Cannonball Run II (1984, directed by Hal Needham)


In 1981, director Hal Needham and star Burt Reynolds had a surprise hit with The Cannonball Run.  Critics hated the film about a race from one end of America to the other but audiences flocked to watch Burt and a group of familiar faces ham it up while cars crashed all around them.  The original Cannonball Run is a goofy and gloriously stupid movie and it can still be fun to watch.  The sequel, on the other hand…

When the sequel begins, the Cannonball Run has been discontinued.  The film never explains why the race is no longer being run but then again, there’s a lot that the sequel doesn’t explain.  King Abdul ben Falafel (Ricardo Montalban, following up The Wrath of Khan with this) wants his son, The Sheik (Jamie Farr, returning from the first film) to win the Cannonball so he puts up a million dollars and announces that the race is back on.  Problem solved.

With the notable exceptions of Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, and Adrienne Barbeau, almost everyone from the first film returns to take another shot at the race.  Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise are back.  Jack Elam returns as the crazy doctor, though he’s riding with the Sheik this time.  Jackie Chan returns, riding with Richard “Jaws” Kiel.  Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. return, playing barely disguised versions of themselves.  They’re joined by the surviving members of the Rat Pack.  Yes, Frank Sinatra is in this thing.  He plays himself and, from the way his scenes are shot, it’s obvious they were all filmed in a day and all the shots of people reacting to his presence were shot on another day.  Shirley MacClaine also shows up, fresh from having won an Oscar.  She plays a fake nun who rides with Burt and Dom.  Burt, of course, had a previous chance to co-star with Shirley but he turned down Terms of Endearment so he could star in Stroker AceCannonball Run II finally gave the two a chance to act opposite each other, though no one would be winning any Oscars for appearing in this film.

Say what you will about Hal Needham as a director, he was obviously someone who cultivated a lot of friendships in Hollywood because this film is jam-packed with people who I guess didn’t have anything better to do that weekend.  Telly Savalas, Michael V. Gazzo, Henry Silva, Abe Vigoda, and Henry Silva all play gangsters.  Jim Nabors plays Homer Lyle, a country-fried soldier who is still only a private despite being in his 50s.  Catherine Bach and Susan Anton replace Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman as the two racers who break traffic laws and hearts with impunity.  Tim Conway, Don Knotts, Foster Brooks, Sid Caesar, Arte Johnson, Mel Tillis, Doug McClure, George “Goober” Lindsey, and more; Needham found room for all of them in this movie.  He even found roles for Tony Danza and an orangutan.  (Marilu Henner is also in the movie so I guess Needham was watching both Taxi and Every Which Way But Loose while casting the film.)  Needham also came up with a role for Charles Nelson Reilly, who is cast as a mafia don in Cannonball Run II.  His name is also Don so everyone refers to him as being “Don Don.”  That’s just a typical example of the humor that runs throughout Cannonball Run II.  If you thought the humor of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was too subtle and cerebral, Cannonball Run II might be right up your alley.

The main problem with Cannonball Run II is that there’s not much time spent on the race, which is strange because that’s the main reason why anyone would want to watch this movie.  The race itself doesn’t start until 45 minutes into this 108 minute film and all the racers are quickly distracted by a subplot about the Mafia trying to kidnap the Sheik.  Everyone stops racing so that Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. can disguise themselves as belly dancers to help rescue the Sheik.  By the time that’s all been taken care of, there’s only 10 minutes left for everyone to race across the country.  After a montage of driving scenes and a cartoon of an arrow stretching across the nation (the cartoon was animated by Ralph Bakshi!), we discover who won the Cannonball and then it’s time for a montage of Burt and Dom blowing their lines and giggling.  Needham always ended his films with a montage of everyone screwing up a take and it’s probably one of his most lasting cinematic contributions.  Every blooper reel that’s ever been included as a DVD or Blu-ray extra owes a debt of gratitude to Hal Needham.  Watching people blow their lines can be fun if you’ve just watched a fun movie but watching Burt and Dom amuse themselves after sitting through Cannonball Run II is just adding insult to injury.  It feels less like they’re laughing at themselves and more like they’re laughing at you for being stupid enough to sit through a movie featuring Tony Danza and an orangutan.

The dumb charm of the first Cannonball Run is nowhere to be found in this sequel and, though the film made a profit, the box office numbers were still considered to be a disappointment when compared to the other films that Reynolds and Needham collaborated on.  Along with Stroker Ace, this is considered to be one of the films that ended Reynolds’s reign as a top box office attraction.  Cannonball Run II was also the final feature film to feature Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.  This could be considered the final Rat Pack film, though I wouldn’t say that too loudly.

Cannonball Run II is a disappointment on so many levels.  It’s hard to believe that the same director who did Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper could be responsible for the anemic stunts and chases found in this movie.  The cast may have had a good time but the audience is left bored.  Stick with the first Cannonball Run.

