood, Norah seems to be shocked when Veronica doesn’t exactly act overjoyed to see Norah standing in front of her small apartment.  As Norah demands to know what’s happening with her brother and Veronica explains that Joel may be possessed, you can’t help but get the feeling that Norah is more upset by the fact that Joel has been possessed by someone poor than by anything else.  In these scenes, Norah becomes the ultimate symbol of wealthy white privilege.

Meanwhile, Joel is going more and more crazy.  It all leads to one of the most horrifying sequences that I’ve ever seen, in which a possessed Joel torments Norah’s two children.  It’s an amazingly disturbing scene, one that is all the more upsetting because, in the title role, Perry King had previously done such a good job portraying Joel as being irresponsible but likable.  I don’t want to give too much away, beyond saying that the scene gave me nightmares and if you’re triggered by scenes of child abuse, you should not watch The Possession of Joel Delaney.

As I said, The Possession of Joel Delaney has never really gotten the credit that it deserves.  It’s always overshadowed by The Exorcist.  But if you want to see a truly scary film and if you like a little social satire mixed in with your horror, The Possession of Joel Delaney is one to track down.

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

Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Surely, Leslie Nielsen can’t be the bad guy: The Sheepman (1958, directed by George Marshall)


Thesheepman At the start of The Sheepman, reformed gambler and gunslinger Jason Sweet (Glenn Ford) shows up in the middle of cattle country. He has won a herd of sheep in a poker game and he is planning on grazing them on the nearby public land. Knowing that he will face opposition from the local cattle ranchers, Jason asks the local towns people to direct him to the town bully. After Jason beats up Jumbo (Mickey Shaughnessy), Jason is invited to meet Jumbo’s boss, Col. Stephen Bedford (Leslie Nielsen).

As soon as Jason meets Bedford, he realizes that he is not a colonel and his name is not Bedford. Instead, he is an old friend from Texas, a former gambler and outlaw named Johnny Bledsoe. Like Jason, Bledsoe has also gone straight and is now the most powerful man in town. He is also engaged to marry a local girl named Dell Payton (Shirley MacClaine), to whom Jason has taken a liking.  Bledsoe tells Jason to take his sheep somewhere else and when Jason refuses, Bledsoe threatens to have him, Dell, and his sheep killed.

Wait a minute, Leslie Nielsen is playing a bad guy?

Surely, you can’t be serious!

I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.

(Sorry, had to do it.)

Leslie Nielsen is best remembered for being the deadpan comedian who could deliver the most ridiculous of lines with a totally straight face and who helped to make Airplane one of the funniest movies ever made. But before Nielsen recreated himself as a comedic actor, he was a dependably stiff supporting player and occasional leading man who appeared in nearly 100 dramatic pictures. The Sheepman is one of his “serious” roles.

Today, it is always strange to see one of Nielsen’s dramatic performances. Johnny Bledsoe is a standard western villain and Nielsen does okay with the role but, because his serious performances shared the same style as his comedic performances, it was impossible not to think of Dr. Rumack saying, “I just want to tell you both good luck. We’re all counting on you,” even while Johnny Bledsoe was offering to pay the outlaw Chocktaw (Pernell Roberts) to track down and kill Jason and his sheep.

The Sheepman is an average western and, as always, Glenn Ford is a good hero. But ultimately, the most interesting thing about it and the main reason to see it is to witness Leslie Nielsen doing his thing before he officially became the funniest man in the world.  Leslie Nielsen was not a terrible dramatic actor but watching The Sheepman made me all the happier that he eventually got to show the world his true calling.

Leslie Nielsen in The Sheepman (1958)

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #72: Terms of Endearment (dir by James L. Brooks)


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I have to admit that, when I first sat down and watched the 1983 best picture winner Terms of Endearment, I was actually taken by surprise.  Before I actually saw it, I was under the impression that Terms of Endearment was considered to be one of the weaker films to win best picture.  I had read a few reviews online that were rather dismissive of Terms, describing it as being well-made but overrated.

But then, a few weeks ago, I watched Terms of Endearment on Netflix.  The film started with a scene of new mother Aurora Greenwood (Shirley MacClaine) obsessively checking on her daughter, Emma.  Stepping into the bedroom, Aurora is, at first, scared that Emma’s dead.  Without bothering to take off her high heels, Aurora nearly climbs into the crib to check on her.  Fortunately, Emma starts to cry.

And I laughed because I’ve been told about how my mom used to obsessively check in on me when I was a baby.  And, while my mom was never the type to wear high heels around the house, I could still imagine her climbing into a crib to check on me and my sisters.

And then, when Emma (now played by Debra Winger) married Flap Horton (a very young Jeff Daniels) over the objections of her mother, I smiled but I didn’t laugh because, in this case, I was relating to Emma.  Because the fact of the matter is that every girl has known a boy like Flap Horton, the smart and funny guy who is destined to ultimately hurt her.

And when Flap got a job in Des Moines and Emma moved from Houston to Iowa, I knew — as did Aurora — what was going to happen.  I knew that Flap would deal with his insecurity over not being a good provider for his wife and children by cheating on his wife.  And when he did, I wanted to cry with Emma.

But then I wanted to cheer when Emma has an affair of her own.  In the role of Sam, John Lithgow doesn’t have much screen time in Terms of Endearment but he does get the best line.  When a rude cashier claims that she doesn’t feel that she was being rude to Emma, Sam replies, “Then you must be from New York.”

Meanwhile, the widowed Aurora is having an affair of her own.  Jack Nicholson plays Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut who now has both a drinking problem and a house with a pool.  Garrett gets Aurora to loosen up.  Aurora makes Garrett realize that he actually is capable of being a decent guy.  MacClaine and Nicholson both won Oscars for their performances here and they deserved them.

And then, Emma was diagnosed with cancer.  And I cried and cried because, at this point, I had come to think of Emma and Aurora as being real people.  And when Emma told her friends that she was dying and she spent her final days with her children, I sobbed because it made me think about my mom.  And now I’m sobbing as I write this review.

But it’s a great film, even if it did make me cry.  Because, in the end, you’re glad that you got to know these characters.  And, even through the tears, the film leaves you happy that you got to spend some time with them.

And isn’t that what a great film is supposed to do?

Lisa Watches The Oscar Winners: The Apartment (dir by Billy Wilder)


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After the Nun’s StoryI continued to experience TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1960 best picture winner, The Apartment.  The Apartment is unique among Oscar winners in that it’s one of the few comedies to win best picture.  (Though, in all honesty, it would probably be more appropriate to call The Apartment a dramedy.)  It was also, until the victory of The Artist, the last completely black-and-white film to win best picture.

(And, as long as we’re sharing trivia, it was also the first best picture winner to feature a character watching a previous best picture winner.  At the start of the film, Jack Lemmon deals with insomnia by watching Grand Hotel.)

The Apartment tells the story of C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an anonymous officer worker who is determined to climb the corporate ladder despite not being very good at his job.  However, Baxter does have one advantage over his co-workers.  He’s single and therefore, his apartment has become the place to go for corporate executives who need a place where they can safely cheat on their wives.  Bud spends his day trying to coordinate who is going to be in his apartment and when.  Meanwhile, he spends his nights exiled from his own home and wandering around New York.  In fact, the only beneficial thing about this arrangement is that all of Bud’s supervisors have been giving him good evaluations in return for using his apartment.  (Well, that and Bud’s neighbor, played by Jack Kruschen, is convinced, based on the thinness of the apartment walls, that Bud must be a great lover.)

When Bud finally does get his promotion, it’s only because the personnel director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (an amazingly sleazy Fred MacMurray), wants to use Bud’s apartment.  Bud celebrates his promotion by finally working up the courage to ask out Fran (Shirley MacClaine), an elevator operator who works in the office.  What Bud doesn’t realize is that Fran is also the woman who Sheldrake wants to bring to the apartment….

Fran is convinced that Sheldrake is going to leave his wife for her.  What she doesn’t realize — and what Fred MacMurray’s performance makes disturbingly clear — is that Jeff Sheldrake is basically just a guy having a midlife crisis.  He’s the type of middle-aged guy that every woman has had to deal with at some point, the guy who pulls up next to you in a red convertible and stares at you from behind his sunglasses, attempting his best to entice you into helping him relive the youth that he never had.  When Fran eventually learns the truth about Sheldrake, it leads both to near tragedy and to Bud having to decide whether he wants to be a decent human being or if he wants to keep climbing the corporate ladder.

When one looks over a chronological list of all of the best picture winners, it’s a bit strange to see The Apartment listed in between Ben-Hur and West Side Story.  As opposed to those two grandly produced and vibrantly colorful films, The Apartment is a rather low-key film, one that devotes far more time to characterization than to spectacle.  And while both Ben-Hur and West Side Story are ultimately very idealistic films, The Apartment is about as cynical as a film can get.  The Apartment may be a comedy but the laughs come from a place of profound sadness.

Because it’s more interested in people than in spectacle, The Apartment holds up better than many past best picture winners.  We’ve all known someone like Bud.  We’ve all had to deal with men like Sheldrake.  And, in one way or another, we all know what it’s like to be someone like Fran.  The Apartment remains a truly poignant and relevant film.