 

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?

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.

Shattered Politics #43: Being There (dir by Hal Ashby)


Original_movie_poster_for_Being_There

As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  However, a few nights ago, I made an exception and I watched CNN.  The reason was because it was snowing in New York City and apparently, CNN anchorman Don Lemon was broadcasting from something called the Blizzardmobile.  I just had to see that!

Well, the Blizzardmobile turned out to be huge letdown.  I was hoping for something like the Snowpiercer train but instead, it just turned out to be a SUV with a camera crew and a pompous anchorman who hilariously kept insisting that he was knee-deep in a blizzard when even a Texas girl like me could tell that the Blizzardmobile was only encountering a few snow flurries.

So, I flipped around to see if any of the other news stations had anyone in a blizzardmobile.  What I discovered was that only CNN had a blizzardmobile but one thing that every news station did have was a panel of experts.  An anchorperson would say something like, “What does the future look like?” and the panel of experts would tell us what the future looked like to them.  What I found interesting was that I had no idea who these experts were but yet I was supposed to just believe that their opinions were worth considering.

I mean, for all I knew, those experts could have just been people who were spotted wandering around New York at night.  But, because they were introduced as experts and looked directly at the camera whenever they spoke, they were suddenly authoritative voices.

Oddly enough, the very next night, I watched a movie from 1979 that dealt with the exact same issue.

Being There tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers), a dignified, middle-aged man who lives in Washington, D.C. and works as a gardener for a wealthy older man.  Chance cannot read.  Chance cannot write.  Chance goes through life with a blank smile on his face.  Chance has never experienced the outside world.  Instead, he spends all of his time working in the old man’s garden and obsessively watching TV.  When the old man dies, Chance finds himself exiled from the house.  Wandering around Washington D.C., Chance asks a random woman to make him dinner.  He politely speaks with a drug dealer who pulls a knife on him.  Finally, he finds himself entranced by a window display of televisions.  Backing away from the window, Chance stumbles into the street and is struck by a car.

Though he’s not seriously injured, the owner of the car, Eve Rand (Shirley MacClaine), insists that Chance come back to her mansion with him so that he can be checked out by her private physician (Richard Dysart).  As they drive back to the house, Eve asks Chance for his name.

“Chance the Gardner,” Chance replies.

“Chauncey Gardiner?” Eve asks.

Chance blankly nods.

Back the house, Chance meets Eve’s husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas).  Ben is a wealthy industrialist who is dying of leukemia.  Ben takes an immediate liking to Chance.  Because Chance is wearing the old man’s suits, everyone assumes that Chance is a wealthy businessman.  When Chance says that he had to leave his home, they assume that his business must have failed due to government regulation.  When Chance talks about his garden, everyone assumes that he’s speaking in metaphors.

Soon, Ben is introducing Chance to his friend, Bobby (Jack Warden).  Bobby happens to be the President and when he quotes Chance in a speech, Chance the Gardner is suddenly the most famous man in the country.  When he appears on a TV talk show, the audience mistakes his emotionless comments for dry wit.  When he talks about how the garden reacts to different seasons, they assume that he’s an economic genius.  By the end of the film, Bobby has become so threatened by Chance’s popularity that he’s been rendered impotent while wealthy, rich men plot to make Chance the next President of the United States.

Chance and Neil

In many ways, Chauncey Gardiner was the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his era.

Being There is a one joke film and the idea of someone having no emotional skills beyond what he’s seen on television was probably a lot more mind-blowing back in 1979 than it is in 2015.  But I still enjoyed the film.  Peter Sellers gave a great performance as Chance, never sentimentalizing the character.  As well, the film’s point is still relevant.  If Being There were made today, Chance would be the subject of clickbait articles and Facebook memes.  (Chauncey Gardiner listed his ten top movies and number 8 will surprise you!  Or maybe This boy asked Chauncey Gardiner about his garden and his response was perfect.)

At its best, Being There is a film that will encourage you to question every expert you may see.  Especially if he’s just stepped out of a blizzardmobile…

 

Lisa’s Homestate Reviews: Texas and Bernie


I recently realized something while I was working on my autobiography.  By the time I turned 12, I had really been around!

When I was growing up, my family moved around a lot.  By the time that my mom, my sisters, and I moved back to Texas for the final time, I had lived in a total of 6 states: Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Louisiana.  Whenever I’m asked which one of those six states was my favorite, I always say — without a moment of hesitation — Texas.  Don’t get me wrong — those other five states are all wonderful but I’m a Texas girl.  It’s where I was born, it’s where the majority of my family lives, and it’s where I attended and graduated from college.  I love traveling and I love seeing the world but, in my heart, I know that I’ll always return to Texas.

Unfortunately, the rest of America rarely seems to love my homestate as much as I do.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people — who have obviously never even been here! — consider themselves to be an expert on Texas.  They talk about George W. Bush.  They talk about the Kennedy assassination.  They talk about Rick Perry and Ted Cruz.  They talk about oil.  They talk about guns.  They talk about these things as if a state as huge and populous as Texas can be defined by only a few issues or citizens.  That may be true of a tiny state like Vermont but there’s a lot more variety to Texas than any outsider will ever be able to understand.

Movies rarely get Texas right.  I’ve lost count of the number of films that have tried to portray north Texas as being a desert or having mountains.  And don’t even get me started on how terrible most actors sound when they try to imitate our accent!  Fortunately, Texas has its own set of native filmmakers, true artists who are capable of making movies that both criticize and celebrate Texas without descending to the level of elitist caricature.  One of the best of them is Richard Linklater and 2012’s Bernie is one of his best films.

Bernie tells the true story of Bernie Tiede.  In 1996, Bernie (played, quite well, by Jack Black) was perhaps the most popular citizen of Carthage, Texas.  Along with being the leader of the church choir (which is always an important position in small town Texas), Bernie was also an assistant funeral director who was known for always saying exactly the right thing to a grieving family.  As a 38 year-old bachelor, Bernie was also the center of a lot of small town gossip, especially after he became the constant companion of the town’s richest (and, some would say, meanest) woman, 81 year-old Marge Nugent (played, in the film, by Shirley MacClaine).

When Bernie announces that Marge has had a stroke and is currently away in a hospital, the people of Carthage have no reason to doubt him.  Since Marge was usually such an unpleasant person to be around, most are just fine with not having to deal with her personally.  They’re even happier when Bernie suddenly starts to donate large sums of money to his neighbors, local businesses, and the church.

However, Marge’s accountant has his doubts about Bernie’s claims.  With the help of Marge’s previously estranged family, he convinces the local police to search Marge’s house.  That’s where they discover Marge’s body in a freezer, dead as a result of being shot four times in the back with an armadillo gun.  A tearful Bernie confesses to the murder, saying that Marge was just so mean to him that he eventually snapped.

District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (played by a hilariously slick Matthew McConaughey) charges Bernie with first degree murder but soon discovers that — despite the fact that Bernie has confessed — it might not be so easy to get a conviction.  The people of Carthage may have hated Marge but, even more importantly, they absolutely loved Bernie.  Danny Buck is forced to file a motion to move the trial to nearby San Augustine County (which is, as the film correctly points out, the squirrel-hunting capitol of the world) and the citizens of Carthage wait to see if their most beloved citizen is convicted of murder.

Bernie was one of my favorite films of 2012 but I have to admit that, when it came to write this review, I was a little worried about rewatching it.  If there’s anything that often suffers upon repeat viewing, it’s quirkiness and Bernie is nothing if not quirky.  However, I’m happy to say that Bernie was just as effective on a second viewing as it was on the first.  Jack Black’s performance remains the best of his career and, in the role of Marge, Shirley MacClaine deftly brought to life a type that should be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a small town.  When I first saw the film, it seemed like Matthew McConaughey occasionally went a bit overboard in the role of Danny Buck Davidson but, on a second viewing, it was obvious that, as flamboyantly as McConaughey played the role, he never allowed Danny Buck to become a caricature.  The film’s unique structure — which is made up of a combination of scenes with actors and interviews with the actual citizens of Carthage — also held up surprisingly well.  Those interviews are the key to the film’s success because, otherwise, it’s doubtful that anyone would believe that this story actually happened.

But ultimately, I think the reason that Bernie worked the first time I saw it and why it continued to work when I watched it again is because Richard Linklater is from Texas.  Can you imagine if an outsider had come down here and tried to make a movie out of the story of Bernie Tiede?  It probably would have ended up being one of the most condescending movies ever made, full of actors from up north trying to sound Texan.  And that would have been a shame because Bernie is a uniquely Texan story and, as such, it’s a story that could only be properly told by someone who knows the state.

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s definitely some pointed humor to be found in Bernie‘s portrayal of life in small town Texas.  The sequence where various citizens of Carthage are asked whether or not Bernie was gay (“That dog don’t hunt,” one woman says after explaining that Bernie couldn’t be gay because he led the church choir) is just one example.  But the difference between Linklater’s approach and the approach that one might expect from a non-Texan is that Linklater allows the citizens of Carthage to have their dignity even as he pokes some gentle fun at them.  As a native Texan, Linklater portrays our state — flaws and all — honestly, without any of the elitist posturing that we’ve come to expect from northern filmmakers.

And, as a result, Bernie is one of the best films ever made about both Texas and small town life.

As for the real life Bernie Tiede, he was released from prison in May of this year, under the condition that he live with Richard Linklater in Austin.

Bernie

Bernie and friends